FALLING SAKURA

Chapter 1: Mission to Inuzuri

"You planning to let me get up sometime soon?" I ask Byakuya, smiling, "my vice captains are going to be here in about an hour. I think it'll look odd if I'm still naked and tangled up with you when they arrive. Besides, aren't you going to be late to the office?"

"I am never late," Byakuya huffs, running his fingers down the length of my hair, "I left word that I would report later than usual so I could offer you a proper farewell on your first field mission as a captain."

"What? You told them that?" I ask, grinning.

"Of course not," he says, looking mildly annoyed at the suggestion, "I needn't explain myself, nor would I dishonor either of us by being so candid, Renji. I merely said that I would be attending to important matters here this morning."

"What kind of important matters?" I say, raising an eyebrow.

The look in his eye is serene, but very seductive.

"This kind," he says, bringing warm lips to my ear.

He catches my earlobe and sucks gently, stroking it with his tongue. Damn, that feels good! It feels even better as he moves down beneath the earlobe, giving that area the same treatment. He moves lower sinking his fingers into my hair and tilting my head back to give him better access to my throat, then attacks it with sensuous lips, heavy strokes with his tongue and teasing nips. At the same time, he moves his hips slowly, rubbing against me until the friction feels so good I can't breathe.

"Ahh…Byakuya…do we have…time for…ahh, shit that feels good."

He releases a soft puff of air on my throat. It cools the drying saliva and sends a shiver through me.

"Hmm…" he says softly, sliding down beneath the blankets, "I think I can make you feel better than good."

Before I can think of an answer to that, something warm and wet is wrapped around my hardness…and moving.

"Ah…hey, Byakuya! Ah…I…ah…have to, uh…ahh…ahh, Byakuya!"

I lift the blanket and see dark cobalt eyes, peering back with a playful gleam in them. His eyes on my face, he continues what he's doing, down between my thighs.

"B-Bya…ahha!" I gasp, "I've gotta…ah, hell, who cares!"

I throw back the blankets and pull his mouth away, busying it with mine, pushing him down onto his back, and nudging his thighs apart. I enter him a little too eagerly and he gasps softly. The pain is forgotten in an instant as he wraps his body tightly around mine. Running kisses and small bites down the side of his neck, I try to move slowly at first, but his nails dig into my skin and his hips buck upward into mine. His eyes are half-closed and misted over…and he's smiling. I look down at the beautiful expression on his face…at the raven black hair spread around his head, and his softly heaving chest. The sight of him takes away whatever control I have left. That smiling mouth opens slightly and he moans softly, driving his hips upward to meet each fast, deep thrust.

"Renji…" his voice is the barest of whispers, but it sends shivers through me.

He runs his fingernails down my back…Thank Kami, he keeps those things manicured or I'd be shredded! Still, the sensation is amazing and it sends me into oblivion. I feel his dark eyes watching as I collapse on top of him, and breathe deeply to slow my racing heart.

I give myself a minute or so to recover, then I work my way down his chest, layering it with kisses. I crawl further down, sinking my tongue into his navel and sucking gently. He inhales sharply and his back arches. Moving down further, I start to pleasure him, stroking deeply with my tongue and teasing until he moans my name breathlessly and arches upward. I sink down again and he writhes beneath me, panting softly. I pull back again and he arches upward again, gasping.

"Ahh…"

As I sink down on him a third time, his hips rise sharply and he moans loudly in release. I feel his fingers in my hair, stroking gently. He falls back, still panting lightly. I crawl back up to put my head on his shoulder, but he catches my face in his hands and gives me a warm, open-mouthed kiss.

I break away, smiling.

"Ahh, Byakuya…you did make me feel better than good!" I sigh into his shoulder.

"And you did the same for me, Renji," he breathes into my hair.

"How am I supposed to leave now?" I chuckle softly.

He buries his face in my hair and sighs deeply.

"And how am I supposed to let you go?"

Kami, I love him! I can't believe that after nearly ten years, I still feel like this when I look at him.

"It's a short assignment. I guess they don't want to overwhelm me while I'm still so new to this."

He chuckles softly.

"Renji, you actually entered captaincy more prepared than most," he says, bringing his face close to mine, "I'm sure all will be well."

"Yeah, me too. And when I come home, we'll celebrate…ten years, Byakuya."

"Ten years…" he whispers, kissing me lightly on the lips, "and they have been wonderful years, Renji. After losing Hisana, I didn't know I could be this happy again. She would be grateful to you, Renji. This is what she wanted for me."

There has always been a reverence in his voice when speaking of Hisana. Only now do I realize that it is there when he says my name too.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Captain Kuchiki, you have a visitor,"

Byakuya looked up from the koi pond and Takeshi and Chisaki jumped to their feet excitedly.

"Is it Yoruichi?" Takeshi asked.

