The Only Exception

By Spunky0ne

XXXXXXXXXX

(This popped into my head after hearing Paramore's song by the same name. Just a sweet, winter romance story to warm the cold days.)

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya sat, quietly working at his desk and looking up occasionally to watch the soft snowfall outside his office window. It was barely light enough, but he rather enjoyed watching as the unique ice clusters touched the frosted window and clung, only to melt away moments later and be replaced by others. It was like life in fast forward, and it reminded him for the hundredth time that years were passing…

The door burst open and Renji tumbled inside, a swirl of snowflakes blowing inside with him. He might have wanted to say something laced in velvet sarcasm, but for some reason, the sight of a red cheeked, red-nosed, huffing, puffing Renji made his lips twitch softly and his eyes blink curiously.

"S-sorry, Captain," the redhead said through chattering teeth, "I know I'm late, but I had to practically break my own trail through the snow. It's getting pretty thick out there."

"Hmmm," Byakuya said, turning back to his work.

He was only able to concentrate for a few moments, then his eye was distracted away from his work as Renji dropped down at his desk and picked up a small wrapped package he found there.

"Hey, Captain, do you know where this came from?" he asked.

"No," the noble said, looking back at the papers in his hand, "It was there when I arrived."

"Huh," Renji said, raising his eyebrow cutely.

He turned the box in his hands, admiring the red and green pattern, then tore the paper away and opened the box. He reached inside and carefully removed a small figurine…two white birds with interlocked wings. Attached to the birds was a small slip of paper with a typed note.

Sometimes what you want is right in front of you, but you simply don't see it. It took me some time to 'see' you…and now I wonder. Do you see me too?

Renji turned the note over, but found no name on it. He searched the box carefully, but it was to no avail. Finally, he sighed in frustration and dropped the box in the trash. Then he sat for a moment, turning the figurine in his hands and staring at it.

"Abarai…is something wrong?" asked the noble, startling him.

He dropped the birds onto his desk.

"N-no…sorry Captain," he stammered, picking the figurine up and setting it on top of the papers in his inbox.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when a slender hand lifted the figurine and dropped more reports into his inbox. He looked up at Byakuya as the noble glanced down at the figurine, then set it back on top of the papers. He turned and walked back to his desk without a word. Renji refocused on his work, but his eye kept straying to the little white birds. And the words on the small piece of paper repeated in his head until he could think of nothing else.

Who could it be? It's obviously someone who I know…who's interested in me. But who? Shuuhei has been looking at me kind of like he's interested…

"Abarai, have you finished the training schedule for next week?" Byakuya asked, derailing his thinking.

"Oh…yeah," he said, getting up and taking the schedule to the display board, "Just forgot to put it up."

"Ah…" said Byakuya, returning to his work.

Renji struggled through the next few hours, trying not to look at the birds…the two lovely, slender white bodies, clipped together at the wing, their delicate heads slightly turned towards each other. And what kind of birds were they anyway? And…

"Renji."

The redhead's eyes lifted and met the noble's questioningly.

"The weather is turning foul and if you do not leave now, you will likely be spending the night in your quarters here. You may go, if you wish."

Renji's eyes widened slightly. It was unlike Byakuya to give him a break like that, mostly because such a thing meant the noble would likely be kept later…and might not be able to leave, himself. But as much as it made him feel guilty to leave his work to his captain, he ached to know who had given him the figurine. So he thanked Byakuya, who nodded briefly and returned to his work, then gathered his things and set off for the bar where he met his friends.

The club was already crowded and vibrating with music and dancers, with friends laughing and smiling, with servers weaving in between the swaying bodies to deliver food and drink to the revelers celebrating the end of the work week.

Renji spotted Rukia sitting with Rangiku, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Kira, Rikichi and Shuuhei. He flash stepped to the table where they sat and as he sat down, he let the figurine tumble out of his pocket onto the table.

"Oh!" said Rikichi, catching the doves as they fell, "Careful, Renji, you've dropped something."

He turned the figurine over in his hands, his eyes curious. Maybe a little too curious…Renji thought to himself.

