Chapter 15: Matters of the Heart

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Beaten and lost, I wandered the desert alone…only half a person. The desert had no beginning or end, and was as empty as my heart. But just as I collapsed upon the sand and let my tears of frustration be swallowed by the dryness, your love came down like rain…and the world burst into life again.

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"The floor is given to Lord Byakuya."

The noble stood at the head of the council meeting table, observing the proud faces of the Kuchiki elders. He knew just what was needed to quell the concerns of the group before him, and being well versed in statescraft, he delivered that reassurance flawlessly.

"You have all heard of the attack that took place near the shinigami base in Hueco Mundo recently. I was attacked by a powerful hollow and, it appears, I was subjected to its odd effects. It appears that the creature was able to shear off a portion of my own self and while the greater, more powerful portion was borne away and deposited deep in the desert, the smaller, more vulnerable part was left here…and it caused the oddness to which our clan was subjected recently. While we do not yet know all of the details of how to resolve this situation, I have acted to contain the problem by finding and placing this portion of myself under careful protection while the situation is fully analyzed and steps are taken to resolve it."

"It is not surprising to us to hear that this other…weaker part of yourself was not truly you. We, of course, recognized his odd behavior and placed him in your vice captain's care. We wanted to be sure he did not do anything to embarrass you. It seems we were correct in taking that action," said the head elder, "Lord Byakuya, we are relieved to see that you have returned, but…what action will be taken with this other person? Although only a part of your soul…he is a part of you. Yet…he also seems a bit of a liability, ne? His odd behavior is sometimes…startling…and he could reflect poorly on you if not…"

Byakuya bit back the sharp response that leapt into his mind and forced his reiatsu to remain calm.

Their reaction to Bya is hardly unexpected, yet…

"I have him under my protection and have assured those he is in contact with that he is harmless. I will see that his exposure to others is restricted so that the effect on the clan will be minimal. I assure you…the situation will be resolved to our mutual satisfaction soon."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that I have a very competent other researching the hollow and how to deal with its effects. We will know more soon and I will, of course, inform the council of action to be taken towards resolution."

"Well," said the head elder, "we are relieved to hear that, Lord Byakuya. We were taken aback by the appearance of this…look alike. It is good to know that you are in control as he seemed more than a bit…unbalanced."

Byakuya felt a hot flare of anger under his skin, but forced it away. He hated himself for what he said next, but knew it was necessary.

"Yes…well…he is contained, and I will not allow him to embarrass our clan any further."

"Thank you, Lord Byakuya."

He sat quietly as the meeting was brought to a conclusion, his mind straying to the other who slept soundly in the attendant's recess in his room. He forced himself not to think about the fact that he and Abarai were alone together. Knowing that left him unsettled for reasons he couldn't understand and didn't want to address. He sighed softly, standing as the meeting ended, and starting towards the door. As he reached it, a wave of dizziness passed over him and he felt a harsh, gripping sensation in his midsection. He wondered briefly if it meant that harm had come to Bya and Renji…and the thought pushed him into a flash step. But as his power engaged, the feeling of dizziness became overpowering and the heavy sensation in his body worsened.

"Lord Byakuya?" a voice said somewhere behind him.

What is going on?

He tried again to move, but his body refused to obey him, and a moment later, he collapsed entirely.

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Renji rested quietly with Bya sleeping in his arms, his eyes focused on the sky outside the open garden doors. He sighed softly, thinking back to Byakuya's response to his kiss. He had known his captain a long time and knew him better than most people. He was kicking himself for not realizing right away when Byakuya returned, what had to have happened.

He's always been quiet and closed off, but I felt that presence beneath everything. And I did love knowing that there was a gentler, more affectionate side to him…but I also loved his complexity…the way he could be so powerful…frightening, one minute, then I would catch him out daydreaming under the moon and stars only a short time later. Yeah…I've always known he was a really complicated person. I forgot that when Bya appeared…I think because I was so focused on protecting him. I forgot that while Bya has a lot of vulnerability right there at the surface, Byakuya's is carefully hidden. I guess, considering his responsibilities, that it would have to be. I wonder what's going to happen to him…if he can be…put back together…

He gazed down at Bya's sleeping face and felt his heart twinge just thinking about losing him…

Of course, it wouldn't really be losing him. He would just go back to being submerged inside Byakuya…nearly invisible to most, but not gone.

But even knowing that, he felt his arms tighten involuntarily around the sleeping shinigami he held.

In any case, while he's here, I'm not going to miss the chance to enjoy this close contact with him…

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a disturbance outside the seal. He registered a short cry, then the sounds of the guard detail gathering and searching the grounds. He got up from the bed and moved to the garden doors, passing through the protective barrier as the watch guard captain approached.

