Chapter 1: The Summons
"Wake up, idiot!" Rukia said, knocking loudly on Renji's door and startling him out of a sound sleep, "Come on, Renji! If you want…"
He threw on a shihakushou and opened the door.
"Hey!" he objected, "You wanna keep it down? I have neighbors, you know. And it's not like you where your brother's the master of the house and tells everyone what to do. I bother anyone and I'll get kicked out, so be quiet."
"Oh…well, hurry up, then," Rukia said, pulling on his arm impatiently, "I want time to take you to breakfast before you have to go to work."
"Breakfast?" said the redhead, smiling, "Why are you so hot to have breakfast with me? We see each other just about every day!"
"Duh!" Rukia laughed, "It's for your birthday, Renji…you know, that day when everyone is nice to you and gives you gifts? And you get a year older?"
"You're never nice to me." Renji mused, "And what gifts?"
"You won't see unless you pick up some speed. Believe me, you don't want to be late again…"
"Yeah…I can just hear Captain saying, 'Renji, we've been over this repeatedly…and you are aware of how little I enjoy repetition…'"
"Good imitation…But you'd better never let him hear you saying things like that. My brother tends to take insubordination kind of seriously."
"I am fully aware of that, believe me," groaned Renji, "I know you love him and I do respect the guy. I've never learned so much from anyone in my life, but honestly, Captain Kuchiki about the most anal person existing in the three worlds!"
Rukia smacked him on the head and Renji winced and put his hand to the spot, scowling.
"Ow! What was that for? You know everyone says it!"
"Yeah?" Rukia said, frowning, "Well you're not everyone else. You're his vice captain and you're supposed to be my best friend, so show a little loyalty!"
"Loyalty?" Renji mused, "Hey! I'm loyal. I mean, after the guy tried to make sure you were executed and almost shredded me, I went back to him and made peace. I could've left the squad…stayed angry about it, but…"
Rukia's expression softened.
"But you understood how we were all carefully manipulated by Sousuke Aizen. It was good of you to show your loyalty to him that way, Renji. He felt awful about all of that. He wouldn't talk about it, of course…not to anyone. But because since I've lived with him, I've started to understand him better."
"Well, I wish you'd explain him to me…always so calm, always walking inside the lines, doesn't cut anyone any slack, not even himself. He follows routines so strictly and kami forbid one of the rest of us should step out of line…"
"I'd say that you understand my brother very well," laughed Rukia.
Renji shook his head firmly.
"I don't understand anyone who can sit still that long, reading and signing papers without losing his mind. I can barely stand it. The guy lives to work! That's not normal, Rukia."
"But you don't see him the way he is at home…how he looks when he walks through our gardens every day, the way he his voice changes when he goes to my sister's shrine and speaks to her so reverently, and the way his eyes get so peaceful when he looks at the moon, Renji. I'd say most people don't really know my brother…not at all."
"Well, I'll take your word for it…but still, even loving him like you do…you have to admit he's pretty anal…"
"I'd call it disciplined."
"Yeah, well, it's my birthday, so today he's anal."
"Come on," Rukia said, taking Renji's hand, "Let's go and have breakfast.
They left Renji's small apartment and flash stepped down the street and past the sixth division office. Renji shook his head, noting that Byakuya was there early and he would need to be exactly on time. They reached the market district and stopped at a small café, choosing an outdoor table, so they could enjoy the coolness of the summer morning.
"Not that it won't be blazing hot later," commented Renji as they enjoyed tea and breakfast together. They fell into easy banter and didn't stop talking even after they realized Renji was already late and would likely be in trouble with his captain. Rukia followed him back to the sixth division, fussing over having gotten him in trouble again. They climbed the steps and entered the cool, quiet office, unsurprised to find Byakuya at his desk, poring over his work and initially seeming not to notice them.
"Good morning, Brother," Rukia said, bowing, "I'm sorry I missed you at breakfast. It was Renji's birthday, so I had breakfast with him at the café near here."
"Hmmm…" said Byakuya, not looking up.
"Anal," mouthed Renji, sitting down at his desk.
Rukia shot him a glare and bowed again.
"I will see you at home tonight, Brother."
This time, he looked up briefly.
"Tonight then," he said, turning his eyes back to his work.
Rukia turned and left the office.
Renji looked at the huge stack of paperwork on his desk and sighed in annoyance. He much preferred training with his zanpakutou, going on field missions…anything but this.
"Yes Captain," he said, looking up and meeting Byakuya's calm, gray eyes.
"Renji, we've been over this repeatedly…and you are aware of how little I enjoy repetition…"
"Yes sir. I am not to be late, sir. I won't let it happen again, Captain," Renji answered respectfully.
"See that you do not," he said, dismissing him and standing, "I have a captain's meeting, but will return shortly. See that you catch up on your work while I am gone."
