Akuen

*Meaning = Unfortunate Love*

SUMMARY: Fate, destiny and time are all fickle, inconsistent variables. Actions, words, ideas and feelings can change the lives of multiple people without even really knowing it. And so, when Kaien is unexpectedly ill with the flu, it won't be him that will fight for Miyako's honor…but rather Rukia.

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Prologue: From the Bottom Up

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Rukia always believed that the dark, impenetrable hole located deep within the recesses of her heart would never adequately be filled. It was always there, ever since she could walk, move, see, talk, and interact with others. A void consuming all the happiness she strived to grasp on to from her Rukongai friends and family from the orphanage and from simple pleasures such as climbing up oak-scented trees, lying in sweet, flower-encased fields, and standing within the shores of the local river while capturing lotus and lily flowers that littered the stream…It consumed so greedily that whenever Rukia paused for just an instant…there was nothing left. Nothing but darkness, nothing but emptiness…nothing but a dull ache that resonated throughout her being like a live parasite wrapped tightly around her chest.

Being in nature was the only way to momentarily stop the ache. When she was younger, the ache wasn't so bad. It wasn't until she wondered why she only knew her first name: Rukia, that she wondered why she didn't have any parents, any siblings, or even a last name. The elderly couple that ran the orphanage were too kind, loving, and compassionate, too sympathetic to tell her straight out: "I'm sorry, Rukia, but you don't have a family."

-

Rukia thoughtfully gazed at the small, rushing creek before her knees, the melancholy trickle of the water soothing her.

-

There was no evidence, no proof to solidify any claims to having a family, to having any kind of relation. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, nothing. Maybe that was the reason. She hated not knowing. She hated having nothing but the clothes on her back, her first name, and the noisy orphanage with dozens of other attention-seeking children. The hole, though microscopic, slowly began to grow.

Children her age never really took any interest in her, not really. And strangely, she didn't really know why, either. She liked trying to skip stones like any other average Rukongai street-rat. She liked wrestling and having fake "shinigami versus hollow" fights. She liked to act tough and macho like the boys. And she liked flowers and cute, fluffy little creatures like any other girl. She liked looking decent enough and usually always took a bath at the river every night to keep away the daily sweat, grime, and stench. She liked flowers and she liked to play house like the other girls. So why didn't anyone invite her to play by the riverside or to create mischief? She never really understood. The younger kids looked at her with a light curiosity that would always give her a fleeting sense of hope that maybe just maybe she would make a friend. Mercilessly, the hope once slowly budding into a beautiful Sakura blossom, distinguished itself and was sucked in to the black hole that fervently extended itself as she watched, helplessly, as the kids her age took them away with false whispers.

"Don't go near her, there's just something not right."

"She's too quiet, kind of suspicious if you ask me."

"Stuck up is what she is! She thinks she's better than anyone!"

The pain, the bitterness, the hate for herself as a person and the hate for the children that she sought approval from so earnestly forced her to leave the orphanage at the tender age of seven. Wandering around the polluted streets of Inuzuri, Rukia felt inextricably lonely. Elderly, hate-filled men worked as vendors – they, she knew, didn't care if a child would waste away unless they had money to give them. Amongst the poor, desecrated hierarchy, as the saying went: "Every man for himself" was taken literally. Gangs of outcasts, ruffians, and bandits never lasted too long due to backstabbing and constant fights for power. Poverty limited kindness to others for cleanliness, food, and shelter was extremely hard to come by. Life was hard; Rukia learned the hard way when driven to the point of starvation and she had no money to pay for food. She could never forget the condescending, sneering attitude of the vendor who had refused to even give her one of his apples. She had done everything she could: she bargained, she bribed, and she pleaded. In result? Nothing. Instead, she received an ugly, putrid purple bruise on her cheek when the vendor slapped her and shrieked at her to scram.

Humiliated, lonely, scared, and hungry, Rukia felt the void get ten times bigger everyday she wandered within Inuzuri district and nothing to bring her any light. It wasn't until a day later when she passed out from three days without eating that she broke away to primitive instincts. She stole. She schemed, she played others, she used other lonely kids to help her survive. The hole only got bigger. Sure, she survived – that was good thing, she supposed. But was it worth it? Where was the joy? Each dreary day dragged on forever. She still didn't have any friends, even if she was polite and courteous when she joined other kids in a scheme to steal food from an unsuspecting vendor at the crowded market. She didn't have anything worthwhile, nothing to fill up the void that was sucking up anything and everything. Rukia never felt as close to crying as she ever did.

But she didn't cry. She couldn't. She a street-rat of Inuzuri, one of the worst districts of Rukongai besides Kusajishi that was swarming with thugs and rivaling gangs – she simply wasn't permitted to show any signs of weakness. Her heart was hard and as cold as the hardest limestone. Everyone was in the same situation, she was no different. In fact, others would have reprimanded her – she was lucky enough to still be alive and that should be enough.

But it was never enough, not for her. She wanted more; maybe it was selfish of her, but it was the truth. She wanted more than the destiny of a scrounger, of a person that was sniffed at with distain and the accusation and judging eyes that implied without having to be said through frowning lips that dirt could be considered better than even she.

She wanted more. She wanted the impossible. She wanted a family.

Grow up, people would tell her. Don't be stupid, kids her age and above would tell her bitterly. That would be nice, but I don't think it's possible, the younger kids would tell her sadly, dejectedly.

Yeah, well fuck them.

Continuing on day by day, Rukia continued to live and wander by herself with no distinct place to call home. One night she might stay at the docks by the river, the next out in the fields on the outskirts of town, and if she was lucky, she might manage to find a safe house for strangers seeking a place to stay with a roof over their heads if even for one night.

Life was a pain in the ass and Rukia pondered for more times than she could count, if it was worth it.

It wasn't until another two years later that Rukia discovered, that yes, living was worth it.

In the form of four boys, all of them roughly the same age as her, give or take a couple years. Especially the one with the vivid red hair and cinnamon eyes.

It had been like any other day: an azure sky filled with white, fluffy clouds, a bright and shining sun, and a nice, small spring breeze. And like always, she was starving, always starving, always thirsty. Always wanting more. The hole once so small and insignificant, consumed her so that she felt like those "hollows" she heard about, the ones with terrifying animal masks and holes in their chests…similar to the one she had. Pondering on which stand to steal from or which person to pick-pocket from, Rukia had been passing a shady alleyway when she heard them.

"YOU FUCKING LITTLE BRATS! GET YOUR ASSES BACK HERE! THIEVES!"

"H-HOW DID HE FOLLOW US?! I THOUGHT HE WAS FOLLOWING TENCHI!"

"JUST RUN HARDER!"

"BUT THESE ARE SO HEAVY!"

"JUST WAIT UNTIL I GET MY HANDS ON YOU! I'LL KILL YOU!"

