A/N: Well, here it is!
Just a few notes before we start; while this is a sequel to RDBH, it is not the same story. While I will be maintaining the same romantic and humorous undertones throughout, there will be darker drama and angst present. I will also be introducing a pack of OC's, although I promise I will play nice with them and try very hard not to let them Mary-Sue on me.
You'll be seeing more of the Karakura Gang in this story, and more pairings (many of them het, in this case) making an appearance, although, no fear, all couples from RDBH will definitely be in the spotlight as well.
The chapters will alternate back and forth between the Living World and the Soul Society; I will try, for the sake of clarity, to maintain a one-to-one back and forth with that, although the ratio may get skewed in later chapters.
Last off, I want to give a huge and heartfelt thank-you to everyone who read RDBH - you guys are, as often as not, my reason for getting up in the mornings, at least on Wednesdays, ;-). Love you all and hope you enjoy Bonds of Honor!
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach and make no monetary gain from the writing or publishing of this work. Kubo-sama is a god and I am merely playing in his world.
BONDS OF HONOR
Chapter One: Beginning Anew
"Attend your son's wedding? Why in the three worlds would I wish to do something as abysmally foolish as that?"
Sprawled comfortably in the hard wooden chair on the opposite side of the immense desk, Kurosaki Isshin never let the broad smile slip from his face. "Because, like it or not, Ryuuken, your son and my son are friends, and that makes you family."
"Souken must be rolling in his grave," the silver-haired Quincy shot back, raising his head so that the flare of light on the lenses of his glasses masked his eyes.
"On the contrary," chuckled Isshin, "your father was always wiser than you. I would think he'd praise you for making an overture of peace."
"All the more reason to decline your absurdly foolish offer, Isshin," Ryuuken shot back. "Rarely did I agree with anything my father supported."
"Including your own son, sadly enough," Isshin answered, grunting slightly as he rolled out of the chair.
Thin silver eyebrows arched. "Has Ichigo forgiven you yet, for lying to him his entire life?"
"Shut up, Ryuuken," came the weary sigh. "The wedding's in a week, two o'clock. We're holding it at Urahara's. Byakuya kicked up a fuss, of course, so they're having a second ceremony in Seireitei proper to appease the Kuchiki Clan, but the real wedding's being held here, so that everyone can attend."
"Including most of the senior officers of the Gotei, I assume? It sounds like a marvelous opportunity for an ambush," Ryuuken remarked dryly, reaching for one of the budget folders on the far side of his desk. "You may leave, Isshin, and take your idiotic notions of peace between our people with you."
Isshin rolled his eyes in response. "We still on for drinks this Friday?"
"We drink together every Friday, barring emergencies. Why should this one be any different?"
"Just checking," came the laughing reply. "And you know, our sons do pretty well at the whole Shinigami-Quincy peace thing..."
Ishida Uryuu leaped, barely managing to dodge the massive arc of red-black power that descended upon him, shattering the ground where he had been only a split-second before. A few fragments of shattered rock raked over him, and he hissed, thankful for the white leather gloves he'd taken to wearing to protect his hands. Hitting the rocky, dusty ground, he grunted and rolled with the impact, using the momentum to spring back to his feet.
"You all right there, Ishida?"
Pushing his glasses up his nose, Uryuu glowered upwards to the top the oversized lump of rock where Ichigo stood, Zangetsu's massive blade resting over his shoulder and a casual smirk on his face.
Turning up his nose with a sniff, the young Quincy began slapping the dust off of his once-pristine outfit, all the while silently cursing Quincy tradition for the garments being white. Purity was all well and good, but it was damned hard to keep white pure. "I don't suppose the concept of aiming actually exists in your vocabulary, Kurosaki..."
"Hey, it missed you!"
"Because I dodged, you imbecile! You shot that right at my head!"
"I know what your reflexes are, Ishida. We've fought together enough."
"That doesn't mean you can just arbitrarily assume I'm going to tumble out of the way in time to avoid your strikes!"
"Yes it -"
Momentarily silenced, both boys turned, blinking, to their interruption.
"If you two are done flirting," said Arisawa Tatsuki, hands on her hips, while Kiego, Mizuiro, Chad, and Orihime watched from the background, "maybe we could all get back to training?"
