Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach

"Why the hell are you in such a good mood?" Ikkaku snorted haughtily. Renji's smile melted into a defensive frown.

"What, I can't be happy?" he muttered.

"Whatever." It was true; Renji had been unusually cheerful, today. After finishing a rigorous training session, the two had gone to the dining hall where they met up with the rest of the seated officers for an early lunch. Renji, normally one of the quieter members of the group, talked nonstop, inserting his two cents into every conversation. "Anyway, so I hear Kuchiki is going to the living world with us."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, are you gonna be okay with that?"

"Why wouldn't I be," Renji replied, defensively. "Just what are you trying to say?!"

"Nothing," Ikkaku shrugged. "So… This mission… Think we'll see much action?"

"I dunno… Hope not." Now, it was Ikkaku's turn to frown.

"What the hell?" he sighed. "Ever since you got promoted, you've been getting softer and softer. What's wrong; leave your balls back with eleventh company?"

"Watch it!" Renji snapped. "Just 'cause I'm not bloodthirsty like you…!"

"Who says I'm bloodthirsty? You make me sound like some kinda sicko…! There's nothing wrong with enjoying a good fight."

"A fight's a fight," Renji explained, and if I have to fight, I'll do it. But don't expect me to go lookin' to get all cut up just for the sake of bloodlust. I'm not like you."

"All that power and you're still talkin' like that…? You'd better not let the captain hear you saying that kinda stuff or you might lose a lung."

"He's not MY captain, anymore," Renji stated.

"Yeah, yeah, captain six… That reminds me; whatever happened to that goal of yours? You still planning to challenge him?" Renji lips tightened in a grim line. He hadn't really decided what to do about that. Ever since the incident with Ichigo and the others, his vendetta with his superior had taken a backseat to everything else. He hadn't even had time to consider a resolution.

"I dunno," he replied slowly.

XXX

"A going-away party?" Hanataro murmured, staring at the invitation.

"That's right," Matsumoto replied. "Didn't you hear? Myself, along with a few other shinigami are being dispatched to the living world three days from now. I was sure you'd come since Kuchiki is one of the…" Matsumoto stopped when she saw the color drain from the young medic's cheeks. "You mean… you didn't know?"

Hanataro stared vacantly at the piece of paper, lost in his own thoughts. Rukia was being dispatched? He hadn't heard about any missions to the living world. And why hadn't she told him?

"Hey, kid? Kid, are you okay?" Hanataro emerged from his stupor with a start to find his senior staring down at him with a concerned look on her face.

"Oh, yes, I'm fine," he smiled. "Excuse me, Matsumoto-san, but I think I've forgotten something." With that, he handed the flyer back to the vice-captain and hurried away.

XXX

Rukia sat at the edge of the castle's massive porch, staring wistfully out at the rolling hills. The Kuchiki estate was impressive, to say the least, stretching for miles and miles. The scenic beauty of the land was one of the few things Rukia liked about living there, though she rarely had time to enjoy the view.

'A mission to living world…' The mere thought invited a bitter taste into the back of her throat. While she knew it was her duty, Rukia could help but feel a twinge of inexplicable remorse tugging at her chest. She had only just been reinstated as a shinigami and already she was being dispatched. When she had first received the news, she wasn't sure how to feel. What had she done to deserve a place in such a vital mission? Of the six shinigami that had been drafted for the project, she was the only one who sat below the rank of "seated officer." Her brother took it upon himself to explain that she was enlisted, not because of her powers as a shinigami, but because of her ties of influence with Ichigo. Her brother had the strangest talent for making her feel even less valuable than she already did.

'And I still haven't told him, yet…' Oddly, that had been one of her first concerns. How would he take the news? After spending so much time together, they had grown considerably fond of one another; would he be able to adjust so quickly? Images of his pained smile flashed in her head. She could see those sullen eyes staring out at her over that false grin, the one that hid his true emotions. When he stared at her that way, she could bare to look him in the eyes.

