Summary: Their love was like an ocean. They had loved, and grieved, and fought, and won. But they had lost their reason to live along the way. Now, they have found one again. Each other. The Soul Society is witness to a quiet love story. Ichigo/Byakuya. Post-war.
Their love is like an ocean.
It started from scratch. They're polar opposites. At the beginning, there's only hate, contempt, disgust, confusion and anger between them. Ichigo can't understand Byakuya's way of thinking. Byakuya can't fathom how Ichigo can lack manners and the respect of rules and traditions like that. Stomp on their pride, he says.
Ichigo doesn't care.
The fact is, their pride doesn't lie in the same place.
Ichigo lives for his friends and family. To protect.
Byakuya lives to uphold his family name, and hold his promise to Hisana.
Ichigo is the one who showed him the true meaning of life. Byakuya would like to deny that, but he's old enough to admit when he's been wrong. He almost broke his promise to his late wife. Had Ichigo not been there, Rukia would have been executed.
And Byakuya would have had to live and die knowing that he had betrayed everything dear to him. Hisana's trust, Rukia's admiration, and the Kuchiki honor.
Like it or not, he knows that he owns the ryoka boy a lot.
And without him knowing, the boy has earned his respect.
The war comes, and goes. They both survive. The blood, the gore, the cries, the despair, the hatred and pain. Byakuya silently worries about his sister, the only person he has left. She makes it out of the final battle injured, but alive. Once again, thanks to the Vaizard. Ichigo saved her when she was about to be dealt the final blow by an overzealous Espada. He took over the fight, and won, before taking her back to the fourth, where she would be safe and her wounds tended to.
It's only afterward that Byakuya learns what it cost him. The impromptu fight prevented him from going to Karakura town, where Aizen had already arrived.
And when the battle finally ends, the haze in which they've been fighting for so long finally dissipates, and they take notice of the anomaly. Ichigo's reiatsu is subdued, yet, fluctuating wildly, crippled by a pain so great they can feel it even over the miles separating them. And then, it disappears.
They all shunpo over to his location, and find him standing amidst the piles of rubble.
He has his back to them, so they can't see his face. But what they can see are the corpses strewn around. Two little girls, one with black hair, and the other with honey blonde. A forty-something man in a Shinigami uniform with a folded captain haori, his broken Zanpakutô laying beside his open hand. And the rest of the ryoka group. All of them are splattered in blood, their eyes wide open on death, the children's expression one of utter terror, tear tracks still visible on their cheeks.
Ichigo doesn't move. And they don't dare move either. Or speak.
Aizen Sôsuke's lifeless body lays a few feet away.
Kurosaki Ichigo killed him.
The now dark-haired boy stiffens. The war had a terrible effect on him. Anguish and stress striped his once bright orange hair with black, crimson red -like blood, and silver. He turns around to face them. His eyes have lost all their fire and brilliance. Dull, dead hazel orbs stare back at them, and they can't help but swallow the sobs seeing their savior broken like that creates in them.
He stares at them silently for a second, then speaks.
"It's over. I killed him."
Even his voice changed. Now that the war has come to an end, they finally notice how much he has changed. His hair is longer, and not the same color as before. He is taller, more muscled, but still has a lithe body. Even his uniform has changed. It's more form-fitting, and a black chain is curled up his arm from the wrist to the shoulder. His hands are covered by black gloves, and his neck sports a black silk scarf. He looks regal. Powerful and mighty.
And they all know he is.
He looks at them with these dead eyes of his, full of weariness and wisdom, the eyes of a warrior, the eyes of a veteran.
Of a victor.
And they know.
Kurosaki Ichigo is no more.
He comes back to the Soul Society after that. He doesn't have anywhere to go, or anything to return to, after all. He goes through the celebrations gracefully, smiling politely and laughing with the others. He dances with his admirers, ever the gentleman.
But those who know him know how fake all of this is. His smile never reaches his eyes, and he never truly relaxes. He remains aloof most of the time, and it's with indifference that he accepts the captaincy of the fifth division. Nobody wants it anyway: Aizen's betrayal and Hinamori's depression and death left it in shambles, badly-run, looked down upon, and overall completely neglected.
