Chapter 17: The Blood Rage of Tenrai Kougi

"Ah, Byakuya, I was beginning to grow concerned," Aizen says as I step into the training room, "Look, we have guests."

I turn my eyes in the direction Aizen indicates and catch my breath softly. Renji, Rikichi, and Yoruichi stand off to the side of the training grounds. As far as I can see, they appear to be free of restraints and in possession of their weapons. I turn back toward Aizen and notice that he is flanked by Ichimaru Gin, who is being restrained by two hollow. Aizen follows my gaze and smiles.

"In case, for some reason, I am unable to do so later, I want to make sure that Gin receives due punishment from me for disobeying my orders and violating you while you were my captive, Byakuya."

A chill goes through me as the hollow forces Gin to his knees and bares him to the waist. One of them withdraws a heavy whip with a bladed tip, one that sends a shiver of dark memory up my spine. I recognize this whip. It is, in fact, one Gin used frequently on me. I tremble softly, remembering the stinging blows. I swallow hard and raise my eyes to meet Aizen's.

"Byakuya," he says quietly, "I want you to tell me, to the best of your knowledge, how many times Gin violated my orders. When he has received that number of lashes, tell the hollow to stop."

I am suddenly deeply aware of eyes watching. I wonder now if Gin is the only one Aizen seeks to punish, because I am face to face with Renji and what happened to me is about to become painfully real to him. I keep my eyes lowered as the whip rises and falls. 1…2…3…My heart races, remembering the sting of that whip. 4…5…6…Gin inhales sharply. 7…8…9…Aizen's reiatsu flares and his eyes are deadly now. 10…11…12…Gin is shaking now and a strangled cry escapes him. I can hardly restrain my own 13...14…15…16…I cannot meet Renji's eyes now.

"Stop," I say softly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice suddenly that Renji's hand is gripping Zabimaru, his knuckles white. Rikichi's eyes blaze with disgust. And the fury in Yoruichi's eyes rivals the untamed rage of the sword that burns softly at my hip.

The hollow releases Gin and he gingerly pulls his clothing back into place careful of the cuts on his bloodied back. He climbs to his feet and stands next to the hollow. He does not look at me, but I can feel the hatred from here.

"Now then," Aizen continues calmly, "We each have representatives, Byakuya, supporters who will be witnesses to the duel. Just for the sake of clarity, let's review the agreement."

My heart stops. I keep my eyes lowered as he continues, not wanting to see the damage about to be dealt.

"We will duel until one of us is incapacitated and forced to yield. If I yield to you, Gin and I will return to the Sereitei to face charges and you will execute us. If you yield to me, I will allow you to kill Gin and take his place at my side…"

He pauses and looks directly at Renji.

"And…in my bed," he finishes, turning his eyes back to meet mine.

"You agreed to this, Byakuya?" Renji asks, his voice rough with pain.

My heart breaking for him, I close my eyes and nod.

"I don't think I like this agreement very much," comments Gin, his eyes glinting.

"Shut up," Aizen says sharply, "You lost any recourse when you took him."

Aizen steps forward and draws Kyoka Suigetsu. I take a stance opposite him, drawing Tenrai Kougi. The zanpakuto vibrate softly in anticipation. The room is silent.

"You may begin when you are ready, Byakuya," Aizen says, smiling.

I release my spirit energy and it rises up around us, rumbling through the room. Aizen releases his as well, and the room shakes so hard, it seems as though it must collapse. Flash stepping, I move towards Aizen, slashing. Aizen sword crosses mine, then he begins to release Kyoka Suigetsu. Immediately, I release a blinding burst of kido to protect myself, disrupting his release. Aizen looks surprised at the move, but then smiles.

"Well done, Byakuya," he comments, "but it will take more than that to beat me. Are you going to release that zanpakuto, or are you planning to let me win without a fight?"