"Where did you get those?" Rangiku asked, her eyes lighting merrily, "They're darling! I think I saw some like that over at a shop in the living world."

"It was a gift…but there was no card or anything, so…"

"Oh ho ho!" said Yumichika, his eyes twinkling softly, "Someone is sending you signals, Abarai…lovely subtle signals. I wish that my love would be so romantic…but, sadly, not all love is so beautiful!"

"What kind of birds are they?" asked Kira, looking more closely, "Doves?"

"Turtle doves," said Rukia, "I read about them in the library in Kuchiki Manor. Turtle doves are given as a sign of unconditional love and purity. And when a dove dies, it's a sign of misfortune."

She sure knows a lot about it, thought Renji, narrowing his eyes.

Ikkaku laughed and emptied the mug he was drinking from.

"I'll have another," he said to the server.

Maybe a sign of nervousness?

Renji took the figurine from Rikichi, noting the flutter in the youth's eyelids when their fingertips touched.

Oh great…a hero worship gone out of control, maybe?

"I think it's soooooo sweet you have an admirer!" laughed Rangiku, her eyes going dreamy.

Okay, so it's probably not her. Maybe a good thing, since two red-haired lovers could be kinda explosive…but then, explosive done the right way could be interesting…

"I think it's great, too," said Rikichi, "I think it would be great to have someone pursue me like that!"

Hmmm…maybe he's trying to throw me off. I hope it's not him. I know he looks up to me…and it could be fun being with someone so decent and innocent, but…

"I don't know," said Kira, "I mean, if someone likes you, why would they not just come out and say so? I don't know if I would trust someone who felt he had to be deceptive…"

He said 'he.' How would Kira know if it was a guy or a girl who sent it? I could go either way…for the right person…yeah, it's who the person is that matters…

"Maybe he or she was trying to be romantic," suggested Rukia.

Sounds kinda defensive, ne?

Ikkaku rolled his eyes.

"What a fucking waste of time!" he laughed, "Just say 'let's roll' and hit the sheets already!"

"You really are appallingly vulgar, you know!" huffed Yumichika.

"Sue me," replied Ikkaku, taking another drink.

"Oh," said Rukia, "I forgot to tell you, Renji. Orihime, Chad, Uryu and Ichigo are here for the weekend. They thought it might be fun to go skiing or ice skating or something."

Huh? More possibilities. How am I supposed to figure this out? I think Ichigo likes Kisuke. I've thought that for a while…but it wouldn't be so bad if I had that wrong and he liked me. Ichigo's a lot of fun. But now…Shuuhei's been kinda quiet tonight…

He glanced over and saw the man in question sighing softly and staring down into his cup.

"Something wrong?" Renji asked quietly.

"Oh no," said Shuuhei, donning a warm smile, "Just got lost in my thoughts is all."

Hmmm…

Frustrated, Renji shook his head and ordered a drink. As the evening continued and the warm feeling in his veins grew, he seemed to see signs everywhere. From their laughter and jokes, the way they looked at each other, the movements and friendly touches…

Damn…it could be any of them…or none of them. How am I going to figure this out?

Rangiku grabbed his hand and pulled him onto his feet. She loved to dance and Renji was one of the few of her friends who liked it as well. Alcohol in his body mixed with the sugar in the festive treats they enjoyed and soon the room seemed to spin on its own. As he spun Rangiku in a circle, listening to her dizzy laugh, he had a momentary impression of a shadow outside the window…a solemn, solitary figure, trying to decide whether or not to enter. When he came around again, the shadow was gone. It disappeared from his mind almost as quickly as it had registered.

The music ended and Renji and Rangiku tumbled back into their seats, flushed and breathless. There were more friends now, as the ones from the living world had arrived, so Renji spent the rest of the evening talking and laughing with them…and watching them carefully. By the time the talk dwindled and they bundled up to go home, all Renji was certain of was that the next time he wanted to try to figure out a mystery of any sort, he should avoid drinking and eating too many sweets while doing so.

"Can I walk you back to the manor?" he asked Rukia.

"No thanks," she said, smiling, "Ichigo and the others are all staying at the manor for the weekend."

