Chapter 13: It All Comes Down

(Thanks so much for all of the lovely Christmas and 'get well' wishes. I was well enough to go to my mom's for Christmas and we had a great time. It was good to relax and enjoy the holidays together without thinking too much about our worries. We have each other right now, and we are not wasting a moment! Thanks so everyone who has been reading and reviewing, including Mina Kye (This is a high adrenaline chapter. Be prepared!), Moegi (Aww, thanks! Byakuya's doing some real growing inside, and he and Renji will be able to hash things out now.), Firebirdever (Bya is terrified inside, but he is strong deep down and will work his way through it, especially when a certain redhead reaches out for him!), Tomyallen (Thanks a million! lol Editing is easier now that I found my glasses!), Enzy-chan (*hugs*), Renji-Bya-lover (What are you, psychic? lol You are good at seeing ahead. There is a lot for Bya and Renji to deal with before they are ready to take on As Nodt, but they will get a start on that soon!), Rmegmr (Okay, this chapter? REALLY on the edge of your seat!), Gunmetal silvr(Okay, here's more for you! But I assure you, you will only want more after that, so I'll keep working!), Alabirdie (Ooh, don't fall off the edge of your seat! And enjoy, this will be heart-pounding...), Chakragoddess (More is delivered!), Anelir-sensei (More is here!), DMK (They'd better be careful! Someone's up to no good!), Ctofi1 (Aww, thanks! You're sweet!), Afrieal (Thanks so much! Here's more to enjoy!), Dancing (Better watch out what you wish for...lol! *creepy music* As Nodt's closer than you think!), Sonna214 (Yeah, Bya needs a good smack in the head and a long, deep kiss afterwards. Renji can do that!), Manga-FanFic Fan (Aww, that sounds like what Renjui would do! I'm sure he'll set Bya straight.), and Callmesenseikuchiki (I think Renji will be...RENJI! Direct, a little brutal, but very sweet!). Hope you all had a Merry Christmas and that your New Year will be warm and happy! Cheers!)

Tetsuya felt the soft sting of Senbonzakura's blade petals as a flurry of them brushed against his downed body. But there seemed little force behind the ones that reached him, as though something had absorbed a large amount of the impact. The light was still too blinding for him to see exactly what had happened, but even as the brightness around him began to fade, he felt a heartbreakingly familiar presence just in front of him and felt his heart shatter inside him.

The light dimmed and the haze above Tetsuya began to dissipate. He was left looking up at the back of a battered and shaking fighter, whose bloodied hand clenched the hilt of a crumbling sword. In the distance, As Nodt stood back, his own body showing signs of damage from Senbonzakura's petals and his face twisted in fury as he glared at the young man who had gotten in his way and, surprisingly, caused some of the blade petals to turn back on him.

"You!" he hissed, "What did you do?"

"Omoteware," the person standing in front of Tetsuya said in a shaking voice, "When struck by an enemy's attack, it raises a shield that shatters and reflects the enemy's attack back at him. It is...a shikai, and so could not stop a bankai. But...it was enough to protect Tetsuya-san, and to cut you while you were attacking!"

Koji! Tetsuya's stricken mind screamed.

He scrambled forward, warm splashes of wetness falling onto his skin as Koji's blade broke apart into pieces and blood exploded from his collapsing body. Koji fell into Tetsuya's arms, panting harshly and gazing up at his lover through apologetic eyes.

"S-sorry, Tet-suya-san," he gasped, blood leaking from his mouth.

"Koji..."

Tetsuya heard As Nodt take a step towards him and was vaguely aware of Byakuya's flash step sounding somewhere close by.

"The only thing more terrifying than seeing your fears in your mind's eye," the quincy said in a maddeningly calm voice, "is seeing them play out in front of you. Isn't that true, shinigami?"

Tetsuya's hands clenched involuntarily, rage engulfing his slender body and making the pain and feeling of weakness disappear. His mouth opened in a furious scream, as he lost all ability to hold himself back.

"BANKAI!"

"Tetsuya, don't!" cried Byakuya, appearing in front of his enraged cousin and slashing at the quincy.

"Koori no bakuha, Reku-hime!"

