Steal my Heart
(With deepest thanks to Byalta Sensei for suggesting this. Have to leave for the day, but I may write one more chapter if folks are interested. May go up to an 'M' rating if I do continue it. Happy late Valentine's Day everyone! Love, Starfire)
Carefully concealed, but only steps from where Byakuya sat at the garden table, sharing an intimate dinner with the shinigami substitute, Tetsuya stood guard over the clan leader. It was a solemn duty, but one that Byakuya's younger cousin embraced happily.
After all, it wasn't so long ago that he rescued me, and gave me back the life that my tormentors tried to take away from me.
Yes, Byakuya had saved him from years of torment and a long, drawn out future of the same.
I would have died in that place, if not for his intercession. I owe my cousin everything, and I will spend the rest of my days thanking him for that.
And the way that Tetsuya chose to thank the clan leader was through painstakingly and steadfastly seeing to that man's protection...a duty that was Tetsuya's one obsession and singular focus in his life.
But the danger of such devotion was that his pure heart, so dedicated in its desire to defend his rescuer...
Might begin to secretly desire him.
That alone might have been expected, and when he felt the gentle twinges of something more than affection, he quickly snuffed it, thinking it only a silly indulgence...and one that could shatter the closeness and trust between them. Slowly over time, Tetsuya became expert at hiding the emotions. He served as a quiet sentinel at Byakuya's side, an unfailingly loyal companion. And he told himself that if all it ever was remained just this, he would be content.
It worked perfectly until the day that Ichigo Kurosaki became Byakuya's lover.
"Tetsuya, Ichigo Kurosaki will be lying at Kuchiki Manor tonight. Please inform the security staff."
"Hai, Lord Byakuya. Shall I have the attendants prepare a guest room?" he asked.
A small smile touched the clan leader's lips for a moment.
"No, Ichigo will be spending the night with me."
Tetsuya's breath caught and his heart encountered an odd ache.
"Oh, very well, then. I will see to the guard duty personally."
It was the best way to be sure that the situation was kept private.
"Tetsuya," Byakuya said, laying a hand on his arm, "I think it is time that you let your heart open as well."
Tetsuya stood quietly, long used to holding back his emotions. He smiled sadly, the memory of his cellmate, Naoki's fleeting presence, but profound impact. And suddenly, he remembered why he had long kept his feelings about his cousin very quiet...in a place where even he, himself, could pretend they weren't there.
"It is easy when one is in love to think that everyone should seek it," he said, closing his eyes for a moment, "but for some people, romantic love presents too much risk. I have family and friends who fill my life, Lord Byakuya. I am content."
And for the most part, it wasn't a lie. There was no greater pleasure than offering Byakuya a hand, pulling him up onto Arashi's back and feeling his cousin's arms encircle him as they rode the stallion to whatever destination. He loved the warmth of Byakuya's body against his back and sometimes the tickle of soft breath on his shoulder. He blushed, just thinking about it.
But now that Byakuya had fallen in love with Ichigo, it was best to forget such indulgences. He still treasured their moments, but bit by bit, he began to remove himself in what ways he could. Because as much as he didn't fault Byakuya for loving the shinigami substitute and 'hero of Soul Society,' the pain of witnessing the man he loved in love with another had fast become painful...sometimes too painful to hide.
In any case, I see why he loves Ichigo. Who would be able to choose a broken thing like me over such a beautiful and spirited man? And it is just like our leader to choose someone different and exceptional. Ichigo too, seems very much in love.
Tetsuya felt a painful catch in his chest as Byakuya captured Ichigo's hand and leaned forward to kiss him. He should have turned away, but the light caught something passing between their hands...something bright that Byakuya slipped onto Ichigo's ring finger.
He swallowed hard, tears coming to his eyes as Ichigo's eyes rounded and he looked more closely at the ring the noble had placed on his finger.
It really is beautiful, seeing two people I care about being so much in love.
"Byakuya, this is...amazing! Is this...?"
"It was my father's."
