There were times when Ichigo caught that gleam in his lover’s eyes, when Byakuya didn’t notice he was looking. It was moments when the captain seemed caught by something in the past, something that wasn’t readily forgotten no matter how much time had passed.
Ichigo knew without having to ask what his lover thought of then; it was as plain to read as every change in emotion of those expressive eyes. It wasn’t easy to completely forget about a first love, first true love. Ichigo understood that. And he knew that Byakuya wasn’t making him some cheap replacement or wishing he were someone else. The man wasn’t the type to do that.
Contrary to popular belief, Rukia wasn’t a replacement for that woman either. Ichigo was absolutely certain that Byakuya loved his adopted sister, even if he had trouble showing it. His lover couldn’t help being socially retarded; that came with the territory of the angsting noble. There were things one just couldn’t learn when wrapped in layers of refinery and manners, when held to a certain standard the rest of the world could easily escape.
All Ichigo could do at those times was be there, silent and waiting, letting that moment pass when Byakuya’s heart drifted to what had been. He would sip at his tea, stare off into the night, viewing something only his eyes could see, and he would ache. Something in him would hurt, a wound that was impossible to cure with any sort of kidoh, not that Ichigo was particularly skilled at such things anyway.
The only thing he could do in those times was soothe the injury. It was too much to think that he could completely heal Byakuya in such a short time. After all, the man had carried his pain as if it were a cloak, as if it were the only thing he could cling to. It wasn’t something easily let go. But he was trying to move forward, and that was all Ichigo could ask for. He wasn’t stupid enough to demand what Byakuya wasn’t ready to give.
He hated her sometimes, that woman who made this confident man collapse inside himself. Who made him question his own beliefs. The same person who couldn’t have been bothered to love her husband or take care of her own damn sister. When Ichigo caught that look in Byakuya’s eyes, he never could stop that brief stab of anger from flashing through him, when he wanted nothing more than to go back in time and shake that woman for causing such pain.
Ichigo occasionally wondered, more often than he should have, that maybe she hadn’t cared for her husband as she should have. It was so blatantly obvious that Byakuya wasn’t grieving for the love he had lost but the love he had never been given. Ichigo wondered if it might have been better had the woman turned him down, knowing that she couldn’t possibly be what he wanted. Who knew how different things could have been?
But then, Byakuya never would have had reason to seek out Rukia, and Ichigo might not have become a Shinigami. It was possible that someone else might have stumbled on him, bringing out his abilities, but things wouldn’t have been like they were now. So he supposed in some grudging manner that was the one decent outcome to the whole heart-breaking affair.
The only one though. Ichigo wasn’t giving that woman any more credit than she was due.
Any other person would have been irritated by Byakuya’s behavior, demanding all his attention or all his time. They wouldn’t have been able to understand that a person couldn’t just throw away pain as if it were a piece of used parchment or a broken waraji.
Ichigo was different. It didn’t bother him, those moments when Byakuya thought of someone else. He understood. Really and truly, he understood.
Byakuya had been married, had loved, had devoted his heart to someone else. He must have felt powerless when she died, despite his own strength. It was something his skill and strength couldn’t fix, no matter how he trained or what he learned. That woman might have been his only freedom from the heavy and dutiful chains placed upon him.
Ichigo couldn’t begrudge Byakuya his grief, even if it was five decades old. Shinigami lived for a long time, longer than he could really comprehend. Fifty years might have only been a few months for the sixth-division captain. Or it could have agonizingly dragged on, seeming like centuries.
Besides, those brief spots of time when Byakuya was distant, when he didn’t want the comfort, were slowly getting few and farther between. The cherished, half-smiles reserved for Ichigo and Ichigo alone were becoming far more frequent.
It was a slow process, a careful easing into complete trust and possibly even love. The substitute Shinigami hadn’t expected a mad dive into forever from the outset. He was simply glad that he could ease the pain in whatever way he could.
Byakuya was healing, little by little, even gradually opening up to the sister he hadn’t acknowledged until recently. It was a start, slow and stuttering, like a car that hadn’t been run in ages, but it was a beginning.
And that was all Ichigo ever wanted.