Chapter 19: Our Many Blessings

XXXXXXXXXX

Here at the end of our struggles, we stand at the beginning of a new world. We have built this place upon the lessons we've learned, carefully sown the seeds of our future. We look to the sun to bring light and warmth, to the breeze to bring song and story. Rest now in the fragrant gardens, with your head on my shoulder and your eyes to the sky, searching for a new dream to follow.

XXXXXXXXXX

Renji opened the door to Emiko's room and stepped inside. He was unsurprised to find the girl leaning against the windowsill and gazing out at the clouds that crossed the sky. She turned at the sound of the door opening and smiled at him, then looked beyond him to where she expected to see Bya. But Renji closed the door behind him and sat down next to her. He read the worried look in her eyes and acted quickly to head off her fears.

"How are you feeling, kiddo?" he asked, smiling, "You look a lot better now."

"I'm fine," she assured him, "But Renji, where is Bya?"

"Bya is on his way in, but I wanted to talk to you first before he gets here."

"Did he get hurt?" the girl asked quickly, "Did something happen to him?"

"Bya is fine," Renji assured her, "but when you see him, he is going to look a little bit different to you. You see, I found out something…something kind of amazing. Bya is really special, even more special than we thought."

"What do you mean?" Emiko asked, looking confused, "What did you find out?"

Renji smiled.

"Well, you know how I was looking for Byakuya Kuchiki, the man who used to be my captain and was called to the spirit dimension to marry the spirit king's daughter, ne?"

Emiko nodded.

"I found out that Byakuya Kuchiki went to the spirit dimension, as the king told him to do. He tried very hard to obey his king and to marry the princess, but Byakuya's heart belonged to me, and in the end, he couldn't marry the princess. The king was upset with him and thought he deserved a punishment, so he made it so that no one could recognize Byakuya…and sent him here to Inuzuri. He was given one year to find me…and for us to fall in love again. And we did, Emiko."

"What?" whispered the girl, "You mean…?"

"I mean that the man we know as Bya is really Byakuya Kuchiki. And because we found each other and we fell in love again, the spell was broken and now he looks like himself again. But he is still the person you know. Only the way he looks on the outside has changed."

Renji turned back and opened the door and Byakuya entered the room. The girl's eyes swept over the tall, dark-eyed shinigami, noting the deeper, wider gray eyes, the darker hair decorated with the kenseiken. The feel of his reiatsu was stronger, and Emiko sensed his great power, but as he reached the bed and sat down, she leaned towards him, touching his face gently and gazing into his eyes.

"It is you!" she said wonderingly as Byakuya's arms wrapped around her and pulled her close.

"Yes," he said quietly, "It is me."

She stared at him, wide-eyed.

"So…does that mean that we will go to live at Kuchiki Manor?" she asked, remembering her visit to the Kuchiki home.

"Actually," Byakuya said, smiling, "in addition to being a member of the Kuchiki clan, the spirit king told me that my mother was actually the crown princess. She died when I was born, and that means that I am now the crown prince."

Emiko's eyes went as wide as saucers.

"You are…a prince? A real prince?" she asked in an incredulous tone.

"I was pretty blown away by that too, kid," Renji added, slipping an arm around Byakuya and sitting down next to him.

"I was taken by surprise as well," said the noble, "And what this means is that when Renji and I are married, the three of us will go to live in the king's palace in the spirit dimension."

"But I'm supposed to go to the shinigami academy!" objected Emiko, "And Renji is a captain! Does that mean…?"

"You may still attend the shinigami academy," Byakuya explained, "but when you leave the spirit dimension, you will be attended by a personal bodyguard, a member of the King's Hogosha. They are special protectors of the royal family."

"And will Renji still be able to be a captain?" the girl asked.

"If he wishes it, he may," said the noble, "but as crown prince, I have power to choose a strong shinigami to be the crown prince's special protector, or Prince's Hogosha. And because Renji has proven to be such a capable protector, I have decided to recommend him. If he accepts, he will have primary responsibility for seeing to my protection, both in spirit dimension and when we travel to Soul Society or the living world."