"RUN!"

What she did next caught her by surprise. She ran towards the frightened boys that each carried a large jar of unknown substance. The boys gasped, startled at seeing a small, lithe figure running towards them at a surprisingly fast pace. Terrified eyes changed to confusion when she ran past them, only to slide tackle the skinny old vendor from underneath his feet. The vendor gave a loud, irritating screech as he landed face-first into the ground before letting out a pathetic moan. Grimacing at the extra dirt that now marred the outside of her leg, Rukia quickly got to her feet, adrenaline pumping through her body. Turning around, Rukia blanched when seeing the three shocked and awed boys standing still and staring at her. What the hell-!

"Why are you standing there!? Run while you've got the chance!"

Her yell seemed to bring them out of their surprise. Nodding, they turned around and began running. The boy with the crimson hair tied up in a ponytail, glanced back at her and blanched as well.

"Well, come on!"

His cinnamon eyes met her amethyst ones.

The hole stopped growing. And Rukia, in that instant, felt as if she was a part of something.

Nodding, she followed him.

The boy with red hair: Renji, Abarai Renji was his name. And she knew, somehow she knew, that he would become her best friend.

The first thing she learned about him was that he was easy to tease. No more than three minutes in talking with her one-on-one for the first time after following them to their "secret hide out," she had him blushing, spitting mad, and sulking in no time flat.

The second thing she learned about him was that he was very competitive and didn't like to be out-beaten. He always got annoyed when she did something better than him and their small circle of friends paid more attention to her; but secretly, Rukia knew that deep down, Renji didn't really mind it as much as he showed.

The third thing she learned about him was that he did indeed have a soft side that she thought was impossible for someone such as them, kids living on their own in a cold, unforgiving world of the poor and forsaken. For her birthday (even though she told them that she didn't know her birthday, they assigned her one anyway), Renji and the boys surprised her with a new outer kimono: it was a dark purple that almost matched her eyes with a plain, lotus flower stitched on the side. She loved it and told them so, the warmth and happiness, the feeling of having friends and family when thought impossible and laughable, made her feel so grateful.

The fourth thing she learned about him was that he, like the other four boys in their knit-tight circle, believed her family…and she couldn't have been happier.

For years they continued in joy and content, the once oppressive and seemingly lifeless world now opened up to laughter and games. Fishing in the river, daydreaming together, stargazing together, gathering around the fire at night together, playing games in the fields together, stealing together, helping each other, being competitive with each other…She never wanted it to end.

One dismal, dreary September day shattered it at the loss of Yuki.

The pain of losing a brother, a playmate, a friend…was indescribable and Rukia for the first time, cried. He had died from infection due to a stab wound from a vendor. He had claimed that he was okay, that they only had to bandage it. In truth, it didn't look that deep. They worked with the best they had, scrubbing soiled clothes in the river as best as they could before using them to clean the wound and wrapping it as best as their inexperienced hands could. They gave him the best of their stolen goods, and tried even harder to give him fresh water but in the end…it didn't matter. He died a week later.

Gradually and slowly, their once close-knit circle began to decrease.

Jinshi died from tuberculosis a decade later.

Pakku died from the same disease not more than five months later.

Nakakiko died from poverty and sickness in general.

And in the end, it was only her and Renji.

The hole grew bigger at each death that consumed her family. Renji was all she had left now.

Rukia didn't want Renji to leave her, and she didn't want to leave him. Without having to ask him, she could tell, just by looking into his eyes, that he felt the same. All that they had left was each other. And they didn't want to lose that, ever.

She thought over their options and knew them to be very slim. Each district was different, but overall were thick with poverty and sickness. The only place suitable for living was the royal family district where the normal soul nobles dwelled liked the Kasumi-Ooji family and there was no way that she or Renji would be able to live in such a place, considering their heritage (or lack there of).

Thus, there was only one option left and, Rukia had concurred, wasn't too bad. To become a shinigami.

Standing before their friends' graves, overlooking the nearest district close to the luxurious and legendary Seireitei walls, Rukia presented her idea to an equally melancholy Renji.

"Let's become shinigami."

"…All right."

-

Rukia shifted in her cramped position, twisting her legs so that instead they were placed before her, bent and just a little ways from the small, trickling stream. Picking up a fallen leaf, Rukia took her fingers and slowly ripped apart the green vegetation with slow precision; the wind ruffled her raven hair.

-

When they attended the Shinigami Entrance Exam and both succeeded in entering the Academy, it was just like in the Rukongai district. They relied on each other and depended on the other. Due to their upbringing, they couldn't read or write and in result, were on the receiving end of snobby, noble students who laughed at their illiteracy. They didn't belong there, they said. Go back to Rukongai where you belong, they ordered. She must have spread her legs in order to get in, the males sneered.

Renji broke all of their noses for that last comment before she was able to pull him away. She had to endure his heated, furious ranting for hours before giving way to almost-tears.

They didn't want to go back – they both knew this. And there was no way one of them was going to fail and get kicked out. So together, the both of them stood up late at night, learning the alphabet from a children's hornbook, learning to write, to use the sumi brush and ink pallet, to read, and to understand grammar. If one understood something the other felt was harder to grasp, they helped the other through analogies until they understood. It was the same for kidou and swordsmanship. Renji was horrendous at executing spells and Rukia did her best to help him connect better with getting his reiatsu to flow and work at his command. Rukia herself was pitiful at swordsmanship and the both of them stayed late after school with permission in one of the school's dojos where Renji helped her with her swings and movements.

Just like before when Rukia gained her first Rukongai family, everything was great, wonderful even. Through the taunts, the jeers, and the distain from other students, the two of them like in Rukongai, pulled through with each other. They had fun oversleeping within their shared barracks on the Academy campus and rushing hell-bent to school while griping at each other. They ate lunch together on the roof where no one would find them and they would reminisce and talk about their classes. They would continue to work together during break times and lunch to further their reading and writing skills as well as switching and comparing notes on assignments. Rukia would cheer Renji on in kendo class, feeling nothing but victory when Renji would defeat his opponent and earning grudging respect from the students. And she would feel nothing but pride, satisfaction, and joy when Renji would loudly congratulate her when she would perform a kidou spell flawlessly where as many others struggled.

The void in her chest stopped moving completely and Rukia, for the second time in her life, felt content.

But it only lasted for a year.

The end of the year exams were the precedent for future enrollment in classes next year. First year Shinigami Academy students were all in the same class; the end of the year exams at the end of the year were to help the teachers and the taichous in the Gotei 13 find the ripe, juicy apples from the bruised, inadequate ones, the ones with the most potential. Rukia knew for certain that her swordsmanship skills sucked, despite Renji's immense and helpful hints and instruction. She hadn't lasted more than a minute before being overpowered and crushed into the wall behind her. The only thing she felt absolutely certain about were her kidou skills.