I flash step again and slash at Aizen. He turns suddenly and fires a binding spell at me. I nullify it immediately, but I am almost caught by a second blast of kido. I flash step away, releasing another blast of kido and barely escape Aizen's next slash attack. When I flash step away again, I feel blood on my skin. Suddenly, Aizen releases his zanpakuto and the next thing I know, Aizen's zanpakuto slashes my arm. Thankfully, it was not my sword arm, but I can feel that it won't be long before he connects with something deadly. I flash step away, taking another sharp cut and gasping softly. Tenrai Kougi growls impatiently.

"Byakuya, come now," Aizen says softly, "You aren't going to win if you don't go all out. Do try to release that zanpakuto. Otherwise, this will be over in a few minutes."

He is right about that. When I took the Captain's Challenge, I held my trusted zanpakuto and my mind was clear and focused. I could fight with everything inside me, because I felt no fear…but I feel fear rising now. I fear this weapon. I fear that it will fail me…or worse, that it will steal me away from myself. It touches my mind with its impatience and I shiver. When it first came to me, I only felt its power, but now I feel the darkness of its energy closing in on me. Aizen stares at me as though he suddenly understands…and his smile sends a chill down my spine. He knows! He knows and I am about to lose everything! He raises Kyoka Suigetsu.

"Adauchi, Tenrai Kougi."

I do not know how the words escaped me. Aizen gazes curiously…then he steps back uncertainly. He is almost swallowed up by the blast as Tenrai Kougi releases, sending a shock wave that throws even me to my knees. The spirit energy is crushing and if not for the assistance of my forebears, it would crush me as well, but they shield me and I am protected. The others in the room are not. Yoruichi's lightning rises up to shield Renji, Rikichi, and her. Sharp cries rise up all around, and some of them shatter my heart. Tenrai Kougi does not trouble himself to differentiate between friend and foe. Aizen's face pales.

"Kami, Byakuya," he whispers, "just what have you unleashed?"

I stare at him in shock as Tenrai Kougi roars to life, sending black fire streaking towards him. He recovers enough to move out of the way, flash steps towards me, sending a kido blast ahead of him and simultaneously beginning to release Kyoka Suigetsu. It is a combination of moves that would have been devastating were I wielding Senbonzakura because it occurs so swiftly, I cannot respond in time…but I have lost control. My body moves without thought and Tenrai Kougi sends a blast of fire that shatters Aizen's kido attack and stops his release. He is already moving in close, sensing that if he moves out of close range, he is going to die. He engages the zanpakuto at point blank range and metal meets metal. My instincts and battle knowledge are useless now, because Tenrai Kougi moves for me. Aizen is entranced. He looks into my feral eyes and he knows this is no longer me. Strangely, I do not see fear in his eyes. I see something far worse. I see sympathy.

Suddenly, I feel myself stop and my guard drops. My mind screams against this, but the weight of Tenrai Kougi's will overcomes me. Aizen stares in confusion.

"Do you not wish to fight, Sosuke Aizen?" I hear myself say, "We did come here to do battle. Come at me, Sosuke Aizen. You shattered Byakuya…took everything from him. Now you will be the one shattered. Fight now…or I will kill you where you stand!"

Aizen suddenly unleashes a blinding set of attacks that I know would have battered me, and indeed, I feel blood begin to flow as some of his strikes connect, but Aizen is bleeding too, now. I step forward, dizzy with the smell of it. I touch the blood on my blade and bring it to my lips. Tenrai Kougi flares with delight as the coppery taste reaches my senses. I feel myself sinking down beneath the zanpakuto and I realize that I am slowly disappearing. This zanpakuto has stolen me from myself. I am starting to lose consciousness as the blood rage takes over. I sense that if I lose consciousness, I will not survive. No one in this room will survive. That knowledge forces me into action. I step back and force the tip of the zanpakuto to the ground.

"What are you doing?" howls Tenrai Kougi, "Kill him! I have tasted his blood! I must drink it all!"

