Chapter 14: Long Awaited Omen
(Three Years Later)
Elder Hajime stood quietly at the door to Byakuya's bedroom as Byakuya and Renji's children appeared on the walkway and moved towards him to engage in the morning ritual of greeting their father at the first touch of sunlight. Takeo reached him first, and Hajime smiled in greeting, taking in the sight of the tall, powerful young man who mirrored Renji so strongly that it was almost possible to mistake one for the other, despite Takeo's darker brown hair and lack of tattoos. Hajime met his eyes proudly, feeling a bit of sadness as he encountered the young man's haori.
It seems wrong that his fathers could not be there to see him advance...to set the haori on his shoulders themselves. But there is no use in dwelling upon it. He is a fine young man...a fine young captain. He is everything that a young Abarai-Kuchiki should be.
"Good morning, Takeo," Elder Hajime said quietly, slipping his arms around the young man and embracing him briefly.
"Good morning, Lord Hajime," Takeo replied solemnly, returning his embrace, and then stepping into the room.
Takeshi and Chisaki arrived next, the former holding his twin sister's hand.
"Good morning Takeshi, Chisaki."
"Good morning, Lord Hajime," the two said together, hugging him before turning into Byakuya's room.
Young Hajime approached next, holding his black haired, brown eyed cousin Shika's hand in his right and red haired Akane's in his left. Shika held young Hajime's hand on her left and five year old Akiko's on her right. Rikichi and Hotaru followed their daughter and the younger children, Rikichi holding the toddler, Kisho's hand, while Hotaru held his twin, Chiasa's hand.
"This is a lovely procession," Elder Hajime said, smiling down at the children, "Byakuya and Renji would be very proud. Good morning, Akane, Hajime, Shika, Akiko, Kisho, Chiasa, Hotaru and Rikichi."
"Good morning, Lord Hajime," the group said together, before taking turns embracing the interim clan leader, then entering Byakuya's room.
Rikichi paused in the doorway as Hajime's hand touched his shoulder.
"Has there been word from Rukia?" he asked softly.
"Not yet," Rikichi answered, "She returned to Prince Kazuhiko in the valley after coming to tell us of the crack in the dimension door. The situation seemed to be under control, but..."
"But I think that we all know that the time is coming when the demon will break through. We have known all along that it would be thus, though we turned our minds away from the thought so as not to be driven mad with the knowledge."
"I think we all know what is coming," said Rikichi, "The Gotei 13 prepares, of course, but..."
"But the responsibility for handling the demon falls to me as the king's prophecy has dictated. I know I must return to his majesty soon to prepare, however I am loathe to leave Byakuya in such an unsteady state. The cracking of the dimension door caused a sudden fluctuation in his reiatsu, even under the protective power of my zanpakutou."
"What do you think that means?" asked Rikichi.
"I believe that it means that Senbonzakura is still alive, and when the door cracked, a bit of his reiatsu leaked through and reached Byakuya."
"But," added Rikichi, "the resealing of the door separated them again."
"Yes," said Hajime, nodding, "The problem is that each time the door cracks and has to be repaired, it puts a strain on him that even my powers cannot overcome. I fear that if these 'breakthroughs' continue, we could lose him."
"And if we lose him, we lose Renji as well...if he is not lost already..."
"He is alive," Hajime said with certainty, "I sensed him very briefly during one of the breakthroughs. As much as these things are troubling, they do signal an end to our waiting. I only wait now for the sign that it is time to return to his majesty. When that happens, our fate will be upon us."
"I know that it is a terrible thing," Rikichi acknowledged, "but I will be glad when this maddening waiting ends and we have a way to fight."
"The opening of the doorway will cause a mass attraction of hollows to the area. The Gotei 13 will have its hands full with that, when it happens."
"The head captain has ordered all of us to prepare," Rikichi reported, "We will be ready."
Hajime sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.
"I will be as well."
They left off speaking and joined Hotaru and the children, watching as each child approached Byakuya and offered him a greeting. Kisho and Chiasa climbed onto the bed, as was their habit, and nudged their way under one of Byakuya's hands.
"Morning, Daddy Bya," they said, crawling up to kiss his cheek, then settling again.
"Good morning, Daddy Bya," said Akane and Akiko, sprinkling pink sakura petals over him and the reclining younger twins.
"Good morning, Father," said Takeshi, squeezing Byakuya's hand and kissing him on the cheek.
"G-good morning, Father," Chisaki said, her voice catching slightly as she did the same.
"Good morning, Father," Takeo said solemnly, bending to kiss his cheek as the others had done.
As he moved, a sudden, deep rumble shook the ground beneath their feet and made the building they were in shudder and rattle ominously. Elder Hajime's head lifted and his blue eyes flickered as he felt again, the touch of Renji's presence.
He felt a moment of disorientation as the connection between them faltered, then was shocked as Renji's voice sounded in his mind.
Hajime looked down at the noble, surprised by a shift in the protective field around him, and the cracking of the defenses that Hajime had set.
