Chapter 9: Unmasked

(Not a new chapter, yet. Just wanted to let readers know this one was back!)

Tetsuya felt consciousness returning and immediately registered the heavy press of Senbonzakura's reiatsu around him, as well as the sting on his skin where the samurai's bladed petals had stung him as he was interrogated.

His zanpakutou has truly been corrupted. Senbonzakura's was as honorable a spirit as Byakuya's own. What could have caused him to abandon his own master like that? What power...?

"I see you have awakened," said Senbonzakura, "Are you prepared to yield the information I asked you for? Or do you prefer to suffer more torment?"

Tetsuya managed a stiff smile.

"Come now, Senbonzakura," he said with forced calm, "You have never known me to be the type to give in to such tactics...any more than you have been the type to lower yourself to working for the likes of that bastard, Satoshi!"

Tetsuya took a hissing breath as Sen's petals stung his already tormented skin, sending fresh waves of pain through his restrained form.

"Tell me how to get through that door!" Senbonzakura demanded, "I know that my master did something to the door so that it would lock down if he was betrayed..."

"You know Satoshi betrayed him?" Tetsuya asked, through teeth clenched against the pain he was in, "Sen, you know that man turned against our clan leader, and you are helping him? Why would you do that? Why? You are an honorable spirit! You were, I thought, as unfailingly loyal to my cousin as I am. What happened to you?"

Senbonzakura went quiet for a moment, looking down at the stark red streaks of blood on Tetsuya's slender back, Tetsuya's chest heaved and the stinging pain left him light-headed and shaky. He sensed the uncertainty in the spirit, the hesitation that lasted for just a moment, then disappeared again.

"That does not matter, and is none of your concern. Lord Satoshi is our leader, and he is my master now. And he has commanded me to obtain this information from you, no matter what means I must use. You do not seem to respond to simple physical pain, so perhaps we might use a different approach."

"What do you mean?" Tetsuya asked, a feeling of dread rising inside him, "What are you going to do?"

"You remember that, as part of your connection with my former master, you and Re-kuhime granted Byakuya and me entrance into your inner world."

"No!" Tetsuya cried, a feeling like ice entering his veins, "Senbonzakura, that was a sacred thing. It was..."

"It doesn't matter. Nothing from that time matters. All that matters is the will of Lord Satoshi. Now, if you will not yield the information I requested, then I will invade your inner world and torment both you and your zanpakutou. I know that you do not want to die. And even more, you would never want harm to come to your zanpakutou."

"I do not want harm to come to you, Senbonzakura," Tetsuya said solemnly, soundly shocking the samurai, and making him go quiet again, "I love Byakuya, and I care deeply about you. Please, hear me. Do not do this. You must have been somehow controlled, but I know you! I know that this is not you. The Senbonzakura I know is an honorable spirit, and devoted to my cousin. Whatever they have done to you, I feel that you are still in there somewhere. Please, Senbonzakura. Please come out of this haze you are in. Hear me Sen! Please!"

Tetsuya waited breathlessly as the samurai went silent again, but shivered as a gloved hand touched his face with an odd gentleness.

"Tetsuya Kuchiki," Senbonzakura said in a low, controlled tone, "I have not forgotten the bond that was between the four of us before. It is because of that, that I regret having to cause you pain. It is because of that, that doing as my new master dictates brings me pain as well. But...if you think that either of those things is enough to stop me, then think again. Now...I will give you one more chance to tell me what I want to know. If you will not, then I will have no choice, but to enter your inner world and force you into submission. I will break Re-kuhime if I have to. Tetsuya, I will kill her if it becomes necessary! Do not force me to do this to the two of you. I have already lost my former master."

Tetsuya inhaled sharply.

"Byakuya...really is dead then?" he asked in a trembling voice, "You witnessed this?"

"Lord Satoshi dealt him the killing blow, himself," Sen answered, his voice tremoring with the telling of it, "Even if the taking back of the familial power did not destroy Byakuya Kuchiki, the blow that Satoshi gave him, finished him. His life force faded, and I have not felt it since. Byakuya is dead...and you are left with two choices, Tetsuya Kuchiki. You will either tell me what my master wants to know, or I will invade your inner world and force it from you. Now, which will it be?"

He glared down at Tetsuya's bleeding back and tightly bound hands, frowning as the shinigami shivered softly, but still refused to answer him.

"I see," he said finally, "Well then, I have no choice. Prepare yourself, Tetsuya Kuchiki. You are going to be very, very sorry that you showed such stubbornness. You are about to die painfully."

