Renji wasn’t sure what brought him out of sleep. He wasn’t a person to wake much during the night, once he’d wound down enough from the day to fall asleep. It might have been the lack of movement on the other side of the bed, or perhaps the warmth of the man he was used to curling his naked body around. It could have been that he turned in his sleep and reached for the one who wasn’t there, or that maybe the flicker of Byakuya’s deep worry carried through the powerful bond between them. Whatever it was, Renji sat up in bed, blinking in the moonlight that came in through the open garden doors.
“Bya?” he mumbled sleepily.
The other side of the bed showed no signs of having been disturbed.
“Huh…” Renji sighed worriedly, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck, “I guess I know where you are.”
He slipped out of the bed and stood for a moment with the moon lighting his tall, tanned body and making the dark, jagged tattoos stand out. One hand reached out and found a black and gold silk yukata pain over a chair near the bed, and Renji wrapped it around himself, tying it at the waist. A light footstep sounded in the inner doorway and Renji smiled sleepily at the attendant who appeared there.
“Hey Torio,” Renji chuckled, “You know, you don’t have to get up every time me or Taicho move in our sleep.”
“It’s fine,” the attendant said dismissively, “I am glad to serve you and Byakuya-sama. Is there something you need, Renji-san?”
“Eh, not really,” Renji admitted, running his fingers through the autumn strands of his hair, “I just woke up and he wasn’t here. But, I think I already know where I’ll find him.”
Torio nodded sadly.
“It seems he spends every free moment trying to wake our cousin…or just sitting with him.”
“Yeah,” Renji agreed, his voice low and rough, “Tetsuya never should have had to be out there. He’s a great fighter, but he doesn’t have the heart to kill like that…”
“Or to witness such horrors,” Torio said in a haunted voice, “Koji says that he was already at the ends of his endurance when he found the bodies of the children that were slaughtered by the enemy. Only a single word has passed his lips since that moment…nothing but the screams in his nightmares.”
“Yeah,” Renji acknowledged, “I think that would mess up anyone…’cept maybe the bastard who did it.”
“You will be glad to know that our cousin did avenge the children, albeit almost wordlessly.”
“Well, I hope the son of a bitch died painfully,” Renji said in a disgusted tone.
“There is a technique that Tetsuya-san only uses to execute a truly egregious offender. He first strikes a blow to the torso, then slowly freezes the enemy. In extreme cases, he can keep the enemy alive until he gives the command to shatter the target’s body and disperse the particles. In this case, he left the quincy alive and his head unfrozen for the duration. Still, Tetsuya-san’s heart is fragile. Even watching one who deserved it was difficult. I fear it only added to the stress that finally overcame him.”
Renji stole a glance in the direction of Tetsuya’s bedroom.
“I heard that they found him near Aizen,” the redhead said softly.
“After dispatching the quincy who killed the children, Tetsuya-san staggered away. We think he was sensing you on the battlefield, and he thought that finding you would lead him to Byakuya-sama. By the time he reached the battlefield, the fight had ended. Koji said that he tried to convince Tetsuya-san to fall back. His Re-kuhime had shattered under the stress of the fighting. Tetsuya-san was only using kido, flash step, healing power and his wits to stay alive.”
“He’s lucky he didn’t end up dead,” Renji mused, “especially being the one who found Aizen.”
“There was horrible damage to the traitor, Aizen’s body.”
“Yeah,” Renji said, paling slightly.
It still feels weird that Aizen took that damage for me. But I know that he was only helping us because it would help him too. If killing us would have helped him more, he would’ve done that.
“Torio, I heard a rumor going around that what shattered Tetsuya’s sword wasn’t fighting.”
Torio looked around nervously, then he bit his lip gently and leaned closer.
“Koji was with him when it broke, and he said it was Tetsuya-san’s effort to heal Ukitake taicho.”
Renji’s frown deepened.
“Tetsuya is the one who saved Ukitake?” he asked wonderingly, “And they’re keeping that a secret? Why?”
Torio’s look or worry intensified.
“Byakuya-sama wouldn’t say exactly,” he answered, “but I heard it may be because it was Aizen who told him, and Byakuya-sama…”
“He wouldn’t be stupid enough to just accept whatever Aizen said,” Renji surmised.
“Byakuya-sama has been second guessing his own judgment, because Aizen also protected you, even…”
“Even if it was for his own weird reasons.”
“Yes. And now, the fact that this information about Tetsuya-san comes through such an unreliable source…”
“Kinda makes it difficult.”
