So Contagious

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo.

Warnings: Language, Speculation, Spoilers for the Zanpakutou Unknown Tales Arc

AN: My 100th story and a gift fic for Dracoqueen22. Can be taken as friendship or preslash. Whichever you prefer.

Title from a song by Acceptance.

When he was little, Ichigo liked to pretend that death was painless. That it was like going to sleep at the end of a long and tiring day. That it was simple and easy and actually good some of the time. That the Hollow didn't so much kill his mom as make her soul lift from her body and float away.

But reality is a harsh mistress. And even when it's the loss of enemies and not friends, it still hurts. Still cuts him to the quick.

Muramasa and his master. Kuchiki Kouga. Shinigami. Traitor. Murderer. The man Ichigo sort of thinks might be Byakuya's father.

First of all, he was obviously a Kuchiki. And second, from what Ukitake-san and the drunk guy told him, Kouga was the son-in-law of Byakuya's grandfather. Which by default means that he is either Byakuya's uncle or his dad. And that last one especially breaks Ichigo's brain and makes his soul quiver. Since really, as annoying as Goat-Face is, Ichigo does love him. And he can't imagine what it'd be like if they had to fight for real. If Goat-Face died and Ichigo was the one who did him in.

He's still trying to wrap his head around the whole situation hours later at the fourth division headquarters, the place where braid-lady made them all go even though Inoue had healed everyone already. Supposedly, it's to make sure that there's no lingering side-effects from Muramasa. But Ichigo thinks that it's really to give them a chance to get their stories straight and to figure out how to cast Byakuya in the best possible light.

Not that it'll be all that difficult. Byakuya did sort of save the day and root out the conspiracy. Even if he had a roundabout way of doing it.

Still, Ichigo can't help but feel bad for the guy. They're friends of a sort, and he and Renji are probably the closest thing that Byakuya has to real ones. But Renji's also his lieutenant, which makes it awkward a lot of the time. Sure, there's Rukia, but it's not really the same. She's his little sister and a Kuchiki to boot, and that will only make Byakuya shut down completely.

So that leaves everything up to Ichigo then. As usual.

Hanatarou doesn't even ask why he needs to find Byakuya, just gives him the room number and points him in the general direction. He sees Ukitake-san out in the hallway as he approaches, and the captain waves and smiles knowingly. And if his hand lands on Ichigo's shoulder and gives a squeeze as they pass, Ichigo doesn't comment on it. He just steps up to the door and slides it shut behind him when he goes inside.

Byakuya is turned away when he enters. Not quite leaning on the windowsill above his bed but still staring out to the garden beyond. He's without his haori, but Ichigo can see one folded on the side table next to the kenseikan that he's removed from his hair. His scarf is looped around his neck as usual though, and he's still in his shihakushou. And despite his squared shoulders, there's a tired aura lingering about him. Something clearly exhausted and wishing desperately for rest. Which is probably the only reason he hasn't dragged himself home or back to the shambles of his division.

Ichigo has a second to wonder where Senbonzakura is before vaguely remembering that most of the zanpakutou spirits are being poked and prodded by the twelfth division under the watchful eye of braid-lady's lieutenant. Or more likely, they're off hiding somewhere so that they can't be found.

Ichigo walks over and sits on Byakuya's bed without invitation, and it's only then that the captain looks at him. There are circles under his grey eyes. Ones that only seem to darken and grow deeper as he watches. Of course, that might just be Byakuya's annoyance at his presumption.

"Hey," the teen greets as Byakuya's attention moves back to the window.

"Kurosaki Ichigo." He says it almost like a sigh. "What are you doing here?"

Ichigo can't help but smirk at his tone. "Just checking up on you."

"As you can see," the man returns with a vague gesture, "I am in perfect health."

The you can leave now goes unsaid, but Ichigo understands it nonetheless. He just settles back to lean against the wall and study Byakuya's profile. The captain hasn't glanced away from the window since he sat down, but Ichigo doesn't know what could possibly be so damn interesting out there since it's too dark to see much of anything.