Aizen stares in surprise at the words that issue from me, but are clearly not my own. He falls back, his brown eyes intense.

"Byakuya, we are not fighting to the death…only until one of us yields. That was our agreement."

A wicked laugh fills the room.

"Fool! I do not fight for dominance. I fight for blood! Once I have tasted it, I must devour all of it!"

Tenrai Kougi rages against me, trying to force me into motion, but I brace myself against him, holding the tip of the zanpakuto down at my feet. It takes all of my power to hold him there and I am taken completely by surprise when a blade pierces my shoulder and I am taken off my feet. Aizen races forward, desperate to finish me, but when he broke my concentration, he allowed Tenrai Kougi to regain control. Despite the damage to my body, I am back on my feet and flash stepping, slashing, connecting and drawing Aizen's blood again. He gasps in surprise. I should not have been able to move so quickly, but the strength that holds me steady is not my own. It does not feel the punishment my body is taking. It will force me to fight until there is nothing left of me. My body moves with blinding speed, taking apart Aizen's attack and tearing into him again. He is still fighting, but his eyes tell me that he knows he cannot win. Tenrai Kougi rises above him and slashes downward with blinding speed. It strikes Kyoka Suigetsu squarely. Golden light explodes, throwing us both to the ground and we hear the shattering of a metal blade. When I can see again, my eyes take in the sight of Sosuke Aizen flash stepping away. He stumbles to a staggering halt and lowers his broken zanpakuto. Gazing into my wicked eyes, he slowly drops to his knees.

"I cannot continue," he says softly, "Byakuya…I yield."

With an effort, I freeze myself in place. I start to lower my weapon, then Tenrai Kougi flares within me, screaming his fury.

"Kill him! Kill him! I thirst for his blood, Byakuya! Kill him!" his voice howls from the blade in my hand.

"I only sought to make him yield," I say, holding the zanpakuto down.

"Idiot!" Tenrai Kougi rages, "What are you doing?"

"He has yielded. There is no need to continue."

"Byakuya, you must kill him. I order it."

"You do not order me," I say calmly, "You were to be used by me to win justice, to see that those who dishonored and violated me would face judgment."

"Fool! When you released my power, did you not hear the word you cried out before my name? You did not cry out for justice, Byakuya Kuchiki, nor did you plead for judgment. When you cried out, the word you used was vengeance. Do you not remember what they did to you? Sosuke Aizen assaulted your mind, taking everything you held dear. He sought to replace them, to leave you dependant on him for what they once gave you. When that failed, he sought to take you against your will. Ichimaru Gin tortured and took your body. Need I remind you what that felt like, Byakuya?"

Suddenly, my mind is inundated with flashes of memory…I begin to shake as I feel again the gentle destruction of my memory and the way Aizen held me afterward, brushing away the tears and comforting me as he took everything away. I feel the pain of strikes upon my body, the spinning of my mind clouded by drugs, Gin's breath on my skin…


I feel Gin tearing away the small amount of clothing I retain, his hands and mouth exploring, his words burning through my fevered mind…


I try to release the weapon, to drop it, but it flares in my hand. The images of my torment spin all around me now. I fall to my knees, but it does not good to cover my eyes or ears, because I cannot escape what is happening.

"Byakuya," Renji's voice says suddenly, "Byakuya, put down your weapon."

He doesn't understand. He doesn't know what it is doing to me. He hears me scream and he knows I am in pain, but he doesn't know its source. Tenrai Kougi flares again, sending the memories crashing against my mind again. I feel Renji's presence at my back and feel his hands wrap around mine.

"Let go," he says softly.

I try to loosen my hands again, but they will not move. I feel the rage of Tenrai Kougi flare and my heart sinks as I feel it rising up.

"Renji!" I gasp, pulling away from him, "Get away!"

He's still holding on to my hands and trying to pull me closer. I pull away and the zanpakuto rises, turning on Renji. His calm eyes meet mine fearlessly.