Ichigo needs something to occupy his mind, the Soul Society needs a strong captain, and the fifth division needs a leader.
He takes the job.
Within six months of overexerting himself, Ichigo has picked up the ruins and fixed them. The fifth gets the strongest recruits there could possibly be: Vaizards, former Espadas and Arrancars, all of them come.
They don't really have any ties to the Soul Society.
But they come back for Ichigo. Even though he never asked them for anything.
It's the least they could do for him.
Their divisions' barracks are next to each other, so it's only natural that they would often come across each other.
Byakuya notices early on how much the ryoka -no, the fifth division captain has changed. His demeanor is far from the obnoxious, loud, full of life intruder who fought his way into Seireitei to save his friend from an unfair execution, stomping on the Shinigami code and rules.
He has become a quiet man, almost as aloof as himself, holding himself regally and always blank-faced. He never speaks unless spoken to, and prefers observing over participating. He is very quiet. His reiatsu is imperceptible.
And he is beautiful.
The realization comes to the clan Head out of the blue. The old man decided that the captains should get some peaceful time together, to bond, and relax from their duties and worries. So they find themselves on a trip to a quiet place in Rukongai, by the riverside, at the border of the forest. Most of the captains are sitting, or leaning against the tree trunks, chatting quietly. Byakuya, as usual, keeps silent, and soon notices Ichigo's absence.
He looks around, and finds him standing at the edge of the water, gazing at it contemplatively.
The light plays with his hair, which the wind ruffles gently, and the folds of his uniform are billowing soflty around his body. He turns his head slightly, and the warm sunlight embraces his profile, illuminating the tan skin with a gentle glow, far away from its now usual palor.
Byakuya feels his eyes widen and his breath catch in his throat.
For never in his life has he ever seen such a beautiful creature.
They start to be around each other more and more as years pass by. Theirs is a slow developing relationship, and had anyone told them how far it would go, they would never have believed it.
At the beginning, there's only respect.
Byakuya respects Ichigo's prowess in battle, his courage, and his competence.
Ichigo respects Byakuya's dedication, pride, elegance, and power.
One day, Byakuya finds Ichigo training under the Sokyoku Hill, and joins him. He comes back the next week. And the week after that. And as the months pass by, their little training sessions become a routine, a tradition which they couldn't imagine not undergoing.
For it's a part of their until now empty lives.
And when they fight, for some reason, Byakuya can see the sorrow and grief slowly fade away from those eyes, and the former fire light them up again. And it lightens his heart.
Together, they become the most dangerous fighting pair there ever has been.
Their reactions become attuned to each other's, and when one speaks, it's generally for the two of them. They think alike, act alike, and one day, Byakuya finds himself asking Ichigo to stay for tea.
The time after that, though, he stays.
And ever so slowly, they start talking to each other.
Ichigo talks about his life, his reasons to fight, his mother's death, and his Hollow. Byakuya shares his duties as Head of the Kuchiki Clan, his youth and training under his grandfather and Yoruichi, and about Hisana.
They talk about their loved ones, about their reason to live, and how they came to the conclusion, long ago, that their reasons to live had left them behind a long time ago. In the end, the only thing -or person still tying them to this life is Rukia.
Rukia, who cares about them as they care about her. Rukia, who they tacitly, such a long time ago, agreed on protecting, and who must remain oblivious to their pain. Rukia who will get married to Renji in a few years. Not that the idiot had asked, but they can feel it already.
And they feel a new camaraderie in this common interest.
In the end, they find a new reason to live.
It has become common, in the fifth division, to see captain Kuchiki Byakuya walk through the gates and into Ichigo's office. He enters with a quick, dry knock which gives him away immediately. The two captains often visit each other, either to have tea together, talk, or just be in the other's company. For some reason, they need each other, and miss each other when not together. They're so alike, yet so different, that they can't really find anybody else they could subtly open up to like they do together. Being alike, they know what lies behind the façade.
As strange as it sounds, before they realize it, Byakuya has become Ichigo's anchor, and Ichigo, Byakuya's safe haven.
The others watch this improbable relationship develop and strengthen before their eyes with slight disbelief. Shunsui even has a betting pool running on the time the two will take to get together.
