"Y'know, I never thought it possible of all of us getting together like this," remarked Ichigo in an aside to Byakuya. "Even Urahara seems relaxed."
"He's making a machine out of snow and ice and calling it the Dominator. I'm sure he's very relaxed," Byakuya commented, deadpan.
Ichigo snorted. "I used to keep telling the others that you have a sense of humor, but no one ever believed me."
On Byakuya's left, Kira was busy in conversation with Renji and Unohana, and occasionally the blond would glance over his shoulder at Ichigo and Byakuya's impromptu chocolate fondue session. The other captains were engaged in their own ice sculpting efforts. Ichigo opted out, since he wanted no part in Urahara's snow machine of doom, and Byakuya had been cajoled out of the competition (he knew it was because his sense of the aesthetic was not shared by the heathens known as his colleagues, but they had at least allowed him to be one of the judges).
"But seriously. Are you or are you not dating Kira Izuru?" murmured Ichigo, casting a fond smile at his lover. The towering demolition monster was almost Gundam-esque in elaborateness. "Because I thought Kensei would be a good match for him, but if you are dating him then I shan't bother with the introductions."
"Why would Muguruma Kensei be a good match for him?" asked Byakuya, almost snapping.
"He's good-looking, likes to take care of others, and is sensitive to others' feelings without being smothering about it. Plus, he doesn't sweat the past, you know? And Kira does have a hell of a history he lugs about as baggage." Ichigo dunked a chunk of cheese and munched contentedly.
Byakuya sniffed critically. "Kira is long past that, and he doesn't need to be taken care of."
The redhead glanced askance at his ex. Then a corner of his lips curved and he drawled, "If you say so."
Kira clapped as Byakuya awarded the prize – a trophy made of chocolate – to Komamura's team. It had been fun, just making things with his hands, and he hasn't forgotten how good it can be to unwind.
Komamura's team had included Ikkaku and the captain of the eleventh hadn't seemed that happy in a long time. His huge grin practically split his face in two, and Kira thought he noticed something odd about the clean-shaven man.
"Are his eyes painted in another color?" he muttered under his breath to Shuuhei.
"Whose? Ikkaku?" Shuuhei blinked and shrugged. "I don't see any difference."
Unable to shake that notion, Kira went up to congratulate the winning team with a bottle of sake he swiped from the lunch table (probably Kyoraku's, but he wouldn't mind) and hugged Ikkaku. To Kira's relief, Ikkaku hugged back.
"You look good," said Ikkaku, his smile still broad and his eyes appreciative of the color in Kira's cheeks. "Cold weather does suit you better."
"I prefer to stay warm, thank you," said Kira, handing the alcohol over. "You look different."
Ikkaku scratched self-consciously at the corner of his eye. "Yeah. Added some of his color to my usual."
Indeed, close up Kira could see the oval dab of brilliant red was tinted slightly darker, and Kira was certain it would be a shade of purple that altered Ikkaku's usual.
Ikkaku slung an arm over Kira's shoulders and dragged him on a stroll. "I seen you and your captain being all snuggly. Are you dating him?"
"He's nice," said Kira with a small smile. "There are some issues to work out but we understand each other."
"That's good to hear." Ikkaku studied Kira curiously, as though examining a new person. "But he has issues, doesn't he? Problems with past loves an' all."
"I have issues too, Ikkaku." Kira shrugged once. "We are moving on." He shared a knowing look with his former lover. "We move on."
Ikkaku smiled wistfully. "We'll do that, yeah."
Much later that night, after Kira had packed up his belongings and was checking over the room to make sure he had left nothing behind, he heard a discreet knock on the door. A quick tendril of inquiring reiatsu told him that it was Byakuya and he rushed to admit his captain.
"Something wrong?" Kira asked. Byakuya never intruded at so late a time.
The captain shook his head. "No. I just thought we should treasure the solitude and rest a little longer before we head back to our duties in Soul Society."
The captain nodded at the porch and Kira obliged, setting out a low table and cushions. He put the electric kettle to boil for tea and waited. The overcast sky dimmed the moonlight and washed out the contours of Byakuya's face.
"We have carried on a charade for the past few days," said the captain very quietly.
"Yes we have," agreed Kira.
"It was not unpleasant, however, being... friendly... with you." There was a beat, before the noble added, "More than friendly, if I were honest. And more than pleasant."
Kira let himself smile a bit. "I enjoyed it too, taichou. It has been too long since I just basked in affection without thinking too much of repercussions."
Somewhere in the distance there was a splash of water and rambunctious laughter floated over the high walls. It sounded like Renji and Kira guessed that he and Shuuhei were probably wallowing in the hot springs for the last night.