It still came as a shock to her when they both learned that Renji would be in the advanced class when they discovered his navy blue uniform and she pulled out her red one. A sting of disappointment rang through her. Truthfully, she was expecting it, waiting for it. Although she had better control of her reiatsu than Renji ever since they were kids, her skills as a shinigami, she was quick to learn, were mediocre at best. And for some selfish reason that she could not explain or find an excuse for, she felt somewhat cheated. She helped Renji train and meditate for hours. She explained step after step of what his reiatsu should feel like when performing certain spells, giving him precious tips on how to better grasp control of his reiatsu. It was because of her help that he moved on to advance classes; could his kidou be that more improved than before that they deemed him worthy enough to be placed in the advanced? Or was it solely based on his natural skill at the sword?

Or maybe she was just that stupid and pitiful for not succeeding where Renji did.

Either way she had no one else to blame except for herself, and she hated it.

"Hey, cheer up, Rukia! It's probably just a fluke! You'll see! Your sword skills aren't that bad, you just need more experience, more drive. Hey, by the end of the year, we'll have your sword skill so good, you'll be in the advanced class for sure! Besides, Rukia, nothing will really change. We'll have different classes, but we'll still see each other! It won't be that bad!"

You're a liar, Renji…

They saw each other before, during lunch, and after the first couple of weeks, but Rukia knew, she just knew, just as she knew the moment she saw him decades ago that they would be best friends that now, she knew they were slowly growing apart. Her classes weren't as fun as they used to be and she mourned the lost of her best friend's eccentricity and positive attitude and his spunkiness…and yet he seemed to be very happy, didn't seem to miss her. He raved on and on about his classes, about his teacher and about what he was learning. Several times he tried to teach her what he was being taught, but the material they were covering now was material her class wouldn't look over until a little past half of the year! Eventually, Renji stopped trying to teach her…and she didn't ask him to. One day at lunch, he surprised her by talking about these two people that he met in his kendo and kidou classes: Kira Izuru and Hinamori Momo. As if it weren't bad enough, the hole got bigger and bigger. The loneliness, the sense of no direction – those horrid feelings that she hadn't felt since she was nine came flooding back in an instant.

Renji was gone. He didn't think so, but she knew. He was. He was out of her reach.

She cried in her pillow throughout the night, her heart that wasn't yet consumed by the void jerking and crying in pain as she mourned the last death to her Rukongai family. The cloth of the pillow that muffled her sobs as well as the loud, saw-grinding snores coming from Renji beneath her in their bunk bed kept her sadness from waking him up.

When he questioned with concern about the red puffiness in her eyes the next morning, she made the excuse that she didn't get much sleep as she thought about that day's kendo exam (in reality she had forgotten about it until that moment). Her heart felt sliced in two when the boy – no, the man with crimson red hair and cinnamon red eyes gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and left it at that.

In the next coming months, he continued to fade day by day, attending less of their lunches on the rooftop in favor of eating with his two new friends, Kira and Hinamori in the food court. He would stay after school to spar with his fellow kendo classmates and rarely asked her for help with kidou anymore, instead going to Hinamori since she was in his class.

Rukia knew he didn't mean it, didn't mean to ostracize her. At one time the most pivotal point and center of his life, Rukia was reduced to nothing but a memory. He didn't mean it and she knew that. But it didn't stop it from hurting any worse than it did.

She didn't bother going to him for swordsmanship lessons anymore and instead allowed herself from time and time again to be slammed into the floor, gaining bruises and being the center of mocking whispers. When will she learn, they wondered. She makes the same mistakes time and time again, they pointed out. She just isn't made to become a shinigami, they concluded.

Rukia, in those moments, wanted nothing more than to go back to Rukongai and live the rest of her extremely long spiritual life in solitude and the venomous black hole that permeated the spot where her heart, once kept alive by Renji and his friendship, lied in decay. The only thing that keeps her from dropping out is the fear of feeling that painful hunger in her stomach and the fear that she might not eat that night.

Two years later in her third year at the Shinigami Academy, the entire course of her life changed.

Charge. Battle cry. Thrust. Feint to the right, change to the left. Duck. Swipe. Thwack. Pain. Stumble. Eyes widen. THWACK!

Falling harshly to the ground, the sensei goes on to the next student without another glance. Biting her lip, Rukia ignores the snickers and exasperated sighs and returns to her seat. It's hopeless.

At the end of class, Rukia walked down the hallway, maneuvering herself amongst the mingling and walking students, her left arm twitching in pain from the swing her sensei gifted her with.

"Don't the cherry blossoms just look divine, Akari?" A pair of girls walked by Rukia and took a glance out one of the many windows lining the eastern wall to the front court yard.

Walking to a window, Rukia gazed almost hypnotically at the cherry blossom trees that were planted amongst the cement pathways. The lush, green, and nicely trimmed lawn accentuated the lovely light pink shade of the blossoms that bloomed and were blown away gently by the wind, raining upon the students that walked underneath their branches. Feeling as if someone's eyes were on her, Rukia glanced down at the walkways to find students sitting on benches and talking with each other, laughing without a care in the world. Glancing down at the bench two stories beneath her, Rukia took in the empty bench to find a pile of books accidentally deserted on one end.

Books…Shimatta, she forgot her books in the classroom. Sighing, Rukia turned back from where she came.

The next day, she was a little more than surprised when her kendo-sensei asked her to hang back after class. A good case of "oh damn" began to well up inside of her. We were wrong to accept you into the Academy, she knew he would say; We've tried to give you time, thinking that all you need is confidence and experience, but when it comes down to it you're just not cut out. I'm afraid you'll have to leave.

Oh, Kami, no! She didn't want to leave! She didn't want to experience the hunger, the starvation, the thirst, the hopelessness…never again! Please, anything but that…She didn't know if she could handle it.

Instead, she is surprised and confused even more when a line of elderly, very finely dressed men in robes of satin and of the finest silk with the most intricate of designs, walked into the room, all excluding the air of arrogance and superiority. A man who looked to be in his early, maybe mid-twenties, walked behind them in a just as intricate and beautifully made white robes of status, along with an ancient and traditional chest plate and hair ornament. Rukia's eyes widened as she look at the man's hair ornament. Silver and shiny, gleaming brightly against every angle the sun shined upon, the ornament parted his midnight, smooth hair with two hair clasps on the side and three clasps on top, dividing his bangs. The kenseikan. Only one family held the tradition in which the head of the family wore the kenseikan…

"Did you hear? Kuchiki-taichou is coming to check over the Shinigami Academy! Can you believe it?"

"His zanpaktou is legendary."

"As well as his speed."

"The Kuchiki Clan is above else the most prominent of the four noble houses! They're loaded!"

