Happy Birthday Byakuya!: Warriors Coming Home

(Here's to another year of Byakuya beautifulness! Sooooooo glad he lived to see this day. And if he's happy and counting his lucky stars to still be in the 'land of the living,' a certain redhead is even more happy and relieved. Happy Birthday, Byakuya. Wishing you another year of love and danger!)

Byakuya was unaccustomed to feeling cold upon waking. But somehow, even the chill that seeped through the thin blanket that covered him couldn't take away the simple comfort of being home. 'Home' was a subjective word, of course. Most of the buildings at Kuchiki Manor had been destroyed in the war with the quincys, and with the shortage of building supplies, the usual methods could not see them rebuilt as if overnight. No, repairs were going to be in progress for a while.

But at least things could be fixed eventually.

The thousands who died in the conflict with the quincys cannot be replaced. Although new recruits will fill the ranks of our recovering squads, there are spaces in the heart, which will take much longer to fill. Still, we must move forward, difficult as it is. At least we are still living and breathing.

Even some of us who should have died.

"Lord Byakuya? Happy birthday, sir."

He sighed softly, grateful for the interruption that pulled him out of his thoughts.

"Thank you, Torio."

His attendant approached the bed, holding out a warm dressing robe. Byakuya stood and regarded it quietly for a moment, then took it from Torio and draped it around the surprised young man's shoulders. Torio caught his breath softly and stared at him questioningly.

"I am warm enough," he said simply, "Come, Torio, I would like to bathe."

"B-bathe? But sir...!" the young man sputtered, "It's so cold."

Byakuya ignored him and left the bedroom, passing through the broken doors that led out into the gardens. He stepped onto the wooden walkway and turned towards the bathing house, carefully avoiding the damaged boards as he went. Torio followed him quietly, his eyes scanning the ruined gardens and koi ponds, the shattered stepping stones and the tangle of wood that had been a footbridge. The attendant felt tears in his eyes, but blinked them back, focusing his mind on the task that was his life...caring for the needs of the clan leader. Byakuya walked a step ahead of him, looking calm and contemplative, even in the midst of the wreckage of his home.

It may be in pieces, but that does not change what this place is to us.

They reached the partially collapsed bathing house and entered to find that although much of the landscaping had been undone, the roof fallen and the power was still out, the bathing pool itself seemed to have escaped major damage. Byakuya paused at the water's edge, waiting quietly as Torio removed his yukata, then turning towards the pool. Torio moved to follow, but was stopped by a staying hand.

"I can manage," the clan leader told him.

Torio stood at the edge of the pool, feeling twinges of guilt as Byakuya waded out into the chill water, across to the rocks where waterfalls would normally be splashing, and began to bathe himself. The attendant held himself back for only a few minutes, biting at his lips and frowning, before taking advantage of a moment when Byakuya's head was turned to disrobe and start out across the water.

"Torio, I told you I can manage," Byakuya gently scolded him.

"I need to bathe too anyway," the young man insisted, joining Byakuya near the rocks and taking over the job of bathing the clan leader.

I must admit that it does feel good to be caressed and cared for by these familiar hands.

The clan leader closed his eyes and relaxed into his attendant's capable hands, almost dozing as Torio washed him from head to toe, taking the time to clean under finger and toenails and washing, then combing out his sleek, black hair.

"Torio," the clan leader said solemnly, "How is your brother?"

"Koji?" the attendant asked, "Oh, he's doing much better. Master Tetsuya and I have been to the clan infirmary every day to see him."

"I am sure that he appreciates that," Byakuya said, nodding, "And I will be coming by today to be certain he knows how much I appreciate what he did for Tetsuya when the manor was attacked. My cousin would not be alive, but for his attendant's quick thinking and good reflexes."

"I am sure that he will be happy to see you," Torio said, smiling, "although I think that Master Tetsuya has himself, impressed upon my brother how much he is appreciated."

"Oh?" queried the clan leader, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," Torio chuckled, "Master Tetsuya was there the moment Koji woke and has barely left him the whole time, except when he had to come back to work guard duty here at the manor. He has been sneaking in my brother's favorite foods, though kami only knows how he's able to find them, with the Seireitei being in ruins. I think he's going to the living world for them. Not to spread gossip, sir, but I think that they are finally going to stop beating around the bush and actually admit to themselves that they are in love."

