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Renji wakes with a dull ache in the back of his head and the vague, indefinable feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong.

 

He tries to open his eyes, but it’s like someone’s come along and cut the threads that connect his mind to his eyelids - he can’t budge them. A systematic trial of the rest of his body tells him that whoever did the cutting has been very thorough. They’ve snipped off every last thread, and he can’t move a muscle. Well, that’s not entirely true. He can feel the beat of his heart, and the steady rise and fall of his chest, but they feel weirdly disconnected from him, and even his pulse isn’t responding to the rising wave of panic as he realises his body is paralysed.

 

Renji is a soldier. He’s been trained to keep a level head in all kinds of dangerous circumstances, and so he bites down on his fear (though only metaphorically - his jaw isn’t working either) and reminds himself that freaking out isn’t going to solve anything. He’s not dead, and he’s not in any serious pain. That’s a pretty good place to start from. For the rest, since he can’t use his body, he’s going to need to use his brain - where was he, before he lost consciousness? What’s the last thing he can remember doing?

 

Bed. The last thing he remembers is going to bed, and if he concentrates hard he thinks he can still feel the softness of a mattress beneath him now. If he concentrates a little harder, he can detect the light weight of blankets draped over him and a pillow beneath his head. That’s good news. If he’s still in his own bed, then it’s only a matter of time until someone comes along and finds him. When day breaks, if it hasn’t already, someone’s bound to notice that he’s not at work. This is the first place they’ll look.

 

And by then he might not even need them. His fingers are starting to tingle, and when he focuses he finds that he can twitch them. It feels like the paralysis is wearing off.

 

With nothing else to do, he waits.

 

Slowly, the paralysis starts to lift. Returning sensation travels from his fingertips down his arms, in itching, burning ebbs and waves that Renji has no choice but to patiently endure. It gives him plenty of time to wonder what the hell’s going on, whether someone cast some weird kido on him or poisoned him, and by the time he feels the tingling warmth spread to his eyelids he’s got about two dozen theories and a burning drive to follow up every single one until he finds out who or what is responsible for this mess he’s in.

 

The alarm comes rolling back in when he finally gets his eyes open, because wherever he is, it’s not his familiar little bedroom in the barracks. The cool light of early morning is flooding in through elegant panelled doors, illuminating a very large, very tidy room so meticulously devoid of personal effects that Renji can’t even begin to guess who it belongs to. He sits up, and finds that his body has completely forgotten its earlier paralysis: his limbs are loose and his movements fluid. It’s a relief, but he’s still got no clue where he is, and he can’t shake the nagging feeling that he’s missed something glaringly obvious.

 

Like the small, ornate dresser off to one side of the bedroom. The place isn’t empty after all - it’s just so neatly kept that he didn’t notice the smattering of clues around him at first glance. As he takes a closer look, the militaristic tidiness of his surroundings starts to make more sense - because he recognises a few things, after all. Like the spindly ivory hair-piece sitting atop the dresser. There’s absolutely no mistaking it, and the truth of his location finally clicks into place.

 

Somehow, god only knows how, he’s ended up in his captain’s bedroom.

 

Relief floods through him like a tidal wave. This rules out virtually all of his more alarming theories for the mysterious change in location: he hasn’t been kidnapped or taken hostage, he hasn’t been consigned to Kurotsuchi’s labs as a guinea-pig, he hasn’t been arrested. Hell, there could be any number of reasons for waking up in Kuchiki Byakuya’s bed. Maybe he just sleepwalked over here, and Byakuya was too polite to wake him and kick him out.

 

As he pushes himself to his feet he notices that he’s not wearing his usual sleepwear, but the change doesn’t worry him that much. His old flowery yukata has been getting kind of ratty - perhaps one of the captain’s servants took pity and put him into something nicer. Bit of a weird thing to do, but he’s not going to complain. Since they’ve apparently gone to such lengths to be hospitable, he figures he’ll just tidy himself up and then head out into the main house and see if his luck stretches to a bit of breakfast.

 

But when he settles down before the mirror, his happy fantasies of sweet rolled egg and hot tea vanish under the heavy weight of shock that comes thundering down on him, and every last theory about his paralysis goes flying out the window. Because he’s not just sleeping in the wrong bed. He’s not just wearing the wrong clothes.

 

He’s wearing the wrong face.

 

-

 

Byakuya wears Renji’s body like Renji has never seen it before: head held high, spine perfectly straight, all stillness and serenity as befits the leader of one of Soul Society’s greatest noble families. It doesn’t befit Renji all that well, though: the clash with his bold tattoos and wild red hair is almost comical, and he can’t help wondering whether he looks as out-of-place in Byakuya’s body as Byakuya looks in his.

 

“I don’t understand,” says Byakuya for the dozenth time, and for all his outward composure he still sounds lost, bewildered, a little helpless. Renji knows the feeling. “This shouldn’t be possible. Our bodies aren’t like the shells humans wear. We cannot simply climb in and out of them at will - they’re attached.”

 

“Current evidence would suggest you are mistaken,” says Kurotsuchi with a wicked leer. He is visibly excited, far too much so in Renji’s view, but now is really not the time to call him on it. Not when they need his help this badly. “I will repeat myself once more, so that perhaps your simple minds can grasp it. There is no known precedent for this kind of body reassignment. Certainly it has nothing to do with any known gigai technology. I need time to analyse the data I’ve collected from you both, so there’s no use pestering me with questions. You’ll have your answer when it’s ready.”

 

“You are both in perfect health, at any rate,” says Unohana-taichou pleasantly. “I will monitor your cases personally, but unless something changes I can see no immediate medical danger.”

 

Renji swallows thickly. Byakuya has gone deathly pale, and seems to have lost the will to speak, so Renji takes over: “You’re saying we just have to stay like this, then.”

 

“For the time being, I am afraid so,” says Unohana-taichou. “But I have no doubt that Kurotsuchi-taichou will have a cure ready for you soon.”

 

And that’s that. Kurotsuchi dismisses them to get to work on his research, Unohana-taichou heads back to the fourth division looking as serene as ever, and Byakuya and Renji are left standing out in the street in front of the twelfth division trying very, very hard not to look at one another.

 

And then they get on with their lives, because there’s quite simply nothing else they can do.

 

The worst part of that first day is giving notice of the change to those they agree they can’t reasonably withhold it from. Byakuya’s family and staff have to be told, of course, and they prove so completely unable to wrap their heads around it that eventually Renji just gives up and issues an order, as head of the house, that ‘Abarai-fukutaichou’ be treated with all the same deference as himself. That, at least, should keep things running smoothly until the servants catch on - and they’re bound to eventually, because Renji has already had to ask directions to the bathroom twice and he keeps dropping into broad Inuzuri slang and it’s only a matter of time until everyone starts to pick up on all these glaring lapses in character.

 

Rukia doesn’t believe them either, at first, until Byakuya fixes her with a look of withering disapproval and says he’d hoped she would at least have noticed the switch in their reiatsu. Which is actually the first time Renji notices this particular fact himself, but he chooses to keep his mouth shut, and tunes out Rukia’s bowing and stammered apologies in the wave of relief that rushes through him. Even if he’s lost his own body, he still has his own reiatsu, and somehow that knowledge is enough to ground him and ease a little of the awful tension that’s been twisting his stomach ever since he first caught sight of himself in the mirror.

 

The captain-commander receives the news with few words and a deep, puzzled frown. He immediately sends out a summons to the other captains for an emergency meeting, and it goes about as well as can be expected: a number of feeble jokes are made, Renji fends off half a dozen attempts to make him smile (he’s not in the mood), and Zaraki drops a few particularly vulgar comments that make Byakuya noticeably blanch. Other than that, the general consensus is that it’s weird and uncomfortable and nobody else’s business, and at Byakuya’s request Yamamoto decrees that the information be kept among only those of lieutenant rank or higher.

 

“You really think everyone’s going to buy that we’re each other?” Renji asks, as they leave the first division headquarters with Zaraki’s lewd jokes still ringing in their ears. “I mean, my manners are pretty bad, and all.”

 

“You will have to brush up on them,” says Byakuya curtly, and gives no indication that he in turn has considered dropping the register of his own conduct to better suit Renji’s. “We can hardly admit to the lower ranks that something like this is affecting their leadership.”

 

“And...you don’t think they’ll notice anything weird going on?” Renji presses, heart lurching in his chest. The idea of living in this body for the indefinite future is alarming enough, but the thought of having to pretend it belongs to him makes him feel sick and a little dizzy. There’s no way he can pull this off. Byakuya is cold, refined, unflappable; he, Renji, can barely even keep the Inuzuri out of his accent. They’re nothing alike - and there’s no way it isn’t going to show.

 

But from the look on Byakuya’s face, he’s already thought all of this through, and Renji knows better than to think he can change Byakuya’s mind once he’s made it up. For better or worse, he’s going to have to trust that secrecy is the right plan. And so he allows himself to be steered back to the Kuchiki estate, and politely ambushed by a wizened manservant who calls him ‘Byakuya-sama’ and combs a sharp-toothed ivory ornament into his hair and won’t look him in the eye no matter how close they stand. He goes in to work and moves his old desk in alongside Byakuya’s, as instructed, because there’s no way the captain is going to be relegated to the lieutenant’s office and there’s no way Renji can be seen working there alone. And every time he passes another officer and they call him ‘taichou’, it’s hard not to flinch and correct them, but he grits his teeth and does his honest best to accept the extra deference with Byakuya’s serene, indifferent manner.

 

And by the end of the day, he’s a trembling wreck and nothing feels real but at least nobody has said anything yet.

 

-

 

“Breakfast has been laid out for you, Byakuya-sama.”

 

“Cheers,” says Renji, and swears under his breath as his clumsy attempt at styling his own hair causes a painful tangle that rips out several more strands and sends his temper soaring higher. He’s beginning to wish he hadn’t turned down Byakuya’s manservant when he offered to assist, but Renji can’t back down and ask for help now, because the man has been looking on in silence from his lurking-place in the corner ever since and is probably waiting for an opportunity to gloat. Still, he’s starting to doubt his ability to master this infernal hairpiece, and the best breakfast he’s ever likely to have is going cold while he fiddles around with it. “Look,” he says, because all the hovering is only making him more flustered, “d’you think you could head out and make sure Kuchi...I mean, uh, Renji has everything he wants?”

 

The servant looks taken aback, but he recovers quickly, dipping into a low bow as he speaks. “My lord need not worry,” he says. “Abarai-sama is already being tended by three of our best staff. He will not go wanting.”

 

“Great,” says Renji glumly. Apparently, for all their overblown politeness, Byakuya’s servants aren’t huge on taking hints. “Look, uh…” he tries to address him, and then realises he can’t. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name…”

 

“Seike, my lord.”

 

“Right, Seike.” Renji beats back the flush that’s rising to his cheeks. “I’m doing alright here, so if you want to just run along and...I don’t know, stop hovering in the corner like that…”

 

There’s a long moment of stretched, awkward silence. At long last, Seike breaks it, although there’s a suspicious frown furrowing his brow, and he dips forward just a little less deeply this time when he speaks. “Forgive me, Byakuya-sama.” He takes his leave swiftly, and slides the door shut behind him, leaving Renji to hiss out another muffled curse as he scratches his scalp again with the sharp teeth of his captain’s hairpiece.

 

He closes his eyes, takes several deep, calming breaths. Opens them again. Honestly, it shouldn’t be that difficult. It would be easier, he’s sure, if he wasn’t having so much trouble accepting the reflection of his progress in the mirror as his, wasn’t half-expecting his image to betray itself by moving independently. Distracted as he is, it’s no wonder he’s having trouble replicating Byakuya’s complicated morning grooming rituals. Seike’s belligerently subservient presence was unsettling enough, but it’s almost worse without him: now, Renji has the whole oversized room to himself, and without any other sources of distraction the wrongness of everything threatens to overwhelm him. Even the slow, steady beating of his heart feels alien and unfamiliar.

 

It takes about another minute and several more painful snags before Renji decides he’s facing the world bare-headed today, after all. He sets aside the stupid hairpiece and pads out into the hall, and then realises belatedly that he forgot to ask Seike for directions to the breakfast room before sending him away.

 

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of servants in the Kuchiki household. Renji only has to stand around cluelessly in the hall for less than a minute before he catches the attention of a passing maid, who shows him obediently (if somewhat bemusedly) to the breakfast room where Byakuya and Rukia have already begun their meal without him. Off to one side, a respectful distance from the table, sits a visibly chagrined Seike, who bows deeply when Renji enters the room and casts a quick, frightened look at Byakuya.

 

Byakuya ignores him. On purpose, Renji suspects, from the irritable set of his jaw.

 

“Good morning, Taichou. Morning, Rukia.” Renji sinks awkwardly down onto the free cushion by the table, trying not to look at Byakuya more than is strictly necessary. It’s a vain effort. He can’t tear his eyes away: everything is exactly as it should be, from the messy spikes of Renji’s usual ponytail to the exact way he ties his bandana. Renji isn’t sure whether to be impressed or just unbearably, sickeningly jealous.

 

“Morning, Renji!” Rukia’s voice is bright and chirpy, but her posture is stiff and she’s hardly touched the food in front of her. It saddens Renji a bit that his arrival only seems to make her more uncomfortable - her eyes keep darting between him and Byakuya, and it couldn’t be clearer that she has no idea how to react to either of them right now. And honestly, Renji can’t blame her.

 

They eat in almost total silence, and Byakuya is the only one whose gaze doesn’t flit awkwardly about the table the whole time. Only occasionally does he lift his eyes up from his bowl to peer critically at Renji, who can feel the heavy weight of his judgement settling down on him and threatening to spoil his appetite. Off in his corner Seike is actually fidgeting, and when Byakuya finally sets down his rice bowl and sits back, Seike is instantly by his side to clear away his plates with an anxious “Finished, Byakuya-sama?”

 

Renji’s hopes prick up instantly. It’s pretty clear from all the tension in the room that Seike had gotten a fierce telling-off just before Renji arrived - perhaps he’s finally cottoned to his master’s change of circumstances.

 

Byakuya nods curtly, and holds up a hand to halt Seike as he reaches for the empty dishes. “Leave that to the maids,” he says, “and  take my lieutenant back to his quarters and see that he’s properly dressed and presentable before he leaves the house.” His eyes rake coldly over the tousled mess Renji has made of his hair.

 

“Understood, my lord.” Seike turns to Renji, head bobbing anxiously. “Is that agreeable to you, Byakuya-sama?”

 

And Renji’s hopes are shattered instantly.

 

Across the table, Rukia breaks her silence with an unladylike snort of mirth. “You can’t call them both ‘Byakuya-sama’,” she says, and Seike’s cheeks flush a bright pink.

 

“I am no longer amused, Seike,” says Byakuya, for all the world as though his lack of good humour is only a recent development. “Get on with it, then. If you haven’t remembered how to address us both correctly by the time I see you next, I may find myself moved to review the terms of your employment with my family. Do I make myself clear?”

 

Seike looks stricken. His blush is luminous now, spreading from the tips of his ears right down his neck, and his mouth opens and closes several times before he manages to emit any sound. “U-understood, my lord,” he manages at last. “This way please, Bya- Abarai- ah, this way, please, Sir.”

 

Renji is sympathetic, but he’s also more than a little frustrated. He stays mute as Seike leads him back to his borrowed bedroom, then kneels down silently before the dresser and lets the old man start combing out the tangles from his failed attempt at reproducing Byakuya’s hairstyle. Seike works with expert speed, despite the minute trembling of his hands, and before Renji knows it each strand is hanging neat and untousled about his face, the impossibly hairpiece curving tidily over the back of his head. “There you go, Bya- Abarai-sama,” says Seike, stepping back smartly after one last careful scan of Renji’s appearance.

 

Seike still sounds pretty shaken, and now that Renji is at least being called by the right name he finds his frustration fading and his sympathy rising. “You know we’re telling you the truth, right?” he says gently, because away from Byakuya’s stern gaze it seems far more sensible to reassure the poor guy than to chastise him. “You know the captain, he’s not exactly one for jokes.”

 

Seike swallows. “My lord’s sense of humour is refined and subtle,” he says loyally, but he seems to consider this all the same. “My apologies, Abarai-sama. I never meant to imply any dishonesty.”

 

“It’s cool,” says Renji, with an easy shrug. “While you’re at it, though, you can drop the ‘Abarai-sama’ crap. It’s just Renji.”

 

“Certainly, Renji-sama,” says Seike with a deep bow, and Renji just snorts and pushes himself to his feet.

 

Seike has done a good job. Renji’s reflection looks...perfect, in that awful familiar-yet-completely-wrong way he wishes he could say he’s getting used to by now. “Should have let you do this in the first place,” he says, twisting around as he inspects his appearance. “It’d be loads easier if I could just chuck my hair back in a ponytail. How does Taichou put up with having it hang in his face like this all day? It suits him really well and all, but still.”

 

As he leaves the room, Renji can’t quite tell if the stifled noise Seike makes is disapproval or amusement.

 

-

 

Settling into this new routine takes less time than expected.

 

Life at the Kuchiki manor, Renji finds, is quiet and calm and surprisingly low effort. There are servants who take care of everything, from serving his meals to drawing his baths to laying out his futon for him each night. Work is easier than usual too, since Byakuya won’t hand over any of his own duties, but seems to feel obliged to take on half of Renji’s. He’s taken over the morning inspection rounds and training supervision, and if the soldiers have noticed any changes in their lieutenant’s conduct then they’re not letting on about it. Renji still has to do all his usual paperwork, but not much else; he spends his free time reading up on etiquette, mostly, since it seems he’s likely to be needing more of it in the near future. Sometimes, when the captain is out of the office, he cheers himself up by pulling faces at his reflection in the window, and takes childish delight in the sight of Byakuya’s face with eyelids pulled back and tongue lolling out. He tests his vocal range, and sniffs at his hair and the skin of his arms, and tries to make the body he’s in feel a little more his, a little more familiar.

 

There are so many things, so many trivial everyday aspects of life Renji’s never given a moment’s thought to, that he’s coming to see in a whole different light. Bathing becomes a daily exercise in painful self-deception, as he scrubs himself all over as quickly as possible and tries to convince himself it’s not weird to be washing Byakuya’s naked body instead of his own. Privacy is a rare commodity - the servants are never far away - and the few moments of solitude Renji manages to snatch for himself are precious, sanity-preserving treasures. His newfound love for alone time is the only thing that makes the sleeplessness bearable - because that, he finds, is the dreariest and most disconcerting part of being Byakuya, and it sets in with a suddenness and finality that defies any hope of a cure.

 

He can’t sleep.

 

His eyes drift closed in fits and starts, and he’s restless, and hyper-alert, so that the smallest whisper of noise is enough to startle him out of any doze. Once asleep he rarely stays that way for more than a couple of hours at a time, and the rest of his nights are spent sitting up in bed or slipping out onto the porch to stew in his own thoughts until dawn breaks.

