Withered Blossom

By Spunky0ne

Chapter 1: Fallen Star

XXXXXXXXXX

So black was the hand that took my heavenly body down from the sky. He laid me on the cold sand and fouled my pristine skin, holding me down and sucking the life from my veins. I thought there would be nothing left…wished I was not left, naked and bleeding, defiled and dishonored, taken from that exalted place and cast into nothingness. Now, my eyes see only darkness, my skin feels only pain, my heart feels nothing…and yet I am alive. The one who couldn't let me leave with honor, who held my broken body and willed it to breathe…he…he has damned me to living on…and I will never forgive him…

XXXXXXXXXX

Kuchiki Byakuya shivered with astonishment as the sound of metal shattering reached his ears. Something sharp sank into his abdomen and he gasped in pain, dropping to his knees and losing his grip on the hilt of his broken sword. Some part of him had expected it. There had been too many hollows and they had taken him by surprise, finding him more by happenstance than by stealth. But the hollows were opportunists and would not miss the chance to bring down one such as him. One reached down and pulled the knife from his body and he fell forward onto hands and knees, the taste of blood filling his mouth. He waited for them to close in…for them to begin the rending of his flesh…the devouring of his soul.

But everything went suddenly silent…

He heard the soft sound of footsteps on sand and then bony fingers sank into his hair and dragged his head back. He expected to feel the knife slash across his throat, but instead, he felt black eyes seeking his and looked up solemnly.

He found himself looking up into the eyes of a slender, wickedly beautiful hollow, with pale, white skin on face and breast, but that grew darker as one moved away from the core of it. His long hair was black as midnight and hands and feet thinned and turned leathery as they approached the ends and gave way to long, black claws. He felt the power of that creature burn down into him and couldn't help but shudder. The hollow smiled.

"Kuchiki Byakuya," he said in a silken voice, "I hardly dare to believe my eyes. Is it truly you? Is it really you who has fallen into my hands?"

Byakuya held himself still and remained silent. He noticed suddenly that the lower level hollows who were with this one had formed a circle around them and waited, quiet and staring, their reiatsu dancing with anticipation. He didn't want to consider what they waited to do to him…when the black and white terror that held him was finished with him. A viselike grip closed bruisingly around his wrist and he felt hot breath on his ear.

"Kuchiki taichou…can you hear me? You can, can't you? Then look into the eyes of the hollows and try to guess what we will do to you…"

A clawed hand closed around his throat and his spirit energy was quickly sealed away. He was dragged off his feet and thrown down on his back in the sand. His captor dropped down, pressing a knee deeply into his chest and releasing a bone-chilling laugh.

He managed to hold on to his composure until the claws slashed at him, shredding his shihakushou and baring his pale flesh. Blood seeped onto his skin and he sucked in a pained gasp.

"Do you know now?" the hollow hissed.

He laughed again.

"Kuchiki taichou, noble clan leader, I am Ashikagai…I am the enemy you have fallen beneath. And before I slit your throat and watch you bleed out onto the ground, I will share with you the reason I was given this name."

He leaned close so that Byakuya could feel the creature's breath on the skin of his exposed throat. Slowly, he extended a long, red tongue and licked the noble's throat. Byakuya turned his body suddenly and thrust upward, trying to throw the creature off, but the hollow clung to him tightly and slashed across his cheek, leaving angry red lines that leaked more blood. He leaned down and slowly licked the blood away.

"You taste beautiful…but you are about to be fouled. And I will only be the first of many to take you. You will give yourself to me, then you will serve my minions one by one until all have filled you with their seed. And when we have finished with you, we will feast on your lovely white flesh. Any questions?"

Byakuya clenched his jaw tightly and closed his eyes as hardened hands laid themselves on his wrists and ankles, holding him down. His breathing quickened and he tried to let his mind disappear as Ashikagi leaned over him and bit hungrily at his lips and throat. He tore the kenseiken from its place in the noble's hair and cast it aside, then let his clawed hands roam over Byakuya's skin, leaving tiny trails of blood behind.

Byakuya groaned in pain, quivering inside, but loathe to let the hollows know how much it hurt. The scratches felt like fire on his skin and the hollow's tongue seared everything it touched. The claws tightened and he caught his breath. The cruel hands forced his legs apart.