"Ah," Byakuya sighed, shaking his head, "That would be something."

"You aren't angry, are you?" Torio asked, looking worried for a moment.

"No, of course not," Byakuya assured him, "They are both adults. And in fact, it is good to see Tetsuya casting off his solitude."

"He has been in mourning for his Naoki for a long time," Torio acknowledged.

"Yes," agreed Byakuya.

Their conversation left off as Torio finished bathing him, then hastily washed himself, and joined Byakuya for the walk back to the edge of the pool. Byakuya shook his head reprovingly as he realized that Torio was shivering. He opened his mouth to comment, but stopped himself, thinking that it was, perhaps, a little too much like biting the hand that fed him. Instead, once the young man had dried and dressed him, Byakuya surprised him by returning the favor. Torio opened his mouth to object, but went silent again, looking up into Byakuya's appreciative expression. They left the bathing room and moved back along the walkway, stopping as voices rose up from the gazebo within the tumbled gardens.

"Good morning, Lord Byakuya. Happy birthday," the old housekeeper greeted him, bowing.

"Arigatou, Matsuko," the clan leader said warmly.

The other attendants and staff that had gathered, echoed the greeting as Byakuya sat down at the garden patio table with them.

"Good morning. Happy birthday, Byakuya," Rukia said, leaning over to give him a hug.

She blinked in surprise as her usually stoic brother slipped an arm around her and returned the gesture.

"Happy birthday, Cousin," Tetsuya said, smiling at the clan leader from across the table.

"Rukia, Tetsuya," he said in greeting.

Matsuko and several attendants delivered plates of hot food to the table, then sat down with the noble and his family. And again, Byakuya felt a warmth that belied the cool of morning. Had it been a normal morning, the family and staff would have dined separately, but there was a new interpretation of normal now, with everyone about the table feeling deep gratitude at having come through the conflict and surviving to carry on.

"Tetsuya, I understand you have been to see Koji. How is he progressing?"

"Oh, he is much better," Tetsuya replied, a light blush touching his cheeks, "And I have made sure that he understands that it is not necessary to throw himself bodily in front of our enemies to protect me. Not that I don't appreciate what he did, but..."

The younger man's blush deepened.

"Well, I would hate to have to replace someone so dedicated."

Torio laughed softly, making Tetsuya flush even more brightly.

Family and staff continued to chat in quiet, contented voices that belied the trail of damage around them. It worked even more to reassure the Kuchiki clan leader that, despite everything, they would all recover.

"Would you like a ride to the ceremony site?" Tetsuya offered as Byakuya took the last bite of his food and followed it with a sip of tea, "Arashi is back on his feet."

"That is good to hear," said Byakuya, "but I think I would like to walk to the ceremony."

"This will be the last one, thank goodness," Rukia said softly, her eyes wistful as she contemplated the thought.

"Yes," Byakuya agreed, "Today we bury the last of our dead, and we turn towards rebuilding."

The group finished their meal and the manor staff returned to the business of cleaning up and repairing what they could. Byakuya, Rukia and Tetsuya rose from the table and headed out the front gate of the manor. As they started down the trail to the ceremony site, hoofbeats sounded behind them and an equine noise of discontent reached them.

"It is all right," Tetsuya told the tall black Arabian stallion that had joined them, "We won't be needing your services. You should get some more rest while you can. Things will get busy after today."

Arashi snorted, then turned and trotted back towards home.

"I think he was offended," Rukia chuckled.

"Oh great," Tetsuya sighed, "I'll hear no end of it later. But...I am glad to see him in higher spirits. He was hurt quite badly. We weren't sure that he was going to stay with us."

"Well," Byakuya said, meeting Tetsuya's eyes, "It is a good thing that Arashi gets his strong spirits from you, then."

They went quiet as they grew closer to the top of Soukyoku Hill, where the last of the bodies had been laid out on pyres, across the full expanse of the rock. They joined the throng of officers headed to the viewing section, then stood solemnly as Head Captain Kyouraku took his place in front of them.