“It does,” Torio agreed, “I will also confide in you that something very strange has happened to Tetsuya-sans’s Re-kuhime. The blade is still gone, but the guard, hilt and pommel are intact, and Renji-san, the guard has changed.”
Renji’s cinnamon eyes narrowed.
“The guard changed?” he repeated, “To what?”
“His guard was a teardrop shape,” Torio confided.
“I remember that.”
“That broke away and has started to re-form, but the shape is now a full oval, and there are four small inscriptions in the metal. One is Re-kuhime’s teardrop. The others cannot be seen well enough to tell what they are yet.”
“That’s really strange.”
“Urahara Kisuke has said that a sudden change to his zanpakuto means a change in Tetsuya-san’s powers. But, try as he might, he can’t seem to tell what the change could be.”
“I guess Tetsuya will have to wake up for that to happen, right?” concluded Renji.
“So, it seems. But even with the human girl, Orihime’s help, no one can seem to find a way to bring Tetsuya-san back to us.”
“Hmm,” Renji sighed, running his hands over his face, “well, I can’t say I have any ideas. If Kisuke can’t figure it out, I don’t know who can.”
Renji took his leave of the attendant and exited the master suite, stepping out through the garden doors, onto the recently rebuilt walkway. A smile rose on his lips as he spotted Ichigo and Rukia walking along the garden trail.
“Hey,” he greeted them.
He paused, noting the nagging limp still in Ichigo’s step.
“You still all beat up? I thought Orihime healed you. You get into more trouble?”
“Nah,” Ichigo sighed, “It’s just taking awhile to get back to normal, that’s all. How about yourself?”
“I’m fine,” Renji assured him, “Can’t say that I like the reason that I’m fine, exactly…”
“Yeah,” Rukia agreed, “I’d be a little creeped out, being saved by Aizen too.”
“Yeah, especially after he threatened to rip my arms off when I wouldn’t let go of you,” Renji said, shaking his head.
“I’m glad he’s back in Muken, where he belongs,” Rukia said, frowning.
“Yeah,” Renji agreed, “Seems like prison only twisted that freak even more.”
“Seems that way,” Ichigo agreed.
“Hey, Renji, have you seen my brother?” asked Rukia.
“Nah, you know Byakuya, always up early. Hell, I don’t even know if he came to bed at all last night. He’s been on edge lately, even more than normal for after the war.”
“I noticed that too,” Rukia commented, “He’s been spending lots of time with Tetsuya.”
“Tetsuya?” Ichigo mused, “You mean, the cousin that everyone was worried about? Is he still unconscious? It’s been weeks.”
“Yes, it has,” Rukia said somberly, “Everyone has tried…Isane, Hanataro, our clan healer, Kisuke, even Orihime, but he still doesn’t wake.”
“I don’t think Tetsuya really knew how to handle the stress of open war,” Renji said sadly, “He’s okay in single conflicts. Byakuya trained Tetsuya, himself.”
“I heard he has a bankai,” said Ichigo.
“Yeah, he does,” Rukia affirmed, “But Tetsuya never liked killing. He rarely took a life before the war…only people who he felt gave him no other choice.”
“Heh, except for him being more of a healer, it sounds like me,” Ichigo mused.
“Ugh, you’re even worse,” Renji chuckled, “You don’t just leave’em alive. You make friends with your former enemies.”
“I didn’t make friends with Ywach,” Ichigo said, sobering, “Him, I did have to kill.”
“You didn’t make friends with Aizen,” Rukia added.
“But, he did make friends with me, Kenpachi, Byakuya and most of the others he fought,” Renji pointed out, “Hell, even Ginjo and Tsukushima showed up to help him!”
Renji let out a long sigh.
“Well, I’d better go and check in with Byakuya before I leave for work.”
“I’ll go with you,” Rukia offered, “I want to say hi to Tetsuya.”
She nodded in Ichigo’s direction.
“You can come along, then I’m going to go to the fourth and visit Ukitake Taicho.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ichigo answered, “Hanataro said it was good for me to be up and around, just not fighting.”
The three walked back to the main building and stepped onto the walkway outside Tetsuya’s room. Rukia stepped into the room with the two young men behind her. She spotted her brother kneeling at Tetsuya’s side, his head bowed and his eyes closed. Kisuke knelt beside the noble, leaning over Tetsuya and checking his vital signs.
“Good morning Nii-sama. Good morning, Urahara-san,” she greeted them.
“Morning,” Kisuke said amiably.
