Chapter 33: Hope

(Thanks so much to everyone who read and reviewed this story. It will have a sequel, tentatively titled In Demon Hands...The king and crown prince are slain and Prince Tohma is accused of the crime. A pregnant Abarai Renji must assume the throne and pass sentence on his brother. But before he can, something happens that forces Byakuya to make a frightening decision. If he makes a wrong move, it could cost Renji and him everything...And yes, Haru and Tetsuya will be a part of the story as well. :) Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to review! Wow! Most reviews of any of my stories! Arigato!)

"They are going to be very happy together," Haru commented, watching as the newlyweds kissed Koichi good night and placed him in the care of his attendants, then disappeared into their room, "It was always clear to me that they belonged together."

"They would have been together sooner if not for Prince Tohma's interference," said Tetsuya, "I only wish that Byakuya-sama would have allowed me to protect him, but at the first sign of trouble, he had me assigned to duties that took me away from the manor. By the time I returned home, things had spun out of control. But I don't know what I would have done anyway. Tohma's royal title protected him from most things."

"I had the same issues in my marriage to Tsuyoshi," explained Haru, "His was a lesser clan, but there were traces of some royal blood in his family, which gave him additional powers and made him able to make me bear children. Once I entered his household, I was completely at his mercy. There was nothing anyone could do. And in any case, you shouldn't second guess yourself."

"No," agreed Tetsuya, "but it is in our nature to do so anyway. Still, I am glad all of that is over and Prince Tohma has freed Byakuya-sama."

"I only hope that when Byakuya next sees Prince Tohma, that the prince continues to evince regret for what he did…and that he doesn't fall back into his old pattern," sighed Haru.

"I am sure that Abarai-san will make sure that Byakuya-sama is well guarded. Now that he is a recognized member of the royal family, Tohma will not be able to use his status against Byakuya-sama."

Haru tilted his head and frowned curiously.

"What is it?" Tetsuya asked.

"Well," said Haru, "If Abarai-san has taken on his royal position, then why is he still referred to so informally by everyone?"

Tetsuya smiled.

"Abarai-san has his own ways, and he seems unwilling to part with them," he said, smirking.

"Ah," said Haru, "That sounds like him."

The two paused on the walkway outside Tetsuya's room.

"Thank you for sharing your room with me tonight," the counselor said as Tetsuya opened the garden doors and led him inside.

"You could have had a guestroom to yourself," said Tetsuya, "but Byakuya-sama felt that until we know how the Akasawa family will react to the raid and the death of their leader, you need to be under careful guard."

"Well, I don't worry anything will get past you. I think once the dream repressive kido is placed, I will sleep like a baby."

"You must be exhausted," said Tetsuya, leading him to the closet and then waiting on the bed as he changed into a sleeping yukata, "Make yourself comfortable. I will be in the attendant's recess if you need anything."

Haru laid down underneath the covers and rested his head on one of the pillows as Tetsuya leaned over him to place the sedative kido.

"May I ask you a favor?" the counselor asked softly.

Tetsuya nodded wordlessly.

"It may seem an odd thing, given that we have just met, but…I feel very safe with you, Tetsuya-san," Haru went on, "So…I would like to ask if…after the sedative kido is placed, would you stay with me? I do need rest, but I also need comfort…and your close presence is a great comfort. Will you sleep next to me?"

Tetsuya gave him a gentle smile.

"As you wish, Haru-san," he said, touching the counselor's face lightly and invoking the kido, then watching as he drifted off to sleep.

He left Haru sleeping and slipped into a yukata, then returned to the bed and turned out the light. He slid into the bed with the sleeping counselor and settled next to him, close, but respectfully not touching, and fell asleep with a sweet smile on his lips.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Ah, I feel so much better now," sighed Renji, sliding into bed and pulling Byakuya in along with him, "Now, you're mine, and you can't get away from me."

"Not that I would try, of course," said Byakuya, frowning, "but you should know that the only reason you got away with that is because you are royal."

"Yeah," Renji chuckled, "And for once, it's not an annoyance. That is definitely a 'first,' ne?"

"It is good to see you in such fine spirits, your highness," Byakuya said, a thin edge of sarcasm to his voice, "Do remember that with rank comes responsibility."

"Like you haven't pounded that into my head. And don't call me that."

"Or what? You'll have me beaten?" Byakuya said coyly.

"Hey," said the redhead, taking hold of the front of the noble's yukata and pulling him close, "Don't even go there. It's not funny."