And all he could think of was the shame of being bared this way before them…of being defiled and dishonored so deeply. The only source of comfort he had was that he would not survive to feel the agony. He would shut down and close himself away from all sensation…and when they were finished with him, they would kill him.

Ashikagi bit down hard on his shoulder and began his torments. The noble screamed in pain at the intrusion and forced his thoughts to turn inward. He disappeared into himself, separating himself from the heavy shocks of pain, the blaze of fire on his skin, the sound of his voice screaming. Deep inside, everything was quiet and calm, deeply tranquil. The evil ones could not penetrate so deeply…and eventually, they would tire of tormenting him and slit his throat. And in this removed and quiet place, he wouldn't even feel himself pass from life.

It was strange that the thought of dying could comfort him so…

XXXXXXXXXX

Abarai Renji stood in stunned silence, staring out across the sandy ravine where the battle had taken place. It had been hard fought and they had held up far better than they should have, but in the end, they had fallen. Their bodies littered the sand all along the surface of the dark ravine, but even as they moved from crumpled form to crumpled form, they found no sign of the one who had led them.

"Sir," said Rikichi in a trembling voice, "I found paths where some…"

He swallowed hard.

"…where some were dragged away into the caves."

"Tell the men to search the caves," Renji ordered, "but go in teams of four."

He watched as Rikichi returned to the others, his heart beating coldly, sending shards of ice dancing in his veins. He took a breath and forced himself to walk the edges of the battlefield, reaching out with his senses and coming to a halt as a familiar reiatsu brushed lightly against his.

He almost loosed a wounded cry, but bit it back and turned onto the small trail that led deep into the divide, chilled by the signs that so many had followed the one who had dragged him. His heart sank more with every step, and now Abarai Renji simply awaited confirmation that the worst had, indeed, happened and that their taichou was dead.

He stopped cold as he reached a small clearing outside a large cave. The group had circled near the center of the clearing and a body had lain on the ground in the center of the circle. He stared for a moment at the blood in the sand and wondered darkly if that was all he would find. He dropped to his knees and touched the sand with his fingers. The blood was sticky, but still moist. He had been there recently.

It was such an obvious conclusion to come to…that he should enter the cave, but he couldn't fathom why his feet did not move in that direction, but remained frozen next to that place in the sand. He longed to breathe, but breathing had become impossible. He felt stifled in the cold and darkness…and he wondered if he would ever feel the warmth of the sun touch his skin again…if the sensations would ever reach through the dread, the unspeakable horror.

He didn't want to take those last steps, to find the torn remains, the leavings of flesh and bone that were all that was left of his taichou. But despite the rage of emotions washing through him, Renji was a warrior…and it would have been dishonorable to leave his taichou…or any squad member, in the hands of the enemy. He had to be the one to take those steps. He had to pick up whatever pieces were left…take them home…and see to their honorable treatment. It was the only right thing to do.

He reached out with his senses, probing the cave and found a dim sign of ambiguous life. Shaking his head and frowning, he moved into the cave entrance and stopped to let his eyes adjust. The enemy had left in a hurry. He had met a group of others in the entry and they had gone together…so he was safe enough for the moment.

He moved deeper into the cave, steeling himself against the sour smell that rose around him. He did see signs of their feeding…but they had eaten weaker hollows. They had stopped in the midst of their meal, leaving some of their victims still moaning and only partially eaten. Renji quickly ended their suffering and moved into the back of the cave.

He heard a small sound of pain and turned. A naked shinigami laid in the corner, curled in pain and unconscious. Wondering if he might know their taichou's fate, he knelt next to the man and carefully turned him onto his back.

Renji froze, staring.

"Oh my kami," he whispered, "Taichou…"

Deep gray eyes opened into slits and his lips moved.

"K-kill me…quickly."

The words consumed the last whisper of his strength and his eyes slid closed again. And despite what his mind told him…despite the fact his taichou had ordered him to mercifully end his suffering, Renji's heart wouldn't let him draw his weapon.

He could end the lives of the dying, half-consumed hollows…or another as far gone as Byakuya was now, but Abarai Renji could not make himself kill Byakuya…not even to spare him more pain and the death that seemed so certain.

