Because I Promised

By Spunky0ne

(Dedicated to notxtoshi, alabirdie, deadbyday, renjfantoo, walkure leuad and all of the other Renji lovers out there! A feast of Bya/Ren goodness. I swear...it's better than chocolate! Well, once they get started. I'm afraid they'll have to work for it, but they will be happy together. And now, I'll shut up and let you read!)

XXXXXXXXXX

Hear these words. Let them bring you out of the darkness. No matter where you go, I will follow. No matter who stands between us, we will not be parted. Though you are lost, I will find you. I will never let you go.

XXXXXXXXXX

I know something has changed. For so long, I woke to icy coldness…cold so deep inside that I couldn't feel anything. Not that I'd want to now. Coldness…and darkness. They've been all there was of my so-called existence for days or weeks or maybe years. I lost track a long time ago. There used to a 'before' and I hoped for an 'after.' But that was when I first became Aizen Sousuke's prisoner. It was then that I learned the futility of before and the fact that I didn't want there to be an after. I wanted it to end. I wanted to die.

But that bastard wouldn't let me…

He told them they couldn't kill me. I was relieved at first, thinking naively that it meant that I had a chance to escape. But although I tried, time and again, my feet never touched the sand outside the prisons. I never even came close. I never felt the nearness of freedom. My world was reduced to a small, square cell. My life was reduced to coldness, darkness and intermittent pain.

The hollows are skilled in handing out torment. Created by dark emotion, they know the darkest part of the soul and they feed on it. I had always managed to keep the darkness inside at bay. Many things had tried to wear me down over the years…the rundown streets of Inuzuri, poverty, the deaths of so many friends, lost lovers, missed opportunities…and worst…that beautiful white terror who haunted me from the moment I first saw him.

Yes…Kuchiki Byakuya was the bane of my existence before. He had me out of bed and scrambling to get ready for work before the sun rose, racing to fetch his tea, filing hundreds of damned reports and apologizing because I can't write for shit. His softest words sounded like screams in my mind…and everything he said was laced with sarcasm.

Except for that once…

One time, that beautiful, angelic looking face softened for me. One time, he whispered and it actually sounded like a whisper. He was facing down an Espada…and a second attacker came out of nowhere…aiming for his unprotected back. It was my job to be there and I was. Zabimaru took the bastard down in an eyeblink, but not before he damn near cut me in half.

My taichou watched with those wide gray eyes as blood exploded all around me. I didn't hear his flash step, but I felt his arms catch me as I fell. He eased me to the ground and called my name like a hundred times. His hands lit up with healing light and his eyes got desperate. And when my eyes closed and everything went dark, I heard him talking.

"Abarai," he whispered, his breath touching my ear, "you cannot leave. I haven't had the chance to tell you…"

And just my luck, I faded out without fucking hearing the rest. I woke up in the fourth division and I could smell the scent of sakura…and I could feel his reiatsu everywhere. But he was gone when I woke enough that I could have talked to him. And even once I was released from the hospital, he never mentioned it again.

I was too proud or maybe too damned scared to ask…

It bugs the hell out of me, thinking now that I'll never know. I'm too preoccupied most of the time…too busy shrinking back into the corner of this damned cell, curling up and looking half dead so the hollows will pass me over and choose some other poor soul to fuck…or torture…it's all the same. Day in, day out, it never changes. Not that day and night exist here. The cells are always dark and the hallways brightly lit. That way, it blinds us as they drag us from our cells. It shocks us for a moment…long enough for them to be assured of control. I used to strike out blindly, figuring that eventually I would hit one of them hard enough to get loose. I almost did once, but only got three steps before I was on the ground. No two ways about it…with my spirit energy sealed away, I've got nothing on these bony nightmares.

I wonder why Aizen makes them keep us alive…why he doesn't come down here and show his ugly face, but sends these goons to beat us down…to rape us…to leave our minds as shattered as our bodies. The ones here were strong, but not taichous. They all had promise, but they also had rough edges. We're so worn down now that the edges have gone smooth. We hardly feel it anymore when they attack us.

I used to get angry, and I was so used to feeling the red energy swell around me, to hearing Zabimaru rise up inside, taunting me into action…half the time before I should have moved. I used to hate Zabimaru. I guess because I pretty much hated myself. I was always tall and clumsy, my timing a bit off, my uniform a bit askew, something always lacking. Taichou never had to work a brain cell to figure out something to correct, because he had so many fucking inadequacies to choose from. I wondered so many times why he chose me. And now I'll fucking die without ever knowing.

What does a guy born into the greatest of the noble families see in a fuck up like me? Why did his eye fall on my profile and what made him choose me as his fukutaichou? Back then, he was colder than Inuzuri in the dead of winter. He'd look at me and I'd shiver with dread. It's almost like something inside me knew he was going to kill me someday. But, like the rest of my instincts, that was a little off. Because even though we came to blows over Rukia, and even though he left only an inkling of life inside me, he left me with something…and I lived to suffer the aches and stings of recovery.

