Tales of the Soul Reapers: Three

Summary: Byakuya and Renji are overheard engaged in a rather…peculiar conversation.

Main cast: Toshiro, Ukitake, Yoruichi, Kisuke, Rukia, Ichigo, Byakuya, Renji.

Pairings: Implied Byakuya/Renji. Yes, you read that right. The ultimate Bleach fangirl guilty pleasure. I am not responsible for any keyboards ruined from copious amounts of drool. ;)

Overall warnings: Beware of the delicious perverted yaoi thoughts that lurk around every sentence. And do not make Ukitake angry. You won't like Uki-sama when he's angry…

Overheard

"Why do I have to do this again?" Hitsugaya Toshiro complained for the fifth time in as many minutes.

Ukitake Jushiro tossed his long, elegant white hair and gave the boy the sternest look he could muster. Which, in truth, was not very compelling. "We have been over this, Toshiro. These are our orders. Don't question, just do as you are told."

"I just don't know what this has to do with me," Toshiro insisted, arms crossed, staring ahead with his usual sullenness.

"You are a Captain."

"Yes, the Captain of Squad Ten. Which is four numbers away from six."

"I can count, Toshiro. What's your point?"

Toshiro glared at him. "My point is I don't have any association whatsoever with Squad Six, much less that stuck up piece of—"

"Toshiro!"

"—Kuchiki Byakuya or his equally stuck up son of a—"

"Toshiro!"

"—Lieutenant!"

"Byakuya is not stuck up. He simply has a lot of responsibilities and troubles—"

"Yes," Toshiro muttered under his breath. "Troubles being decent to other people."

"And Renji is…well…" Ukitake frowned. "Well, he's all right once you get to know him. And you get past the eyebrows…"

"I still don't see why it has to be me who looks for them. Or you, for that matter. What about Yamamoto?"

"He's preparing for the meeting tonight. You know how important that is."

"Fine, then, why can't Soi Fon? Aren't she and Byakuya...you know…a thing?"

Ukitake raised an eyebrow. "A 'thing', Toshiro?"

"You know what I mean!"

The elder man's face reddened. "That…would not be wise."

"Why not?"

"She and Byakuya…well, let's just say, if she were sent out to find him, we wouldn't see either of them again for about a week."

Toshiro appeared bemused for a moment, and then color flushed his pale cheeks. "Oh…uh…right. Um…so…what about Gin? He's practically in love with Byakuya."

"That's…probably why he isn't allowed anywhere near him."

"Oh?" Toshiro looked puzzled again, and then horrified recognition dawned in his expression. "Oh…" He shuddered. "Well…all…all right, then. Uh…Unohana?"

"Too busy trying to help Shunsui recover from his last sake binge and Nanao's punishment…"

"Well, that explains why Shunsui didn't come along with you…" He paused. "Aizen?"

"He's locked himself in his quarters and he won't come out. His entire squad has been trying to convince him, including Momo, but he continuously refuses. Apparently, this has been going on for almost three days now…"

"What's his problem?"

Ukitake shrugged. He seemed to struggle against laughter. "Rumor has it Gin called him 'four-eyes' and said he'd never seen anything uglier than a Soul Reaper with glasses. Aizen nearly broke down right there, and now he doesn't want to be seen by the outside world with his hideous glasses. Or so the story goes."

"Sounds like them," Toshiro said sourly. "Komamura?"

"Chasing after a cat."

"Again? That's the sixth time this week!"

"You should have seen him the day half the pet cats in the Seireitei got loose. Oh, what a nightmare…" Ukitake groaned at the memory.

Toshiro contemplated briefly how difficult it must be for the other members of Squad Seven, and felt a pang of sympathy. He was not wholly ignorant to such plights; he did, after all, have Matsumodo Rangiku as a Lieutenant. "Tousen?" he pressed on.

"Trying to restrain Komamura."

"What about Kenpachi, then? Don't tell me he's busy fighting random unlucky passersby again…"

Ukitake only looked at him. It did not take long for Toshiro to get the message. "Oh," he said. "Right. Never mind." Zaraki Kenpachi was not known to care for the welfare and personal property of others. If he was given such a mission, he would most likely leave half the Soul Society in ruins in his quest to uncover where Byakuya and Renji were hiding.

"Mayuri?"

Ukitake blinked. "Would you want that sent after you?"

Toshiro considered this. "I see your point," he conceded dryly, and then he sighed. "So that leaves us."

"And here we are," Ukitake agreed.

Toshiro was about resign himself to the assignment he had been forcibly handed when something else occurred to him. "What about Shihoin Yoruichi and Urahara Kisuke? Byakuya used to sweat up the Kuchiki sheets with Catwoman there, right? And speaking of sweating up the Kuchiki sheets, why aren't Rukia and Ichigo on this mission instead? If anyone would know where Byakuya and Renji are, it would be the sister-ex-girlfriend, right?"

