Author's Note: Shorter chapter than usual but what the heck, it's been a while since I've updated and this is mostly a transition chapter anyway.

In which Rukia has a very bad time, Eiji is the real MVP here, and Gin is an utter bastard (shocker, I know).

"Yukimura? Yukimura! Yuki—Hisana, can you hear me?"

"—she's cold as ice—"

"Holy shit, what happened here?"

"Medic! We need a medic!"

"You stupid girl, what were you thinking—"

"Sir…sir, we're losing her—"

"Hisana! Wake up, dammit!"

"Shiba-fukutaicho, we need to get her to the Seireitei right away!"

"Don't you dare die on me, do you understand? That's an order. You're a goddamned Academy student, you're not supposed to…don't…"

"Shiba-fukutaicho, we need to leave!"

"—you hear me? Don't you dare give up now!"

There was an annoying itch on her nose.

Rukia wrinkled her forehead, hoping the feeling would go away. When the itch only intensified, she frowned before cracking one eye open with a Herculean effort. Seriously, she'd lifted boulders lighter than her eyelid felt at that moment.

Light hit her pupil and she immediately regretted her decision, closing her eye and turning to the side. A few minutes passed before she felt strong enough to try again; this time, her foray into the world of light yielded a fuzzy red blob.

"Oh good, you're waking up," the fuzzy red blob said. A few hard blinks to get the sleep out of her eyes revealed that the fuzzy red blob was actually Renji, who looked like he hadn't slept for a couple of days.

"You look like crap," she croaked out. Her limbs still felt oddly stiff and her throat was so dry talking felt painful, but it'd take more than that to keep her from offering her honest opinion. "Like, more than usual even."

Renji rolled his eyes, a gesture that didn't quite mask the relief on his face.

"Believe me, I look a hell of a lot better than you do right now," he said dryly.

"I really doubt that," Rukia said with a tired grin, finally feeling strong enough to reach for the glass of water at her bedside. "What happened? Last thing I remember is—" Her voice broke off as she remembered the sky breaking open above her, hollows spilling through, Hisana coming to the rescue, a volley of spikes, and…she swallowed, subconsciously pressing one hand against her chest where she felt the raised ridges of a new scar.

"Yeah," Renji said, a note of forced cheerfulness in his voice. "Don't worry though, the healers said that they got to you just in time and that you're gonna be fine. No complications."

"Oh. Well, that's good," Rukia said, peeking down at the scar on her chest. It was…kind of cool, actually. Definitely badass. "Where's nee-chan? I would've thought she'd be here."

Renji flinched. Rukia looked up at him in concern.

"Renji? Is something wrong?" She asked, feeling a little worried now.

"No, no—everything's fine! We all made it back," he said, a statement made thoroughly unconvincing by the fact that he now looked slightly sick. "Hisana's here, she's just, um, occupied with, uh, something else right now."

"Uh huh," Rukia said flatly. "Renji, what's going on?"

"Nothing you should worry about right now! You just, uh, focus on…recovering and…and gaining your strength back and all that other crap Hisana says. In fact, why don't you go back to sleep? You could use the rest and—"

"Renji," Rukia cut him off. If her voice shook just a little, well, she could blame it her lingering tiredness. "Where is my sister?"

"I—" Renji began and then paused. Visibly bracing himself, he swallowed before starting again.

"Rukia," he said softly, not quite meeting her eyes. "There's something you should know."

"When is she going to wake up?" Byakuya asked, eyes never leaving the figure on the bed. Funny—for all that he'd poked fun at Hisana's height in the past, he'd never thought of her as small. Until now, at least.

"I am afraid that is up to her now," Unohana said softly. "There is nothing further I can do."

At that, Byakuya turned around, eyes narrowing.

"You are the greatest healer in the world, Unohana-taicho. Surely there must be something. Or don't you care enough to even try?"

"Byakuya!" Ginrei cut in, voice sharp. "Mind your tongue!"

Byakuya bowed his head, looking away.

"Forgive me. I did not mean to direct my anger at you, Unohana-taicho."

"No apology is necessary. I understand you must be operating under quite a lot of stress right now." An unreadable expression flashed across her face as she glanced towards where Hisana lay, motionless. "As am I."

"Despite my grandson's lack of manners, he does have a point however," Ginrei said sharply. "I understand that there are techniques you can employ to awaken a patient from a deep unconsciousness. I assume that there are extenuating circumstances that prevent you from using them in this situation?"

