Chapter 7: Lust

A/N: Here is what you guys have been waiting for. Patiently. Incredibly patiently.

Byakuya left later that day. It was completely unannounced - he disappeared after a silent dinner, and Ichigo was the first to notice he was no longer pacing outside his bedroom door. The only person who saw him that night was Ganju, whom Byakuya had wordlessly demanded a saddled horse from.

Byakuya nudged the stallion into a gallop. He wasn't sure where he was running to at first, but as he drew closer to his destination, he recognized that he needed to be there.

He was ashamed the very minute he arrived.

The brass knocker was icy against his hand, yet he still knocked. Someone stirred inside, and after a long, chill wait on the front stoop, the door opened.

Byakuya was greeted with the red, tear-stained face of Shunsui, his hat missing, his robes rumpled and dirty. He was barely standing, his knees shaking and his shoulders hunched dangerously.

When Shunsui looked up to see the man who'd given Ukitake a death sentence, he froze. His eyes widened, and he tensed.

Byakuya also froze. How had he forgotten? Shunsui had every right to be angry with him. He'd been rather rude the last time he'd been over here, even going so far as insulting Shunsui's human. Rather out of line, he'd admit. Byakuya braced for the inevitable fist to the face.

Rather than lash out with a fist, Shunsui launched himself at Byakuya. The aristocrat was pulled into a very undignified - and very soggy - embrace.

"Kuchiki, thank you, th-thank you," he sobbed into Byakuya's shoulder. "He doesn't have to be in pain anymore." He heaved in a dry breath.

He? The human? Byakuya didn't know what to make of this. Shunsui smelled heavily of sake, so it was quite possible he was confused with intoxication.

Without warning, Shunsui released Byakuya as if he'd forgotten he was there, and tottered back into the house without closing the door or inviting him in. Byakuya slid inside after him, and shut the door against the wind. Perhaps he'd gone mad?

He was curled up on his couch, holding that same man from before against his broad chest. And sitting next to him, was-

"Nel made it here a long time ago! You're even slower than Nel because the horses like Nel!" The tiny green-haired girl grinned widely. "Mr. Shunsui said it was okay if Nel sat in Mr. Ukitake's lap, as long as I was quiet, but Mr. Ukitake looked almost as bad as the red-haired man so Nel healed him!"

"Thank you for sending her, Kuchiki."

Byakuya stood there, stunned. The human anomalously smelled of death, as he was quite alive now. With the way Shunsui was holding him as if he'd never let him go, you'd almost think he had died.

And then it clicked. The human. Death. The tea. Healing.

His inability to see past himself had almost killed this man. This...this loving man. Another man.

Byakuya dropped to his knees.

He was so stupid.

So, so stupid.

When Ichigo woke the next morning, he slapped himself for falling asleep at all. He had to remain vigilant, for Renji's sake. But Grimmjow hadn't kicked him awake, so it was possible that Renji had stabilized.

Ichigo jumped - Byakuya was sitting at the foot of the bed now, and had been since an unknown time that morning. His head was hung in defeat, but his eyes were still on Renji's face.

Ichigo recognized that expression.

Byakuya would never give up.

I woke slowly, the world leaking into my head in fuzzy, garbled tones. I was laying down on my back. That was the first thing my mind managed to translate from the grays and static. I wiggled the fingers on my left hand, then my right. I sighed, and the air made a whooshing noise through my windpipe. The world was sorting itself out a little more rapidly now. I was lying on something softer than heaven, cool and slick like silk. I struggled, finally managing to open my eyes. The bronze limbs of a sakura tree sculpture hung above my head, laden with petite paper lanterns glowing with soft flames.

I was in Byakuya's bed.

In fact, I was in Byakuya's bed, wearing Byakuya's black hakamas and blue kimono. It scared me when I realized that he could have been the one to undress me without my knowing.

I looked to my right, where the crimson sunset beamed through the double windows. The forest was still and dark, and the sky was beautifully cloudless. I turned to my left, and jolted to a sitting position.

Grimmjow was sitting beside me, his chin resting on his fist and his elbow resting on Byakuya's bedside table. He looked amused, a sly grin upturning his face as he watched my every move.

"I wanted to see how long it would take you to notice me," he drawled, throwing his arm on the table in order to lean closer to me. "Now, roll on your stomach. I'm supposed to change your dressings."