"Is it Captain Ukitake?" Chisaki asked.

"I am certain that if you cease shouting questions and listen, you will find out," Byakuya stated calmly.

"It is your cousin Hotaru, sir," the housekeeper smiled.

"Thank you. You may show her to the garden."

"Is it true she's going to marry Rikichi?" Chisaki asked, wide-eyed.

"Yes, they are going to be married," said Byakuya, smiling.

"Yuck! Gross!" said Takeshi disdainfully, "That means they'll have to kiss each other and make babies!"

"Well, I think it's nice," stated Chisaki primly, "Rikichi is cute!"

Byakuya blinked in surprise.

"Chisaki, that…"

"What? Did I say something bad? He is cute, isn't he?" she asked.

"I…well…"

"Maybe I should field that one, Byakuya," said Hotaru, "I did warn you that as sweet as she was, she was going to grow up sooner or later."

"Takeshi, Chisaki, why don't you find Takeo and see if he wants to go swimming with you," Byakuya suggested.

The twins flash stepped away, leaving Byakuya alone with his cousin. He turned back to look at her. It was clear to him that Rikichi was having quite an effect on her. For one thing, her smile was completely different, gentle and genuine. She carried herself in a way that was still confident, but more easy and relaxed…and she met Byakuya's gaze with a friendly smile…not so much that coy, seductive way she used to back when she was attracted to him. She was also dressing a bit differently, shifting from the stiff, heavily decorated trappings she used to wear to more simple, elegant and comfortable outfits. Although there were those on council who questioned the relationship, Byakuya thought they were a good match for each other. Rikichi was definitely a calming influence in her life…and Byakuya had never seen Rikichi so happy. Yes, it was a good match.

"You were saying?" Byakuya queried.

"I was saying that Chisaki is acting perfectly normal for her age, Cousin."

"Hotaru, the girl is eight years old…"

"And old enough to notice when a boy is handsome. She doesn't mean it in the grown up way, Byakuya," she assured him, "She just means that he is pleasing to look at and she likes him…again, in a child's way. It's a cute little girl's crush."

"I see," he replied enigmatically, "Thank you for the explanation. Now, what brings you?"

"I came to ask you something," she said in a more serious tone, "Well, two things, actually."

"And those are?"

"Well…first. You know that my father died some time ago and I have no brothers. What I wanted to ask, cousin…was…if you would be willing to give me away at my wedding."

"You want me to do this?" Byakuya asked softly, his expression curious, "Why me, Hotaru?"

"Well…actually, if you think about it, it's a very sensible choice…No father, no brothers, but there's another reason, Byakuya. It has to do with the family."

"Ah, yes," he sighed, "I understand they've been at you about marrying a peasant."

"Yeah, I guess it's a little bit hypocritical after the way I judged you…about Hisana and Renji. You probably think I deserve it."

"No, Hotaru, I don't think anyone deserves poor treatment over following her heart. As a matter of fact, I find it commendable…but, you must remember who you are talking to. I never troubled myself to care what they thought. When it came to love, I had no choice but to follow my heart. It isn't always the easiest path, but it is the one I will always choose."

"You know, Cousin, that's another reason I want you to give me away. I never would have been open to this if not for what I learned from you about love."

"Some would call that poisoning your mind, Hotaru," Byakuya said, his expression serious.

"And I would call them fools, Cousin," she replied, smiling and giving him an unexpected hug.

Byakuya couldn't help but feel warmed by the gesture.

"If that was 'poisoning my mind' then I'm going to take that poison happily. Rikichi is wonderful. It's funny…he's such a strong shinigami…but he's so good-hearted, Byakuya. He doesn't throw his power around. And he is sweet and affectionate. But you see him nearly every day…you know what he's like."

"Yes, my vice captain is of good character. You are well-matched."

"Thank you, Cousin. You know, I'd always tried to convince myself that I could live without being in love, that I could accept the marriage of convenience that certainly lay in my future. But because of you I found a better fate. I will always be grateful for that, Byakuya."

"Is there some reason you feel the need to flatter me so? I'd hate to think you were attempting to gain something from me using womanly wiles. It would hardly be appropriate, Hotaru."

She laughed gaily.

"Cousin, I really meant that!" she exclaimed.

"But…"

"Well…there is something that has come up and I need your help," she admitted.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Well…I…in the midst of all the arrangements, it seems that…I made an assumption that we would be married at my mother's home."

"I see…and you have run into…resistance?" he asked, looking down at the koi pond, then back at her.

"Yes…you have to remember that my mother and sister are not like me. They entered marriages of convenience. My choice to accept Rikichi's hand does not sit well with them. As a matter of fact, it doesn't really sit well with anyone, Cousin."

Byakuya's eyes narrowed. Hotaru's face was calm, but he felt the touch of disturbed reiatsu that told him she was holding back heavy emotion.

