Ren-sama's Note:

Hi, guys. I realized that I made some terrible mistakes in the last chapter so I made some revisions here and there. Don't worry, I didn't change much – just the grammar and some information so you don't have to read it again. Anyway, enjoy this chapter~!

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Chapter 24

Byakuya could feel his body trembling at the sight of the person he loved deeply lying on the cold ground in a pool of his own blood. He immediately knelt and gently took the younger man in his arms.

He closed his eyes shut and hugged Ichigo tightly when he felt that the teen was still alive. He was still breathing… barely. He's alive. The noble sighed in relief as he carried the younger man in his arms and put Ichigo in a more secured room. He then carried the unconscious Nel in the same room and treated the two of them with his own kido.

Nel didn't receive much wound except for the deep gush on her forehead from when Kariya threw her away with pure power. It was easily healed since Nel was regenerating quickly. Ichigo, on the other hand…

"Ichigo…" He voiced quietly as he gazed at the younger male in worry and remorse, cupping the teen's cold cheek in his large hand. He wiped away the blood on the younger male's mouth in the process.

If only he'd been a little more careful in his fight with Tsukishima... then he wouldn't have been put under the man's control for too long… He would've been able to help Ichigo in the Taichou's fight with Kariya…

He knew it would damage his pride if he would voice anything right now but he still wanted the teen to hear his apology, even if Ichigo couldn't actually hear it. "I apologize for my weakness, Ichigo…"

Byakuya didn't know how much time passed or how long he'd been healing Ichigo's body, but there's more than one thing that confused and made him worry. It seemed Ichigo's wounds were much worse than how they appeared… He couldn't understand why there was too much internal bleeding and too many internal wounds when Ichigo was strong enough to block the attacks from Kariya. It's as if… Ichigo's body had bled from some other unknown source and not from Kariya's attacks alone… There was also the fact that some of the wounds seemed older than a day now. It meant that it wasn't really acquired from the fight with Kariya or even the mission in Hueco Mundo… Did that mean that Ichigo was wounded the entire time while they were doing the mission?

Not to mention, the teen seemed distracted during the fight. He couldn't see Ichigo's fight since he was also busy fighting Tsukishima. But basing from the teen's quiet fluctuation of reiatsu, the noble deduced that something was bothering Ichigo deeply.

It annoyed Byakuya to think that he was close enough to the teen to observe things and yet Kenpachi seemed to know more about Ichigo than him. It hurt him that he didn't know anything at all. It hurt him more since it meant that Ichigo didn't trust him as much as he trusted the teen.

He looked at Ichigo's face then. He brushed a strand of hair out of the teen's face and slowly leaned in to kiss the teen's forehead. Relief flooded his heart when the teen sighed quietly in his sleep. It seemed Ichigo was a lot better now.

"Ichigo…" He voiced softly just as he leaned down this time to kiss Ichigo's slightly parted lips. The kiss was brief and gentle, only lasting a second before Byakuya sat once again and continued healing the teen. Even he himself was slightly surprised at the fact that he dared kiss Ichigo without the latter's knowledge, not to mention while the latter was unconscious and weak. He felt guilt about it but he's not regretful. After all, he only let out a little of the frustrations and worry building up really nicely inside him.

'I can't believe I have a very perverted master and I haven't even realized it until now.' Senbonzakura's voice somehow made the noble flinch inwardly and Byakuya couldn't help but clear his throat, obviously forgetting about his zanpakutou's existence for a moment.

"Your trivial comments are not needed." Byakuya voiced out loud, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he resumed healing Ichigo's wounds. There wasn't any visible wound now but Byakuya knew that the teen's internal organs were still very much damaged, not to mention the healing rate was impossibly slower than how Shinigamis normally heal. Ichigo… really, what happened to you..?

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"Are you alright?" Shunsui asked Toshirou when the latter just finished his fight with Ugaki, one of the Bountos that were waiting for them in the place. The white-haired Taichou nodded, but not even he could get out of the match unscathed.

