While Ichigo napped, Byakuya saw to dinner. He made preparations, talking with the chef to see that enough food would be prepared for the amount of people dinning. He instructed Renji to confirm with Rukia about joining them tonight, telling his second that he would also be staying. Then Renji sent hell butterflies to Captain Ukitake, inviting both him and Captain Kyoraku to dinner at the Kuchiki Manor.
Byakuya went to his study. There he finished up the last of the paperwork and had one of his men distribute and deliver everything to the correct squad. Satisfied that all his work was done and dinner was taken care of, he relaxed.
He realized this night was going to either be a complete success or a disaster. He just wasn't sure if that pertained to everyone or just him. He liked his solitude. He hadn't had many visitors since Hisana died. With the acception of Rukia and Renji, this would be the first time in years he had guests in his home. Sure, Ukitake stopped by to talk, but Byakuya always insisted they go for a walk while they talked. Captain Unohana tried to stop in on many occasions, but he always insisted he was too busy with work and that he would stop by her squad instead.
He wasn't sure if he would enjoy this night or completely hate it. He only agreed to this, because Ichigo wished it. Normally, Ichigo asking for anything would not sway Byakuya's decisions. However, when he looked at Ichigo's face, his bright eyes lit up at the thought of dinner with friends. Byakuya found he couldn't say no to him and, what drove him crazy and puzzled him most was, he didn't want to say no. He didn't want to disappoint that innocent child.
He looked outside, realizing the hour. His guests would be arriving soon. He made his way toward the garden when one of his people alerted him to their arrival. He received his guests in the dining room. Both Jushiro and Kyoraku were surprised to see Ichigo wasn't waiting for them. They were under the impression that Ichigo was the reason for their invite.
"Byakuya," Ukitake greeted warmly, "Thank you for inviting us. We have been looking forward to this invitation for quite a while."
It was true that his former teacher tried many times to call on the noble socially, but Byakuya never allowed anyone in. He was simply not a social creature after his wife's death. It pained Ukitake that they didn't keep in touch as much as he'd liked to. He supposed he had Ichigo to thank this time.
"You're welcome, though this wasn't my idea."
"Thank you all the same."
"Where is the little tyke? As I understand it, this little shindig was his idea in the first place." Kyoraku asked, taking his seat at the empty table.
"Kurosaki is napping. I'll have someone fetch him in a little bit. Please, gentlemen, sit. Dinner will be served soon."
They sat at the table. Renji soon joined them, "I just finished talking to Rukia. She said she'll be here shortly. She is just finishing up the last of her paperwork."
Byakuya nodded his acknowledgment. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Renji tried to start conversation.
"So, Captain Kyoraku...how is everything going in your division? I hear you have a new third seat."
"It's going great. She is a real gem. Nanao is very pleased with her performance thus far...but my little Nanao is a bit angry with me."
"You hit on her didn't you?" Renji laughed.
"If you mean my new third seat, it was unintentional. I was merely pointing out that she was a delightful young lady. Nanao said I needed to stop sexually harassing the help or she would beat me soundly. Honestly, I had no intention of doing anything inappropriate. My little Nanao is my one and only." Kyoraku grinned, remembering the blush that creeped onto his Lieutenant's cheeks while she reprimanded him. She was so cute when she was jealous.
"Captain, you certainly are something. How about you, Captain Ukitake, you're health is good?"
"Thank you, for your concern, Renji. Yes, I'm doing well. Today was a good day for me. I was delighted to hear that Ichigo wanted to visit. I've been curious as to the boy's condition. We've been discussing how this could have happened. I have never heard of a soul regressing to the physical state of a child."
"Yeah, it really was a surprise. When I first heard that Ichigo was found, I was so excited. Then, just as I was going to see him, I was told he was just a kid. I didn't believe it at first. First time I saw him, I almost fainted."
"Must have been strange, seeing your best friend like that."
"Yeah, but he is still so much the same man. But..."
Byakuya looked up, eyeing his second.
"Captain Ukitake...I am starting to wonder if this isn't going to be a more permanent thing. Ichigo has all of his memories yes. He still behaves normally as well, but I've noticed that his childish phases seem to be lasting a bit longer every time."
Byakuya had been contemplating the same thing. Though Ichigo maintained his adult mind, he seemed to be acting more a child than anything else. They were silent, each thinking about what would happen if Ichigo never regained his full adult body. After a few minutes, they continued to discuss work, steering clear of the topic that was really on all their minds.
Finally, Ichigo woke and made his way to the dining room. He certainly was a sight. His orange locks were in complete disarray. There was a pillow print on his cheek from sleeping. He yawned, walking into the dining room rubbing his eyes sleepily.
Byakuya looked up when Renji nudged his shoulder. He saw the tired, little boy and his heart melted. Ichigo was so adorable. His eyes softened immediately, his discomfort about dinner with guests forgotten, as the boy made his way around the table.
"Hello, Ichigo. Nice to see you again. It's been a while." Ukitake greeted the toddler.
Ichigo waved lazily and moved around to Byakuya's side.
"How ya doing kid?" Shunsui asked, grinning widely.
