They had been travelling almost two hours by the time Ichigo realised they were making no progress.
Byakuya certainly wasn't a wuss, he hadn't complained about his injury, hadn't tried to keep off of it either, but it was clearly bothering him and slowing him down.
"Stop, stop!" Ichigo finally cried reluctantly.
"We cannot stop simply because you are tiring Ichigo," Byakuya told him, irritation beginning to show as he shot a glance behind him.
"I'm not tired," Ichigo snapped in reply. "You are."
Byakuya slowed, turning to look at him fully. "I am fine. I believe my pace is acceptable as well. It is you who is falling behind."
"I'm not falling behind! I'm only behind you so you don't fall like you did about five seconds ago," Ichigo replied tartly.
"I did not fall," Byakuya told him haughtily.
"Tripped then," Ichigo amended, "or whatever you want to call it. I'm staying behind so I can catch you when you fall."
Ichigo seemed to pause then, looking uncomfortable at the words that had left him and sure as hell not liking the way it sounded. "Anyway, we'll be practically dead by the time we get home."
"There is hardly any need for such exaggeration," Byakuya said, though he seemed thoughtful. "I suppose though, our speed is less than ideal."
"On top of that, we're lost! Do you even know where we're going?" Ichigo demanded. Certain that they had spotted that tree earlier.
"I am not lost," he sniffed.
There was a long pause as Ichigo just gave him a dry look.
"Very well... I will admit that this forest is larger than I had anticipated and while I am certain in my knowledge of the majority of the land, I believe that we may have ended up slightly awry."
"We?" Ichigo scoffed. "I was following the great 'Master Byakuya.'" He made a face as he used his hand to make quotation marks. "You were the one that got us lost."
Byakuya seemed to only just contain his indignation. "It is completely obscene that I should be held chiefly responsible for our current situation. If you recall, if was you who pushed me from the main path to begin with."
"I didn't push you," Ichigo argued. "You fell when I gave you a pat on the shoulder."
"I was surprised by the contact!"
"Well that's not my fault, is it?"
"N – no," Byakuya blustered, scrambling for another argument but feeling completely unseated. Ichigo had once again riled him up and he was left unable to construct a reasonable response.
Ichigo snorted out a laugh but said no more and soon their thoughts turned to alternative options.
"Well if we aren't getting anywhere walking, we may as well... camp out here. Maybe someone will come and find us," Ichigo suggested, face crinkling in distaste at his own words.
"There is no doubt someone will come and find us. I am a nobleman. If I am missing they will surely search."
"Yeah, alright smartass," Ichigo growled.
"However..." Byakuya hesitated. "I believe in this instance you are correct-"
"Good," Ichigo said before immediately settling down, cross-legged.
Narrowing his eyes for a moment, Byakuya followed suit seconds later.
Ichigo was stretched out comfortably beside the glowing fire, making marks in the dirt with a stick as Byakuya sat across from him, rested against a tree, the picnic blanket laid neatly across his lap.
"You can't be used to this, right?" Ichigo asked, glancing up at the noble.
Byakuya's eyes opened slowly. "I cannot 'be used' to what?"
The younger man shrugged. "I mean, sleeping like this... you know, slumming it."
There was a pause as Byakuya watched him, slate-grey eyes illuminated by the fire. Then he took a breath, "I... suppose...I am not. I have had no reason to ever live in these conditions."
Ichigo's only reply was a simple nod of his head, although Byakuya had expected the young man to give him some sort of lecture.
"... And you?" Byakuya prompted eventually. "I suppose you must be used to it."
"I'm used to it now," Ichigo replied quietly, still idly tracing in the dirt, not meeting Byakuya's eyes.
Ichigo gave no sign that he did or did not realise the implication of his admission, nor did he seem overly concerned even if he did. He didn't continue talking however, and the two once again fell into silence with Byakuya contemplating his words.
Byakuya startled when Ichigo exhaled sharply and sat up. "Give me some of the blanket, I'm cold."
Ruffled, the man straightened. "I see no reason why I must share my blanket with you. I am a nobleman and I am also the injured party. That aside, you seem perfectly comfortable from where I am."
"Yeah, well I'm cold," he repeated, pushing himself up and moving over to sit beside Byakuya.
He settled down, grabbing a corner of the blanket and pulling it over him before lying on his side, his back to the other man. Byakuya on the other hand was sitting stiffly, staring, wide-eyed at Ichigo.
It took the man twenty minutes and Ichigo's breathing to even out in sleep for him to finally relax.
Watching the younger man, Byakuya wondered once again at Ichigo's earlier words. So he hadn't always been 'slumming it,' as he so eloquently said. Or one could assume.
Byakuya's heart gave a jump as Ichigo's breath whooshed out and he shifted, turning to face him.
He was suddenly compelled to roll his eyes, frustrated by his reaction to Ichigo. Disdain for the situation he could understand, but his anxiety on the simple presence of Ichigo confounded him.
Byakuya did not roll them however, he simply lay down and stared at the stars through the foliage; taking in the buzzing of crickets, the popping and cracking of the fire and the gentle sound of Ichigo's breathing.
It was only moments later when his eyelids flickered shut and he felt sleep overtaking him.
Byakuya could not tell you exactly what awakened him; simply that he was awakened in seconds, heart pounding in his heart viciously as he gasped for breath.
