Ren-sama's Note:

Thank you, people, for the wonderful reviews! I'm glad you liked the previous chapter! This is the new one! Please enjoy! ˆoˆ

Chapter 19

The noble sighed as he finished his remaining paperwork. It irked him that he kept on spacing out whenever his mind drifted to Ichigo. He knew now that Ichigo was causing him this unexplainable feeling, not to mention the changes in his inner world. But for him to actually dwell on it for much too long was kind of disturbing, not to mention weird.

He had been thinking about this discovery of his for some days now and he still couldn't find the answer. He knew that asking Senbonzakura would be better than thinking about it alone, but he refused to hear the zanpakutou's sighs of disappointment. He knew that Senbonzakura knew more than he was letting on, but Byakuya couldn't think of anything to make the other male spill everything out. And thus, he could only think and think and still think of Ichigo and his other problems.

He breathed deeply when he finished the paperwork which didn't stop him from thinking at all, and he put the ink pen down on the table without much thought.

That night, some days ago, when they both sparred and talked about mundane things in the Kuchiki mansion… it was something Byakuya thought was precious. And yet, he didn't know why. He remembered Ichigo looking contented and that was all that mattered to him during that time. And now that he thought about it, that kind of behavior was so unlike him at all.

He sighed when he realized he was staring off into space again. How long would he continue to think about Ichigo? How long would he feel soothed by the other man's presence alone? How long would he feel contentment and at the same time restlessness by just thinking about the orange-haired taichou?

He knew that he wouldn't be able to concentrate much on his work if his mind was filled with such things and if he kept on spacing out. He might as well deal with the root of the problem itself.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ichigo blinked at the Hell Butterfly that was perched on the tip of his index finger. Did he hear the message right? The butterfly flew up in the air after the message was finished and left through the window.

Ichigo continued to stare at the spot where the butterfly disappeared from for some more seconds before he shook his head to snap the daze out of him. Byakuya wanted to spar with him this afternoon and, on top of that, invite him to dinner again? The catch was this, they wouldn't be having dinner in the Kuchiki manor this time but at some place in Rukongai. It was quite shocking to say the least. For the most prideful and stuck-up noble to eat outside the confines of his noble manor was so unlikely. And in Rukongai at that which Byakuya once called the District of the lowly dogs?

That was beyond normal understanding. Maybe Byakuya had an accident somewhere and hit his head pretty hard? Though Ichigo knew the curlers would… no, the kenseikan, would surely protect him from the impact. He refrained from calling the things 'curlers' ever since he fought with Byakuya and the man gained his respect.

But the most shocking thing was the fact that he readily agreed even though he had some important paperwork to finish. Did he like sparring with Byakuya that much? He sighed and smiled to himself. Of course he did. Byakuya was very strong and dependable, not to mention totally graceful and elegant when fighting. And he never held back in their spar, which made Ichigo feel like he could go all out too, not that he would ever do that against Byakuya. And now that he thought about it, it wasn't shocking at all to agree to the spar so readily, considering the noble's attributes. Anyone would like to spar with Byakuya just with those reasons.

'Tsk. Tsk.' Shiro cackled inside him. 'How naive, King. Or maybe you're just plain ignorant.' He knew that Ichigo was dense, but not this much. If the kid would only ask other zanpakutous, they would say that they knew better than to cross-swords against the stoic taichou. Only Ichigo would enjoy sparring with the noble.

'Don't insult our master, Shiro!' Muramasa scolded. And before Ichigo could even ask what he was being ignorant of, a fight inside his inner world started again. He sighed as he listened to their daily banter.

'It rains lesser and lesser in here, Ichigo.' The low, calm voice of Zangetsu echoed inside the teen's head, and Ichigo was grateful. 'It seems you've found a really good medicine.'

"Huh? What do you mean, Zangetsu-oji-san?" He asked, but all that answered him was the cackle of an overly-excited Shiro and the curses of the overly-provoked Muramasa.

He sighed before he continued doing his paperwork.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Byakuya sat under the shade of the same tree where he and Ichigo rested once after their spar. He felt calmed and soothed by the mere memory of that time. And right now, he knew he must discover what it was that kept him occupied with the thoughts of the orange-haired teen. He must learn what it was about Ichigo that made his inner world alive again. He must know what the feeling in his stomach was every time the younger male was in close proximity. And just thinking about it already made his stomach flutter. He couldn't help but growl in frustration.