"What's funny is the thought of you having to dress in fancy kimonos and wear a royal circlet…and have attendants all around you, wanting to do everything for you, people begging your attention and trying to get you to behave like a royal," Byakuya said, smirking, "Now, that is an amusing thought. When we move to the palace…"

"We aren't moving to the palace, Byakuya."

Byakuya gazed back at him questioningly.

"I'm staying here," Renji said firmly, "I'm taking a taichou's position in the Gotei 13 and we're going to live here at Kuchiki Manor."

Byakuya was quiet for a long moment.

"Because of me."

"Because of a lot of things," Renji said, sitting up and rubbing a hand over his face, "Look, I've been there and met the king and my brothers. I've learned how to connect with my royal powers and I know what's expected of me. But…they haven't been a part of my life. And all those people have ever done is to hurt you. And there is no way in hell that I am going to take you there to live. Too many bad things happened there. And I don't want you anywhere near that bastard brother of mine. We may not be at war, but I'm not going to forget what he did to you…and you aren't either. We're staying here and going on with life the way we choose together."

"And you don't think I would enjoy a life at court?" Byakuya asked, his smile returning.

"Hell no! I don't care how pretty the gardens are or how great the palace is. It's nothing compared to what we have right here. And this is what I want…it's all I want."

"And you are all I want, Abarai Renji," said Byakuya, sinking into the redhead's arms.

They exchanged a flurry of slow, open-mouthed kisses and dropped down onto the bed. Byakuya felt a tugging on the tie at his waist and then his yukata was peeled away. Renji shrugged off his yukata and laid down on top of the noble, still kissing him. His hands roamed over the soft, pale flesh, and he smiled at the return of the healthy glow around it. He crawled slowly down Byakuya's body, touching and tasting him everywhere, and leaving the noble flushed and writhing. Byakuya pushed his hips upward, moaning softly and seeking lovely friction against the redhead's thick erection. He frowned as Renji paused in his movements and sought the noble's riled, gray eyes.

"Ah…just so you know, we're likely to make another baby tonight," he warned Byakuya, "I'm having a charm made to prevent that, but Urahara-san hasn't finished it yet."

"That is all right, Renji," said Byakuya, blushing, "I have no objection to having as many children as you like. I imagine that since you grew up in a wild pack of children in Inuzuri, you're of a mind to have a big family?"

"Well…I mean, we do have plenty of help around here, so yeah, I think we could manage it."

"I don't know if Soutaichou will appreciate me taking another leave so soon, but it can't be helped."

"Well, then, I have an idea I think he'll like better," said Renji, sitting up and pulling the noble up with him, "Let me put off my promotion for a while and have this one so that you can go back to work and we can have time to fully train Rikichi to replace me."

"Renji," said the noble reprovingly, "We are not putting off your promotion…and you are not going to carry a child. It would be unseemly for a male member of the royal family to allow such a blatant admission of…of…"

"I don't give a damn about that," Renji said stubbornly, "I don't live by their rules, Byakuya. I do enough so that I don't dishonor anyone and the rest, I do my way. I wasn't born into this and it really feels pretty damned unnatural, if you ask me."

"Fine, but this pushes one of those fine boundaries of honor. You are a member of the royal family…"

"And what? It means I have to put on some damned show of being dominant? Well fuck dominant. I'm not going to put another kid in your belly while you're still recovering from all the shit they put you through, and if it freaks 'em out a little that their royal son lets his spouse top him once in a while, then…"

"Renji, don't talk like that…it's…"

"C'mere," Renji said, pulling Byakuya close and climbing onto his lap,
"Shut up and kiss me, okay?"

The noble gave him a somewhat dark stare, but had a difficult time hanging onto it as the redhead lowered himself onto Byakuya's aroused member. He stopped the noble's objections with hard, penetrating kisses as he rose and fell on his lover's length. Byakuya closed his eyes and sucked the redhead's tongue into his mouth, wrapping a pale hand around Renji's tattooed bottom and encouraging it in its swift motion. He curled his other hand around the redhead's flushed length, stroking it in time with their motions as pleasure teased them and slowly overtook them.

The redhead groaned in ecstasy and his head fell onto Byakuya's shoulder as his body shuddered and his hot release splashed onto their skin. Byakuya released his sated member and held on to his hips tightly, gasping as he climaxed and filled the redhead with his heated essence. They collapsed onto their pillows and laid, side by side, facing each other and sharing softer kisses as they drifted towards sleep.

