Chapter 23: The Seedling Sakura
"Hey, where are you guys going?" Ichigo called softly, trying not to wake the tiny infant he held.
Kisuke looked up from where he sat, leaned against Ichigo and smiling widely at the wide-eyed, ginger haired bundle that gazed back at him, cooing and gurgling.
Byakuya and Renji stopped in front of them, admiring their son as Ichigo and Kisuke cast admiring glances at the twin girls cuddled in the slings the two captains wore. Behind them, Hajime carried the seedling sakura and Takeo, Chisaki and Takeshi trailed, chatting softly.
"We're taking a walk out to the waterfall," Renji said, tickling Akane's chin, "We are planting a new sakura tree."
"A special tree for Daddy Bya," added Hajime, nodding meaningfully, "It will help him feel happy inside."
Ichigo glanced up at the noble and grinned.
"I guess we all could use more happiness, kiddo!" he chuckled.
"You are welcome to join us if you wish," Byakuya offered quietly.
Ichigo turned to look at Kisuke, who nodded affirmatively and stood up, brushing himself off. They fell in with Renji and Takeo, chatting softly. As the group reached the back gate, a cheerful feminine voice called out to them.
"Hey, mind if we join you?"
Byakuya looked up as Hotaru and Rikichi approached, holding their baby daughter and accompanied by a widely smiling Rukia.
Byakuya smiled and nodded affirmatively. Hotaru and Rukia moved closer to Ichigo and Kisuke, while Rikichi instinctively took up a position near Byakuya.
"Vice Captain Kuchiki," Byakuya said quietly, "I trust things are in order at the division?"
Rikichi blinked, then smiled and chuckled softly.
"Sorry, sir. I'm not used to that yet. And yes, Takeo and I made sure everything has been kept up to date. Takeo has been running the training groups and I just finished evaluations and living world deployments."
"Arigato," said Byakuya, nodding, "as usual, you have proven to be more than dependable, Rikichi. But now, I need to speak with you on an important matter."
"Rikichi, Captain's exams are coming up and although you steadfastly refuse to leave my squad, as clan leader, I must insist that as part of your duty to the Kuchiki clan that you represent us in those exams."
Rikichi looked up at him, looking as though he wanted to argue, but said nothing. Byakuya sighed.
"Rikichi, you remember what it was like when the time came that we knew that Renji should move on to captaincy. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was one that we knew was right. You have been with me for many years, Rikichi…from back when I mistakenly judged you to be practically useless to when your powers began to emerge, even to now. I still remember the first time I saw your ban kai…when we thought that Renji was dead…and I remember when Renji came to take me back from Aizen and the two of us were about to be killed. You stood between us and death. And we all survived because you did that. You have grown very powerful and the Gotei 13 needs that power in its leaders. There is a captain's position waiting for you and I have made the recommendation. All that you must do is to take the captain's exam, which we both know you will pass with flying colors. You have honored the Kuchiki family as the Squad Six vice captain…and now it is time for you to lead. Renji and I want the twins to be transferred to my squad and they are working at vice captain level now. Momo and Kira are taking the captain's exams and moving up as well. Takeo will transfer to Squad Five and act as a vice captain to Renji. Rikichi…we only wait for you to take this step."
Rikichi continued walking, letting his captain's words wash over him. He felt great pride inside at having gained Byakuya's confidence in such a way…but…
He looked back at Byakuya, thinking. He worried for his captain, as was his way. He had spent so many years seeing to Byakuya's safety and needs, he wondered what would fill the space created when he no longer had Byakuya to dedicate himself to.
"Captain," he said softly, "I can't imagine going through a day without the goal of protecting you. It has been my priority for so long that it has become second nature. I just don't know what I would do in absence of that."
Rikichi was startled to hear Byakuya laugh softly. He looked up in surprise.
"Rikichi, don't you understand? Protecting me was a practice ground…a trial run for a much more important job. You have protected me well for so many years…and you are a capable protector. Being that you are, I judge that you are ready to leave protecting me to other hands…and move on to protecting, not just one person, but many…not just your captain, but your squad and all of those who dwell in Soul Society. Rikichi, your powers are needed. Not just to oppose Sosuke Aizen, but to defend against any who seek to harm what you and I would protect. I realize that you value your place at my side, and I value you being there, but it would be wrong for you to remain there when your powers are needed to protect others. Do you understand?"
Rikichi hesitated, thinking, then nodded.