 

Everything reaches a depressingly literal peak on one such sleepless morning when, lying in bed and letting his mind wander where it wants, Renji finds himself growing aroused. That in itself is bad enough, because Renji can’t remember a time in his life when he’s ever ‘grown aroused’ before. He just gets horny, like a regular guy, and the intrusion of what has to be Byakuya’s vocabulary on his own private thoughts jars him down to his bones. He just doesn’t know how he’s going to cope if all his bodily functions start going all posh on him.

 

Next comes denial, and stern self-admonition, because even if his mind currently controls this body it’s still not his. He can’t just do what he wants with it. Honestly, the thought of touching himself like this gives him the creeps: it’s like touching another person altogether, a person who definitely hasn’t invited Renji to touch him, and he can’t get past the awkward sense that just by having a hard-on in the first place he’s committing some awful violation of Byakuya’s privacy.

 

But he also can’t get past the arousal. It keeps on gnawing at him no matter how hard he tries to think of something else, and so he gives in to it - because if he can’t even meet this most basic bodily need for himself, how is he supposed to go out there and face another whole day in this stupid, ill-fitting body? He reaches down with one tentative hand to feel out an erection that’s superficially familiar and yet...not. It’s a little smaller, a little straighter than what he’s used to, and the sensation, when he explores further, is concentrated in different places.

 

And it feels so wrong that he almost wants to jerk his hand away and give up.

 

He doesn’t. He’s already made up his mind, and backing out now feels far too much like defeat.

But even something as simple as pleasuring...jerking himself off is so jarringly different from normal that perservering is more an act of masochism than of self-indulgence. Byakuya’s body is more sensitive than his, and it takes Renji a good minute of wincing and gritted teeth to figure out that his usual favourite tricks - fast stroke, tight grip, foreskin pulled firmly back - are not going to get the job done. And even once he figures out a softer, slower stroke that works, the dissonance is far too strong: the pleasure’s there in his body but it’s not reaching his mind, and he’s distracted by the unfamiliar shape of the cock in his hand, and when he finally comes it’s just a hot splash and a shudder that leaves him somehow more frustrated than he was before. His body is still aching for something that he doesn’t know how to give it, and there’s nothing he can do but clean himself up and head out to face the day and try not to let his face betray the dejection he’s feeling.

 

When he reaches the office, it’s tempting to wonder whether Byakuya has been having a similar morning. He looks pale, with bruise-like shadows under his eyes and a barely-there slump to his shoulders. He’s slow to look up as Renji enters the room, and watches him settle down at his desk with eyes that look strangely blank and glassy.

 

"Uh...morning, Taichou," Renji greets him, lifting a hand to scratch nervously at the back of his neck, then quickly dropping it when he realises how odd the mannerism must look on Byakuya's body. "You doing alright?"

 

"Well, thank you." Byakuya shakes his head minutely, as if to cast off some kind of daze, and at once he's back to the stern, unreadable expression that Renji finds so jarringly mismatched with his own face. "And yourself?"

 

Renji shrugs, and pulls the first of the morning's correspondences towards him with a dreary sigh. "Your sleep patterns are messed up," he says. "Barely got a wink last night. Apparently, your body doesn't know how to stay asleep for longer than a couple of hours at a time."

 

This observation seems to annoy Byakuya, though he brushes it aside with another small shake of his head that Renji puts down to discomfort with the level of intimacy their switch is necessitating. Because of course, Byakuya would never admit to a colleague that he had problems with something as sordid as insomnia. "I am a light sleeper," he admits grudgingly. "You cannot blame your restlessness on me, though. I have noticed no change in my own sleeping patterns since we changed - I have been keeping my usual hours.”

 

"And you look like you're starting to pay for it," Renji points out, with another meaningful look at Byakuya's pale, waxy face. "You're going to need to sleep more, sir, if you're anything like me now."

 

Byakuya's only response is an evasive dip of his head before he turns his eyes back to the paperwork before him. He's really committed to the whole 'not talking about it’ thing, and Renji feels a small pang of guilt for his conduct earlier this morning. If Byakuya feels uncomfortable sharing insight into each other's sleep patterns, of all things, he'll probably lose his shit completely if he finds out how much more intimately acquainted Renji is with his body now.

 

But what is he supposed to do? They've heard no word on Kurotsuchi's progress, and god knows how long they're going to have to live in each other's skin. Can he really put his whole life on hold just to protect Byakuya's privacy?

 

And what about his own privacy? How much is Byakuya uncovering that Renji doesn't want him to?

 

The only tactful thing to do is drop it. Renji goes about his work in near silence for the rest of the morning, speaking only to confirm bits and pieces of administrative tasks, and lets his gloomy resignation carry him through the tedium of his duties until lunchtime rolls around. But when he makes to rise and take his leave, Byakuya finally looks up again, and Renji doesn't know how to read the expression on his face except that it's tense and a bit conflicted.

 

"Renji," he says at last, and he's speaking slowly, as though he's not sure whether these are the words he wants to say. "After lunch - have you tried training yet?"

 

The thought of fighting in this body feels somehow more intimate than anything Renji did this morning, and even more prone to disastrous outcomes. He hasn't even dared pick up Zabimaru since they switched bodies. Hasn't felt ready to deal with the possibility that his zanpakutou won't respond. But sooner or later they have to do this, and it might as well be sooner, and it might as well be together.

 

"Meet me at the training hall in an hour?" he says.

 

-

 

The best that can be said for their sparring session is that it’s marginally more productive than sitting around the office in strained silence all day.

 

Byakuya’s face is blank as they leave the training hall, but Renji can sense the seething frustration and anxiety beneath his calm facade. Or perhaps it’s just Renji projecting his own feelings outwards, because there’s no way around it: their session was an unqualified disaster.

 

Zabimaru responded after all, but not happily or willingly. Never in his life has Renji had so much trouble tapping into his powers: the sword felt foreign and clumsy in his hands, and Zabimaru's voice when he reached out with his mind was muffled and faint. Byakuya's quick executive decision to stick to bokken for their sparring match told Renji that the captain was having similar problems with Senbonzakura. That much he probably could have dealt with - but their session also helped uncover other, more pervasive problems, and it’s those that are gnawing at Renji’s mind now as they make their way back to the office.

 

It’s the muscle memory that seems to be causing the most issues. Byakuya’s body has retained all the habits and instincts that long years of training have drilled into it, and Renji finds it an uphill battle just to stop himself from being swept away by the strong currents of reflex that seek to interfere with every move he makes. It’s something he’s already been coming to realise, in the back of his mind, as he slowly picks up on the changes in gait and posture that sneak up on him the longer he stays in this body. Mostly it’s an annoyance, a jarring but essentially toothless reminder that the skin he’s wearing isn’t his. But on the training field, it becomes utterly disabling. Try as he might, he can’t get his muscles to move the way he’s used to. He also can’t mimic Byakuya’s more usual fighting style with any meaningful degree of success, and his efforts to mediate between the opposing instincts of his mind and Byakuya’s body yield only clumsy, unpredictable results.

 

It's less than an hour since they began training, and already they've given up. Their efforts have served only to make the situation feel more unworkable than ever. “Perhaps more practice is needed,” Byakuya says. He probably couldn’t sound less convincing if he tried, but if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make Renji feel worse, it’s trying to talk about feelings with Byakuya. So he just shrugs as if in agreement, and jams his sword back into its sheath just a little more forcefully than he strictly needs to, and wracks his brains for something helpful to say.

 

“Should we...I dunno, try again tomorrow?” he offers, but Byakuya just shakes his head curtly. Of course, Renji thinks, he’ll want to train through this alone. Can’t have anyone seeing him at less than his best, so never mind shared experiences or mutual support.

 

And it saddens Renji a bit that that’s how it has to be because, really, this could be a bonding process for the two of them. Maybe circumstances aren’t ideal, but there’s literally no-one else around who understands what they’re going through. They could talk, commiserate, swap advice, and Renji could find out what it’s like to deal with Byakuya as a person and not just as a captain. He’d…kinda like that, he thinks. Right now they are literally sharing their bodies with each other, and it’s pointless to pretend that isn’t a terrifyingly intimate experience. But, pointless or not, Byakuya seems determined to make a pretty good run of it. And so there’s nothing Renji can do except shrug it off, and go back to the office and dredge up as much busywork as he can to keep him occupied until it’s finally time to head home.

 

The trip back to the manor, of course, presents a few unforeseen challenges of its own.

 

“Go on ahead,” are the fateful words Renji tells Byakuya, thinking only of this last stack of forms he might as well drop off at admin on the way, and that even a few minutes break from Byakuya’s withdrawn, silent company would be worth any length of detour. And it really is only a few minutes, but apparently that’s all it takes; he catches up with Byakuya again less than fifty metres from the division gates, where he has already been decisively cornered by two of the very last people Renji wishes to see right now.

 

His heart quickens in his chest, and his first impulse is to rush straight to Byakuya’s defense - but if he does that, then what? He’s got no excuse. Not one single explanation for why he should be in such a desperate rush to get his ‘lieutenant’ home with him that he’s willing to go barging in on a perfectly legal and (theoretically) harmless conversation. He has to think of something though, and fast, because there’s absolutely no way he can expect Byakuya to carry a civil conversation with Madarame Ikkaku and Ayasegawa Yumichika.

 

Of all the people who could possibly have showed up.

 

“You’ve been making yourself scarce,” Ikkaku is saying, leaning over to thump Byakuya soundly on the back. Renji sees Byakuya’s shoulders stiffen but, remarkably, there’s no immediate resistance or retaliation. Instead, he...huh. He simply takes the blow, with a half-joking shout of “Hey, lay off!”, and Renji’s eyes are ready to bug out of his head as the impending disaster transforms itself into a scene of dazzling, heartbreaking normalcy.

 

Because Byakuya’s posture is suddenly very familiar, in that weird way that Renji is somehow able to identify even though he’s never really seen his own body from the outside before. One thing’s for sure, what he’s looking at right now really isn’t Byakuya: shoulders straight but somehow relaxed, less stiff, more open. And his accent...well, his accent is straight off the streets of Inuzuri. Renji feels a little indignant about that one - he knows he’s still got a pretty broad accent but he’s sure it’s not as bad as Byakuya’s making it out to be. It doesn’t really matter, though, because Yumichika and Ikkaku look completely unfazed, and the three of them draw off to the side of the path so they can stop and talk. Renji hangs back, tense and wary, trying not to let his optimism get too far out of hand. There are far too many ways Byakuya could anger or upset his friends, too many ways he could make a complete idiot of Renji in front of them. Fuck, does Byakuya even know how to talk to people without his usual strict system of hierarchy to guide the whole interaction?

 

“We thought you must have gone on an emergency deployment or something,” Yumichika tells Byakuya, in a tone of stern disapproval that makes Renji’s stomach clench with anxiety as he looks on. “What happened to drinks last Friday? You couldn’t even call ahead to tell us you weren’t coming?”

 

There’s no way Byakuya is going to react well to the tone Yumichika is taking with him. And yet somehow he’s just shrugging, one hand jumping up to scratch guiltily at the back of his head as he says, “Work’s been so ridiculous lately, I guess it must’ve just slipped my mind.” It’s not a lie - Renji completely forgot he’d even had anything teed up for Friday. No wonder the guys have come to track him down. “I, uh, hope you didn’t wait too long for me,” Byakuya goes on, with such a perfect show of sheepish guilt that even Renji is starting to forget who he’s looking at.

 

“Tch. Like we would,” says Ikkaku gruffly. though he looks a bit mollified. “You doin’ okay, though? Bastard’s not working you too hard, is he?”

 

It’s like they’re trying to ruin everything, Renji thinks despairingly. And yet still, Byakuya doesn’t even twitch at the implicit insult - just shrugs and says, “nah, you know how it is. Bad time of year. We’ve just had three seated openings come up, so of course everyone’s competing for them, and everything else is going to hell while they all bicker. I’ve been doing clean-up, mostly.”

 

This seems to win over Yumichika as well, who dips his head in a sympathetic nod. “I know that feeling,” he says, and sighs. “Alright, then, you’re forgiven - but you’ll have to make it up to us. What are you doing tonight?”

 

Renji’s stomach lurches. God, what he wouldn’t give to be heading out for a few drinks with his friends right now. But he’s sure he’s pushed his luck too far, even though Byakuya is already swinging smoothly into an excuse - they’re bound to say something rude when he turns them down, and they’ll be joking, of course, but Byakuya won’t know that and Renji really doesn’t want to deal with his friends being pissed off with him on top of everything else that’s happened. He starts forward without any excuse in mind, and three sets of eyes turn to look at him blankly as he steps straight into the middle of a conversation that pretty clearly has no room in it for him.

 

It’s lucky that Byakuya is on the ball, it really is. Renji is going to owe him a pretty big thank-you when this is over.

 

“Taichou,” Byakuya says, without missing a beat. “You got my memo, then? I’m glad.” He turns back to Yumichika and Ikkaku with a lopsided grin of apology. “Sorry to do this, guys, but there’s still some stuff I’ve gotta take care of before I knock off. We’ll catch up later, okay?” And before Renji fully knows what’s going on they’re parting ways, with Byakuya leading the way back towards the Kuchiki manor as though that’s the most natural place in the world for them both to be going together, and it’s a little astonishing to watch the way he changes once they’re out of view. His gait changes, his posture changes, and he manages to look almost like himself even though it’s definitely still Renji’s body he’s wearing. And the eyes he turns on Renji are stern at first, but somehow softened around the edges.

 

“I appreciate that this is difficult for you,” says Byakuya, in a voice that sits somewhere between remonstrance and reassurance, “but you need to remember that those men are not your friends right now. You cannot walk up and join conversation with them as though they still knew you for who you are.”

 

“Uh…” For a moment Renji just blinks, still too taken aback by Byakuya’s newfound imitative abilities to process such a sudden switch back to his normal persona. “That wasn’t it, sir,” he manages, although a part of him is wondering when, exactly, his brain came to code the sight of his own body wearing such an unapproachable manner as normal. “I just thought, you know, you might want an out…”

 

Byakuya arches a brow. “I had an out,” he says. “One that would have confused your friends far less than your sudden urge to participate in our conversation.”

 

“Yeah, but…” Renji breaks off, because there’s no tactful way to say I figured you only had so many seconds of non-hostility left in you, and decides his best shot might be just to turn the tables. “You were overdoing the accent,” he says, and the words come out grumpy and petulant despite his best efforts to sound casual. “I haven’t talked like that in years, Taichou. Give me some credit.”

 

“Is that so?” Byakuya looks...amused, almost, in a thin-lipped sort of way. “Perhaps I ought to have my ears checked.”

 

Renji shrugs, but glances at him suspiciously all the same. The amusement is still there, and Renji can’t tell if he’s being laughed at or just played with. He settles on the latter for his peace of mind. “If you are concerned,” Byakuya goes on with a gentle quirk of his lips, “know that I have received extensive coaching from Rukia in the correct imitation of your accent and speech patterns. I can assure you my rendition is faithful.”

 

“Rukia’s a heartless traitor,” says Renji, but something clicks in his mind all the same. “You’ve been practicing?” he asks, peering curiously at Byakuya, who has developed a sudden interest in the plain wall off to their right and is far too busy examining it to meet Renji’s eyes. “That’s pretty full-on, isn’t it?”

 

Come to think of it, that does explain why Byakuya’s performance was so eerily convincing. Renji was half-expecting Byakuya to just charge on ahead in his own persona, or maybe make a half-arsed attempt to talk rougher and smudge his manners a bit. He certainly never expected Byakuya would take the time to start copying his language and gestures in such fine detail. Or that he’d commit any real time to it beyond the demands of the present moment.

 

But Byakuya just shrugs, a casual gesture that feels more familiar to Renji as his own than as Byakuya’s, and still doesn’t bother to meet his eyes. “It seemed necessary,” he says, and then, as though embarrassed at being singled out for his efforts, “I know you’ve been conducting all manner of study in proper etiquette, since we switched places.”

 

Switched places, Renji notes. Places, not bodies. He feels like there’s something worth considering in that strange shift of words, but he’s too busy being tickled by the image of Byakuya rehearsing his Renji imitation in front of the mirror before work each day. Are mirrors as tough an experience for Byakuya right now as they are for Renji?

 

“Still,” says Renji, and stops trying to catch Byakuya’s eye, the convenient dark hair about his face helping him hide his twitching grin. “I appreciate it, you know? I still don’t know if I trust you on the accent, but...thanks. For putting in the effort. It’s probably getting on your nerves, having to act all classless like me.”

 

A long pause follows these words. It stretches out until they’ve reached the front door of the manor, and as they’re about to part ways to change before dinner, Byakuya finally looks around and meets his gaze. “You should trust me more,” he says, the faintest hint of a smile curving his lips. “I will allow no harm to come to your reputation, while it is in my care.”

 

And Renji’s sure he should feel something more than what he’s feeling, as Byakuya walks away without another word. Annoyance, maybe, or gratitude, or frustration, or relief. But all he really feels is kind of warm, and maybe just a little less lonely.

Chapter Text

There are still dark shadows under Byakuya’s eyes when they head out, after almost a full week and a barrage of tireless persuasive efforts from Renji, to have another go at training together. Maybe it’s because he’s so tired that Byakuya finally agrees to it - or maybe it’s because he’s had enough time now to practice by himself, so he’s no longer embarrassed to be seen in action. And he’s definitely gotten better, though nowhere near up to his usual standard yet, and that’s probably why he insists on training back at the Kuchiki manor where none of the rest of the division can walk in on them by accident.

 

“Still don’t know why you’re so worried,” Renji says, mopping his forehead with the back of his sleeve and wishing, for the hundredth time this evening, that he could just tie his hair back out of his face. It’s driving him crazy, swinging in his eyes every time he turns his head, but it won’t stay combed back and it won’t tuck behind his ears and he’s pretty sure Byakuya wouldn’t thank him for a haircut. Still, he’d like to think it’s at least partially responsible for his own poor performance today. “You’re loads better at this than I am. Nobody else would even notice the difference.”

 

“I highly doubt that,” says Byakuya, rolling his wrist to ease out the strain. “Have you taken any recent injuries to your sword arm?” he asks, the faint crease of a frown appearing between his brows. “The muscles keep cramping, I can hardly move it.”

 

Renji shakes his head. “Sorry, Taichou, but that’s just your grip doing the damage,” he says airily. “You’re going to get a lot of cramps if you keep holding your sword like that.”

 

“Like what?” Byakuya’s frown is more pronounced now, and he looks down at his hand as though it has personally insulted him.

 

“Like the whole world’s gonna collapse if you even try to let your arm move naturally.” Byakuya gives him a look like he’s just sprouted horns, and so Renji hastens to add, “just relax your grip a bit, and don’t hold your arm so stiff. Let it swing how it wants to. Uh, that’s how I usually do it, at least.”

 

“That would explain a lot,” says Byakuya drily, but he makes no argument - just picks up his sword again and tests it, swings it carefully, with a look of keen concentration like he’s handling something unknown and potentially dangerous. “You should do the opposite,” he adds, once he has confirmed that his new technique isn’t going to cause any immediate breakdown of universal order. “Hold your arm straighter. Try to keep your movements precise.”