"Sorry, I'm late. I had some important paperwork to do and I couldn't leave without that getting done. Have you been waiting long?" A voice that made his heart skip some knots reverberated in the afternoon air and he closed his eyes for some seconds just to compose himself once more before he answered.

"No, I just arrived. Besides, you indicated in your answer that you will be late." Steel gray orbs opened and Byakuya's gaze fell on Ichigo who smiled a tad at the answer.

'Master, you're a liar.' Senbonzakura voiced inside him. 'He did say that he'd be late but you still arrived here on the exact time you indicated, which was an hour ago.'

"Be quiet, Senbonzakura." He berated coldly inside his head as he watched Ichigo's hair shone under the light of the afternoon sun. It was quite charming, what with his eyes turning almost chocolate-orange too because the setting sun was facing him. He wore his sleeveless shihakusho and haori as usual, and it made him all the more stunning. Byakuya couldn't help but continue his intense stare.

Ichigo felt really uncomfortable under the noble's strange gaze, but he knew it must be because the said raven was annoyed at his lateness. He shrugged the feeling off and walked nearer. "Are we going to spar now?"

"Yes." Byakuya answered, and without word, vanished from his post and appeared just behind Ichigo to deal him a blow on the back.

It was only due to Ichigo's fast reflex that he was able to immediately block the attack with his zanpakutou. His eyebrows creased when he had taken a good look at Byakuya's face. His face held no emotion whatsoever as usual. But his eyes spoke differently. The noble was distracted. Ichigo didn't know if it was right to ask for a spar when one was really too out of it, but he also knew that Byakuya would never ask to spar with him at whim. It seemed Byakuya was having some problems about something and he wished to spar with Ichigo to take his mind off of it. That seemed to be a rational reason.

Far from Ichigo's assumption, however, what made Byakuya so distracted was the fact that he just hesitated in his surprise attack earlier. He of all people was not one to hesitate in a fight. It disturbed him to know that he wasn't able to go all-out against Ichigo at all earlier. Was he being soft on the kid just because he knew that said kid was the source of life in his inner world? No, he knew it was more than that.

"Byakuya," Ichigo's voice rang in the afternoon air and Byakuya stopped from his tracks. Ichigo sounded… worried? "Are you alright? You seem pretty distracted from the fight."

Ichigo watched as Byakuya's eyes held his surprise even if his face showed nothing. The noble took some seconds to recover before he answered in his usually calm but cold voice. "Nothing that you should be concerned of, Ichigo Kurosaki."

The teen sighed. He was merely worried and the noble just had to be too defensive. "Alright then." And the two continued their spar again.

It was already dark when they finished and Byakuya had to recover from the shock of what he just realized during the spar. He was getting distracted every time Ichigo's bare skin would brush against his bare, and even clothed, skin. He would feel his breath hitch at the contact and his stomach would tingle. It was unnerving to say the least.

He was not so dense as to not know what that implied. Was he… He shuddered inwardly at the thought forming inside his head. Was he… He shuddered inwardly again. …lusting for Ichigo..? The question was too disturbing for him that he immediately shook the idea off of his head, though basing from his reaction when Ichigo walked nearer, he knew he wasn't successful enough.

"Byakuya, are you sure you're okay?" Ichigo asked again when he noticed that the older noble looked really disturbed about something.

The noble shook his head before he sighed. "It's nothing, Ichigo." And he started walking away only to realize that he just called the teen with just his given name. He immediately turned around to correct his mistake, only to freeze in his spot when he saw the reaction the said teen had.

Ichigo wasn't expecting the noble to call his name so familiarly. And that somehow made him lose balance on everything as he completely froze on the spot. His eyes widened in surprise and he knew the tips of his ears were starting to turn red. And much to his embarrassment, Byakuya just chose that time to turn around.

The noble's eyes widened at the unexpected reaction that the younger male gave him. And Kami, that was quite a sight… Seeing Ichigo's eyes wide with the tips of his ears burning red from embarrassment was just so, for lack of a better term, adorable. And just as the sight greeted him, the moment he blinked, it was already gone as if it was just the result of his overactive imagination.

