Chapter 43: Love is Our Home

(NOTE**This is the edited version. Unedited version is being posted on AO3 and Aarinfantasy. Thanks so much for reading. Love you all! ;) Spunky)

(Whew! Another one finished. And I am extremely grateful to everyone who has been reading, faving and reviewing. I couldn't do this without each and every one of you. :) And once again, thanks to the wonderful Walkure, who requested this story! I am going to go back and fix a couple of minor bloopers in this one, then get to work on the next...Learning to Love Without Sake Part II: Impregnating Byakuya. Byakuya made a promise to Renji to bear their next child, but as time goes on and things keep interfering, the redhead begins to wonder if he will ever carry out his promise. He will, however, his attempts to do so will land the boys, and those in nearby range in some unusual circumstances...The tone will be lighter than this, but have some poignant moments. Need I say it will be mpreg? LOL, don't miss it!)

"Okay, kids," Renji said, rubbing the large rounding on his belly and gazing sternly down where Tetsuya and Tomio knelt in the grass, holding Kiko and Takao on their laps, "Here's the rules. Your dads are going to hold you still, hopefully, until I say 'go,' and then you'll take off and crawl as fast as you can to Arashi. First one there, wins. Got it?"

The stallion's ears perked at the sound of his name, and he lifted his head, where he knelt on the grass, watching the shinigamis with amused blue eyes.

"Good, you're listening," Renji said to the horse, "for a change. Fleabag, I have an easy job for you. You just sit there, not nibbling on the grass, and looking as cute as you can so that the kiddies will want to come and yank on your ears and tail."

Arashi's eyes narrowed and he made a low sound of derision. Renji glared at him.

"Don't give me attitude, you," he said with mock warning, "I may be about to drop a Kuchiki or two, but as big and clumsy as I am, I can still kick your ass..."

Arashi snorted.

"Abarai," said Byakuya, watching from where he knelt beneath a small sakura tree, "Mind your language. There are other children present."

"Oh," said Renji, feigning sarcasm, "Now Sleeping Beauty wants to tell me how to behave, ne? After lazing around in bed and ignoring me for weeks and weeks. Now you want to have a say, eh?"

"Renji, that was months ago," Byakuya said sedately, "I don't think you can claim I have neglected you since I woke..."

A soft blush rose on the redhead's skin as Renji encountered the amorous expression that went with the noble's comment. Renji frowned and shook a finger at him.

"That's beside the point...now pipe down over there and let me finish."

He turned back to the wide eyed babies.

"Now, no trying to get away," he warned them, "We have 'catchers' in case you two get any kooky ideas about stealing the horse and going on a little joyride."

He looked over at Torio and Koji, who stood on either edge of the grass, waiting.

"Catchers, are you ready?" Renji asked, rubbing his belly and wincing as the reiatsu inside him pulsed softly, "Don't let'em get past you. Takao's pretty fast...and don't let Kiko use that blue-eyed voodoo trick she learned from Daddy Tetsuya!"

"I beg your pardon," Tetsuya said, glaring softly, "I do not use witchcraft to manipulate people."

"Right," said Renji, "Sure you don't. Are you watching, Kiko? He's using his jedi mind trick to try to control me."

"As if one could..." remarked the blue-eyed noble.

"Well, I have to admit, you've completely bewitched me," said Tomio.

Tetsuya tried, but failed to suppress a smile and a soft blush. Renji scowled playfully.

"All right, you guys. Don't be getting all dewy eyed and cutesy over there. Get ready to launch those two little rugrats."

"Did he just compare our children to vermin?" asked Tetsuya.

"I think he did," answered Tomio, "Perhaps you should make him duel you."

"Oh, that's not fair," said Tetsuya, smirking, "I think that pregnant glow around him would blind me and I couldn't land a blow."

"Don't make me come over there," Renji said warningly, "Are you guys ready?"

"We are," said Tetsuya and Tomio.

"Catchers ready?"

"Here!" said Torio and Koji.