"Correct. By sending a shock through her heart and brain, there is a large chance I would be able to wake her. However, as with any treatment, there are risks and possible side effects, and in Hisana's case…" Her voice trailed off. "Did you know that when she was brought to me yesterday, she'd actually sustained very little outside physical injury? The hollows barely touched her." She looked down at Hisana and that same unreadable expression crossed her face again. "No, most of the harm done to her body was self-inflicted."

"Excuse me?" Byakuya demanded, stiffening.

"I would also like an explanation, Unohana-taicho," Ginrei said, placing a firm hand on Byakuya's elbow. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

"It's a simple diagnosis, really. Reiryoku depletion." At that, Ginrei made a sound of comprehension. Byakuya looked between them, frown deepening.

"Reiryoku depletion? But that's easily cured by a spiritual energy transfusion, isn't it? How could that result in a coma?" Byakuya asked.

"There's a reason it's so rarely a serious issue. As you know, reiatsu is the physical manifestation of reiryoku. There's always a small amount of reiryoku present in every soul, even non-shinigami. Through practice, a shinigami can expel the reiryoku inside their body in the form of reiatsu," Unohana explained. "Now, similar to the way a person always retains some air in their lungs no matter how hard they exhale, some of this reiryoku is not available for use. This emergency reiryoku reserve is the minimum amount of spiritual energy a soul needs to survive; if depleted, the body will shut down and the soul will die."

"Now, normally a person will fall unconscious long before they reach that point; a kind of built-in safety feature, you could say. Even if a person starts to use up their emergency reiryoku reserve, there is no immediate danger, as the body will compensate by rapidly producing more reiryoku. As such, it is nearly unheard of for a case of reiryoku exhaustion to turn fatal—it is also why so few people know about this, as it is rarely relevant. However, if enough time passes and the emergency reiryoku reserve still isn't restored—"

"—it will result in the organs shutting down, one by one," Ginrei finished. "I see."

Byakuya was silent for a long moment.

"You said that most people wouldn't know about this," he said finally.

"Correct," Unohana affirmed.

"But a healer would," he said flatly. It was not a question.

"Also correct," Unohana replied, after a slight pause. Byakuya closed his eyes, absorbing what he already knew.

"So you're telling me," it took effort to keep his voice steady, "that Hisana figured out a way to disable every natural defense her body had, in order to die in the most efficient way." He let out a dry chuckle. Well, no one had claimed that Hisana couldn't be ruthlessly practical—when it came to her own wellbeing, at least. "She was never planning on coming back, was she? She wasn't stalling for backup, she—" He swallowed hard. "She wasn't even going to try."

His grandfather's grip on his elbow tightened.

"Byakuya, you mustn't—"

"And that's why you don't want to risk artificially waking her up, isn't it?" Byakuya interrupted, ignoring him. "Because she messed up her own body to the point where any tiny thing right now could result in her losing her memories or her ability to reason or her mind…I mean, for all we know she may have already suffered brain damage—"

"This is just a precautionary measure, Kuchiki-san. As of right now, her condition is stable and there is no reason to think that she will suffer permanent injury," Unohana said quietly. "I simply do not want to introduce any unnecessary risk."

"She will be fine," Ginrei said reassuringly. "Have faith, grandson. She's a strong girl. She'll get through this."

"Of course," Byakuya muttered, shaking his head to clear it. She'd be fine. She had to. "I—" He paused as he sensed a familiar reiatsu presence outside the door. "Excuse me."

Stepping outside, he paused as he saw Rukia curled up in a ball, sitting across from the room.

"Rukia," he said, surprised. "I didn't know you were up." Abruptly, he felt a twinge of guilt for not going to see her earlier. He'd known she was injured but…well, in the face of Hisana's…he pushed those thoughts away.

"How is she?" Rukia asked in a small voice, posture subdued.

"She's—" He hesitated, unsure of what to say. "She's stable."

"Renji said she's in a coma. Is that true?" She asked, finally looking up. Byakuya politely pretended not to notice her bloodshot eyes, the vivid, red crescent-shaped marks on her arms that stood out starkly against pale skin.

"Unohana-taicho is optimistic about her chances of waking up," he answered.

"Ah. That's good," Rukia replied, looking back down at her knees.

They fell into a stilted silence, Byakuya desperately searching for something to say. Had things between them always been this awkward? He didn't think so…but then, they'd always had Hisana to mediate between them.

