Ren-sama's Note:

Thanks for the reviews, guys! You really make my day! Here's the next chapter! ˆoˆ


Chapter 21

Byakuya couldn't help but furrow his eyebrows as he glanced behind him, on Ichigo, and saw that the orange-haired taichou was lagging behind them with a disturbed expression – as if he was thinking of some scary and also agonizing things.

'Master, I think you shouldn't ask him directly.' Senbonzakura voiced inside his mind. 'I don't think he's the kind to ever voice out his worries to others, especially not to worry the people around him. He might tell you if you ask about it in a roundabout way.'

Shunsui's voice beside the raven was teasing when the former spoke. "It's quite a surprise that Kuchiki-taichou has his eyes on someone so much." And Byakuya couldn't help but glare at the older male. Shunsui only chuckled before shrugging, not even pretending to be scared of the death glare that was sent to his direction.

They all walked quite silently for a while in the long suffocating hallways with nothing but thick brown walls and ceiling all around them. The place looked damp and oxygen was scarce. The only sources of light were the fire from the torches on each side of the walls.

"I think we're in some kind of tunnel underground." Shinji voiced just loud enough for all of them to hear. His voice echoed a bit when he spoke. "It'll be bad if we're to fight in a place like this."

"We'll all be buried alive." Toshirou muttered with a straight face and Kenpachi's grin only sharpened. Byakuya didn't look like he heard anything as he walked on his own pace.

"Please don't jinx us, Hirako-taichou." Shunsui said in his usual bubbly tone while still stealing a glance at both Byakuya and Ichigo. It seemed his best friend Juushirou would never know now how it was to see Byakuya interested in someone again – and Juushirou's beloved son at that.

Ichigo finally got out of his own world at that time and caught up to them. "How long are we going to find our way out?"

"It can be in minutes now, or hours, or forever." Shinji answered with a smile, though his eyes told everyone he was dead serious. "It's also the first time I've been here so I'm not really sure. But these long and winding passages with so many intersections might not even have any way out, you know."

"Hirako-taichou is right." Byakuya mused aloud, making almost all heads turn in his direction for it was the first time he spoke to them and agreed. "We might have to use other means in order to get out of here."

"And the fact is, there are many intersections that we don't even know if we already passed the exit and just missed it." Toshirou nodded, wearing his usual scowl again. "How annoying."

"You mean we might not be able to get out of here? Ever?" Shunsui asked, still in his bubbly tone. "What if Kurotsuchi-taichou planned all of this? He said that he'd look for our corpses if we died, right? What if he actually planned this so all of us would die–"

"Kyouraku-taichou." Ichigo's scowl as well as his voice told everyone he wasn't happy with the older male's assumptions. Ichigo knew that it was nothing to Shunsui. He was just joking. But it still unsettled him that the older guy could talk about all of their deaths just like that. Or maybe that's the difference between 'kids' and 'adults.' Shunsui already saw so many things being a Shinigami, but Ichigo had yet to see anything – except deaths of course. But who knew how many deaths the older male had seen in his life. Or rather, afterlife. Maybe it was so usual for Shunsui now that he hardly ever expected any of them to return alive after this…

Shunsui saw the bitterness, the indecision, the confusion, and the pain in those young chocolate eyes and he immediately knew that Ichigo was upset with his words. He smiled kindly as he walked beside the teen. "I see that you have a lot in your mind right now. I'm sorry if I offended you, Ichigo."

Ichigo looked at him before he looked away again. "No, it's okay. I'm sorry too…" He knew that Shunsui didn't mean any ill intention and yet he was so sensitive he couldn't help but feel bitter.

"I believe I went overboard just now." The older male patted Ichigo's head, much to the teen's surprise. Shunsui tilted his head to one side as the orange-haired taichou looked at him with quiet awe and at the same time anguish. He sighed before he smiled warmly. It seemed the boy's fear as well as his mourning wasn't yet over – not that his own was over now. He just didn't want Ichigo to be bitter about everything – like a certain raven noble they all knew. And it seemed Ichigo was starting to be close to Byakuya too. Shunsui just hoped Ichigo wouldn't catch his coldness and stuck-up attitude.

