Chapter 6: To Protect and to Avenge

"I never understood what made you hate me so, Orochi-san. What did I ever do to you?"

Orochi let out a sarcastic puff of air.

"Nothing," he said, closing his eyes, "It turns out that you never did anything at all. The person who I should have been blaming for what happened wasn't you, Tetsuya. It was me."

"What do you mean?" asked Tetsuya.

Orochi shook his head dismissively, leaving Tetsuya certain that he hadn't meant to let such a comment slip.

"It doesn't matter," he said off-handedly, picking up the cooing infant and resting him against a warm shoulder.

Kisho's tiny fingers sought the dangling strands of the man's hair, first patting gently, then curling and grabbing the still wet ends. Tetsuya watched curiously as his cousin's face registered surprise, then darkened with pain that looked to be nearly unspeakable, but which he forced away with an effort as he focused more intently in the baby's sweet, winsome face.

You are lucky not to comprehend the blackness of our worlds and the people in it. I wish we all could stay like that. There are some things that we should never know.

"Orochi-san, were you able to fix on the exit point from where you were before?" Tetsuya asked, trying to change the subject, "I have tried several times, but cannot sense it. But then, my reiatsu may just be too low from my illness."

"It is not that," Orochi said, his hands trembling slightly where they held on to Kisho, "I cannot sense it either. It may be that the storms are unsettling things too much or..."

He trailed off, not wanting voice the other painful possibility.

We could be trapped here with no way out, Tetsuya surmised.

Lost.

But thank kami that Kisho and I aren't alone.

He studied his cousin's face quietly in the half light, wondering at the intensity of the emotion he found there. He had never seen such a thing in Orochi. Anger, yes. Fury and hatred that had been eerily palpable as he had lain torments upon Tetsuya's restrained body in the half-breed's prison. But now, the hatred was gone and as he regarded Kisho, he only looked tired and unbearably sad.

"Byakuya-sama and Renji-san will find us," he said, as much to reassure himself as Orochi.

His cousin met his eyes skeptically.

"Come now, Cousin," he said, shaking his head, "You saw how difficult it was for me to open the doorway into this world. It raises the likelihood that this pocket dimension we are in was deemed too dangerous and locked to prevent entry. Even if we are sensed within that corridor, they would have a hard time divining which doorway we passed through."

"But they are connected to us...through Kisho," Tetsuya insisted, "And that means that..."

"Even if they sense him," Orochi said, lowering his eyes, "and even if he somehow can recognize their call and respond in some way, there is still no assurance that they will be able to reach us, Tetsuya. I am not saying that we should abandon all hope. I am just saying that we cannot overlook the possibility that we will not be able to escape this place."

He sighed softly, closing his eyes again and breathing in Kisho's pleasant scent.

"And...we should probably assume that if indeed this was a locked dimension, there is an enemy here that is much greater in power than that nightmare that already nearly killed me."

Tetsuya shivered softly at the words, and his wide blue eyes strayed to the reiatsu cage that protected them. Orochi's eyes followed his gaze, and registered the barest flicker of sympathy.

"That barrier," he whispered, "is our strongest defense against whatever is out there. If it breaks through that, then we are lost."

Tetsuya touched a pale, shaking hand to the barrier and slowly infused it with power.

"Then," he replied softly, "this is going to have to hold against whatever is out there."

Orochi watched him wordlessly, his hands holding baby Kisho a bit more tightly.

Tetsuya, don't you understand?

We are going to die here...together.

XXXXXXXXXX

"RENJI!" Byakuya cried, flash stepping madly as the redhead fell towards the monster's wide, toothy maw.

Renji closed his eyes, nearly choking on the creature's putrid breath as he tumbled downward. His breath left him as something snatched him away from the beast and flash stepped away again. He opened his eyes to find Byakuya holding him tightly and backing away as the monstrous creature advanced on them.

"I think that we can agree with the report that said the environment here is hostile!" Renji shouted, regaining his feet, "This looks damned hostile to me!"

"Hostile and powerful," Byakuya warned him, "Be careful, Abarai."

"Oh, now you tell me," Renji chuckled, drawing his weapon and preparing to release it.

"Wait," the noble warned him, placing a staying hand over his, "Those sticky appendages. They do not just grab. They eat reiatsu. When it captured you, it drained off some of your reiatsu."

"Eh," Renji muttered, shaking his head unhappily, "You're right. Damn."

"We need to keep our distance...and I think my bankai is more suited to this than yours. You stick to kido and only call on your bankai as a last resort."

"You've got it, Taichou," the redhead said, flash stepping away.

"Bankai," Byakuya said, raising his blade, point down, then letting it go, "Senbonzakura Kageyoshi."

"Byakuya, look out!" screamed Renji as new tendrils shot up from the ground underneath him and wrapped around his legs, arms and the hilt of his weapon, "Hado number 31, Shakkhou!"

