Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach or the magnificent Episode 160. I do own the Chinese lines scattered throughout the story though.

Dedicated to: Green Amber-Jade for her inspiring writings and Jaina for bringing Undertow into my life.

Hush

你说的话,你想的想法
The words you say, those thoughts you have

It hurts to breathe—to even think. The blood pools beneath her chest in dark puddles that won't go unstaunched, pouring from her wounds as easily as water from a basin. Shirayuki is quiet in her hands, shattered beyond any semblance of repair, and respectful of what lies beyond the both of them. She thinks of Chad, Ishida, Renji, Byakuya, Orihime, and Ichigo. She thinks of them with her fading consciousness and smothers her tears with the cold marble floor.

She doesn't want to go—not yet. She knows what Orihime feels like, lost and alone, trapped within the confines of an isolated cage in unfamiliar land. She knows what it feels like to have given up hope, to have sat by a small crack in the wall and watch the eternally blue sky pass unchangingly by. She has tasted of that very same despair, of that very same hopelessness.

She can't go; she can't die.

The pain flickers in brief spurts, wrenching and all-encompassing at once. She gasps sharply into the darkness, dulling eyes focusing blurrily on the image of a rolling skull on the floor distances away. It rocks back and forth, to and fro, like a pendulum without any other purpose than to count the seconds as they pass by.

Her mind wanders.

我必须知道
I need to know

"Oy! I'm Shiba Kaien, Vice-Captain of your new division." He grins widely and obnoxiously, to the point where she's amazed that his face hasn't split in half yet.

"Oh…uhm…hi." She answers hesitatingly back, unsure of what to make of his open and cheerful personality. In Rukongai, people only pretended to be nice to get what they wanted. In Rukongai, there was no such thing as 'smiling' without another intent hidden away, lurking beneath such a kind façade.

His mouth pulls down into a frown, eyebrows furrowing in displeasure before shoving his face in hers. "Hey! That's no way to greet your Vice-Captain! You're supposed to state your damn name and say that it's a pleasure to meet me." He waits expectantly, breath blowing over her face gently and she can't help but look down, shifting awkwardly in front of his confident presence.

"K-K-Kuchiki Rukia." She pauses, hesitant about continuing on until she sees his threatening expression, and quickly stutters onwards. "N-Nice to meet you." Her words aren't confident, nor are they the least bit boisterous. They are meek, shy, and the reason for her isolation within the Academy. She almost expects him to wrinkle his nose in disgust at her surname, almost expects him to walk away and exchange stories with her other peers about what a stuck-up bitch she is. She expects him to treat her like every other person in her life has treated her—like trash, like worthless scum.

He does neither, choosing instead to flash a brilliant smile. She wonders who it's directed at because it can't possibly be for her, because nobody's ever had a reason to smile at her before. "There we go! Our captain's usually sick around here, so I do most of the paperwork and fill in for his duties often. I won't punish you if you accidentally call me Captain Shiba a couple of times." He waves in a friendly manner and lays a warm hand on her shoulder, startling her. "Stop looking at me like that, Kuchiki. Is it that weird for you to have someone talk to you?"

"Yes." She answers quietly, but the word is drowned out by the other new recruits' laughter as they eagerly call for Kaien to join them in some sake for celebration. She expects him to pat her on the shoulder and leave without a second thought; she expects him to forget all about her after today. She doesn't think he'll even remember her name.

He calls back to the group so loudly that it rattles her eardrums and sends her hands clapping furiously over them in pain. "Maybe later! I'm kinda busy right now!" He shouts before waving once more at the disappointed group.

"Sorry, I didn't realize you were busy. I'll just…leave now." She dips her head and prepares to walk past him, but his unyielding grip on her shoulder prevents her from taking more than two steps away from him.

"Wow, you really are an idiot, Kuchiki. I'm busy with you. And besides, I haven't even dismissed you yet. Stop trying to run away from me every chance you get; I'm not going to bite you or anything. I didn't hear your answer either." He eyes her with a quizzical expression on his face and she pretends that she's not afraid he's doing this just to make fun of her later on.

