(Yup! The series goes on! I hope you enjoy this next one. It does get angsty, but as always, this family sticks together and fights its way through. Thanks to everyone for supporting this series. And yes, there will be another after this one. I'm already mentally working on it!)
Chapter 1: Training
"Byakuya," said the elder Hajime, shifting his weight in the saddle to slow the white horse that carried his younger namesake and him, alongside the one that bore Renji Abarai and a very pregnant Byakuya Kuchiki, "Do you think it would be a good time for a short rest? We have ridden for quite some time since we left Kuchiki Manor."
Byakuya rubbed his thickened abdomen and nodded briefly. Though he would have been loathe to admit such a thing in most situations, pregnancy had a way of swiftly undermining pride, intensifying emotions, effecting changes in appetite and preference, and most certainly leaving a soul notably humbled. But, he had to admit, it did cause him to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the life around him.
He felt Renji's hand slide around his waist and made a soft sound of discomfort at the heady kick their unborn child gave at sensing the redhead's touch. Renji grinned and continued to rub the noble's round belly, chuckling as the baby kicked harder. Byakuya made another soft sound of discomfort and fixed a stern, gray eye on his soul bonded.
"What?" said Renji, a bit too innocently, "Something wrong with me rousting the troops? Any captain worth his salt knows he has to be able to do that."
"Perhaps you should confine yourself to 'rousting' the ones that are not about to burst out of my insides if you rile them too greatly."
"You hear that?" he said, turning to look at the huge red wolf that carried Takeo, Akiko and Akane, while Chisaki flew overhead in hawk form, "Sounds like an invitation for sparring practice, ne?"
Young Hajime bounded down from elder Hajime's mount and helped Takeo lift down the two toddlers from Takeshi's back.
"I would be pleased to engage the older children if you would like to train with the younger," the elder Hajime offered, dismounting and flash stepping away.
"Sounds good to me!" laughed Renji, leading the younger children off to one side of the large meadow as the older children followed Hajime in the other direction, "Grr! I am Wakame Taishi, and I'll turn you into seaweed!"
Akiko and Akane squealed and ran about in circles in the long grass on the near side of the meadow. Young Hajime worked to remain clear of Renji, but waited for him to try to scoop up one of the squealing redheaded bundles, then with a blistering flash step, nimbly removed his laughing sibling from the reach of their father's hands.
"Argh! Just missed!" snarled Renji, playfully, changing directions and charging at a giggling Akane.
"Wakatishi! Wakatishi!" squealed Akiko in warning.
"I'll stop him!" shouted Hajime.
He flash stepped in and caught his breath sharply as Renji turned and reached for him instead. Akane squealed loudly.
Hajime twisted and glared at Renji, his eyes beginning to glow golden.
"Hey," Renji objected, "That's not fair! Don't you be using your god powers on me!"
Hajime twisted nimbly, in a move that Renji knew he had seen the elder Hajime use before, and broke free.
"Nice move," he observed, as Hajime fired a binding spell and Renji crashed to the ground, "Maybe I should start training with that guy too!"
"Really, Renji," Byakuya said, smirking, "I can't believe how easily you fell for that!"
"Hey!" snapped the redhead, pretending to struggle against the kido bonds as the three children piled on top of him, laughing and kicking his sides playfully with their heels.
"We defeated Wakame Taishi!" announced Hajime, happily.
"Wakatishi!" yelled Akiko and Akane, "Feet Wakatishi!"
Akane chewed thoughtfully on her thumb for a moment, then turned and pulled off one of Renji's shoes.
"Feet!" she said loudly, "Tickle!"
"Ah…" gasped Renji, beginning to struggle more seriously against the kido bonds, "Hey, uh…haha…HA! Hajime! Hajime…ehhaha, kid…okay this is not funny! NOT…MY…FEET!"
The kido on his arms and legs shattered and he started to roll to his knees. A quick kido spell sent him back onto the ground and then a stronger kido held him in place. The redhead glared up at Byakuya, who looked down at him placidly.
"Is something wrong?" the noble asked calmly.
"Traitor!" snapped the redhead, groaning as the toddlers tackled him again.
"Wakatishi feet!" yelled Akiko.
Each girl crawled down one leg and crouched on top of it, while tickling the vulnerable bottom of one of Renji's bared feet.
"Augh!" the redhead yelled, "Not fair! I want to fight the older kids! You little guys cheat!"
Akane turned and glared at Renji, her lovely gray eyes flashing dangerously.
"I NOT CHEAT!" she shouted.
"I NOT CHEAT!" Akiko repeated, smacking his foot with an open hand.
"Yeah," Renji said, snapping the kido on his hands, "You might not, but your other father and your little godling brother do!"
"Wakame Taishi!" said Hajime commandingly, "You lost! Now, you have to give horsey rides on your back to your conquerors!"
"Oh, hell, not all three of you!" Renji complained, "You'll break my back."
"Oh, hell!" repeated Akiko.
"Abarai," said Byakuya, raising an eyebrow.
