The cold woke Rukia up the next morning.

It had done the same thing every morning, ever since she and Byakuya had left the castle. It was a familiar thing—the cold, thin sheets, as thin and cold as the air that hung around her, numbing her face and the top of her bare shoulders. Being the sister of a prince had not caused her to forget that cold. Only to … sort of mourn it, in a self-deprecating kind of way. It was part of her. It was where she had come from, where she was born.

It was where she belonged.

Behind her, Ichigo mumbled something vaguely crass in his sleep, his arm tightening slightly around her waist. She could feel his nose and mouth pressed limply against her back, his slow, even breathing making her skin uncomfortably moist.

It wasn't as familiar as the cold. But it, too, was fast becoming a part of her.

She lay there for a long time, her face turned toward the frosted-over window, waiting for the sun to rise. She watched its warm, anxious presence peek over the distant horizon, weakly penetrating the heavy clouds that still lingered on from yesterday night. It would scarcely melt the frost from the ground, let alone melt the slow-moving mountain streams they'd passed earlier on the way up here.

After awhile, she decided to rise, realizing that waiting for sleep to reclaim her was a losing battle against the cold, to which her body, however much her mind recollected it, was still not used.

She sat up carefully, easing Ichigo's arm from around her and back down against the mattress. She waited for a minute, watching his face scrunch up a little in his sleep before relaxing again, both arms curling up towards his chest.

Bending down, she then reached for her clothes, silently pulling on leggings, pants, and over-pants, then shirt, sweater, jacket, followed by the fur-lined hooded cape. Fur-lined boots over her thick socks, then gloves to cover her hands, and lastly—the ever-calming presence of Sode no Shirayuki at her hip.

She winced, the floor boards creaking slightly as she tiptoed across the room. Ichigo never awoke, though, and neither did the rest of the house. She thought about fixing herself a cup of tea or coffee, or even building up the fire. But since it wasn't her house, she just didn't feel right about it.

But neither did sitting mutely before a few burning embers in an otherwise cold and empty living room.

Just then, the tantalizing thought finally entered her still sleep-fuzzed brain. The thought of her brother, and Renji, in a barn, all night. Alone.


She turned towards the front entryway (in the same room as the living area, actually, the entire home really quite small), a small smirk on her face that she for once didn't have to bother to hide. Pressing her gloved hands against the wooden door proved useless at first; she put her back into it, gritting her teeth, suspecting newly fallen snow to be the culprit. She was right: it rained down from above, from the overhanging lip of the roof, dusting the top of her hooded head and shoulders.

The cold itself was not such a shock.

The lack of heat in the house had prepared her for it. Nevertheless, she wrapped her arms around herself as she started walking, her boots disappearing in the snow as she walked, seeping in through the sides and dampening her calves uncomfortably. She headed eagerly for the barn, half-stumbling over at times, her eagerness in part due to the belief that it would at least be warmer within, the heat lingering from the glow stones the family no doubt had to protect their animals.

She was halfway there—between the house and the barn—when she noticed the figure sitting on the fence, hooded cloak obscuring his face, feet hooked around the bottom rung to help hold him upright. Even with the cloak, his shoulders were a bit thin, slightly hunched forward, a few dark strands escaping from beneath the bowed hood.

Rukia stared for a moment, considering. I guess I can see it, she thought. How that oaf Renji could've mistaken him for herself. She smirked to herself and altered direction, trudging out toward the fence, which circled the property.

Byakuya lifted his head, revealing a flash of pale cheek as he looked briefly over his shoulder, hearing her approach. When she got to the fence, she braced her gloved hands against the top rung and swung herself over, the cold making her limbs stiff and unwilling to move properly. She wobbled a bit, but the steadying hand that briefly supported her from behind helped her finally situate herself.

She glanced at her adopted brother's face for a moment, studying his features for as long as she could, without seeming rude. It occurred to her for the first time how beautiful he must look to others—and she wondered what it was that had changed about herself—or about him—that should suddenly open her eyes to it.

"Are you cold?" he asked, and she realized she'd just shivered.

"Of course," she replied. When she shifted a little to lean against him, he didn't protest. He has bony shoulders, she thought. Ichigo's shoulder was soft, the hard muscle warm and round, a nice cushion for her cheek.

They sat like that for some time, the wind thankfully having died down. She thought she could feel her toes slowly numbing in her boots, but there was something about that that didn't sound quite right. How could I feel my…?

"I have decided to stop running."

