Chapter 29: The Unbearable

(Thanks so much for reading! :) Between Twilight and Dawn Part 2: Diablo's Hourglass will be re-posted shortly, after some editing.)

"Orihime," Kisuke said softly, "You need to stop for now. It seems that we are going to have to do this one spirit center at a time and you are going to have to rest and eat in between treatments. Otherwise, you will exhaust yourself…and Kuchiki taichou will be stuck without shinigami powers for good."

"Oh, yes, Urahara-san," Orihime said, pulling her hands away and letting the golden sphere around Byakuya fade.

Kisuke leaned over the unconscious noble, studying the spirit center she had repaired. He focused heavily and tested its response to small touches of his reiatsu. Frowning thoughtfully, he pored over the remains of the rest of the spirit centers and sighed.

"One down…too many to go," he commented softly, "This process will take nearly a month at this rate. And afterward, he is going to have to function without his powers for quite some time. It's a good thing you healed his physical injuries first. I had no idea he was this bad. Poor bastard's going to probably wish we'd just let him die."

He offered Orihime a tired smile.

"I hope you weren't planning on going back to the living world for a while."

"Actually, Kuchiki Yoshinori invited all of us who came to help Kuchiki taichou to stay at the manor while we work on his healing. Ichigo went over with Rukia to get our bedrooms in order."

"Huh, is that so? That's a relief, not having to look around for a place to stay. I don't know about you, but I'm tired out from the surgery to move the spirit chamber. I think we should leave off until tomorrow…let us and Kuchiki taichou have a break from this."

Orihime nodded and followed Kisuke out of the room.

XXXXXXXXXX

Rukia tucked Akane into bed and leaned over to kiss her good night. The girl yawned and blinked sleepily, the worry still plain in her eyes. Rukia smiled bracingly.

"Get some sleep now," she said softly, "Word came from the healing center that Nii-sama and Renji are going to be all right. Nii-sama will have to stay in the healing center for a while, but Renji should be able to come home tomorrow."

Akane nodded, but Rukia didn't miss the sadness in her expression.

"Did they say if our baby was okay?" she asked softly.

"The last I heard, the baby was okay. Try not to worry, Akane. Unohana taichou is making sure that Nii-sama and Renji are given the best of care. But if you are going to be helpful to them during their healing, then you need to get some rest."

"Okay Aunt Rukia," the girl said quietly, "I'll try to sleep."

"What's going on in here?" said Ichigo's voice from the doorway, "Is someone in here causing trouble and refusing to go to sleep?"

"No one's causing trouble here," Rukia said haughtily, "and it seems to me that you're the only one being noisy around here!"

"Well," said Ichigo, pretending to look offended, "I happen to be here on official business. Kisuke sent me on a little mission a few days back. It seems he heard from Ururu and Jinta that someone was missing a little friend of hers. So, I was sent to find that friend, and guess what?"

Akane stared, mystified.

"Get to the point already," Rukia said, smiling.

Ichigo took his hand from behind his back and produced a small, black cat.

"Beautiful Bya!" Akane squealed, jumping up and running to Ichigo. She accepted the purring cat from Ichigo and held him close to her cheek, "I thought I wouldn't ever get you back!"

"Well, good luck getting her to sleep now," sighed Rukia.

She looked up at Ichigo with tired, grateful eyes.

"Thank you, Ichigo," she said softly, "And I will thank Kisuke when he gets here."

"No problem," Ichigo said, watching as Akane carried the cat back to her bed and climbed in.

The cat sniffed the bed and Akane, then curled up on the pillow next to her and looked back at the shingamis with large, golden eyes that blinked slowly.

"I think we're being told to scram," Ichigo chuckled, "Come on, Rukia, let's let these two get some sleep."

