(This is in response to a request by geecee. Thanks so much for your kind support of my work! Enjoy...)
Chapter 1: Fallout
Byakuya flash stepped away from where Ichigo still knelt, after having watched the death of Muramasa. His spirit centers still burned from the effort of pouring his reiatsu into sealing the garganta, and the sting of his wounds from the fight with Kouga was unabated. He had pushed himself to the very ends of his strength and he knew it. He thought he had enough in reserve to return to the manor, but as he opened the family senkaimon, dizziness swept over him and sent his mind into a long, heady spin. He felt himself falling and then being captured in someone's arms…lifted and carried into the senkaimon, through the precipice world and into the gardens at Kuchiki Manor.
The person carrying him was instantly surrounded by a throng of servants and guards. They turned the one carrying him towards his bedroom, where he was set down on the bed. He felt eyes watching from somewhere close by as a clan healer dashed into the room and began to peel his bloodied shihakushou away. Slowly, the healer restored his depleted reiatsu, soothed the burn on his spirit centers and one by one, addressed the deep slashes.
But as deep as those slashes were, they weren't as deep as the ones set across his heart. He had denied it, of course…that he had hurt himself by obeying the order of his grandfather and pursuing Kouga, even when doing so meant turning away from his friends and loved ones. It had been appallingly easy to convince himself otherwise. As clan leader, he was used to submerging his feelings, his needs, his desires, insecurities and shortcomings. It was necessary to maintain that flawless exterior. But now he ached at what it could cost him.
While it was encouraging that Renji's loyalty and the need to join together to defeat their enemy had made the others briefly forget their differences with him, he knew that what he had seen would not be the end of things. There would be backlash. It didn't matter that he had been obligated, or that it was his duty, rather than his own desire. There would be those who would not want to forgive him…some of them men with power. His way then, would not be easy.
Some of them would waste no time taking aim at him…
So while he lay, still in the midst of being healed, he called for his courier and personal attendant, sending emergency orders to the elders and beginning quickly, the business of shoring up what he could…and making things right.
If things could be made right again…
He had known from the moment that Senbonzakura had regained his senses that the one who had liberated the zanpakutous was Muramasa…and as he had come to the Seireitei, there could be only one thing on his mind. Not the subjugation of the shinigamis or the liberation of the zanpakutou spirits…but the finding and unsealing of his master. And Ginrei had charged Byakuya with killing Kouga, if ever he broke free.
Everything he had done had been for the purpose of locating and dispatching the former Kuchiki clan member as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it had involved leaving his friends and allies believing that he had defected. And there would be much to deal with because of that.
He expected that the Kuchiki elders would support him…would act quickly to apologize for the damage caused by the former family member and provide funds and workers to rebuild what was damaged as quickly as possible. And he had managed a few words to Renji to warn him that their squad might face hard feelings, from without and within. He knew he could trust his fukutaichou to smooth the path for him with the others in the division. But he would need Byakuya's help to shield the division members from outside criticism for their allegiance to a taichou who had deserted them in a time of great upheaval. They were going to face a difficult struggle.
But having been aware of the cost had allowed Byakuya and the elders to be prepared. So even as he lay healing, the elders moved to mitigate the damage and Renji to soothe his subordinates. It was a relief to have those forces working on his behalf. It allowed him to relax into the healing touches, to accept that he must rest and recover…to close his eyes and let sleep take over.
As his eyes closed, they took in the stoic, unmoving form of Senbonzakura, sitting at his bedside, everything hidden behind the dark, stern mask…
Byakuya woke the next morning to the arrival of the secret mobile corps. It was expected, he thought as he was roused by his personal assistant and hastily dressed in shihakushou, kenseiken and haori, that Central 46 would feel the need to involve itself, his defection being technically a form of treason, irrespective of the reasons for it, and therefore, falling under their jurisdiction, rather than that of the clan. Yet as unsurprising as it was, he couldn't help but feel a stab of despair as his spirit energy was sealed away, his zanpakutou confiscated and he was led away from Kuchiki Manor, then paraded across the Seireitei in what he felt to be an unnecessary display of power. They were, of course, still concerned that they should give the impression of having control, even amongst the chaos caused by the rogue zanpakutous.