Six months after his return from the Soul Society, Ichigo had finally succeeded in getting his life back into some semblance of order. With Chad and Uryuu's help, he had caught up on the schoolwork he had missed (Kon had done a surprisingly good job of maintaining his grades), begun work at his father's Clinic to earn a little money (it was the only employment he could think of that didn't necessitate excuses every time a Hollow appeared), and returned to Seireitei every weekend to check up on Kira, visit with Rukia, and generally escape the real world.
It was then, after his life had managed to gain some semblance of routine - he would never call it 'normalcy,' because there was nothing normal about it - he kept his word to begin training the spiritually-aware civilians of Karakura.
For simplicity's sake, he'd started with his friends.
He had called Tatsuki, Mizuiro, and Kiego to Urahara's shop, sat them down, and explained everything, from Rukia's arrival and his unexpected empowerment to his Hollowfication, right through the Winter War and his later Captaincy, and every detail in between.
Although the trio had already known the gist of it all, hearing the facts laid so completely bare before them had been... unsettling. Particularly when Ichigo had told them about his battle with Ulquiorra - 'You mean you've got a homicidal monster living in you right now?' Kiego had squeaked, edging away from the table, until Tatsuki walloped him in the head and Ichigo looked at him, his expression anguished. Kiego had sat back down without another word, apology in his eyes.
And then Ichigo had told them what he'd told the Seireitei; that he had every intention of training every sane and spiritually-aware person he could lay his hands on in Karakura, so that they could defend themselves and their city from Hollows.
Yamamoto hadn't been particularly happy with the idea, but Ichigo - guided by Ukitake - had found the records of human civilian deaths due to Hollow activity throughout Karakura in the last twenty years. When he'd informed the Captain's Council that over two hundred people a year died of Hollow attacks in Karakura alone, more than half of the Captains had thrown their support behind his proposal within minutes.
It had taken almost six weeks to get them even to the point of focusing and channeling their energy. Ichigo glanced over his three 'students' once again - Mizuiro sitting in a full lotus position, enormous headphones over his ears, eyes closed as he hummed along to the music, a teacup-sized ball of power glowing in his hands; Kiego, who was staring at the glowing rock he held with bewilderment on his face; and Tatsuki, who was steadily moving through katas while odd flickers of energy glinted on her arms and hands.
"This is ridiculous," Ichigo groaned, flopping backwards on the rock and staring upwards at the brightly painted artificial sky. Shinji had been kind enough to permit them the use of the Shoten's basement for their 'sessions,' but Ichigo was about ready to throw in the towel as far as the whole mess was concerned. When faced with a challenge to his own strength, he could rise to meet it, no matter the odds, but instilling that same ability in someone else?
Especially with his 'students.' Down below him, Kiego was trying to balance the glowing rock on his nose and failing miserably, yelping every time it fell into his eye, until Mizuiro finally lost his temper and kicked his friend, causing Kiego to shriek loud enough to disrupt Tatsuki's focus as well. The rock bounced off somewhere, glow fading as it rolled away, and Kiego leapt backwards as Tatsuki swung a punch at him out of sheer frustration. All three of them could sense Ichigo's disappointment, and it made the air of the basement bitter.
"I'm not cut out for this," Ichigo sighed, and blinked when a massive shadow eclipsed his light. "Oy, you - oh. Chad."
"Hey," the big man grunted, folding his legs to settle beside his friend. "What's wrong?"
"I think I suck as a teacher," Ichigo replied absently, watching as Tatsuki began chasing Kiego across the floor. "They're not making progress."
"That's not right," Chad answered softly, and when Ichigo lifted his head enough to look at his friend, Chad shook his head slightly and elaborated. "They're not making the progress you made. But they're not you, Ichigo."
There was a short silence before one corner of the tight mouth arched up. "Are you telling me I should have a double standard?"
"I'm telling you you're outside standards," Chad answered, rising to his feet again. "Tatsuki!"
Surprise at hearing the gentle tiger raise his voice - let alone address her directly - halted Tatsuki in her tracks, wide-eyed. Nodding, Chad jumped down to her, landing easily on the brittle ground. Straightening up, he chased Kiego off with a look, and turned his attention to Tatsuki.
"What?" Tatsuki squawked back, disbelief raising her voice sharply. "Sado, I'm not going to -"
"Tatsuki," Chad repeated heavily, and the girl froze, silent. "Attack me."
"If you insist," came the unsure reply, and within a second the lean body was hurtling at Chad, one foot arcing upwards to connect with his shoulder -
Until Chad caught her by the ankle and flipped her aside like a fly. She hit the ground with a yelp, more startled than hurt, but Kiego and Ichigo both moved forward on instinct, halted before they could take a full step by Chad's upraised hand.