Shunsui also managed to defeat Sawatari, another Bounto, but not without injury. The Bountos were just normal humans and the Taichous wouldn't have had any problem dealing with them if it weren't for their Dolls-turned-into-Bakkouto. With the heavy reiatsu-filled place called Hueco Mundo as their hideout, the Bountos were much, much powerful than if they have fought in the living world or even in Soul Society. Not to mention the presence of the Bakkotou, the zanpakutou-like sword, strengthened them a lot too. It was a sword that drew out the latent power within the body and yet at the same time devours the user little by little. Also, it doesn't have a master. Anyone can use Bakkotou and thus, anyone can be devoured mercilessly.

The Bountos used their Dolls together with Bakkotou so it was a very difficult feat to win against them.

Shunsui and Toshirou got a bit distracted during their fight when they felt Ichigo lose the entirety of his reiatsu as well as Byakuya's raging reiatsu. It was only a passing distraction since they knew very well that Ichigo was safest with Byakuya. But that mere second was enough to give them a huge disadvantage in their fight. Although, they weren't called Taichous if they'd let such disadvantageous situation render them useless and hopeless. The enemy was extremely strong, but they managed to see some form of weakness and exploit those in order to win.

Bountos, as what the two Taichous learned from their own enemies, are people who were experimented on by Soul Society and discarded after deeming them as failures. But now that they've seen the extent of the Bountos' power, the Shinigamis now doubted that that's the true reason why they were abandoned. It's because they were deemed as dangerous so they were forcefully eradicated. Or at least Shinigamis tried to eliminate them without much success… All Soul Society ever managed to do was lessen their number.

"They're already troublesome with their Dolls as it is…" Toshirou voiced out. "If those Dolls have the power to turn twenty times stronger after fusing it with those weird zanpakutous…"

"Bakkotou, you mean." Shunsui corrected, earning a scowl from Toshirou. "But you're right. I just wish we have the necessary tool in order to tell the others about it."

"There's no need. Kuchiki-taichou and Ichigo just finished their fight with a particularly strong Bounto and another person with strange reiatsu. Their own enemies must have also showed them those swords." Toshirou said as he felt relieved at the fact that Ichigo seemed okay now. "Zaraki-taichou and Hirako-taichou, on the other hand, seemed to be fighting even now."

"They're not fighting Bountos though… but… Shinigami..?" Shunsui mused aloud, also quietly glad that none of them was in a dire situation right now. "Well, we have to heal our injuries first before we could continue so we might as well rest for a while." Toshirou sighed but still nodded. Shunsui was right.

They learned that some of the Bountos were already dealt with in the living world by none other than Ichigo Kurosaki's sister and her friends. The Bountos initially chose the living world as their hideout but they were almost annihilated there by Karin's group because the reiatsu particles were too scarce to make them stronger. It was because of that reason that they retreated to Hueco Mundo in order to recuperate. It was also in Hueco Mundo that they met The Fullbringers and the Shinigamis who left Soul Society. It took some time before they gained one another's trust. But it didn't take long to make themselves stronger, far stronger than a mere human or Hollow, or even a mere Shinigami.

Ugaki also accidentally let it slip that one of the leaders, Shuusuke Amagai, already went to Soul society together with some other Bountos. As of now, they were probably fighting against the Shinigamis there. Not that Shunsui and Toshirou were worried. That man might be powerful enough, but there were seven strong Taichous in Seireitei aside from thirteen Fukutaichous who were ready to battle against them.

"Really, they shouldn't underestimate us Shinigamis that much…" Shunsui voiced as they were resting. Toshirou turned to him with an inquiring look but didn't voice anything.

Kenpachi, on the other hand, still haven't finished his fight with Maki Ichinose. The guy was a subordinate of the previous Kenpachi, the Taichou that he killed. It was obvious just from the man's reiatsu that he really sought Kenpachi out of all the Taichous present in Hueco Mundo now in order to exact his revenge. The start of the fight was really intense since Maki showed them raw and unrivaled power which he got from the Bounto and Fullbringers' help. Kenpachi even enjoyed the fight a lot, even though the man kept on cursing him the entire time for killing the previous 11th Squad Taichou. But just when Kenpachi thought Maki's strength was far exceeding his, the man's power suddenly dropped when it hit its maximum. That critical point somehow decided that Kenpachi was the winner of the match. He gravely injured Maki but didn't kill the man anymore since he'd already lost his earlier enthusiasm in the fight.

