Chapter 9: I'll Follow You

(I blame Shinedown, which I was listening to while writing, for this one...I think you'll understand. And don't worry. This story will not go too angsty, but what is love without a little danger, right?)

It was the second day in a row that Byakuya woke to find himself held tightly in Renji's arms and nearly naked. And once again, his face was burrowed beneath the redhead's chin, and he breathed in Renji's wonderful, primal scent that had somehow managed to become a deep craving. He gazed quietly at where the fingers of one of his more slender and paler hands had entangled with Renji's more golden browned ones. He loved their contrasts, Renji's dark skin to his light, his feral, wild masculine scent to Byakuya's more sedate and soothing sakura scent, red against black, noble mingled with peasant, roughness and softness...all of it so intoxicating, so thoroughly enjoyable that he never wanted it to end.

Renji snored softly, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. The fingers of his free hand were sunk into the noble's fine hair, and moved gently as the redhead slept and dreamt. Byakuya smiled against the skin of his throat, enjoying their closeness and how relaxed and comfortable they were together.

It is only a step away from falling all of the way into love, he thought, but before we allow ourselves to fall completely, a good foundation must be laid. We have been comrades and, since Rukia's rescue, something akin to friends. But Renji still looks at me as his untouchable taichou...well, untouchable by the most serious definition. It is time for that to change, for me to come clean with him about what I've been feeling.

But how will he respond?

Byakuya loosed a soft sigh and kept his face burrowed beneath Renji's chin. He listened to the gentle rise and fall of the redhead's breathing and let the fingers of one hand explore the pattern of bold lines he no longer had to look at to trace.

Yes, I have studied them so many times just in these last hours, so as not to forget them ever, but to be able to trace them in air when I remember this.

Renji's breathing slowed and softened under the gentle exploration of the noble's hands as they traveled over his chest, caressing and appreciating, learning and following. Every touch was light, gentle, searching, and his eyes meandered ever so slowly downward, memorizing.

Because this is a sinful, lovely thing that I may only experience this once.

Abarai Renji, resting comfortably in my bed, uncovered...revealed...and perfectly relaxed. Such a work of art has never found a way into my heart before. I wonder what I will feel when he gets up and leaves...

"Hey," Renji whispered suddenly, startling him so that his hands stopped moving, "What's with that look on your face, Taichou?"

"What do you mean?"

"W-well," the redhead said, yawning sleepily and scratching his head, mussing his handsomely tumbled hair even more, "Before...you were touching me all over...looking at me the way an art dealer looks at a painting he wants to buy...you know, poring over every detail and appreciating. But then, all of a sudden, you looked different. You looked...sad. Why?"

"Hmmm," sighed the noble, thinking quickly and speaking before he had really considered what the words meant, "Perhaps it is just that moment when you, as a connoisseur, realize that a work of art is too fleeting a thing. And so, caught between the joy of experiencing it and wanting to protect it from decline as long as possible, you cannot help but be conflicted...as beautiful as the work of art before you is."

"Huh," Renji mused, turning onto his stomach.

Is he offering me...more?

"The thing that I've always thought about art," the redhead said, still in that sleepy voice, "is that...it exists to be seen...interacted with...loved. Even if that love will slowly wear on it and change it. Some people think that the way to protect it is to lock it up and hide it. But it doesn't stop the art from slowly losing its beauty. So the question is...what's better? To lock it away and let it sit, unseen and untouched? Or to allow itself to be brought out and appreciated? If I was a work of art, I would want to be appreciated...even if that meant that I would lose my beauty a bit faster."

You will never lose your beauty, Renji. Because as lovely as your markings are, they are not the most beautiful part of you. That part is not experienced with the senses, and it will never fade.

"There's that sad look again, Taichou. If it bothers you, you don't have to do that."

Byakuya paused for a moment, then let his hands return to their explorations.

"People look at art because they want to feel something. They want to be moved. Some art delights the senses, but the beauty in other art is that it brings more intense, gripping emotion."

"And you feel this now? Looking at me?" Renji asked softly, "Why, Taichou? I mean...you don't...you're not just...feeling sorry for me, ne? I did get hurt by misunderstanding Shuuhei, but you don't have to...to do all of this comforting. The coming to my room and offering your company, letting me into your room, your hot tub, your bed. Kissing me. Touching me all over like this. As much as I like it and don't want it to stop, I wonder why you are doing this."

Because I love you.