"Fleabag, ready?"

Arashi snorted.

"Cheerleader ready?"

Byakuya's reiatsu flared and his dark eyes narrowed.

"On with it, Abarai..."

"Vermin ready?" Renji laughed, "Then, on your marks, get set, go!"

Tetsuya and Tomio released their hold on the two babies, then watched, smiling as Takao rocked back and forth on his tiny hands and knees, and Kiko began crawling towards Arashi.

"And they're off!" Renji cried, following Kiko, "Kiko has used her outstanding kido ability to lock her brother in place. You can see Takao rocking madly back and forth to try to break free. Wait a minute...wait...yes! Takao has broken the kido lock, but seems to have been distracted by a rock he found. Hey, Kiko! You're trying to reach the horse...not Sleeping Beauty over there! Get back on the course."

"I have her," called Torio, herding the tot back in the direction of the waiting stallion.

"Kiko has a commanding lead," reported Renji, "but Takao has just used his secret rocket boosters and is attempting a stunning, come-from-behind upset. But Kiko's not having it. She is racing towards Arashi, hell-bent on getting there first. It looks like she may just do it. But wait...hold on...what...what's that? Kiko has stopped to pick a flower! Takao is bearing down on her and going all out, now. He reaches her, and is ready to pass, and...hold it, folks! Hold everything! Drop your binoculars and don't miss this Kodak moment! Kiko has just handed her brother a flower! I can't believe he fell for that! That has got to be the oldest trick in the book...but...but, oh my kami, here's one I wasn't expecting. Takao has leaned over and, yes folks, your eyes were not deceiving you! He kissed his pretty sister on the cheek and she giggled! They're side-by-side, neck-and-neck and heading for the finish...no...no, wait guys, you're...you're turning towards the koi pond! They're in trouble now. That pond is chock full of vicious, pellet-eating pretty koi monster fish! They'll swallow those two up! Somebody call in the eleventh to fight them off!"

"I've got them!" chuckled Koji, turning the two babies back towards Arashi.

"It's down to the wire," said Renji, following the two crawling babies as they closed in on Arashi, "They're coming to the finish line and...OH! Photo finish! We'll have to wait for a judge's ruling on this one."

The stallion nickered sweetly and the babies stopped, just short of him. Kiko reached out and grabbed a handful of mane, then started to pull herself up. Arashi watched her quietly with one blue eye as Takao reached him and sat next to him, gently stroking his mane.

"Howse," the boy announced.

"Ashi," said Kiko, standing and holding on to Arashi's mane.

Arashi let out a breath and nuzzled the two with his soft muzzle.

"Looks like we have a tie," announced Renji, "Well, folks, it was a really close match. I think both of these kids will be training hard for the rematch. But for now, I think Matsuko and crew have our lunch ready...and kami knows, I need something to give me energy to keep waddling around like this!"

Byakuya chuckled and rose, brushing the stray bits of grass from his kimono.

"Really, Renji!" he said, smirking, and meeting the redhead for a slow, indulgent kiss, "Baby races in the gardens? I think Kuchiki Manor has never seen the like of it."

"Yeah, I'd guess not, but it's harmless enough, and it worked up my appetite for lunch."

The two turned together and followed Tetsuya and Tomio to the garden table, where lunch had been laid out.

"Hey Matsuko!" Renji greeted the housekeeper.

"Hello, Renji-san," the old housekeeper said, blushing, "You look well."

"Hah!" Renji laughed, patting his belly, "I look huge."

"You look radiant," commented Byakuya, earning another enthusiastic kiss.

"So Matsuko-san," Renji went on, extracting himself from Byakuya's arms and easing himself into a chair, "Did you meet the new animal caretaker that Byakuya just hired?"

The housekeeper's blush intensified.

"Eh...yes, we did have the pleasure. Arigato. Kuchiki-sama, will there be anything else?"

"No, thank you," Byakuya replied.

"So?" Renji asked, grinning, "I told you he was good looking, ne?"

