Chapter 13: White Protector

(Thanks for everyone's patience while I worked at getting this the way I wanted it! It's going well now. Thanks going out to Firebirdever (Ah, the wait is over, and more will be along soon!), CallMeSenseiKuchiki (I've been working a lot too! So sleepy all the time, because I can't stop writing when I'm not working. Sleep? What's that?), IssaHORROR (Okay! More is here. Enjoy!), TomyAllen (Yes, some brightness is delivered with the angst!), and Renji-Bya-Lover (It amazes me how in tune you are with this! We must think a lot alike!) Hope you like the chapter!)

Renji focused on the traces of Byakuya's reiatsu and followed at flash step speed, but was impeded by the fact that the noble had access to a family senkaimon, while the redhead was forced to travel to the central senkaimon, where he waited impatiently as the senkaimon guards verified his identity, then allowed him to pass.

He entered the darkness and quiet of the precipice world, thankful for the chance to consider what to say to his probably furious superior when he found him. At first, he was too petrified to come up with anything. But as time wore on and he worked his way through the dark corridors, he calmed somewhat and began to think more clearly.

I screwed things up, sure. But Taichou said that this Seirei Joumae chose me to help him. As mad as he is, I don't think the guy is going to give up completely. He probably just needed time to think things through. When I find him and explain what was really going on, we'll work things out. It will be all right. I just need to...

He was brought out of his thoughts by the sound of the cleaner. The noise was not overly close, but as it was coming in his direction, he started to alter his course. But he had gone no further than a couple of steps when he heard an odd sound...perhaps a soft cry, coming from a corridor in the path of the oncoming cleaner.

"That's not good," he muttered, turning towards the sound and flash stepping forward.

At first, he found nothing. He thought he might have heard a sound of pain, but the odd echoes confused him about the direction. He listened carefully, hampered by the increasing noise of the approaching cleaner and wondered what to do.

"Hello?" he called out, "Someone there?"

Almost instantly, he heard an unintelligible, but distinct return cry. He angled towards the sound, breaking out in a sweat as the cleaner's roar grew painfully louder. He ran down the corridor the sound had come from, calling out the person again and obtaining a weak reply. He spotted a dark haired man collapsed on the ground ahead of him and his heart leapt into his throat.

"Taichou!"

He abandoned all caution, racing forward to collect the injured man into his arms as the cleaner appeared and rumbled towards them. Renji held on to the other man tightly and flash stepped wildly, staying just ahead of the cleaner and bursting through the first exit he saw. He came down in a park, a few blocks from Urahara Kisuke's shop an watched as the senkaimon closed between the marauding cleaner and them. He felt the man in his arms move and looked down, then made a sound of surprise and nearly dropped him.

"Y-you're not Byakuya," he mused, studying the lighter build of the man, the wavier black hair, wide blue eyes and the gentler expression on his pretty, battered face, "But you look kinda like him, especially in the dark. Are you a Kuchiki?"

"I...I am Kuchiki Tetsuya," the man told him as Renji set the noble on his feet, "I am Byakuya-sama's cousin and bodyguard."

"Your reiatsu feels familiar," noted the redhead, "I've sensed you near him before, although I don't think we've ever officially met. Are you all right? What happened to you?"

Tetsuya started to answer, but reeled as a wave of dizziness passed over him. He started to collapse, but was caught and lifted off of his feet again. Renji smiled at him kindly.

"Look, you got pretty beat up. I'm going to take you to Urahara Kisuke's and we'll get you fixed up. Then, I'll need you to take me to Taichou. I need to find him. We...had a misunderstanding and I really need to talk to him."

"Do not worry about me. Byakuya can heal me when we reach him, but we must return to him quickly. I encountered Aizen Sousuke and Ichimaru Gin in the precipice world as I sought to return to Soul Society to find you."

"You were looking for me?" Renji asked, flash stepping in the direction the noble had indicated, "Why? Were you looking for Taichou too?"

"I was with him all along."

Renji blushed.

"Then, you know about what happened at the sixth?"

"I know that he saw something that distressed him, but I do not know what it was," Tetsuya explained, wincing as a flash of pain passed through him.

"Hey, are you sure we shouldn't go to Kisuke?" Renji asked, "You really look like you got the stuffing knocked outta you. But to get away from Aizen Sousuke on your own, you must be pretty damned good in a fight."

"I am lucky enough to have never seen his shikai," Tetsuya explained, "So, where others couldn't fight him much at all because of his illusions, I was able to resist. But when he realized who I was, he tried to question me about Byakuya-sama. He knows that if he saw me, Byakuya-sama must be close by, and he seemed to want to find him. Renji-san, we must reach Byakuya-sama and warn him that Aizen Sousuke has an interest in finding him!"

"Okay, so it's this way?"