"Toshiro, Rukia is not Renji's ex-girlfriend," Ukitake said, with the air of one who has had to reiterate this fact many a time.

Toshiro scoffed. "Oh, please, don't tell me you buy that whole 'we're just friends' thing those two try to sell…"

Ukitake elected not to answer.

"So," Toshiro continued, speaking quickly now, rare excitement dancing in his blue-green eyes, "there really is no reason for us to be here at all. We should leave this mission to more qualified individuals, it's only natural—"

Satisfied he had made a sufficient argument to be relieved of this duty, he promptly turned and started back the way they had come, but Ukitake snatched his collar. "Not so fast, Captain. This is our assignment, and we are going to complete it."

Toshiro, his ephemeral hopes slain, followed the older white-haired man, muttering partially incoherent promises for revenge against all parties involved and about the injustice of irrational obligations.

Before long, the Kuchiki manor loomed into view. It was a large building, affluent in a subtle, unostentatious manner that did little to diminish the vague resentment Toshiro felt at the sight of it. As they walked past the polished wooden walls, he reflected on how much different the world must seem from within their comfortable confines. As always, however, he decided he would not have traded the way he himself had been brought up even for such privilege. He felt all he had endured to achieve the power and position he now held allowed him to appreciate it all the more.

"Where is the entrance to this damn place, anyway?"

"Just around here, I think…"

"You think?"

"Well, after the last time Ginrei chased Shunsui and me off the property in his pajamas shooting Shakkahos at us, we kind of lost interest in visiting…"

Toshiro raised an eyebrow at him. "You and Shunsui were chased off the property? What were you doing?"

"Well…" Ukitake cleared his throat, evidently embarrassed. "Shunsui thought it would be…ah…humorous if we snuck in, in the dead of night, and…uh…borrowed a few…valuable items…"

"You mean you broke in and stole from the Kuchikis."

Ukitake flushed. "More or less."

"And you were almost turned to Swiss cheese. Intelligent. I can certainly see how you qualified to be Captains."

Ukitake coughed into his hand and murmured something which sounded suspiciously like, "It wasn't my idea…"

They rounded another corner, and Toshiro, who had sped up to walk a little in front of Ukitake, slammed into something hard with enough force to knock him off his feet.

"Hey!"

"Ouch!"

Ukitake caught the younger Soul Reaper deftly with one arm. Toshiro looked up, ready to severely reprimand whoever he had encountered for their lack of attention to their surroundings, but the words died before they could be born when he glimpsed a familiar flash of orange.

"Kurosaki?"

"Oh, hey, Toshiro!" Ichigo greeted as he stood, rubbing the small of his back with a slight grimace. "Captain Ukitake."

"Hello, Ichigo, Rukia," Ukitake said. Rukia, hovering behind Ichigo, inclined her head in respectful acknowledgement.

"How come you call him Captain, but not me?" Toshiro grumbled, but neither Ichigo nor Ukitake paid him heed.

"What are you guys doing here?" Ichigo questioned.

"What are you doing here?" Toshiro challenged in return.

"Well…" Ichigo glanced at Rukia.

"We're looking for my brother." There was obvious distress in her expression; she wrung her hands restlessly and chewed at her lower lip, her gaze darting around as if Byakuya might emerge any moment from the bushes that lined the periphery of the veranda. "No one seems to know where he and Renji are."

"That is why we're here, as well," Ukitake said. She looked at him, surprised, and he smiled. "The Captain Commander sent us to locate the two. There is a meeting in only a few hours, but Byakuya did not respond to the announcement, and when we tried to contact Renji we received no reply from him, either."

"So they sent us, the rescue team," Toshiro said. Ichigo missed the sarcasm.

"When did you become a rescue team?" he asked.

Toshiro rolled his eyes. "Never mind. Are they here or not?"

"We don't know," Ichigo said, and now he too appeared anxious. "I can't sense their spiritual pressures, but then, I suppose when Soul Reapers don't want to be found…"

"Why wouldn't they?" Rukia mused, more to herself than the others. "What could they be doing?"

Several different scenarios occurred to the four of them, all of which contained various disturbing exploits most self-respecting individuals would wish to remain discreet about.

"Oh—" Ichigo began.

"—my—" Toshiro continued.

"—God," Ukitake concluded.

Rukia surmised quickly from their expressions the direction their contemplations had gone. "You're all sick!" she cried, furious color in her face. "You're all sick perverts!"

Ukitake cleared his throat. Ichigo shifted uncomfortably. Toshiro scoffed.

"Oh, come now," he said reasonably. "You had to have seen it coming eventually. I mean, two Bankai's that big—"

"Toshiro!" Ukitake exclaimed, horrorstruck. "You are far too young to be thinking that way!"

