This story is lovingly dedicated to ferler, one of the greatest supporters of my work on this site. I cannot even begin to say how thankful I am to have met her. She always leaves feedback when she reads and she is so encouraging! She is truly a treasure.
I would also like to give deepest thanks to kiaros for coming up with the wonderful storyline. I cannot wait to see what my muse does with this! Thanks for helping me get started!
Chapter 1: The Best Intentions
Abarai Renji fidgeted impatiently, waiting as the healers worked on Byakuya behind the closed, white door. Of course, his mind wouldn't leave him alone. He couldn't help imagining all kinds of things happening, each more tragic than the one before, each designed to shatter the heart and leave him alone, without his…his…
"My lover…" he whispered, needing to hear it aloud.
It was still a new concept. He hadn't, in fact, even really stopped to think too deeply about it…about what it meant as far as the living of his everyday life, how it would change things between them, or even what consequences there might be. He didn't give a damn. Kuchiki Byakuya was his lover…his alone…and Abarai Renji wanted to shout it out to the three worlds. He chose, in the end, not to shout it out in the squad 4 waiting area. Instead, he waited and fidgeted until the white door opened and Unohana taichou emerged.
"How is he?" he asked quickly, surging to his feet, "Can I see him?"
Unohana taichou chuckled softly.
"Kuchiki taichou will make a full recovery, not to worry, Abarai fukutaichou. He asked to see you. You may go in."
Renji burst past her, missing entirely the quiet smile and light shake of her head. He nearly took the door off the hinges, then recovered himself and tried not to look as though he had chewed off every nail, waiting to see how Byakuya was.
"Abarai…" Byakuya said, shaking his head and blinking with amusement and affection, "will you attempt to calm yourself? I am…"
"…going to be fine. I know," Renji said gratefully, "I'm sorry…I just couldn't hold still. Those wounds on your leg and back…"
"…were not enough to kill me," the noble said reassuringly, "but they will incapacitate me for a time."
"Don't worry about a thing, Taichou…"
"You can call me Byakuya. We are alone, Abarai."
"Okay, Byakuya, don't worry about anything. I have already sent word to the manor to prepare for your arrival when you are released. And I will stay with you and take care of you personally…and…"
"Renji," Byakuya said quietly, stopping the redhead, "as wonderful as that sounds, I need you to remember that we were on a mission of extreme importance for Soutaichou. He needs to know what is going on in the White Tower in Hueco Mundo. He worries that Aizen has begun work on a secret weapon of some sort and we need to find out if that is true."
"You…want me to go back? Without you?" Renji asked, looking surprised.
"Hai…but I do not want you to go alone. Go to Karakura Town and ask Kurosaki Ichigo to accompany you. Soutaichou cannot spare another taichou, and Ichigo has the power of a taichou. He will be able to stand with you and the two of you will complete the mission together."
"You…want me to go with Ichigo?" Renji repeated, looking a bit crestfallen.
Byakuya blinked slowly and motioned for the redhead to come closer. Curious, Renji approached him and sat down next to him.
"Arigato, Renji…for making certain this is done."
He reached up and curled his hand around Renji's head, pulling him down and kissing him warmly. The dark gray eyes locked on his and Renji found himself more than a bit breathless.
"I will," the noble whispered, "see that you are properly compensated for your troubles when you return…and I will leave word with the staff that you are to be allowed to come and go from the manor as you will. If you look through my personal effects over there, you will find a key. I had it made for you."
Renji couldn't stop the stupid grin that crawled across his face.
"There's just one thing," Byakuya said quietly, his hand touching Renji's cheek.
"What is it, Taichou?" Renji asked quickly.
"I have given you my heart, Renji," the noble said softly, "I need you to remember that…whatever happens. I do not trust easily…and I do hope that you will not break my heart."
Renji slipped a warm hand into his and squeezed it gently.
"Never, Taichou…Byakuya…I will never break your heart!"
Now Byakuya smiled.
"Then I shall not worry in your absence…except for your well-being. Be cautious, Renji. Remember what happened to me when I approached that place."