"Again," he ordered simply, watching the girl raise herself up, spitting dust.
"Like hell," came the return growl, but Chad simply watched her, eyes impassive behind thick bangs, and Tatsuki snarled softly and charged him again. The results were the same, except she flew farther this time, and the sound of her landing was louder. She didn't cry out with the impact, but the pained hiss that escaped her when she struggled to her feet was enough to tell them she was hurt.
"Chad, what the hell are you -"
"Be quiet, Ichigo. Tatsuki. Again."
This time, when she charged at him, there was a spark of real fury in her eyes.
And when her kick connected, it was Chad that went flying backwards - twenty feet backwards, slamming into one of the rock cliffs that dotted the training grounds with enough force to drive him into it, shattering the rock around him.
The stunned silence of the basement was broken only by the sound of shifting stone, broken fragments of the sandy rock clattering down through the dust.
"Chad!" Ichigo shouted, leaping from his perch and rushing past a stunned Tatsuki, who was staring at the shattered rock with disbelieving horror. "Chad!"
A deep-chested cough answered him, and the dust finally settled enough for them to see Chad, eyes wide under the fringe of his dark hair, carefully extracting himself from the fragmented remains of the rock. The shield on his right arm, raised a split-second before Tatsuki's kick struck, had a crack running the entire length of it.
Glancing down at the crack, he grunted softly and ran the fingers of his left hand slowly across the fracture, reweaving the threads of energy that formed the shield. Then, glancing up at Tatsuki, he said simply, "Good. Again."
Hours later, when Tatsuki had collapsed, panting, on the dusty ground and refused to move, Chad nodded slightly and finally let the others - Orihime, amazed but worried, and Kiego and Mizuiro, simply amazed - swarm the girl with questions as he walked a short ways away to talk to Ichigo.
"How did you do that?" Ichigo demanded, as soon as they were out of earshot of the others. "Six weeks I've been trying to get anything out of them, and it takes you two hours?"
"Simple," Chad answered, rubbing his arm absently. "I recognized her powers."
Ichigo blinked in confusion. "What do you... recognized? Her abilities aren't anything like yours."
"Not mine," Chad corrected. "Yoroichi's."
"You mean Shunko?" The tone bordered on incredulity, which was not surprising. Rubbing his arm again - even through his shield, Tatsuki's empowered kicks were painful - Chad nodded in response.
"Like Shunko. She doesn't have Yoroichi's experience, so she has to get angry to release it. It'll be easier now."
"It's always easier to do something a second time," Ichigo nodded, his face thoughtful. "Thanks. I probably wouldn't have gotten that on my own."
A shrug answered that; Chad never had been comfortable accepting praise, but Ichigo knew him well enough not to take offense.
"So, any thoughts on how to drag out Kiego and Mizuiro's abilities?"
"Not Mizuiro," came the slow response, "but Kiego needs to be scared, I think."
Ichigo snorted faintly. "Well," he answered dryly, raising one hand to curl his fingers in the air, feeling the dark reiatsu rise around him, "that should be easy enough."
Another five months of training had gone by before Ichigo had finally felt comfortable enough to allow his 'class' to begin tackling low-level Hollows, and even then only under strict supervision.
Now, though, two years after his return to the Living World and a full eighteen months into their training, all three had faced and defeated Hollows on their own.
Tatsuki was undoubtedly the best student of the bunch. Her kicks and punches, honed by years of martial arts and enhanced by a curious ability to channel reiatsu - or whatever passed for reiatsu in humans - into the limb to supplement the blow, were punishing enough to cripple or kill minor Hollow in a single hit.
Kiego's power was a peculiar one; he could channel energy into foreign objects. Small amounts of energy would only make the object in question glow as long as it was being fed energy - the light would dim almost immediately upon his releasing the item or the flow of reiatsu. Charging it to the overloading point, however, would cause the item to literally explode. The ability worked best on stone or metal, which meant that Kiego was now forever carrying around pebbles in his pockets; at least, if he couldn't steal gintou from the Ishidas. He'd become an expert at dumping power into anything from pebbles to paperclips and throwing them at Hollow before they exploded - he'd even managed to take out a midrange Hollow with a stone the size of his fist and an empty soup can.
