"I do not believe that that is the best solution, Sou-taichou. The threat that is brought to us by the ever growing number of rebels in Rukongai is best settled in a military manner, and soon too. In fact, the sooner the better –"

"What d'you think those people are, Kuchiki? Putting them on the slaughtering block like pigs –"

"You amaze me, Zaraki-taichou. I have yet to see you in such light, prioritizing others' lives. I, for one, have always thought that bloodletting and suffering feed your enjoyment –"

"Yeah – and I'll watch with glee as your blood is spilt by my –"

"Enough!"

Yamamoto had struck his staff hard against the wooden floor. His stern voice, laced with slight impatience and anger emanated in the spacious room that was his – First Division's – meeting room where ten other Captains stood quiet before him. Nobody spoke for a while, not daring even to draw breaths until Yamamoto resumed his speech.

"Kuchiki-taichou, Zaraki-taichou, do remember your place in this chamber. There is a time for worthwhile arguments but not now, and never do we seek the need to have two upstanding Captains bicker shamelessly before an audience. Consider this a fair warning before I throw the both of you out of our company."

Shunsui, still donning his gaudy pink overall quickly took charge of the mood and said jovially, "Now, now, Yama-jii… don't get so angry over something petty like this…"

Kuchiki Byakuya stood his place and closed his eyes, ignoring Shunsui's effort to calm things down or Ukitake's advice about keeping a cool head. He was trying his hardest to keep a straight face, not wanting to betray his brewing dislike and annoyance for the taller man who was standing opposite of him, equally silent. Zaraki Kenpachi was probably simmering in his silent fury but far from disguising it, he let his eyes pierce the young nobleman, willing as much detest he could harbor to channel into the gaze.

Only, not once had Byakuya looked at Kenpachi.

The matter regarding the onslaught of commoners in certain areas of Rukongai was brought to a halt when a messenger dropped news about another rebellion in District 49 of Inazari. Captain of Seventh and Tenth Division were dispatched to handle the situation and the meeting was adjourned till further notice.

The Captains filed out of the chamber and Kenpachi made it a point to put as much distance as he could between himself and Byakuya. His hand that was itching towards his zanpakuto might just slip and make its way to Byakuya's pulsing jugular.

"Calm down, Zaraki," a voice said.

Kenpachi looked back as the little bells dangling from his hair jingled in the air. It was Ukitake who had addressed him and his eyes were deep with concern. Kenpachi caught hints of wariness as well – then again it would be foolish to let your guard down in the presence of Zaraki Kenpachi.

"What is it now?" he asked none too politely.

Ukitake was calm, even when his attention went to Kenpachi's unnamed zanpakuto.

"Remove your hand from your zanpakuto. It isn't wise to unsheathe it amongst comrades."

And Kenpachi obeyed, though somewhat surprised that his fingers really did find their way to the blade. He never really meant to raise it against the other man.

"You hate Byakuya to the extent of killing him?"

Kenpachi hated the expression etched on Ukitake's visage. He was clearly calculating Kenpachi's reply, probably trying to decipher his running thoughts too. Was he trying to read him? Was he trying to understand him?

"Killing him when he has his back turned against me? D'you take me for a spineless coward, Ukitake?"

Ukitake did not reply. He let Kenpachi turn his heels and walk away from him and the conversation, but when the latter reached the majestic door frame, he stopped and said, "I'll admit, I do want to fight that little snob, and if he does die, it's only because he's too weak."

-----

Yamamoto never called for another meeting with all the Captains. Soifon and Shunsui were summoned pretty often to the chamber and it seemed that the matter of dealing with the rebellions was left to their divisions. The uninvolved divisions' daily activities were less eventful with the exception of the Fourth's, what with numerous counts of casualties and injuries on the battlefield. That gave Kenpachi plenty of time to train his men up, toughening them, preparing them for future battles – whether they may or may not occur would be another story, but they better happen just for the sake of it – while Sixth Division was up to something else. He heard news of Byakuya's special training from Yachiru who went there to stockpile snacks.