 

Renji tries to comply, and it’s...difficult. He can’t say there’s any noticeable change, to start with - just hell of a lot of mental strain as he struggles to find a balance that doesn’t feel weird. He closes his eyes, tries to visualise. What does Byakuya look like when he fights? He’s streamlined, every movement quick and economical; his strength is in his speed, in his minutely honed reflexes. Renji has seen him in action too many times to count, and the image is crystal clear in his mind. It shouldn’t be hard to emulate. Drawing in his focus, he lunges forward and swings -

 

- and goes sprawling.

 

Byakuya offers a hand, and hauls him up off the ground. “I, ah...must have lost my footing,” Renji says sheepishly, dusting himself off and trying hard not to blush. “Turf here’s pretty uneven.”

 

“Of course.” Byakuya’s lips are pressed thin, and for a minute Renji thinks he’s seriously pissed off until he realises that no, Byakuya is trying not to laugh at him. If it was anyone else, Renji would shoot back something insulting at them. But it’s not anyone else, and so he just huffs - to be fair, he must look pretty funny - and snatches up his sword and launches into another attempt. Eyes open, this time. At least Byakuya is paying attention now, and keeps offering up corrections to Renji’s technique, and even takes a few on board himself. Embarrassing as it is to have an audience to his blunders, Renji finds that it’s a lot easier to make progress with the help of someone who at least knows how this body works. They end up staying out til dusk, just working through basic drills and critiquing each other, and maybe it’s just been way too long since Renji was last with his friends but there’s something achingly welcome about the easy companionship that falls over them like a blanket as they work. It’s not quite like training with one of his own peers, but it’s not quite like training under his captain either. They’re both at a pretty substantial disadvantage, and the playing field is...not levelled, exactly, but certainly a lot less steeply sloped than it used to be.

 

It’s also a source of quiet satisfaction for Renji to see Byakuya visibly tiring for once. Which is unkind of him, really, because Byakuya was hardly in the best shape to begin with. By the time they call it quits, Renji is honestly starting to feel uneasy about the ashen colour of Byakuya’s face - shouldn’t he be flushed from so much exertion? - but Byakuya dismisses the enquiry with an impatient shake of his head and a pointed look that quells any further questions.

 

And from that night on, this is how things are. They go to work and they come back home and they train together, and with long practice and mutual assistance they slowly begin to improve. There’s still no way Renji is fit to train in front of the division, but at least he learns not to trip quite so much, and figures out a way to hold his sword that feels comfortable and confusingly familiar. Byakuya seems unable to decide whether Renji’s various mistakes in his body are funny or embarrassing, but it doesn’t really matter - both emotions manifest identically, with a cool stare and a slight thinning of lips, and even Byakuya’s extreme reserve is starting to look less out of place on Renji’s features than it did before.

 

“I dunno what you find so funny about me screwing up,” Renji tells him one evening, as they settle tiredly down on the overlooking deck for a breather. This latest blunder has pulled a painful muscle in his shoulder, but he’s trying not to let it show - all it’ll do is irritate Byakuya, or else entertain him still further. “I do it all the time, in my own body.”

 

There’s still a bright twinkle of amusement in Byakuya’s eyes, but to his credit he keeps a straight face. “Perhaps I am simply more used to you looking foolish,” he offers. A thoughtful frown creases his brow, though, and he quickly adds, “Not that it’s any excuse. You need to pull yourself together.”

 

“I’m trying,” says Renji with an impatient huff. “It’s not like I’m clowning around on purpose. I realise it’s important to you that we...keep up appearances, or whatever. So I’m trying, I really am.”

 

He’s spoken too openly, he can tell, because Byakuya shifts his gaze away and doesn’t immediately respond. “In truth, I can speak little better of my own performance,” Byakuya says eventually, as though he didn’t hear Renji’s previous words. “Mind over matter, I have always been taught. But apparently our bodies have some say in it as well, after all.”

 

“I’m not really that surprised,” says Renji, shrugging. Growing up like he did, he never really got a chance to develop any doubt as to the importance of his natural physical advantages. If someone had tried to tell him back then that his intentions were what mattered, he’d probably have hit them. “You’ve all but got it down, though, you know. Most people wouldn’t even spot the difference any more, if they saw you in action.”

 

“Perhaps.” Byakuya sounds unconvinced, and it couldn’t be clearer that he’s tiring of the personal bent their conversation has taken, so with a sigh Renji pushes himself to his feet and tries to will away the persistent twinge in his shoulder.

 

“Anyway,” says Renji, “I’m starting to feel like I should be testing out some of the stuff I’ve practiced. Any chance you’d go a round against me before we pack it in?”

 

So they spar. Sparring, at least, is interpersonally easy, even if it puts a strain on their bodies. And it’s weird, because a few weeks ago Renji could never have imagined spending this much time with Byakuya outside of work, but it’s taken almost no time for him to get used to the idiosyncrasies of the strange, arms-length sort of friendship they’ve been all but forced to settle into. Sparring is good because it keeps them busy, keeps them moving, gives them a point of shared interest around which everything else can settle naturally. Byakuya is a lot easier to talk to while he’s doing something else at the same time, and the more they work together, the more Renji is finding there are a surprising number of things he likes about this quiet, reserved man. Like the fact that he actually does laugh, sometimes (even if it’s usually at Renji’s misfortunes), and that for all his haughtiness he still takes Renji’s reputation just as seriously as his own. He smiles encouragingly when Renji manages to slip past his defenses, and he never lets the same move catch him twice, and he keeps an eye on both of them and, when Renji starts to pant in earnest, quietly declares himself exhausted and leads the way inside. And that, above all, is the thing that’s really winning Renji over: Byakuya is scrupulous about leaving him room to save face.

 

It’s not that great a gift in and of itself. Renji’s never had a lot of face, and even less luck in saving what he does have. He’s used to dealing with minor-to-moderate social embarrassment on a depressingly regular basis, and having to be the first to admit tiredness is nothing next to some of the awkwardness he’s faced down in his lifetime.  But he’s seen enough by now to know that keeping face is everything to Byakuya - which means that really, from Byakuya’s perspective, all these efforts to preserve Renji’s dignity are probably the greatest kindness he knows how to share.

 

And Renji does his best to return that kindness. He’s gotten pretty good at all the etiquette stuff, and at stripping back anything too colloquial from his speech - he hasn’t quite perfected Byakuya’s old-fashioned lilt yet, but he’s close enough - and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, everything with both of them is exactly as it should be. That seems to be enough for Byakuya, who still looks tired and unhealthily pale, but gets about his business each day with unflappable calm and occasionally even says something nice, like, “Your training is coming on well,” or “I think it’s high time you took a break,” or “Why don’t we eat lunch together today?”

 

But the first real test of this cautious new friendship of theirs comes on a nasty, rainy day when Byakuya makes the executive decision to take an evening’s rest from training. They retreat to the library instead where, after a long and comfortable interlude during which Byakuya thumbs silently through a book and Renji pretends to, Byakuya marks his page carefully and looks up and says:

“I need to ask a favour of you, Renji.”

 

Which, when he looks back later, Renji will recognise as the moment he knew he was well and truly in over his head.

 

-

 

“I still think this is a really bad idea,” Renji mutters, as he allows Seike to smooth his haori on his shoulders and tries not to blush under the sharp scrutiny of two sets of piercing, critical eyes. It’s not his own dignity at stake, he reminds himself, not that this fact makes his coming ordeal any less terrifying. He doesn’t want to damage Byakuya’s reputation any more than his own, and he’s also not too keen on the consequences if he does mess up. Byakuya hasn’t issued a single warning, but he doesn’t need to - Renji is well aware of how high the stakes are today.

 

Politics, he’s been told, as though this is all the explanation someone in his position could possibly need. Politics, in whatever vague and undefined role it’s playing here, is the reason why it’s simply not possible to cancel Byakuya’s attendance at this particular social function. Renji has never even heard of the Tsugaru clan before, but apparently they’ve got a lot of money and a lot of influence and Byakuya feels obliged to attend their stupid party come rain, shine, or involuntary body-swap. Or, in this last case, to make Renji do it for him. I have faith in you, he has said, which strikes Renji as an especially backhanded way of saying ‘screw it up and I’ll never forgive you’.

 

Renji feels horribly awkward and out of place in Byakuya’s formalwear, and the identical disapproving pinch to Byakuya’s and Rukia’s faces tells him he looks about as wrong in it as he feels. “If it’s that bad,” he says hopefully, “we can always just call in sick and I can-”

 

“Stop fiddling with the sleeves,” Byakuya orders sharply. “It disarranges the whole outfit.”

 

“You look so sheepish,” Rukia adds, and Renji feels a brief pang of betrayal - surely she, of all people, could at least understand how he’s feeling right now. “Can’t you stand up a bit straighter? And stop shuffling your feet, you’re going to trip yourself up.”

 

“I’m doing my best, alright?” Renji throws up his hands to ward off the barrage of criticism, and hears Seike tsk under his breath as the silk he’s just meticulously smoothed out is rumpled all over again. “This is never going to work,” he adds, and lets out a slow huff of frustration. “There’s no way I can convince a whole room full of nobles that I’m you.”

 

Something flickers in Byakuya’s expression, and Renji thinks he can detect a distinct anxiety there before it smooths over again. “I really cannot cancel this, Renji,” he says. “You have no idea of the offense it will cause if I fail to make my promised appearance. All you need to do is follow the instructions I’ve given you and avoid offending anyone until we can make our exit at the earliest possible opportunity.”

 

“Nii-sama and I will be there to help you if you get stuck,” says Rukia reassuringly. That, perhaps, is the only upside of this whole miserable affair - because apparently, if Kuchiki Byakuya decides that his lieutenant is going to be spontaneously included in his retinue for a party, nobody questions or criticises the decision. He’s not sure it will be enough, but it’s going to have to be, because it’s nearly time to leave and Seike is finally happy with the drape of his stiflingly formal clothing, and Byakuya is already turning to leave the room and join the rest of the train of attendants waiting outside the manor. There’s no way out of this, and he’ll just have to do his best not to make a complete disaster of it.

 

“It really won’t be all that difficult,” Rukia tells Renji, once Byakuya is out of earshot. “Just try to think like you’re better than everyone else. Be as insincere as possible when thanking the host, because really he should be thanking your magnificent self for bothering to attend. Welcome all the attention you get from the women there, then freeze them out when they start trying to drag you over to talk to their relatives. Try not to look too interested in anything anyone says to you.” There’s a note of wry amusement in her tone, like she finds the whole situation impossibly funny. “Oh, and you hate the host’s brother, because he once got drunk and tried to flirt with your wife.”

 

There’s no way Renji is going to remember all this. “Which one’s the host’s brother?” he asks, although his panic is admittedly somewhat tempered by his interest in Rukia’s brutally honest insights - this is a side of Byakuya’s life he definitely hasn’t seen before.

 

“The first one who tries to suck up to you when you arrive,” Rukia answers promptly. “He still thinks he can get back in your good books if he flatters you enough. Be as nasty to him as you can possibly get away with.”

 

“Got it,” says Renji. At least if it all goes horribly wrong, he’ll have one approved target to vent his frustrations on.

 

And that, he realises only very shortly after passing the gates of their host’s sprawling estate, is going to come in handy. He’s never seen so many nobles in one place in his life before, and nearly all of them seem desperate to greet him. Byakuya and Rukia manage to stay close for the first little while, muttering instructions and name reminders into his ear as he goes, but all too soon they are forced to fall back: Rukia is called over by a group of young women in elaborate formal kimono, and Byakuya drifts off to the side along with the rest of the low-ranking retinue. Renji is left alone, at the centre of attention amid a crowd of scrupulously polite, formal-mannered nobility, scrambling through his memories for the right names and forms of address out of the tottering pile of instructions Byakuya gave him before they left. Trying to remember to look down on the people he’s meeting, to stay aloof, to avoid the urge to bow and stammer and defer like long practice would have him do.

 

He can feel his palms beginning to sweat, but no immediate disaster befalls him. Nobody leaps out and declares him an impostor. Nobody seems to expect anything of him beyond the basic pleasantries, and these, once he gets past the initial paralysing force of his anxiety, come to him with surprising readiness. With Rukia’s instructions in mind, he greets the host with the shallowest of bows, and tries his best to make his compliments on the event sound less earnest than in fact they are. The gardens are exquisite, all stylised asymmetry and rustic affectations, hung at intervals with elegant paper lanterns that are sure to look beautiful when they’re lit later on this evening. The tables are laid out with a mouthwatering array of appetisers, including a number of delicacies Renji has only ever heard of before. Clearly, no expense has been spared. But Tsugaru waves off his praise with a dramatic show of mortification and a smattering of apologies for his many shortcomings, which Renji takes as a sign that the interaction has been a success.

 

With the initial pleasantries disposed of, the party turns out to be a lot more enjoyable than Renji was expecting. In fairness, his expectations were pretty low to start with, but that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate the perks for what they are. Like the fact that everybody seems so interested in him, even though he’s been conscientiously radiating coldness and indifference since he first walked through the gates. It seems like every person in the room has respects to pay him, questions to ask him, beautiful young daughters to introduce him to. Renji does his best to stay detached, but the odds are stacked against him - they’re all so friendly and charming, and not a single snide comment or disapproving glare is coming his way. He’s always thought of Seireitei’s noble crowd as a pretty unpleasant lot, but apparently things look different when you’re one of the club. As all those around him lower themselves, Renji starts to feel taller - less embarrassed, more confident that this is where he belongs, what he deserves. It doesn’t take long before he’s stopped counting down the minutes til he’s allowed to leave, too caught up in the character he’s playing and the accolades each terse line of dialogue wins him.

 

But every play needs its antagonist. It’s not hard to identify the younger Tsugaru, when at last he sidles up  - he has a very pinched face and an anxious demeanour, as though expecting Renji to lash out at him the moment he approaches. He offers his greeting with an embarrassingly low bow that sets his topknot wobbling, and launches straight into a clumsy, sycophantic welcome speech that Renji manages to endure cheerfully for less than a minute before it starts to grate on his nerves. If this is what the man’s like when he flirts, then Renji can’t fathom how Byakuya could ever have gotten so jealous about his wife - poor woman must have been bored to tears by the time she was rescued from Tsugaru’s advances.

 

“...and it is very gracious of you to attend, of course.” Tsugaru finishes his rambling speech with another deep bow, and Renji’s irritation is beginning to mingle with a strange sort of pity at the man’s clear desperation. He’s seen this kind of grovelling before, from a certain breed of mid-ranking minor nobility at the sixth who’ve had the misfortune to fall foul of Byakuya, but he’s never seen it this persistent and he’s never been the target of it.

 

And how the hell is he, Renji, supposed to put down a guy who looks just about ready to kneel down and start kissing his feet?

 

“I...would not miss it,” he says, in what he hopes is a stern but not-too-impatient tone of voice. Because fuck it, they don’t have to be best friends or anything, but he’s not going to kick a guy when he’s down for the sake of some petty grudge of Byakuya’s. “You have gone to a great deal of trouble.”

 

“N-not at all!” Tsugaru looks delighted, and he’s staring at Renji as though he’s never seen him before. “It was no trouble, none at all. I’m sure it must all seem very cheap and sordid, to a man of your most excellent taste.”

 

If only he knew.

 

Without even looking, Renji can feel Byakuya’s eyes on him from the corner where the attendants are gathered. He waves one hand in a vague, noncommittal gesture, as much for Byakuya’s benefit as for Tsugaru’s, but Tsugaru seems to take it as further encouragement. Before Renji can come up with a tactful excuse to detach himself, the man is launching into a comprehensive recital of the various organisational duties the party has occasioned, punctuated by wildly insincere reiterations of the humility of the undertaking. All Renji can do is nod along, and try to at least feel grateful that Tsugaru is making it so easy to maintain a properly Byakuya-esque expression of boredom.

 

In the end it is Byakuya who comes to rescue him, approaching so suddenly from the side that Renji in his boredom-induced torpor doesn't even notice until he's right there, stepping up to Renji's side with barely a nod of acknowledgement for Tsugaru.

 

“Taichou,” Byakuya says, “is everything well here?” And if there’s one thing weirder than being called ‘captain’ by Byakuya, it’s watching the sudden shift in Tsugaru’s expression as he turns to face Byakuya with a look that Renji knows all too well. A look that Byakuya has probably never come face to face with in his life before. A scornful, sneering expression, like he’s just found something especially distasteful stuck to the sole of his shoe.

 

And all of Renji’s sympathy and goodwill evaporate instantly.

 

“Did you want something?” Tsugaru asks Byakuya, in a tone that says the answer had better be ‘no’.

 

Byakuya looks him square in the eye, and Renji has seen that look before, too: it’s the look that tends to come moments before a flurry of lethal sakura petals. When he speaks, though, his voice is clear and calm and icy cold. “I wanted to see that my captain has everything he needs, as is the duty of his adjutant."

 

Tsugaru’s eyes narrow. Renji follows his gaze as it rakes over tattoos, vivid hair, and finally the stubborn, unwavering defiance of Byakuya’s expression, and for a second he honestly thinks he’s looking into a mirror. But while Byakuya’s hands are balled into fists, Renji’s hang relaxed at his side; his anger, as it sets in, is cold.

 

“Is there a problem here?” he asks, directing the question at Tsugaru even as he fixes Byakuya with the politest glare of warning he can manage (back off, just back off, this isn’t the time and you’re going to blow our cover, damn it).

 

Tsugaru chuckles nervously, and the gaze he turns back on Renji is instantly pleasant and non-threatening once more. “This one’s yours then, is he, Kuchiki-sama?” he says, and Renji can see him struggling not to curl his lips in distaste. “He is a bold one, to march up and interrupt his superiors without so much as a bow...but then, perhaps his boldness translates better on the battlefield than it does at a party.”

 

Byakuya opens his mouth, and there’s no question where this is going.

 

“Indeed,” Renji says, and despite his urgency and his own temper, he’s surprised to find his voice surprisingly even. “Remind me, Tsugaru, how many troops it is that you control?”

 

Byakuya’s mouth snaps shut. Two sets of wide, stunned eyes turn on Renji.

 

“W-well,” Tsugaru splutters, and Renji takes a moment to revel in the rapidly rising colour on his cheeks. “In fact, I do not - that is, my family has never favoured-”

 

“In that case, perhaps you should refrain from speculating on the aptitude of my soldiers,” interrupts Renji curtly.

 

Tsugaru's face is now an ugly shade of puce. "I...of course," he manages, after a long pause in which dozens of more aggressive comebacks seem to hang from the very tip of his tongue. Perhaps it's the dangerous gleam in Byakuya's eye that persuades him to swallow them - or perhaps it's the quiet force of Renji's own anger, filling the air around them with a heavy, wet chill like the precursor to a storm. "I beg your pardon, Kuchiki-sama. I meant no offense."

 

Byakuya still looks livid as Tsugaru scuttles away, but Renji is too preoccupied to care. He's stunned, rooted in place by the ringing aftermath of emotion he is sure does not belong to him, and a creeping realisation that apparently, he is much better at playing Byakuya's role than he thought.

 

They leave not long after, pleading unavoidable family commitments, and Renji hardly notices the hush that falls around him as he sweeps out past the gates.

