(For the storm of people who PM'd me for an Ichi/Bya related to the new chapters. Thought I'd give that a try! Thanks to all for the suggestion.)
It isn't time yet.
Just a little bit longer and he will be here.
They said he was coming, and Ichigo is an honorable person, who always keeps his word.
The battlefield had gone quiet and nothing moved in front of Byakuya but the gently falling rain.
Just...a bit longer, now.
He will be...
He swore inwardly as he faded out for a time, only able to manage the slow intake and shuddering exhale of breath. Blood still warmed his skin, here and there, but the raindrops brought an uncomfortable chill, and he hoped fervently that he would finally go numb soon, so that when the substitute shinigami arrived, he could speak without shivering. Despite everything, it seems he still had some small amount of pride to protect.
He tried again to sense Rukia or Renji, but found his reiatsu far too depleted. As far gone as he was, he was existing on will alone, steadfastly refusing to believe for a moment that Ichigo would either fail him, or simply be too late. But then, when one earned Kuchiki Byakuya's trust, he gave it completely.
He heard a flash step in the distance and his somehow still seeing eyes spotted a light in the sky. A dark figure came down out of the clouds, moving swiftly in his direction. And even with no reiatsu to tell him, Byakuya knew this wasn't an enemy. It was the one he had waited for. He yielded a very small, hidden sound of relief as Ichigo moved closer, slowing as he registered the devastating damage that the Kuchiki clan leader and Squad Six taichou had taken. Knowing his situation was dire, Byakuya wasted no time in getting to what was most important.
"Are Rukia...and Renji...s-still alive?" he managed, only shivering slightly.
"Yeah," Ichigo said, his voice betraying an intense effort to maintain control, "They're alive. They're fine."
Byakuya wasn't sure if the young man was telling him the truth or just being kind, but he chose the 'truth' that he needed in that moment, and opted to believe Ichigo's words.
"I see," he panted softly, "G-good."
It took him a few moments before he could go on.
"I will not...last much longer. Despite being a Gotei 13 taichou, I was unable to defeat the foul enemy who invaded the Seireitei, resulting in the deaths of thousands of valuable warriors, causing...suffering in their families. And in the end, I was defeated miserably. It brings a disgrace that permeates every fiber of my being."
He saw Ichigo's hand tighten on his blade, but the substitute shinigami allowed him to continue.
"To add to this humiliation...now, you, a mere human boy, who shouldn't even have come to this battlefield...that...I must...ask you this favor."
He felt a burning heat in his eyes and felt something warm that wasn't blood run down his face. He hadn't the blood left in his body to flush with embarrassment.
"Please, excuse my despicable behavior," he whispered, shuddering as a soft, icy breeze touched his damp skin, "Please...protect Soul Society...Kurosaki Ichigo."
It was a relief to get the words out...to know that Ichigo had heard them. Byakuya didn't look up, but only waited quietly, then, for some sort of answer. Out of the corner of one gray eye, he registered the dark, tormented rage that had taken over the youth's handsome face...the rising rage that meant that he would soon be doing battle. And he was wholly unsurprised when Ichigo's reiatsu swelled so heatedly that it shook the already crumbled wreckage all around them. His hand moved, and Zangetsu flew out and away, landing in front of Bach and stopping him in his tracks. Byakuya watched in silence as Ichigo's furious eyes met his, and an understanding passed between them. Then, the youth was gone, and Byakuya found himself alone again, with the rain coming down hard enough now to wash the blood off of his drenched skin.
"No answer," he whispered, "It's fine. That's how he is."
He turned his eyes quietly in the direction that Ichigo had gone.
"Even if you don't answer, I know."
It seemed that a great weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. His confession made, responsibility for his shortcomings taken, his penance in pain done and Ichigo's promise understood, Byakuya gathered what pride he had left and pulled himself free of the bloodstained wall. He stumbled forward slowly, finally feeling blessed numbness settle in. But he kept his feet, standing tall, even as death approached. He breathed in the rain freshened air and felt dizziness sweep over him.
"I am counting on you, Kurosaki Ichigo," he whispered.
His vision dimming, he was vaguely aware of the Senbonzakura slipping free of his remaining hand. He heard the sharp cracking sound as the hilt began to disintegrate, but was spared anything further as he lost consciousness and began a long, slow fall.
"Unohana-san," Ichigo said desperately, "I've heard that Byakuya was brought in from the battlefield. Shinji told me that Rukia and Renji are gonna be okay, but no one will tell me anything about Byakuya! Is he...is he still alive?"