"Bya-kun really wants them to be good at sword fighting! And they're having so much fun swinging their zanpakuto – Ken-chan might want to join them! Looks fun…"

Kenpachi found himself marching to the Sixth Division headquarters the minute those words left Yachiru's mochi-filled mouth. Once he reached the doors, without restrain he flung them open, creating much ado among several men who were conveniently practicing their sword-wielding skills at the courtyard. Kenpachi strode to one of them – the poor guy was shaking furiously his knees were knocking against each other – and seized the front of his uniform.

"Where's your Captain?" Kenpachi snarled into the frightened face.

"I… I'm not sure… he just left for battle… took the rest of the able men with him –"

Kenpachi tossed him aside and balled his fist. He was too late.

-----

Three days later, there was a night party organised at the Sixth Division headquarter. Much to Kenpachi's dismay, he was actually invited. At least if he was not, he would not have to tax his brain, forcing it to think of a rather reasonable excuse not to attend it. He was not one for grand functions – no matter how much or good the sake they serve – and whatever Yumichika and Ikkaku say would not make him budge from his decision.

"Come on, taichou! The food! The sake!"

"Yeah, of the best quality!"

"And unlimited!"

Kenpachi yawned and waved his hand dismally in Yumichika and Ikkaku's hopeful faces. "You guys go then."

"You sure you don't want to go?"

"Yeah… tell them whatever if they asked."

So his Third- and Fifth-seat officers left. Everyone in his division would be attending of course, seeing how they never got tired of drinking… Yachiru too would be gone for the night. There would be suitable snacks and beverages for her and Hitsugaya-taichou, the underage…

That meant he was all alone in the dark, solemn headquarter. He had the moon for company still, the moon that was shining so brightly and complete, hanging complacently in the night sky before the sun chases it into hiding upon dawn…

"Excuse me, is anyone here?"

Kenpachi started at the greeting and almost jumped out of his skin. He had let his guard down and when his eyes raked upon the appearance before him, he cursed inwardly.

"Kuchiki Byakuya."

Byakuya seemed to be just as shocked but he hid it better than the taller man. Kenpachi sat back on the wooden floor and slapped himself mentally for not being able to sense a newcomer's presence. What the hell was he doing – just a bit of daydreaming and he had lost touch of his surrounding! He could be dead if it was someone else sneaking behind him. Hell, he might be better off dead. It was utter disgrace to be walked in by Kuchiki Byakuya and not realize it.

He looked up at the still standing figure and cocked an eyebrow at the sight of a porcelain jar Byakuya was gripping. He caught the latter's eyes and noticed the somewhat lost look he had. Kenpachi motioned for the other to sit down.

Or maybe the head of Kuchiki clan was too noble to sit on the floor, sans cushions or golden thrones –

But Byakuya took his seat casually beside Kenpachi. There was a grace to his movements, almost fluid-like, and very much uncanny if not out of place in the Eleventh Division headquarter. The content of the porcelain jar sloshed and Kenpachi grinned.

"Sake?" he asked expectantly.

"Yes."

That alone had sparked many other curious questions but Kenpachi decided to save them for later; right now, getting the sake out of the jar and into little cups was most important. He whipped two out from his pocket – Byakuya was slightly surprised that Kenpachi actually carried cups with him everywhere he goes – and filled them up. Must be one of the best sake brewed in Seireitei; the fragrance complemented its taste so well even Kenpachi sighed sated after his first sip.

"Is this what they serve at the party? Ikkaku and Yumichika'll have their kicks from this…"

"Why are you not at the party?" Byakuya asked suddenly, his cup of sake untouched. He too was gazing at the moon, the gentle glow reflected off his black irises.

"That's a rather stupid question."

Byakuya finally directed his attention to Kenpachi. "It is, depending on your answer."

"What if I say I don't like grand functions like that? Can't keep my eyes off the floor and sake, see –"

"That's not the correct answer," the younger man interrupted softly.

So he knew. Kuchiki Byakuya bloody knew what was going on his mind. Congratulations on that, but Kenpachi was not going to delve any deeper. He was content with just his sake and Byakuya's reluctant company.

