Chapter 1: The Cherry Blossom Viewing

Ichigo stopped at the open gates at the entrance to Kuchiki Manor as the guards bowed briefly in welcome to him and to the shinigami who stood at his side.

"Urahara-san, Kurosaki-san," the guard said politely, "Kuchiki-sama and Abarai-san are awaiting you on the patio in the main garden. Please continue along the walkway ahead of you and turn right at the end to reach the garden."

"Arigato, Tsutomu-san," answered Ichigo

Ichigo heard Kisuke laugh softly and turned his head to look at the shopkeeper.

"What's so funny?" he asked, keeping his voice quiet to suit the tranquil environs.

Kisuke smiled and slipped a hand into his.

"Oh, it's nothing all that interesting," the shopkeeper said softly, "It's just that I've never received quite such an enthusiastic welcome here at Kuchiki Manor is all. Even before I was banished, I'm afraid neither Byakuya nor Ginrei were all that fond of me. Perhaps it was my affiliation with Yoruichi."

"Hmmm…" Ichigo chuckled, "I'd have to say Byakuya never welcomed me here with so much enthusiasm before either. But motherhood really agrees with him, ne?"

"Oho," laughed Kisuke shortly, "You'd better not let Byakuya hear you refer to him like that. I think he'd put a ban kai to your ass."

"What good would it do?" Ichigo fired back, "Since he got pregnant, all his ban kai is is a bunch of soft, harmless petals."

"Yeah," Kisuke agreed, "But you might want to remember that he's not pregnant anymore. Those petals already have edges."

"But wait a minute," Ichigo objected, "I thought that the reason Byakuya wanted me to take that next mission with Renji was because he was still affected by the pregnancy."

"He is," Kisuke said, nodding, "But even though his blades are sharpening and his reiatsu levels are returning to normal doesn't mean he's in shape for a mission yet. It's going to be a few months before he is at full strength."

Ichigo fell silent, breathing in the sweet scent of flowers and watching Kisuke out of the corner of an eye. A thought occurred to him…as it had been occurring off and on ever since Byakuya and Renji had first announced that the noble was with child. He studied Kisuke's profile, thinking about the shopkeeper's obvious affection for Jinta and Ururu, and wondered if…

"It's kind of sad," he said without thinking.

A flush rose on his cheeks as he felt Kisuke's eyes come to rest on him.

"What's sad?" Kisuke asked, stopping on the walkway.

Ichigo smiled briefly.

"Well, I guess I mean that Byakuya and Renji are really lucky. Because of Byakuya's nobility, they are able to have kids together…"

The shopkeeper's gray eyes softened and Kisuke gave his hand a squeeze.

"Stop worrying about that," he said with gentle reproach, "I told you. It doesn't matter. And besides, I am working on that. Byakuya has been very generously allowing me to study the progression of his pregnancy so that I can become familiar with how exactly it works. It suggests that there is a way to 'unlock' the gene or genes that allow a male to become pregnant. I really believe that if noble males can, then there's a way to make non-nobles able to have babies too."

"And if there's a way to do that, you will find it," Ichigo said, wrapping an arm around the shopkeeper and meeting him for an affectionate kiss.

Kisuke's smile widened.

"Come on, Ichigo, we don't want to keep his highness waiting, ne?"

"Ah, no," answered the youth, "Byakuya's kinda pissy about things like that."

"Aw, be nice," laughed Kisuke, "He's actually been downright sweet for the past nine months. I think if Renji knows what's good for him, he'll keep that one barefoot and pregnant for the next hundred years or so."

"Kami!" giggled Ichigo, "I don't think they want that many babies, do you?"

"Why not?" Kisuke asked, grinning, "They can just hire more attendants to help them. Ah, the niceties of wealth..."

"Yeah, whatever..." Ichigo chuckled.

They stepped down off of the end of the walkway and entered the lovely main garden of the manor. Ichigo marveled, as he did every time he came to Kuchiki Manor at just how beautiful and peaceful this place was. It just went to prove that much went on beneath the calm, stern surface of the complex noble his friend had fallen in love with.

How does that happen? he mused, How does a guy fall in love with someone who once tried to kill him?

But, he realized, Renji had always idolized Byakuya, even when he hated him. And in much the same way (but without the hatred and near killing), Ichigo had idolized Urahara since the man had scooped his nearly dead body off the ground (Hmmm…after Byakuya had almost killed him…) and found the shinigami inside him. Nothing had been the same since. And, he realized, he wouldn't change a thing about that even if he could.

His thoughts were interrupted as they reached the gazebo and Renji stepped forward to greet them. Byakuya sat with Baby Hajime cradled in his arms, feeding the boy from a bottle and smiling gently as a tiny hand reached up and tugged at a handful of the noble's silken black hair.

"Ah, you don't want to be doing that, little Kuchiki," Ichigo said grinning, "I think if any of the rest of us did that, we'd be running for our lives, ne?"

