Chapter 1: Waking to Love
"Be quiet, baka!" hissed Rukia, her voice reaching into the haze in Byakuya's mind and bringing him back from the distant place he had retreated to, as Renji pulled a chair into the hospital room from outside in the hallway, "You'll wake Nii-sama."
"Sorry," Renji muttered, sitting down and looking quietly at his hands.
"Why are you sitting all of the way over there?" his friend asked, "You can come and sit with me...just keep it down, so he can rest."
"I'm fine over here," the redhead said in a low voice, "and anyway, this isn't a social call, Aizen Sousuke just declared war on all of us. It's my job to make sure that nothing else happens to my taichou. We're going to need all of the taichous and fukutaichous we have now to stop him."
Rukia eyed him skeptically for a moment.
"That's not why you're here," she said, glaring at him meaningfully.
"Why don't you just admit it? You feel guilty about what happened between the two of you. Any idiot can see that."
She chuckled softly.
"Oh, but I forgot, you aren't just any idiot..."
"Did you hear the part where I just told you to shut up?" Renji muttered crossly, "And look who's being noisy now! You tell me I should be quiet. Why don't you take your own advice?"
Why does it make me feel warm inside to hear them speak to each other that way? It is meaningless conversation...idle banters. But after forty years of not being able to speak to each other...
They should hate me for doing that to them. But instead, they sit here at my side, treating me as though I deserve their...attention? Respect? Affection? What made them stay? And why do I not want them to leave? I am going to be fine. I don't need to have my hand held. I made myself strong so that I wouldn't need to lean on anyone. Dependence is a form of weakness...and I cannot afford to be weak.
I feel something inside.
What is this?
The room had fallen quiet again, and Byakuya remained still in the hospital bed, his eyes closed, but wondering if the two had gone. He tried opening an eye and found that Rukia's head was rested on the edge of the bed and her fingers were laced into his. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Renji was sitting silently in a chair by the door, cutting away at a small piece of wood. He took a breath to speak to the redhead, but was stopped as Unohana taichou entered the room, followed by Kotetsu fukutaichou. Rukia sat up and rubbed her eyes, then stood and moved aside.
"Oh, you're not in the way," Unohana said kindly, "You may stay there, if you like."
"Th-that's all right," Rukia said sleepily, "There is something I have to go and do anyway. I'll be back later."
Byakuya heard a hesitance in her footsteps as she left the room and wondered briefly what might be bothering her.
"Kuchiki taichou," said Unohana taichou, "It is time to change your bandages."
He regarded her with one half-opened eye and managed a short nod.
"Isane," said the healer, "Will you go and bring another roll of bandages? We are nearly out."
"Yes, Unohana taichou," Isane said, flash stepping away.
Byakuya felt Unohana taichou's hands touch his bandages and couldn't quite keep himself from flinching.
Even after a week of healing, there is still so much pain. I wonder if it is really all physical...
The healer's cool fingertips made him shiver under her hands.
"My apologies," said Unohana taichou, "You have contracted an infection and are feverish. But not to worry, the antibiotics have already been administered."
The healer paused for a moment.
"Abarai fukutaichou, might I borrow your hands for a moment?" she asked.
Renji made a soft sound of surprise.
"Yes," said the fourth division taichou, "Isane is still looking for the additional bandages, and I need an extra hand putting a fresh dressing on Kuchiki taichou's wound. Come."
"Uh...sure, no problem," Renji said, standing and crossing the room.
Byakuya caught his breath softly and his eyes opened reflexively as Renji's hands touched his chest. And he was surprised at the odd jolt that passed through him at looking directly into the redhead's eyes for the first time since their battle.
"S-sorry, Taichou," Renji stammered, averting his eyes, "I was clumsy."
"You didn't hurt me," he replied, uncertain why it felt so important to relieve the redhead's discomfort, "I was merely startled."
More by how his touch resonated than by the fact of being touched.
His hands feel warm, even to my feverish flesh.
"You see," said the healer to Renji, "It looks much better."
"I'll say," Renji agreed, "It looked awfully deep before. I was...well...it was bad. You're a wonder, Unohana taichou."
He sounds nervous.
Byakuya watched quietly as the healer's hands quickly set the fresh bandages in place, then he closed his eyes.