"Then you will take the exam?" Byakuya asked.
"I will take the exam," Rikichi affirmed, "but I request that you allow me to begin training my replacements immediately, sir. If you are to be left in other hands, I would see that they are fully trained to serve you as I do."
"They will report to you tomorrow to begin training. I have already gotten clearance from Renji. He is looking forward to seeing you move up as well. He always saw the best in you, always believed in you. He is very proud."
Rikichi smiled and blushed.
"Arigato, Captain, that means a lot."
The group had reached the end of the forest trail and stood overlooking the rushing waterfall, the sparkling blue lake and the wide open meadows beyond. Hajime walked to a small rise that provided a lovely view of everything and dropped to his knees, holding the tiny tree ready. Byakuya gently turned Akane over to Takeo, then stepped forward and knelt next to the boy. He dug a small hole in the soil and Hajime set the tiny tree in place. He sprinkled water over the sprout, then gently took Byakuya's hand and brought it to rest on the wet soil around its base. He kept his own hand set lightly on top of his father's and looked up into Byakuya's eyes. Byakuya returned his gaze questioningly.
"This is a special tree," Hajime said, looking down at their joined hands, "I can only make it come to life if there is a soul willing to give life to it. Will you give some of your life force to make it grow?"
"That won't hurt him, will it?" asked Renji, frowning.
"No," Hajime said with certainty, "it's like what happens when people make a baby. They give some of their life to make a new one. The mother tree gave some of her life to make this baby tree, but it needs another parent to make it alive."
He turned back to Byakuya, waiting. Byakuya nodded.
"Go ahead, Hajime," he said softly.
The boy lowered his head and closed his eyes. Spiritual pressure rose around them and the wind swept over them. Warm, golden light flared around Hajime's hand and traveled down into Byakuya's. The dark haired captain's spirit energy flared white around him, growing until the ground rumbled softly. The golden light from Hajime's hand snaked upward and wrapped around Byakuya, drawing power from him and sending it down into the roots of the baby tree. The ground shook underneath them and slowly the tiny tree began to grow.
The others watched in awe as power poured from Byakuya, down into the tree and the tree expanded in size. The trunk of the tree thickened and slender limbs stretched out from it. Pink and white buds formed on the limbs, then burst into bloom. When the power finally lessened and faded away, a fully formed tree stood where the tiny one had been.
Byakuya blinked and swayed slightly. Hajime put his hands on his father's face and gazed at him appraisingly.
"Daddy Bya needs a nap!" he exclaimed.
Power flared around the boy's hands and Byakuya dropped softly to the ground beneath the tree, his head rested on his arms.
"Hajime!" Renji objected, "Byakuya and I have both told you that you are not to put people to sleep without asking permission!"
"But he was tired!" Hajime said, wide eyed.
"You still should have asked him first," Renji said firmly.
Hajime's expression turned somber.
"Do you want me to wake him up and ask him?" the boy asked.
Renji looked down at the peacefully sleeping captain.
"Nah…you don't have to do that. He looks pretty comfortable, actually. And you're right…he probably needs the rest. Just, next time, ask first, okay?"
Renji turned and handed the baby girl he carried to Chisaki.
"Why don't you guys go on back to the manor? I'll stay here until Sleeping Beauty wakes up and then we'll join you for dinner."
A few minutes later, the others were off down the pathway and Renji sat with his back against the tree, holding his peacefully sleeping lover in his arms.
Gin chuckled to himself as he dragged a struggling and resistant shinigami down the hallway and into the large meeting room. Sosuke Aizen sat in his chair with his chin rested on his hand and a discontented frown on his face. Gin stopped near him, studying him for a moment.
"Oh," he said, frowning, "you don't look very well. I did tell you that you should spend a few days in bed after what happened. You should have taken my advice. You don't look well at all, Sosuke."
"Enough, Gin. This is the one I asked you to find then?"
"Yes, Sosuke, the very one. I'm afraid he isn't happy at all about our invitation. I nearly had to damage him to get him in here. I fail to see what use he'll be. His powers are respectable, but he is completely intractable."
"That doesn't matter," Aizen said quietly, "Bring him to me."
Gin dragged the youth forward, pushing him roughly to his knees at Aizen's feet. Aizen looked down at him calmly.
"Welcome," he said softly, "I will come right to the point. I have work for you."
"Forget it," the youth spat angrily, "I will do nothing for you! You have caused nothing but…"
Gin struck the youth, sending him roughly to the floor.
