Ren-sama's Note:

It's been months since I've last updated. Sorry for the wait. OTL.

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Chapter 25

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…"

Byakuya sighed deeply, trying to overcome the overwhelming pain that threatened to drown his heart and poison his mind. He opened his eyes, sad and hurt, and looked at Ichigo before he did his best to smile. "Of course, we are." He voiced softly, glad that his voice remained cool and composed.

Ichigo looked more hurt than he was. He looked so guilty and confused even though his ears were bright red. "I… I didn't mean it like that, Byakuya. I mean… We're friends so I… I never thought about it… I never thought about us being like that and… and I–"

"Ichigo," Byakuya interrupted his rant. "It's fine. I originally wanted to hide this feeling forever and be a good friend of yours for as long as we're alive. I didn't mean for you to know it, especially not in this kind of situation. That's why you don't have to feel any guilt about not being able to return it." Now Ichigo looked like he was about to cry.

"Byakuya, I… I'm sorry." He voiced quietly. "I never knew I'm hurting you all this time."

The noble could only sigh in return. And after all the things he said about feelings and guilt.

The noble composed himself once again to try and console his friend. He stood up and walked forward to where Ichigo was sitting, stopping only some feet in front of the teen. Ichigo looked up just as Byakuya looked down, cool gray orbs meeting sad and guilty chocolate eyes. The noble sighed again at the sight and knelt in front of the other Taichou. Ichigo couldn't help but gulp and blush at the sudden close proximity. "Ichigo, you don't have to feel sadness or guilt about my feelings. It makes me regret voicing anything." He initially wanted to cup the teen's cheek with his hand, but chose to just pat Ichigo on the head at the last minute. "I'm sorry for frightening you."

"It's not like that, Byakuya..!" Ichigo immediately cleared out. "I… I was merely… surprised. I wasn't frightened or anything like that…" He averted his gaze to the side by the end of his statement, unable to meet Byakuya's eyes anymore. He could feel his cheeks burning bright and he's becoming more and more self conscious by the second.

Somehow, Byakuya's presence made him feel quite uncomfortable now. It's as if something great inside him changed when he learned of the noble's feelings towards him. He couldn't help but fidget in his seat. His whole body was tingling and his stomach was churning uncontrollably. Not to mention his heart was beating so fast and so loud that he was afraid Byakuya might be hearing it. He tried to immediately calm himself down by gripping his hakama with his fists tightly.

He knew it might only be because of the sudden knowledge about Byakuya's true feelings… but he still couldn't help but be afraid of the sudden changes in him because of it…

"I know we can't bring our relationship back to how it was before." Byakuya continued, terribly unaware of the teen's predicament and internal struggle. "But I hope we can still maintain normalcy between us, especially in our actions toward each other."

"Y-Yes, of course." Ichigo immediately answered, glad that his voice was not croaked even though he stuttered a bit. He looked at Byakuya directly when he said that so the noble would see that he was serious. And yet, the moment he met Byakuya's cool gaze once more was the moment his face colored up again.

Byakuya was about to say something more when he finally noticed that Ichigo was blushing up to the tips of his ears. His gray eyes widened slightly and he stopped moving altogether. All the things that immediately came to his mind were things he wouldn't dare act upon if he didn't want Zangetsu on his throat. He cleared his throat in order to clear his mind of all 'bad' things before he immediately stood up.

"I'll just look at Nel's condition." He said coolly, knowing full well that it was merely an alibi to get out of the haze that filled his mind when he saw the gorgeous way Ichigo's cheeks colored up and the way his ears reddened. It was merely some seconds but he wouldn't ever forget how the teen's eyes widened in embarrassment the moment their eyes met and how those luscious lips slightly parted unconsciously. Byakuya suddenly felt the strong urge to do something terribly forceful and unmanly.