"I will," Renji promised, leaning over to kiss him again.
"Aishiteru yo, Renji," Byakuya whispered on his lips.
"Aishiteru yo…Byakuya," Renji whispered back.
Renji flash stepped out of the senkaimon, reaching out with his senses and finding Ichigo's reiatsu pulse coming from the area of Urahara's shop. Groaning good naturedly and rolling his eyes, he turned and flash stepped out of the park, making his way quickly down the road and stopping when he reached the former taichou's shop. He swept past the two children in the yard, almost before Jinta hurled his usual insult, then stepped inside and found Tessai unloading boxes and chatting with Yoruichi.
"Hello, Renji," Yoruichi greeted him, "what brings you? I thought Soutaichou had you and Byakuya traipsing all over Hueco Mundo, looking for Aizen's 'secret weapon.' What happened with that?"
"What happened is that Bya…Kuchiki taichou and I were investigating a new tower that the hollows built just outside Las Noches. It's been emitting odd pulses and our sensors have picked up strange reiatsu traces. Taichou and I managed to reach it, but we were attacked and Taichou was injured, so we had to go back to the Seireitei before we could figure out what's wrong."
"Is Byakuya okay?" she asked, looking concerned.
"He will be. He took slashes to the back and his leg was broken. But I took him back and he is on the mend."
"Hmmm…" said Yoruichi thoughtfully, "seems odd that you're here and not with him, ne? I heard the two of you…"
"Hey! Not where that little brat out there can hear!" hissed Renji, "He'd tease the hell outta me and I'd be forced to kill him. But yeah, Taichou and I are seeing each other."
"So…what brings you here?"
"I need to borrow Ichigo…Taichou's orders."
"They are down in the training room," Yoruichi said, smiling and turning towards the front door.
"Where are you going?" asked Renji.
Yoruichi's smile widened.
"Just going to visit an old friend who's laid up…"
Renji chuckled and turned back toward the secret entrance to the underground training area. He felt the heavy spiritual pressure and felt the thunder of battle as he descended the ladder and dropped down into the room. Ichigo soared over him, concentrating too deeply to speak as Urahara fired several kido blasts, waited as Ichigo blocked and weaved through them, then pounded him with heavy fire again. The substitute shinigami's body moved flawlessly, easily evading each attack, then swooped down to land. He touched down near Urahara, smiling at Renji in greeting.
"Well, Renji," said Urahara congenially, "always nice to see you hereabouts. What's going on in the Seireitei?"
"Ha!" laughed Renji, "You probably know better than I do."
"True," said Urahara, smiling slyly, "but I thought it would be nice to ask anyway. How was your trip to Hueco Mundo?"
"Ugh," muttered Renji, "I hate that place! We found the tower Soutaichou wanted us to investigate, but we were sensed and Taichou was injured. He'll be all right, but he was concerned that the mission to Hueco Mundo go forward…so he sent me to find Ichigo and take him back there with me."
"To Hueco Mundo?" queried Ichigo, narrowing his eyes.
"Hai," Renji said, nodding, "We just need to try to approach close enough to take some readings of the inside of the tower. Taichou got close enough, but was sensed before he could take any readings."
"And he thinks I'll do better than another taichou?" Ichigo asked, grinning.
"No," said Renji, frowning, "He just didn't have a choice because we're already down several taichous and can't risk another."
"Nice!" Ichigo groaned.
"Well, hey," said Urahara, chuckling, "it will give you time to test a new invention of mine."
"Great," muttered Ichigo, "just please, not anything that blows up or could kill me! I'll have enough trouble trying not to get eaten by hollows!"
"Not to worry!" Urahara said, a little too reassuringly, "This is just a little device to take readings on your senses, nothing scary at all. It's invisible…just latches on to your reiatsu and voila! It does the work all by itself. I will warn you, though that if you decide to have some 'quality personal time' you might want to save it until after you get back. I'm really not interested in…"
"Yeah, all right. I get it!" snapped Ichigo, rolling his eyes.
"So," said Renji, "You'll come with me?"
"Of course I will. Whatever I can do to mess up Aizen's plans, count me in!"
