It begins with a burst of red fire.
He calmly observes the fifth division in battle with his primary regiment and scans the crowd for a white haori, wondering which one of the poor souls below has been chosen to lead the shattered men he left behind.
The fifth is badly outnumbered and before long all but the elite have been decimated. Their vice-captain is someone he does not recognize, and he watches with great interest as the obviously inexperienced young man jumps headlong into the fray, screaming for his captain and haphazardly cutting down hollows with undisciplined strokes of his shikai.
A burst of red fire draws his attention to the densest part of the battlefield, and when the smoke clears he sees a small figure, a regal vision in black and white, perched gracefully on the broken body of one of his arrancar. Blood rains down on the field around her as she holds her unreleased zanpakutou in a deceptively casual stance, and though the carnage somewhat hinders his vision he knows with utmost certainty that she has returned. He cannot explain his displeasure and eventually dismisses it as irrelevant.
The glowing embers on the battlefield bear witness to the failures of the past.
She fights off waves of pursuers so that the remainder of her badly injured and demoralized division can retreat.
He has never seen anything as beautiful as her bankai, irregularly shaped feathers of inexorable fire swirling and falling around her in a frenetic, dangerous dance of light and shadow. There is a darkness in Tobiume that he does not recognize, and though she has always shown great promise, never did he think her capable of anything like this.
Five of his best men sweep towards her in a complex formation that he developed especially for their use, and he knows that it is only a matter of time before she once again falls at his feet, her figure bloodied and the light in her eyes extinguished. He assures himself that this moment has been decades in the making, but as the clash of blades sound in the distance he wonders how much of their past she has deciphered, or whether she has given up and attempted to forget him entirely.
In the midst of the chaos that surrounds her lone figure, her gaze turns towards the vantage point from which he watches events unfold. She cannot possibly sense him, but he feels it ghost against his skin as she touches Tobiume to her lips and prepares for her final strike.
Time slows down as his men move ever closer, as a dark purple aura bursts forth from his former protege, as Tobiume rises up around her in brilliant defiance. His thoughts threaten to consume him and he barely notices the silence that falls upon the battlefield in the split second before all hell breaks loose.
A powerful burst of energy envelops his vision and singes the edges of his cloak as he speeds away, somewhat surprised that she is still so light in his arms.
As he did not save her then, neither is he saving her now.
A peculiar feeling washes over him as he stands in the shadows of the cave and drinks in her appearance, mentally contrasting what he sees against the image that he has burned into his memories. He remembers her with a delicate innocence, brushed with grief - her features are hardened now, though she is no less beautiful. He remembers her with liquid eyes, glazed over with shock - her gaze is confident now, though her eyes are no less gentle.
And though he remembers her cheeks awash with the pallor of death, there is no denying her vitality as she struggles in his grasp and breaks into his silent reverie. "Why did you..." she begins, dangerous words dangling on her lips, and for both their sakes he cuts her off with a kiss that borders on violent.
Resistance flashes in her eyes but he is adamant, and he thinks he feels her heart shatter into a million pieces when he breathes her name. He intertwines his hands with hers and when he presses closer she pulls him in, and their fate is sealed from the moment that their bodies crash against each other, somewhere far from the battlefield where their subordinates are dying by the hundreds.
There is an element of desperation in the way that she clings to him, and there is nothing at all gentle about what they do. There is fire in her being and in his soul, and every burning touch they share destroys both of them little by little.
Later, when she remembers her question, she is relieved that she never had to hear his response.----------------------------
In the darkness that does not judge, Kyoka Suigetsu and Tobiume lie sheathed and side by side as they have not done for decades.
He sits on the ground with his back against the wall and his arms wrapped protectively around her delicate frame. She is comfortably ensconced in his lap, one hand resting lightly on his chest and her head tucked under his chin, and the chill of the atmosphere is negated by the warmth that envelops them both.
They both know that the other is awake, but neither speaks. Neither one of them has an answer to the question that must be asked should the silence be broken.
They both know that it doesn't matter now.
The arrancar approach, and she is not surprised when he lifts her off of his lap and swiftly rises to his feet.
His hand flies to his zanpakutou, and in a swift motion she leaps over him, grasps Tobiume and lands in a defensive stance some distance away. She regards him with a weariness that he has never seen from her, and his expression remains undecipherable as he contemplates the scene before him.
He closes his eyes, and until the end of time she will wonder whether she imagined his hands shaking as he turned away.
His body and the shadows serve to shield her from the view of the soliders outside, and she remains still and silent as he leaves without so much as a backward glance. "Let's go," he commands in a tone of complete authority, and they obey.
She doesn't know whether their encounter was a gift or a curse from the gods that be, but deep in the core of her being she hears their message loud and clear.
They will never meet again.
It ends as it began.
It is too late for them now, bound as they are by the indissolvable ties they share, but committed as they are to the different paths they walk. He will always pursue greatness without her, she will always be incomplete without him, and with his actions he has reopened a wound that will never heal. He has broken her for all eternity, and as the years pass she gives in and wears a perpetual smile to mask her surrender.
She has given him one more victory to be proud of, but as the years pass he stops smiling altogether.
It ends as it began, with red fire scorching his soul and consuming his mind, and from the smouldering ashes of his sanity comes the one question to which he has no answer.