Shinji kept on yawning the entire time during Kenpachi's fight since his fight with Makoto Kifune had long been finished and didn't even make him sweat. Makoto was also a Shinigami but he discarded his seat in order to gain new power, the power of the Bakkotou. It made him gain more than enough power to become a Fukutaichou, but it wasn't enough to earn him some respect from the blonde Vizard.

Shinji was already more than irked by the time Makoto finished his little story of the past. The blonde's zanpakutou had the power to disrupt an enemy's senses so the fight wasn't at all challenging in the least. Not to mention that Makoto didn't actually have the necessary resolve to fight him. The man was very ambitious and powerful enough, but in face of someone even more powerful, he just didn't have the slightest bit of chance to win. All Makoto wanted, or so he said, was recognition from everyone. He wanted someone to recognize his abilities and his power, but he was almost always casted aside.

Shinji merely snorted at him and without any emotion uttered, "Sorry, but I don't understand what you mean. Basically, you're just envious of everyone, aren't you?" And he used his zanpakutou to end the man's pitiful existence.

"Oy, how long are you going to stare out into space like that?" Kenpachi's voice took him out of his musings.

Shinji grinned when he saw Maki lying unconscious behind the Taichou. "I thought you'd never finish. I was growing so bored here."

"Let's go." Kenpachi voiced as they already started walking again, not even sustaining that much damage to themselves. "These pathetic people are only annoying me to the fullest."

"You said it well." Shinji agreed without giving another glance at the enemy he just killed. Makoto was a Shinigami, and a talented one at that, but he busied himself envying others and wanting recognition all to himself. He shouldn't have chosen to be a Shinigami then, but a singer or an actor. That would've gain him all the attention he wanted. "A soldier who only thought of himself and not the war he was in. How pathetic." Shinji muttered to himself.

"Huh? Did you say something?" Kenpachi looked at him and asked.

"Nah. Just saying I want to fight a worthy opponent. One who will kill the boredom I feel right now." Shinji voiced, making Kenpachi grin in agreement.

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Byakuya sat in a seiza at least two meters away from Ichigo's and Nel's unconscious bodies. His reiatsu was calm and quiet, and his eyes were closed.

'Master,' Senbonzakura greeted with a bow.

Byakuya creased his eyebrows when he saw the full extent of his world now. The cherry blossoms were already in full bloom. But the crescent moon was no more nor were there any stars in sight. Even the night air felt icy cold to his skin. "What happened?"

'This… is also because of Kurosaki-san.' Senbonzakura initially said. But seeing the skeptical expression on his master's face, he couldn't help but continue. 'No, to be exact, it was because of your fear, Master. You fear that Kurosaki-san will somehow know of your feelings. You fear that Kurosaki-san does not trust you as much as you trust him. You fear that he does not consider you as his friend. You fear… for his life right now.'

"You mean to say fear has gripped my heart because of Ichigo?" Byakuya asked.

Senbonzakura nodded. 'But do not be worried, Master. This is only proof of how deep your feelings for him are.'

Byakuya looked up at the cherry blossoms in full bloom now. "My feelings huh…" Even though Senbonzakura said that it was alright, he still couldn't accept the fact that his feelings for Ichigo were based solely on fear. He didn't want that. He didn't want that because… "Because I love Ichigo… more than anyone…"

Ichigo could feel the heaviness of his eyelids as he tried to open his eyes. Even his body felt like lead, so heavy and weak. Not to mention he was hurting all over. He overdid himself this time, huh… He thought that Kariya's face was the last face he would see before his death. But he was glad that it wasn't, or else he would've been a very grumpy human when he was reincarnated again.

When he opened his eyes fully, he saw that the room he's in looked dilapidated. His surrounding was silent and peaceful, so unlike how he imagined Hueco Mundo to be. The air felt… of Byakuya's reiatsu..? And just then, everything that happened immediately flooded inside his mind. Byakuya, the man with the book, the kiss, Kariya's evil laugh, blood, Nel's scream, pain, Byakuya's voice, darkness… deep, unfathomable darkness…

Was that how death felt like..?

