A/N: I am being unabashedly clichéd with this short story. I'm a hopeless romantic so I just couldn't resist doing something for Valentine's Day. The second part will appear for White Day a month from now. Enjoy.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Bleach characters, manga, anime, movies, etc. They belong by copyright laws to Tite Kubo et al.
Romance Is In the Air
Saint Valentine's Day
It was a well-known fact that Valentine's Day in Japan was celebrated differently from the way it was in the West. Girls and women alike gave out chocolates to friends and family. They reserved the honmei-choko for loved ones, especially a certain guy that they might favor. What wasn't as well known was the fact that it had all started as a gimmick by the confectionary industry.
It was one of the two main reasons Ichigo Kurosaki hated the holiday with a passion. The holiday that had been originally intended to celebrate a Christian saint had been blown all out of proportion by commercialism instead of being it about a day to remember and celebrate loved ones. Granted, in Japan Christmas Eve was the day for lovers but Ichigo respected another culture's religious views even if he didn't share them.
The second main reason he hated the day was because of the amount of girlish nonsense that went along with the presentation of chocolate. If girls weren't nervous and angst-ridden enough, the holiday made them even more so. They became concerned about whether to give giri-choko, tomo-choco, or honmei-choco, even going so far as to worry over whether they should buy it or make it.
Unfortunately for him, he had the distinct misfortune to not only live with two females (one of whom insisted on making chocolate for every member of her family and friends) on a yearly basis but also live with a female Shinigami who had no concept of the holiday. Of course, Yuzu, having heard from Rukia that she didn't understand what it was about, was only too happy to rectify the situation.
It was because of this that the famous orange haired Shinigami daiko was trailing Rukia and Yuzu while they shopped. Both girls had their own allowance, thanks to Isshin but somehow Ichigo had the feeling that his wallet was going to take a hit in this endeavor as well. It was less than a week before the dreaded day and the only one not caught by the craze was Karin. Oh, she'd purchased chocolates for her friends so that they knew she cared but because it wasn't in her nature to fuss, no one would be insulted that she hadn't gone all out.
That was perfectly fine with him as most of her friends were guys and Ichigo didn't want any of them to get the idea that she favored them in any particular way. Yuzu on the other hand had mostly female friends so he wasn't too worried about her either. Even those of her friends that were of the opposite gender knew what a sweetheart she was and found nothing odd in getting homemade chocolates.
No, it wasn't his sisters that had him worried. It was Rukia. The guys at school who didn't know that she was a Shinigami were still under the impression that she was a "good girl" and many had a crush on her. Even Keigo, who did know, had pestered her about the subject until Ichigo was ready to punch the hyperactive brunet into oblivion.
"Ichi-nii!" A sharp tug on his sleeve brought him out of his thoughts and the teen looked down at his sister. Her pout nearly made him snicker but he held back. She was after all the cook of the family and he'd rather not incur her wrath on this matter.
"I was thinking, Yuzu. What do you need?"
"I need that mold on the top shelf." The sandy blonde twin pointed to the object. Both girls stepped back and allowed him to take down the mold, their looks of satisfaction telling him clearly why he had been brought along. At least they weren't trying to dip into his wallet—yet.
"What's the matter, squirt, too short?" Even though the question was directed at Yuzu, Ichigo looked at Rukia as he spoke.
"Baka," she returned before turning up her nose and marching off, Yuzu skipping a step to catch up. At least she hadn't kicked him in the middle of the store.
Again he trailed them, content for the moment to keep an eye on the two. Once they got to the counter, Ichigo felt every female eye on him in the place. One of the few men caught his eye and gave him a sympathetic smile before he forked over money for his significant other. Ichigo stayed out of the way, prepared to cart the bags back home, knowing that was his final task of the day.
"Ichi-nii…" Yuzu called.
"Just three hundred yen." The daiko nodded, believing that it wasn't that much. Digging into his pocket for change, he pulled out the three hundred yen coins and handed them over. When it was Rukia's turn, he didn't even bother to ask.
"Five thousand," the Shinigami said curtly.
"Baka, I have to save some to buy Renji a chocolate. They didn't have any more pineapple molds. Yuzu said that the bakery next door could do it." Ichigo tried racking his brain to remember whether he had ever seen something like that. Five thousand yen would be worth it to see the expression on the redhead's face.