It took all of his courage and willpower to stop his movement and stand up before he did anything rash. The moment he turned around – his back facing Ichigo – was the moment he face-palmed and cursed inwardly. He didn't know he was that frustrated over everything. He guessed Senbonzakura was right about him being a pervert after all. And he couldn't help but sigh. So much for normalcy…

He looked at Nel's condition for some second and immediately knew that the little girl would be lively again after some more rest. Ichigo, on the other hand…

"Ichigo," he called when he remembered to ask the teen about it.

Ichigo, who had been fidgeting in his seat the entire time, immediately perked up and stiffened when his name was called. "What is it?"

Byakuya looked at the orange-haired Taichou directly before the former walked back to his earlier position in front of the younger male. "I want to know something."

Ichigo was afraid for a while that Byakuya would ask about their so-called relationship and feelings toward each other. But when the noble Taichou opened his mouth and talked, the teen wished Byakuya asked about it instead.

"You body is wounded the entire time we're in this mission." It wasn't even a question anymore, but a fact that Byakuya stated.

Ichigo immediately stopped fidgeting and a different kind of fear immediately gripped his heart. "Byakuya, I–"

"It is not my place to ask and I understand I also don't have the right to know." Byakuya continued, cutting the teen from speaking. "But for the sake of the mission's success, you shouldn't hide things like these from your comrades. It can cause a different result to an otherwise well-predicted outcome. It can cause–"

"I know, I know." Ichigo sighed. It was so like Byakuya to give him a full lecture about discipline and mission etiquettes. "It's not like I wanted to hide it because I wanted to jeopardize the mission. It's just… how things are… for now."

"…How did you get those severe wounds?" Byakuya knew he shouldn't have asked about it but he still couldn't help his curiosity, not to mention his worry. He was quite sure that the wounds were fresh and yet some were old enough to be more than weeks now. He couldn't really see how Ichigo's body looked from the inside but he could still tell that the teen's body was not a body meant for fighting anymore.

Ichigo wasn't meant to fight anymore…

"Byakuya," Ichigo still wasn't sure if it was right to tell Byakuya anything. But since the cat was out of the bag now anyway, he might as well use it as a chance to tell the older male the truth. "It was an aftereffect of the battle with Aizen…" He voiced quietly. He was about to give more detailed explanation but he stopped since it seemed that one sentence alone was already enough for the noble.

Byakuya stared at the teen with barely hidden shock. All those times they were sparring… Ichigo was injured..? Not to mention the other Taichous knew about it and no one even bothered to tell him… "I didn't know. I didn't know anything…" He spoke, still very much frozen in his position as he stared at the other male with slightly wide eyes. Even his facial feature was stiff. Ichigo was about to voice something but the noble continued to speak. "…Why didn't you tell me? If you were injured this whole time, then you shouldn't have gone here."

"I'm not injured." Ichigo scowled, sighing at the 'I-beg-to-disagree' look on the other's face. He has forgotten his much preferred space since Byakuya was sitting too close to him now. "It's just that every time I use too much reiatsu, my organs get damaged. My body has become a lot weaker while my reiatsu became stronger." He thought of a perfect example for a while before he explained things further. "My body is just like a cup. It was damaged by falling on the floor – which could be likened to the fight with Aizen – and is barely holding together now. Added to the fact that it is being used to contain hot water that almost always overflow is enough to break it any time."

Byakuya's eyes widened at that. Ichigo looked like he was giving a brief and dull report about monetary situation in Seireitei but the words he just said was a huge shock to the noble Taichou. He held back the sudden urge to get angry for not knowing anything. He knew it was because of the fact that he and Ichigo weren't close to one another yet when that incident happened so the younger male didn't tell him anything. But he still couldn't help but tremble slightly in his seat from too much frustration and hatred towards Aizen. His expression had become even colder than before as he kept on trying to hide the fact that he suddenly felt very afraid.

Ichigo, misunderstanding the expression on Byakuya's face, spoke again. "And please, Byakuya, don't pity me... or get angry. The main reason why I couldn't tell you was because I like the times we always spend on sparring and training. I didn't want you of all people to see me as someone very weak because your opinion is very important to me."

