Chapter 6: Dying Heart

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Slower and slower, the crimson throbs farther apart and growing ever weaker. I was nearly without hope when you appeared. But like a flash of lightning in the torrid sky, you lit the air around me, burned away the darkness, and brought me back to life.

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Tatsuo felt a shock pass through him, as his screaming ended and he was still alive and able to draw a dragging breath.

I couldn't have seen him like that...the life nearly gone from his body, the wickedness in those eyes I trusted...Byakuya-sama!

And...despite nearly being one of them, he...saved me?

"Fool!" snarled the hollow as Byakuya's cero blast threw him back against the already damaged wall and sent him crashing through.

He rolled into a crouch and bared his fangs, hissing furiously.

"You will pay for that! How dare you defy me, you shinigami whore!"

He used his sonido to lunge at Byakuya, but was thrown off his feet by four heavy blasts of kido that came from behind the fallen Tatsuo.

Byakuya's head turned, and his glowing, red-golden eyes stared in surprise as Kuchiki Eri flash stepped into the room, followed by Rukia, Renji and the clan leader's attendant, Torio.

"Kami!" breathed Eri, her eyes going wide as she took in the sight of the partially hollowfied clan leader, "Byakuya-sama!"

She swallowed hard and raised her hands again, ready to fire another blast of kido. Byakuya met her eyes quietly, then disappeared out the jagged opening in the wall. Eri moved to follow, but was stopped by Tatsuo's insistent voice.

"Eri, wait," Tatsuo panted, "He wasn't the one who attacked me. Byakuya-sama...saved me. He attacked that...thing."

"But he has been corrupted, Tatsuo," the lady elder said, moving forward and kneeling at her cousin's side.

Rukia, Renji and Torio stepped past the two and approached the broken wall that the clan leader had escaped through.

"Nii-sama," Rukia whispered in a trembling voice, "We...just want to heal you. We want to take you home and heal you, that's all."

"You cannot take him home," Tatsuo said softly.

Renji, Rukia and Torio stared at him in surprise.

"Byakuya-sama...has been defiled...and has begun to hollowfy. If you take him back to the Seireitei, the clan elders will be forced by our laws to humanely destroy him!"

"I thought that's what you wanted," Rukia said coldly, "Isn't that why you had him brought here against his will? Locked him up and tried to just take his place?"

"I admit that I did those things," said Tatsuo, "but I only acted as I did, because I thought that it was best for the clan. Rukia...you know that if things had continued as they were, that other clans would have begun to challenge our power. I did seek control, but I did so only to protect the clan. It doesn't mean that I wished him ill."

"You took him from the people he loved," Renji accused the man angrily, "You had him dragged out here and abandoned!"

"Actually," said Eri, "This facility is the best equipped to have helped him. But...as you saw when we entered, the staff was annihilated. If Byakuya-sama..."

"Byakuya-sama did not kill them," Tatsuo said with certainty, "It was that hollow...the one he called Ashikagai. Although he has been corrupted, Byakuya-sama retains enough heart to resist the hollow's thirst for blood. That hollow was the one who killed the staff, imprisoned Byakuya-sama here, and returned repeatedly to rape and befoul him. He has been slowly turning our leader into a hollow. And from what I understand, if he had obeyed Ashikagai, and killed and devoured me, he would have finished the process."

"B-but you said that he resisted?" Torio asked in a shaken voice.

"Yes," said Tatsuo, "He let the hollow think that he was going to kill me, then he struck the hollow with a cero."

"A cero?" Eri repeated, paling at the word.

"Yes," confirmed Tatsuo, "He fired a cero at the hollow. And we know what that means. It means that he is a breath from becoming a hollow, himself. And it means that even if the clan was not under law, required to kill him, the Gotei 13 captain commander would also be under laws that would require him to order Byakuya-sama's death. No taichou would be allowed to live upon reaching this state."

"We're not going to abandon him!" insisted Renji, "And we sure as hell are not going to kill him! Neither you, nor Soutaichou, nor the freaking king, himself is gonna make us do that!"

"I wasn't suggesting that you should," said Tatsuo, his voice growing stronger as Eri's healing power worked with his body to heal him, "In fact...I think that you should...follow your instincts in this case."