"Here are the bandages, Taichou," said Isane, walking back into the room.
Renji's hands left his chest and it seemed to grow a shade colder inside the noble.
"Abarai-san," said Unohana taichou, "Why don't you go and make Kuchiki taichou some tea? He needs to get some fluids. You can also check and see if there is any fresh soup. I think he's well enough to manage it now."
"Sure thing," Renji said.
Byakuya could still hear an odd hitch in the redhead's step as he left the room. It set him thinking about their battle again, and brought back the cold feeling he had felt before.
He was so angry...so hateful. Why is he here, helping me now? Is it really just because we need the power of the remaining taichous to defeat Aizen, or is there more to it than that?
"Are you all right?" Unohana taichou asked suddenly, "You looked distressed for a moment."
Byakuya quickly gathered himself.
"I am fine," he answered, "I was just...distracted."
"Ah, it happens," said his colleague, smiling sweetly, "Now, your wound is improved enough that we will start getting you up and around again. We can begin in the morning. Once you wake, you should walk around the ward once every hour or so. Have someone accompany you, in case you need assistance."
"I can help," offered Renji, walking back into the room and setting a tray bearing tea and soup, in front of him.
Byakuya breathed in the scents of the food and tea and felt his stomach rumble.
"Ah, you are much improved," said the healer.
She looked more closely at the tray and smiled.
"Abarai-san seems to have found something a bit better than what our kitchens have to offer," she commented.
"That's all right, isn't it?" asked Renji, "It's just...I thought that, well, Taichou is kinda specific about what he likes, so I went back to the division and made the tea there. The soup was some I made yesterday."
"It's fine," said the healer, "I am sure that Kuchiki taichou will appreciate the gesture."
Byakuya found himself suddenly speechless as Renji's eyes touched his for a moment, but he managed a look of gratitude and a short nod. He picked up the teacup and sipped at it quietly as the healers left the room. Renji said nothing more, but returned to the chair in the doorway and continued to whittle away at the piece of wood he had been working at before. Byakuya slowly consumed the tea and soup, while stealing glances at the man by his door. He finished his meal and set the tray aside, then rested his back against the pillows and looked quietly out the window. As the minutes ticked silently by, he wondered more and more about the presence of his fukutaichou...about the things he had said, his nervousness, and the perfectly made soup and tea he had brought.
Does he feel guilty for attacking me? He shouldn't. I stood between Rukia and him. And this time, he wasn't going to back down. But he saw, in the end. He saw how Aizen used me against her. He saw how it was easy to deceive me...to turn me against my own sister. And who are we fooling, anyway? Rukia was never my sister, really. I treated her as an obligation and kept her at a distance, because even looking at her hurt too much. No wonder Aizen found it so easy to manipulate me. Renji is more of a brother to her than I will ever be.
He felt an odd catch inside his healing heart as he remembered watching the redhead's ban kai emerge. He wasn't often surprised by people, but Renji had surprised him with both how strong he had become, and how devoted to Rukia he was.
His heart twinged painfully.
Not to me. He hated me for taking her. And I understand. But why is he here now? If he hates me so much, why is he taking care of me?
"Renji," he said, nearly startling himself by speaking, "Why are you here?"
Renji refused to meet his eyes.
"I'm here...because you're my taichou," he answered softly.
"You probably wish I were dead. I imagine that's what you're thinking now."
"No, you're wrong," Renji insisted, "If you were to die, then what motivation would I have to get stronger? And in fact, Taichou..."
Renji broke off and Byakuya stared as Ichigo burst in through the window. As the two yelled at each other, Byakuya's mind went back to Renji's words. He wondered what the redhead had been about to say, but was distracted out of wondering as Ichigo hastily apologized for barging in, and left. And in the wake of the youth's departure, Byakuya found himself unable to summon the nerve to ask.
Why can't I just say the words? What is wrong with me? And why is it that I don't want him to leave, any more than he apparently wants to. Does this mean...he is going to...forgive me? And why do I ache to be forgiven?
Why do I feel so odd inside?
He fell silent as Renji reclaimed his place in the doorway. He looked out at the blue sky and listened to the birdsong as the afternoon crawled by. As evening approached, he looked over at the redhead.
"You should go," he suggested quietly, "I am sure you have things to do."