"I never knew…" Byakuya's cool gaze has now turned pained as he looked at Ichigo's chocolate orbs directly. He always thought that Ichigo would always be there… He always thought that Ichigo was one of the strongest, not to mention toughest, opponent he could have… He never thought that Ichigo was the person who was in most danger of disappearing from his life…

Just like how Hisana did…

The thought of losing another person whom he loved deeply almost made him choke. And before he could think of anything else, he immediately locked Ichigo in a tight embrace. "…Don't disappear from my life, Ichigo. That's the only wish I have…"

The whispered words were very quiet and spoken with a soft voice, but those were the words Byakuya wished more than anything. He inhaled deeply as he tried to calm himself down, taking in Ichigo's soft scent in the process. He could feel the teen's warmth seeping through his hakama and feel those slender but toned muscles underneath. It helped a lot in trying to prevent himself from trembling since it assured him that Ichigo was still very much alive and not a mere figment of his imagination. He wanted so much to say that he'd do everything to protect ichigo, but he refrained since he knew it would likely damage the teen's pride as a Taichou and as a man. He didn't want to hurt Ichigo…

Ichigo sat stiffly, locked in a tight embrace, and shocked beyond belief. The fact that Byakuya spoke those same words he often asked everyone to promise him was already beyond surprising. He couldn't help but feel nostalgia in the way the noble was asking him to stay alive. So Byakuya considered him as someone very important whom he couldn't afford to lose… That would be troublesome if his body were to finally give out one day…

And yet, he also couldn't help but sigh and smile.

"Of course. I'm not that weak, Byakuya." He answered in a mirthful way. Byakuya cared for him enough to lower down his pride like this… Byakuya loved him… And only then did the whole situation dawn upon him. Byakuya was in love with him… That meant that the noble liked him in a different way… a romantic way…

Ichigo gulped. Suddenly, their position felt very awkward to him. It's kind of embarrassing to be hugged so tightly by another man. He could already feel his cheeks burning bright again. And yet, the feeling of Byakuya's warmth seeping through him was enough to calm him back to sleep. The man's scent – a mix of cherry blossom and tea and the noble's own signature scent – was so comforting that it brought about to him tranquility and satisfaction. The presence of the noble's strong arms draped around him protectively made him feel like he was invulnerable, like he was at home in Seireitei.

It was so warm and so reassuring that he almost didn't mind it anymore... and that he almost, almost wanted it to continue for a little longer…

After a while, Byakuya felt like he should finally let go of the younger male. But his body didn't want to listen to him. He knew Ichigo already felt awkward because of his sudden action. But he thought a second longer was enough to satisfy his longing. Although, it took some more minutes before he finally let go.

Ichigo couldn't help but fidget in his seat again. He knew he needed to address things clearly. But he didn't know where or how to start. He sighed and finally spoke after some time. "Uh… Byakuya, I'm truly sorry that I can't return your feelings…" Byakuya looked at him then, expression back to its usual stoic façade although his eyes spoke volume of feelings he couldn't speak of. The noble silently motioned for him to continue. "But that doesn't mean I don't like you. I really like you a lot. I've also always admired you, as a Taichou and as a man…"

A shadow of a smile broke its way on Byakuya's feature. "Then it's fine that way." The noble stood up then and removed invisible dusts from his haori. "You don't have to force yourself to like me. Don't change for me."

Ichigo looked overwhelmed with foreign but warm emotions for a while. He knew that Byakuya was most often misunderstood. He knew how kind the man actually was. But he never thought that the noble was this kind. The orange-haired Taichou couldn't help but let out a small grin. "I understand." Really, Byakuya always did and say things that make him like the older male more and more…

"Have you rested well?" Byakuya asked. He was once again back to being a stoic Taichou. "We need to get going soon."

"I've rested enough. But you…" Ichigo was about to ask but the latter already nodded and immediately shunpod towards Nel. He gently carried the sleeping girl before he looked back to Ichigo.

