Title: Renji – Reflection
Characters: Renji, Byakuya (future implied ByaRen, present ByaRen if you squint)
Summary: After his conversation with Matsutmoto in "Matsumoto – Fangirl Counsellor", Renji reevaluates his relationship with his taichou.
Disclaimer: Own no part of Bleach, not even bleach
A/N I thought it was Time to try Something Quieter, not that Renji is ever quiet. Nevertheless, here be quiet cogitation. I hope you find this sweet.
I'm hearing the echo of someone else's fic here, so if anything seems too familiar please let me know.
So I ask you now, Abarai Renji, what is Kuchiki Byakuya to you?
Renji sprawled bonelessly in his chair, lost in a brown study, unseeing eyes fixed on the partition door that separated his taichou's office from his. He had visited Matsumoto after a series of nightmares, the effects of learning of the existence of BL fan-fiction featuring him and Kuchiki Byakuya as the protagonists in romantic relationships. Matsumoto had given him a stern talking-to and proposed that, rather than natter about the fan-fiction, he should revisit his relationship with his taichou. Like an eternal refrain, Matsumoto's words danced in circles through his mind, chasing the looming presence of Kuchiki Byukuya in every significant event of his life. Had Renji no self but the very earliest that he had not somehow cast his shadow on?
Who am I?
The facts were easy to marshal. He was Abarai Renji, of the Inuzuri district of Rukongai. He knew no parents, but with his bare hands and strength of will had harvested a family of siblings. When all but one had fallen to Rukongai violence, ireborn/i, his mind reminded him, no longer protected by the mantle of childhood, he had taken the last and brought the both of them to Seireitei to seek a future. Had that been the last resort of strength or of weakness?
And thus had his involvement with Kuchiki Byakuya begun, his remaining family sought by the other from his first awed glimpse of him. No, perhaps earlier, the moment when a frail woman of Rukongai who had abandoned her infant sister had drawn the attention of Kuchiki Byakuya. Or perhaps the very instant of abandonment itself had set in train all future events, and had caught them all up in complex threads as strong as adamant.
The facts were easy, but they kept sliding into personality, emotion, memory and speculation.
He was Abarai Renji, shinigami, fukutaichou of the Sixth Division. He was second-in-command to Kuchiki Byakuya, taichou of the Sixth division. He had begun his true formation in the Eleventh Division, and had been finished at the Sixth Division. With his taichou, he fought in war and patrolled in peace.
He was Abarai Renji, soul-linked to Zabimaru. With blood and grit and will, he had achieved bankai one sunny morning, and in arrogant exultation, like an impetuous child with a new toy, had immediately challenged his taichou. Kuchiki Byakuya had cut him down.
Ever since Rukia became his sister, you've measured your achievements by his.
Even now, recollecting that first terrifying battle, after so many had passed, Renji shivered. He had, with his own hands, offered his first bankai to his taichou. Now, he realized, Kuchiki Byakuya had accepted and acknowledged the gift, with Senbonzakura Kageyoshi and kazahana scarf. As shinigami to shinigami, as nobleman to aptly named commoner Rukongai dog, he had honoured Renji with the symbols of what he was.
Renji fingered the scarf he kept folded, tucked into his shikahausho. During Kuchiki Byakuya's recovery from Ichimaru Gin's attack in the Fourth Division wards, he had awkwardly tried to give the scarf back, but had met with the rather cryptic reply of, "There are appropriate times and locations for this, Abarai." A second attempt had received a flat, "Do not make me repeat myself, Abarai." Over the years, Renji had pondered these words, but had never arrived at an answer he found satisfactory. With his new insight, he wondered if his taichou meant that the scarf would be returned when its recipient no longer needed to be honoured, because he had achieved greater honours. Was his taichou waiting for Renji to challenge him again? No, not challenge, but to gather the confidence to test himself against his taichou. As he examined this startling idea, he began to feel on firmer ground. Yes, Kuchiki Byakuya had been waiting for Renji's own decision to face him again, to restore the scarf to its original owner.
You are now aware that there are many measures of power, though you still take him as your standard.
And if he took his measure against his taichou and held his own? Then what? Captaincy, he supposed. He would step into that position with an easy mind. They would be equals and colleagues. Yet Kuchiki Byakuya would still be years ahead in achievement and experience. By that count, so would every taichou selected ahead of him. Renji's lips parted in a silent guffaw. It was a foolish competition, this one based on longevity. In his own time, if he lived that long, he too would be a senior taichou.
Renji straightened abruptly as his thoughts led him past old uncertainties to the one undeniable truth. iHe/i was Abarai Renji, there was no call for him to be Kuchiki Byakuya. A futile effort that, to chase such a will-o'-the-wisp. The shock of the realization twirled him in circles, buffeting his mind with flashes of dizzying clarity, until he finally stopped to face the elephant in the room.
Rukia—the last of his family, taken from him by Kuchiki Byakuya for consolation for the loss of his own. Rukia, whom he had loved, ignored and lost, then regained amid the wreckage that was Aizen's betrayal. Rukia, whom he did not know if he loved with the passion of a man or the protectiveness of a brother. He had been content in his feelings until Matsumoto's terrifying acuity had torn him from comfortable opacity into this maelstrom of questioning.
