Chapter 9: A Moment to Breathe

Byakuya's eyes flew open suddenly and his hands instantly tore at the electrodes that had been attached to him to monitor his body functions. Ichigo came awake a moment later and quickly captured his hands to stop him.

"Hey, don't do that. It's okay," he assured the spooked noble, "Unohana taichou was just monitoring your vital signs and making sure we were okay while I went to get you. You passed out and they couldn't wake you up, remember?"

"Ah!" Byakuya gasped softly, his eyes clearing as he regained his senses, "My apologies. I was disoriented for a moment upon regaining consciousness. I don't remember being brought here."

"That's okay," Ichigo said, smiling down at him from where he leaned over the noble, "I got a little turned around myself."

The two looked up as the door to the hospital room opened and Unohana taichou entered the room, followed by Urahara Kisuke and Yoruichi. Ichigo hastily tied his yukata back in place, while Byakuya adjusted the blanket that covered him.

"Don't you guys knock?" Ichigo complained.

"Usually," said Unohana, looking serious, "However, Kuchiki taichou's vital signs were very erratic and the reiatsu in the room swelled to the point where it knocked out the sensors and monitors in the room."

"You didn't notice the damage you two were doing?" Kisuke chuckled, looking around at the somewhat disturbed room.

Ichigo and Byakuya followed his gaze, then exchanged glances.

"We did all of that?" Ichigo asked, frowning, "Sorry about that."

"It is all right," said the healer, "But are the two of you all right?"

"I feel fine," said Ichigo, "What about you, Byakuya?"

"I feel fine as well."

"So, I assume that whatever was keeping you trapped in your inner world has abated?" asked that healer.

"Actually," said Byakuya, "there seem to have been two things affecting my mind."

"Oh?" queried Kisuke, "Do tell, Byakuya-san."

"First, we already knew that Kugo Ginjou had been invading Ichigo's dreams and tormenting him, but after I joined him in his dream, using the Dreamcatcher's kido, I also began to encounter Kugo Ginjou's presence. At first, I wondered if his presence was merely a figment of my own imagination, brought on by the fact of having been attacked by him in Ichigo's dream."

"But you don't buy that now?" asked Kisuke.

"No," the noble said, shaking his head, "What I experienced related to him was too different from the other presence that emanated in my inner world."

"And what presence was that?" asked Kisuke.

Byakuya met Ichigo's eyes for a moment, and the shinigami substitute's eyes. widened for a moment, then registered understanding and acceptance.

"I do not wish to explain," the noble said simply, "I will merely affirm that a person related to events of my past was used to 'attack' me in my inner world. But what emanated lacked the resonance of Kugo's presence. I know the man is dead, but I feel his presence in my inner world as though he was still alive."

"Huh," mused Kisuke, "Well, that definitely sounds like something that calls for some investigation. Ichigo, what's your read on the situation? Did you sense a difference in the presences in his mind?"

"I'd have to agree with Byakuya," Ichigo said, nodding, "What he described is what I saw there, and it's what's happening in my own mind when I fall asleep."

"Huh," mused Kisuke, "So, we have a presence that began in just Ichigo's mind, but when Byakuya used the Dreamcatcher's kido seemed to jump to his mind too?"

"I think that 'infect' might be a better word," Byakuya suggested.

"Right," said Kisuke, frowning, "This is very odd. I can see I'll have to give it a little overtime. You gentlemen mind if we run some medical tests before you go?"

"I have no objection," stated Byakuya.

"I'm okay with it too," said Ichigo.

Ichigo couldn't help but feel touched as Byakuya sat up and nudged closer to him, while Unohana taichou and Kisuke conducted their tests and quietly discussed the procedures and implications with them. He felt a soft jolt of surprise and sympathy at the hint of tension in his body and the edge of discomfort barely readable in his eyes.

Damn, the closer I get to this guy, the more I realize how much of him isn't what it seems on the surface at all. I wouldn't have ever thought of Byakuya being vulnerable in any way before. But I can tell he's really not comfortable with this at all. What Aizen did to him still hurts him, even though Aizen's locked up. It's like with me and Ginjou. Ginjou is dead, but my skin still crawls at being touched where he touched me.

I feel sad that Byakuya went through what he did, but I guess that's why he understands.

Ichigo slipped his hand into Byakuya's under the blanket, smiling at the almost imperceptible flinch, and the flicker of surprise and acceptance in his dark, quiet eyes. He was quick to note that although the noble said nothing about the exchange and gave no overt signs, he continued to let his hand rest in Ichigo's even once the battery of tests was complete.

"Well, I guess that's it," Kisuke said, glancing at Unohana taichou and receiving a nod of agreement, "I guess we'll sift through this and let you two know what we find."

"But we must be certain that you both remain safe in the interim," insisted the healer.

"Unfortunately, it's not as simple as sticking you in a safe house or protective custody," added Kisuke, "The battleground's in your own heads, so you have to be sure that the two of you watch out for each other. You'll need to take turns sleeping so that Kugo doesn't get to you before we figure out what the guy set you up for."

"Don't worry about that," Ichigo said, squeezing Byakuya's hand gently under the blanket, "We won't leave each other alone for a second."

