A/N: This is one in a series of short (700-1000 word) fics I've recently completed. I keep coming back to Byakuya and Renji; I love them so much! Spoilers for current events in the anime and manga, and warnings for angst and violence.

- Rii

In bitter days long past, Renji dreamed of killing.

When he was a student at the Academy, nights found him tossing restlessly in bed, twisting his broad frame up in the sheets. And in the darkness behind closed lids, when all his friends were asleep, he brooded over sleek, dark hair, that lovely, impassive face, and the sharp ivory angles of the gleaming kenseikan.

He promised himself then that he would surpass Kuchiki Byakuya, without really knowing what he meant, or what the cost might be.

Later, during his vice captaincy—with Rukia entombed in the Shrine of Penitence and Kuchiki Byakuya standing between the two of them—Renji understand that surpassing Kuchiki Byakuya likely meant killing him, because the proud noble would not easily suffer any defeat that did not end in death. At the time, the redhead's rage and despair made imagining such things simple, and during training, during moments of glimpsing the steel resolve in those gray eyes that met his own, Renji could almost see it: Zabimaru slicing through Senbonzakura's fragile petals, snapping jaws wide open to break bones, crush resistance. He hungered for the sight of blood staining that pristine scarf, Senbonzakura's petals scattered uselessly, those gray eyes closed and graceful hands still.

But now…


Now, in all the wild barrenness of Hueco Mundo, outside of Las Noches and all its illusions, Renji kneels next to the crumpled figure on the ground. He often has cause to rue his broad shoulders and his body that seems always too large for the space he is in, but he's currently grateful, relieved that his large frame hides the fallen one from the watching eyes of others. He wouldn't want anyone to see.

Yammy is dead.

From here Renji can only glimpse one giant, mammoth toe, sticking up from the Hueco Mundo sands like a massive tower. He can see little else, but the ferocious reiatsu has faded, and though he knows little of the battle—he was unconscious for most of it—he knows they won, and he should feel triumphant.

But victory is messier and uglier and bloodier than his dreams of killing have ever been.

Kuchiki Byakuya is paler than the white sand that crusts his sleek raven hair, and his chest is rising and falling with struggling, sucking breaths. Glossy blood, dark with Hueco Mundo moonlight, spills over his lower lip, his chin. The priceless silken scarf of the Kuchiki clan has been stained and shredded almost beyond recognition, the kenseikan cracked and shattered.

Renji wants to weep.

He gathers the body—this body that shakes now, trembles—into his strong arms, cradles Byakuya close, tries to impart some of his own warmth. I'm here with you. You're not alone. It's gonna be okay. I'll make it okay.

Gray eyes open slightly, only slightly, blind and sightless beneath long lashes. Renji wonders what Byakuya's looking for, but when a hand curls weakly around his wrist he knows. "I'm here," the redhead says aloud, with much more strength and conviction than he feels. "You're gonna be okay."

And perhaps that's even true. Kurotsuchi-taichou is here, after all, with no end of gadgets and potions and strange syringes full of dark liquids, but that thought scares Renji as much as the deep gaping wounds in the noble's body. The thought of needles piercing flawless pale skin, of the scientist's cold discolored hands touching, probing Byakuya, makes him ill. He clutches his captain closer. "I'm sorry," he whispers. This is my fault.

He has done this.

It was what he wanted so long ago, wasn't it? It was why he trained so hard, pushed himself so mercilessly. I wanted to see you defeated. I wanted to surpass you. And though Renji knows that Yammy Rialgo was a strong Espada acting of his own accord, he cannot help but think that the dreams of those bitter earlier days—his foolish dreams, his jealous prideful dreams—somehow make Byakuya's horrible injuries his responsibility. All those hopes of seeing Kuchiki Byakuya trampled underfoot have become horribly fulfilled in this moment, and even though Renji has not wanted such a thing for a long time, he feels now—with a heaviness in his heart that makes him want to scream—that this is all because of him.

As the redhead kneels in the sand, holding Byakuya, feels the frightening lack of life in that limp body and listens to ragged uneven breaths, he thinks of what he will do, if: if Byakuya survives, if they make it out of this hell alive, if they return to Soul Society to find it still whole, if Aizen has not already destroyed everything.

He will, he thinks, run his tongue over healing cuts and bruises, kiss scars, handle stiff and aching limbs with tender care. He will learn the taste of pale skin on his tongue, explore that soft mouth, find the right word to describe the precise shade of that gray gaze. He will stroke sleek raven hair and caress vulnerable, tender places with his clumsy, awkward hands.

If his desires to surpass Kuchiki Byakuya were answered perversely beyond his will and want, in a time and place and manner he never would have chosen, then surely, he comforts himself, his hopes now—countless times as fervent, and wrenched from the most tender and vulnerable places in his soul—will find their fulfillment also.

He has to believe, or everything that remains of him will die in these sands.

Carefully, Renji plants a kiss on raven hair, on that pale forehead. He brushes his lips against Byakuya's ear and murmurs words meant to comfort and encourage, words of apology and regret and renewal. Stay, he thinks, desperately, and tightens his arms around Byakuya as a convulsion takes that slim body. I want you with me. I want you here.

In the future, I will only dream the best for you.