I suspect that at times, you almost hate him. He betrayed not only her, but also you by not taking care of the last of the family he had taken away from you.
Kuchiki Byakuya also loved Rukia. With the blinders gone, Renji saw his actions in a new light. A man who felt less, a lesser man, might not have tried so hard, or fought so long. Having chosen one side of an impossible conflict between the laws of Soul Society and the welfare of his sister, Kuchiki Byakuya could not, would not, allow himself to deviate from his chosen path because to do so would demean and dishonour the sacrifice of his sister. Yet, if Rukia had died, that would probably have broken him.
During that time, Renji had loathed him beyond all passion. He had read his decisions as the actions of one who understood clan but not family, justice but not mercy. All his ambivalence towards Kuchiki Byakuya, his resentment, his rage, his worry over Rukia, his determination to support Ichigo, had fueled his drive to bankai. Yet, he recalled the other's subdued hesitation in his sickbed after the tumult, his mild querying of Renji's presence, and his quiet acceptance of Renji's renewed pledge of loyalty.
Now, Renji could not help but wonder, if Kuchiki Byakuya had provided the cast from which Abarai Renji emerged during that lost and estranged period, then what were they now, together? And what could they be, in the future?
Now the three of you are tied together by even more complex bonds.
He was Rukia's family and her protector. He would fight for her and face any threat for her. He cared for her but he would not cage her. He wanted the best for her, even if it were at his own expense. In some strange dual effect of sound, Kuchiki Byakuya's voice echoed in unison with his thoughts. Renji's lips turned downwards wryly. So that was that, the reason for their competition?
So tell me, Abarai Renji, what is Kuchiki Byakuya to you?
Renji felt an unaccustomed soul-deep trembling begin within him. He rested against his chair, his eyelids heavy, limbs exhausted and curiously light-headed, an icy awareness at the back of his mind. So this is what reflection feels like, he thought with rueful derison. There was a sudden clarity and precision to the world as a decades-old knot of hurt confusion dissolved. Abruptly, all the nights of lost sleep converged on him, and he sank deeper into his chair.
A familiar reiatsu tickled his senses then withdrew. After what seemed like an eternity, Renji's lids finally felt limber enough to move. Idly, he noted that it was sunset, then his eyes shifted, and he abruptly hurled himself upright. His taichou was standing at the partition between their offices.
"Taichou, I…," Renji's voice was strangled from embarrassment and shock. There was a moment of silence as each looked at the other. Renji's mind caught up with his senses as he gazed at his taichou with fresh eyes. Now no longer burdened by the weight of his taichou's reiatsu nor by the bitterness of old grudge, he saw a man not much taller than most, with shielded grey eyes, whose fine patrician features were composed in repose but tinged with the faintest wash of sorrow. The arrogance and elegant bearing were stamped in the bone. The kenseikan and scarf he was accustomed to, but it was easy to forget that Kuchiki Byakuya shared the same shinigami uniform with him and it now gave him a start to recognize the familiar dress beneath the captain's cloak. In all, he was not an unpleasing sight. As that thought crossed Renji's mind, a warm pulse began in his abdomen.
Grey eyes searched over Renji's face, while he wondered if his expression reflected his new understanding. The world still felt preternaturally clear to him. Finally, his taichou spoke, "I will assume that we will now see an end to the recent nocturnal disturbances."
Renji was startled for an instant, then flushed dully. The entire Sixth Division knew that Abarai Fukutaichou had awakened the entire barracks for a week of nights with his reiatsu-enhanced shouts. Several of the higher seats had already approached him suggesting a visit to the Fourth Division for his nightmares. He had been exhausted during the day, but had hardly dared to shut his eyes for fear of those nightmares. In sheer desperation, he had thrown himself into training the division and paperwork.
Kuchiki Byakuya prepared to depart. Renji hesitated, then took the plunge. With his head straightened out, there really was no reason to delay this, and every reason to see it through.
"Taichou, I think I will soon be ready to return your scarf to you." His taichou paused in his step, then turned his head briefly. "I await the occasion." At his usual stately pace, he left, trailing the scent of sakura in his wake.
Eyes narrowed, Renji watched Kuchiki Byakuya disappear from sight. What was that lingering reiatsu he had felt in his sleep? How long had his taichou stood at the doorway? With a shrug, Renji picked up his zanpakuto. He had world enough and time to contemplate these questions. For now,
'Oi, sleepyhead, get your ass together. We're training.'
'Fight?' asked the nue hopefully.
'Can't wait to whip that prissy flowery ass. About time,' the nue's gruff voice was gleeful with anticipation.
Renji's sharp grin returned. Trust Zabimaru to know him better than he did himself. For now, they would train. And when the dust had settled and he was a newly-minted taichou, who was to say what the future held?
"Erm, Rukia, you know, your brother's kind of handsome, isn't he?"
"Oh, Renji, how could you do this to me? After all we've been to each other, oh! Oh!"
"Rukia! No! I… I'm sorry, I didn't mean… what do I do?"
"Just give me first dibs on the kissing photos and we'll call it even."
Matsumoto in the background, "Squee! We did it!"
The End, or the Start of a Beautiful Something or Other