"You don't agree with my way of handling the rebellions, do you? Given the chance, you would have campaigned for a more peaceful solution instead of coming down hard on them, as what I had done three days ago. This is why you keep yourself away from the party that celebrates a victory won on blood spill and deaths."

Kenpachi could not pretend not to have listened to Byakuya. The accusations were clear as crystal, right as rain. That was what made it felt worse, somehow.

"So?" he said simply.

Byakuya did not speak. The sake in his cup swirled slowly.

"What, too shocked to learn another side of me? Yeah, I didn't like the way you handle those people, but this ain't my right to judge, is it? It worked. The rebels are defeated. That's all that matters."

"Not to you."

Once again the night was wrought in daunting silence. Kenpachi was no fool – he knew what Byakuya was going to ask. He probably had a set of questions racked up neatly in his brain before he came to the Eleventh Division tonight, questions that he needed answers. But what for, Kenpachi did not know – and he was not interested in knowing either. Maybe it was to satisfy his selfish curiosity? To know why someone as bloodthirsty as the Demon Zaraki Kenpachi would even think of sparing the pitiful lives of traitorous rebels?

"Why don't you be more straightforward?" Kenpachi said bluntly, draining his sake in one go. "You didn't come here tonight to drown me in sake."

Byakuya turned to the moon. "I wanted to hear your story."

Kenpachi almost spluttered good sake down his front. "Excuse me – my story? That's enough sake for you I think –"

But Byakuya had not touched his cup. Not even a small sip. So he was not really drunk…

"Kuchiki, you're not going to stare holes into your cup are you? You're missing on the good stuff if you give this a pass, really."

So Byakuya brought the cup to his chin. The rim touched his lips and very unwillingly, he poured the sake down his throat. A slight grimace flashed on his visage but he recovered quickly, putting the emotionless masquerade back on.

Kenpachi did not miss the change in Byakuya's expression though.

"Never had sake?"

Annoyed somewhat, Byakuya replied, "The taste needs some time to get accustomed to."

Rather vague, Kenpachi thought. But he remembered what Byakuya had said before he prompted the younger man to drink his sake, and remembered how ridiculous that request had sounded coming out from Byakuya's mouth. Apparently the nobleman had not forgotten.

"Certainly there is something that causes you to adopt such a diplomatic way of thinking."

"You're curious, you mean," Kenpachi decided to simplify matters.

"Yes."

But it was a pretty long story. Not really engaging too… he was sure Byakuya would be bored with it in two minutes and be gone from the compound in five. He talked about how it was living in the district of Zaraki, and Inazari where he had stayed briefly during one of his traveling, and how food and clean water were extremely scarce and therefore, pricey commodities. When he spoke about kids growing up to be thieves in such circumstances, he chanced a glance at the other and was silently glad to see Byakuya still immersed in his tale. He went on to how the more talented ones grow to become assassins and robbers and saw a flicker of distrust in Byakuya's eyes.

"You can't really blame them," Kenpachi said.

"They are inflicting harm on their own accord for their own benefits. Impoverishment does not give anybody the privilege to do wrongs."

"And what privilege do we have to kill these people like animals? If there's one thing we all have in common, Kuchiki, it's our right to live as humans!"

"And you wish to spare the lives of these few hundred even if they're about to wipe off half the population of Inazari from existence?"

"'Course not! What – that is beyond –"

"Then if you do not wish to eliminate the core cause of the threat, what do you propose we do?"

A porcelain cup was slammed hard onto the wooden floor.

"Don't you see it, Kuchiki? These people don't kill for the fun of it. Neither would they harm others if they could help it! Can't you see the difference in lifestyles of those in Seireitei and Rukongai? When you rob them off their necessities, you push them to desperation! They have no choice but to take what should be theirs from others, and the cycle doesn't end!"

"Chaos is only caused by the absence of rules and codes of honor –"

"You speak so easily of rules… the rules we place upon them will doom them to their deaths if they stood by them!"

Byakuya held his retort. He still could not fathom how the other man's mind worked. How could someone justify blatant cruelty? The innocent lives that were lost… they were not given the chance to protect themselves! The rebels just came in and took and destroyed. They snatched away everything. And yet Kenpachi could still put the blame on Seireitei. What they were working at was to instill rule and order into the disarray regions.