Byakuya's voice startled her from her nonsensical reverie. She looked up at him, but his cold, pale face was as expressionless as usual.

"I don't see how we have a choice in the matter," she said after awhile, shifting a bit. She sighed a little, watching her breath puff out before her. "After all, Lord Urahara is the one who insists—"

"I care as little for the wishes and concerns of that man as you ought," he said, his voice suddenly as chilly as the air around them. There's Nii-sama again, she thought, giving him a somewhat sideways look.

"Ichigo and Renji care," she said after a moment. Then, adding carefully, "And they care about us."

"That also does no concern me. I—"

He broke off suddenly, seemingly dismayed by his own words. He frowned, the confusion on his normally set features tugging strangely at her heart.

He tilted his head down a little, frowning down at the frosted over field now.

She waited, knowing he always needed time to think before saying something he felt was important. Or when he was working furiously to correct a mistake without seeming to acknowledge it.

Well, patience had its limits. They would both freeze to death before he managed to work up the courage to say what they both knew.

"What did you mean?" she prompted. "About not running away anymore."

He started, ever so slightly. But then he frowned, looking back out at the field. "We were tools to Kuukaku. We are tools to this Urahara, too." He paused before adding, his voice softening, albeit just so. "We are tools to all of them, despite their best intentions."

Rukia blinked. "Nii-sama…" she said, her hand unconsciously reaching out, gloved fingertips hovering before hesitantly brushing his leg.

His hand came to rest atop hers, seemingly without thought.

"You and I have power, Rukia. We have always had it."

Momentarily confused, she thought of Sode no Shirayuki at her hip. "You mean our zanpakutou?" she asked.

"In its most literal representation, perhaps. But we are not the only ones blessed with zanpakutou."

"…Yes," she said after awhile. "But … is it because I'm common-born?" Her eyes widened. "Because you married my sister?"

He nodded.

"I should not have been allowed to. But I would not be dissuaded, even despite the family's threat to disinherit me. And in the end, that threat proved hollow. I did as I pleased. And … though Hisana … died … you remained. And together, we…"

"We proved that noble and commoner can work together," she finished, straightening slightly.

He nodded again.

"The uniqueness of our relationship has unsettled them. To some, that relationship is dangerous."

"To your parents," she said, making a slight face. "Hell, to everyone back home." Whatever "home" even is these days.


"But then," she continued, the realization gradually coming to her—all right, so no one ever accused her of being quick-witted, but whatever. "If the nobles consider us dangerous … if they're really so afraid of us, and what we can do…" Her eyes widened. "Then that's why we're so important to the rebels."

She looked at her brother. "That's why Urahara wants us."

And Kuukaku.

And really—how different could the two even be?

"You don't consider yourself one of them."

She started, the statement-turned-question taking her slightly off guard, jarring her from her thoughts.

She looked at him again. "One of who?"

"The rebels."

Oh. She blinked.

"I guess I don't." For some reason, that made her feel bad, as if she were betraying Ichigo. But it's true. We're not on the same side—no matter what happens between us.

But if that was true—then whose side were they on, anyway?

She couldn't speak for her big brother—though she could make a fairly reasonable guess—but she certainly didn't side with the nobles. How could she? They'd all made it clear from day one that she was never welcome among them. Perhaps as a servant, yes, but as family? It was simply unheard of. Insufferable even.

Yet they bore it because they had to. Because Kuchiki Byakuya made them.

She breathed in sharply, her breath catching in her throat. "Nii-sama …"

The realization came over her all at once, like a chill rushing over her body and seeping into her bones, making even the back of her eyeballs ache.

"You're going to fight them," she continued, her voice strangely weak. "Both of them. The rebels and the nobles." She looked at him. "Aren't you?"

He made no answer. But the expression on his face was answer enough. She knew him that well.

"No!!" She grabbed his arm with both her gloved hands, staring beseechingly up into those fathomless dark eyes of his. "You can't! How can you fight both sides at once? It's impossible! You can't just—"


She paused, the panicked words tumbling out of her mouth coming to an abrupt halt. Nii-sama…

He looked at her—finally looked at her, his gaze so intense, so commanding, it made her want to wilt into the frost-covered ground beneath her dangling feet.

"The enemies of the people are our enemies. Have we not always pledged as much?"

She hesitated, then nodded. "Y-Yes."