"You see, Byakuya, unlike you, I am not a clan leader. Unlike you, they have no reason to hold back either in judgment or in retaliation. The relatives had no choice but to accept you. I don't wield the power you do. And they will pull no punches with me. The reaction to my wedding announcement was swift and harsh…They disowned me, Byakuya. My own mother and sister have declared me dead to them."

"Hotaru…" he said softly.

"My sister has assumed my seat on council. I am left with no power, no family, not even the Kuchiki name. What you are looking at is everything I have left in this world. They wouldn't allow me to take anything with me but my zanpakuto and the clothes on my back."

"I won't let them do that," Byakuya said quietly, fighting the seething anger that threatened to surface, "They have no right, Hotaru…"

"It's all right, Cousin. Remember that it wasn't so long ago that I was on the council that took action against you. I was part of the group that delayed your ascent to clan leadership…and council did attempt to punish you by timing your ascent to occur only a day after Hisana's burial. I took cold, callous actions against you…and this is probably just what I deserve for that."

Byakuya reached out and gently embraced his cousin. She stiffened for a moment, holding back emotion the way she had been trained to…but when he placed a hand on her head and brought it to rest on his shoulder, he felt her shoulders tremble softly.

"You are wrong about that, Hotaru. You don't deserve this. No one does. And I will do right by you, especially since I was the one who encouraged you to follow your heart. You will stay with me, here in the Kuchiki home. You will marry Rikichi here. If you wish, the two of you may have the northeast wing after you are married. As to your name, there is a way I can restore it…I can adopt you into this segment of the family…that is, if you think you wouldn't mind referring to me as your brother. I think such close relation to the clan leader would shield you from further torment."

She didn't answer. Her body shook softly in his embrace and he lowered his head to gently rest against hers.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Captain Abarai, the recon teams have returned."

"Okay, Momo, what did your group find to the north?" Renji asked.

"Sir, we found nothing that indicates that the hollow have broken through, but there are signs that they are massing in that area. It suggests that the information we received is correct. They are planning to attack the merchant train coming in for the annual faire."

"Thanks Momo," Renji said, turning to Kira.

"What did you find to the south?" he asked.

"Same as Momo," Kira reported, "No sign they are here, but a place where they are gathering."

Renji thought carefully. He smiled to himself, because he could almost hear what Byakuya would say if hearing this same report. His voice whispered in Renji's mind.

Send out strong reiatsu trackers and find the ambush. It may be something akin to our negative reiatsu cage…but very good reiatsu trackers can sense one if they know what to look for. The hollow may be brash, but they are not stupid…not the more powerful ones, anyway.

"I learned so much from you," Renji whispered to himself, "Thanks, Byakuya."

He turned back to Momo.

"Momo, Kira, I want the two of you to come with me. We're going to sweep this area. We're looking for something that feels like a negative reiatsu cage…weak and innocuous…something that seems so low in power as to be insignificant. That should be where the hollow will attempt an ambush."

"Hai, Captain!" the two said, following as he led the way.

As Renji searched the rocky trail area, he couldn't help but remember the time he'd spent there with Byakuya. They had trained on this very ground and slept every night in the small cave to the north by the river. It was strange that the hollow would choose this place for ambush, but they were notorious for attacking the merchant train. Almost every spring, there was an issue with that. It was, in fact, a merchant caravan that Byakuya's captain fell defending all of those years ago…and it had happened here. Still…the use of a negative reiatsu cage…The cage required someone of great power…and why would someone of such power be here? Merchants? It didn't seem like enough of a reason to Renji. It bothered him…and after years of working alongside Byakuya Kuchiki, Renji knew very well that he should trust his instincts.

"Okay, if there is something else they're coming for, what could it be?" he asked himself.

"Captain!" Kira's voice broke into his thoughts, "Captain, we found it!"

"Should we try to destroy it?" Momo asked.

"No…not yet," Renji said softly, "We don't know how big it is or how many enemies we might face. We also don't know why they are here."

"Aren't they just going to attack the merchant train again?" asked Kira.

"Yeah…but there's more to it than that…I feel it. I think they're going to use this to cover something up."

"Sir?" queried Momo.

"Think about it. A negative reiatsu cage would have to be put in place by someone with extremely strong powers. What would someone like that be doing robbing and murdering simple merchants?"

"You're right, Captain," Kira said, his eyes widening, "there must be more, but what?"

"That's the big question," Renji said, looking in the direction in which the cage was concealed, "and there's only one way we'll learn that."

He thought for a moment.

"Momo," he said softly, "report to the head captain. Tell him what we've found…and what I suspect…and while you're there, call in more of our division. I have a feeling we'll need more fighters before we're done here!"

"Yes, sir!" Momo cried, flash stepping away.