"That sounds like Renji," said Byakuya, a gentle smile gracing his face. The smile fell a little as he regarded Kira steadily. "Would Rukia be pleased to know that Renji is happy and content with Hisagi?"
The blond lieutenant studied Byakuya. "Yes," he said finally. "If she knew she couldn't be with him, she would have been very glad that his happiness was not hinging on her alone."
"But she loved him, and he loved her greatly."
"That love has not diminished – Renji's not the type. But he loves Shuuhei just as fervently, if for different reasons." Kira looked up as though his gaze could pierce the clouds hiding the moon. "I'm sure she wouldn't begrudge him his happiness. In fact, I think she'd be pleased that he could grow beyond such devastation into a better person, instead of drowning in self-pity."
There was a long moment of silence. The kettle sounded and Kira hurried to make tea, a simple enough ritual, and served it.
Then, as though coming out of meditation, Byakuya asked, "Would Ichimaru like the way you are now?"
"Would he?" laughed Kira thinly. It was a hollow chuckle, and a note of resignation crept into his voice. "He wouldn't. He liked me helpless. A victim. He wanted to have the upper hand – and I gave it to him then, because I loved him. And if he were here..." Kira's smile turned self-deprecating and mocking. "If he were here, I would gladly surrender all of me again. Gladly."
"But he isn't."
"No, he's not. So I will never give up my independence or strength again to anyone," Kira declared in a firm, quiet voice. He drank his tea and breathed out heavily. "I can damn well bear my own burdens, pardon my language."
Byakuya sighed. "I was right."
"You don't need anyone taking care of you." The noble sipped his tea.
Kira watched the emotions play out in Byakuya's eyes. It was a strange mixture of loneliness and revelation, with perhaps a tint of new hope. Kira ventured timidly, "Could you... could you tell me about your late wife, taichou? What was she like?"
A glance at his lieutenant later, Byakuya said, "She was the gentlest, strongest and finest woman I have ever met in my life. There will never be anyone like her: her temperance, her determination and her resilience. The way she smiles and a room lights up for that. They way she can talk to me knowing what I had to hear, without my needing to explain anything. For a long time after I had Rukia adopted into the family I couldn't look at her, because she was nothing like my Hisana."
"She must have been very lovely."
"She was." Byakuya closed his eyes again. "It would be another anniversary in a few weeks. The day I decided to elope with her. She had tried to dissuade me initially but stopped soon; she ran with me, knowing that her life could be in danger, and never once admitted to her fears. There had been pain in her life – some unfair, some she brought on herself, but she never complained, and only on her deathbed did she ask me for help to right her largest wrong."
Kira never heard this before, but he could guess: "Rukia?"
"I would have liked to meet Hisana-san," Kira mulled aloud. "She must have been a very remarkable woman."
"Ichimaru Gin considered her a good friend," said Byakuya unexpectedly. His dark eyes were locked on Kira. "At her funeral, both of us were so lost in grief that he attacked me. That was the only assault I never begrudged him for – the pain he inflicted on me was one I desperately needed to break free of the dull, blinding sorrow of my loss."
Kira shifted, slightly uncomfortable in his place. "I never knew..."
"No, you wouldn't." Byakuya passed a folded piece of paper over to Kira. "Your former captain was not just a traitor or just someone who victimized you. I never wanted us to be enemies because of his love for her, and because she thought a great deal of him. I've thought about it, and I wondered if i should have had allowed Ichimaru to read this. He's not here anymore, but I believe you would have liked to know. About her, and about him. Go ahead, you may read that."
The blond opened the note and scanned through the rough handwriting:
'I have little time left, my love. And of that little time I wish to tell you that I have never once been loved by so many as I have in the time I have had with you. Your heart I shall take a small piece with me, for I love you deeply and selfishly, and to you I give all my heart, save for the small bit I keep aside for Gin-chan. I do not love him with passion but I love him as a friend; he has been nothing but kindness itself to me, and he led you to me as well, and for that I can never repay him. My love, my lord, look beyond his faults, for he has only had so few friends in his life to bring out the light in his character; I do not ask you to be his friend, you two are like the mountain and the sea-shore, too far apart to be more than acquaintances. But do not reject him, because all he has of me is in you, as my heart is given to you.
My lord, my love, my life, I am blessed beyond all my karma to have been given the chance to love you as I have. I pray that you find another who loves you as you deserve; that person will feel as blessed as I have been.'
Kira folded the letter and gave it back, sacrosanct and intensely private. He waited, trying to organize his thoughts, before he finally said, "Why are you here tonight, taichou?"
