Chapter 21: Small Steps Forward

It was still somewhat dark when Byakuya felt an uncomfortable pitching sensation in his stomach and his head began to ache fiercely. He calmed his mind and tried to breathe through the sensation, thinking it was likely the dregs of his anxiety, or perhaps his uncharacteristic indulgence in spirits at the reception to quell the feeling of wrongness about what he was doing. Whatever it was, the feeling, rather than dissipating, grew stronger and more urgent, until he could stand it no longer.

He untangled himself from Renji and rolled to his feet, leaving the redhead yawning and muttering incoherently somewhere behind him. He flash stepped to the bathroom and loosed everything, regretting his poor judgment in using alcohol to deal with emotional angst. It wasn't, he thought now, worth the result, and he promised himself that it would not happen again.

He fell back and moved until the wall was at his back, then sat quietly, breathing slowly and trying to stop the spinning feeling in his head. He heard Renji in the doorway, but was forced to delay his response, due to another intense swell of nausea.

"Damn, Byakuya," Renji said, smiling sympathetically, "you shouldn't have had all of that…"

"Shut up, Abarai," the noble managed, holding his midsection, "If you've come here to criticize, then get out."

"Hey, don't get angry. I'm not here to criticize. I wanted to make sure you were all right," Renji said, sliding down next to him.

He watched, shaking his head and smiling affectionately as Byakuya leaned forward, retching and gasping, and still holding his abdomen.

"Sheesh, Taichou, alcohol really doesn't agree with you. You want me to go get a healer?"

Byakuya fell back against the wall again, shaking his head, then wincing and rubbing his eyes.

"Kami no…just…just some ginger tea."

"Sure thing, Taichou."

"Renji?"

"Hai, Taichou?"

"After what we did last night, it's extremely inappropriate for you to speak to me so formally. In private, please don't call me that…"

Renji couldn't quite stifle an evil snicker.

"Aww, Byakuya, you were cute! And that wife of yours…she sure surprised the hell outta me, that's for damned sure!"

The noble was surprised to find that, despite the illness making his skin even more pale than usual, he could still blush.

"Get out of here, Abarai!" he snapped, pushing the redhead away, "Go and get that tea!"

"Ugh, someone's in a really foul mood. Fine…tea…anything else?" Renji asked, getting up and turning away.

Byakuya sighed uncomfortably and rested his face in his hands.

"N-no…just…go away!"

Renji started towards the door.

"Nice! Well, I think there will be no more drinking and sex parties for you…"

"Abarai!" the noble hissed ferociously.

"Just kidding," Renji laughed, "Stay there. I'll be right back."

"As though I could move…"

"Yeah," sighed Renji playfully, "Last night was something. Never thought I'd do something like that. Would've thought I'd be way too jealous…but it would be odd to be jealous of your wife…"

"Abarai…please get away from me. I'm sick enough as it is…"

"Whew," Renji went on, "after that, I'd be surprised if I didn't end up pregnant. I knew you had a lot of energy, but…"

"I swear that if you don't get away from me now, I am going to kill you, Abarai!" Byakuya snapped.

Renji chuckled good-naturedly and flash stepped away. He returned a short time later to find the noble collapsed and sleeping on the bathroom floor. Shaking his head sympathetically, he lifted Byakuya into his arms and carried him back to bed. As he was lifted, Byakuya opened his eyes and blinked several times to bring the offending 'lifter' into focus.

"What are you doing? Put me down. I can walk on my own."

"I know that," Renji said, smiling warmly, "but I like holding you in my arms."

He paused by the bed for a moment, looking into the noble's dark eyes and thinking.

"I missed you while I was gone…while I was missing."

Byakuya's eyes softened.

"I thought you didn't remember…"

"Maybe I didn't remember you," the redhead said quietly, "but there was a huge empty space where you were supposed to be. That's what I mean, when I say that I missed you."

Byakuya sighed and let his head drop onto Renji's shoulder.

"I knew who I was missing," he said softly, "and every day you were gone, I cursed myself for not telling you how much I wanted you. I hated myself for not opening up to you sooner. I could have saved us so much pain. Renji…if I hadn't been so afraid to tell you…then you wouldn't have left at all…wouldn't have ended up with that monster inside you…and Aizen and Gin wouldn't have…Renji, no one should have his first time be like that. I'm sorry. I was an idiot."

Renji set him back on his feet and took his face in both hands.

"Don't worry, Byakuya," he said, looking deeply into the noble's dark gray eyes, "You are definitely worth the trouble. And even with all we have had to go through…remember…if things hadn't happened the way they did, we wouldn't have the chance to be together at all. Your elders would never have considered letting us get married. Not everything that happened was bad. And now, we have our future together to look forward to."

"We'll have to be cautious," Byakuya said quietly, "Remember that their willingness to allow this depends on our discretion. We cannot allow others to know what is between us, for now. Soon enough, the heir will be born and I will be free to be with you openly."

Renji smiled and nodded.

"I'm looking forward to that," he whispered, leaning forward to kiss him.

"I am also," Byakuya agreed, releasing Renji and sliding back into bed.

He picked up the tea and sipped at it. He looked up as a servant tapped on the door.

"Kuchiki-sama," he said softly, "Seijun-san asked me to tell you that she and Risa-san are waiting in the garden…for breakfast, sir."

Renji laughed softly.

"I think Kuchiki-sama is not feeling well enough to eat."

"Nonsense," said Byakuya, sliding to the edge of the bed, "I'm feeling better already. In any case, I have to get up to prepare for a taichou's meeting."

Renji shook his head.

"Soutaichou's a real slavedriver. He knows you were married last night…"

"Hai, but the Seireitei is in shambles. We meet this morning to discuss the rebuilding of the damaged areas and the setting of our new defenses. I assure you…it is an important meeting. There will be delegates from the royal and noble families there."

