Disclaimer: Based on concepts and characters created by Kubo Tite for his serialized manga, Bleach.
Warning: The story contains mild homoerotic contents and minor coarse languages. Rating may go up should circumstance dictate. Please read with discretion.
A/N: It's been four years since the last time I wrote a ByaIchi story, so I hope I haven't lost too much touch and made them too OOC. This story is planned as a series of vignettes that may or may not connect with one another. I'm not following any prompts, so basically I write whatever inspires me. Therefore, I can't guarantee a regular update. Feedback is appreciated and requests are welcome.
1: Summer, Wind Chime and Gratitude
The weather had been ridiculously hot in Soul Society since summer started, and it didn't help much that the Kuchiki Manor was built in a completely traditional fashion so it didn't have any air-conditioners in the premises. Kuchiki Byakuya was relying on breezes that would occasionally blow past the small river near his bedroom to cool the room. Even then, the heat was still unbearable that Byakuya opted to don a thin teal cotton yukata and tied his hair back in a loose ponytail instead of dressing in his usual fashion that would require more pieces of clothes.
Despite the heat, Byakuya still couldn't help thinking that hell had finally been frozen over when the old butler came to his respective room and interrupted him while he was in the middle of writing a reply to an invitation to a birthday party of some nobleman.
"Forgive my interruption, Byakuya-sama, but Kurosaki Ichigo-dono is in the living room, requesting your audience."
Byakuya looked up from the paper he was writing. Although he had been notified about Kurosaki Ichigo's arrival since the Substitute Shinigami stepped into Seireitei the day before, he couldn't think of one good reason for the boy to come to see him. They might have known each other for over two years, but they had never really been on good terms with one another. After all, they didn't start off on the right foot, and their personalities clashed most of the time. The only reason why their paths kept crossing that often was because Ichigo happened to be a close friend of Byakuya's adopted sister, Rukia.
"Are you certain that he asked to see me, not Rukia?"
Lord Kuchiki asked simply to make sure that the butler didn't mistake Ichigo's intention, since it would make much more sense if the boy was there to see Rukia and simply ask about him out of some misplaced courtesy.
"I am most certain, Byakuya-sama," the butler replied.
Byakuya nodded and directed his slate eyes back to the paper he was writing.
"In that case, let him know that I shall see him in a few minutes," Byakuya remarked. "And also bring some cold barley tea to the living room."
"Yes, Byakuya-sama," the butler said before he bowed and left to do the tasks that Byakuya had ordered him to.
After the butler left, Byakuya took his time to finish his writing and then clean the ink brush he had used. For a moment, he considered changing his attire, since he had no doubt that the insolent Substitute Shinigami would have a comment or two about his casual wear. However, Byakuya decided against the idea, since he didn't want to change into new clothes unless he took a bath first. Therefore, Byakuya simply adjusted his yukata to make sure that everything was in the right place before headed out to where his unexpected visitor was.
When he arrived to the living room, Byakuya could see Kurosaki Ichigo sitting on a red cushion that was laid down for him on the tatami-matted floor. The Substitute Shinigami was taking a sip from a big glass of cold barley tea and not paying much attention to the direction of the open shoji door, so he didn't notice Byakuya's arrival until after the noble stepped into the room.
"My butler said you asked to see me."
"Oh, hi, Byakuya," Ichigo said, putting the glass in his hand down and turning his head towards the door. Although he didn't exactly smile, Byakuya could still sense that the teen was in a good mood.
Ichigo would have risen from his seat if Byakuya hadn't made a gesture with his hand to tell him not to bother and then walked into the room and seated himself on another cushion that had been laid in that room. Only then did Ichigo realize it was the first time he saw Byakuya in something other than the Shinigami uniform he was used to seeing the man in and that Byakuya was wearing his ebony hair in a loose ponytail.
"You know, if I saw you somewhere else, I probably wouldn't recognize you. I mean, you look—" Ichigo paused for a moment to search for a word that would describe how he felt about Byakuya's current look without having to get reacquainted with Senbonzakura, "—different."
