Who I Am Inside

By Spunky0ne

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(This story was suggested by Walkure Leuad and is dedicated to her and all of my other lovely readers! As always, feel free to request storylines or situations you would like to see and I will take a shot at them. This is not a part of my Bya/Ren series…just another possible way they could have found their way into each others' arms! I hope you enjoy! And as always…remember to review! Luv, Spunky)

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Chapter 1: We Meet Again

Abarai Renji walked to work slowly, conflicted about what awaited him at the Squad Six Office. It had been one week since Rukia's rescue, since Aizen Sousuke's departure for Las Noches and since his taichou's injury. Byakuya had been hospitalized for several days after and Renji had remained there to keep him company, bring him tea and to try to lift his spirits, but he felt as though his efforts had been wasted. Kuchiki Taichou had barely spoken to him or anyone else since baring his soul to Rukia on the day of his injury. And Renji was pretty nearly convinced he had only done that because he had been convinced he was dying.

Renji knew it had been close. The difference between his being saved and bleeding out on the ground on Sokyoku Hill had been a matter of a few scant minutes. Had his treatment been delayed any longer, then Kuchiki Taichou would have died and Renji's guilt would be even greater than it already was. Because as much as he felt that it had been necessary for him to meet his taichou in battle, seeing Byakuya nearly killed had shaken him badly. He wasn't certain when his feelings about his taichou had changed, but he knew he felt different now. And that left him feeling less than certain about what to say when he reached the office and he and Kuchiki Taichou held the conversation he had been dreading.

Because the conversation started in the healing center and interrupted by Ichigo still hadn't been finished. There was still much to be resolved. But how to get from where they stood to where they needed to be…Renji wasn't sure if they even could. But he knew they had to try.

He reached the front steps and felt his heart speed up. He felt his taichou's calm reiatsu and felt also that his presence had been sensed. There was no use in delaying the inevitable. He was just going to have to make himself move. He continued up the steps and entered the office, smiling tentatively at Byakuya and giving him what he meant to be an ordinary greeting.

"Good morning, Taichou."

He hated the fact that there was a slight tremor in his voice when he said it. He didn't want to make things harder than they already were.

"Good morning, Renji," Byakuya answered.

Renji heard the note of uncertainty beneath the calm and felt a pang of sadness. He didn't want there to be unease between them. He wanted badly to fix things. He moved quickly into the hallway and went to make tea. When he returned, Byakuya was deeply entrenched in his paperwork. Renji set the tea near his elbow as always and started to withdraw to his desk. As he set his tea down and started to drop into his chair, he felt the dark eyes rising and coming to rest on him. He looked up and met the noble's unreadable eyes.

"Renji," he said quietly, "I think we need to discuss a few things…before we move forward."

Renji swallowed hard.

"Hai, Taichou," he replied, shivering slightly under the weight of Byakuya's gaze.

"First," said Byakuya, "I want to thank you for your company while I was recovering. You didn't have to do that, but…I am…appreciative."

"I…wanted to stay, Taichou."

Byakuya nodded.

"And I am glad to have had the company. I was hoping that you would allow me to show my appreciation by inviting you to Kuchiki Manor for dinner tonight."

Renji blinked in surprise.

"You want me to have dinner with you? At your manor?"

He wanted to kick himself for the hesitation. He should have accepted immediately, but he'd been so surprised…

"We could go out," Byakuya suggested, "but I thought you might enjoy something prepared by my staff."

"Oh…Taichou, sorry, I was just surprised. I mean, I didn't expect…I mean, uh, yes, I would like that."

"Very well," Byakuya said, summoning a hell butterfly, "I will inform my staff to expect us. The rest of what I wished to discuss can wait until then."

Renji ached to asked what he meant by that, but not wanting to risk annoying his taichou, he thought it best to wait and find out later. It was only one workday. He could manage for that long.

"There is a list of items needed from the fourth division on your desk. If you could send a courier for them and then address the backdated reports that piled up while we were gone, that would be good."

Renji sighed softly and picked up the requisition. After sending the courier, he returned to his desk and bent over the reports, trying not to notice the aches and pains that lingered in his body. And watching out of the corner of his eye when Byakuya rose to stretch and place his outgoing reports in the mailbox, he could see the slight imperfection in his gait and the very slight look of discomfort that touched his features. It was obvious that Byakuya was feeling the pain of his wounds as well.