"TETSUYA!"

Power exploded around Tetsuya's body as he laid Koji down and surged forward, raising his blade and calling forth the full fury of his power. As Nodt laughed and flash stepped clear of Byakuya, then held up another medallion as a heavy swirl of ice blades erupted from Tetsuya's weapon.

"Little fool," As Nodt chided him, "You should have listened to your leader."

Tetsuya gave a cry of anguish as the rising ice blades exploded around him and fell to the ground like snow. Not hesitating, Tetsuya blazed forward heedlessly, reaching the quincy and nearly impaling him. As Nodt hissed angrily as the tip of Tetsuya's sword cut into his hand.

"Insolent brat!" he snarled, evading Byakuya as he moved forward again and slashed at him.

He grabbed the end of Tetsuya's sword and held it tightly, calling the young man's own bankai and loosing it down on him.

To both their surprise, nothing happened.

"Impossible!" As Nodt mused, "I stole it! I saw your power die and enter the medallion!"

Tetsuya glared into his eyes rebelliously.

"I don't know what happened, but it doesn't matter! I am going to make you pay for hurting Koji and Byakuya!"

As Nodt's eyes widened.

"Nawaka shima!"

The quincy felt an odd numbness begin inside his hand, where the sword had penetrated. He watched in surprise as his hand began to freeze from the inside, then roared in fury and loosed a barrage of his golden thorns. Tetsuya screamed in pain as the thorns ripped through him, sending him into a punishing tumbling roll away from the quincy. Tetsuya came to rest at Koji's side again, screaming blindly as As Nodt's power raked his mind mercilessly.

"T-tetsuya..." moaned Koji, reaching out a shaking hand.

As Nodt moved towards the two, pausing a short distance as Byakuya's flash step sounded and he placed himself between the quincy and his fallen cousins. Behind him, Tetsuya went silent and his body went ominously still.

"Ah," As Nodt said casually, "It seems he lost consciousness. But perhaps it is better for him this way. Much more and I think he would have lost his mind and died. Though, I am sure his mind will be in a horrid state, if and when he wakes. But you remember what that is like, ne?"

"Bastard!" Byakuya hissed, "I won't let you hurt them anymore! I don't give a damn what you do to me, you are not harming my family and friends again!"

"Such empty threats from an even emptier soul, Byakuya," the quincy said solemnly, "You know, you needn't have allowed these two to be so viciously cut down. Their lives are on your conscience. I told you that I would allow all of them to leave safely if you but gave yourself up to me. Now, look at all of the damage your foolish actions have caused."

"What do you want with me? You tried to kill me before, but you merely toy with me now. We both know you could have killed me and gone. Why are you doing this?"

Byakuya caught his breath in surprise and pain as one of As Nodt's golden thorns suddenly pierced his shoulder. The noble staggered back, nearly falling over Tetsuya and Koji, and holding his bleeding shoulder. He felt the heavy throb of As Nodt's power, but surprisingly felt nothing but numbness inside. As Nodt stared at him with a rapt expression.

"I cut you to pieces before, Kuchiki Byakuya. I humiliated you and I thought I had destroyed you, but still you lived. And I come face to face with you, and I find that even though you should be terrified of me after what I did, you feel nothing inside. It makes me curious. Are you really so fearless? Or is it that after tearing you apart, all that is left is the pretty shell of the man you were?"

"Get out of here!" Byakuya cried, slashing at the quincy, then watching as he disappeared and reappeared a short distance away.

"You should be screaming in fear," As Nodt mused, "My power floods your body, but nothing reaches you. How extraordinary. I want to know why this is, Byakuya. But...since you will not listen to reason, I will have to slaughter all of these people and drag you off by force! You are going to be extremely sorry that you did not accept my offer in the beginning. Everyone you care about is going to die. Everyone! Can you still be so aloof?"

Byakuya loosed a snarl of fury and attacked, flash stepping furiously and staying as close to the quincy as he could.

He can't use my bankai as long as I am close to him, and his power is not working on me, for some reason. I need an opening. But for him to stop using his blut protectively, I have to draw him into attacking. But he isn't trying to attack me anymore. He is attacking them to provoke me. How do I...?