And he was certainly an easy target for that display…
He walked quietly, ringed by secret mobile corps, Rukia, Renji and the tall, forbidding form of Senbonzakura, the latter drawing stares and discontented whispers. Yes…they didn't just blame Byakuya…but also his zanpakutou. But it was a given that whatever punishment he might be given would also affect his zanpakutou. There was no societal platform for 'trying' and 'convicting' a zanpakutou. As a rule, one gone bad was usually simply destroyed. Luckily for Senbonzakura, all of the zanpakutous were as guilty as he was of defecting…and it was likely that the blame would be placed on Muramasa, rather than any of them.
The same could not be said of Byakuya. He had defected of his own free will and had attacked, not just other shinigamis, but some of his own subordinates. He had engaged in battle with another taichou and had assisted Muramasa in finding Kouga. Yes, he had done so for the purpose of killing Kouga, but many would question his choices. With all of the questions he was going to face, he knew it was important to have a strong heart, to accept quietly whatever Central 46 asked of him…and to understand that not even clan privilege could protect him if the councilors of Central 46 found him guilty of high treason. He could, in fact, lose everything…his military position, clan leadership, what reputation had survived this chaos, his freedom…his very life. From beyond the veil of death, he felt Kouga staring out at him and asking him how easy it was to have a strong heart now. He had to admit that it was not easy at all. But he had known it would be that way. So he swallowed hard and kept his features calm and quiet, his reiatsu smooth and unruffled. He tried not to hear the whispers as he passed, the louder cries to 'lock him up, the no good, lying backstabber,' or to 'kill the traitor.' It meant nothing to them that it had been his blade that slew Kouga and ended his treachery. Yes, these people hadn't even seen Kouga…only Muramasa. And it wasn't Byakuya who took Muramasa's life, it was Ichigo.
"Kuchiki taichou, come this way," said Soi Fon, turning him into the Central 46 headquarters.
She led him down several hallways and into a holding room, where he was searched, then ordered to disrobe and to put on the prison clothes they provided him with. After that, he was separated from all who had come with him…all but Senbonzakura, who refused to leave his side, and who the guards saw no need to concern themselves with, so long as he behaved himself. The guards led him into a long, dark cellblock, then opened one of the cells and directed him inside. He couldn't help but shiver inside as the door clanged shut and the footsteps of the guards faded.
There would normally have been other prisoners in the cellblock, but all had been moved and he was left alone. He understood that it had been done because the criminals would have been as dangerous as his accusers. Traitors were not well thought of in the Seireitei…no matter why they turned on their own. The end did not, in most cases, justify the means. So there was reason for his captors to go to extra means to protect him.
He moved to the cot and knelt on it, leaning against the wall…and having no window to the outside, he stared out into the empty cellblock. He shivered softly, feeling an iciness in the air.
"Master," said Senbonzakura, "I do not wish to vex you, but I must ask, are you all right? Your reiatsu is calm, but you seem unsettled somehow."
"Who would not be?" Byakuya answered, relieved of the need to posture, "I may have spent my last moments of freedom already and be facing death or incarceration."
"Do you really believe they will convict you? Your elders and Soutaichou seem confident you will be released."
"Yes," agreed Byakuya, "They have said this…"
"And yet, you continue to convey doubt…not in words, of course, but…"
"Senbonzakura," he said softly, "when did you become so sensitive to my emotions?"
The masked face turned towards him.
"I must admit," the warrior replied, "I have been more perceptive of your emotions since my mind was freed by Muramasa…"
"Ah," said Byakuya, nodding, "That is to be expected. Do not worry. The effects of that zanpakutou will fade, now that he is dead."
Senbonzakura was quiet for a moment.
"Master…I agree that most of the effects are transitory…but other things are like Pandora's box. Once released and acknowledged, they are not easily escaped."
Byakuya looked up at him questioningly.
"What are you talking about? Are you worried that your unnecessary concerns over my well being will continue? You shouldn't worry. I will ignore your silly outbursts, then."
"Is it silly to care about what happens to you? Remember then, that what happens to you affects me as well. We are bonded spirits, Master. Your thoughts and feelings are supposed to resonate with me. As you so capably explained to Kouga, it is our ability to communicate with each other that enables our souls to resonate so strongly. I am meant to hear the calling of your heart. But before I walked in your world in a material body, I never felt the fullness of the life you have here. I have gained knowledge of it…and it affects me. It deepens my feelings about things…about you."