"Um..." said Matsuko, blinking.

"Abarai," said Byakuya, frowning, "Are you playing matchmaker with my staff? We will need to have a talk about that later."

He glanced up at the housekeeper.

"Although, I also saw 'unique potential' in that particular addition to the staff," he added.

"He is very capable with the animals, even Arashi. And Arashi is very selective in who he takes to."

"You can say that again," muttered Tetsuya, "But he is only being protective of us, so we put up with him."

"But Makoto-san has done wonders already," Matsuko said appreciatively, "He even has Arashi helping him with chores around the barn. He says a great deal of misbehavior is solved through proper working of the intelligent mind. Arashi misbehaves mostly out of boredom, so he keeps him busy."

"Hmmm," said Byakuya, looking at Renji out of the corner of one gray eye, "I wonder if that approach would work for you, Abarai."

"Hey! Not nice," the redhead complained, frowning.

He leaned over and brushed his lips against the noble's ear.

"Although, if you like, I can show you a better approach later..."

Byakuya's face colored slightly, but he pretended to ignore the comment.

"Makoto is very perceptive about animals...and people. I was impressed with how easily he fit in with the rest of the staff. I am certain things will progress positively."

"Oh," said Renji, narrowing his eyes, "I see what you're doing there. You tease me about playing matchmaker!"

"I don't know what you are talking about," Byakuya said, sipping calmly at his tea, "I hire the best applicants, end of story."

"Yeah, right," chuckled Renji, "Don't think I'm falling for that."

He started to say more, but then flinched and scowled.

"Are you all right, Abarai?" Byakuya asked.

"Ah, yeah," Renji sighed, slowing his breathing and rubbing his belly, "Just another twinge."

"Are you sure?" asked Tetsuya from across the table, "You're sweating quite a bit."

"He looks rather like you did when you went into labor," added Tomio.

"Matsuko," said Byakuya, "Will you summon the house healer?"

"But sir," the housekeeper said, "Unfortunately, he is ill."

"Then send for squad four."

The gathered shinigamis froze as the house and Seireitei alarms suddenly sounded.

"Oh," groaned Renji, "This is not good timing. Settle down, kid. At least wait until this thing is over!"

Intruder alert! Intruder alert! Menos Grande have been reported in multiple sections of the Seireitei. Lockdown has been initiated. Squads three, five and eleven have been sent to intercept. All personnel commence lockdown procedures!

"Matsuko," said Byakuya quickly, "Gather the staff and assist the house guards with lockdown. Torio, Koji, take Tadao and Kiko to the nursery and remain with them. Tetsuya and Tomio, you will protect the gardens and main building."

"But what about Abarai-san?" asked the housekeeper, "He is likely in labor!"

Byakuya shook his head.

"We cannot leave the manor. I will tend to Renji."

Matsuko watched for a moment as the rest of the shinigamis scattered, then frowned thoughtfully.

"Seiji," she said to one of the servant boys, "Bring Makoto. Tell him to report to Kuchiki-sama's room."

"Hai!" answered the youth, flash stepping away.

Renji gave a surprised squawk as Byakuya swept him off his feet and flash stepped to the bedroom.

"Hey!" he exclaimed, "I'm not exactly crippled here...and you just about scared the kid outta me!"

"There is a menos grande nearby," the noble said, "and coming in our direction."

"What?" queried the redhead, looking around, "I don't sense..."

His voice was drowned out by the screech and rumble of the approaching hollow.

"When did you ever?" Byakuya asked, frowning and setting him on the edge of the bed.

He grabbed a yukata and tossed it to Renji as he moved to the doorway and looked out the garden doors.

"Is it getting close?" Renji panted, slipping out of his clothes and into the yukata, "Maybe we should try to get to the fourth, you know? It won't be good if..."

Another roar sounded, then Arashi's hooves sounded out in the gardens.

"Ban kai," said Tetsuya's calm voice, "Koori no bakuha, Re-kuhime!"

