Chapter 15: Let Love Not Slip Away

(Ah, finally busted through the writer's block and finished something! I hate writer's block. Thanks to everyone reading and reviewing, including Walkure Leuad (Yup, no one rambles like a flustered Renji! Too cute...), Karl1n (lol, have to stop somewhere! I will try to be more merciful next time...yeah, next time!), RmeGamr (Yup, lots of exciting stuff ahead. I will write faster now that I have the rest thought out in pretty good detail in my head.), Caitriona 695 (Unohana taichou will give some insight into what makes Tetsuya and Arashi different, so that's coming soon.), Firebirdever (Ah, the wait is over! Hope you enjoy the new chapter.), Sonna214 (Byakuya is definitely finding his strength again, and he will grow even stronger despite...well...difficulties. Don't want to say too much! lol), Manga-Fanfic Fan (This chapter will burn hotter than India, just not romantically...darn.), Gravity's Child (Aww, thanks for dropping in! Don't you worry. I have some really good things in store ahead!), Enzy-chan (Welcome back! :) So glad you liked the chapter.), Sohainochiyoko (Byakuya is about to make some real progress...amidst a difficult situation, of course. But Renji will be there when he is really in need. Protective Renji is seriously hot too!), CallMeSenseiKuchiki (Renji will be so cute with kids! But there's something he and Byakuya need to take care of first. And that's about to become a 'front burner' issue.), Geecee (Yup, I love protective Renji showing his strength. And he'll make a good daddy too!), TomyAllen (Aww, thanks! Hope good things come to you this year!), Alabirdie (Thanks so much! You're sweet. And you can count on Renji to get the injured to safety. But he'd better be prepared to run back to Bya...quickly!), and Renji-Bya-Lover (Aww, you're sweet...but...then the story would be over. Got to have that showdown first before the finishing fluff and happy ending.) Thanks everyone! :) I'm getting back to work. Gotta write that next chapter!)

"We must stop for a moment, Abarai-san," one of the healers carrying Tetsuya's stretcher said, looking around nervously at the dark interior of the corridor.

"It can't wait for a few more minutes until we're to the exit?" Renji asked, an unsettled edge in his voice.

"Sir, if we wait any longer, then Inoue-san will be trying to raise the dead. Tetsuya-san's condition has gone critical and he is in imminent danger of dying right now," the healer insisted, "I must be allowed a few minutes to place him in suspension."

"Suspension?" Renji repeated, looking down at Tetsuya's too pale face, "Damn it...he's that bad? I'll destroy that creep..."

"Sir?"

"Go ahead," Renji said, swallowing hard and looking back into the darkness behind them, "Do whatever you have to do to keep him alive. Not that I doubt Orihime's abilities, but she's got a mountain of people she's probably helping. She's going to have to conserve some energy or she'll burn out before we even get there."

He caught sight of Torio, who had been helping to carry Koji, looking down at his unconscious brother and wiping away tears. He stepped closer and set a hand on the young man's shoulder.

"He's gonna be all right...Koji and Tetsuya-san will be fine. Orihime will take good care of them. Don't worry, Torio."

"That quincy," Torio whispered, still gazing down at his brother, "That bastard hurt him so badly. Renji-san, Koji was just protecting Tetsuya-san. The quincys...why are they doing this? We never did anything to them. We weren't even alive when the Gotei 13 decided to kill them all. Why are they trying to kill all of us? Don't they know? Don't they understand that it's only going to destroy everything? They want the worlds to end?"

He sniffed softly and wiped his eyes, flinching and staring in surprise as Koji moved sluggishly and moaned his name.

"T-torio...? Nii-san? D-don't cry, Nii-san!"

Torio shook his head and tightened his lips.

"Be quiet, otouto (little brother), you need to rest. We're taking you and Tetsuya-san to Inoue-san. She is going to heal you."

Koji turned his head shakily and blinked slowly, taking in the sight of his injured lover.

"He's b-bad, isn't he?" Koji said wearily, "Torio, is he...?"

"He's going to be all right, otouto. Please go back to sleep. You are both going to be..."

He trailed off as a rumbling sound rose up in the corridor, a short distance ahead of them. Renji peered into the darkness and drew his weapon. The healer working on Tetsuya straightened and stared in the direction of the sound as it closed in on them.

"Go!" Renji shouted, raising his blade, "The exit point is just ahead. You'll be safe from there. The rest of the way is patrolled by our forces. Go!"