They'd said it many times, in fact, usually when they were both becoming frustrated with the barriers and bureaucratic hurdles that were placed between the people and what they were permitted to do for them. But … that was usually in reference to the courts, and the council, and whatever laws they were lobbying to overturn, which village they were attempting to have inoculated or be given relief after a particularly long, harsh winter.

He looked away again, that distant look passing over his face.

"They need us, Rukia. Our people."

She opened her mouth to protest, to correct him even (perish the thought) … but then she thought of the good-natured couple in the farmhouse back there … how the man tipped his hat towards them seemingly without thinking, or how the woman both curtsied and smiled, her warm eyes holding Rukia's for a moment, before turning and leaving her to her and Ichigo's room for the evening.

And they weren't the only ones.

The safe houses that she and Ichigo had stayed at thus far were all basically the same. And Ichigo assured her that there were many people like that—in fact, these were the people Urahara (and, in a sense, Kuukaku) were counting on to support them: a disaffected populace, still intrinsically loyal, but eager for change nonetheless.

Byakuya, she realized, was right.

"They'll follow you," she said, almost whispering the words. It struck her as so real, so painfully obvious, that she was amazed it had taken him this long to come to such a conclusion.

"No," he corrected. He turned, once again, meeting her eyes with his own. "They will follow both of us."

They need us.

Was that his voice or Senbonzakura's she heard, echoing in her head? She could feel both their swords, their cold, comforting spirits twining round the two of them, Sode no Shirayuki half-dancing with excitement. She wished she could share in that excitement.

"I'm cold," she said.

The silence seemed to stretch between them, until she felt the warmth of his arm settling around her shoulder. She leaned her head against his shoulder again and thought of the days and even months to come. Ichigo isn't going to like this.

That was probably going to be the least of their problems.


Renji sighed heavily, smacking his lips lightly, halfway between the world of the asleep and the awake, the morning light squinting through the barn windows making his brow furrow ever so slightly.

"Mmm," he sighed again, a smile now tugging at his lips, his hand reaching instinctively out. "Byakuya…"

He paused, frowning.

Absently patted the empty mattress beside him.

Creaked one eye open.

Only to see the lazily grinning, propped up visage of Kurosaki Ichigo.

"Mornin', big guy," drawled his new bedmate.

At first, Renji could only stare.


"Yaggghghgh!!!!" The cry of absolute shock and disgust came first, followed by his attempt to fling himself out of bed, as far away from the person beside him as possible. Unfortunately, he forgot two things. One, he was in a barn. Two, he was absolutely stark naked.

The back of his heel slammed into the wooden floor of the barn (a jolt of pain sliding up his left leg), his still half-asleep body wrongly anticipating there to be a least a foot and a half between the bottom of the mattress and the top of the floor. He then proceeded to flail his arms wildly, but it was all to no avail, as down he went, stumbling over backwards, his bare butt hitting the (thankfully hay-covered) surface of the floor.

For a few seconds, he was awash in pain, his thigh aching anew, his tailbone now smarting, and his heel throbbing from the impact of the hardwood floor. When he came to, it was to the sound of Ichigo laughing, his friend standing now, bent over, hands on his knees as if having to physically support himself through his mirth.

"Holy fuck …" the orange-headed rebel crowed, "That was sooo fucking worth it!"

Renji glared up at him. "Shut up!!" A second later, he realized he was still sitting there, naked, sprawled out on his ass with his legs wide open. He scowled and blushed at the same time, grabbing for the blanket so he could quickly cover himself.

Ichigo grinned. "Too late. I've seen the goods." Then he added, smirking a little, "Though I guess I'm not the only one."

Renji could feel himself abruptly blushing, all the way to the roots of his hair.

"You wouldn't have been the only one ANYWAY!" he cried, blood vessels practically burning through the surface of his skin now as he turned his back to his friend and hastily began to gather his clothes, tugging them back on one at a time.

Ichigo just grinned, leaning against a post now, arms crossed over his chest. "Sure, sure." He rolled his eyes. "Did he have to show you where to put it?" He smirked. "Did you make it all the way through the first time, or did you end up—"

"SHUT UP!" Renji roared, and he had the distinct pleasure of seeing Ichigo actually take a step back, the smirk quickly replaced by his usual pissy-faced scowl.

"Sheesh. Calm down already." He nodded at him. "Hurry up and finish getting dressed. Their Royal Highnesses have something to tell us, apparently."

