Yes… I finally worked myself up to write again, thanks to Project PULL. Look it up if you're interested in a little motivation!

Anyways… not a very Christmas Eve-ish post. Kind of the more depressing and sorrowing type… again… Does it say something about me that it's all I can write lately? I hope not.

Thanks to all reviewers, readers, and fans of Bleach – which, sadly, I do not own. Merry Christmas!

She watches, frozen in shock, watches the lips move, listens to the words that come – the words that come with casual laughter, filling the chamber with its sincerity. It is his voice that speaks, it is his laugh that he laughs, and it is his face that is filled with humor. It resonates in the cold walls, the impassive stone pillars that do not shed tears nor crumble as the time moves around them.

Sometimes, she wishes she could be like those stone columns, the unmoving pillars of rock that cannot feel nor sorrow, that cannot regret nor cry. Nothing can move them, nothing can shake them, because the world around them means nothing to them. The casual, kind, caring voice does nothing to shake them, because they do not depend on the voice. They existed long before the voice echoed across their hall, and they will exist long after it ceases to sound. They are impassive. They are stone.

But she isn't – she is flesh and blood, heart and mind, body and soul, and that voice had become a part of her, long ago.

She knows that voice, knows it with all her heart. Once, it was spoken in drab barracks, in leafy trees, and in green meadows, green meadows where the sun shone upon the earth as Kaien spoke. Her hero, her idol, the man that is everything that she can ever aspire to be – it is his voice. She knew the voice – knows it – more than she had ever known anything else in the world. But it had since ceased to speak, had forever been silenced in that darkened night, and she had locked the voice away, deep within the secret corners of her heart, so that she could treasure it a little longer. And then it comes back, and that voice rings through the dark world of Hueco Mundo.

It should light the darkness. It should make her world warm once again, filling it with the gently warmth of Kaien Shiba, the warmth that inspired and strengthened and touched and cared all at once.

Instead, it breaks her.

She looks up with tears in her eyes, blue eyes that tremble in longing and in sadness. She sees the smile, and it is his. She sees the face, and it is his. She sees the eyes – and the eyes are the eyes of Kaien Shiba.

The mouth moves – the voice speaks – and she wants to believe – no, she needs to believe – that it is Kaien. And in that moment she dies inside, because she knows it isn't. It is not her mentor and friend, this creature of night and darkness and greed. No matter how her mind screams that it is, that it has to be, no matter how it longs to believe it, her heart will never accept it, because she is honest with herself, and her heart knows that it can't be her long-lost friend.

Kaien would never make her die for his own revenge. He would never have her die, he would never make her kill, to satisfy his own desire for retribution, because it was never part of Kaien's soul. He is – no, he was, because this is not him – a man of light and love, a person that could not hate even if his life depended in it.

She reaches up – up, she always reaches up to others, because they are always giants to her – to touch the hand, the gloved hand laid so gently on her forehead. She wants so badly to take it in her own, to hold it as though it was truly the right hand of Kaien Shiba – but it is just a glove. A pale, thin, useless mockery of the true being, an affront to the true man, a man that once lived.

"You're not going to say it's a joke this time, are you?" He doesn't answer, because he doesn't need to, and she is glad for that. She is afraid – afraid that if she hears his voice again, that she won't be able to reject it any longer, that her resolve will break, that her heart will crumble, that her soul will forever shatter. "You would never joke about that," she says – and she speaks to the man that she once knew, the man that is dead, the man who she killed.

She takes the hand, and grasps it firmly in her own, a warm, strong hand, a hand that was could once have been that of her lieutenant and friend. She is trembling, and she is scared – but it is her own anger that she is scared of. He speaks, smiling, and the words do not reach her through the veil of rage, and she yells even as she weeps.
"Don't you dare insult him!" With all of her strength, she grasps the hand and throws it away from her, off her, because it is too heavy for her to bear any longer. Her heart would be crushed underneath the weight of memory and of guilt. "Don't you dare insult Kaien Shiba!" She hears her voice, far away, and it is angry. She wonders how it can be so angry, when she is so broken inside, when she is in such turmoil.