"What is it?" he asked quickly.

"Something killed one of the guards. In the darkness, he couldn't see exactly what it was…but…we sensed hollow reiatsu."

"Hollow reiatsu…" Renji repeated, "Then it may be the hollow that has been trying to attack the captain!"

He turned with the watch guard captain to assist with the search, but was nearly thrown off his feet as the hollow exploded out of the bushes near them and charged towards the sealed room. Renji flash stepped towards the creature, drawing his sword and slashed at it. The strike was deflected and the creature sent a blast of red fire at the seal. The seal glowed and sputtered, but held as Renji charged at the creature, slashing at it again. This time, he made contact with the beast.

But as he did, Bya came awake screaming and holding his hands to the same area where he had cut the hollow.

Oh my kami! It's like Kisuke said…not like it's as simple as killing the hollow! Are they…joined? Does this mean that Bya is really a hollow? Or…is it more complicated than that…?

"Wait!" he shouted, grabbing the watch commander's weapon as the hollow reeled, took an unsteady step, then disappeared.

"What did you do that for?" demanded the watch guard captain, "I was ready to finish him!"

"Look!" Renji said, pointing to the bedroom, where Bya had collapsed on the floor near the bed, "When we attacked it, we also injured him! I want you to make it your top priority to capture, but do not kill, that hollow!"

"Yes, sir!" agreed the watch captain, "I'll assemble a capture team and begin the search right away!"

Renji turned and passed back through the seal, dropping to his knees as he reached Bya's side.

"Bya!" he called frantically, "Bya, can you hear me? Bya!"

He lifted the limp body into his arms and flash stepped out into the gardens, then to the front of the manor and off down the twisting streets to the healing center. As he ran, he stole glances down at the pale, unconscious man he held and tried not to think about what all of it could mean. He reached the healing center and was surprised to see the whole contingent of the council of Kuchiki Elders in the waiting area. The head elder approached him, calling for a healer.

"Abarai-san," he said quickly, "What happened?"

"The hollow that attacked Captain Kuchiki tried to attack Bya again."

"But Lord Byakuya said he was under a protective seal…"

Renji felt a sense of wariness inside and opted not to fully explain.

"He was…It's complicated. But what happened to Captain Kuchiki?"

"We don't know," the elder told him, "He seemed fine during the meeting, but all at once, he seemed to grow dizzy…and he looked as though he hurt badly inside…then he collapsed."

Shades! This just gets worse and worse! Are they…all connected somehow? Are they all affected by my attack on the hollow? Damn it! We have to capture that hollow!

"Vice Captain Abarai!" called Hanatarou from the entrance to the waiting room, "Bring…"

He glanced at Bya questioningly.

"Bring him this way. Captain Unohana is waiting."

Renji followed the seventh seat out of the waiting area and down the hall. He carried Bya into the examination room, where Captain Unohana was already leaning over Byakuya. Hanatarou guided Renji to a second bed in the room, where Renji set the unconscious Bya down, then moved to the far side of the bed to stay out of the way as the nobles were examined. Captain Unohana looked up at Renji and smiled.

"Something tells me that you may have information that would be beneficial at this point," she said quietly.

"Yeah," said Renji, "a lot has gone on since he was here recovering from that hollow attack. I don't have all of the pieces, but…"

He broke off as the door opened and Kisuke Urahara stepped into the room.

"Kami, it's good to see you!" Renji sighed, "All hell is breaking loose!"

"I imagine," said the shopkeeper, "I can help some, but I don't have all of the answers we are going to need. But at least I can shed some light on things."

"I've determined what part of the problem is," said Captain Unohana, "It seems that Captain Kuchiki's soul consistency has fallen to a dangerous level…but that is not necessarily what caused his collapse."

"No…it probably isn't," agreed Kisuke, "I had some time to research this a little, using the reiatsu samples I collected from these two. It seems that something pretty complicated happened when Captain Kuchiki was attacked."

"I see," said the healer, "and what did you find?"

"Well, first," Kisuke said, "These two may be in separate bodies, but every single test I ran concluded the same thing. They are the same person."

"The…same person," repeated Unohana, her head tilting as she continued to study Byakuya, "How is that possible? I have never heard of such a thing."

"No, you likely haven't," said Kisuke, "because the existence of this phenomenon is only recorded in an ancient myth."

The healer's eyes narrowed.

"I am quite well read in shinigami and human lore and I…"

"It's from hollow lore."

"Ah…" said the healer, "and if anyone knows about hollows and hollowfication, it is you…of course."