"I hardly need a babysitter, Ichigo," Byakuya said, raising an eyebrow.

"Says that guy who went to sleep under a tree and almost didn't wake up," laughed Kisuke.

"I am sure that, just as I have things that I must see to here, Ichigo is busy as well. We can certainly meet at the manor in the evenings to make sure we monitor each other through the nights," the noble went on, ignoring him.

"Byakuya's right," Ichigo agreed, "I do have some things to do. We'll meet at the manor."

He felt a soft jolt inside at the feeling of reluctance in Byakuya's hand as it released his.

"Very well, then," he said quietly, "Unohana taichou, I assume that as there are no effects outside of our inner worlds..."

"No known effects outside your inner worlds," Kisuke corrected him, "We really can't assume anything yet, if you know what I mean. There's a lot of research to be done."

"And Kuchiki taichou," said Unohana, looking into Byakuya's eyes meaningfully, "After the troubles in your inner world, you are not well rested. If you wish me to release you, I will only do so on the condition that you go home with Kurosaki-san now and rest for the rest of the day while he monitors you."

"But Ichigo said he is busy," objected the noble, "And I have duties at my division..."

Unohana's smile widened and Byakuya blinked in surprise and went silent.

"I am sure that Kurosaki-san is not so busy that he cannot go home with you now and let you sleep for awhile, ne?"

Ichigo swallowed hard and the feeling of terror that enveloped him for a moment, looking at the healer.

"Eh...uh, no, no problem," he said, sweat breaking out on his forehead, "I can stay with Byakuya while he sleeps."

Man, that woman is scary!

"Very well then," the healer said, nodding, "You are free to go, Kuchiki taichou."

"I'll be in touch about the results of the tests and scans I ran," said Kisuke, "just as soon as I get home and run them through the computers."

"We can meet back here when the results are in," said Unohana taichou, "And then, we should be able to devise a course of action to abate the interference of that man in your minds."

"Arigato, Unohana taichou, Urahara Kisuke," said Byakuya.

"Yeah, thanks," Ichigo added.

They watched as the fourth division taichou and shopkeeper left, then Byakuya slipped out of the bed and began to dress. Ichigo found his own clothes and dressed too, then followed Byakuya out of the room and away from the healing center. The noble was quiet and contemplative at first, but abandoned his silence about halfway to the manor.

"Ichigo, thank you for coming to assist me. I am grateful."

"Huh," said the younger man, "I don't know why you didn't just let me stay and use that kido to help you rest in the first place. Would it have been that bad for you to have to admit that you like me?"

"Who said that I like you?" the noble asked blithely, "Perhaps I merely don't want to let someone I am indebted to go insane and die."

"Bullshit!" laughed Ichigo, smirking, "You were casting love kidos and shit before you even knew Ginjou was haunting me! Why don't you just cut the crap and admit it? You know, just say the words, 'I like you, Ichigo.' Is that so hard?"

"If my feelings for you are so obvious, then why do I need to state them?" Byakuya asked, glaring at him out of the corner of an eye.

Ichigo reached out a hand and took hold of his arm, stopping him and making him look back at him.

"What are you...?" the noble began.

He froze, staring into Ichigo's eyes as the ginger-haired youth kissed him lightly on the mouth.

"I get that you're not that open, but you also know that I am. What I think and what I feel is always out there where you can see it. But even though I'm that way, I know there are times when I shouldn't do things my way...when I should be sensitive to what you need. But it goes both ways, see?"

"You are saying that you need to hear the words?" Byakuya asked, lowering his eyes.

Ichigo smiled.

"Yeah, sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes."

"I see," said the noble, turning towards the manor again, "I will keep that in mind."

"Huh?" Ichigo said, blinking, then scowling, "You'll keep it in...Byakuya! Hey!"

Byakuya continued walking, a small, satisfied smirk touching his lips as Ichigo followed him, complaining all of the way back to the manor. They passed through the gates and walked through the gardens to the noble's bedroom, with Ichigo still grousing, though more quietly. As they passed through the garden doors into the bedroom, Ichigo yelped in surprise as Byakuya nudged the door shut behind them, then grabbed the front of his shihakushou and pushed him back against the wall, his steely gray eyes freezing him with a lusty glare.

"What the...?"

"I like you, Ichigo," the noble said, leaning forward to kiss him.

He went silent again as Byakuya's warm body pressed up against his, and the noble's hungry mouth attacked his. He flinched at the first long kiss, his mind firing back to his lovemaking with Ginjou. But though Byakuya's hands and body held him in place against the wall as they kissed, the emotion beneath the action felt passionate, without being overly aggressive. And as much as Byakuya's lips were possessive in the way they captured his, they felt wholly different than the fullbringer's. He found he couldn't get enough of them and returned the noble's kisses enthusiastically, secretly wishing that they were close enough to the bed to just fall onto it.

But the thought of what would happen in that bed made him freeze up again for a moment, and he felt Byakuya pull away slightly to look at his face.

"Are you all right?" he asked quietly, his eyes expressing calm understanding, "I am sorry. I was only trying to..."

