She moves swiftly but not enough, and he is out of her reach, dancing until he is five steps away.
She can never get close enough to reach him.
Rukia does not like training with Kaien.
This is not to say that it isn't beneficial or that it is anyway unpleasant- just the opposite, in fact.
Sode no Shirayuki feels heavier now, the weight of exhaustion bearing down on her slight frame, shuddering as Nejibana slams into her blade yet again, the fierce cry of sword against sword ringing throughout the endless grassland.
Rukia grunts, and guesses that there is an opening, swinging down.
She's wrong, however, and this stings as she knows she could die if her vice-captain was taking this half-seriously. Sode no Shirayuki slices only empty air, the distance between Rukia and Kaien already growing farther.
"You're slowing down, Kuchiki!" Kaien laughs loudly, almost madly, swinging his zanpakuto with the grace of a true prodigy-genius.
There is no mockery in his tone. Only help; gracious, unasked for, help.
Rukia has never asked Kaien for anything.
Sometimes she thinks he's given her everything.
But she knows he has given her nothing.
Kaien dances until the distance between them closes, but there is always just enough left, just enough that her sword cannot reach him, that she cannot touch him.
And then he stops, sword frozen in motion but still graceful, still beautiful in a way that the instrument of the gods of Death should not be.
"Miyako!" he laughs and turns and there is joy with that beautiful grace, and Rukia watches his back like a silent, forgotten stone.
Rukia feels inferior, incapable of sensing the bright reiatsu of the Third Seat. Her eyes, going against her wishes, trace Kaien's hands as he brushes them against Miyako's in warm greeting, his smile free and easy as always but now hinting something truer, something stronger.
They stand five steps apart but their eyes and their bodies and their hearts are joined already as one.
The space between Rukia and Kaien is only twenty steps, but the distance is far greater.
Rukia watches Kaien die at a distance of fifty steps, and to her, the distance has never been farther.
He is fierce and strong and proud as ever but now, at this distance, he is small and insignificant as the Hollow continues to stand strong.
Ukitake-taicho's hand is gone from hers now, but his iron grip holds her still, his reiatsu thrumming throughout the air, thick with tension. They stand a step apart, but Rukia feels utterly alone watching Kaien die.
He looks up at her now, eyes no longer brimming with shining brightness but with the nothingness of the abyss.
There are words that are not-Kaien's coming from his mouth and he leaps at her now, smiling and slobbering Death, not a god easing passage through death but a dealer of it.
She hesitates when he is only half a step away, inviting her to be the first to slaughter.
Ukitake-taicho is between them now, screaming at her to run away.
Their struggling bodies are right in front of her, but she feels like a spectator, separate from it, able to judge the straining muscles, harsh breaths, whipping hair, the moonlit gleam off of Ukitake-taicho's zanpakuto with detached emotion.
Oddly, her brother's face comes into mind, cold and unyielding and utterly distant.
Finally, her legs respond to the orders of her captain, and she flees, but only to twenty paces away, and turns to see Ukitake-taicho falter, coughing blood, and suddenly this not-Kaien has turned towards her, leaping and grinning with all the Devil's hatred.
She can't move at all, and though the space between them is narrowing, Rukia feels as though Kaien has never been farther.
She lifts her blade and wonders, if she and Kaien die together, would they be together in the next life?
And yet, at the last moment, Kaien comes through, and holds her to his chest in a way that she has only ever dreamed of in the darkest night where nothing but her own foolish hopes and wasted desires could reach her.
His scent engulfs her, something not quite sweet and somewhat salty, an offbeat flavor that tickles at her senses which hoarded every taste of it.
But in the dreams, Sode no Shirayuki is not there, is not the barrier that keeps Kaien's heart impaled and away from her.
This is what is real, however, and this is Kaien (brightbeautifulwonderful Kaien) dying.
Kaien dies in her arms, clutching her as closely as possible, but Rukia knows that he has forever slipped out of her reach.
And yet, by some miracle of heaven or punishment of hell, Kaien is again before her eyes.
Only this is another not-Kaien, only one that is far more real. He breathes like Kaien, smiles like Kaien, holds the same light in his eyes as Kaien.
It is an illusion, but a sweet one nonetheless.
And Rukia must kill the illusion.
But every swing of Sode no Shirayuki begs the question- is that what Kaien would want? Is that what I want?
She could surrender to it, could admit defeat and allow herself the pleasure of death at Kaien's hands, and maybe, finally, gaining some portion of his forgiveness and her own redemption.
And when this not-Kaien, this Nuevo Espada Aaroniero Arleri, reveals his true nature and his force, the strength leaves her body, draining away her spirit like a virulent venom.
She lets Nejibana break her sword and strike her through, and wonders if this is enough for Kaien to forgive her.
Rukia feels the darkness close in, and thinks that if this is dying, it is not so bad-
Orihime waits. Orihime who is only fifteen, who loves dragonflies and robots and mecha, who is too young to die and too sweet and bright for Hueco Mundo, locked in a white tower (irony or fate, Rukia wonders) amidst monsters.
Kaien would have liked Orihime, Rukia thinks, as Nejibana throws her ragged, bleeding body through the air (there is pain, waves of it but the feeling is far away). He would have made her laugh and ruffled her hair and eaten her food, then later lie and say he liked it even when he didn't.
He would want her saved, she knows, and that is the only reason that she can swing her sword still.
And with that, she understands at last, and wonders if Kaien would ever forgive her for being so slow to see past what isn't there (of course he would, he'd just grab her head and rub his knuckles into it while laughing all the while).
The distance between them is the true illusion.
There was space between their bodies but the heart... the heart was always another story.
Even now, the distance between Sode no Shirayuki's broken blade and the false Kaien's face is an illusion.
She has always been close enough to reach him.
"Third Dance, Shirafune."
The distance is closed.
Somehow, even while dying, Rukia thinks she might be happy, and that in her heart, Kaien might be happy too.