"Don't tell me you never thought—"

"Regardless," Ukitake said loudly, cutting him off. "We are here for the sole purpose of finding them, not to speculate why they might be missing. We're close to the entrance. Let's go." He snatched a handful of Toshiro's robes and proceeded to drag him across the porch. Ichigo and Rukia pursued close behind.

Around a second corner, they met a very strange sight. Shihoin Yoruichi and Urahara Kisuke appeared to have concurred with Toshiro's earlier assertion they should be the ones to search for the errant Captain and Lieutenant; the pair stood by the door, the right side of their faces pressed against the wood. Yoruichi's mouth was curved in a very sly smile. Kisuke looked intrigued.

"Yoruichi! Urahara!" Ichigo said, startled, but pleasantly, and he was immediately shushed. Kisuke beckoned them over.

"Are we interrupting something?" Ukitake inquired.

Yoruichi put a finger to her lips. "We're listening."

"To what?" Toshiro asked quietly.

Oddly, the violet-haired woman began to giggle. She stifled the noise with one hand and gestured with the other to the door. "Listen for yourself."

Toshiro, Ukitake, Ichigo, and Rukia all exchanged curious glances. Rukia was the first to move forward. Ichigo followed suit. The two Captains did the same, Ukitake with an expression of mild interest and dubiety, Toshiro with an air of great impatience. For a moment, they heard nothing in the room beyond but a peculiar steady thud-thud-thud.

"What is that?" Ichigo wondered aloud.

"Quiet!" Yoruichi hissed. Ichigo, indignant to be treated in such a manner, was about to retort when what was unmistakably Abarai Renji's voice wafted out to them.

"Wait for it…wait for it…" The noise of ripping cloth, and then Renji cried, "Ta-da!"

An instant of silence.

"Well?" Renji sounded eager, even a little nervous. "What do you think, Captain?"

"It's…huge." Byakuya's murmur was muffled by the thick wall between him and the six outside, but immediately recognizable. The young Captain sounded uncharacteristically uncertain, almost…intimidated.

"So they are here," Rukia said. She tried to conceal her relief, but was only half-successful.

"Have they been here this entire time?" Ukitake wondered, bewildered. "But the other members of Squad Six said they'd searched the house and they weren't anywhere to be found!"

"Obviously, they didn't search hard enough," Toshiro snapped, quite irked he had been dragged all over Seireitei to look for two people who had been right here the whole while. "Now, come on, let's tell them they need to get their asses to headquarters so we can resume our more important work that we should, as Captains, be doing instead of leaving the responsibility to our very irresponsible Lieutenants." He started to slide the door open, but Yoruichi snatched his wrist. He blinked at her. She, however, hushed him with a swipe of her hand.

"Not yet. Just listen."

On the other side, Renji spoke again with evident pride. "Impressive, isn't it?"

"It's big."

"Of course it is!" Renji said, a bit impatiently. "What did you expect?"

"I thought it would be…smaller."

Renji sighed. "Oh, Captain, Captain…that's just like you. Always underestimating me."

"Well," Byakuya said, with a hint of defensiveness, "who could have guessed it would turn out that big?"

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"I've never seen one like that before."

"Captain, how many of these have you actually seen?"

Byakuya's response was dismissive, as indifferent as Renji had been indignant. "Who is underestimating who now?"

"You told me this was your first time!"

"Technically, it is."

"Technically?"

Byakuya sounded embarrassed; Ukitake could imagine the dim touch of sanguine which would bloom in the dark-haired Captain's face like the petals of a rose. "Well, Gin showed me his once." He lowered his voice so they almost did not catch his next words. "Not that I really wanted to see it…"

"Gin?" Renji echoed incredulously. "Ichimaru Gin? Captain of the Third Squad? The clown-alien-freak…thing? That Gin?"

"Yes. That Gin. His was about the size of a peanut."

"No surprises there, but that's him. I assure you I am much better equipped."

"Evidently…if that thing is real."

Renji appeared startled by the implication. "Of course it's real! Did you think it would be fake?"

"I would not put it past you."

"Oh, come on, Captain! Have a little faith in me! I wouldn't deceive you!"

Skeptical silence from the other man.

"All right, so maybe I would," Renji conceded. "But not about this! This is a rare opportunity for us to bond, not only as Captain and Lieutenant but as comrades, as friends, as partners."

"Funny," Byakuya said coldly. "Didn't you say something similar that time you whipped out your—"

"You swore you would never speak of that!"

"I just thought I should point out—"

"Yeah, yeah," Renji interjected hastily. "I'm an unreliable subordinate. I get it. Seriously, though, where would I find a fake one, Captain Kuchiki?"

"Mayuri offered Shunsui one."

Ukitake stiffened at the mention of his old friend. The others cast him inquisitive looks, but he merely shook his head to indicate he had no more idea what was being discussed on the other side of the wall than they did.