"You'll want to mind your manners when you speak to your master, boy," he said reproachfully.
"He is not my master," snapped the youth, his dark eyes flaring, "and I'll die before I do anything for him!"
"Charming," he said, rising and moving closer to the youth, "he will be perfect."
He drew Kyoka Suigetsu. The youth at his feet swallowed hard, but forced himself to remain calm.
"Kill me, then," he said, his voice shaking slightly, "I would rather die than help you."
Aizen's smile widened.
"Oh…no…that wouldn't do at all. I'm not going to kill you. I have a much better use for you. And after you experience the power of my zanpakuto, you will do whatever I tell you to do."
Golden power began to flare around Aizen's blade and the youth kneeling before him paled.
"Shatter, Kyoka Suigetsu," Aizen said quietly.
Moments later, the youth laid unconscious on the floor and Sosuke Aizen staggered away and slumped back into his chair.
"Are you all right?" Gin asked, staring, "It looks like they really took it out of you this time, what with Renji's dragon attack and the battle in Byakuya's inner world!"
Silence, Gin," Aizen said, shifting uncomfortably, "Return him to the place where you found him. Make sure he finds his way home."
"As you wish, Sosuke," Gin murmured.
He lifted the youth over his shoulder and carried him back out the door.
Aizen rested his chin on his open palm and sighed heavily, trying to ignore the painful throbbing in his veins. He would have time to rest and regain his strength while the boy went about his work. And all would be in place when Aizen's powers reached full strength again. As soon as that happened, he would have his revenge.
The sun was setting when Byakuya finally stirred in Renji's arms and sat up, yawning and stretching. Renji smiled as Byakuya turned slightly to better view the sunset, then relaxed against Renji, nuzzling warmly into his shoulder.
"Where did everybody go?" he asked softly.
"Back up to the manor," Renji replied, resting his face against a tumble of dark, sakura scented hair, "They didn't want to disturb you while you were sleeping."
"Hajime…" Byakuya said, shaking his head.
"Oh, I told him not to do that without permission again. Seriously though, we need to do something about that kid."
"Why…he sees something wrong, someone in need and he wants to help. What is wrong with that?"
"What's wrong is that you can't just do stuff like that. You let that kid do whatever he wants! That's how you ended up pregnant…how a whole mess of people ended up pregnant!"
"I know it caused a lot of chaos, Renji, but it caused good things to happen as well. I've never seen Hotaru and Rikichi so happy…and even though Juushiro had a difficult time, he and Shunsui are so in love with their little girl that they can't see straight."
"Yeah…then there's Ichigo…"
"Whose relationship with his father was greatly mended once he revealed what happened."
"And what about Ikkaku and Yumichika?"
"They got what they deserved…"
"Come now, Renji. You saw how happy they were!"
"Yeah, once all of the grunting and cursing was over…oh, and Yumichika got his figure back. But what about Rangiku? She's okay with it, but she's not talking about who the father is. She won't tell anyone."
"Well, her son has white hair…who do you think it is?"
"Wha…Toshiro, no way!" Renji exclaimed.
"I was thinking more along the lines of Gin," Byakuya said quietly, "They were close before he left…and she never really got over him. Perhaps he has been making trips to the Seireitei to visit her."
"Ugh!" Renji muttered, "I think I'd rather it was Toshiro! Hell, I'd rather it was anyone else! That guy is one sick bastard!"
"No arguments there," agreed Byakuya, "but just because she knows he's bad for her doesn't mean she's wise enough to stay away from him."
"Well, first thing tomorrow, I'm going to go have a talk with her," Renji said matter-of-factly.
"Well, Renji," Byakuya said calmly, "don't be surprised if she doesn't listen. As much as you want to help, realize, sometimes people are going to do what they will and even though you tell them the train wreck is coming, you can't stop it."
Renji sighed heavily.
"Damn! You're probably right. But I'm still going to have a talk with her."
"I hope she listens to you," Byakuya said softly.
"That's funny coming from you, because you don't listen to me either!" Renji said, grinning, "I specifically remember telling you to stay out of trouble."
"You always tell me that."
"Yeah," Renji agreed, "and you always manage to find trouble."
"Actually, trouble tends to find me, Renji," Byakuya corrected him.
"Yeah…and it's lucky you have me to dig your pretty ass out of it, too!"
"Yes, Renji," Byakuya agreed, nuzzling closer to the redhead, "I am extremely lucky to have you."