Yup…that's my anal captain for you…
The door closed behind Byakuya, leaving Renji alone in the office and fighting the urge to rip the papers in front of him to shreds. He dropped his head on his desk in protest and groaned, then went to make himself some tea. He returned and grudgingly started working on the reports, and had actually made some progress by the time the squad door opened again and Byakuya returned.
"Welcome back, sir," he said, looking up, "I'll make you some tea."
"There is no need, Renji," Byakuya said, giving him an odd, unsettled look that was very unlike his captain, "I need to speak with you. Sit."
"Look," said Renji, "If this is about being late…I'll just make up for it by staying later. My friends can wait a bit before we celebrate my birthday tonight…"
"This is not about your lateness," explained his captain, solemnly, "We have received a high level summons from the spirit dimension, and are to depart at once."
"The order comes directly from the king, himself, Renji," Byakuya said, shutting him up instantly.
"W-we're going to see the spirit king?" Renji said, stunned.
Such a thing was unheard of. Even people of Byakuya's class almost never received a summons to see the king directly. But Byakuya's expression told him that that was exactly what they were going to do.
"W-we have to leave…now?" he asked.
"Right now. An escort awaits us outside and will take us to the first division, where a royal senkaimon will be opened. We will be transported to the palace and taken to see the king. Come."
Not knowing what else to do, Renji stood and started to follow Byakuya to the door. The noble stopped him.
"Do not forget your zanpakutou, Renji."
Renji grabbed the weapon and deposited it in his belt, then followed Byakuya out the door to where several members of the Royal Guard stood waiting. The lead guard bowed briefly.
"If you are ready, sirs, we will be on our way."
Renji stayed close to Byakuya, figuring his captain would offer more information as they went. But other than warning him to not speak unless he was spoken to and then to speak as few words as possible, Byakuya said nothing. Renji watched his captain carefully to see if there were any signs that they would be experiencing anything unpleasant, but Byakuya seemed calm and relaxed…his usual state. It helped to relax Renji somewhat as they reached the first division, and as they passed through the precipice world and the Royal Gate, he began to wonder what the spirit realm would look like. He had heard it was truly beautiful, but of course, no one knew who hadn't been there…and the ones called there, didn't come back to talk about it. That thought sent a small jab of fear through Renji, but then he reminded himself that he was with his captain…a clan leader, and a person who they wouldn't likely take into the spirit dimension until there was an heir to replace him.
So they would be going home…
He longed to clarify the point with Byakuya, but knew better than to start asking stupid questions when Byakuya had just finished telling him to be quiet. Instead, he remained in step with his captain, making sure he didn't fidget, slouch or do anything else to embarrass Byakuya.
Maybe this has something to do with his leadership of the Kuchiki clan…but then why bring me along? I guess because I'm his vice captain. I guess that's just how it's done here.
They exited the Royal Gate and stepped down into the spirit realm. Renji caught his breath at the sight of the area around them. They were in a wood with tall pines, and following a lazy meandering path. It looked, initially, like a normal wood to his eyes, but his senses, even though less adept at picking up on reiatsu, read this place as humming with power. Plants and flowers grew everywhere and the colors were brighter and more surreal than any Renji had ever seen. He sensed the presence of beings he couldn't see, and felt questing touches of reiatsu on his mind. It was amazingly beautiful, but the intensity of that beauty was nearly overwhelming.
Their escort was met by another. And the man at the head of that group struck a note of familiarity with Renji. Although he had never met the man, it was clear enough that this was the man he had once seen in a picture while he visited Rukia at Kuchiki Manor. He knew he was right about the man's identity, when he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Byakuya in a short, formal embrace. He then kissed the noble once on each cheek. Renji blinked in confusion at the apparent ritual, but was distracted away from wondering as the man he now knew to be Ginrei Kuchiki stepped forward and offered a hand in greeting.
Renji had never been offered a handshake from a noble before. It was unthinkable. And yet, here was Byakuya's own grandfather…and judging by his uniform, Captain of the Royal Guard, offering Renji Abarai his hand…as if Renji was someone important…respected. The redhead fought down the urge to scratch the back of his neck in confusion and took the noble's hand in greeting, noting by Byakuya's expression that he had done the proper thing.
"Welcome to the spirit dimension Byakuya Kuchiki and Renji Abarai. The king awaits you in the throne room."
The escorts led them through the main courtyard, up a long marble stairway, underneath an expanse of pure white columns and into the palace. The palace itself was immense and everything in it seemed to shine. Renji kept his head facing forward, but his eyes couldn't help flicking around to take in the beautiful paintings, dark, lovely woodwork, the dancing patterns in the expensive tile. He was so distracted that he nearly missed turning with the group. Byakuya's hand touched his arm lightly in warning and he forced himself to remain more focused as they were led through a set of huge double doors and into the king's throne room.
The vaulted ceiling rose high over the room and another set of doors led out to what Renji knew must be the famed Royal Gardens. Everything in the throne room was white and pristine…much as Renji had imagined it would be. The spirit king and his queen sat tall and regal on their thrones. Renji admired their dark hair and celestially bright eyes, the flowing white robes and the lovely white zanpakutou that rested in a stand on each jeweled throne. The escort moved forward.