 

-

 

"You did fine," says Rukia, casting a wary, almost apologetic look at her brother before patting Renji gently on the shoulder. She hung back at the party for a while after they left, and hasn't had time to change yet; her bright formal kimono makes a strange contrast against Byakuya and Renji's more subdued housewear. "I heard Tsugaru-sama giving his brother a good telling-off before I left. Everyone just thinks he was being a tactless idiot, and of course they're all on your...that is, Nii-sama's side."

 

"Great," Renji says flatly, and takes another soothing mouthful of tea. He doesn't bother pointing out that, of the three people involved in the minor scandal, he's the only one who doesn't need his lack of guilt defended as though it's already in question. Byakuya was rude, Tsugaru revolting; Renji had done his best to salvage the situation, and he'd kept his side of the bargain. Hadn't fallen out of character for a minute.

 

And that's the part that's still eating away at him now, as Byakuya and Rukia ramble on about what happened at the party, too preoccupied to notice the strain of anxiety on his face. Renji doesn't know how to tell them that he's afraid it's not just Byakuya's body he's brought with him; that he's starting to inherit bits of his personality, little scraps here and there that bleed almost unnoticed into his day-to-day conduct, and that he doesn't know where his reaction at the party even came from, except that it wasn't acting and it wasn't him, either.

 

"So what happens now?" he asks, pushing his concerns to the back of his mind in a last-ditch attempt to be pragmatic.

 

Rukia shrugs. "It really isn't the big deal you seem to think it is," she says. "Squabbles like this happen every time someone tries to throw a party around here. Nii-sama doesn't usually get involved in them, but...there's no damage done."

 

"Exactly." Byakuya has been quiet since they left the party, but his voice now is even and untroubled, and he cradles his teacup with hands that don't shake. "Consider this a fair introduction to the social life of any member of a noble house. You did well, Renji."

 

The compliment is unexpected; Renji feels his ears start to burn, and takes another hasty sip of tea for something to do with his hands.

 

"I can't bear this kimono any longer," says Rukia, and rises gracefully to her feet. "Please excuse me, Nii-sama, Renji." Byakuya nods and she bows her way out, and Renji waits until her padding footsteps fade entirely before speaking again.

 

"Sorry for losing my temper, Taichou," he says, politely ignoring the fact that Byakuya had lost his first. "That guy was a real piece of work, I don't know how nobody’s broken his nose yet..."

 

Something like a smile twitches across Byakuya's lips. It's a strange expression for Renji to see on his own face, but he's starting to get used to it, he thinks - certainly Byakuya's subdued manner looks a lot less jarring now than it used to. "There really is nothing to be sorry for," he says, holding up a hand to fend off the rest of Renji's apology. "Tsugaru is often something of a thorn in my side - but then, I suppose it couldn't be helped today. He had no idea who he was talking to."

 

There’s something about the way he says it that makes Renji pause, a brief flare of something like irritation heating the pit of his stomach. “It could be helped, though,” he says, and is surprised at the resentment that wells up along with the words. “The guy didn’t have to talk to anyone the way he did. It doesn’t make it better that he thought you were someone else.”

 

Byakuya shakes his head. “My approach was rude and confrontational, and he knew of no reason why he should defer to me. I’m not angry with him for that.”

 

Renji knows what Byakuya is trying to say. But he also knows that the awful spectre of that quiet, chilling anger from before is still hanging over him, and the anger he’s feeling now is warm and fiery and chases the cold away, and he knows this feeling. It’s what anger should feel like, what it’s always felt like for him.

 

And he likes it, and he wants to keep it just a little longer.

 

“Maybe you should be angry,” he says, and there’s the beginning of a snarl in his voice now that rings out through the quiet room and causes Byakuya’s eyes to narrow sharply. Renji ignores it. “You’ve just spent the whole afternoon walking around a noble party as me, Taichou. You telling me you didn’t notice that everyone treats you like shit? But sure, that’s fine, you’re not angry - they all just thought you were some Rukongai upstart, so it’s understandable that they’d be rude, right?”

 

Byakuya is drawing himself up straighter, and the look in his eyes is lowering the temperature of the air by several degrees. “That is not what I meant at all,” he says, and behind the determined calm of his voice Renji can hear the sharp twanging of the nerve he’s struck. “Tsugaru is a deeply unpleasant person, of that I am well aware. I make no defense of his manners. I merely acknowledge that the insult he paid me was impersonal and uninformed, and as such I do not-”

 

“Yeah, got it.” The thing about temper is that you don’t really get to give into it halfway - having decided to stay angry Renji is now seething, and without thinking he’s on his feet, looming over Byakuya and glaring down at him and revelling in this definitive, white-hot proof that he’s still himself after all. Because this feels exactly like it’s supposed to. “Didn’t mean to overstep my place, or anything. Guess I just thought maybe you’d be on my side a bit, now that you’ve seen how your lot-” he spits the words like an expletive - “react to a guy like me. But hey, it’s understandable. I’m glad you’re not angry.”

 

He's storming from the room before he even finishes the words, and he slams the door shut on Byakuya's shocked admonition of "Renji, what is wrong with you?"

 

-

 

It’s dark when Renji makes his way back to the manor, and dinner has long since been cleared away. Several hours of sitting alone in the gardens have left him with nothing but a grumbling stomach, cold hands, and a sinking sense of shame over his earlier behaviour. He can’t remember ever feeling stupider or more embarrassed than when he drops to his knees before the door of Byakuya’s study, and begs admittance in a voice infused with all the contrition he can muster. There’s a small part of him that wants to cringe away from such a distasteful, demeaning show of submission, and he has to remind himself very firmly that this is, in fact, his place, that he shouted at his own captain and he has no business getting all proud and squeamish about the apology.

 

“Come in,” Byakuya calls, and doesn’t turn to greet Renji as he shuffles into the room and slides the door closed behind him.

 

A sharp pang wrenches Renji’s chest to see his own body like this, sitting straight and formal at Byakuya’s desk, in Byakuya’s clothes, poring over one of Byakuya’s books and looking so aggressively Byakuya-ish that Renji hardly recognises himself in that frame any more. He swallows thickly and hits the ground, nose brushing the tatami in a deep bow of apology. “I apologise for my disgraceful conduct earlier, Taichou.”

 

He hears silk rustle as Byakuya turns to face him. “You may rise,” Byakuya says, and Renji does so gratefully and looks up into stern, piercing eyes that don’t quite say forgiveness but don’t say blame, either. “I will only say this once. I am still your captain, Renji, regardless of what I may currently look like, and you will control your temper when you speak to me.”

 

“Of course, sir,” Renji says quickly. “I really am sorry.”

 

“Very well.” Byakuya breaks his gaze now, and as soon as Renji’s no longer on the spot he becomes aware of the heavy shadows under Byakuya’s eyes, the waxy pallor of his skin. He looks...exhausted, and it unnerves Renji that he can even say something like that about someone as belligerently stoic as Byakuya. With another pang, it occurs to Renji that he’s not the only one starting to fall apart under the strain of what’s happening to them.

 

“Taichou, about the party,” he says, and he feels sick with himself for taking advantage of Byakuya’s exhaustion to press an unwanted conversation on him like this, but he doesn’t know if he’s going to get another chance and what else is he supposed to do? “It was...really weird. At first I was just trying to act like you, but then it all started coming really naturally, all the etiquette and everything. And I started feeling -” isolated, superior, like I was above everyone I talked to - “distant, and in control, like...like I really was this important noble guy who belonged there, you know? And then when I lost my temper, it was so cold and controlled and - well, you know me, Taichou. I’m all over the place when I get mad. Can hardly think straight, let alone come up with clever insults to put down the people who’re bothering me.”

 

A small crease appears between Byakuya’s brows. “Your insult was hardly what I would call clever,” he says fairly. “If you had only left it to me, I could have put him down far more effectively.”

 

“If you’d ‘put down’ the host’s brother in that body, you’d have been thrown out of the party,” Renji counters. “But I’m serious, Taichou. I’m not trying to weasel out of responsibility, or anything, but...I really don’t feel like that was me, back there.”

 

There’s a tense moment of silence as Byakuya considers this. “I know,” he says at last, and going by the set of his mouth it’s costing him a lot to admit it. “The truth is, I was ready to leave the party almost as soon as we got there.” A faint, ironic smile curls his lips. “I found it pretentious, stifling and...altogether too posh.”

 

Under any other circumstances, this admission might have amused Renji. Now, it only tightens the twisting coil of anxiety inside him as he takes in the full implications of the statement. “Yeah,” he says, swallowing against the uncomfortable tightness in his throat. “Yeah, that sounds like how I’d have been feeling.”

 

“Then our problem is worse than we thought,” says Byakuya, and that’s all he says; the silence that follows is thick and crushingly heavy.

 

But there’s nothing to break it with.

 

-

 

The following day dawns grey and drizzly. Renji doesn’t know how long he’s been lying awake, listening to the intermittent rainfall splashing dully down onto the roof, but today there’s no bright sunrise to break the monotony of his sleepless morning. The previous day’s events are still chasing their way around his head; tired and grumpy, he squashes them down and gets up to take a quiet, solitary breakfast ahead of his hosts.

 

Last night, for the first time since he and Byakuya switched bodies, Renji dreamed. The memories are already fading, but flashes of them linger on: bloodsoaked earth, still air, crisp winter frost. A single rotting tree at the centre of an empty grove, eerily silent, pale in the moonlight. A woman, dark-haired and violet-eyed, so very like Rukia but for her chalky complexion and withering frame. It's her face that lingers before his eyes now, frail and waifish no matter how hard he tries to flesh her image out in his mind. And Renji remembers, clear as day, what those bones felt like huddled against him for warmth, and how papery her skin felt when he held her hand.

 

Suffice it to say, the memories do not improve his mood.

 

By the time he's finished his breakfast the house is still quiet, and Renji seriously considers just heading into work early. He is held back only by the realisation that heading in early is exactly what Byakuya would do - there may be nothing Renji can do to stop the unnerving overflow of Byakuya’s personality into his, but he’s not about to start actively assisting it. So he takes up his sword instead, and heads outside despite the drizzle and puts himself through his paces. It's getting a bit easier now, though he's not sure whether it's down to improved control over Byakuya's body or the body's improved control over him. But the warm burn of exertion helps chase away the last of his chilling memories, and the repetitive familiarity of his workout eases the tense knot of anxiety in his stomach.

 

As the sun rises, the rain gives over. All too soon Renji hears faint stirrings of activity from the house, and heads back to find a bleary-eyed Rukia settling down to a breakfast of her own. "I've already eaten," he says when she gestures for him to join, but he sits down with her anyway and lets the maid press a second cup of tea on him.

 

"You're up early," Rukia remarks, voice thick and clumsy around a mouthful of rice. It annoys Renji a little, and he averts his eyes from the distasteful sight of half-chewed food in her mouth.

 

"Didn't want to waste such a beautiful day," he says drily, brushing a lock of damp hair from his eyes with an irritable flick, because I didn't want to lie around in bed reliving all my new memories of your brother's miserable marriage seems like the wrong kind of conversation starter. "Wanted to get some training done before work. I'm not quite up to Taichou's usual standards, so I can't train at the division in case someone sees me."

 

Rukia eyes him curiously. "What's it like, fighting...uh, the way you are now?" She fidgets a little as she asks, and Renji can see her curiosity warring with reluctance to overstep her bounds on the uncomfortable topic.

 

He shrugs, letting her know it's okay. "Honestly? It's pretty strange. It's not like being in a gigai, where the body just sort of melds with you. This one's got all its own habits, and I'm not really in control of them all the time. Plus-" he allows himself a broad smirk, pulling back from the gloomy direction his answer is going - "I keep getting thrown off balance now that I'm all short."

 

This draws a mirthful snort from Rukia. "Short? Want to stand up next to me for a minute? You're just an inch or two less stupidly tall than usual, idiot."

 

"Yeah, well, every inch counts." Renji's smirk feels strained and uncomfortable on his face, but he holds it for the sake of eliciting another laugh from Rukia. Her serious mood seems to have passed, and she's going back to her meal with one last roll of her eyes for good measure. “Uh...don’t tell Taichou I just said that, will you?”

 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” says Rukia. She’s gone back to chewing with her mouth open, and Renji reminds himself firmly that he doesn’t care. He’s never cared, and he’s seen her eat like this too many times to count. “Though,” she adds thoughtfully, “I’m starting to wonder if I’ll even get a chance to. He’s normally up by now.”

 

“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about that,” says Renji with a shrug. He thinks back on how pale and worn Byakuya was yesterday, how blank his eyes had looked in their shadowy sockets. He definitely hasn’t been sleeping enough. If he’s crashed out now, it’ll probably do him the power of good. “Let him sleep. One late start won’t kill him.”

 

Later, Renji will look back on his words and conclude that dramatic irony must have a deep personal vendetta against him. For the moment, though, the decision seems harmless enough, and he bids Rukia good day and heads into work with nothing more serious on his mind than the cheerful prospect of having the office to himself for an hour or two.

 

But those hours start to stretch out. Renji flies through his morning’s work in record time, and the sun rises higher in the sky, and still there’s no sign of Byakuya. As midday approaches, Renji’s indulgent good cheer turns to confusion, and then to anxiety. Tired or not, he just can’t see Byakuya willingly dozing half the day away. He starts to think maybe he send a message over to the manor, ask someone to check up on him. Or head back there himself - he’s already finished all his urgent tasks, and there’s nothing left on his desk that can’t wait while he pays Byakuya a quick visit. Sending a servant to do it sounds too much like the decision Byakuya would make, so Renji makes up his mind and gets exactly halfway to the office door when the hell butterfly arrives.

 

Abarai-fukutaichou,

Regrettably, Kuchiki-taichou has fallen ill and has been delivered to my care. Please come to the Fourth Division’s relief station at your earliest possible convenience.

Fourth Division Captain, Unohana Retsu.

 

On his way, Renji discovers an unexpected upside to wearing Byakuya’s body: it can move really, really fast.

Chapter Text

Renji remembers his first long-stay trip to the living world, the first time he ever wore a gigai. Stepping into it was always an unsettling feeling, but it was stepping back out that unnerved him the most: he still vividly remembers how utterly limp the body would go, and what it was like to stand there holding a perfect, soulless replica of himself in his arms.

 

There’s no trace of Byakuya visible in the body now lying motionless in the sterile, windowless emergency ward of the relief station. The ventilator strapped across his mouth and the slow, steady beeping of the monitor by his bedside are all that distinguish him from an empty gigai, and Renji almost feels like he could reach forward and just...step in. Take back the body that belongs to him, and then maybe everything would be right again.

 

There are questions, of course. Byakuya is in no condition to speak for himself, and Unohana wishes to know everything - what he’s been doing, where he’s been going, whether he’s been showing any symptoms of illness. Byakuya hasn’t been sleeping, Renji tells her. He’s been keeping up with everything, but he always looks tired, and sometimes even a little dazed. She sends Renji off with her lieutenant for a whole battery of tests, then sets him aside in some kind of waiting room and brings him some tea and asks him, very kindly, if he’d mind waiting there for a while. Rukia joins him a while later, and they sit together in silence and he doesn’t comment on her tense fidgeting and she doesn’t comment on the whiteness of his face.

 

And for the next several hours, the only thing anyone can tell them for sure is that Byakuya still isn’t waking up.

 

By the time they’re allowed back in to see him, he’s been moved from the emergency ward to a private room and has acquired a number of new tubes that run from his mouth and nose and the back of his hand. His face is slack and expressionless, starkly pale against the shock of red hair strewn about him on the pillow. “His condition is stable,” Unohana tells them from the other side of the bed, “but the cause is still unclear. There is no illness or injury that I can detect. If not for the inability to maintain consciousness, I would deem him to be in perfect health.”

 

“Well, that’s comforting,” says Renji dully. He has spent far too long in that awful waiting room, and his anxiety is converting itself to a cold, detached irritability that he wraps around himself now like a protective blanket. “I suppose it’s probably a side-effect of whatever switched our bodies around, right?”

 

Unohana’s eyes are soft and kind. “That is what we must assume,” she says calmly. “Rest assured that myself and Kurotsuchi-taichou are as committed as ever to finding the cause of your condition. If a cure is possible, then you will definitely receive it.”

 

There’s not much more to say, after that. They linger by Byakuya’s bedside for a while, but there’s no point: his condition isn’t changing, and when Rukia asks if he can maybe still hear their voices, Unohana only lowers her gaze sadly. Dusk has already set in by the time they take their leave, and their walk back to the manor is strained and silent. Rukia looks very pale, and her eyes are wide, and her lips are pressed in a thin, anxious line. Renji’s agitation has settled down into a strange apathy, an emptiness of sorts, and he knows he should be worried but his heart feels cold and numb. It’s hard, now, to pin a name to the body back at the hospital - it isn’t Byakuya and it isn’t Renji, either. Renji can still see it clearly in his mind’s eye, and it’s so pale and ghostly that it might as well already be dead. And he feels nothing for that body, now, nothing but a faint tugging knot in the bottom of his stomach and a subtle sense of wrongness, like perhaps it isn’t quite real, or perhaps it simply oughtn’t to be.

 

They get home, and Seike greets them anxiously at the door, and leads them to the room where a warm evening meal has already been laid out for them. They eat quickly, perfunctorily, and take their leave of one another as soon as possible. Renji has no conversation left in him. Rukia looks as though all she wants is to retreat to the privacy of her own room and cry.

 

That night, Renji sleeps in Byakuya’s bed. He’s not sure why he does it. It would make more sense to stay in the guest room they’ve laid out for him as usual, but he’s tired and distracted and letting his body run on autopilot. Byakuya’s autopilot apparently, not his own, because his steps end up leading him straight to the captain’s bedroom, and once he’s there the strange pangs of misplaced familiarity prove too strong to ignore. And so he curls up beneath warm layers of blankets that smell comfortingly like his own (Byakuya’s own?) and closes his eyes on the whole miserable day.

 

Renji is starting to get used to Byakuya’s light sleeping habits, so it’s no great surprise when he wakes only a few hours later, jolted back to consciousness by some completely innocuous rustle or creak from outside, or maybe from the chill that’s seeping into his skin where he’s tossed the blankets off. Either way, he can’t get back to sleep no matter how much he tosses and turns. The cold really isn’t helping on that front, so he looks to the cupboard behind him for a spare blanket. Which is how he finds the book.

 

It’s not hidden, or anything. It’s just sitting there on one of the lower shelves, right next to a small bedside lamp, in easy reach of the futon. Picking it up definitely doesn’t count as snooping. Reading it...might count, but by this point Renji figures privacy is sort of a moot point. Anyway, knowing his captain, it’s bound to be something dry and horribly dull, and it might just help Renji get back to sleep.

 

It only takes him half a page to realise his mistake - because there is nothing dry or dull about the exploits of the great samurai Shintaro.

 

The first assassination attempt happens on page two, and open battle is in full swing already on page five. By page ten Shintaro is turning himself over to the care of an implausibly promiscuous nurse, and the following page illustrates the encounter with a woodcut so comprehensive in its detail that Renji feels his cheeks growing hot even as he stares on, riveted. Never in a million years would he have guessed that Byakuya, with his cool temperament and posh education, would deign to read something like this. It’s cheap, salacious and utterly compelling.