"Grimmjow!" I greeted him, the adrenaline rush suddenly giving way to pain from my stiff joints and healing wounds. "A little help?" I grit out, failing to move as planned.

He chuckled, using both arms to steadily turn me without aggravating my sores. "It's good to have you back," he muttered.

He helped me peel the kimono from my upper body, making me wonder what dressings he was going to change. I knew the whip marks would be deep, but my back throbbed only slightly. Grimmjow brushed the dried cloth away from my back and balled it up to be discarded. They were stained with splotches of rusty brown scabs, but no red of freely flowing blood.

"There should be more blood," I commented on the cloth, confused.

"There was a lot more blood, on the first day," Grimmjow informed me.

First day? What? This wasn't the first day I'd been here?

"What do you mean, the first day?"

"You've been unconscious for three days, Renji. The first day was...for lack of a better term...utterly terrifying." Grimmjow moved slowly, kneeling on the bed beside me to better reach my whole back. He poured a few drops of smelly oil on my back, and froze. "You close to dead, Renji. We all thought we were going to lose you. You had lost so much blood..."

I felt, rather than saw, him shaking his head. He put the bottle down, more somber than I had ever seen before.

"But, you're going to be okay now. Byakuya, Ichigo, and I took turns watching over you, changing your bandages, even getting you to drink Byakuya's tea. In fact, that Hanataro guy from the healers' wing was called up here to heal anything he could, and inject medication into you. Byakuya did everything in his power to save you."

I was stunned into silence as Grimmjow started massaging the oil into my back.

"Ichigo is starting to rub off on me, I'm going soft," he laughed, breaking the tension.

"Thanks, Grimmjow. I guess, I'm, uh, glad I have friends like you and Ichigo." I blushed scarlet with embarrassment.

"Not a problem, kid." He pressed new cloth strips across my wounds, the oil sticking them to my skin. "You put up with enough crap from me. It's worth it, right?" He grinned. "Just don't tell Ichigo about this conversation."

"It never happened," I agreed, mock-serious.

Hitsugaya poked his head in, and tried his hardest not to beam wildly at everyone.

"He's awake!" he shouted into the hallway, and was immediately knocked over by Ichigo.

"Renji!" Ichigo fluffed my hair, too overcome with emotions to say anything else.

"I am also...overjoyed that you are well," Hitsugaya said stiffly and offered his hand.

I shook it with a laugh that quickly turned into a hacking cough.

Then, Byakuya walked in. Everyone went silent as he crossed the room to his bedside, and when he silently shooed them out, they obeyed without hesitation. The look in his eyes told me that he had something important to say, and yet I couldn't meet his eyes.

He hesitated, and I berated myself for falling for him. Yes, he was attractive, I told myself. But he doesn't love you, and he certainly isn't good for you. He tried diligently to get rid of you, even tried to trade you to a sex-starved demon and sell you to a madman parading about as a scientist. He treated you with no respect, he even treated the sanctity of human life with no respect. Even before all this happened, he chained you in a little cage with two other men with the purpose of breaking you.

I told myself again, you need to get over him. You need to move on.

But he came to rescue you when you needed it most, whispered a tiny part of me.

"You're awake," he said slowly.

"Yes," I bit out. Pointedly, I stared at a lantern hanging above my head.

"How are you feeling?"

I tried to shrug boredly, but pulled something in my back. Instead, I answered him with a noise like "Mmrr." If he was going to have a conversation with me, he was going to work for it.

"I didn't know," he said quietly.

At first I thought I was hearing things, so I cocked an eyebrow and looked at him for the first time. His eyes were closed, his head bowed as a child bows to an elder.

"I didn't know anything." This time his voice was louder, more unsure. "I don't know anything."

"What?" was all I could respond with.

Byakuya took a deep breath, steadied himself, and spoke. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to feel. I still don't know." He sighed. And then he began to speak once more.

I will never forget his next words for as long as I live.

Ulquiorra flicked his sword, arcing thick ribbons of blood across the floor. His fingers were stained red-brown.

His mouth was twisted downwards in a scowl.

How had Mayuri managed to slither away?

Shiro had drifted a lot for the past few days, weaving through the walls as invisibly as a thought. He'd seen too much, felt too much.

He'd loved it.

But judging by his brother's expression, he hadn't.

Ichigo had been drinking a lot of water and tea, trying to stay hydrated after he'd lost so much blood. His back was sore, and he had a head cold from sleeping on his face.

