Always My Taichou

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( For DMK, thanks for the plot bunny! :) I don't have enough stories in progress, you know...lol!)

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Chapter 1: My Sins Remembered

(A/N**Just to be clear, I am aware that Yama-jii attacked As Nodt and three other sternritters. However, since one of the three was shown to have survived, I have surmised that As Nodt may have survived as well. I think that Kubo intends to surprise readers with that later! lol)

Renji worked his way slowly down the second floor hallway of the fourth division, leaning heavily against the thick guide rail that had been attached to the wall so that patients could walk to regain their strength. And if there was one thing that Abarai Renji needed at the moment, strength was it...both strength to keep walking and strength to keep fighting, although he felt already the change in his reasons for fighting.

Like every shinigami in the Seireitei, he wanted to fight back against the enemy who had come suddenly out of the darkness and had used a cheap trick to steal the shinigami captains' most powerful advantage, the bankai, then used it against the very ones it was meant to protect. And as a seated officer of the Gotei 13, he wanted to fight to defend his home, and his friends and comrades. As a man, he needed to fight to remove the dishonor of failing to protect his home, friends and comrades. But the greatest sting to Abarai Renji was that he had been unable to do what was the most sacred duty of a fukutaichou...to protect his taichou.

Even before he woke in the fourth division after falling in battle, he had already begun to chastise himself. He could forgive himself for making a mistake here or there, for small errors of timing, for a little failure to anticipate, here or there, or for having an attack stopped and having to try again. He could even stomach getting his ass handed to him by a stronger opponent...it had happened often enough before. But, there was one time, one place, one circumstance in which he could never, ever forgive himself for falling short. And that nightmarish situation had happened out there in ironically the same area where he had once turned on his taichou and attacked him. It was, of course, for good reason, but it seemed too haunting to think of now...now that...

Kuchiki Byakuya...

The man whose shadow I was once afraid of stepping on...the man who I despised for taking my best friend into his home and making her a part of his family, resulting in us not speaking for forty years...the man who I worked my ass off to try to surpass, who I fought to try to save Rukia. This man I have never once been able to defeat in battle, and the taichou who I was sworn to protect. I have failed Kuchiki Byakuya...and I will not forgive myself for that...not until I fix this.

But fixing things would not, he thought, be easy.

My taichou is alive, so there is yet some amount of hope, as long as that remains true. But I have never seen Kuchiki taichou take such damage. Not when Ichigo fought him to save Rukia, not when that bastard, Gin, cut him through the heart, and not even when he and Zaraki taichou fought that monster, Yammy, and got beaten to within an inch of their lives before besting him. No...my taichou has never, not ever been this hurt nor come this close to dying. And even though he won't die, I heard them say that he might never wake. I don't want to believe that's true, because if it is, I can never fight to regain my lost honor.

I failed my taichou.

I failed the Gotei 13.

I failed Rukia.

And I failed myself.

But even though I have failed, I still want to go on. I've learned from being friends with Kurosaki Ichigo that it's okay to lose a battle...as long as you never stop trying to win. Yeah, that bastard As Nodt and his buddy may have beaten Kuchiki taichou and me out there. But...that doesn't have to be the end of it.

I won't let it be!

But he was a long way from knowing how to fight back. The quincies had a powerful defense mechanism, and they had some formidable weapons. And the damning thing they still had was the ability to steal the bankai from those few who still had one. So until Kurotsuchi taichou came back with something to help them counter the medallions, he had to sit tight. But if Abarai Renji had anything to say about it, he wasn't going to sit at all.

I am going to get well.

I am going to get stronger.

And when the time comes for me to go back out there, I will find that scary piece of quincy shit and beat the ever-loving hell outta him. And I will take back what he took from Kuchiki taichou!

I owe that to Kuchiki taichou.

I owe it to Rukia.

And I owe it to myself.

He felt a shiver inside as he reached the intensive care unit, the place where he and Rukia had awakened after being scraped up off of the battlefield, and that place where Kuchiki Byakuya now laid, recovering. He was only steps now from seeing his taichou for the first time since the battle.

Renji quivered, remembering the horrific sight of seeing Byakuya hit, not once or even twice, but three times by his own bankai. He felt the sting of those petals on his own skin. He remembered that they didn't hurt as they attacked...that the pain only set in as the blood exploded from the person's body afterward.