"Sorry," the redhead mumbled as the children climbed on his back and he crawled away.
"Oh, hell!" Akiko said again.
"Akiko, that's potty mouth," said Hajime.
"Oh, hell!" said Akane.
"Not you too!" the boy groaned, rolling his eyes, "Daddy Ren is giving the girls bad habits!"
"Knock it off," Renji said warningly, "or no more horsey rides today. You guys are killing me!"
He carried the three children off to a nearby brook, where he pretended to collapse and dumped them into the water. Byakuya couldn't quite suppress a smile at the intensity of the water fight that broke out. The sound of their laughter warmed him inside and he felt the baby kick restlessly again.
"Not much longer," he said softly, patting his abdomen, "Pretty soon, you will be out here playing games and having fun too. Just a bit longer."
He sighed softly.
"At least wait until after the wedding…"
His eyes strayed away to where Hajime fought, bare handed against Takeo, Takeshi's red wolf form, and Chisaki's hawk form. He sat down in the shade of a tree to watch.
Hajime's lithe form moved swiftly to sidestep Takeo's incoming attack, while releasing a half strength kido spell at the attacking hawk. He turned and leapt into the branches of a tree as Takeshi charged, then watched as Takeo tackled his brother and began to wrestle with him in the long grass. He dropped down out of the tree and flash stepped away as Chisaki swept in from behind him.
"Nicely done," he commented, flash stepping again to avoid the second part of a combination attack.
Chisaki shifted back to shinigami form and attacked with a blinding storm of hands and feet. Hajime met each with carefully controlled blocking moves, then found an opening and nearly had the girl captured, when she shifted to hawk form again, and he flash stepped out of reach of her talons.
Takeshi's wolf form suddenly launched out of the grass and nearly pulled Chisaki down as Hajime met Takeo in a blaze of physical and half-strength kido attacks. Byakuya marveled at how Takeo's abilities had improved since Hajime had begun to work with him. There was no question that their Kuchiki ancestor was an expert fighter, and now that fighting skill was being passed along to the children.
Byakuya sighed, thinking that it would be less than four years until Takeshi and Chisaki would be forced to grow up, and to take on the roles that their noble houses were so eager for them to play. Takeshi, of course, would lead the Kuchiki clan. Although younger than his sister by several minutes, the Kuchiki and Shihoin clans had agreed that it would be most appropriate for Chisaki to lead the Shihoin clan, a house traditionally led by females, and for Takeshi to lead the Kuchiki clan. Regardless, once the two turned eighteen and were officially made the heirs, their lives would change drastically.
He didn't want to consider how drastically…
Despite having a more supportive council than his father had, Takeshi would feel the bindings of responsibility take hold, much as Byakuya had when his father had died and his official naming as heir had been moved up. He had been subjected to heavy training in all areas, to the point where his childhood had disappeared somewhere into the rush as the clan prepared him to lead them.
He consoled himself with the fact that he and Renji had surrounded Takeshi and Chisaki in their love, and had allowed them to be children, despite the early arrival of their powers, and the constant threat of danger that went along with being who they were. Although he had been firm with them and had carefully imparted the expectations that the clan would place upon them, he had also been there to commiserate with them when the mores and rules of the clan clashed with their own feelings about how things should be. He and Renji had taught them to stand up for themselves and to be assertive, so Byakuya didn't worry so much about either noble council subjecting the twins to much opposition. Indeed, there was much excitement within the clan already. And as the next few years passed, the intensity of the mood would grow stronger.
The hiss of a flash step and the crash of striking blades, pulled the noble out of his reverie. Takeshi and Chisaki had broken away from Hajime and Takeo, who were now locked tightly in combat, their weapons drawn and blazing with power. As the twins flash stepped to where Renji and the other three children played in the brook, the two swordsmen circled, lunged, blocked and slashed at each other.
Hajime moved with the beauty and confidence of a dancer, his blue eyes bright and deeply focused as he read Takeo's movements almost before the younger shinigami made them. He could have taken the youth apart at will, but instead used his skill to coax Takeo out of his comfort zone, to challenge him and bring him to the peak of his ability. And Takeo rose to the challenge, meeting the more experienced swordsman with poise and strength. He was taller and more solidly built than Hajime, which meant the king's fiancée was faster, but when they locked their blades together, Takeo was able to take advantage of that weight difference to force Hajime back, which gave him room and time (barely enough) to release his weapon.
Takeo flash stepped clear of Hajime and loosed his shikai.
The shadow wolf exploded from his zanpakutou and shot forward, lunging at Hajime as the king's fiancée flash stepped repeatedly and released his own shikai. Even controlled, the effect was powerful. The shadow wolf shuddered as Hajime used the waves of intense sound to pummel the beast. Sensing that it would be overpowered, Takeo flash stepped away again.
"Ban kai, Kageookami Kuroyajuu no kasai!"
Takeshi and Chisaki turned and watched from beside the brook, catching their breath as the shadow wolf grew and turned on Hajime. The noble stood his ground as the beast raked him with blue fire. He disappeared into it for a moment, then emerged from it in ban kai form, blue light around him as he launched himself past the huge wolf and closed in on Takeo.