"Put it down, Byakuya," he says softly, "This fight is over."

He barely manages to draw Zabimaru in time to block my weapon as it swings toward him.

"Byakuya!" cries Yoruichi, "Byakuya, stop!"

She steps forward to Renji's side and is joined by Rikichi. They stare into my eyes, looking for some sign of the person they knew. I hear a strange hissing sound and feel a flash of pain. Looking down, I see Shinzou protruding from my abdomen. It withdraws slowly and I drop to my knees. Yoruichi takes hold of me. Renji roars in fury and flash steps toward Gin. Aizen kneels calmly, watching me. Rikichi flashes by, moving to engage the hollow that have joined Gin in attacking Renji. Yoruichi's hands curve around mine, trying to pull them free of the dark zanpakuto. She is saying something, but my mind is buzzing furiously and blood spills from my abdomen. I taste it in my mouth as well.

"Finish him!" Tenrai Kougi cries out in my mind.

Suddenly, I am on my feet again and tearing away from Yoruichi. Time seems to slow as I close the distance between Aizen and myself. His eyes gaze calmly into mine as I stagger forward, leaving a trail of blood behind me. I reach him and my zanpakuto rises. Aizen doesn't move. The blade descends. There is a clang of metal on metal as Zabimaru stops Tenrai Kougi and Renji grabs me, forcing me to the ground. The spirit energy erupts out of me unchecked. I watch in horror as Renji's face contorts in pain and he is thrown back, a cloud of dust rising as he strikes the ground. He falls still. I see Rikichi holding Gin at bay behind him. I feel Yoruichi approaching and turn as she flash steps to my side. My blade slashes and blood sprays around us. But luckily for us, I haven't actually cut her. It is a cleverly crafted copy…a special flash step that has now twice saved her from my killing rage. She stands in the distance watching as I turn back to Aizen. His eyes meet mine fearlessly.

"Byakuya," he says softly, "I understand what is happening. You have lost control. I do not blame you for your actions. I accept defeat…but I ask you to halt your attack. I am defenseless."

Renji is back on his feet and moving towards me again, his eyes engaging mine. I step back, fearing that Tenrai Kougi will kill him this time. He flash steps and suddenly he is inside my guard and his hands are wrapped around mine again, trying to free them. Tenrai Kougi flares, but this time, I am not alone in my resistance. I feel Renji's reiatsu join mine. The training ground has gone strangely quiet. The hollow are dead and Rikichi holds his zanpakuto at Gin's throat. Aizen stares up at me uncertainly and Yoruichi watches in the distance. I strain against the zanpakuto's attempt to attack Renji. His hands brace mine and his words work their way slowly into my roiling mind.

"Fight it, Byakuya," he whispers in my ear, "Don't let this thing control you anymore. You're hurt and you need healing. You need to put this thing down and let us stop the bleeding. Let go of this blade, Byakuya. Stop, before it's too late."

My body shakes violently as I fight for control. Tenrai Kougi laughs and the spirit energy rages around us. I would be crushed, but Renji shields me now…and I feel the presence of others, of the strongest of the Kuchiki clan, their power joining my own as I am finally calmed enough so that they can link with me. Our power rises and as it does, Tenrai Kougi rails against us. Alone, I would have been crushed, but with the help of my forebears and Renji's calm presence, I finally force the sword's spirit down and seal it into the blade I hold. Tenrai Kougi's maddened scream stays with me, even after the power fades and the blade shatters and turns to ash. I sink into Renji's arms and darkness closes in.

My eyes open and I find myself in a frighteningly familiar room. Bright light pours in from the window, making the white walls gleam. I tremble softly, trying to remember how I got here. This proves impossible and I face a torrent of maddening questions. Why am I here? Where is Renji? Did I lose to Aizen? I thought he yielded, but then I lost consciousness. Did I only dream that he yielded? What really happened?