"Thank you all for coming," the new head captain said, gazing out at the gathered family and friends of the fallen, "Today, we say good-bye to the last of our fallen. We honor them with our deepest gratitude for the sacrifice they made, and we know in our hearts a sadness that will remain with us for a long time. War is a tough necessity, but these brave men and women understood that sometimes we must endure war as a means of protecting what's important. As I looked around the Seireitei today, I saw many things that were broken in this conflict. But even though those things were broken...cracked...shattered, there were some things that survived. The most important thing that survived is the feeling of connection between us. The people lying here gave up their lives because they wanted to preserve those connections. And even as we let go of them, we will hold on to the connections through our memories of them. Not one of these sacrificed...will be forgotten. Thank you."

He nodded to the officers stationed around the bodies, and watched in silence as Captain Ukitake took over speaking a recitation of the names of the lost, then each pyre was lit and the bodies began to burn. The crowd of family and officers stood for some time in perfect silence, watching as the fire took away the last of the lost souls.

Finally, one by one, then in small groups, they turned away and started back down the hill. Byakuya said his good-byes to Rukia and Tetsuya and started in the direction of the sixth division. He took a detour a few blocks before to the fourth division and walked into the lobby, where healers still worked to catch up with the large numbers of injuries.

"Good morning, Captain Kuchiki," said Isane Kotetsu, Happy birthday, sir."

"Arigatou," said Byakuya, nodding, "I am here to see my vice captain. Is he awake yet?"

"Oh," said the young woman, "I am sorry, Captain, Vice Captain Abarai is with his healers now, and won't be able to have visitors until later this afternoon."

"Ah, that is all right," the noble said calmly, a sliver of disappointment passing through him, "I will come back later then"

"Yes, sir," said Isane, smiling at him, "I will tell Renji that you were here."

"Thank you."

He sighed discontentedly and left the fourth, taking the longer way to the sixth to give himself time to prepare. It was to be the first visit to the building since the conflict began. He had heard that the damage was substantial, but hadn't been able to see for himself as the battles had raged across the Seireitei.

As he turned the last corner, a swell of relief rose up inside him at seeing that, even though damaged, the main building was relatively intact. He walked to the front door, his mind replaying the last quiet moments before all hell had broken loose. His eyes burned at knowing that several of the young men and women he had been instructing at the time of the first quincy assault, would never return to this place.

As much as I was able to recover enough to fight, to find the one who nearly killed me and to make him pay for hurting Renji, our comrades and me, there is no undoing the dishonor of having failed to protect these men and women, these soldiers who entrusted themselves to my command. I will bear the ache of that failure for the rest of my days.

But I will go on, just the same. And pride be damned, I am going to be happy that my body isn't lying at the top of that hill being burned into ash.

He placed his hand on the doorknob, swallowing hard and remembering his last moments in that place. It was a struggle to make himself tear free, to force his body into motion and to enter the headquarters.

Byakuya was immediately taken aback by the fact that the front office looked completely undamaged...the same as they had left it. Renji's teacup still sat on his desk and reports lay in neat piles in their inboxes, waiting to be seen to. The smell of tea reached him. He thought at first that it was the old tea on Renji's desk, but then he spotted his own teacup sitting on his desk, filled as usual with perfectly made, hot green tea.

The noble blinked in surprise and stood, looking down into his cup for a moment, trying to decide what to do. His heart skipped and he went breathless as a devastatingly familiar voice rose up behind him.

"Good morning, Captain. Happy birthday."

Byakuya swallowed hard and turned, forcing his face to express disapproval, when really, all he wanted to do was to grab the red-haired man and refuse to relinquish his hold...ever.

"Abarai," he said in a low, barely controlled tone, "The last time I checked, you were unconscious in the fourth division. They did not tell me that you had been discharged, so what are you doing here?"

"You were checking up on me?" Renji asked, grinning, "That's really nice of you, Captain."

"I wasn't being nice," the noble said stiffly, his voice catching slightly, "You were injured protecting me. I would say that you are entitled."

Renji laughed softly, then winced and grabbed his side. Byakuya's eyes grew concerned and he moved closer, slipping an arm around the redhead and turning him towards the door.

"We are getting you back to the fourth division immediately," Byakuya said sternly, "You shouldn't have left, baka!"

"Heh," chuckled Renji, "But then, I would've missed your birthday, and I didn't want to do that."

His eyes grew sad for a moment, and the hand holding his side tightened.

"You almost didn't get to this one," he said softly, "Cut me some slack, okay? I just...really wanted to be here to wish you a happy birthday."

"Well, you have done that and now you are going right back to the infirmary. Really, Abarai..."