"Your Royal Majesties, we present Byakuya Kuchiki and Renji Abarai," said Ginrei, bowing.
Renji hastily bowed as he saw the rest bowing too. Then, they all knelt in front of the king. The spirit king inclined his head and his lovely blue eyes met Renji's warmly.
"I imagine, Renji, that you will be wondering why we have brought you here."
What? This is about…me?
"Before we explain properly, there is someone you must meet. At the beginning of our worlds, the first incarnation of the spirit king reached out and created these worlds…and placed life within them…and sought the growth of these worlds over time. As guardian of these worlds, the monarch is an immortal in a world of mortals, watching as life is born, grows, dies and is renewed. So too are the kings and queens renewed as well. All life as we know it is cyclical. And as you come of age to know…we will show you your place in that cycle."
He paused for a moment, but Renji knew better than to say anything. He was aware of Byakuya's dark eye stealing a quiet glance at him, and he wondered why his captain was looking at him differently.
"You see, even as life began to grow, and the king appreciated the variety of life he created, some parts of that life were dark…and when they learned of their origin, they became jealous of the power of the king over all things. The king understood that life was light and dark both…and that he must protect himself. And so, the Royal Guard was formed for the protection of the Royal Family. To help mitigate the protection and order of his worlds, the king also created the noble houses…and then assisted in the creation of the 13 Court Guard Squads. But there was one other creation he made to help protect himself. Although the Royal Guard is very strong…and does well to oversee the protection of the king and Royal Family, the king desired someone else as well…someone whose sole purpose in life was his service to the king. He created a great warrior…a samurai of incredible strength…and to that Samurai, he gave the name Akabuke. Akabuke was a fighter with a great heart, and he was very powerful…and his service to the king was always commendable. He saved the king from many threats…but as time went on, the king noticed a sadness in his Samurai, and because of this, he asked Akabuke what he could do to make him feel happiness and greater contentment. Akabuke told his king that although he deeply appreciated all he had been given, that he felt lonely and wanted a mate to complete him. It was then that the captain of the Royal Guard, a noble named Kazuki Kuchiki came forward and admitted to the king that he had long loved the beautiful samurai and that if Akabuke could accept a male lover, he would be the samurai's mate. The king was greatly pleased that there was affection between the two greatest of his protectors, but as a dual male joining would not produce heirs to follow them, he created a ritual by which the noble males could produce their heirs. But I am getting ahead of myself. In short, Akabuke was the patriarch of a secret noble line…kept that way to protect his heirs from dark forces that would see his line erased and the king made vulnerable. The man I would like you to meet is Katsuro Akabuke. He is Akabuke's descendant, as indicated by his surname…and Renji Abarai, he is your father."
Renji caught his breath and then lost it again as a tall samurai warrior with long, mingled red and silver hair stepped out from behind the throne. He was a shade taller than Renji and had the same intense, red-brown eyes. As it was not a time of battle, he wore a black shihakushou with blood red lining around the edges. He was lean and muscular, the way Renji imagined a King's Protector should look. His face and body was, like Renji's, marked with unique black tattoos, and the zanpakutou at his waist had a radiance about it that both resembled and far exceeded Zabimaru.
But if this is Akabuke's descendant…and he is my father, then…no way…NO FUCKING WAY!
"I see you are surprised," Katsuro said, moving forward and raising him, "That cannot be helped, I'm afraid. Because of who you are to the king, you had to be carefully concealed. But having reached the age of maturity for our kind, you must come forward now…and join with your mate…and create your own heir."
"Whoa…whoa…whoa…hold on a sec!" Renji said, finding he was less worried now about pissing off his noble captain and more worried about what this man…his father…had just said, "What the hell are you talking about? I mean…looking at you, sure, I see a resmblance…and I can feel a connection between your zanpakutou and mine…but…coming of age? And taking a mate? Creating heirs?"
Katsuro placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I know you are confused…and I regret that your life must be upended so. But it is the tradition of our noble clan that the heir, at your age will be married to the strongest leader of the noble clans…and that the two of you will create your heirs together. Then…when the time for my passing comes, you and your mate will travel to the spirit realm to take your places as King's Protector and Captain of the Royal Guard."
"But…" Renji stammered, "Who?"
And suddenly it struck him…why they had been called to the spirit realm together, why Byakuya had been looking at him so oddly, and why Ginrei Kuchiki had greeted him so respectfully.
"Oh…" he gasped, shaking his head, "Oh, this just…can't be happening…no way…no way this could be happening. I have got to be having the worst fucking nightmare of my life!"
He waited for Byakuya to look up, to say something, to have some kind of reaction, but his captain only remained kneeling, his head bowed respectfully and his eyes hidden from everyone.
Oh my kami, this is actually happening…