So Renji could not contain his surprise when the hell butterfly arrived ordering their squad to Hueco Mundo to stand guard over the shinigami base being constructed for the purpose of surveillance and attack. Surely Soutaichou had not forgotten the seriousness of their wounds…and how little time they had had to heal. He stifled the words he longed to say, the questions he wanted to ask and followed Kuchiki Taichou silently, with a group of eighty or so others behind them. They traveled in near silence to the senkaimon, then out onto the dull, quiet sands of Hueco Mundo.

Renji studied the sight of Las Noches in the distance, remembering the cold, calm voice of Aizen Sosuke, the tearing of his flesh and the shock of seeing Byakuya fall to his knees, held tightly in Rukia's arms. A shiver went down his spine and he longed to be anywhere else. He felt Byakuya's eyes on him and met them questioningly.

"Abarai fukutaichou," his taichou said, "you and I will scout to the north. Groups two and three will monitor the west and east. The rest are to remain within the outpost, rotating coverage of the battlements and reporting in to us every hour or upon the discovery of anything important. Understood?"

"Hai, Taichou!" the men shouted.

The groups broke away and Renji turned to follow Byakuya to the north. The area seemed quiet and they sensed no hollows nearby, but seeing Las Noches so near them made the blood burn beneath Renji's skin and left him with an aching restless feeling. Although his taichou managed to look unaffected, his reiatsu pulsed and swelled fitfully. Renji followed his gaze to the fortress and he wondered briefly what Byakuya might be thinking. As if reading Renji's mind, Byakuya spoke suddenly, startling him.

"They are watching," he said softly, "If you focus, you can feel their eyes. They wait for us to lower our guard but for a moment…and then they will appear as if from nowhere."

"But we have not sensed them nearby," Renji said quietly, "Wouldn't we have sensed them if they were within striking distance."

Byakuya shook his head.

"This is the home of the hollows. They make and manipulate the rules here. One cannot completely trust what is seen at the surface, because lies and illusions are the rule here. Do not let your guard down, Renji…not for a moment."

"Hai, Taichou," Renji replied, "not for a moment."

They moved a short distance more in the direction of the fortress, then stopped as an odd breeze rose around them, tugging at uniforms and hair, whipping them about. The sand was lifted and they tightened their cloaks around to protect them from the assault. As they finished their survey and turned back, the reiatsu rose around them ominously. There was only time for a sharp hiss of warning from Byakuya and the creature was upon them. It appeared so swiftly that Renji could not pull Zabimaru free before the creature had him in his talons and bit down into his shoulder. Renji screamed in pain and sensed Byakuya's kido attack, but could not move to extricate himself. The creature was blown off his feet and Renji saw a flash of movement as Byakuya moved in for the kill.

Unbelieveably, the creature dodged him as Senbonzakura came down and the only thing that kept Byakuya from a being dealt a direct hit was that he realized what was happening and rolled aside, cursing as the creature's teeth tore his sleeve and the skin beneath it. Immediately, he dealt it another savage blast of kido and the creature backed away, growling.

The sand swirled, hiding the creature's lean leonine form and Byakuya moved closer to Renji, telling him to watch for movement as he checked the injury to the redhead's shoulder. He held the torn fabric of Renji's shihakushou to the wound, applying direct pressure to stop the flow of blood.

"Are you all right?" Byakuya asked, and Renji heard the unfamiliar note of fear in his voice.

Byakuya's hand was trembling slightly.

Whatever thoughts might have registered about that disappeared as the hollow attacked again, this time in a swirl of sand that concealed it until it was nearly on top of them. Byakuya threw himself onto Renji, forcing him down and the redhead felt a deep tension in Byakuya's body as the creature's claws raked down his back. With a strangled cry, he turned and drove Senbonzakura into the creature's body, releasing the weapon as it sank its teeth deeply into Byakuya's other arm. Both Byakuya and the hollow screamed in pain. Luckily the attack seemed to frighten the hollow, which raced away in a torrent of wind and sand. Byakuya dropped to the ground, stifling a groan as his blade re-formed.

Renji was at his side in a flash, leaning over him and holding back a gasp at the sight of the deep cuts on his back, shoulder and arm. He breathed a warning for Byakuya to remain still and, his eyes still watchful, he acted quickly to stop the bleeding and apply field dressings to the wounds. Sitting up slowly, Byakuya ordered Renji to sit still as he bound the redhead's wounds. The two then rose and, sensing no further enemies, returned to the outpost. Byakuya notified all group leaders of the creature's description and attack style and ordered everyone to work in groups of four or more with at least one seated officer in each group. Then he and Renji reported to the healing office and had their wounds cleaned, healed and dressed.

