Chapter 15: Love's Gift
"Well, Captain Kuchiki," Retsu Unohana says smiling, "it looks as though you have suffered no lingering effects from the poison or the cure. You were very fortunate. I have your clearance to return to duty, fully authorized. I do, however recommend that you get plenty of rest. It will be a few weeks before your reiatsu is fully restored."
"Thank you, Captain."
I take the clearance and start towards the door. Just before I reach it, the door opens and Renji bursts in, sweaty and panting.
"Sorry I'm late," he says, "The vice captain's meeting ran over."
"Renji, there was no need for you to rush over here. I told you I am fine. All my visit here did was to confirm that," I tell him, frowning.
"Well, I think it was a very sweet gesture," smiles Unohana as she walks out, leaving me alone with Renji.
"It was…kind of you to be concerned for me," I say in a softer tone, "I didn't mean to sound as though I didn't want you here, it's just…I feel like I've been too great a source of worry for you lately…and not enough of a source of happiness. I know this was really difficult for you…"
He looks away.
"Of course it was difficult. Damn it, Byakuya, you died in my arms. I mean, even though Kisuke said it would only be for five minutes…"
"It felt like forever?" I finish for him, "Renji, I understand. I once thought you were dead…remember? I know it was difficult, but everything will be fine now. The children will be home tomorrow and everything will go back to the way it was before."
"Byakuya…you say you understand how I feel. If you really do, then you know things aren't just going to suddenly return to normal," he says, slipping his arms around me.
"No, you're right, Renji, it will require time. I just meant that our living conditions will return to the way they were and that will offer us the chance to recover. I wasn't suggesting this would just disappear. Too much has happened," I admit, resting my head against the warm shoulder he offers.
I feel his palm brush the side of my neck, his fingers running through the length of my hair. He continues this for several minutes as we stand in silence, with our bodies close together and warmth radiating between us. Then his hand comes to rest against my face and he brings his lips together with mine. At first, the contact is tentative, a light brushing of skin against skin, then he deepens it, pressing his body closer. His fingers sink into my hair again and his lips part. The movement of our tongues against each other is slow, a gentle relearning of each other, a step we have to take to regain what we came so close to losing. After a time, I pull free of his lips and bring my head to rest on his shoulder again, eyes closed.
"We'll be okay now," I reassure him, "as long as we remember what we promised each other…No one leaves."
There is a long pause and I feel a tremor move through him.
"No one leaves," he whispers back.
He takes my hand and we leave the too-white environs of the healing center. We walk past the 6th division office and through the maze of streets that leads us back home. As he opens the door, I realize that I don't know how many days it has been since I was taken from our home…how many days I lay among our enemies, lost and dying. The weight of it hits me. Then as we pass through the entry and start down the walkway, I realize exactly how many days must have passed.
The garden is dressed in an ocean of flowers and lights, as it is every year when this day comes. Dinner is laid out in the garden, and I know without looking that flower petals line the path to the waterfall and coat the walkway to our bedroom.
I stop on the walkway, staring, tears rising in my eyes.
I can't think of anything to say to him. Before everything started to happen, before the poisoning, before being taken from my home, I'd been looking forward to this. But looking on it now brings home the weight of what happened. How many nights did Renji face alone here, waiting for me? How often must he have wondered whether or not we would see the house and garden dressed in light and color, marking the passage of another year of our life partnership? And it has come, but removed from my life as I was, I didn't even know what day it was, much less that today was this, of all days. The pain of it is unbearable…that such happiness could be stolen away from us. And then come the 'what ifs.' What if this day had passed while I was not here? What if the poison had killed me, and Renji had been forced to face this day alone?
I turn back into the entry. As I move, Renji flash steps and stops in front of me, resting his hands on my shoulders. I cannot look up at him. And I cannot think of anything to say that will explain what I feel.
"Hey," he says bracingly, "what is it? Why did you do that?"
I cannot answer. And even when a warm hand slips beneath my chin and my face tilts upward, I cannot meet his eyes.
"Byakuya…what's wrong? Did I do something that upset you? Did I say something? What is it?"
I bury my face in his throat and I feel his arms close around me.
"Will you please say something?" he whispers, "I thought this would make you happy. If it doesn't, we can go somewhere else. I'll have everything removed…just tell me what you need me to do."
"I need you to…forgive me," I whisper, "I had little awareness while I was away…Renji…I lost track of the days…"
"Is that what this is about? Byakuya, I know what kind of shape you were in. It's understandable that you lost track of things. Give yourself a break! I don't know why you do this to yourself. You hold yourself to impossible standards. You know that if the situation was reversed, you would have done this for me…you know it! You would never hold it against me if, after something like this, I lost focus or awareness. Don't do this. Don't punish yourself for what Raiden did to you! I have more claim to the fault in that than you do."