In those few precious seconds that it took his mind to reorientate itself, he was made aware of two things. One; that there was still little light – only the soft shining from the stars and the gentle quake of the extinguishing coals cast any upon the lost pair. This implied that not much time had passed. Two; that they had, sometime during the night, become entangled and Byakuya was now breathing in wisps of hair.
At this revelation, he could feel his heart leap into his throat and his blood rush through his veins. He stilled completely, barely daring to breathe, lest he rouse his partner.
Byakuya felt as if he was choking on his heart when he felt Ichigo move. The leg Ichigo already had lain over Byakuya's crooked further, sliding up the older man's thigh.
They both must have moved sometime during the night and when Ichigo had turned, his hands had clenched in the material of the noble's clothes. One of Byakuya's arms was laid across a muscular back and his leg was intertwined with Ichigo's.
Byakuya felt heat creeping from his stomach to his neck and he itched to move. Whether he desired to have Ichigo's leg move higher or have him move away completely, Byakuya was not certain.
As he contemplated this he heard a sound, followed by a murmuring echo.
It came again, clearer this time and Byakuya could just make out the sound of his and Ichigo's names on the air.
Byakuya was struggling up in moments, leaving Ichigo tumbled and confused as he shouted back, voice barely kept from cracking; "Here!" He cleared his throat, moving towards the noise slightly and repeated; "Here! We're here."
Ichigo was still attempting to gather his wits as they both heard, clearer this time; "Brother? Ichigo?"
Ichigo sat up, glancing at Byakuya as they called out in unison, "Here!"
"Rukia, we're here," Ichigo shouted, voice still hoarse and rough from sleep.
Byakuya attempted to pay no heed to the husky rumble, nor to the gentle shiver it sent cascading down his spine.
"Ichigo you complete idiot! Where the hell are-" Byakuya could hear Rukia raging.
"I can see your torch!" Ichigo shouted, ignoring the insult for the time being.
And indeed, shining through the trees was a series of torches followed by the shape of shadowy figures.
It appeared they had spotted Ichigo and Byakuya also for there was a series of voices, almost incoherent as they combined.
The overriding noise appeared to be relief; there were cheers, laughs and irritation but they all ran to the pair with Rukia flinging her arms around her brother before slapping Ichigo around the head and hugging him.
Ichigo was smirking at the smaller woman as she continued to babble angrily when he was practically bowled over by Mihane. She was fussing and worrying and she stared up at him, teeth gnawing at her lip.
When he attempted to wave her away, she noticed the blood on his sleeve. "Oh goodness! Ichigo, what happened? Are you injured?" She grabbed his arm, pushing the sleeve up and twisting it this way and that.
"You alright mate?" Renji asked, jogging up to the pair and slapping him firmly on the shoulder.
"Ah, this?" Ichigo asked. "It's-"
"It's my blood," Byakuya told her, rather snappishly.
Ichigo wondered if Byakuya was irritated because of the attention that Mihane was showing him, angered that Mihane was not doting on him.
"Oh no! Master Byakuya, are you-"
"Where?" Rukia demanded, interrupting Mihane even as she looked her brother up and down. She easily spotted the injured leg and pulled it up, practically toppling him, despite his protests.
"Is... is this a napkin?" Rukia asked, bemused.
"Ichigo insisted on wrapping it," Byakuya told her dryly.
"I had wanted to use his scarf," Ichigo told her with a laugh. "But he's so attached to it."
"Of course he is. It is expensive after all."
He nodded, shaking his head. "That's what he told me."
"These napkins are also expensive."
"He told me that too," he said with another bark of laughter.
"How'd you two get lost anyway?" Kenpachi rumbled out, pushing past a few of the other nobles.
Ichigo and Byakuya shared a look, almost as if they were each daring the other to lay blame first.
"We thought we'd wait it out. Byakuya needed to rest," Ichigo said vaguely.
Byakuya looked a little irked to be used as the excuse but did not protest and nodded in agreement.
"At least ya're all in one piece," Gin drawled, slipping closer to the front of the group. "Wouldn't want ya comin' back all broken like." He let his slits of eyes slide to Ichigo as he said this.
"It's good you're mostly unhurt," Rukia agreed, hand stilled on Byakuya's arm.
"Can we go home now?" Rangiku whined, leaning heavily on Tōshirō. "I'm tired. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad you're okay, but we've been walking for forever."
"Sorry that our little detour bothered you so much," Ichigo complained, though the words had no heat to it.
Byakuya was very ready to reprimand him for his disrespectful tone but was stopped short when Rangiku just pouted, walking over to Ichigo to pinch a cheek.
"It's no bother," she said. "But it's so far!"
Ichigo slapped her away, laughing. "Yeah, yeah. Alright! We're going."
He glanced at Byakuya who was standing stock still, staring at him. The older man seemed almost distant, left out and for a moment, Ichigo was tempted to say something. He didn't though; he just followed the nobles, crying out in half-hearted indignation as Shunsui grabbed him around the shoulders and ruffled his hair while Renji joked with his friend.
Byakuya stood almost frozen as he watched the young man walk away. He did not understand what he was feeling exactly, it wasn't something he was used to feeling. He just knew that he did not like it.
"Brother?" Rukia asked gently, squeezing his arm and flashing him a brilliant smile. "Let's catch up with them."
So, here it is! Sorry it took so long to get to you. And for those wondering where Aizen is, don't worry, he's coming. But I don't want him coming in and fucking up their relationship quite yet so for the moment, all you have is Gin. Please R&R! Love you!