Pairing: future Hisana/Byakuya

A/N: I was digging through my writing folders today and came across this story. I wrote it a couple of years as an exercise while working on a longer, unrelated fanfic which (like most of them) never got completed. Then I promptly forgot all about it.

Serious mistake on my part.

This has got to be one of my favourites of all my fanfics, despite not being a big fan of Bleach, so failing to share it would just be churlish. Here you go.

PS: when I was writing it I'd forgotten that that spirits in Soul Society are supposed to not need food unless they have Shinigami abilities. Frankly I think it's a retarded rule anyway (it casts serious doubt on the reasoning for all the slums, in my mind) but there we go. Just assume for the purpose of this story that... I dunno. Hisana has latent Shinigami powers? I don't give a shit about Kubo Tite's shitty, inconsistent writing?

Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach. Obviously. Kubo Tite does. Not that I encourage you to give him any money, but my low opinion of his writing skills is irrelevant.

Autumn was a bad time in Rukongai. Almost as bad as winter. Hisana woke up to blue fingers, shivering so hard she had almost juddered her way off the step, and let out a gusting sigh that sent clouds of cold mist into the early morning air.

She couldn't know it at the time, but that cold day was going to change her life forever. As she sat up slowly, it seemed just the same as every other since she had died; she was freezing, starving, lonely, and aching all over.

She wasn't wet, at least, she was glad to find, as she got shakily to her feet and tugged her ragged clothes tighter around her small, bony body. She had found what was apparently an unclaimed doorway a couple of days ago, and she had been sleeping there since then. With a little luck, she could stay there for a few more nights before somebody found her and kicked her out.

It had become swiftly apparent after her death that moving on did nothing to diminish her appetite. Her lifestyle, such as it was, had consisted almost instantly of scavenging for whatever scraps of food she could get her skinny hands on. Now that she had only one mouth to feed, it was easier, but the guilt was worse than the hunger.

There was little she could do to change that now.

After a while of wandering the banks of the river, the weak, watery sunlight peeking with disheartened apathy through the leafless skeletons of trees, she had the luck to come across the gnawed remains of an old fish head. The previous owner had evidently done with it quite thoroughly, but they had left a few small shreds of flesh on the spiny bones. It was a pitiful meal, especially because it smelled rancid and distinctly unpleasant, but in the slums there wasn't enough around to be picky. She could probably suck on it for a few days after she had cleaned the last morsels off of it, too - fishbones weren't at all filling, but they were something.

She nibbled on it as she wandered back towards the squatted buildings of the seventy-eighth district. She had a pattern to follow; it was quite regular: the riverbank, before anyone was up, then on to the small smattering of shops and other establishments that specialised in food, where she might find a few measly scraps somewhere around. After she had done the rounds, and hopefully not had to fight for anything or lost her stash to thieves, she would return to roaming the streets abstractedly, in the slimmest of hopes that she might stumble across her baby sister.

She decided on the closest of the shops she visited and headed in that direction. Rukongai was too widely populated and short on supplies to throw much away, but occasionally something would get tossed out by accident, or perhaps there would be something that, while the owners of the shops with their comparative riches and snobbery might consider too far gone, she would still be able to choke down. Those sorts of waste articles were usually revoltingly rotten and unpalatable, but she had long ago found that it was a lot harder to get sick from things like that here. It wasn't as if she had anything better.

She ducked into the low entrance to an alleyway, in between two close-set buildings. It led off one of the wider streets, and it was quite short and very small. All the buildings around were close together by necessity; space was like food - not often available, nor plentiful when it was. People who had found the time and the materials to build had put up shelters wherever they could fit them. Even in the more prosperous areas, where they had the money and resources to make themselves proper homes that weren't just lean-tos or hovels, there was little room to move about. Everything was crammed in, fitted together like pieces of an immense and awkward jigsaw by some blind giant with no regard for aesthetics or sanitation.

She realised as soon as she had taken two steps between the scattered piles of rotting leaves and worthless debris lining the alley that she had made a mistake. She felt rather than heard the dark shadow move to block the entrance behind her, cutting out the light and faint warmth that had been pressing soft, tentative fingers into her chilled clothes and skin. At the same moment, as she turned to look over her shoulder, another hopped down from the roof above to stand at the other end of the alley.