Ichigo cleared his throat to recover from the situation. "Uh… shall we go?" He said before he started walking and passed by the still frozen noble.

"Let's go." Byakuya appeared unaffected as he followed the younger Taichou but the sadistic gleam in his eyes spoke differently.

The two removed their haoris and hung the white clothing on their shoulders as they walked in the busy street to at least lessen the wary and fearful stares of the people. They both entered a small but comfortable-looking pub, led by Byakuya, and chose the table with the most privacy. They both sat in a seiza across each other and let themselves relax in the place. The waiter asked for their order and both ordered differently. Ichigo ordered a heavy meal and a sweet tea while Byakuya ordered something light together with unsweetened tea.

Byakuya had never been here since his wife died. It was the restaurant he often frequented with her when she was still alive. He didn't know what came to him. To invite someone, especially Ichigo, at the place didn't even enter his mind until just a minute ago. Now that he saw how Ichigo surveyed the place with interested eyes though, he knew he made the right decision.

The noble might have been a little overwhelmed whenever he remembered his wife because of the place, but he was not here now to wallow in self pity and grief. He was together with the sole person who made his inner world alive again. And that made all the difference. The immediate grief and the anguish that he associated with his wife's death were not at all present today. He could still feel loneliness at the thought of her parting but the pain was at a minimum. It was a bizarre feeling, to think of his wife but feel nothing but calmness.

He looked at how the orange-haired teen silently enjoyed the warm and cozy place and the noble knew that Ichigo's presence was the reason why he could come here with all the calmness that he had now. He could see in Ichigo's eyes that the younger man was contented, if not entirely relaxed, even if his expression was of utter seriousness and his scowl was in place. And his eyes widened a little at his realization.

He could read Ichigo's mood.

He blinked. He knew Ichigo was enjoying the place, but how, he didn't know. The younger male still has his scowl in place and his reiatsu was so quiet no one would ever know what he was feeling. So how the hell could he tell that Ichigo was contented, if not entirely happy?

'Your denseness knows no bound, Master.' A voice inside his head made him growl and made Ichigo, in turn, look at him in question.

"What's wrong, Byakuya?" Ichigo asked as he looked at the noble full in the eyes.

Byakuya looked like he didn't just growl and now still appeared very calm. "Nothing that you should concern yourself with, Ichigo." He spoke with a voice so calm it was almost deadly, at least to everyone but not the person he was currently talking to.

Ichigo was so surprised to hear Byakuya spoke of his name so casually that his breathe hitched unexpectedly. He felt the tips of his ears reddening again for some reason unknown to him and he immediately cleared his throat to clear his mind. "B-Byakuya, you can revert back to calling my full name if you want." He felt giddy with the tingling sensation in his stomach and he silently cursed when he stammered in his words.

If Byakuya was still his younger self, he would have snickered at the reaction he got from the teen. It was amusing how Ichigo gets so flustered at the mere mention of his first name. Was the teen always like this with new acquaintances? He certainly would like to continue his subtle torture if this was the case. How lovely those red ear tips were becoming…

And the sadistic glimmer in Byakuya's cold gray eyes made Ichigo's eyes widened. The stuck-up noble was doing it on purpose! The teen was about to give a smart retort but held back when the waiter approached them and gave their order. Afterwards, the two settled in a very quiet dinner, immediately forgetting their earlier actions.

The younger male was still thinking even now about Byakuya's reason for inviting him of all people in this pub. It's not like the two of them have gotten really close to be considered friends. Although they were really much closer than before, it was still far from the way Ichigo felt for Renji, or Rukia. Somehow… his relationship with Byakuya just couldn't be put side by side with his relationship with friends. It's just… so different. Not to mention that it felt different too…

Then why did Byakuya invite him? Ichigo had to sigh when he remembered the sadistic expression that the noble had earlier. That could pass as a reason to invite someone for dinner, right? To torture them by making them feel embarrassment… Really, he thought Byakuya was such a stuck-up whose entire existence was made to worship the rules of Soul Society. So why was a noble like him finding pleasure in seeing the distress of one orange-haired Taichou who only happened to rub him the wrong way during their initial encounters? Well, at least Byakuya didn't hate him now…

He heard Shiro snickered inside his mind for something he didn't quite understand and he held back the urge to comment on it. Instead, he sipped his warm tea as he inhaled the scent of the meal he ordered.