"You can go in to see her, if you want," Byakuya said finally, after the silence had stretched on long enough to become painful. At that, Rukia flinched violently.

"No!" As Byakuya blinked, startled, he saw Rukia visibly gather herself.

"I mean…not right now. I don't…I don't wanna see her like that," she confessed, looking away. "Not just yet, anyway."

"…I see." He didn't, not really. Judging by Rukia's wince, his voice had come out colder than intended. "In that case, I suggest you head back to the Academy rather than waste your time here. As I understand, the healers don't like people cluttering up their hallways."

He turned away, ignoring the stricken look on Rukia's face. A small voice in the back of his head whispered that he was being too harsh, that Hisana would have wanted him to reassure Rukia in her place, but…

But Hisana wasn't awake to tell him that and he had no patience for those who couldn't appreciate the sacrifices she made for them.

"There you are. I wanted to check in on you—how are you holding up?" Eiji asked, walking over. Rukia scoffed, looking away.

"I'm not the one you should be worried about," she said.

"Can't I worry about you both?" Eiji asked gently. "Things haven't exactly been easy on you either."

"I guess," Rukia muttered. "Still, Hisana's the one who's…well, Hisana's the one you should be checking on. You shouldn't…" She swallowed. "You should go."

"I visited her this morning." He paused. "And besides, out of the two of you, you're the only one I can help right now." Rukia glared at him.

"I don't need your help!" She hissed. "I'm fine. What about those two words don't you get?"

"Alright, alright!" Eiji held his hands up in surrender. "You don't need my help. I get it. Still," he continued as he took a seat next to her. "This is such a nice spot you've got here. You don't mind if I enjoy it with you, do you?"

Rukia squinted at him suspiciously. He smiled winningly back at her.

"I make it a point to appreciate the beauty of nature whenever I can," he said innocently.

"Right," Rukia said skeptically as she glanced around the courtyard they were in. Dead leaves everywhere, bare tree branches, laundry sheets blowing in the wind. In the distance, she could hear a couple of chickens clucking.

Beauty of nature, indeed.

"You're annoying," she accused.

"I've been called worse things," he chuckled. "You've met Hiro, haven't you? He could give you a few suggestions." At the reminder of the last time she saw Murakami Hiro, she stilled.

"Yeah, I've met him." She glanced at Eiji. "How is he, anyway?"

At that, Eiji's face turned serious.

"Not very well, I'm afraid. Physically, he's fine but…" Eiji sighed. "Well, he's taken Hisana's state rather hard. Understandable, of course, but Chiyo and I are starting to worry about him. If it weren't for Unohana-taicho kicking him out, he'd probably still be in Hisana's room."

"Which is where I should be right now," Rukia said, her voice barely audible. Clenching her fists, she hugged her knees to her chest. "You probably think I'm an awful person. I mean, what kind of sibling doesn't even visit their sister in the hospital?"

"But you are visiting her," Eiji corrected, looking around. "Granted, you're sitting outside her window instead of inside her room, but you're visiting her all the same."

"It helps," Rukia admitted. "Being able to feel her reiatsu close by."

"That it does" Eiji agreed. He paused before continuing, voice turning gentle. "It's a difficult thing, to see a loved one injured."

"It's not just that," Rukia clenched her teeth together. "I'm the reason she's in there. I…How can I possibly face her, when…when it's all my fault she's like this?"

"Look, you can't blame yourself for what happened to Hisana," Eiji said firmly. "She knew what she was doing, and she made her choice."

"It's not that," Rukia raised her voice, feeling a lump rise in her throat. "I'm…I'm the reason everything happened—"

"Don't say that, Rukia-chan. You can't take responsibility for what she—"

"The attack was my fault!" She screamed. Against her will, a sob escaped her lips, tearing her throat like acid.

"What?" Eiji blinked, taken aback. "What are you talking about?"

"I—I didn't realize it at first." Rukia squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to force the tears back. "But then Renji—" Her voice caught, before she forced herself to continue. Eiji needed to know, he deserved to know the truth before he wasted any more of his time on her. "Renji told me they were investigating the cause of the attack."

"I hardly see how that concerns you," Eiji said, puzzled.

"He said that the 12th Division was looking into it," Rukia said softly, ignoring him. "That one of their experimental creations had somehow ended up outside the Seireitei. That—"

"—a concentrated burst of spiritual energy was what caused the garganta," Renji explained, voice low and angry. "Oni-sensei's furious, of course; I mean, from what I hear the experiment those crazy nutsos were working on was dumb to begin with and to make things worse, they have no idea how it even got outside the Seireitei—"

"What did you say?" Rukia cut in sharply. Renji looked at her, confused.