He was different after that. Maybe it was that he was beaten bloody by Ichigo…or maybe it was when Gin's blade ripped through his heart and he heard me scream his name. I don't know if it was that or that once those big dark eyes opened, I couldn't leave his side. Whatever it was, he stopped looking like he was tolerating me.

Yeah, that's where it started…in his eyes. That's probably the only place he could really show what was going on inside his head. While he was lying in the healing center and I'd bring him tea or reports on the squad, he would steal glances at me…and it wasn't like when he'd meet my eyes and be in perfect control, it's like he'd let himself escape in those small spontaneous moments. I don't know about him, but I began to live for them.

On the outside, things went on pretty damned normally. He still greeted me the same way every day. A meeting of eyes as the door opened. Not like he needed to look up. He always knew it was me. His reiatsu would touch me way before I reached the door. But he still looked up at me for just a second as I'd come in…then he'd say my name in greeting…just my name. It would spill out of his mouth in that deep, soft voice and it was like his hand had wrapped around my beating heart for a moment and squeezed. Everything stopped for just a moment…then he'd break eye contact and go back to his work. And as I'd move forward and take my place across from him, a swirl of sakura would brush against me…and I'd feel his reiatsu settle comfortably.

Damn…

I wonder if he misses that as much as I do…

I wonder who he chose this time…

And if he's sorry I'm not there…

Or if he thinks I got what I deserved, being so clumsy and getting captured…

I wonder if he's ever wished I would come back…

Or if he sits there quietly at that desk, across from his new fukutaichou and has forgotten all about me. Except maybe that Rukia still cries when she thinks about me. Maybe he hates me for getting myself into this and making her cry.

Still…given the choice I made that day…I made the right decision. As bad as things are, better me than him. Better a fuck up than a taichou. The Gotei 13 couldn't bear to lose him. They would rather throw away a thousand like me. And I would rather sit in this cell for the rest of my life…and barely survive on the scraps they give us…and have my body violated and beaten until I can't feel anything anymore…than to even have it cross my mind what they would have done to him if they'd gotten their hands on him. Aizen would have wanted Byakuya all to himself…would have locked him away somewhere where Gin and Tousen and all of the hollows wouldn't have been able to find him. And he would have been the one to meet those dark eyes every day. Yeah, he would have looked into those pretty eyes and done everything this side of hell to make him look afraid…to make that sweet mouth open into screams…to make him cry, plead, moan and wish for death. I couldn't let that happen to him…so I got between them.

It gave Taichou time to tear himself free and save the tattered remains of our group. I saw them going back through the senkaimon. I saw him turn back and look at me as I was falling.

He looked like I'd torn the heart out of him.

Then the hands of the other squad members took him and forced him through the senkaimon. I felt the last swell of his reiatsu and smelled sakura for the last time. Now every day…every night…with every damned breath, I thank kami I'm here…and not back there living without him. I can deal with the pain they hand out. I was raised in full knowledge that life isn't fair…and that things get fucked up and you sometimes can't do anything to fix it. Byakuya wasn't raised like that. Still, he has a sense of the way things are. That's why he'll let me go. That's why he'll make himself forget me…

I want him to…

XXXXXXXXXX

Rikichi watched his taichou closely. Kuchiki taichou scared him nearly out of his mind, but he knew that even though Abarai Renji was gone, he would have wanted someone to watch over their taichou the way he had. And so, for three long years, he had dedicated himself to the task, training harder than he had in his entire life and pushing his way forward until he was made third seat.

There was no fukutaichou of the sixth division…hadn't been since Abarai Renji.

So Rikichi sat at Renji's desk, looking at all of the things he'd left behind that day…the things that he hadn't dared to move and Kuchiki taichou had never asked him to. He dusted around them, so that it looked the same as it had the last time Renji had been there. It almost seemed as though he would come through the door any minute. Rikichi didn't know how many times he had closed his eyes and wished for it.

"Rikichi," Byakuya's deep, tranquil voice said, startling him out of his reverie, "Work hours have been over for some time. You may go."

"Hai, Kuchiki taichou," the youth said quietly, "Would you like me to make you some tea before I go?"

"No, Rikichi, you are dismissed."

He didn't look up from his work. Rikichi stood and gathered his things, then made his way down the hallway and into his quarters. He sat down on the edge of his bed, looking out the window and waiting, his hand on his zanpakutou. He waited silently, carefully masking his reiatsu as he had learned to from a friend in the second division. Part of taking care of Kuchiki taichou was staying with him, something Rikichi could only do if he could hide himself from the sixth division taichou.

He saw Byakuya step out into the darkness and look around for a moment. Rikichi waited breathlessly as the dark haired taichou cast his reiatsu around, searching for a moment. Then, convinced he was alone and unseen, he brought his reiatsu in close again and masked it. He took a last look around, then disappeared in a flash step.