He froze as Renji turned in his grasp and wrapped his arms around his stunned captain. Byakuya stood perfectly still, his widened gray eyes gazing raptly up into Renji's.

"You know, when you were hurt so bad and I was going in and out of consciousness, I started thinking. I was thinking that...I've been kinda stupid. You see, I've been...thinking about something...something I wanted to tell you, but I was scared."

"You were...afraid to tell me?" Byakuya asked, "What was it you wanted to say?"

"I had this thought...this...really wonderful, beautiful, crazy thought that...I mean, Ichigo told me that you asked about Rukia and you asked about me. And that got me to thinking that if you were that worried about me that you would ignore how bad you were hurt and just focus on me...you must...feel something, ne?"

Byakuya felt a shiver pass through him. He held his breath as the redhead went on.

"Don't kill me. I'm going out on a limb and I'm just going to be honest with you. If I've learned something from everything that's happened, it's that all we really know we have is today...right now. So, putting things off...waiting for tomorrow, the right time, the right place...it's all kinda bullshit. We should make things happen now. Right now."

Byakuya's eyes held Renji's steadily.

"We should make things happen now?" the noble repeated in a whisper, "What things?"

He went breathless all over again as Renji leaned forward and, closing his eyes, very gently brushed his lips against his captain's. Byakuya remained frozen for a moment, just feeling the warm pressure of Renji's lips touching his, then ever so slowly moved his in response. The warm friction between their lips sent a jolt through both men, and Renji's legs quivered warningly.

Crap! Not now...please not...!

He cracked his eyes open and was nearly swallowed by the lovely gray eyes that looked back at him.

"S-so," the redhead said shakenly, "You're...not gonna kill me or anything?"

"Kill you?" asked Byakuya, looking amused, "Why would I kill you? You didn't just attack me. You spoke your intent and acted...and I responded."

Renji's already weak knees turned to jelly, and Byakuya caught him as he started to collapse.

"Damn, Captain!" he laughed dizzily, "You sure know how to spin a guy's head around."

"What are you talking about?" Byakuya said reprovingly, "I did no such thing. If your head is 'spinning,' then I would wager it is because you are out of bed after just regaining consciousness. Does anyone even know you left the infirmary?"

"Ah, actually, no," chuckled the redhead, "Guess I forgot to tell them. But I promise I'll go back after we...WHOA!"

He broke off as the raven-haired captain tossed him somewhat carelessly over a shoulder and started towards Renji's quarters.

"Uh, Captain...?" Renji began.

"Shut up, Abarai," Byakuya said, shaking his head, "You are going straight to bed. I'll have no more of this ridiculous..."

"But Captain!"

"No more out of you. I won't hear another word."

"But..."

Renji bit at his lip, trying to fend off a snicker as Byakuya opened the redhead's bedroom door, only to find the room a burned out mess.

"Uh, I was trying to tell you, sir. My quarters took a hit."

Byakuya frowned and arched a fine eyebrow.

"And mine?"

"Oh, yours is fine," Renji assured him, "and I'll go home and rest a...AH!"

He clung to the Kuchiki heir's shoulder as Byakuya turned out of Renji's destroyed room and carried the redhead back to his own room. He set Renji on his feet near the bed.

"Take off your clothes," Byakuya directed him.

"Wha...?" Renji stammered, his eyes widening, "You want me to...undress?"

"Yes," the noble said dismissively.

Renji's heart turned over painfully and slammed wildly against his ribcage.

"Ah...hah..."

Byakuya's eyes narrowed.

"Fool, I am not trying to seduce you. I am only allowing you to use my hot tub and my bed so that you can rest and heal."

"O-oh," Renji said, sounding disappointed, "Of course, sir."

He froze and blushed furiously as the noble passed close by him on the way to collect two yukatas from the closet, and he breathed a few words into the redhead's ear.

"Seduction can wait...until you are well."

"W-well, ah, Captain," Renji said, straightening, then flinching as pain assaulted his insides, "I feel much better now. I'm fine, really. I..."

Renji let out a yelp as the noble set the yukatas down on the bed, then grabbed the tie at the redhead's waist and yanked it free. A flush roared from head to toe as Byakuya swiftly undressed him.

"Did you not hear me?" he asked with an edge of sarcasm, "I think you have grown shockingly lax in your behavior. Get in the hot tub at once."