"Uh…that Byakuya's so angry, even the cat-lady's giving him space?"

"No, before that…the part about the 'concentrated burst of spiritual energy' thing," she murmured. Where had she heard those words before?

"Um, yeah. Some stupid shit called hollow bait, can you believe it? Been trying for thousands of years to keep hollows away and those morons go ahead and make something that does the exact opposite, of all the dumbass things—Rukia, are you okay? You look kind of pale."

She wasn't listening anymore though, because…she thought back to Akon showing her the different experiments, handing her a small white pebble and…and then Hisana was demanding that they leave and she couldn't remember anything other than that, but…but she'd handed the hollow bait back, hadn't she? She must have…god, she couldn't have been so stupid, so utterly, mind-numbingly stupid as to hold on to it, right?

Only…only now that she thought back she remembered coming up with a small white pebble while searching for change just before the attack happened (and she'd thought it was strange; after all, what would a rock be doing in her pocket?), carelessly tossing it aside without a second thought, and all it would have taken was one person accidentally stepping on it and Renji was giving her a funny look and he was saying something but she could think about at that moment was Hisana facing death (again), alone and in pain and it was all because of her all her fault all her fault all her fault and oh god she thought she was going to puke and Renji was yelling and a nurse was jabbing a needle into her arm—

"I'm the one who brought the hollow bait there! I'm the reason she c-came and I'm…I'm the reason she s-stayed behind t-to…to—" Rukia hiccupped, cheeks wet with tears. "Do you understand n-now why I c-can't see her? How c-can I f-face her when…when she's like this because of m-me? And I…I…"

Strong, steady arms pulled her into a warm embrace as she broke down utterly, staining Eiji's shihakusho with a mixture of tears, snot, and saliva.

"Hey," he murmured, rubbing soothing circles into her back as she took giant, wheezing breaths in between choking sobs. "Deep breaths, easy now. That's it."

"Why," she gulped out, sniffling wetly. "Why are you being so n-nice to me?" When he knew what she did, went unspoken.

"Because." He hesitated. "Because you need me to. And because it looks like you could really use a friend right now."

"B-but I…but I—"

"Shh," he hushed her gently. Rukia took a few deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. "Look. Did you mean for this to happen?"

"No!" She answered immediately, hurt. "How could you…how could you say that?""

"Then I don't blame you for what happened. And I doubt anyone else who knows you will, either," he said firmly. Rukia huffed, one side of her mouth tilting up into a bitter smile.

"B-Byakuya might."

"Byakuya…" Eiji hesitated. "My cousin is rational, most of the time. However, when it comes to Hisana—"

"She'll always come first for him," Rukia finished softly. She leaned back, feeling a bit embarrassed by her emotional outburst, but decided if Eiji wasn't going to mention the giant mess of tears and snot she'd left behind, neither would she. "It's okay, really," she added, upon seeing the conflicted look on Eiji's face. "Nee-chan deserves someone who'll put her first. And if Onii-sensei ever did anything less, I'd kick his ass." Eiji's eyes softened.

"You're a good sister, Rukia-chan." He hesitated. "Now that I think about it though, it might be for the best if we didn't tell anyone else about this." Rukia blinked, startled.

"What? Why?"

"Because no one else needs to know." Eiji ran a hand through his hair. "Opening a garganta over that town…it was an accident, you and I both know that. However, not everyone might see it that way and…" He pursed his lips. "Well, Seireitei laws are harsh. Confessing to taking the hollow bait and activating it won't do anyone any good."

"I understand," Rukia murmured. "Still, don't you think—"

"No!" Eiji shouted harshly, causing her to flinch. A flicker of remorse crossed his face before he continued, softening his tone. "No, Rukia-chan. Believe me when I say that it's for the best if no one knows your part in this. Right now, there's no concrete evidence connecting you to the attack. It's better if it stays that way."

"Alright. If you're sure," Rukia whispered. Eiji nodded.

"I am. Promise me that this will stay between us."

"I promise," Rukia said solemnly. He smiled, reaching out to ruffle her hair.

"Don't be too hard on yourself over this whole thing, okay? I'd like to think I've gotten to know Hisana pretty well over this past year and I know she wouldn't hold you responsible for her current state."

