Chapter 28: Until Death Do Us Part
(Thanks so much to everyone who read, reviewed and enjoyed this story! Don't miss the next exciting installment, BFA Part 2: The Doragon Tatsujin! The firt chapter is up, and more are on the way!)
Kuchiki Byakuya and Abarai Renji walked side by side to the far end of the koi pond where the guests sat waiting. As they reached the beginning of the aisle, Rukia stepped out in front of them.
"Nii-sama, Renji," she said, smiling brightly, "I'm so happy for you!"
She hugged Renji, then hesitated for a moment, and finally burst forward and threw her arms around Byakuya, hugging him warmly and pulling him down slightly so that she could kiss him on the cheek. He froze for a moment, unaccustomed to the familiarity, then his arm wrapped lightly around her and his head lowered so that his face came to rest for a moment on the top of her head. Rukia moved in between them, taking Byakuya's hand in her right hand, and Renji's in her left, and the three stood quietly at the beginning of the center aisle. The guests stood and turned in their direction and music began to play.
Byakuya felt the touch of Senbonzakura's spirit on his mind and felt the stirrings of his power. As the three began to proceed down the aisle, a soft rain of glowing pink sakura petals fell from the sky above them. They moved forward slowly and Byakuya found himself transported, carried back in time to a moment years before…one he had never quite been able to forget. It suddenly made more sense to him than it ever had.
He stood for a moment, his mind reeling at being so close to the one who looked so like his late wife. Mind, heart and body knew well that although they looked so alike, Hisana was gone and the emptiness that had opened up inside him could not be filled by this girl. In fact, Hisana had not realized the price that her request would exact from him. So desperate to find and make amends with her sister, she had obligated him to do something that only compounded the weight of losing her. Rukia's presence could have been a comfort. Had he been able to reveal the truth to the girl, they might have shared the weight of losing Hisana. He might have had someone who would understand and accept his pain. As it was, he was forced to hide everything. Surrounded by those who had opposed their marriage and having promised to say nothing to Rukia, just being in the girl's presence was nearly unbearable. Yet he shouldered the weight of it silently and revealed nothing of what it cost him.
He felt a sense of relief when the time came to take their leave of her…to go and let her consider their offer of adoption into the family. It wouldn't matter whether she agreed or not, he was bound to take her into the family and one way or another, he would convince her. Kuchiki Byakuya saw it as a matter of duty. But even so, his shattered heart ached and threatened to reveal him. And when the time came to leave, it was all he could do to force everything down and take things step by step as he left the room.
He was oblivious to everything but the pain. Nothing broke through it as he slowly moved toward the exit, looking to everyone there as though nothing was wrong…as though it was just another day and his heart wasn't about to be crushed under the weight. But somewhere in the haze of pain that surrounded him, something registered. In his desperation to escape the room, he almost missed it.
He passed within inches of someone. He didn't so much as blink, such was the strength of his control, but then he simply couldn't help but hear the anguished thoughts as he passed.
but…I hate you for taking her!
And yet, as he passed into the next room, he heard the youth happily congratulating her…as though he couldn't be happier. And in that moment, he realized that he wasn't alone in the pain Hisana's death and this request had caused. This soul that hated him so was the only one that could understand the pain. Strangely, he felt comforted.
And forty years later, when he was forced to find a new fukutaichou, when he scanned the files, he saw that face again…the one that hated him and yet shared his pain. He stared for a long time, realizing the danger of allowing his well being to rest in such hands. But there was no other way, it seemed, to bring him closer, to gain knowledge of him, to feel comforted by that presence. It was insane, but no one realized what it was that he was doing. No one ever needed to know.
He did wonder how long it would last…how long it would take for his fukutaichou's hatred to overtake him and force them into confrontation. Strangely, although Abarai Renji was neither patient nor reserved in his thoughts, Byakuya felt him watching with purpose, quietly preparing…friendly and engaging on the surface, but seething with hatred underneath. He said nothing. He watched Renji carefully, knowing the time would come when his fukutaichou would turn on him, and not caring. While he waited for the end, he felt comforted. That comfort was all that mattered…that feeling of not being alone in his pain. It was selfish and reckless…and when the end came, he was surprised at how close it came to undoing him.
