Chapter 4: Royal Privilege

"I understand now why you chose to involve me," Byakuya said, glancing around the archive.

Yoruichi nodded.

"Your family is caretaker of the most extensive collection of knowledge in the three worlds. The Kuchiki family archive has its entrance here, but actually exists in the spirit dimension. And with the exception of the royal family, only you and the ones you permit entrance are allowed in the archive...the reason for that being that souls beyond the spirit dimension weren't meant to have some of this knowledge. Kisuke and I believe that if there is a place that may hold the answers we need to locate and destroy the developing hollow god, it is here."

Byakuya met her eyes without the usual look of disdain.

"You will have my full cooperation," he said quietly, handing her the silver token, "This token will allow you or Kisuke to enter the archive."

He paused for a moment, thinking.

"And there is one more thing that I can do for you," he added.

"What is that?"

"Begin your search," Byakuya said cryptically, "I will return soon."

"B-but," stammered the cat woman, "I just told you that the...Byakuya! Where are you going?"

Her eyes went wide as the noble walked to the back of the archive and touched a door that she hadn't seen was there.

"There are only two ways to enter or leave the spirit dimension. A soul may only pass through the dimension wall if in possession of the King's Key. But any member of the royal family or the Kuchiki family may pass through this entrance. I am going to seek the support of his majesty's royal court. I will return soon."

"Ah," said the cat woman, smiling, "Good thinking."

She paused as a look of discomfort passed over the noble's expression, then disappeared.

"Byakuya?" she queried, "Are you all right?"

The noble looked back at her as though nothing had happened.

"What do you mean?" he asked solemnly, "I am fine."

Yoruichi shook her head.

"Never mind," she said, off-handedly, "Looks like I had better get started looking."

Byakuya nodded, then turned and silently passed through the door into the spirit dimension.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Okay," said Kisuke, leaning forward and touching several buttons on the machine in front of him, "This is going to jump around a bit and may not be too clear, but it's one of the few ways we have to capture information in the subconscious memory and put it in a usable form."

He worked at the buttons and switches for several more minutes, then leaned back and adjusted the monitor so that Aizen could see as well.

"Let's see what we've got, now."

He pressed a last button and the two men watched the display on the screen. At first, the screen displayed only static. But after a few moments, a fuzzy image of a hollow appeared.

"Excellent," the hollow said, "We are nearly ready to begin the ritual. But we must do so quickly if are to return..."

The words trailed off and the image faded. A few moments later, a bright light flashed, and an image of the hollow appeared to look down at them.

"...have a use for you..."

The screen faded into static again, then flashed with several sharp images. A view of masked faces looking down at someone...the sound of heavy chanting...moans, and the flash of a pale body lying beneath another...hollow claws pushing someone's parted thighs wide...two bodies pressing eagerly against each other as a group of hollows looked on. A final image was quaky and barely discernable...a view of a single hollow from a distance.

"I wonder if you regret your choices now..."

"That's the end of it," Kisuke said solemnly.

He rewound the recorded feed, and played it back several times, then consulted Aizen.

"Anything ring any bells for you?" he asked.

"Not really," replied Aizen, "Obviously, I was only semi-conscious. The hollow most present is Kurokasai. The chanting must have been during the ritual."

"You didn't get a good look at the shinigami, apparently," observed Kisuke, "Except for his hands, his thighs, and...what was between his thighs."

"Unfortunately, we can't identify him that way," Aizen said, shaking his head, "Although it is possible that because of the bonding that occurs during a ritual like that, he might resonate with me if we met in person."

"Oh, okay then," Kisuke sighed, "Then it's just a matter of you wandering around and hoping this guy crosses your path again. I mean, he's probably a noble, or at least, he has to be a powerful person, so that narrows it down into the hundreds. Granted, it's better than millions or thousands, but it's still tantamount to looking for a needle in a haystack! Damn..."

He paused as Aizen's face paled and a look of discomfort touched his features.

"You okay?" Kisuke asked quickly.

"F-fine," answered Aizen, dropping back onto the examination table, "Just...weary."

