Chapter 14: Under a New Moon

(Sorry this took so long to finish! I got a little busy with other stuff. But I think this story needs a sequel. I'm working on that...Hmmm, what to do! Enjoy!)

Byakuya slipped out of his shihakushou and sank into the searing hot spring, leaning back against the edge, breathing in the soothing steam that rose up from it. It was difficult to believe that only a few short hours before, he had been held captive in Hueco Mundo. His body believed it, though. The bruises and cuts were proof, but fortunately for him, the hot spring he rested in had tremendous healing qualities…so as he rested, the markers of his captivity were slowly fading away. The mental scars, however, would take somewhat longer to fade. Still, Byakuya was a captain. And all captains were carefully trained to cope with the possibility of capture, torture and imprisonment. Even so, full recovery would take time. He was glad that he hadn't had to endure it alone. Although Aizen had used Renji against him, his vice captain's strength and determination, not to mention, his support, had helped Byakuya stay focused and eventually escape.

He thought back to the time they had spent in Inuzuri waiting for his powers to return. He hated to admit it, even in the privacy of his own mind, but he was going to miss the sparring, bathing in the river, and the long slow evenings that he and Renji had shared. Somehow the much more dreary thought of long afternoons bent over reports was not as attractive. Well, at least he would have the red-haired vice captain's company. Because that was really what he was worried that he would miss when they returned to the Sereitei. He wondered, though, how Renji would feel. He wondered if his vice captain was feeling the same…but he would never actually lower his pride and ask. He would simply take an action of some kind and watch the result.

"You mind if I join you?" Yoruichi asked, stepping out of the darkness.

"Of course not," Byakuya answered softly, "Senpai is welcome to join me."

Byakuya pretended not to notice as Yoruichi slipped out of her clothes and slowly entered the heated water. Only once she was seated did he look up. When he did, he was careful to only meet her eyes.

"Ah…this feels good after a long battle, eh, Byakuya?" she sighed.

"And after a lengthy stay among enemies," he added.

She frowned thoughtfully.

"I'm sorry you had it so rough, Byakuya. I'm glad we were able to get you and Renji out of there. It's a miracle that he could break the hypnosis of that zanpakuto. I still wonder how he did it."

"Perhaps it is just a testament to his force of will. Renji has always been quite willful."

"On a first name basis, now, are you?" Yoruichi commented, glancing at him.

"Not exactly," Byakuya replied, "I was merely responding to this less than formal setting."

"I see," Yoruichi said softly, "or could it be that Little Byakuya has a friend."

"Renji is my vice captain," he corrected her quietly, and without much conviction, "to encourage such familiarity would invite confusion."

"I don't think so," Yoruichi sighed, sinking deeper into the water and edging closer to him, "You just have to maintain a few boundaries. It isn't so hard. I think you and Renji got a good start on that in Inuzuri."

"And how would you know about that?"

Yoruichi smiled.

"Because your vice captain has been going on and on non-stop about how great it was sparring with you and fighting alongside you. I think all that you need to do is to make a small overture. I'm sure he would be responsive."

"What, exactly, are you suggesting?" he queried.

Yoruichi blinked slowly.

Spend some quality time alone with him sometimes. Make it special. He will understand."

"I'm not going to date my vice captain."

Yoruichi laughed.

"I wasn't suggesting that, Little Byakuya. I meant that whole 'male bonding' thing!"

"Ah…I see…"

He paused, enjoying the steam rising from the water and the way it softened her features. It actually looked quite lovely in the moonlight. She was smiling back at him now.

"And what kind of overtures would I make to encourage bonding with you, Demon Cat?" he asked softly.

She laughed again and moved closer. Byakuya turned his head slightly and brought his face close to hers.

"Thank you for all you have done for me, Senpai," he said quietly, "Despite your sometimes shocking behavior, you have proven to be a devoted ally."

"An ally?" she chuckled, "Will you never change, Little Byakuya?"

"No," he said, kissing her gently on the mouth, "and neither should you."

They remained there for some time, exchanging kisses and gentle touches under the stars.

___

Byakuya was surprised at how quickly he had readjusted to life free of captivity. When he had left Hueco Mundo, he hadn't been so certain that he could settle back into the routines that had been so familiar before. He had been through a lot. He certainly wasn't the person he had been before leaving for Inuzuri, but in truth, he really hadn't been whole before that either. But he felt so different now. There was a comfort to knowing that each day he would walk the path that led to the 6th Division office and that soon after he arrived, his red-haired vice captain would appear and settle down at the desk across from him…after serving him a cup of tea, of course.

It wasn't as though they shared a great deal of conversation. They did converse over work related topics and sometimes there were special events, but more than what they said was the simple enjoyment they felt being in each other's presence. There was a definite comfort in that.

But Byakuya still yearned for something a little bit more…a little bit more like the male bonding that Yoruichi had suggested. So as he sat near Renji workday after workday, he tried to figure out just what form that bonding could take. And eventually, something occurred to him. He just had to figure out how to initiate it.

The opportunity presented itself one evening when Renji returned from an assignment in the living world looking like he had gotten worked over pretty thoroughly. Upon seeing his bruised and bloodied state, he had ordered Renji to go to the 4th Division, but as the red head went to leave, he staggered and, unsure that he would make it all of the way without falling, Byakuya insisted on going along.