For it has become an evidence. The two aren't only friends. Their relationship goes far beyond mere friendship, camaraderie, whatever you want to call it. It's obvious to anybody how much they need each other. Ichigo, when he is with Byakuya, has an underlying calm under his blank façade that he could never display alone. And Byakuya, around Ichigo, gets more human. Unbeknownst to him, his eyes soften whenever they land on the younger captain, and fill with a warmth nobody has seen there for a very long time. If ever.
To the people who don't know them, they're an intimidating pair. Together most of the time, expressionless, aloof, regal. They're nobility, power, and beauty.
Byakuya is the epitome of elegance, and Ichigo, of grace.
The Women's Association can't help writing an article about them per mag issue. And more often than not, the two find themselves on the front cover. Those issues always sell better, and they get even more giggling fans around each corner.
Not that they notice: they're too lost in their own world of grief and companionship to see such trivial matters.
It happens on a warm night of June. Ichigo has just come back from a three-months mission in Hueco Mundo. All this time, Byakuya has been antsy, icier than usual, and very prone to punishing anyone unfortunate enough to cross him.
When Ichigo comes back, he doesn't know, for the younger captain's final form put him on a third dimension, one no spiritual being can access, which makes his reiatsu completely imperceptible. He goes to the fifth to take care of the paperwork and check on Ulquiorra -the new lieutenant, see how he's doing and if he needs any help running the division.
The courtyard is strangely noisy as he comes closer, and then, everything falls silent when he steps in. He freezes.
Ichigo is there, looking dead tired, surrounded by friends and subordinates. The young man's head snaps up as soon as he feels him enter, though, and their eyes meet in a clash of liquid silver and molten hazel. They stare at each other in silence for a few seconds, during which Ichigo can see all the relief the other man would never express in words in his clear eyes, while the dark-haired noble can feel all the man's happiness of seeing at the softening of his eyes and sudden alertness of his posture. He tips his head in his direction, and a flitting smile shadows the thin lips in gratification.
There is no need for more.
He turns around and walks away.
That night, Ichigo heads over to the Kuchiki mansion. Byakuya is seated in front of a cup of sake when he arrives. They settle down outside, watch the stars for long hours, drinking sake together. Finally, Byakuya gathers his courage to speak, but Ichigo does first.
"I missed you."
The noble is floored. He doesn't know what to say, except that he did too. And that Ichigo's absence was a torture, that he felt stuck in loneliness for ever all over again, and that he didn't have anyone to talk to, that he had nobody to be himself with, that he didn't know who to go to for warmth, and comfort. But he will never say it aloud.
Though for some reason, he knows that Ichigo is already aware of it all.
Because he feels the same.
"I love you."
They turn to each other, staring each other in the eye, losing themselves in pools of liquid silven and molten hazel. Very slowly, Byakuya raises his hand to brush against Ichigo's cheek. The man lets him, and closes his eyes.
Their lips brush together once, twice, then are sealed in a kiss of pure, undiluted love. Ichigo's arms lock around his neck, and Byakuya moves until their bodies are flush against each other, never to be separated again. They are one mind, one heart, one soul.
They do not have sex immediately. Neither of them is ready yet, and they don't feel the need to take the step so early in their relationship. After all, they have all eternity.
Renji and Rukia are the first to learn about the not-so-new development. They have hidden it so well nobody could have guessed. And without anybody noticing, it's already been fifty years. One day, however, they come back from training so exhausted that they forget to lock the door. They have fallen asleep in each other's arms on Byakuya's bed when Rukia knocks on the door. Not receiving an answer, she slides the door open, slightly worried for her brother, and opens eyes wide as saucers when she sees Ichigo in the Clan Head's arms, his face buried in the older man's chest and the latter's head nuzzling the crook of his neck. Behind her, she feels Renji's astonishment and embarrassment, and smiles to herself, before craning her neck to look up at him.
The red-head lieutenant smiles, and she can't help but smile back. She's happy that the two of them have finally found happiness in each other's arms. In truth, she couldn't have thought about anybody more perfect for each of them than the other. Had anybody told her she would say that a century ago, she would never have believed it. They had nothing in common, after all.