"Oh...oh," Renji panted harder, leaning over and holding his abdomen, "B-bya, h-hollows? No h-healer? You've got to be kidding me! You're kidding me, right?"

Byakuya closed the doors and stepped away as the house and gardens rumbled with the force of Tetsuya's ban kai and a chill passed through the room.

"Hey, you wanna keep it down out there?" Renji yelled, "We're trying to have a baby in here!"

He grabbed his belly and panted harder.

"Sorry!" Tetsuya called back from outside, "It's all right, though. I got him."

A louder shriek sounded and the house shook ominously as the roof was torn away. Byakuya pushed Renji down onto the floor, covering the redhead's body with his own and releasing a blast of kido into the face of the hollow that was holding the torn off section of roof.

"How about his big brother there!" Renji howled at Tetsuya, "You fucking see him?"

"Calm down, Abarai," Byakuya said, watching as the creature staggered back and Tetsuya's ice blades sent it crashing to the ground, "Getting excited is not good for the baby."

"Getting excited?" Renji asked, wide-eyed, "I'm not excited, I'm scared shitless!"

"Lie down!" Byakuya said, pushing him down onto his back and leaning over him, "Don't make me have to restrain you."

"Oh, now I'm excited," Renji snapped sarcastically, "Yeah, tie me down, then. It will make it easier for the hollows to catch and eat me."

The ground rumbled again and the house shook as something exploded nearby.

"It's all right," called out Tomio, "That was just me. Another one is down. Just a few more now."

"A few more, he says..." Renji mused, shaking his head, "Byakuya, I'm gonna just be honest with you. I was scared enough before, just getting ready to have a baby. This is crazy! It's..."

Byakuya's hands touched his face and the noble's eyes locked on his, silencing him.

"It's going to be all right," the noble said quietly, "You have my word."

"Okay...okay," panted the redhead, collecting himself, "Ah...hah...hey, Byakuya, what the hell do I do again? I forgot what Unohana taichou said."

"I am sure she told you to slow down your breathing and to relax yourself as much as possible," said a male voice from the doorway.

The two men looked up as Matsuko entered through the garden doors with a somewhat weathered, but pleasant looking man with gentle, earthy brown eyes.

"M-makoto?" Renji said, blinking, "B-but...but you're a..."

Makoto smiled and approached the two shinigamis, then settled in a chair beside the bed.

"I specialize in animals," he confirmed, "But, I was also one of ten children, who assisted in delivering five of my siblings. Remember, Abarai-san, we are all animals, ne?"

Renji looked up at Byakuya helplessly.

"Look, just...knock me out, okay? I'll just...sleep and you guys can deliver the baby, right?"

"Slow your breathing," Makoto said soothingly, placing a hand on Renji's heaving chest, and the other on his abdomen.

His reiatsu rose slowly and flowed into the redhead's rounded belly, then began to wrap around the baby's reiatsu. Renji's eyes calmed as the animal caretaker continued to speak calmly to him and Byakuya's fingers laced together with the fingers of one of his hands.

"You see," said Byakuya, "Everything is fine now. The hollow's are gone. The alert will end soon. And you don't want to miss the moment our baby is born."

Renji looked ready to argue, but just sighed in resignation and shivered softly. Byakuya smiled and covered him as well as possible, while still keeping his abdomen bared. He looked up at Makoto questioningly.

A softer rumble passed through the area.

"Your baby's reiatsu is very strong," Makoto said encouragingly, "And yours is stable. The reiatsu is beginning to emerge."

He nodded in Byakuya's direction.

"Would you like to deliver your child?" he asked the noble.

Byakuya caught his breath softly.

"I...I don't know. I've never..."

"It's all right," Makoto said, taking Byakuya's hands and placing them where his had been, "Just make your reiatsu calm and very gently wrap it around the child's. You'll feel a connection with your baby's consciousness when you make contact."

Renji watched closely as Byakuya lowered his head and focused, sending his reiatsu into the redhead's abdomen. He flinched and shivered nervously as another pain passed through him.