He expected Byakuya to frown or show disapproval, but the noble continued to show an unusually docile nature, only letting out a puff of breath and observing him with a calm gray eye as he and Kisuke sat down at the table and breakfast was served.

"So, Renji-san," said Ichigo, "Is that a new kimono?"

Renji glanced down at the deep red kimono that was decorated with a pattern of dark flowers and lined with bright red silk.

"Oh yeah," he said, looking back at Byakuya and smiling, "It was a gift from Byakuya to celebrate our son's birth and naming ceremony. I think these people have about a hundred 'celebrations' and 'gatherings' for every damned thing that happens."

"There are fewer major gatherings of the clan," Byakuya explained, "but because of the sheer size of the family, the number of subfamilies, other festivals and celebrations are more local. It's just that we are invited to several of the same type because I am clan leader."

"Man! I think I had it easier on the streets of Inuzuri," Renji laughed good-naturedly, "I may have had to struggle to have enough to eat, but no one ever told me what to do. For a clan leader, you sure have a lot of people watching over your every move. Especially that set of old geezers. Sheesh, I don't know how you put up with all of their complaining. We gave'em an heir. What more do the old goats want?"

"Renji, please refrain from referring to the Kuchiki elders as 'geezers' and 'old goats,'" sighed Byakuya, "Although, I do agree that they seem to make an awful lot of fuss over everything. But that is why my grandfather instructed me so thoroughly in diplomatic relations…so I could manage their prating and bickering and not lose my mind."

"Yeah," said Renji, leaning over to kiss Hajime on the cheek, then to offer Byakuya a more romantic brushing of lips, "Well, I'm glad you take care of all that and I don't have to be involved."

The four men settled down as the breakfast was served and ate quietly, listening to the soft sounds of birds and the splashes of the koi in the nearby ponds. The scents of flowers and the savory meal blended, leaving the group feeling relaxed and comfortable. It was some time before Ichigo remembered that there was a reason beyond breakfast and the later cherry blossom viewing that had brought them to Kuchiki Manor. He looked up and caught Byakuya's eye.

"Byakuya," he said quietly, "You said that there was a Squad Six mission that you wanted my help with?"

The noble let out a troubled breath and glanced at Renji, who returned his gaze with a sympathetic smile.

"Actually, yes," admitted the noble, "You see, one of our division's responsibilities is to take intelligence provided by the second division and to make surgical strikes on our opponents in Hueco Mundo. Now that Aizen has been captured and imprisoned, many are inclined to believe that it means that we no longer have a need to concern ourselves with what goes on in that place. The truth is quite the opposite. It becomes even more important as that world flounders in chaos, to prevent a darker force from gaining too much power. There are several warring factions aiming for supremacy there. There are a few surviving Espada who have decided that the best route is to seek peace with the shinigamis and to make agreements so that each world gains something and does not have to be at war with the other. Then there is a hollow prince from an ancient royal family, who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne. The other two main groups are opportunists, just out to take advantage of the situation. Soutaichou favors either the old Espada or the royal heir, so he sends us in to sabotage the troublemaking Arrancars. The need for one of these raids has arisen."

"Usually," Renji said, "Taichou and I would take the mission together. It is a taichou level mission…high risk, so it requires two taichou levels, and an incendiary expert."

"Obviously," Byakuya went on, "I am not fit for the mission, but it still needs doing, so Renji suggested that the two of you should go with him."

"Right," Renji agreed, "Ichigo has the power of a taichou and Kisuke, you know more about explosives than our usual expert, so…"

"And," said Ichigo, "We've all worked together on missions before, so that works in our favor."

"In short," said Byakuya, "I only feel comfortable sending Renji out on a mission of this sort with others who have appropriate experience. We cannot avoid high risk missions, but we can temper the risk if we approach the situation with proper vigilance."

"So what do you think?" asked Renji, "Are the two of you up for it?"

"Huh," chuckled Kisuke, "I'm always up for explosions and spine-tingling danger."

"And you, Ichigo?" asked the redhead.

"Hey, wherever Kisuke goes, I go. Besides, you're friends…and I want to see to it that you come home safely to your family."

He turned to meet Byakuya's eyes.

"We won't let anything bad happen to him," he promised.

He was touched by the look of relief in the noble's expression.

"Arigato, Ichigo…Urahara-san. I do appreciate this."

"So, when do we leave?" asked Ichigo.

"After the cherry blossom viewing," Renji said, "Tomorrow morning. I have our regular provisions ready and Kisuke can help me to add any additional things the two of you think we'll need."

"And now, if you are finished," Byakuya added, "My attendant, Torio, can show you to your room."

"Arigato, Byakuya-san," said Kisuke, rising.

Ichigo followed, his mind deep in thought as the attendant led them across the garden and into a large, comfortable looking bedroom.

