Breathe

Chapter 1: Taken by Surprise

Abarai Renji sat in the Squad Six office, leaned over his desk and putting the final touches on the following week's training schedule. He signed his name at the bottom and, getting up carefully to avoid putting pressure on his healing leg, he stood and made his way gingerly across the room to post the schedule on the bulletin board. He glanced over at his taichou's desk and smiled, thinking how surprised Byakuya would be to return from his foray into Hueco Mundo and find that he had finished everything, leaving nothing to be caught up on later or done hastily at the last moment. His own desk was uncharacteristically uncluttered, but that was only because his injury meant he could not see to his other normal duties. Third Seat, Saito Tama had been awarded the honor of conducting the training sessions, welcoming new squad members and (Renji's favorite task) assisting Byakuya with carefully planned surgical strikes on Aizen Sousuke's hollow forces, meant to both test the strength of the enemy and to drain away some of that strength.

It was this last that Renji missed the most. Byakuya was a master tactician and knew the capabilities of his men well. He also had extensive knowledge of both the hollows and Aizen Sousuke, and could usually read perfectly how a battle would play out. Renji loved how it felt to be thrown against the strength of the hollows and to watch it be methodically undone by his taichou's sure planning and flawless execution. He had experienced several sharp pangs of envy as Tama had slipped his zanpakutou into his belt and taken Renji's place at Byakuya's side, then the two had walked out the squad room doors together, as he and Byakuya had so many times before.

Then came the waiting…

It wasn't so bad while he chipped slowly away at the mountain of papers on his and Byakuya's desks…or as couriers arrived, as schedules and mission assignments were finished and posted, and messages were exchanged. As long as he was busy, his mind would only touch briefly on his ache at not being part of the action, of not being able to loose Zabimaru and watch him arc around the side of his taichou's strong, slender body and smash heavily into the claws and teeth that sought to reach him and tear him to shreds.

He had protected Byakuya all through his assignment as Squad Six fukutaichou, watching him carefully and always striving to reach, and move beyond the levels of strength and power housed within that pale, beautiful flesh and finely carved bone. He had strived for this when he hated the man…and even now, secretly loving him, he continued the tradition more respectfully.

He was pleased to note that he wasn't the only one changed by the events surrounding Kuchiki Rukia's near execution and eventual rescue. The changes had begun almost as soon as Gin's blade met the flesh of his taichou's unprotected chest and sank down into his heart. Lying on the ground nearby, unable to move, let alone raise his weapon to defend his taichou, Renji had learned firsthand about the consequences of failing to protect him. And even though his heart was newly reclaimed from his hatred of Byakuya, it shattered as Gin's weapon found its unintended mark and blood exploded around his taichou, dragging not a cry or scream from those proud lungs, but a strangled gasp, a sudden release of breath and pain. There had been a moment of utter silence as the wind brushed across the top of the hill, catching the noble's haori and making it flutter softly and Byakuya released a small sigh and his legs gave way beneath him.

He had never before heard the sound of Byakuya falling, had never seen those strong legs quiver and falter, or heard him give any sign or admission of his pain. But now, given over to saving Rukia, he had forgotten everything in his desperation, and in that sudden moment of forgetfulness, he had nearly found his death.

And while Byakuya, at that point, would have considered it a fair exchange for Rukia's life, Renji found himself face to face with the realization that he could no longer make a choice between the two. One was his friend and the other his taichou…his taichou and the man he couldn't help but fall in love with as he watched Byakuya's slow, but gracefully accepted recovery. Even in his weakened state, his strength was still everywhere…in the tightening of his jaw to hide the restrained sounds of his pain, in the carefully controlled expression and velvety voice that concealed his discomfort and in the unyielding stubbornness that brought him back to his feet time after time when his aching body failed him.

By the time Byakuya had returned to his uncorrupted and pristine state, Renji was deeply smitten, and what had once been a vendetta to overcome and outdo, became a mission to excel to meet and move beyond. Instead of a target for his hatred, Byakuya became the center of his universe. Now alone in the squad office without that center, Renji felt bored and unsettled.