"He…he has fakes?" Renji seemed quite disturbed.

"Apparently," Byakuya replied impassively.

"Why…?"

"Probably because he can't get his hands on a real one."

A transitory hesitation. "Uh…well…I assure you, mine is entirely authentic. Go on, feel it!" There was a rustle of movement. "Well? See how soft and warm it is? There's no way that could be anything but the real thing, right?"

"It does feel…rather nice," Byakuya admitted.

"I knew you'd come around."

"Shut up."

Outside, more and more uncomfortable with the inexplicable conversation between the Captain and Lieutenant of Squad Six, Kurosaki Ichigo shifted and pulled away from the door. "What are they doing in there?" he wondered aloud, but he was no longer sure he wished to find out. He turned to Yoruichi and Kisuke for answers, but it was Toshiro who caught his attention. The youthful Soul Reaper gaped into the distance, teal orbs wide. His complexion had become as pallid as new frost. He looked beyond stunned, beyond disbelief; he appeared nothing short of traumatized.

"Hey, Toshiro?" Ichigo gently prodded his shoulder.

Hitsugaya displayed no sign he was even aware of the other boy's presence. "You have to be kidding me…They can't really be…I was only joking…"

"Toshiro?" Ukitake said sharply. "Are you all right?"

"Shhhh!" Yoruichi hissed. "They'll hear!"

Toshiro pivoted slowly on the spot to face Ukitake. "Don't you realize what they're doing in there?"

"What?" Ukitake and Ichigo both blinked in confusion, but Rukia had begun to catch on. Her eyes grew larger and larger until they threatened to consume her face, and her hand slowly went to her mouth. Her shock seemed to have rendered her incapable of coherent speech.

Her reaction, more than anything, prompted comprehension to dawn for Ichigo. If it had been physically possible for his jaw to hit the floor, it would have smashed a small crater in the wood beneath them. All color drained from his flesh. Yoruichi's smirk broadened. Kisuke's rapt visage remained unchanged.

Meanwhile, Ukitake's bewilderment increased.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, dismayed by the strange behavior of his companions. In reply, he was immediately shushed by five different voices.

Within the Kuchiki manor, Renji was saying, "All right, Captain, let's see yours."

Byakuya sounded unsure. "Well…"

"Show me," Renji urged. "Come on, don't be shy!"

"Renji—" Byakuya seemed increasingly discomfited.

"Just take it off. Don't keep me in suspense!"

A soft sigh, mingled with the almost unheard susurration of torn fabric. There was an instant in which all was still, and then Renji's astonished intake of breath pierced the atmosphere.

"Wow…Captain…that is…"

Byakuya's tone was chagrined, but vaguely pleased. "Well, you don't have to stare. And close your mouth. You'll draw flies."

From his voice, Renji could not believe whatever it was he beheld. "But that thing is…massive. It's bigger than mine!"

"What did you expect?" Now there was a trace of inevitable smugness.

"Not that."

"Well, if you are quite ready to put your eyes back into your head…"

"What?" Renji sounded like he had emerged from a deep sleep. "Oh, right. So, do you want to do mine first or should I do yours?"

"What? You mean we—?"

"What did you think we were here for?"

"I…"

"Captain…I never knew you were so shy." The unaffected awe in the auburn-haired Lieutenant's tone was near childish, like a youth confronted with a truth with which he almost could not cope. "Are you actually blushing?"

"Oh, just hand it over, Renji."

Renji chuckled. "Well, aren't we eager?"

"Shut up." A pause. "You really want me to put this in my mouth?"

"Go ahead, have a little taste. Trust me, you'll love it. You've never had anything like it, I guarantee!"

Outside the closed doors, Rukia stepped back toward the edge of the veranda. "All right," she said, a little unsteadily. "So it is odd, this conversation, but surely we shouldn't jump to conclusions. They could just be—" Whatever harmless act she intended to suggest Kuchiki Byakuya and Abarai Renji were engaged in, however, she never had opportunity to say. She stopped, frozen by what they all heard loud and clear next.

A wet slurping noise carried through the solid obstruction of the walls to their ears. Byakuya appeared to have acquiesced to his subordinate's request and was eating…something. After several seconds of this, he uttered a muffled moan, "Hmmm…"

"Ah," Renji said. "Can't get enough, can you?"

"Be quiet," Byakuya admonished around a mouthful of whatever Renji had offered him.

Ichigo groaned. "Tell me he isn't doing what I think he is…"

No one replied. No one seemed able. Yoruichi alone was undaunted; if anything, her grin had only broadened.

"Sorry, Captain. Just savoring the moment…" He sniggered again. "My, my, you are insatiable. You should slow down. Make it last. It's not going to run off on you, you know…"

Byakuya grunted in response.

He swallowed suddenly, and panted a minute before he said, breathless, "Renji…that was…"

"Lost for words?" Renji said, not without a hint of arrogance. "Told you you'd love it."