And then she sees his face, and she knows exactly why her anger is so real.

He smiles, but she knows now that it was not his smile, is not his smile, and she will no longer let herself pretend it is. "What are you talking about, Kuchiki?" She had expected to feel pain again at the voice, a deep, piercing pain that would stab at her very core. She had expected the old ache to be woken, had believed that the voice would destroy her all over again, when the Hollow in his body had failed. She had expected to feel anguish – but it is not just anguish she feels as his kind voice echoes around the cold impassive stone pillars, stabbing out at her frozen heart. "Of course I'm Kai – "

"Don't you ever say that name again!" she yells, cutting off the voice, cutting off the name, because she cannot bear to her this creature say it, eyes blazing with rage even as tears pool deep within them. "Dance, Sode no Shirayuki!" The ribbon drifts out, the icy blade whispering gently in the wind – and she senses her mistress's anguish, and she comforts with her touch, even as she blazes at the one who had dared hurt her mistress so. She is cold in her mistress's hand, a blazing ice, cold as the ice that had settled around her heart the day he fought and lost.

He had died that day.

No – she had died that day.

And though she had run, she had always known that she could never run far enough.

His lips twist in a grin, a mockery of the warm smile that Kaien Shiba had once worn for her, a kind smile that had long since been lost in the shadows of memory. His hand reaches for the sword, the sword still stained with her blood, and the shadows seem to pool around him as it clears the sheath.

And she remembers that the sun once shone in the sky – the sun that shone in his smile and his laugh. And the grass had once kissed her feet as she ran underneath the green trees.

She charges at the monstrosity, cold sword blazing with cold rage, even as the tears pour down her cheeks, because no matter how her heart denies it, her mind will never let her believe that that the man before her is not her lieutenant, her friend, her teacher.

And the trees had darkened, as the darkness laughed and hissed inside his body, as his zanpakutō shattered on its hide. And they were dark as they surrounded her, panicked breath rasping in her throat, as the laughing creature stalked through the woods.

He laughs, and it is not the laughter of Kaien Shiba, the kind and caring Shinigami – it is the laughter of Metastacia, the darkness and chaos of the cruel night, the pure evil of the Hollow.

The Captain's wild eyes as he fought, even as he coughed up blood from deep within. Kaien, darkened to gray, laughing as his dark-glowing-empty eyes writhed with tentacles. She raced through the woods, tears whisked from her eyes by the wild wind, and the trees were cold as he laughed.

The sword that she once lashed out with, futile, helpless as he charged. The eyes she had once closed, the sword of duty she had stabbed, even as she cried for the death of her first great mentor, the one who had taught her everything. His blood, across her face, her body, staining her uniform – and she is glad, because every drop of his blood is sacred.

The quiet words of comfort he whispered as his life ebbed away. The arm that clasped her gently, even as the sword pierced him to his core. The eyes, glowing with pride in her and with gratitude, even as his blood saturates the floor.

She faces the laughing, sneering body, the body that is his, but the heart that will never belong to it. It knows no heart, never knew one – its body with the hole in its chest, the hole where it might have once been, before its hunger consumed it.

Where do our hearts go, Rukia? When we die, our bodies turn to dust, our energy joins the reiatsu that makes the Soul Society – but where do our hearts go?

She walks toward him, no longer ice, but stone, the warm stone that is left in the sun, cool to the touch, but filled with warmth, filled with the warmth of Kaien Shiba, the warmth of friendship and of trust, the warmth of kindness and of love. The stone pillars stand around her, cold pillars of rock, rock that will never know the love that she has felt. They may stand for an eternity, but when they fall, they will be nothing. When she dies, whenever that may be, her heart will remain, with Orihime and with Sado, with Uryuu and with Renji, with Byakuya and with Ichigo.

We leave our hearts with those we trust, and those we love.

Thanks to you, Rukia… I can leave my heart here.

Her tears are dry now, dried in the warmth of the sun.

I can leave my heart with you.

This was Kaien. This man, this heart, this soul – this was Kaien, this is Kaien, this will always be Kaien.

You may have his body… You may have his memories… But Kaien isn't there.

He left his heart to me.