The door opens and Aizen steps into the room. He is heavily bandaged beneath his shihakushou. I sit up slowly as he approaches and sits down next to me.

"How are you feeling?" he asks softly, his eyes betraying nothing.

"I…don't know," I reply, searching his face.

There is a long silence.

"Where are they?" I ask finally, "Where are Renji, Yoruichi, and Rikichi?"

"They are in the next room. Their wounds have been healed and they will join you soon."

"Sosuke," I say quietly, "What happens now?"

He seems to realize now the meaning behind the question. He realizes I have no idea who won the duel. He smiles.

"I don't know. As far as duels go, it seems ours broke many of the conventions. I did yield, but you actually collapsed. You defeated me, but the power you used was obviously not yours, and was not even really under your control. Our representatives interfered in the battle, further complicating things…so I think perhaps that we could simply call it a draw. You get to keep your freedom and I do not have to lose mine. You return home with your loved ones and I retain my subordinate. I realize this means you will be denied vengeance for what we did to you."

"I thought I wanted vengeance," I say softly, "but in truth I wanted justice. I wanted you and Gin to pay for your actions against me, but I wanted you to do that according to the laws of the Soul Society, not at the hands of some evil power. You and Gin will face trial for your crimes. Once I leave this place, I will continue to pursue this…with all of my strength."

"Yes, you are quite idealistic, Byakuya. I mean, many men would jump at the opportunity to use power like that to destroy an enemy, but you wanted justice. It's one of the things that sets you apart. It's one of the things I love about you."

"Sosuke," I begin.

"Shh, don't get defensive, Byakuya. I will be honest with you and tell you that I am rather disappointed that I could not defeat you. I would have loved having you at my side and in my arms every night, but I accept that I have not won that right. You should know that I value you and that Ichimaru Gin is a poor substitute. I wish that when I was still in the Sereitei that I had done something about that…but no…you live by a different set of rules and values. It leaves me mystified as to why I feel as I do about you. Ah well, it does no good to go on and on about this. Apparently, it just isn't meant to be…at least not for now."

He looks into my eyes for a long moment. His hand touches my shoulder. He bends and his lips brush my cheek as I sit frozen.

"Go home, Byakuya. Go home and enjoy the life and the family you love."

He turns and leaves, passing by Renji on the way out. Renji steps into the room and pulls a chair up to the side of the bed. He is quiet for a moment.

"Are you checking to make sure it's really me, Renji?" I ask softly.

"No," he assures me, "You are very clearly yourself now."

There is a long silence. He won't say anything. He is waiting for something from me.

"Renji," I say, finally breaking the silence, "I am sorry for leaving the Sereitei without you. But even more than that…I am sorry for the conditions of the duel."

"It wasn't you," he reminds me, "I could see when you left that it wasn't really you."

"You knew that and still you came after me…not knowing if I would welcome your presence or attack you…and I did both."

"Hey," he said, smiling, "don't beat yourself up about that. Remember, I'm tough enough to fight back now. I can hold my own."

"Arigato, Renji. I am honored by your loyalty."

"Well, we've watched out for each other for a long time, now, Byakuya. That shouldn't change. We should keep watching out for each other, even now that I'm not your vice captain any more."

"Renji…I…have done something I can't take back. I know how it must have felt when Aizen told you the conditions of our duel. Don't tell me it wasn't me. I might not have been in my right mind when I agreed to this, but I am responsible for the pain it caused you. I won't let you brush this off."

Somehow, the thought of him not blaming me for this is more painful to me than anything he could say to me in anger. He rests a hand on mine and I lift it to my heart, holding it there.

"I'm sorry, Renji," I tell him, turning to look him in the eyes.

"I know," he says, leaning forward, letting his head drop onto my shoulder.

"Are you angry with me?" I ask, searching his eyes.

"Yeah…some," he admits, "but you and I have worked our way through that before, Byakuya. We always seem to find our way through. This time will be no different."