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya woke to the reminiscent feelings of deep pain and dreaded emptiness. Without opening his eyes or even moving, he knew that the life that had been growing inside him was gone. He breathed slowly, letting the drugs in his system dull the throbbing that seemed to pulse everywhere, and wondering briefly where he was, home or not, safe or imperiled, free or captive. Not that it mattered so much. He forced his eyes open and found himself in the healing center in a bed next to Renji. He tried to reach out with his senses to make sure the redhead was all right, but was immediately stricken with sharp pain and no sense of Renji's condition. He lifted a hand and felt a burning in his eyes at the sight of the slim band at his wrist that held back whatever small bit of power might be left to him…assuming anything was left. He had felt the destruction of his spirit centers and even without his powers could feel that the damage was devastating.

But he couldn't bear being in the healing center anymore.

He lifted himself very slowly, biting back a groan as the pain rocketed through him, breaking through the comforting numbness of the medication. But Byakuya had been to the extremes of pain at Aizen Sousuke's hands and no amount of pain could keep him where he was. He lowered his feet over the edge of the bed and slid onto them, holding on to the edge of the bed as his legs quivered unsteadily beneath him.

He stood in the darkened room for several minutes, studying Renji's face and feeling the aches inside his body recede somewhat. The redhead looked to be resting peacefully. Byakuya moved slowly to his side and leaned over to kiss him. Renji shifted in his sleep, but didn't wake.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, "I did try to protect our child…"

He couldn't finish the thought. Turning away from Renji, he made his way to the door and opened it. The hallway had been darkened somewhat as well and though he heard healers moving about in other rooms, none appeared. He kept to the shadows and passed into the rear of the building, a silent, ghostly figure reflected dimly in the dark office windows. He slipped out the back entrance and walked slowly through the empty streets, feeling shivers of cold and weariness shake his slender form.

He wasn't exactly sure where he should go…

Without his powers, he would have a difficult time passing the guards at Kuchiki Manor without being noticed. And he was incapable of leaving Soul Society. Sighing, he turned down a darker street and followed it slowly to the end, where a shattered building lay in ruins that still smoldered lightly. He dropped slowly to his knees beneath a small, scorched sakura tree near the building, and sadly noted that it was one of only two of the twelve planted on either side of the tumbled Kuchiki Council Hall that still remained. He noticed suddenly how difficult it had become to breathe comfortably and how shaky his body was. It was a cold night, but he was relatively certain that nothing could match the iciness that had formed inside him.

This is what remains of the strongest of the noble houses…

He already suspected who would be chosen to represent each household. Their power would still be great, but much had been lost with the lives of the councilors. Even powerless, he thought he could feel the anguish of those households. His own had been spared, but was none the better for having had to endure five years of not knowing if he would ever return.

I wish I understood what drove this hatred…this desire to throw down the powerful. Even had you succeeded in becoming king, Sousuke, you would only have used your power as king to subjugate the ones you despised. Yes, the downtrodden would rise in power and perhaps have more comforts, but the hierarchy would just be turned upside down and there would be nobles and royal families toiling at the bottom of society. They might remain that way for centuries…but eventually, their power would grow and someone like you would come and raise them out of the dregs of society again. I am surprised that someone like you could not see this.

He stared into the glowing embers of the destroyed building and could almost feel Aizen Sousuke's ghost hovering somewhere nearby…reading his thoughts and shaking his head. He remembered the only time the leader of the hollows had given him a glimpse of what lay beneath his hatred.

"I thought that you were strong, Kuchiki Byakuya," Aizen said mockingly, "I thought you were the pride of the Kuchiki clan. Yet here, in my kingdom, you lie naked and powerless, unable to even move without my leave. How does powerlessness feel? How does it feel to be exhausted? Starving? Exposed to the elements? Dragged down among the damned and made one of them? All of the noble families will fall, Byakuya…all of them…as will their vacuous king."

"And a vengeful one like you will be some kind of improvement?" Byakuya spat back, "You are a fool, Aizen Sousuke."

He felt the blow coming, but didn't bother bracing himself. The pain was staggering, but no worse than what he had already endured.

"What do you expect from the ones crushed under your heel, Byakuya? Your family and the others care nothing for the ones you step all over as you hoard riches and power, and ignore the cries of the ones you leave to rot."