Tetsuya swallowed hard and closed his eyes, steeling himself as Senbonzakura sat down next to him and removed his glove. He shivered at the feel of soft, deceptively gentle fingertips touching his forehead. His lips tightened in preparation, but nothing could have prepared him for the icy terror that gripped his young body as Senbonzakura forced open the doorway into his inner world. Tetsuya released a scream of agony, his entire body shocked with the feel of that familiar, yet deadly presence that was Senbonzakura, pushing at his mind and then heartlessly slicing through his resistance. He felt himself falling and cried out again, his mind numb with fear. Not even the return of Re-kuhime's cool presence could soothe Tetsuya as he crashed down into the lovely, moonlit place that was his inner world, then watched as Senbonzakura landed and headed towards him.

Freed of the bindings that had held him, Tetsuya stood in the long grass of a wide, open meadow and waited. His hands clenched as Senbonzakura drew his weapon and began to close on him.

"Tetsuya Kuchiki," the samurai said warningly, "Speak to me now, or I will kill you and your zanpakutou."

Gaining no response, he flash stepped forward, slicing down with his blade as he reached the frozen shinigami. But where metal should have sliced through Tetsuya's body, it instead crashed down on another blue steeled blade.

"You!" Sen hissed at the petite, pixie-like spirit who had blocked his attack, "Do not impede me...or I will crush you!"

XXXXXXXXXX

"Renji," Byakuya said, smiling as the redhead's warm arms slipped around him from behind, and Renji looked over his shoulder, out at the lake in front of them.

"I thought I'd find you out here."

Byakuya turned in Renji's arms and met him for several slow, deep kisses, of greeting, then the noble's dark eyes met the redhead's, and he paused, waiting.

"I told Kisuke about Aratani Kisaki, and he agreed with Yoruichi, that you would have known the name."

"Who is that?" Byakuya asked, "Kisuke knew? Did he tell you?"

"Yeah," Renji confirmed, keeping his arms wrapped around Byakuya and letting his hands slide down to begin the stabilizing infusion of reiatsu into the noble's even more pronounced abdomen, "And it turns out that Aratani Kisaki wasn't a person, but an enchanted pendant that belonged to the first Kuchiki, Hajime Kuchiki. He was the consort of the first incarnation of the spirit king. When he and the king were drawn into the king's prism and the second incarnation of the king assumed the throne, the pendant was given to the Kuchiki family and placed in the family archive. Kisuke told me that only the clan leader and council have access to the archive, unless given a special token. Yoruichi has one, so she could enter, but she is still not recovered enough to go. Kisuke also has a token, but he's trying to find a way to slow your gestation, to buy us some more time."

"So if neither of them can go to the archive, what are we to do?" Byakuya asked, closing his eyes and wincing at the discomfort that the reiatsu infusion caused.

Renji smiled sadly and caressed the noble's cheek sympathetically as he continued the infusion.

"There is someone else that we are sure will have a key...your cousin, Tetsuya."

"Tetsuya..." Byakuya repeated, shaking his head at his inability to connect with the name.

"He is...was...close to you. Kisuke figures that if we can find him, he would be the best one to send into the archive. He will know where to find what we need."

"But," Byakuya objected, "If Satoshi knows that Tetsuya was close to me, won't he have acted to neutralize him somehow? Either by incapacitating or killing him?"

"That's what Kisuke thinks too. But he's hoping that Satoshi wouldn't have had him killed yet. He sent Rukia and Ichigo to see if they can find him and get him to help us."

"Ah," said Byakuya, nodding approvingly, "I see. That seems a sound strategy. I hope that they find him."

"Me too," Renji said, letting the power around his hands fade as he completed the infusion.

He bit at his lips in frustration as Byakuya's face paled and his legs weakened beneath him. He caught the noble as he started to fall and eased him down to kneel at the lake's edge. Byakuya leaned against the redhead's shoulder, humiliation sweeping through him as waves of dizziness pelted him, and his ears rang warningly. He felt Renji's fingers in his hair and heard the redhead's soothing whisper in his ear, and closed his eyes to gather himself.

When he opened his eyes again, he found himself back in the house, warmly tucked into bed and curled into Renji's arms. He read the fear behind the warm, loving gaze that Renji gave him, but chose not to speak the obvious.

We both know what is going on...that I am slowly dying. But we shouldn't focus on that. There is nothing that we can do that is not being done. As much as I would act to control my own fate if I could, right now, it rests in others' hands. These are the hands of the ones I called my friends before. And moment by moment, I relearn just what these people really meant to me. If there is a gift in what has happened, that is it...this connection with these family and friends who would not just fight for me, but would die to protect me. As much as Renji has impressed upon me that I was a strong person and I used to be the one to protect others, it is comforting now to witness them protecting me. I haven't the pride I once did to get in the way of appreciating that...so I will instead embrace it...for as long as I can.

"You should sleep some more," Renji admonished him, letting his rough-skinned fingers slide over the noble's soft cheek, "These infusions are really rough on you."

"I am fine, Renji," he assured the redhead, "Although the infusions are taxing, I think I am weathering them as well as can be expected."

Renji sighed and gave him a placating smile.

"Yeah, you're doing as well as anyone could under the circumstances...but that doesn't surprise me...as strong as you are."