"Nothing. It's…nothing," She mumbles and pushes his hand (and since when did it feel so heavy, so burdensome?) away from her. She tries to ignore his hurt expression and the way his fists clench by his side. She finds it's easier to lie when she thinks of the world as her enemy rather than to imagine that any good can come out of a place as corrupt as this. She finds it easier to push way people than to let them in, let them in where they can hurt you the most.

"If you say so, Kuchiki. I guess I'll see you tomorrow for your seating attempt." He responds and lets her go without a fight this time. And if he sees the almost desperate way she runs to the door or the hunted look in her eyes…well, he doesn't remark on it. He's learned that there are some things that people just aren't quite willing to share about themselves. But he's willing to wait. He's got the next couple of centuries with her to chip away at the mask she wears.

At least it'll be a way to pass the time.

这个世界,那么大,有那么多人
This world, so large, with so many people in it

She's too slow with her sword, too ungainly and awkward and inexperienced. Her kido, the one strength she could always rely on back in the Academy, is useless against the tenth seat. She's just not good enough. She knows this even as she grits her teeth and prepares for another useless lunge.

She's only ever good at dodging, and that's what hurts the most. Because dodging is for cowards, for people who can't bear the brunt of battle with their swords. Most of the spectators within the division have already dispersed, disappointed with her skills. They came to see a Kuchiki fight, but she's only a Rukongai street rat. She can't even bear the weight of her own name.

"Concede defeat," her opponent advises and she thinks of what Byakuya will say, of what her peers will think of her, of every single damn time she's wallowed away in depression and self-guilt. The words are wisely stated and not at all condescending or rude. But they stoke a fire in her eyes and light a flame in her heart.

"Never," she declares, to the proud murmurings of the remaining bystanders. She is sick of being pushed around, of being the weak link in everything. She is sick, and from now on, she will be a different Rukia. Her blade evades the surprised block of her opponent and comes to rest easily on the tenth seat's throat.

There is dead silence until Kaien steps forward and interrupts the moment and the match with an unusually serious expression. "Due to the fact that Kuchiki was losing heavily seconds before and attacked with a somewhat spontaneous and unprepared sword technique, she will not achieve tenth seat. This trial has come to an end, all are dismissed."

The sword drops from her loosened grasp and falls to the floor with a loud clang. She raises a hand to wipe away the sweat on her forehead and walks away dejectedly. She should've known, she tells herself. She should've seen it coming from a mile away. She was sloppy in her attacks and virtually inferior in every single way. Still, the bitter ache in her heart festers and gnaws away at her mentality, egged on by the knowledge of her incompetence.

"Oy, Kuchiki!" She doesn't turn around like she should do and comes to a slow stop instead, barely mustering the energy to look back at her running vice-captain. "You left something back there!" He throws the sword at her, the very one she let fall on the floor just moments ago, the very bane of her existence, and watches as she makes no move to even catch it. His smile melts into a deep frown, forehead creasing with worry. "C'mon. Aren't you even going to bother getting it?"

She can hardly stand before his confident and fresh aura, can hardly stand before him as weak as she is. It's all she can do to just reply. "There isn't any point." She says wearily, trembling as her knees shake from the two-hour long spar. She's not cut out for this.

He flashsteps until he's just inches in front of her and grips her chin with almost enough force to bruise. "Of course there's a point, Kuchiki! There's always a point! The point is that you failed this time, but that you need to pick yourself back up and get better! The point is that you should stop being such an idiot and start letting other people help you. The point is that if you get knocked down, you need to get up and knock the other guy down twice as hard! That's the whole fucking point!" He exclaims, chest heaving from his tirade.