"Okay, when do we leave?"
"Now," said Renji, "There is an escort team that is waiting at the shinigami base in Hueco Mundo to take us as far as the listening post outside the fortress. We'll go on alone from there."
Kisuke nodded and quickly set up the garganta. Ichigo and Renji exchanged glances and flash stepped into the passageway.
"Be careful, kids," Urahara said softly, watching them disappear.
"So…did you tell him?" Ichigo asked, smiling as he flash stepped alongside the redhead.
"What are you talking about?" Renji asked, glaring slightly.
"Aw, come on. You know, Renji! You were all about how Byakuya was sending all of these signals. I know he got injured, but did you tell him before?"
"You chickened out again?"
"No! He just beat me to it! And who are you to criticize anyway? I don't see you running up to Kisuke and professing your undying love!"
"Whoa, whoa, wait…Byakuya hit on you?" Ichigo laughed, "so what did you do?"
"What the fuck do you think I did?" Renji said, blushing, "I admitted I felt the same."
"What do you mean…'and,'" Renji said, frowning.
"Well? Did you…"
"Shut up!" roared Renji, "I'm not gonna tell you that! What goes on between Taichou and me is our business."
"Hey, take it easy, no offense intended," Ichigo said, looking not quite penitent, "but I hope you're not trying to keep it a secret or anything. I mean, you're shouting so loud, Byakuya probably heard you all of the way back in the Seireitei!"
"Screw you!" Renji huffed, grinning in spite of himself, "and you're not off the hook. Have you said anything to Kisuke yet?"
"Hell no! I've got no idea about how that would work. It's not like you and Byakuya and having signals to help you…Kisuke is different. I think because of what happened with him that led to him being banished and having to come here to the living world. He hides everything. It's damned hard to get inside his head."
"Well…I'll help if I ever can, Ichigo. I mean, if it wasn't for you…then when Taichou kissed me and told me he wanted me, I never would have had the guts to admit I wanted him too. I never would have made it through the door into his quarters…"
"Shit! You did have sex with Byakuya!" Ichigo gasped, "Damn! I think I have a nosebleed just thinking about that!"
"Shut up! I was trying to be nice and thank you and you had to go and…"
"Sorry Renji," Ichigo said, trying sincerely to look it, "I just think the two of you are cute together."
"Fuck you," Renji muttered, "Come on, I see the escorts."
He flash stepped ahead, leaving Ichigo laughing and moving to follow.
Ichimaru Gin watched the monitor closely as two shinigamis appeared and moved cautiously towards the tower.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk, Renji…a double offender," he commented dryly, "Didn't you learn from what we did to your taichou? You were lucky to both get away. Now you come back again?"
He sighed in annoyance.
"This is not interesting at all."
"Not interesting?" said a soft, quiet voice, "Why don't you take a closer look at who was sent in Byakuya's place. Granted Byakuya would make a lovely captive, but I'd like to have a trial run before that. Why don't we try it out on Renji's good friend…"
Gin's lips slithered into a sly smile.
"But don't be too obvious, Gin. Challenge yourself. This time, try to make Ichigo disappear without tipping off Renji about where he went."
"Can we use your zanpakutou?" asked Gin.
"No," said Aizen, smiling, "You have to be resourceful. Make Kurosaki Ichigo disappear. Bring him here and we will test your little invention on him."
"Will we keep him after?" asked Gin, "or will we kill him?"
"Hmmm…" said Aizen softly, "I was thinking it might be more fun to catch and release. Let them try to figure out what was done, ne? How long do you think it will be before they understand?"
Gin answered with a short sarcastic laugh. He pressed an array of buttons, then rose and started toward the door. Aizen looked up curiously.
"Where are you going?" he asked, blinking slowly.
Gin smiled widely.
"I'm going out there. I'm going to take care of this one personally."
"Remember…they are to be unaware of how they were attacked…and Renji is to be given no clue that Ichigo is here.
Gin laughed again.
"Next time you're bored like this…give me something challenging to do!"
Aizen's lips curled into a smile as Gin disappeared out the door.