**Just a quick intro. When I considered how I wanted to introduce the twin's shape-shifting, I found myself also wanting to weave in the story of Bya & Ren coming to terms with the fact that Renji is worthy of becoming a captain. I worked with this in a Bya/Yoru story called In Defense of My Captain. I love the way Bya/Ren worked as friends dealing with that. So I have decided to borrow some elements and scenes from that story and to play it out as a Bya/Ren love story…but it will not be a regurgitation or simple repeat of the earlier story. Some scenes are just too good to leave out, so if you read the other book, you will see some familiar things. I hope, however to make it a much different story.**

Enjoy…and please review!

Prologue: The Tale of Tenrai Kougi

Byakuya sat rested against a cherry tree at the top of his favorite waterfall, one child perched on each knee. The eight-year-olds gazed eagerly into his dark eyes, waiting in anticipation of his story. Renji sat next to Byakuya, resting against his shoulder. In truth, he enjoyed Byakuya's storytelling as much as their energetic twins did. Byakuya smiled and let his eyes drift closed for a moment. He took a sweet breath of air filled with the mingled scents of fresh water and cherry blossoms, then fell into storyteller mode. Renji and the children leaned forward to listen closely as the story began.

"There was, five hundred years ago a man named Teijo Kuchiki. Teijo was a good and honorable man, honest, hardworking, and diligent, as a noble son should be. He was a strong fighter and one who defended the laws of our land with much pride. Teijo built a lovely home in this place, and he filled it with a wonderful family…a family that was good and honorable. It was a family that brought great honor to the Kuchiki family name. Unfortunately, as you know, there are always those who do not have a strong sense of honor. There are those who break the laws of our land without concern and trample the rights of others. Three men, whose names have been stricken from all memory, grew jealous of Teijo's success, at the calm beauty of his life. They desired what he had…and one day they decided to take it from him. They waited until nightfall, then burst onto these grounds, and they dragged Teijo and his family from their beds and killed them. They plundered the home and left the family for dead. It was one of the most savage crimes imaginable."

Chisaki gasped in shock, her dark eyes growing large. Takeshi took hold of Byakuya's arm chattering excitedly.

"Did Teijo survive? Did he go kill them to avenge his family? I'll bet he did kill them! Crimes like that should never go unpunished. Is there magic in this story? What happened next?"

Byakuya chuckled softly, gazing down at the boy affectionately.

"If you will let me get a word in edgewise, I'll continue."

The boy nodded and Renji and Chisaki laughed. Byakuya continued.

"As I said, they plundered the home and left the family for dead…but there was something they did not know. There was something that even Teijo himself did not know."

"It's magic! I know it's magic!" cried Takeshi.

"Hey," said Renji good-naturedly, "Pipe down…we want to hear the story!"

Smiling, Byakuya went on.

"Buried deep in the Kuchiki blood, born in a place so ancient that we cannot even know its true origin, is a promise that no Kuchiki child will ever walk alone. It is said that when one of our blood is deeply wronged, the blood of our strongest ancestors will ignite and call forth the Blood Rage. This is what happened with Teijo. You see, children, Teijo did not die, even though they tried to kill him. When he woke to what the men had done, the Blood Rage ignited. Teijo felt a strength in himself that he didn't know he had. He buried and mourned his family, then he set out to avenge them."

"I knew it!" cried Takeshi.

"Yeah, you're a genius…hush, now," Renji said, grinning.

"Dressed in black and wielding a black and red zanpakuto, he dealt those men a savage death, one that made clear the fact that no wrong against our family shall stand. Those who try to break us shall, themselves, be broken. Teijo built the shrine that sits, even today, in our garden near the koi pond. He did this five hundred years ago and had his story etched into the gold. You will notice that the shrine never needs repair and that the door will not open. Only when the Blood Rage is ignited will the door open…to accept the one who will rise up from the ashes of wrongdoing as Teijo did, and spill the blood of those who would break us."

"But what is inside the shrine?" asked Chisaki.

"No one knows," Byakuya said softly, "No one will know until there is need."

The children clapped their hands and begged for another story, but Byakuya shook his head.

"I promised two young children that we would go swimming. Let's go!"

The children vacated his lap, ran for the cliff edge and leapt over, releasing spiritual pressure to slow their plunge into the water at the base of the waterfall. Water exploded in all directions as they landed. Byakuya and Renji stood watching.

"So," Renji said softly, "Is that story real?"

Byakuya nodded.

"I read it in the family histories. It is an interesting story."

"Yeah, it is. Thanks…I really enjoyed it, Byakuya."

Byakuya smiled.