Byakuya moaned once more, and then seemed to recompose himself. "Regardless," he said, with a brave attempt at his usual coolness, "that thing was definitely too big. I damn near choked on it."

"Oh, you enjoyed it, just admit it. Now come here."

"Renji, what is that?" Byakuya's demeanor altered; he sounded cautious, even frightened.

"You'll see…"

"Renji…what is that?"

"You really don't trust me, do you?" Renji sighed. "It's whipped cream, Captain. Just whipped cream."

"You whipped your what?"

"Whipped cream," Renji repeated patiently. "I got it from Rukia. It's good, trust me."

Five pairs of eyes shifted to stare at Rukia. The younger Kuchiki looked distraught something she had given her childhood friend was now destined to be utilized for this.

Byakuya did not seem reassured. "What…do you plan to do with it?"

"I'm going to put it on yours. It'll enrich the flavor. I have some cherries, too, if you want to try those. Also some chocolate icing…oh! Let's get some sugar! My mouth is watering just thinking about it…"

"Stop it, Renji," Byakuya snapped, disgusted. "You're drooling all over me."

"Sorry, Captain. It's hard to restrain myself sometimes."

"Well, do whatever you want with it, just take it already. I don't have all day."

"All right, all right, relax…look, I'm putting it into my mouth right now…"

Much to the horror of their unknown eavesdroppers, the moist slurping sounds began again, this time with double the enthusiasm. Renji may have called Byakuya insatiable, but from what he was hearing, Ichigo thought Renji was the one who could not get enough.

"A perfect fit," Byakuya remarked. "Somehow I am unsurprised."

Renji might have been too preoccupied to detect the obvious insult, for he offered no retort. A short, torturous while later, Byakuya let out a sudden hiss of pain that made all six Soul Reapers outside jump. "Ow! Don't bite it off!"

A stifled apology, and then Renji gasped. He sounded like he was in absolute ecstasy. "Oh, Captain…that was wonderful…"

Byakuya snorted. "You're too aggressive, Renji. I swear, by the time the night is over, I'll have more bruises than Kenpachi's last 'best friend.'"

"Wasn't that you?"

"…Shut up."

Yoruichi looked pointedly at Rukia. "Do you still have any doubts?"

Rukia merely stared. Like Toshiro, she appeared as if she would not escape this experience psychologically unmarred.

Ukitake still did not understand. "Have doubts about what?" he inquired, but once more, instead of clarification he received a quintet of wordless admonitions to be quiet.

"Hey, Captain," Renji said. "Turn around."

"Renji, what the hell?"

"Turn around, I said."

"Stop whacking me with that thing! It's sticky and gross."

"You certainly didn't mind running your tongue all over it," Renji muttered, but, perhaps because of something he discerned in Byakuya's expression, he said hastily, "Sorry, sorry! Now will you hold still? I want to show you something."

"I think I have had just about enough of you 'showing' me things today…OW!" A loud thump, a snap, and Byakuya's ensuing shout caused Ichigo, Rukia, Ukitake, Toshiro, Kisuke, and Yoruichi all to start slightly.

"Captain?" Renji sounded alarmed. "Are you all right?"

"Renji! What the hell did you do?"

"I don't…oh, no."

"What?"

"I think…I think it's stuck."

Stuck? Ichigo mouthed unbelievingly. He had not imagined his horror could be any greater; he had been wrong. Beside him, Toshiro's visage had turned deadpan, while Yoruichi began to snigger uncontrollably. Rukia looked like she was about to faint. Kisuke's interest in what transpired beyond where they stood seemed undiminished. The same could be said for Ukitake's cluelessness, although his brow had creased a little when Renji proclaimed the unknown object in question was 'stuck.'

"Stuck?" Byakuya's voice was low, deadly, each word a promise of imminent oblivion. "What do you mean stuck?"

"I mean I can't get it back out," Renji said, worry replaced by impatience. "I can't even move it…oh, no, wait, it moves."

"Ow! Dammit, Renji, that hurts! Stop pulling so hard!"

"Sorry…I guess I just put it in wrong…"

"How the hell did you manage that? I thought you said you've done this before!"

"I have, but not like this…"

"I should never have let you talk me into this…"

"Oh, you were just as curious as I was my first time. It's natural enough. Now stop wriggling around so much, or I'll never get it. I think if I move this way a little bit, it should…"

"You're pushing it in further!"

"No, I'm not. I can feel it starting to give…just hold on…"

"I heard something tear! Abarai, if you made me bleed…" Another distinct, deafening crack resonated in the air, and Byakuya practically howled. "Ouch!"

"Are you all right, Captain?" Renji said, genuinely concerned.

"Renji…" Byakuya's voice was muffled, but the menace in it was too clear to miss. "You have three seconds to get off before you learn a whole new meaning to 'a thousand ways to die.'"