"Every head of the Kuchiki Clan has been a taichou! Is the sixth squad their unclaimed territory?"

The Kuchiki Clan…Rukia wondered why they were here, and more importantly: why was she here with them? Did she do something unspeakably wrong?

"Rukia," her kendo-sensei began, "These are the Kuchiki elders and of course, Kuchiki Byakuya-sama, taichou of the sixth division squad of the Gotei 13. They wish to speak with you. Kuchiki-taichou, this is one of my students, Rukia. She just started the Academy about two years ago."

A moment of silence rang throughout the room before Rukia, blushing lightly, bowed forward lowly.

"Ohayo. It is a pleasure to meet you Kuchiki-taichou, Kuchiki elders."

Standing straight, Rukia gulped slowly as Kuchiki Byakuya walked forward until he stood before her and glanced down at her. For a moment, her nonexistent heart quivered within the void that consumed it. His face like many girls swooned and squealed over, was perfection. High cheek bones, smooth pale skin, no blemishes, no freckles, finely arched eyebrows, silky black hair, nice thin lips, and the deepest pair of indigo eyes she had ever seen. He was certainly handsome.

But his eyes, Rukia bit her lip before undoing the action for it was a sign of weakness, a sign of insecurity. They were so cold, so emotionless, so stoic. They were like sheets of glacier-cut ice and dipped in dye. They were the kind of eyes that could cut you down with a single glance without even trying, they were the kind of eyes that intimidated others and had stared down countless enemies. They were emotional weapons.

"Vayashi-san," the gravelly tone of the head Kuchiki elder rang throughout the silent room and shocking Rukia to look at the man, tearing her gaze from the silent, rock-solid man before her. "Could you give us some privacy?"

"Oh! Hai, hai! Of course! My apologies. I shall come back in an hour. It was a pleasure to see you Kuchiki elders, Kuchiki-taichou. I'll see you tomorrow, Rukia."

Oh no…Rukia couldn't help but think as her kendo-sensei left the room, sliding the shoji doors firmly shut. Don't leave me!

"Now let's get straight to business." The head Kuchiki elder declared, bringing forth Rukia's attention once again. "Rukia, we, as well as Byakuya-sama, wish to adopt you into the Kuchiki family as his sister."

What? It took everything within her not to let her jaw slacken in surprise.

"N-Nani? Doshite?"

"Do you have a last name?"

Rukia was surprised at the sudden deep, smooth baritone that entered the uncomfortably silent classroom. Turning to before her, Rukia found herself staring at the Kuchiki Clan leader; his face was passive, giving no hint of interest or intrigue.

"I…" Her eyes dropped to her sock-clad feet. "I don't have a last name. I've only ever known my first."

"Do you have any family?"

"No. I grew up in an orphanage ran by an elderly couple. They said that –"

"Where did you live before coming to the Shinigami Academy?"

"I…Inuzuri, the 78th District of Rukongai, Kuchiki-taichou."

Kuchiki Byakuya opened his mouth once again, ready to ask another question, when he stopped. His mouth closed and he glanced up to look at the doors behind her with the ever nonchalantly calm mask. Heavy footsteps thudded against the wooden flooring, vibrating underneath her own feet. Louder…louder…closer…closer…

BAM!

Rukia swung her head around, her hair whipping around her face and her cheeks, her amethyst eyes wide with shock as she saw a familiar shock of crimson hair in the doorway.

"Rukia! You won't believe what I'm hearing! Is it true that -!"

Renji stopped, his chest still ballooning as he realized there were more occupants in the room.

An awkward silence followed his loud entry, stretching onward until the head Kuchiki elder turned to Rukia once more. "We hope to hear a favorable response by tomorrow. Excuse us."

Without another word, the Kuchiki elders, followed by Byakuya, walked past Renji, eyes set forward and heads held arrogantly tall, backs painstakingly straight. Scratching his head in bewilderment as he watched the famed Kuchiki stalk away, Renji turned when Rukia whispered in question,

"Renji? What are you doing here?"

Renji ran forward with a smirk until he stood before her, "You dumb ass, I just told you! Is it true about the rumors? Does the Kuchiki family really want to adopt you?"

Rukia bit her lip. "…Hai, but –"

"WOW!" he cheered in excitement. "It's true! My God, you're so lucky Rukia! What do you think the food would taste like? Since their nobles, it MUST be better than average. And think of the drinks! People will be bowing to you, serving you; MAN I'm so jealous!"

He slapped his left hand onto her shoulder and jokingly jabbed at her, "Oi! You better not forget about all those times I saved your sorry ass back in the past, ya hear? Like that one time at the market with the vendor who sold those stupid Chappy suckers you just had to have; and that one time –"

"You…You want me to accept their proposal?"

"Eh?" Renji stopped rambling, looking down at her with his strong, straight-forward cinnamon-maroon eyes. "Well of course I want you to accept, Rukia! What kind of dunce would you be if you didn't!? The Kuchiki family is amazing! I haven't seen their estate but the rumors say it's the largest and the most complex as well as the most beautiful estate in Seireitei when concerning with the other noble houses. Rukia, you'd have everything you've ever wanted! You'll never go hungry, you'll be taken care, and you'll finally have your family! Won't that be something!?"

But…I wanted to have my family with you. You're my family, Renji…

Casting her eyes downward, Rukia tried to stifle the tears, the hot, irritating sting in the back of her eyes. The dark hole grew even bigger, consuming hatred, bitterness and sadness. Gently, she placed both of her hands on his thick, strong wrist; Renji stopped talking and stared down at her in confusion. Swallowing a sob that wanted to be released, Rukia, with tears outlining the edge of her eyelashes, placed his hand and arm away from her and back at his side.

"Rukia…"

"S-Saaryonora!" Rukia managed to whisper out before sprinting passed him, her haori and hakamas flapping around her and her hair swishing and bobbing in every direction. She internally hoped with all her might that he didn't see the tears that escaped…but she knew, like always, that she was wrong. It was most likely that he saw.

He didn't follow her, and she ran until her legs couldn't take it and her lungs burned with the exercise and her tears.

Why didn't you chase after me, Renji? Why? I didn't want you to want me to go! Why didn't you tell me no?!

-

"Stupid Renji," Rukia muttered darkly, casting away the remnants of the leaf she destroyed before tucking her legs to her chest, her chin settled on her knees. The sunlight filtered through the swaying branches above her and created small rainbows on the glistening, moving water. Unbidden, a smile graced her lips.

-

The next morning, she signed the legal documents, confirming her changed status from a commoner, to nobility of the highest caliber. Rukia was ordered to no longer stay and attend the Shinigami Academy and would instantly try out for a seating within her assigned division within the Gotei 13 in the next coming days.