"Good…I did intend for it to be entertaining as well as educational."

"Oh, it was both," Renji assured him.

Renji turned away and leapt off the cliff, floating down gracefully and splashing the children as he landed. Byakuya followed, but stunned them all by not splashing at all as he floated gracefully down and sank slowly into the water.

Chapter 1: The Battlefield

"So we meet here again, Renji," Byakuya's deep voice floated smoothly across Sokyoku Hill.

He studied the calm, poised gaze of his vice-captain, blinking slowly. Renji stood waiting, a flash step away, Zabimaru held ready, his reiatsu flaring around him. His eyes narrowed as he carefully watched his captain. He knew what was coming. He didn't expect Byakuya to hold back. It wasn't his way…but Renji was accustomed to that. He neither expected nor desired merciful treatment from this man, the man who he loved, and the man he had forever sought to surpass.

At first, it had all been about revenge, because of that day, so long ago, when he had taken Rukia away, when he had adopted her into the Kuchiki family, effectively erasing her from Renji's life. It wasn't until forty years later…when he became Byakuya's vice-captain…when Rukia had disappeared, that he had reconnected with his childhood friend. That action, that reconnection had caused him to turn on Byakuya, his captain…an action that should have ended their association, if not one of their lives. But fate was a strange mistress, and somehow both had survived…to grow, to change, and to forge the bond that now existed between them, the love that Renji honestly believed could carry them through anything. And they had been tested time and time again. It only served to make their connection stronger. There was no stronger Captain – Vice-Captain team in the 13 Court Guard Squads.

Still, Byakuya Kuchiki was not one to take anything for granted. He pushed Renji to excel, to constantly progress. It left his life partner wondering if there was a hidden reason, something his captain kept carefully concealed beneath those calm, dark eyes, beneath the biting sarcasm and constant corrections. Sometimes he sensed a restlessness, a small crack in the nobleman's mask…a moment's hesitation, a change in his reiatsu, an unexpected gentleness in his eyes. These things appeared and disappeared so quickly as to be maddening. It made Renji restless as well…more than that, it unnerved him.

"Come at me whenever you like, Byakuya," Renji said softly, "but be prepared…I can see your moves before you make them now."

"I see," Byakuya replied, raising his zanpakuto, "You are cocky and self-assured as always, Vice-Captain. Don't disappoint me. I don't appreciate my time being wasted."

"Then stop stalling," Renji said, his hand tightening on Zabimaru, "or could it be that you sense I've gotten stronger even since the last time we did this!"

Byakuya laughed softly.

"Stronger, perhaps," he acknowledged, still in that calm, unaffected tone, "but, Renji, you still have much to learn about patience. Impatience can undo strength…as you have learned, time and time again while facing me. I hope we don't have to repeat that same lesson yet again."

Renji flinched slightly, the anger rising. He clamped down on it immediately and moved swiftly to block the attack he knew would follow the reprimand. He wasn't disappointed. He felt the change in reiatsu as Byakuya flash-stepped and attacked, then absorbed the shock of metal on metal as Zabimaru blocked Senbonzakura's first and second strikes. Renji flash-stepped away, holding Zabimaru ready. He already felt Byakuya's next strikes coming and blocked them easily. He wasn't as well prepared for the nasty barrage of metal and kido that followed and when the attacks ceased, he felt blood cooling on his skin, the sting of the small wounds reminding him that the captain had improved as well…and should not be underestimated. Looking back at Byakuya, he noticed that several of his countermoves had connected, leaving several cuts on him as well. Renji smiled.

"Nicely defended, Renji," Byakuya intoned, that unfamiliar gentleness catching Renji's attention again, "but now the real test begins…Scatter, Senbonzakura."

Renji released Zabimaru instinctively, halting Byakuya's release.

"As expected…and without calling it's name," Byakuya observed aloud, raising his sword, holding it point-downward, "Ban Kai, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi."

"Ban Kai, Hihio Zabimaru," Renji countered, bringing his skeletal snake to life.

A sea of pink blades swept towards him, but Zabimaru was already slicing through them. The snake weaved and turned, catching wave after wave of the blade attacks. Through the haze of battle, Renji spotted the motion of his captain's hands and realized the attack speed was increasing rapidly. He altered Zabimaru's attack so that the great snake's body also provided defense. Still, some of the blades broke through and closed on him. He knew what was coming next. Ignoring the approaching blades, he called out the incantation to nullify Byakuya's Six Rods Prison of Light. The flash of power that lit the air in front of him told him that he hadn't been mistaken. He heard Byakuya catch his breath.

"Hikotsu Taiho!" Renji cried.