"Fine." The new manga would have to wait until next week.
As he had figured, Ichigo had the bags of colored chocolate and molds, marveling at how much the girls had bought. They went into the bakery next door and waited in line as a group of girls ordered chocolates to be made for them. Making them at home was all well and good if one could bake. By the two dozen or so in front of him, Ichigo was beginning to think that it was becoming a lost art.
When it was finally Rukia's turn, he listened closely. There were times when he had to cover for her lapses and now was not the time to be letting her make large mistakes surrounded by middle and high school girls who would expect her to know what she was doing. The confectioner and Rukia had their heads bent together and he stood over her shoulder to see what they were conspiring about. Ichigo's upper lip curled in a smirk at the shape that was taking form on the paper.
Five thousand yen was definitely worth the expression that would come over the sixth division lieutenant's face. "Oi, midget, you ready yet?"
"Shut up, Strawberry." Several girls giggled behind him. Rukia smiling triumphantly at his scowl and paid the clerk before putting her wallet away. "Now I'm done." The petite young woman turned on her heel and left him and Yuzu to follow.
"Ichi-nii, you should stop picking on Rukia-nee."
"Che." Ichigo shifted the bags and continued to follow. The teasing was two sided, Rukia giving as good as she got and often out doing him. Obviously, Yuzu was still under the impression that Rukia needed to be defended from her big brute of a brother.
Once home, everyone was kicked out of the kitchen while the younger twin taught the raven haired Shinigami the fine art of making chocolate. Relieved that he didn't have to hover in order to avoid disaster, Ichigo returned to his room and settled in to do homework without interruptions. He was half way through his math homework when Yuzu called his name.
"What now, Yuzu, I was doing my homework."
"I need more butter."
"To make the regular chocolate."
"But you bought chocolate. I thought you were just going to melt it and put it into molds." He looked at the two females in the kitchen with confusion.
"That wouldn't be very meaningful. Besides, we bought colored chocolate to put on top of the regular brown chocolate."
"All right, I'll go get more butter."
By the time the girls were done making the largest batch of melted chocolate he'd ever seen, Ichigo was wondering if he'd even want to look at the stuff much less eat it again. The scent was cloying, permeating the house and no doubt the clinic. An assembly line had been set up and Karin had been hoodwinked into helping put together one of the largest operations Yuzu had ever attempted.
They were about to commence when they realized he was still staring in abject horror at them. "Go away, you fool."
"Oh, don't worry, midget, I'm out of here. Try not to make a mess." Ichigo went to hide, not wanting to see what they came up with. He had a feeling that dinner that night would smell like chocolate along with everything else.
Rukia began pouring her chocolate into the mold she'd made for her brother. It had taken a lot of practice but she believed that she'd gotten the shape of his favorite character right. Ambassador Seaweed waited in an aluminum made mold, ready to be brought to life. She'd gotten dark green chocolate to poor over the top in a thin layer and Yuzu had promised to use her skills to make the eyes and mouth on it. She'd also found a small mold that resembled sakura blossoms and was going to add those to the box she was making. The tradition of Valentine's Day might be a human custom but it wouldn't be right to leave out her brother. The same went for Renji. As her oldest friend, he deserved something.
She was going to give something to all of her classmates, although most were going to get cheap giri-choco. Rukia had bought small boxes of the inexpensive treat to pass out. Out of the girls, only Tatsuki and Orihime would get homemade tomo-choco while she had spent a little more on the others she had taken to calling friends. And even though she didn't want to encourage them, she had bought something just this side of cheap for Mizuiro and Keigo. Chad and Ishida would get small homemade chocolates as thanks for saving her from execution while all the other males could settle for the giri-choco she'd purchased.
That left Ichigo. The orange haired daiko had never made a secret of the fact that he liked chocolate. He did, in fact, horde it like a miser. Often he'd tease her with it before pretending to hand it over grudgingly. She wanted something special to give him. Something that would let him know how she felt about him and about all that he'd done for her.
With that in mind she'd purchased the biggest strawberry mold she could find along with some small sun molds so that she could create a big box of homemade goodies for him. It was probably going to be too elaborate but with everything that happened between them, it was the least that she could do to show her appreciation. He would be getting, although it embarrassed her to admit it, honmei-choco.