"I am not going to play any more games with you, Byakuya," As Nodt said coldly, raising the hand that held the medallion, "Continue to chase me if you want, but their time is up. They are all going to die."

He nodded to the foot soldiers.

"Kill them all...every man, woman and child."

Byakuya surged forward, slashing uselessly at the quincy as the foot soldiers advanced.

"Fool!" the noble mocked him, "My family and friends are not going to just let themselves be killed! You forget who we are."

As Nodt made a sound of anger as shinigami power rose up and clashed with the advancing foot soldiers. The hand that held the medallion moved, and Byakuya attacked, forcing the quincy to halt his own attack and evade the noble's sword. The two exchanged several blows as the other clan members engaged the foot soldiers and slowly forced them back.

"What's wrong?" Byakuya asked quietly, "I thought that you ordered them to annihilate us. It seems that the ones you charged with that task are not up to it. Perhaps you could do it, but it seems that you cannot free yourself from me to take aim. Is it so important to you now to capture me, that you would forgo finishing me off and risk letting the others escape?"

As Nodt's eyes blazed as he watched kido fire and zanpakutou releases pound the foot soldiers.

"Damn you, you insolent worm!" he snarled, raising the medallion and backing away.

He spotted a shaking, sobbing Koji trying to pull Tetsuya out of harm's way and sent a sea of petals at the two. Byakuya flash stepped wildly, throwing himself in front of them and raising a kido shield.

"This won't be enough to kill you," As Nodt threatened, "but it will surely finish the two you are protecting!"

Damn it! He is right!

Byakuya stared in silence, bracing himself as the petal blades closed in. But just as it seemed they would reach him, a flash of white rose up in front of them. Koji gave a sob of relief as the bankai level ice shield that had risen up in front of them cracked and fluttered to the ground.

"Arashi! Renji! Thank Kami!"

As Nodt hastily retreated a short distance as a long, jagged blade raked his body and a sea of ice blades descended on the remaining foot soldiers, cutting them to ribbons before their leader's shocked eyes.

"That bankai!" he said disbelievingly, staring at Tetsuya's collapsed body, "I stole it from him! How...?"

He retreated further as a familiar, red haired shinigami rode into the clearing ahead of him, on the back of the fallen noble's black stallion. Arashi thundered into the clearing, sliding to a stop beside Byakuya as Renji hauled the stunned noble onto the horse's back.

"Renji, what in the devil are you doing?" Byakuya snapped, "Let me down!"

"Relax," said the redhead, wrapping an arm around the noble's slim waist and catching a sweet breath of sakura, "We're making an opening so the rest of the clan can escape."

Byakuya let out a relieved breath as Arashi hammered the Sternritters with another volley of ice blades.

"Tetsuya and Koji," Byakuya said, worriedly, "We have to..."

"It's taken care of, see?" Renji assured him, pointing out a group of clan healers that were loading their injured kin onto stretchers, "I ran into a couple of your elders. They have a location to retreat to, and I told them I'd make sure you got there in one piece. So as soon as we get these creeps off their backs, we can escort your cousins to the new hideout."

Arashi made a snort of approval as As Nodt gave the three a derisive glare and disappeared. They watched the forest and clearing quietly, waiting until the clan healers indicated they were ready to leave. They fell in behind Arashi as the stallion headed in the direction that the other clan members had gone.

"You be sure we aren't followed, okay Fleabag?" Renji said sternly, "The last thing we want to do is to lead those bastards to the new hideout."

Arashi snorted in affirmation and moved forward into the trees. Renji left his arms wrapped around Byakuya's waist as they traveled on.

"Thank you, Abarai," Byakuya said solemnly, after they had been walking for several minutes, "I don't know that any of us would have escaped with our lives if you hadn't come when you did. I owe you for this."

Renji chuckled softly.

"That isn't all you owe me for," he said, breathing in the noble's pleasant scent, "What did you go running off like that for? I was worried about you."

Byakuya sighed softly.

"I won't waste my breath scolding you that I can take care of myself. I think this situation just proves how stupid a statement that would be. If that quincy had really wanted to kill me, I would have been dead back there, even before you arrived. He was toying with me."