As she walked away, Rukia could feel the dozens of eyes peering resentfully at her, hating her, bitterly at her, accusingly. Looking up at her new "nii-sama," Rukia couldn't help but feel, and know for certain, that she made the wrong decision by accepting. Yes, she would be treated as royalty. Yes, she would have the best of care, best of food, fresh, clean water, a warm and soft futon, and a roof over her head. Yes, she would be given the finest of clothes. But she wouldn't be getting a family, not any time soon – probably never she decided as she took in the sudden cold disregard sent her way by the Kuchiki elders the further away they got from the Shinigami Academy.

When arriving at the luxurious estate, Rukia was required a meeting with them in the conference hall. Her nii-sama said nothing, gave no reassurance, didn't even glance at her before making his way, presumably, to his room. His footsteps were light and well-focused.

You may be a Kuchiki now but know this: you will ALWAYS be a Rukongai street-rat.

Byakuya-sama was insistent about you and we'll take his word for it, but don't you DARE think about disgracing the name of Kuchiki!

You're nothing but a disgrace! Know your place within the family and things will go much smoothly.

It'll take a lot of effort, but we'll refine you to the best of our abilities. Before we allow you to enter the Gotei 13, much less be presented to Ukitake-taichou and his division for your seat-examinations, you are to attend etiquette lessons. Even if you AREN'T a true Kuchiki, we'll make you LOOK like a real Kuchiki.

And by the way, don't embarrass us when you do go and take your test. The Kuchiki family is only known for unquestionable talent. Don't make us regret listening to Byakuya-sama.

The House of Kuchiki, she learned fairly quickly, was a cold and distant family. The only ray of sunshine in the luxurious, but cold estate were her personal maids that nii-sama appointed her. The two young girls and elderly woman were all from Rukongai and they were quick to sympathize and console her when she came close to crying and breaking down from the constantly conveyed and implied insults and critique.

You're doing it wrong. Straighten your back, you look like a monkey! Fix your hair! Straighten your clothes! You're not pouring the tea right! Who was the third Kuchiki Clan leader? You're hopeless!

They were the only people giving her strength to continue on through the next day and for that, Rukia was grateful towards her nii-sama for that small, solitary act of kindness. Besides at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Rukia never saw her nii-sama that much, and when she did, he hardly acknowledged her with only a small, curt nod of the head before passing onward to his destination.

Rukia wondered for the nth time why he would want her to be adopted into his family as his sister if he was barely going to acknowledge her? From what she knew of families, there was supposed to be affection, love, understanding, and unity. She had enviously watched siblings laugh and joke with each other back at the Academy, watching out for each other. The family she once had with Renji was exactly as she pictured it: affection, unity, and a sense of comradeship. They watched each other's back and supported the other through the hard times, well…until they were separated in their classes.

But this family, this cold and distant and proud family, was breaking all of the self-believed rules she thought a family needed to have in order to function. Unless she wasn't looking hard enough, but it seemed that the men and the women of the Kuchiki family didn't really mingle all too much together; the women stayed together with their gossip and their stories, traveling in pairs or in groups. The men somewhat conversed with each other about their positions and about the politics in Soul Society and Seireitei. The children of the Kuchiki Clan didn't dare to come within a mile of her, their judgmental eyes glaring at her and their chubby little fingers pointing at her.

"Why are YOU here?! You're not a Kuchiki!" one of them had the courage to yell at her as she sat before a koi pond, thinking and trying to touch the koi fish inside with the trail of her fingertip, and not succeeding. The mother of the child hurried over and hushed him, steering him away from her. But not once did she apologize or reprimand or deny the truth of the boy's accusation.

The hole swelled in anger.

Kuchiki are strong, the elders scolded her when she had angrily sulked when failing for the third time to properly prepare the tea and distribute it accordingly with the grace and eloquence expected of a female Kuchiki.

Do not allow foolish whims such as anger or any type of emotion rule over your logic. The only way to succeed is to be calm and calculated. Remember that.

And so, when that child screamed at her, she held her head high. Her amethyst eyes stared down the child with an unfamiliar clarity that made the child frown and step back before the mother swooped him away. She continued to kneel before the koi pond on her pillow a maid had placed for her, her newly bought kimono of light blue accentuating her plum-amethyst eyes as she stared down into the water. Her back was straight and her hands gently lied on her lap, overlapping the other. The fluttering wings of a bird in the tree above her caused her to look up. A blue jay swooped down from the branches to the perfectly maintained grass beside her, jumping and looking for food. She gave a small smile.

Rukia was oblivious to a pair of observing indigo eyes.

Her test to enter a seat position wasn't as bad as she thought it to be, a far cry from the disaster she was surely expecting. She expected to be blown away by the seventh seat, but was pleasantly surprised when she didn't go down for at least twenty minutes. She had even landed a couple of hits, not as major as the multiple ones he gave her, but overall she was happy.

She's not too bad for only being in the Academy for three years, one mused.

Her kidou is above average, it's just her swordsmanship that needs work, one critiqued.

I don't know, I was just kind of expecting to see more, another admitted.

She's nothing overly special, but I see potential, another encouragingly contributed, making her smile.

I wonder what her zanpaktou will be…another pondered.

In the end, due to her inexperience and the fact that she didn't know the name of her zanpaktou, Rukia wasn't deemed ready to be given a seat within the thirteenth division. It left a sick feeling in her stomach as she trudged her way back to the Kuchiki Estate. The high feeling of not failing as bad as she imagined gave way to the dreading anxiety of informing her nii-sama that she didn't make any seat within the division.

I think I'm going to be sick…She grasped her stomach, her zanpaktou gently bumping against her legs. She felt dizzy and light-headed, her throat constricting and tightening as a servant directed her to where nii-sama was. The journey there was tormenting as she imagined her brother finally casting a glance at her, his usually passive and calm face contorted in disgust and shame when she would tell him that she didn't acquire a seated position. He would surely throw her out of the Kuchiki Clan, she thought to herself, her hands clenching at their sides. He would disown her and send her back to the Academy with its resentful students, proclaiming that he was wrong to think she could amount to anything. That she was nothing but a waste of time, a mistake. What was I thinking, he would say, in adopting Rukongai filth into this prestigious family?

She was pitiful. She was worthless. Biting her lip to keep the tears at bay, Rukia thanked the servant and parted the doorway.

"Nii-sama," she momentarily congratulated herself in not allowing her voice to shake, "I have returned from my exams for the seated position in the thirteenth squad."

She looked up from her bowed position, her knees pressed against the hard, wooden floor. Nii-sama was sitting across the nearly empty room with his back to her. The dim candle light outlined the silhouette of his figure as he stared at something, or someone? She wondered as she took in the tributary flowers and incense. The picture he was staring at was hidden from her.