Ichigo, on the other hand, was so surprised at the act of patting his head that he was half amazed and half anguished – not because he didn't like it but because it brought too much emotion inside him – that he stared at Shunsui's baffled expression for a while. It seemed the older male was thinking if he did something wrong again, and Ichigo smiled a little to assure him that he didn't do anything offending.

Shunsui brightened up when the teen smiled at him and voiced, "Ah, Ichigo! I knew you're such a kind person!" He was much too happy that he hugged the living hell out of Ichigo until the latter had to tap him. They both felt better after the hug, though for different reasons – Shunsui could remember his friend Juushirou through Ichigo's warm presence and the teen was just so glad he could breathe again.

Byakuya glared at the brunette taichou and he was about to voice an offending comment when they all felt, before they heard, a loud growl-like sound. It made them stop in their tracks.

"What the hell is that?" Toshirou voiced just as the sound continued to grow louder by the second.

"Uh, guys? I think I just stepped on something." Shinji said as he looked down at his feet. The tile on his left foot was at least an inch or two deeper than the rest of the floor. "Shit. It might be some trap."

"You idiot." Ichigo voiced. And they all waited for the sound to come.

"It doesn't sound like a Hollow." Byakuya mused aloud as they listened to it.

"Well, if it's a monster or something… we'll just have to beat the hell out of it, right?" Kenpachi asked, still with a wide grin. And when they saw the thing that was making the sound, even the huge taichou's huge grin fell. "What the–?"

"Rather than beating the hell out of it, shouldn't we run?" Shunsui asked as they all eyed the huge metal ball occupying the whole passage while rolling directly in their direction.

"You don't need to tell me a second time!" Shinji said as they all started running the opposite direction of the ball. "What the hell is that?!"

"Maybe it's a different version of the Cleaner that's in the precipice world?" Toshirou mulled. "Anyway, I think it's stronger and way faster than any normal ball. Shouldn't we hurry up?"

"If it's the same as the ball in the precipice world, then it might also be attracted by our reiatsus." Ichigo voiced as he too ran like there was no tomorrow. All of them did, though some with much more grace than the others. Byakuya and Toshirou shunpod gracefully beside Ichigo. The latter was doing his best to ignore Shiro's words inside his mind. The Hollow kept on urging him to just turn around and smash the annoying thing to smithereens. On his other side, Kenpachi, Shinji, and Shunsui were running like crazies.

After some minutes of frantic running, all of them found themselves separated from the ball of annoyance when it continued rolling in a straight direction while the rest of them turned into a corner. It seemed the ball, far from their assumptions, wasn't attracted to their reiatsus at all. And they found out they did all that running for nothing.

Shunsui laughed. "That was quite fun!"

"We're not here to have fun, Kyouraku-taichou. We're currently on a mission." Byakuya voiced coldly, bluntly scolding the taichou who was older than him by at least two to three centuries.

"Oy, noble Kuchiki." Kenpachi called in a mocking tone. "Isn't it in the rules that you shouldn't talk like that to your elders?" He grinned when the cold glare was suddenly directed at him.

"I believe a mere Rukongai dog, not to mention a lowly ruffian, like you have no right to preach about rules." Byakuya swished his hair as he turned around, an action that somehow told them all he was greatly annoyed. Kenpachi's grin only brightened at the thought that he got Byakuya Kuchiki aggravated.

"Stop it, you two." Toshirou muttered with a scowl.

"Anyway, shouldn't we continue walking now?" Shinji asked, trying to pretend that the heated argument never existed.

"And let's make sure not to step into any more traps." Ichigo said as he leaned his hand on a wall to try to fix his waraji. It was shifted out-of-place with all the running that they did. But it seemed to be a really wrong move on his part, especially just after his own words. They all looked at him just as he looked at how the brick, where his hand leaned on, was pushed deeper into the wall. "Shit." He cursed under his breath as they all heard a growling sound much like earlier, though also a bit different.

"This is bad…" Shinji voiced just as thousands and thousands of kunai and shuriken went flying towards them. "What is this, some ninja sitcom?!" They all looked at him in confusion, not having any idea what the hell he was talking about, as they tried their best to dodge or at least block the sharp things in the mere second that it went flying towards them.

