The Hollow King

Chapter 1: The Spring Storm

Byakuya stepped out into the misted garden and walked out the back gate, onto the forest path. The wind blew somewhat fitfully, carrying with it the warning of a coming storm, and he hoped that it wouldn't ruin the view of the stars he was going to see. The forest path was damp and deeply silent. Even the wind that moved his hair made no sound. It made the environs somewhat ethereal and sent a very light shiver down his spine. He shrugged away the feeling and breathed in deeply as he continued down the trail. He was relieved when the trees opened up and the mist receded, and he stepped out onto the hillside of sakura above the lake. A blanket of stars peeked out from behind the scattered low clouds and reflected on the surface of the water below.

He removed his cloak and laid it on the ground beneath one of the trees, then settled down on it, leaning back against the tree and gazing up at the night sky and letting his mind wander.

The wind began to whisper louder as he reclined, observing the stars and missing the closeness of Abarai Renji's body. But the redhead was on a mission in Hueco Mundo and having taken ill just before the deployment of their squad, Byakuya had sent Renji ahead and returned to Kuchiki Manor to rest and regain his strength. He would have liked to say that his health had improved, but it hadn't improved much if it had at all…and the only reason he had strayed out from the manor to watch the stars was because weakness had taken a momentary back seat to boredom and he couldn't simply lie in his bed anymore. Instead, he had slipped out into the night, dressed warmly and bringing the extra cloak, anticipating that the ground would be wet.

He felt the flare of heat on his skin as fever returned to his body and his eyes burned and ached as he slowly blinked. He was beginning to regret having left the manor as a shiver went through his body, then another, and he laid down on the heavy cloak, moaning softly.

He was dimly aware of it growing darker and colder, of the wind rising from a whisper to a lonely howl. It began to cut through the thick layers he wore, pricking his skin with icy fingers and making him shiver harder. He heard a rumble of thunder and felt the first drops of rain, and tried to turn and push himself upward so he could stand. But as soon as his head lifted away from the ground, his vision dimmed and he felt his arms give way. He collapsed back onto the cloak with a pained whimper.

He wondered how he could have worsened again so unexpectedly, how the strength could have drained out of him so suddenly and he could have been left so weak. Realizing that for the moment, it seemed he would not be going anywhere, he moved so that he was as protected as possible, beneath the limbs of the tree and curled his body to keep his core, warmer and drier.

As the rain came down harder, he realized that such measures were not going to help for long and he buried his face in his arms, shivering and feeling the darkness closing in. He thought he could hear voices, but his fevered mind failed him and refused to allow him to differentiate between reality and fantasy. He knew he had to be seeing things, because the shape he saw coming towards him in the darkness, looked like Renji's shape…but the illness left him blurred and dark.

"Renji?" he managed, and the dark form turned and came closer.

Someone was outlined against the dark, clouded night sky, someone whose shape looked like Renji's.

"Renji?" he whispered again, "Are you really here?"

The one leaning over him placed a hand on his face and Byakuya felt a comforting dizziness pass through him. He wasn't shaking anymore. The cold no longer reached his skin. He sighed softly and reached for Renji. He almost cried out with relief when a pair of arms wrapped around him and began to lift him.

Sharp, worried voices cut through the storm, but no longer reached Byakuya's deeply affected mind. Whoever was holding him suddenly returned him to the cloak he had been resting on, then turned and flash stepped away. A moment later, a heavily cloaked figure flash stepped onto the hillside, spotted Byakuya and gave a soft, worried cry. He moved quickly to the noble's side and knelt next to him, reaching down to touch his face.

"Cousin," he called softly, "Byakuya-sama, can you hear me?"

Byakuya's lips moved slightly, but no sound escaped him. The man kneeling next to him pulled back his hood, revealing a face much like Byakuya's with somewhat shorter black hair and very dark blue eyes.

"Byakuya-sama?" he repeated worriedly.

He slipped an arm beneath his cousin's shoulders and carefully lifted him, then flash stepped back down the trail and trough the gardens to Byakuya's room. A servant appeared as they arrived and hurriedly sent another for a healer, then quickly gathered some fresh clothes. His eyes widened in surprise as Tetsuya took the clothing from his hands and proceeded to replace Byakuya's wet clothing with the dry ones, himself.