"And did you get a position?" he asked calmly, patiently. Uncomfortably, Rukia glanced down at her hands and clenched them in the black cloth of her shinigami robes. She didn't deserve these robes, not for another four years. Why for God's sake was she wearing them!?

"Iie, nii-sama. I…I am not yet experienced enough for graduating from the Academy so early as to be given such a position. Gomen nasai."

"I see." He replied nonchalantly, resignedly. Rukia looked at him with surprise. Whatever was left of her heart that wasn't swallowed quaked with sadness.

"You are dismissed."

"H-Hai."

Rukia couldn't decide which hurt the most. The thought of actually bringing disappointment to her brother, or the fact that he knew from the beginning that she wouldn't be given a seated position. Either way her heart broke.

Her pillow was soaked with her tears the next morning. The maids, though expressions sad, didn't say anything. There was nothing left to say.

-

"Nii-sama," Rukia breathed gently, melancholy settling deeply inside her. When would she ever make him proud? She didn't know how much longer she could take repeatedly reassuring his assessment of her inadequacy.

-

"Welcome to the Gotei 13, newbie! I'm Shiba Kaien, the fukutaichou of the Thirteenth Division squad. Nice to meet ya!" the purple-black haired, turquoise-blue eyed man smiled brightly with a playful salute to a rather surprised Kuchiki Rukia.

Rukia looked at the tall, smugly-grinning man and not for the first time, felt lost.

Jeez, when was the last time she met a person that showed more emotion than a mirror? Now that Rukia thought about it, around two to two and a half years, really; ever since she and Renji drifted apart. The hole that daily grew little by little stilled for a moment as she took in the unfamiliar familiarity that the fukutaichou expressed. After being tricked by the promise of a family "forever" by Renji's smile as well as the promise of a new family by the Kuchiki elders' polite courteousness, she didn't know how to take the man's seemingly carefree smile. Back in Rukongai, nobody smiled unless they got what they wanted.

"Oh, um…hello."

Rukia wasn't exactly sure, but she swore she saw a vein twitch underneath his eye. Her eyes widened when she saw his face scrunch up in a pissed off "you've got to be fucking kidding me" way.

"Um? UM, HELLO!? THAT ALL YA GOTTA SAY?!"

"EEK!?" Rukia squealed when out of nowhere, a large, strong hand grasped the top of her head and dragged her forward until she was almost nose to nose with her new fukutaichou. The man's turquoise eyes were blazing like a Caribbean inferno that threatened to swallow her up in a turbulent tsunami.

"That is no way to greet your commanding officer! You're supposed to state your damn name and tell me that you're pleased to meet me! What's your name!?"

Gulping in fear (she never had someone man handle her for a long time, not since Renji kicked her in the ass to wake her up from her daydream during the Academy days), Rukia stammered shakily,

"R-Rukia! K-Kuchiki Rukia, sir!"

Shiba Kaien narrowed his eyes at her. He grasped her hair more tightly, ruffling it to Rukia's dismay.

"Aaaaannnnnd…???"

"I-It's a pleasure to m-meet you too, sir!" she added quickly. She swear she could feel beads of sweat gathering on her forehead as he glanced at her inquisitively until eventually, he closed his eyes for a moment. Reopening them, he gave the same heart warming smile from before. His strong hand relaxed his grip on her head to give her a playful pat, mussing up her hair even more before giving her a thumbs up.

"Huh, you're alright, Kuchiki!" he leaned back, still smiling.

Bewildered, Rukia tried to flatten down her tangled hair, a faint embarrassed blush staining her cheeks.

A normal greeting from one person to another…Rukia watched as the shoji doors opened to show fellow excited Thirteenth Division squad members, asking Shiba-fukutaichou if he was busy. She looked up at his turned back with a stare of wonder and awe. She knew of the noble name of Shiba, one of the other four noble houses within Seireitei. Although not as rich or as luxurious as the Kuchiki family, the Shiba family was still a prominent force in politics; they were also known to be brash and straight to the point. But still, she couldn't help but be surprised. Ever since she was publicly known to be adopted into the Kuchiki family, everyone always addressed her politely and reserved, calling her "Kuchiki-san" or "Lady Kuchiki" by her maids and the servants. The elders addressed her reservedly as Rukia-san or Kuchiki-hime. Her nii-sama, really, was the only one to address her as only "Rukia," but it didn't really count because he only said her name twice in the months that she lived in the Kuchiki manor.

Shiba Kaien-fukutaichou…He's something else, alright.

"Now that they're taken care of, where were we?" Kaien's voice shook her out of her reverie. "Again, welcome to the Thirteenth Division barracks. Our taichou, Ukitake Jyuushirou-taichou, is often sick so I usually run things around here. Heh, don't feel too bad if you accidentally call me Shiba-taichou! I won't hold it against you! Now, come on! I'll give you a tour of the Division. I can't wait for my wife, Miyako, to see you. She's gonna freak!"

"W-Why, if I may ask?" Rukia questioned hesitantly as she followed him out of the room and to the outside ledge. She gulped when her fukutaichou stopped to look at her with an annoyed expression. Oh God, what did she do now? Rukia came to a quick conclusion: this man's mood swings were like firecrackers. You could never know what would set him off.

"Sheesh," he muttered, "Those Kuchiki piss-ants sure managed to groom you, didn't they?"

Rukia didn't know what happened, but for some reason, the tone of his voice and the way he said it, struck a wrong chord inside of her. She clenched her fists. She was tired of this. She was tired of being dragged down upon and she was tired of people assuming a lot about her. And she was tired of always changing for other people. She was from Rukongai, damn it! She was tougher than this!

"LIKE HOW THE HELL WOULD YOU KNOW!?" she shouted at him before gasping. Damn! That wasn't what she wanted to say!! Paling, Rukia clamped her hands over her mouth. Her body stood stiff and trembled as she waited for her fukutaichou's wide eyes and slightly a-gaped mouth to recede into an angry scowl. Instead, she was surprised.

He laughed. And he laughed. And he laughed.

"W-what's so funny!? Why are you laughing?! Shiba-fukutaichou!!! Stop it!"

"I…I'm sorry! I just, HAHAHA!" Kaien broke off, wheezing as Rukia stomped her foot in impatience. A few shinigami that were outside looked at them in curiosity; she could already feel her cheeks and ears burning in embarrassment.

"Oh, wow!" Kaien chuckled, his laughter dying away. "Now THAT'S the spunk I saw the night before! I knew I wasn't just dreaming it up, Kuchiki. And by the way, you can just call me Kaien-dono, alright?"

Rukia gave another small, indignant squeak as he grasped her wrist and proceeded to drag her along the finely polished floors.

"K-Kaien-dono! Let me go! I can walk!"

"Yeah, I know, but this is so much fun!"

"LET GO!"