But that wasn't the most painful thing he remembered.

Even worse than seeing his taichou fall, was the realization of just what Byakuya's final actions before that meant.

First, that Byakuya had come to him personally, and had quickly stepped in and taken his place battling As Nodt. He had never, ever stepped in on even one of Renji's battles...not ever. Then, there were not words, exactly, but a tiny, breathless pause in Byakuya's words that revealed something earthshaking.

"Kuchiki taichou!" Renji cried, starting to flash step forward as the noble was hit, and staggered back, blood exploding from his slashed chest.

"Stay back!" Byakuya ordered sternly, "It is foolish to attack together an enemy whose powers we do not understand. It loses us several advantages. Watch my battle...and try to understand his ability."

"Then, let me go in first!"

Byakuya observed him quietly for a moment, out of the corner of one dark, unreadable eye.

"I..." he said, pausing oddly for a moment, "...do not think that you possess the skill to lure out all of his abilities."

And as the battle had progressed, his taichou's actions and words had betrayed something that Renji had suspected for some time, but had never seen so blatantly expressed by the man.

"Bankai..!"

"Stop!" Byakuya cried in a hard, desperate tone that Renji had never once heard him use before, "You must not let him steal yours as well!"

At first, he had told himself that, as a taichou, and as one who had just suffered the loss of his bankai, Byakuya had been acting to protect what bankai had not yet been stolen, so that it could be used as protection later. But when he thought back to the facial expression that he had seen in a flash before Byakuya had regained his composure...

His coming to me out there...the way he took over and risked himself, then protected me. It wasn't just about protecting the powers I have so that they can be used later. I saw way more than that in the way he was looking at me. It was all in his eyes. It's always in his eyes. That's where the man really lives...the only place where he reveals himself.

For how long have I known that about Kuchiki Byakuya?

It's all in those big, wide gray eyes of his, right there in front of us. But most people are too scared to look into that man's eyes. I used to be too scared too. But that ended a while back. And I know what I saw out there, when Kuchiki taichou looked at me.

He was afraid even before that bastard struck him. He wasn't afraid for himself, or of losing the battle...not at that point, but...

His mind went back to Sasakibe's funeral, just before the attack.

"Fledglings like us cannot begin to imagine the pain that Soutaichou is experiencing right now."

When Byakuya had said the words, Renji had only taken in the surface meaning, but now he heard the emotion beneath the words.

I never want to know what that feels like, Renji.

I don't want to know the pain of standing in that place and watching the fire take your body and turn it into ash in front of my eyes.

Rather than be taken by such a thing, I will instead let my own body be shattered.

Don't cry when that happens.

It is what I choose.

Renji bit his lip to force back the tears that the thought brought to his eyes.

"But..." he whispered, "it was my job to protect you! Why wouldn't you let me do that?"

But he knew why, of course. He wished that he didn't, but it was there, and he saw it, even though with the possible exception of Rukia, he might be the only living person to understand.

That day at Soukyoku Hill...when he realized how Aizen had fooled everyone, and that the accusations against Rukia and her sentence were all part of a huge pack of lies and deceptions...ever since Gin's blade cut his heart, it's like he's never stopped bleeding since then. Before that day, I would have guessed that Kuchiki Byakuya was a heartless bastard who didn't give a shit about anything but defending his own pride. But little by little, over these past two years, he has shown in so many ways that he...

Kuchiki Byakuya...

He cares about Rukia and me.

Really cares.

And the most heartbreaking part of that is that the quincy took advantage of Kuchiki taichou's fears for us...to bring him down.

What the hell am I supposed to do with that?

He realized suddenly that he had come to Byakuya's door. Swallowing hard, he paused and closed his eyes against the shiver that passed through him. He was almost afraid to look, even though he knew that the cuts on his skin would be gone, and Byakuya would look relatively normal, just paler...and even more quiet.

He was shocked when he stepped through the doorway, first because of what he saw and secondly, because of what that sight made him feel.

I've always thought that my taichou was beautiful. I had even thought to myself that he wasn't just the most beautiful taichou, but the most beautiful person I've ever met. Yeah, he scared the hell out of me, at first. But that didn't take away from the fact that people don't come as lovely as that man is...they just don't. And if I thought that he looked beautiful in all of his splendor, with power glowing all around him, how much more beautiful is he...lying there, looking completely vulnerable, having sacrificed himself rather than to let me die? Kuchiki taichou, you are too young to die like that. And I am not worthy to have someone like you die for me.