"Y-yes sir," Renji said, fleeing to the water and nearly falling in, "Sorry!"

Byakuya quelled a smirk as he watched, enjoying the way the other man's tattoos moved with him as he walked.

He even has them on his bottom. I didn't know that. I wonder if...

The noble stopped himself forcibly, stepping forward and slipping out of his own clothes before joining his blushing vice captain in the water. Renji tried not to stare and failed completely as he was graced with a full frontal view of his crushingly beautiful and naked captain.

Smoky gray eyes peeked out from under careless strands of raven black hair that trickled onto his face and fell down onto his shoulders and back. Wide expanses of perfect, porcelain skin, lightly blushing from the heat of the water (and Renji hoped, from being in close quarters and naked with his also naked and aroused vice captain.).

Oh! Byakuya realized, catching a glimpse of what laid beneath the water's surface before Renji touched the button to start the jets, It is tattooed as well.

Lovely...

The noble stepped sedately down into the bubbling water and settled on the bench seat, at an angle to his vice captain, positioning himself so that he could easily observe without being overly obvious. Renji slid down so that he reclined somewhat, sighing in relief as the riled water surrounded his still aching body in warmth.

"Oh, gods, that feels so good," the redhead groaned, closing his eyes.

"If you had remained at the healing center, you would have had the hot water and someone to massage your sore muscles and infuse them with healing reiatsu."

He let out an annoyed breath as Renji loosed a soft snore.

"You're ridiculous, Abarai," the noble muttered, shaking his head.

He moved closer, admiring the enchanting contrast of the tanned skin and stark tattoos. And although his only intention was to look, he found himself drawn in.

Like a moth to a flame.

Who is this man that he can make me feel like this without meaning to do anything at all?

Renji...

Byakuya's mind went back to the moments just before their final battle with the quincys.

"I will handle him, Renji."

The redhead's lips tightened and he shook his head firmly.

"No."

"Abarai..."

"Captain, wait. Please, just hear me out. I won't interfere unless I have to. I get that it's your fight. I understand you have to do this. But I have something I have to do too! Something I failed to do before. I need to do my job. Go ahead and fight him if that's what you want. But there is no way in HELL that you are going to fight him without me at your back!"

"You were right," Byakuya whispered, moving in close and leaning over the sleeping redhead, "Well...you were wrong in thinking it was my battle. It was really our battle, Renji. But you were right to insist that I needed you at my back. You were also right when you reminded me that our earlier defeat wasn't only my responsibility. We fought together and even though we were defeated, we honored what was between us. We did better this last time. My only regret is that you were hurt protecting me. But...even if we had faced defeat again, I had one great comfort. And that is that I was not alone. I did not realize before what a difference that makes. I understand now. And I am not just ready to cast off my solitude as your captain. I am ready to end my solitude as a man."

He inhaled sharply as Renji's lips curled into a cocky smirk and his eyes opened.

"You...!" Byakuya began, halting as Renji surged forward and crashed their lips together.

Byakuya struggled for a moment, bristling at the deception. But Renji's arms wrapped around him and pulled him onto the redhead's lap. And he found it impossible to look down into that happy, affectionate face and still try to hold on to an indignant scowl. Instead his lips had to fight not to smile as Renji's devoured them hungrily. He moved his hips, causing warm, lovely friction where their bodies rubbed together. He wasn't sure quite how it happened, but one moment, he was looking down into Renji's tired, but pleased eyes, and the next, their bodies were joined and moving as one. Renji's voice sounded in his ear, but the words melted his heart and made him feel intensely warm all over.

"I love you, Captain. I wanted to tell you that. Before another minute goes by...before another enemy shows up to threaten us? I want you to know that I love you. And even if I die, I'll still love you."

Byakuya gave him a soft glare.

"You heard what I said before, and if you've forgotten, I'll say it again. Protect me if that is what you want, but do not ever die for me."

"I won't," Renji promised, "I might get hurt like this, but I won't die."

And even though Byakuya wasn't one who looked away from reality, he embraced the words and kissed the lips that said them, still moving atop Renji and bringing the two to a blindingly perfect climax. They held each other tightly, still weary and aching from their battles, but happy and thinking the same beautiful words.

I love you.

I will live for you.

With you in my arms, I am finally...

home...