She's not convinced yet by his dramatic speech, but a part of her reacts to it. She supposes he can be inspiring when he wants to, but then again, his charisma is infectious. He reaches over and jabs her hard in the ribs before letting her stumble away from him. "That's it. You're training with me tomorrow, Kuchiki. Bright and early. Meet me here after breakfast and I'll take you to a nice spot where we can start working on your sword technique. You aren't half as bad as you think you are." He smiles, softer this time and not nearly as blinding as before. "Don't forget to pick up your sword. You'll need it. See you tomorrow."

She blinks at his retreating figure owlishly before bending down to grasp the battered hilt of her sword. The fabric is rough and scratchy against her fingers, but it's familiar. Alone, Rukia trudges onwards back to the Kuchiki Manor, her knees not nearly as weak as before.

"What seat are you?" Byakuya asks harshly and bluntly in the darkness of the room. She bows until her head touches the forbidding wooden floor and wills her heart to stop beating so loudly. She's sure he can feel her anxiety and she wishes she could bring honor instead of shame to him. But she can't. She can only apologize endlessly for everything that she does.

"I'm sorry. A new recruit as unskilled as I stands no chance of even attaining a seat."

"I see. You may leave."

She can hear the disappointment in his voice, as obvious as daylight, and retreats behind the calm sliding of the door shut. The moonlight paints her face in shades of melancholy white and black depression as she steps outside, her head bowed low.

"I'm sorry," she says to the softly blowing wind and the solitary moon.

And even they remain silent to her plea for redemption.

为什么我只能看见你?
Why is it that I can see only you?

"You look like a panda, Kuchiki." Kaien teases her when she finally finds him, leaning against a tree with a ridiculously bored expression on his face. "What's the matter? Didn't you get any sleep last night?" She's surprised to see something close to concern on his face and tells herself that she's imagining it because there's no reason for him to be worried over her.

"I don't sleep very well any more," she confesses reluctantly and rubs her eyes as the worry on Shiba's face increases.

"Why not?" He asks, pushing himself off the tree to come stand by her side.

"The Kuchiki Manor…is cold and…" She trails off uncertainly, afraid that her words will be relayed to Byakuya and cause only more shame. But she's too tired to bother being careful anymore and the words escape from her mouth easily. "Empty. There's never any life in it," She finishes and watches as Kaien mulls over her words with uncharacteristic seriousness.

She isn't even prepared for it when he lunges at her and crushes her in a suffocating hug. She sputters for several seconds and turns close to twenty-three shades of red before he lets go, but not before patting her on the head affectionately. "Vice-Captain!" She shrieks, eyes widening to the size of saucers as he guffaws uncontrollably.

"Ah hah, ah hah. Your expression, Kuchiki. Priceless." He wipes tears of laughter from his eyes before running on ahead. "And it's Kaien-dono to you! Now hurry up before I leave your lazy ass behind!"

She sprints to catch up, reveling in the sweet sunlight as it shines down on the green grass. So caught up that she doesn't ever realize that Kaien's already stopped several yards before her. "Oy, where are you heading off to? We're training here!" He declares loudly, slamming his sword into the ground as if staking a claim.

She peers closer at the grass and sees other holes, some already refilling with dirt and others freshly empty. She wonders if he does this often or if there's a weird hole-making monster running amuck. "Why do you do that?" She asks, curious even as his expression turns into one of pleasant surprise.

"It's my battle mark." He replies laughingly and places a large hand on hers. "Here, it's really fun once you do it. Ready! One…two…three!" Her sword digs through the ground with surprising ease; she supposes it's a result of his strength and not her own. He's right though, Rukia notices with grudging acceptance. It is a satisfying feeling.

"Now let's get started. First off, I want you to come at me with all you got." He grins cockily at her and holds his sword in front of him, making impatient sounds as she takes her sweet time unsheathing her own blade. "You take forever Kuchiki." He whines and she yells at him to shut up in response before sprinting forward.

"Fast!" He smiles and dodges, but not before the blade nicks a piece of his uniform off.