"I know," Ichigo said, managing a smile, "And I'm glad you kissed me like that. It's just...I'm kind of, I don't know..."

Byakuya's hand found his and squeezed it gently.

"You don't need to explain. I will 'let you lead.' That way, nothing will happen that makes you uncomfortable."

"And what about you?" Ichigo asked, "You can't tell me that what Aizen did to you doesn't come back and catch you by surprise, ne?"

"It does," the noble admitted, "But, I have a long history of reining in my reactions when it comes to such things."

Ichigo's lips tightened and he shook his head firmly.

"No. I don't want you to hide that stuff from me," he said, looking into the depths of the other man's dark eyes, "We need to be honest with each other if we're going to have trust. When I touch you, I want to know what's going on inside your head, good or bad. That's what lovers do, right?"

Byakuya caught his breath softly in surprise.

"We are...lovers then?" he said, blinking slowly, as though the idea had never occurred to him.

"Well, we're kissing a lot," Ichigo said, smiling at the blush it brought to Byakuya's cheeks and throat, "And I don't know about you, but when I start kissing you, it isn't like when Ginjou kissed me."

"Ichigo."

"It isn't like that at all. I don't feel nervous. I don't ask myself if it's the right thing. I don't have to."

Byakuya's eyes closed and he bit his lip gently as Ichigo's hand captured his and guided it down to where his member swelled prominently beneath his clothes. He breathed his next words hotly into the blushing shell of the noble's ear.

"And even though sometimes there are moments when I think of what happened with Ginjou and it hurts inside, mostly, when it's you I'm with, all I feel is good. All it is, is warm. And all I want is more."

Byakuya opened his eyes and gazed quietly down at where his hand still rested on Ichigo's hardness.

"I understand," he said, swallowing hard, "But realize that there are things we have to consider..."

"Your place as clan leader?" Ichigo asked, flustering him more by moving his hips very slightly, rubbing suggestively against the noble's soft fingertips.

"That," Byakuya confirmed, "But also the fact that neither of us has been in what can be considered a 'stable relationship.' The way we were raped was different. Kugo Ginjou used pressure and emotional manipulation, while Aizen used hypnotism and force."

"What about your relationship with Hisana?" Ichigo asked, "Wasn't that stable? Normal?"

Byakuya turned away from Ichigo, walked to the bed and sat down. He took a breath to steady himself, then released the truth he had promised himself that he never would.

"I loved Hisana in the way that a person loves a dear friend. We...never had relations."

Ichigo stared at him blankly.

"I thought that you didn't start remembering what Aizen did until he left for Hueco Mundo," he objected.

"Yes," affirmed the noble, "I did not remember. But, it seems that my body remembered being hurt sexually. When I overheard several of the elders pressuring my grandfather to compel me to marry, I was surprised at the amount of apprehension I felt. I...thought that something was just wrong with me. I didn't realize what was making me feel that way about getting married. About being with someone sexually. So, I took the assignment in Inuzuri. Hisana caught my attention when she was injured trying to assist some street children who were being terrorized by a hollow. We became friends, and when it was time for me to return, I asked her to come back with me. I explained to her that I could not face being forced into marriage. I married her instead, and simply never had relations with her. We shared a bed, and we kissed in front of others so that it would not be obvious. She was someone I loved, just not sexually. I do mourn her still, because she was the closest friend I had. But we were not lovers."

Ichigo let out a soft, wounded laugh.

"So...it sounds like neither one of us has any idea what it's like to really be in love, ne?"

Byakuya lowered his eyes and said nothing.

"Well," the younger man went on, "I guess that means that we'll just have to take things slowly, right? We'll just feel our way along, and tell each other when one of us or the other is uncomfortable...unless..."

Byakuya looked up at him again questioningly.

"Are you waiting for me to tell you that such a thing cannot happen because of who we are?" he asked, "Because I am a full shinigami and a clan leader? Because you are a human? I might have said such things before, but it seems that I can't anymore. I can't say those things and be honest with myself."

"Then...?"

"I am not saying that it will be easy. There are barriers we will face, not the least of which is this man who has invaded our minds and now threatens us both. but, that being said, I think that we need to try."

"Sure," said Ichigo, coaxing him to his feet and beginning to undress him.

Byakuya stood silently as Ichigo's hands freed him of his uniform and left him in just a plain white yukata. Then, the shinigami substitute undressed himself likewise. They opened their yukatas and laid down in Byakuya's bed, both flustered at what was likely to happen between them all too soon.

"But we have time for that," Ichigo said, watching as Byakuya settled onto his back, then sprawling lazily across his chest, and making his blush deepen, "First, you need to rest like Unohana taichou said. She showed me how to use that kido to take away your dreams. Go ahead and go to sleep. Trust me, I won't let that creep get near you. Get some rest and we'll start to figure things out more later."

Byakuya's gray eyes looked up into Ichigo's as the younger man invoked the kido to help him fall asleep.

"Thank you, Ichigo," he whispered, "I am glad you are here."

Ichigo smiled down at him and waited until he was sleeping peacefully.

"Yeah," he said softly, "Me too."