Byakuya, even now, liked it when Ichigo was drinking his sweet tea. The teen was really graceful to the point where even he was amazed. Not that that shallow point of the teen was enough to make his inner world live again. He knew it was something else, something much deeper that he was not yet aware of.

He closed his eyes as he sipped his own tea. Ichigo was merely a boy, but was he really, for the lack of a better term, lusting for that said boy? Right now though, he could feel nothing of the sort. He could only feel utter calmness and contentment.

'And also the feeling of pleasurable tingle inside your stomach...' Senbonzakura added inside his mind but Byakuya readily ignored the zanpakutou as he continued in his musing.

Was it actually just his adrenalin then, the so-called lust that he felt? It happened earlier when they were in the middle of the fight too, just when they happened to touch. No, it happened even before they started fighting. He sighed inwardly. If only he could solve this huge mystery called Ichigo Kurosaki, then he'd have no problem doing his paperwork as usual.

"Thanks for the meal." Ichigo mumbled before he started eating his meal, getting self-conscious of the fact that Byakuya's gray orbs refused to leave him be. And he was getting too self-conscious to ask too. Why would the noble do that anyway? Maybe to torment him again?

Byakuya started eating his meal too while gazing at the beautiful teen, though he was still in a deep thought. Ichigo had managed to bring out the relaxed, younger side of him which he so buried under the impenetrable mask of coldness and indifference. If the teen was doing it unconsciously, then Byakuya feared the day when Ichigo would consciously do it.

And with that realization, the noble's eyes slightly widened. He wasn't just lusting for the younger Taichou… He's actually attracted to Ichigo. A shiver immediately ran down his spines at his realization. He's attracted to Ichigo… The thought echoed inside his mind for some minutes until it sank deeper into his consciousness.

"Byakuya?" Ichigo called the older male when he felt the slightly disturbed reiatsu coming from the other. "Are you sure you're okay?" Byakuya looked slightly alarmed when he looked at Ichigo and the teen had the nagging feeling that he was the cause of the noble's distress. "I know it's not my business and all. But at least try to open to people more."

Byakuya watched as the younger teen scowled, though it appeared more like a pout to him now. How hardheaded was he to not realize it himself? Senbonzakura surely realized his feelings for the teen way before he even realized it has something to do with Ichigo. So that's why Senbonzakura asked him to spar with Ichigo…

'Ah, thank goodness. I thought it'll be a century before you realize it, Master.' Senbonzakura teased inside his head and he let out a growl to shut the zanpakutou up, though he immediately regretted it when the teen in front of him thought that the growl was to shut him up.

Byakuya sighed when he saw the slight tinge of hurt in those chocolate eyes. To make up for it, which he knew he would be doing a lot from now on, he answered the question. "I'm just a little tired from the Division, Ichigo. It's nothing to worry about."

Ichigo looked at the noble with surprise. He never thought that Byakuya would answer him, especially since he just growled his annoyance on him. He felt the tips of his ears and his cheeks warming up with the rush of blood when the noble called him by name again, though this time Byakuya obviously wasn't teasing. And now he didn't know what to say.

'Just tell him you like him, or something along those lines.' Shiro snickered inside his mind and Ichigo had the urge to growl too, though he held it back in his throat at the last minute.

'Shut up, Shiro.' He answered in his mind instead. 'You know I won't let myself hold anyone dear anymore. The heartache that continues to drizzle down upon in my inner world is enough.'

"You should try to relax more, Byakuya." The teen answered the noble, before his eyes widened in understanding. "Oh, is that what the spar was all about?"

"…Yes." Byakuya closed his eyes instead of averting them because of the blatant lie and sipped the last of his tea. "You should finish your meal too, Ichigo." He opened his eyes just in time to see the teen trying to quietly bring down the blush that spread across his cheeks and the tips of his ears. The noble smirked from beneath the cover of his tea cup.

It really is so fun messing with Ichigo.

'I think that's just your way of conveying your affection for him, Master.' Senbonzakura echoed in his mind again and Byakuya almost drop the cup that he was holding. His zanpakutou's blatant words struck him good and he found himself unable to retort. He could already imagine the smug smirk that that samurai had from under that annoying mask.

