A/N: Birthday fic for YamiPaladinofChaos, whose mind comes up with some of the most beautiful crack I've ever seen. Here's to you. May you have many more.

xoxoxox

Plum Wine

xoxoxox

Her first thought was I should have known.

Her second was shit.

And third, now what?

The room was dark and should have rightly stank of mildew and dust after a century of disuse. That it didn't was a very, very bad sign. It meant, logically, that someone had been using her quarters while she'd been gone.

That was fine. She hadn't really expected them to leave it empty awaiting her return. She'd just planned to evict whoever it was and comfortably settle down for the night in her old favourite corner.

What was bad, really bad, was that instead of mothballs, it smelled like the earth after a rain-- a scent she knew very well and really didn't want to be smelling at the moment.

Or ever.

Grimacing, she reached inside and turned on the lamp. As expected, he sat cross-legged at an austere low table that was elegantly lacquered in black. His hair was unbound for once.

God damn it. Literally.

"You have some explaining to do, Shihouin Yoruichi," he said, drawing out the syllables of her name like she was a child about to be chastised.

"The hell I do, Kuchiki Byakuya," she snapped. "You're in my room. I want it back, and I want it back right now."

"You have been gone for a century," he said patiently, "which, by the way, I will have an explanation for sooner or later. In any case, this is my room now and I am disinclined to give it up. I am quite comfortable here."

He didn't look a day older than when she'd left, she noted with disgruntlement. He was bloody beautiful as usual, especially with his hair down and winding about his face like shadows. His grey eyes were faintly amused and clear as rivers.

Oh, but she hated him.

"That's wonderful. I'm so happy for you. Get out."

"You can hardly order me out of my own residence, Lady Shihouin. We're equivalently ranked now."

She could feel her reiatsu coming to life around her. Her ponytail began to sway ominously back and forth, and her clothing rippled with something that looked like wind but wasn't. "Seriously, Little Byakuya. Get out right now or I'll pound you right through the barrier into the mortal world."

"So violent," he murmured, then smiled faintly.

She growled. So he was as beautiful as a Renaissance painting. So what? She'd never really had the eye for art anyway, and thus she figured it was okay that she was perilously close to mangling him permanently.

"I mean it!"

"I am certain that you do, Lady Shihouin. However, I have no plans of vacating my home at any point in the foreseeable future. You do not frighten me and never have. I am, however, willing to share if you would find that amenable."

Ugh. This again. I'd really, really hoped he would have forgotten about it by now.

"You know bloody well I don't," she snapped. "I want my room back and I don't want to answer any goddamn questions! Got it?"

"You will answer the one I have already asked," he said equably, just as though he didn't have a homicidal and extremely powerful fellow death god threatening to maim and murder him standing in his room. His confidence was terribly unnerving. "Why did you leave?"

"None of your business."

"On the contrary, I am quite certain it is definitely my business."

"No, it isn't!"

"I truly doubt that."

She devoutly wished she had a soul slayer. There was just something so satisfying about sharp metal edges and the way they cut things and made blood pour out in voluminous quantities. The pain was a real bonus too.

I hate you. Die.

"Fine!" she cried at last, too exhausted to hold her ground anymore. She propped her hands on her hips and stared at the ceiling as though pleading it to fall on her... or better yet, him. "I left because things got complicated in a way I really didn't like and I was too young to be smart and deal with it in a mature manner. I was childish and I admit it. Are you happy?"

He stared at her in undisguised astonishment, which meant his eyes were perhaps a miniscule fraction of an inch wider than usual. "You mean... you really did leave just because I...?"

"Yeah. I did. I hope you're satisfied, you utter jerk. Can you leave now? Please?"

"Oh, I really do not think so, Yoruichi," he said. "I have some more questions now, and I aim to have them answered very quickly."

"Gah!" she cried, throwing her hands up in the air. "You're dead set on talking about feelings til the wee hours of the morning, aren't you? I really want to kill you now. Would you mind?"

He gestured at the table, and she cleverly deduced that he wanted her to sit down.

Sighing in resignation, she stalked across the room and flopped down gracelessly across from him. "All right. What do you want to know?"

"Explain to me why the thought of being married to me terrified you enough to flee Soul Society and run to the horribly uncomfortable and restrictive mortal world. I really do not understand that."

Yoruichi cringed and dropped her face into her hands. You would ask that, you utter bastard. It seemed there was no avoiding it. If she wanted to sleep ever, she would have to make him go away. Since he was just as powerful as her now, that meant answering his horrible little questions. She took a deep breath.