He gave Ichigo that ring of Soujun's that he wore on that chain about his throat for all of these years?
"But it's special to you," the shinigami substitute argued, "You never take it off."
"Now, you will never take it off," Byakuya said softly, his fingers caressing the ring that he had slipped onto Ichigo's finger, "You will wear this always. Happy Valentine's Day, Ichigo."
Tetsuya's body went taut as Byakuya knelt in front of Ichigo and pulled the younger man's hand to his heart.
"Will you marry me?"
He didn't mean to make a sound, but a soft sob escaped Tetsuya and he backed deeper into the gardens, still watching as the two embraced, then fell into a torrent of passionate kisses. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to wait until they had risen from their places at the garden table and started towards the bedroom, then he looked for the closest sentry to set at their door for the night. But as he stepped forward, Byakuya's voice sounded, stopping him in his tracks.
He wants to tell me. He wants me to be the first to know that they are getting married.
But suddenly, the idea of clamping down on his emotions, of lying and expressing only joy and happiness for them was much too painful.
Tetsuya flash stepped away to the nearest guard.
"Tsutomu, I will need you to keep close guard on Lord Byakuya for the night. I am not well and will be going to bed early."
"Of course, Sir," the guard answered, "You do look unwell. Should I call for a healer?"
"No, I will be fine."
He flash stepped away again before the man could say any more, and he fled the gardens, tears leaking onto his face as he ran. He heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats and felt Arashi's worried thoughts touch his mind.
I am fine, he lied, I knew this was coming. I just need some time. Go back to the barn, Arashi. I will be fine.
The stallion didn't answer, but Tetsuya could feel that he was following. Too overwhelmed to care, he ran down the dark trail, through the trees, to the top of a rushing waterfall. He reached the edge of a cliff and flash stepped down, soaring over the beautiful, moonlit lake and coming down in the long grass in the meadow, where he and Byakuya often sparred.
He didn't plan to take the old path through the rougher terrain, but his feet found their way there one their own, and before he realized what he was doing, the ruins of the old prison loomed up in front of him. He fled through the broken entry gates, through the rock and debris littered courtyard, into the dark and chill environs that had held him for the earliest years of his life. Tears streaming down his pretty, tormented face, he took refuge in his old cell, sinking into the corner as he had to avoid the attention of the guards, and crying silently, the only way that they had been able to without inviting punishment.
"What is wrong with me, Naoki?" he whispered, "Why can't I be happy for them? I had the love of my life. I know what a beautiful thing that is! I want Byakuya and Ichigo to be happy together. Why can't my heart just accept that?"
He collapsed onto the old, torn and faded bedding that he and Naoki had lain on together. The warmth they had given each other, the familiar scents, everything was gone.
Why am I the only thing that is left?
Tetsuya descended into silent tears, barely registering the icy coldness as he drifted off to sleep.
"I feel really awful about this," Ichigo said, following Byakuya out of the gardens, "Do you think he's okay? You don't think that he would do anything dangerous, right?"
"My cousin may be misguided, but I am certain that he is not suicidal," Byakuya assured him, "I am worried, however. I think you were right when you told me that we should have spoken to him before this. I just didn't know how to speak to him about it."
"Yeah," Ichigo sighed, "I know what the guy means to you. And he was really there for us. We wouldn't be getting married if not for him."
"You are right about that," Byakuya agreed, remembering, "I do not think that either of us would have ever lowered his pride and simply spoken our feelings for each other, if he hadn't interceded."
"Byakuya," Tetsuya said desperately, "Love is a precious...precious thing! If you let it go by you, you will never forgive yourself!"
"But, what about you? I thought that you said..."
"It doesn't matter!" Tetsuya insisted, "Please listen to me. If you love Ichigo, then you have to tell him that you love him. Do not waste time in considering. Just tell him!"
"And what if he does not return my feelings?"
"Then, at least you will know that you attempted to seek love again."