Mizuiro's power was vaguely similar to Kiego's in that the results were explosive., but other than that, they were quite dissimilar. Mizuiro still had to hum or sing to focus his abilities - an odd quirk that Ichigo just shrugged off after a while. That humming, though, allowed Mizuiro to produce fist-sized, translucent white spheres of energy that produced their own steady glow. Unlike Kiego's explosive charges, these could be quite safely handled and transported - by anyone, not only Mizuiro - and had been used for emergency lighting in more than one situation.
At one point, Tatsuki had jokingly referred to the little spheres as 'the world's deadliest water balloons,' and the comparison was actually quite fitting - although they could be handled safely, if carefully, the spheres exploded with a sharp impact. And despite the diminutive size and appearance, the results were... impressive.
Although all of them were currently competent and getting better, Ichigo kept the twice-weekly practices in session, working on things like strength and stamina and dodging techniques, since none of the three had any defensive skills to speak of.
That was, in fact, why Uryuu had originally been dragged along to the practice sessions, three months before. His aim was far more accurate than Ichigo's, and his spiritual arrows gave excellent incentive to dodge - quickly.
"If you two are done flirting, maybe we could all get back to training?"
"Heh," Ichigo answered, slinging Zangetsu over his back and jumping down to where Uryuu stood, still fuming. "Don't let Rukia hear you talking like that, Tatsuki."
"Hear her talking like what?" inquired a familiar voice from the ladder, and Ichigo spun around, his expression startled.
"Who else?" she countered, kicking away from the ladder to drop the last few feet, landing with barely a puff of dust. "Hey, everyone."
A fractured chorus of cheerful greetings answered her, and Ichigo let a smile cross his face as he strode to her. "I didn't think you'd get back here for another couple of days. How's Ukitake?"
"Taichou's fine, actually," Rukia replied. "The attack wasn't serious, and between Unohana's care and Kyouraku's mother-henning, he has more help than he needs. Sentarou and Kiyone are doing pretty well without me, too," she added with a chuckle.
"Funny, I thought a Lieutenant was supposed to make herself indispensable, not more dispensable," Ichigo snickered, and earned a smack on the head in response.
"Being a Lieutenant means ensuring the Squad operates at peak efficiency, whether or not you are actually present," she shot back, and Ichigo grinned down at her in response.
Being a Lieutenant suited Rukia. The added responsibilities had steadied her, calming her temper and deepening her consideration of her actions. She stood a little taller now - as much confidence as actual added height - her face a little leaner, her movements sure and graceful from the lithe muscle her training had added. When she spoke, even casually, there was a strength in her voice that had not been there before she'd assumed the rank two years ago.
"Besides, I'm sure I'll be indisposed for a while after our wedding," Rukia added for Ichigo's ears alone. It delighted her no end that her fiance - now nearly twenty and one of the most respected warriors of the Seireitei - still blushed at the slightest innuendo.
Leaning back a little, Rukia glanced around Ichigo's shoulder to meet Tatsuki's eyes. "And what was it you were saying that I shouldn't have heard?"
Tatsuki laughed in response, pulling a water bottle off her belt and tipping a bit of it over her head before drinking. "I told him to stop flirting with Ishida so that we could all get back to work," she grinned, then threw the bottle at Ichigo's head.
He caught it without missing a beat and set it down at the bottom of the ladder, where it would be at least moderately out of harm's way once the heavy combat started.
Rukia, for her part, laughed softly in response. "A week to go until our wedding, and my fiance is flirting with a man? How typical," she grinned, drawing Sode no Shirayuki with a practiced sweep of her arm. "I guess I'll have to teach him a lesson, then."
Zangetsu flashed in the artificial light as Ichigo swung the massive blade forward. "Let's go, then, Sensei."
Tatsuki barked a laugh as the the pair of them vanished into Shunpo, headed for a farther spot in the cavern where their fight wouldn't get anyone else burned, blasted, or flash-frozen. Turning back to the group, she nodded to Chad, who returned the gesture silently and stepped forward.
Over an hour later, the group stumbled back together, every one of them dusty, bruised, and positively beaming.
"All right, everyone," said Ichigo, grinning himself as he sealed Zangetsu with a thought, sheathing the elegant katana smoothly at his hip. His hand lingered for a moment on the hilt, the patterned black-and-white wrapping marking the blade's continued uniqueness. "You already know training's suspended through next week - Mashiro said she can't decorate the shop with us blowing things up down here," he continued, ignoring the badly-muffled snickers of the group.
Truth be told, Ichigo had his doubts about allowing the scatterbrained Visored to decorate for his wedding, but she had been insistent.