"Keep breathing slowly and deeply," Makoto instructed him, "And let Kuchiki-sama do the rest."

Another distant explosion sounded, but the shinigamis barely noticed as Renji's pregnant belly began to glow a bright golden color.

"Oh...ah, kami, this feels...so wierd!" Renji panted softly, "Are you sure you guys know what you're doing?"

Makoto chuckled.

"This is a very natural procedure," he assured the redhead, "And you are doing fine."

"I may be doing fine," Renji said skeptically, "But there's nothing fucking natural about a guy having a baby...in a house that got the shit beaten out of it by hollows while said birth was going on. I just wish they'd shut off the damned alarms. I'm never gonna get the sound out of my ears, you know?"

"They turned the alarms off several minutes ago," Byakuya said, shaking his head, "You're just giddy from all of the excitement."

"I feel kinda like I have to puke, piss and pass out, all at once," Renji complained, his eyes growing hazy.

"Just a little longer," Makoto said, his kind eyes and warm reiatsu sending calming waves through the redhead, "Here comes your baby, now."

Renji stared breathlessly at Byakuya's enchanted expression, and the slow exit of the baby's reiatsu from his abdomen. The light cluster rose out of him, suspended gently on Byakuya's reiatsu, then settled into the noble's arms and began to solidify. The three men watched, smiling, as the light resolved into a pretty, petite body, with tiny, dainty fingers and toes, pearly finger and toenails, almost smiling lips and a heart shaped face. Long strands of reiatsu resolved into hair that emerged from the top of the child's head a bright red color, but was raven black on the ends. And even after the glow from the reiatsu faded, the child's eyes remained a lovely golden color.

"Congratulations," said Makoto, "You have a healthy daughter."

Byakuya's hands trembled softly as he lifted the baby to his shoulder and held her there, letting his cheek rest gently against hers. He kissed her sweetly, then started to hand her to Renji, but paused and stared as Renji's hands touched her and the reiatsu hummed softly around her again.

"What was that?" asked the redhead.

"Renji..." Byakuya said, watching in surprise as three horizontal black markings appeared on the baby's back.

"The marking's of Tora," mused Makoto, "I am sure you know the story, ne Kuchiki-sama?"

Byakuya nodded.

"Tora," he said wonderingly.

"What?" asked Renji, looking confused.

Byakuya caught his breath softly and laid the baby in Renji's arms.

"Tora," he explained, "is a shinigami from ancient times. She appeared out of the Rukongai, and no one ever knew who her parents were. She was a strong fighter, and quickly ascended through the ranks of the military. This was before the time of the Gotei 13. Anyway, her skills attracted the attention of the royal family. She was the youngest shinigami ever called to serve the king. The king assigned her to guard his son, a powerful, but sometimes reckless boy named Kisho. Legend has it that the king's council was unhappy with Kisho's intractability and secretly plotted to have him killed to place his younger sister on the throne. They used a banned ritual to raise a celestial dragon to attack him. Unfortunately, they lost control of the beast and it killed nearly everyone in the palace. The only survivors were Kisho and Tora. Together, they killed the dragon and restored peace to the spirit realm, then ruled as king and queen."

"Wow...and this Tora had red hair?" Renji asked.

"Red and black hair, golden eyes, and the markings of a tiger on her back," said Makoto, shaking his head, "They say that when Tora's markings appear on a child of noble birth, that child will be blessed with immense strength. Like the great tiger of myth, her children are powerful, willful and wise. Just...mind the willfulness."

Renji laughed weakly.

"Well...I guess no kid of mine was going to be the quiet type," he said, tickling the girl's chin and watching as her tiny fingers wrapped around one of his, "Whew, she's got a good grip. She'll be good with a sword."

He looked up at Byakuya.

"So, what do we call her?"