Takeo heard the death song begin in his mind and felt his body freeze in place. Hajime touched down lightly in front of him, his royal blue robes fluttering and his bluelit form so entrancing that Takeo felt mesmerized. In his hand, he held a slim, blue fire sword that he brought down to gently touch Takeo's chest.
"That was excellent," he said, nodding with approval, "You forced me to release my ban kai. I wasn't planning to unless you made it necessary. You improve each time meet, it seems, Takeo."
Takeo grinned and sheathed his blade, turning as Takeshi and Chisaki flash stepped in his direction, chattering excitedly about their brother's new power. The elder Hajime sheathed his weapon and returned to Byakuya's side. He observed his quiet descendant for a long moment.
"You worry for them," he said matter-of-factly, "But Byakuya, they are different than we were. I was never meant to be a clan leader. I was criticized greatly for abandoning my duties as head of household, but in truth, I was only heading toward my destiny. You came to power in a difficult way, without the support usually provided by family. But Takeshi and Chisaki have been raised in a loving family. And you and Renji have done an excellent job of preparing them. While it is true that there will be a period of adjustment, I think they will weather it well."
"Yes, I believe they will. I do ache at what they will experience as they take on the responsibility. Their lives will change greatly, and no amount of preparation will make the shock of it disappear entirely."
"No," agreed Hajime, "But it will make things bearable. And those two are meant to be in those places. They have considerable power."
"Yes…but they are still my children."
Hajime's smile became nostalgic.
"His majesty says that quite often…about many of his creations. It comes with the territory, I think."
The two were quiet for a moment.
"Byakuya," Hajime said quietly, "Takeo is ready to advance as well. Despite his short time wielding ban kai, his power grows by leaps and bounds and his instincts are very sharp. He should be tested for a captain's position."
"Yes," agreed Byakuya, "but Renji is uncomfortable with the idea, and Takeo knows it. I do not think Renji means to hold him back, but it shook him when he nearly lost Takeo."
"Of course it did," said Hajime, "and even though he knows in his head that his son is ready, my grandson resists out of protectiveness."
"I have been holding off addressing it until the baby is born, but I will talk to him about it."
"I did not mean to interfere," Hajime assured him, "but I do believe that no one should be kept from his fate…even if he is fated to die. We are warriors…trained to fight for the things that matter. Takeo was given these powers so that he could use them to defend what matters to him. To deny him that would be to defy nature."
"I agree," Byakuya said softly, watching as Renji emerged from among the trees carrying young Hajime on his shoulders.
Akiko and Akane trailed after, filling their hands with wildflowers as they made their way back across the meadow. Takeshi and Chisaki lifted the toddlers onto their backs and carried them as they walked alongside Takeo. The adults followed the children down the trail, with the two horses tagging along behind.
"You sure you're up to so much walking, Bya?" Renji asked, "You look kinda tired."
"Walking is good for me," the noble assured him, "I am near enough to my due date to want to get things started."
"After the wedding, ne?" Renji said, smiling, "We can't miss that."
"No," agreed the noble.
"There wouldn't be a wedding if not for the two of you," said Hajime, meeting them out of the corner of one blue eye, "His majesty and I would never have been brought back together if you hadn't acted to clear my name, and then assisted in my return."
"Aw, maybe Bya helped," Renji said, "But I didn't do so much."
Hajime raised an eyebrow.
"You don't call fighting to protect his majesty from the corrupted queen and talisman as 'doing much?' I wonder at you sometimes, my grandson."
"You know, I will never get used to having a grandfather who looks like he could be Byakuya's little brother."
"Should I be insulted?" asked Hajime asked in an amused tone.
He broke off as they reached the dimension wall and passed through into the spirit realm. As soon as they passed through, Byakuya and Renji noticed a change in the elder Hajime. His reiatsu flared softly and his eyes turned to look in the direction of the palace.
"You have been away for awhile. You should ride ahead and go to him," suggested Byakuya.
"All in good time," Hajime said, calming his errant reiatsu forcefully, "His majesty and I will be reunited soon enough. He asked me to see you to the palace, and I'll not leave your side until we arrive."
"Quite the creature of discipline," Renji said under his breath as Hajime walked ahead with the children, "He's on his guard. I wonder why."
"Well," said Byakuya, "We do tend to get ourselves into an inordinate amount of trouble, ne?"
"Speak for yourself, Kuchiki!" Renji said, sounding offended, "You're the one who gets abducted, threatened or arrested every other day…"
"I didn't today."
"There's still time when we get to the palace. I'll be happy to bind your hands and interrogate you," he breathed on the noble's ear.
"How can you be thinking of having sex with me when I look like this?" Byakuya asked, looking down at his enlarged abdomen, "I'm huge."
"Well, you know," Renji said, slipping an arm around him and kissing him as they continued walking, "Challenge only makes me that much more determined."
"You're impossible, Abarai."
"I love you."
"I love you too."