Renji frowned, taken off guard by that. "Like what?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Beats me. They wouldn't talk until I got you." He made a face. "Some cocked up scheme of that prince of yours, probably. He just thinks he's the absolute shit. Even when he's taking a shit."

"Watch your fucking mouth," Renji growled, grabbing lastly his makeshift cane with one hand, and his zanpakutou with the other, not bothering to strap it on since they were presumably only trekking back to the house.

Ichigo snorted. "Fuck, he must good in bed."

Renji's only response was to reach out and shove him, Ichigo immediately shoving back, the two young men continuing to occasionally snap and push at one another as they made their way back through the slush of the rapidly melting snow, the sun already well over the horizon by now.

Once inside the house, Renji could immediately tell that something was just … different. It was still the same scene from last night—the fire cheerfully ablaze, the princess kneeling down beside it, cradling a mug as one of the farmer's daughters bent to pour something hot within it. Her mother and sister were still in the kitchen, while the farmer himself occupied one of the two chairs in the tiny living area, his booted feet stretched out towards the fireplace, a thoughtful look on his face. And there, across from him, sitting poised in the opposite chair…

Byakuya … He could've sighed the name, if he'd said it aloud. In his eyes, the prince had never looked so beautiful. It wasn't anything physically different about him. He was wearing the same exact thing he wore yesterday, in fact, and his hair and face were as clean as always—he was not the sort of person whom you would ever suspect had been traveling hard for almost a month, with little time or resources for personal grooming beyond the need for basic hygiene. But it was just … looking at that body, and knowing what he knew now, seeing what he'd finally seen with his own eyes … touching what he touched…

"Yo, Bright-eyes," Ichigo drawled, voice close to his ear. "Snap out of it, will you? You're embarrassing yourself."

Renji started. Then flushed, his body shifting uncomfortably.

"Nii-sama," Rukia said, noticing them and reaching up to nudge her brother. "He's here."

For some reason, that made Renji flush even more: "He's here," as if Byakuya had been waiting expressly for him. Belatedly, he realized that that was pretty much obviously the case, seeing as how Ichigo had come and gotten him and said as much.

When Byakuya turned and looked at him, he felt himself unconsciously straighten, his heart suddenly leaping in his throat.

Beside him, Ichigo snorted.

"Renji," the prince said, his voice calm but not cold, almost … though not quite … warm.

Renji relaxed, smiling.

And Byakuya—Byakuya blushed.

"Oh, come on!!!" Ichigo snapped, scowling. "Get over yourselves, would you?! There're other people in the room, for crying out loud!"

"Ichigo!!" Rukia cried, standing, balled fists at her sides.

"Now, now," said the farmer's wife, hurrying over to come and take their coats, her accompanying laugh sounding slightly forced. "I always tell the children, bickering gets you nowhere!"

The farmer chuckled, apparently amused by the antics of their young guests. "Yes, Hana, but they aren't children, are they?" He stood up then, looking at Renji and gesturing towards his vacated chair. "Have a seat."

Renji blinked, surprised by the gesture. "Uh, thanks, but—"

"It's all right," the man continued, and he nodded at the cane still in Renji's right hand. "You shouldn't stand anymore than you have to, not with that leg. I'm sure the weather isn't helping any, either."

"Sit down, Renji," said the prince, sounding more like his old self now, his dark eyes gazing up with faint irritation—what Renji might have previously catalogued as "blank indifference," but he had now grown quite adept at reading Byakuya's seemingly nonexistent facial expressions.

That wasn't always a good thing, obviously.

Flushing, he made his half-hobbling way over to the chair, giving the farmer a tight nod before sitting down. The man patted his shoulder briefly, sparing them all one last lingering look before then disappearing back into the kitchen with his wife.

Renji met Rukia's eyes, the former princess standing beside her brother's chair, before sliding his gaze over to Byakuya's.

"Ichigo said you wanted to talk about something," he said. He felt awkward, the words tripping over the tip of his tongue. There was something strange about the whole situation, he realized—sitting across from the man he'd made love to last night, speaking to one another as if they'd reverted back to their old roles: the proud prince and the unruly young rebel.

Somehow that didn't sound quiet right though…

However, it was Rukia who answered him, rather than her brother.

"We've decided to stop running," she announced.

Renji blinked. He could tell from the slight jerking motion Ichigo gave that this was news to him, too. He glanced at his friend, wincing slightly as he did, already beginning to see the lines of betrayal etching across Ichigo's face.

"What are you talking about?" Ichigo asked.

"It was Nii-sama's decision," Rukia said proudly.