Ichigo used Zangetsu alone to block the things while Shunsui used a Seki in order to repel the 'attackers'. Kenpachi didn't even bat an eyelid as he used his own body to block everything. Since the things basically had close to zero reiatsu, he was not at all afraid of being hurt by any of them, not that he was afraid of anything at all. Shinji also used his sword and twisted it like a fan in order to block the attacks. He didn't dare use Tenran in fear that it might break the whole corridor and bury them together with the kunai and shuriken.

"Chire, Senbonzakura." Byakuya uttered just as his sword's blade turned into millions of beautiful tiny pink petals in the second that the attack commenced. He covered himself with it, protecting him from the waves of sharp objects. No, he was not that bad of a person nor was he selfish. But he thought that if he tried to cover the others as well, they might feel insulted instead of grateful – though he couldn't help but cover a bit of Ichigo's side too, and grudgingly, Shinji, since he was leaving his back wide open. The raven knew that Shinji was not the type to leave it open like that, but at that second he already managed to cover it for the blonde.

And with that, the six taichous were immediately ready even before the first kunai landed on them, or at least on their 'shields'.

"Sorry, everyone." Ichigo spoke, looking at the other taichous, when the attack ceased. He then looked at Byakuya and smiled a tad, an almost shy one. "And thank you, Byakuya."

"Hn." Was the only answer the teen got and he couldn't help but scowl/pout in return. But Byakuya made up for that by ruffling his hair, and in front of everyone at that. It seemed, though, that the raven himself did it absentmindedly that he abruptly stopped when he realized how unusual it was for him to do something like that, if not totally impossible.

The teen looked at the raven with wide eyes – shock, perplexity, and awe were his immediate reaction – just as everyone else looked at them with meaningful stares, some with arched eyebrows and some with a smirk or grin. Byakuya's eyes also widened a little, though he didn't pull his hand away. He knew that doing that would make the situation more awkward than it already was. Not to mention that it would mostly hurt Ichigo too. He ruffled Ichigo's hair one last time before he let his hand slide on his side. Ichigo blushed a bit and Byakuya enjoyed seeing the tips of the teen's ears reddened too.

And yet, fear gripped him the moment his hand touched Ichigo… The raven knew that he had no chance whatsoever to get any closer to Ichigo than he was now. But he still feared the day when the orange-haired teen might know about it, about that so-called feeling of his. He hoped that day never comes…

Shinji cleared his throat, making it obvious to everyone that the thing earlier was something that never happens in everyday situations. "So, shall we go?"

"And don't go stepping, or leaning on, to any traps now." Shunsui voiced cheerily, an act that somehow lessened the awkward atmosphere – though it seemed the two who started it had already forgotten it and were now making small conversations again. The brunette Taichou sighed as he looked at Byakuya's cool expression and Ichigo's contented smile while they talked. It seemed that things were advancing really fast for those two… and none of them were even aware of that fact. He thought that maybe Byakuya was aware, but he didn't think even the raven thought it was already at the level where it was impossible to control, or even hide…

"So, since when did the two of you start going out?" Kenpachi asked to no one in particular though everyone knew who he was talking to. Ichigo blinked at him, obviously the only one left out in the situation. Byakuya, on the other hand, stiffened greatly and growled in annoyance. He didn't want Ichigo to think anything about that gesture. It was merely something that he did mindlessly. He didn't want Ichigo to know anything… especially not about his feelings.

"Who are going out?" Ichigo asked, totally missing everything. He scowled when everyone, except Byakuya of course, looked at him as if he'd become as white as Shiro. "What?!" He asked, voice thick with annoyance and impatience.

Shinji sighed as he face-palmed. "And here I thought it's a two-sided love affair. Poor, poor raven." Kenpachi laughed loudly at that just as he stepped on a tile that had immediately sunk into the floor. And his laugh stopped. Byakuya's growl also stopped as they all looked at the tile that Kenpachi stepped on.

"What now?" Toshirou asked with a scowl. And before any of them could react, the floor that they were stepping on opened from the middle and a huge gaping hole replaced it.

"Crap!" Shinji and some of them managed to let out just before they were swallowed by the darkness underneath. Or rather, they were the ones who fell into it.

Byakuya's immediate reflex was to look out for Ichigo who also disappeared into the darkness underneath. And yet, just looking out for his own well-being was hard enough – not to mention that he couldn't see much in the dark. He just wished that Ichigo would be okay.