"The Hogosha…" Renji mused, "I don't know. Have you seen those guys? They are…really something!"

Byakuya smiled and brought his face close to Renji's.

"You are really something," he said quietly, "For years, I have had the comfort of your protection and love. I don't want that to end…not now, and not ever. I love you, Renji."

The redhead laughed.

"Well then, it looks like I'm going to keep loving and protecting you, Prince Byakuya."

"Oh stop, I haven't been officially given my royal title yet. I won't until our wedding. Today, I am just Byakuya, and believe me, that is more than enough for me."

XXXXXXXXXX

"You look lovely," said Byakuya, admiring Emiko's formal kimono and smiling.

Noa put the finishing touches on the girl's hair and stood.

"You both look wonderful," she said, her eyes warm and happy.

Renji poked his nose into the room.

"Hey guys, the Royal Guard escort just arrived! I think it's time to go."

Byakuya nodded and stood, his kimono rustling softly. He took Emiko's hand, then joined Renji and walked outside.

The streets of the town outside the healer's building were lined with people, all smiling and craning to see as Byakuya, Renji and Emiko stepped out of the building and into the street. Emiko inhaled sharply at the sight.

"Why are they staring like that?" she asked softly.

Renji smiled.

"It's not every day that princes and princesses come walking through Inuzuri, kid. It's exciting for them."

"The spirit king has spread the story of my father and mother, and how I came to learn that I am the crown prince. I think that if we were them, we would wish to see as well. People like fairy tales, Emiko. Do you know why?"

"Why?"

"People like fairy tales because they reminds us that our lives are not a straight line ahead of us. Our choices lay the foundation for our fate, and so as we make each decision, we ourselves write the story of our lives…and we affect other people's stories along the way."

"Like how I happened to be hurt at the same time you were and Noa asked you to take care of me?" Emiko asked.

"Just like that," Byakuya confirmed.

"My story was changed by your arrival in it, just as yours was changed by my arrival."

"I guess that's why my mom and dad kept telling me to think about how I was acting when I did something wrong," the girl concluded.

"Yes," Byakuya agreed, "We have to be careful in our choices, because it is not only our own lives that we affect. We affect all of the ones around us, and so we are all connected."

"It's time," the Royal Guard Captain said, bowing, "We are ready, Lord Byakuya."

"I thought you were a prince," Emiko whispered.

Byakuya smiled.

"I will be given my royal title when we reach the spirit dimension. For now, I am simply Lord Byakuya, head of the Kuchiki clan."

"And what am I?" asked the girl.

"Today, you are Lady Emiko, but when we reach the palace, you will become Princess Emiko."

"I get to be a princess?" Emiko asked, her face lighting up, "Does Renji get to be a prince too?"

"Yes," Byakuya said, nodding, "He will be Prince Renji and he will also be Crown Prince's Hogosha."

There was no more time for talking as the three were led to a group of horses. Emiko gasped with delight as Byakuya mounted a huge white stallion and Renji set her lightly in front of the noble. Renji climbed on last, behind Byakuya and the Royal Guard led them forward as their friends watched and waved to them.

"Can I wave back?" asked Emiko.

"Yes, wave gently and smile," Byakuya directed her.

The procession moved slowly through the busy streets of the Roukongai, through the main gates into the Seireitei and on to Kuchiki Manor. Rukia waited at the front gates of the manor and was helped onto another white horse that moved to join them.

"Brother," Rukia sighed, her eyes shining with tears, "I was so worried. I am really glad you are safe."

"I am sorry to have worried you," he replied softly, as the horses continued down the bustling streets.

They stopped at the first division, where the head captain opened a Royal Senkaimon for them and the group passed over into the spirit dimension. Emiko gripped Byakuya's hand tightly as her eyes swept over the slightly misted, dreamy surroundings, the trail through the thick forest, the opening into wide plains with rolling hills. And when the palace rose up ahead of them, she was left speechless.

"I can't believe we're going to live here," she whispered as they arrived in the courtyard and attendants appeared all around to help them down and lead them inside.