"Yeah, I guess after having all of that power forced through you, having your chest torn open and nearly dying, I can see how you'd be kind of tired. Let's quit for a while."

He removed the electrodes and freed the brown-eyed shinigami, who looked back at him questioningly.

"Don't think I'm letting my guard down," the shopkeeper said, matter-of-factly, "That collar on you holds back your powers, will incapacitate you if you attack anyone and will not allow you to leave here unless I remove it. Go and get some rest. I will bring in some food and tea in a bit."

Aizen looked back at him quietly for a moment, then climbed to his feet and left the laboratory. He walked slowly back to the bedroom he had been placed in before, his mind going back over the images he had seen. In addition to what he had seen and heard, he was beginning to recall other bits of sensual information that he judged could be useful if he sorted them out.

I remember our lips crashing together, and that my eyes were closed much of the time. His skin was very soft...and had a scent. I can't remember what...

He walked into his room and sat down on the bed, looking out the open window and breathing in the fresh air the breeze carried into the room.

It has been too long since I breathed in fresh air.

He longed to be out in the sunshine, surrounded by light, warmth, and...

He stopped himself, surprised at how those seemingly simple things were such a desire. He touched the healing wound on his chest and felt a flash of memory of his battle with Ichigo.

This is my weakness. This is why the hougyoku rejected me...this inward desire for peace and balance. The hougyoku was powerful enough to make me king, but what I realized was that it wanted to be king much more than I did. As much as I tried to use it to become king, it tried to use me. We were not partners striving for a common goal. We were enemies just waiting for the chance to betray each other. It wore heavily on me to be in constant contact with a soul like the hougyoku. As much as I may not live because it is gone, I can't say I'm unhappy. I am free to make my own decisions again, as limited as they are, for now. And as long as I live and breathe, there is some hope, ne? That is more than I can say for Gin and Tousen. But they died because they were not strong enough to keep their lives.

I am strong enough, even without the Hougyoku.

I always was.

I know that now.

He heard a familiar whisper in the back of his mind and reached for it. But only a moment later, it faded. Still, just the touch of it brought a smile to his lips.

"We will remember each other," he whispered, "And I will be able to command your powers again...Kyouka Suigetsu."

He laid down in the comfortable bed and gazed out the window, letting his mind wander aimlessly until he drifted off into a peaceful sleep.

Back in the laboratory, Kisuke replayed the video feed repeatedly, listening carefully and watching closely.

"Why are you giving us so much trouble?" he whispered, "Come on, give us a clue here."

He played the feed back again, slowing it down...then again, even slower. He caught his breath softly as a flash image of the man's obscured and partially turned face appeared.

"Ah," whispered Kisuke, "There you are..."

He studied the distorted picture, then his fingers flew over the keyboard in front of him.

"Just get what dimensions we can," he muttered, "and compare them to the Central 46 database...and..."

He paused, waiting as the information was sent, received and processed. The results lit up his screen and Kisuke groaned.

"Well, that narrows it down to about a hundred or so," he mused discontentedly, "But...at least we know now that we are, indeed, looking for a noble."

He sighed and pushed himself back from the computer, rubbing his hands over his face. He started to return to his work, but heard a familiar voice out in the front of the safe house, and walked out to greet the person.

"Captain Kuchiki," he said, smiling, "I guess Yoruichi reached you, then."

"Yes," said the noble, "She informed me that you have Sousuke Aizen here, and are attempting to determine who was made the Devil's Vessel. I left her in the archive, researching the history of the king's brother and the seeding ritual."

"You did, eh?" Kisuke said, looking at him, curiously, "So...erm...why are you here instead of in the archive, helping her with the research?"

"I am here on business," Byakuya said shortly.

"Oh, great," muttered Kisuke, "Don't tell me. You tipped Central 46 that he was here and the idiots there want him returned so that they can execute him and end any chance we have of stopping this hollow god from being born. Is that it?"

"I am not here in my capacity as a captain, but as leader of the Kuchiki clan and the noble servant of his majesty, King Eiji," the noble announced, "I did not trifle with Central 46, but went through the archive, directly to address the royal court about the situation."

Kisuke gave him a look of guarded hopefulness.

"And they said...?" he asked.

