Chapter 4: The Sentry

(Hi everyone! Just want to give a shout out to alabirdie, a longtime reader whose birthday was yesterday, and who really adores Renji. Her love of Renji has nudged Spunky into a flurry of Renji related writing, so here is the first 'Happy Birthday' gift for you, alabirdie! But there will be more. Hope you like 'seeing red' because there is a whole heaping helping of it on the way! The weekend just started and rain is forecast for today, so there should be a few love scenes in the near future...ah, Spunky LOVES the rain! Ironic that she lives in temperate California. *scratches head and considers move to nearby Oregon, then thinks fondly of Ireland* Ah, memories...)

Byakuya woke before Renji, and took a moment to examine his deeply sleeping subordinate. He showed no sign of injury and seemed to be functioning at the full strength of his reiatsu. The noble sighed softly, thankful that the redhead would not require another life force infusion. He hadn't fully recovered from the first, so to take on a second would have been reckless.

He slipped outside and spotted the sentry. The cloaked man gazed at him from under his hood and his lips frowned.

"Do you wish to switch places now?" he asked, "You depleted yourself, and could do with rest, but as the hollows have left off for the time being, guard duty is almost unnecessary."

"Still, we are in enemy territory and will remain vigilant," said Byakuya, "As much as you are, by nature, somewhat more arrogant than I am, I won't have you endangering us with your negligence."

"Do not concern yourself," the other said blithely, "Nothing will disturb your training."

Byakuya nodded.

"I will need your assistance in pushing his reflex speed to its maximum.," said the noble, "but I do not want him to become aware of your identity just yet, so attend to it with some degree of caution."

"Of course."

Byakuya walked back into the cave and knelt next to Renji. He deepened the redhead's consciousness and read his reiatsu closely to determine the exact parameters of his strength.

We will be pushing to the extremes from here, so he needs to be at full capacity. He is still being affected by the infusion of my reiatsu, so he will be performing at his peak throughout our training...

Renji stirred softly, rolled over and began to snore contentedly. Byakuya picked up Zabimaru and set the weapon across his lap. He drew Senbonzakura and touched the tip of the blade to the hilt of Renji's sword, calling on the spirit in his own blade to feed the core of the other. He felt weariness steal over him as he completed the technique and his reiatsu fluttered slightly.

He has gained significant power, but what concerns me is the strength of his heart. He is worn from all he has been through...as are we all. But what he needs is not something I can give him, but something he has to find in himself. Rukia would be more adept at assisting him in this. My gifts are related to strategy, psychology and executions of power. My own heart is strong, but I do not know so well how to help another find that strength in himself. It takes time, focus...and the right set of challenges, but life is better at providing those challenges than any man could be...

He sighed softly, closing his eyes and running his hands over his face. When he looked back at Renji, he noticed that the redhead had shifted again, and his yukata had opened...and was enticing him with another lovely view of the man's tattoos. Byakuya blinked, blushing at the odd twinge he felt inside as he also noticed that the redhead was aroused.

I wonder what he is dreaming about...

He caught himself and pushed the thought away forcefully.

It is just because I infused him with my life force. It sometimes creates an emotive connection.

Still, he couldn't help but steal glances out of the corner of his eye as he prepared and drank a cup of restorative tea, then settled down near Renji to try to sleep. But given the redhead's closeness, the touch of his scent in the air, and the peacefulness in his face as he dreamed, he couldn't make his eyes close. So instead, he focused on the pattern of black markings that teased him from beneath Renji's partially opened yukata.

He was somewhat shocked to find that he was becoming aroused too. But as shocked as he was with his own body's response to the redhead, he was completely stunned when Renji turned in his sleep and curled and arm around the noble's waist and pulled him close, curling that strong, wonderfully scented body into close contact with his. And the words and warm breath that tickled his ear a moment later left him reeling.

"I won't let you be hurt anymore...Taichou."

An odd feeling passed over Kuchiki Byakuya as he rested quietly in Renji's protective arms.

I feel safe here.

I wasn't aware of how good it feels to be protected. I protect others all of the time. But being that I must not fail to exude strength, it is rare that I seek protection, myself.

But...protectiveness is the core of this man's strength. His heart is troubled because he feels that when he was here before, he failed to protect Rukia. It is not true, of course. But Renji is harder on himself than I am.

But how do I put him in touch with that protective side?

The thought continued to nag at him as the warmth and comfort of the tea, and of being close to Renji overcame him before he could make himself pull away. And when Renji rolled onto his back, the noble turned easily in half sleep and settled on his shoulder with Renji's arm still curled around him.