Ichigo waved again as he reached his guardian.
"Are you hungry?" Byakuya asked the boy.
Ichigo nodded, but instead of taking his seat, he crawled into Byakuya's lap. The noble completely forgot his surroundings. While Ichigo napped, he felt empty. He realized, after much thought, that he was missing Ichigo. The boy filled a void in him that had been empty for so long. He happily opened his arms, freely accepting Ichigo into his lap.
Renji, Ukitake, and Kyorakue watched with mute interest. Ichigo faced Byakuya, leaned against his chest, closed his eyes and started sucking his thumb. Byakuya held him, giving him a squeeze. He found he rather enjoyed holding the toddler. It was as comforting to him as it was for Ichigo. When he looked up, all eyes were on him. Normally, he would've felt uncomfortable, but he felt very content instead.
His servants brought dinner to the table.
"Looks like Ichigo is still tired. Maybe we should reschedule," Ukitake suggested, even as the food was being served.
"No, no. Let's continue. Rukia should be here soon and..."
"I'm here, Brother," She said, entering, "I'm starving and I was just...awwwwwwwwwww" Rukia squealed at the sight of her brother and her best friend.
"Shhhh, you'll wake him, Rukes." Renji hushed.
"He's awake. No one can sleep through Rukia's dulcet tones." Ichigo's little voice chirped.
"Sorry, it's just...you looked so cute."
"Yeah, yeah. I get it," He looked up at Byakuya, "Sorry."
"I'm not sure I understand why you're apologizing."
The others were completely forgotten as they spoke to each other, neither one making a move to separate from one another.
"Well, I wasn't thinking. I just, I don't know. I wasn't quite awake yet and your lap looked so comfortable. And..."
"Well, I kinda missed you. I felt this overwhelming need to be close. I'll try to control the urges more." Ichigo admitted.
"No need." Byakuya said.
Ichigo thought he'd heard him wrong, "What?"
"There is no need to try and control your urges. I have to admit, I missed you as well. It's hard to explain. I have never felt the need to care for another as I do for you right now. I find I have overwhelming urges as well when it comes to you lately. Perhaps we should both stop trying to control them, and just embrace them for now."
Ichigo didn't know what to say. They both heard excited squealing and looked up. Rukia was practically beside herself. She was tearing up and shrieking. Renji was grinning at the pair of them. The two Captains were smiling at them.
"I do believe we were lost in conversation."
"You're right. Um...Rukia, calm down would ya?"
"Sorry Ichigo. It's just...it's so sweet. I've never seen the two of you look so happy, let alone happy about each other."
Byakuya helped Ichigo spin around to face the table and pulled the boy's plate toward his own. While Ichigo and his guests talked, Byakuya set to cutting up Ichigo's food into bite size pieces. Once he was finished, he started eating his own.
"So, Ichigo. How was your nap?'
"Good," Ichigo answered, spooning food into his mouth.
"I saw Yachiru today. She was talking excitedly about her visit tomorrow." Rukia said, watching the pair closely.
"Cool. I can't wait."
"What do you plan to do tomorrow?" Ukitake asked.
"I don't know. We'll find something to do. There are lots of things to do here."
Byakuya used a napkin to wipe Ichigo's messy face. Ukitake felt his former student was adapting to fatherhood rather well. Being a father figure was good for him. A dinner like this never would have happed otherwise.
"Are you happy here, Ichigo?" He pressed.
Ukitake was impressed by their little private conversation earlier. They openly admitted to each other that they were starting to enjoy each other's company. They seemed to be fitting into the roles of father and son without actually realizing what was happening. He watched as Byakuya's eyes snapped up defensively. He looked very offended, as though Ukitake was accusing him of something.
"I love it here!" Ichigo exclaimed, causing Byakuya to smile fondly down at the boy without thinking, "The people here are so nice. His home is so warm and inviting. I really like his gardens. I even have my own room!"
Ukitake and Kyoraku looked at each other. It seemed that, in no time at all, Ichigo's child persona was taking over again. He seemed to be forgetting where he was and who he was talking to. Though the words were adult, his enthusiasm was very much that of a child's.
"That's fantastic Ichigo."
"Ya make a find pair, Kuchiki. Looks like the kid's doing well here. Never saw you look so happy."
"I say this calls for a celebration." Kyoraku announced, reaching into his robes.
Before the noble could protest, "Shunsui, perhaps water or tea would be more appropriate."
Byakuya nodded his appreciation.
"Sure, sure. Everyone have a glass?"
"Careful, Ichigo." They watched as the glass the boy held tipped and juice spilled on his clothes. Byakuya laughed, "We'll have to get you something more your size. I'll have someone go shopping tomorrow. Don't worry about it. Here, I'll help you."
Shunsui continued as though nothing happened, "To friends and family...new and old."
"Friends and family," They chorused.
"To Family!" Ichigo yelled.
Byakuya helped him to sip out of his glass, wiping up what dribbled down his chin.
"Hey, Ichigo. You wanna have a slumber party tonight?"
"A slumber party?"
"Rukia, he needs his rest. His appointment with Yachiru will be..."