"Really?" he asked, surprised, "And that's okay with Captain Kuchiki?"

"Yeah," she said, nodding, "I was kind of surprised, too, but he said with the weather being so temperamental, it would be best if we were gathered close together."

She started to turn away, then turned back to him.

"Hey, uh, Renji. You want to come to the manor to stay for the weekend too?" she asked, "Then we'll all be together, so we can decide what to do and not have to wait for word to go around."

No…that's not obvious at all, Rukia. But…she's my best friend! Why would she feel the need to be sneaky about it?

"Renji?"

"Ah…sure…if you're sure it's okay."

"Yeah, come on!"

"What? Rukia, I don't have any of my stuff or…"

"Don't worry!" she assured him, "You can borrow a yukata to wear to bed and then when the storm lets up in the morning, you can go and get your stuff."

Renji hesitated a moment longer. He had been to Kuchiki Manor a few times to deliver things or to meet Rukia, but he had never spent the night there…or even looked around much inside.

"Well…if you're sure it's no problem…" he said, noncommittally.

"Come on, baka! You're holding up the party!"

Renji shook his head and followed the others back to the manor. When they arrived, the housekeeper led them to the guest wing and each was given his or her own room. Renji stood staring, not remembering ever being someplace so warm and comfortable as the guest room he was given. The furniture in the room was all handmade…fine cherrywood. The bed, pillows and blankets were all sinfully soft and comfortable.

He remembered belatedly that Rukia had said he might borrow sleeping clothes, but stepping back into the hallway, he found that everyone else seemed to be asleep. He remembered that the housekeeper had said that if they needed anything during the night, they could summon one of the attendants…and if they wanted tea, the kitchen was in the main wing. He thought a cup a tea might help him settle down, so he left the guest wing and walked back to the main wing.

He found the kitchen and waved off the attendant who came to make the tea for him. He stood quietly, looking out the window, into the gardens, admiring the pretty moon that hung over it. When his tea was ready, he poured it into a cup and turned out of the kitchen, promptly forgetting which way he was supposed to go. He chose the right hand hallway and walked to the end, then found himself at an unfamiliar junction and turned again. He saw the door standing slightly ajar at the end of the hall and moved towards it, thinking it was the one leading out of the wing. As he passed through it, he slid to a halt, staring.

What he saw was definitely not the exit he had been looking for. This was a much larger room with an absolutely huge bed…an ornate sword stand, which currently held Senbonzakura and furniture even finer than the room he had been given. He caught his breath as he realized first, that this was Byakuya's room and second, that his captain stood in the dressing area of said room, wearing nothing but a towel around his damp, freshly washed body.

"Are you lost, Abarai?" the noble asked with calm sarcasm.

"S-sorry, Captain," he stammered, turning so fast, he spilled the hot tea on his hand.

"Renji…"

The redhead froze.

"Hai?"

"You merely turned the wrong direction at the junction. You should have gone left."

"Oh," Renji said, starting to take a step.

"Why don't you let me show you the way," Byakuya suggested.

Heat flashed across Renji's face as the noble's towel dropped and he was given a lovely view of Byakuya's long, black hair, straight, muscular back and the most perfect ass he'd ever seen. The image lasted only a moment, then Byakuya wrapped a yukata around himself and started back across the room.

"Did you bring sleeping clothes or would you like to borrow something?" the noble asked, startling Renji again.

"Oh…ah, yeah, I didn't have a chance to go get my stuff. This was kinda last minute…"

Byakuya nodded and returned to the dressing area. He came back holding a lovely warm looking purple yukata. He handed it to the flustered redhead, then led him back to the junction in the inner hallway.

"I would suggest using the outer hallways," the noble suggested, "It's easier to keep your bearings."

"Sure thing," Renji said, recovering himself, "Thanks Captain!"

"You are welcome. Good night, Renji."

"Good night, Captain…and thanks again…"

Byakuya turned away and disappeared down the hallway. Renji found his way back to his room, drank the cooled tea and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning…and repeatedly dreaming about seeing Byakuya naked.

He couldn't quite decide if it was a nightmare or a lovely fantasy…