"And if you fell in love with someone, would you do the same?" Byakuya asked pointedly, "After losing your Naoki, as I lost Hisana, would you take a risk like that again?"
Tetsuya hesitated, his eyes registering pain as he remembered his lost lover.
"That wasn't a fair question," Byakuya said, shaking his head, "And...you are right, Tetsuya. I do love Ichigo."
"You should consider as well the fact that you almost died in the quincy wars, Cousin. We are not guaranteed a day beyond today, a moment beyond this. So, if you love Ichigo Kurosaki, then you need to go to him and tell him."
"And defy the council, yet again?"
"Would you rather defy your heart?" Tetsuya demanded, his blue eyes flashing, "You tried to do that and I watched as it nearly consumed you! Ichigo is an honorable man, and despite the fact that he is a human, the council will not overlook what he did for all of us. Go to him, Byakuya. Go to him before it is too late!"
"You're right," Ichigo said, nodding as he recalled...
I just don't get him sometimes," Ichigo said miserably, "I'm not like you, Tetsuya. I don't have years of knowing him, of being close to him like you do. So, when he backs off like he did today, I don't know what to do."
He sighed resignedly.
"And besides, if I give up, then that means you can finally tell him how you feel about him, ne?"
"Well, it's true. If I let him go, then you can..."
"Don't say that," Tetsuya exclaimed in a low, hurt tone, "It isn't true. Byakuya doesn't love me. He loves you, Ichigo."
"Even though he hurt you by backing away, he didn't leave you. And he won't. Byakuya loves you. And leaving you won't make him love me. If he was going to fall in love with me, it would have happened long ago. His heart is yours, not mine. And that isn't going to change, even if you leave him."
"Can you sense which way he went?" Ichigo asked, frowning.
"No," said the noble, looking up as hoofbeats sounded on the path, approaching them, "But Arashi will be able to locate him and take us there."
Ichigo smiled up at the lovely black Arabian as he slid to a stop and tossed his head impatiently.
My master is in pain! Why do you hesitate?
"Take it easy, Arashi," Ichigo chuckled, accepting Byakuya's extended hand as the noble mounted the tall stallion and pulled the younger man up behind him, "We're going to help him."
"Take us to Tetsuya," Byakuya requested, touching his heels to the stallion's sides and smiling as Ichigo's arms wrapped around him tightly.
Arashi sprang forward, his wide, sapphire eyes on the path ahead of him as they raced through the night to find his heartbroken soul mate. Byakuya held on with his legs and leaned forward, urging the horse forward as Ichigo pressed against his back and held on to him. They thundered past the trees, down the forest trail and past the large, splashing waterfall. Arashi launched himself off the tall cliff edge without slowing, flash stepping over the lake and still running as he landed, whipping the long grass about in his wake as he turned towards the old prison.
"I should have guessed," Byakuya whispered to himself.
They thundered across the rockier ground, down an old, worn trail to the base of a set of low foothills, and deeper in, where the dying trees obscured the worn and broken ruins of the old prison the noble families had called Itamigiri.
"This is where he was a prisoner?" Ichigo asked, studying the ruins as Arashi slowed upon passing through the broken iron entry gates and gaining the prison courtyard.
"Yes," Byakuya answered quietly, shivering as he remembered the chaotic scene that had erupted in that very courtyard on the night of Tetsuya's rescue.
"Hurry! You have to get inside quickly!" shouted one of Byakuya's informants, "They have begun to slaughter the prisoners!"
"Someone must have leaked word to them that you were coming. Hurry, Lord Byakuya! Come this way."
"Come this way," he told Ichigo. sliding down off of Arashi's back and reaching up to steady the younger man as he dismounted.
Ichigo fell in with Byakuya, and the two moved forward, leaving the stallion looking after them with anxious eyes. Byakuya slowed as he entered the darker interior of the prison, picking his way through the debris in the entry, then turning down a barely visible corridor. He formed a kido light in his hand, then looked back at Ichigo expectantly. The younger man smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry, mine always explode. I'll have to stick close to you."
