A Vibrant Display of True Love and Affections

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Chapter 1: The Hogosha's Wish

Byakuya knelt silently at the feet of his beloved King Yoshiaki, waiting as the monarch bent his head quietly in thought and then smiled down at his most dedicated noble servant.

"Kuchiki Byakuya," he said, admiring the lovely and powerful noble's dutifully bowed head, "Once again, you have proven yourself to be more than worthy of your place as the greatest of my protectors, here in the spirit realm. Ever since your installment as Hogosha Taichou (Captain Protector), you have been a model of what a hogosha should be. Your triumph over the Demon Lord, Diablo and the valiant rescue of my family leaves feeling that I am in your debt. As a token of my appreciation and affection, I would like to grant you something, some wish or comfort of your choosing that would in some way repay you for your dedication to my well-being. Tell me, Byakuya, what gift would you have from your most appreciative lord?"

Byakuya's wide gray eyes blinked in surprise and he looked up at the king curiously.

"Your majesty," he said quietly, "There is no need for you to feel obligated. I was merely performing my duties to the best of my abilities, as is expected of all of the hogosha. You needn't grant me any wish or reward. I wanted to protect you."

The king nodded and his eyes softened in amusement.

"How very like you my dear Byakuya!" he laughed, "You are every bit the noble warrior I created you to be. But it is a weight on my heart, accepting such wonderful service and not offering you something in return, so I must insist. Tell me what gift that you would have from your king? Is there nothing that would bring more beauty and happiness to your life?"

Byakuya considered the question carefully, thinking about how happy he already was, having moved to the spirit dimension, living close to his grandfather (who was Royal Guard Taichou) again and having such a distinguished position near the king. Although being responsible for the king's protection was a demanding job, he relished the challenge. And when he was not working, he deeply enjoyed the honors and comforts he was given. He had a lovely room with a balcony from which he could enjoy the moon and stars. He was welcome to walk in the King's Gardens and to enjoy the infinite displays of variant types of plants and animals there. And after his battles, he was allowed to bathe in the king's own healing pool, to stand beneath the warm fall of water, breathing in the sweet scents of the gardens and feeling that deep renewal of flesh and spirit. Every need he could think of was met, except…

"Your majesty," he said softly, his dark gray eyes finding the king's again, "there is one thing. In all of my long years, I have only once been in love. That love was a beautiful thing, but it ran its course and my lover died. Since that time, I have longed to feel love again. I know that because it would affect too many things, I cannot ask you to bring Hisana back, but if you would give me a gift, I would desire that the gift be true love, a love that would last the rest of my days."

The king's eyes widened for a moment, then became more thoughtful as he rested his face on one palm and considered his Hogosha Taichou's request.

"You wish to know true love?" he asked.

Byakuya nodded.

"I remember what it felt like to be in love, and I have never felt anything so beautiful. Love is more enchanting that the nighttime sky, warmer than sunlight falling across an open meadow, sweeter than the dew of the honeysuckle and more powerful than a million zanpakutous," he said softly.

"Absolutely," said the king, meeting the eyes of his lovely queen for a moment, "Love is a very worthy gift, Byakuya. And so I will grant this gift to you. I will allow you to take the hand of my daughter, Princess Eri. I know that the two of you have become friends."

Byakuya lowered his eyes for a moment, then met the king's eyes again.

"My lord, I am deeply grateful, of course, that you would offer me such an honor…however…while marriage is an eventual goal in the course of true love, it not merely marriage that I am searching for."

He sighed softly and closed his eyes.

"I long for true love…love that stuns the heart with its beauty. It grips the soul and is the greatest of adventures. It is not something that comes from marrying. Marriage should be the result of that love…the breathtaking step that underscores it. Please understand. I do not mean to be disrespectful of you or of Eri. She and I have become friends. But I think we agree that friendship is all we desire of each other."

The king looked to where his daughter stood in attendance, and Eri smiled back at him and nodded.

"Ah," said the king, "and is there someone else you desire? Perhaps you prefer a male companion? One of my sons?"

Byakuya sighed.

"That is just the problem," he admitted, "and it is the true reason I never remarried. I am not sure what it is that I am looking for. I only know that I am lonely without it. And I do want that loneliness to end, and for love to take hold of me again. I am sorry, my lord. I do not mean to be difficult.

The monarch smiled warmly.