"It wasn't you, persay. It was the realization that sooner or later, I really would have to get married whether I wanted to or not, being the princess of the Shihouin family. My obligations suddenly became clear to me and I really didn't like them. Since I didn't see any way around them while still in Soul Society, I left."

Byakuya languidly lifted a hand and ran it through his (stupid beautiful) hair. "I see... so you do not find me personally repulsive. I am ever so relieved."

"Jerk."

"Next question: why did you come back, if you were so afraid of commitment?"

"Do you realize how wrong it is that we're talking about our feelings in the middle of the night? You talking about your feelings is bizarre enough. Me talking about my feelings is uncomfortable and I hate you for making me do it. Having to do it in the middle of the night is just too much. Honestly, can't I sleep first?"

He shook his head slowly, hair swaying mesmerizingly back and forth. "Answer the question, Yoruichi."

"I came back with the ryoka, as you really should have guessed by now. I wanted to help them and I planned to leave again as soon as their mission is done."

She realized her slip as soon as she'd said it and bit back a groan. Hellfire. I'm so tired my brain is saying things without my consent...

"Planned to leave?" Byakuya asked, predictably. "Not 'planning'?"

"That's what I meant," she grumbled. "I'm tired, okay?"

"So," he said. "You came back for a completely unrelated reason. How disappointing."

"What, were you hoping I would leap into your arms like some idiot heroine out of myth? Keep hoping, Little Byakuya. I utterly refuse to fall in love."

One eyebrow on his perfect goddamn face suddenly went higher than it had any right to go. "Love? Who said anything about love? I proposed an alliance between our families. Perhaps you misunderstood."

Furious all over again, she reared up and slammed her fist on the table inches from his folded hands. "No, I bloody well didn't misunderstood, you conniving trickster," she snarled. "Flowers obtained at great difficulty from the great gardens of the mortal world? Real diamonds? And let's not forget that poor idiot you sent to the Fourth Squard in a bleeding, pulpy coma. It was a party-- people often tend to get drunk and do stupid things like kiss other people they don't know at those kinds of things. Idiot though he was, it wasn't really his fault."

"I had a prior grudge against him," Byakuya said in what was blatantly a total lie.

"Right, of course you did. Still doesn't explain the flowers."

"Courtesy."

"Bullshit."

Byakuya was getting ruffled now, at long last. Yoruichi felt a brief flicker of satisfaction, which abruptly died when he swiftly reached out across the table and flattened his hand over hers. His fingertips dug into her wrist and the heat from his skin seeped into hers.

She stilled and tried very hard to keep breathing.

"Would it make any difference to you if I told you that I was very much in love with you at the time?" he said.

Shock. I don't even know how to start thinking about that, let alone answer it.

He seemed not to noticed her gape-mouthed astonishment, instead taking a calming breath and turning away to retrieve a bottle of fine plum wine and two small cups from god-knew-where. Without asking if she wanted any, he gracefully filled the first cup and placed it before her.

Without thinking, she picked it up and tossed it back, sighing in appreciation at the subtle burn down her throat. Then her sluggish brain caught up and she swore silently.

Shit. I get honest when I drink. Don't you dare pick up that second cup, Yoruichi. Don't you... oh, damnit.

She was tired. She hadn't eaten in nearly a day. The wine was pleasantly warm and went straight to her head.

Byakuya sipped his conservatively. "Have an answer yet?"

Yoruichi glared at him, then poured herself another cup of wine. She had absolutely no resistance to alcohol this good. It felt wonderful going down. "Screw you. If you loved me so much, why'd you get married to someone other little Rukongai whelp? I've heard the story, you know."

She instantly knew she'd made a mistake when he startled convulsively half out of his seat and glared at her ferociously, eyes glinting like sword-steel in the lamplight.

She froze and pretended she was invisible. It didn't really work, unfortunately.

"I waited sixty years for you to come back, Yoruichi," he snarled, deadly quiet. "And then, when I'd finally convinced myself you were never going to return, I married a person exactly opposite to you in every way. I wonder why that was? It couldn't possibly have been that I was trying to erase you from my mind because even just thinking of you caused me to become dangerously distracted. Of course not. By the way, her name was Hisana, and even if she wasn't you I still loved her so I will ask you not to speak slanderously of her."