She trembled in sudden fear, clutching the miserable fish head to her body. There was no way she would be able to protect herself, or her pathetic prize, and she knew it - she had never been good at fighting or physical violence, and those skills had only faded even further from her grasp now, with nothing to keep her from turning into a bag of bones, held together more by her clothing than her own skin.

She settled for a short, sharp scream. Of course, she was in Rukongai; no one would pay any attention to the sound, even if they heard. Too many times had this happened to too many people for people to care about anyone but themselves. But she screamed anyway.

She was right, unsurprisingly. There was no saviour to come to her rescue, and the shadowy figures continued to advance, unfazed. The one closest to the street moved out of the grimy sunlight as she watched and resolved into a tall, burly man dressed in baggy, ripped clothing, with a frizz of dirty and uncombed hair hanging lank around his bruised features.

'What have we got here?' he said, sneer clear in his voice. He loomed closer. 'Got a snack for us, girl?'

Hisana bit her lip, and then threw the fish head at his face. 'Take it, then!' she croaked out, her throat feeling raw. She was startled by how rough her voice had become; she'd had little reason to use it recently. There was rarely any need for her to speak.

The man reflexively reached up to bat the flying object away from his face, but he moved too late. The dried up and bony fish skull hit him between the eyes, poking him painfully and leaving a few bleeding scratches and one deeper puncture wound. It fell to the ground by his feet with a slap.

'You little bitch.' the man snarled, his voice muffled as he clutched at his face. He checked his hands and saw the blood, growling with growing anger.

'You shouldn't've done that.' the other one hissed dangerously from behind her.

A hand grabbed her shoulder, fingers digging into her flesh painfully and swung her around, slamming her back against the splinter-filled boards of the wall. Her teeth snapped together with the force, biting into her lip hard and drawing blood. She didn't wait for him to make another move, jerking forward and sinking her teeth into his arm as deeply as she could. He released her with a yell of pain, and then a second later, as she turned to bolt, a fist slammed into the side of her head, crushing her face into the wall.

'That was the stupidest thing you've ever done.' the voice of the first man growled in her ear, and he jerked her up by the hair and threw her against the wall again, making sure to shove her face first with as much force as he could muster. She felt her nose break with an explosion of fire that echoed in her skull, and then the blood dripping down her upper lip and over her chin to smear onto the boards and splatter on the muddy ground below.

Again he hauled her back by the scalp, flinging her into the other wall this time. Her head cracked against a beam and she saw stars, a burst of bright blackness shooting across her vision. A whimper slipped out as she crumpled to the ground.

A foot, complete with wooden sandal, caught her in the side and knocked her into the wall again, the breath leaving her body with a cry as it was forced from her lungs. She felt her skin split, and in an oddly detached way she couldn't help likening the feeling to some overripe fruit popping under pressure. A moment later she felt the blood rolling off her in heavy drops to soak into the leaf mould around her.

A hand jerked her up by the throat, half throttling her with its tightly clenched fingers. She didn't even have the strength to try to pry them away. She tried to take a breath, but all that came out was a frightening gurgle, like her esophageus was full of water. After a moment she realised that the blood from her nose was filling her mouth, and at the angle she was being held she couldn't spit it out or even swallow it. She closed her already mostly blinded eyes, wishing that she could sink into blessed blackness instead of that terrible spinning whirl of colours and crackling fireworks that filled her head, and waited to suffocate. She wondered idly what would happen to her if she were killed; she had already died once and come here. Surely there couldn't be another, worse place to go once she left?

The pain of being dropped was a million times worse than the blissful numbness that had been coming over her. Her limbs jarred, and she realised that one of her ribs had broken at the same moment that the shattered tip pricked its way through her skin to meet the frozen air. Her head fell forward, and the choking fluid ran from her slack mouth in a wash of blood and saliva onto the muddy earth. She felt the ground tremble slightly with running feet, and the faintest voices ringing in her ears that told her as well as the exploding colours in her head that she was almost unconscious. Her eyes slid open for a moment as she blinked slowly. Something glowed, soft but beautiful, with a blushing pink light, just the colour of cherry blossom.

As she watched in dull fascination, several petals fluttered through the air. One brushed her cheek lightly, soft and cool, and then joined the others somewhere above her. She turned her eyes towards it in wonder, seeing more and more petals - hundreds - thousands - coming together in a brightly glowing shape, a silhouette that reminded her of a katana, and then coalescing into grey steel. Then the rest of the world faded with it into empty oblivion, and her eyes fell shut as she slipped into unconsciousness.