He takes my chin in his hands and leans forward, bringing his lips to mine. I burn with guilt inside and I know he is aware of it. He will let it go so far and then he will call me on it. Renji knows me better than I know myself. I don't have to tell him I wasn't myself when I agreed to the terms of the duel. I didn't have to apologize. He knows who I am and who I am not. He knows and despite everything, he loves me. It is humbling being gifted with unconditional love. It is a precious thing to feel safe entrusting my heart to him.

He pulls away and rises, walking to the window and looking out.

"So this is where you were for those months you were gone," he whispers.

"For the greater part of them, yes," I answer.

"It must have been frightening when you woke up and found yourself in this room again."

I nod silently.

"I remember being at home, walking through our gardens and down the familiar pathways that we've walked a thousand times, Byakuya. But it didn't feel like home without you. And while I was there, you were here. I'll bet you sat by this window staring out at the moon and the stars."

"Sometimes," I say softly, "but the sandstorms often blocked the view of them."

"What did you think about?"

"Home," I say softly, "I knew I had a home, even if I couldn't picture it. Sometimes I would dream about home. I would wake up, knowing that I had been there in my mind, but not being able to picture it when I was awake. After I broke the hypnosis, I realized that I had been seeing you in my dreams nearly every night. You helped me survive my time here, Renji. You helped me remain hopeful."

He looks back at me with gratitude in his eyes.

"You helped me stay hopeful, too, Byakuya…because you were in my dreams, too."

He turns away to stare at the soul reaper base in the distance.

"Let's go home, Byakuya" he says softly, "I can't stand this place."

I am at his side in an instant and I take his hands, pulling him towards the door. My heart skips for a moment as I reach for the door handle, because while I was here it was often locked. It opens easily now and we step out into the hallway together. Yoruichi and Rikichi join us and we walk down the grand stairway together. We walk out the open double doors into the huge courtyard and Rikichi summons his fire eagle. We climb aboard, and the eagle rises slowly into the air and turns for home. I sit with my head rested on Renji's shoulder with Yoruichi close on my other side. As the eagle turns away, I see Sosuke Aizen standing on a balcony with Gin beside him. His cloak flutters in the wind and the sand swirls around him. He is far away now, but I feel the weight of his eyes for a long time after he fades into the distance. Yoruichi places a supportive hand on my arm and her voice is a soothing whisper in my ear. Then I realize suddenly that Renji has turned to look at me. He is looking into my eyes and reading them as though they never knew how to hide anything…as if the noble mask I usually wear never existed.

"He won't reach you again, Byakuya," he says, reading my fears and sweeping them away with his words, "You may not be my captain any longer, but you are my life partner and my closest friend. I will never let him near you again…I promise you."

I know such promises often can't help but be broken, but I find myself choosing to believe him anyway.

Sosuke Aizen watched with distant eyes until the eagle disappeared into the distance. Gin observed in silence, waiting. When the bird was gone, he turned to Aizen, smiling. Aizen did not return the smile. In fact, his reiatsu was disturbed.

"Not brooding again, are you?" Gin asked.

"No…it is a relief that he is gone."

Gin knew it was a lie, but there was no use in making a fuss about it. Better to take advantage of the situation.

"Finally ready to forget him?" Gin asked, turning back and holding the door open for him.

Aizen walked slowly inside, sighing as the door closed behind them. Gin took his hand and pulled gently.

"Not now, Gin."

"But Sosuke, my back is covered with welts. I could use a healing touch."

"I have no desire to heal those welts, Gin. You earned them and I want them to sting you…because of your disobedience."

Gin chuckled softly.

"You could just rub them a bit. That would sting. But I can take it."

"Oh, very well," Aizen said, following him down the hall.

They moved into Sosuke's bedroom and Gin removed his shirt and laid down on the bed on his stomach. Aizen stepped towards him, his eyes thoughtful, his hand drifting to Kyoka Suigetsu. He pulled the katana free of the sheath.