"Rukia-nee, we need to let these set for a while before adding the top layer of colored chocolate." Yuzu had poured the remaining chocolate into a plain mold and set it aside so that it would harden.
"All right. That didn't seem too hard."
"If you're done with the major assembly line, can I go wash my hands?" Karin held up her brown streaked appendages while surveying her twin.
"Yes, thank you, Karin." A dusting of cocoa had made a streak over Yuzu's cheek and Rukia bit her tongue to keep from laughing.
"Why don't we all clean up?" she suggested. "By the time we get everything washed and put away, it should be time to melt the other chocolate. Karin, since you have the least amount, why don't you go first? That way, you can watch the molds and make sure no one takes an interest in them." So far they had been lucky enough to be left alone but the afternoon was waning and Isshin would be closing up shop soon. He would stick his nose into their business the moment he was free so it was better to keep a guard over their labors.
"Sure." The dark haired tomboy raced up the stairs, intent on making sure that no trace of such a domestic endeavor was left on her body. Aprons had saved their clothes but the scent of chocolate probably had saturated them along with their hair and skin. Karin would most likely take a shower in the near future, just to cover all of her bases.
It was a good thing that Rukia had thought to leave a guard because when she came back, Isshin was hovering over the newly hardened candy, sniffing at the treats. Karin was winding up to kick the elder Kurosaki away when the Shinigami intervened. "Oji-san, you mustn't spoil your dinner. Yuzu-chan worked hard on those. You wouldn't want to ruin that, now would you?"
"My darling third daughter, you are right. I am so ashamed. Forgive me, Yuzu! Daddy didn't mean any harm!" As the patient, warm-hearted daughter that she was, Yuzu allowed the hug that he forced on her.
"Yeah, yeah, you old goat. Just stay away from the candy factory. They have more work to do." Karin dragged her father away, forcing him out of the kitchen. "You better get the rest of it done before Ichi-nii overcomes his aversion to the smell. If there's one Kurosaki who loves chocolate, it's our big brother."
Taking the words to heart, the two chocolatiers went back to work, finishing off the smaller candies first. By the time Ichigo came down complaining of an empty stomach, the girls had covered everything up and moved the chocolates to a safer location. Yuzu had promised to help Rukia make boxes to store all of her candies in and she was looking forward to it.
Ichigo ate breakfast quickly the next day and made himself scarce once again. The girls were busy with Valentine's work again and he didn't want to be in the way. He also didn't want to be dragged into service by either Yuzu or Rukia as Karin had been when she'd stuck around too long.
Despite her no-nonsense demeanor and outlook on life, Rukia was getting into the spirit of the commercialized holiday. Her eyes twinkled with the absorption of knowledge of this world and Ichigo wanted to go and hug her. He wanted to tell her that she had every right to learn as much about this place as she wanted to because it was her home. She belonged here, in this world, in this town, in this house. Wasn't that the real reason he had saved her? Not some debt as he'd told everyone who'd asked but because he hadn't been able to stomach the thought that she was nothing to their classmates? That she had so easily disappeared from their memories?
Okay, so maybe the debt had been part of it but not the whole. Rukia had, quite simply, changed his world. Ichigo wanted nothing more than to show her everything that she had missed out on by dying as a baby and raised in Inuzuri before becoming a Shinigami and being adopted by Byakuya. It had hurt to hear about how Hisana had abandoned her and left her alone in that dusty, downtrodden district.
Laughter filtered up the stairs to his room and he had to clench his fists to keep himself from joining the trio of females. Sighing, he silently admitted that he could put up with the nonsense if it meant Rukia was happy. She'd had so much guilt and pain over the past year that for her to let go and act like a young woman instead of the "aged" Shinigami she insisted she was, calmed his soul and put his mind at rest.
The eventful day rolled around like any other February day. Mother Nature had even been so gracious as to sprinkle a dusting of snow on the ground and trees to make the day seem even more romantic. Ichigo pulled on a jacket, offering a hooded sweatshirt to Rukia so that she could stay warm. The gloves that he had bought her for her birthday were forced on the petite Shinigami as well, earning him a glare as she was attempting to fit all of her gifts into her school bag.
"Give me the ones you want to hand out to our male classmates," he sighed, just wanting to get the day started so that it would end all the quicker.