"This is the biggest disturbance I have felt yet," Rikichi observed, capturing Hotaru's hand and steadying her, "I wonder if..."
The adults and children in the room froze as the room shuddered again, and they heard a loud cracking sound. On the bed, Byakuya stirred and slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking as he tried to focus.
"Renji!" he gasped breathlessly, "I...felt..."
"Daddy Bya," squealed the youngest children, "Daddy Bya woke up!"
Byakuya's eyes came to rest on Kisho and Chiasa, then traveled slowly from one child to the next, widening as he realized. He met Hajime's eyes sadly.
"H-how long was I...?"
"Three years," Hajime told him quietly, "You had to be placed in stasis to preserve your life. I assumed interim leadership of the clan and made sure that the children were well cared for."
"Thank you," Byakuya whispered, his eye returning to Takeo and the fifth division haori that he wore, "Takeo...you..."
"Yeah," the young man said, his eyes touched with pain, "I did as you said and completed my captain's training and exams. My promotion ceremony was about a year ago."
Tears began to threaten, but Byakuya blinked them back and nodded, squeezing Takeo's hand.
"I am very proud of you, Son. And I know that Renji will be also."
He met Hajime's eyes again and started to speak, but was interrupted by another softer rumble that went through the house. Byakuya froze, his eyes rounding as Renji's voice rose up in his mind.
He caught his breath sharply.
"Renji, you are...?
I am...alive. That bastard, Kanaye is trying to...
Renji's voice flickered in and out as he continued.
...door...when they seal it, he gets pissed and beats them for it. But...hasn't killed them yet. I think...soon.
Are you all right, Abarai?
I asked, are you all right?
M-me? I'm...okay. I have help...Kanaye's zanpakutou...he abandoned. How about you? Are you all right?
I am fine. I am coming to the dimension door. I will be there when it breaks.
I am glad, Renji's voice whispered into his mind, but in a way, I wish it wouldn't break. You don't know about this guy. He used to be...samurai.
Renji, listen to me. When you sense Elder Hajime is at the doorway, it will be time. I know you have fought him up until now, but it is Hajime's duty to fight that demon. It has never been yours. When you sense Hajime is there, you must be prepared. I will try to reach you.
Distress lit Byakuya's features as he sensed the breach in the dimension door closing and heard Renji's voice beginning to fade.
I love you, Renji. I will come for you.
I love you too. I will be ready.
Byakuya met Hajime's eyes again, and the look in them told the noble that he had heard the exchange.
"Renji is alive," Byakuya said to the others, "I heard his voice in my mind."
Sounds of relief flooded the room, and Chisaki and Hotaru embraced each other, both wiping away tears.
"Daddy Red?" said Akane, blinking.
"You...remember that?" asked young Hajime.
"He was lost," said Akiko, tilting her head to the side.
"But we're going to find him," Takeo said firmly, "We won't stop looking until we do. I promise."
Elder Hajime looked from Byakuya to the children and back again, considering.
"Byakuya," he said finally, "The time has come. This is what I was waiting for...the sign it is time for me to return to the king."
Byakuya freed himself from the grasp of the two clinging toddlers and slid out of bed and onto his feet. His legs shook slightly, but he remained standing, looking into Hajime's eyes proudly.
"I am grateful to you for taking care of my children and the clan. The children will help me to manage things now so that you can return to his majesty. Arigato, Hajime. I will not forget what you have done for us."
Hajime bowed gracefully.
"Byakuya, it was primarily your hand that summoned me out of death...and no matter what I do for you, it will never be enough to repay you."
"Hey, dummy!" complained snaky, smacking Renji in the face with his tail, "Whatsa matter with you! You went all goofy-eyed again. Why the hell do you keep doing that?"
"Shut up, asshole! I heard Byakuya in my head. He's still alive."
"Yeah?" the snake boy said saucily, "Well, if you want us to stay alive, then you better stop getting all moony-eyed and daydreaming like that. They just attacked the dimension door again."
"That must have been when Byakuya's voice reached through to me. He sounded weak, but he was still alive, and that's something."
Even so, said a feminine voice in Renji's mind, It will be for nothing if my master captures us. We must evade him until the king's samurai comes.
"You keep saying that," Renji mused, "But when I left the spirit dimension, there was no king's samurai. Do you mean, Hajime, then?"
He is the king's lover. And although advised against it, I believe that the king will send him, in the end. In a way, it is right that those two should meet in battle. After all, my master was once...
The zanpakutou's voice faltered as another strong blast rocked the area.
"Mitsukai no ibuki!" Renji cried, noting the odd weakening of the manifested zanpakutou's reiatsu, "Are you all right?"
He caught his breath sharply as the sword's reiatsu continued to fluctuate and the pain and effects of his previous injuries began to return to him. Renji made a sound of pain and collapsed as Snakey looked on in dismay.