Since he had already expected Ichigo to make some kind of comment, Byakuya wasn't really surprised when Ichigo did. Thus, he simply arched an eyebrow as if to ask Ichigo to elaborate how different.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that you look bad," Ichigo quickly explained. He would have added that he thought it was quite the contrary if he didn't think that it was weird for him to describe another man as beautiful or that Byakuya would appreciate that kind of comment. "I'm just not used to seeing you in casual wears, I guess."
"Today is my day off, and I didn't plan to receive any guest, so I don't have any reason to don formal attires," the nobleman noted.
Byakuya's words reminded Ichigo that he went there uninvited, and that he shouldn't get too cozy with the nobleman. Byakuya might have viewed him with a little less disdain than he had in the past and aided him in a couple of battles, but that didn't mean that they were on a friendly term.
"Ah, right, since you mention that, I should apologize for coming here all of a sudden."
Byakuya accepted Ichigo's apology with a nod. When he thought about it carefully, he should be grateful that Ichigo chose to come in through the front door and request for his audience when the boy could have just jumped over the wall and then caught him by surprise. Perhaps Kurosaki Ichigo had learned some manners during those seventeen months that he didn't have his Shinigami power.
The thought brought a flash of amusement to Byakuya's slate-gray eyes.
"It is fine. I wasn't doing anything important," said the noble. "Still, I suppose I must ask why you requested for my presence. After all, I doubt you are here just to socialize."
Ichigo felt like slapping himself upside the head. He wasn't sure if it was his nerve or something else that kept him from stating his business right away. After all, it wasn't as if he wished to prolong their meeting.
"Right, about that," Ichigo began, "you know how I still haven't thanked everyone properly for helping me regain my power and aiding me in the fight against the Xcution and such."
Byakuya arched an eyebrow slightly.
"I was under the impression that you had already done so since your previous visit to Soul Society."
"No, no, I haven't," Ichigo said, shaking his head. "The last time I was in Soul Society, I was too focused on getting Ginjō's corpse back to the living world that I forgot."
"I see," Byakuya nodded. "I still don't understand why you wish to see me, however."
Ichigo scowled. He didn't think Byakuya was so dense that he wouldn't to understand his implication, so he wasn't sure if the nobleman was trying to annoy him or simply didn't feel like taking any credits.
"Because you're one of the people I need to say thanks to," Ichigo replied before he dug into the fold of his kimono and brought out a small brown carton and said, "I even bought you a gift."
Byakuya glanced at the box for a second, noting how it was not wrapped despite Ichigo saying that it was meant to be a gift. However, he was not going to point that fact out, since he wasn't planning to accept it to begin with.
"I don't believe I have done anything that might call for your gratitude," the captain remarked. "Even though I was one of the Shinigami who put their spiritual energies into that sword and I appeared in Karakura Town during the Xcution battles, I didn't volunteer to do so. I was merely following my orders."
Ichigo had heard similar replies from a few other Shinigami before when he dropped by to thank them and gave them the presents that he chose for them. However, the difference between those replies and the one Byakuya had just given him was the way they worded their sentences. When other Shinigami said it, it felt that they were being polite and trying not to take any credit for their actions, but when it came to Byakuya, the reply was worded in a way that anyone who had heard it would feel that the nobleman couldn't have cared less about anything that concerned Ichigo.
"Maybe you're right," said the Substitute Shinigami, "but I'm not only thanking you for those."
It was Byakuya's cue to be curious, as he couldn't think of any other reason for Ichigo to feel thankful to him except for what had already been said.
"What else do you feel the need to thank me for, then?"
"For sticking up for me," Ichigo supplied.
The room became quiet for a second after Ichigo spoke his line. Byakuya's stared at his visitor with his slate eyes slightly wider than normal. He had to admit that the Substitute Shinigami could be sharp when he wanted to. After all, he didn't think Ichigo would ever see past the facade that Byakuya had put up and realize that despite the way he usually treated Ichigo, Byakuya had his trust in him.