Byakuya, upon learning of it, had begun sending a steady stream of servants back and forth through the Kuchiki family's personal Senkaimon, all of whom were old enough to remember Mashiro and experienced enough to deal with her help.
Even with the Kuchiki servants overseeing the food, decorations, and attire, though, Ichigo couldn't shake a niggling feeling of concern about the wedding. Then again, given the guest list, perhaps he should have been more worried...
"A little to the left... to the left... to your other left, dumbass! Whoops, wait, my bad. My left, your right."
Kensei glowered down from the top of the stepladder he was rather precariously balanced on, eyes narrowed as they focused on the blond Visored leader. Slowly, he hefted the hammer in his hand, and Shinji scrambled backwards, both hands raised in surrender.
"Honest mistake, Kensei, really!"
" 'course it was," Ichimaru Gin grinned sarcastically, slipping fluidly around the ladder with a tray of drinks in his hands. "Thirsty?"
"No," Shinji answered, as a scowling Kensei went back to his job of tacking streamers to the exposed beams of the ceiling. "But check on Hachi and Tessai, they're outside trying to maintain the reiatsu shields. And Isshin's in the front room, and I guarantee you that everyone with him needs a drink."
"Ain' it the truth," Gin answered, eyes rolling behind half-closed lids. Swooping the tray upwards, he swept it easily over Mashiro's head as the green-haired girl burst through the doorway, shouting something about fish cakes, and Kensei whacked himself in the thumb with the hammer and swore loud enough to make her jump.
"What the hell is it now, Kuna?" he demanded irritably, shaking his hand sharply in an attempt to relive the throbbing pain in his thumb.
"All the fish cakes for the buffet smell funny!" the girl wailed back, pulling at her hair, and Kensei rolled his eyes in disgust.
"Of course they smell funny, you idiot. They're fish!"
Shaking his head, Shinji turned towards the door and called sharply, "Oy, Yoroichi!"
There was a few second's pause before the dark head popped around the edge of the screen, dark-purple hair crowned with a delicate fall of silk flowers. "You called?"
"Yeah," Shinji answered sourly. "You're a cat - anything wrong with the fishcakes?"
"Not at all," she answered, reply edging out through a tight smile. "In fact, they're delicious. Was that all?"
"For the minute, yeah," Shinji nodded, attention already elsewhere, as Mashiro sulked her way back out of the room and Kensei turned his attention back to the streamer he'd been working on, hammering the tacks into place with a few precise strokes.
"There!" he exclaimed a minute later. "Done! Finally..."
Just as he spoke, however, the burst of reiatsu fro the opening Senkaimon rippled through the room, tearing the crepe paper streamers from their anchors and sending them fluttering through the air.
Disbelieving, Kensei at the top of the ladder for a long moment, watching as the work of the past two hours drifted silently to the ground. Letting out a wordless yell of frustration, he hurled the hammer he still held at the two figures emerging from the Senkaimon, leaped down from the ladder, and stormed from the room. Snickering an apology, Shinji ducked out after him.
"Well, that was a hell of a welcome," Abarai Renji remarked offhandedly, glancing down at the hammer he'd snatched out of its midair flight, only inches from colliding with his partner's head.
"Indeed," Byakuya countered dryly, putting a hand on Renji's elbow to guide the other man forward, out of the way of the Senkaimon. "I would not suggest returning it in the same manner."
"If I hadn't grabbed it, you certainly would," Renji shot back, setting the hammer on top of the ladder for safekeeping.
"Perhaps," Byakuya replied levelly, a faint smile touching his mouth as he turned to watch the Senkaimon disgorge Kira and Shuuhei, quickly followed by Ukitake, Kyouraku, and Ise Nanao. "But I never had any doubts you would catch it."
She couldn't recognize the figure in the mirror.
The woman gazing back at her was beautiful, her face powdered white and lips painted crimson, creating an image befitting the pure, pale white of the shiromuku kimono that garbed her. A short distance away, the brilliant crimson and gold of her uchikake - an overkimono that she would wear at the reception after the ceremony - seemed to gleam against the off-white wall it was hung against.
She didn't jump - really, she didn't, even if Riko's voice had been completely unexpected. The older woman said nothing about the undignified response, however, merely smiling and directing a low bow in Rukia's direction. "Rukia-sama, the remaining guests have arrived."
"And Ichigo?" Rukia asked, gathering the silken skirts of her kimono carefully as she turned to face the woman.