He tried his best to solidify a bit of his reiatsu so he could step on it, like how they usually did in midair, but it was impossible because of the immediate gravitational pull. He and the others were falling, or at least he assumed the others were falling too, rather quickly to even have the time to solidify their reiatsus. And just as the fall ended and his body met the cool ground, darkness immediately descended upon him. Ichigo… His mind could only think of one thing, or one person in particular, as his consciousness faded away and everything around him darkened. He hoped Ichigo was okay…

When he regained his consciousness, he was already sitting while leaning to a trunk of one of the black-colored withered trees. He looked up absentmindedly when he realized that he couldn't see those trees' branches or leaves. Or maybe there was none.

"Are you okay?" A kind voice beside him made him turn. Shunsui was sitting on the ground too, mimicking the way the raven himself was seated.

"Hn." He answered distractedly as he immediately searched for their other companions. He furrowed his eyebrows when he found himself alone with the brunette. "Where are the others?"

Shunsui shrugged. "I don't know. When I woke up, the only other person I saw was you." He looked at Byakuya's reaction for a while, and seeing the silent panic behind the cold exterior of the noble, the older man decided to assure him. "I'm sure Ichigo and the others are fine. That fall, although it can make us unconscious, will not kill a Taichou-class Shinigami."

"I know that." Byakuya answered, though it didn't come out as coldly as he intended. Maybe he was really worried too much… and a little reassurance wasn't that bad. Shunsui merely chuckled at him. They both knew that he was worried, and that was that.

Shunsui let his reiatsu fluctuate for a while, turning it into a signal of some sort to at least try to gain some response from their companions. He felt Shinji's reiatsu doing the same thing and he knew the blonde was fine, wherever he was.

"Let's leave." Byakuya voiced quietly before he stood up from his seat. He dusted himself off and started walking on his own without even waiting for Shunsui to say anything.

The older man sighed with a smile before he followed the younger male. But they were still not very far from where they landed when they were stopped by a sudden squeaking sound. Both Shunsui and Byakuya stopped in their tracks and looked around in the darkness. It wasn't so dark anymore once one got used to it. They didn't need to look at one another or even talk to know what they were thinking. Hollow. And just as they readied their zanpakutous, the squeaking stopped.

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

"I told you this is the right way!" Shinji said with a growl as he tried to make Kenpachi listen to him, in vain. "That's the wrong way! Can't you even try, or at least pretend, to feel the others' reiatsus?" He knew he was right. He couldn't feel Toshirou or Ichigo's reiatsu because those two were used to concealing it almost unconsciously, nor could he feel the cold reiatsu of one Byakuya Kuchiki who was a master at concealing his own reiatsu. The only reiatsu he could feel right now, however quiet, was Shunsui's. The blonde knew that it wasn't because the brunette was careless in letting his reiatsu just fluctuating like that in a foreign place. It was actually pretty deliberate. Shunsui wanted them all to feel his reiatsu, no matter how quiet it was, just so they could once again find one another in the vast darkness.

And yet, and yet, the fucking taichou of the eleventh squad just decided that he didn't want to listen to anyone except his own instinct!

Kenpachi grunted in response. "I know the right way by instinct! I don't need some crap about trying to feel their reiatsus!"

Shinji growled as he continued to reason out with the huge Taichou. "But I'm telling you, this way is the right way!" He pointed into the vast darkness again for the umpteenth time now.

"I listen more to my guts than other people's nonsense." Kenpachi looked over his head as he spoke the words, acting like he just said something really smart. "And besides, how can I know that your feeling is right?"

Shinji sighed. Of course he had no way to prove that that was the right way. But that didn't mean he was wrong. He wanted to cry. If only he was with someone sensible like Toshirou or Ichigo. He looked at Kenpachi again, thinking of a way to make the other Taichou turn around and start walking to the other direction.

And he had just finished thinking up of a plan when the area where they were in started to tremble. "Now, what the hell is that?" Kenpachi stopped in his tracks too, and they both waited for whatever it was causing the trembling of the ground to show itself in front of them. And both grinned at the prospect of a really strong enemy, just as they felt the immense reiatsu that suddenly covered the whole area they were in.

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

Ichigo groaned, feeling so cold all of a sudden. When he slowly opened his eyes, trying to adjust to the darkness, he was surprised to find himself hanging midair. "What–?"