"I'm only letting you do this because we are not going to live in the palace," Byakuya said, frowning.

Renji grinned and kissed his pouting lips.

"Hey…" he said, pretending to look offended, "Just who is the royal prince around here? You may have the title, but you're royal by marriage. I'm royal by blood."

"Oh," said the noble calmly, "Is that supposed to impress me?"

"I don't know. Does it?"

"No, baka," Byakuya said, shaking his head and barely holding off a smile, "You do."

"That's good to know," Renji said, letting his hand slide down onto his flat belly, "Because I think that my ego's going to need a little stoking as my belly gets bigger and I start looking more like a princess than a prince!"

"Well, you were the one who insisted on carrying this child," Byakuya reminded him, "But don't worry, it's going to be quite an adventure for you. Everyone will spoil you, especially me…and you'll have all sorts of lovely cravings, things you wouldn't imagine. You might not like the number of trips you'll make to the healing center for your appointments."

"Uh…hey, they don't…ah…they don't have to give you any extra shots or anything, ne? Because I get a little queasy around needles."

Byakuya smirked.

"You had best get used to them. But don't worry about them making you sick. You'll already be nauseous a goodly amount of the time."

"Are you trying to make me sick right now?" Renji asked, starting to look panicked, "Say, uh, is it too late to let you do this? I mean, you have more experience and all. It's kind of more your thing…"

"Don't worry, Renji," Byakuya said, slipping a hand into his, "I'll be with you every step of the way. I coached you in preparing to be a taichou, and I can help you prepare for this too. We'll do this together."

"Okay," sighed Renji, "But giving birth isn't real painful, ne? They can just…knock me out, right?"

"Don't fuss so much," Byakuya scolded him gently, settling into his arms, "You'll be fine."

"Promise?"

"Yes, I promise."

"I'm keeping you to that."

"Of course, Renji. Good night.

"Good night, Byakuya."

XXXXXXXXXX

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Haru-san?" asked Renji as the foursome passed over into the spirit dimension and entered the palace courtyard, "It hasn't been that long…and he's still healing."

"Do not worry, Renji-san," Haru said, looking down from where he rode in front of Tetsuya on Arashi's back, "Byakuya has come a long way. And this is really an important step in his healing."

"Haru is right," said Byakuya as they reached the palace entrance and the two men on Arashi's back dismounted, "I need to do this. It will help me to really close that chapter of my life and move on."

"Well, are you sure that you don't want me to come along?"

"I will be fine. I trust the guards will have been told to be wary. They will not allow me to be harmed."

"Okay," sighed the redhead, slipping his arms around the noble and offering him a parting kiss, "But if you aren't back in the throne room in…"

"Renji."

"Sorry. I know you'll be fine. You've gotten through everything else. I just hope you know, that I really admire your strength…to come through so much…and to still stand there looking strong, proud, beautiful like that. I love you. I'll be waiting in the throne room."

Byakuya nodded wordlessly, offered him a final kiss, then turned in the direction of the tower.

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya followed the guards' directions and stepped into the small garden area below the tower. Although he sensed that the guards were nearby should he need him, he felt odd walking into the area without an escort at his side. He spotted the prince sitting quietly at the edge of a small pond, sprinkling food over the surface of the water for the koi. Tohma sat back, but continued to look down into the pond as Byakuya sat down on the grass near him.

"I knew you were here," the prince said quietly, "I felt your reiatsu as you entered the spirit dimension. So…you came to see the monster, ne?"

"I came to see you, Tohma," Byakuya said quietly.

"Why? You have my apology…my regrets. Do you want me to speak them in person? I will, if that's why you are here."

"I want to know what you feel…what you feel when you look at me. Look at me, Tohma."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"I have completely disgraced myself. I don't look anyone in the eyes. And no one looks at me. I told you before…my heart is empty. I don't have a heart anymore. And when death finds me, I will join the hollows in Hueco Mundo. I will have a hole in my chest and a bony mask to cover my hated face. And I won't be angry…or hateful. Those things were torn out of me when I killed our child. All I feel now is regret. And I long for death, because I will never know peace…death is all I have left."

"So, you have given up hope?"

"I never had hope. Every time it tried to approach, I destroyed it. You were my last hope and I destroyed you too."

"Look at me."

Tohma froze for a moment, then slowly lifted his eyes. His eyes widened at the sight of the fully healed and restored noble, dressed in full regalia with his power flaring softly around him.

"What do you feel?"