"Shatter, Kyoka Suigetsu," he breathed.

He was surprised at how well the hypnosis worked. Even though he knew it wasn't real, the image he saw now was perfect. Gin smiled up at him, knowing full well what was going on. Suddenly, he was glad he had gotten so familiar with the captive's mannerisms. Aizen stepped toward him, smiling now. Gin wasn't even fazed when Aizen called out the noble's name. It was part of the fun, after all. He was secretly relieved that Aizen had never actually taken the noble. He knew that Aizen could never deceive himself like this again if he knew what Byakuya was really like. Gin had to admit to himself…it had been worth the beating.


"Are you angry with me, Byakuya?" Renji asks quietly, "Are you sorry that you didn't kill them? I know you went there to settle things…and I…"

I put my fingers to his lips to stop him and follow my fingers with a gentle kiss.

"Tenrai Kougi went out of control, Renji. I should never have chosen revenge over justice. That was my mistake and I will accept the consequences of that. But do not worry for me anymore. It wasn't revenge or immediate justice I needed to find peace again, Renji."

"So what happened? Ever since we returned, you seem so much better, Byakuya," he says, curling deeper into my arms.

"I found what I needed, Renji," I tell him softly, "I found that what I needed was to realize that justice is not mine alone. Sosuke Aizen and Ichimaru Gin have visited atrocities on many…not just me. Had I visited my revenge upon them, they would never have faced justice for all they have done."

"But," he says, nuzzling my shoulder, "how do you know they will be brought to justice, Byakuya? What if they are never caught?"

"That won't happen," I assure him, "because what I found that I needed so much was dedication to bringing them to justice. If I never cease pursuing them, they will not escape justice…and when they face justice, I will not stand alone in redemption, Renji. Everyone they ever hurt will stand with me. They will answer to everything and everyone. I am a captain of the 13 Court Guard Squads and as such, it is my duty to pursue them and to see that justice is done…that our laws are enforced, not just for myself, but for everyone they hurt. And I am not alone in my pursuit. All other captains and all other squads see this as a priority. They will be caught. They will face the penalty for their crimes…and believing in this will allow me to move on."

"I could tell," he says quietly.

I gaze at him questioningly.

"When we made love, you weren't distant at all this time, Byakuya. It's the first time I've really felt you with me since…since before you disappeared."

"I am with you always, Renji Abarai. You are my heart. I would never be without you. I will not distance myself from you again…I would not be without your love, ever again."

He brings his mouth down onto mine and I taste green tea, but it is perfectly made and not overly sweet. And I recognize the touches on my body now. They are, and will always be his…like the body that moves in time with his now, that curls around him and yearns for completion. I find it in the only place it has ever existed…in the arms of my lover and my closest friend…Renji…ah! Renji! Renji…

I am home. I walk the hallways and I know the sights and sounds. I remember them all, now. I am deeply grateful that all of this is mine again. I never noticed the warmth of the colors in the entryway, the soft creaking of the floors, the pictures on the walls…the smells drifting in from the kitchen, the sweetness of the cherry blossoms wafting in from outside. I walk down the hallway and look into the faces of my twins…Takeshi, the red haired, brown-eyed fireball and Chisaki, the dark haired, dark eyed careful observer. They see me in the doorway and they run for the comfort of my arms. I gather them close and let their arms wrap around, comforting me. I squeeze Takeshi gently and kiss Chisaki on the top of her head. Chisaki giggles. I have never heard such a beautiful sound. I press my cheek to hers and close my eyes.

After I enjoy my time with the children, I make my way back to my room and dress for work, sliding into the shihakushou, pulling on the gloves, placing the kenseiken in my hair, and winding the long scarf about my throat. Strangely…Gin's voice does not sound in my mind. I smile at that as I make my way out of the house and to the front gates.