"But what about you, Renji-san?" cried Torio.

"There isn't time. I'll be fine! Just get them out of here!"

The wide-eyed attendant hesitated, gazing at the lone shinigami protecting them.

"Torio-san!" called the other man assisting with Koji's stretcher, "We have to move now!"

"But Renji-san...!"

"If we don't go now, they will die!" the healer insisted.

He looked back at Renji's imposing form.

"Renji-san is very strong. He protects our leader. He can hold them off, Torio-san, and we must proceed now. Trust him as our leader does."

Torio swallowed hard, letting out a sound of dismay as the first of the Sternritter foot soldiers appeared. The healer dragged him into motion, and the two fled, carrying the injured shinigamis. Behind them, Renji stared down the approaching mass of fighters, glad for the narrow corridor that would limit the number that could attack him all at once.

"Come on, you bastards!" he cried belligerently, "You want a fucking fight? I'll give you one you won't forget!"

He watched intently as they approached, sheathing his sword and beginning a soft incantation.

"Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! Inferno and pandemonium, the sea barrier surges, march on to the south! Hado number 31, Shakkahou!"

He loosed the glowing red fireballs, one after the other, aiming carefully at the reiatsu charged walls of the corridor. Furious laughter followed them down the corridor, echoing along the way before striking the walls around the approaching Sternritters and setting them ablaze. The fire erupted with a shaking roar, turning the place into an inferno, with the foot soldiers caught in the midst of it. Screams filled the corridor as Renji saw the fire spreading, and turned away, knowing now that he must escape or he would be swallowed up as well. But as Renji turned, he slid to a stop, staring at the person who had been approaching him from behind.

"Greetings, Abarai Renji. I was hoping I would meet you in here. I am Onno Brennan, the inferno, and my power is..."

XXXXXXXXXX

"Thank you, Akio. That will be all for tonight," Byakuya said, dismissing the attendant.

He noted the boy's deeply worried expression and touched him lightly on the shoulder. Akio looked up at him through widened green eyes.

"You are concerned for your brothers," the clan leader acknowledged, "I understand. Torio and Koji will return to us safely, once Tetsuya and Koji have been healed."

"I know, sir," Akio replied, his hands clasping each other anxiously, "But Koji was hurt so badly, and Tetsuya-san too! And Torio is out there, where the Sternritters are."

"Do not worry," Byakuya assured him, "They are being protected by the man who brought me back from death's doorway. If there is one thing that I know, it is that Abarai Renji is formidable. He will not let them die, Akio. You can have perfect faith in that. Trust me."

"I do trust you, Byakuya-sama," the boy said, blinking back tears, "And you are right. If Renji-san can give you back to us after what that monster did to you, then my brothers and Tetsuya-san will be all right. I am sorry that I despaired. I should have more faith in them."

"Do not concern yourself with that. Go now and rest. We must use these quiet moments to steel ourselves for the next battle."

"Hai, Byakuya-sama," the attendant said, bowing as he exited the tent.

Byakuya walked to the bed and laid down, shivering softly as he slid down under the as yet cold bedding and waited for it to warm from his body's heat. He felt Renji's absence keenly now, and tried reaching out with his senses, but found them oddly obscured.

We have been forced into such a remote area, and Renji and the others may still be in the precipice world. I will try again after I have rested.

He closed his eyes, sighing in relief as his body warmth began to heat the sheets and blankets he laid under, and the uncomfortable chill abated.

The family is handling this well. For the children especially, who have never known cold that could not be abated, or having to do things for themselves, this situation is difficult. But despite everything, our clan members are showing exceptional poise and adaptability. This is good. But...I cannot help but long for the time when we can return home and rebuild.

Byakuya let his mind drift toward sleep, comforted by the strong presence of the guards outside his tent. In moments, he was asleep, and the area around him peaceful, though unusually silent compared to the busier atmosphere of home.

Home.

I want to go home.

Wrapped in sleep, he removed himself from the chill enclave in the hills of the Seireitei and returned to the place where he had grown up. He saw again the familiar shapes of the manor building and the lovely, well-tended gardens, smelled the freshness that the flowers, grass and trees gave the air, the scents of hot food cooking and the gentle sounds of the attendants and staff at work, the breezes through the trees and splashes of koi in the ponds.