But the war changed everything.
Softly, she closes the door, and walks away, hand in hand with Renji.
They have a perpetually drunk captain to talk to about a certain betting pool. After all, they both bet on a couple centuries. They knew the two's nature. Between obliviousness, façade and grief, they couldn't have taken less than that to admit their feelings.
The rumor spreads around Soul Society in a flash. The Women's Association sets her members on them to get photos, but it seems impossible to catch them kissing. Lieutenant Kotetsu, though, manages to immortalize a longing look sent by Ichigo to Byakuya, which the noble gives back with equal intensity. The picture is a beautiful one, and thousands of copies are sold all around the Seireitei.
They're the perfect match, the most beautiful couple anybody has ever seen, and everybody agrees on the fact that they deserved each other.
And one day, the impossible happens.
The captains and their lieutenants are all going to the Academy, but Ichigo and Byakuya are late. Which never happens. They all head off to the location of the Kuchiki Clan Head's reiatsu, hiding their own spiritual pressure in hopes of catching them kissing or cuddling or something equally as compromising.
They find them quickly, sitting on the grass side by side by a calm lake. They have taken their captain haori off, and Byakuya has his hair pulled up in a ponytail, the Kenseikan lying forgotten on the ground. He says something, and then...
And Byakuya joins him in laughter as they stand up.
They're facing each other, their eyes warm and their blank mask nowhere to be seen. They laugh quietly, gently, warmly. There's all the love of the world in their eyes, and the watching intruders can't help but feel like voyeurs.
Here are the true Kurosaki Ichigo and Kuchiki Byakuya, whom no one had seen for the past couple centuries. And it was a heart-warming sight.
They leave quietly, knowing that they couldn't interrupt what they have just seen. And anyway, a few minutes after they arrive before the Academy's gates, the two captains shunpo over, their mask back in place and their usual gear on. The kenseikan is back, as are the captain haoris and there is no ponytail to be seen.
The gates open, and they start walking in.
The Academy students are standing on either side of the path, cheering and whispering as they watch the Gotei 13 officers walk up to the teachers who are waiting for them before the entrance. Ichigo and Byakuya are at the end of the line, followed by their respective lieutenants, Ulquiorra Schiffer and Abaraï Renji. The Arrancar earns countless fearful looks and murmurs, but ignores it, his face as expressionless as ever. They move up the path, and then, the graduates are the only ones to be allowed to stay, along with the sixth years, who will have to chose a division next year.
The captains stand in line, in front of the Shinigamis-to-be, and get to say what they require of their recruits. Ichigo is the fifth captain, so his turn comes soon.
"Tolerance." He says. "Tolerance and loyalty."
Seeing as an explanation is expected, he sighs inwardly, and elaborates.
"As you may or may not know, my division is very special. Most of us are Hollow-hybrids, meaning that we are either Arrancars, or Vaizards. If you cannot stand the idea of such a creature, and join just to betray us afterward, I don't want to see you anywhere near my barracks. I want loyalty, because that's how all of us function. Despite our differences, we have become a close-knitted family. Any traitor will has little to no chance to make it out of my division alive. Think about it."
Byakuya is next, and his demands earn him a brief smile from his lover.
"Discipline, competence, loyalty."
In the end, Ichigo's division has the less recruits, but he doesn't really care. He's used to it. What's more, he doesn't really need new members. His division, despite being the smallest one in numbers, remains the strongest one.
The three students follow Kurosaki-taichou out of the Academy grounds in silence. The man is walking side by side with Kuchiki-taichou, himself followed by the ten or so students who chose his division. They come to a crossroads and stop, facing each other, their face an expressionless mask. They have a hard time believing these two are a couple: of course, they've heard the rumors, who hasn't? But they seem so cold...
"I'll see you for tea."
It's Kuchiki-taichou who speaks first. Kurosaki-taichou nods his head.
"Of course. And since I have very few recruits, maybe we could train them together?"
The interrogation mark is barely there, but neither of them cares.
"Yes. Let us start tomorrow around three p.m., if that is okay with you."
Ichigo nods once more and leaves without another word.