"You're right," Rukia replied quietly. "She wouldn't blame me."

In some aspects, Rukia thought it'd be easier if she did. How strange, that she would find Hisana's forgiveness harder to face than her anger.

For a moment, they sat together in silence, watching as a gust of wind blew a handful of leaves into the air.

"You know what's funny?" Rukia spoke up suddenly, leaning back so that her head rested on the ground.


"All I wanted…all I've ever wanted was to get strong enough that Hisana wouldn't have to constantly worry over me. Strong enough that I could stand at her side; maybe even take care of her for a change. I just…I wanted to be her equal." She choked on her words, voice cracking slightly. "And now I'm realizing that none of that matters. It doesn't matter if I'm never as good as her, if I'm not as well-known or as popular or whatever. All that matters is that I get her back." She rubbed at her eyes furiously. "I know it hasn't been long but I miss her, Eiji. I miss her so much."

"As do I," Eiji replied, the faint tightness underlying his voice betraying his worry. "As do I."

"How's she doing? Has there been any change in her condition?"

"No. But well, no change is better than a bad change," Kaien replied, rubbing at his eyes. "It's kind of you to come visit her, Aizen-fukutaicho."

"Although it seems she has plenty of visitors, even without my being here," Aizen replied, smiling faintly. Kaien snorted.

"Figures. Even when the girl's in a coma, she still has a more active social life than half the general population," Kaien huffed.

"How long has it been? Two weeks now, if I'm not mistaken?" Aizen asked.

"Mhm. And in that time, she's gotten visits from half the captains, quite a few lieutenants, seated officers from several different divisions—including the Eleventh of all places—and a couple Academy students." His own captain, he knew, had stopped by three or four times so far. Hiro and Chiyo, also, had made a point of dropping by the Fourth every day to check on Hisana's condition.

"Wide range of friends," Aizen commented, before lowering his voice. "And how is Kuchiki-fukutaicho holding up? Has he left her side at all?"

"Aside from his grandfather or Yoruichi dragging him off to take shower breaks? No," Kaien replied, voice turning somber.

Not that the healers had been happy about letting him stay past visiting hours. But after polite requests, pleas, demands, yelling, threats, and Unohana hadn't worked, they'd finally given up and set up an extra futon in the room.

If there was one good thing about Byakuya's constant presence though, it was that with him there, the room was never crowded. Kaien himself couldn't stand looking at him for long. There was something heartbreakingly lonely about it, like witnessing a man watch his entire life fall apart around him.

"It's impressive," Aizen murmured from beside him, breaking Kaien out of his thoughts.


"The effect she's made in so short a time," Aizen said quietly.

"She's a remarkable girl," Kaien agreed. "In more ways than one."

"That's certainly true enough. Not many Academy students manage to activate their shikai in their first year," Aizen commented.

"Not many Academy students manage to almost get themselves killed twice in their first year," Kaien said dryly. "I confess, how someone so tiny manages to get themselves into so much trouble is beyond me."

Academy student with an internship at the Fourth—and here he'd thought that healers had the safest jobs in the entire Gotei 13. So much for that.

"I suppose the key word there is 'almost,'" Aizen said softly. "It is…unexpected that she survived at all."

Kaien was silent for a long moment. It was an unspoken question no one had really brought up, in light of Hisana's comatose state, but the fact remained that she shouldn't have survived, shouldn't have lasted two minutes after Hiro left.

Instead, she'd made it back (her body in a state of severe shock and in the process of shutting down, granted, but alive) and most surprisingly—

"She took out those hollows on her own, didn't she?" Aizen asked intently.

Kaien swallowed, thinking back.

The first thing he'd noticed was the silence, an almost deafening emptiness made only more jarring when he compared it to the shrieks and sounds of battle he'd heard only moments earlier. As he ran, he couldn't help but notice it felt like he was speeding through time, watching the leaves around him shift from bright orange and yellow into a decaying brown, the trees turning dull and brittle, the grass underneath his feet yellowing to the color of old hay until the entire forest around him seemed bleached of color.

He almost ran past her.

There was no sign of movement, no hint of reiatsu he could sense—in the end, it had only been the glint of her zanpakuto that had caught his attention, and he'd turned to see her lying crumpled on the ground, limp and lifeless like a marionette with its strings cut, the contrast between the paleness of her skin and the inky blackness of her hair making her appear almost skeletal—as devoid of life as the forest surrounding her.