Ichigo quickly but gracefully finished his meal and sipped the remaining of his tea quite contentedly. Even though he and Byakuya hardly exchanged any word in the duration of their dinner, Ichigo found it very comforting to be in the older taichou's presence – contrary to all beliefs.

'I think you're the only one who thinks that, Ichigo.' Muramasa said inside his mind and Ichigo scowled. How could everyone think that Byakuya was a bad person? Well, actually, now that he thought about it, he was one of those who truly believed that Byakuya-the-curlers was the devil's incarnate. No, that was Aizen. So Byakuya was the devil's right hand man's incarnate. No, that was Gin. Then Byakuya was…

'That stuck up is a demon sent from hell to fire and light up your utterly dark and cold world, Ichigo.' Shiro teased and Ichigo wished he was in his inner world, slicing that smug grin off of that whitey bastard.

Byakuya could feel his annoyance building up as he tried to think of something to talk about. He knew that Ichigo was quite comfortable with the silence, but he was feeling too annoyed at the constant voice inside his mind, courtesy of one annoying samurai who never knew how to stop, and just wanted to talk to the teen. "So, how's your Division?" He asked out of the blue and he silently cursed himself for blurting it out loud without any thought.

Ichigo blinked before he realized that Byakuya had just asked him a question. Well, talking to the older man was a lot better than talking to Shiro and his constant teasing. "It's fine. The trainees are doing well and I might let them officially join the missions some time next week. The problem about the staff's number is already solved and everyone is doing their job properly, or at least as far as I am concerned." He answered, not elaborating that the noble's sister was always idling around and always urging him to take a rest instead of just helping him with the paperwork so he could indeed rest. He also didn't voice the mountainous amount of paperwork that he had to do everyday because of one, no, two annoying Taichous who just kept on destroying most of the Thirteenth Squad properties just to look for him and ask for a fight.

After he answered, Byakuya asked him another question about the Division. And another, and another, and before the teen even realized it, the noble was already subtly asking him about his personal life. Of course, Ichigo also had his share of questions which the noble answered with curtness and precision, though it wasn't the cold way he usually addressed people. Byakuya would sometimes elaborate if he found it lacking, but almost always he deemed it enough of an answer. During those times, Ichigo knew better than to ask further. Of course, Byakuya also noticed that Ichigo still held back in his answers, though not consciously. And he also knew better than to press the younger male.

They both knew that they needed time to open up to other people. But that didn't mean that they didn't learn enough about each other. Ichigo found himself talking about his life in Rukongai, though not in details, and also told Byakuya about the first time he met Shiro and Zangetsu. He also learned about Byakuya's wife, Hisana, and also a lot about the Kuchiki Clan. He didn't know why Byakuya was contently sharing those things to him, or why he was talking about his past to someone who was not even officially his friend, but he was nevertheless grateful.

It was after a minute of mundane topics that two Hell Butterflies flew down on their fingers. Ichigo stiffened when he read the message and he saw from the corner of his eyes that Byakuya also did.

The two let the butterflies flew away to convey their answers before they both stood up and shunpo'd over to the First Division Office just as the alarm in Seireitei blared for everyone to hear.

If the Soutaichou was ever surprised that both arrived at the same time, or together, he never showed it on his face. He just solemnly stared at the young ones in front of him with an unreadable expression as always. Shunsui was yawning in his position, though he gave the pair a curious glance, while Kenpachi was grinning manically, the reason was something known only to him. Toshirou looked like he wanted to be standing anywhere but between the two idiots, though he also looked at Ichigo and Byakuya meaningfully when the two Taichous arrived together. It was known to everyone that the two Taichous disliked each other, but seeing that they didn't give off such an aura to one another, it was really hard to tell now.

Shinji had both of his hands behind his head as he appeared totally lax. He gave Ichigo a cheeky grin before he yawned. He stood beside Kenpachi. Both Ichigo and Byakuya stood properly beside Shunsui with their impenetrable masks as the soutaichou told the six Taichous their mission in person.

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.tbc.

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Ren-sama's Note:

And so, this is the start of another arc! This fict is nearing its climax (please put your dirty minds out of the gutter). And please review!