Byakuya shook his head dismissively.
"You and Abarai..." he muttered in an amused tone.
Ichigo chuckled softly and moved closer to the noble, peering ahead as they moved down the corridor. He began to pick out the skeletal bars of the cells that lined the way. Byakuya kept one hand in his and held the kido light with the other. As he walked, more memories returned to him.
He ran down the corridor, his heart in his throat as he spotted a number of prisoners already lying dead within their cells. He heard screams and explosions farther along and flash stepped faster.
He spotted a guard, just ahead of him, taking aim on two boys in one of the cells. The two youths clung together tightly, knowing they had no escape. Byakuya raised his hands, shouting out a warning and firing on the guard. But even as the man fell, a blast of power erupted from his hands. In the cell, the brown haired boy shoved his cellmate down onto the floor and threw himself in the path of the strike.
Byakuya's eyes met the youth's and he managed a smile of relief as he took the blast squarely and collapsed onto the floor of the cell.
"L-lord Byakuya," he whispered dizzily, "You see, Tetsuya. He did come for us."
"Naoki!" cried the raven haired youth that the dying boy had protected.
"Lord Byakuya...please...take care of him. Take care of my...Tetsuya."
A shiver passed through Byakuya's body as he approached the dark cell. He could almost see Tetsuya, kneeling and holding his dying friend to his breast.
Ichigo's voice echoed softly, bringing him back out of his memory. The noble blinked and realized that someone was lying within the cell. He flash stepped forward and dropped onto his knees next to his cousin's collapsed form.
"Tetsuya?" he called worriedly, slipping a hand into his.
Tetsuya stirred sluggishly and his sapphire eyes opened and blinked senselessly.
"L-lord Byakuya?" he whispered, the words bouncing off the walls of the cellblock and repeating, "You...came for us?"
Byakuya gave him a tentative smile and touched his face gently.
"You know that I will always come for you. Come with me, now. It is time to go home, Tetsuya."
Tetsuya hesitated, his confused sapphire eyes meeting Byakuya's calm gray ones and beginning to clear. His eyelids fluttered, then closed again as Byakuya lifted him and Tetsuya's arms looped wearily around his shoulders.
"Is he okay?" Ichigo asked in a low voice.
"He will be fine," Byakuya assured him, "We only need to take him home and allow him to rest."
Ichigo nodded and followed silently as Byakuya stood and carried Tetsuya back down the long corridor, through the prison entrance, and into the corridor. He took Tetsuya from the clan leader as Byakuya mounted Arashi, then set the younger noble back in his cousin's arms before climbing up in front of Tetsuya as Byakuya nudged the anxious stallion into motion.
Tetsuya flinched at the sound of the stallion's thought in his mind, then shook his head and sat up straighter, still resting with his head pillowed on Byakuya's shoulder. Byakuya turned his head slightly to meet his cousin's eye, appraisingly. Tetsuya flushed, realizing finally, what must have happened.
"Oh...!" he gasped softly, trying to free himself, but being held a bit more firmly by Byakuya, "L-lord Byakuya, I am...sorry to have troubled you."
"Be still," Byakuya chided him, "And stop being so formal with me. You know I dislike that."
"Gomen nasai," Tetsuya answered, closing his eyes and settling again.
They said little more as Arashi carried the three through the darkness, passing more slowly through the whispering grass of the meadow and taking the longer walk up the switchbacks alongside the lake. They reached the top of the cliff and Tetsuya opened his eyes again to look up at the bright moon. He blinked in confusion, a blush rising on his cheeks as the fingers of one of Byakuya's hands laced together with his. A moment later, he realized that the other hand was holding Ichigo's in the same way.
They moved back onto the forest trail and passed through the trees, emerging at the gate that led into the gardens, then entering. Arashi came to a stop and Ichigo slid to the ground, then Tetsuya dismounted and they watched as Byakuya joined them.