XXXXXXXXXX

Renji found himself suddenly alone on the top of a lonely sand dune, looking down on the bloodied body of a collapsed shinigami. His broken sword remained clenched in one pale hand and blood flowed from his nose and mouth, running down the porcelain cheek, then into the tumbled strands of his raven black hair.

"Oh no..." Renji whispered, dropping onto his knees and pulling the man close, "Taichou! Taichou, wake up! Come on!"

Byakuya stirred and managed a soft groan, then quivered and lost consciousness again.

"Damn it! Who did this to you?"

A cloaked figure stood solemnly on a nearby hill, watching. Renji glared up at him.

"You were supposed to be our sentry!" he shouted, "He trusted you to protect him! But look at him!"

The shrouded figure gazed at him silently, his face covered by his hood. Renji touched Byakuya's face gently.

"Taichou...Taichou, it's going to be okay. I will take care of you. I won't let you be hurt anymore...Taichou."

Byakuya's lips moved and two words escaped him. The portent of those words tore at the redhead's heart.

"R-renji...why?"

"What?" Renji whispered, "You...think I did this to you? No, Taichou. I wouldn't hurt you like this! I'm going to take care of you. I won't let anything touch you."

He started to heal the noble's wounds, but was shocked into action as the reiatsu in the area rose dangerously and the cloaked man fired a kido blast at them.

"Son of a bitch!" Renji howled, surging to his feet and blocking it.

He flew at the cloaked figure, firing blazing red blasts of his own and blocking the other man's attacks. He struck out viciously with fists and feet, elbows and knees, taking the man to the ground and fighting, not like the battle-seasoned fukutaichou he was, but like the pathetic, stick-thin Rukon boy he was.

"Did you forget you have something to protect?"

Renji froze at hearing the sound of his own voice. He reached down and tore away the hood, then blanched as he found himself looking at his own face.

"Wh-what the fuck?" he gasped.

His look-alike threw sand into his face to incapacitate him, then stood and took aim on the defenseless noble. A hard blast of kido struck Byakuya's unconscious form, tossing him like a rag doll and sending him tumbling away.

"BASTARD!" screamed Renji, "I don't care WHO the hell you are. You don't hurt him!"

Zabimaru appeared in his hands and exploded into ban kai, then swept across the distance between them and swallowed up the look-alike. Renji flash stepped to where Byakuya had landed and knelt beside him, looking desperately for signs of life.

"Taichou, don't be dead! Taichou! BYAKUYA!"

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya was torn out of sleep as Renji came awake suddenly, screaming his name and grabbing him tightly.

"BYAKUYA!"

He froze, still half dazed with sleep and confused by the sudden awakening, as Renji held him tightly, sobbing his name and apologizing profusely.

"A-abarai," he managed in a shocked voice, "Renji, what are you...?"

He went silent as the redhead's mouth fastened on his, subduing him instantly with a long, open-mouthed kiss.

"I'm sorry," Renji sobbed senselessly, "I'm sorry I didn't protect you. I know that was my job and I failed you. I'm sorry, Taichou...so sorry!"

"Renji, stop this at..."

He was cut off by an even harder, more frantic kiss that not only busied his mouth, but sent heady jolts of arousal through him. Renji's yukata fell open, fully revealing the redhead's sensuous body and his warm scent filled the noble's lungs as he inhaled and tried to speak again. But he found that stopping Renji became unnecessary when his fukutaichou's brown eyes blinked, and the redhead came to a full awareness of what he was doing.

Byakuya suddenly realized that while Renji's mouth had been distracting him, the redhead's hands had been busy opening his yukata and sliding it down off of his shoulders. He sat in stunned silence, staring at Renji's naked and beautifully aroused body, as Renji stared at his and tried to find something to say.

"T-taichou, I'm..."

Byakuya stood, then realized what that left Renji looking at, and hastily closed his yukata.

"Get dressed," Byakuya said curtly, turning away from him, "It is time to begin training."

He walked to the back of the cave and turned his back on Renji as they both dressed. Neither said anything but necessary words as they ate and gathered their weapons They left the cave and walked out of the cluster of rocks, emerging onto the open desert.

Byakuya sensed that Renji was about to say something and cut him off, by turning and attacking without warning. Renji barely stopped the incoming strike, and anger rose in his eyes.

"What's wrong?" Byakuya said with his usual edge of sarcasm, "Don't you know better than to lower your guard in a place like this?"