Now Rikichi moved…

It had taken him months to figure out where his taichou went at night. He had had to try many times before learning to follow without being detected. Byakuya never scolded him when he caught Rikichi following. He just disappeared…and Rikichi practiced harder, promising himself he would master the skill perfectly. And tonight, it seemed, he had. He arrived where he knew Byakuya had gone and slipped into the senkaimon behind him. He followed the twists and turns, carefully keeping Byakuya in his sights. In the time he had been following the noble, he had improved in every aspect of stealth. He learned to walk on silent feet, to mask his reiatsu and blend into his surroundings, to follow unnoticed and to leave no sign of his passing. It was, he thought, much like making oneself a ghost.

Now he used those skills to follow Byakuya through the senkaimon, along the circuitous route he maintained, into the living world and down the twisting streets to Urahara Kisuke's shop. He waited as Byakuya disappeared inside, then a bit longer…then he approached the shop, himself and slipped inside. Kisuke was nowhere to be found, but Rikichi knew the way to the secret training grounds. It was there that the shopkeeper and the substitute shinigami had helped him to become stronger. They knew how much it meant to him. So when he appeared at the shop, Kisuke agreed immediately to help him. And he had been helping Rikichi ever since.

The youth paused by the entrance to the training grounds. He thought he might hear voices, so he waited until all was quiet. Then he carefully opened the door and dropped down into the training room. It was dark and quiet inside, but Rikichi knew his way to the garganta. And he knew that Byakuya passed through it each night…and that he spent his nights standing on top of a lonely sand dune, staring at the distant base. Kuchiki taichou, he thought, had never given up. He went back there each night because he refused to believe that Abarai Renji was dead. He was going to do something. Rikichi felt it keenly. So he trained like the devil to make sure he didn't go alone.

He stepped forward, picking his way through the darkness until he felt the presence of the garganta. Something felt different this time. Something was off. Rikichi paused. At that moment, the lights flashed on and he felt the heavy rush of three incoming zanpakutous. Instantly, his weapon was out and sweeping around him as his slim form leapt into the air.

"Hado #33, soukatsui!" he cried, sending a kido blast down at his attackers.

Blue light exploded downward, driving the three swordsmen back, their shielding rising quickly in response. The blue light of his attack lit their faces and Rikichi gave a gasp of dismay. He let himself drop back down into the center of the circle they had made around him. He looked warily into his taichou's eyes and saw, not anger, but approval. Kisuke nodded briefly and Ichigo's face erupted into a smile.

"Wh-what is happening?" the youth asked, staring, "Why did you…?"

Byakuya's eyes met his with uncharacteristic warmth.

"Put your weapon away, Rikichi," Byakuya said softly, "We will not attack you again. What we did before was a test…and you have passed. You are finally ready. We are finally ready."

The noble looked back at Kisuke.

"For three years, we have wondered about the fate of Abarai Renji. Recently, our spies discovered that he was being held within the fortress…in the prison level. You know that Soutaichou had Renji declared dead and would not allow us to go and search for him. When confronted with proof that Renji was alive, he refused to risk personnel for so difficult a rescue. It was as logic dictated, but I could not accept his order. Instead, I turned to Urahara Kisuke. He promised to assist me in Renji's rescue, but there was much we had to do to prepare.

We had to make our plans, and to make ourselves strong and skilled enough to see to his rescue. As you were so adamant about following me, I thought you might be part of this as well. Rikichi, we have Ichigo and Urahara to hold the garganta open and to protect our path back, but I need someone who can slip inside the fortress with me…who can be a second set of eyes and can assist me in removing Renji from the prison. If you do this, you will face punishment, as I will, upon our return to the Seireitei. You must consider whether this is acceptable to you. Rikichi…will you help us?"

The youth stared.

"M-me sir?" he stammered, "but Ichigo is way stronger!"

"Ichigo has power," admitted the noble, "but what we need is stealth."

"What about Yoruichi-san? She…"

"Her reiatsu is too well known to Aizen, because of Kisuke's and her involvement with him before. He was never very close to me…before the betrayal. I can hide my reiatsu and now you can also. We can move silently and your flash step is fast enough for an escape. And you are near reaching manifestation. You have grown very strong. And your use of kido is admirable. I must ask you again…will you assist us in rescuing Abarai Renji?"

Rikichi stared breathlessly into the eyes of his taichou, stunned by the emotion he saw there. He felt frozen where he stood…shaken to the core.

"Hai, Kuchiki taichou," he heard himself say.

He managed to keep his legs from shaking beneath it as he said the words, but he shook inside, thinking of what would happen if they failed…or even if they succeeded. Still, this was Renji. And for Renji, Rikichi was willing to do anything.

And judging by all he had done to prepare for the rescue, Kuchiki taichou was too. The straight-laced noble had never been one to ignore orders. Not direct ones, anyway.

It must be true then…

He must be in love with Renji…