And amidst his boredom and frustration, Abarai Renji did something that he had warned himself never to do. He wondered if Byakuya missed his presence at the noble's side…

It was stupid, he thought, to ask such a question. Byakuya was not his friend or lover. He was Renji's commanding officer. He was on a field mission, his mind carefully entrenched in the playing out of his plans, in the obtaining of goals and in the protection of those who stood with him. He hadn't time to waste on the one left behind, the one made useless to him by injury, and so was abandoned in favor of one more suitable. And yet, had Renji not been injured, he would have been the one chosen over all others. Now he felt like one discarded…and though he knew it was right that Byakuya put himself in other hands, he hated the fact that his taichou's safety rested, even for a moment, with anyone but him. He wondered what that meant…and was still wondering when he realized suddenly that he was nose to nose with a patiently waiting hell butterfly.

The message itself was short, but even so, the few words his mind could make sense of sent him bolting out the door and heading for the fourth division, his injury forgotten in favor of gaining his taichou's side, in knowing his fate. He was at the division doors and bursting into the healing center in a flash, then cringing as the pain in his leg exploded and he found himself breathing through the pain and panting out his questions, before being turned in the direction of a white door.

He stumbled forward and through, passing into the room and turning panicked eyes to the figure that rested calmly in the bed, his left arm and chest carefully bandaged beneath the sterile, white yukata. His kenseiken had been removed with his other clothing, and a sleek black curtain of his hair now drifted down over his face, obscuring what still looked to be a calm expression, but one that Abarai Renji knew better than to trust.

"Taichou…"

He felt a blush creep onto his skin at the desperation and depth of emotion in the word, but it was quickly forgotten as the smoky gray eyes rose to meet his and beneath the calm, beneath the carefully rendered expression, Renji saw something that made his heart stop in his chest.

He must, he thought, have imagined it. It had to be a figment of his imagination, something conjured out of one of his dreams or nightmares and brought to life in those beautiful eyes he had never seen cry. He wasn't crying now…but a tear had formed in each half lidded eye and waited to fall onto features that had never been breached by them before…and Renji had to wonder what had done this…what had caused this cracking of the hard exterior, and the sudden revelation of the man underneath?

The reveal lasted only a moment, then Byakuya blinked and somehow managed not to let them fall, but to recall them and hide them again. The silence between them deepened uncomfortably until Renji felt that he must be the one to break it.

"Well…Taichou," he said, stepping forward, "you don't look so bad. So tell me, how…"

"Saito Tama is dead."

The words were set upon the icily calm tone he used in times of great difficulty. They betrayed nothing of the emotion beneath them, but Renji didn't have to hear the man's tone to hear the heartbreak beneath it. And suddenly, he didn't know what to say.

"How?" he said, the word escaping more from reflex than from force of will.

The noble took a steadying breath.

"It seems that Aizen Sousuke anticipated our arrival and manipulated the battlefield. Tama had never been exposed to his shikai…and was the only one among us who could not be fooled. He realized we couldn't see what was about to hit us and…"

The dark eyes closed and he paused, taking another slow breath. And in that breath, Renji suddenly realized what a blessing his injury had been. Because he had seen Aizen's shikai…and wouldn't have been able to see, to sense, to warn, to protect, to die to save his taichou. His heart ached deeply for the loss of Saito Tama, but it raced with the knowledge of just how lucky he was to have not lost Byakuya. But even so, he knew by looking at the noble, that Byakuya had been damaged…and not just physically.

"Will you please bring me my uniform?"

Renji shook his head.

"You should rest, Taichou. You…"

"I will rest easier in my own quarters," Byakuya said quietly, "Now, please hand me my uniform."

Knowing from his taichou's tone that arguing would get him nowhere, he crossed the room and picked up the plastic bag containing his personal effects. He saw Byakuya staring at the bag and frowning, his eyes gone distant and quiet. Renji returned to the noble's side and handed him the bag, then stood quietly, waiting.

"You may leave."

Renji sighed softly and started toward the door. He walked to it, raised a hand to touch it, then let it slip down to slide the lock into place. He felt Byakuya's eyes on his back and turned.

"What are you doing, Abarai?" he asked, his voice still calm, but holding a note of uncertainty.

He met his taichou's eyes with equal calm.

"What does it look like? I am going to help you dress."

Byakuya's stare was just short of deadly.

"You…" he began.

"Hey," he said softly, "It's just me…no one else will see. And it's not like I haven't seen…"

"Very well then, Abarai," Byakuya said, unhappily, "just…be quick about it."