"Uh…right…forgive me." The soft rustle of robes, a brief silence, and then Byakuya spoke again.

"You idiot, you broke it."

Ichigo felt weak. He broke it? He would have fled—would have, in fact, fled ten minutes ago—but his feet seemed attached to the ground and his ear to the door. The visions which flashed before him were nauseating, but he could not eradicate them.

"I did not," Renji protested. "Look, it's perfectly fine."

"Well, don't keep bending it! Don't even touch it."

"OK, OK, I'm not touching it…"

"Put your hands anywhere near me again and I'll cut them off, do you understand?"

"Are you always this pleasant afterwards?"

"Renji…"

"All right, all right! I promise my hands will stay as far away from your precious body as possible."

Byakuya grunted, but he was apparently satisfied. There was a dull thud, as if he had fallen onto the floor. "That…was exhausting."

"Tell me about it. I haven't been this tired since the last time we fought." His tone brightened. "We should do this every night."

"Maybe not until my wounds heal."

"Oh, you liked it, wounds or no wounds," Renji said, a devious smile in his voice. "You liked it a lot. I could tell."

Byakuya scoffed, but made no verbal response.

Renji plunged on. "We should invite Izuru and Shuhei to join us. They would love it."

"Hisagi Shuhei and Kira Izuru?" Byakuya asked, without much interest. "Are they the ones you did this with before?"

"Huh-uh. You should see them in action, Izuru in particular. He's an expert. He's amazing. He makes this look easy. Watching him, you'd think he's done it all his life! You would not believe some of the things he can do. Shuhei isn't bad, although definitely not as good as Izuru. Me, either, if I do say so myself."

"Then he must really suck," Byakuya mumbled. If Renji heard the comment, he chose to ignore it.

"Oh! That gives me a great idea! We should have Yoruichi join us!"

Yoruichi's impish, rather smug smirk faltered at last. She blinked, caught totally off guard.

Byakuya sounded as shocked as she looked. "Catwoman?"

"Yeah, Catwoman. I bet Kisuke's taught her a few tricks. She could probably teach us a thing or two."

Kisuke's face turned bright crimson. Yoruichi's brow rose. They glanced at each other and quickly diverted their gazes. Ichigo stared up at the pair in frank astonishment. Toshiro fixed them with an oddly scrutinizing look, as though a suspicion he had carried for many years had been confirmed.

"Oh, you just want to see her all sweaty and covered in whipped cream."

"Don't you?"

A pause. "Didn't I tell you to shut up?"

Yoruichi's grin reappeared as suddenly as it had vanished. "How intriguing," she mused. Kisuke saw the glint in her eyes, and said a private prayer for the two younger Soul Reapers.

The silence which followed lasted longer this time. With each moment that passed, the tension built further and further until Ichigo felt he might explode with it. Finally, when he thought he could take no more, Renji's voice floated out to them again.

"So, Captain…ready for round two?"

A resigned sigh. "I suppose. But I go first."

"Whatever you say, Captain Kuchiki. I live to please you."

Another thud made Ichigo, Kisuke, Yoruichi, and Toshiro whip around. Rukia had collapsed. Ichigo sympathized; he felt like he might faint himself. His once pure mind had been completely and irrevocably corrupted. He had known his innocence would be lost to the Soul Society and its residents, but he had presumed Urahara or Zaraki Kenpachi would be ultimately responsible, not Kuchiki Byakuya and Abarai Renji, and he could never have envisioned it like this.

Evidently, neither had Rukia.

Meanwhile, Ukitake had finally come to same conclusion as the others.

The white-haired man's transformation was instantaneous and utterly unexpected. His complexion went from a deathly pallor to alarming red to deep purple in a matter of seconds. His entire form trembled with rage; it actually seemed to radiate off him in corporeal waves of heat like the flames of Yamamoto's Zanpakutou. His companions shrank away from him, surprised and frightened.

"Captain—?" Toshiro began uncertainly. Ukitake shoved him aside with uncharacteristic brutality and threw open the doors so forcefully the wood splintered.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU TWO THINK YOU ARE—"

He stopped. His words reverberated off the walls like the echo of distant thunder. His jaw dropped. Infuriation was fast replaced by shock and incomprehension. Gradually, one by one, the others gathered behind him.

A sweet aroma permeated the atmosphere, but rather than the hot, heavy odor of torrid indiscretion, it was one they all knew: the alluring scent of fresh baking. Byakuya lay stretched out on the floor in the center of the room, his long ebony tresses a trifle moist and matted to his brow. A thin sheet of sweat gleamed on his skin in the dim evening light that filtered through the open door. He seemed to nurse his right hand, which was red and slightly swollen. His sleeve was ripped. Renji knelt across from him, the upper part of his robes cast off to expose his tattooed chest. His hair was down, and cascaded over his shoulders like subdued molten embers. He had what looked like a short, slim two-pronged metal stick in one hand and a platter in the other, laden with traces of whipped cream like cloud remnants. Scattered around them were tattered pieces of cloth, and two small gift-packages lay at their feet. Behind them was a large black box, from which the scent in the air appeared to originate.