"I'm such a coward…"

XXX

"Thank you, gentlemen, for gathering on such short notice," the commander greeted the assembly of captains. Every available captain was present, even Captain Ukitake. Because of the massive overhauled in the Serietei, these meetings had become less and less frequent since the Aizen incident. Everyone had there own tasks to perform which kept most of the officers busy from morning until night.

"The reason I have called you all here is to discuss the impending menos threat." Yamamoto glanced to his right and nodded at the proud captain of the second company. "Captain Soi Fong…?" The black-haired Special-Ops commander stepped silently forward. "While in the living world, you encountered an advanced form of the menos, did you not?"

"Yes, sir."

"Please share your observations with your brothers-in-arms."

"Yes, sir… During my stay on Earth, I crossed swords with an arrancar from Hueco Mundo. While he was a considerably unrefined specimen, this hollow, who identified himself as "Joker," wielded a substantial amount of strength. His powers clearly rivaled those of a captain-class shinigami. From his rash judgment and lack of proficiency, I deduced that he was not an aged hollow who had undergone a natural transformation, but a byproduct of artificial enhancement. It became clear to me that his growth had been assisted with the help of a catalyst…"

"The Hougyoku?"

"Yes."

"So, it would be safe to assume that this hollow was under the employment of Sousuke Aizen?"

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you, Captain Soi Fong." Yamamoto leaned forward in his seat, clutching the top of his gnarled cane. "Gentlemen, I cannot stress the importance of the upcoming battle against the forces in Hueco Mundo. It is imperative that we draw upon all our sources, meaning that your current work-loads will be increased to compensate for the three defected captains. We must do everything we can to prepare. You are dismissed…!"

XXX

'I can't believe I'm doing this,' Hanataro chastised himself. His eyes stared cautiously at the decorative gates that stood before the Kuchiki mansion. What had he been thinking, coming here, especially uninvited? He must have been crazy. Slowly, he lifted his right foot and took one step forward. Then another. Another. Little by little, he began to make his way down the stone walkway, glancing from side to side with every step. Was it just his imagination, or did everything seem twice as big as it had been the last time he was there?

'What should I do now? Should I ring the doorbell? Should I knock? Maybe I should just stand outside until someone sees me and-?'

Suddenly, an overwhelming chill wracked the young shinigami's body from head to toe. Every pore in his body opened up; every hair rose to attention. Time, gravity, light… Everything around him rippled with distortion. He was alive, but at the same time, he felt he was about to die. It was a familiar feeling. Fearfully, Hanataro glance back over his shoulder.

"C-C-C-Captain Ku-Kuchiki…!" he stammered. Sweat beaded down his neck, soaking every fold in his baggy, black robes. Those eyes, those sharp, icy eyes that stared out at him so complacently. He felt naked, ashamed and condemned all at once. Hanataro's gaze drifted to the zanpaku-to hilt that poked out from beneath the flowing white captain's cloak. 'Senbonzakura,' he recalled. How could anyone forget such a sword? It had only been a few months since he himself stood at the business end of that blade. To think Ichigo could defeat such a man…

Hanataro's lips parted to utter a greeting, but before he could form the words, the captain stepped past him in a blur of billowing fabric and continued down the path to the mansion's entrance.

"Hanataro…?" The gentle voice pulled Hanataro from his terror-induced stupor and back into the real world.

"R-Rukia-san!" he exclaimed. "I was just looking for you… I… I need to speak with you."

"I see," she said, barely over a whisper. Hanataro thought he saw a hint of sadness reflecting in those big, blue eyes, but she stepped past him before he could get a better look. "We can talk inside."

XXX

Hanataro wasn't exactly sure what he expected Rukia's room to look like, but this was definitely not it. He had always imagined a girl's room to be decorative and person, far from the bland walls the surrounded the polished, hardwood floor. Aside from a small futon, a nightstand and a table, the room was practically empty. There were no personal touches to be found. It was then that Hanataro spotted a small vase filled with a bouquet of withered lilies. He quickly recognized them to be his own. To think she had kept them for so long…

"You said you need to talk?" Rukia asked, kneeling on the far side of the table. Hanataro nodded and took his seat across from her.

