The darkness outside was as thick as honey, covering Karakura in rich shadows that draped the alleys and curtained the streets. Rukia sat curled up in the window, and watched Renji and Ichigo fighting over the computer.

It was comforting, she vaguely supposed, to know that they weren't too depressed by the current situation. That they felt cheerful enough to be rolling on the ground right now, trying to grab each others' hair.

Or perhaps they were just stupid.

She rubbed at her neck thoughtfully.

Last night she had had nightmares, again, of that moment when her big brother had thrown himself between her and Ichimaru Gin's blade. So much blood. She had killed before, she had seen killing before, but all the blood, all over her, her brother's blood . . . It had not been till later, when Fourth Division had been bandaging wounds and mending bodies that she had found that she had taken a wound herself to her neck, just beside that hated collar, a cut as clean as a blade's edge. Aizen must have done it when he had pulled her towards him. She hadn't noticed, then. There had been other things to notice.

She supposed that her posting back here, with Renji for backup, was Soul Society's idea of an apology -- we regret assuming you messed up the job, so here it is back again, and the fact that we trust you enough to give it back should be all the apology that you could possibly require -- and it was enough, most of the time.

"Shut up, you morons," she suggested, "or Ichigo's father will hear you."

Renji rolled off Ichigo and sat up. "We oughta be going, anyhow. Can't stay here all night." He winked at Ichigo.

"Morons," Rukia muttered, but her heart wasn't in it. The thin moonlight seemed to stroke along her skin like a physical presence, and she wanted to be out there tonight, under the night sky, free to leap from roof to roof and feel the wind in her hair. And maybe, later, other things with Renji -- she found herself eyeing the line of his neck, the width of his shoulders, and remembering the taste of his skin from other times.

It felt as if the night was waiting for her.

They had split up in order to cover more ground during their patrol of the area, but were close enough that any significant flares of reiatsu should be noticeable. Ichigo had taken the north, Renji the south-west, Rukia the south-east. Renji and Ruki had left their gigai behind in the hotel room that they were sharing. It'd take too long and be too risky if they had to abandon them in the middle of a fight.

A brush of reiatsu stroked across her skin from a few streets away. She leapt to a rooftop, then to a wall, and silenced her own strength as she approached. Renji and Ichigo might want to charge in, blades at the ready, broadcasting their presence; she had learned the folly of that. Besides, it might be something unthreatening, such as Quincy Ishida, or Inoue Orihime, and she did dislike making a fool of herself.

Moonlight painted her in shades of white and black as she sidled through the shadows.

The reiatsu surged, fluttered like a heartbeat, and then subsided again.

She turned the corner, and saw the body lying in the middle of the street. An unknown, a nobody, a living human. Training kept her recording the facts calmly; she knew how to deal with ghosts, but it was harder to deal with the dying. He was lying there in a spreading pool of blood, quietly dying, without even the strength to call out, and his reiatsu whispered in decreasing circles with each fading heartbeat. He must have had enough power to get into danger, but not enough to be useful.

Rukia moved to kneel beside him. He had been sliced open by something like claws, and she could tell at a glance there was no saving him. All that she could give him was a moment's companionship, and the burial of his soul if it was needed.

But how could this have happened? Given the number of Hollows lately, she could understand if his fragment of power had attracted some attention. Unfortunate, but possible. But in that case, where had the Hollow gone? She would have expected it to stay and to finish it off. Few Hollows would have been frightened away by her approach -- to be fair, few Hollows would have noticed it. It wasn't as if she had a Captain's power.

The man quietly stopped breathing. His spirit was gone with that last exhalation; he needed no soul burial. She was glad of that.

Reiatsu suddenly thrummed along her nerves from both north and south like a close-struck drum, loud and almost painful, but forcibly subdued. She looked to one end of the street, then to another.

At the south end of the street, white-robed, smirking, stood Ichimaru Gin. At the north end, white-robed, no longer wearing glasses, stood Aizen Sousuke.

So. Her Academy-trained combat mind said the victim was left here as bait. But had it been her they were waiting for, or just whichever shinigami would come here first? Most likely Ichigo. He'd be the one that they would be expecting to patrol.

So how do I deal with someone who can outfight me, outrun me, and -- Conscious thought supplied no suggestions except die bravely. The body wanted to live, though, and the body moved, and she ran like a hare. She leaped, and ran along the top of the wall, the tap tap tap of her light feet echoing along the quiet streets, and above her the moon dwindled to a crescent.

The two who had once been Captains moved faster; she ran like a hunted animal, but they were the wind, white and deadly. Aizen snatched her out of the air as they passed her, one hand on her girdle and the other knotted in her hair, and came to a stop with her pinned against a wall, his arm across her body. "Kuchiki Rukia," he greeted her, not even out of breath.

Ichimaru chuckled.