"Thank you. By the way, I'm leaving yours at home. It's on your desk." The nonchalant statement made him wonder if it was any big deal. She sounded so casual that if he hadn't known better, he would have assumed that he'd been put into the giri-choco category with the majority of the male population.
"I don't suppose that you booby trapped it so that the old man would leave it alone." Ichigo stuffed the cheap candies into his bag, hooking the clasp absent mindedly.
"Oh, I gave Oji-san his this morning and told him that if he took yours, I'd make sure that he never got another honmei from Yuzu again."
The daiko grinned, placing a hand underneath her elbow as she slid into her shoes. "That's devious. I wish I'd thought of that."
"I also said that now that the Grand Fisher was dead, your mother's soul was no doubt waiting somewhere in the Soul Society for him and I'd make sure that she knew what he'd done."
Ichigo paused, his hand on the door knob to shut it. "Do you think so?"
"Yes, I do think that she's waiting. Once a Hollow is purified, all the souls that it's eaten are freed and sent on. Every time that Renji goes out into the Rukongai, he looks for her. I said it was the least we could do to thank you. I know how much she means to all of you."
"But will she remember us?"
"I think so. Souls without power often forget their human lives after a while but I think because she became part of the Grand Fisher, it'll be different for her. And she might have developed her own spiritual powers after a natural death anyway. There's no way to know now. Wouldn't that be something, Ichigo? Maybe your mother will become a Shinigami and by the time you join the Gotei Thirteen permanently, she'll be your commanding officer."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, midget? To have my mother give me orders like I was a little kid again."
Rukia smiled, glad that the mention of his mother hadn't hurt him as she thought it might. "Well, Tatsuki did say that you were a 'mama's boy' when you were a kid. It would only be fitting."
"Do I look like a 'mama's boy'?" Ichigo growled, straightening to his impressive height.
"No," she admitted, blushing faintly. Rukia shifted her bag into her other hand, trying to think of a way to get back to their lighthearted chatter. His scent was on the sweatshirt that she wore, making her feel like she was surrounded by his embrace. The feeling was intensified by the fact that the garment was engulfing her slight frame.
"There you go. And if anyone's going to be giving orders when I go there, it's going to be me. After all your commands, it'd serve you right if I became a captain right away." Ichigo's smirk clearly said what he'd do if he became her commanding officer.
"Yamamoto-soutaicho would never just hand you a position like that!" Rukia protested although she wouldn't be surprised if the old general did just that.
The two Shinigami were readying themselves for another pointless argument when Keigo's voice interrupted them. The anger deflated somewhat and the remaining ire was cast upon the unsuspecting teen who'd dared to butt into their "conversation." Mizuiro stayed to one side, texting on his cell while both Rukia and Ichigo glared at Keigo.
The raven haired young woman finally blinked, recalling the purpose of the day. "Ichigo, give Keigo his giri-choco from me. It's in your bag."
"You're giving Keigo chocolates?"
"I'm getting chocolates? On Valentine's Day? Rukia, you honor me with your love!" The sandy brown haired teen clutched at his small box like someone was going to take it away.
"It's just a sign of my appreciation. For your friendship this past year." Rukia gave Mizuiro an identical box which the playboy thanked her for with a bow.
Keigo sidled up to Ichigo's side and nudged him playfully. "So… Did you get chocolate from Rukia?"
"Yeah, she left it on my desk. I'll check it out when we get home."
"You don't even know whether it's honmei, tomo, or giri?" the shorter teen asked.
Ichigo snorted, keeping an eye on Mizuiro while he talked with Rukia. When he'd learned how old she really was after the war, he'd taken an unhealthy interest in her. Unhealthy for him, that is. "It's honmei-choco, of course. It's the only kind she'd give me."
"You're confident of your place in her affections," Keigo said, not entirely in jest.
"Aa," Ichigo said quietly, deciding that it was time to rescue Mizuiro from Rukia's growing irritation. He knew that he was in her heart, and for the moment, he was content with that. "Mizuiro, you keep hitting on her and she's going to hit you. If she hits you as hard as she does me, we'll have to backtrack to the clinic." The dark haired boy looked at him guiltily and stopped his advances.