Yoruichi was highly nonplussed to feel her eyes burning and realize that she was wringing her hands. Angrily she dashed all hints of tears from her eyes and glared back at him. "Well excuse me if I find it a little hard to believe that the notorious emotionless ice prince of the Gotei 13 actually felt something as warm and squishy and useless as love, especially for someone as caustic and sometimes downright bitchy as me. I do beg your royal pardon, your Highness."

"You are excused," he replied indifferently, ignoring her shriek of fury. "You do realize that just because I choose not to indulge in emotion while working does not mean I am incapable of it."

"Could have fooled me," she retorted.

"That is not difficult; you are very gullible. Now, for an important question-- here, have some more wine before it cools-- what do you intend to do now that you are back in Soul Society?"

"Get my room back," she said automatically. "And then, I don't know. Not that it's any of your business."

The air in the room changed subtly, but she didn't have time to figure out how.

He took possession of her hand once again and studied the back of it as though gazing upon some precious artifact or priceless work of art. "My offer remains open, you know."

Now it was her turn to stare at him unabashedly. "You're kidding. You still want me to marry you? After a hundred years?"

He looked up from her hand and met her eyes. There was nothing in them but grave sincerity. No hint of mockery. He sat quietly and calmly, drinking wine and turning her upside down by her figurative ankles as though nothing at all was out of the ordinary.

Suddenly, Yoruichi no longer felt like joking. She could feel his sincerity and understood at last that he would never give up on her, no matter how she blustered or joked or ran away with her hands over her ears. It was beyond her why he would ever want her, but it was very clear that he did and that he would not be dissuaded.

"Oh, hell," she muttered wearily. "You know what? Let me sleep on it. I'll tell you in the morning, once and for all."

Byakuya inclined his head in acquiescence to her request, then gestured towards the plain white futon in the corner. "I apologize for keeping you awake this long. I know you are very weary. Sleep well, and I look forward to your answer in the morning."

"Don't think I'll forgive you just because you said sorry."

"Good night, Yoruichi."

She dragged herself over to the futon and tried to breath through her mouth so the clean, rainwashed smell of Byakuya on the sheets wouldn't do weird things to her head.

It didn't work. Her dreams were full of him.

XxxxxxX

When she woke up, the light was already shining strongly through the paper door. Midafternoon, by her groggy estimation. She felt worlds better for having slept properly, and her muscles were totally relaxed. She sat up, yawned, and stretched felinely.

"Good afternoon, Yoruichi."

She bit back a yelp. The room was so saturated with his reiatsu that she hadn't even detected his actual presence across the floor from her. He was sitting with his back near a wall, cross-legged, with Senbonzakura leaning against his shoulder and his grey eyes trained on her.

"Er, right. Afternoon."

"Breakfast is on the table."

She looked over and discovered that yes indeed, the table was laden with all sorts of tasty goodies. She grinned and scuttled over to it. "Itadaki-maaaasu!" she sang, and dug in.

Byakuya had the courtesy to let her finish before annoying her again. "So, I trust you have an answer for me?"

She didn't, so she licked her fingers slowly to bide for time until she became aware of the intent concentration with which he was following her tongue. She instantly yanked her hand away from her mouth and sat on it, blushing horribly. "Well, sort of! Maybe? ...No."

His face was unfathomable, but she could feel his seething impatience in the air currents of the room.

"Dammit, Byakuya, I don't know!"

He stood slowly and walked over to stand before the table, looking down on her. "I will not force you into a decision," he said deliberately. "I will ask again in three days. Please consider carefully." Then he made a bow, low enough to make her eyes widen perilously, and walked out of the room.

Yoruichi groaned and threw her hands up in the air.

What do I do now? I could always run, I suppose, but that still won't solve anything. Any time I come home, he'll be here waiting. I need to stop being such a coward and deal with this... but how?

What is it I'm so scared of? Why did I run that first time? I lied, it was definitely personal, but it wasn't that I didn't want him. I know I did... hell, I still do...

She inhaled deeply and felt his reiatsu flood every corner of her. It was like being full to the brim with river water. Yes, she still wanted him-- that was completely undeniable. The rest of it, though...

Item one: she loved spending time with him. The memory of their verbal sparring matches made her smile helplessly, as did recalling their long-ago promise to each other to become the heads of their respective institutions. She'd kept hers-- she had been the leader of the special forces for several years.