"Well," said Byakuya, "it is traditional that if a noble child is similar to Tora, that her name reflect both her own unique attributes and her connection to Tora. Her red hair and golden eyes...and the tanned color of her skin, all reflect the colors of autumn. Perhaps, Akitora, 'Autumn Tiger.'

Renji nodded, then rested his head against the top of the baby's and closed his eyes.

"That sounds good," he sighed sleepily.

"Let me take her," Byakuya said, reaching for the baby, "You need to rest. I will see to her while you sleep."

"Ah...okay," yawned the redhead, "But do you think you could get me a few more blankets? This room is damned cold without a roof...and with Tetsuya's ice still covering everything."

Byakuya held the baby against his shoulder, watching as Makoto wrapped Renji warmly in blankets.

"I will see what damage was done to the manor and then have you moved to an undamaged room."

"Thanks," Renji mumbled, not opening his eyes.

"Will you stay with him?" Byakuya asked Makoto, "The healers will be along soon and then you may return to your regular duties."

"Of course, Kuchiki-sama," the animal caretaker replied.

"And Makoto..."

"Hai?"

"You have my gratitude."

Makoto smiled.

"You are most welcome, sir. I am glad I could help."

XXXXXXXXXX

(One week later)

"So," said Renji, following as Byakuya wrapped Akitora in the folds of his ginpaku kaahana no uzuginu, and started across the recovering gardens, "I was kind of wondering..."

"Yes, Renji?" Byakuya answered, smiling down at their daughter as he walked out onto the forest trail.

"Well, now that now that I've had a baby, isn't it your turn?"

"Hmmm," said Byakuya, "You don't think it would be wiser to have just the one? After all, you see how busy Tetsuya and Tomio are, keeping up with their two, now that they are beginning to walk."

"Yeah, well, we've got a little while, and you're still on leave."

"I still don't have my full powers, and I won't for a while. Unohana taichou recommended waiting until I have recovered fully. Pregnancy could interfere with my recovery."

"Well, then we'll wait a bit," said Renji, "But don't think you're getting out of it! After what I went through..."

"Well, I do hope that when I do, it is somewhat less tumultuous than your experience."

"Me too," Renji sighed, moving closer and slipping an arm around the noble, "I guess you and I aren't so good at doing 'normal.' For us, it would be surprising if everything went smoothly."

"I don't expect perfection," said the noble, reaching the top of the waterfall and settling at the base of a sakura tree, "but I expect that as long as we are together, things will come out all right in the end."

"Yeah," Renji agreed, "As long as we lay off the sake, ne?"

"Hai," Byakuya agreed, his lips curving upward, "All that drink ever does is get us into trouble."

Renji laughed, startling Akitora, and making her blink and stare.

"Truthfully," the redhead said, watching as their daughter grabbed his finger and deposited it in her mouth, "I think we get into plenty of trouble without it."

"You think correctly," Byakuya replied, letting his head rest against the redhead's shoulder and closing his eyes, "But I needed the trouble you brought into my life, Renji. What was broken inside needed you to be mended. I am only whole again because you didn't give up on me."

Renji bit his lip and felt tears come to his eyes. He rubbed his cheek lightly against the top of the noble's head and breathed in his light, sakura scent.

"You didn't give up on me either," Renji whispered, "And now we have this pretty little miracle...and a lifetime to make more happen."

"I look forward to that," Byakuya said, opening his eyes to look at the rising moon.

"Me too."

XXXXXXXXXX

Love's Pretty Prison

by Spunkyone This was hidden in among the chapter titles, but thought you might like to see it written out.

X X X

All creatures know love

And hatred

Great rises

And falls

X X X

But when our world falls apart

And the ashes have scattered

New hope will rise

Amidst the tatters of our broken hearts

X X X

Sometimes we hold on tightly

And sometimes we must let go

But even in our darkest hours

We are never alone.

X X X

Even as far apart as we are

Our hearts beat as one

Our hands hold on

Even in darkness, we find our strength

X X X

Place your heart in my hands

Let me carry you when you fall

Love is not a pretty prison

Love is our home.