The young Lieutenant blinked at the quintet crowded in the doorway, gaping in at them as if they could not fathom what their eyes perceived. "Er…hey, guys. Uh…is there something wrong?"

Yoruichi was the first to recollect herself. "Hello, Renji," she said pleasantly. "What the hell is going on here? And what is that?" She indicated the hulking thing the two sat beside.

"Oh, this?" Renji asked, and patted the object almost lovingly. It made a hollow banging noise as he did so. "Didn't Urahara ever show you one of these? This is an oven." He spoke like one revealing a great treasure.

"A what?"

"An oven," Renji repeated patiently. "Yamada Hanaturou—you know, that hamster-y kid from Squad Four?—brought it from the Living World a while ago. Izuru, Shuhei and I have been trying it out, and we've gotten pretty good at it. I wanted to show it to Captain Kuchiki, so I took it here."

"What does it do?" Toshiro questioned, not without a hint of ambivalent curiosity.

"Bakes."

"Bakes?"

Renji nodded. "Yep. Cakes, cookies, all sorts of things. Izuru even made some muffins the other day. He seriously is amazing when it comes to cooking, those were the best muffins I ever had, and he didn't even know how to work this baby!"

"I know where he can stick his muffins," Byakuya muttered.

"Wait, wait," Yoruichi said slowly. "Hold on a minute. What's going on here?"

Renji turned to Byakuya. The dark-eyed Captain uttered a soft exhalation and sat up, brushing the hair absently from his forehead. "My fool of a Lieutenant decided, because he is so generous and eager to share with me every aspect of his life, for apparently such things solidify 'friendships,' to lug this…thing all the way from the Fourth Squad barracks to here. Although how he managed it we may never know—"

"My Bankai," Renji said cheerfully.

Byakuya stared at him a moment. "All right, via his Bankai. At any rate, he showed me how to operate this…so wondrous device, nearly setting my house on fire in the process—"

"But I didn't." He put great emphasis on the negative.

"Once it was established the thing could be used without placing my home and ourselves in mortal danger, he issued me a challenge. Of course, I had no desire to waste my time with such pointless contests—"

"Oh, you wanted to do it, be honest. I saw it in your eyes. They always give you away."

"—but I had little choice. He kept pestering me, so I conceded for the sake of my sanity."

"Do you always have to be so dramatic?"

"The object was to bake the best cookie."

"Or cake," Renji added. "It could have been a cake."

"You never said that."

"Yes, I did. I explicitly stated: 'We can make cookies, cakes or whatever else comes to mind.' You just didn't listen, I guess."

"I never listen to you, Renji."

"Don't I know it," Renji grumbled. He brooded a moment, and then brightened. "My cookie turned out a lot better than I thought. It was gigantic. Colossal. Ten inches in diameter, no lie. I've never seen one that big. Even the chocolate chips I loaded it with were massive, and as warm and gooey as you could want, you wouldn't believe it if you saw it!"

"Mine was bigger," Byakuya said.

"Only by, what, an inch or two?" Renji said dismissively. "You could hardly tell the difference." He paused, ostensibly unaware of the burning glare the other man was giving him. "Although I have to admit, yours was really good. Better than mine, I suppose…"

"Of course it was."

Renji rolled his eyes surreptitiously to the ceiling.

"They were both too big, however," Byakuya said. "I damn near asphyxiated myself on his." He jabbed an accusatory finger at his Lieutenant.

"It was your damn fault for trying to eat it all in one bite," Renji retorted. "I told you to take it slow, savor it, but once again you refused to listen. So don't blame me!"

"Look who's talking," Byakuya shot back. "You shoved the entire thing in your mouth and devoured it before I had a chance to blink!"

"Well, I clearly have more room to accommodate than you."

"We'll see how well you accommodate a hundred million blades, you keep that attitude up," Byakuya snapped. Renji cast him a withering look.

Ukitake could have slapped himself. How could he have ever believed these two fools would so much as contemplate sexual interaction? Granted, Renji would not be the first—male or female—to endeavor to coax Byakuya out of his robes and into the bedroom, and vice versa, but the day the rash and often irascible Abarai Renji succeeded to seduce the stoic and outwardly detached Kuchiki Byakuya was the day Ukitake dyed his hair pink and danced naked through the Seireitei with a group of yodeling Hollows.