She was bleeding again, a thin trickle from the wound in her neck.

"Don't think I'm going to give Ichigo to you," she snarled. "I'm worthless to you this time."

Aizen looked down at her. His face was different without the glasses. There was something naked in his eyes that she had not seen before, not even when he had thrust his hand into her body and drawn out the Hougyouku. "Oh, I don't think so, Rukia. I don't think so at all."

He smiled, and as his lips curved she saw a glint of fangs.

oh wait no this cannot be true this cannot possibly be true this sort of thing does not exist

"It is true," he said, answering the question before she could speak it out loud. "Haven't you ever thought about what Hollows are, Rukia?"

Again the use of her personal name as if he had some sort of right to it. There were three people in the world who could call her that and he was not one of them.

"Hunger." He moved his right hand from her hair to stroke down the side of her face, pausing as his fingers brushed against the edges of the cut in her neck. "Don't you remember --"

"Let go of me," she gasped, unwilling to endure it a moment longer, and tried to pull the energies for kidou from her spirit. She didn't have the time to use the full chant or gestures, but perhaps she could just startle him enough to get loose, or so that someone else would sense the reiatsu . . .

Ichimaru came towards her in a drift of white, and caught her left wrist in one hand, pressing a finger of his other hand against her lips. "Naughty, naughty, Kuchiki-kun. She's going to alert someone if we let her, Aizen-taichou." He snatched the finger back again as she tried to bite. "Awww. I like you better this way, Kuchiki-kun. All angry."

"If you think I care at all what you want or how you like me," she spat at him, "then you are wasting your time."

Aizen took his hand from her neck and raised it to his mouth, licking her blood from where it stained his fingers. She looked at him, and swallowed, nauseated.

"What do you know about vampires, Rukia?" Aizen asked.

"They don't exist," she said numbly.

"That's what they tell you." Aizen smiled again. The moonlight leached all the colour from him. His hair, his eyes, his lips were dark as dried blood.

She retreated into the comfort of icy control. "If there were vampires," she said, "then I can think of nobody more appropriate than yourselves to be such things."

Ichimaru smiled. "And aren't you going to ask us what's going on?"

"You'd tell me?" She couldn't keep the disbelief out of her voice.

"Oh no," Ichimaru said, and ran his fingernail along her wrist, stroking the blue lines of her veins. "I'm just following my Captain's orders."

"It could have been Renji," Aizen murmured, too close to her ear. "It had to be either him or you. We need someone who can open a door for us to Seireitai."

She turned her head to look at his eyes. "You know that I'm not going to do that," she said, perfectly flat, perfectly level, and prayed that she could keep the promise to herself. "And Renji never would."

"That's part of it." There was a mild curiosity in Aizen's eyes that made her shiver. "If this doesn't work, then there will be other ways we can try. But if it does -- well, matters will be so much simpler."

Ichimaru coughed. "Time factor, Captain."

"True." Aizen lowered his hand to her face, fingers brushing her chin, then tilted her head to one side to expose the bleeding cut in her neck. He didn't even bother to say anything else, but bent to set his lips against it.

It felt good in ways that it shouldn't have. She tried to break loose, but she didn't have the leverage or the strength, and he held her against the wall easily enough. She tried to put herself at a distance, to be not-there just as she would have in a fight or if she had been in pain, but she couldn't cut herself off from her body. She could feel herself relaxing into it, as though each time he swallowed, each time his tongue flicked the edges of the wound, threads seemed to stroke along her nerves (veins? arteries? blood was moving through her and into him and he was killing her but he was taking his time about it and it felt so good) and she gave a little sigh as she felt Ichimaru Gin's lips against her wrist and then the shallow sting of teeth, as small an irritation as the cut of a sword, and they were holding her, it was all right, they were easing her down to the ground and she opened her eyes for a moment to see them above her, pale against the dark sky.

The darkness on their mouths was her blood. They were killing her.

"Stop," she said, and almost please.

Ichimaru wiped his mouth with the tips of his fingers, then licked them clean, tongue moving against them in a way that made her shudder. "You'd better finish her off, Captain," he said. "See if the imprinting works properly."

Aizen knelt beside her and slid an arm under her, drawing her against his chest, and she was cradled in the white silk of his robe, feeling its softness against her cheek, feeling his reiatsu beating against her and overshadowing her. She could see the clouds shifting as he bent his head again, watch the long striated patterns of shadow and light. His lips moved on her neck as if he were kissing her, as if he were speaking to her, and her blood answered him, sweeping through her in a wave that left her trembling in his arms and gasping, so tired, barely breathing now, and the moon was clear overhead for a moment and then it was dark, and her thoughts tangled for a moment and then fell apart.

I thought I remembered, I thought the moon knew me, do not leave me, brother, you said you would protect me

She had forgotten what it felt like to die. Now she knew.