"But you're going to have to try a lot harder than that if you want to take down Vice-Captain Shiba!"

She doesn't feel like she's improving, despite his encouraging words, and pauses for a breath, feeling like her arms can't carry the weight of her sword anymore. From the position of the sun, she thinks they've been at it for at least three hours, and on cue, her stomach growls—loudly. She immediately blushes a deep crimson and turns her face away to hide her embarrassment.

"Let's take a break, eh Kuchiki? We need to take a lunch break anyways. It's perfectly natural for us to get hungry!"

She stands there gaping like a landed fish as he devours onigiri after onigiri after onigiri, sword still in hand until he finally gets fed up with her staring and hits her squarely on the head with a spare onigiri. It bounces off her head and she scrambles desperately to catch it, falling flat on her face in the process. He laughs loudly, bits and pieces of rice stuck to the corner of his lips and points at her until tears form at the corner of his eyes. "You're so clumsy!"

She adopts an angry expression, knowing how ridiculous it must look on her face with a half smashed onigiri in one hand and blades of grass nestled within her hair. "You're so mean," she grumbles and stalks over to where he's sitting on a log. They eat in silence for the next few minutes, with her taking discreet glances of his carefree face. She thinks he's not really, truly handsome, but he's still attractive…in the same way firelight attracts a moth. It's an aura he has about him, she thinks, and wonders if she has a presence like that—if she'll ever have a presence like that.

She wonders if she belongs here at all, with him, with Soul Society. She voices the question out loud and cocks her head at him as he gets up and stands in front of her. "Kuchiki, have you ever heard of Captain Ukitake's ideas on battle before?" She shakes her head and watches curiously as a soft smile graces his lips. "He says that there are two types of battles, one is a battle to protect life, another is a battle to protect pride. But I think they are one and the same in the end. They're both just battles to protect the heart."

She pauses, feeling awkward hearing such words from her normally goofy vice-captain and tries vainly to lighten up the situation. "Wow, that was lame." She offers as a response and he shoots her a dirty look before holding out a fist in front of her.

"Do you know what this is?" She shakes her head again, unsure of where he's going with his strange ideas this time. "This is your heart. Wherever your heart is, that is where you belong." He pauses, closing his eyes as the wind blows gently by them, rustling the leaves and disturbing the grasses. "Where's your heart, Kuchiki?"

The realization is as startling as it is unsettling for her and the knowledge leaves a cold, hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I—I don't know." Surely it's not in Rukongai for her, nor can it be found in the unwelcoming Kuchiki Manor. Once upon a time ago, maybe it was with Renji, but he'd let her go and so she couldn't even call him a familiar presence anymore. That left her with nothing. Nothing at all. She opts to point at the anatomically correct place instead on her chest, knowing that it's not the answer he's looking for.

Kaien sighs, drawing an invisible line between the two of them. "When we first met, there was a connection, a bond. It's a bond of friendship, Kuchiki, and it grows every time we train or talk to one another. Your heart isn't literally inside of you; it's outside with all the people you love and care about. It's with your friends." He pauses, fixing his eyes on hers, and she thinks that his eyes are so filled withemotion and that they're far more open and sincere than anything else she's ever seen before. "Now let me tell you something. When you die, your body disintegrates into reiatsu that becomes part of Soul Society. Where will your heart be then? It'll live on in your friends; that's how your heart keeps on living. So no matter what happens, Kuchiki. No matter what, don't die alone. You got that? Don't you dare die alone."

She nods mutely, unable to do much of anything else, and he breaks out into a huge grin again.

Just like that, she marvels. Just like that, he can change the way she feels about the world…about herself.

Just like that.

从来没想到过这会那么痛苦
Never thought that this would have been so painful

Her heart lodges in her throat.

Shiba Kaien is married.