"Brother, an appointment? It's a play date. Come on, I promise not to keep him up all night."
Byakuya really intended to talk to Ichigo about some things. He didn't want to deny Rukia and Ichigo quality time together, but this couldn't wait.
"I'm sorry, Rukia. Another night. "
"My decision is final."
Ichigo watched as they argued. Byakuya set him down and patted his back.
"Go wash up and get ready for bed. There should be a warm bath waiting for you."
"Kay." Ichigo said, kissing Byakuya sloppily on his cheek and darting out of the room.
Byakuya couldn't stop smiling. He never expected Ichigo to be so affectionate, but he found he didn't want it any other way.
"Captain, why?" Renji asked, trying not to grin like a fool at what he just saw.
"There was something mentioned earlier today that I would like to ask him about," Byakuya's smiled faded at the thought. "I'd rather not wait. I'll make it up to you Rukia, but this has been on my mind all day."
"I understand, Brother."
"Anything we can help with?" Ukitake offered.
"No, Captain." He paused, "Did you know Isshin Kurosaki well?"
"Yes, very well."
"What was he like after Kurosaki was born?"
"He was like any father, happy and doting on Ichigo to excess. Being exiled from the Soul Society didn't faze him the slightest bit. Why do you ask?"
"Just curiosity. Thank you."
"Something wrong?" Shunsui asked.
"It may be nothing. If it turns out to be something, I'll let you know."
They watched him contemplate in silence. The boy then came skidding into the room, donning his pajamas.
"I'm ready, face washed and teeth brushed."
"Let me see," Byakuya inspected his face, "Very good."
"I guess that's our que to leave. We'll say goodnight now. Dinner was wonderful. I would very much like to do this again, Byakuya."
"Thank you. You're welcome any time, Captain." Byakuya said, and he meant it.
"Aww, already?" Ichigo whined.
"Don't worry kid. Next time, I'll bring sweets. Perhaps Nanao will even let you help bake them."
"Cool. Night Kyoraku," Ichigo hugged him.
He then turned to hug Jushiro, who warmed at the boy's affection.
Renji picked Ichigo up and gave him a bear hug, allowing Rukia to tickle the munchkin. Ichigo's laughter filled the air. It was infectious. It was innocent and pure. It belonged in this house.
"Night, Ichigo. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Night, Berry. We'll see ya later." Renji and Rukia left as well.
"Let's get you in bed."
Byakuya carried his charge back to his room and tucked him in.
"Byakuya, is something wrong?" Ichigo asked when Byakuya still hadn't said a word.
"I want to ask you something and I want an honest answer."
"Earlier today, you thanked me for not spanking you. Why did you think I would strike you?"
Ichigo looked away. He would meet Byakuya's eyes.
The noble's gut churned, "Are you afraid of me when I'm angry?"
"NO! I could never be afraid of you."
"Never!" Ichigo yelled, tears brimming his eyes.
"Are you certain? How could you be so afraid, but not afraid of me?"
"Because I lo..."Ichigo stopped. The child in him didn't want to be restrained anymore and he found he didn't want to lie to himself anymore either.
"Because I trust you. You are good and just. You are honorable. You are warm and caring. You remind me of my father...and...I love you as though you were my dad."
Byakuya sat staring at Ichigo. Love? How had they gone from civil colleagues to this? Ichigo's death, that's how.
"I'm sorry, Byakuya. I know you don't want a son. You don't want or need this burden. No one ever expected me to turn back into a kid. You're not looking for a family and I get that. You like you're solitude. You have enough on your plate as it is, but I can't help how I feel."
Silence. He continued, "I'm comfortable here...with you. I feel like I'm home. I feel safe."
Byakuya's voice cracked, emotion threatening to break through, "Why were you so scared that I would hit you then?"
Ichigo's eyes went glassy and distant.
"I had this babysitter once. My dad was just starting his clinic. Mom and dad were both really busy. They hired this lady to watch me every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. I used to get into stuff I wasn't supposed to and I was kinda hyper active. She said I was really naughty."
Byakuya held his breath, hoping what he thought was coming wouldn't.
"I used to get hit and spanked a lot. I didn't understand what I was doing that was so wrong. My parents always said I was a good kid."
"Have you ever told Isshin or Misaki what happened?"
"I was afraid they would be mad at me for misbehaving, but yes, I eventually told them. I had to when my dad started noticing all the bruises. He fired her and reported her to child services."
Byakuya pulled Ichigo close, crying quietly so he didn't alarm the boy.
"I'm so sorry you had to go through that."
Byakuya held and rocked Ichigo. He needed to hold the boy. He never imagined that Ichigo had such a dark childhood experience. Ichigo fell asleep in Byakuya's arms. The noble was feeling particularly protective and didn't want to be separated from the boy. He lay down, covered them up and fell asleep rubbing Ichigo's back.
Senbonzakura relaxed under a fully bloomed cherry blossom tree, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Ever since the kid came into Byakuya's life, his inner world has only gotten brighter. Since Byakuya was left in charge of the five year old, his inner world was almost back to the beauty it was when Hisana was alive. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. A rainbow painted the baby blue sky. This was the beginning of a wonderful future.