They met up with Tatsuki and Orihime part way to school and the girls fell to talking. Bits of the conversation floated back to Ichigo and he had to fight the smirk that wanted to come to the surface. The two high school girls had pulled Rukia into the excitement of the day and she was describing with enthusiasm the chocolate she had made for her brother. Resolutely he kept his scowl in place to discourage any females from thinking that they could give him chocolates because he was in a good mood.
Girls ran around the room giving their friends and classmates the appropriate kind of candy while giggling about the boys that they had come to like. Ichigo had found a few packages in his shoe locker, their discovery making Rukia frown. He'd briefly toyed with the notion of making her jealous but reconsidered when he realized that she'd beat him half to death when she figured out what he'd been doing. So he'd shoved the notes and chocolates back into the locker to deal with later. She'd tilted her head to the side, an arrogant smile telling him that he'd made the right choice. The only feelings he was going to accept were hers, whatever they might be.
Tatsuki plopped a pack of pocky in front of him, the four chocolate covered sticks the extent of her adherence to the holiday. "Thanks, Tatsuki. I'll actually give you a whole box on White Day." Since it was expected that a guy return the favor two to three times over, a whole box of the snack would cover the obligation and then some. He figured an extra package could be given out for the longevity of their friendship without someone thinking something was going on between them. Besides, he still had to make amends for not including her in everything.
Orihime approached him next, nervous and shy. The box she had was small and he hoped that it was just out of friendship that she was offering it to him. She'd given Chad and Ishida equally sized packages so the hope wasn't unfounded. "Um, Kurosaki-kun, I wanted to give you this. For your friendship, you understand."
"And with friendship I accept." He wondered if she'd made it or if she'd bought it. Ichigo prayed that she bought it because he really didn't want to know what she'd added if she'd decided to make it herself.
Their teacher came and interrupted the festivities so he shoved the treats into his desk and decided to pay attention for once. The class settled and they went about learning. Every once and a while he'd hear a giggle and when he looked to the side, it was to find that Rukia had a small smile on her face. He'd have to remember to go with her to the Soul Society. He really wanted to see Renji's expression when he opened that box. The confectioner had shown it to them when they went to pick it up yesterday and he'd gotten a good laugh then. Even Byakuya's look would be entertaining. The noble was likely to have a blank stare on his face for once rather than cold superiority.
When lunch came, Ichigo got to find out whether Orihime had made or bought the chocolates she'd handed out. Ishida, who now sat with them without complaint, opened his box and stared at the treat with confusion. He'd most likely never gotten Valentine's Day chocolate before so Orihime's gift had really sent the normally calm and collected Quincy into a tail spin.
"Oh, Ishida-kun, are you going to eat it now?" the flower wielder asked, her hands clasped in anticipation.
"I thought it might be appropriate. That way I can thank you face-to-face and it would be a fitting dessert for the day." The archer put the chocolate to his mouth, missing Tatsuki's crossed fingers. Ichigo saw though and sat up to watch the spectacle more closely. An interesting array of expressions crossed Ishida's face and he finally swallowed with difficulty.
"What do you think? Tatsuki assured me that mint and raspberry were the right kinds of things to add if I wanted to flavor them but I still think that wasabi or red bean paste would have been better."
Pushing up his glasses, Ishida took a sip of his water before saying anything. Chad and Ichigo were watching him, wondering what he'd actually tasted. He waited an extra beat before replying just to torture the daiko. "I believe that Arisawa was right in this instance, Inoue-san. The wasabi and red bean paste would have overwhelmed the chocolate. Your mint and raspberry chocolates were just the thing. Thank you."
"I'm so glad you liked it. I did add wasabi and red bean paste to one of the batches but I can't remember whose it was." Since the warm hearted girl had given out several boxes, including one to their teacher, it was anybody's guess as to who the victim was.
A distant cry of "Water!" drew their attention in the direction of the teachers' room and several of the gathered friends chuckled.
"I think it was our teacher's. At least she'll never forget who gave her that special box of chocolates." Ichigo, believing it safe to eat his, finished off the last of the pocky and opened the box she'd given him. "These look nice. You really did a nice job." He ate one of the four small pieces without care, the mint and raspberry clogging his throat. Ichigo stared hard at Ishida who only smirked at him.
"Thank you," she said shyly.