"It's me." A voice said behind him and he immediately looked over his shoulder to see the person even though he already knew just from the voice earlier. Toshirou wore his usual scowl while looking down the darkness. "I'm sorry. You're the only one I saw falling since you're close so you're the only one I managed to save."

The two of them were currently standing on a huge dragon-like ice. Or rather, the dragon was coiled to them both while its head and tail were attached to some tree-looking things. Ichigo couldn't see the ground below but he knew they were still some twenty or so meters above it.

The orange-haired teen knew the other taichou looked apologetic even though all his outer appearance expressed was a scowl much similar to Ichigo himself. He smiled at Toshirou and assured the other Shinigami. "I'm sure they're okay down there." His smile widened a little when he finished his statement. It was warm and kind. Toshirou's scowl lessened a bit, followed by a small smile of his own.

The orange-haired teen was also awfully worried about Byakuya right now, especially since he couldn't feel the raven's reiatsu at the moment. But he knew that the noble was strong, strong enough to fight against him and also a lot intelligent than him. Byakuya was definitely okay… He would believe in Byakuya, and of course he would believe in the others too.

"No wonder Kuchiki-taichou has taken a liking to you, Kurosaki–." Toshirou answered off-handedly, but stopped in the middle of it. He looked at Ichigo's stunned expression and smiled sheepishly. It seemed he so off-handedly just spoke of Byakuya's secret feelings without any permission. "I mean, he's usually so cold and stoic. But you've managed to get closer to him than anyone else."

At that, Ichigo's expression brightened before he chuckled. "Aren't we all precious to him, Toshirou?" Toshirou sighed. It seemed his friend still had a lot more to learn about life… and love. "And please just call me Ichigo, Toshirou. I feel old when those close to me call me so formally like that."

"No, that's Histsugaya-taichou for you… Ichigo." Toshirou scowled and Ichigo only chuckled, both knowing that the orange-haired teen wasn't the type to really call someone with any honorific, especially those who were quite close to him. And also, both knew that starting from now on, another soul would call Ichigo by his given name without any honorific too.

"Shall we land now?" Ichigo asked after a minute of freezing passed by. Toshirou had barely even nodded when a sudden gust of wind caught them both off-guard. It was too sudden and too strong to even be just an ordinary wind. Some of the dragon ice's part even corroded due to it. "What the–?"

"It's a Hollow." Toshirou muttered beside him, voice a little lower than usual. "Tch. How annoying." They looked at one another before they nodded in their silent decision, both knowing that it would be greatly disadvantageous, not to mention troublesome and risky, for them to fight in midair with a Hollow that just caused that wind earlier.

The two maneuvered in midair and the ice dragon disappeared just as they both fell and landed on the ground. The two looked around in order to adjust their sights on their surrounding. It wasn't so dark once one gets used to it. It was dim alright, but not so dark anymore. There were many tree-looking things that extend from the ground to the top of the cave-like structure. It seemed they all fell some fifty to seven meters from above.

"There's no one here." Toshirou voiced, looking for anyone who wore black Shihakusho. "It seems they fell in a different place."

Ichigo smiled when he felt Shunsui's fluctuating reiatsu, signaling for all of them to come over to the brunette's place. "It seems Shunsui-san wants us to go there." He mused loudly. Toshirou only nodded.

The two were about to step towards the direction where they felt Shunsui's reiatsu but were stopped by another strong gust of wind just as an immense reiatsu covered the entire place.

"A strong one, huh." Ichigo pointed out, talking more to himself than to his white-haired companion though Toshirou was still able to hear it quite clearly.

"Show yourself, Hollow!" The smaller male shouted towards no one.

The two waited for something, anything, to show up. But nothing did. They looked at each other, both mirroring one another's scowl perfectly before they nodded again, understanding what each other meant without having to exchange words. Toshirou started walking to the left while Ichigo started walking to the right side. They both agreed to fight separately because it would be troublesome to worry about one another while also fighting a Hollow with a reiatsu as big as the one they could feel right now.

"Call me if you need help." Ichigo voiced as he waved his hand without looking back. Toshirou merely huffed but also waved his hand back.




Ren-sama's Note:

Yep, this is it for now, everyone! Please review! ˆoˆ