He hadn't, but he'd come very close-- if it hadn't been for Yama-jii's persistence in refusing to retire, Byakuya would have been Overcaptain years ago. As it was, he was still the most famous of the thirteen squad captains, so perhaps he'd kept his promise in part after all.

Item two: they'd always had special insight into each other that no one else seemed to share. She saw straight through his chilly facade, and he saw through her bluster with complete ease. They never could fool each other into believing the masks they put up for the rest of the world.

Item three: fighting back to back with him was euphoria like nothing she'd ever known. He never let a single attack slip through and surprise her, and she did the same for him-- they worked seamlessly as a team, though both preferred to work alone normally.

Item four: he smelled really, really good.

"Argh!" she yelled into the empty room. "This is so backwards! The guy is supposed to have commitment issues and the girl is supposed to persistently bug him until he caves. What the hell! Seriously!"

Yoruichi pressed her fingers to her temples and frowned in furious concentration. "Think, Yoruichi. What is it that's stopping you?"

I don't wanna get married! her mind yelled petulantly. People will call me 'Lord Kuchiki's wife' and expect me to cook him meals and wash his laundry! And even if I run, the binding contract won't lift. I'll still be married no matter where I go. I don't wanna get married!

"Is that it?" she asked herself incredulously. "I just don't want people to refer to me by someone else's name? Well, what would it be like without the threat of marriage hanging over my head?"

Then it would be wonderful, her mind answered, and her chest suddenly opened and relaxed into a feeling of warm contentment. It's all right if I'm with him because I want to be and not because I'm legally obligated to be.

"Right then," she said briskly. "I'm an idiot. Where are all these issues coming from? I didn't think I was this messed up! Is this why I ran away?"

Yes and no... I didn't want to get married, yes, but more than that I didn't want to give him the opportunity to leave me first. I chose to hurt him first rather than take the risk of him hurting me later on.

"I'm such a bitch," she marvelled. "A cowardly, childish little whiner. That's it, I've had enough! I'm going to go find him right now and say--"

What?

"Whatever comes into my head!" She stood up, full of new determination and light-hearted as she hadn't been for decades.

XxxxxX

His captain's cloak billowed around him-- it was a cold wind was blowing across the high bridge. His eyes, however, didn't move at all. "You have an answer already?"

"I refuse to get married!" she said, an amendment on her statement from the night before. I won't get married... falling in love I really can't help.

"So it's no, then," he said regretfully, and sighed.

"But!" she said frantically, suddenly realizing that he didn't understand the difference.

"But?" he asked, lifting an eyebrow.

She put her hands behind her back and squeezed them together until the little bones ground together. "It's like this! I kind of love you, a lot, but I can't bring myself to be someone's wife. But! We don't have to get married, you know. If you still want to marry me now, when I've abandoned my title and my heritage, then it's not a political alliance you're after-- it's me, the real me. So in that case, I can stay with you and there's no need for a legal binding contract, right?" Yoruichi felt as brittle as glass, and was completely certain that one wrong word from him would shatter her into sharp little pieces that could never be put back together again.

Thankfully, he didn't utter a wrong word. In fact, he said nothing at all, but rather swept across the six feet of space between them and kissed her with a hundred year's worth of pent up desire. His hands came up to cradle her face tenderly.

Her eyes flew wide with shock, then almost instantly fluttered shut in bliss. His mouth was warm and he tasted like rainwater-- surprise, surprise. She wound her arms around his neck and let herself get lost in sensation for the first time.

"Whoa," she said when they finally fell apart. "Is that what I've been missing for a whole century? Excuse me while I kick myself concave."

Byakuya seemed still incapable of speech, so he wrapped her up in the voluminous folds of his uniform until only her head was visible outside of him. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and inhaled deeply.

"What do I smell like?" she asked dryly.

"Sandalwood and pine," he answered without a moment's hesitation.

"Hmm. Not bad."

"Perfect," he corrected, lips moving against the skin of her neck and sending her into titillations all over again.

She took a deep breath and gathered the scattered bits of her mind into a semi-cohesive lump. "So... we have a deal, then? I want to stay with you, but no marriage!"

"That's all I ever hoped for," he said quietly into her ear. "Marriage was simply the socially acceptable venue for us to be together. I personally do not care in the slightest whether you're Lady Kuchiki or not, as long as you stay with me."

"Deal, then." She sighed happily and laid her head on his chest.

She couldn't feel the wind at all.

XoxoxoxoxoX

A/N: Pardon me while I say this: ZOMG, NEW OTP. Thanks again, Paladin!