But as he stood looking back at the bloodied wreck held down beneath his pink blades, Kuchiki Byakuya was surprised to see something of himself…hopelessly beaten down, the life bleeding out, and yet shouldering it all quietly and refusing to give in. That thought warned him what was about to happen, but he refused to believe it. Even as he watched the pink blades shatter and the broken body rise up again, he couldn't make himself move. He could only watch as Renji closed on him and wish his fukutaichou's blade had enough strength left in it to kill him.
Because Renji was stronger than he was.
And his dedication to Rukia was all encompassing.
And as he watched Renji's blade shatter against him, Byakuya's heart broke for him. It was lucky for the noble that help was already coming. Knowing that was the only thing that made it possible for him to turn and walk away. But even leaving was no escape. He knew the images would haunt him…possibly to the point of madness. That was why…why when he woke in the healing center he didn't know whether the bandaged man in the chair was real or a mirage there to remind him of just how wrong he had been.
But even if it was only a mirage there to haunt him, at least he wouldn't have to bear the pain alone…
He didn't expect Renji to be real.
He didn't expect to be forgiven.
And even being forgiven, he wouldn't have dreamed that Renji would ever love him.
And yet, Byakuya's recklessness led him to kiss Renji anyway, and he was stunned when those warm lips moved against his in acceptance. He didn't deserve it. So why had
Renji done it? Why?
And why was he here, ready to fill the emptiness that Hisana's death had caused?
He didn't deserve that either.
It couldn't be real.
He had simply gone mad. The stress of losing everything and facing a future of unknowns had finally unhinged him. He couldn't be here in the gardens of the home he had left behind. He couldn't be marrying the one who had once hated him. It couldn't be real. As much as he wanted it to be, it all had to be just a dream.
They had reached the canopy and he felt Rukia kiss his cheek and set his hand gently in Renji's. They moved forward and took their place under the canopy…in front of half the population of the Seireitei, with Kuchiki Noriko speaking words that no longer registered and Renji's eyes locked on his. Renji knew the signs of the madness that had taken hold of his taichou. He recognized the sudden hint of fear that flashed across the deep gray eyes and was prepared when he felt the rise of power that preceded his flash step.
But Abarai Renji wasn't going to let him escape. As Byakuya's eyes dropped away from his and the noble started to turn, Renji's hand took hold of his wrist and held him there. Kuchiki Noriko fell silent and all eyes rested on them…waiting.
"You always do this," Renji said, "You always find a reason to deny yourself happiness. I don't understand why you do that. "
"I never should have made those promises," Byakuya managed in a soft voice, "I should have convinced Hisana to change her mind…to allow me to be honest with Rukia about who she was…and then to stand back and allow Rukia to choose where she wanted to be. But I was desperate to comfort her. I recklessly promised whatever she asked. In doing that, I denied Rukia the right to choose her own path…and I hurt you. I made you hate me. How can you have forgotten? How can you even stand in my presence and not be reminded?"
Renji's continued to hold his wrist and brought his other hand to Byakuya's chin, raising his eyes so that brown locked on gray and held them there. Everyone else seemed to disappear for them. They were, in that moment, alone.
"We both made mistakes, Byakuya," Renji said, holding the noble spellbound, "Yes…you took Rukia in. I lost her. I hated you. But it wasn't right for me to do that. Byakuya, I hated you for giving my best friend a safe and comfortable home…a family. These are things we grew up without in the Rukongai and I should have been happy for her. But I was selfish in hating you for that. I was only thinking of my own pain, not what was best for her."
"It wasn't what was best for her. I was horrible to her. I avoided her and left her feeling alone and isolated. And when she was going to be executed, I turned against her and abandoned her…Renji, I let Aizen Sousuke use me against her. How am I supposed to ever forget that? How can I forgive myself? How is it you were able to forgive me?"