He clenched his fists and steadied himself. He needed to calm down. He didn't know what exactly happened. Byakuya wasn't the type to do something like that. The man's pride was so high it would practically kill him if he were to be seen by anyone doing indecent things in public. Then that meant… Ichigo didn't know if he would feel happy or not… If his assumption was right, then most likely, Byakuya's pride right now was… deeply damaged by that man.

Oh, right… Where's Byakuya..?

He immediately turned his head to the side and found the man sitting with his legs crossed to one another, eyes closed and wearing a very peaceful expression. The noble was probably in his zanpakutou's world right now. Ichigo couldn't help but smile when he noted that Byakuya didn't seem too affected by the kiss, although the noble's reiatsu was filled with worry.

He sighed. Why was he thinking so deeply about it anyway? Byakuya was his friend, but the man wasn't so weak as to feel broken from a mere kiss. It wasn't even his first kiss anymore since he'd already had a wife before. Ichigo's heart tightened a little at that thought.

'It's not affecting him. And yet, why is it affecting you?' His eyes widened at Shiro's sudden voice inside his head. The Hollow snickered before its voice slowly faded away in the background as the guy most likely started trying to find Muramasa's whereabouts again.

Ichigo couldn't think of a proper comeback even after Shiro's voice totally disappeared. He was thinking about that kiss so deeply as if it was so natural to do so. And now that he thought about it, thinking about it and feeling pain was something unusual. What the hell was that feeling anyway..? It even made him totally lose his concentration on Kariya when he was supposed to be in the middle of battle. It was so weird and so foreign he knew something was wrong with him. He clutched his clothed chest with his fist to feel his heart. "There's… something wrong with me…" He thought as he closed his eyes again. "This weird feeling… it's scary…"

He tried to will away the feeling with his resolve, but knew that the feeling had rooted deeper in his heart than it was allowed. He sighed and tried to calm himself down once again. He shouldn't be thinking of such things when they're in the middle of enemy camp…

He struggled to sit up and was about to stand up when he heard it, that faint and cool voice. Byakuya still sat composed, eyes closed, as he uttered those words which made Ichigo's eyes so wide and made the teen's body frozen in his position.

"Because I love Ichigo… more than anyone…"

Ichigo stared at Byakuya for some more seconds, too shocked to move and too confused if he heard the man right or not. He could feel his cheeks coloring up. Not to mention he was starting to blush from his neck to the tips of his ears again.

And just as he thought his day couldn't get any worse, Byakuya chose that moment to open his eyes. Sharp gray orbs stared at shocked chocolate ones, before Byakuya seemed to have realized what's happening.

The two of them stared at one another for a while, not having the resolve to break the silence between them. Ichigo was still confused if he heard right. He was also puzzled about what it meant if ever he did hear the words right. Byakuya, on the other hand, sat stiffly as he observed Ichigo's frozen state. The noble's eyebrows were furrowed, knowing full well that he might have said his thought out loud. Judging from Ichigo's flushed cheeks and shocked chocolate eyes though, the noble was already doomed to know that the orange-haired teen did hear it. He just hoped Ichigo wouldn't understand the meaning behind those words… or the implications…

"…Ichigo, you're awake." Byakuya finally said after some more seconds.

Ichigo, hearing the statement, seemed to have snapped from his shock. He sat once again and cleared his throat as he nodded. He kept his gaze down the ground, knowing full well that Byakuya saw his flushed cheeks just now. He waited for Byakuya to say something again, but the silence continued since the man didn't speak anymore. Ichigo could feel the tension in his stomach and he couldn't help but fiddle with his shihakusho to ease some of the tension he felt. He wanted so badly to ask what Byakuya meant by those words… He wanted to know but he was afraid to ask. And also, his voice somehow felt like it was stuck in his throat. He couldn't help but gulp at the feeling.

Byakuya, on the other hand, was waiting for Ichigo to bring up the topic. He knew that the teen heard him. It was so obvious from the way the teen kept on fidgeting in his seat, unable to make eye contact. The noble let out a soft sigh. It was careless of him to say such things when Ichigo was around… Although he didn't think Ichigo would wake up any time soon, he still shouldn't have left his guard down…

"Ichigo." He called the teen's name. He watched as the teen's face slowly lifted up to meet his solid gaze. Slightly embarrassed and confused chocolate eyes met solid gray ones and Byakuya knew things shouldn't stay that way. The two of them were close, a lot closer now than ever. And he knew there were only two paths to walk on – the path forward to telling the truth and accepting the rejection… or taking a step back and denying everything. Both paths would most likely hurt them both.