The streets are busy, but I feel quiet inside. I walk with my eyes straight ahead, but I notice everything today…the sound of my feet on the pavement, the swish of my shihakushou, the sound of birds, and the blend of smells that fill the air. The 6th division office appears before I am quite ready to see it, but I walk in and come face to face with what is missing. My desk is as spotless as I left it. The vice captain's desk is cleaner than I have ever seen it. Renji's personal effects are gone and Rikichi's have replaced them. I notice suddenly that my new vice captain has entered the room. He is, for some reason I cannot fathom, running in circles, chasing a hell butterfly. Ah yes…Rikichi and hell butterflies! I stifle an impulse to laugh and stare without expression. He gasps in horror as it flies away from him and lands gently on my fingertip. I eye him for a moment, feeling his discomfort and sighing.

"Rikichi," I say quietly, "Do you know how to hold a butterfly?"

He is trembling. I had no idea I was still so intimidating…but it works for me.

"N-no, I mean y-yes sir?"

"Well, is it 'yes' or 'no,' Rikichi?" I ask.

"Um…I'm s-sorry sir. I guess I've never been good about hell butterflies."

"Put out your hand," I say solemnly.

He extends a sweaty, trembling hand.

"You will never attract anything with a hand so damp and shaky," I observe.

He hastily wipes his hand on his pants and, with an effort, stops most of the shaking.

"Rikichi, imagine you are in the center of a quiet garden, a tranquil place far from anything that troubles you. Listen to the bird sounds and feel the breeze touch your face. Make your spirit calm and quiet like that place and hold out your hand."

The hand that he holds out now is calm and relaxed. I blow softly on the hell butterfly and it flies to him, landing in his palm. He stares in amazement, then looks at me. He looks surprised.

"What is it?" I ask, "Is it so surprising that you can do this?"

"No," he says softly, "I've just never seen anything make you smile like that, Captain Kuchiki."

"It has been known to happen," I assure him.

I gaze at him for a moment.

"Sir?" he queries.

"Come with me, Rikichi. And bring your zanpakuto."

He follows me like a puppy.

"Shunpo, don't be slow, Rikichi," I tell him.

And we move off across the Sereitei. The buildings move by in a blur and, before I know it, I'm standing at the gateway to the living world…waiting. Rikichi is faster than Renji was, but he is slower than me, so I flick my eyes toward him impatiently as he appears. I almost smile again at the instant distress this causes. I turn away to hide my expression. We summon hell butterflies and now his lights easily upon him. We step forward into the living world. We make our way across Karakura Town, stopping at a small park. I stand at the edge and send Rikichi to the middle. The hollow rise around him and he knows instinctively what to do. As he dances among them, slashing and striking with his zanpakuto, I feel a brush of familiar reiatsu. I turn and find myself smiling again.

"You must really enjoy this park, Byakuya," Renji says, his eyes following Rikichi.

"I have to know what to expect from a new vice captain," I tell him.

Renji laughs. I love the way it sounds, easy and comfortable, not the nervous way it used to sound a long time ago.

"Don't give me that. You've seen what he can do. I know you've been watching him closely for a long time. What're you doing here, Byakuya?"

I eye him for a moment, but it doesn't have the effect it used to. He only waits for an answer. Now I smile.

"Perhaps I want to offer him a gift of sorts. Watch."

Rikichi finishes the cycle of attacks and drops to the ground at the side of the park, panting. He smiles up at Renji in greeting, then looks at me.

"Captain Kuchiki, could…could I see what it's like when you do this? I mean, you don't have to or anything, but…"

Renji looks surprised and he is smiling widely. At last he understands what I was telling him that night, long ago in this same place. I wonder how long it will take Rikichi to discover it.

"As you wish, Rikichi," I say softly.

As they watch, I step into the center of the park and the hollow rise up around me. I take a breath and draw Senbonzakura, eager to begin the dance.