"Sticking up for you?" Byakuya repeated. Even if there was some truth in Ichigo's claim, he wasn't going to admit it any time soon. "I don't recall having ever done that."
"You have," Ichigo insisted, "First when you let Rukia and Renji come to Hueco Mundo to back me up."
Byakuya closed his eyes for a moment before he opened them and stated, "I let them leave Soul Society because I didn't want them to feel guilty if their friends got killed in Hueco Mundo. Besides, Soul Society viewed you as an important asset because you have yet to see Aizen Sōsuke's shikai, so it might do well to try to keep you alive."
"Maybe that was the case," Ichigo said although it was clear in his voice that he wasn't convinced by Byakuya's explanation at all, "but then, what about when you fought and defeated Tsukishima?"
"What about it?"
"Rukia told me you were injured," Ichigo pointed, "which means that he had cut you with his Fullbring, and we both know he wouldn't miss a chance to insert himself into your past as someone who was very important to you so that you would join his side, just like when he turned all of my friends and my sisters against me. However, you still fought and defeated him anyway."
Lord Kuchiki acknowledged Ichigo's point with a nod.
"That might be a predicament for someone else," Byakuya said nonchalantly. "However, in case you already forgot, I am a man who values his duty over a life of his family member. I was ordered to assist you in that battle, so why should I hesitate to cut him down when he was your enemy?"
There was a hint of challenge in Byakuya's slate eyes, daring Ichigo to try to prove otherwise.
"I haven't forgotten, Byakuya," Ichigo said, "but I also know that you're not as heartless as you want everyone to believe. You regretted your choice regarding Rukia's execution, so I doubt you would ever want to repeat that same mistake. Even if you had an order, you wouldn't have followed it if you hadn't felt it was right. So it would make more sense if you were to side with Tsukishima who was someone important to you and turn against me whom you had once sworn to kill with your very hands."
Having said everything, Ichigo then shrugged softly.
"Oh, well, it doesn't really matter if you still insist you did it out of an entirely different reason," Ichigo commented. "Truth be told, it'd really weird me out to think that you actually stuck up for me when even my sisters and my longtime friends didn't. I mean, we aren't even friends."
Although Ichigo's voice was light when he mentioned it, there was something in those umber eyes that told Byakuya that Ichigo was still haunted by the incident.
"You should not look too deep into the matter, Kurosaki Ichigo. It would only depress you," Byakuya said softly. "The truth is even though your friends and sisters appeared to have sided with the Fullbringer back then, you still had their loyalties. When they tried to stop you from fighting him, it was because they wanted to prevent you from doing what they perceived to be a mistake. They didn't actually intend to hurt or kill you. I, on the contrary, do not have that same kind of loyalty. Had I chosen to take that man's side, I would have fought you with an intent to kill you. It was just your luck that I didn't side with that Fullbringer."
Ichigo's scowl was somewhat softened. He wasn't sure if Byakuya was trying to give him a solace or trying to imply that he still had no value in the nobleman's eyes. However, those words still made him feel a little less traumatized by the memories of the time his friends and his sisters had fallen under the influence of Tsukishima's Fullbring.
"I'm glad we're no longer enemies, then," Ichigo noted.
Byakuya nodded. "So am I."
A long awkward silence filled the room right afterward, so Byakuya lifted his glass of barley tea up to take another sip. He then kept his eyes on Kurosaki Ichigo, whose hand was playing absently at that box of present he had been holding since the start, and waited for the boy's next move. After all, that was the most he could do when he wasn't the one who had any business with Ichigo unless he wanted to play a rude host and imply to his visitor that he should leave since they ran out of subjects to discuss.
Eventually, Ichigo sighed.
"You know, Byakuya, my initial plan was to come here, say thank, give you this gift, and then leave, but you kinda ruined my plan when you brushed everything off as unnecessary," he said. "Now I don't know what else to say to you, but it didn't feel right to just leave when I still haven't accomplished anything I'm here to do. So can't you at least accept the gift, so I can just be on my way home?"