"Yes...follow this path to where you see a small lake that is fed by this river. Near the edge of the lake at the top of the hill, he has taken refuge in one of our safe houses. I took him there after I observed him leaving the sixth division."

Renji's eyes took on a guilty look and he bit at his lip gently.

"Damn it. he was pretty upset, ne?"

"Yes. He did not seem of a mind to speak much of it, but he was very concerned with protecting you. He remained at the cottage and sent me to find you."

"You left him alone?" Renji asked quickly, alarm in his voice.

"No," Tetsuya said, his voice weakening as pain and blood loss began to overwhelm him, "He is not alone. He is well protected, or I would not have left him. I..."

Renji stared in dismay as Tetsuya's eyelids fluttered fitfully and closed.

"Tetsuya-san!" he cried, "Shit, I knew we shoulda gone to Kisuke!"

He looked around frantically and spotted the place where the river branched off and fed into the lake that the noble had described to him. He flash stepped up the hill and looked around at the few cottages that stood on the shore.

"Which one are you in Taichou..." he muttered, reaching out with his senses.

He started to move towards one where he thought he sensed Byakuya's reiatsu, but stopped cold a moment later as he found himself nose to nose with a tall, black and lovely, but menacing looking Arabian stallion.

"Whoa there, big fella," Renji said, stepping back, "Take it easy."

He jumped in surprise, nearly dropping Tetsuya's limp body as a wispy male voice hissed angrily in his mind.

What have you done to my master? Put him down at once!

"Wha-what? Your master?" stammered the redhead, backing away, "You're Tetsuya's horse?"

I am Arashi, and yes, Kuchiki Tetsuya is my master. Now, put him down before I take him back from you forcibly.

"Hey! Easy there, you big, fleabag bully!" Renji objected, stepping back again as the stallion advanced.

He realized a step too late that he had reached the edge of the lake and started to fall. The stallion nipped Tetsuya away from him as he splashed down into the lake, sending up a spray that tickled the unconscious noble's face and stirred him as Arashi nuzzled his cheek and nickered softly.

"A-arashi?" Tetsuya mumbled dazedly.

The two went quiet as Byakuya appeared suddenly on the lake shore and he watched silently as Renji crawled out of the lake, spitting water out of his mouth and muttering furiously.

"That wasn't nice, you...!"

He broke off as Byakuya's eyes met his for a moment, then looked away. The noble flash stepped to his fallen cousin and knelt next to him, infusing his injured body with healing reiatsu as Tetsuya looked up at him apologetically.

"Gomen nasai, Byakuya-sama, I did attempt to reach Renji-san, but I encountered trouble in the precipice world and could not reach him."

"I'll say," Renji mused, "He ran headlong into Aizen and Gin."

"What?" Byakuya said, his eyes widening, "Tetsuya..."

"He wasn't able to use his illusions, but both he and Ichimaru Gin are more than competent with the sword. Oddly, though he was the one who brought me down, Gin also said something to me as he was checking for signs of life. He said, 'You'll live. Go back to Byakuya-san and tell him to be careful. Aizen has plans for him.' He couldn't say more as Aizen told him to leave me there for the cleaner to sweep up."

"Bastard!" Renji hissed furiously, "But...what's up with Gin? Why would he try to kill you, then say something like that?"

Byakuya sighed fretfully.

"Gin and I have something between us," he explained, "You remember that I told you what I saw happen to him that day at Kuchiki Manor?"

"Yeah."

"He felt he owed me. And he tried to repay me somewhat when he helped me to escape Aizen before."

"Are you saying that he's not an enemy after all?" Renji asked, frowining, "Then, why is he with Aizen? And why did he attack Tetsuya too!"

"I think, perhaps, he has some sort of plan of his own," concluded Byakuya, "But enough of that. We need to get inside. I don't want that man to find us here."

He started to lift Tetsuya, but had his cousin gently removed from his arms, by Renji.

"I'll take him," he offered, turning towards the cottage as Byakuya looked after him with troubled eyes.

He turned back to Arashi and nodded.

"Watch carefully," he warned the stallion, "in case they were followed."

I will, the stallion promised, bowing his head.

Byakuya turned and followed Renji back into the cottage, then shut the door behind them and set a privacy seal around the house. He joined Renji in one of the bedrooms, where the redhead laid the injured noble in bed and looked at him for permission, before loosening his clothing and continuing the healing that Byakuya had started. Tetsuya struggled to keep his eyes open, but tumbled into sleep as Byakuya sent a soft throb of sedative kido into his injured form. He watched quietly until he was certain that no more could be done, then met Renji's eyes solemnly.

"He will be all right now. He just needs to rest," the noble said wearily, "Why don't you go and take the room next to this. You need to rest as well. We can talk in the morning."

Renji sat back in the seat he had taken, next to Tetsuya's bedside and gazed at Byakuya silently for a moment.