 

Renji can’t bring himself to put it down.

 

By the time dawn breaks, he has completely forgotten to feel frustrated about his lack of sleep. It’s with considerable reluctance that he tears himself away from the book and makes his way out to the breakfast room, where the staff have laid out an array of tempting dishes on an elegant lacquered tray before his place at the table. Rukia is there already, which causes Renji to hastily stifle his lingering musings on Shintaro’s adventures as he sinks into seiza opposite her - it’s not that there’s anything unseemly about his thoughts, of course, but it wouldn’t do to think them in front of her regardless. Especially given everything else that is looming over them after yesterday. Renji sets about his meal with a short nod of greeting, and they don’t talk until their plates are cleared and they’re sipping the last of their tea from cooling mugs.

 

“Seike went out to see Nii-sama this morning,” Rukia tells him, and although she sounds cool and businesslike, there’s no missing the bloodshot redness of her eyes. She mustn’t have slept last night, either. “There’s no news. He was monitored all through the night, but nothing changed.”

 

“I see.” Renji waits for his emotional reaction to this news, but it doesn’t come. He’s still cold and detached and...almost bored, really. There’s nothing he can do, and so he doesn’t see the point in sickening with worry over it. He wishes he were still in bed reading his novel. “Er, that’s good,” he goes on, trying to inject a little more sincerity into his voice. “That he didn’t deteriorate or anything, I mean.”

 

Rukia gives him a very strange look. “Are you alright, Renji? You seem a bit...out of it, this morning. If you’re starting to feel sick too, you should really go to Unohana and-”

 

“I’m fine,” says Renji, and swats away her hand already reaching out to check his temperature. “Cut that out, will you? There’s nothing to worry about.”

 

Rukia ignores this. Her brows furrow, and her gaze changes to one of concern. She leans across the table and reaches out again, steady and determined, to press a hand to his forehead; irritation flares up inside Renji and, before he knows what he’s doing or why, he has caught her wrist and trapped the encroaching hand in midair with a grip like steel. “Keep your hands to yourself,” he says coldly.

 

For a moment they just stare at each other; Rukia’s eyes are widening and she draws back as though stung. “I was just trying to check if you were okay,” she says, and her voice is slipping into something Renji has never heard from her before: not the brash, assertive tone he is used to but something quiet and cold and a little bit wounded. It serves her right, Renji thinks, and drops her hand and turns his head away in unrepentant annoyance. She shouldn’t have been trying to touch him like that, without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

 

“If you’re going to be like this,” says Rukia icily, “then I’ll leave you alone. I don’t know who you think you are all of a sudden, behaving like that.”

 

Neither do I, echoes a small voice in the back of Renji’s mind. But the rest of him is given over to self-righteous irritation, and he doesn’t stop her as she rises to her feet and sweeps from the room, closing the door behind her with an accusatory click.

 

-

 

It’s not that Renji is comfortable with the way things are. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Unohana and Kurotsuchi to devise a cure - or at least, that is what he very firmly tells himself. It is simply that there’s nothing he can do about his present situation, and the world will not put itself on hold while he wallows about in self-pity. Byakuya, he is sure, would want him to get on with things. Outside of his immediate family and his fellow captains there is still no-one who knows what’s going on, and the rest of the world is relying on Byakuya’s various duties being seen to. So Renji sees to them: he assigns his third seat to fill in during the lieutenant’s emergency medical absence, sets himself up at the captain’s desk, and tries to figure out precisely which new tasks he has inherited. Because the truth is, he doesn’t really know what Byakuya does every day. He has a general idea, of course, but Byakuya has never discussed the specifics with him. Renji doesn’t know which jobs are his to complete and which ones he should delegate, and to whom, and in what order of priority.

 

So he compromises and completes them all.

 

He stops by the fourth division after work, but finds everything just as he left it last. The sight of the pale, motionless body on the bed only serves to aggravate the lurking sense of wrongness in his gut, so he only stays as long as it takes for the attendants to fill him in on the current care plan, which amounts to little more than supervised bed-rest and a feeding tube. He passes Rukia on his way out, and they greet each other stiffly; she keeps her eyes averted as they talk, and informs him that she’ll likely be late back and please not to delay dinner for her sake. Then he goes home, and eats his meal in solitude (Seike, kneeling as silent and polite as ever in the corner, doesn't count), and takes his usual quick wash without touching himself more than is absolutely necessary. He goes back to Byakuya’s room again tonight, although he no longer has the excuse of his exhaustion - it’s just nicer there, he thinks, and all his books will be there ready for him when he inevitably wakes up halfway through the night. Whether due to some foresight of the servants or simply out of habit, the futon has already been laid out for him, and a fresh new sleeping robe atop it. And whatever else his problems may be, it’s nice not having to ask for such things any more.

 

There are...a surprising number of nice things about his current situation, he finds, now that he has resigned himself to it. The sense of wrongness doesn’t quite leave him, but it’s easier to ignore when he focuses on the positives. Like the fact that he can eat whatever he likes for dinner, never mind what the ingredients cost or how difficult it is to make. He calls for mostly sweet dishes at first, but finds that they are bland and unappealing on his tongue; even taiyaki has lost much of its appeal. On the other hand, there are a whole range of flavours that he now finds unexpectedly delicious: his lifelong distaste for natto has vanished, as has his aversion to spicy food. One one night, he asks the chef to surprise him with one of Byakuya’s favourite dishes - “something you might serve up for him as a special treat” - and gets presented with a miniature banquet of exotic dishes with enough spice to make his old self weep from their scent alone. His current self is in gastronomic heaven, and he swallows every last morsel with a greedy, hedonistic relish. His discovery of the cellars is another pleasant surprise - although as Seike helps him back to his room after his enthusiastic first tasting, mercifully steady and solid against the wild lurching of the floor, it does occur to him that his definition of ‘a sensible amount’ may need some drastic modification in this new body of his.

 

“Byakuya-sama seldom drinks,” Seike confirms, when he wakes Renji the next morning with a fresh pot of tea and a cool cloth for his head. “Only socially, and only in small doses.” He appears to be in a chatty mood this morning, for some reason, and Renji cannot remember ever having been less in the mood to be chatted at - he’s tempted to just send the man away, and probably would if it didn’t mean he’d then have to sit up properly and pour his own tea. “He takes after his grandfather in that way,” Seike goes on cheerfully. “His father was very fond of liquor, mind you - oh, never intemperately so!” Seike waves one hand energetically before his face, as though to ward off the mortifying notion. “His tastes were very refined. Why, even Ginrei-sama always used to say-”

 

“Keep your voice down,” says Renji, grimacing. He’s not hungover, exactly. He just feels drowsy, and more than a little grumpy, and Seike’s chipper voice is like nails on a blackboard. “Is there any reason you’re waking me up so early on my day off, other than to torment me with dated family trivia?”

 

Seike blinks. “My apologies, sir,” he says. “No duties await you today that cannot be postponed until you are better rested-”

 

“No, never mind,” says Renji with a heavy sigh. “Speak, will you?” He could so easily just roll over and go back to sleep, but he’s come to know that expression - it’s the one Seike wears whenever he has to face the mortifying ordeal of making a direct request, something he usually goes out of his way to avoid doing, and Renji strongly suspects that every hour he delays it will be an hour of ceaseless anxiety and distress for Seike. The excessive chattiness suddenly makes sense - a nervous impulse, probably. Kinder just to get it over with. “What do you want me to do?”

 

His reward for his directness is a look of almost pitiful relief from Seike. “Well, sir...since Byakuya-sama fell ill, we have had all of his personal affairs put on hold,” Seike says with an apologetic little bow. “But certain deadlines are approaching, and the household cannot function indefinitely without its head…” He trails off, clearly hoping that Renji’s directness will favour him a second time.

 

“I see.” Renji sits up a little straighter, and thins his lips disapprovingly. “Shouldn’t you be able to take care of that? You know the affairs of the house better than I do.”

 

“I’m very sorry to trouble you, sir,” says Seike quickly. “I have drafted appropriate answers to every correspondence for you. Everything meant for the eyes of those below a certain rank has already been dispatched. However…a number of your correspondents are accustomed to direct attention from Byakuya-sama, and would be insulted to think that their business with him had been passed down to a mere servant…”

 

“So you expect me to imitate the captain’s handwriting.” Seike nods hopefully. “Impossible. I have never studied calligraphy, let alone forgery.”

 

Seike clears his throat. “With all due respect, sir, I observed your most recent training session. To my untrained eye, at least, your movements have come to resemble my master’s in every particular. If you have acquired his style of swordsmanship, it is possible that you have also acquired his penmanship.”

 

Renji considers this. His own assessment of his recent training performance is far less optimistic than Seike’s - he is too slow, too clumsy, always too imprecise. Certainly nowhere near the standard Byakuya would deem acceptable. Still, he stands to lose nothing by trying. The worst that can happen is that he will fail, and then at least nobody will be able to fault him for making no effort.

 

And in taking up his brush and turning his attention to Seike’s pre-prepared drafts, he discovers a new unexpected perk of his current situation. Because Seike is right.

 

He has no idea how he knows what to do. He’s been aware, dimly, of the improvements to his handwriting in division paperwork, but this is the first time he has paid attention to writing as a process, and not just as an administrative tool. In the back of his mind lurk memories of his own former attempts to learn calligraphy - disastrous, all of them. He never had the aesthetic sense or the fine motor control to produce anything but shaky, scratchy characters that practically screamed ‘self-taught literacy’. He never benefited from any kind of official instruction in writing, and it showed. But now...now his hand his steady and his wrist is loose, and his brush dances across the page with the kind of expert fluidity that only decades of practice can bring. It’s more than a little disorienting, actually, and it’s not until he’s reached the end of his first page that he manages to accept the hand holding the brush as his, rather than that of some prodigiously talented ghost leaning over his shoulder.

“How is this?” he asks, beckoning Seike over to look at the new draft. Such a painfully uninteresting document hardly deserves the flowing elegance of his script - it’s some kind of accounting sheet, he thinks, full of minor expense details that mean nothing to him - but Seike’s face lights up as he looks at it.

 

“That is most certainly Byakuya-sama’s hand!” Seike says, and somewhere inside himself Renji feels a small pang of pride. He has always cherished a secret admiration for the beautiful characters that decorate even the most hastily-completed reports from his captain’s office. “Marvellously done, sir. The household is in your debt.”

 

It is not a very impressive debt, if Renji is honest. This is his first proper encounter with Kuchiki clan business, and he is disappointed but not entirely surprised to find that there’s nothing interesting in any of it. Most of the ‘top priority’ documents Seike has stacked on his desk are just pedantic, painstakingly litigious authorisations for minor financial transactions, interspersed with the occasional personal correspondence so utterly devoid of any real ‘personal’ aspect that Renji hardly feels fraudulent signing Byakuya’s name at the end. But despite the dry nature of the task, he can’t help but enjoy himself. He tunes out the content of the letters and focuses on the peaceful, almost meditative glide of his brush down each page, and finds deep satisfaction in the transformation of each dull draft page into a flowing, dynamic work of art. Time passes quickly as he works, and it’s almost a disappointment to set down his brush as he puts aside the very last page to dry.

 

“Is there anything more?” he asks, cutting across Seike’s dozenth refrain of delighted admiration as he gathers up the completed stack.

 

“Nothing, Renji-sama,” says Seike. “That is, you have taken care of all your duties - the rest of the day is your own.” And so Renji, encouraged by his success with the brush, decides he might as well make the most of his leisure time: after a short break and a light lunch, he retrieves his sword and heads out into the garden to train.

 

There’s no doubt about it - his technique has greatly improved, or at the very least has grown much more like Byakuya’s. The sky is heavy with dark grey clouds, and a strong wind stirs up flurries of dust and leaves that sting his face and disrupt his vision, but he disregards the weather and goes through all his usual paces with strict, methodical patience. He feels strong, agile, balanced, in a way he hasn’t felt since he first switched bodies with Byakuya. And perhaps it’s this which makes him bold and reckless, makes him dare to do something he hasn’t dared to do since his very first training session in this body. When his rigorous programme of drills is through and his sword-arm is burning for a reprieve, he finds a sheltered place under a nearby tree where the wind can’t reach him. He sinks down to the ground and breathes in deeply to steady himself. His eyes drift closed, and with practiced ease he allows the world around him to melt away. Too proud for hesitation, too eager to feel nervous, he reaches out until he can feel the threshold of his inner world before him, and he plunges in.

 

It’s dark. Or, more accurately, it’s not light - there’s a soft twilit glow from overhead, and all he can make out are shadows and fog. There are twin points of light in front of him, drawing closer, and soon he can make out the familiar face of a great baboon peering out at him from the gloom. It stops several metres away, but its voice when it speaks seems to come from far off in the distance.

 

“You are not welcome here.”

 

“Zabimaru?” The shadows are shifting around him, solidifying, and the fog is dissipating. A crescent moon hangs overhead, its surface stained a deep, bloody red. Somewhere, in the distance, he can hear the faint bubbling of a stream. And in front of him, stretching its gnarled branches out over Zabimaru’s head, looms a spectral tree. Renji has seen it before. It has been haunting its dreams, but it has never been vivid like it is now, pale and parched and surrounded by the faint, musty scent of dry rotting wood.

 

Zabimaru steps back, stands right by its trunk; from the back of the baboon’s haunches the snake rears up, wrapping its scaly body around a low branch. “Not welcome,” it echoes, with a long hiss that cuts through the unmoving air like a knife. Their stance is defensive: they will not let him reach the tree. He hadn’t even realised he wanted to, but its branches seem to be beckoning him, swaying gently in the non-existent breeze, and he cannot remember ever seeing Zabimaru so hostile or less persuasive. He wants it out of the way, wants its warped, ill-omened form as far away from the ancient tree as possible.

 

“It’s been a long time since I saw you,” he says. The accusation echoes horribly through the oppressive stillness of the air. “Where have you been? Why have you been silent?”

 

Two tongues hiss in unison. “We have not been silent,” says the baboon. “We have called, and called, but you did not hear. He drowns us out.”

 

“He?” Renji takes a step closer; a low snarl rumbles in the baboon’s throat, but neither of them move.

 

“He is strong,” says the snake, “and cold. His will binds us in place. He does not welcome intruders.”

 

“And yet you are the ones who would lock me out,” says Renji. There’s something wrong, his gut is telling him. They talk as though they’re in chains, but all he feels from them is menace and hostility. He came here hoping desperately to see them, but now they’re here and he feels nothing but coldness and disappointment. And still they pollute the tree with their touch. “Come back to my side. Stand away from the tree.” If only they will obey, he knows that all will be right again - if he can master them in their defiance, if he can reach those ghostly branches, then everything will be as it should.

 

“You must leave,” growls the baboon, shifting its weight back as though readying itself to spring. The snake slowly uncoils itself from its branch and bares its fangs. “Already he is eating you away. Your strength will not be enough to save you, Renji. Your spirit will fade-”

 

“Renji-sama!”

 

A hand on his shoulder brings him back to himself. He is exactly where he was when he began his meditation, kneeling by the leafy tree overhanging the lawn where he practices. The clouds have broken: cold, heavy rain is pouring down on him, tearing at the leaves above and turning the ground to a thick slush, and the loud rumbling of thunder overhead promises worse to come. Seike is leaning over him, cowering under his umbrella and doing his best to shelter Renji from the rain, although it’s pointless now - he’s soaked to the bone, and his limbs when he tries to rise feel stiff with cold.

 

He is numb. Sick inside with an awful, creeping anxiety that twists his organs into painful knots. “Back to the house,” he orders Seike over the roaring of the wind and the pounding of the rain. “Take the umbrella, I’m drenched already.” They make a run back for the balcony, and make it undercover just as the clouds unleash themselves in earnest; safe from the torrential downfall, Seike casts aside his umbrella and turns to Renji with wide, anxious eyes. Renji can tell what the first question is going to be, and he preempts it in the firmest voice he can manage. “I am fine. I was deep in meditation, and the rain escaped my notice. That is all.” Ask no more questions, his eyes add, and Seike seems to understand. He springs into action without another word, and in no time Renji finds himself dry and warm again, sinking down onto a soft cushion in his private rooms with a freshly brewed cup of tea cradled in his hands.

 

Whatever he’s feeling is...alien to him. His chest is tight but his heart feels silent and empty. There is a piece missing now, that he knows for sure, and he cannot tell if what’s missing is the comforting warmth of Zabimaru’s voice or...something else. Something he hasn’t yet touched. Something that Zabimaru means to keep him from touching, with no explanation, no apology. He’s used to better than this. He’s used to better, and he misses it...misses the reassuring stability of a relationship governed by proper order, by respect and obedience and all the things that make the world a safe place to live in. If Zabimaru stands so freely against him, then Zabimaru cannot be his - but without Zabimaru, he has no anchor and no channel for his power. He is...alone, in a way he has never been since first he heard the soothing, familiar voice of his soul’s other half.

 

Regret is pointless. Regret will not bring the beast back under control, but perseverance might - he will not meditate again. Not yet. He will work harder, train harder, and win back the strength and self-discipline that the loss of his former body has leeched from him. He has mastered Zabimaru once, and he can do it again. He has nothing to fear, he tells himself. This rebellion will not last long. And yet somehow, although he goes about the rest of his day’s business as normal and refuses to dwell on Zabimaru’s words, he cannot rid himself of the festering sense of unease that lingers inside him, encircling his heart with a strong, crushing grip.

 

-

 

Sleep tonight comes easily, once he closes his eyes. His dream world greets him with frost and shadows, and the ancient tree stretches out its rotting branches as if in welcome. He treads quietly, but still they come - faceless, voiceless, with grasping hands and eyes that blaze with cold blue fire. I am not the one you’re looking for, he says, but it makes no difference; icy hands wrap around his ankles and he wakes, bolt upright in bed with his hair plastered to his cheeks and neck, scrambling for a light and nearly knocking it over in his haste to light the wick.

 

The room is empty, everything in its proper place; he takes a slow, deep breath and rakes his damp hair back from his face. Ridiculous. He sits a while and lets his heartbeat return to normal, and then reaches behind him for a book to help him banish the last of the awful spectres from his mind.

 

He’s not sure he’s in the right mood for Shintaro’s adventures, after that - but it’s hard not to get drawn in, and it doesn’t take long for the nightmare to retreat to the distant reaches of his memory. He left off last time on the mysterious death of the daimyo, and the story has turned now to Shintaro’s investigations - which are fraught with danger, of course, although not so much that Shintaro cannot find time to comfort the poor daimyo’s heartbroken daughter. In the end, he only puts the book down because its distractions are proving a little too effective: all the unresolved sexual tension is raising his pulse for an entirely new reason, and Renji isn’t ready to deal with that particular minefield tonight. It can’t be much longer now til dawn, but he shuts off the lamp and lies back to try and catch a little more sleep.

 

Her face is unfamiliar - like no woman he has seen before - but she gazes at him sadly, and her unearthly beauty holds him rooted in place. “I have nobody left in the world, now,” she says, and dark hair spills about her eyes as she bows her head in sorrow. “Father was the only man left who protected me.”