"Well…it does resonate with me…for many reasons. In any case, the myth I came across involves an ancient gathering of strong hollows who were trying to create order in Hueco Mundo. They gathered together and tried to come up with ways to pool their strength and control the marauding bands of hollows roaming the land. Normally, the way to do that is for one to be chosen to devour the others…and then that one would be made stronger. But these felt that this process would not be enough. They indulged in a number of beastly experiments and found that it might be possible to cleave together the best pieces of their souls to filter out the unwanted weaknesses and to create a pure hollow…a divine hollow of unspeakable power, who the other hollows would have no choice but to accept as their leader. They finally created a hollow that could splice the souls of other hollows…and they worked on perfecting the means of binding the pieces of souls together. Unfortunately, they found that the whole thing was a failure. In addition, splicing hollow was stronger than they thought. It attacked and killed them, then fled. No one in known history has verified the existence of the hollow. It was written off as a dead myth long ago. But if this is the hollow that attacked Captain Kuchiki, it would explain his situation. You found a problem with his soul consistency, ne?"

The healer nodded.

"His soul consistency is at about half normal…and threatening to deteriorate. And if this hollow is the one you spoke of, that would make sense. It spliced away the less emotive, more ruthless and powerful part of Captain Kuchiki and sent it away into the depths of Hueco Mundo, and left behind the inner core…the 'heart,' if you will."

"Right," Kisuke said, shaking his head, "The thing is…this hollow seems not to be focused on creating a divine hollow, but uses its power as a form of devastating attack. I haven't figured out the exact details of how it works, but there seems to have also been a splicing away of the hollow. The stronger portion has been seeking to kill Bya ever since he returned…and Captain Kuchiki told me that while he was in the desert, he encountered a docile, powerless version of that same hollow…well, we don't know for a fact that it's the other half. But given the battle…and the fact it was seen near where Captain Kuchiki was sent…"

"It bears consideration," said Unohana thoughtfully.

"There's something else," Renji said suddenly, making their eyes turn to him, "I think there's some kind of a link between Captain Kuchiki, Bya and this hollow. Back at the manor, I scored a solid hit on the creature when it tried to attack Bya. But as I did, Bya screamed and collapsed. And I'm willing to bet that that's when Byakuya collapsed at the council hall too!"

"And if that's so…" Unohana began.

"Then we need to catch that hollow and get the four of them in one place…then try to figure out how to put Captain Kuchiki back together."

"But something bothers me," noted Captain Unohana, "If they are linked, and they all respond to damage done to the hollow, the reciprocal would seem to not hold true. Otherwise the creature would not dare to kill any part of Captain Kuchiki."

"But if it is the creature of myth…and it has mutated its power into a form of attack, that would make sense. Look at it this way…he splices the soul, sending the stronger part deep into the desert…and sending his own weaker part to a safe location he has chosen. The strongest part of him then attacks the weakest part of his enemy. The weaker one dies and takes the stronger into death with it…but Bya said that the hollow told him that once he killed Bya, the hollow would be made whole again…so it looks as though the hollow killing his target causes the hollow to be rejoined."

"But it doesn't work the other way," commented Renji, shaking his head, "Damn!"

"I believe that if the hollow is killed before this is resolved, Captain Kuchiki will die," Kisuke said.

Everyone fell silent and stood gazing at the two manifestations of the sixth division captain.

"So…how do we get them back into one…body?" asked Renji.

"I do not know that," said Captain Unohana, "but I can stabilize their soul consistency to allow all of you time to capture the hollow and to figure this out."

"And once Byakuya and Bya are back on their feet, we'll take a look at the Kuchiki Family Archive to see if there are any records of that mythical Splicing Hollow. The clan archive is likely to have something about it somewhere, but only Byakuya can get us in past the protections on it."

"Then I will treat them to strengthen their soul consistency," said the healer, "Just realize that I can only give this treatment once. After that, you must resolve this quickly or Captain Kuchiki will begin to fade."

"All right," said Renji, "It looks like we all have something to do. I'll focus on catching that hollow…and I think the best way to do that is to stay close to Bya. I'm sure it will come after him again."

"Sounds good," said Kisuke, "but you'll take Ichigo with you. If that thing is the Splicing Hollow from the myth, then you won't be able to handle it alone. So you three will work together and Byakuya and I will search the archive. We'll find a way out of this…"

"Yeah…" agreed Renji, "We sure as hell will."

But inside, he wondered if it would really be possible. He felt a catch in his heart as his eyes moved from Byakuya to Bya and back again.

We have to find a way…

I'm not going to lose him…