He didn't want to think about what it had become. But even in his hopeful dream, reality set in, and Byakuya saw the buildings in shambles with fire gutting the insides, the torn up ground and ponds scattered with dead and dying fish. He smelled the scents of fire and brimstone and felt the aching sense of loss at the destruction of this place that had been his home. Even in his sleep, tears slid down his face and the cold entered his body once again.

But just as he felt he might be crushed by the hopelessness of it all, a familiar presence returned to his mind and pulled him out of his despair. He felt Renji's arms around him and looked up into strong, proud, red-brown eyes that made him feel once again that things would be all right. There was still strength in him and in the clan, and they could fight their way back and reclaim what they had lost.

"Thank you, Renji," he said, sinking his fingers into the other man's red hair.

He knew he was only dreaming, but there was still incredible warmth in the muscular arms that held him and the lips that caressed his.

"I am glad that you are here with me."

"I am always with you. No matter what happens, I will find you. I love you, Kuchiki Byakuya."

"I love you, Renji," Byakuya whispered in his sleep.

Outside the camp, As Nodt stood silently within the misted trees until darkness had fallen and the fog thickened enough to hide his passage.

Ah...now the time has come.

You complained that I toyed with you before, Kuchiki Byakuya. But the truth is that I have been toying with you all along. Ever since our battle. That reiatsu I left within you ensured that I could follow you anywhere.

Do you know what that means?

He stepped forward, moving carefully and staying in the thickest of the fog.

I could slaughter them all right now. They do not sense me because their senses are affected by the reiatsu I placed in you. They accept its presence without questioning it, because you desensitized them to it when you joined them.

Yes, I could finish off the entire vain, proud, arrogant Kuchiki clan this moment. Our leader would certainly reward me for such a feat. It is high on his list of priorities. But...I have my own priorities, Byakuya. I have my own plans.

So, these people you care about will sleep in safety for a bit longer, while you and I disappear together. And when we are alone and you are without an escape...without anyone to save you, I will discover why you alone seem resistant to my powers. When that is done, I will fill you with fear well beyond what you experienced before. I will take you back to them and have them all killed as you watch. I will make nightmares far worse than yours, your true reality, Byakuya. And even you, a once powerful taichou will scream as madness descends on your mind and possesses your heart with such force that it howls and dies. You will fall at my feet and die, as you should have before.

Yes, you will be sorry that you lived, and you will curse the man who pulled you back from death's doorway only to see everything destroyed completely.

As Nodt paused at the back of the tent where he sensed that Byakuya laid, sleeping, and he smiled.

Even you do not sense me when I use the corrupted reiatsu I infused you with to approach.

He considered killing the guards, but decided against it.

It would only make them move again, and I don't want that. I need them here to use to break this one's will. I want them to be in doubt about whether he was taken, or if he left on his own.

So, he resolved to leave no traces.

He watched until the guard changed, finding a moment when the men were faced the other way to slip in through the front entry. He approached the noble on silent feet and paused just short of the bed. He focused on the reiatsu he had placed in the noble's body and brought its power to life, sending a shock through Byakuya that incapacitated him instantly.

I could have taken you at any time during our battle, but I want there to be time to explore you, to study you. If they become aware too soon, not only would they search for you, but our own leader might hear of this.

This has nothing to do with him or his plans.

This, Byakuya, is personal.

He took Byakuya from the bed and laid him down on the floor at the back of the tent. Using a razor he found among the noble's belongings, he carefully cut a slit along the back of the tent, near the bottom, where it wouldn't be obvious.

They will find it, of course, but they won't know if I cut this or he did. They will only find his reiatsu, which had been tainted already with the corrupted reiatsu I infused him with when I attacked him with my thorns. They will spend precious hours trying to figure out what happened. And I will put that time to good use finding out all I want to know.

Then, Kuchiki Byakuya, you and your family will die out completely. I will eradicate all of you!

He passed through the opening he had made, then cautiously extracted the unconscious noble from the tent. He left as slowly as he had come, carrying Byakuya's limp body through the fog enshrouded camp and emerging on the edges, smiling that the alarm had not been sounded.

You see, no one is the wiser.

He started to turn, but found himself facing the tall black Arabian stallion that had fended of the attack before.

"You!" he hissed, sending a hail of thorns in Arashi's direction, "Damn you!"

Arashi raised himself onto his hind legs, screaming in defiance and launching a hail of ice blades that curved around Byakuya's motionless form and struck the quincy, cutting even through his hastily employed defenses.