"You...are telling us to...?" Rukia began.

Eri smiled and squeezed the injured man's hand.

"He is telling you that, although he has assumed leadership of the Kuchiki clan and that we are required to humanely kill our cousin if we encounter him, if someone else finds him first and is able to reverse his condition, the clan would of course, welcome him back into the family."

"And his place as clan leader?" asked Renji, glaring at Tatsuo.

"Leave that to me," said the man, lowering his eyes, "I will see to that. You concentrate on your task. I think that you must make yourselves familiar with the hollow's reiatsu that he left behind and then try to track him. He will be looking for Byakuya-sama too. And if he finds him first, he will hasten to complete his hollowfication. You must find him and find a way to help him before that happens!"

"And what about the military?" asked Renji, "Is the clan going to tell them what they know about Taichou's condition?"

Tatsuo and Eri exchanged brief glances.

"No," said Eri, "There is no law that states we are compelled to share that information. However, that does not mean that the Gotei 13 will not come across it themselves. You must move quickly and work quietly to escape notice as you try to assist him. We cannot involve ourselves directly. We are barred from doing so, because of our place among the elders."

"So," finished Tatsuo, meeting their eyes warningly, "we must depend on others to help him. We will not impede you."

"Well, at least that's something," sighed Renji.

"But how will we find him?" Torio asked, looking tormented, "It was hard enough to find him here, and now he is gone again!"

"Hey," said Renji, "Don't give up, kid. We're going to find Taichou. And we are going to help get him turned around. Now, come on. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we will find him!"

"Are you going to be all right now, Tatsuo-sama?" asked Rukia, making the interim clan leader look up at her in surprise.

"Do not worry about me," he said, lowering his eyes, "Go."

"I will take care of him," Eri assured Rukia, "You go and find your brother. I know that you and Abarai fukutaichou will be able to help Byakuya-sama. Do as he says. Go now. We will take care of things here and make our report to the council."

"Arigatou," said Rukia, bowing, then flash stepping away with Renji and Torio.

Tatsuo sat solemnly on the floor, his eyes troubled as they pondered the blood splashed all around the building. Eri sighed and helped him to his feet.

"Come now. Brooding won't help," she chided him, "Byakuya-sama's fate rests in capable hands."

Tatsuo nodded, biting at his lips and looking down at his shattered zanpakutou.

"I hope they do better than we did when his fate rested in our hands," he said softly, "Eri...I was so awful to him. I treated him so badly. Yet...even as beaten down and corrupted as he was, he still..."

"Stop," Eri said firmly, "Yes, we made mistakes. But we are doing our best to help him now."

The interim clan leader let out a disgusted breath.

"We are doing nothing!" he snapped.

"Yes," agreed Eri, "We are doing nothing. And because we are taking no action, Byakuya-sama has a chance to live and return to us."

She looked around the ruined room and sighed.

"Come now, we have a lot to see to here."

Tatsuo glanced once more through the broken wall, then slowly rose and followed the lady elder out of the room.

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"Do you sense anything?" Renji asked Torio, as the three flash stepped back into the central Seireitei.

"No," said the attendant, "But it is probably a good thing in that if we could sense him easily, then that awful hollow could too."

"And that's the last thing we want to have happen," finished Rukia, "But we still have to find Nii-sama!"

"And once we do, we need to have a way to help him."

"I've been thinking about that," said Rukia, "And I think that we should go to someone who knows a lot about hollows and hollowfication. And that man we know who knows the most about those things is Urahara Kisuke. Renji, one of us should go to him."

"But," Renji began, but broke off as Rikichi flash stepped into view.

"Abarai fukutaichou!" he called, "I have a message for you...from Kuchiki taichou."

"What?" Rukia and Renji said together.

"What's the message kid?" Renji asked quickly, "What did he say?"

"Erm...well," said the youth, "I didn't hear everything because the hell butterfly kept getting away from me."

"Dammit!" snapped Renji, "I told you, you need to..."

"Renji," said Rukia, laying a hand on his arm, "Now isn't the time to get after him for that."

Rikichi swallowed hard and straightened, though his eyes still looked guilty.

"Okay," said Rukia, "Just tell us what you remember."