"I don't know," Renji groaned, "Something is affecting Kanaye's sword. And without her...I can't even walk! I won't be strong enough to fight him, and I won't be able to get away from him. Snakey...I want you to go."
The snake boy's eyes widened.
"G-go?" he repeated in a disbelieving voice, "You mean...leave you here?"
"Yeah," Renji said in a low voice, "Whatever happens to me, I don't want him to capture you."
"B-but, Renji..." Snakey said, his eyes growing worried, "I am your zanpakutou. I can't...leave you to be hurt by him. I can't!"
"Huh," Renji mused, his eyes softening, "Isn't that ironic. We can't get along at all...until times like these, where separating might be the right thing."
Snakey's eyes sought Renji's and hardened. He walked slowly to where the redhead had collapsed and paused in front of him, looking down through oddly wise looking eyes. Suddenly, his tail snapped around and slapped Renji's face.
"OW!" shouted Renji, "WHAT THE HELL?"
"THAT was for trying to make me leave you!"
He slapped the redhead again.
"OW! QUIT THAT, YOU LITTLE ASSHOLE!"
"Then stop sounding so goddamned WEAK! My master is not WEAK. He may be STUPID and a total IDIOT, but he is my master and he NEVER GIVES UP! You think BYAKUYA FUCKING KUCHIKI would marry a pathetic WIMP who gave up and DIED instead of coming home to him? If you can't walk, then I'll drag you. And if we get caught, we will fight to the end TOGETHER! YOU GOT ME?"
Renji stared up at the snake boy, his face still angry and one hand rubbing his reddened cheek. And oddly, the feelings of helplessness he had been enduring since his injury faded, and some of the spirit that had always helped him to survive, returned.
"Yeah, I get it," he said, still rubbing his cheek, "Now help me up and let's get going."
Snakey pushed and shoved him and Mitsukai no ibuki lent her slowly recovering reiatsu to bring him back to his feet. The snake boy started to turn away from the area of the dimension door, but Renji shook his head and indicated that they should move closer. Snakey's eyes widened.
"Wh-what are you doing, Renji? Shouldn't we stay away from where he is?"
"Not anymore," Renji said quietly, "It's almost time. And we need to be ready to get through the door as soon as we can. As soon as we sense that king's samurai, we move."
"But once we pass through the doorway...won't...?"
"Yeah, I will lose my connection with Mitsukai no ibuki. I won't be able to walk. We'll fight lying down if we have to, but we'll be out of here."
"What about Chimpette and Senbonzakura?" asked Snakey.
"If Byakuya and I are both alive and outside the rift, then you and Senbonzakura should travel out with us."
"But Byakuya's not going to be in shape for fighting, any more than you are," Snakey objected.
"Doesn't matter. We're going home. I've been away from them for three years, Snakey. Our littlest babies are walking. Our teenagers are about to be named heir. And Takeo..."
He sighed softly.
"He's probably already advanced. He was ready."
"You don't think that the head captain would wait to see what condition you were in when you came back?"
"Snakey, they probably gave up on me a long time ago. Not Byakuya and the kids...but the Gotei 13. And really, they were right to do that. I'm useless to them now. I can't even walk on my own. And when we get outta here..."
"When we get out of here, we're gonna find a way to get you healed and back on your feet."
Renji managed a sad smile.
"Thanks kid. You really know how to cheer me up when I'm feeling discouraged. It's...nice of you to take care of me like that."
"Heh," laughed Snakey, "Well, if I let you be a lazy ass and not get well, then Chimpette's huge butt will get even bigger...and who wants that, right?"
"Shut up!" Renji said, smacking the snake boy playfully, shaking his head and yielding an affectionate smile, "Idiot..."
The king stood in the royal gardens, looking down into the healing pool as a light flash step sounded that brought an instant smile to his lips.
"Hajime," he said softly, "You have returned."
"Yes, my lord," said the noble, gazing at the king's unprotected back and sliding Zetsumei Kakyoku from his sheath, "There is increased activity around the dimension door. Numerous cracks have been made and resealed. But the door weakens."
"Yes...and fate approaches us. So...you are ready, then?"
"I am ready."
The king's eyes closed for a moment, and his hand moved to the hilt of his own weapon.
"Everything rests upon this, My Hajime. Be strong. Be wise. Be victorious."
"Have faith, my liege," answered the noble, "I will not fail you. Come to me. Trust me. Make me your own."
The king swallowed hard, his mind replaying everything from the crafting of the noble's body, to his birth and childhood...his flight into the spirit dimension and the beginning of their love affair. Tears threatened at the memory of the young man's fearless sacrifice, or the long years without him, and his recent, heartwarming return.
We could lose each other again. We could die. But if that happens now, at least we have family to carry on after. Thank you, Byakuya and Renji. I am glad that this chance we will take now will give you something back for all you have done for us.
"I am coming."
The king turned, and in the same moment, drew his sword and crossed Hajime's. Their eyes met as they thrust their weight against each other, and the king smiled.
"I love you."
"I love you too."
The king took a steadying breath.