 

“He will not go unavenged.” Grief tugs at his heart, grief for the daimyo’s untimely demise, grief for the misery of his daughter, and he longs to wipe away the tears she is so bravely trying to blink back. “And you will not be left defenseless. Your father’s estate-”

 

“-will go to my brother,” she says, her voice wavering piteously. “And he will not shirk his duties towards me, of that I am sure. But he is cold - he does not love me. He has never loved me.”

 

Her tears are beginning to spill over now. Gently, he reaches out and lifts her chin, brushes a thumb over her cheek. She goes very still, eyes downcast, a faint blush colouring her face. “Please,” she whispers brokenly, “I do not know...I cannot, I...I don’t know what to do…”

 

He shushes her. Draws her closer, moved by the burning impulse to hold her, comfort her, take away her pain and fear if only for a short moment. She is...helpless. Lost. Heartbreakingly, irresistibly vulnerable. She melts against him, and her lips when they meet his are soft and yielding. Slowly, shyly she unravels, until her arms are wrapped around him and her hands are fisted in the fabric of his haori as though clinging to a lifeline. When he lowers her down she goes willingly, modest even as he turns his hands to her obi, a maidenly blush staining her cheeks when the silk of her kimono is pushed aside. But her touch is longing and her eyes are dry, and together they surrender until the world is reduced to tangled limbs and sobbing breath and tender, aching passion.

 

The world is spinning, the picture changing. She moves beneath him, small and lithe, and he finds that she is not a stranger after all - he knows every inch of her, and his hands map the contours of her beloved face in gentle, wide-eyed wonder. Her voice chimes sweetly in his ear, soft murmurs and breathless pleas. How long has it been now, since he last possessed her? Years. Decades, surely. “I missed you,” he whispers, and they're moving together and the heat of her fragile body is enveloping him, warming him to the very core.

 

She giggles, arches against him. “I have never left you,” she chides, wrapping herself more tightly around him - he can feel her hands around his waist, and her heels digging into the backs of his thighs. Her head is tilted back, exposing the soft, pale skin of her throat, and she is exquisite in her surrender. “I would never leave you. You know that, my dear.”

 

His breath catches in his throat. He tries to remember what has happened, why they are here now, but the softness of her body is driving him to distraction. She would never leave, she can never leave - she is his, gladly, willingly, and until now he had almost forgotten what it meant to be truly needed. “But,” he says, “your father-”

 

“Father?” There’s that giggle again, and she takes a playful nip at his ear that makes him shudder. She is bold, today. It’s not often that she asserts herself with touches of her own, but he likes this side of her as much as he likes her obedience; likes this power he has to bring her out of her shell, just for him, just a little. “I never had a father, silly. I belong to nobody but you.”

 

She is bliss, writhing against him and whispering into his ear, and he wants so much to just sink into her and stay. He can have her, he can keep her here by his side, enjoy her how he wants and she will never leave - but something is tugging at him, a creeping, prickling sense of wrongness buried in his gut, and he stares down at her and tries to focus through the haze of desire clouding his mind. “Belong?” he echoes hoarsely. “You do not belong to anybody-”

 

A soft kiss cuts him off. “Silly,” she murmurs against his lips. “Why hold back? You know that I am yours.” And then she’s arching up against him, begging him to move, to claim her, take her, and he forgets all his protests and he’s falling…

 

...and he’s alone in his own bed again, lying curled on his side and thrusting urgently into his own hand, and he’s so far gone that he can do nothing but bite down on his pillow and come so hard that he cannot remember his name any more.

 

Which is just as well, because all too soon it comes back to him, and brings with it a churning feeling of shame and nausea as the come cools unpleasantly on his belly and the significance of his dream sinks in.

 

It's still an hour at least til dawn. He feels dirty, tainted, and he wraps his spoiled night gown more closely around him and heads out to the bathroom where he douses himself in cold water and tries to remember what it feels like not to miss her.

 

But the harder he tries, the more it slips away from him.

 

She is not yours, he tells himself, and then shivers at the turn of phrase and corrects, you have never met her. But her face is still vivid before his eyes, so very much like Rukia's but softer, paler. She is not his. She is just a memory, and not even that memory is his.

 

"Renji-sama?"

 

The voice startles him, and he turns his head to see Seike kneeling kneeling just inside the door, holding a towel and a neatly folded shihakusho in his lap. "Shall I leave these here, Renji-sama?" he asks, calm and businesslike as ever, as though finding his employer slumped white-faced, naked and trembling on the shower-stool long before daybreak, dripping with ice-cold water, is nothing to be remarked upon. Renji wonders how he must look to Seike, who is surely used to seeing Byakuya as steady, collected, and perfectly capable of remembering to bring a towel for his own shower.

 

"There's fine," he says, voice cracking a little as he tries to still his shivering. He hadn't even realised he was cold.

 

Seike hesitates a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. He rises, and sets the fresh shihakusho on a nearby shelf; then he steps forward with another little bow and drapes the towel carefully around Renji's shoulders. It's warm already - it must have come from in front of the fire. "There you are, sir," Seike says gently.

 

Renji accepts the towel mechanically, pulling it close around him. Seike steps back again to linger at a respectful distance, and watches Renji with eyes that are unnervingly perceptive. "You're up early," says Renji, because there's nothing else to say and a small part of him is sure he should feel awkward, really, sitting in front of such a quiet and proper man without any clothes on. "Do you always start work before dawn?"

 

Seike looks surprised by the question, but he answers without hesitation. "Today is an unhappy day for my master," he says. "The anniversary of the lady Hisana's passing. Since he is indisposed, I went out early to pay respect to her grave on his behalf."

 

Something in Renji's throat feels strange and tight. "Ah," he says, and wraps the towel a little closer as the shivering threatens to start up again. "That's...that's good of you. I'm sure it wasn't your responsibility."

 

"Byakuya-sama would be grieved to see her grave untended," says Seike, as though that's all there is to it. "Come, sir. You look quite chilled. Shall I draw a hot bath? You haven't taken a soak for some days now."

 

That much is true. Bathing requires that he be alone with himself, with nothing to distract him from the wrongness of his naked body, and so he has been carefully avoiding it, sticking to only the most perfunctory of daily showers. The chill in his bones is making the prospect of a proper bath look suddenly far more tempting, but somehow he can't quite stomach the thought of relaxing in hot water now that he knows the source of the crushing feeling of grief in his chest. “Not just now,” he says around the rising tight burn in his throat. Is this the reason for his dream? Does he...does Byakuya always miss his wife so bitterly on this day that he has to conjure up phantoms of her presence to comfort him? “I will take breakfast, though. See to it now, while I dress.” He’s not remotely hungry, but he needs Seike out of the room. The old man obeys, of course, but as he slides the bathroom door closed he casts one final look back, and there’s a quiet, soulful understanding in his eyes that makes Renji want to choke.

 

And all he can think of is the smell of her skin and the way she used to laugh, carefree and girlish.

 

-

 

“I am sorry,” he tells her later, standing at her shrine and watching the candlelit shadows dance on the wall behind her picture. “I...do not know how to honour your memory for him. I know he will regret not being here today, when he wakes.”

 

There is no answer, of course. He was almost frightened to approach her here, to invade the last sacred space where her memory lives - but there was nothing to fear. He cannot feel her presence. Her image here is serene, composed, but he has seen those cheeks flushed hot with desire and he has seen them pale and hollow from the sickness that claimed her.

 

“He misses you,” he adds softly.

 

Her picture gazes back at him, gentle and sad.

 

-

 

The floodgates are open. There’s been a rupture somewhere in his mind, and the memories pour out from it to suffuse his dreams and drench them in awful, haunting significance. It’s as though his subconscious is trying to prepare him for his new role in the world, because the dream-memories are all formative, and they explain things that he has never wanted to have explained.

 

He learns what it’s like to be small and frightened in the vast halls of a large, imposing manor. He learns new and familiar faces, and along with them names - Otou-sama, Okaa-sama, Ojii-sama - and sometimes they smile but other times they loom over him like giants and their faces are grim and pitiless. Once he knocks over a priceless vase in the front hall, and the blow he takes for it knocks him senseless; he wakes to blurred vision and Ojii-sama shouting at Otou-sama for being too rough and careless. Another time he is caught, one time too many, favouring the wrong hand against their express orders; both men exchange grim looks and nod, and they refuse to let his hand be healed with kidou after they have broken it. He must leave it to heal naturally, they say, so that he might establish proper habits while his left hand is unusable.

 

It’s for your own good, they tell him, and those are the words that follow him through the years that he recalls in broken flashes. Some days, when things are quiet, Otou-sama leads him out into the gardens and walks with him, telling stories of glorious battles until his heart is bursting with hope and envy. Sometimes Okaa-sama lets him sit with her as she arranges her flowers, and she asks him how his lessons are going and tells him that he must work hard, since the whole family are counting on his progress. He misses them both bitterly when they pass, although life becomes quieter and far less volatile: Ojii-sama is not as warm but he is also not as angry, and his punishments are seldom dealt in more than words.

 

He grows older, and stronger, and less frightened. He steps into the ranks of the Gotei 13 as new lieutenant of the sixth, and humiliates the soldiers who say he is too inexperienced to lead, and sees battle for the first time and then again, and again. There are days when Ojii-sama looks at him with something like pride, and other days where he shakes his head and says, you never change, boy, do you. But he does his best, and the men learn to respect him and to trust his strength, and he thinks that he is at last becoming the person he is meant to be.

 

Meeting Hisana changes all of it. These memories are sharper, more clearly defined than those preceding them. He has seen her in his dreams before, adoring and submissive, but now he sees the rest as well: the fire in her eyes and the core of iron beneath her girlish gentleness, and the single-minded determination that carries her away from him each day through rain and snow and, later, a grim sickness that sucks the colour from her cheeks and the softness from her flesh. He tries everything to convince her to stay inside - bribes her, begs her, orders her, ignores her - but he cannot bring himself to restrain her by force, and perhaps that is why she always slips away in the end.

 

It is as her fingers entwine with his for the last time that he wakes, curled in a ball on his side with wet cheeks and a burning ache in his chest that deep breathing and cold water cannot seem to douse. He has nowhere to go except into the office. Nothing to hold back the crushing weight of sadness except his work, so he throws himself into it with a brand new zeal and lets the strict, soothing routine of it carry him away. No-one to greet him when he gets back home that evening, so he retreats to his study with a pot of tea and a warm coat to throw around his shoulders, and tries to lose himself in the ongoing adventures of Shintaro. But neither the tense mystery of the daimyo’s murder nor the vividly illustrated deflowering of his daughter is enough to capture more than his most fleeting interest tonight. It’s cold, and there are no sounds save for the turning of pages and Seike’s intermittent shuffling outside his door. If he concentrates he can feel the steady pulse of Rukia’s reiatsu in her room down the hall, but she has hardly crossed his path or spoken to him since their run-in the morning after Byakuya’s collapse. He’s been leaving her alone, hoping she would work out her anger in her own time, but as the days drag by it’s looking less and less promising.

 

In a small, quiet corner of his mind there’s a part of him that realises: this quarrel with Rukia, trivial as it is, might just be the last problem left in his life that is within his power to fix. And so with nothing better to do, he reaches an instant decision.

 

Seike comes the moment his name is called, trotting through the door and sinking into a neat bow and asking, “Can I help you, sir?”

 

“You can.” Decision made, Renji sees no reason not to act immediately. “Tomorrow evening,” he declares, “I will be having dinner in the courtyard with Rukia. I will need some preparations made beforehand.” Seike looks taken aback, but he nods politely all the same. “Listen carefully now,” Renji goes on, gripping tightly onto this new surge of inspiration, this last barrier between himself and the deep, dark abyss of loneliness looming right across his path. “I will need a new bottle of our best Daiginjo, a roll of fencing wire, several well-bred rabbits…”

 

The first stage of the plan goes off without a hitch. It helps, he thinks, having the resources to just commission people to help get everything done, instead of having to muddle through it all himself. Because what he's attempting now is definitely outside his area of expertise - in all respects, actually. But it's still important, and he wants to get it perfect. Fortunately the men he hires for the job are quick and impressively competent, and when they arrive the next morning he stays with them only long enough to confirm that his supervision is indeed a hindrance, rather than a help. When he is satisfied, he heads off and passes the rest of his day as normal, and waits for the second stage of his plan to arrive in its proper time.

 

And the way Rukia's eyes widen when she first steps onto the scene that evening make it more than worth the wait.

 

Everything has been arranged according to his specifications. The quiet courtyard garden is lit by the bright glow of lanterns and the sun's last fading rays. A sumptuous picnic meal has been laid out for them, featuring everything Renji was able to remember of Rukia's favourite dishes. But most importantly of all, three curious white faces are waiting there to greet them: three plush, snowy-white rabbits, sitting docile and immaculately groomed in their brand new hutch.

 

For a long moment Rukia remains silent, lips loosely parted in astonishment. "I....you...Renji..."

 

"They're a gift," says Renji quietly. "I know my behaviour lately has been...unpredictable, and has caused you a great deal of distress." It's the best he can do, now that he's on the spot. The word sorry sticks on his tongue and stays there, sour and uncomfortable in his mouth. But Rukia doesn't seem to notice. She stares, swallows, takes a tentative step towards the cage - and then whirls around and flings herself into his arms, so suddenly that he is nearly knocked back. He just manages to remain steady, and looks down at the trembling bundle of joy and impropriety in his arms with a soft, nostalgic pang of emotion. Relief, he thinks it is. He has not damaged their relationship beyond repair.

 

He will not lose her again.

 

"They're beautiful, Renji." Rukia pulls back from their embrace and beams up at him. "Everything's beautiful." Catching him by the arm, she tugs him after her towards the picnic blanket and plops herself down. "Come on," she urges, patting the ground beside her encouragingly. "Don't let the food spoil. It feels like ages since we ate together."

 

It's amazing how quickly the awkwardness between them has vanished. She's looking at him like she always does, her tone bold and brash and casual as ever. For a while their meal is cheerful and companionable, and all she wants to talk about is what she's going to name her new rabbits, and whether Byakuya, when he wakes up, will allow her to keep them. "I'm sure he won't mind," Renji assures her. "He probably won't even notice, as long as you don't let them nibble the antiques or anything."

 

Rukia snorts ungracefully. "Fair point," she says, and reaches over to top up his glass with more sake. This is his last, he decides, at least until the end of the meal - he's learned his lesson, after his last adventure in the cellars. "Still, it's better to ask permission. Nii-sama...he isn't like you, Renji. You know that. He likes to know who's living in the house, how many mouths he's feeding. If he finds I've been keeping secret pets, he'll probably put his foot down on principle."

 

These words make Renji frown, though Rukia doesn't seem to notice. Byakuya isn't petty, he wants to point out to her. He doesn't micro-manage. He just likes to make sure he's keeping track of everything around his household, because isn't that his job? "I thought you and he were getting on better these days," is all he says instead, trying to make it sound like a mere throwaway comment.

 

"Oh, we are!" Rukia's eyes widen earnestly. "I didn't mean there was anything wrong with it. Anyway -" she gives an impish grin - "if he does try to send them away, I’ll just sulk. He pretends not to care, but he always gives in when I sulk."

 

This isn't an enormous improvement on her previous observation. "You need to make up your mind," he says, with a disapproving sniff. "Heartless control freak or helpless pushover? He can't be both."

 

Rukia grins mischievously, but then shakes her head. "Actually, he's neither. But I don't think you'd get it, Renji." She pauses, knocks back the rest of her sake in one careless swig. "Being close with Nii-sama isn't like being close with you. They're two completely different kinds of connection."

 

The statement is innocent enough, but it makes something clench uncomfortably in Renji’s gut and, all of a sudden, he’s not so sure he wants to be having this conversation. “What do you mean?” he asks warily, and it seems his plan has worked on Rukia a little too well - she’s lighthearted and uncharacteristically talkative, and doesn’t seem to care that the topic is carrying them dangerously close to the kind of emotional exposure she would normally avoid.

 

“Well,” she says, “Nii-sama...he’s a very private person. He doesn’t like people to know what he’s thinking. That’s not just his public image, like what you see of him at work - it’s always, even with the people he’s closest to. It’s just how he is.” She gives him a gentle smile, as if they’re sharing some kind of silent mutual understanding, but Renji’s mouth is very dry and all he can think is that she’s got no business speaking so freely. “He cares a lot about me, Renji. I don’t think he knows how to express it, and that’s why he never tells me. But it’s enough to know that the feelings are there.” There’s a soft, knowing look in the eyes she turns on him. “You and I, though, we’ve always been honest with each other, so if we started keeping secrets it would be like a huge gulf had opened up between us.”

 

This definitely is not going the direction Renji intended. “We keep secrets sometimes,” he says, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice. “I cannot simply….I mean, I can’t just spill my guts out to you every time something goes wrong. You’d never hear the end of it.”

 

“That’s not it.” Rukia won’t break eye contact, and...why exactly did he think her eyes were soft, again? They’re hard like steel, and her gaze is honed to a sharp cutting edge. “The other day, Renji. It wasn’t just that you didn’t want me fussing over you. You thought I was overstepping my place. You keep giving me these disapproving looks every time I let my manners slip in front of you. I get that things are messed up right now, Renji, I really do. I know you’re under a lot of pressure trying to lead Nii-sama’s life for him. But you’ve gotten really good at playing your part all of a sudden, and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

 

It’s odd, Renji thinks. Rukia’s words are washing over him like a wave, and he knows that what she’s saying is making him angry. But he feels nothing but cold and detached and...still, as though his heart is slowing instead of pounding harder with anger. “Perhaps you are overstepping your place,” he tells her. “I don’t remember inviting you to speculate on my psychological wellbeing.”

 

Rukia looks as though she’s been slapped. All of their easy camaraderie has vanished, and her hands are starting to ball into fists. “That’s exactly the problem,” she snaps. “I don’t care if you keep little things secret from me. But something like this...Renji, you seem to think you’re turning into my brother, and that is absolutely my business! If you’re having trouble, you should be talking to me about it. And if you think I’m about to start deferring to you just because of who you look like, you are in for a big disappointment.”

 

His blood is growing hotter and his mind is growing colder, calmer. Her tone disgusts him, and he is this close to sending her away in disgrace. Already he regrets all the effort he put into this ridiculous goodwill gesture. How much of her gratitude was sincere, and how much was just a ploy to lead him into this conversation? “I never asked you to defer to me,” he says. “I don’t know what exactly you expect from me. I admit that my recent behaviour has been unfair to you, and I have already given you my apology.”

 

“No you haven’t,” says Rukia flatly. “You’ve just given me expensive presents - which, for the record, is exactly how my brother gets rid of conflict when he can’t bear having to talk about it. This isn’t you, Renji. Why are you pushing me away? Why can’t you - no, wait! I just want you to talk to me. Don’t walk away.”

 

She follows him as he rises, meaning to leave, to let her burn off this unacceptable burst of temper by herself. Her hand shoots out to catch his arm and it’s as though everything freezes, their eyes locked in a fierce glare, and Renji’s heart is colder than it’s ever been.