"Eh...he said he wanted the two of you to 'go home.' He said that he would meet you 'at home.'"

"The manor?" queried Torio, "But the hollow would surely be waiting there for him! Why would he go there?"

Renji furrowed his brow, thinking. A moment later, he met Rukia's eyes and both uttered the same thing.

"Inuzuri!"

Renji turned to the two youths.

"Rukia and I will take care of this," he told them.

"But I want to help!" objected Torio, I am Kuchiki-sama's attendant!"

"Right," said Rukia, glancing at Renji, "And you will help us. I want you to go to Karakura Town. Go to Urahara Kisuke and tell him everything that's happened."

"But don't go alone," Renji added, "Remember...because you are close to Taichou, that hollow could just decide to use you to try to find him."

He caught Rikichi's eye meaningfully.

"Rikichi, I want you to go to Karakura Town with Torio. Stay with him at all times. He could be in very real danger. We will meet the two of you there as soon as we have checked out Inuzuri."

"Yes sir!" exclaimed Rikichi, his eyes widening.

I thought for sure that after making him mad like that by being so stupid, that he wouldn't want to trust me with anything...

He turned to the youth next to Rukia and smiled.

"Come, Torio-san, I will make sure that you reach Karakura Town safely."

Torio smiled shyly.

"Thank you, Rikichi-san," he answered, inclining his head, "I appreciate your help."

Renji shook his head as the two flash stepped away together.

"I hope those two don't get into any trouble," he mused.

"Well," chuckled Rukia, "as long as it doesn't involve an attack of hell butterflies, then Rikichi should be able to handle it."

"Seriously, though," Renji complained, "I don't know what it is with that kid and those stupid insects. Rikichi's pretty talented, that aside. He is good with his sword and has a pretty good handle on his shikai."

"And I've seen his kido," Rukia commented, "I think it's better than yours."

"Shut up," Renji said, nudging her with his elbow as they started towards the Rukongai.

They moved to flash step speed, concerned about reaching the town and finding the missing noble before darkness fell. But even with the additional speed, they barely reached the edge of town before the sun set.

"Nice," grumbled Renji, "Be on your guard. You remember how this place gets at night."

"Yeah," said Rukia, "I remember."

The two moved on into the village square, pausing to look around.

"He said 'home,'" Renji remembered aloud, "Do you know where in town he could have been talking about?"

"Hmmm," Rukia mused, "Home. Huh...Well, he couldn't have meant the home we shared, because I never told Byakuya where we lived when we were here. And he didn't find me until we had moved to the shinigami academy."

"So...what did he mean, then?"

Rukia considered the question for several minutes, while the redhead drifted over to a vendor and purchased tea, fresh bread and hot soup for the two of them. They sat down at a small table near the food stands and were just starting to eat, when Rukia's eye fell on a gathering of small children, lurking near the food stand. Renji watched as memory played over the young woman's face, then she got up and walked back to the vendor. He smiled as she returned, and the vendor began handing out hot food to the gathered children.

"You just can't help yourself, can you?" he said appreciatively.

"Well," Rukia said softly, "Byakuya said once, when we were here together, that he understood. And he said that when I came to town, I only needed to show his token and the vendors would feed the children, compliments of the Kuchiki family. He used to do that for my sister when they were here together."

"Ah," said Renji, "So, how did Taichou meet your sister?"

"He was on assignment here, and there was a really big hollow attack. He was fighting, and he found my sister and some others trying to protect a group of children. The other adults were all killed and the hollows were closing in. But even though she could have run away, my sister remembered how it felt when she left me, and she couldn't abandon those children. So, she picked up a metal pole and stood her ground, and the hollows knocked her down and were going to kill her. Byakuya saved her. He saved the group of kids, too. After that, my sister told him her story. Byakuya said that he was so fascinated by her courage in facing death, that he couldn't leave her there. He stayed with her for the rest of his assignment in a small shack near the river, and when he left, he brought her to Kuchiki Manor and married her."

The two blinked in realization.

"The shack by the river," Renji concluded, "Do you think you can find it?"

"I think so."

"Then, come on!" Renji exclaimed, pulling her to her feet, "We need to find Taichou now!"

The two flash stepped away, leaving the gathering of street children eating contentedly behind them.