"He is alive," the healer confirmed wearily, "although several times during his healing, he began to fade. It was very close, but we were finally able to stabilize him. He will live, although it is uncertain if he will be able to return to his duties as a taichou, or if he will even wake. He sustained devastating injuries and was forced to wait too long on the battlefield before he could be evacuated to the fourth division. I am sorry, Kurosaki-san. I wish that I had better news."
"Well," said Ichigo, "at least he is alive. That's something, ne?"
Unohana nodded briefly.
"Would it...be all right if I went in to see him?" asked the youth, looking in the direction of the noble's treatment room.
"You may see him for a few minutes while we are preparing to move him to a private room."
"Thank you," Ichigo said gratefully, "Of all of my friends, he is the one who I most failed today. I just need to tell him I'm sorry."
"Oh, Kurosaki-san," Unohana said, shaking her head sadly, "Do not think so lowly of yourself. You did not know that this crisis was coming, and you came as quickly as you could. I know that your arrival was a comfort to Kuchiki taichou. He spoke your name several times in his delirium. I think it helped him to remain strong. And I think it will be good for him to hear your voice now."
"But isn't he in a coma?" asked Ichigo, looking confused.
"Yes, however, often people who have been in comas, when they wake, speak of being outside their bodies, sometimes even able to see and hear what goes on around them, to describe it in great detail, when they wake. Speak what words you need to, and I assure you, Kuchiki taichou will hear you."
"Huh..." sighed the shinigami substitute, "All right. If you say so."
Ichigo felt a strange weakness in his legs and a pitching in his stomach as he walked towards the room. He remembered, with a chill, how Byakuya had looked, covered in blood and missing one slender hand. He swallowed hard, tears threatening, and forced the thought away. His hand shook slightly as he laid it on the treatment room door, but he took a steadying breath and pushed the door open.
Byakuya laid on the treatment table, dressed in a clean, white yukata, and motionless except for the slow, steady rise and fall of his breathing. Thankfully, the blood had been washed off of his pale skin, and the horrid slashes had been healed. His left hand was still missing, but his arm had been carefully wrapped. And Ichigo knew that even if he wasn't treated for a while, Inoue was more than capable of restoring the noble's missing hand. So that wasn't so much of a problem, really. What was a problem was that he remained unconscious.
Unconscious, and they say that he might never wake.
I just can't accept that...not of Byakuya. People don't come much stronger than he is. But...he took so much damage this time. I didn't come close to killing Byakuya when we fought. He got pretty banged up in Hueco Mundo, but that was mostly because he and Kenpachi Zaraki tangled with each other after they got through with Yammy. Then, when he fought Tsukishima, he was cut up a little. But never...never have I seen him take the kind of damage he took this time.
Thank kami he's alive...
Now, there's at least a chance of making this up to him.
He moved closer, reaching Byakuya's bedside and looking down at him silently for several long minutes as he tried to think of what to say. It wasn't like before, when he had first seen the horrific damage done to his one-time foe turned friend...when the shock of seeing the noble's pristine body slashed and bloodied had stopped his voice and made the anger rise up in him like billowing flame. There was no anger now, only sorrow and lingering worry.
This conflict with the quincys has just begun. And already, they took out the old man and incapacitated Byakuya and Kenpachi. Add to that, what that guy said about me...about my mom.
Ichigo sighed and ran his hands over his face.
I won't think about that now. I have to think about my friends...taking care of them and making sure that bastard doesn't hurt them anymore. He and his army have already done too much damage. We've just got to hope that between Urahara-san and Kurotsuchi Mayuri that they can come up with a way to stop those assholes from stealing any more bankais.
He sighed softly, taking in Byakuya's comely face, that looked impossibly young and vulnerable, now that the noble had been stripped of all of the markers of his status. Now, he was just a very beautiful and tragically injured shinigami, whom Ichigo called his friend.
"You look better now...more comfortable," he said, finally, sitting down in a chair beside the treatment table, "I was...really relieved when Unohana-san told me that you were going to be all right."
He paused for a moment, biting at his lips and trying to think of the right words.
"I haven't forgotten my promise, Byakuya. I will protect all of you. I wasn't able to stop that guy. But he left, and that will give Urahara-san and Kurotsuchi Mayuri time to work on how to stop the quincys from stealing bankai from the taichous and fukutaichous that still have them. And...they're going to find a way to give your powers back to you. I promise you. You and Senbonzakura will be together again real soon. Just...you have to focus on getting better, okay? Leave the worrying to me and just...be calm and think about what it's gonna be like to wake up back in your own bed at Kuchiki Manor. And whatever you do," he said, resting a hand on Byakuya's soft, slender one, "Don't leave us...okay?"