Byakuya’s grey eyes opened.
“Rukia, Renji, Ichigo, good morning,” he added.
“How is Tetsuya?” Rukia asked, leading her two friends to Tetsuya’s bedside, where the three knelt together, “Has he been awake at all?”
“No,” Kisuke said somberly, “He’s been the same. Orihime was up a lot of the night until Uryu convinced her to go to bed for awhile. Nothing’s changed at all.”
“Damn,” Renji sighed.
He glanced across Tetsuya’s resting form to look into Byakuya’s dark, anxious eyes.
“How are you? If you came to bed at all last night, I didn’t know about it?”
“Ah,” Byakuya said, flushing very slightly, “I am sorry, Renji. I did mean to speak to you, but things have been moving very quickly.”
“What? Things with the end of the war? Rebuilding? Tetsuya? The clan? What?” Renji inquired.
“Hmm, sort of everything,” Byakuya admitted, “The elders want to award Tetsuya with the clan’s highest honor, for his protection efforts during the war, we are still picking up the pieces around here and there have been rumors of a quincy insurgency gathering in Hueco Mundo.”
“I’ve been in touch with Grimmjow, and he’s assured me that the hollows there are monitoring that,” said Kisuke, “but it’s a concern.”
“Then, there is Tetsuya,” Byakuya went on, “We still do not know exactly what happened to him. Kyoraku Sotaicho is trying to authenticate whether or not Aizen was telling the truth when he said that it was Tetsuya who healed Juushiro. Central 46 is demanding to know if such a thing is true.”
“Huh, why do they care?” Renji mused, “Weren’t they the ones who pretty much ignored everything about Tetsuya before?”
“Yes,” Byakuya answered, his tone betraying a measure of disgust, “They didn’t want to hear about him being held illegally in a prison and abused for much of his youth, but as soon as it is about power…”
“Assholes,” Renji spat.
“Man, they just don’t like anyone who isn’t one of them to have any power,” Ichigo sighed, “If they could, they’d keep it all to themselves.”
“They are very particular about the distribution of power,” Byakuya agreed, “But…if you look at how an outsider just nearly undid us…it still doesn’t justify the attitude, but you can envision why they are afraid.”
Ichigo looked down at Tetsuya’s comely sleeping face and felt an odd little twinge inside.
“Afraid of a guy like him? Someone who wishes he never had to fight in the first place?” he asked with a note of anger.
“Tetsuya is what the more traditional elders fear most,” Byakuya said unhappily, “Born of a noble father who gave his seed to a Rukongai woman. They feel that the commoners do not deserve to wield noble power. They forget that power is not gifted to the noble class alone.”
He glanced at Ichigo.
“Although it does tend to run in noble families,” he added, “Tell me, Ichigo, are you becoming acclimatized to your new situation?”
“What?” Ichigo asked, smiling at the Kuchiki leader, “You mean, do I like being a Shiba?”
“Well, I have to say, if it was a real stuffy, traditional family I was in, I would’ve been in trouble and I wouldn’t have liked it so much, but being a Shiba isn’t too bad,” the ginger youth chuckled, “I just wish they would stop shoving women at me and telling me how many clans want their daughters to marry me. I’m just eighteen. I don’t want all of this…”
“I share your feelings about that,” Byakuya sighed, “Since the war, the elders have renewed their push to see me married.”
“Yeah,” Renji laughed, “Hey, I even said that I had no objection if he wanted to marry me now.”
“But you’re not noble,” Ichigo noted, “Don’t they care about that?”
“Only a few of my relatives are that traditional in their view,” Byakuya answered, “The rest look at Renji’s ability and they want to make use of it to maintain our position amongst the noble houses. There has been a shift of power, because the war impacted a number of the clans. Several were wiped out entirely.”
“Damn,” Ichigo breathed, lowering his eyes and looking down at Tetsuya again, “No wonder he hates war so much. I do too.”
“I think we all do,” Rukia added.
She nodded and stood.
“Well, Ichigo and I are going to visit Ukitake taicho. We’ll see you and Renji later. Come on, Ichigo.”
Ichigo started to stand, then he froze as he brushed lightly against Tetsuya’s bare hand and a powerful blue light erupted around them, throwing everyone else to the edges of the room.
“What the…?” Ichigo gasped, staring in dismay.
He went silent as a bright, almost blinding image flashed in his mind, then he screamed as it caused an eruption of pain in his head. As the others watched wordlessly, the hero of Soul Society slumped and collapsed onto the floor.