"Kurosaki-sama is outside, I believe discussing the shield with Hachigen-san and Tessai-san."
"Well, that makes sense," Rukia answered, sighing softly as she glanced back at the mirror again. Her hair was so done up with combs and ornaments that she could barely hold her head up; not that anyone would see them, of course, as she was expected to wear the enormous white wataboshi hood, a traditional headpiece that was supposed to conceal her face from everyone but her groom. "After all, we can't have Hollows attacking us on our wedding day."
"I think it would be kinda par for the course, though, don't you?" countered a rough voice that was certainly not Riko's, and Rukia spun away from the mirror with a cry of delight.
"Well, of course," the redhead huffed, staggering a half-step backwards as Rukia slammed into his midsection, wrapping her arms around him in a crushing hug. "Who were you expecting, Aizen?"
"That's not funny, you bastard," Rukia snapped, laughing despite herself, as she smacked her oldest friend on the head, ignoring his laughter as she slowly released him and stepped back, spreading her arms slightly so that he could see all of her outfit. "How do I look?"
"Almost as pretty as your brother," Renji grinned back, and quickly ducked backwards to avoid the delicate fist flying at his head.
"Ass. I'm trying to be serious!"
"Don't," Renji advised her, and caught her fist in his hand when she swung it again. "Rukia, you look... amazin'." Garnet eyes stared down at her for a moment longer, softening as he held her gaze. "Ichigo's a good guy, Rukia, an' he's damned lucky t' have you. He'll do right by you, so try not to be too hard on him, 'kay?"
"I'll try," came the dubious response, and Renji barked a laugh as he looked at her.
"Hell, Rukia," he murmured a moment later, shaking his head slowly as he gazed down at the girl who had been his sister before he'd even known what family was. "Why is it that every time I catch up to you, it's just in time to lose you again?"
She blinked up at him, confused for the briefest of moments, before the words struck home. Losing her to Byakuya's adoption. Losing her to the Living World, to the Sokyouku and her execution, and now, when they were truly able to call one another 'family,' she would be leaving once again.
She smiled as she took one of his big hands in both of hers, but her eyes were suspiciously bright, and her grip on his hand was almost painful. "You don't need me, Renji," she said gently, her voice suspiciously thick as she spoke. "You never did - you were always the one that kept us safe and fed and protected. But you've got Nii-sama now, and you're not losing me - you're gaining a brother-in-law."
"And his whole, crazy family," Renji added with a mock grimace as Isshin began loudly berating Urahara for gods-knew-what. Karin bellowed at the both of them to shut up, and then - if the yelps were any indication - enforced her demand with her fists.
"Our dreams come true," Rukia laughed wetly, and tugged on the shoulder of his haori, pulling him down enough for her to kiss him on the cheek.
Barking a laugh, Renji pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it to her; cautious of her heavy makeup, Rukia dabbed her eyes dry before folding the square of linen up and tucking it into her own sleeve. "We... really have made it, haven't we?" she laughed, tears and amazement still thick in her voice. "Half a century ago we were standing on a hill in Inuzuri, and now we're both..." Nobles. Ranking officers. Married.
"Yeah," Renji grinned, the unsaid words clear to him. "We made it. Now finish gettin' dressed, already. Ichigo's waitin' for ya."
And Rukia laughed and cried all at once, smiling more broadly than Renji had ever seen, and spun back to the hands of her attendants to finish preparations while Renji slipped silently back out the door.
Byakuya was standing in the hallway just outside of her room, statue-still and silent, and he looked perfectly composed until one looked close enough to see the faintly downturned edges of his mouth, the weight in his eyes. Without hesitating, Renji took the few short steps that put him beside the man, wrapping his hand around Byakuya's cool one.
"I am well enough," Byakuya replied softly, after a moment. "She is happy. That is what matters."
Laughing under his breath, Renji wrapped his free arm around Byakuya's slim shoulders and gently but insistently pulled the man against his chest. Byakuya - never one for a public display - tensed slightly, resisting the pull, but when Renji maintained the pressure against his shoulders, he eventually allowed himself to be guided forward, bending his head to rest it against Renji's shoulder.
"Givin' someone up is never easy," Renji said softly, and felt the warmth of Byakuya's breath as the other man huffed in response.
"It is not," came the faintly muffled reply, and Byakuya raised his head again, stepping back slightly so that he could meet Renji's eyes. "But as I said, she is happy. And who am I to deny my sister the happiness that I have already found?"