Byakuya frowned up at him.
"I'm not sure I understand," he said softly.
Senbonzakura moved closer to him and reached out to touch a gloved finger to his face.
"I don't understand either, my master. But perhaps while we await your trial, we can explore this. At very least, it will keep your mind occupied while we wait."
"And how shall we go about exploring, Sen? What do you want me to do?" Byakuya asked.
The warrior did not answer, but backed away slowly and removed his gloves, revealing pale, white hands much like his and strong, muscular arms. Bit by bit, he shed his armor, loosing a slender, beautiful body with long, graceful limbs. He removed everything, placing his hands finally on the mask and beginning to remove it.
"Senbonzakura," said Byakuya in a surprised tone, "What are you…?"
He broke off, staring as the lovely face was revealed. The warrior left his armor sitting on a small table and approached Byakuya warily.
"I've never even looked at you, except with the mask on," commented the warrior, "and seeing you without it is very different, Master. Why is that?"
"Sen…I don't think that this is a good idea."
His zanpakutou stepped closer.
"Why not? I wanted to see you through my own eyes…not obscured, but clear and in focus…and for some reason, though I have shown my face to no other, I long for you to look upon it. I feel something in my stomach when you look at my revealed face, Master…"
Byakuya said nothing as Senbonzakura reached him and touched his face with a searching finger. He sat, unmoving as the finger stroked the skin of his cheek…touched his hair…slid down his throat.
"What is this feeling, Master?" he said in a softer voice, "and why is it so strong when I touch you like this? What is happening?"
Byakuya's eyes darkened warningly.
"You must stop," he warned the other, "You are not meant to understand these things. This world that we are in is different than the inner world we share. There, we are but an extension of each other…but here, we have been separated into our prerequisite beings. That is what drives this curious behavior in you…and what makes you feel emotion more strongly, I think. Turn away from this. It will only lead to emotional disturbance."
"How do you know this?" the warrior asked, the emotion in his handsome face striking Byakuya keenly, "Do you really know this, Master? This thing was never done by us before. We have never been separate and in this world together."
"And we will not be for long. You are the spirit of my zanpakutou…and as Muramasa's power fades, so will your ability to encounter me this way. Why experience it if you know it will end so soon? Do not torment yourself."
Senbonzakura shook his head, riling the long ponytail that ran down the length of his back.
"We do not know how long it will last, but unlike you, I believe it is best to gain the most from such an experience. I believe I have heard this defined as 'living life to its fullest.' Master, it may be that it is short lived, but I still think it is worth exploring. Please…I need you to explain what all of this has awakened in me."
He sat down beside Byakuya and gazed into the noble's dark, troubled eyes. The reluctance was plain, but there was another emotion as well. The warrior leaned forward and let his fingers play over Byakuya's hands where they lay in his lap. The shinigami sat, watching and saying nothing as Senbonzakura's hands gently stroked his.
"I have that feeling in my stomach again, Master," he said, looking up and realizing quite suddenly that their faces were close together, close enough that he could feel Byakuya's warmth.
Byakuya sat very still and quiet now, and the warrior sensed the racing heart, the soft catch in his breath, the widening of the black centers of his eyes, the light trembling in his hands…the uncertainty. Senbonzakura thought back to something he had seen as he and Byakuya had walked through a park in the living world…two humans…close together, like this…closer…their hands laced together…their lips touching. He leaned forward and closed the distance, touching his lips to the stunned shinigami's, feeling the sudden jolt in his loins, the urge to press his lips harder against his master's, to tighten his hands on Byakuya's…to pull him closer.
And although he froze at the initial touch…as their eyes locked and the warmth flared up between them, Byakuya's cool fingers laced together with his and the noble allowed himself to be pulled closer. Senbonzakura's lips freed themselves from his for a moment.
"Please, Master, tell me what this is? I don't understand…"
Byakuya held his eyes quietly, feeling the danger of what they were doing, but losing his ability to stop himself. He had been aching with loneliness before, solitude he had chosen by acting as he had. And now, just as suddenly, his zanpakutou's spirit had manifested and broken the usual boundaries, setting off warning bells, but also sending a warm feeling of comfort all through him. He looked into the beautiful face that had been revealed to no one but him and gave his answer.
"Senbonzakura…we call this feeling…attraction."