"Pretty fucking big load of damage for a guy who was just playing games," commented the redhead, shaking his head, "What was he doing? Did he tell you what he was after?"

Byakuya took a steadying breath.

"Me."

"Huh?" Renji queried, frowning.

"He told me that he would allow everyone else to escape if I left with him."

"I hope you told that perverted creep to go fuck himself!" Renji exclaimed.

"You don't see me leaving with him, do you?"

Renji's frown deepened into a scowl.

"Well, come to think of it, it's hard to tell what to expect from you, you know? Byakuya, you had no business taking off and leaving the hospital. And I don't even hear you trying to give me any kind of explanation. C'mon, why did you do that?"

Byakuya let out a frustrated breath.

"I was getting out of the way," he explained, "I was taking up your attention when it needed to be focused on protecting the Seireitei. I went back to the clan because I imagined that the clan healers could do as good a job of healing me from this point as the healers in the fourth, and also, you should be focusing on gathering our squad's survivors and applying them to our defenses."

"I was doing that just fine before you took off!" the redhead snapped, "There was no need for you to disappear! You scared the hell outta me and made me have to come out here and save your ass."

"And if I hadn't come back, and you hadn't followed, the quincy's would have found and likely eradicated my family. I am very grateful to you for helping us, Renji, but your responsibilities and mine are different now. I have to place my focus on my clan, and you have to lead our division."

"Bullshit! You're still our division taichou, and until that title isn't yours anymore, you still have a responsibility to the guys too!"

"Oh, is that so? And what is it that I am supposed to do, Abarai? Go and stagger back to them, standing before them on shaking legs, nearly powerless and without my bankai, telling them not to worry? It will all be okay? You're better for that than me. And the other taichous don't even expect me to return!"

"Then, why haven't they taken your title yet?" Renji argued, "If there was no hope, then..."

"Renji, I know they spoke to you," Byakuya said, cutting him off, "I overheard that I was not really expected to recover fully, and that they were only holding off until there was no hope at all out of concern for how you would take it."

"What stupid, ignorant bastard said that! I'll kick his ass!" growled Renji, "That's raving bullshit, Taichou! Yeah, they came to me about acting as a leader, but they didn't put pressure on me to take your place. They just said that I had to be ready to lead the squad in future battles. And I'm going to do that. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be there too. The guys need to see you."

"What? Why? What possible good would it do to...?"

"They need to see that you're still fighting! What you're doing for your clan, you need to do for us too! You don't have your full powers. I know that. But it didn't stop you from going out there and facing that guy down. You put your life on the line..."

"To protect my family," Byakuya finished, "Anyone would do that. It doesn't make me strong enough to lead a division of soldiers...especially when those soldiers have already once seen that I was not strong enough to protect them."

"GODDAMMIT, TAICHOU!" the redhead yelled, "How many damned times have you told me that strategy is as important as strength in any battle? We don't just need raw strength. We need someone experienced in battle and who can analyze things and make good strategy!"

"I have taught you all you need to know to plan battle strategy, Renji. And in any case, strategy wasn't enough to save the lives of our men who were lost when that quincy came and started killing them. I couldn't stop him, Renji, and we lost so many men because of that simple fact!"

"And I didn't do any fucking better against them!" insisted the redhead, "We both got our asses kicked. But we are still alive. And as long as we are still alive, we can fight! We know more about the quincys now. They're still gonna be hard to fight until we can counter the medallions, but if you will just meet with me and the guys, I really think that we'll all handle this shit a lot better."

"Why are you so insistent that they need to see me?" Byakuya asked in an exasperated tone.

"It's only part that they need to see you, Taichou. They need to see you because seeing you still alive and fighting is going to make them more determined to fight. But I think you need to see them too."

"Why? To see just how much I have failed them? Renji..."

"To see how much they want to protect you. To see how much they want to go out there and fight for you."

"Die for me? Renji, too many already have," Byakuya sighed, "It's enough."

"Don't you think those guys sometimes want to say that?" Renji countered, "And they never had a bankai to protect anyone with. But even though they are less powerful and even though we've all been through a lot, we're still fighting. And as soon as you're battle ready, bankai or no, you need to be fighting alongside us. We need you, Byakuya. And I really think you need us too."