Smirking, he slipped a calloused hand into Byakuya's softer, paler one and slipped an arm around him. Immediately, the light, sweet smell of the noble's sakura scented hair invaded his senses. That silken hair brushed his face as Byakuya leaned toward him, bringing his legs around and over the edge of the bed. He slid forward and with Renji still supporting him, came to his feet. There was a catching of his breath and a small sound of discomfort, but Renji ignored it and simply stood waiting until he could tell by the shift in the noble's body, that he was fine standing on his own. Renji turned and removed his uniform from the bag while Byakuya removed the white yukata he wore and set it on the bed. He waited quietly as Renji handed him each piece of his uniform, then stood ready to assist as Byakuya slowly dressed. The redhead kept his eyes lowered respectfully, but still managed to catch glimpses of the lovely expanse of white skin, the perfect lines and curves of his body, the slight tremor in his movements and the unsettled expression his face had taken on. After a fashion, he stood, fully dressed, by the bed, his breathing a bit faster than normal and a weary look in his eyes.

"Arigato, Renji," he said quietly, starting across the room.

He moved gracefully, but Renji noted the occasional hitches in his movements and the twinges of pain that disrupted his pristine features. He wondered if he should say something, but didn't, figuring that his taichou wasn't likely to listen to him anyway and his best bet was to work with his taichou's mood to keep him pacified.

They walked together, out of the room, through the lobby, past the healers, who complained that it was too soon for him to leave and were summarily ignored, then down the street to the sixth division headquarters. Renji followed the noble silently through the now-darkened streets and into the squad office, then closed and locked the door behind him. They moved together through the empty office, into the hallway, then through the door that led into the taichou's quarters.

Byakuya stopped in the dressing area and gingerly removed his uniform, dressed himself in the dark purple yukata Renji found in his closet, then slipped into his bed and leaned back against the pillows.

"Are you comfortable?" Renji asked.

Byakuya nodded.

"Would you like me to bring you some tea, Taichou?"

Another silent nod.

He turned his head to gaze out the window and up into the stars.

Renji left the room and walked back to the small kitchen, taking his time with the preparation of the tea and then returning to Byakuya's room. The noble still sat, unmoving and calmly breathing, his eyes fixed on some distant point outside the window. Renji set the tea beside him and sat down in a chair beside the bed, following the noble's eyes to the stars outside and quietly sipping at his own cup of tea. They remained, silently sharing the moment until Byakuya released a long sigh and whatever barriers he was holding up around himself, suddenly dropped. Sensing the change in his demeanor, Renji turned his head to look at the noble and found him looking back, looking as though he very much wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words. At any other time, Abarai Renji couldn't have dealt with the length of the silence that rose up between him. Nervous and jittery in the presence of his powerful taichou, he would have let his mouth take over and Byakuya would have slid into a comfortable silence, content to let him babble for a time, before stopping him with a short, curt response.

But Renji had read the noble's need for him to sit quietly, to wait patiently, to listen for the moment when the silence gave way to the yielding of that other's words, his thoughts, his pain. Only time and patience would allow it to spill out of that calm, quiet form and to release him from the suffering he was so careful to conceal beneath a mask of indifference. It was a sign of the trust that had grown between them that he was able to let down enough to do this in Renji's presence, and the redhead knew better than to do anything to disrupt the careful balance of that trust as Byakuya gathered himself to speak.

"This was bound to happen eventually," he said finally, "I've been over this again and again in my mind…and it makes sense that each time we placed ourselves in that desert, outside of our own world and in theirs, that he would be watching…observing carefully and reading our movements. He watched until he could anticipate…not that we moved in a predicable pattern, but there was a logic to our movement, something that could be learned and undone. I should have expected that eventually…"

He stopped and shook his head.

"The only reason we weren't decimated is because of a seemingly inconsequential mistake of fortune. You weren't at my side…and Saito Tama was. It did not change the playing out of my strategy, but turned complete annihilation into the death of one to protect the others, to give everyone else the time to escape."

Renji nodded and took a slow sip of his tea.

"So…how were you injured, Taichou?" he asked in a soft voice.

Byakuya didn't answer, but set his tea on the nightstand and returned his gaze to the stars. Renji looked up at his half-turned face, thinking.

"The damage was to your left side," Renji provided, "and the pattern of it says you were partially turned. You weren't holding your weapon, but you were carrying something, protecting it as you turned away. The reiatsu around the wounds looks like the strike was partially deflected by your kido…and your flash step protected you from its full strength, so if I had to guess, I'd say that you went back for him when he fell…and barely reached the senkaimon in time to escape."

The words came out with unprecedented calm, although Renji ached with panic at their content. He watched as Byakuya picked up his tea and sipped at it quietly, then set it down and let his eyes come to rest on Renji.