"Let's go." Byakuya said just as the man finally started walking. Ichigo could only sigh in return. Leave it to Byakuya to be so intimate in one moment and yet so business-like in the other. But that's fine… since he could still feel faintly the warmth of the noble's reiatsu in the air.

Byakuya would always be Byakuya… whether in love with him or not…

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

"We're close to their location." Byakuya spoke just as the dispersed petals of his zanpakutou finally returned to being a blade.

"Yeah, I can feel it." Ichigo voiced just as he sheathed Muramasa. Zangetsu remained unsheathed on his back together with Nel. The little girl finally woke up some hours before and Byakuya already gave her to the younger male then.

The two of them encountered many other Hollows but none of those Hollows were a match against them. They finally encountered some stronger Arrancar just earlier but they finished the prototypes with much ease.

Currently not far from them was a large oak door. The two of them looked at the marvelous carvings on the door as they started walking towards it, careful to feel any kind of reiatsu from the surrounding in case there were hidden attackers.

"Nel is afraid." Nel said suddenly with a quiet and timid voice as she hugged Ichigo tighter.

"It's okay, Nel." Ichigo smiled at her as he patted her head. "We won't let you get hurt."

"No… it's…" She looked like she would cry now as she hugged Ichigo even tighter. "Nel doesn't want to see Itsygo and Bakuya hurt anymore..!"

The two of them promptly stopped in their tracks and looked at her with wide eyes.

Byakuya was the first to recover. He closed his eyes and spoke. "Don't worry about it. We've become stronger than the last time." Ichigo immediately nodded at his words, reassuring Nel that they would protect her. She seemed unsure if she'd believe them for a while, but then she nodded and grinned at them both. Ichigo returned the smile warmly while Byakuya wore his gentlest expression – his neutral serious expression.

Ichigo got a little bit distracted when he suddenly felt Kenpachi and Shinji's reiatsu brimming with bloodlust and excitement. The two Taichous were currently fighting three Adjuchas-level Hollows with incredibly dense and massive reiatsus. The teen couldn't help but chuckle. "Those two should just be each other's sparring partner. They seem to resemble and complement each other too much."

"Hn." Byakuya voiced half in agreement and half in annoyance. Ichigo's words reminded him of how those two brash and uncivilized Taichous often made him lose his temper even in the most peaceful of days.

"I can also feel Toshiro's quiet as well as Shunsui-san's playful but strong reiatsu." Ichigo said softly. "I'm glad they're all alright."

"That should be expected. A Taichou will not simply let disadvantageous situations like these affect him." Byakuya spoke with a serious expression. "Someone with a weak heart and resolve is not worthy of that title." And he started walking towards the oak door again, ready for the serious battle he's sure to come once he opened it.

"I might have a weak heart though." Ichigo spoke quietly, thinking of how he had always acted so weak in the past – letting his emotions cloud his judgment and basing his decisions on his heart and not with his mind. The words were barely whispered, but Byakuya heard them clearly nonetheless.

"What you have is not a weak heart but one filled with gentleness and compassion." Byakuya spoke without turning around or slowing his pace. "That's different from what I was pertaining to."

Ichigo's eyes widened a fraction before he seemed to recover. He smiled as he looked at Byakuya, not even bothering to hide the blush that somehow overwhelmed his cheeks. "Thank you…" He whispered.

"Hey!" The mood between the two Taichou was destroyed when all three of them turned to the direction of the familiar voice at once. Not far from them were two dark figures running straight ahead at their direction. Both Taichous readied their swords at the attackers – who felt really weak for Hollows attacking without stealth.

Nel's eyes widened before she blurted out, "Pekche! Dondochakka!"

Byakuya's expression darkened at the mention of the names while Ichigo breathed a sigh of relief. Although the two Hollows were attacking, or at least it looked like that from their point of view, there wasn't even a speck of killing aura coming from them.

"Nel-sama!" Pekche shouted as he came nearer. But then he saw Ichigo and Byakuya and he immediately stopped. He formed a fighting stance and yelled, "Put her down now, you pesky Shinigamis!"

