A/N: I have absolutely no idea what prompted this, and writing it made me cry. If angst is not your thing, get thee elsewhere—the end is a bit hopeful, but the rest of it is….well. Angst. (I would, however, consider writing a longer and less-angsty fic that stems from this…) Warning: mentions of character death, heavy angst.
Byakuya. If you were here with me…
In the Sixth Division office, Renji carefully sets aside his brush. A stack of completed paperwork on the desk heralds the day's end; outside, a single plum tree, silhouetted against a delicate violet dusk, stands proudly. He gazes at the tree for long moments, at the pregnant blossoms that cluster heavily on the branches, and smiles faintly.
…if you were here, I think you'd like the view.
He's not good with plants generally, nor with trees in particular, but for the past two years he's cherished the slim plum sapling the same way he used to cherish pale skin beneath his sword-calloused hands: with fervent appreciation and single-minded devotion. And now Renji, sitting in the chair in which Kuchiki Byakuya used to sit, looking out at the view that once captured the gaze of depthless gray eyes, thinks that he's glad the plum tree is there. The stately elegance of the trunk and the graceful branches serve as a quiet reminder, as a tribute, as a living monument to his most important memories.
Ukitake enters smiling, in good spirits despite the heavy rasp in his breathing and the pallor of his skin. "I hope you didn't have any plans for the evening," he says with a chuckle, and drops a heavy stack of papers on top of the just-cleared desk. With a rueful smile, he adds, "The soutaichou wants these as soon as possible. I'll be up all night finishing them, myself."
Renji arches an incredulous eyebrow. "Nobody told me bein' a captain meant this much paperwork," he grouses with good humor, and eyes the unsigned forms warily. He'll be here forever at this rate—and probably late to drink with Ikkaku and Yumichika, to boot—but he doesn't mind staying busy.
The evenings are far lonelier now than they used to be.
"Tea?" Ukitake offers quietly. His kind gaze lingers on Renji's hair, on the unbound, untamed tumble of crimson silk. His eyes acknowledge what Renji will not speak: that Renji has not bound his hair since that painful day of greatest loss, that this small and simple change is a small and silent tribute to the man whose elegant hands once lovingly threaded into it.
The redhead makes himself smile in spite of the sorrowful silence that hangs between them. "Thanks," he says warmly. "But I'm okay for now." He stands to escort Ukitake to the door. The haori still feels awkward, hangs heavy and cumbersome from his shoulders every time he moves. He can't ever seem to make it fit properly.
Maybe because it really suited you best, huh, Byakuya?
Ukitake leaves with a kind farewell. And Renji, mindful of the faint but perpetual ache in his heart that stems from loss, returns to the desk. A recruit darts by the door, then pauses and pokes his head in quickly before he leaves. "G'night, Abarai-taichou!"
Abarai-taichou. It still doesn't sound right.
The Sixth Division belongs to the Kuchiki clan, after all. Since before Renji's birth the clan has passed on captaincies and vice-captaincies to those of noble blood and high birth; that Byakuya left this squad to him, Renji knows, speaks strongly and significantly about the nature of their bond.
No one disputes his claim to the office.
Byakuya. If you were here with me…
The walk home is short, but Renji takes his time; his meandering steps lead him out by the Kuchiki manor. The structure, still imposing, dominates his vision, but the redhead notices with sorrow the small signs of neglect: the serene pond, glimmering in the evening darkness, no longer holds the koi Byakuya so loved to watch, and Hisana's plum trees—esteemed so fervently by her husband—seem feeble and brittle from lack of care.
Renji turns his face away.
When he departs, he doesn't dawdle, and he doesn't stop for sake with his friends even though he knows they're still awake, knows that Rangiku's bawdy stories will make him flush or maybe laugh, that Ikkaku will slap a rough, friendly hand against his shoulder. Tonight isn't a night for company or for laughter; Renji simply wants, as he often does these days, to be alone.
…if you were here with me, would we still spend the nights together? Would I spend more time holding you, or stay awake longer just to watch you sleep? Would knowing what I know now loosen my tongue to offer more than rough and simple words to you?
He hates nights the most.
Daytime and the duties of captaincy can shut out grief; time spent training with Ichigo and Rukia happily exhausts him, leaves him sweat-slick and panting and blessedly free from sorrow. But nights—nights hurt. Maybe, he reasons, because nights have always belonged to Byakuya: the absence of warmth in his arms and the silence that resonates all through his room demand attention during the dark hours.
Arriving home at last, Renji tries to sleep despite knowing that sleep will not come for some time. He tosses, turns, bunches up his blankets, and finally comes to his feet with a lithe twist and looks for his most prized possession, the one he keeps away from prying eyes and only views when he is alone: a white scarf folded neatly in a delicate box.
Renji indulges in this ritual as frequently as necessity demands; he fears forgetting more than he fears death.
Desperate as he always is on nights like these, he crushes priceless silk to his nose and inhales deeply, imagines he can still breathe in the faint crisp scent of green tea and clean skin, the indefinable fragrance he memorized during long nights of nuzzling raven hair and kissing a pale throat. Carefully he pushes away the cripplingly painful memories of blood, of Senbonzakura's petals scattered dull and translucent on unforgiving ground, and focuses on the small details he strives, every night, to recall: the precise gray of Byakuya's heavy-lidded eyes and the way they smiled when his lips did not, the carefully modulated timbre of that deep and elegant voice, the certainty in his regal bearing.