"Yes," he answered softly, giving his head a slight shake to clear it. "When I found her, she was the only thing alive in a hundred meter radius."

"Impressive," Aizen repeated, glancing at the door leading to Hisana's room before handing Kaien a wrapped gift. "Do me a favor and make sure Yukimura-san gets this when she wakes up, will you? And give her my best."

"Your faith in her is appreciated," Kaien said with a tired smile.

"I'm not worried." The corners of his lips quirked up briefly. "After all I've seen…well, she doesn't seem like the sort of person to let her journey end here."

"So ya finally found the guts ta come visit." Rukia stiffened at that soft-as-silk voice, the skin at the base of her neck prickling. "I congratulate ya, you exceeded my expectations, Rukia-chan. See, I had a bet goin' with myself that ya wouldn't bother comin' in until Hisana-chan woke up and dragged ya here herself."

"What are you doing here?" She demanded, taking a wary step back. Ichimaru tilted his head to the side, smile coldly amused.

"Why, I can't come visit a friend?" He pressed a hand to his chest, lips turning down into a pout. "How cruel of you, Rukia-chan."

"You're not her friend," Rukia said automatically. She narrowed her eyes. "She told me about you. Said that you're dangerous, unpredictable, that you mess with peoples' h-heads—" She cursed mentally as she stuttered on the last word, quickly shoving her hands into her pockets so that Ichimaru wouldn't see them shake.

"Really? She said all that? I had no idea she thought so highly of me," Ichimaru said, seeming almost touched for a moment. "But why all the anger on your part? We were getting along so well when we last spoke." He glanced at her. "You could certainly learn a lesson or two from your past self, ya were much more polite then." His smirk widened as he suddenly increased the force of his reiatsu, causing Rukia's knees to buckle slightly. "Go on now, give me a bow…that's it, there's a good girl—"

Rukia looked away in a futile attempt to hide her face from him, blinking humiliated tears out of her eyes. Her cheeks felt uncomfortably hot.

"You're a freak, you know that?" She spat out, once she'd recovered her composure. "And if you don't leave right now, I'll…I'll—"

"You'll what?" Ichimaru asked, tilting his head to the side. "Tell on me? Go ahead—you're good at that, aren't you? Big meanie Ichimaru Gin, intruding on your precious time with your sister…although given that this is the first time in three weeks you've even bothered to come see her in person, I don't know how precious you really find it."

"She wouldn't want you here," Rukia hissed.

"Oh, really?" He asked dubiously. "Don't you think, my dear Rukia-chan, that if Hisana truly wanted me out of her life, that she'd already have found a way to do so?"

Rukia had no answer to that.

"Don't worry," Ichimaru added. "I won't take up much more of your time. After all, I know you're on a bit of a time limit here; Shihouin-taicho may have dragged Kuchiki out of here for some fresh air, but that won't last for long. And as I understand, your relationship is a bit rocky right now, isn't it?"

"That's none of your business," Rukia muttered, looking away.

"Fair enough," Ichimaru shrugged. "I'll admit, I find family drama dreadfully dull." Rukia stiffened as he approached Hisana's bed, leaning down to gently press one hand against her throat.

"What are you doing?" She asked, voice rising in alarm. "If you hurt her, I'll—"

"Relax. I have no intention of harming her," Ichimaru replied dismissively. "She'd be no fun to me broken."

Rukia clenched her jaw as Ichimaru leaned in closer, his eyelids flickering open to reveal pale blue.

"So fragile," he murmured as he stroked her pulse point with his thumb.

"She's not weak," Rukia snapped, her heart beating anxiously.

"Never said she was. You can be the strongest person in the world, and still be fragile," he said calmly. "With a person like Hisana, if ya wanna break them, ya don't face them head on. It's like breaking tempered glass. You find their weak points, apply just a bit of pressure, and—" His grip tightened for the briefest of moments. "—you wait for them to shatter."

One corner of his lips quirked up as he stepped back, releasing his hold. Rukia swallowed, tasting blood in her mouth (had she been chewing on the inside of her cheek again? She really needed to break that habit) and looked down so that he wouldn't see her bottom lip trembling.

I—I wouldn't have been able to do anything, she thought to herself numbly. If he'd chosen to do anything, anything at all, I would've been helpless to stop him.