They were taken first to their rooms, where servants waited to bathe them and dress them in fresh kimonos. Then, another attendant appeared and led them into the throne room. They knelt before the spirit king and consort, their heads bowed respectfully as he greeted them.

He rose from his throne and walked first to Byakuya. He placed a warm hand on the noble lord's shoulder.

"Welcome home, Lord Byakuya, son of the late Princess Sorano and the noble Soujun Kuchiki. As I have restored your mother to her rightful place in the royal line of kings and queens, I now bestow upon you, your royal title, Byakuya. Crown Prince of the three worlds."

He placed his hand in Byakuya's, gently brought him to his feet and kissed him lightly, once on each cheek. Byakuya remained at his side and the two moved to stand before Renji.

"Renji Abarai, Captain of the fifth division of the Gotei 13," the king said, laying a hand on the redhead's shoulder, "and betrothed of my grandson, Prince Byakuya, I welcome you to the spirit dimension."

He paused, gazing down at Renji's bowed head.

"The royal family, and I in particular, owe you a great debt of thanks. You began life as an orphan of the Rukongai. Life there was very difficult, but you made the best of it and grew strong so that years later, you could serve proudly as a captain in my armed forces. Yet even aside from that, you have accomplished many numerous important things. You have been a good and loyal friend, a devoted subordinate, a committed partner, and the fiercest of protectors. And in addition, as you stood at my grandson's side, you gave him what he needed to find his strength, even when he fell from my good graces and was left with nothing. You respected his ability to take care of himself, even when doing so was very difficult, you loved him from the heart, and always, you helped him to see the way to move forward when his path became difficult. Because of this, you have my deepest gratitude, and my blessing for your marriage. I wish you and my grandson many happy years together. In addition, as of your marriage to Byakuya, I will award you the royal title, Prince Renji Abarai."

He glanced up at Byakuya.

"And now, I think Byakuya has something to bestow upon you as well."

"Thank you, my lord," Byakuya said, inclining his head.

He turned to Renji and drew Senbonzakura.

"Renji Abarai," Byakuya said quietly, "As my first duty as Crown Prince, I hereby recognize your loyalty, your power and your desire to protect. I offer to you the additional designation of Crown Prince's Hogosha."

Renji smiled.

"It would be my honor," he answered, meeting Byakuya's eyes warmly.

"Very well," Byakuya said, touching one shoulder, then the other lightly with his zanpakutou, "then I name you Abarai-hogosha, the Crown Prince's protector."

"Thank you, my lord," Renji said as Byakuya slipped a hand into his and brought him to his feet.

The two joined the king as he stood before Emiko. The girl kept her head bowed until the king place a hand on hers and raised her. Then she stood, staring up into the king's eyes, frozen like a dear, her heat beating hard inside her.

Why is he looking at me that way?"

"Lady Emiko," the king said softly, "You have suffered greatly for one so young. You have suffered the loss of your parents and have had to struggle to find warmth and food. Yet with all you have endured, you still look upon your king with trust…with respect. Tell me why."

Emiko caught her breath at the question.

"My lord?" she whispered, "I don't know exactly."

She thought for several minutes, gazing up at the king, then letting her eye stray to Byakuya and Renji. A slow smile rose on her lips.

"Sir," she went on, "I am very sad that my parents died, and it was really hard being cold and hungry. But it wasn't all bad. My parents took good care of me and taught me things while they were alive. And when they weren't anymore, there was still Michio and Noa, who healed me…and then Noa asked Bya to take care of me. It was because of Bya coming into my room when I was healing, because he sat down and hugged me and sang to me that I felt like I could breathe again. And Bya took good care of me. He listened to me and he helped me with my bad feelings about my parents being gone. He and Renji helped me when I had bad dreams, and they taught me things. Because of them, I am going to be able to go to the shinigami academy and become a healer. They helped me, and they made me stronger, so I can help other people who are like I used to be. I guess what I mean is…I miss my parents, but I feel lucky to have good friends who helped me grow strong."