"And what do you call what you are doing to me? Justice? Revenge? It doesn't matter what you call it, Sousuke. It is the torment of someone fallen and it proves that however high you hold yourself, you are no better than the ones you would replace. Our worlds would be no better with your leadership. No…you would only replace one set of wrongs with another."

He expected to feel another shock of pain, but there was a moment of deep silence, then the feel of fingers threading through his hair with unexpected gentleness.

"You need to be careful, Byakuya," Aizen said quietly, "One might mistake you for someone who agrees with me that our leadership is not what it should be."

"You don't give a damn what I think," he answered in a low voice, "You only care about your own perception of things…and your mind has already defined me. I am a clan leader, one who crushes the lower class under his heel and cares nothing for them…only for hoarding riches and power…and following the stiff rules of upper class. Keep that perception. Assuming what you plan for me, it is better you close your eyes and never see the truth…"

For the first time since being captured, Byakuya read uncertainty in the dark brown eyes that observed him. The fingers in his hair continued their gentle motion, then slid down to curl around his neck as Aizen climbed onto the bed beside him. The leader of the hollows gazed at him for a long time, then he sighed and closed his eyes.

"I should have suspected," he said quietly, "You did, after all, marry a peasant."

His eyes opened again and met Byakuya's calmly.

"But even if you are not like the rest, you are still one of them. You lead them. You can't be that different."

"My grandfather led the family before I did…and his father and grandfather led before that. Our household has long supported the peaceful change of our society…and though change moves slowly, things have progressed. But you have taken my household from power…and now you will undo the very things you claim to desire, Sousuke. For I assure you, the one chosen to succeed me will not hold the values I hold."

"But it won't matter," whispered Aizen, "because all of the houses will fall and change will come. You needn't burden yourself worrying about that anymore. If what you say is true, then you should be pleased. I will effect in a few years more than your 'peaceful change' could accomplish in a thousand years. My one regret is that my rise to power will engulf more than a few like you, Byakuya. But think of it this way. You will be sacrificed to bring about the kind of change that would spare those like Hisana…those doomed to poverty and violence. When the pain is at its worst, think of that…and it will comfort you."

"Don't speak to me as though you suddenly care for my comfort," Byakuya replied, turning his head away, "You would look me in the eyes while you bleed the life out of me. You are heartless. You truly belong here, among these others like you."

"Is that what you think?" Aizen whispered, touching his face and tracing his lips, "Is that what you really think…or just what you must force yourself to believe…because if it turned out that you and I wanted the same things, then you wouldn't be able to tell yourself you are somehow better than me, Kuchiki Byakuya. You would have to admit we are alike in our desires."

"We are nothing alike."

"But I think we are," Aizen said, brushing his lips against the fine curve of the noble's throat and kissing him beneath an earlobe, "The only difference is my willingness to go to extremes to accomplish change more quickly."

"And the ease with which you use and dispose of the ones around you," Byakuya finished, "Even the ones here who are not bound as prisoners the way I am…you bind them in other ways and use them too. And you enjoy it, Sousuke. It is all a game to you."

"Hmm," said Aizen thoughtfully, "then you will not be surprised at being used by me…though for tonight…in light of how you've entertained me with your viewpoint, I will be gentle with you. It may be the only gentleness I can give you while you are here. But the day will come when I will be king over the three worlds…and I will free you then. Then, I think, you will come to me, Kuchiki Byakuya, and you will seek a place beside me."

His mouth was invaded before he could form a reply. And the leader of the hollows took him with extreme tenderness, then released him from his restraints and left him sitting quietly in the window seat, staring out at the lights of the distant shinigami base. He thought he could feel Renji's eyes looking out over the same desert, wondering, as he did, if their eyes would ever meet again…and knowing with certainty that even if they did, they would never be the same. Too much had been broken.

"And even now," whispered Byakuya, tears rising in his eyes, "too much is broken…and irretrievably lost. We cannot go back and undo any of this. We have to live with our regrets. But you, Sousuke, you have found some measure of peace, I suppose. Even in failing to reach the king, you made your mark on the noble houses. There will be others who follow the path you did…and perhaps the leaders who come after me will be stronger…"

A tear dropped from each eye and he didn't bother to brush them away. He closed his eyes against the memories of pain, degradation, loss and the worst…the dead eyes of the councilors that gazed at him and silently hated him for not being stronger, more able to protect them. But they couldn't hate him half as much as he hated himself…

"B-bya?"