 

“Take your hand off me,” he says, his voice soft and calm and lethal. Rukia pulls back as though he’s hit her and he turns again, breaks off, strides back towards the house.

 

“Nii-sama would never speak to me like that,” Rukia calls after him, although there’s a wavering uncertainty in her tone that might have broken Renji’s heart if he’d heard it a few days ago.

 

“And you’d never speak to him like this,” he fires back without turning around. “You’d keep a civil tongue in your head, and not pry into matters that don’t concern you.”

 

The sound Rukia makes is somewhere between a snarl and a sob. “I don’t even want your fucking rabbits,” she shouts at his back, and he’s heard her use such language only once or twice before and it does nothing now but harden his heart still further.

 

He’s at the door now. He turns one last time, and sees her standing stock-still in the courtyard where he left her, glaring furiously and trembling. “Very well,” he says. “You may have the servants return them to their breeder.”

 

He closes the door behind him, and doesn’t let his expression break until he’s back in the safety of his own private rooms.

Chapter Text

It has been a while, in the midst of all this chaos, since Renji last visited the hospital. Coming up with excuses is far from difficult: there is a lot of extra work at the division, since he has no lieutenant. Seike is no longer withholding Kuchiki clan business, so his workload at home has likewise increased. As long as he doesn’t dwell on thoughts of the hospital and the man lying there, he is comfortable; his visits serve no purpose except to waste the time of fourth division staff and agitate a feeling of existential confusion that, left alone, has finally faded. Renji remembers who he is, now. He remembers his family, remembers his upbringing, remembers his duties. And he is so caught up in his own life - his life, whatever others may say - that it’s easy to forget that there is another man out there who could challenge his claim.

 

But Kuchiki Byakuya is not used to being ignored. That much Renji knows well: since he took on this body he has gotten use to being at the centre of life in the division, and at home. Everything must pass through him; hardly a moment of his life goes unobserved. Perhaps the true Byakuya has come to crave such reminders of his importance, even in the depths of his comatose state - or perhaps he is bored, or simply being difficult. But on a cold, wet Tuesday morning, about an hour before sunrise, Byakuya gives up on lying in stasis, and does something that will catapult him back to the centre of everybody’s attention.

 

He stops breathing.

 

Renji goes straight to the hospital when he receives the message. Rukia goes with him, and although they do not talk on the way, he doesn’t miss the pallor of her face or the way she bites her lower lip. Immediately upon arrival they are shown through to the intensive care unit, and Unohana-taichou tells them that Byakuya has been successfully revived. Notably, she does not assure them that he has been stabilised.

 

“What’s happening to him?” Rukia’s voice is...flat, and eerily calm. Her face is still very pale.

 

Unohana just shakes her head gravely. “The deterioration began last night,” she explains, in the kind of bedside voice that carries the promise of imminent tragedy. “His vital systems have begun shutting down. The cause is still unclear. We are working to combat the damage as fast as we can, but-” There is a delicate pause, while she glances sadly over at the mess of tubes and gaunt flesh on the bed that used to be Byakuya and, before that, Renji. “It is as though his body is disintegrating from the inside out,” she goes on. “If we cannot find and stop whatever is causing it, there is only so long we can continue to compensate.”

 

If Renji focuses, he can still detect the faintest, flickering trace of Byakuya’s reiatsu in the body on the bed. This cannot be right, he thinks. When he left it last, that body was strong - strong enough to face any threat, or fight off any sickness. How can it have become so broken, so fast? “So you mean that he is dying,” he says, and there again is that familiar twisting weight in his stomach that he’s all but learned to disregard. It’s harder now, though he lets no outward sign escape him.

 

“We must not give up hope,” says Unohana. “I will continue to give him my fullest care while Kurotsuchi-taichou works on discovering the cause.” Renji nods curtly, and Unohana’s eyes are curiously sharp as she continues to look at him. “And you, Abarai-fukutaichou? We cannot ignore the possibility that your wellbeing is also in danger. Can you report any unusual symptoms you have been experiencing?”

 

At a time like this, Renji isn’t sure he approves of his own health being scrutinised. But she has a point. “I am quite well,” he assures her, his eyes still glued to the figure on the bed - but it’s hard to miss the thoughtful narrowing of Unohana’s eyes, or the look that passes between her and Rukia.

 

“He’s been like this for a while now,” he hears Rukia say in that same flat, unnaturally calm voice.

 

“I see.” Unohana steps up right in front of Renji, holds his gaze, and something about the way she’s looking at him is shockingly perceptive and intrusive. The knot in his stomach tightens. “I think I had better speak with Kurotsuchi-taichou,” she says, and finally pulls away. “If any concerns arise in the meanwhile, please raise them with my staff.”

 

She leaves, and then everything is silent but for the steady, rhythmic beeping of the machines at the side of the bed.

 

Rukia’s face is chalky white; she seems barely to be holding herself together. He should say something, but there’s nothing he can say that she will want to hear. Her eyes remain pointedly averted. “You don’t have to be here,” she says woodenly. “I’m sure you’ve got other more important things to see to.” And it’s a jab, certainly, but more than that it’s a plea - a plea for solitude, a plea for permission to cradle her brother’s limp hand in her own and speak her fears to the empty room and cry.

 

And so he leaves her. Leaves the ward, leaves the hospital, doesn’t stop to say goodbye or thank the staff or pay any attention to the muffled sound of Kurotsuchi’s raised voice as his ‘discussion’ with Unohana unfolds. He wanders out onto the streets of Seireitei with nowhere else to be, and tries to look purposeful. Tries to look like he knows where he is going. Tries to be calm and composed, even though a man who everyone expected to die a heroic death on the battlefield is dying instead from an untraceable disease, and taking his body with him. Even though the knot in his stomach is so tight it feels like it’s ripping him apart, and his knees are ready to buckle. Even though he no longer knows what he’d even be feeling, if he let go the last shreds of calm he has stubbornly clung to.

 

He knows no name for the emotion; he only knows that it would choke him.

 

There is nothing he wants more than to be left alone right now, and so naturally he is found almost at once. He can think of no reason for Yumichika and Ikkaku to be so near the fourth division unless they are either badly injured or have heard the news; and since they are both standing, he braces himself for the second as they wave him down and hurry over. Yumichika looks irritated; Ikkaku just looks determined, and they both stop right in Renji’s path and stare at him without bothering with any kind of greeting.

 

“You should have told us,” says Ikkaku.

 

There are a lot of things Renji could tell them. I’m not your personal assistant is among them, as is How dare you speak without addressing me properly; he settles on, “It only just happened,” and when they only continue to stare at him he realises, with a surge of something that feels a bit like horror, that they’re not actually talking about Byakuya’s current medical state.

 

“Yachiru told us,” Ikkaku goes on. “When we found out that you - uh, when we found out Kuchiki-taichou was in hospital. Thought she was just having fun at first, but the captain backed her up and everything.”

 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Yumichika’s lips are very thin, arms folded indignantly across his chest. “We’ve been seeing you around all over the place. Stopping with you to chat. Wondering why you always had to rush off so quickly. We didn’t realise anything had changed.”

 

Renji is not in the mood for this. Really, he’s not. “Nobody was supposed to realise,” he says shortly. “We had quite enough to deal with without the scandal and confusion a public announcement would have caused.”

 

“You idiot.” Ikkaku’s voice is uncharacteristically harsh. “We’re not talking about a public announcement or nothing. Just us, you know? Your friends. We could have helped out. We sure as hell could have given Kuchiki less of a tough time.”

 

“It’s all on you,” adds Yumichika sniffily. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’ve let slip to him, thinking he was you.”

 

They’re angry. Far angrier than they have any business being, as far as Renji is concerned. “I fail to see why your own loose tongues are any grounds to shout at me,” he snaps, and tries hard not to think about what, exactly, they might have been telling Byakuya. “Why should I have told you? It has nothing to do with either of you.”

 

“When you lost your goddamn virginity,” Ikkaku snaps back, “you came charging into our rooms at three in the morning to tell us about it. You’ve always told us stuff, whether it had to do with us or not. Why’s that different now, all of a sudden?”

 

For a moment Renji can only stare, because it’s ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous that he’s almost tempted to walk away and leave them where they stand, because there’s a man dying back at the hospital and everything around him seems to be falling apart and he cannot even bring himself to feel anything over it. And he has never felt colder in his life than when he looks into Ikkaku’s eyes and says, “I owe you no explanation. Now stand out of my way.”

 

Yumichika’s expression is pure disgust. “Come on, Ikkaku,” he says, tossing his head and curling his lips in a angry sneer. “Don’t bother with him, if he’s going to be like that.”

 

“No.” Ikkaku stands his ground, hands balling into fists as they stare each other down. “This is bullshit, Renji. You’re not even gonna talk to us, now? Yachiru said you’d taken Kuchiki’s body, not his goddamn attitude.”

 

The anger rising in Renji’s veins is a welcome change from his cold detachment. “I told you to stand aside,” he repeats, and when Ikkaku still doesn’t move, he turns aside contemptuously and moves to step around him. He will just ignore it and sweep past, he thinks, because Ikkaku clearly wants a fight and it is not worth Renji’s time to give it to him. And he’s willing to overlook the vulgar words Ikkaku shouts at his back. He’s even willing to overlook the hand that tries to snatch at his sleeve, stop him from turning his back.

 

He’s not willing to overlook the punch, though. And when Ikkaku hits the ground, stunned and spitting out blood, he thinks he hears an approving hum from somewhere in the back of his mind: a faint, distant sound that echoes from the place where Zabimaru used to live.

 

He wipes flecks of Ikkaku’s blood from his knuckles, and leaves.

 

-

 

Much later, when Rukia has gone home and there is nothing left to pretend he has to do, Renji goes back to the hospital. He takes a seat at the side of the bed and watches the unmoving pile of flesh-that-is-technically-Byakuya, and listens to the steady beeping of the monitors beside him, and feels for the last faint traces of Byakuya’s reiatsu. Something has changed in the past few hours - or perhaps it changed long ago, and he has only just come to realise it. But everything around him is quiet, and there is nobody left who can give him the answers he needs. There is only him and this other man, this silent, fading man who has made property out of family and enemies out of friends, made cold out of warmth, and a tangled wreckage out of Renji’s soul.

 

“You have left me in a terrible mess,” he tells Byakuya, safe in the knowledge that no-one is really listening. His head is spinning and he’s still reeling from the encounter earlier, from the hushed whisper that hissed out from the back of his mind, calling for the blood of a man who he used to call ‘friend’. He knows himself. Knows better than this. Remembers his upbringing, remembers his duties - remembers how hard he fought against this, in the beginning, and knows that he has nothing left to gain by pretending he hasn’t lost the battle. “Your life is...stifling,” he says, and looks down at the slender hands in his lap and tries to recall what it felt like when they weren’t really his. “There’s so much anger in my heart, and you’ve left me no room to express it. Is this really how you live? Too weak to suppress your feelings, too stubborn to release them?”

 

He waits for Byakuya to contradict him, but there is no answer save for a quiet, doleful beep from the heart monitor.

 

And he is angry, angrier with every passing moment, with every answer that doesn’t issue from Byakuya’s lips. “You’re pathetic,” he goes on, after a long minute has passed by in this cloying silence. “Lying there and letting yourself rot from some imaginary illness, while your own subordinate does all the difficult work for you. Aren’t you ashamed, to leave me like this?”

 

Still there is no answer.

 

His head is light. The knot in his stomach is tighter than ever, and the seams it holds together are beginning to rip apart. Something dark and wet and salty is dripping out, infusing his bloodstream, and he knows his hands are trembling but he cannot seem to stop them. “Rukia despises me,” he goes on, and his throat is nearly as tight as his stomach now; his voice wavers, but Byakuya needs to know, needs to recognise what has happened, to make sense of it when Renji no longer can. “It is several years overdue, I suppose. Not that anybody has been counting.”

 

He half expects Byakuya to wake up, to argue against this, but nothing happens. The thing inside him is overflowing now, welling up in his throat and he thinks he’s going to be sick, but when he opens his mouth it’s only more words that pour out. “I admired you, once. I believed you held the answers to everything, and only chose not to share them. I believed your heart was as pure as gold beneath all that you showed to the world. But I was wrong, and you have made me forget how to love without pain and secrecy. You have driven away everyone who might have cared that I have lost myself.” He remembers sitting like this at a bedside before, choking on words he couldn’t say then - and he remembers lying there silent and listening, waiting, wondering what they were. Wondering if I forgive you will be among them. “Taichou,” he grits out through teeth that no longer want to move apart, “I...always wished that I could be like you. But now, I regret that wish more than I have regretted anything in my life.”

 

But the words are too late. Byakuya does not stir.

 

There’s movement behind him. Renji silences his shaking voice and listens as the door slides open and an attendant slips into the room. “My apologies for intruding, Abarai-fukutaichou,” she says, “but Unohana-taichou wishes to see the patient. She will be here momentarily.

 

Renji’s voice is not to be trusted; he just nods, and rises to leave. His cheeks are damp, he realises, and he quickly and furiously dabs them dry before he dares lift his head. He is just in time to see Unohana walk into the room and, behind her, a shockingly familiar face - Urahara Kisuke, looking even more inscrutable than usual behind the deep brim of his striped green hat.

 

“Ah, Abarai-san,” he says lightly, cutting across the unvoiced first syllable of Renji's planned excuses. “Just the person I was hoping to speak with.” He glances at Unohana, who nods serenely, and the next thing Renji knows Urahara is settling a casual hand on his arm, as though greeting an old friend. “I am sure Unohana-taichou needs her space with the patient. Perhaps you and I might take a walk together?” He swings his cane in his right hand between thumb and forefinger, tracing a pendulum curve.

 

It is not a suggestion, not really; Urahara's intrusive hand is not gripping at all but Renji can still feel the strength there. And there would be no point resisting, even if he wanted to. What would he stand to gain? He knows what it looks like when the world falls apart around you. He has seen it many times, through two different sets of eyes - and what Urahara offers now isn’t quite hope  but it isn’t not hope, either.

 

And so he allows himself to be steered, swiftly and firmly, from the room.

 

-

 

What follows are the longest several hours of Renji’s life.

 

First there are the questions. Strange questions, complex and often self-contradictory questions, questions that leave a sour taste in Renji’s mouth and renew, with a vengeance, the lurking sense of wrongness inside him. What do you remember about your childhood? Your parents? What was it like, growing up in Rukongai? How did you come to meet your wife? Can you tell me about your promotion to lieutenant? How about your promotion to captain? All of them are delivered in the same calm, clinical tone, and all of them lead him towards the same realisation: he knows the answers to all of them, but only half of them feel real. The other half are like excerpts from someone else’s life, or perhaps a book he read once, but the memories lack clarity and require a great deal more focus to dredge up.

 

Urahara only nods, unblinking, and jots down a series of quick notes on his clipboard.

 

Next comes the waiting. “Try not to stray too far from the hospital,” Urahara tells him, and once the bustle of activity around Byakuya’s bedside drives him off, Renji makes a place for himself in a quiet, familiar waiting room not far from the emergency ward. Seike comes over from the manor, bringing tea service and a grim-faced Rukia, already out of uniform, a warm jacket thrown over what looks like her bedclothes. There’s a faint scent of straw lingering about her, and her front is dusted with fine white hair - enough to tell Renji that whatever else still lies between them, the rabbits have not yet been disposed of. But she takes a seat across from him and doesn’t meet his eye, and the hours pass with nothing to break the silence but the occasional scurrying sound of footsteps from an unseen worker outside the room.

 

And they wait.

 

Dawn has nearly broken when the door at last slides open, and they are joined by a familiar face. Yamada Hanatarou dips a polite bow to Renji, then turns to Rukia with and says, “Unohana-taichou sent me to find you. We believe that Kuchiki-taichou is going to recover!”

 

Rukia’s eyes dart up at once. Hanatarou beams back at her and adds, “You’re welcome to come and see him now, if you like.”

 

Both are too tired and excited to be fully on top of their manners, and it’s probably for the best that neither of them witness the fleeting sigh of relief that passes Renji’s lips as they hurry ahead of him out the door. He follows at his own pace, which is slow and calm and perfectly deliberate, and it isn’t even about his image any more. It’s about the powerful superstitious feeling that tells him he mustn’t rush, mustn’t show too much excitement yet, or else the hope he has now will be snatched away from him. But when he makes it to Byakuya’s room, it’s exactly as Hanatarou said: Byakuya still lies there as motionless and as faded as ever, but there’s a faint tinge of colour back in his waxy cheeks and, more to the point, he is breathing independently again. The ventilator has been removed, and wheeled off to the side of the room to make room for Rukia to drop down by the bed and cradle her brother’s hand in her own.

 

“He should be able to wake before terribly long,” comes a singsong voice from the corner of the room. Urahara is propped against the wall, closed fan tapping out a tight rhythm against his opposite wrist. One corner of his mouth is turned up a fraction, and the picture it makes with his half-hidden eyes and stupid hat is disconcerting, but right now he is one of the most welcome sights Renji has ever seen.

 

“What was it? What did you do?” he asks, and Urahara just smiles wider and dips his head as if in modesty.

 

“It was his reiryoku causing the problem. With no offense meant, Abarai-san, Kuchiki-taichou has a bit more of it than you, and it was putting all sorts of strain on your body. Am I right in guessing that he was training quite heavily, before he was admitted here?”

 

Urahara is speaking as though it’s all perfectly simple, but Renji doesn’t understand. Everything has happened so fast. Byakuya was literally on death’s door when he saw him last, and now his chest is rising and falling evenly and there’s faint but unmistakeable life in him again. “He trained regularly, yes,” he says, casting a sidewards glance at Unohana, who is standing by the window looking on at them with polite attentiveness. She just nods, encouraging him on. “We always trained together, though, and he never used much reiatsu. It was mainly simple drills, light sparring, nothing overly strenuous.”

 

“Naturally,” says Urahara, flicking his fan open and using it to wave dismissively, as if he knows all the hows and whys of this already. “I don’t mean to suggest that your training sessions caused the problem, although they may have sped it up quite a bit. Do you remember your first year at the academy, when you were taught the basics of reiryoku control?” Renji frowns - something drops into place in his mind - and Urahara smiles encouragement. “You’ve understood it, I see. Whether it is in use or not, the full power of a person’s spirit is always contained within their body. The process of containing high-level reiryoku places almost as much demand on the body as exerting it in the form of reiatsu. Your body is accustomed to your own reiryoku, and can hold it virtually without effort. Being filled with reiryoku stronger than yours, on the other hand, requires much the same exertion of strength it would take to stand against that person’s reiatsu in a fight. And since the pressure is constant, and internal...well, it’s no surprise your body has been shutting down. If the power gap between the two of you had not been so  narrow, I shudder to think what would have happened.”

 

Urahara is clearly in his element, and he caps his speech with a theatrical shudder and looks about the room expectantly, waiting for his audience to process this explanation. Unohana looks as serene as ever; Rukia is frowning, puzzled; Renji blinks twice and says, “How did you cure him, then?”