His words and tone seemed to bring the normality back for the two, and they moved into a series of swift strikes and blocks, intermingled with short blasts of kido. The more they fought, the less time they had to think about what had happened back in the cave.

At least, that was what Byakuya had thought in initiating the attacks.

But as their bodies continued to clash, Renji's desperate kisses still burned on the noble's lips, the memory of his scent still filled his senses, and the image of that lovely, naked, muscular, tattooed body struck him harder than Renji's hands and feet as they broke through his usually perfect defenses. He found himself being forced back, and nearly stepped on one of his own traps before gathering himself and forcing the unbidden thoughts away again.

"What's wrong, Taichou?" Renji said, smirking, "You're not focused."

Byakuya frowned.

"Then, why am I not on the ground at your feet?" he asked icily, "If you want to excel, then you are going to have to be willing to put everything into defeating me. No more holding back. Fight me like you mean it, or I will consider you a lost cause and kill you to spare both of us the embarrassment."

Byakuya caught sight of their cloaked and hooded sentry and gave him a barely perceptible nod. The noble attacked with a flurry of high speed strikes, carefully controlled, so as not to really injure, but enough to sting nastily if they landed.

"Ow! Dammit!" Renji snapped, as a blow connected.

"Evade!" Byakuya commanded him, striking more quickly.

Renji blocked several more strikes, then took two hits and gave ground.

"Don't back away from me!" Byakuya ordered him, "Dodge! Move faster!"

"I..."

"Don't speak! Move!" Byakuya panted, forcing himself to his fastest speed and attacking again.

In the midst of a barrage of stinging strikes, he broke away. As part of one motion, the sentry stepped in, taking over where Byakuya had left off, taunting and striking at the redhead, as Byakuya carefully watched and assessed, while also catching his breath. He felt a warning burning sensation in his spirit centers, but ignored it and moved closer to the two fighters, carefully taking note of how the redhead moved, and where he erred. He made several mental notes for use later, then moved away, allowing the sentry and Renji to continue to fight. He thought he sensed an odd, malevolent reiatsu, but it disappeared almost as quickly as it had registered. He heard a thud as Renji's body struck the sand, and flash stepped back as the redhead turned and came to his feet, howling with fury and intent on doing damage.

"Damn it!" he cried, "Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!"

The sentry took him to the ground and held him there.

"Your emotions are getting in the way," he said coldly, "You will die if you do not learn to control them."

He raised a hand, preparing to loose a kido blast at point blank range. Renji barely blocked the blast and tumbled away, rolling aside just in time to miss being hit by another blast of kido. Byakuya joined in, firing kido from one direction, while the sentry did the same from another. Renji registered the cooperation between their attacks and swore again.

Byakuya fully expected him to be sent back to the ground. He made a sound of surprise as Renji launched himself directly at the noble, his hand catching Byakuya's sleeve as he moved and throwing him off balance. While he was distracted with recovering himself, Renji broke away and attacked the sentry, moving so quickly that the other man was forced to back away. Byakuya attacked from behind, again expecting, based on prior fights, that Renji would be too distracted with the other enemy to defend against it. Inexplicably, Renji turned and loosed a blast of kido at point blank range.

Byakuya was thrown off balance again, but was convinced that, having anticipated him like that, the redhead should have hurt him to some extent. He met the sentry's eyes, and an unspoken message passed between them.

"You are holding back...why?" the sentry asked in Byakuya's voice, "If you do not put everything into this fight, I will kill you, Renji. I consider it a matter of honor."

He shoved the redhead away, and Renji dropped to his knees on the sand. The sentry watched quietly and waited.

"I'm...I'm sorry, Taichou," Renji panted, "It's...it's just that awful dream I had about...about you being hurt, and..."

The sentry flash stepped forward and grabbed the redhead by the front of his shihakushou, shaking him as he spoke.

"Do NOT let your emotions interfere with your fighting! You are leaving yourself vulnerable. As fighting Aizen showed us, the enemy can show us any face...and we must be able to fight despite that. Get up, Renji. Get up and kill me or I will kill you."

Renji's eyes widened.

"Taichou...?"

The sentry drew his weapon and struck at the stunned redhead.

Byakuya flash stepped in and took hold of the sentry's hand, blocking his body and stopping him.

"That will be enough," he said quietly, "Show him."

Renji's eyes went wide and his jaw dropped.

"T-taichou?"

Byakuya and the other gazed at Renji and removed their hoods, exposing their identical faces.

"Taichou?" Renji queried in a disbelieving voice, "Taichou...is that...a reigai?"