I have loved you for some time now, and I have not been able to tell you.

I only need to open my mouth and tell you now.

But what are these alarms going off in my head?

Then, he realized suddenly that the alarms were real.

"Code yellow. Disturbance at the western gate. A garganta has opened. Division six, please respond."

Byakuya was on his feet and whispering a reply to a hell butterfly as he hurriedly dressed. Renji dashed out of the room and met him, fully dressed, a few moments later in the office. They burst out the front door together and flash stepped all of the way to the mentioned gate.

They heard the screeches of hollows before they arrived, and drew and released their weapons as they approached. Petal and fang slashed at the hollows, destroying them in droves.

This, too, is a kind of art...how we move and work together so seamlessly now. We anticipate each other and harmonize naturally from knowing each other so well.

They moved with deadly precision, Byakuya's pink petal blades rising up to attack first, stunning the enemy with its brightness, cutting into them, and obscuring their view of the huge skeletal snake that followed, raking across the battelfield, slamming into the battered remains of the group, then sweeping the area clean with a sweeping release of red fire.

This is a kind of 'one time' art...a performance that is meant to be appreciated in a very small space of time, then remembered for what it was...

"Taichou, they're running," Renji called to him.

He didn't have to answer. Renji was moving with him as he flash stepped towards the garganta and they entered it together, racing through the black underground cavern, barely able to see, but remaining perfectly aware of where they were in relation to each other...the raven-haired taichou a step ahead, with his trusted fukutaichou a step behind and at his right. Byakuya sent a highly controlled volley of petals ahead of them, slicing into the retreating hollows, then opening at the center to let the skeletal snake slide through. It took aim on the one's heading towards the exit that was beginning to close.

"Hikotsu Taihou!"

The red blast swallowed up the remaining hollows in the cavern, and gave the two the chance to flash step out of the exit and into Hueco Mundo while the enemies that had escaped the cavern were still reeling. Byakuya took in a flash image as they touched down, and realized at once that something was very, very wrong.

"Shit!" Renji panted, "Taichou! An invasion force..."

With speed that had to have finally surpassed Yoruichi senpai's, Byakuya looped an arm around Renji's waist and pulled him along in a blaze of flash steps that took them away from the hollow fighting unit and into the desert.

"Shouldn't you open a family senkaimon?" Renji yelled as they reached a cluster of tumbled rock and took cover.

"I cannot," the noble said softly, "Didn't you feel it, Renji? They have an area seal here. We have to reach the end of the restricted area to use my family's senkaimon to escape."

"Well, that sucks..." complained the redhead, "What do we...?"

Renji's words left off in a surprised gasp as Byakuya threw the two of them down suddenly, sending them into a very small cave, just large enough for them to share, lying down, side by side. He used a quick kido spell to slightly collapse the entrance, just as a group of hollows appeared outside. The two shinigamis watched breathlessly through the spaces between the fallen rocks at the entrance of the cave.

"Are you sure they went this way? I don't sense them. How do we even know they came through?"

"Shut up and don't try to think, baka! They came through. They wouldn't have expended all of that energy on blinding us otherwise. They're here. Just keep looking. We can't let them go back and ruin everything by warning the Gotei 13."

"With the area freeze, they can't gate away, so we'll find'em."

"Not if you keep talking and don't look, so shut up!"

The two concealed shinigamis rested quietly in the darkness, listening intently to the sounds of the hollows as they conducted sweeping searches of the area. They didn't risk speaking, but remained in close physical contact, each protecting and being protected by the other. With time, the sounds faded away, but with the repressive gate freeze in the area, they could still not escape. Still, they relaxed enough to stretch and to relieve the points of pressure on their bodies. Byakuya flinched as something caused an intense, stinging pain in his lower left leg.

"You okay?" Renji asked softly, catching his breath as Byakuya inhaled in surprise and used a swift kido spell to destroy the large hollow spider that had bitten him, "Oi, Taichou, that's not good. Those things are poisonous."

"Tell me something that I do not know," Byakuya said dryly.

"Here, give me your leg," Renji said, going quiet again as the noble's use of kido brought several hollows close to them again.

Byakuya winced, but remained silent, his eyes on the redhead as Renji pulled gently on his injured limb to bring it upward, then angled it so that the moonlight that filtered into the small cave lit the area.

"Yup," Renji mouthed, "It's a nasty one."

"It can wait," Byakuya said, brushing it off, although the stinging in his leg was increasing and beginning to burn.