At least Renji was alive, he kept telling himself.

And he and Grimmjow were still alive.

The werecat put his chin on Ichigo's shoulder and wrapped his arms around Ichigo's chest. He pecked Ichigo on the cheek, and then cracked a toothy grin into the redhead's neck.

"Of course I forgive you," Ichigo whispered.

Byakuya clenched his fists, trying to keep his face impassive as he finally looked into Renji's eyes.

"I didn't understand love."

Take my heart, he thought as hard as he could, trying to convince Renji. It's been yours even before I knew my heart could belong to someone else.

He hoped beyond all hope that Renji could forgive him. He'd been so foolish, so blind.

Renji dug his nails into the silk sheets.

"I don't owe you anything."

Byakuya winced. "I know."

"I don't have to forgive you."

"...I know." Byakuya bowed his head again.

"But for some reason, I can't get your stupid face out of my head." Renji shifted uncomfortably. "I can never get you out of my head."

Before Byakuya could respond, something tiny and green rocketed into the room and latched onto Renji's arm.

"Yay! Nel is so happy wolfy is okay! Nel is sorry for poking you. Nel only wanted wolfy to wake up!"

"Uh, hi," Renji responded with some uncertainty.

"Apologies for the interruption, Kuchiki. The little girl is such a ball of energy, I couldn't catch her! Glad to see our old friend is feeling better too." Shunsui had poked his head into the room at an odd angle, and as the door swung open, it was apparent why. He was holding Ukitake bridal-style, trying not to swing any of his lover's extremeties into the walls. Ukitake looked well-rested, a gentle smile on his pale face.

Renji perked up at their presence, but was still confused.

"What's going on here? Who is she? Is he going to be okay?" he asked Byakuya.

"Nel made the sick man all better! Just like how Nel made wolfy better when the scary man hurt him," Nel assured him in her baby voice.

"Come on, Nel, we should let them talk," Ukitake urged. Nel hugged Renji's arm one last time and then toddled her way back out the door. Ukitake closed it behind her with Shunsui's help, and the three of them made their way back downstairs.

"So, you know about the tea?" Renji asked cautiously.

Byakuya nodded solemnly.

Without a word, the two of them looked at each other, and each knew the other one understood what had happened. Byakuya felt foolish, but Renji felt proud.

"You forgave him?"

Byakuya nodded again. "I didn't see what was right in front of me."

Renji smiled, slowly, cautiously, as if he was afraid it would break if it grew too quickly. He rocked onto his knees, and carefully lifted himself up until he was kneeling on the bed at Byakuya's eye level.

Without warning, he pressed himself to Byakuya in a frantic kiss. It was sloppy and clumsy and Byakuya had to catch him before he toppled off of the bed, but it was the best kiss they could have had.

Byakuya pushed him back onto the soft sheets before he could hurt himself. Renji whined briefly at the loss of lips and warmth before Byakuya kissed him a second time.

Their noses bumped before Renji remembered to turn his head. Renji was hypersensitive to Byakuya's cool fangs and warm breath against his lips, before he was consumed entirely by the intensity of the kiss.

Byakuya had one hand supporting his weight, placed beside Renji's pillow. The other was tangled in Renji's fire-red hair. Renji had linked his hands behind Byakuya's back in a loose hug. They both left their eyes open in uncertainty, each studying the other person's face for signs of dislike.

Somehow, Byakuya's hips had ended up between Renji's thighs. He pressed one knee into the mattress, careful of putting any weight on Renji's wounds. His leg brushed against the werewolf, a little too softly to cause any physical reaction.

They broke apart after a moment, and Byakuya rested his forehead against Renji's chin.

"Now rest," Byakuya whispered into his neck. Renji squirmed at the sensation.

After that, he wasn't sure he could rest. But he would certainly try.

Kenpachi hadn't left werewolf form or Byakuya's kitchen after a week. Nobody was crazy enough to tell him to leave, however, so there was little chance he would abandon the hot meals anytime soon. Besides, he had struck up an unlikely friendship with the redhead and his ghost.

Every morning without fail, Shiro would peel Ichigo's body from his mattress and head out to the front lawn. Kenpachi would wait for Ichigo to fully wake up, and then the three of them - two of them? - would spar. It was a breathtaking fistfight, with Ichigo dodging attacks but unable to throw any, and Kenpachi throwing the punches but unable to land any. They would dance around each other until Ichigo dropped from fatigue or Kenpachi from hunger, and then retreated indoors to a huge breakfast and a discussion of the battle.

