Footsteps on Sand

Chapter 1: The Vigil

Thunder rumbled through the nearly empty streets of the Seireitei and the rain poured down as it had for days, pooling on the sodden ground and running in streams along the sides of the streets. It soaked the feet and uncovered heads of the mourners as they proceeded down the road and into the military cemetery grounds. It was a source of some pride to Byakuya Kuchiki that every member of the Sixth Division was present…even though one of those members was the one they were gathering to mourn. It was a sign of just how much things had changed…and in such a short time.

But pride was a secondary thing on such a day.

Byakuya stood quietly as the mourners took their places beneath the protective canopies. Renji was a silent shadow at his side, his usually lively eyes red and tired, his head bent respectfully. The family of the fallen squad member sat in a secluded place away from the rest of the mourners, their muffled sobs barely audible above the sound of the rain. When all had gathered, Tadashi, the family spokesman, a slim, solemn young man with earthy brown eyes and hair, stepped to the front of those gathered and began to speak.

"Thank you all for coming," he said quietly, "Our family is very appreciative knowing how many lives Takashi touched in such a short time. Takashi wanted to be a soul reaper from our earliest days in the Rukongai. We were lucky to grow up in a family with loving parents who nurtured us and supported our dreams. Takashi was at the top of his class when we graduated from the academy and his dream came true when he was assigned to the Sixth Division, under the command of his role model and, he would say, 'hero,' Captain Byakuya Kuchiki. I still remember the light in my brother's eyes when word came to tell him of his new assignment. Takashi loved his post and was devoted to the other squad members…and to his captain. I don't think anyone realized how seriously he took his vow to protect his comrades and his captain until the day he fell defending them."

Byakuya's head lowered and his eyes closed for a moment as he remembered. A soft shiver passed through him.

"My brother was everything that a shinigami should be…strong, proud, devoted, protective…and he was truly treasured. My family has indicated that they would like to have his friends and comrades say a few words about him. They have asked you, Captain Kuchiki, to speak first, if you will, sir."

Byakuya nodded and stepped forward.

"Takashi was a highly intelligent and powerful young shinigami. When scanning the lists of this year's graduates, his name stood out for several reasons. His examination scores were the first perfect scores in the history of the academy, his dedication to his studies was evident in his already advanced skills. These things caught my attention, but that only got him in the door for his interview. Upon meeting Takashi, I was immediately impressed with his attention to self-presentation, to his confidence, and to his enthusiasm at being called to serve in my division. From the first day, Takashi proved to be dedicated and capable. He was everything that I could have hoped for in a squad member. But I had no idea…none…that this young man would soon make the ultimate sacrifice on my behalf. I am saddened at the loss, but deeply honored. Takashi is truly the embodiment of devotion and courage."

Byakuya returned to his place beside Renji and, noting the tears that were joining the raindrops on his vice captain's face, quietly took his hand. Other friends and comrades stepped up to speak and Byakuya and Renji stood listening with their heads respectfully bowed. When all were finished, prayers were said and the service concluded.

Renji followed Byakuya out of the cemetery and back along the still-wet streets to the Sixth Division office. Byakuya held the door open for Renji and followed him inside, then secured the door behind them.

"Are you certain that you don't wish to go to the gathering, Renji?" Byakuya asked softly, "I have to stay, but there really isn't anything critical that you need to remain here to do."

Renji shook his head silently and moved slowly to his desk. He removed his cloak and tossed it over a chair off to the side, then sat down and picked up a stack of papers. He set them in front of him and picked up the first, poring over it carefully. Byakuya stood near the door for a moment longer, watching him, then stepped across the room and removed his cloak. He hung it on a peg on the wall and turned back toward his desk. As he started toward it, he realized that Renji was now sitting with his face buried in his hands. His shoulders shook softly, but he made no sound. Byakuya bit his lower lip, thinking, then crossed the room and sat down in the chair next to his vice captain. He slipped his arms around Renji and pulled him onto a warm shoulder.

"Sorry," Renji said in a rough voice, "I should…I don't know…"

Byakuya brought his face close to Renji's and kissed him gently on the lips, reaching up to brush the tears away.