"You are really persistent," Byakuya observed.
"And so are you," Ichigo countered. "I mean, I know it's a custom to refuse a gift at first, but seriously, I never had this much trouble trying to convince someone to accept my present. If I haven't already known you hate my guts, I would have begun to think so."
Although Byakuya was quite amused by Ichigo's last sentence, he didn't really show it on his expression. He wouldn't say that he hated the Substitute Shinigami per se, but he might have to admit that he enjoyed getting under that boy's skin a lot more than he should have.
"I have a feeling that you're not going to give up until I accept that present of yours?"
"You know me, Byakuya," said Ichigo. "What do you think?"
"I think I should just be grateful and accept it," Byakuya replied. "After all, it could take all day to argue with you, and I have better things to do."
Ichigo narrowed his eyes and glared at the nobleman.
"You really do hate me."
Even though he said that, Ichigo still handed the box in his hand to Byakuya, who gingerly accepted it.
"Thank you for the present," the captain said in a formal manner. "You shouldn't have bothered."
"Yeah, now I also think that I shouldn't have," the Substituted Shinigami agreed.
Although he had done what he came to do, Ichigo was still sitting there, staring at Byakuya as if he expected something else. Therefore, Byakuya could only furrow his brows, as he looked at the box and then back at his visitor.
"Do you, perhaps, want me to open it in front of you?" Byakuya wondered.
Ichigo blinked. He then realized he had been staring when he should have just excused himself and let the nobleman be.
"No, not really," he replied, "but if you want to, then by all means."
Since Ichigo was still sitting there watching him, Byakuya decided that he might as well forget the proper etiquette and open that box to see what was inside. After all, it would give him something to do instead of just sitting there in yet another awkward silence.
The nobleman broke the tape that sealed the box with his finger nail before he opened the lid. Pulling out a ball-shaped glass wind chime out of the box by its black cord, Byakuya took a moment to admire the detailed painting of purplish blue Chinese bellflowers and forest green leaves. The wind chime's beige oblong paper wind catcher caught a slight breeze and caused the glass clapper to strike against the bell and make a sharp but soothing chime.
If he were a little more conceited, Byakuya might have assumed that Ichigo had deliberately chosen that wind chime in order to please him, since Chinese bellflowers happened to be Byakuya's favorite flowers. However, since Byakuya's preference was not something that was widely known, and Ichigo had no reason to go so far as to research his interests and choose a present accordingly; the thought was buried just as soon as it entered Byakuya's mind.
Even so, Byakuya still couldn't help eyeing Ichigo in a peculiar way. The look made the Substitute Shinigami deepen his scowl as a result.
"Something's wrong?" Ichigo asked.
"No," Byakuya replied before he carefully placed the wind chime back into its box, making sure that by doing so he wouldn't break the wind bell or crumple the paper wind catcher. "I'm just wondering if there was any specific reason you chose this pattern."
"Should there be?"
Byakuya shook his head.
"Not necessary," Byakuya replied. "However, I cannot help thinking that you might have bought many wind chimes and then randomly gave one to each person you came to say thanks to, and this just happened to be the last one left. After all, the design isn't quite what anyone would normally pick for a man."
Ichigo growled, obviously not pleased with Byakuya's assumption.
"If you must know, other designs I found in the shop were either too cutesy for a guy or too plain. The ones that looked okay were this one and the one with a cherry blossom pattern. I don't know what you actually feel about that, but I think you'd probably seen more than enough of cherry blossoms in your lifetime already, so I picked this wind chime instead, but I guess I should have stuck to the safe bet and bought the cherry blossoms one, after all. At least that way you wouldn't automatically assume that I hadn't put any thoughts into picking gifts and just bought the same thing for everybody, save for the patterns."