"Eh… maybe. But it's kinda hard to argue that point when you're still holed up in the fourth," the substitute points out.

He can actually see Byakuya pause to consider that.

"Unohana-taichou insisted," he allows with distaste.

"I can see why she would," Ichigo sends back. "You were gone for awhile, and it'd make us all feel better to know that you're really okay."

Even with Byakuya partially turned away, Ichigo can still see his hands clench.

"The fight did not concern you," Byakuya says as if that explains everything.

But really, it doesn't.

"When my zanpakutou turns against me and my friends are in danger, it sorta does," Ichigo argues back. "In case you didn't notice, Muramasa was messing with all of us."

"Only because you interfered," Byakuya cuts in, and it almost sounds furious. Like Ichigo has personally offended him in some way. "Had you stayed in the living world, you could have avoided the conflict all together."

"Wait just a damn minute-" Ichigo begins, but he's cut off.

"Kuchiki Kouga was my responsibility," the captain bites out and turns to face him completely.

From this view, it's obvious that he's both just a bit mad and more than a bit exhausted. Ichigo hadn't realized how pale the man is. Or how his face is thinner than normal. Like Byakuya hasn't eaten well – at all – for days or maybe even weeks.

"It was my duty," he continues in that same tone. "My task to complete."

It was his fight; that's what Byakuya actually means. And Ichigo holds his hands up in appeasement. Since Byakuya looks far too much like a pissed off Rukia right now. Not the hot anger like when he insults her drawings. Instead, the cold fury that he's experienced so seldomly. Something so frosty that it burns with a bare brush of reiatsu.

"I'm not saying that he wasn't."

Ichigo fights back a sigh at the glare of utter disbelief.

"I'm not," he insists. "It's just…" the teen exhales and shakes his head. "It's sorta hypocritical for me to say this, but you don't have to do everything by yourself, you know. Rukia and Renji have pounded that message into my head enough for even me to get it." He chews his lip. "You could've told us. We would've helped you, and hell, Ukitake-san probably could've found out where he was in the first place. I know that he was yours to fight, but you didn't have to go through all that trouble alone."

"He was my responsibility," Byakuya repeats more forcefully, and even though they're facing now, he doesn't meet Ichigo's eyes.

"Why?" Ichigo questions, already dreading the answer he'll get. "Because he was a Kuchiki? Wouldn't that involve Rukia then, too? And you certainly were trying to keep her out of it, weren't you?"

The captain's face hardens further. And his silence, the tightness to his posture, the whole damn thing makes Ichigo even more suspicious. Makes him think that this Kouga guy meant something to Byakuya beyond the Kuchiki even. His grandfather's son-in-law. Uncle or dad.

It's a horrible thing to ask, but just from looking at him, this needs to be out in the open. Despite that, he doesn't know how to broach the topic, and Ichigo's never been good at beating around the bush. He's always been better at slashing shit down and getting straight to the point.

"Was he…" Ichigo hesitates for a fraction of a second but barges on. "Was he your dad? Kouga… Was he?"

Byakuya goes absolutely still. And he's quiet so long that Ichigo can't help but think that he's horribly offended the man. Not that it's unusual or anything. Really, he almost makes a habit of stomping up and down on not only Byakuya's pride but his patience, too.

However, as the minutes stretch on, Ichigo thinks of backtracking. Of actually apologizing. But Byakuya speaks before he can open his mouth to do so.

"Does it truly matter?" he finally asks in return, voice little more than a murmur.

Ichigo wants to say no. He knows that's what Byakuya wants to hear. But it's not the truth, and it's not what he needs right now either.

"Yeah," the younger man replies. "I think it does. I think that it matters to you."

Byakuya looks at him then. Face passive. But his eyes give him away. Say all the things he never will. That he's troubled. That his soul aches. That he wishes desperately that things were different.

But they aren't. And pretending otherwise will only hurt more in the long run.