And she can't even hate his wife, for Miyako is so beautiful and kind and strong. She turns away when he asks her what's wrong and forces a smile on her lips. "It's nothing," she says, echoing familiar words. He knows she's lying, she knows that he can't be fooled so easily, but they play that same game again. That game where she pretends she admires him—and nothing else. That game where he pretends that the extra attention he pays to her is only a preventive measure against Byakuya's wrath and nothing more. That game where she loves him and he loves her, but they pretend to care less.

She doesn't know how she can keep on going, because her heart no longer belongs with her…it belongs to a man she can never have.

你的微笑,你的心,
Your gentle smile, your heart,

She doesn't attack with her normal reluctance, nor does she attack with the detachment she should attack with. She attacks with anger and hatred fueling the blade of her sword, lunging and thrusting forward in a near frenzied state. The air shifts quietly around her, matching the timed imaginary parrying motions she makes. Something hot slides in a trail down her cheeks and she tells herself that she can't be crying again, crying over him.

She isn't supposed to cry for him. She isn't supposed to love him. The blade slips out of her weakening grasp and she collapses on the tatami mats. "Love must be earned, little one." There's something like a chill running down her spine and she imagines a white, white world where everything is blank as a slate and there is no brother to shame, no instructor to wrongly desire for, and no her. She sees the world as one where her existence has never sullied and the thought of being wiped away is comforting, soothing.

"Rukia, look at me." She raises her head, in a dream—in a reality (which is which in this endless place of snow?) and sees a strange woman, pale as paper with ruby lips and glittering black eyes. She thinks maybe the entity is beautiful, but the beauty is aged and washed away with an almost stern and harsh look in her eyes. "Can you hear me? I am the one they call " The blizzard is deafening in the background and the flurries from the sky (when did the white become snow and when did she blend into the hills and valleys?) are cool as they melt in her open hands.

"You are?" She asks, taking a cautious step closer and marvels at the way she doesn't even leave a footprint behind. Truly, she must not exist.

"You have no ears with which to hear me little one. Indeed, you seem not to exist in front of me. This thing you fickle death gods call life, you lack it. How can I teach one who does not live in the present and dwells neither here nor there? Make a mark in this world of ours, little one, or you will wither away in his grasp." The white lady's eyes stare blankly back at her and Rukia sees neither a way to leave nor a way to enter. It is as if there is only a circle between them where she can only run around and around and never get anywhere. The lady shifts, her white robes (or is that merely the white of the ice-encrusted pine behind her or the steadily falling snowflakes?) parting to leave small dents on the pristine floor. How odd, she muses, to be unable to leave a mark in a world of snow. She steps forward, putting all her weight (what weight? She feels light as air, perhaps she is the air and the snow is the world she is stuck with) into making an imprint. When she pulls away, there is nothing.

She pounds her fists into the unyielding and flat ground, neither feeling the chill nor caring for the time that she wastes in this strange place. She grows frustrated with her inability and curses at the white land and all its dementedness. She yells and screams and punches the unmoving landscape until her hands turn raw and red.

She will make this land bleed, she knows. Her pain will leave a mark; they will do what no physical action can do. Soon her hand is bleeding droplets of crimson that sink into the white in small dotted patterns. She smiles, though there is now pain and though she now actually exists in this strange place, she smiles because she has made her mark. One that will never be erased.

"Say my name, little one. You know it better than yourself and you will grow to knew even more in the future." She opens her mouth, only mildly surprised as she sees that the lady is no longer a mere blur on the valleys, but a distinguished and regal figure. The name falls easily from her lips, easier than saying her own name, which sounds fake with the noble name attached, like an artificial limb awkwardly placed.

"Sode no Shirayuki." For the first time, she feels pride—and hope.

"Let us dance."

They hold hands and Shirayuki's hands are cold as ice from where they rest interlocked with her rapidly cooling fingers. She stumbles through the unfamiliar steps and nearly falls, but Shirayuki is always there, helping her stay on track as they twirl through the snow-blanketed landscape. When they finish, she turns to the dimly glowing moon (there is no sun in her world, never any sun with which to melt the winter away) and murmurs the words that she has always wanted to say.