"The dressing area and bathroom are in the back," said Torio, "If you need anything, touch the button by the door and someone will assist you. Lunch will be served in the garden at noon and then Kuchiki-sama will escort you to the cherry blossom viewing."

"Arigato, Torio," Kisuke said, nodding.

"Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?" the youth asked cordially.

"No," said Ichigo, "We're fine for now, thanks."

"You are welcome, sirs," the attendant said, bowing, then turning and flash stepping away.

"Ah," said Kisuke, "Such a peaceful, quiet place, ne? Nothing like the shop…with the kids running around and people in and out all of the time. I feel like you and I get precious little time alone together, eh, Ichigo?"

A slow smile crawled onto the youth's lips and he closed the doors that led into the garden.

"Well," said Ichigo, "It looks like time has slowed for us for the moment. We don't have anything to do but settle in until lunchtime…so…"

Kisuke moved closer and slipped his arms around Ichigo.

"Are you saying you'd like to spend some time, settling in?" he asked, lowering his lips teasingly close to the youth's.

"I'm up for it if you are," Ichigo whispered back, holding himself just slightly away.

"Oh," said Kisuke, "I'm always up for settling in with you."

The two exchanged a slow, sweet greeting kiss.

"You still taste like strawberries from our breakfast," Kisuke commented, "I happen to very much enjoy ripe strawberries."

He sank deeper into Ichigo's open mouth, enjoying the sweetness and warmth. Ichigo closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the older shinigami, sliding his tongue hungrily along Kisuke's and making a soft sigh of contentment. Kisuke's hands loosened their clothing and the two let their things slide to the floor. They stood with their bare bodies laid against each other, exchanging slow, penetrating kisses until Kisuke's eyes met Ichigo's and the shopkeeper moved forward, nudging him in the direction of the bed. Laughing softly, Ichigo stepped back, then broke away from his lover to climb onto the bed. He waited as Kisuke joined him on the bed and leaned back against the pillows. Ichigo climbed onto his lap and knelt astride the older shinigami, feeding him more intense kisses and gently rubbing his growing length against Kisuke's. Kisuke's arms wrapped tightly around him and encouraged the soft thrust of his hips. He moaned into the younger man's mouth and moved his hips to intensify the contact between their thickening arousals. He brought his fingers to the youth's lips and pushed them inside, enjoying the wetness and heat that engulfed them. Ichigo locked his eyes on the shopkeeper's, holding his gaze as he carefully wet each finger. Smiling at the younger man, Kisuke removed his fingers from Ichigo's mouth and pulled him closer, reaching around him and slowly beginning to prepare him for their joining.

Ichigo lowered his head and attacked the older shinigami's soft throat with nips and wet kisses as Kisuke's fingers moved, leaving the youth covered in a light sweat and panting against the shopkeeper's shoulder. The fingers hooked, sending a heavy jolt rocketing through him, making him gasp and causing his swollen member to leak.

"Kisuke…" he moaned, nipping and sucking at the other man's earlobe, "You teasing me or what?"

The older shinigami removed his fingers and positioned the younger man for their joining. Ichigo sank down slowly, raining a torrent of blazing kisses onto his mouth and throat. Kisuke's hand touched and caressed him in time with Ichigo's heavy and increasingly faster motions. He bucked his hips upward, pushing harder into the youth's agile body and moaning at the heavenly feel of it moving on top of him. One hand slid down Ichigo's sweat slicked back and took hold of his buttocks, encouraging them in their movement while the other continued to pleasure the young man until Ichigo closed his eyes, caught his breath and hot seed exploded onto their skin.

He met the youth's mouth with hard, biting kisses as Ichigo moaned, trembled and finally collapsed, still panting heavily, into his arms. He held himself inside his lover's spent body, making Ichigo groan and sigh with even deeper pleasure as he was filled with his lover's hot release.

Kisuke laid smiling with Ichigo's limp body relaxing against him, still buried in the young man's depths as Ichigo dropped off to sleep. His mind wandered pleasantly as he watched the youth sleep and it seemed odd to him that one so strong and active so much of the time could become so silent and still.

He thought back to the meeting in the gardens, to the gentle, happy expression that Byakuya had worn as he held and fed his newborn son. He hated to put pressure on Ichigo, but some part of him held out hope that such a thing could someday be in their future.

But even as hard as he had tried, he was still far from unlocking the secrets of male pregnancy. And in any case, Ichigo might not desire making the invasive and upending trek through pregnancy anyway. Just because he might agree to having a child with Kisuke didn't mean that he would consent to carry it…especially if the experience was anything like what women went through. And judging from what he had seen Byakuya endure in the preceding nine months, it seemed that was an inescapable fact of the experience.

Still…they had plenty of time.

He might be older than Ichigo, but still had many years to enjoy with his younger lover. And somewhere in the course of those long years, he imagined, they would find their answers. Content to wait and enjoy their love as it came to them, he tightened his arms around the ginger-haired shinigami and let himself drop off to sleep.