Renji looked back at him for a moment, then rose silently and walked out of the room.
Why do I feel sadness inside, when I told him to go?
He watched as darkness slowly fell, and the stars and moon began to appear. He sank into the beauty of the full moon and tried to let everything else go. But just when he thought he had escaped the confines of the fourth division and found some peace, he found himself thinking of his battle with Renji again. And as he watched the reveal of Renji's ban kai in his mind, he felt again, the sudden, beautiful shock, the pounding of his heart, the widening of his eyes as the skeletal snake rose up before him for the first time.
A shaft of guilt passed through him, thinking how it was supposed to be that when a subordinate revealed his ban kai to his taichou, it should be a moment of mutual celebration. His own had been...and he had looked forward to having the same thing happen between him and...someone. He didn't have a child. And Renji had been the closest thing to an apprentice he had had as a taichou.
But he only accepted my intercession because he wanted to watch me closely...because he wanted to learn how to defeat me. And as oblivious as I was, I didn't see it. I never even considered that he would turn on me. I underestimated his determination, his powers, and his fury. I saw him as a loyal, heeling dog.
But I don't see him that way now.
Byakuya blinked in surprise and looked up as Renji set a tray of food in his lap.
"I thought you might be hungry, and figured you'd like this better than hospital food."
Byakuya took a shaky breath.
"You don't have to do this, Renji...all of this running about and doing everything for me. We already opened Pandora's box. The truth has been told. We know each other in full now."
Renji was silent for a moment.
"And...that means...that you won't forgive me?" Renji asked finally.
"What?" Byakuya asked, frowning, "Me forgive you?"
"I know," Renji went on, "I turned on you. I used my place near you to try to discover how to defeat you. I have this reputation for being loyal...for hating liars. But I stooped to lying. I was dishonest with you. And I'm sorry."
"You stood up for Rukia, a person who is more rightfully your sister than mine," Byakuya whispered, "I was going to let her die. I would have been willing to kill her myself. I was completely fooled by Aizen's deceptions. But you stood by her."
"But I misjudged you!" Renji exclaimed, "I had it in for you from the moment you showed up and..."
"Took Rukia away from you?"
"Taichou, I should have been happy for her! We never had family. You were going to give her that."
"I was never like that with her. I couldn't even look at her. I sent her off to the thirteenth division..."
"Because seeing this person," Renji went on, "who looked so much like your late wife was probably unbearable."
"That doesn't excuse what I did...how I failed her," Byakuya replied quietly.
"And you shouldn't excuse what I did...how I failed you, Taichou. So yeah, I'm here. I'm...doing what I should have done from the start. I'm trying to be the fukutaichou I should have been...and I'm hoping that you won't just have me transferred."
Byakuya stared at him in surprise.
"You...still want to work with me? After everything?"
I don't deserve this, Renji. You should walk away now.
"I know I betrayed you. And I don't deserve it, but I still feel like there is a lot I can learn from you. Please, Taichou, I want to stay in the sixth. I want to stay with you."
And for some reason I cannot begin to fathom, I am desperate for you not to go.
Byakuya took a steadying breath.
"I imagine," he said softly, "that given the situation...how we were all so taken in by Aizen, we should be willing to make some allowances and let go of what happened during that time."
He felt a soft, lovely jolt as his eyes met Renji's and he read the hopefulness in the redhead's expression.
"So...if you forgive me for allowing myself to be set against Rukia and you, then I will forgive you for attacking me."
"Th-thank you..." Renji began, but Byakuya waved him off.
"With the understanding that you do not have to grovel. It is demeaning. I can survive for another day or two on what they have here. You do not have to bring me my meals."
Renji broke into a grin that made Byakuya's heart skip.
"You sure about that? I think you might be really sorry."
"Probably," the noble said dryly, "but it is better than watching you stumble about, making unnecessary apologies and overcompensating."
"Well...what if I just like doing it? What if I like helping you?" Renji asked.
Byakuya let his lips curve upward slightly.
"Then your assistance is appreciated, of course," he said sedately.
"Yeah," laughed Renji, "I knew you didn't really want that hospital food!"
"Very astute, Renji," Byakuya answered, a swell of warmth passing through him.
Something is happening.
I wonder...if he feels it too.