Kenpachi must be out of his mind.

"What, now you're thinking I'm losing it?"

"… Yes."

"Thought so," the taller man chuckled. "I won't declare them innocent and pure as babies, but we're at fault, there's no denying."

Byakuya helped himself to another cup of sake. He himself seemed to be surprised by his act.

"But there's nothing we could do."

This, Kenpachi had to admit. He lay back on the cool surface of the floor and let the moon illuminate his gaunt face. The scars gleamed in the night.

"You wish to erase poverty from Inazari. You wish to end the suffering in Rukongai."

"Yeah."

"But there are greater powers and minds at work, nothing we can do about it."

"I know."

He was only taking out his dissatisfaction and frustration at someone. Kuchiki Byakuya just happened to be an easy way out since he was the one in charge of the attack force three days ago. But Kenpachi was not childish enough to mull over something he had no powers over. And he knew it was going to stay like that – the ways of living in Rukongai.

"You look troubled, Zaraki."

"Nah," Kenpachi dismissed quickly. "I thought karma was bullshit, but that can't be right, can it? I used to think heaven and hell was crap, and look where I ended up in!"

A smile graced Byakuya's features and Kenpachi drained another cup of sake. This had definitely never happened to him, sitting quietly with another person, talking things over civilly while drinking sake. If Ikkaku and Yumichika and the rest of his division were here, they were going to be as raucous as possible, as lewd and crude as men could be. But he could get used to this. Byakuya could make a good drinking companion, only the man did not really drink as much as Kenpachi would like.

"Why d'you always do that?"

In between drinks, Kenpachi thought he caught Byakuya laughing at one of his jokes. It was not a spectacular one, quite dirty actually, but he had actually understood the punch line and just as the first "ha" slipped, he caught himself and it dwindled to a polite smile.

"Do what?"

"That, pretending nothing in this world amuses you!" Kenpachi filled both their cups and the sake disappeared quite quickly down his throat. "I say if you wanna laugh, you laugh. You wanna cry, you cry! There isn't anything wrong with it!"

Byakuya merely whispered, "Wrong with what?"

"Being human of course!"

Technically it did not sound correct considering they were co-existing in the afterworld, but nevertheless they were still entitled to their own emotions and thinking. Surely being dead did not mean surrendering the ability to feel. Then it would be worse than dying.

Byakuya however drained his cup and placed it down on the floor. Kenpachi sat up more straightly and peered from over the rim of his sake-filled cup at the other Captain.

"You're going back to the party?"

He shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did so. "No. This is enough drinking for a night."

He proceeded to getting up but staggered on his feet. Just when one of his knees collided painfully with the hard ground, Kenpachi, with the quickness of someone who had not consumed alcohol, held the other man's forearm firmly, holding him in place.

"Sorry."

Kenpachi was now standing and holding the smaller form up, his sake lay forgotten. Byakuya tried to push another step forward only to end up on his knees. Then he gave up walking and let Kenpachi fuss over him.

"You're not going anywhere in this state. Can't even stand properly, seriously…"

A strong arm wrapped around the younger man's waist and with a mighty heave, pulled Byakuya up to his feet. He staggered still but Kenpachi tightened his hold. Inwardly he was wondering how much sake Byakuya had consumed, but he definitely had drunk much lesser than Kenpachi, yet going by his current state, Byakuya seemed to have down a truckload of it.

"Watch it, Kuchiki!" Kenpachi warned loudly when the other man was about to kick the jar of sake. "You're troublesome when you're like this – shouldn't have let you touch sake – oi!"

Byakuya had lost his footing and had tumbled unceremoniously onto the floor. To break his fall he had reflexively grabbed anything within his reach – and the only thing that happened to be within his reach was the unsuspecting Kenpachi. That was how the Captain of Eleventh Division ended up straddling the younger Captain, his scarred face merely inches from the other.

"The hell, Kuchiki?"