"You have nothing to apologize for," he assured the redhead, "We hand-picked Takashi for our division…and you personally saw to his training. He learned a great deal from you, Renji."

Renji nodded.

"He was so quick to learn, so eager…I only ever had to show him anything once and he had it. I...uh…I guess I shouldn't have made those jokes about throwing yourself in front of danger to protect the captain, huh?"

He dropped his head back onto Byakuya's shoulder, breathing slowly and trying to gather himself.

"Renji," Byakuya said softly, "Why don't you let me make you some tea?"

He started to get up, but was stopped by a hand on his arm. He looked down into the saddened brown eyes and sat down again, pulling Renji into his arms.

"I don't need tea," he whispered against the dark haired captain's throat, "I just need to be with you. I'll be okay. It just hurts like hell to lose one of them, you know?"

Byakuya nodded.

"I know," he said, kissing Renji again, "You put a lot of effort into their training. I know I should provide more support…but you manage it very capably, Renji."

"Not that it made a fucking bit of difference the other day…but thanks for the compliment, Captain," Renji said bitterly.

Renji took the redhead's face in his hands.

"Renji…stop being so hard on yourself. Sometimes it doesn't matter how much training a shinigami has. Sometimes we have to sacrifice ourselves. If anyone should feel guilty about what happened, I should. I am the one that Takashi was trying to protect. We were outnumbered and taken by surprise…we all did the best we could under the circumstances."

"I know that…I, uh, just hate what happened, that's all. I keep wondering if I had done something different…if…"

Byakuya kissed away the rest of the words.

"Stop," he said firmly, "Don't keep doing this to yourself."

He stood and pulled Renji to his feet. Renji gazed at him in confusion.

"Come, Renji," he said, turning him toward the hallway.

"Byakuya…you said you had some things that need to be done for the captain's meeting tomorrow…"

"I will get them done," he said quietly, slipping a hand into Renji's and pulling gently.

Renji followed Byakuya into the hallway and inside the captain's quarters. Byakuya closed the door behind them and followed Renji across the room. He pulled the hair tie out of his vice captain's hair and watched the long red strands fall and settle in swirls on his shoulders and down his back. Then he reached for the tie at Renji's waist and slipped the top of his uniform off. He turned away for a moment to hang the top over a chair, then turned back and finished undressing him. Renji slipped into the soft, comfortable bed, waiting quietly as Byakuya undressed and moved to join him.

Byakuya felt Renji's body begin to relax as he settled in next to the redhead. He pulled Renji onto his chest and drew his head down to rest on one shoulder. Byakuya ran his finger through the long red strands and kissed Renji on the forehead, then on the lips. He rested his chin on top of Renji's head and closed his eyes. Renji gave a long sigh and sank into the warmth of the dark haired captain's embrace.

The rain continued to pour down, striking the window with hypnotic taps that lulled the two toward sleep. As he was drifting off, Renji turned and kissed Byakuya warmly.

"Thanks Byakuya," he said softly, "I think I really needed this."

Byakuya didn't reply, but simply tightened his arms around the redhead and buried his face in Renji's soft, red hair.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Tadashi," Nia said quietly, "the guests are starting to leave. Mother and Father have asked us to make farewells."

They walked back into the front room of the small house and stood by the door, speaking to each guest as he or she left. Tadashi shook Rikichi's hand and nodded gratefully.

"Thank you for coming, Rikichi…and please tell Captain Kuchiki and Vice Captain Abarai that we appreciated their attendance at the memorial. It…meant a lot to my parents."

Rikichi nodded.

"I'll be sure to let them know," he promised, "I know they thought very highly of your brother…and they were deeply touched by his dedication to the captain."

"Well," said Tadashi quietly, "anything for the captain, right? It is the job of every squad member to protect him, is it not?"

"Yes," agreed Rikichi, "but it is very troubling when a shinigami's dedication to his duty costs him his life."

Tadashi nodded.

Rikichi turned to Nia and took her hand in his.

"Take care, Nia," he said softly, "let us know if your family needs anything."

He turned and walked out into the rain.

"We need our brother…" Nia whispered softly into the humid air.