"Che," Kaien smirked at her in a goading way. "What are ya gonna do, Kuchiki? Kick me in the balls? You're not tall enough."

Rukia's eye twitched, her mouth opening and closing as she sputtered to make up a response. Smirking victoriously, Kaien turned his attention forward. I can't kick him there or else this Miyako-san will hate me. But I can do the next best thing…

Giving a small hop, Rukia, suspended in midair, firmly kicked her foot out. Her bottom heel forcefully landed behind the juncture of his knee.

BAM!

"YOU LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT!" Kaien yelped as his body jerked forward before falling backwards painfully, his head smacking against the wooden floor. Taking her chance, Rukia dislodged her wrist from his grasp. Adrenaline rushing through her veins (and successfully keeping away the horror she was inwardly feeling at what she just did), Rukia began sprinting forward, only to run smack into a rock hard chest that accompanied it with a mocking chuckle. Rukia's eyes widened when seeing a livid, but dare she say it, also amused, red-faced Kaien-dono. Grasping her pained nose (maybe she broke it), Rukia yelped as he leaned forward.

"AIIEEEEEE! LEAVE ME ALONE!" she wailed, all the while cursing the fates for bringing her more misery. Kaien laughed as he flawlessly pulled her into a headlock. Rukia gave a pained groan as he forcefully brought down his knuckle against her smoothly patted down hair and this time, destroying it beyond imagination.

"SHIBA KAIEN!" a woman's voice shouted not too far away. "PUT THAT POOR GIRL DOWN, RIGHT NOW!"

Hesitantly opening her eyes, Rukia gave a small gasp just as Kaien weakly laughed, "Aww, Miyako-chan! We're just having fun!"

"Yeah, I know your type of fun, dearest," the young woman responded curtly, unaffected by her husband's "innocent" act.

Shiba Miyako was one of the most beautiful women Rukia had ever seen. Within the Kuchiki household, most of the Kuchiki women preferred to wrap themselves in overly exaggerated, princess-styled kimonos with the long train and long, wide sleeves. They were all the same with their makeup and their intricate hairstyles that were held in place with crystal chopsticks and turtle-bone hair combs. They were pretty, yes, but after seeing the same thing day after day, Rukia could say that she had seen enough of that type of skin-deep beauty for the rest of her life time. But Miyako was like a breath of fresh air in an overly stuffed room full of mannequins. At an average height, Shiba Miyako had natural light peach skin that looked sun-kissed and was smooth with no blemishes. Her hair, a midnight black was pulled back into a half-done bun in the back of her head where thick pieces of hair trailed down to the middle of her back. Her sleek, blue eyes shimmered against the sun's rays.

Rukia blinked as Kaien slowly retreated from her with a knowing smirk. Miyako's features blanched for a moment as she took in the new recruit's appearance: ridiculously short, rumpled shinigami robes, a small flushed face, wide amethyst eyes, and adorably rumpled hair. Suddenly, a screech filled the air.

"KAWAII!!!!!!"

For the nth time that day, Rukia gave a small scream as Miyako shunpo-ed over to just before her before being swept up into her arms where she was quickly hugged tightly. Rukia gave a small wheeze as she felt her lungs crush from the lady's boa-constrictor like grip. Rukia's face flamed brightly as she distinctly heard Kaien-dono's laughter over Miyako's muttering of "So cute and adorable and so SMALL."

Rukia gave a trembling smile, her eyes pricking hotly with slow, building tears. She blinked rapidly to keep them away. Miyako gave a small giggle before setting down the Kuchiki princess on her own two feet. The next sentence that left her mouth made Rukia's thought-to-be dead heart jump and swell with joy.

"Do you like Chappy?"

Lord have mercy, there IS A GOD! And he just sent her, her guardian angel.

Shyly, Rukia nodded her head, her cheeks still flushed.

"PERFECT!" Miyako squealed in delight, successfully drowning out Kaien's horrified moan, and took her hand and proceeded to drag her away from the division barracks. "Kiyone-chan is just going to love you, Rukia. And if Kiyone-chan loves you, Sentaro-kun is going to adore you. Just wait."

Hesitantly, Rukia bit her lip and looked behind her. A question raced through her amethyst orbs. Kaien-dono walked behind her and placed a large hand on her shoulder, a reassuring smile on his lips.

The hole shrunk, and Rukia felt just a little bit warmer.

-

Giggling underneath her breath, Rukia turned her head sideways so that her temple lied against her knees.

She listened to nature's lullaby.

-

The next day she finally got to meet her taichou.

When she had first received the information that she would be testing for a seated position within the ranks of the Thirteenth Division under the captaincy of Ukitake Jyuushirou, Rukia had been scared silly and nervous as hell. She had heard the rumors during the Shinigami Academy, the legends of the two wielders of the only two-sword zanpaktous of all Soul Society as well as the favorite students of Genryuusei-soutaichou. Apparently her taichou, Ukitake, although stricken with an illness of tuberculosis, had awesome power and force and was not to be taken lightly. Kiyone-chan and Sentaro-kun had praised their taichou nearly ninety percent of the time she had been in their company (after trying to outdo each other in praising her and gaining her favor).

"He is the fairest and kindest, most LOVING of all taichous, Rukia-chan!" Kiyone proclaimed with stars in her eyes.

"His zanpaktou cannot be matched, not even by your respectful brother, Kuchiki-taichou, Rukia-chan!" Sentaro declared passionately (Rukia didn't know if she should have disagreed on her nii-sama's behalf for she had never seen his zanpaktou's shikai).

"I WILL BE THE BEST SUBORDINATE HE EVER HAD!"

"NO YOU'RE NOT, I WILL!"

"AS IF HE WOULD PICK AN OGRE!"

"AND WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? A PRINCESS? FAT CHANCE!"

"WHY I OUGHTA –"

"PIPE DOWN YOU IDIOTS!" Kaien roared at the two co-owners of the fourth seat.

Rukia stopped the memory with a small sigh as she waited for her taichou to appear and reached forward, delicately picking up the fine china-porcelain cup. She took a sip of the jasmine-chamomile tea. Beside her, Kaien spared her a glance before stuffing his mouth a dumpling. Mouth full while still chewing, Kaien asked with a muffled voice,

" 'At's ith oo?"

Rukia closed her eyes again and thought about the expressions the Kuchiki elders would have sported if they saw Kaien-dono's horrendous eating manners. She could have laughed. She sighed again and took another sip.

"I'm beginning to think that nii-sama is punishing me for something…"

Why else would he put me in a division full of nutcases? A bunch of nice nutcases, but still…Did he find out about Chappy Jr.? I only meant to keep him in the private gardens until his injury was healed…

"Sheesh, what a stuck up priss." Kaien muttered bitterly and counted his blessings when Rukia didn't seem to hear him. Out of the corner of his eye, he looked at Rukia's profile. Her hands, though calloused, gave the epitome of elegance and delicateness as she held the tea cup with her left hand on the bottom and her right hand steadying it. She kneeled on her pillow almost in the direct center with her shinigami haori and hakamas in almost pristine condition. Her back was perfectly straight and her face was smooth and impossibly passive.

