(For my wonderful, artistic friend, Walkure. Thanks for all of the inspiration.)
Chapter 1: Silver and Gold
Renji Abarai knew it was a bad thing to start his day already having a hellacious headache…especially when that day was to start with an early meeting with his captain and end at Urahara's shop, being called a moocher and abused by a little snot-nosed brat. He lay in his bed, sorry for the extra drinks he had downed the night before, but glad that drunkenness had kept him from thinking ahead to the unpleasantness he was about to face. He climbed out of bed and shivered as cold air struck his bare body. He stepped carefully across the messy floor, but still managed to trip over something, caught himself and loosed several groggy obscenities before continuing on to the shower to clean up.
He grabbed his toothbrush as he stepped in beneath the spray of water, then swore again as the chilly water sent more shivers through him. It was suddenly not so bad to think of staying at Urahara's place. Although he had to work for it, the food was exceptionally better than the takeout he lived on and the shower was always blazing hot. He sighed and scrubbed his teeth, then reached out and deposited the brush in a cup on the sink before quickly washing body and hair, then stepping out again.
"Freezing apartment…cold water…" he muttered, "How in the hell do they get away with this? That's what I wanna know!"
He dried himself off with hands that shook with cold, then dropped the towel on the bathroom floor and walked out to the closet, where he found a clean shihakushou and hastily dressed. He glanced at the time.
He tied his hair into a high ponytail and ran out the door, flash stepping to the bottom of the stairs and out onto the street. He barely made it to the corner as his captain appeared, walking towards the division office with slow, measured steps and calm, unruffled reiatsu.
"Morning Captain," he said, falling into step at Byakuya's side.
"Renji," the noble said in greeting.
They said little more during the rest of the walk to the office and separated once they entered the sixth division, Byakuya to drop into his chair and begin his work and Renji to make tea for the two of them and then to run early morning training in the training grounds. He returned after the training session to find his captain gone to a captain's meeting and to address the stack of papers on his desk, then worked steadily until around lunchtime, when Byakuya was expected back. He usually tried to slip away before Byakuya returned, knowing that once the captain returned from his meeting, the work would pile up and he usually wouldn't have time to eat lunch…and as he tended to not have time for breakfast in the mornings, lunch was pretty important, if he didn't want to faint from hunger before Byakuya excused him, well after any sane person would have settled down to dinner.
But today he was lucky. Not only did Byakuya not return from the captain's meeting, Renji had to leave for Karakura Town as soon as his reports were filed, so he ate on the way and only received word that Byakuya had gone home sick, once he had already arrived in Karakura Town.
"Sick?" he mused, "Captain Kuchiki? Does not compute…"
"What was that about?" Kisuke asked, setting a bowl of rice on the table, "Trouble at home?"
"Ah, not really…just Captain Kuchiki went home sick today."
"Byakuya sick? That is odd," mused Kisuke, "He doesn't get sick…and if he is, he never admits it…very odd, if you ask me."
"Yeah, well, maybe something's going around. I have a pretty nasty headache myself."
"Yeah, but that's because you drink too much!" Jinta said saucily.
"Aw, shut up, twerp…" Renji muttered.
He turned his attention to eating, but found it hard to enjoy the food as his headache increased. And by the time he was ready to go to sleep, he was miserable.
"Renji," said Kisuke, "sit down a sec and let me have a look at you. You look really pale.
"Oh…I'll be…fine," Renji said, trying not to sound pathetic and failing, "Ugh…just need sleep."
"Well, you aren't going to sleep if you're that miserable," said the shopkeeper, "so sit down."
Groaning again, Renji dropped onto the floor and sat, trying to stay quiet as Kisuke studied his reiatsu and touched his head in several places. As he touched the redhead's forehead, Renji yelped and jumped a foot into the air.
"Ow! Shit! What? What was that about?" he yelled, clapping a hand to his forehead.
Kisuke sat back, an odd, mystified look on his face.
"Huh…sorry Renji," he said, staring, "That was…unexpected."
"What?" the redhead said, still rubbing his forehead.
"Well…I read an odd reiatsu there, where the pain is…but it isn't like any I've ever seen. Renji…I think we should get you back to the Seireitei. Captain Unohana should have a look at you too."