The noble waved away the attendants who stepped out to assist them, and turned his younger cousin and Ichigo towards the bathing chamber. They walked inside and paused in the dressing area. Tetsuya felt a deeper flush rise on his face as the other two men undressed and walked out into the large, warm bathing pool, where they stood beneath splashing waterfalls, gently washing each other. Tetsuya stood still, his heart pounding fitfully, and wondering if he should flee to his room and use his own more private shower.
But they had brought him here. It seemed they wanted him to stay. And when he took a step in the direction of the chamber door, Byakuya's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Tetsuya, come here."
And indeed, he knew he couldn't escape the truth anymore.
It was bad enough when Ichigo figured out my secret some time back. Now they both know. And I suppose they are trying to let me down gently.
He sighed softly and disrobed, then waded out into the water, looking briefly at the soaking pools, but reading Byakuya's expression and moving to join them under the waterfalls. He turned partially away and began to wash himself, only to find the soap taken from his hand and his body cornered so that escape was no longer a possibility.
I suppose I must face the facts.
But admitting the futility of his situation grew much more difficult as the other two men's soapy hands began to gently caress him. He and Byakuya had, of course, as teens, done this for each other. More often, he had offered to do it for Byakuya, who had accepted readily, as Tetsuya's hands were not only trusted, but pleasant as they meandered over his body while he relaxed and let his cares fade away.
Ichigo's hands, though laid no less gently, had a rougher, more foreign feel. But there was emotion beneath the touch...as if to say, I care about you. And the bittersweetness of being offered that sentiment brought tears to his eyes. He turned so that the splashing water hid them, and escaped as soon as possible to walk back to the edge of the pool, only to be assaulted with the even more pleasant exchange of drying each other on the thick, warmed towels before donning comfortable sleeping yukatas.
Tetsuya had to admit to himself that, as much as he was sad inside, he couldn't imagine a lovelier evening, a brighter moon...a prettier and more romantic Valentine's Day. He walked more placidly behind Byakuya and Ichigo, heading for the main building, resigned to his place as their friend and steadfast protector. He turned towards his room, but was stopped as the other two men flash stepped in front of him and stood, facing him. Then, before Tetsuya's stunned eyes, they both dropped to one knee in front of him.
"Wh-what is...?" he began, freezing as he spotted something small and golden and shining in Byakuya's hand, "What is that?"
His eyes teared helplessly as he realized that it was another gold ring, this one unfamiliar.
"Tetsuya," said Byakuya, "Ichigo and I owe you an apology. We...meant to approach you some time ago, but we were necessarily delayed."
"See," said Ichigo, "When Byakuya first asked me to marry him, I refused."
"What?" queried Tetsuya, his knees weakening.
"I didn't think it would be fair to hurt one of my closest friends. And when I explained to Byakuya, we both made the same confession to each other."
"Con-fession?" Tetsuya stammered.
"So," Byakuya went on, "We came to the agreement that we could only marry once...we received permission from the elders for the three of us to marry."
"Wh-what?" Tetsuya whispered, his sapphire eyes widening in realization.
"We got delayed by that," Ichigo added.
"And further delayed as I searched for an appropriate engagement ring for you," Byakuya explained, slipping the ring onto Tetsuya's finger.
"This ring," Tetsuya said, admiring it, "It is an antique. Where did you find it? It is lovely, Byakuya!"
Byakuya and Ichigo exchanged warm smiles.
"It was among my father's possessions," Byakuya said, "There was a note with it that said this ring belonged to your father, Tetsuya. He told my father that the day that he married your mother was the most wonderful day of his life, before finding out the Kiko was pregnant with you."
Tetsuya went silent, holding his breath as Ichigo and Byakuya looked up at him.
"Tetsuya," they said together, "Will you marry us?"
He was speechless for a moment, smiling and gazing down into the eyes of the two people he loved most in all of the world. He thought, at first, that he should refuse, that they were just being kind to him and that they would come to regret what they had done. But despite all of his doubts, and his insecurities, only one word could escape his lips as he answered.