"So you're probably not the only newlywed being dragged away to this…"

"No," Byakuya said, "There are, in fact, quite a few others."

He moved toward the dressing area and turned back in surprise as Renji waved the servant off.

"Abarai, what are you doing?" he asked, staring.

"I'm going to help you dress," the redhead said, picking up Byakuya's hakama.

Byakuya shook his head and sighed, but quietly allowed Renji to come closer. As the redhead set his clothes in place, he turned his head and captured his lover's warm lips.

"Arigato, Renji," he said softly, "for everything…for staying with me…for not leaving me again. I don't want to know what it is to live without you anymore."

"Shh, Bya," Renji whispered against his lips, "You never will."

XXXXXXXXXX

Seijun's lips curved into a smile as Byakuya stepped onto the garden patio and took her hand, lifting it and gracing it with a delicate kiss.

"Good morning, Seijun," he added softly.

His wife's brown eyes twinkled brightly.

"Good morning, Byakuya-sama," she replied, "I understand from your attendant that you did not look well this morning, but I see that he must have exaggerated."

"No, not really," laughed Renji, "I can assure you, he looked lousy this morning…when he even woke up!"

Byakuya's eyes narrowed and his reiatsu pulsed warningly.

"I'll thank you to keep your silly observations to yourself, Abarai. Do not annoy my wife with needless worry."

"Sorry, Taichou," Renji said, turning to look at Seijun, "And not to worry, Seijun-san. I sorted him out."

"I see," said the noblewoman, her smile widening, "and you feel better now, my husband?"

"I am fine," he assured her, taking the seat next to her.

Renji dropped into the seat between Byakuya and Risa, sighing happily as the servants set out breakfast for the group. A smile crept onto his face at the sight of Byakuya, closing his eyes against a soft pang of nausea and taking only tea and toast.

"I see our schedule is filled with appointments," Seijun said, sipping at her tea.

"Hai," Byakuya said, nodding, "After my taichou's meeting, I will return here to prepare for the newlyweds' luncheon. Our public presentation will be right after that…then we must return home to have afternoon tea and then dinner with our family and guests who are staying at the manor."

Seijun nodded.

"I hope there will be time for a walk after breakfast," she said quietly, "It is pleasantly cool today, a nice morning for a walk out to the waterfall, ne?"

"That sounds lovely," Byakuya said, nodding.

The four fell to eating and enjoying the cool morning air and fresh smells of the garden. As they finished, the table was cleared and they rose and made their way out the back gate. They moved onto the forest path, Byakuya and Seijun slightly in front, Renji at the noble's left shoulder and Risa a step behind Seijun. Morning birds chirped merrily in the trees and soft sakura petals floated in the air around them.

"This place is so beautiful, Byakuya-sama," Seijun said happily, "It is the only place in the Seireitei that reminds me so strongly of the spirit dimension."

"I believe one's home should be a place of peace and comfort, wherever it might be."

They reached the cliff above the waterfall and stood near the edge, looking out over the pretty blue lake, across the green sea of long, windswept grasses and off to the border of the property, beyond which they could see the movement of the workers, assigned the daunting task of repairing the damaged buildings and walls.

"It's amazing," said Risa in a soft voice, "how quickly they make the damage disappear. Soon, you won't be able to tell what happened by looking there."

"But the reminders of our losses are all around," Seijun sighed, taking Risa's hand, "and the healing of our hearts is likely to take much longer. It is important, then, to take comfort in the small blessings."

She turned to Byakuya.

"The clan healers were at my door waiting this morning. The council was anxious to confirm the conception of an heir."

"I see," the noble said, slipping a hand into hers, "And?"

Seijun smiled hopefully.

"And I think that you will be happy to know that we were, indeed, successful in our efforts," she said softly.

Byakuya's eyes closed for a moment and a tentative smile found its way onto his lips. He squeezed her hand gently.

"I am, of course, pleased to hear this."

He kissed her gently on the forehead.

"I am so grateful that you were chosen for me, Seijun. Even though we were not meant to be lovers, we were meant, I think, to love each other. You have given Renji and me the chance to be together…"

"And you have allowed the same for Risa and me," Seijun responded, squeezing his hand again.

"This home that we share," Byakuya went on, "will be a loving environment for our child. And even when our marriage is dissolved, I am glad you will remain here to help nurture this child. An heir to leadership, such as this, must be raised in a place that builds strength and heart. This place…these grounds…will offer our child both of these. The emotions that guide the four of us in our efforts…will fuse inside our child…and he or she will be made strong…and just…"

He paused for a moment and lowered a hand to rest on her lower abdomen. He brought her hand there as well, and motioned for Renji and Risa to join them. The four stood quietly with their hands on Seijun and the breezes blowing softly in their hair. They looked up at Byakuya expectantly. The noble bowed his head slightly.

"Let us make a vow then…to dedicate our lives to the protection and nurturing of this small life…this promise to us of a future. Let us each pledge our energies to seeing that this little one grows up to be one who knows his or her own heart, follows his or her convictions and defends the important things…"

The four hands touched each other and their fingers locked together. Their heads bowed and each whispered in assent to the promise. Around them, the breeze grew strong, rippling their clothes and hair and whispering the tree branches around them. The four remained for a long time after, standing close on the edge of the cliff, locked together now in purpose, and hopeful.

(A/N**Okay, I know there is still a pregnancy that hasn't been discovered! Byakuya will get the happy news and he and Seijun will have their babies in the sequel to this story…The Oathbound: Leave Nothing Unsaid pt 2. And yes…I am already working on it! Thanks so much for reading! Love Spunky)