"I have been thinking of her words, and of Ichigo and Renji and Rukia and Shuuhei, and of the charade we have put up. And I have been thinking of you." Byakuya exhaled slowly, languidly, and met Kira's nervous gaze. "I will not hold my heart in stasis any longer. I have grieved sufficiently, and I have regretted enough. It is past time to move on. Therefore, Kira Izuru, I wish to court you."
That came out of nowhere. "Wh-what?"
The Kuchiki lord smiled softly and regarded the lieutenant with warm amusement. "I wish to court you, and you have every right to reject my courtship. But give me, imperfect and incomplete as I am, a chance to woo you, you as you are: strong, independent, determined and similarly flawed."
"I..." Kira's voice trailed off. His face was warm and his fingers tingled. "I-I-I can't quite grasp- we just talked about this the other night about how incompatible we are-"
"-and yet, if you think about it, we fit quite well together," said Byakuya. He rose to his feet. "I leave you to think this over, Kira. There is no haste to give me an answer; let me woo you, and let my actions sway your heart one way or another."
The captain let himself out. Kira sat motionless on the porch, his mind full of possibilities and doubts. The tea grew cold and even the voices of his best friends soon faded to silent serenity.
Kira stared into nothing, mind awhirl with thoughts, but eventually succumbed to sleep, dreaming uneasily of silvery strands of silk and petal-soft skin, and the deadly glimmer of a smile that flashed like a shark in the darkest waters of his consciousness.
When he woke up, Kira smiled to himself. If Byakuya wanted Kira, he would have to learn how to chase, and how to catch.
ten years later...
"He's funny," Kira pointed out petulantly. "Sometimes."
"And he's good-looking. And rich. Very rich."
"And he's very cultured."
Isshin rubbed the bridge of his nose. "So I am supposed to untie you so that you can elope with that boy?"
"It's supposed to be romantic!" Kira yelled. "I had to come up with a story, and you're not helping by disputing everything I say!"
"It's stupid! And this is ME saying that it's stupid, so it's really, really stupid!"
"Kurosaki-taichou, I swear you will regret this day for the rest of your life."
"You're bound physically and with kido. No one can release you right now."
Someone cleared his throat purposefully. "That's my lieutenant you've tied up, Kurosaki Isshin." Byakuya stood at the door, a little worse for wear: Urahara and Ichigo were very powerful opponents who had, thankfully, been laid out by the new Kenpachi and Hitsugaya.
"You're not getting to him, Byaku-bo."
"I don't need to. Izuru?"
"What was the delay? Were you held up by traffic?" Kira asked sarcastically as he freed himself of the bonds. "All right! Team Beta wins! The hostage is rescued!"
Kurosaki Isshin stared. "Wait a sec. You can't free yourself! That's against the rules!"
"It's against the rules unless a teammate is in the room with the hostage too," corrected Kira absently.
"You're not that skilled," Isshin countered.
Kira and Byakuya both leveled him with identical glares. Byakuya narrowed his eyes fractionally. "Don't underestimate my lieutenant's prowess, Kurosaki. He's well-versed in kido and in bondage."
"That wasn't necessary information, taichou," Kira chided.
Byakuya allowed himself a hint of a smirk. "I stand rebuked." His tone shifted into something lighter. "You do look rather attractively rumpled, Kira-fukutaichou."
"You're quite dashingly bruised yourself, Kuchiki-taichou," Kira retorted brightly.
Kurosaki Isshin blew out his cheeks, irritated by the loss and by the intense flirtatious gazes the two were hurling at each other.
"Just get together already, would you? Get married or something," he grumbled. "All the 'courtship' nonsense is getting on my nerves. And stop running through my office!"
"What can I say? I know that place well." Kira laughed aloud, the simple act no longer a surprise as it used to be, and slipped out of the room, purposely brushing past the noble a little too closely to be misconstrued as anything other than a brazen invitation.
Byakuya shook his head, amused, and followed after the blond. Courting him for ten years on had yet to turn stale or boring, and Byakuya wondered if Kira would ever give a direct answer.
Even if the answer never came, Byakuya loved the chase. He had not had this much fun since he was a child, and the rewards... Well. They were better than candy, that was for sure.
Perhaps Byakuya already had Kira's answer.
By the time Byakuya came to the landing of the stairs, Kira was already perched on the railing, and there was a dark gleam in his brilliant blue eyes that told Byakuya that it would be yet another thrilling afternoon of near-misses and wild runs through Seireitei and later into Rukongai, and maybe into yet another secret hideout.
He could keep chasing forever.
A/N: Aaaand that's all for Shadow of Doubt. Ten years can change someone quite a bit, and I wanted the playful side of Kira and Byakuya to emerge more fully, like they are good influences on each other. But whether they ever really get together like Hisagi/Renji or Urahara/Ichigo in my stories is open for debate.