"Y-yes…" He paused. "I… I heard something today…" His eyes slipped to the reflective tabletop, staring into the translucent girl's image. "Are you… leaving, Rukia-san?" Her reflection's face lit up with surprise, then melded to a sullen grimace. That was all the answer he needed. Oh… I see."

"I wanted to tell you," she murmured, "but I just-…"

"I understand," he nodded. His mouth turned up in a weak smile, but Rukia found a trace of reassurance in his eyes. "I'm sure you had your own reasons…" Rukia chewed nervously at her lip. Was he trying to make this difficult or easy?

Silence.

"H-how long will you be gone?" he asked finally.

"I don't know." Again, silence.

"Well, maybe it won't be so bad… I'm sure that-…!" Rukia's pained expression stopped his words short. What should he say? What could he say? There was very little that could be done at this point and he knew that just as well as she did.

"Well," he began, "we could at least, enjoy the time we have left, couldn't we…?"

"I think it would be better if we didn't…"

"W-Wha-?!"

"There is no way is no way of knowing how long I will be away, or if I'll even return at all… I'd rather leave without any loose ends…"

"B-but Rukia-san…!"

'No,' she reminded herself. 'This is what you've decided. You must stay strong! You must be steadfast!' Craning her neck around, she glanced wistfully off to the side. She couldn't look him in the eyes, not now. "I'm… I'm just not good with goodbyes… This is for the best." She paused and waited; waited for a sigh, a sniffle, a sob… But there was only silence. Slowly, she turned back to face him, only to find herself alone in her room. He had vanished into thin air. Rukia bit firmly into her lip and placed a hand over her heart. "I'm… so sorry…"

XXX

The afternoon sun gradually sank into the west, coaxing the stars out into the darkening sky. By early evening, the Serietei was roaring with activity. The once quiet streets were filled with the sounds of laughter and excitement over the loud, jovial music filled the temperate night air. The towering street lamps were draped in festive streamers and with decorations that hung from ever building-side.

Everyone was out, tonight; captains and students, alike. Every soul in the Serietei had come out to wish the earth-bound officers a safe journey, though not without helping themselves to various food, drinks and festivities that lined the streets. Venders of all kind sold their wares; everything from fresh dumplings to colorful pinwheels. Yet, despite the light-hearted atmosphere, one soul sat sullenly in the shadows of a dinky drink stand.

"Dumped, huh?" Sentaro muttered, passing a bottle of sake to his companion. Hanataro took the bottle in both ands and tipped it back against his lips. The cool, harsh liquid felt rough on the back of his throat, but he was quickly getting use to it. It had only been a little more than a day since he had spoken to Rukia, but the pain was already unbearable. He felt sick, as if something were boiling in the pit of his stomach. The dull ache of his heart weighed heavily down inside of him. It hurt to talk. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be.

"Well, don't worry about it," Sentaro shrugged. "I'm sure it'll work out, somehow." Hanataro took another swig and glanced sullenly up at his senior. 'Maybe it was a mistake to convince him to drink with me this soon afterward,' Sentaro wondered behind his grimace. 'It's only been a day and the kid looks terrible…' 'Who knew he was so attached to Kuchiki-chan?'

"It hurts… It really hurts," Hanataro croaked out at last.

"I know," Sentaro sighed, "I know."

"I just don't understand… Did I do something wrong…?" It was clear from the shakiness of his voice that the boy was on the verge of tears. He looks absolutely miserable.

"No, you didn't do anything wrong… Kuchiki-chan's just… complicated."

"Complicated…?"