"Tsugi no mai, Tsukishiro"

"There is much more for you to learn, but it is getting late, and he will be looking for you soon enough." Shirayuki bows gracefully, strands of black hair slipping past her long and slender neck. And the world is fading away, spiraling further and further away from her reach.

"Wait!" She finds herself screaming. "Wait! If you are a reflection of me, than do you too want him?" There is no question as to what 'him' refers to, and Shirayuki's face is twisted into an oddly bitter expression as she struggles to reply.

"Not him, no. But rather his soul. Nejibana was always too carefree." Pale pink lips part to answer, and Rukia wonders why the words sound too much like a warning. But Shirayuki is gone now and the white land has disappeared as well.

你毒死我,我慢慢地杀死你
You poison me to death, even as I slowly murder you

"Kuchiki, you're unusually excited to get started today." Kaien teases, withdrawing Nejibana even as she stands, restless, with her zanpakuto in one hand. "It's almost as if you think you'll beat me today," He jokes, swinging the trident with a powerful sweep. The water rises up in an endless swirl around him and she can smell the ocean though her mind says there is nothing but land here. "You ready?"

She nods, anxiety twisting her heart into butterfly knots. He doesn't know; she revels in the fact that she's managed to keep it secret for so long. He doesn't know that Sode no Shirayuki even exists. One second, one second for time to stop and another second for his water to turn to ice. She breathes in the cold, allowing the harshness of it to burn inside of her, and adjusts her grip on the pure white hilt. "Mae, Sode no Shirayuki."

They stand still, as still as people within a picture. His face is frozen in an expression between bewilderment and pride. Her eyes stare straight ahead, only calm and aloof. Two figures within a painting, she thinks mockingly. Close, but unable to get any closer. And then the moment is shattered as he bends over and laugh, long and rich. "That is the coolest zanpakuto ever, Kuchiki." He declares with a grin on his face. "You never told me you knew its name. Mannnnnnn, I feel so left out." He pouts, shaking Nejibana from the ice before running over to where she stands, amused by his reaction.

And then he's hugging her, swinging her around in a wide circle as he congratulates her over and over again. She allows herself to enjoy the tiny moment—without guilt and smiles hesitantly back at him. "I wanted to surprise you."

His mouth forms a small 'o' of astonishment before he buries his head in the crook of her neck (even though she knows it's painful for him to do that, the height difference between them is staggering). "Well, you surprised me. Next thing I know, you'll tell me you learned Shirayuki's shikai."

She stiffens underneath his weight and watches as he pulls away with an almost pained expression on his face. It's gone though, gone as fast as her friendship with Renji. "I did, Kaien-dono. I learned her shikai. She says there are more commands for me to learn." She absentmindedly fingers the white ribbon with a contemplative expression on her face.

"Multiple releases, eh?" He scratches his head with a small frown on his face, as if he's trying to grasp a concept and failing miserably at it, before clapping a hand down on her head. "That's one helluva kickass zanpakuto you got there, Kuchiki. So, wanna show me how her shikai works?"

She nods, motioning for him to stand back—far back, before curving both hands around Shirayuki's hilt and blade. It's not perfect yet; it probably never will be, but she's confident that she can control it. She wants him to be proud of her, to acknowledge her as something other than a mere student of his. "Tsugi no mai, Tsukishiro." Her body moves forward in one motion, like water licking over the sand of the beach shore, and the ribbon flutters tantalizingly close behind her, looping into a wide circle. The pillar of ice that forms stretches from the ground all the way to the sky, and beyond it. When she rises, the column of ice looms over her like a statue and she marvels that something like her can create something like that.

"Holy shit." Kaien says, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun (made all the more brighter as it filters through her tower of frozen water). "I bet you could totally kick Hollow butt in three seconds flat with that." He pauses, eyes scanning the magnificent structure in awe before meeting her nervous gaze. "And you say that Shirayuki said there'smore?"