Tadashi's eyes rose and met hers gently. Her stepped toward her and pulled her into his arms.

"The guests are gone now. You should go and rest, Nia," he said, giving her a squeeze.

Nia shook her head.

"Captain Kurotsuchi has work for us…remember?" she said, looking in the direction of the Twelfth Division.

Tadashi sighed.

"Yes, that's right," he sighed, "Damned Captain, always pushing, always demanding. I imagine we should go."

The two gathered their cloaks, then went to say good-bye to their parents.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Do you think I made the right decision?" Renji asked quietly.

Byakuya's opened and he studied Renji's face in the darkness.

"I could have had Rikichi there…or one of the other, more experienced guys. Maybe…"

Byakuya cut him off with a kiss.

"Don't second guess yourself, Renji," he said, running his fingers through his red hair, "You made the best decision you could under the circumstances. You don't know that having someone else in that position would have prevented anyone from dying. As I said before, we were surprised and outnumbered. All of the intelligence for that area indicated it wasn't so much of a risk. That's why we chose it for training."

"Yeah…I know. I just…wonder. I wonder if it would have changed things."

Byakuya slipped a hand under Renji's chin and kissed him.

"I seem to remember you once telling me that I shouldn't live in the past, that I should move forward and not let my regrets keep me from living my life."

Renji smiled sadly.

"I think I do remember telling you that," he admitted.

"And although you were trying to get me into bed at the time, I think that what you said was absolutely right. You can't live in the past."

"I wasn't just trying to get you into bed, Byakuya. We were trying to get each other into bed. You were just having second thoughts."

"I wouldn't call it having second thoughts. I wanted to be with you as much as you wanted to be with me, but I had regrets about the past, about mistakes I thought I might have made. But you were right, Renji. I had to accept that I made the best choices I could at the time, and you have to do the same now."

Renji shook his head sadly.

"I know you're right. But this is something that's easier said than done."

Byakuya nodded.

"I remember."

"Byakuya?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm glad you listened to me. My life would really stink if we weren't together like this."

Byakuya gazed warmly into the calming brown eyes.

"Mine too," he agreed in a whisper.

Renji burrowed into Byakuya's shoulder, enjoying the warmth and the soothing smell of sakura. He reached up and stroked the noble's cheek. Byakuya caught his hand and kissed the fingers gently. The redhead turned and met Byakuya's lips with his, shifting his body so that he rested partially on top of the noble. He ran his tongue along the warm sweet lips of his captain and slipped it in between them as they parted for him. Their kisses became deeper and more intense and Renji moved so that he rested on top of the noble, with his hardening arousal in contact with Byakuya's. The dark haired captain's hands rose and held the sides of his face as they kissed, then slipped into the silken red strands and tightened.

Renji parted his thighs and rubbed warmly against Byakuya, earning a soft moan of pleasure from the noble. Pale hands slid down the redhead's back and came to rest on his hips, taking hold and pulling them into closer contact. The noble's head fell back and his eyes closed as Renji's mouth came down and pleasured his throat with soft wet kisses and tantalizing suction. He shifted his body, bringing Byakuya's hardened member to his entrance. Byakuya looked up at him questioningly.

"Renji," Byakuya said quietly, "you have a lot of pent up emotion. Don't you…"

Renji shook his head.

"I need a little bit of pain to distract me."

He sank down on the noble's swollen arousal, moaning softly at the feeling of penetration. He raised his upper body and gazed down into the dark, hazy eyes, moving his hips enticingly. The noble's lips parted in a sigh of pleasure and his hips rose to meet each heavy thrust.

Renji lowered his head, moaning deeply and quickened the motion of his hips. The noble's hips thrust upward and deeply into the redhead, forcing another passionate moan from his lips. He struck the same place repeatedly, until a heavy shudder passed through the redhead's body and his release spilled out onto the noble's white belly. Byakuya thrust into him one more time, panting with pleasure and releasing inside him. Renji fell against the noble's chest and buried his face in the warm, pale throat, still panting and slowly catching his breath. They rested quietly, listening to the rain until the soft, comforting sound lulled them to sleep.