Chapter 7: Little Snake

(Another for Gin's birthday month!)

"You are quiet, Gin," Aizen observed, "You look distracted. Are you still thinking about that young man? Kuchiki Tetsuya?"

Gin felt a little shiver pass through his insides.

"You know him?" he asked, frowning, "You never mentioned a Kuchiki Tetsuya to me while we were comrades."

Aizen gave him a chilling smile.

"There is a lot that I chose not to discuss with you back then."

"You were good at keeping secrets," Gin remembered.

"Some of them," Aizen agreed, turning them away from the Seireitei and pausing.

"Will you open a garganta? I do not want to advertise either that I have escaped or that I am not yet at full strength."

He grabbed Gin's arm roughly, glaring into his eyes meaningfully.

"I am still strong enough to kill you if you do anything to interfere with me. I do not need my full powers to be dangerous to you…or anyone else I target."

"A barely veiled threat," Gin said, his frown deepening, "You will kill Tetsuya if I do not cooperate. What you do not say is that you are going to kill us both, even if I do. If you want me to be motivated to help you, then you are going to have to give me some reassurance that you won't hurt Tetsuya or me. I can't imagine how you will do that. Remember, I know you. I know how you operate."

Aizen's smile grew into a wicked grin.

"It doesn't matter what you know and it doesn't matter if you trust me. You have no choice but to assist me or you and Tetsuya can die right now."

"Now, if that was true, then why would you have looked for me to begin with?" Gin said, smirking slightly, "There is a reason you came after me, a reason that you thought I was needed to fix the hougyoku. Start talking, or I will just put you in a position where you'll be required to carry out your threat and I sense that's not exactly what you want."

A flare of excitement lit Aizen's brown eyes and he moved closer to Gin to whisper in his ear.

"You are astute, as usual, my little snake. But…you need to understand, you are in no position to thwart my wishes. In fact, you are in the palm of my hand right now."

"What are you talking about?" Gin asked, his frown deepening, "Do you just mean that I am your captive?"

"You are my slave," Aizen hissed softly, kissing the silver-haired man's earlobe, "You will do what I say because…Kuchiki Tetsuya…is pregnant."

Gin's eyes opened and rotated to meet Aizen's in surprise.

"He…?"

"I happened to indulge in some studies that were of a sort that wasn't appropriate for a Seireitei laboratory, early on in my preparations," Aizen explained, "And while I was conducting some experiments on the inhabitants of Itamigiri…"

"You were there? When Tetsuya…?"

"I was there and actually ran a number of studies and experiments on Kuchiki Tetsuya," Aizen confessed, "I was fascinated, because breeder males are extremely rare, and they have characteristics that could be useful. I paid a guard on the inside of the prison to watch out for Tetsuya, to make sure he survived, and to kill Kuchiki Orochi when Byakuya finally carried through on his plans to storm the prison and rescue the prisoners."

"You…" Gin whispered in a shocked tone.

"It seems that the guard was not careful enough and he was killed by Orochi during the escape. Byakuya retrieved Kuchiki Tetsuya, and nursed him back to health. He remains a source of interest to me, and I suppose I could let him live and join us. But, if you do not help me to restore the hougyoku, I will make sure that both Tetsuya and your developing child die by my hand, and in front of you, before I deprive you of your wretched life."

Gin stared back at him silently for several long moments.

"You are still the monster I remember," he managed finally.

"And you are still the nasty little serpent I need to get what I want," Aizen added, "You know, you and I can both get what we need, Gin. All you must do is to follow my instructions to the letter and your interests and mine will be protected."

No way is he going to let Tetsuya, me or the baby live, Gin mused inwardly, But some part of me still stupidly wants to believe I can beat him. I should have learned before. I can't beat a god. So, I have to find a way to destroy the hougyoku. It's damaged. Maybe, just maybe there is a way to shatter it completely!

"What is your decision, Gin?" Aizen asked calmly, his reiatsu flickering warningly.

Too bad I'm the only one he's not hiding it from.

Gin shuddered very slightly and his head bowed. Aizen gave him a surprised look.

"Capitulation so soon," the traitor mused, "Why Gin, you must truly care for that young man."

Gin gave him a look of pure hatred.

"If anything happens to Tetsuya or our child…" he began.

"Now Gin," Aizen said warningly, "you don't want to issue a threat like that. We both know there is nothing you can do to defeat me. I think I made myself clear before."

"You mean when you meant to kill me and I lived?" Gin said saucily, earning a scathing look from Aizen, "I think your position's not as strong as you say, but don't worry. I'll help you. I want Tetsuya and my baby to live. If that means I have to help you, I'll do it."

"A prudent choice," Aizen said dryly, his dark eyes promising death, "Now then, come with me."