"Michio, pull back the blankets, if you please," the noble requested in a soft, insistent voice.

"Where did you find him?" asked the servant, "We couldn't find him anywhere! We didn't expect that he would be out of bed, sir. He has been so ill, we didn't think he would…"

"It's all right," Tetsuya assured the man, "My cousin can be a bit exasperating that way. It wasn't your fault. But I do hope that healer arrives soon. Otherwise, I'll probably just have to carry him to the fourth division."

"He's that bad, is he?" asked Michio worriedly.

"I'm sure that Byakuya-sama will be fine," Tetsuya said kindly, "but perhaps it would be good if you would bring some tea. We could try to get him to take some, and I could use the warmth of it myself."

"Hai, Kuchiki-sama," Michio said, turning away and leaving the room.

Tetsuya left Byakuya's side and returned a moment later with a cool cloth. The feel of that coolness seemed to rouse Byakuya slightly, and he opened his eyes and gazed up at Tetsuya dazedly.

"Renji?" he moaned softly.

Tetsuya smiled and shook his head.

"Sorry Cousin," he said sympathetically, "but Abarai-san has not returned from Hueco Mundo as of yet.

"B-but…he was there…at the waterfall…" Byakuya moaned deliriously.

"I'm sure that's what you saw, Cousin, but you are quite ill…and that can make things that are not real seem very real."

"No…I know it…it was…Renji…" Byakuya insisted, trying to sit up.

Tetsuya pushed him down gently and took a cup of hot tea from Michio as the servant stepped back into the bedroom. He took a small amount in a spoon and brought it to Byakuya's lips. Byakuya sipped at the tea, then dropped back against the pillows, moaning incoherently. Tetsuya shook his head sympathetically and took a sip of his own tea.

"Can I bring anything else, sir?" asked Michio, looking unhappily at the man lying restlessly in the bed.

"No, thank you," said Tetsuya, "Just be prepared to receive the healer…and bring them as soon as possible. I will sit with him until then."

"Hai, Kuchiki-sama," Michio said, bowing and leaving the bedroom.

Tetsuya leaned over Byakuya, offering him another sip of tea, then carefully running the cool cloth over his face. He knew that not much time had passed since he had arrived at the manor, carrying his cousin, but it seemed to take forever before footsteps sounded in the hallway and Yamada Hanatarou ran into the room.

"Thank you for coming so quickly," Tetsuya told the boy, "My cousin is very ill. He has been sick for several days, but it seems to have gotten significantly worse when he took a short walk tonight."

Hanatarou nodded and sat down next to Byakuya, extending his hands and releasing a flow of healing green spirit energy. The light touched Byakuya's body and flashed strangely. Hanatarou's brow furrowed and he increased the healing flow. The light seemed to reflect off of Byakuya's body, prompting a worried sound of exclamation from the healer.

"What is it?" asked Tetsuya, "What's happening?"

Hanatarou shook his head and frowned.

"I'm not sure exactly. It seems as though Kuchiki taichou's body is resistant to my healing power…but I don't know why that would be. I have healed him many times before. It may be the particular illness…but I sensed something odd in his reiatsu. This is beyond my expertise, I'm afraid. Kuchiki taichou needs to be taken to the fourth division for further treatment."

"Well, then, let's get him there quickly, by all means," Tetsuya said, rising and lifting the semiconscious noble into his arms.

He turned toward the door and glanced briefly at Michio.

"This seems quite serious. I think we will want to send for Abarai-san. Would you see to that while I take him to the fourth division?"

"Hai, Kuchiki-sama," the servant answered, running out of the room.

Tetsuya flash stepped out of the room and down the walkway, then through the manor entry and out onto the rainy, silent streets. He flash stepped all of the way, but was still fairly wet when he arrived with Byakuya at the fourth division.

"Bring him this way," said Kotetsu Isane, motioning toward an open examination room, "Unohana taicohu will be here in a moment."