"You are exactly who you are meant to be," he assured the noble, "And you needn't apologize for your honesty. I think your request is an appropriate one, and I will do my best to grant it. But before I can, I must gain a perspective on what you value in a lover."

He thought for several minutes, then straightened.

"I suggest this," he said, leaning forward, "I will send out a call for suitors, who wish to seek your hand in marriage. From those applicants, the ones who display the qualities you desire in a mate will be invited to come to the palace to compete for your affections. After they have gathered, I will have each tell me how they would win your heart. I will give each a chance to do so by placing you in their fantasy and seeing how they would gain your heart. The one you judge to be most worthy will be the one to take your hand in marriage. Do you agree to this?"

"Hmmm," Byakuya said, considering, "What if none of the applicants satisfy me? Will I still be compelled to choose from among them?"

"Of course not," the king assured him, "Byakuya, this is meant to be a gift, not another obligation. I truly want for you to be happy. This is just to build a pathway to that happiness. So…what say you, Kuchiki Byakuya? Will you allow your king to help you find the love you seek?"

Byakuya considered the king's words carefully. He wondered in his tired, lonely heart if anyone could fill the space that Hisana's death had left behind. He wanted to believe that he could fall in love again…but in all of his years in Soul Society and the spirit dimension, he had not yet met the soul that he felt completed his. Still, he did desire that completion, and he vowed that he wasn't going to miss out on the chance to find that one, that other person he so longed to join with.

"Yes, your majesty," he said, bowing his head again, "I will agree to your proposal."

"Good," said the king.

He summoned a Royal Hell Butterfly.

"Let the word go out into the three worlds that his majesty wishes to find a soul mate for Hogosha Taichou, Kuchiki Byakuya! Let all applicants who wish to compete for Byakuya's affections do so in the following way. Each applicant shall send a reply to this royal invitation. Byakuya will explain to our Royal Scientist, Urahara Kisuke, what he desires in a mate, and from his descriptions a pool of applicants will be chosen for the competition. Urahara-san will prepare his laboratory to accommodate the testing. Each chosen applicant will decide how best to court Byakuya, and Urahara-san will place them in a fantasy with Byakuya to see how they fare in winning his affections. At the end of the competition, Byakuya will choose the one among them, if any, whom he deems to be worthy of his hand. Applicants will have one week to gather here, and then the competition will commence. Go now. Spread the word."

The single butterfly spread its wings and suddenly exploded into a storm of hell butterflies. They rose up into the air and left the palace for every corner of the three worlds. The king nodded in approval and excused his court. Byakuya left the throne room and returned to his bedroom as darkness came and the moon and stars appeared overhead. He stood, gazing quietly upward, wondering which, out of all of the souls in the three worlds, would be the one to complete his. He heard a quiet footstep and turned to see Kuchiki Ginrei stepping out onto the balcony to join him.

"Good evening, Grandfather," Byakuya said, inclining his head.

"Good evening Byakuya," Ginrei said, taking up a position alongside him.

Neither said anything for a moment as they looked up into the stars and considered their words. Finally, Byakuya broke the silence.

"I imagine you're somewhat disappointed in my choice of a gift to receive from the king," he commented, lowering his eyes.

Ginrei studied him for a moment and shook his head briefly.

"No, I am not disappointed. Love, Byakuya, is a worthy thing. I am glad that you have decided to shed your loneliness and to seek it again."

Byakuya sighed.

"But if, in all of this time I haven't found it…do you really think it exists?" he asked softly.

"Of course it does," Ginrei said, resolutely, "It may be difficult to find, but your true love is out there. It may even be someone you know. Give the matter some thought tonight as you sleep."

"I will, Grandfather," Byakuya promised.

He watched quietly as his grandfather left the room, then changed into a comfortable yukata and laid down in his bed. He thought about Hisana, and what he had loved about her. He reflected on his experiences since their marriage, and how it had changed him…and, therefore, had changed his desires. And as he considered the matter, he thought about what he thought to be the best characteristics of the people around him.

What do I want in a soul mate? What do I want that other person to be like?

He drifted off to sleep, still undecided.

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"Kuchiki taichou," said his attendant, Torio, in a soft voice, "It is time to wake up. Urahara-san has been here already this morning, looking for you. He says that he needs the information from you for the competition. He has thousands of applicants already, and more are pouring in every moment."

Byakuya blinked in surprise.

"They are?" he asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.

"Yes, sir," affirmed the youth, "Apparently, there are many suitors, male and female, from all over the three worlds who wish to seek your hand in marriage. Urahara-san wants to know how to sort them."