"Relieved," Tohma whispered, "You look beautiful, strong, healthy. And Byakuya, you look happy. I am glad for you."

"But that is not all that you feel."

"Why do you ask me this? Why does it matter? I set you free. I let go…and I am not going to interfere with you ever again. Why don't you just go back to my brother? I'm sure he's worried about you…being in here with me. Please, just go."

"I will leave you," said Byakuya calmly, "but I will not leave you without hope. I have asked my counselor to look at your files…to sit down with you and listen to you…and when he is done, he is going to place you with someone who will offer you real hope…hope of not being alone with your troubles, hope of being understood, and hope of not having to spend the rest of your days alone."

"Why are you doing this?" the prince said, tears coming to his eyes, "I could have killed you! I killed our baby before it ever had the chance to see our faces! I ruined everything. I never asked for your forgiveness…for your pity…for anything. I didn't ask you to accept my apology. I am here alone because of my own actions. I deserve this. I built every inch of this personal hell that I call my life. And I didn't ask for your help."

"I know that. And part of what I am doing is selfish. Because I know that if I leave you here like this, eventually, they will let you go. They will free you. And you will run the risk of making the same mistakes again. I won't be the one you hurt…but I don't want there to be another hurt person. So I am doing what I can…so that if you really want to be healed, you can be. If you do not want to spend the rest of your life alone, you can be rehabilitated."

"And you really believe that there is someone who can help me?"

"I believe there is," said Byakuya, nodding, "but I do not believe you can be healed until you leave this place. There are horrid memories here…and the ones who treat you are not committed to your recovery. You will have to return eventually and face your demons, Tohma…and they will wait for you here, but if someone shows you how, then there doesn't have to be a next hurt person. The next person you love will be safe in your arms. So, I am doing this for that next person. And I am doing it for my own peace of mind."

Tohma bit at his lips nervously.

"So what if I accept? What happens then?" he asked tentatively.

"As I said, my counselor will assess your condition and make a recommendation to a treatment center in the Rukongai. You will be transferred there and be required to remain in that facility until you are released."

"I see. So…when will your counselor come?" Tohma asked, a thin wisp of hope in his eyes.

"He is with me now. When I leave, he will come to see you."

Byakuya stood and Tohma rose with him.

"Very well, then," he said, nodding briefly, "I will see him. I will give this a chance. But…before you go, may I hold you for just a moment? I won't kiss you or overstep any bounds. I give you my word."

Byakuya looked into his eyes briefly and nodded in acceptance. Tohma stepped forward and wrapped his arms gently around Byakuya, bringing his lips close to the noble's ear.

"Thank you," he whispered, "I know you said you didn't do this for me…but there is a part of me? A small child…who was hurt…and who never meant to hurt anyone because he knew right from wrong. It was before I became corrupted and lost. And Byakuya, that child…thanks you…for remembering him…and helping him. Thank you for offering him hope."

He released Byakuya and stepped back. The noble's eyes met his and Byakuya yielded him a faint smile.

"I am glad you understood my gesture. I hope that you make a full recovery…and that when you return, you will find things have changed for the better."

"And I hope that your marriage to Abarai Renji makes you happy. I was…glad to hear…what Urahara Kisuke did to protect your child with Renji and your attendant. You have everything you wanted now, ne?"

Byakuya nodded silently.

"Good. That's as it should be. Farewell, Byakuya…," he said, placing a hand lightly on his cheek, "My solemn prince…Prince of the lovely sakura petals that fall from the trees like tears around your home. Now that your tears have dried, I hope you have no reason to cry anymore."

"Goodbye Tohma," Byakuya said, turning away.

Tohma stood quietly, watching as Byakuya left the garden. He waited until he was sure he was alone, then wrapped his arms around his midsection, dropped to his knees and dissolved into tears. And so intent in his misery, he didn't hear the soft footsteps that approached him. He shrank back in surprise as a hand touched his shoulder, and he stared up into the gentle, pale face and brown eyes of Byakuya's counselor.

"I…" he gasped softly, "My apologies, I…didn't know you would arrive so soon."

"There is no need to apologize," Haru said quietly, "Come with me and we will talk."

He offered the prince a hand and helped him to his feet. Prince Tohma brushed the tears from his eyes and studied the counselor quietly for a moment.

"Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?" he asked softly.

Haru looked deeply into his eyes.

"So that what happened to Byakuya will not happen again," he said quietly, "Come, Prince Tohma."

The prince took a steadying breath and followed Haru silently out of the garden.