'Master, are you sure?' Senbonzakura asked inside his head. The zanpakutou knew full well what he was about to do. Or rather, say. He let out a deep exhale as an answer.

"You heard me, didn't you, Ichigo?" He asked, face filled with mask of composure and coolness. Inside though, he's barely holding back the urge to tremble in his seat. He didn't want Ichigo to know… He wanted so much to run away and hide in fear of rejection, but he remained rooted in his position as he waited for Ichigo to answer. He didn't want his feelings for Ichigo to be centered on fear.

Ichigo's eyes widened slightly before the teen averted his gaze to the side. He nodded in response to Byakuya's question. "I'm…" He sighed in nervousness, confused as to why he was feeling nervous in the first place. "…flattered. I didn't think you would like me. You seem to hate me so much when we first met. But now, we've become closer and–"

"Ichigo." The teen stopped in the middle of his sentence when he was interrupted by the noble. Byakuya's eyebrows were furrowed, meaning he was upset and at the same time a little scared, and the teen didn't know what he did wrong. At least until it was told to him. "Those words I said… I didn't mean it as a friend… or a comrade."

Now Ichigo didn't know what he would think. Byakuya was upset that he mistook the meaning of those words. If he didn't mean it as the closeness they now have… then what was it about..? The slight tremble of Byakuya's fisted fingers didn't escape Ichigo's observant nature. Byakuya was nervous… And now that his mind was a lot clearer than earlier, he could already feel Byakuya silent reiatsu. It was so faint but he was sure the emotion Byakuya had right now… was fear.

"Byakuya..?" He asked in worry. He couldn't understand what was happening anymore. First, there's that weird feeling from when Tsukishima kissed Byakuya. He didn't know if the scene grossed him out or if it made him angry, or both. But the fact that he didn't like it was clear. Also, his heart somehow felt different today. It clenched in pain the moment he realized that Byakuya was not as fine he appeared to be. It also suddenly beat faster earlier when he heard those words which escaped Byakuya's lips. Then there's Byakuya's sudden strange words and action. And now there's Byakuya's fear and nervousness. Everything was so confusing.

"I know full well that saying these words out loud will most likely risk destroying the small bond that we share." Byakuya spoke again, eyes closed while sitting stiffly, voice quiet and cold. But Ichigo knew better than to believe the coldness. The teen was more worried about the implications of what the noble was saying. "I also know that I will most likely receive not just mere rejection but outward contempt or avoidance. But I still have to say it." Because the pain would be infinitely lesser than seeing the pain and confusion in those chocolate orbs… He, Byakuya Kuchiki, was a proud noble who would not let himself succumb to fear any further, especially if it involved the person he cherished the most.

Ichigo was growing even more confused… and afraid. He didn't know what Byakuya was about to say, but the noble said it would most likely end their relationship. He didn't want that… Byakuya was someone closer to his heart than he hoped. If ever the noble avoided him or outright hated him again, he would definitely get hurt a lot. Just thinking about it was already making his chest clench in a very painful manner…

"Ichigo," Byakuya's gaze was fixed on Ichigo's eyes as he uttered the words that he dearly hoped the teen wouldn't ever hear. "I believe… I am in love with you." The noble did his best to keep his eyes on Ichigo. But at the end of his remarkably nerve-wracking confession, he couldn't keep the gaze anymore and chose to simply close his eyes as he waited for the reaction. He was too prideful to do something like averting his gaze to the side, as if he was some teenager who just confessed to the girl he liked. Instead, he closed his eyes in order to regain some of his self-confidence, and also sanity, back.

The noble knew rejection would come soon, but he still felt like he was slapped at Ichigo's answer.

"But Byakuya…" The voice was soft and quiet, and yet nevertheless sincere. "We're… friends…"

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.tbc.

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Ren-sama's Note:

Ow, such thoughtless answer, Ichigo~! You shouldn't say 'we're friends' to someone who just confessed to you, right?

Anyway, review please~!