Renji let out an annoyed breath.

"No, it can't, Taichou," he insisted, "These things can get bad without proper healing. And to do that, we need a reiatsu cage."

"So, if it proves to be too debilitating, then you can raise one."

Renji shook his head firmly.

"I'm not going to risk fucking up and getting us captured. You want to do training with me, then we'll train on high level kido in a safe environment, not when there is a kido specialist lying next to me."

"Just who is taichou here, Abarai?" asked the noble, scowling at him, "I am not conducting training. I am saying that you are proficient enough in kido that I trust your skill."

Renji gave him a stunned look, then shook his head to clear it.

"N-no, Taichou. You're probably right...but...with you, I will always err on the side of caution. You're too important."

Important?

Important to whom?

The Gotei 13? The Kuchiki clan? Or...perhaps, you?

"Just...please, raise the reiatsu cage. I need to save my energy for healing you."

"Ah," sighed the noble, "You are stubborn. But very well. As you wish, then."

As many times as Renji had seen the noble employ the use of a power concealing kido cage, he had to, once again, admire the smooth, careful employment of the skill that made the power used to raise the cage blend in with the other sensual stimulus around them. The hollows that had sensed Byakuya's use of kido to destroy the spider, finished their search and set guards in the area. Renji listened carefully to their voices as Byakuya wove the reiatsu cage around them.

"The bosses are sure pissed. You can't breathe without them cutting loose. Goro killed the guys he sent out here earlier, just for coming back empty handed. But they're dealing with that petal throwing bastard. They know damned well that even they would have trouble finding him. So they look for someone to take the blame."

"Well, they're understandably pissed. They've been planning this raid for months and those two shinigamis have the whole fucking mission in limbo."

"They should have ordered the attack as soon as those two came in here...or in the time since."

"It's too risky to cross a large group like this over if they already know. We'd be sitting ducks."

"Man, I'd love to be the one to find those two and bring them in. Maybe Goro'd let me have a go at him before he killed him. He's got real pale skin for a shinigami...like milk. I'll bet it's soft..."

"Tell me that I am delirious and that I did not just hear a lowly, disgusting hollow speak about me that way," Byakuya moaned softly, a sweat breaking out on his forehead as his discomfort from the spider bite increased.

"Well, he does have a point about you having perfect skin, Taichou. But if you want, I'll go and kill him for saying that about you."

"Don't even joke about that, Renji. I cannot even stand to think of you throwing yourself away for nothing like that," the noble objected.

"Not for nothing," Renji said, smirking in a way that almost made Byakuya forget about the spider bite altogether, "For my taichou's honor."

"Shut up, Renji," the noble hissed softly, "Or I'll kill you myself for saying such a thing. I didn't invest huge amounts of effort in your training lately so that you could die defending me from simple words. Let them sting. Save your self sacrifice for a time when my life depends on it, and then only take that step if there isn't something more important to defend than me."

Renji shook his head and laughed softly.

"You're so serious, Taichou," he commented as Byakuya completed the reiatsu cage, "It's cute, but I get worried about you when you're like that."

"Worried...about me? Why?" Byakuya asked, enjoying the soft green healing light that blossomed around Renji's hands as he began the healing.

Renji shrugged and continued healing him.

"You seem depressed. You've been like that a lot lately. I don't know what's bugging you...but, you know, after how you were there for me last night when I was so down, I feel like I owe you. So, if I can help you in some way, just tell me."

Byakuya was suddenly grateful that the spider bite could be blamed for the blush that rose on his face.

"Thank you, Renji," he said, closing his eyes and fleeing from the conversation.

His mind wandered as Renji's healing energy surrounded the swollen bite on his leg, and he felt a disturbing numbness in the limb that seemed to spread dangerously as the spider venom invaded his systems. Renji worked quickly, capturing and extracting what he could, but felt an inward jolt of concern as Byakuya's face became more flushed, and when he opened his eyes, they had a more glazed and disoriented look.

"Renji," the noble whispered sleepily, "I think perhaps you were correct in your assessment of things before. My chest feels constricted."

"Yeah," the redhead agreed, "That venom's a bitch. It got ahead because I had to hold off extracting it while you raised the reiatsu cage. but I still got a lot of it out. You just have to ride out the discomfort. You're gonna be fine. Don't worry."