Shiro was surprised to find that he and Ichigo shared quite a few tastes in food, and would hang around until breakfast was over in order to savor the new dishes Grimmjow served.

Yachiru was still quite attached to her Kenny, but could be convinced to leave him alone by inviting Nel over to play with her. The two of them would play tag, or build with wooden blocks Ganju had whittled out of some old barn planks. They laughed and play-fought and dug in the dirt, the both of them finally allowed to have a childhood.

Nel was adopted by Shunsui and Ukitake, which meant Nanao did most of the caregiving. She didn't mind much, as Nel tended to stay out of trouble, or the one time she'd ended up hurting herself, healed the wound up before Nanao could fret. Shunsui and Ukitake were like fathers to her, and as Ukitake regained more strength each day, he made a point of taking Nel for walks and teaching her about the little birds and fish. She was taught many times that animals were to be handled gently and treated kindly, just like every person in the world.

As for me? Well, I had a rough time getting patched up at first. I just wanted to jump out of bed and tell Ichigo that I'd one it, I'd finally done it! But I had to stay still in bed and try not to strain myself.

Sometimes, Byakuya curled up next to me. He was stiff at first, as if he'd never cared about anyone before me, but I gradually coaxed him into relaxing and eventually he would even hold my hand as we layed side by side.

When I was well enough to stand, he half-carried me everywhere for the first few days. I finally convinced him that I needed to walk on my own to regain my strength, and then he hovered around me like a concerned mother hen.

He snuck kisses when nobody was watching. I wanted them to watch, I wanted to make sure he wasn't ashamed of kissing me. But I let him. I would always let him.

One day, Grimmjow whistled at us just as I'd gone in for a kiss. I shot him a scowl, but Byakuya unblinkingly kissed me back.

After that, I was sure he loved me. He had stopped ordering me around altogether, and seemed to lose the need to order his slaves around at all. For a month, the house was a mess of servants trying to complete their tasks, unsure if they should be doing their tasks, trying to keep the house running but finding time for themselves to do what they wanted. After that first month, everyone knew to split their chores and help each other so they could get to riding horses or making crafts. Byakuya didn't much mind as long as the house stayed orderly, and he only ever confronted someone to stop them from bickering amongst themselves.

And then, on a bright summer day with only a bit of breeze, it happened.

I was standing before Byakuya's massive bedroom window, watching the breeze blow through the leaves of a tree outside. It was relatively short and spherical, with branches perfect for climbing on.

I heard him open the door, but I didn't turn around. He brushed his fingers over my shoulder, and kissed my back once.

"Renji," he addressed me.

"Hm?" My eyes wandered from the tree.

"I've decided."

I met his eyes. His gorgeous dark eyes.

"Give me your collar."

"What?" I spun around in surprise.

He was holding out his hand expectantly. I complied, my fingers too clumsy to pry open the metal clip. He took pity on me and set his cool fingers on either side of my neck. Electricity shot up my spine as he trailed those marble-smooth fingertips across every inch of the one part of me he'd always dare not touch.

The buckle and the thick, dark leather strip came away easily in his clever hands. It was the first time I'd been without the collar on my neck since the day I'd been brought here.

He dropped it to the floor. It thumped, and was completely forgotten. Byakuya kissed my neck, sharp fangs grazing dangerously across my skin.

"You are no longer my slave," he hummed into my ear. "You don't have to stay here."

I thought about this for a moment. I was free. I could return to my pack, if I wanted. I could live alone, maybe come back to visit occasionally. I could run through the forest on a moonlit night, hunting a deer. I could do anything I wanted.

It was a good thing I already knew what I wanted.

Hot food, cold drinks, kind friends. And of course, the handsome vampire.

Kissing Byakuya was the first thing I did as a free man.

"Why would I leave? I have everything I've ever wanted right here." And without waiting for an answer, I dipped him backwards and kissed him again.

Now, there were still plenty of problems in the world to fix. The Demon Lord was on a rampage, as Mayuri had gone missing and his false souls were running low. Ulquiorra went missing too, not that we cared all that much, but so did Szayel. And handfuls more problems cropped up as the years went by.

But we weathered them, as families always do.