"No," I say quietly, "He may have sought revenge, but he would have taken action against me anyway. He told me that I was chosen mainly for my strength. Because if I could be killed by the poison, then no other could withstand it. Revenge was a secondary issue, Renji."
"None of that matters," he insists, "I don't care about who is to blame or what went wrong because of it. Just…let it go, Byakuya. Let yourself be happy again. Otherwise, you'll be letting that bastard steal this from us. I know you don't want that."
"Then you listen to me. Don't think about anything but this…We're here together, and it is our anniversary. It's our celebration of who we are…and no one can take this away from us. And Byakuya, all we need to make this day perfect is feeling that connection we have. It's still there…and it is definitely worth celebrating."
His hand slides down my arm and takes hold of my hand. He pulls gently, turning me back in the direction of the garden. I follow quietly as we cross the beautifully decorated garden and take our places at the table. He doesn't say anything, but leaves me to my thoughts.
My heart seems to settle after a while and I look up at him, wondering how he can always be so accommodating. I don't make things easy for him. What could make him value me the way he does? His value in my life is easily seen. Renji is not fooled by masks or carefully placed facades. He sees me in a way no one else does. He understands me in ways no one else ever has or will. He is completely loyal. I have never felt this kind of trust before. But what do I offer in return? What made him love me? At this point, shouldn't I already know that?
"Renji, will you tell me something?" I ask softly.
He looks up questioningly.
"Why me? What made you love me?"
He looks surprised by the question. I imagine he also thinks I should already know. But his answer tells me that he understands why I am asking…why after all of this time, I still wonder.
"You weren't at all who I assumed you were," he says, "You took me by surprise. Despite the front you put up, I saw what kind of a person you really are. Nobility isn't just your place in life, Byakuya, you really embody what the word means. You demand more of yourself because of it, but you don't use it to raise yourself above other people. You chose Hisana for who she was on the inside. You saw it and you loved her, not for one minute letting her peasant status stop you. You made sacrifices to keep her in your life and you honored your love for her by adopting Rukia, even though it cost you to do that."
"I thought you hated me for adopting Rukia."
"That was a mistake. That was before I knew you. It wasn't until you opened the door, until I heard you telling Rukia about Hisana that I saw you for who you are."
"I thought you were unconscious. I had no idea you heard what I said," I tell him softly, "If I had known, I might not have been able to say the words."
"I know that," he says, smiling up at me, "I'm glad I heard what you said, though. If I hadn't, I don't think you ever would have let me see you."
"Most likely not," I agree.
The breeze moves the trees and the koi splash in the pond.
"So when did you realize that you loved me, Byakuya?" he asks.
Now it's my turn to be surprised. I have to think for a moment.
"The day of our battle. I may have defeated you, but I was also conquered that day. Turning and walking away from you was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. If I hadn't sensed Captain Unohana and Hanatoro approaching, I couldn't have left."
He smiles at that.
"Can you tell me something else?" he asks, "What made you kiss me that first time? I mean, you were pretty disoriented from being attacked by that hollow…but…"
Now it's my turn to smile.
"You noticed I was gone and you didn't just wait for me to come back. You came to find me. You knew I needed you even when what I needed wasn't clear to me. When you cared for my wounds in the cave, I started to realize that it wasn't just duty that brought you after me. And the disorientation just lowered my fears enough to take that first step. Even if you had pulled away, I could have retreated and blamed the disorientation."
He sighs, his eyes holding mine.
"You don't make things easy for me, Byakuya…but I love you, just the same."
"And that love is returned wholeheartedly, Renji," I reply, returning his gaze.
"Good," he says smiling, "and now I have something for you. I should have returned it sooner, but I thought now would be a good time."
He reaches around his neck and unclasps my gold Sakura pendant, the treasured gift from our first anniversary. He places it around my neck and fastens the clasp.
"I believe this is the second time someone has tried to take it from you and the second time I've had to return it to you. Now, don't make me have to do this again, Byakuya."
"I will attempt to cooperate with you on that, but I can make no promises," I answer.
"I guess I'll have to accept that," he says, smiling, "Now, for this year's gift…"
"Just come with me. You'll love this, Byakuya."
He takes my hands and pulls me to my feet. Then he leads me down the forest trail to the waterfall. As before, he has had it lit from beneath with blue light. He walks to the edge of the cliff and motions for me to follow. At the edge of the cliff, he turns to me.
"Follow me…and don't land in the water."
He drops off the edge of the cliff and lands gracefully on a small ledge that extends down to the bottom of the waterfall. I follow as he leads me downward. He stops at the waterfall and follows a small trail that takes us around behind it.