"More than you know… She's got this really bad habit of over-stacking her loads, and when she does, she won't let's anyone get too close and she never, ever asks for help. Even when her back is up against the wall, she refuses to let anyone get near her… That's the way she's always been…"

"And what the hell is this?" The pair turned in their barstools to see Renji Abarai looming over them. His face wrinkled with its usual scowl, though he appeared to have gone to great lengths to dress for the occasion. His black shinigami robes had been replaced with a festive floral print and a matching headband.

"Let it alone, Renji," Sentaro sighed. "Can't you see the kid's miserable?"

"Miserable?" Renji snorted. "What's he got to be miserable about?"

"Didn't you hear? Kuchiki-chan split on him."

"That's all?! Get over yourself!" Hanataro twitched beneath the assistant-captain's scrutiny but found himself unable to speak. "It's the biggest night of the year and here you are, drunk, looking like a whipped pup…! Get off your ass and find Rukia, already!"

"Find… Rukia-san…?" Hanataro mouthed the words clumsily through his alcoholic haze. "But she said-!"

"And you were stupid enough to listen?! You really are a dumbass, you know that?! The fact that she's trying to push you away is proof that she cares about you! Don't you get that by now?! Geez! And to think I actually thought you could handle here!"

"I-I don't understand…?"

"Don't understand…?! Weren't you all about protecting her; staying by her side no matter what?! Or was that a lie?!"

"N-no!" Hanataro snapped. "I meant what I said…!" Renji was beginning to frustrate him.

"That's now what it looks like to me… All I see is a washed-up kid-loser who copped out before he even started! Yeah, you talk a good game, but when it comes right down to it, you're about as reliable as rusty blade!"

"That's not true!"

"Oh yeah?! Prove it!"

"I…! I-I will…!" With that, Hanataro slid out of his seat and stumbled out into the milling crowd. Sentaro watched him leave in amazement before turning his eyes back to the scowling lieutenant. As he examined the surly red-head's posture, a sly grin crossed his flushed cheeks.

"Well, well, Renji Abarai! I didn't know you had it in ya!"

"Shut yer yap, Kotsubaki!" he snarled. "I don't want to hear it from you!"

"Sure, sure," he chuckled, "but I've gotta know: why…? Weren't you after Kuchiki-chan, too?"

"I may be stubborn, but I know when I'm beat. Rukia doesn't want me, and I don't have what it takes to make her happy. But unlike me, that kid has a chance… That's all there is to it…"

"You ol' softy, you!"

"Oh, shut up and pour me a drink, will ya?"

XXX

As he made his way along the busy Sereitei streets, Hanataro could feel his heart thumping in time with the pounding of his feet. The world around him was little more than a blur of light and sound. In and out, he ducked around bustling crowds, his eyes jerking desperately from side to side.

As odd as it seemed, now, he felt a great swell of gratitude toward Renji. The sixth assistant-captain had opened his eyes and heart once again. What had he been doing all this time? Why could he see what was right in front of him? Was everything really that simple? The details of it all were still shaky, but none of that matter right now. All he knew was that he had to find her.

XXX

Rukia leaned over the marble bridge and stared longingly into the water below. She had done the right thing, hadn't she? It seemed absurd to question it now. It was far too late to turn back. But, even-so, why did it hurt so much?

In the distance, she could hear the commencement of the festivities, an affair she couldn't bring herself to join. She didn't feel like celebrating. For now, she needed to be alone, left to her own thoughts. So much had happened so quickly, it almost seemed surreal. She was confused and hurt, maybe even a little afraid. How could anything be so difficult?

'Kaine-dono… I've lost my way again. I don't know what I should do anymore. What is right? What is best for everyone? What is it that I should?'

"RUKIA-SAN!" Rukia lifted her gaze from the water and glanced to either side. "RUKIA-SAN!" It was close, she realized. A feeling of excitement began to well up inside her. She knew who it was without even looking.

"Hana…taro…?"

"RUKIA-SAN!" Suddenly, a pale, slender arm shot out over the side of the bridge and gripped one of the marble columns with a wet SLAP.

