(Thanks so much for all of the sweet reviews for Petals and Sand. Consider this next story a tribute to everyone who read and loved the last. Enjoy! And keep letting me know what you think. I love hearing from readers and I always respond! ;-) )

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Chapter 1: Unspoken

(One last note—Try reading while listening to Whispers in the Dark by Skillet…the song I listened to while crafting the chapter!)

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Abarai Renji was well grounded in reality. Having grown up on the cold and unforgiving streets of Inuzuri, he had grown beyond the myth of 'happily ever after.' And yet he would not turn away from happiness when it arrived. He would not sugarcoat the reality that sometimes dreams only came partially true. Nor would he mourn when the happiness ended and he would have to search for it somewhere else. Right now…in this moment, happiness lay beneath him, a hot and moving delight of perfect flesh, of fierce eyes, of pale silken skin, of blazing tongue and clenched hands and arched back. Happiness reached Renji in the form of Kuchiki Byakuya…and nothing would prevent him from enjoying that in its own kind of perfection.

Byakuya both belonged and did not belong to Renji now. His taichou gave him all that he was free to give. And the amount he gave was considerable. Renji passed freely into and out of the Kuchiki Manor at will, even being so blessed as to carry his own set of keys. He still spent long hours bent over paperwork, enjoying the sight of Byakuya, brush in hand, full lips moving softly as he read, soft hands moving in graceful patterns over the page, but now when the day ended, he walked side by side with his taichou and spent each night wrapped around that beautiful body, pleasuring his lover, eager to invoke the power to make him release his controls, to move unrestrained and to cry out at the pleasure his fukutaichou gave him. No other lover existed for either of them…not in reality anyway. Each gave himself only to the other, and they were careful never to speak of the reason why Kuchiki Byakuya was unable to love him with his whole heart. It was known to both of them, fully accepted, and set aside.

Kuchiki Byakuya was still possessed by the ghost of Aizen Sosuke. As much as he tried to forget the traitor, as much as he tried to move on, the face and voice, the memories of his touch still rose up in the Gotei 13 taichou's troubled mind, frustrating all of his attempts at moving on with his life. No amount of burying himself in his work or in his lover could make it disappear. There were still feelings that remained. They conjured the ghost of the one who Kuchiki Byakuya could not forget. But he couldn't be with Aizen Sosuke, and he knew it. He had no choice, but to force down the emotions and try to deal with it.

And until he conquered it, if he ever conquered it, Renji knew that his happiness rested precariously on the edge of a great chasm. It was a good thing for both of them that Abarai Renji was one who thrived on that kind of danger.

The love they shared was dangerous, but it was love, just the same. They called it by its name and acknowledged it without reservation. They weren't afraid to put it into words. He knew, even though Byakuya never put conditions on the giving of those words, that there was one unspoken condition. If conditions ever changed in such a way that Byakuya was free to love Aizen Sosuke, he would leave Renji. He would not enjoy doing so, because he did love Renji, but he had been poisoned with passion for the traitor while held captive in Las Noches and although Renji provided him with the means to live a full and happy life…there would always be that hidden sadness.

He tried achingly hard never to reveal this to Renji, but Abarai Renji knew Byakuya better than anyone. He was not able to hide it completely. But Renji felt no jealousy over it. When he saw the light leave his lover's eyes, when he saw Byakuya kneeling beneath the sakura trees and staring fixedly up at the moon, he just closed the doors to their bedroom and forced himself to fall asleep alone. Sooner or later, the melancholy always lifted and Byakuya returned to their bed, resigned to the hard facts and cognizant of the unrelenting truth. He wanted something that he simply could not have. But he also had something precious, something he treasured. He had Abarai Renji's unconditional love…and his absolute loyalty. He would not treat such a gift with disdain. It gave him tremendous comfort, and he was deeply grateful for that.

He eagerly rewarded Renji's love with the giving of all of the love he was free to give in return, with a promise of faithfulness (with that one exception), and with the entwining of their lives…the deep connections of body, heart and soul.

Kuchiki Byakuya lay on his back beneath Renji, caught up in the beauty of his lover's writhing body…of the flash of unbound red hair, the half-closed brown eyes, tanned skin, black tattoos, clenching hands and parted thighs…the palms pressed down against his sweat-slicked chest, lowered head, heaving breast and the hips that rose and fell on his swollen erection, stealing his breath and making his body tremble with nearing release. But even as he gave himself over to the pleasure, he held his words carefully in check. He had made himself a promise never to let words escape his lips at such moments. He was still too likely to close his eyes against the hard reality, to forget for a moment where he was, and to release the one word that could undo everything. It had only happened once. And the hurt had never gotten farther than Renji's eyes…but that was warning enough for Byakuya. Now, he curbed his words and only indulged in sharp releases of breath, impassioned gasps and moans of delight.