"By royal edict, you and Yoruichi Shihoin are to continue to attempt to discern the identity of the Devil's Vessel."

"O-kay, that makes sense."

"I have been ordered to take possession of Souske Aizen, and to guard him at all times."

"Come again?" said Kisuke, staring.

"You are to release Sousuke Aizen into my custody immediately. He will be housed in the Seireitei, at Kuchiki Manor, and under my direct supervision until this crisis is over!"

XXXXXXXXXX

Aizen woke to the sound of Kisuke's voice protesting loudly, then footsteps, and his door being thrown open. He sat up and gazed curiously at the person who had entered his room and stood, glaring down at him.

"Captain Kuchiki, I have him perfectly under control," objected the shopkeeper, "And you can't just go traipsing around the Seireitei, dragging this guy along. Are you crazy? You know, I really have no love for the guy either, but we do need him. And you take him back to the Seireitei and the guy won't live for five minutes! Everyone he ever knew and didn't kill, will be lined up and waiting to kill this guy."

"I will not allow him to be harmed," said Byakuya, stepping forward and snapping a silver band around the former captain's wrist.

He leaned forward and, ignoring Kisuke's continued protests, removed the collar.

"He will not be able to leave my presence," said Byakuya, "And he will only wield defensive powers..."

He paused for a moment.

"That is...once he is able to use his powers at all."

"But..."

"I am accepting of Byakuya's terms," said Aizen, looking up curiously at the noble, "And if he is guarding me, then you are free to conduct your research without the distraction of having to take care of me."

He narrowed his eyes and smirked.

"And besides, I am weary of your company. Byakuya may not be the greatest conversationalist, but he is much lovelier to look at. Add to that, he has a talented staff at his beck and call, and hosts the most beautiful gardens in the Seireitei, and I would say that I could not have fallen into better hands...or prettier ones."

"Do not speak as though I am not here," Byakuya said, raising his reiatsu warningly, "And do not refer to me so informally. You will call me Captain Kuchiki or Lord Kuchiki."

"Oh," said Aizen, smiling charmingly, "But Byakuya is so much more attractive, don't you think?"

"You really sure you want to do this?" asked Kisuke, raising an eyebrow, "He may just piss you off enough to make you forget about the fate of the three worlds and just kill him. I was pretty tempted..."

"Come with me," Byakuya said tersely.

Aizen climbed to his feet and watched calmly as the noble opened a family senkaimon.

"I assume you would rather not use the central senkaimon and risk someone killing you before you reach the manor?" Byakuya asked quietly.

"Oh, Byakuya," said Aizen, looking mildly surprised, "And I thought you had no sense of humor at all..."

"I wasn't attempting humor," the noble said, stepping into the precipice world, with Aizen at his side.

"Good," said Aizen, "It's dangerous when not handled by someone with proper experience."

"Be quiet."

"But I haven't been in such stimulating company in a very long time. Are you saying that you aren't glad to see me? Because, I have really rather missed your dry wit."

He went silent as the noble turned and shoved him roughly back against the wall of the tunnel. He caught his breath softly as Byakuya's eyes went an odd golden for a moment, then returned to normal.

"Sousuke Aizen," he growled in an unusually feral tone, "I may be here under the king's order, but understand that I have my own agenda in accepting custody of you."

"Oh?" said the former captain, looking surprisingly unruffled.

"Not as a noble servant, and not as a sworn officer of the Gotei 13..."

"Perhaps I should return to Kisuke's safe house," suggested Aizen, "You seem...not so much yourself, Byakuya."

He stared curiously as the noble's hands tightened where they held the front of his yukata.

"I have an agenda as Rukia's brother and guardian. You tried to kill her."

"You're still mad about that, ne?"

"And as her brother and guardian, once we have stopped the hollow god from being born, I will kill you."

Aizen looked into the noble's lovely and furious expression and smiled.

"I never took you for a passionate man, Byakuya," he said appreciatively, ignoring the noble's death threat entirely, "You have changed. But...I would say it is for the better."

"Shut up," Byakuya said, releasing him and turning away.

Aizen smiled and followed the noble on through the precipice world.