From the looks of it, Byakuya realizes that, too. It's just so hard sometimes. So very hard. Like waking up in the rain to find his mom dead, that her life was stolen away protecting him. Like shaking her. Begging her to just open her eyes. Being found hours later by his dad as he cries over her and she grows colder.

This is exactly what that's like.

"I was raised by my grandfather," Byakuya says then.

And it's such a non sequitur that Ichigo is physically startled. That he's thrown from his memories – the rain darkening her beautiful hair and her cool skin beneath his fingertips.

"By your grandfather?" Ichigo nearly stumbles over the last part.

Byakuya nods slowly. "I was young when my mother died. She was gone before I even started my schooling," he adds with an odd lilt. "I never really knew my father. I was told that he was a Shinigami of some power, who died in the line of duty."

Neither a confirmation nor denial about Kuchiki Kouga then. Could've been him. But maybe not. Maybe Byakuya doesn't even know himself. It's hard to say what they told him as a kid. And perhaps he doesn't want to know. Ichigo isn't sure he'd want to either.

"Rukia's your only sister, right?" he asks instead. "And nobody's mentioned it if you have a brother somewhere."

"I have cousins," Byakuya responds with a faraway look. "But we weren't… friendly as children."

"And probably not now either, I suppose," Ichigo deduces.

"Quite," he acknowledges. "They're polite but distant. I am the head of the clan, but they don't care or even like me on a personal level."

The captain tilts his head then. Only slightly. Yet, it's enough to make a loose piece of hair slide into his face and across his nose. But for eye color and gender, he truly does look so much like Rukia. Even if they aren't related by blood. Some ties run deeper than that, however. Go beyond blood to something a lot stronger.

"Well, we may not be your family, but you do have friends, you know," Ichigo informs him almost testily. "People who worry about you. Me and Renji. Ukitake-san, Unohana-taichou, and even that drunk guy. We all worried when we couldn't find you. And of course, Rukia did, too."

Byakuya takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment. Like he can't decide what to say to that.

"It isn't the same," he admits softly, studying the wall behind Ichigo's shoulder.

The teen shrugs. "Maybe not. But it's better than nothing. And we're not in it for your money or because you're the head of the Kuchiki clan." He grins then, and it's very genuine if a hint mocking. "For some strange reason, we like you for you. Don't ask me why."

Byakuya just blinks at that. It takes a moment, but Ichigo can see amusement and something almost like hope glint in the grey depths of his eyes. Still, neither is quite enough to erase his obvious fatigue. The tightness of his posture and the lines on his face.

"I should let you sleep," Ichigo comments after a few more heartbeats and slowly rises to his feet.

But he pauses as soon as he does. Turning back to Byakuya, who's simply watching him. Expression calm as usual but also unguarded. Open and just a twinge sad. And that more than anything is what makes Ichigo step forward and brace a hand on Byakuya's shoulder. To lean down and softly press his lips to the man's forehead.

It's an odd thing to do for a friend. Much less another male. But in another time, another life, he remembers his mom doing it every night before he went to sleep. A gesture of affection and warmth and companionship. And more than anything, Byakuya needs to know that he isn't alone right now.

It's probably a testament to how tired Byakuya is, but he doesn't even protest. Not even when Ichigo gently pushes him to lie back on his bed and all but tucks him in.

And they say Yuzu's the mother hen.

"Night, Byakuya," he tosses over his shoulder once he moves for the exit, darkening the room along the way. "I'll see you in the morning."

"The morning?" a voice floats to his ears.

Ichigo smiles. And at least, Byakuya will hear it in his tone even if he can't see it.

"For clean up at the sixth," the teen reminds him as he comes to the door. "You need everybody you can get, right?"

"Yes… Of course." Byakuya says the next part so softly. "Tomorrow then."

"Tomorrow," Ichigo agrees.

And he's still smiling when he quietly shuts the door behind him and walks away.

AN: Being a filler character, it's highly unlikely that Kouga is Byakuya's father. But given the implications, I suppose that it's possible.

Ever Hopeful,