"Naw, really it isn't that bad…and I have an assignment," Renji said, trying not to show how much it hurt.
"Suit yourself," said Kisuke, sounding unconvinced, "but when you collapse, we're just going to have to get help from them anyway."
"At least let me get a sample and put it through my analyzer…"
"Fine," said Renji, unhappily, "Whatever, just hurry. I wanna get some sleep…"
Kisuke placed his hands on Renji's forehead and focused, drawing out a reiatsu sample.
"All right, I should have some kind of…"
He paused, staring as Renji winced sharply and moaned in pain.
"Well, that's not good…" he muttered.
The next thing he knew, the redhead gave a howl of pain and fell onto the floor on his back. He put a hand to his forehead and light flared underneath it.
"Oh kami!" he cried, "Kisuke!"
The stunned shopkeeper, dropped to his knees next to the redhead, trying desperately to offer him some form of relief. Renji groaned, shivered and fell still, his hand dropping away from his forehead. Kisuke stared in surprise. In the center of his forehead, a golden marking in a diamond shape had appeared. As Kisuke looked on in disbelief, Renji's body began to glow brightly with white light and slowly faded and disappeared.
"Shit…" breathed Kisuke, "Never saw that happen before!"
He called for Tessai and summoned a hell butterfly. He spoke a hasty message to the butterfly and sent it fluttering away.
"Lord Kuchiki," said the clan healer, "Torio said that you weren't feeling well. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I thought it was nothing at first," Byakuya said, lying back against his pillows and holding a cool cloth to his forehead, "but we got to the end of the captain's meeting and it became unmanageable."
"How would you describe the pain, sir?" the healer asked.
"It seems to pulse and throb…and the skin in the area burns. I did not notice any change in the color of the skin."
"Hmmm…" said the healer, leaning forward, "Let me have a look."
He lifted the cloth and studied the area the noble pointed out visually, then by exploring with his fingers, then his reiatsu. He frowned and leaned forward, probing again with his reiatsu.
"There is an oddity in the reiatsu in the area. Have you been on any missions outside the Seireitei or been faced with anything alien to this area…an odd hollow…anything?"
"No…no…nothing at all. Our squad has been assigned to home territory and special events for over a month…and there haven't been any special events…no invasions or even attacks in our territory."
"Have any other squad members shown any similar symptoms?"
Byakuya frowned thoughtfully, then winced and groaned softly.
"Well…Abarai did complain of a headache yesterday. I allowed him to leave early because of it…but he did not say any more about it this morning. Then again, I was not in the office much at all today. I was in a captain's meeting. And Abarai was assigned to go to Karakura Town on assignment."
"He's in Karakura Town?" the healer asked.
"Hai, he left for Karakura Town around midday."
Byakuya winced and inhaled sharply. The healer frowned and bit his lip, thinking. He looked closely at the clan leader's forehead again. His eyes widened.
"What is it?" Byakuya asked, reaching up to touch the area.
"What?" Byakuya said, his voice tense.
The healer looked closer and blanched.
"What is it?" Byakuya asked again.
"Sir…I don't believe it! I…I've never seen this, but…it has to be!"
"Has to be? What the devil are you talking about?"
"Sir…it's the mark of the King's Guardian! I know it! All of the clan healers learn about it, because the King's Guardian can show up at any time!"
"The mark of the King's Guardian, you say?" Byakuya repeated, trying to remember exactly what the story he had read in the Kuchiki family histories said, "Then…the king is about to undergo rebirth?"
"Hai, sir. So…as the marking rises on your forehead, you will be taken into the spirit dimension. There, you will meet with the King's Vessel."
The healer caught his breath sharply.
"We must send word to the head captain, so he can inform the captains…"
"Go," Byakuya said, "There is no point in tending to me. I will simply disappear when the time comes."
The clan healer nodded and ran out of the bedroom. Byakuya's personal attendant knelt beside the noble, running a cool cloth over his face.
"Do not worry, Torio," Byakuya assured the boy, "Everything will be fine. This process is not dangerous. It is simply a duty of the clans to assist the king in his rebirth."
"I just don't like that you are in pain, sir."
"It is manageable, Torio. Now, remain calm. Soon now, I will be called to the spirit dimension. Do not be alarmed as it is supposed to happen."