Byakuya lowered his eyes and let out a soft, amused breath.

"Renji..."

"You are strong, Byakuya," Renji repeated, cupping the noble's face in his hands, "maybe not in body...but..."

He slipped a hand down to rest on Byakuya's pale breast, over his heart.

"Here...you are strong."

He sighed and closed his eyes.

"I think that when the elders took your powers, they made a huge mistake...besides the obvious of completely betraying their leader, that is."

"And that was?"

"They thought that the strongest thing about you was your shinigami power. I'm not saying that your powers were anything less than amazing, but I've known for a long time, that your heart is even stronger. That's what kept you from dying when they tried to kill you, and it's what's going to keep you alive now."

"Renji, we both know that the only reason I survived was because of your quick thinking and Orihime's reject power. Whatever heart I have couldn't have overcome..."

"Stop," said Renji, shaking his head, "I don't wanna hear that. I know that you had to accept help from other people. But their help would have done no good at all if your heart hadn't decided to keep fighting to stay alive. And it has to keep doing that now. Whatever happens from now on, whatever that bastard cousin of yours tries, you can't give up, okay?"

Byakuya sighed and nodded, then lowered his head back onto Renji's shoulder, enjoying the slow play of the redhead's hands over his bare back and round bottom. He turned his head to meet Renji's lips for a tender exchange of kisses, then he slipped his tongue between the redhead's parted lips for a deeper exploration of the warm, red mouth that gave him such pleasure that he might forget, even if for just a short time, the weakness in his body, his inability to do anything to change his situation. his need to rely on those around him. There was, he found, another kind of strength that sustained him, one that was fed every time he laid down with this red haired man.

He opened his eyes and let himself fall deeply into Renji's widened, red-brown ones. And it seemed he found new strength building inside him, new warmth flooding his body. Their kisses grew harder and more passionate, and the caresses on his body grew rougher. He smiled as the edge of worry left Renji's eyes, giving itself over to the passions that were igniting between the two.

Byakuya lifted himself away, spreading his thighs wide and straddling the redhead's reclined body, sighing and closing his eyes, continuing to smile as Renji's hands slid slowly down his back and clasped his bottom again, the lovely red-brown eyes alive with desire. He leaned forward and placed his palms on either side of Renji's torso, then plunged hungrily into the redhead's mouth again, his tongue curling around Renji's and his hips moving slowly, creating lovely friction between their awakened members as they rubbed together. His mouth left the redhead's, and treasured the skin of his lover's tanned, tattooed throat, before returning to Renji's mouth for another bout of penetrating kisses.

Byakuya's hips pressed more firmly into the redhead's, making Renji yield a wilder, more feral groan and grab his bottom harder, pulling at him to ask for more speed. The noble's lust-clouded eyes locked on the redhead's as he lifted himself slightly, reaching down to capture his lover's thick length, and to position it at his entrance.

His head bowed and he panted softly with effort as he took the redhead's arousal inside him in slow, shallow thrusts, then paused to lean down and kiss a sweat-misted, tattooed eyebrow. Renji pulled him down into a fierce storm of wet, hot, open-mouthed kisses as the redhead's strong hips began to move.

Riding the swell of intense emotion between them, Byakuya closed his eyes. And just for that short time...while their bodies were joined and moving together, while their hearts pounded with the exertion and their heads swam with pleasure, everything else faded away. He buried himself wholeheartedly in that small departure from reality, and in so doing, found that he felt more alive in that moment than in most others.

What is it, he wondered, that makes me able to forget for a moment how lost I am, how weak I have been made, how little I can do. All of that seems unimportant when you put your arms around me, Renji Abarai. How, I wonder, did I ever live without you before? I know now, where my strength lies when everything else is taken away. It lies here, safely ensconced in the love that is between us. And at times like this, I think that our love can conquer anything.

Anything...

His mind went hazy as Renji's hips bucked upward, and the redhead's thrusting member found the center of pleasure inside him. Warm, rapturous waves of release gripped him, exploding out of him and splashing onto Renji's tattooed belly. The redhead's hands clenched tightly on his still thrusting bottom, and Renji groaned in ecstasy as heat erupted inside the reeling noble. Byakuya fell on Renji's mouth for a last bout of seething kisses, then Renji laid back, panting and watching with adoring eyes as the noble's pink tongue caressed his skin.

"Bya," he whispered, "C'mere."

He pulled the noble into another long, scathing kiss, then the two went quiet, Byakuya curling comfortably into his lover's strong arms and closing his eyes again.

"I love you, Renji," he breathed into the redhead's ear, making Renji shiver softly.

"I don't know why," Renji whispered back, kissing him lightly on the forehead, "I'm the one who got you into this, you know."

"No," Byakuya said with certainty, "My wicked cousin and my own short-sightedness got me into this. You are the one without whom I would not find my way out again."