Byakuya went quiet, letting out his breath and sagging against Renji's strong chest. He turned his head so that the side of his face rested on the redhead's shoulder, and closed his eyes.

He's right.

I would expect of my men that no matter how they failed, if they could get up and fight, they had an obligation to do so. I may have been weakened, and I may have lost my bankai, but I still have sword, improving kido and flash step. I can still fight. And I can still manage the information coming in about the Sternritters. Our survival depends upon all of us doing our part. I will protect my clan, but I will also return to the division and do what I can to prepare the men. I owe them that.

He sighed in resignation.

"You are right, Renji," he said softly, "I was being selfish. It is...difficult for me, being anything but strong. And I admit that I feel guilt over being unable to protect the ones who were killed in the first attack. But...the danger isn't over yet. And it is wrong of me to give up trying to protect the ones who are left. They too, are nursing wounds and feeling guilt over the ones who were lost. It wasn't just me who failed, it was all of us. We failed together. We will grow strong again together. And when the Sternritters return, we will fight them together again."

"The outcome will be what it will be," Renji said softly, "but we will give everything to the fight, and we will win or we will all go down still fighting."

Byakuya smiled against Renji's warm throat.

"I said that to you."

"Yeah...after I got my ass kicked pretty bad once. I never forgot it because those were really wise words. We're all in this together. And whatever happens, we'll see it through that way."

Byakuya's eyelids fluttered softly, blinking back sudden tears.

It happens so easily now.

"Thank you, Renji," he whispered.

"You're welcome. Just...don't run away from me again, okay? We need to stick together if we're going to get out of this alive."

"You are right. I will stay with you. I will go back to the division, and I will continue to protect my family."

"And you'll give up on the idea of marrying anyone but me, right?"

Byakuya caught his breath in surprise.

"B-but..."

"Torio-san told me."

"Ah..."

"I came back here to stop you."

Byakuya lifted his head and turned it slightly to meet the redhead's eyes.

"I didn't want to put pressure on you," he explained, "You were spooked enough when I explained what Ai no Izou was about. Tetsuya is a clan member. He understood the responsibilities involved. I thought that by marrying him and making him interim leader until..."

He broke off suddenly, biting at his lips gently.

"Anyway," he went on, shaking his head, "It was a foolish thing to do. I am sorry, Renji."

"It's okay," said the redhead, "Things are really crazy right now. But we'll get through this, and send these creeps running. Then we can pick up the pieces and talk more about that."

Byakuya stopped Arashi and turned to look at Renji directly.

"You would consider...marrying me?" he asked, a haunted look in his eyes, "The way I am now?"

Renji smiled and kissed him on his cutely frowning mouth.

"Yeah. Sure, I would consider marrying you. Why? Did you think that I was picking up all the pieces of you just because I'm your fukutaichou?"

"R-renji...!"

"I know that we didn't start out so great. But, we got through that, and things changed, you know? I really started to think of you as a mentor, then as a friend."

"And now?" Byakuya asked breathlessly.

"You are my taichou," he said, kissing the noble's lips, "my lover, and my friend."

He looked deeply into the noble's troubled eyes.

"I would die for you," he said in a perfectly serious tone, "So, I don't think that marrying you is asking too much, really."

"Well, what if there was more than just asking you to be my husband, Renji?" Byakuya asked, looking down at his slim abdomen.

"What do you mean? Are there some weird rules about stuff I'd have to do for the clan or something?" Renji asked, frowning.

"Actually, it would not be for our clan, but...for our child."

Renji gave him a confused look. Byakuya surprised him with a tentative smile.

"Renji, part of the reason that I left and asked Tetsuya to marry me...was because of something that I did. I should have told you before, but I was afraid to say anything."

"O-kay..." Renji said, looking even more confused.

"When we were together, I took a rather drastic action. You being my soul mate, I was able to become pregnant from being with you."

Renji stared at him blankly.

"What?"

Byakuya's hand found Renji's and laced their fingers together.

"I am having your baby, Renji."