The red blast from Zabimaru sent Byakuya flash-stepping away, then sliding backward to a stop, surprise in his usually calm features.

"Hado #4, Byakurai," he said calmly.

The captain was nearly enveloped when Zabimaru emitted a second red blast. His flash step was a moment too slow and he was driven backwards again, the shock of the impact betrayed in a flash of pain in his face. Renji nearly dropped Zabimaru. He drew the serpent back into a coil in front of him, watching Byakuya carefully.

"What's the matter, Renji," said Byakuya, the biting sarcasm plain in his voice, "Are you afraid to take this all the way? That's it, isn't it? You want to take me down…I feel it, but you are holding back. And it isn't just in battle, Renji, is it?"

Renji lowered Zabimaru, still wary, but sensing they were about to finally get to the heart of what was really behind the captain's strange behavior. Senbonzakura came down slowly and the captain's eyes came to rest on Renji. Renji waited, breathing deeply. Then the tension drained away as Byakuya sheathed his weapon. Renji sheathed his as well, but remained alert.

"You have a very odd habit, Renji, of chasing things…of chasing them until they are within your grasp…then releasing them when victory is but a breath away," Byakuya said, the dark eyes boring into Renji.

"You mean you think I could have defeated you?" he asked softly, "I don't know about that."

"It is possible," Byakuya said, closing his eyes for a moment, "Usually your Hikotsu Taiho is limited to one attack, after which your power is drained. You were able to release that attack twice in quick succession. You are also much better at fending off kido attacks. In addition, you had the element of surprise on your side. If you hadn't hesitated, you might have defeated me."

Renji stroked Zabimaru's hilt, looking away.

"Renji," Byakuya said softly, "You know what's coming."

"I know," Renji acknowledged, "and I'll give you the answer before you ask the question. You are my captain. I have no desire to change rankings."

Byakuya shifted slightly, raising his eyes.

"You cannot hold yourself back, Renji," he said calmly, "You deserve to be a captain. You have worked hard for this. You should accept my recommendation."

Renji chuckled softly.

"I have no desire to lead a division. I haven't your gift for leadership."

"That is not true, Renji," Byakuya said firmly, "You have shown yourself to be more than capable. You may still be atrocious at filing proper paperwork and your impatience sometimes interferes, but in those areas most necessary to command, you excel. Why won't you see this?"

"Why do you push me like this, Byakuya?" he snapped, the anger rising again, "You know I don't want this."

"Renji, you've spent years chasing me, trying to surpass me. Your commitment to that task is one of the reasons I came to love you. What were those efforts for, if not to reach excellence? Is it enough to know you can reach out and touch the moon if you never intend to attempt it?"

"I ask again, Byakuya…Why do you care?"

Byakuya stepped closer. Renji could feel the heavy pulse of his reiatsu. He forced himself to look into the captain's questioning eyes.

"Why do I care?" Byakuya breathed, "Do you really need to ask that? I would think that the reasons would be obvious to you, Renji. Even if you didn't have my heart, you have served me faithfully for years, watching my back and following my commands, even when you hated me. Somewhere along the line, you stopped hating me and the reasons for your behavior changed. Your reasons are no longer clear to me. What is it you intend to gain by holding yourself back and refusing to remove yourself from my shadow?"

"Why don't you want me at your side, Byakuya?"

Surprise flickered in Byakuya's eyes…surprise and a measure of confusion.

"Is that what you think?" he asked, a pale hand rising to touch Renji's cheek, "Why would you think that, Renji?"

Renji shifted uncomfortably.

"C'mon, Byakuya," he said, his voice tense, "We both know you've been pushing hard for me to move up. You've been at me in the office, on the battlefield, at home, every chance you get to remind me that I don't belong here! Why?"

Byakuya sighed.

"Again, though you know I hate repeating myself, you have proven yourself ready. I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't notice and acknowledge that."

"I appreciate it, Captain," Renji replied, smiling, "but I don't want this. Right now, all I want is to follow you onto the battlefield and be the one to watch your back."


Renji shrugged.

"It's pretty simple really. I love you, Byakuya…and I look forward to sitting in that office with you every day, crossing swords with you, and knowing that I will be at your side to protect you when you need it. Besides, life with you is never boring."

Now Byakuya smiled.

"Never that," he acknowledged, "I deeply appreciate your loyalty to me, but will you never step forward and claim what you deserve?"

"I'll think about it…and let you know if I change my mind."

"Typical," Byakuya said, the sarcasm returning, "but I will convince you, Renji. I won't let this go."

"No," Renji said pulling him close and placing a gentle kiss on his lips, "I don't expect you will…and I love you for that…"