She nods, watching as her vice-captain wanders around with a dazed expression on his face. "It'll take me a long time to learn the other dances," She murmurs abashedly and scuffs her sandals against the rock.

"Who cares?" He exclaims, throwing his arms up in the air. "The point is, you're going to learn those other dances sometime and then you'll hit bankai and…you better damn well not forget that I trained you when you become captain!" He flashes a thumbs-up at her and she sputters at the absurd notion of her becoming a captain. "Speaking of which, I wanna see how Nejibana does around an ice zanpakuto anyways. And Hitsugaya-taichou is way too much of a prick to let me fool around with Hyourinmaru. So how about it, Kuchiki? Let's go. You better not hold back!"

He hoists Nejibana above his head, using his thumb and forefinger to rotate the great trident in a circle. The waves crash on one side and the prongs of the trident are sharp from where they point menacingly out on the other side. She takes a breath to steady herself and dashes towards him with pure intent. She knows she won't be able to win this battle, but if she tries hard enough, maybe one day she will.

As Sode no Shirayuki's ice wraps around Nejibana's ocean spray in a slow embrace and as Nejibana's great tides break free of that constraining hold, Rukia finally understands.

Kaien belongs to no one.

这是爱吗?我恨死你,我爱死你。这样的想法怎么肯能会是爱?
Is this love? I hate you to death, I love you to death. How could this kind of thinking be called love?

Blood.

Blood on her hands. Her blade. Her skin.

His blood.

"That…must have been painful…for you…Thank you."

It rains and his words fall like pieces of her world onto the ground.

He takes her heart with him as he dies.

Murderess.

我永远不会董。
I will never understand.

She shivers and the world tilts, spinning far too rapidly for anything to be clear. There is pain in her abdomen, pain from where the Espada's mock Nejibana has gone through her organs and tissues. Inoue's face crosses her mind, but she is too weak to get back up, too weak to move her knees and crawl out of this dark and damp place. So she thinks of Kaien instead, of his odd facial expressions and his warm laughter. She wonders if her body will disintegrate into reiatsu or if Aizen will take her carcass to be used for some morbid purpose.

"So don't you dare die alone."

She chuckles, the blood bubbling in her throat like one of Mayuri's experiments caged in a test tube bottle. Her fingers twitch from where they lie on the floor and on Shirayuki's blade. She wants to apologize to the unmoving zanpakuto, to apologize for her weakness and her inability to escape the past. She wants to apologize for never heeding the warnings, for barging on ahead as if she were invincible. But she's sure that Shirayuki already knows and her voice is gone anyways.

'It will be alright, little one. Close your eyes.' Shirayuki hums from her position on the floor. Their world is no longer pure white, but overrun with streams of red and tearing apart at the seams. They are riding a sinking ship, but Rukia thinks that it's not too big a sacrifice to make. So she shuts her eyes.

She's sure Kaien will never forgive her for ignoring his one warning. She's sure she won't forgive herself even after she's dead, especially if her body falls into Aizen's possession. She has always been, after all, too weak to ever do anything. It is perhaps a sad way to go, remembering everything that she has failed to do and everyone she has failed by giving up so easily. But she's never been anything more than pathetic. It's better this way, she thinks. Better for her to be the one to die than anyone else, she believes.

It takes Kuchiki Rukia two hours to die, her spirit slowly withering away beneath the empty ceiling of Hueco Mundo.

She dies alone.


Author's Notes:Wow, that was depressing. I'm still unsatisfied with the ending, but I'm much too tired to go back and edit it now. I suppose I'll do it sometime in the future. I tried to remain as different as possible from Jaina's Undertow and I think that though there are some similarities (since both stories stick to the storyline) they remain vastly different in their tones. I suppose this is my farewell to the Kaien/Rukia fandom, since I doubt I will be writing more for them as a pairing. Thanks to all the readers and once again, drop a comment if you have the time.