"Shit," Renji breathes brokenly into the darkness. "Shit." Because he misses it, misses everything, misses the flash of Senbonzakura in the air, the purr of his name on Byakuya's tongue, the respect and love made evident in that proud, defiant gaze. He misses it and on nights like tonight he really doesn't think he can keep going, doesn't think he's strong enough to keep struggling through this unbearable hurt. Anguished and worn, he stumbles back to bed with the scarf clutched firmly in his hands and clings to shreds of memory in hopes they will soothe him to sleep before dawn.
Byakuya, if you were here, would you be able to teach me how to live without you?
Five days later, on a routine mission to Karakura, Renji finds himself outside Urahara's shop.
He doesn't go inside. The shop is a place of bright colors and good humor and he is in the mood for neither. Nor does he have the patience for the shopkeeper's cryptic comments and penetrating stares. Briefly, he thinks of visiting Kurosaki. The substitute shinigami understands, in a way that others do not, the pain of lack and empty and never again.
Brothers in battle, they are brothers in sorrow now, too.
Still, he hesitates. And rather than seek out company immediately he wanders, instead, to places he remembers from previous visits: the school and the soccer field peopled with laughing teenagers, the vast sprawl of the hospital, the calm river glistening in the evening light. The recollections bring a smile to his lips and he almost feels well enough to go visit his old friends…
…when he glimpses raven hair mirrored in a nearby shop window and his fierce eyes widen.
Renji finds, suddenly, that he can't breathe. He almost trips turning around and reaches out with a hand, the familiar name on his lips. "Byakuya—"
But the raven-haired man is not his captain, not his lover, is instead some otherwise unremarkable human in a dull, cheap suit. Oblivious to the present of a shinigami, he walks right through Renji's outstretched hand without so much as glancing up from his phone or slowing his stride.
Abarai Renji learned in Rukongai that tears do not change circumstance, and so he doesn't cry. But his breath stutters, and the sudden ache of pain in his chest sears like the wounds from Senbonzakura those many years ago. He closes his eyes and breathes, breathes slowly, reminds himself that he is a captain and he is here on a mission, that he cannot fruitlessly wander the human world searching for the rest of his soul.
Not for the first time and not for the last, Renji wonders what becomes of shinigami when they die.
Shiba Kaien told Rukia that our bodies disintegrate and become part of the reishi that makes up Soul Society. He wonders if that is why, now, Rukia dwells near buildings and bridges, presses her hands to them with the reverence with which she once breathed nii-sama. He's tried the same practice, to no real use; he feels no closer to Byakuya with his palms pressed flat against rough stone than he does on the rare nights that he lets himself mourn for what he's lost.
But he doesn't hate the idea, not really. If that's what happens, then one day, it'll happen to me, too. He likes the thought of such a final and eternal mingling, takes comfort in the promise that, if even on the most fundamental and elemental level, they can be together again. Rukia said she carries Shiba's heart with her after he died, anyway. So that means I carry Byakuya's heart with me, too.
Still, he frowns faintly as he walks, wonders if the mysterious cycle that delivers human souls to Soul Society might also, by some miracle, deliver shinigami to the Living World to be reborn. Impossible, his mind chides, but even as he thinks it he finds himself looking into the eyes of passing humans for a flicker of pride and defiance, for the soul he knows—knows beyond all doubt and uncertainty—that he will recognize. Because Abarai Renji has lived the impossible, and in a world where a monstrous shinigami can become a god of hollow and a stubborn human boy can fight to protect the lives of those who once wished to see him dead…
…surely, in such a world, anything can happen.
The redhead halts his nostalgic journey beneath a streetlight. The golden glow flickers feebly around him, illuminates the broken pavement and the gray empty street in unsteady, periodic flashes. Renji glances around, closes his eyes, and breathes in the scent of grass and soil damp from spring rain.
Byakuya, do you remember? This is where we met Kurosaki Ichigo.
Renji can remember it as though it were yesterday, that night full of blood and pain and brutal anger: Kurosaki's limp boyish frame collapsed in a puddle of blood, the despair in Rukia's violet gaze, Byakuya's exquisite features a mask of cold and pitiless composure. That night changed everything, Renji thinks. Somewhere inside, after that night I knew everything would be different.
Tonight feels the same. And for just a moment when Renji opens his eyes he expects to see the familiar and much-loved figure of his captain silhouetted against the dimness, expects that a graceful hand clad in pristine tekkou will caress the side of his face as gray eyes darken with desire.
I want to hear you say my name again. I want to learn the shape of your body again. I want to complain to you about paperwork and admire the way you fight with Senbonzakura. I want to see those damn awful drawings again, I want—
—I want to see you—
Renji's eyes burn. He shifts awkwardly, coughs to clear his throat, and sweeps his fierce gaze up and down the street to confirm what he already knows: he's alone. For just a moment he lets his hand settle on Zabimaru and gleans comfort from the zanpakuto's steadying presence. And then he sets his jaw firmly and, lifting his head, walks back to the senkaimon that waits nearby.
I am Abarai Renji.
I am a Rukongai dog. I am Kurosaki Ichigo's best friend, and the captain of the Sixth Division. I've killed hollow and arrancar; I've faced Espada and survived. I witnessed the end of Aizen's cruelty. I believe in myself. I believe I can do anything.
Byakuya, I believe in myself because of you.
And so I'll find you. I'll find you somehow in this world or the next, no matter what it takes, no matter what anyone says. One way or another, I'll find you.
And we'll be together again.