"I do not have time to deal with you properly," he snarled at the stallion, turning and employing his Hirenkyaku step to escape to the top of a ridge.

He looked back at the furious stallion and the nobles rushing to join him.

"I will be back to destroy you. And do not worry about anyone else doing the job. I want to kill you all myself!"

Arashi loosed a squeal of rage and flash stepped to the edge of a cliff, launching his body into the air and firing his ice blades at the quincy again.

"Fool! Even with your bankai level power, you are no match for me!"

Arashi landed roughly on the next ledge and burst forward, followed by a wave of nobles, who loosed a storm of power after the retreating enemy. The released power crashed into a small mountain behind As Nodt, just as the quincy stepped away and disappeared into the trees.

"Prepare yourselves, Kuchiki nobles," he warned them as he vanished, "When I return, it will be the end for all of you!"

XXXXXXXXXX

"Holy hell!" Renji gasped, almost tempted to smile at the irony of the words.

He backed away as the body of the quincy in front of him burst into flame, and laughter echoed all around him.

"Thank you for killing the foot soldiers," Onno said, smiling, "I didn't really want to have to destroy them myself, and this power when brought into the precipice world is really volatile. But now that it is just you and me, I can let loose and not worry. The fire won't hurt me, and my comrades are already dead."

"You son of a bitch!" snapped Renji, "Don't you even give a damn about your own people?"

"Hah!" laughed Onno, "That is your weakness. We are taught not to align ourselves too closely, as anyone may need to be sacrificed to destroy the shinigamis!"

"You don't care if your own friends die?" Renji asked, "Your own family? Really?"

Onno's eyes narrowed.

"Affections make a person weak," he explained, "We are taught to be willing to sacrifice everything for the sole purpose of defeating the enemy!"

"Baka!" yelled Renji, giving more ground as the quincy's fire attack roared towards him, "What the hell's the good of winning if those people you care about aren't even there to enjoy it with? Don't you care about anything at all?"

"Yes, actually," Onno said, pausing and holding his fires ready, "We care about survival. That is why we must destroy all of you! Your people tried to exterminate us, and they nearly succeeded. But because of Juha Bach-sama, we are here to take our revenge!"

"But don't you see what you're doing?" Renji cried, backing away as the fire began to swell threateningly again, "You're attacking people who had nothing to do with that decision! You're hurting innocent people, just the way you were hurt!"

"And we should hurt them! They are the spawn of the ones who tried to destroy us. They need to die!"

"But you won't succeed," Renji said firmly, flinching as the heat of Onno's fires moved threateningly closer, "You'll just start the whole thing over, making enemies of the ones who survive, so they will come after you. I'm not saying that you don't have a right to your anger. But think about what you are doing!"

Renji flash stepped back as a swirl of fire flared up in front of him. He gasped in surprise as his back touched a wall, and he realized that he had been cornered.

"Are you going to use your bankai now?" Onno asked mockingly, "Go ahead. I will steal it, then you will be destroyed and I will have one more weapon for our people to use against yours."

Renji's eyes widened as his mind spun, trying to think of something to do. Something appeared in the hallway behind Onno and the redhead lowered his eyes so as not to alert the quincy.

"Oh, are you despairing now?" asked the quincy, "I understand. You have nothing left to fight me with. You are helpless and alone...and about to die that way."

"No," Renji said calmly, "I am not going to die."

"What?"

"I have the one thing that you turned your back on and shouldn't have," the redhead explained.

Onno's eyes flared as he realized and started to turn.

A cyclone of water erupted from behind the quincy, filling the corrider and wrapping itself around Onno. The quincy loosed a terrified scream as the water swept him away into the darkness.

Renji held his breath and ducked down into a small corner as the water drenched him and the flames around him, then carried his enemy away. A loud neigh sounded, and Arashi trotted forward.

"Fleabag! Thanks a lot," Renji said, climbing to his feet, shaking the water out of his hair and patting the stallion on the neck, "But you're supposed to be guarding the clan encampment. Why did you come here?"

I had to come. Renji-san, As Nodt infiltrated our encampment.

"Oh my god..." Renji whispered, his heart freezing, "Are they...?"

He didn't hurt any of us, the stallion explained, It seems that his only goal...was to take Byakuya-sama.

"He...took Byakuya?" Renji repeated, unable to believe his own words.

Yes. We must find him, Renji-san. But before we do that, the council wishes to offer you something to help you and Byakuya-sama in the fight. Come with me. Come quickly!