He caught his breath softly as soft, white light flared around his hand, where it touched Byakuya's. He felt his heart skip oddly, and his head spun for a moment, before settling.
"Ichigo-san?" said a quiet, stunned sounding, male voice from the doorway.
Ichigo stood and turned to face the person who had arrived, and found himself looking at Byakuya's younger, half-noble cousin, Tetsuya.
"Tetsuya?" he queried, "What...what's wrong?"
Tetsuya's lovely, sapphire eyes gazed down at where Ichigo's hand still held Byakuya's.
"N-nothing is wrong, exactly," the noble answered slowly, "and in fact, it may rather be something very right."
"Huh? You want to tell me what you're getting all mystical about? What's going on?"
"Oh," said Tetsuya, "It is something that I read in the clan leader diaries while in the archive with my cousin...an old story about our family patriarch, Kuchiki Hajime."
"Hajime was not born in the usual way, but made from the branches and petals of an ancient sakura tree in the king's gardens. That is why all of the Kuchiki noble's are scented with sakura. But legend has it that after the king made the first five nobles, the patriarchs of the five great noble houses, he touched Hajime's hand, and white light glowed around their joined hands, signifying the presence of a perfect resonance."
"A...resonance?" Ichigo asked, frowning, "What are you talking about? What does that mean?"
"All souls that cross paths have some amount of resonance with each other," Tetsuya explained, "But there are some rare souls that it is said, are fated to interact in some special way."
"Well," Ichigo said, a little skeptically, "Byakuya and I have already interacted, both as enemies, then as friends. If there is this resonance, then why would it pop up now?"
"No one knows why the resonance happens. We only know that it first happened between Hajime and the first incarnation of the spirit king, and that Hajime went on to become the king's consort and the first King's Samurai. When the spirit demon, Diablo sought to kill the king, it was Hajime who slew him. Thus, it is said that when there is a perfect resonance, the affected will share in some exchange of love and protection, and that none can say how such a thing will play out."
"Heh," Ichigo chuckled, taking it lightly as he tended to take such things, "Well, I can tell you one thing. I don't think Byakuya's interested in me like that. So love's not really an option. And he's already been beaten to within an inch of his life, so it's kinda late to be thinking about protection. Still...it is...nice to think that we have some kind of bond. I want him to get well again, and if this helps, then I'm okay with it."
He gave Tetsuya a placating look, and the noble looked back at him with perfect seriousness.
"So, uh, what do we do with this soul resonance? How does it work?" the youth asked.
"I thought you didn't hold with such things," Tetsuya said, smirking.
"Well," said the substitute shinigami, "If there's any chance of it helping him to wake up, then just tell me how and I'll give it a try."
"Actually, the resonance is not something that you will need to 'do something about,' but something that will reveal itself to the two of you. Just...keep an open mind. And...at such times as things get quiet and you lie down to rest, focus your mind on Byakuya-sama, and perhaps something will come to you. I wish I could be more helpful, but..."
"Don't worry about it," Ichigo said wearily, "It's not the first thing that hasn't gone right for me today. Anyway...I just came to see how he was. He got really messed up out there. I tried to get here faster. I really did, but..."
"It isn't your fault, Ichigo-san," Tetsuya said, shaking his head, "You cannot expect to stop something so large as this was. All we can do is go on from here."
"Right..." sighed the substitute shinigami, "But, hey, is Kuchiki Manor all right? I heard that after the initial fights, the regular troops came in and really laid waste to anything that was left."
Tetsuya's eyes grew troubled.
"Yes. And I am afraid that the noble estates were not spared. In addition, the enemy leader sent assassination squads to eliminate the heads of the clans."
"Oh my kami!" gasped Ichigo, "Tell me that they...!"
"Unfortunately, they managed to kill more than a few of the most powerful clan leaders. There was also a lot of collateral damage...many women and children killed and injured as well."
"Damn..." Ichigo said, the pain returning to his heart, "Tetsuya-san..."
"Our clan was somewhat lucky. Due to an early warning system that Byakuya-sama and I designed together, the manor was evacuated in time, and the family and Kuchiki elders escaped harm. All that we suffered was damage to our property, which can be mended. But we did also suffer the great injury of our leader, as he tried to defend all of us. The elders have taken control of clan matters, so there is order. But...we need Byakuya-sama to return. There is great distress amongst the family and he is most adept at calming things."
"But he's been hurt really badly," Ichigo said sadly, "And no one seems to even know if he will..."
"He will," Tetsuya said, tightening his lips, "He must."