"You know, you don't have to do this, Captain," Renji said, looking embarrassed.

It wasn't that he didn't like Byakuya's company, but he worried that Byakuya might be upset with him for returning in such a sorry state.

Byakuya stopped him for a moment. Renji looked at him, his head tilted in curiosity.

"I know I don't have to," he acknowledged, "I want to. You know, Renji, I remain in your debt."

Renji laughed.

"Don't worry about that," he said reassuringly, "I was just doing what I had to, just like you."

"But the main reason I lasted long enough to be rescued was because you held me together, Renji. Words aren't enough to thank you for that."

Renji smiled.

"Words work fine for me," Renji said, with what sounded to Byakuya like unhidden affection.

It left him with a warm feeling that stayed with him for the rest of the day.

The change in his captain was not lost on Renji. He recognized Byakuya's desire to connect and returned the feeling in simple, respect-filled ways. Every day, he greeted his captain with a smile and a hot cup of green tea, made to the captain's specifications. He was not late to work anymore and never complained whatever was asked of him or how late he had to stay to finish his work. He smiled a lot and shared his feelings openly.

Byakuya responded by never failing to greet Renji pleasantly, always requesting things with an air of politeness, and showing his concern for Renji's well being in small, but noticeable ways.

Slowly, something began to change within the 6th Division. During morning drills, Byakuya began to appear regularly to support the vice captain in readying the squad for battle conditions. Byakuya would watch carefully, learning each soul reaper's name and capabilities. This gave Byakuya and his vice captain much more to talk about as they now routinely discussed living world assignments, issues of training, and strategies for battle. Byakuya found a stronger connection forming between his men and himself. There was a genuine affection, a protectiveness his squad members had for him that hadn't been there before. Then one day, it became abundantly clear to both Byakuya and Renji how much things had changed.

A soul reaper base was being built at the very edge of Hueco Mundo to assist the stealth force with sending in missions to monitor the activities of Sosuke Aizen. But as the base was constructed, it was a struggle to keep the hollow from destroying the place as quickly as they pieced it together. The head captain decided to send a division in to keep the peace and to provide support. And because he had noticed the improvements in the performance of the 6th Division, it was this division that he chose to send.

Upon receipt of the news, Byakuya summoned Renji to the Kuchiki manor for dinner and to prepare to take the division to Hueco Mundo. Renji was thrilled at both news of the assignment and the fact that Byakuya invited him to the Kuchiki home. He bathed, dressed quickly and rushed over so as not to irritate his captain by being late.

When Byakuya greeted Renji, the vice captain noticed immediately that things between them must be very different indeed, because the captain greeted him dressed in a comfortable kimono and without the trappings of his status. His hair was loose and without the kenseiken, some strands drifted down over his eye. To Renji, he looked different, exotic, even relaxed.

"They have set up a barrier around the base with alert lines. Look, they are marked here on the map," Byakuya explained.

Renji followed his eyes to the map.

"That looks like a good defensible area. We could place our kido experts here and here, then have the shock troops ready to move when the kido shield drops."

"Good suggestion, Abarai," Byakuya said quietly.

"You and I can position ourselves in this elevated portion so we can watch and give support with our Ban Kai as needed."

Renji nodded.

"That seems to be all in the way of preparations," Byakuya said, setting down the maps, "Come, Renji, dinner is waiting for us in the garden.

Renji had never seen the garden look so beautiful. He had hardly ever been to the manor at all. Seeing it lit up in the evening was enchanting. The food was delicious and Byakuya proved to be good company in his more relaxed state. He even invited Renji to go for a walk to his favorite waterfall.

They walked the forest trail side by side listening to the calm night sounds and the breeze in the trees. Renji could understand why his captain enjoyed this. It was a very peaceful way to restore oneself after a busy day. The cherry blossoms smelled wonderful and the waterfall at the top of the trail was breathtaking.

"Byakuya, this place is beautiful," he said, admiring their surroundings, "I never saw a prettier place. No wonder you walk here every night. It must bring you great relaxation."

"Yes," his captain agreed, "and since you have shown such an affection for it, I shall be sure to invite your return here in the future, Renji."

"Thank you, Captain. I would like that very much."

"I would enjoy it as well. And before we return, there is something I want to tell you, Renji," Byakuya said, blinking slowly.

"Yes, Captain?"

"What I wanted to tell you is that I find you to have a certain value, Renji…not just on the battlefield or in the division, but also here. A captain needs his vice captain to know his value…and a person needs to know his value to another. Arigato, Renji…for holding that value."

Renji didn't know quite how to respond to what must have been the most beautiful thing his captain had ever said to him…so he did what he considered to be natural. He closed the distance between them and embraced his captain. Byakuya froze, then relaxed into it. Renji was careful to release him within a respectful amount of time, so as not to be misunderstood. Then he smiled at Byakuya and was pleased when Byakuya's lips curved upward slightly in return.

"Arigato, Captain Kuchiki. I won't forget that. And I hope you won't forget your value to me."

Byakuya didn't answer, but the smile remained with him for a long time after.