"Luckily, a soul is more flexible than glass," Ichimaru continued, as if he hadn't just threatened to strangle Rukia's sister in her bed. "They're malleable, susceptible to change. To toughen them, all you have to do find the weak spots in a person's life and remove them. Either by ironing them out so that they're as strong as the rest of the soul—" He glanced down at Rukia, eyes curving up into twin crescents. "—or, if need be, by cutting them out entirely. Either way, any weaknesses should be eliminated." He tilted his head, giving her a meaningful stare. "Don't you agree, Rukia-chan?"

"I—" Rukia's mouth was dry. She couldn't meet his eyes.

"I'm glad to see we understand each other," Ichimaru said cheerfully. He gripped her shoulder with one hand, leaning down so that his lips were right by her ear.

"Don't keep me waiting too long, Rukia-chan. I won't be patient forever."

"You're sure this is going to work?" Renji whispered.

"I don't see why not. It worked for Hisana," Rukia whispered back.

"Yeah, but Hisana's insane." Rukia punched him in the arm. "What? She willingly wakes up at five in the morning after going to bed at two, she calls Oni-sensei hime, she plays with poisonous spiders for fun, and she thinks Kusajishi-fukutaicho is adorable and sweet instead of, you know, a nightmare dressed up in pink. That counts as insane in my book."

"Kusajishi-fukutaicho is pretty cute," Rukia mused.

"Not when she's yanking on your hair during a game of 'Let's Ride Renji the Red-Haired Pony!', she ain't," Renji groused, rubbing at his scalp. "But anyway, trying to bribe a clan head with fish? That's pretty out there."

Rukia frowned, looking at the assortment of sashimi plates in front of her.

"You think? But nee-chan told me that she and Shihouin-taicho became friends after she offered her fish," Rukia explained. "So I figured it couldn't hurt."

"Figured what couldn't hurt?" A voice came from behind them, causing Rukia to yelp and Renji's voice to abruptly shoot up two octaves.

"S-Shihouin-t-t-t-taicho!" Rukia stuttered, after she'd recovered from her minor heart attack. "Uh…this is for you!" She added, thrusting a plate of fresh salmon out for the Second Division Captain's inspection.

Yoruichi raised an eyebrow, looking slightly amused.

"Thank you. I have some friends who I'm sure will appreciate this," she said, taking the plate from her. "Now what is this about? Originally, I wasn't sure if I was going to grant your request for an appointment, but you've made me curious."

"Well," Renji coughed awkwardly, his voice still slightly higher than normal. His face was also turning an abnormal shade of red, Rukia couldn't help but notice. "I was just, uh, I just came along for, um, moral support so uh, I guess if you're all…morally-supported Rukia, then I'll just…be leaving."

"So soon, Abarai-kun?" Yoruichi asked, and yes, there was a definite glint of amusement in those tawny eyes now. "And after bringing me such a lovely gift, too. Are you sure there's nothing I can…offer you in return?"

"Nope, nothing!" Renji shook his head frantically, desperately looking anywhere but at the violet-haired captain in front of him. "So, um, I'll just be going now, good luck Rukia, I'llseeyoulater!"

With that, he bolted out the Second Division headquarters like his life depended on it. Rukia just shook her head in disbelief. The last time she'd seen him run that fast, he'd just found out that Yakushi's Barbeque was having a two hour long half-off special.

"Well now, what can I do for you, Rukia-chan?" Rukia blinked, turning her attention back to where Yoruichi was looking at her curiously.

"Oh! Yeah, uh," Rukia took a deep breath, mentally rehearsing the speech she'd spent all week working on. "Shihouin-taicho. I hope that you will hear me out and consider my request. Over the course of the past month I have been forced to come face-to-face with my weaknesses and I see that I have much to learn in regards to the shinigami arts. Although my kido is adequate, my class ranking is not yet at where I'd like it to be. I hope that with—"

"Oh, for god's sake," Yoruichi sighed. "Forget the formalities Rukia-chan, I promise I won't be offended." She stared at Rukia levelly. "Just answer this question: why did you come here today?"

"To ask you to train me," Rukia blurted out before slapping both hands over her mouth. Damn…how did she do that? No wonder Shihouin Yoruichi was head of the Omnitsukido, if all she needed in order to get people to confess was look at them. "Erm…I mean, not you, of course! Although having you train me would be totally awesome…but I would never expect you to! Anyone, really…and, uh, I'd be willing to do chores around here as repayment! I'm really good at cleaning," she said earnestly. "And I'll do other stuff too! Like cook and do laundry and—"

"You want an internship here," Yoruichi said flatly. Rukia bowed her head.