A series of red fireballs erupted from the redhead's extended hands as he dodged the sweeping limbs that sought to grab them. Byakuya's petal blades slashed at the attacking creature, but then flickered oddly and dropped to the ground as the power controlling them was drained from Byakuya's struggling body.

"Damn it!" Renji yelled, flash stepping wildly, altering course repeatedly as the creature's attacking arms sought to capture him. Byakuya slashed at the limbs that had captured him as he was lifted up into the air, then smashed down into the unforgiving ground several times.

"Byakuya!" howled Renji, "Bankai! Hihio Zabimaru!"

He only waited until the beast's head rose up, then hastily gave the attack command.

"Hikotsu taihou!"

The skeletal snake fired itself at the monsterous creature, blasting him with a stunning fireball, before crashing into him and exploding, throwing its component parts in all directions, then slowly beginning to rebuild itself. Still staring into the smoky haze, Renji flash stepped to the downed noble, who accepted an offered hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.

"Arigatou," he panted.

"You all right?" Renji asked worriedly.

"Fine," Byakuya assured him, "but we cannot afford to fight here anymore. We need to have our reiatsu restored before we can continue our search. Come, let us return to Arashi quickly."

"Yeah," Renji agreed, moving to follow.

They climbed onto the mane of the skeletal snake and Renji ordered the beast up into the air. They headed for the open doorway where Arashi waited, their eyes watching carefully, the place where the beast had been. As the dust began to clear, Renji gave a cry of surprise as fresh limbs shot out and headed for them. But before they could act, a huge volley of ice blades erupted from the doorway ahead of them, arcing around the skeletal snake as it soared through the doorway and landed back in the precipice world. Byakuya invoked a sealing kido that snapped into place, just as the beast's limbs slammed into it. They heard a furious snarl, and then the seal activated, closing the doorway and leaving the corridor eerily silent.

"Ugh," muttered Renji, sheathing his blade and dropping onto his bottom, "I think 'hostile is too tame a word for that place."

"Agreed," Byakuya said wearily, patting Arashi on the satiny neck as the stallion began to restore his drained reiatsu.

"Fleabag," laughed Renji, "Thanks for the assist."

The stallion eyed him crossly and a tendril of smoke issued from his nose.

"Easy there, buddy, I was just messing with you," Renji added, smirking, "Don't get your tail in a twist."

Arashi snorted and flicked his tail about in annoyance as he continued restoring Byakuya's reiatsu. Renji sighed and started to lean back against the wall, but sat up straighter as a deep humming sound rose up in the distance. His eyes met Byakuya's questioningly, and the noble sighed.

"What the hell?" complained Renji, "I thought that motherfucker was only supposed to come around once every seven days! What the hell is this?"

"I was concerned this might happen," Byakuya said, shaking his head and standing.

He scanned the walls quickly and headed for one of the available doorways.

"What are you doing?" the redhead asked, rising to follow.

"The rate of kido disruption in this area alerted the cleaner, and it is coming to diffuse the overload of power in the area. This pocket dimension is charted and safe. Arashi will be able to restore us, and we can come back through once we are restored and the cleaner has gone by."

"All right," grumbled Renji, "but this is getting ridiculous. We have to find Tetsuya and Kisho quickly."

"I know," Byakuya answered, stepping through the doorway and flash stepping down to a tranquil looking glen in the pocket dimension, "But we'll do them no good if we are too drained to help them. Come, Renji."

Still mumbling discontentedly, Renji followed the noble and the stallion down into the pocket dimension, biting at his lips anxiously as he pondered what might have befallen Byakuya's gentler cousin and the newborn heir.

We're coming for you and Kisho, Tetsuya. Just hang in there. We'll come for you. I swear, we will.

XXXXXXXXXX

Tetsuya felt a soft catch in his chest as the storm winds rose again and rain pounded down on the rocks around them and the sturdy reiatsu cage that protected and concealed them. Despite the protection his zanpakutou granted him from drowning or freezing, he had always been afraid of heavy storms. Even protected as they were from the flashes of lightning, he shivered inwardly and his eyes widened as thunder made the ground underneath them shudder. He swallowed hard and curled closer to the sleeping baby, his eyes looking out through the barrier and his heart skipping fitfully. He flinched reflexively as Orochi's body shifted and his cousin's arm wrapped around his waist. He opened his mouth, ready to protest, then closed it again as the other man's voice sounded quietly in his ear.

"I had forgotten how fearful you were of the weather," he commented, "Do you mean to tell me that, as powerful as you have grown, you still fear this?"

"I am fine," the younger shinigami said stiffly, trying to pull away, then groaning as Kisho stirred, and his voice rose up in a discomfited wail.

He turned onto his back, laying the infant on his chest and rubbing his back as Kisho squawked unhappily and dug his tiny fingers into Tetsuya's damp yukata.