She leaned over Byakuya, checking his vital signs and reiatsu, then noting everything on a clipboard. Unohana taichou stepped into the room and Isane handed her the clipboard. She studied it for a moment, then leaned over Byakuya, opening each eye and studying them carefully, then extending her hands over him and setting a healing field in place.

"I understand that Kuchiki taichou has been ill for several days. Do you know anything about how this began?"

"Hai," said Tetsuya, "He woke several nights ago, claiming to have seem someone that he took to be Abarai-san in his room. He says that the one he saw leaned over him and did something, and he was left unable to move for a time after. Even after regaining his equilibrium, he was feverish and weak. We checked his room thoroughly and only found signs of his reiatsu and Abarai-san's, but we know that Abarai-san couldn't have been there, because he worked late at the division office that night. We weren't able to find signs of anyone trespassing on the property, so we were left to conclude that he was hallucinating, perhaps because of his illness."

"Hai, that is a possibity," Unohana said, nodding, "but I will send some healers to do a deeper reiatsu search on the property and I will keep Kuchiki taichou here for a few nights to allow him to recover."

"When Hanatarou tried to heal him, he said that my cousin's body appeared to be resisting treatment. Do you have an explanation for that?" asked Tetsuya.

"It is possible," the healer explained, "that because of the hallucinations, Kuchiki taichou's reiatsu took a defensive stance. If he believed he was being attacked, he would do this to shut out foreign reiatsu as a means of protecting himself. It seems that my power has broken through. He is responding to treatment now."

"He does look somewhat improved," noted Tetsuya, looking relieved.

Unohana stood and checked the healing field carefully to ensure that it remained in place.

"Has Abarai fukutaichou been recalled from Hueco Mundo yet?" she asked softly.

"Hai, we sent for him as I was leaving with my cousin. It may be a while yet, but I know he will come as soon as he is able."

"Yes, I am sure he will want to be here with Kuchiki taichou until he is out of danger."

Tetsuya's eyes took on a guarded look.

"You mean…he's still…that bad?" he asked.

"I am afraid that the fever is very strong. Until it breaks, he will remain weakened and vulnerable to additional ailments. His immune system is quite strained by this."

"Then, by all means," said Tetsuya, "I will stay here with my cousin until Abarai-san arrives."

"I am sure that will be a comfort to Kuchiki taichou," Unohana said, smiling.

She checked the healing field one last time, then left Tetsuya and Byakuya alone in the room.

The head elder gazed down at Byakuya with worried eyes.

"I do hope Abarai-san returns soon."

XXXXXXXXXX

"Test the shield one more time," Renji told the third seat, "We want to close off these ruins so nothing gets in or out. Soutaichou is concerned about the odd energy pulses around here. He wants this area sealed off until Kurotsuchi taichou and his crew can examine the ruins and locate the source of the disturbance. We don't want any more trouble coming out of Las Noches, now that Aizen Sosuke is gone."

"Hai, Abarai fukutaichou!" the third seat said, turning to the shinigamis positioned around the perimeter of the fortress.

He whispered to a hell butterfly and the squad members sent pulses of energy into the containment shield, testing its strength. The shield flashed in response and Renji nodded in approval.

"Okay, now leave guards at every station and send rotating groups on patrol. Check the shield every twelve hours and report back to me."

"Abarai fukutaichou! Abarai fukutaichou!" called a frantic youth.

Renji watched in amusement as Rikichi ran towards him and slid to a stop in front of him.

"What is it, Rikichi?" he asked patiently.

"Sir, a message just arrived from Kuchiki Manor! Kuchiki taichou has become extremely ill and has been taken to the fourth division. Additional messages from Unohana taichou and Soutaichou have called for your immediate return to the Seireitei!"

"All right, thanks," Renji said, looking around, "Did they send a replacement?"

"No need, sir," Rikichi panted, "Kurotsuchi taichou's team just arrived. He said that he will need our guards to continue patrolling, but that the rest of us are cleared to return. You and I are to go ahead of them and return immediately."

"Okay, let's go," Renji said, flash stepping towards the senkaimon with Rikichi in his wake.