I am glad that you are still alive.

That gives me the chance to tell you, to show you, to prove to you...that you mean just as much to me as I do to you. And I am no more ready to see you die than you are ready to see me die.

He forced himself to take a breath, then stepped closer to the man. The soft, light scent of sakura made his legs feel weak. And the sight of Byakuya's relaxed, sedate expression spoke of a kind of peace that self sacrifice had given him.

Ichigo said that the first words he said after were, "Are Rukia and Renji still alive?" Say what you will about the man being obsessed with his clan, his pride, whatever. When it comes down to it, although those things are important, somehow all along, Rukia and I have been important to him too. And if it was hard to pick out in the little ways he showed it, there is no bigger statement of his feelings than what he just did. Yes, he was fighting to defend the Seireitei, and he was protecting his clan's honor, as well as the honor of the Gotei 13. But Kuchiki taichou was possessed of a need to defend us, and to know that, even as he was on his last breaths, that we were going to be okay.

"Taichou," he whispered, sitting down in a chair next to the bed, "I'm glad you're still alive."

He paused for a moment.

"Rukia wanted to come too, but she needs a little more time before she's strong enough. But don't worry, she'll be fine."

Renji didn't know what else to say to him. Much of what he felt, he didn't know if he could ever confess out loud, even with the man unconscious. But that didn't mean that he couldn't admit it to himself.

I always had faith in Kuchiki taichou. That's why for so long, I never worried for him when we went out to battle. I went along with Ichigo or Rukia, because Kuchiki taichou was so strong, he didn't seem to ever need me to defend him. He used to go off on me for getting in the way. I got careless that way, thinking that he was fine out there on his own and without backup. But...if this war has taught me anything, it's that when he goes out to battle, he should never go alone. Not because I doubt his strength, but because we never know when it's going to be an enemy who is too strong...one that will break through his considerable defenses, like that monster, As Nodt did. If he had been alone then...

Renji felt a chill pass through him.

Damn..

Who am I kidding?

Like it mattered a fucking bit that I was there.

Maybe if he'd been alone, he wouldn't have been distracted with trying to protect me. I saw it...how he saw me jumping in and got up. Maybe if I'd stayed back, if I had listened to him and not charged in, then he would have stayed down, and that bastard wouldn't have kept hitting him with...

He cringed as he remembered seeing the man caught up in a sea of his own petal blades, his clothes cut to ribbons, his body slashed all over, and his face reflecting an ungodly amount of pain.

Although it's useless to speculate about it now. It isn't going to change the fact of him lying here, looking like an angel and them saying that he may never wake up. And even if he wakes up, that he'll probably never be able to continue as a taichou.

I just can't...and won't...believe that.

Not of this man.

He is going to get better. He has to.

He bit his lip gently, looking at where Byakuya's hand rested on top of the blanket, the long, graceful fingers slightly curved and relaxed. But it looked odd without the fingerless gloves he always wore. He quivered, remembering that someone had said that his other hand had been lost in the battle, but looking over, he was relieved to see it had been healed. He sighed softly and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again and looked at the hand that rested nearest to him.

There was a sort of boundary that Renji had never stepped over, not even when Byakuya had been hospitalized after his injuries at Soukyoku Hill. He had never dared to touch the man.

Byakuya had touched him with those hands, usually on the shoulder or arm as he corrected him during their training. And when he did, it always made his heart pound a little bit harder.

Renji wouldn't have dared before, but now he needed a way to say the words without speaking them aloud.

I am glad you are alive.

I am here with you now.

You have my gratitude for what you did to protect me...and you have my love, Kuchiki taichou.

He meant that word in the context of taichou and subordinate, of comrades in arms. But, when he finally broke through his fears and slipped his hand into Byakuya's, he felt something on a level he couldn't have imagined. Byakuya's hand was soft and warm, and felt so alive. And that little bit of physical contact, while he couldn't be sure if it comforted his taichou, he knew it comforted him. He breathed in deeply that lovely scent of sakura and felt his heart flutter inside his chest.

Then, it nearly stopped as he heard the faintest of whispers in his mind.

Renji...

And pride be damned, he couldn't stop himself from crying.