"His warning was the difference between life and death for our entire fighting group. Nothing that I could come up with in the way of strategy could have saved us if he hadn't been there."

"And if I had," Renji said suddenly, "That's what's really bugging you, isn't it?"

Byakuya sighed and blinked several times, frowning.

"I don't like being protected by something so fickle as chance," the soft voice whispered.

Renji sighed and nodded.

"But," he said, meeting the noble's depthless eyes, "sometimes that's all we have."

He could see right away how little Byakuya thought of the concept.

"And," he added softly, "sometimes chance is not such a bad thing. Taichou, sometimes fate isn't such a great thing either. I mean, what if you're fated to become a monster like Aizen Sousuke…"

"…or if you are fated to love someone only to lose them," Byakuya added quietly, looking back at Renji with weary eyes, "Believe me, I know the vagaries of both fate and chance."

"And what are we?" Renji asked, the question falling from his lips without thought…and surprising him as much as the question's recipient.

Byakuya seemed to freeze in place, something flashing in his expression and equally quickly hidden. He reached for his tea, only to have his hand stopped short by another. His eyes locked on Renji's questioningly. Renji thought quickly.

"It's gotten cold. Let me make some fresh for you."

His legs nearly buckled from relief when Byakuya nodded, allowing him to take the teacup and flee to the kitchen. He hoped that by the time he returned, the noble would have forgotten his question. It had been stupid for him to say such a thing anyway. The last thing Byakuya needed was for his fukutaichou to be making advances…and most likely, unwelcome ones at that.

He started to pour the tea into the cups, when his hand wavered and he spilled tea onto his other hand. The shock of pain made him drop the teapot as pain erupted on his skin, bringing tears to his eyes and curses out of his mouth. He flash stepped to the sink and got his hand under the water, just as his injured leg buckled from the stress of the flash step and made him start to fall.

He realized suddenly that something had stopped him from falling…someone, actually. Byakuya was behind him, holding him on his feet and holding his burned hand under the cold water. His chest was pressed up against the redhead's back and his chin was rested on Renji's shoulder. Sakura scented hair spilled over Renji's shoulder, mixing with the red of his…and he couldn't help but think how beautiful the two looked, blended together that way. He blinked and stared down at the slender, pale hand that cupped his and felt Byakuya's soft cheek brush lightly against his.

"It will need healing," Byakuya said quietly, "Come."

He let his weight rest against Byakuya as they made their way back down the hallway. He started to turn toward his own quarters, but was surprised when Byakuya turned him instead toward the taichou's quarters. He helped Renji to the chair beside the bed and the redhead dropped into it with a relieved sigh. He caught his breath again lightly as Byakuya's hand recaptured his and a soft glow of healing energy rose around their joined hands.

Renji stared at their two hands, his rough, calloused and reddened, where the tea had burned him…cradled in Byakuya's softer, paler, cooler hand…both lit and glowing. His eyes moved slightly to take in the enchanting view of his taichou's face also gently lit and glowing, his dark, lovely eyes focused intently on their joined hands. A moment later, those eyes flicked upward and caught Renji's staring. The redhead blinked and forced his eyes away, highly aware that Byakuya knew he had been staring.

He didn't know whether to be relieved or sad when the noble failed to acknowledge with word or motion that he had seen anything. Then it occurred to Renji that maybe Byakuya had already been aware he had been watching much more closely as of late. And his careful lack of acknowledge could either be a sign of rejection of the idea…or it could mean that he simply wasn't ready yet to go to that place. But whatever the reason, it seemed to make the burning pain seep out of his hand and into his heart instead.

"Is the pain in your hand relieved?" the noble's smooth voice asked, startling him.

"Oh, yes, Taichou," Renji said, starting to get up.

"Wait," Byakuya said, placing a hand on his shoulder, "It looked as though your leg injury was made worse by using your flash step. Lie down on the bed and I will try to relieve the pain."

The redhead moved cautiously, but couldn't quite avoid brushing up against the noble…and that caused a very untimely response in his groin. He leaned back against the pillows, all too aware of the fact that, lying on his back as he was, his growing erection had to be noticeable…or if it wasn't yet, it was quickly going to be. Renji tried to keep his breathing calm and even, but his heart raged beneath his breath and his groin ached worse than his injured leg.

Byakuya's hands pushed the fabric of his hakama out of the way, inadvertently brushing the redhead's thigh and sending such a shock to his groin that he groaned aloud. He felt Byakuya's eyes on him, but couldn't look at him directly.