Yoruichi shared his sentiments. She, too, looked somewhere between laughter and unbelief. Ichigo still seemed to struggle to grasp what was happening. Toshiro's color had not yet returned, but his shock had obviously worn off, and his expression was one of mild interest mingled with embarrassment. Kisuke was relieved, though he could not fully hide a touch of disappointment.

The oddity of the scene notwithstanding, it did explain the exchange pertaining to the comparison of respective sizes and Renji's invitation for Byakuya to 'have a little taste.' However, it still left many unanswered questions.

"What are those for?" Toshiro pointed to the gift-boxes.

"We wrapped them up to present them," Renji informed him.

"The cookies?"

Renji nodded. Toshiro raised an eyebrow, but decided it would be better not to ask.

"What happened to your hand?" Yoruichi questioned.

Byakuya glanced down. He pointed silently at Renji.

"Hey!" Renji exclaimed, indignant. "It wasn't my fault!"

"Oh, no?" Byakuya said dryly. "So the door shut magically on its own, did it?"

"I made a mistake, that's all. I didn't do it on purpose."

"Uh…do what?" Toshiro's tone suggested he did not really wish to find out.

"Well," Renji said, his irate gaze locked on his Captain, "the cookies were beyond delectable. So I decided I would try to show Captain Kuchiki a trick to making them faster that Izuru taught to me, because he had some trouble and took a while to get his ready. Everything was going great—"

"Until this idiot shut the oven door on my fingers," Byakuya interjected coldly.

"It wasn't intentional! I tried to help you!"

"And almost dismembered me in the process."

Renji sighed. He turned to the others and brandished the two-pronged rod. "The oven's a little…damaged. You can only open the door with this, but you have to insert it into the crack of the door the right way. I tried to pry it open for Captain Kuchiki, but I guess I did it wrong, so it didn't work at first. Then it got stuck." He blushed. "Took us forever to finally get it out."

"And you broke the oven," Byakuya said. He took the rod from Renji and tapped the top of the device. This time they all heard something rattle inside.

"It's not broken," Renji said irritably, and snatched the stick back. "It'll work fine." He carefully picked up the oven door by its edge, slightly warped and misshapen from the years of exposure to heat the metal had endured, and swung it up and down twice to prove his assertion.

"Keep doing that and it might snap right off."

"Paranoid," Renji mumbled. "Completely, hopelessly paranoid. How the hell did Hisana deal with being married to you?" Then, his anger apparently dissolved, he grinned at the others. "So, would anyone like to try one? We can make some for you. I can whip up some dough in a second, and we have lots of cake mix, if you'd rather have that. Also, I have a bunch of stuff to put on them." He leaned over, reached around the oven, and heaved a large crate into view. It overflowed with an assortment of toppings: containers of cherries, tubes of chocolate icing, bags of sugar and various candies, vials of multicolored sprinkles, packages of peanuts and chocolate chips. "Everything a true lover of dessert could want," he proclaimed proudly.

"And a one-way ticket to the Land of Obesity," Byakuya added in undertone.

"Oh, give me a break, Captain. You're too scrawny, anyway."

"Scrawny?" With a lazy flick of his wrist, Byakuya pushed the sleeve of his robe down to reveal his muscled torso. "Who are you calling scrawny, tattoo boy?"

Renji glanced over his shoulder, appraised the older man ephemerally, and then shrugged and returned his attention to the carton of treats. "So, do you guys want one, or what? I'll have to run and get the cake mix and the eggs and butter and stuff, but—"

He was silenced abruptly by a series of thumps from the entryway. Faintly apprehensive, as uneasy thoughts of the hundred million minute petal-like blades his superior had threatened to unleash upon him earlier flashed through his mind, he lifted his head and averted his gaze. Byakuya looked around, his countenance totally neutral, almost torporific, like one unwillingly observing an event he finds dull and meaningless.

Ukitake, Toshiro, Ichigo, and Kisuke had all fainted. Or, more precisely, Ukitake and Ichigo, the limit of the amount of shock either could take achieved and bypassed one too many times in the last twenty minutes, had fainted and knocked out Toshiro and Kisuke as they tumbled backward into them.

"Uh…guys?" Renji called tentatively. "Are you all right?"

Yoruichi regarded her unconscious companions for a moment, and then she turned calmly to Renji and Byakuya. "So…Renji. How about you make me one of those cookies?"

Renji blinked at her. "Er…sure. No problem." He stood up and hurried out, giving the inert forms of the Soul Reapers a wide berth. Once he had gone, Yoruichi—none too gently—dragged Ukitake, Toshiro, Kisuke, and Ichigo onto the outside porch, laid them side by side, reentered the room and slid the doors shut. Byakuya watched without emotion. She pivoted to face him, and gradually, her sultry smile returned.

"Well, Kuchiki Byakuya," she purred. "Shall we try the sugar first, or the chocolate?"

At that instant, a door in the opposite wall cracked open and Ichimaru Gin poked his head in. "Did someone say chocolate?"