"It doesn't have to be as formal as all that. But I want to get stronger and I feel like this is the best place to do that," she said honestly.

"And why should we take you?" Yoruichi asked, voice unreadable. "The Second Division, as I'm sure you know, is closely tied to the Omnitsukido. And while your skills are certainly decent for your age, we are a highly competitive squad. Most of our members were groomed specifically for their positions from birth, and of the recruits we do take from the Academy, it's been years since we've taken anyone below First Class. Even if all you want is a few lessons, why should we invest our time in you?"

Rukia swallowed, closing her eyes.

"The truth is, I don't have a good answer for you," she said quietly. "I…I'm not that good at hohou and my hakuda is better but there are still a lot of people in my class better than me. And maybe I'll never be the best, no matter how hard I work. But I can promise that I'll work harder at this than I've ever worked at anything else in my life and I won't give up, no matter what."

"Mm," Yoruichi mused. "You claim to have so much resolve, but I have to ask—why the Second? You must know that our squad isn't exactly the best fit for you," she pointed out. "And thanks to your sister, you have plenty of connections in other divisions. The 6th, the 11th, the 13th…and those are just the obvious ones."

Rukia's eyes flashed, hands clenching into fists.

"That won't work!" She shouted. "I need…I need someone who won't hesitate to hurt me."

"Ah. I see." Yoruichi's tone softened with understanding. When she spoke again, her gaze was sympathetic. "Rukia-chan, if it's punishment you're looking for, then I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. I won't help you hurt yourself."

"It's not…I'm not…" Rukia cut herself off, frustrated. "I'm not looking for punishment. Really, I'm not," she added, at Yoruichi's dubious look. If that was the case, all she had to do was march down to the 5th and willingly spend time in Ichimaru Gin's presence. "But back when that garganta opened and those hollows started spilling out, I felt helpless, okay? I mean, I've fought against hollows before, but this was...this was different. This was real. I wasn't safe and these opponents weren't going to stop if I got hurt and I…I froze."

She looked down, biting her lip. "I felt so stupid and slow and when Hisana came, I realized I was just…holding her down. And when those spikes came shooting towards me, I-I couldn't even try dodging because by the time I registered them, it was already too late and—" She broke off, sniffling. "And the next thing I know, I'm waking up in the Fourth and Renji's telling me that Hisana's in a c-coma. That we h-had to leave her behind to d-die because she didn't have enough reiatsu to save me and protect h-herself." Rukia straightened her back, chin jerking up. "My sister is in a coma because of me. Do you understand what that's like? Hisana almost died because I wasn't strong enough, wasn't fast enough. That…that can't happen again."

She bowed her head, lowering herself to her knees.

"Please, Shihouin-sama," she breathed out. It took effort to keep her voice from shaking. "Please, I need to get stronger but I don't know how to do it on my own, and I'm begging you, please—"

Gentle hands tilted her chin up and through blurry eyes, Rukia saw Yoruichi pull out a handkerchief.

"Stand up," she ordered, handing Rukia the handkerchief. "First rule of Squad Two, Rukia-chan. Never beg. Second rule? Never show weakness, unless it benefits you."

Rukia scrambled to her feet, eyes wide. "Shihouin-taicho…?"

Yoruichi smiled faintly at her before straightening, turning her attention to one of the masked Omnitsukido members behind her.

"Soi-fon? Come over here," she called out. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."

"Yukimura-chan? Your presence is required at the Fourth."

"What for?"

"Your sister. She's waking up."

Author's Note: …so how many of you saw that part with Soi-fon coming?

Also Gin, pls. That scene was pretty much him going "Right now you're doing nothing but holding her back :) and you don't deserve to be called her sister :) so unless you shape up to the point where you can no longer be used against her :) :) or to the point where she no longer has to rescue you every time you fuck up :) I, being a Very Good Friend :) will take care of Hisana's problem (i.e. you) for her :) :) :) by getting rid of you permanently :) also just for shits and giggles I will casually threaten Hisana's life over the course of this conversation :) :) just to prove to you how utterly helpless you are :) :) :) :) :)

Next chapter: Hisana wakes up! And you get to find out what the second half of her shikai ability actually is, lol.

P.S. Please stop asking me if this story is abandoned—as previously mentioned, I currently have every intention of finishing this. IF I ever decide otherwise, I will make sure to inform all of you. Even if I haven't updated in six months or a year or 10 years, unless explicitly stated, this story is still going.