"You really think it should wait?" he asked finally, "It sounds like Aizen is looking for you. The guy's powerful, and he's up to no good, and it's my job to keep him away from you."

"Why do you say that?" Byakuya asked in a tired voice, "You didn't seem interested in protecting me before. But I understand now. And I am sorry for putting you in an awkward position. I should have suspected form the start that your passionate determination to surpass me was the result of what you felt for her. It just took me a while to realize."

"Taichou, look, I tried to come after you because..."

"I don't need your pity, Renji," Byakuya said, interrupting him, "I managed alone before, and I will do so now. Just...return to Rukia and be certain that you make her happy."

He rose and started to turn out of the room, but was stopped by a hand on his arm. he turned to glare at the hand's owner, but suddenly found himself pulled into strong, intensely warm arms and thrust into the sweetest kiss that had ever graced his lips. Byakuya stiffened in surprise for a moment, then reeled, unable to open his eyes as the mind numbing kiss continued.

"Renji, stop!" he objected as the redhead pushed him back against the wall and kissed him harder, "Abarai!"

The redhead's lips retreated then, but he continued to stand there quietly, still holding the stunned noble in place and waiting for his eyes to open again. When they finally did open, the noble's dark eyes sought his questioningly.

"Why did you do that?" he asked softly, "Renji, I told you. I..."

Renji stopped him with another warm, penetrating kiss.

"Stop it," he pleaded softly, "Just stop, okay? What you saw wasn't what you thought it was."

"What do you mean," the noble asked, looking confused, "I saw the two of you come out of your quarters, barely dressed and talking about how I 'wouldn't hear of it' from Rukia. What is not clear about that?"

"We got wet in the rain," Renji explained, loosening his hold on Byakuya slightly, but still keeping him cornered between him and the wall, "I was nearly to the living world by the time I got a hold of myself and realized what a jackass I'd been."

"Renji, I was stupid," the noble confessed, "I just threw all of that about the Seirei Joumae at you without thinking. Of course you would react that way...especially being interested in my sister."

"Would you quit saying that!" Renji said in an exasperated tone, "I'm not interested in Rukia! I bumped into her, just after realizing what an idiot I was to run off and leave you like that. We got wet in the rain and came here to dry off and clean up. That's all."

"Then, what was that Rukia said? It seemed pretty clear that you were hiding something from me. Not that you owe me any explanations, but I am curious."

Renji gazed at him quietly for a time, then nodded.

"I was getting ready to confide in her what you had told me and why I flipped out like that. That's all. There's nothing between Rukia and me, but friendship, Taichou. You don't have to worry about that."

Byakuya looked back at the redhead in silence for several minutes, letting the words soak in slowly and coping with what that meant.

Then, there is still hope.

And Renji's kiss tells me that he is not just here to apologize for hurting me.

"So, what happens now?" the redhead asked, "I mean, we know Aizen is after you, and this 'Seirei Joumae chose me to help you. So, what do we do now? You said something before about accepting the bond and joining mind, heart and body."

"Yes," the noble said quietly, "Should you choose to accept the bonding, we must join physically and within the elements of heart and mind, and we will become soul mates. After that, I do not know what will happen."

Renji's heart pounded and his head grew dizzy again, but he forced the feeling away. He took Byakuya's hands and nodded in acceptance, then forced out the words that made his heart pound until he thought it would come out of his chest.

"Okay. If that's what we need to do to protect you, then that's what we'll do."

He paused, somewhat surprised that something hadn't shattered as he said the words.

"Renji, you do not have to do this," Byakuya said, shaking his head, "I can see that you are petrified."

"Sure, I'm scared," the redhead admitted shakily, "but I care about you. I think that I might be in love with you, Taichou. And I'm not going to let Aizen Sousuke hurt you and your family. Even if not for you being my taichou, Rukia's like my own sister, and she loves you. She couldn't stand it if something happened to you...and...neither could I."

"Renji..."

His words were stopped by another long, hot, open-mouthed kiss.

"Come on," the redhead said smiling at him, "Let's go and get some rest. We can talk more in the morning. Or do you need me to stand watch?"

"Oh," said the flustered noble, "Arashi can tend to the watch for the night. But..."

He had the questions that rose on his lips suddenly answered as Renji lifted him off his feet and carried him into the next bedroom. He set the noble back on his feet and the two undressed and donned soft, sleeping yukatas. Byakuya laid down in the bed, blushing as Renji smiled at him and slid into the bed beside him. There was a long moment, where neither dared move, then Byakuya let out a sigh that sounded like relief to Renji. The noble turned and curled very cautiously into the redhead's arms. Renji didn't kiss him anymore, but just held him quietly and let his fingers play with the noble's soft hair as the two drifted off to sleep.

Thank you for giving me hope, Renji.