"Very well," said Byakuya, stretching and yawning, "Go and tell him that I will join him in his laboratory after breakfast."

"Hai, Kuchiki taichou!" the boy said, dashing away.

"Thousands of applicants?" Byakuya mused, "wanting to marry me?"

"Does that really surprise you, Byakuya-bo?" said a lively, feminine voice from out on his balcony.

He glared at the intruder as she flash stepped into his bedroom and stood in front of him, observing him with crossed arms and a sly smile.

"Senpai," he said in an annoyed tone, "will you never learn to knock? I was about to change."

"Go ahead," Yoruichi said, her smile widening, "I want to see what has the three worlds banging on the dimension wall and trying to get in here to court you."

Byakuya let out a puff of breath and turned away.

"Not that you have anything I haven't seen, ne?" she chuckled, following, "I just want to know if anything's changed since I knew you as a boy…something to explain all of the uproar. I know you've grown, but it can't have grown out of proportion with the rest of you, so…"

In his youth, he would have snapped at her, taking the obvious bait and letting her stoke his temper. Instead, he called her bluff by walking calmly into his closet and letting his yukata swish softly to the floor. Yoruichi nodded in obvious appreciation.

"You have grown, Byakuya-bo."

"And you have seen what you wished to see, Senpai. Now leave," he said, taking a kimono from one of the hangers and beginning to dress.

"You might not want to be so surly," the cat-woman said, smirking, "You might scare away all of your would-be lovers."

"Well," said Byakuya shortly, "Then Urahara-san will have less work to do and we can get this silliness over with. We both know that I'm not going to find the love of my life this way. I am only doing this to please his majesty, who very much felt he owed me. There isn't a soul mate out there for me. And if there is, I won't find that person by putting out an advertisement."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Yoruichi said, her eyes softening as she read the genuine longing in the raven-haired man, "You may be surprised."

She moved closer and took the kimono from his hand.

"What are you doing?" he asked wearily.

"Quiet. I'm just helping you dress."

"I have attendants to help if I really desire it," Byakuya said dryly.

"I know that. Shut up," Yoruichi said, holding on to the kimono until he sighed in resignation and allowed himself to be dressed.

"I think you're approaching this thing with the wrong perspective," she suggested.

"Why does that not surprise me?" the noble muttered.

"You should give this a chance. You may be delightfully surprised, and if not, you will certainly be no worse off than you are now, ne?"

"Hmmm," sighed Byakuya non-committally.

Yoruichi smiled and followed him out of the closet, then stood behind him as he sat down in front of a mirror to comb his hair. She stole the comb out of his hand, prompting another annoyed glare, then addressed the tumbled lengths until she had tamed them and confined them in the kenseiken. Then she took the ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu and wound it around his pale throat. She stood back, admiring his reflection in the mirror.

"You look lovely, Byakuya-bo," she said affectionately, "Now, stop fussing about the futility of this and go tell Urahara-san what kind of lover you want!"

"I haven't had breakfast yet," he told her, standing, "Would you like to join Ginrei and me?"

"Ah, I've already eaten," she replied, turning back towards the balcony.

"You know, Senpai. They put the doors in these rooms for a reason. You might consider using one once in a while."

"How boring!" she laughed, flash stepping away.

She landed in the gardens and turned towards the far end of the palace, flash stepping across the grass, then walking inside and turning down a darker hallway. She came to the end and opened the door.

"Oh, Yoruichi-dono!" Urahara said grinning at her from where he stood, making alterations to a large machine covered with buttons and blinking lights, "I thought you were Byakuya-san. I've been leaving messages for him all morning. I need his loveliness to come down here and help me figure out how to make a dent in all of these applications. I think half the people in the three worlds want to go to bed with him! I don't know how we'll pare it down to few enough so that we won't be testing into the next millennium!"

Yoruichi chuckled.

"Not that he thinks for a minute he'll actually find the person of his dreams this way, but you know, Kisuke, I've been thinking…"

"Why does that scare me?" the scientist said, shaking his head.

"Maybe we could…give him a hand, you know," she said, winking, "Who knows? We might just help him find true love. But even if not, we could certainly have a few laughs at his expense, ne?"

"What do you have in mind?" Kisuke asked, narrowing his eyes.

His gray eyes widened and he bit his lips furiously to keep from bursting into laughter as she whispered her plan in his ear.