Kaien gave a dark scowl.

The girl was impossibly young and already she looked like the perfect lady, the perfect Kuchiki.

He would have to change that. He would unravel all of that Kuchiki-prissyness they "bestowed" upon her.

He smirked; this was gonna be fun.

"Ohayo!" greeted a familiar male voice. "Sorry for being late! Accidentally fell asleep late again…"

"While dreaming wet dreams about Ise-fukutaichou, sir? How scandalous!"

"N-Now see here, Kaien, that was uncalled for! Besides, Shunsui would maim me, friends or not, if I EVER had a dream implementing anything but platonic feelings towards Nanao-san."

"Sure, sure. I'll let you by, just this time!"

"KAIEN!"

The first thing she noticed about him was his reiatsu. Comforting, calm, and warm. She could feel it resonating from the core of his being as her taichou made his way to sit on the cushion on the other side of the low table. He was tall, about the same height as Kaien-dono, maybe an inch shorter. He also had long, white hair that reached about his waist. For some reason it looked fluffy, the same color of Chappy the Rabbit, and it took all of her might to keep her hands from twitching in eagerness to touch his floaty-looking hair. His face was fairly handsome with a kind and welcoming, almost eternally cheery disposition. His features were finely chiseled, his shoulders broad.

The second thing she noticed about him was his eyes. They were a deep, mahogany brown, just like her western-custom-made dresser in her room at the Kuchiki estate. It was the color that shined merrily like cherry wood when the sun would shine upon at certain angles and could sometimes fool others by flashing an emerald green or a light caramel.

The third thing she noticed about him was his smile. It was so open, so fresh and so welcoming, so eager to bring happiness. She could understand why many of the sensei's now at the Academy would remember fondly of their first sensei, Ukitake Jyuushirou when he used to teach there. It was rumored that he often treated his students with candy and sugar almost daily, almost as sweet as his smile.

And Rukia knew, the moment he looked at her and smiled brightly at her without boundaries as he greeted her and apologized to her that he wasn't there to greet her yesterday (and even furthermore began to share stories with her about his teaching days with NII-SAMA of all people), she was extremely lucky to have a taichou such as him. Maybe this was the reason why nii-sama placed her in this squad. Even though its occupants were, what was the common phrase…slightly touched in the head, the taichou of said division would make it up for it.

She couldn't be anymore happy.

The hole continued to shrink.

-

Rukia opened her eyes, a smile playing on her lips.

She had heard of the expression that once you've hit rock bottom, you have nowhere else to go but up. When she had been a small child at the orphanage, she was at rock bottom. The kids hated her, never dreamed about going anywhere near her. She had no one. Yes, she had a roof over her head, but nothing more. After leaving the orphanage, she remained at rock bottom, possibly even lower. The lonely nights of wandering through Inuzuri District with no real sense of purpose, no home to really go to, no one she really needed to speak to…she had felt cold, alone, lost and had felt at one time, a fickle similarity to a hollow. When she lived in Inuzuri, the myths and nightmares of hollows were a favorite pastime to use in scary stories or as punishments. Hollows were evil spirits destined to roam the human and spiritual planes in the quest of fulfillment, in the quest to stop the incessant burning, the desire for what they lacked, what the hole represented: a heart.

For a while, she felt like exactly like a hollow, and the revelation of that realization made her cry through many lonely nights.

But when she met Renji and his friends, eventually becoming her friends and her own Rukongai family…she found her heart and she no longer felt like a hollow. She earnestly hoped she never would.

When the circle of friends, due to poverty and sickness, was reduced to just her and Renji, her heart started to feel lost and confused – the void in her chest attempting to bring it down back into its perpetual depths. In the attempt to keep her heart alive, she clung to Renji in hopes of saving her heart, in hopes of saving her last relation to the near perfect family she had become a part of. But the Shinigami Academy ruined it. SHE in effect ruined it for persuading Renji that becoming a shinigami was the only last option for them. Drifting from Renji, eventually being ripped away from Renji due to her adoption into the illustrious Kuchiki family, Rukia once again lost her heart amongst the distant, predator-like nobles that fed upon her insecurities and her weakness, her fragility. The hole consumed her until she became just like them: impassive, emotionless, friendless, and she still didn't grasp what she wanted in the first place: a family.

She had hit rock bottom once again, and found her way back up thanks to her precious squad, her precious Ukitake-taichou, her precious Kaien-dono, her precious Miyako-dono, and her precious Kiyone-chan and Sentaro-kun. It was still taking a while, since it had only been at least two years since she entered the Thirteenth Division, but Rukia found herself loving the division as a whole. Fellow shinigami who resented her for being a Kuchiki and being so easily upgraded to the Gotei 13, slowly looked at her as the "Kuchiki" that Kaien-dono saw and, to Rukia's inner happiness, treated her like Kaien-dono did. She found comradeship amongst her peers and superiors in the barracks and always felt a sense of loss, a sense of being incomplete when at the end of the day she would have to travel back to the cold, dismal house of Kuchiki.

The hole in her chest stayed in a sense of balance between the warmth and happiness of her Thirteenth division family as well as the frosty disregard and distain of the Kuchiki elders and of her nii-sama.

The hole stayed the way it was, although it had more of a tendency to shift towards the shrinking side than expanding. And she hoped it stayed that way.

She didn't want to reach rock bottom ever again, not if meant losing what she just now gained.

Not even the loss of Renji and what they had could dull her new family.

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

Wow. This prologue was…not supposed to be this long. Sheesh. This is like two chapters, maybe three. (Sweat drops) Ah well. This is my first ever BLEACH story and I am beyond excited! WOOT! :) And I couldn't resist a Rukia x Kaien based story because, come on, there NEEDS to be more Rukia x Kaien (with some competition of course). I'm actually kind of surprised that there aren't a lot of stories on this pairing – I actually find their relationship and their ordeal utterly romantic and tragic. The perfect drama. Also, before I forget. I should mention that it's not just explicitly Rukia x Kaien, there are...some other people vying for Rukia's affection...Cough.

Anyways, HAPPY NEW YEAR! IT'S ALREADY 2009! I still can't get my head wrapped around it.

My new year's resolution: TO GET THE HELL OUT OF MY WRITING HIATUS! I haven't written anything since last February.

PLEASE REVIEW AND TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK!

-Miss Artemis

P.S. – Sorry for the OOC-ness in Miyako, but I couldn't resist. Rukia is just too cute.