Renji's voice was soft and filled with pain. He turned and saw the heavily bandaged fukutaichou standing a short distance away and looking at him as though he wasn't sure if he was real.

"You should go back to the healing center, Abarai," he said, in what he meant to be a cold voice, but one that only managed to sound tired and lost.

"I should be in the healing center?" Renji asked in a choked voice, "You're the one who was practically blown to pieces. You shouldn't even be conscious."

"I shouldn't be alive at all," Byakuya said, looking away, "It was my duty to protect this place, my house, our child…and I failed in every way. And everything is gone. Go home, Renji."

He felt the hesitation, the pain as his words descended on the other, but instead of retreating, Renji moved cautiously closer, then eased himself to the ground at Byakuya's side.

"You're wrong, Byakuya. You didn't fail anyone."

He studied the building in front of them for a moment.

"This building…can be rebuilt. And even with the loss of those councilors, you and Yoshinori can seat new leadership and rebuild your clan. And Byakuya, you didn't lose our child…"

"But…"

Renji captured Byakuya's hand and brought it to rest on his lower abdomen.

"I know that you can't feel it right now…but our baby…is still alive, here. Unohana taichou brought Urahara Kisuke and he was able to implant the spirit chamber in me. Our baby is alive, Byakuya, and the only reason that is true is because of what you did to protect him."

"It's a boy?" Byakuya whispered, "and he lives?"

"Yeah," Renji said, a small smile touching his lips, "and thanks to you, he's going to be fine. You stopped that attack from passing through the altered spirit center…and you nearly died because it destroyed all but one of your spirit centers. Kisuke and Orihime will be able to undo the damage. It will just take time. And you'll be without your powers for a while, but even that will be restored."

He slipped an arm around Byakuya's waist and pulled him closer. The noble, hesitated for a moment, gazing into the teary brown eyes, then rested his body against Renji's, dropping his head onto the redhead's shoulder and leaving one hand pressed against his abdomen. They sat silently, the embers of the burned remains of the building warding off some of the chill in the air around them.

"We should get you back to the healing center," Renji said, resting his chin on the top of Byakuya's head.

"I want to go home," Byakuya whispered, "I can't stand that place."

Renji slipped a hand under his chin and lifted it so the dark, smoky eyes met his.

"Can you ever just do what you're supposed to, or do you always have to be so stubborn?"

"You think I'm stubborn?" Byakuya asked archly, "You wrote the book on stubbornness, Abarai."

Renji sighed and captured his lips warmly.

"All right…maybe we can find a way for the healing to be done at the manor, but we have to get there, first. I can't lift you, so do you think you can walk with me?"

"I walked here, didn't I?" Byakuya asked, sounding offended.

"Yeah…staggered is probably more like it!" Renji exclaimed, helping him to his feet.

"I did not stagger," Byakuya said, biting back a groan as the pain struck upon standing.

Renji laughed softly and pulled him close.

"Here, you can lean on me," he offered.

"I don't need to lean on anyone…" Byakuya argued.

"Yeah, I know," Renji muttered, "just shut up and lean on me."

"Abarai, I am still your taichou," the noble reminded him.

"Okay, then, shut up, Taichou, and lean on me."

Barely suppressing a smile, Byakuya settled against the redhead and allowed himself to be turned toward home.

Behind them, the moon shone down from the sky, poured through the shattered beams and glinted softly off the surface of a gathering of broken shards of metal. A pale, trembling hand emerged from the wreckage beside the broken sword and wrapped itself around the hilt. Slowly, the sword and its bearer faded from view.

(A/N**Thanks so much for reading and for all of the lovely reviews! As is hinted here, there will be a sequel. My good friend, Walkure and I put our heads together and thought up something devilish. So I will be working on that, but also finishing up some of my other stories too. Thanks again for reading! Love, Spunky)