Byakuya recognized immediately, the lie in the words. Having been the one to cause Renji more fear than nearly anyone else, Byakuya knew it when he felt it. And Renji's fear, he knew, wasn't unfounded. Hollow spiders were notorious for causing extreme damage to the body, illness and death, if the injured person had a sensitivity, or if the wounds were not treated quickly and properly.

"Damn it!" Renji fumed softly, the knot of fear in his belly growing stronger as Byakuya's eyes became more hazy and his words slurred until he stopped trying to talk, "I need to get you out of here."

"Renji," Byakuya managed, wrapping a trembling hand around his wrist, "Do not be hasty. Think. The shinigami base. If we exit the cave, can you fix on it?"

"I think we're pretty far away," the redhead said, biting at his lips, "And there's a lot of shit, rocks and sand dunes obscuring..."

"Then...rise above that which obscures."

"M-my bankai?" Renji asked, frowning, "Taichou, there's guards all around. By the time we slip out of here and I release..."

"No...in here."

"What?" objected the redhead, nearly forgetting about the hollow guards in the area, "But...? Taichou, are you sure you're not delirious? My bankai in here? I'll blow this thing sky high and collapse a bunch of rock and sand..."

"Not if we work together," said the noble, "On my count, I will place my senkei inside the reiatsu chamber, and simultaneously as I cause it to explode outward, raise the skeletal snake and carry us up into the air."

"B-but...!"

"You will have but a moment before the standing army in the area spots you and begins firing at us...and even your bankai will not withstand the force of it, so you must find the direction quickly and head for the base."

"Okay, now I know you're delirious!" Renji insisted, "Taichou..."

"It is either that, or at some point I will deteriorate to the point where your patience gives out and you do something insane, that even if it works, will probably shock me to death with its brazen disregard for life and limb. Rather than reach that point, I think we will force the issue now, while you are still collected enough to think clearly."

"That's not nice, Taichou," Renji complained, "It may be kinda true, but...not nice!"

"If I chose to be 'nice' over being strategic right now, we would both likely die, and I do not think you want that, ne?"

"Yeah," Renji sighed, looking put off, "I guess we should both play to our strengths..."

"Now, who is not being nice?" the noble said, frowning.

"Hey, I call'em as I see'em," the redhead laughed, loosening Zabimaru in his sheath, "So...you ready to get outta here, Taichou?"

"More than ready," Byakuya sighed, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

"You sure you can manage your..." Renji began, then he stopped at the scathing look Byakuya gave him.

"Okay, sorry. Go ahead, then. Knock yourself out..."

"Ah...I meant to tell you," the noble said off-handedly, "In my reduced state, I may lose consciousness. But I will endeavor not to do so until after I detonate my senkei."

"Oh," said Renji, rolling his eyes, "Good to know that, Taichou. Thanks..."

Byakuya slid his weapon free and mentally scaled down the size of the release to fit the limited space of the cave, then wrapped a kido shield around the two of them and began to raise the power. His body shook softly with the effort as the reiatsu around them blossomed until the cage shook warningly.

"Ready?" the noble panted, looking into Renji's eyes.

"Whenever you are," the redhead answered.

"Now!"

Outside the confines of the tiny cave, the hollow guards on duty felt a sudden vibration under their feet and drew their weapons, looking around frantically for the source. A moment later, the ground in front of them exploded outward, sand and rock swallowing them up and billowing outward, setting the army on alert as Renji's skeletal snake screeched and rose up into the sky. Almost immediately, ceros took aim on the dark shape amidst the dark cloud of debris, and Renji had but a split second to sense the direction and fire the snake towards the distant base. Taichou and fukutaichou clung to the beast's furry mane as the skeletal snake soared across the night sky, bearing down on the shinigami base as flying hollows launched themselves after and continued the heavy release of ceros.

Renji felt the sudden decline of Byakuya's reiatsu and wrapped an arm around his waist, holding him tightly as the skeletal snake raced towards the base, banking slightly to avoid the pounding ceros and to miss the hollows that rose up ahead of them and moved purposely into their path.

"You hanging in there okay?" Renji asked as the attacks eased and the base came into sight.

Byakuya gazed at him through hazy eyes and found the truth pouring out from between his lips before he could stop it.

"You are beautiful, Abarai Renji. I love you."

He was too far gone to see Renji's face or hear his reply. He sank down into comforting darkness, feeling oddly safe with Renji's arm around him like that and the redhead pressed up against him, holding on so tightly.

If we can just hold on...

...everything will be...