 

“Oh, I’m afraid he’s not cured yet,” trills Urahara. “He won’t be cured until he’s back in his own body, which I plan to arrange for very shortly. But in the meantime, just to take the pressure off…” He steps up to the bed and flips open Byakuya's hospital kimono with the edge of his fan. Underneath his collarbone, nestled amid all the other tattoos there, is a new mark: a small camellia, dark against his sickly pale skin.

 

“A simple limiter ought to keep the strain off that borrowed body of his,” Urahara finishes with a flourish.

 

And apparently, that’s all there is to it.

 

Byakuya begins to stir not long after. His eyes are still closed, but he is moving more: first he starts to twitch his fingers in Rukia’s grasp, then his lips start to part around unspoken words, and then he turns his head on the pillow and says something, some indiscernible string of sounds that make Rukia’s eyes light up hopefully.

 

And after a whole night of sitting up in the waiting room, choking on anxiety and desperately hoping for Byakuya’s recovery, all of a sudden Renji doesn’t think he can bear to see him. He excuses himself, and wanders back out through the empty halls of the fourth division until he reaches a quiet courtyard, where he can see the first fingers of dawn sunlight plucking at the edges of the darkened sky. Urahara’s words are still ringing in his ears and they’re different from Unohana’s, or Kurotsuchi’s: they’re a promise, not an idle reassurance. The whole ordeal is coming to a close; he can feel it. Urahara will find the solution and then Renji be back in his old body, back in his old life, and there is no earthly reason why that thought should bring him anything other than joyful relief.

 

No reason that he should feel nauseous, even panicked, just thinking about it.

 

Something has changed inside Renji. Perhaps it is to be expected; perhaps you simply cannot spend so long living another person’s life without being touched by it. The truth is that Kuchiki Byakuya’s life is a mess, in ways Renji had never before imagined, and he despises Byakuya a little bit for concealing such dark, ugly chaos beneath his eternal outward calm. Renji is not sure if he can justify turning this life, this much power and influence, back over to someone so patently ill-equipped to handle it; not sure if he himself is ready to let it all slip from his grasp, having felt it for himself. Not sure he can stand to watch Byakuya walk away with the life he has become so familiar with, to know what he is thinking and no longer be able to think it for him.

 

It is comfortable out here, with the cool morning air stirring gently around him and the waking chirp of birds spilling in from beyond the division walls. He does not want to go back inside and risk facing a conscious Byakuya. Does not want to leave the hospital and risk seeing his friends, those strange men with their brusque manners and their insistence on calling him by his given name and their refusal to respect privacy or boundaries. Does not want to stay here and risk being found by the others, with their unwelcome insight and their empty reassurances. Does not want to look inside himself, where he can still hear the rumbling, growing ever louder now, of the strange and familiar soul that paces through his inner world and waits for his acknowledgement.

 

Lost in thought, he hardly registers Rukia’s approach. It must be something powerful that has motivated her to leave her brother’s bedside at a time like this, but she shows no sign of reluctance. Her footsteps are soft, almost silent, and she pads out to where he stands and reaches out a cautious hand to settle on his arm.

 

“You don’t know what to think anymore, do you?” she asks quietly, and he doesn’t bother to cast her hand off, doesn’t bother to step away because there is no longer any comfort in distance.

 

“I need this to be over, Renji,” she whispers. “You don’t realise the toll you’ve been taking.”

 

He does realise, though. “It will be no different if we switch back,” he says, and finds his voice hoarse and curiously strained. He doesn’t know if she fully understands, that nothing has really changed since he took on this body - that Rukia still has the same brother she has always had, except she calls him now by a different and a less respectful name.

 

But Rukia just shakes her head. “It will be completely different,” she says. “You’re not actually Nii-sama, Renji. You look like him and perhaps you think like him now but you’re not him, not really. His thoughts, his manners...they just don’t suit you the same way.”

 

“They suit me well enough,” says Renji, a little stung despite himself. It’s not as though this has been easy for him, he wants to tell her - he’s had to work hard, and surely she can appreciate that he’s lasted as well as he has. But Rukia just shakes her head, and there’s a desperate sadness behind the mask of her expression.

 

Her grip on his arm is tightening a little, encouraging him gently back towards the door. “Urahara needs you for a few more tests,” she says. “He thinks he’s close to finding a solution. Will you come?” He looks down at her; her gaze is firm, and doesn’t waver. “I need this to be over,” she says again.

 

And even if there’s nothing else left that Renji truly understands, he can understand this. This is duty, he realises - this is family. In the end, it doesn’t matter what he feels about it. What matters is that things are put back the way they are supposed to be, which means that he must hold his head high and nod once, proud in his resignation, and allow Rukia to guide him back to where he is needed.

 

-

 

There’s no other word for it: Byakuya’s awakening is simply awkward.

 

“Taichou!” he says, once he has detached himself from Rukia’s frantic inspection. And then, “Wait, no.” Then he sits and frowns down at his own hands for several very long seconds before looking back up and saying, “Renji?” in a tone of unconcealed skepticism.

 

Renji has already used up all his relief, in first receiving the news that Byakuya was going to make it through. He has used up all his remaining affection in agreeing to stay here and greet him on waking, despite his near-overpowering urge to be wholly and conspicuously elsewhere. All he has left now is irritation, and this he puts to good use: looking coolly into Byakuya’s wide, clueless eyes, he can muster up only a faint sort of contempt for the painful vulnerability and confusion radiating from a man he’s sure he used to find intimidating.

 

“How do you feel?” he asks, trying to make it clear from his manner that the answer doesn’t really interest him.

 

His subtle cues in body language are apparently lost on Byakuya, though, who blinks up sluggishly at him and says, “Fine, I think. Hazy. I don’t really remember much. Uh...how long have I been here?”

 

Long enough to addle your senses, Renji wants to say. He is not in the mood to deal with this, on top of everything else that’s going on, but he keeps his expression impassive and answers: “Several weeks, now. You were found unconscious in your own bed one morning and brought here for emergency treatment.”

 

Enough of Renji’s ill temper must be bleeding through into his voice, because the look Rukia gives him is sharp and disapproving. “Please don’t mind him, Nii-sama,” she says. “He’s been having a bit of an identity crisis.”

 

“Really?” says Byakuya in a tone of polite interest. “That must be awfully unpleasant for him.” And that’s when Renji decides that no, it really isn’t just his bad mood speaking, and Byakuya’s mind really isn’t all there yet. Even his accent is scrambled, stuck on a very strange note halfway between crisp propriety and clumsy Rukongai drawl. His eyes, when they turn back to Renji, are glazed.

 

Unohana seems to be reaching much the same conclusion. She was keeping to the side of the room so as not to interrupt the family reunion, but steps forward now and catches Rukia’s eye with a kind smile. “We must let Kuchiki-taichou get some rest,” she says, then turns to Byakuya and adds: “Please do not let anxiety get the better of you, Kuchiki-taichou. I am sure you have many questions, and they will all be answered in due course. For now, though, I need you to focus on recovering your strength.” And it’s a mark of Byakuya’s unwellness that he raises no protest, just eases himself obediently back down onto his pillow and allows his eyes to drift shut.

 

“His lingering symptoms are psychological,” she tells Renji and Rukia, once they are all out in the corridor. “His body is healing more quickly than expected, but it may take some time for him to adjust to his present condition. Remember, his soul and body were not yet fully integrated when he fell ill. The integration difficulties can only have been exaggerated by his long period of unconsciousness.”

 

“There is no need to worry about ‘integration’ any more,” comes a voice from the end of the hall. Urahara is strolling towards them, cane clacking jauntily against the floorboards with every step he takes; his hat sits atop his head at a higher angle than usual, exposing more of his face.  Something clenches painfully in Renji’s stomach and somehow, he knows that this is it. “I believe I have the solution,” Urahara goes on, stopping before them and beaming. “If all goes well, we can begin the body reassignment as soon as Kuchiki-taichou is strong enough to be moved down the hall.”

 

“That can be arranged,” says Unohana-taichou, at the same moment that Rukia bursts out, “How did you do it?”

 

Urahara waves a theatrically modest hand in front of his face. “I haven’t done it yet,” he protests. “The theory is worth nothing until I have successfully completed the transfer. But,” he adds, raising one finger as Rukia opens her mouth again, “since you ask: I have made several key modifications to the technology that allows for the creation of mod souls. Specifically, I have isolated the function which allows the artificial soul to transfer between vacant bodies, and I believe -” he lays a delicate, slightly worrying stress on the word - “that a similar process can be used to extract the souls of our two gentleman here from their present bodies and place them back in the right ones.”

 

Rukia’s eyes light up at this. But Unohana frowns, and she seems to consider these words carefully for a moment before saying, “Kurotsuchi-taichou and I experimented extensively with mod soul technology in our own investigations. We were unable to find any satisfactory difference in matter composition between the inner soul and its outer casing - its body,” she adds helpfully, catching Renji and Rukia’s perplexed expressions.

 

“I understand,” says Urahara, which is a relief because Renji most certainly doesn’t. “Technically,” he adds for the benefit of his bewildered audience, “mod soul technology relies on the fact that human bodies exist as discrete enclosures for the souls that reside in them. Shinigami are already souls, and so this outer enclosure - the ‘body’, as we would call it - is ordinarily seen as an attached part of the soul itself.”

 

“But clearly that is not the case here,” Unohana prompts him politely. Her expression is mild, but her eyes are bright and deeply focused.

 

Urahara bows his head. “Perceptive as always, Unohana-taichou.” He turns towards her now, ignoring his less astute listeners as he returns to the main issue of his scientific discovery. “In my analysis, I was able to detect a very thin, continuous fracture in the fabric of both souls. I cannot definitively prove that this fracture marks the line between outer body and inner soul, but both fractures follow the same pattern, and I have not been able to find similar injuries in the other whole, undisturbed souls I have examined for comparison.” He waves hand and fan expressively while talking, and it’s evident that this is the main source of his cheerfulness.

 

Unohana nods, her eyes lighting up as though they’ve finally reached an understanding. It all sounds persuasive enough to Renji, although he doesn’t want to think too hard about what ‘fractures’ in his soul must look like. “Have you found out what caused the damage?” he asks, and Urahara turns back to face him, fan closing and disappearing up his sleeve with a swift flick of his wrist.

 

“One step at a time,” he says, tipping the brim of his hat back down. “My only theories so far are very imprecise - according to everything I know about the soul transfer process, this shouldn’t even have been possible. I intend to figure out how it happened, but it may take me a while longer yet.” This thought seems to rally him a little.“Kurotsuchi-taichou has generously ceded to me his temporary laboratory here in the fourth division, where I will have ample space and resources to pursue the answer for as long as necessary.” His smile is perhaps a trifle smug; Renji cannot imagine that Kurotsuchi is pleased with any of this.

 

“For now,” says Unohana, “I suggest that we all put our faith in the discovery Urahara-san has made. The sooner we have Kuchiki-taichou restored to his proper body, the less damage will be done to both of you.”

 

Unohana’s vote of confidence is enough to dispel the last of Renji and Rukia’s lingering doubts. And in the end, none of them can find any good reason for delaying any longer; they return to Byakuya’s room only shortly after to find him sitting up again, no longer confused and vulnerable but calm, collected, ready to listen to Urahara’s repeat explanation with attentive ears and an unreadable expression.

 

“A few last details to fill you in on before we can commence the transfer,” Urahara says, once Byakuya has been advised of the procedure and given his consent with a prompt, decisive nod. Urahara helps himself to a seat at the end of Byakuya’s bed; Byakuya looks annoyed at the presumption, but shifts his legs over to the side to make room for him. It’s eerie, Renji thinks...when he first woke Byakuya couldn’t even remember his own name, but looking at him now is like looking into a mirror. He’s back in control now, all fuzziness gone from his expression, and apparently ‘control’ means exactly what it has always meant for him - even in Renji’s body he somehow contrives to look just like himself, and the eyes he fixes on Urahara now are stern and keenly perceptive. Get on with it, that look seems to say. There is no fear, no uncertainty, no hesitation in his gaze.

 

And it stings, because even now Renji is still hesitating. Even now he feels as though he’s trembling inside, held in place only by his sense of duty and the shame he would feel if the others saw him waver. He doesn’t want to go through with this. He doesn’t want to know what’s going to happen to him when he steps back inside that body Byakuya has come to wear so well, and has to rise and face a life that feels further from him now than Byakuya’s ever did. And when his eyes lock briefly with Byakuya’s, something in that hard gaze seems to soften. A flicker of understanding passes between them, and Byakuya casts him the faintest shadow of a reassuring smile before turning back to the others. And, tossing aside his stoic demeanour as easily as he put it on, he sinks back against his pillow and does what he has always done so well: he makes room for Renji to save face.

 

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he tells Urahara, “but there’s so much to take in already. Give me a few minutes...and perhaps some privacy.”

 

“Of course!” If Urahara is surprised by Byakuya’s sudden shift from impatience to exhaustion, he makes no sign of it, but rises promptly from the bed and heads for the door, gesturing for the others to follow him. “Take your time, and call for us when you’re ready to recommence.” And Renji feels relief pour through him as he realises he’s been given one final chance at finding closure.

 

“Let’s not stray too far from the room,” says Urahara, once they’ve closed the door behind them, cane swinging in front of Renji’s legs. “Kuchiki-taichou looks healthier by the minute - he’s bound to be ready again before too long.” Renji nods along and pretends to acquiesce, but it’s surprisingly easy to slip away from the rest of the group on the pretext of ‘getting a few things ready for Byakuya’s return’. Once he’s free he has no idea where he wants to go, but his feet make the decision for him - back to the manor, back to the garden where he so often trained, where he sinks down onto the lawn and allows his eyes to drift closed.

 

And his inner world rushes to meet him, as easy as breathing.

 

Everything is exactly as he left it. Overhead, the red moon stands out luminous against the dark sky; from the ground an ancient, rotting tree stretches upwards, beckoning him in with its skeletal fingers. A faint breeze has picked up, carrying with it the scent of decaying wood and something else...something dreamy, something alive, like the scent of spring blossoms and the faintest whiff of early morning rain. And the wind carries something else too: a voice, echoing all around him, though he cannot find its source. “I have waited a long time for you,” the voice says. “You have been avoiding me.” It’s not a reproach, exactly. Just an observation, cool and calm and indifferent, cutting through his mind like the sharp edge of a blade.

 

“I have been,” answers Renji, because he’s done withholding such simple truths from himself. “I was frightened of you - but I’m not, any more. And I wanted to see you once, before I leave.”

 

The sound that follows is like a chuckle. “Pleased to meet you,” the voice says primly, though it doesn’t sound it at all. “If you really wish to meet me, you must come closer. Come. Approach the tree. It will not harm you.”

 

Renji hesitates. He dimly remembers the warning he received, once, from another who stood here - an ill-omened creature, a demon, standing fierce and protective before the tree’s trunk and growling, “You are not welcome here.” But things have changed now. And they only continue to change as he steps forward: the world around him begins to shimmer and blur, and a strange rushing feeling passes over him. Colour is bleeding into the sky, and the red glow of the moon is giving way to a blood-tinged dawn; a new energy is crackling about him in the air and he can feel grass beneath his feet, can smell the strong perfume of cherry blossoms in the air. He falters, and the tree crooks its fingers as though to call him in closer. “Come,” says the bodiless voice. “You wish to leave without first knowing me?”

 

There’s danger in that voice, now. It no longer sounds disinterested - it is urgent, almost desperate. Renji’s heart falters, but his feet are moving on their own, carrying him closer still until he’s near enough to touch the trunk of the tree. “Hold out your hand,” says the voice, and Renji cannot fight the impulse that bids him to obey. He stretches out his hand and meets, not rotting wood, but the strong, clean bark of a healthy and flourishing tree; he looks up and there are cherry blossoms blooming overhead, white, innumerable, showering gently down on him with every sway of the tree’s supple branches in the breeze.

 

“Is this...are you Senbonzakura?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper of air through astonished lips. “Where are you?” But there’s no answer this time. Falling petals caress his cheeks, and the dawn light spills around him like a warm blanket. He looks up through the thick cover of the branches and he can make out...something, up in the sky, high above him. Its wings are spread wide, and the light refracts off it like a diamond. It draws no closer but it hovers overhead, soaring on currents he cannot reach.

 

Of course, he thinks dimly. They will not meet today, after all - there’s no time left for that. But it doesn’t matter, because Renji has seen what he needed to. A gentle sigh of relief passes his lips, and he allows his knees to fold beneath him. Here, on the ground at the base of the tree, he can just pick out the last lingering wisps of that rotten-wood scent that has become so familiar; he breathes deeply and drinks it in, and feels the musky strength of it infuse his bones.

 

And he finds he is no longer afraid.

 

-

 

The actual transfer process happens so fast that Renji barely has time to follow. Urahara has them both sit down on Byakuya’s bed and advances on them with a strange new contraption that makes the whole world go dark for a minute; there’s a rushing sound, a lurching sense of movement, and then the world screeches to a halt and everything - sight, touch, sound, taste - returns to Renji with a slamming force that knocks him flat on his back on the bed.

 

And as he pushes himself back up, a matted strand of red falls before his eyes and he knows that it is over.

 

“Did it...work?” Rukia’s voice is tremulous, and there’s another voice that answers her now, steady, calming, and more authoritative than it has any right to be.

 

“It worked,” says the voice.

 

Renji drags himself back up to a sitting position. Opens his eyes, and then he’s staring back at an awfully familiar face: it’s Byakuya, Byakuya as he should be, with straight shoulders and a proud face and steely grey eyes that look tired, confused, but mostly just relieved. “Renji?” Byakuya prompts, and for a split second Renji wonders if it’s really too late, if he can’t just reach out and snatch back what Urahara’s spinning device has taken from him. If he really, truly has to go through with this.

 

“Yes,” he says instead, his voice calm and steady and...jarringly wrong, and the words that form in his head are nothing like the sounds coming from his mouth. “Yes, it worked.” In the silence afforded by the collective sigh of relief that passes around the room, he pulls his hands into his lap and stares down at them - clumsy, thick-fingered, oddly shaped and distressingly unfamiliar. There’s no elegance in these hands, no precision, no refinement. Even the balance of their strength has changed.

 

What use to him are crude tools like these?

 

They are not crude. From the back of his mind comes a low, guttural growl, and the sound reverberates through him like a thunderclap. There’s something ominous about it - malicious, alien, frightening - but his panic is separate from him, somehow, and with iron self-discipline he checks his rising pulse and scours the inside of his head for the source of the growling.

 

Have you forgotten us so soon? This time the sound is a cutting hiss, and it’s closer now than it was before. You will remember. Of course your hands are weak, when they do not grasp our hilt.

 

“...and if there are any further complications, please feel free to come to me immediately.” Renji realises that Urahara has been talking, and the realisation breaks the spell in his mind: the growling and hissing recede immediately, and he is alone in his head with nothing but his own thoughts for company and nothing left to do but follow the others - Rukia, Unohana, Byakuya - as they thank Urahara and turn to take their leave. But at least now, once he can extract himself from the group, he knows where he will be going.

 

These clumsy hands of his will need intensive training, if they are to recover their old strength.