"I was down here once and I found this trail."
"I never noticed it."
"I figured…Anyway, I followed it and found a small cave with a hot spring in it. The pool was too small, but I thought that if it was made larger, it would be a good place to relax."
I follow him into the cave entrance and freeze.
The cave floor is sprinkled with flower petals and steam rises lazily from the hot spring. Lights have been placed around the cave and in the spring to illuminate it for use at night. Towels lie at the edge of the pool, ready for us. Champagne and strawberries wait nearby.
"How did you do this?" I ask, blinking.
"I had the workers come while we were at the office. They finished it the day of the exhibition. The flowers we did today."
"Renji, this place is…breathtaking!" I whisper, taking him in my arms.
"You like it…" he says, relief flooding his voice.
"Did you think I wouldn't?" I breathe, "This is stunning."
"No," he says, "you are."
He reaches up to remove the kenseiken, but I stop his hands before they reach it.
"Wait," I tell him, "I haven't given you my gift, yet."
"Byakuya, you have given me everything I ever wanted. And most recently, you took in my son. You treated him like your own family…"
"And so he is."
"You have no idea how much that means to me. You had no problem with my not having told you about Kasumi…or there being a child…even that he was used against us. You showed so much patience with him. What better gift can there be than that?"
"Even so, there is something I have carried with me for some time. I didn't know when might be the right time. I've been thinking about it, though, and just before all of this happened, I decided that today would be an appropriate time."
I reach into my shihakushou and remove the Captain's recommendation form. He knows what it is on sight, but takes it from my hand and stares at it silently.
"Renji," I say softly, "you have reached far beyond the basic requirements for this recommendation. Among the vice captains, you are the most accomplished. I have allowed you to remain my vice captain, because I value you and because I respected your wish to stay. I can no longer overlook your abilities, nor can I allow you to hold yourself back just to remain at my side. It is time to let you become who you are meant to be."
There are tears in his eyes. I take his face in my hands and kiss them away. I hear the sound of paper tearing and look down.
"What are you doing?" I ask staring.
"I'm not doing this…" he says, meeting my eyes squarely, "I appreciate the gesture, Byakuya, but I am not going to accept it."
Small pieces of paper join the flower petals scattered on the floor.
I open my mouth to object, but he stops me with a hungry kiss. He presses forward until my back touches the cave wall, then looses the tie at my waist. Pushing the shihakushou off of my shoulders and removing the heirloom scarf, he covers my face, throat and shoulders in kisses. I wrap my arms around him, pulling him closer, letting my head fall back to give him access. My hands release the tie at his waist and when we finally pull away from each other, he is bare and I am left in only my gloves and kenseiken. He reaches for the headpiece and pulls it gently free, setting it down with my clothes. He removes the gloves one by one, teasing the tender skin beneath them with kisses.
We walk to the edge of the spring and slip into it, inhaling deeply at the sudden intensity of heat. He has had a stone bench seat carved into the rock and we sit for a moment, adjusting.
He takes a strawberry and slips it into my mouth, shocking it with icy coldness, then again with the heat of his mouth as it joins mine, crushing the soft fruit and releasing the cool juice to play over our tongues. Some escapes and he breaks free of my mouth to lick it away, before tempting me with another strawberry. He pours a glass of champagne and brings it to my lips and I take a mouthful. He pulls the glass away and fastens his mouth on mine, sharing in the blend of flavors. He breaks free to follow some of the golden liquid down the side of my face to my throat, where he slows and lingers.
He presses forward and I lean back, resting against the incline at the edge of the hot spring. As his body presses closer, forcing it's way between my thighs, I catch a tender earlobe gently in my teeth and tease it with my tongue.
"I won't let you do this, Renji, I breathe into his ear, "I'm not going to let you hold yourself back anymore. It will take more than shredded paper to stop me. I will convince you. I won't stop until I do."
He enters me slowly, his brown eyes holding mine.
"I know," he whispers, "and I'll fight it with everything I have. I love you, Byakuya. And the only one who is going to be protecting your body and enforcing your commands is me. There is always time for me to advance. Right now, the only place for me is at your side. The only work that matters is keeping you safe."
"I can take care of myself Renji," I tell him, "I don't…"
His body moves against mine, and his mouth captures mine, silencing me. I want to push him away, to force him to listen, but I'm pinned underneath him and his hands and mouth stroke my skin, leaving me breathless and light-headed.
"Stop…we need to talk about this…Ren…ah!"
"Shh…" he whispers, "We'll talk later."
His movements become faster and more intense, stealing my breath and making further argument impossible. But it won't end here. I know I am right about this. And when I can breathe again, I will make him listen.