Ichigo's words made Byakuya wonder why the boy decided that it would be appropriate to give him a wind chime to begin with, but he decided not to put any serious thought into it. After all, it could be because Ichigo didn't really know what to pick for him and decided that since it was summer, he might as well buy something that was related to the season.
"I see," Byakuya said. "My mistakes, then."
"So you don't like it, huh?" Ichigo asked. "The wind chime, I mean."
"I didn't say that I dislike it," Byakuya replied. "I only asked because I was surprised, since Chinese bellflower happens to be my favorite flower. However, you couldn't have known that when you bought the wind chime, could you?"
"Huh? No? That's just a coincidence."
Lord Kuchiki thought the boy would be surprised; however, the only feeling that showed in the boy's expression was a relief that came from knowing that Byakuya didn't hate the present that he chose.
"So it's just as I thought," Byakuya commented.
Another long silence filled the room as they once again ran out of subjects to discuss. However, that time, Ichigo recalled that he had already done what he was there to do, so there was no reason for him to stay there in that awkward silence any longer.
"Anyway, since I've been bothering you for long enough for one day, I think I'd better go and let you get back to whatever you were doing before I arrived."
With that said, Ichigo rose to his feet.
"It wasn't much of a bother," Byakuya remarked as he followed Ichigo's example and stood up. From the way the noble worded his sentence, Ichigo could tell that Byakuya didn't say so just to be polite but he actually meant what he said. "In fact, I believe this is the longest and most civilized conversation we've ever had."
"Come to think of it, yeah, you're right," Ichigo said. He then narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin as he observed, "But maybe that's got something to do with how you've been uncharacteristically nice to me lately."
Byakuya furrowed his brows.
"I doubt I have treated you any differently from before," Lord Kuchiki noted. "If you believe I have, then perhaps it is your perception of me that has been changed."
Ichigo shook his head.
"I don't think so. Two years ago you wouldn't have even looked me in the eye. Now I have this feeling that you're holding me in a little higher regard than before," Ichigo spoke, making a small gesture with his thumb and index to indicate how 'little' that was. "You just don't want to admit it."
"You shouldn't trust that feeling of yours for too much, Kurosaki Ichigo," Lord Kuchiki warned. "If I recall correctly, just a short while ago you still claimed that I hated you."
The orange-haired teen rolled his eyes.
"Whatever you say, Byakuya. I'm not gonna debate that with you when I should have been off since five minutes ago."
Captain Kuchiki acknowledged the statement with a nod.
"In this case, I shall get someone to escort you to the gate."
Ichigo couldn't really tell if Byakuya was playing his part as a nice and polite host or it was just the man's way to make sure that Ichigo wouldn't be around in his house for any longer than necessary, but either way, it didn't really matter.
"That's unnecessary. I'm totally capable of showing myself out," he remarked.
"Are you sure that you know the way out?"
Ichigo shook his head.
"Not really, but I can just jump over the wall and I'll be out. Don't worry. I won't be wandering in your house for too long," Ichigo replied. "Anyway, I'm off now, so see you later, Byakuya."
Byakuya nodded. "Have a safe journey."
Ichigo nodded once to acknowledge Byakuya's parting word, and then he headed toward the door only to stop by the threshold.
"Oh, one last thing, Byakuya," Ichigo said in a serious tone although he didn't bother to turn around, "you really should stop acting nice—"
Byakuya raised an eyebrow.
"—or I might get used to it."
With that, Ichigo disappeared with the help of his flash-steps.
Byakuya stared at the empty space that was once occupied by a certain orange-haired, brown-eyed Substitute Shinigami for a moment before he shook his head.
He might have let his guard down too low if Kurosaki Ichigo thought he was being nice. It was either that or the summer heat had really gone to that boy's head and given him a weird imagination.
With a soft sigh, Byakuya bent down to pick up the gift box that he left by his seat before he made his way back to his room. He would worry about his dealing with Kurosaki Ichigo later either when he had to go to the World of the Living or when the boy came to visit Soul Society again. At that moment, the only thing he needed to be concerned about was where the best spot to hang that wind chime would be.