Three days later, the challenge is set between the divisions. The first to catch the two captains at it will have to do something for the other.
They don't catch them at it. However, the whole Soul Society witnesses the depth of their love for each other. It's during a Zanjutsu demonstration. A huge cycle of lectures on the different Shinigami and Hollow Arts has been organized by the old man, and Shinigamis ranking from Academy students to captain-level – most often the lecturers, are to attend.
The Kidou lecture is handled by none other than Kuchiki Byakuya, and as anybody who knows Ichigo softly cackles gleefully at the idea of seeing him get trashed by the nobleman in a demonstration, they can't gather their jaws off the floor when the young captain proves to be proficient at the Demon Arts, offering a splendid fight against the other captain and ending it by performing a perfect Hadou #90:Kurohitsugi. Without incanting.
Then comes Zanjutsu. Handles, of course, by who else than Kurosaki Ichigo and Zaraki Kenpachi. The fifth division captain first demonstrates a few stances, moves and techniques, before starting his fight with Kenpachi. Sekki-sekki stone has been placed all around the arena as for the lesser Soul Reapers not to suffocate from the overwhelming reiatsu, and they watch, entranced, as Ichigo falters for barely half a second, and Zaraki manages to land a blow.
Blood flows out of his mouth, but the fifth division captain doesn't seem to care. They keep fighting, until suddenly, another blow sends him toppling to the ground, heaving and panting unnaturally hard. The eleventh captain doesn't notice and advances on him, but Ichigo doesn't stand up. He's coughing.
"Come on, Ichigo! What's gotten into you? I'm gonna kick yar ass into next century!" Kenpachi yells provocatively.
He slams his blade downwards, and students scream.
Cherry blossoms fly around, and when the dust clears, they all can see the tall silhouette standing between the fallen Ichigo and his colleague. Kuchiki Byakuya is standing there, a wall of pink petals stopping Zaraki's insanely strong attack. The giant is gaping, but the dark-haired man couldn't care less. He turns to Ichigo, who's still down, coughing his lungs out. Blood drips from his fingers to the ground.
"Ichigo..." He murmurs ever so softly, before bending down, and picking the man up. He glances at Unohana then leaves, the woman and her lieutenant following.
They learn later on that what they saw is a consequence of the war. Aizen had coated his blade in a deadly poison specially conceived by Szayel Aporro, and managed to deal Ichigo a blow which left a jagged scar going from between his shoulder blades, right beside his spine, to below his left hip. The wound never fully healed, and the poison, though it's not killing him anymore, still cripples him from time to time. And it chose this time to act up.
In the end, life goes on. The whole Soul Society knows about the improbable relationship between Kuchiki Byakuya and Kurosaki Ichigo, the noble captain and the Vaizard ryoka.
Two war heroes and men of pride and honor.
Men of mask and power.
Men of loneliness yet unbelievable loyalty.
Men of love and utter faithfulness.
Their love is like an ocean. Calm, gentle waves on the surface. But underneath lies the passion.
Hours spent talking at night, and fighting, and training.
Days spent contemplating life and loss and pain and joy and grief and love.
Months spent thanking Kami for giving them a second chance.
Years spent looking at each other every morning, and wondering at their luck to have someone so perfect to rely on, to trust, and to worship every day.
Centuries spent fighting side by side, living next to each other, overcoming obstacles, and loving each other.
For behind the distance lies closeness.
Behind the cold lies warmth.
Behind the power lies weakness.
Behind the smile lies grief.
There were once men of pain and power and loneliness.
One day they took each other's hand, and, turning to the future, one of them said:
The other looked at him, and asked.
The first man looked at him in the eyes, and smiled a true smile of unbelievable, pure and undiluted love, tenderness and joy:
"To the end of the world and beyond. Together. Let's face the future."
And together they went, overcoming all obstacles.
Even time could never catch up on them.
Centuries and centuries later, even after lots of their friends passed away and the Soul Society has changed, they are still here, for they are the most powerful beings in the world, and protect each other. Their relationship is no secret, and they are a myth to anybody who has not met them, and a legend to those who have.
Such is the story of Kurosaki Ichigo and Kuchiki Byakuya, war heroes and lovers to the end of time.