The youth nodded, but his eyes told Byakuya that he was still nervous. Byakuya, himself, was experiencing a healthy measure of doubt.
The process is not dangerous…and I will be able to return when my obligation is completed…but…I can't imagine. Who will the King's Vessel be? Which shinigami will be chosen to…
He winced and groaned uncomfortably as the pain flared more sharply. He tried to breathe slowly, but this time the pain remained constant. He felt Torio move closer and the youth's hand slipped into his.
This is a great honor and an important service that we nobles do for our king. But as much as I know this…there is a price…Oh kami…I nearly forgot. It will change everything…
"Sir!" Torio gasped breathlessly, staring at Byakuya's forehead.
A bright silver marking in the shape of a diamond emerged and flared. Byakuya's body lit with white light. The light flashed brightly and sent Torio backing towards the door. Byakuya held his breath and closed his eyes as he felt himself being lifted and carried away. Slowly, his body faded and disappeared.
Renji opened his eyes and found himself in a place he had never been before. He lifted himself slowly, reaching up to rub the gold marking on his forehead.
"What the fuck?" he gasped, looking around.
The place he found himself in reminded him of the garden at Kuchiki Manor, but on a whole different level. Renji had never seen so many different kinds of trees, flowers, plants, and animals…ever…anywhere. The sky overhead was deep blue and dotted with puffy clouds.
"I'll be damned…" he muttered, climbing to his feet.
He heard an odd, thump and turned to see that a second person had appeared near where he had found himself. He stared for a moment, before he realized the person he was looking at was Byakuya. It was Byakuya without his kenseiken, shihakushou, ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu or anything else familiar. He was just dressed in a light sleeping yukata.
He noticed the silver marking on the noble's forehead and moved closer. He leaned over Byakuya and touched it with a fingertip. The noble's eyes opened and met his sleepily. He blinked several times, then frowned and sat up.
"Are you okay, Captain?" Renji asked, helping him sit up.
"I am fine, Abarai," he said, shaking his head slightly and touching the silver marking on his forehead.
Byakuya looked more closely at Renji's marking, his eyes widening in realization.
This can't be…I can't…but it is required. Whoever wears the gold marking is the King's Vessel. We don't get to choose each other…
"Captain," Renji groaned in a pained voice, "Do you have any idea where the fuck we are…or…or what's going on with these markings?"
Byakuya thought it better to allow Renji to learn as he went. There would be no use in making things worse by springing things on him all at once. Better, he thought to take it one moment at a time. There were going to be some unpleasant things to deal with.
Oh…I can't think about this…I have to just take it one moment at a time, also…or I may just lose my mind…
"Captain?" Renji said questioningly.
"Be quiet, Renji," he said firmly, "Obviously, something rather extreme is happening."
"Well…do you at least know where we are?" he asked, still rubbing his forehead.
"We are in the spirit dimension."
Renji's eyes widened.
"The spirit dimension? You're kidding, right?"
Byakuya frowned more deeply.
"Why would I joke about that?" he asked.
"Ah…I don't know…sorry, stupid question…"
Renji looked around.
"So, uh, Captain…what do we do? I mean…if we're in the spirit dimension…is this the King's Garden? Aren't we, like, trespassing here or something?"
Byakuya sighed impatiently.
"I said shut up, Abarai," he repeated, sensing strong reiatsu closing in on them, "Stand up."
"You heard me," the noble said, climbing to his feet and pulling a sputtering Renji up with him.
"Stand still and do not move…and do not speak unless you are spoken to…" he directed the redhead.
Renji started to reply, but fell silent and paled visibly as flash steps sounded all around them. Tall men dressed in the bright white livery of the Royal Guard appeared all around them. After that, the head captain appeared, followed by the Kuchiki Council of Elders and all of the remaining captains.
"Holy shit…" whispered Renji, "Captain…"
Byakuya didn't answer. He stood next to Renji, staring at the sea of faces and feeling a bolt of terror race through him. He held perfectly still and waited as he knew he must, but he was sure something had to have gone wrong. This simply couldn't be. He couldn't be standing where he was…in this situation with…Renji…
His mind refused to accept it…
But he knew that accept it or not, there was nothing he could do…