The orange haired war hero didn't say anything back as he was busy washing down the too sweet candy. Rukia looked at him knowingly and Ichigo just knew that he'd get teased by her later. "You're welcome, Inoue. If you'll all excuse me, I have to go return some chocolate." Ichigo rose, intent on getting the ones out of shoe locker to return.
A look of concern was shared within the group of girls and they understood that he was intending on saving the girls who'd given him honmei-choco from false hopes. The daiko didn't like the duty but he knew that it was a necessary one. By the time he returned, his scowl was firmly back in place, all amusement at Ishida's reaction to Orihime's chocolate vanished.
"Ichigo?" Rukia asked before class started again.
"I really hate that part of Valentine's Day. You don't want to upset the girls because their feelings are fragile enough but you can't lead them on either." He sighed, just wanting the day over with.
"It was better that you gave them back. Most girls know by now that you're not the type to accept gifts from anyone but close friends."
"Yeah, but I really hate this holiday. Japan didn't celebrate it until the middle of the last century, you know. It just makes angst filled teenage girls even more so."
"Don't worry, the day is almost done."
"I can't wait. I really want to see the look on Renji's face when he sees his chocolate pineapple." The thought brought amusement to his face once again.
Rukia looked at him in surprise. "You're coming with me?"
"Of course, I am. Renji and Byakuya's reactions are going to be the highlight of my day." He also wanted to make sure that her brother accepted her feelings by accepting the gift but he didn't tell her that. She would just think he was being an overprotective jerk again.
Frowning, Rukia faced forward when their teacher finally came in. "I should have known that's what you wanted."
Ichigo just smirked in reply.
Once home, Ichigo was tempted to forgo everything and open the box that sat temptingly on his desk. The sheer size of it rivaled that of Renji's and Byakuya's. He had little doubt that he if he opened it, he'd find a large strawberry staring back at him. Throwing down his bag and changing out of his uniform, Ichigo waited until Rukia came to him before using his badge to get out of his body. There was no way that he was leaving Kon in his body that day. The mod soul would no doubt eat his chocolate and then go find more.
"If you're coming, let's get going. I have homework."
"We all have homework. I was just waiting for you. I can't very well open a gate for myself."
They travailed to her brother's mansion, having sensed their quarry there. Renji met them on the way out of Byakuya's study and Ichigo waited patiently for the explanation of the human holiday to sink into the redhead's brain. The lieutenant eagerly accepted the treat, grinning at Ichigo as if the daiko hadn't also been given the same sort of thing from Rukia. The high school students watched him open the box, his face taking on a comical mix of surprise and chagrin.
"A pineapple? Seriously, Rukia?"
"Well, it does remind me of your hair, although it's yellowish, not red." Rukia smiled winningly, content with her logic.
"Ah, yeah, I guess. Thanks, Rukia." Renji didn't really understand the whole concept but he did understand that it was supposed to be a show of appreciation.
"You're welcome. Now I have to give Nii-sama his."
"You got one for Taicho?" Shocked eyes flew to Ichigo. The daiko stared back, a grin spreading across his face.
"Oh, yeah, she made him one. And guess what she made it? Byakuya's Ambassador Seaweed. You should see it. She made it out of regular chocolate before coating the whole thing in dark green colored chocolate."
"You got to see it to believe it."
"Nii-sama will appreciate it."
Smiling down at her, Ichigo placed a hand on her shoulder. "Of course he will." It went unspoken that he would make sure that Byakuya did.
"I do want to see his reaction," Renji admitted and the boys watched as Rukia entered her brother's domain. They stayed outside so as not to miss anything. She went about explaining the holiday to the noble and Byakuya's expression went from bemused to annoyed.
"Kurosaki," the captain ordered. "You will explain why my sister has knowledge of this human custom."
"She goes to school with me. My little sister found out that she didn't know what it was about and explained everything. To fit in better, she decided to observe the day like any other teenager her age."
"Rukia is not a teenager." Byakuya stared stonily at the daiko.
"No, but everyone who doesn't know who she really is, believes that she is. If she didn't participate at least somewhat, she would appear strange and out of place."
"Nii-sama, it's supposed to be a day to show how much we care about our friends and family. If people found out I didn't give any to my brother, they'd wonder why. With Yuzu's guidance, I made it myself." Rukia offered the box of chocolate hesitantly.