"Yeah," Ichigo said, comforted somewhat by the blue-eyed noble's conviction, "He will."
"You should go and get some rest, Ichigo-san," Tetsuya suggested, as Unohana taichou and several other healers entered the room, "They will be moving Byakuya-sama to a private room and getting him settled in. You can come and visit him again later, after you have restored your energy."
"That is very good advice, Kurosaki-san," Unohana said, smiling at him.
Ichigo quivered inside, and once again wondered how the woman could possibly be so scary, while not even losing her smile.
The healer's hand brushed against him, and Ichigo felt his legs give way. He was caught up by two healers as Tetsuya exchanged knowing glances with Unohana.
"Thank you," said Tetsuya, "Ichigo-san is overwrought over what has happened, and yet will bear the greater part of the weight of resolving this conflict. He does need to restore himself."
"Not to worry, Kuchiki-san," Unohana said brightly, "We will see that Kurosaki-san is well rested when he faces what comes next. Come now, let us see to getting your cousin settled into his room."
"Again, I thank you."
The healer turned her kind eyes on Tetsuya.
"Were you injured in the attack, Kuchiki-san?" she asked.
"Just a bit," Tetsuya admitted, "but our clan healers made quick work of it, and I am well enough now to stand guard on my cousin."
"Very well," said the healer, "Let us go and see to making him comfortable."
Ichigo's mind spun in circles, making him move restlessly in his sleep. Outside the fourth division, the rain fell steadily and lightning flickered off and on. The young man flinched uncomfortably, reliving his arrival in the Seireitei, and his meeting with the badly injured Kuchiki clan leader. But in this dream, Byakuya didn't speak at all. He merely sank to the ground at Ichigo's feet, dying before he could say anything.
"Byakuya!" he cried, dropping to his knees in the rubble and gathering the dead shinigami in his arms, "Byakuya, I'm sorry! I tried to get here faster! Byakuya! Byakuya!"
"Byakuya!" he cried, sitting up, wide-eyed as thunder crashed, loud enough to rattle the windows.
The door to the room he had been placed in opened, and a young healer poked his head inside.
"Are you all right, Kurosaki-san?" he asked quickly.
"Y-yeah, kid," Ichigo sighed, a shiver going through him as he remembered the awful dream, "I'm okay. It was just a bad dream. I'll be fine."
"Okay, Kurosaki-san," the youth said, bowing, "Please call us if you need anything."
"Yeah, okay, I'll do that," he agreed.
He watched the healer leave, then laid on the bed in the darkness, watching the intermittent flickers of light from the storm.
"...at such times as things get quiet and you lie down to rest," Tetsuya's voice repeated in his mind, "focus your mind on Byakuya-sama, and perhaps something will come to you."
Ichigo closed his eyes and tried to picture the noble's face in his mind. He winced and blinked as his mind was assaulted again with the image of Byakuya, cut to pieces and dying...Byakuya, as he had been in that nightmare, falling to the ground and dying before he could even speak.
Kami, what's wrong with me! I'm...so freaked out about him being hurt...dying. What's going on? What's wrong with me?
He took several calming breaths and focused on how peaceful the noble had looked, resting comfortably in bed, after being healed. He tried to imagine the lovely, dark, trusting eyes opening and looking at him, but the very thought brought tears to his eyes.
He started to drift off, and as he did, his spirit ribbon fluttered and extended, traveling out of his room and back down the hallway to where the noble laid, unconscious. And as the two relaxed in sleep and unconsciousness, Ichigo's spirit ribbon curled gently around the injured shinigami's body.
Ichigo felt as though he was falling...opened his eyes and stared.
He was no longer in the fourth division, nor anywhere he had ever been in his life. And the place he was in was pretty and undamaged, not at all like the destroyed Seireitei, where he had fallen asleep. All around him, sakura and plum trees blossomed. And the sun shined gently on everything, with light breezes teasing soft petals into fluttering down from the trees.
"I must be dreaming," he whispered.
But there was something about this dream that seemed very, very odd. And odd became frightening as he found himself approaching a small garden teahouse, where a lone shinigami laid in a bed.
A moment later, he realized who the man was.
"Byakuya!" he cried, running forward.
He slid to a stop as pink petals swirled up from the trees and flew at him from all directions.
"Senbonzakura, is that you?" he cried, "Stop it! It's me! It's Ichigo!"
But although the petal blades continued to block his path to Byakuya, the spirit of his zanpakutou never answered.
Oh, my kami! This is no dream! I've entered Byakuya's inner world. But...something is wrong. I can't get past these petals. They make a wall too thick for me to go through. I have to get to him. I feel it...