Yet he couldn't help his thoughts.


Even now, even months later. It might have been a year. He couldn't think straight with Renji above him, tightening his thighs around him, eyes widening and mouth opening in a howl of passion. It reached into the seething depths of Byakuya's thoughts and brought him back to aching awareness. He caught hold of the heavily thrusting hips and pulled them in, bucking his hips upward and arching his back, moaning incoherently and pulsing with release.

Renji's body dropped down onto his and his breath cooled the beads of sweat on their skin. His fukutaichou's mouth took hold of his, relieving him of his concerns about giving himself away. As long as Renji's tongue curbed his, he would never say the wrong thing.

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"Abarai Renji…"

The redhead remained still on the bed, snoring lightly. Byakuya wound the ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu around his neck and shoulders, then returned to the bed and leaned over his sleeping lover.

"Abarai!" he said sharply.

The effect was instant. The red haired fukutaichou shot up into a sitting position, his eyes wide and his hand moving toward Zabimaru. The hand went wide of the katana and suddenly Renji was teetering on the edge of the bed. Byakuya watched with calm amusement as his fukutaichou tried madly to recover himself, but lost his balance completely and fell in a naked heap onto the floor. Byakuya sighed.

"Abarai, get up. We've had a hell butterfly from soutaichou."

Renji picked himself up off of the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, stretching. Byakuya observed him out of the corner of one eye. He loved the contrast of all of those tattoos against the tanned skin. He caught himself.

"Hurry up and get dressed," he said shortly.

Renji climbed out of bed and stalked past his taichou, very cognizant of the eyes that followed him. He stretched again. Byakuya moistened his lips.

"Abarai…" he said in warning.

Renji laughed softly and grabbed his shihakushou, then quickly dressed as Byakuya stood calmly waiting.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"Hueco Mundo," Byakuya said quietly, "There has been an attack on the base. Our Squad is going to provide relief and to search for a missing recon group."

He reached into his closet and pulled out two thick cloaks. He placed one over his arm and handed the other to Renji. Renji glanced at him in askance.

"There have been sandstorms as of late. These will shield us somewhat," he offered in explanation.

Renji nodded and took the cloak, laying it over his arm. He looked back at Byakuya.

"Are you ready now?" Byakuya asked quietly.

"Hai, Taichou," he said, turning for the door.

"Shunpo, Renji…and don't be slow."

Byakuya disappeared in a flash, leaving Renji staring.

"Damn, he's fast," Renji commented, moving to follow.

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"All right, you said you had a workable plan, so let's hear it. I'm short on time, Kurokoi," said the low rumbling voice of the Espada, Toru.

"Patience," Kurokoi said in a low voice, "one does not attempt the overthrow of one such as Aizen Sosuke every day. We must be extremely cautious…or he is likely to slip away. Then it would just be a matter of time before he would return to destroy us. Impatience will be the end of you, Toru!"

Toru chuckled softly, studying the other Espada's powerfully built body and fierce red-gold eyes.

"And procrastination will be the death of you. You know how hard it is to keep a secret…how hard it is to plot against him without him getting wind of the impending attempt. So you had best let me in on your plan before he senses it and undoes it before it is fully hatched."

Kurokoi gazed up at Aizen Sosuke's bedroom window.

"You know I have perfected the stealth step. I can hide my spiritual pressure and surprise any hollow…and most shinigami as well."

"Yes, you could sneak up on them, but before you touched him, you would be taken apart by Gin and his Shinzou," added Toru, raising his eyebrows.

"That is why I need you," Kurokoi told him, "You possess the stealth strike. Together, we can approach and kill them."

"But not while they are together."

"No…not while they are together. I plan to come at him while Gin is away. Gin just left to oversee an attack on the nearby soul reaper base. Aizen tires of their interference and wishes to overwhelm the base. He needs Gin's power to do that. He is sleeping now, alone in his quarters," explained Kurokoi.

Toru shook his head.

"He will have numerous guards. You will not be able to get past them. He will have planned for this."

"He has Rika watching his bedroom window," Kurokoi said meaningfully, "He is not aware I have established control over her. I will stun her and we will go in the window. He will die so quickly that he will not register our faces."