"EEEKKK!!!" Rukia squealed. Another arm poked up, followed by a foot, until at last, Hanataro tumbled forward onto the hard ground at Rukia's feet.

"Hanataro!" she cried, kneeling down beside him. His hair and shihakusho were completely soaked; they clung heavily to his heaving chest as he struggled to breathe. "What in the world are you doing here?! And… why are you all… wet?!"

"I f-fell into the stream..." he shivered. As impossible as it sounded, she could easily imagine the entire incident. Rukia was about to chastise him when a cool, wet hand took hold of hers.

"H-Hanataro…?"

"Wait, Rukia-san! Please hear what I have to say! I know you said you didn't want to see me anymore and I should respect your wishes, but… But, I just can't do that! I can't pretend that I don't care about you! You mean so much to me, and…! And, I know that we can work things out… It might not be easy, but please give me a chance, Rukia-san! I want to try!" Hanataro's voice surged with a passion unlike any she'd ever felt. Those big, tear-shaped eyes stared painfully up at her, pleading with her. How could she refuse him, now? "Please… Rukia-san…?"

"It's Rukia," she murmured.

"W-what…?"

"Call me Rukia, not 'Rukia-san.' You should have learned that by now…" A line of tears fell from her eye and trickled down the side of her face. Rukia lifted a hand to her face to obscure her tearful smile. "Oh, no, she chuckled, "now look what you've done…!"

XXX

"What are you grinning about?" Sentaro huffed, carefully eying Hanataro. The seventh seat medic had been smiling all morning, even after dropping a box of supplies on his own toes.

"Nothing," he chuckled.

"Like I'd believe that! Something happened with Kuchiki-chan last night, didn't it?! What happened?! Did she kiss ya?" Hanataro remained silent, but the bright red blush that enveloped his face spoke for itself. "I knew it! You kissed her, ya luck dog! Har har har!!! How was it?! Was she any good?!"

"Kotsubaki-san…!" Hanataro protested.

"SILENCE." The assembly of shinigami immediately fell silent and all eyes looked straight ahead. Commander Yamamoto clasped his hands over the knob of his cane and turned to the departing line of officers. "Today," he began, "you few will embark on a mission that could very well determine the fate of Soul Society as we know it. Captain Toshiro Hitsugaya: tenth company, Assistant Captain Rangiku Matsumoto: tenth company, Assistant Captain Renji Abarai: sixth company, Third seat Ikkaku Madarame: eleventh company, Yamuchika Ayasegawa: eleventh company, and Rukia Kuchiki: thirteenth company… You are some of the best our ranks have to offer. You are the strongest, the brightest, the most skillful. You alone will set the course for the upcoming war…" Yamamoto glanced back over his shoulder toward the Senkai Gate. "Jyuushiro, the Gate."

"Sir!" On his command the Senkai Gate activated, radiating in an azure glow.

"Go forward with pride and confidence. Serve your peers well and when this battle is over, return home safely…!" With that, the group bowed respectively to their commander and made their way to the portal. One by one, they stepped through the blue hazy, each body accompanied by a black hell butterfly. Hanataro watched each one depart, no hesitation, never looking back. In a way, he envied them.

At last, Rukia stepped up the Senkai Gate. All of a sudden, she stopped short, one fair hand held her scabbard against her hip while the other rested limply at her side. What was she thinking, Hanataro wondered? Could she be regretting something? Rukia cast the boy a fleeting glance over her shoulder before disappearing into the pale, blue mist, sealing the portal behind her. Moments passed. Hanataro stared reflectively at the place she stood. Even as he bit down on his quivering lip, the hollow feeling inside of him continued to swell. She was gone. She was actually gone.

"I'll wait for you, Rukia," his voice barely above a whisper. "I promise."

Author's Note: Well, that's another chapter down (it's a little bulky). I hope you enjoyed (feel free to review):-D