Byakuya looked first at Ichigo's scowling face than at his sister's hesitant one. It might be a ridiculous human custom but she was giving him a gift and he'd be rude and insensitive if he didn't accept. He didn't know how much effort went into making such a thing but since Rukia had never once stepped foot in the kitchen while meals were being prepared, he doubted she knew the first thing about making candy.
"I accept, Rukia. Thank you." The noble opened the box, noticing that all three younger Shinigami were waiting for him to see what was inside. The familiar face of his own made-up cartoon character looked back at him and he couldn't help the pleasure that coursed through him.
"Do you like it, Nii-sama?"
"Your artistic ability is finely honed in this example. And what are these of other things supposed to be?"
"They're sakura blossoms. I even used pink colored chocolate in the mold. They reminded me of Senbonzakura."
"I see. You did well, imouto." Byakuya watched with a little guilt as her violet eyes lit with joy. Ichigo squeezed her shoulder in wordless comfort.
"I will have to think of an appropriate gift in return."
"Oh, don't worry, Byakuya. We humans have one. The guys are supposed to return the favor two to three times over on White Day. It's tradition to give gifts of white chocolate and also things like jewelry, and other accessories."
"Two to three times over?" Renji asked.
"Yeah, let's take yours for example. The midget couldn't find a pineapple mold, so she went to a bakery to have one made. It cost her about five thousand yen. That means that the gifts you give her has to value at least ten thousand."
"I see," Byakuya murmured. "And when is this 'White Day?'"
"A month from now. March fourteenth." Only Renji saw the gleam of anticipation in Rukia's eyes. Her brother and Ichigo obviously had a tall order to fill.
"Very well then. On this 'White Day' I shall return the gift."
"Thank you, Nii-sama." Rukia bowed and made to leave the room. "Ichigo, we have to go. Sensei gave us a lot of homework."
"I'm coming, Rukia." Ichigo nodded to the two men and trailed behind the petite young woman.
Rukia and Byakuya watched them leave, the lieutenant shaking his head. "Captain, humans sure have odd customs."
"Indeed." Despite what he might think, Byakuya was not going to disappoint his sister. He had done that too often in the past. The Kurosaki brat might have come seemingly to laugh at him but he'd really come to ensure that the noble accepted his sister's feelings as represented by the chocolate.
As if he could do anything less.
Back home, Ichigo flopped onto his bed, the box of chocolate on his lap. Rukia sat at his desk doing their math homework and pretending to ignore his contemplation of the gift. After several minutes of just staring at it, the daiko decided to open it. He'd been waiting all day for this chocolate.
"What are you waiting for, you jerk?"
"I'm savoring the moment, midget, relax." Peeling away the ribbon and slipping open the top, Ichigo couldn't help but grin when the giant strawberry came into view. "I knew it!" he crowed, for once not put out by the misinterpretation of his name. In delicate kanji the phrase "My soul" was printed neatly across the fruit. Little chocolates of suns were nestled among the tissue paper and Ichigo felt his throat close.
"Well?" Rukia demanded, anxious to know what he thought.
"Come here, Rukia," he said seriously. He pulled the small Shinigami into his arms, resting his head on hers as he tucked it under his chin. "Always," he whispered. "You'll never have to doubt how I feel. I accept everything."
Slim arms snaked round his waist and Rukia sighed in relief. "Thank you." Picking up a sun, she stuffed it into his mouth, effectively ruining the mood. "Now tell me if it's good."
Ichigo chewed thoughtfully, swallowing without trouble. It was ten times better than Inoue's. "Why don't you see for yourself?" he asked daringly and before she could inquire as to what he meant, Ichigo kissed her.
The box of chocolates was forgotten as the two explored the romance of the holiday and for the first time, Ichigo learned to like Valentine's Day.
A/N: Just a couple of facts for those who aren't familiar with the cultural differences. You may thank Wikipedia for the information.
1.) Valentine's Day is the celebration of the patron saint of lovers in Western cultures. One of the saints associated with this holiday was a martyr. It is said that he was a Roman priest who was executed for marrying Christian couples during the reign of Claudius II.
2.) Valentine's Day was first introduced to Japan in 1936. Campaigns during the 1960's made the custom popular. There are three distinct kinds of chocolate. Giri is obligatory that one would give to a colleague or boss, honmei is favorite chocolate that one would give to loved ones, and tomo is the kind one, especially girls, give to friends.