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya sat quietly on the back of his paint stallion, with Tetsuya seated in front of him and their eyes combing the area around them for signs of Gin or Aizen's recent passage. Ichigo walked alongside the spirit steed, his eyes wary as he scanned the trees and brush they passed. Kuri and Renji scouted in a wider circle around them as the group moved forward together. As they reached the top of a small rise, Tetsuya made a little sound of surprise and worry.

"What is it, watashi no itoko?" Byakuya asked quickly, "Did you sense him?"

"Yes," Tetsuya affirmed, sliding down off his cousin's horse and closing his eyes as he drew a slow breath, focusing carefully on the faint trail of reiatsu, "They were here."

Byakuya dismounted and carefully studied the ground and the reiatsu traces in the air.

"There are no signs of struggle, nor do I sense any hint that a struggle was concealed."

"But then, we are speaking about Aizen Sousuke," Tetsuya reminded him, "He could have hidden something with his illusions."

"Well, there's something he didn't hide," Ichigo said, moving to Byakuya's side, "You know I have an inner hollow. He's sensing the recent opening of a garganta here."

"They've gone back to Hueco Mundo," Byakuya concluded, "I suppose it makes sense. It was Aizen's seat of power, and he would have made sure that there were places for him to go and supplies he would need, in case his plans failed."

"Huh," Ichigo huffed, frowning, "I don't know. That guy was so damned cocky, do you really think he would have felt the need to have backup plans like that?"

"It is hard to say," Byakuya concluded, "However, knowing that he slipped into Hueco Mundo, we must try to follow him and determine what his plans are."

Tetsuya gave him a guarded look that made Ichigo frown curiously.

"What is it? Something's up, isn't it? What's going on?" he asked.

Byakuya received a momentary respite from answering as Renji and Kuri emerged from the trees and joined them on the rise.

"Did you find anything?" the noble asked quickly.

"Nothing," Renji reported.

"Nada," Kuri agreed, "They didn't leave this hilltop on foot."

Byakuya nodded.

"Ichigo sensed a garganta has been recently opened here," he informed the others.

"Who's up for a trip to the hollow world?" Ichigo said, narrowing his eyes.

The shinigami substitute noticed immediately that the looks Renji and Kuri exchanged seemed to mirror the ones that he had seen Tetsuya and Byakuya wearing earlier.

"What is it with you guys?" he asked, scowling, "We are going after them, right?"

"It isn't such an easy decision for my cousin and his fukutaichou and our friend, Shima taichou," Tetsuya cautioned him.

"What do you mean? Why?" Ichigo demanded, "Aizen's a monster, and he's forced the guy you just married to go with him. Shouldn't stopping him be a pretty big priority?"

"It is," Byakuya assured him, "However, the situation is more complicated."

"It's not complicated!" Ichigo argued, "Aizen's gonna get stronger and harder to beat the longer we let him run around free. And he must have a plan in mind if he's gone to the trouble of capturing Gin, right?"

"He is correct about that, Byakurai," Kuri agreed, "That does suggest an urgency that could give us a precedent for not immediately returning to make our report."

"What's the hurry to make a damned report?" Ichigo complained, "Shouldn't it be more important to keep track of Aizen's movements?"

"That is important," Byakuya assured him, "and we will do that."

"But what we're all worried about has to do with orders we have to follow about the situation we're in," Renji added.

"Oh my god, please don't tell me that all of you are gonna start preaching to me about rules and regulations," snapped Ichigo, "Gin's been kidnapped and Aizen's about to start some sinister crap. If we sit around talking about the rules we've gotta follow, he's going to get away!"

"Ichigo," Byakuya said sternly, his tone making the agitated ginger glare at him warningly, "I assure you, we all want to see Aizen stopped and returned to Muken. We are also motivated by the fact that Tetsuya is going to need infusions of reiatsu to keep his own and the baby's in balance. Those infusions can be managed by others to an extent, but the risks involved are substantially decreased when the infusions are given by the father of the child."

"So, if that's true, then why aren't we already going after Aizen?" Ichigo asked impatiently.

"It's not because we don't want to," Renji explained, "Look, the rules about an escaped felon who has committed treason and escaped Muken require that we immediately notify Kyouraku Soutaichou about Aizen's escape and turn any important witnesses over to Squad One."

"That's a problem," Kuri added, "because as he married Ichimaru Gin, even unwittingly, Tetsu-hana is a material witness."

"And as soon as I am given into Kyouraku Soutaichou's hands, he will have me fully debriefed and examined," Tetsuya continued, "They will learn of my pregnancy. And as soon as they learn that I was impregnated by a man convicted of treason and thought dead, they will be required to report it to Central 46, who will order the pregnancy terminated."

Ichigo's breath caught as Tetsuya's eyes filled with tears.