The king smiled and reached down to touch her face.

"You are wise beyond your years, child, but can you really say that you are not angry with me for your parents being gone? Do you wonder why I didn't save them? Many people ask why I do not solve all of their problems. Do you wonder as well?"

Emiko stared at him silently for a long time, then her eye strayed again to Byakuya. The prince smiled back at her and nodded.

"I think," she said quietly, "It's like Bya…I mean, Prince Byakuya told me. He said that we all have our own story…and we do things that affect other people's stories, and they do things that affect ours."

"Yes, child," the king agreed.

"And if you always solved everyone's problems, then we wouldn't make ourselves stronger and we wouldn't need to help each other. And besides," the girl said matter-of-factly, "Bya told me that we learn and grow by making mistakes and having tough problems to solve. I guess we couldn't grow if you took over and fixed everything all of the time. It doesn't mean a person shouldn't help another person…just they shouldn't do everything."

"But even though I do not interfere with their struggles, young Emiko, I listen to their prayers and I answer with a great gift, something that each person must only reach out and accept and it can make all of the difference. Do you know what gift I give them?"

Emiko furrowed her brow hard and thought carefully.

"I don't know for sure," she said uncertainly, "but I know that when my parents died, I had Michio and Noa, and then Bya and Renji. And I always had my friends."

"And there is your answer, child. Because as Bya told you, we affect each other's stories. So it is up to my people to affect each other in good ways. Sometimes by giving to someone who needs and sometimes by accepting, but always by trying to make each story end more happily."

"Like Renji helped Bya to find out he was a prince? And like Bya helped me to feel better and grow strong again after my parents died?"

"And as you did by returning to Inuzuri to give your friends a coat and a pair of shoes. You didn't fix all of their problems, but you affected their stories and made them better. As I said, you are wise, Lady Emiko," the king said, nodding, "And I will tell you now that tomorrow, when Prince Byakuya marries Renji Abarai and they officially adopt you as their daughter, you will join the royal line of succession as Prince Byakuya's royal heir."

The girl's eyes went wide.

"What?" she said, not quite believing her ears.

Byakuya and Renji, too, stared at the spirit king in surprise.

"How is that possible?" Emiko asked, "I'm not Byakuya's real daughter. I'm just adopted. I am not from the royal family!"

The king laughed softly.

"Emiko, child, remember that I dreamed of these worlds before they ever existed. I crafted them with my own hands and filled them with creatures I made…and who carried on to make more. Every living thing is my child. So…I may choose any I deem worthy to be placed in the royal succession."

He leaned over and kissed the girl softly on the forehead.

"And I see promise in your eyes. Yes, you were born a peasant, but you have proven yourself worthy to stand among the kings and queens of our worlds."

"I don't know," Emiko said in a small voice, "I don't know if I could do a good job taking care of everything! I might make a mistake!"

"Yes," said the king, glancing meaningfully in Byakuya's direction, "You will make many mistakes, Lady Emiko. But as your very intelligent friend, Bya, told you, those mistakes help you grow. And you do not stop growing, just because you become a king or queen. We all must grow, young Emiko. All of us."

"Yes, sir," Emiko said, bowing her head respectfully.

"Now go and enjoy the gardens," the king commanded them, "Be sure you rest well tonight because tomorrow will be an important day for all of us.

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya sat quietly in the king's garden, leaning against a very contented Renji Abarai and holding a peacefully sleeping Emiko against his shoulder. He watched as the sun set and the stars began to rise in the sky and sighed happily.

"Arigato, Renji," he whispered, breaking the long silence.

Renji nuzzled closer.

"For what?" he asked.

Byakuya smiled.

"For finding me when I was lost…for helping me find my way home, and for seeing me when I couldn't even recognize myself. You brought happiness back to my life story, and I will never forget that."

Renji laughed softly.

"Well, you made my story a happier one too. But you're welcome."

He leaned over and kissed the prince lingeringly.

"Aishiteru yo, Byakuya."

Byakuya smiled again and returned the gesture.

"Aishiteru yo, Renji."