"I noticed an odd feel to the reiatsu around your wounds," the healer told them, "I want the two of you under quarantine until morning. You can share the quarantine room, but we need to keep you away from everyone else until I can identify this. I will send word to Soutaichou to send a replacement group and have you transferred to the Seireitei tomorrow."

"I hardly think that's necessary," Byakuya objected, "The injuries are not that serious and I feel fine."

"Yes," said the healer, "well that could change during the night. We have to be careful. There are some really odd hollows out here and we've seen some creepy stuff. Not to worry you, but just to say, I know what I'm talking about here!"

Sighing impatiently, Byakuya followed the healer to the quarantine area, followed by a silent and somewhat pale looking Abarai Renji. They settled into their beds and Renji glanced over at Byakuya, noting the bored, blank stare.

"Taichou," he said softly, "you're probably already bored out of your mind, what after already being in the healing center for a week, ne?"

Byakuya sighed.

"Yes, actually," he admitted, "I can only spend so much time mentally reviewing what to do when we are released…and I don't know what we'll do as we're being transferred back…"

"Would you like me to make you some tea?" Renji asked, "They left some stuff in here for that."

Byakuya nodded.

"Arigato, Renji, tea would be…something to keep me busy…"

He slipped out of bed, still moving somewhat gingerly. Several minutes later, he set the tea at Byakuya's side and started to turn away.

"Abarai, wait a moment," Byakuya said softly.

Renji turned back, looking into the dark gray eyes and feeling an odd tickle in his stomach.

"Taichou?"

"Will you sit down for a moment?" Byakuya asked.

"Sure thing, Taichou," he replied, dropping into the chair next to Byakuya's bed.

Byakuya sipped his tea and sat quietly for a moment, gathering his thoughts.

"Renji, there's something I've been wanting to ask you about. I was planning to ask when you came to the manor for dinner, but seeing as our dinner has been put on hold, I was thinking that I would rather not wait."

The odd feeling in Renji's stomach intensified as he continued to look into the deep, gray eyes. He looked uncomfortable, as if he feared what Renji might say in response to his question. Renji had to wonder what would make his taichou so ill at ease. He smiled encouragingly.

"When I was in the healing center, you started to tell me something. You might remember that I asked you why you were there…and you said…"

"Because you are my taichou," Renji finished.

Byakuya nodded.

"Then I said that you probably wished I was dead…and you said that you did not…but then…"

"Ichigo burst in and cut off what I was going to say," Renji finished, "I could have killed him for that."

He was surprised to see a smile tug at the corners of Byakuya's mouth. His stomach twitched almost painfully.

"I understand the feeling," he said softly, "In any case, I kept wondering after that. What was it that you were going to say to me, Renji?"

He had, of course, been expecting the question. But hearing it in actuality sent all of his possible planned replies out the window. He tried desperately to gather his scattered thoughts as he continued to gaze into the beautiful gray eyes. Only half aware, he opened his mouth and let the words come as they appeared.

"Taichou," he said quietly, "I really just wanted to say…that I am grateful to you."

Byakuya's eyes widened in surprise.

"I…don't understand," he said, looking confused, "I didn't do anything right. I didn't protect her. I nearly killed you and Ichigo. I…"

"…stood between Rukia and death when it really counted…when no one else could. And you did it with no concern for yourself…rather recklessly, I might add. But it made me wish…that in that moment, the first moment when I ever felt like you really needed me…I wish I could have been there to stop you from getting hurt."

His taichou's eyes clouded for a moment and then became unreadable. He looked down at the tea in his hands.

"Arigato, Renji," he said softly, "but you shouldn't blame yourself. I only got what I deserved…no, because if I had gotten what I truly deserved, I would not be here…"

Renji found that he was surprised at his own boldness as he slipped a warm hand into Byakuya's and squeezed it gently. The noble looked down at their joined hands for a moment, then back up at Renji.

"Please don't say that," Renji said softly, "it isn't true. We made our choices, some good and some bad, Taichou. But we came through it. We need to move forward now. I hope that we can. I know that going back to work today after all that happened was strange, but…I really want things to be like they were…"

He paused, looking down at their joined hands.

"No…actually, I want things to be better…"

The look in his Taichou's eyes gave Renji every reason to believe that they would be.