He looked around the cave for something to cover his body with, but found nothing of serviceable size that wasn't already shredded beyond recognition. He found the kenseiken and released a sharp breath at the sight of the hairs that had been torn out with it. Near it lay the ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu, somewhat torn and speckled with blood, but still in one piece. Seeing nothing else he could use, he returned to Byakuya's side and slowly removed his own uniform top. He spread it out on the floor of the cave and carefully maneuvered the injured man onto it. Byakuya groaned incoherently at being moved, but seemed too weak to manage more. Renji carefully wrapped him into the material, then lifted his taichou's unresponsive body into his arms.

He flash stepped back to the meeting point and found the third seat. The eyes of the officer went wide as he recognized their taichou.

"I have to take him back to the Seireitei quickly," Renji told him, "His injuries are too great to be treated here. Stay here and finish the investigation and cleanup."

He paused for a moment and looked around.

"And if they come back…destroy them…"

"Hai, Abarai fukutaichou," the officer said, bowing.

Renji turned away and flash stepped back across the desert to the small base that had been their starting point. The men on duty bowed their heads in understanding, not questioning as Renji passed, but just looking on and shaking their heads sadly. Lost in his desperation, Renji did not see. He only kept his feet moving until he reached the crossover point, then paused as the doorway opened, then broke back into a run, flash stepping down the streets of the Seireitei, breathing his gratitude that it was night here also and that Byakuya would be spared the humiliation of being seen as he was returned and taken to the healing center.

He would, Renji knew, have been mortified…

And if Byakuya managed to survive…and if surviving, he remembered telling Renji to take his life, then he was going to be furious. A small, sad smile touched Renji's lips. He wanted so much to feel the rise of that reiatsu, to hear the deep, velvet sarcasm. He would welcome whatever punishment the noble thought he deserved for bringing him back alive.

Anything was better than losing him…

He closed the distance between the healing center and them, bounding up the steps and bursting into the admitting area. He was somewhat surprised, and yet not, that the healers seemed to expect them. They gently accepted Byakuya from his arms and carried him into an examination room, indicating that Renji should wait in the lobby.

He sat down in a chair, only then realizing that he had bared himself to the waist. It wasn't that he felt uncomfortable without the clothing…but it didn't seen proper. He thought about going to the sixth division and changing, but he couldn't make himself leave. Instead, he sat quietly in the chair, trying to ignore the state he was in.

"Renji," a soft, feminine voice said, making him look up in surprise.

"Rukia," he mouthed, the word not sounding aloud.

"I heard that Nii-sama was injured," she said worriedly.

She stared at Renji's half-bared form and haunted eyes and her lips trembled, but she blinked back her tears and straightened.

"It's bad, isn't it?" she said in a low voice.

Renji nodded wordlessly.

Rukia moved closer, curling under a warm, naked arm and resting her head against his shoulder. She blinked and stared dazedly, but did not shed any tears. Byakuya, Renji thought, would have been proud. They rested quietly, comforting each other with only physical presence, not needing to break the silence. They had been here before…waiting to know the fate of someone they loved…waiting and feeling the futility of worrying. They weren't in control of Byakuya's fate. They waited just to learn what it was, then to do as the news dictated.

After a time, the white door opened and Unohana taichou emerged. She led them to her office and sat them down. The two braced themselves for the worst.

"Byakuya will live," she announced, sending a breath of relief into their lungs and finally allowing them to breathe again, "but he is in very guarded condition. He endured a violent assault and lost a great deal of blood and reiatsu. He has been infused with both and is responding to treatment…but I must warn you…he will have a long period of recovery. He suffered greatly at the hands of the hollows."

"Is he awake? Can we see him?" asked Rukia, tears rising in her eyes.

"He is, as of yet, comatose…but there is every reason to believe he will awaken and recover, with time. You may see him, sit with him…talk to him and to each other. The sound of your voices will act as a guide, pulling him back in our direction."

Rukia and Renji nodded and followed the healer into the noble's room. Renji was deeply grateful to notice that his body had been carefully cleaned, the bloodied and matted hair, washed and combed, and that he was now dressed on a soft, white yukata. His face was relaxed and looked more peaceful.

Renji and Rukia sat down at the injured noble's side…and the quiet vigil began…