"I'm sorry for my clumsiness," the noble said, running a hand from knee to ankle and raising his reiatsu, "I was trying not to cause you additional pain."

"Oh, it's okay, Taichou," Renji assured him, "It's fine now."

Things remained 'fine' for all of about five seconds…after which Byakuya climbed onto the bed and parted Renji's legs slightly to get a better angle on his injury. Renji bit back another groan, sure that Byakuya couldn't miss seeing 'it' now.

But whatever Byakuya saw, his expression remained placid and he calmly focused all of his attention on the task at hand. Healing energy poured out of him and into Renji's leg, and the redhead found himself calming under his taichou's gentle touches, until he slowly drifted off and lost awareness.

XXXXXXXXXX

He didn't know how long he had been sleeping, but the touch of a soft hand on his cheek woke him, and Renji opened his eyes and found himself looking at Byakuya…or it looked like Byakuya, but Byakuya as Renji had never seen him before. His hair was long and unrestrained, freed of the kenseiken to fall in tumbled swirls around his shoulders. The smoky eyes were tranquil, but conveyed a deep hunger that was directed at him. His uniform had been replaced with a dark red yukata that contrasted beautifully with the black of his hair and left Renji feeling more than a little breathless.

"Taichou?" he said in a soft, trembling voice, then the distance between their faces disappeared and Byakuya's lips crashed heatedly into his.

They were every bit as sweet as he had always thought they would be and a hundred times warmer. Though appearing cold on the surface, the noble's skin burned against his, blushing beautifully as their lips met again and again. He reached up and took hold of the noble's head, holding it still and thrusting his tongue between Byakuya's parted lips.

"Mmmmm…Byakuya!" he moaned loudly.

Renji felt a sharp jolt and sat up quickly. The room was dark and quiet and he realized suddenly that he had fallen asleep in Byakuya's bed. Then, he turned his head and caught sight of the noble sitting up on the other side of the bed, gripping the blankets tightly and blushing furiously.

"Wh-what…happened?" he managed, a feeling like fire roaring across the skin of his face.

"Nothing," Byakuya said, a slight catch in his voice, "You were having a…dream and it seemed to rile you, so I woke you."

He paused for a moment, as though to gather himself.

"You fell asleep there and I didn't want you to move too soon after being healed, so I…"

"Oh, it's okay now, Taichou," Renji said, climbing out of the bed, "I'll go to bed now."

He walked across the room, happy to note how much better his leg seemed. He stopped as he reached the door and looked back at the noble, who hadn't moved from his place on the bed.

"I don't know what you did, but my leg feels a lot better, Taichou. Thanks!" he said, smiling, "Good night, Taichou!"

"Good night, Renji," Byakuya said, his dark eyes still widened and the flush still around his face and throat.

The noble watched as his fukutaichou left and pulled the door closed behind him, then sat quietly in the darkness, his fingers reaching up to touch his lips where Renji had kissed him. His mind spun dizzily, replaying over and over how he had been tired after such a stressful day and even more tired after healing Renji's hand and leg. Seeing that the redhead was asleep and not wanting to wake him, he had chosen instead to let him sleep and had climbed into bed on the other side. Having lain close to his fukutaichou on the battlefield at night, it wasn't uncomfortable to be in close quarters with Renji…and after what had happened in Hueco Mundo, it had been a relief to have him close by…to chase away his own nightmares…

He had fallen asleep quickly and was firmly entrenched in his dreams, when he was awakened by the bed moving, and a body turning and wrapping itself around him. He had tried to pull away, but found his mouth being suddenly invaded by devilishly warm lips and a hot, eager tongue.

His mind had screamed immediately that he should sit up at once and voice his annoyance, but even though he sat up with a jolt, pulling free of his fukutaichou and waking him, he found at that point that something stopped the words…and all that he was able to do then was to stare at Renji and say nothing.

What's wrong with me?

He touched his fingers to his lips again and could still feel Renji kissing him.

What's wrong with me?

What in kami's name is wrong with me?

He sat quietly, looking out the window at the stars and trying to calm himself enough to fall asleep again, but even once his heart stopped racing and his head returned to his pillow, he couldn't get one piece of their earlier conversation to leave his mind.

"Believe me, I know the vagaries of both fate and chance."

"And what are we?"

"What are we?" he whispered softly, his body finally giving itself over to sleep.