"Of course it was," Ichigo snapped. "Nii-sama still thinks his opinion matters out here. Nii-sama seems to forget that out here, he's the prisoner and we're the princes. Nii-sama—"

"Stop it, Ichigo!" Rukia cried, and there was something about her voice—something about the broken look in her wide dark eyes—that brought the orange-headed rebel to a definite halt.

Renji looked at the prince, anxious, concerned … but Byakuya sat unmoved, his expression seemingly calm, his eyes half-lidded as always.

It hurt for some reason. The four of them squaring off like this again. Renji bit the inside of his cheek. And this morning, when he woke up … why had Byakuya not…?

"What will you do?" he asked softly.

Rukia opened her mouth, as if to answer. But then she seemed to realize to whom the question was really posed, and quietly closed it.

Byakuya gazed at him a moment before answering.

"What I should have done a long time ago," he said. He was looking away now, his face averted, eyes seemingly focused on the merrily dancing flames of the fireplace, as if it were the most interesting thing in the room. But Renji knew that look now. And he had a sudden, looming urge to rush across the room and gather the other man into his arms, to hold him close, kiss his hair, whisper into his ear, assure him he was listening, always listening.

Instead, he just listened.

And surprisingly, so did Ichigo, though Renji could sense the tension beside him, as the pregnant silence stretched onward.

Finally, Byakuya met his eyes again.

"We're going to fight," he said. He delivered the pronouncement calmly, as if he were announcing an afternoon excursion. "The time for running has ended. The time for fighting—fighting for the rights and safety of the people—has come."

"To fight." Ichigo crossed his arms, a sour look on his face. "Fight what? Who?" He glared, Zangetsu humming at his side. "Us?"

"No!" Rukia said, glaring right back. "Don't be stupid!" She cast her brother an uncertain look, a look he didn't seem to return. But nevertheless, she went on. "The nobles are the enemies of the people. They oppress them! They oppressed my mother and father. They made my sister's last days a living hell. Nii-sama was the only one at her bedside. She died knowing she was hated!"

"We're already fighting against the nobles," Ichigo said. "That's where you two come in."

"You fight against no one," Byakuya said. His cold, dry voice killed whatever protest Ichigo may have had ready and waiting. "You run. You hide. You carry out the orders of that murderous woman, or wait here, sitting in the snow like dogs, for word from this mysterious Urahara."

Renji could see the tension in Ichigo's jaw, especially at the mention of Kuukaku. It was a sore point with both of them. Still…

"Lord Urahara isn't like Kuukaku," he said, finally speaking up again. He looked at Byakuya, still confused about what was going on here—and not a little bit concerned about all this talk of fighting, too. "I guess…" he shot Ichigo a guilty look, "we always sort of knew what kind of person she was. And neither of us thinks that what she did was right. But Urahara's different."

"How?" The prince looked at him, his expression patient. It made Renji blush.

He stuttered. "Well … he just…"

"You'll see when you meet him," Ichigo said, as if that should settle everything. "As soon as he calls us to him."

"I do not come when called."

The prince's cold words struck the room, even the fire seeming to flicker in response, a heavy weight settling over them all. From the corner of his eye, Renji thought he could see Ichigo shifting uncomfortably.

Byakuya stood up.

"You know where this Urahara is," he said, looking at Ichigo. It was not a question.

Ichigo lifted his chin.

"What if I do?"

Renji gaped.

"What?!" He jumped to his feet as well, his left leg threatening to give out on him, but he ignored it. "Are you shitting me?! What do you mean, you know where he is?! When were you going to tell me—"

"It wasn't for you to know!" Ichigo snapped. "He placed his trust in me. Not you! How do you think we always know where to go? Who do you think's been giving me the information?"

Renji was so angry, he was momentarily speechless. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, burning just beneath the surface of his skin. Beside him, both his hands clenched into fists.

"Do you see?"

Byakuya's voice was soft, almost gently chastising.

"Do you see what he has done? What he nearly has done."

"Ichigo…" Rukia began, but then her voice just hovered, the rest of the sentence dying.

Ichigo merely pursed his lips and looked away.

Byakuya waited.

"All right," his friend said after awhile, still sounding about as tense as he looked. He turned, facing the prince again. "I'll take you to him. If that's what you want."

"He has not joined with Kuukaku," Byakuya allowed. "There is hope in that."

Ichigo nodded, warily.