"Y-Yeah! Do that and w-we won't hurt you!" Dondochakka seconded although he was doing his best to hide behind his companion despite his huge stature.

"No, Itsygo and Bakuya are good Shinigamis!" Nel shouted from Ichigo's hold, although she looked just as excited to see her friends as they were to see her. The two looked at each other in confusion before they looked at both Byakuya and Ichigo from head to toe. Pekche was about to say something but Byakuya, seeing the look from the Hollow, immediately chose that moment to speak.

"It seems your companions have come." Byakuya voiced, looking at Nel with his usual cool gaze. "You should go with them now."

Ichigo took that as a cue to release Nel. The three of them had already talked about it after the disastrous fight with Kariya. Nel might be a Hollow but she was just a kid. Ichigo and Byakuya ought to leave her in a safe place somewhere before they encounter the man or any of his subordinates again. It would be greatly disadvantageous to all of them if they continued carrying Nel around while they fought against enemies with such strength – not to mention kill one of her kind.

The teen was about to put her down when the latter immediately tightened her grip on him.

"Can Nel be with you?" She asked Ichigo for what looked like the fifth time, wearing her usual puppy eyes. "Nel will help you kick them!"

Byakuya immediately turned to them, wearing a frown and a serious expression. "We already told you that from here on, we cannot bring you with us anymore." Nel looked hurt so she immediately turned to Ichigo for help. But even Ichigo could only smile at her with a bit of sadness.

"It'll be even more dangerous from here on, Nel." Ichigo voiced as he put her down gently. She tried to tighten her grip even more but to no avail. The teen already gave her to Pekche who gladly took her in his arms. "Don't worry. We promise to come back through this door once again, Nel."

Nel looked sad for a while. But then she looked at Ichigo and asked, "Do you mean that?"

"Of course." Ichigo smiled while Byakuya nodded. And that was all the assurance Nel needed. She smiled at them both and waved her hands goodbye.

"See you again soon!" She shouted behind them.

The two of them shunpo'd towards the other side the moment the door opened. Neither looked at each other nor looked back from where they came from. They both knew that there's always a chance they wouldn't be able to return anymore. But looking back meant acknowledging that small chance – as if they were trying to see everything for the last time. But that was not the case. It shouldn't be.

They would come back… alive.

"Byakuya," Ichigo voiced softly after a while of silence. "Let's do our best and come back to Seireitei."

"Of course. Any less than that is unacceptable." Byakuya answered with his usual cool and composed voice.

At that answer, Ichigo released the breath he didn't know he was holding. He knew how afraid he was of losing people who were very dear to him. He's always experienced pain and agony because many of his loved ones had died on him. He didn't want to feel the anguish brought upon by death anymore.

And yet, here he was, one foot stepping on his grave for his mission as a Taichou. He didn't want to think of negative things while in a dangerous mission but years and years of pain and death had more than traumatized him now. For someone extremely important was with him on this mission…

The thought of losing Byakuya was not something that could be explained by the words 'pain' and 'agony' alone. It would not be as easy as that. It's because Byakuya was the sole person who managed to reach his heart without his knowledge… And for that, he was more than afraid. Losing Byakuya meant losing his own life…

After this mission, he would really need to think of things… about his life as a Taichou… about his body and how long it would last… and mostly… about Byakuya and his feelings for the man… These feelings might not be feelings the same as what Byakuya has for him… but it's not feelings he had for Renji or Rukia either…

Byakuya alone made him feel warmth he didn't know of, confusing feelings he was scared of, and even affection he wasn't aware of… Only Byakuya owned this part of him… This huge part of him…

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.tbc.

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Ren-sama's Note:

Okay, let's say my Muse is always hiding from me so I've been having some pretty intense writer's block for all of my fan ficts these past few weeks. So I'll say this once again. Sorry for the loooong update, everyone. And for that, a little review might help. ˆoˆ