"I know that Ichimaru Gin committed several terrible crimes," Tetsuya reasoned, "and given that he almost killed both Byakuya-sama and Rukia-chan, I should feel nothing for him! But…I was with him and he was nothing like the man he used to be. He was kind and he took care of me when he could have just walked away and left me to die. He never asked me for anything! And even if it wasn't for that, the child I am carrying is not just his. This child is a part of me! I can't let them take my baby. I can't!"

"And I won't let them, Tetsuya. I promise you," Ichigo said fervently.

"But to protect Tetsu-hana and his child, we must make sure that we move carefully," Kuri said sternly, "The rules do say that we should have two of us stay here to pursue Aizen and the others should return to the Seireitei to make a personal report and to turn Tetsu-hana over to Squad One for debriefing, but…"

"The fact that Aizen found Gin, a man he once tried to kill and who tried to kill him, and he took Gin to the former seat of his power…" Byakuya mused, "That could be just enough precedent to send a hell butterfly with a report of a volatile situation, and a claim that the witness we've collected is needed to help us retrieve Aizen."

"The catch," said Renji, "is that we need to actually catch Aizen before we go back. As long as Aizen has Gin, and he is on the loose, Tetsuya is vulnerable."

"Then, what are you waiting for?" Ichigo asked again, his eyes determined, "Send the hell butterfly and let's get going before Shunsui figures out we're up to something!"

Byakuya gave the ginger-haired man a piqued look, but quickly breathed a message to a hell butterfly, then nodded to the others.

"We need to leave now," he said firmly, "We must cross into Hueco Mundo before Soutaichou reads the message and may question it."

"I've got this," Ichigo chuckled, extending a hand and letting the hollow inside him rise to the surface, making his eyes glow bright golden.

The shinigamis watched appreciatively as the black rift formed, making a tearing sound as it opened the way into Hueco Mundo. Tetsuya mounted Ikazuchi and led the way into the dark corridor with Renji and Kuri at his side. Byakuya held back slightly, waiting as Ichigo passed through and closed the garganta behind them. He waited until the younger man's eyes had returned to their normal golden brown to speak.

"Ichigo."

Ichigo turned curious eyes on the noble.

"I want to thank you," Byakuya said sincerely, "I know that our adherence to the rules does not sit well with you sometimes. I hope you also know that I care very much for my cousin and I am relieved that there is a way to protect him…but…even if there wasn't…"

Byakuya broke off for a moment, unsure about how to continue. Ichigo gave him a more gentle smile.

"I know. You would've followed the orders, but you would've also given me a chance to protect Tetsuya like you want to. I've seen you do that before…look away at the right time…allow something to escape you."

"I cannot always act on my emotions as you do," the noble continued, "but you seem to understand where my heart is."

Ichigo's smile warmed meltingly, making Byakuya's heart pound strangely and sending a bright flush roaring over his face. He felt Ichigo's hand touch his very lightly and, for a moment, he lost all power to move.

"You know?" Ichigo breathed into his ear, "You're really something, Byakuya. You're not like anyone else I know. Sometimes I wanna kill you, but times like right now? I wanna…"

Byakuya remained frozen in place as the ginger-haired man brushed warm lips against his.

"S-sorry," Ichigo managed, starting to pull away.

He made a sound of surprise as Byakuya's hands took hold of him and the noble's soft, hungry lips impacted heatedly with his. It was several minutes before the two could separate themselves and, when they did, they noticed the others standing in the distance, waiting with their eyes carefully averted.

"I know you said we should wait for our first real date," Ichigo chuckled, "I just…"

He was made forcefully silent as Byakuya weakened his knees with a mind-numbingly beautiful kiss, then released him and watched as he nearly collapsed before recovering himself.

"I do not need a first date or any other excuse to kiss you, Kurosaki Ichigo," Byakuya said warmly, "I apologize for not seeming more receptive before, but I was not sure if you were sincerely interested in me or if it was just that you were still dizzy and out of your mind."

Ichigo giggled in spite of himself.

"What do you think now?" he asked, smirking.

He pulled Byakuya into another seething kiss before the spellbound noble could answer. Byakuya reeled at how Ichigo's kisses made everything else disappear and the truth tumble off of his lips before he could stop it.

"I think I am falling in love with you."

Ichigo hugged him tightly and gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek.

"Was that so hard to admit?" he snickered, "You know how you've gotten to me."

"Yes, you are increasingly more giddy by the moment. But…we do need to stop this and focus on the search for Aizen Sousuke."

"Yeah," Ichigo agreed in a regretful tone, "Just…promise me that when this is all over, you'll really go out with me and we'll kiss some more, okay?"

Byakuya gave him a smoky look of challenge.

"I suppose that depends on how well you keep your promises to protect my cousin and his child."

Ichigo's eyes lost their levity and met Byakuya's squarely.

"I will protect Tetsuya and his baby with my life…just like I'll always protect you."