"I would speak to him, as soon as possible. I would not make an enemy of the man my sister's future husband appears to hold in such high regard."

A single beat seemed to pass. After which both Ichigo and Rukia turned a startling shade of scarlet.

"Future husband?!?!" Ichigo sputtered.

"Nii-sama!!!!" Rukia cried. They looked at one another, as if each could detect the plague of potential marriage orbiting about the other's head.

Renji snorted. "Nice one, Taichou," he quipped, smirking. After all the teasing they'd had to endure over the past couple of days…

Byakuya blinked, then looked at him, questioning.

"Oh." He realized, then smiled, a bit sheepishly. "It means 'captain,' right? In the Old Speech." He shrugged. "I mean, it just sounds like … you intend to lead this shindig, don't you?" He nodded at Rukia. "You and the princess."

Byakuya seemed to shake himself before straightening again. "Yes," he said. "We do."

"We think the people will follow us," Rukia said, her face still splotched with shades of vibrant red. She kept throwing Ichigo little scathing looks, daring him to approach her. "The rebel army is already forming. And you said Captain Hisagi had abandoned Kuukaku. If your Lord Urahara stays true, he could help us."

"He's smart," Renji assured her. "He could definitely help."

Byakuya gave him a look that could almost be deemed pitiable. Renji reddened without really knowing why.

Then Byakuya nodded. "I think we will have more support than we will know what to do with. If every family sends out its eldest son or daughter, it will be a burden we will hardly be able to bear." Renji, recalling the look on the farmer's wife's face last night when they mentioned the eldest daughter, knew he was right.

"But they'll fight for you," Ichigo said, seemingly loath to realize how sure he was of that. "Both of you. Especially if Urahara joins you. He means a lot to them."

"So does Kuukaku," Renji added. "At least to some. The angrier ones." The ones who'd had their homes sold, land bought up by greedy nobles. Or their ailing family members turned out into the cold when they could no longer afford royal health services.

"If they do not join us, they will be against us," Byakuya said. His voice brooked no argument, and Renji couldn't help thinking of that word again, the Old word: Taichou.


"I'll need a lieutenant," Byakuya said softly.

Renji looked up, startled.

The prince was looking right at him, an aloof calmness in those dark eyes of his, for all this talk of war. Lieutenant? He blinked, confused, beginning to wonder if his thoughts were becoming so transparent that … but then he blinked again, looking down at Zabimaru resting against the side of the chair.

In his head, he felt the sword smirk.

"Renji," Byakuya said, diverting him again. "Do you know the word fukutaichou, too?"

"Yeah," Renji said. He swallowed. His face was starting to feel warm again.

"Would you…?"

"Yeah!" he said again, hardly knowing what he was agreeing to, his heart pounding so fast, even though nothing had really happened; it was just a stupid word, a stupid couple of words. And there were Rukia and Ichigo looking at the both of them like they were idiots again, except this time he actually felt like an idiot, and yet, all he could really think about was…

"Oh hell," he muttered, and he sort of stumbled forward, taking faint pleasure in the way Byakuya's eyes subtly widened when the prince seemed to realize what he was about to do. The next thing he knew, he had his arms around him, pulling his startled lover close until their lips met, Byakuya's head tilting back the way it always did, no matter how startled he tried to look.

They kissed, all the worries, fears, and concerns vanishing momentarily as they held one another—the only time they ceased to be prince and rebel, captor and captive—just lover and beloved, his own beloved Byakuya just melting into his arms, his taste and sweet scent swelling his senses, the touch of his body driving him wild.

When they broke apart, they were both breathing heavily, Byakuya giving him his best impression of a startled rabbit, the way he always did whenever they kissed in front of his sister and (apparently) future brother-in-law.

"Okay," Renji said, feeling the smile tickling the corners of his mouth. "I accept. But only if it comes with all the perks."

"That was hardly a perk," Byakuya managed, still sounding a bit breathless.

"Maybe we should have a double wedding," he heard Rukia joke.

"Fuck you," said Ichigo. Rukia laughed.

Renji smiled.

It didn't sound half-bad to him. Not half-bad at all.

And he knew that this was only the beginning—in so many different ways. Neither of them knew what the future had in store for them, how their thoughts, their actions, could potentially change not only their own lives, but the lives of thousands of others. Nevertheless, he did know one thing for certain: that whatever it was the future had in store for them, they would meet it together—the prince and his rebel—the captain and his lieutenant.

Of that, he could be absolutely certain.