"There now," he said softly, his voice shaking slightly as the thunder rumbled through again, "Settle down and go back to sleep, little one."

He started to sing in a low, soothing voice, but froze as Orochi stiffened against his side, catching his breath in surprise.

"What is it?" he asked quickly, "What's wrong?"

Orochi stared at him fixedly in the darkness.

"Where did you learn that song?" he asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

"From my mother," Tetsuya said, gazing back at him curiously, "Why? What is wrong?"

Orochi continued to look at him through haunted eyes.

"Nothing. It's fine," he managed, turning away, "Go on with it."

He shivered as Tetsuya's voice sounded again, singing softly and sending him back into a dim, flickering memory.

Orochi heard footsteps in the hallway and scuttled off of his bed and onto the floor. He crawled under his bed, watching as the door opened and someone stepped into the bedroom.

"Orochi-chan?" said Kaiyo's sweet voice, making him peek out at her warily.

The housemaid spotted him and laughed softly, her smile coaxing him out from under the bed and into her arms.

"What's wrong, little one? You can't sleep without your mother to come and tuck you in?"

He sniffed softly and nodded, his small arms wrapping around the woman's shoulders as she lifted him and laid him gently back in bed.

"When will she come home?" he asked, shivering as thunder sounded outside, and rain began to strike the window near his bed.

"I am not sure," Kaiyo answered, looking out the window, into the darkness, "You know that she is very ill, and we are all wanting her to get well, so that she can come home."

"Kaiyo-san, why did mother say that she would only get better if you leave?" he asked, looking up into the housemaid's gentle eyes, "Did you do something that made mother try to kill me like that?"

"Orochi-chan," Kaiyo said, her eyes tearing as she held him against her shoulder, "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you or your mother and father. It is only your mother's illness that makes her think in such a way. Go to sleep now. I will stay here until you are sleeping."

He closed his eyes and started to drift off, while she hummed softly and stroked his hair lightly. He was nearly asleep when she started to sing, the gentleness in her tone and words soothing him inside and driving away the awful mix of longing and fear that he always encountered when he thought of his long absent mother. For a time, everything disappeared, but he was shaken back into awareness by a loud peal of thunder.

Orochi's eyes flew open as thunder boomed loudly, waking Kisho and making the infant squeal loudly with fear. Tetsuya's weary voice sounded next to him, and after a few minutes, the baby quieted. Orochi closed his eyes again, but couldn't suppress a shiver as lightning flashed and the thunder made the air around them vibrate. Kisho whined in his sleep, but didn't wake. Tetsuya started to sing softly again, and the tune and words brought calm back into Orochi's exhausted mind. His arm that was still curled around Tetsuya's waist tightened, and he pressed closer to his cousin, blinking in confusion as Tetsuya's voice seemed to harmonize with that of Kaiyo's. It sounded lovely, the two voices blending sweetly and sending flickers of warmth through Orochi's long-frozen heart. He couldn't think of sleeping anymore as the sound captivated his tired mind and aching heart, bringing to the fore his sadness at losing his father and Kaiyo as well. Whatever he might feel about the lies and deceptions of the past, the loss was new, and only now becoming real to him. Tears rose in his eyes and one leaked onto his face. He realized suddenly that Tetsuya's voice had gone silent, that his cousin had turned to face him, and that Tetsuya was now staring at him in dismay.

"Orochi-san?" he whispered, reaching out a hand, and capturing the falling tear with a pale fingertip.

"Don't stop," he whispered back numbly, looking into his cousin's widened blue eyes and moving forward to bring his head to rest on Tetsuya's shoulder.

Tetsuya went still and perfectly silent for a moment, registering the desperation in the hands that held on to him and the body that rested closer now beside him.

"Orochi-san," he said softly, "I am sorry."

"Why?" Orochi asked bitterly, "Tetsuya, people die. We will too. There is nothing to gain by dwelling on it."

"It is still painful when it happens," Tetsuya answered, capturing his cousin's hand and bringing it to rest on Kisho's small, resting form, "But even so, just as there are lives ending, there are new ones beginning. Still, I am sorry for your loss."

"It...wasn't just my loss, Tetsuya," Orochi said, lifting his head and looking into the younger man's eyes again.

"What do you mean?"

"My father wasn't the only one who died. Our housemaid, Kaiyo, who has been with our family for many years also died in one of the attacks on our household."

"Oh. I am sorry to hear that," Tetsuya said sympathetically.

"Tetsuya, there is something that you should know. Kaiyo wasn't only our housemaid."

Tetsuya looked back at him questioningly.

"She was also your mother's sister."

"What?" Tetsuya whispered in a stunned voice.

Orochi swallowed hard.

"And...it wasn't my father's wife who gave birth to me."

"Orochi-san...!"

"It was Kaiyo."