"And what do we do when Gin returns?" Toru asked.

"He won't come back," Kurokoi said simply, "When he knows Aizen is dead, he will leave Hueco Mundo. He knows that Aizen Sosuke is the true source of power here. But we must move quickly. We must move now. Come…if you dare, Toru!"

The other considered for a moment, staring up at the darkened window of Aizen Sosuke's bedroom. They didn't need him. His plans had cost the lives of thousands of hollows. Not that he cared greatly for the others' fates, but what happened to them could happen to him. Aizen treated all of their lives with reckless disregard, using them according to some great plan that would supposedly result in the overthrow of the spirit king and his rise to power as the new king of all worlds. Judging by the way he ruled Hueco Mundo, Toru was unconvinced that he would offer a more pleasant alternative. The hollows of Hueco Mundo had been somewhat civilized by his presence, but he had not improved their lives in any real sense. Aizen Sosuke was expendable. Toru looked up at Kurokoi and nodded.

The two flash stepped silently onto the rooftop of the building next to Aizen Sosuke's. Toru climbed onto Kurokoi's back and Kurokoi used his stealth step to approach the guard outside Aizen Sosuke's window. Slipping into position behind Rika, Kurokoi touched the back of her head and she froze. He slashed with his claws, instantly killing her.

"Quickly now," Kurokoi hissed, moving to the window.

The window opened and the two crept silently into Aizen's bedroom. They stepped toward the bed and froze.

The bed was empty.

"You must think I'm very, very stupid," said Aizen's soft voice.

A sword slashed and Kurokoi screamed. He reared back, his body covered in blood, his reiatsu declining rapidly. He was dead before he hit the ground. Knowing he was about to die, Toru engaged his stealth strike. As it connected, a sword slashed through him and blue fire exploded all around him. He didn't even have time to scream as he joined his companion in death.

Aizen Sosuke saw the door opening and sent another fire blast crashing into it, not knowing how many hollows were in on the betrayal. He flash stepped to the open window and out onto the roof. Shouts and cries were rising up all around. He stood, catching his breath, considering his next move. A sharp pain in his shoulder caught his attention and he looked down. The sight of the heavy slash across his chest shocked him. He knew he needed healing, but with Gin gone and the Espada rebelling, he dared not go back into the fortress. It was better, he thought, to head toward the soul reaper base, where Gin led the attack. He still had his flash step. He tore strips from his shirt and bound his wounds, then flash stepped down from the roof and away into the desert.

He hadn't gone far when the night sky went black and all of the stars disappeared. He heard a roar of wind and sand, and stood staring. Then he was flash stepping again, racing to escape the swiftly approaching sandstorm, taking note of where he was and quickly locating a small cave. He dove towards it as the sandstorm reached him and crawled inside. As the sand pelted his skin, he shoved rocks and debris toward the opening, closing it off enough so that he was once again, able to breathe.

Lying alone in the darkness, Aizen Sosuke searched the length of his wound and found that he was bleeding again. He put pressure on the makeshift bandages, but flinched as the sand dug into his wound. He tried to activate his healing power, but his reiatsu had become too weak. Dizziness swept over him, leaving him weak and shaky. The sandstorm still raged outside and there was no way to know how long it would last. He would simply have to survive until such time as help came. He calmly reached for Kyoka Suigetsu's spirit.

Master? Master, you are hurt!

"Yes…I need you to…reach for Shinzou. Gin should be near," Aizen said, his voice fading.

I cannot sense Shinzou! Master, the sandstorm is making it impossible. I do sense a zanpakuto.

"I am already dying. I imagine capture would save my life long enough so that I could receive healing and arrange escape. Whose zanpakuto is it?"

I do not know. The sand distorts the reiatsu here.

"Speak to that zanpakuto…quickly!" Aizen ordered.

As you wish, Master.

Aizen Sosuke worked at slowing his breathing and calming body and reiatsu. But he felt a deep fatigue and frightening numbness breaking over his senses. He was running out of time. He listened to the howl of the wind and the sound of the sand striking the rocks around the cave. Suddenly, he heard a sharp cough and the sound of someone scrambling in through the entrance. It was too dark to see, but he could make out the shape of what appeared to be a cloaked soul reaper. A small light flared in the cave.

Aizen moaned softly and the dark, cloaked figure turned. Aizen stared as a pale hand emerged from the cloak and swept away the covering from the man's face.

"Aizen Sosuke…" the other breathed, his dark eyes widening.

"It has been far too long…Byakuya."