Renji released his wrist and took his face in both hands, the brown eyes boring down into his, forcing their way in and holding him frozen.
"Don't you get it, Byakuya? I hated you out of selfishness. I hated you before you really did anything wrong. But you…the things that you did…the decisions you made? You were caught between your love for your wife and your love for your parents. Taking Rukia in wasn't a selfish act and neither was honoring your parents…even though doing so had awful consequences. You were trapped…and you did some things wrong, but when it really mattered, you stood between Rukia and death. You were willing to sacrifice everything to protect her. And yesterday? Yesterday, you showed me that you were willing to give up everything just to be with me. You didn't do that for selfish reasons. You did it because you love me. And I love you too," he said, kissing the stunned noble over and over, "I love you too!"
He pulled away slightly, but kept their faces close together.
"Let it all go now, Byakuya. Let yourself be happy. Just let us both be happy…please…"
Byakuya realized suddenly that he had forgotten to breathe and he took a long, slow breath, leaning into the hands that still held his face. He couldn't speak, but he raised his eyes so Renji could see that the madness had drained out of them. The worry left the gentle brown eyes and Renji's smile returned. Beside them, Kuchiki Noriko cleared her throat, bringing them back to reality.
"Lord Byakuya, is everything all right now? May I continue?" she asked, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"Yes…please go on," he said, taking Renji's hands.
"Kuchiki Byakuya, having given your hand to Abarai Renji, do you vow to give yourself wholly unto him, forsaking all others? Whether for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, will you love, honor and protect him for all the days of your lives?"
"I will," Byakuya replied, his voice calm and tranquil again.
"And Abarai Renji, having given your hand to Kuchiki Byakuya, do you vow to give yourself wholly unto him, forsaking all others? Whether for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, will you love, honor and protect him for all the days of your lives?"
"I will," Renji responded, squeezing Byakuya's hands.
"Having so promised, I invite you now to share a declaration of the bonds of your love…Abarai Renji?"
"Kuchiki Byakuya, it seems that the battleground has been like a second home to us. So much between us has happened on so many battlefields. Sometimes it seemed like one or the other of us wouldn't survive. But we have come so far, through so much difficulty, and still we are both here. And whether we fight hollows, intolerance, pain, or our own inner demons, the only one I want at my back is you. You've offered me everything…and I want to offer you everything in return."
"Thank you, Abarai Renji," Noriko said, smiling, "Kuchiki Byakuya?"
"Abarai Renji, You are one to whom life has often been unkind. Having had to struggle for every bit of happiness, and having watched the friends around you fall and disappear, it amazes me that there is any brightness left in you. But you weather everything with a courageous heart, with love for your friends and resolve to protect what is yours. I am honored to stand in your presence, gifted with your loyalty and friendship, and blessed to be the one who holds your heart. You have offered me everything…and I want to offer you everything in return."
The two were dimly aware of the exchange of rings and the words that followed, but their eyes were focused on each other and their minds were a thousand miles away…already lost in thoughts of the future, in all of their plans…and together in joy at the knowledge they would experience all of it side by side. They only waited now for the final words, the ones that would make it all real.
"Byakuya…and Renji, having taken vows of marriage, having pledged yourselves one to the other, I now declare you to be partners in life, bonded in love, given into a marriage that none may put asunder. You may now exchange a kiss as token of the love we have joined."
They leaned toward each other and as their lips touched, the calm was shattered by the sound of alarms ringing.
"Damn it!" snapped Renji, "Of all the…"
He was stopped mid-sentence by the hands that took hold of him and the mouth that captured his in a long sensuous kiss.
"Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert! Hollows are attacking the West Rukongai and closing on the west gate."
Byakuya and Renji exchanged glances.
"That's our area," they said together.
Renji turned to their guests.
"Enjoy the party everyone! It's time for us to get started on our honeymoon. Coming Taichou?"
Together they flash stepped away leaving their guests staring after them.