Byakuya looked away. The moon was again reflected in his dark eyes. Now that Kenpachi was closer, he thought he saw melancholy echoing within the depths of those irises.

"Am I, Zaraki?" he asked softly, much to Kenpachi's bewilderment. "Am I a bother, a nuisance?"

The taller man blinked once. Twice. Then he said gruffly, "'Course not, I was joking –"

Byakuya was tightening his grasp on the front of Kenpachi's robes. Great, Kenpachi groaned mentally. He took the wrists and tried to pry them from his clothes but Byakuya had them good in his vice grip. The younger man looked distraught and Kenpachi certainly did not like that look on someone as stoic as the head of the noble Kuchiki clan.

"What's wrong?" he found himself asking despite how awkward it sounded, coming from a person like him. But too late, the question slipped smoothly along his tongue and it left a bad aftertaste in his mouth. If his ruthless persona was still watching this scene, he would have yelled, "Get a grip, asshole. Only wimps cry when they're depressed."

Because Byakuya did look like he was close to crying, only his eyes held as much tears as a scorching desert would water.

Then it hit Kenpachi that this was something he had yet to see of Byakuya. This would probably explain the unsettling knot in his stomach as he studied Byakuya's visage. The pale features were not frozen and unreadable; under the dim moon beam, Byakuya looked alive. Maybe not so cheerful, but alive. And before he knew it, he was leaning forward, planting a chaste kiss on Byakuya's forehead.

Byakuya must have wanted to say something – his shell-shocked face said that much – but the words died in his throat. Kenpachi detected no resistance, so he kissed the side of Byakuya's lips. He tasted traces of sake there.

"Zaraki…"

Byakuya pushed against the other Captain.

"This is it, Kuchiki."

Amidst the confusing sentence, Kenpachi dug his nose into the crook of the younger man's neck, inhaling the vague fragrance of sake and something else that was purely Byakuya. His hand slipped into the parting of the black robes Byakuya was donning, feeling warm skin.

"Zaraki, what… are you doing…"

"This is what it means to be human, Kuchiki." He began to lay open mouthed kisses along the side of Byakuya's exposed neck as his palm traveled across the expanse of the smooth chest. His finger raked carelessly over a nipple and Byakuya hissed. He tried to push at the hovering bulk again but to no avail.

"To feel… emotionally… physically…"

Deft fingers found the fastening and pulled at it, letting the black robe fall apart. The moonlight was kind on Byakuya's pale skin. Kenpachi's caresses returned. Not a spot that the eye could see was left untouched. The younger man twitched but stayed put, yet when Kenpachi's hand descended to his inner thigh, Byakuya rolled to his side with his back against the older man.

"You… have to stop, Zaraki."

"I won't."

The hand went to the stiffening shaft and a soft sigh escaped Byakuya's lips. Kenpachi never quite expected the reaction but encouraged by it, he massaged the soft flesh, sliding it gently upwards, then downwards, working it into a rigid mass. Byakuya no longer protested but his breaths were still silent, if not noticeably quickened. He did bit back a cry when Kenpachi began fingering his opening.

"Show me your face, Kuchiki. This is proof… that you're still here… feeling…"

Soft gasps and grunts filled the space with Kenpachi pleasuring his front and probing his back. When the rhythm began to pick up its pace, Byakuya's hip began to tremble and when he hit his peak, his back arched into the larger frame that his buttocks rubbed tantalizingly against the front of Kenpachi's crotch. Then he lay on the ground, his chest rising and falling as air replenish his lungs, his body suddenly weary.

But Kenpachi paid no notice and plunged. That was when Byakuya cried in shock and pain and his world fell into darkness. He knew someone was tapping on his cheeks, calling his name, shaking his shoulders, but he did not heed him. His eyes fluttered open for a second, taking in the sight of the man whose body had just been united with his. He could not hear the question; he knew the other man was asking him something… but he nodded nevertheless. He held tighter, not knowing what was really taking place, but he was quite, if not acutely aware of Kenpachi sliding in and out of him.

But that was all he could manage. Even before Kenpachi found release, Byakuya slithered once more into dimness, unknowingness, nothingness.