Her last thought dribbled from her lips inaudibly, with the blood that continued to run out of her mouth: 'I haven't seen the blossom in such a long time.'

Hisana couldn't remember the last time she had felt so warm. Blissfully, deliciously, softly warm, like she was being enfolded in embracing mounds of puffy, sunlit cloud. She sighed in pleasure and settled deeper. This was much more like heaven than the last time she had died.

She could feel gentle rays of sunshine on her cheek, and hear quiet noises in the back of her mind, the scintillating rise and fall of birdsong making her lips curve into a small smile.

As she slowly began to pay more attention to the world outside her comfortable nest, she identified the muted swish and scratch of a brush running over paper. It was a calming, methodic sound, and she turned her head slightly towards its source without meaning to.

The bird's song halted suddenly, and there was the fluttering of wings retreating, leaving tranquil hush but for the continued slip of the writing brush.

After another moment, the noise halted and was replaced by a little swirl and tink of the brush being blotted and tapped on the side of the inkstone. Then there was a rustle, a click and the sound of paper being rolled up.

Hisana opened her eyes at last. She was slightly hesitant. She was used to disappointment, but she wasn't sure what she would do if this calm, perfect place were taken away. Lose her mind, she guessed.

The afternoon sun shone through the open screen doors, past the branches and crisp, bronzing autumn foliage of an old plum tree just outside. She was wrapped in creamy white coverlets, tucked up to her chin. They smelled faintly of sandalwood and pine.

She wondered with vague curiosity why she wasn't in pain, and then remembered that this was heaven. It made sense that she would have left her last body, and so her wounds, behind.

There was a low table in front of the open doorway, and someone was sitting in front of it with their back to her. She observed the expensive-looking white haori and long dark hair hanging down their shoulders. They seemed to have been writing, but now a piece of paper was being carefully folded into what looked like it was an origami flower, perhaps a rose.

As she watched with idle enthralment, the long, pale fingers completed the paper sculpture and put it to rest on the table. Then the figure stood effortlessly and turned to look at her.

'You're awake.' His tone was quiet and low, with a refined accent that made her think 'aristocrat'. The face behind the voice was beautiful; she could find no other word for it. His complexion was a little pale, with subtly fine features and dark eyes. He didn't look very kind, though. Cool and reserved, somehow remote, with a detached air as though he didn't feel particularly obliged to speak to her, but was doing so anyway for some unfathomable reason of his own.

She struggled to sit up, made nervous by her impression of him. She was far inferior to him, she could tell, and not just in status. She wished she were in a position to bow, but she didn't think she could manage that without making a fool out of herself, so she settled for lowering her head deferentially.

'Yes, sir.' she whispered, noticing again that her voice was unpleasantly hoarse and feeling self-conscious. 'Where am I?' she added timidly, not sure if the question was respectful enough, but still wanting to know.

A small frown creased his brow, and she felt herself tense up fearfully, worrying that she had offended him.

'Seireitei.' he murmured, not sounding upset. She looked up at him quickly, startled. 'You are in the manor of House Kuchiki.'

Her mouth opened a little in shock. So she hadn't died after all. She wondered how that was possible. And on top of that... House Kuchiki. Even she, living in the Rukongai slums since she had first come to Soul Society, with no real knowledge of the rest of her new world, had heard that name. Even she knew who they were and what they meant. The most powerful of the four noble houses, lords, almost royalty in their own right. She had never even considered that she might see one of them, let alone wake up in a manor belonging to them.

'W-why am I here?' she asked, her voice shaking a little.

In years to come, once she had grown to know him better, she would recognise the slight pause before he spoke, barely noticeable to her at the time. It was uncertainty, because he wasn't sure of the answer, or perhaps because he didn't want to tell the truth. Most often, it was because it involved feelings or emotions, something he hated to talk or even think about, it seemed to her.

But his voice held nothing to give him away.

'You would have died very quickly if I had left you.' he said simply. 'I committed to keeping you alive the moment I put effort into driving those men away. I had a duty to you.'

Another thing Hisana would learn in later days was that 'duty' was a word that was almost synonymous with him. It was a codeword, too, for actions that could be split into two categories; things which he was excusing, and things that he didn't want to do but felt obliged to. Most often, they fell into the second.

At the time she couldn't know all that. She looked at her hands, grateful and somewhat humbled. She wondered why he had bothered to save her, and what he had been doing in Rukongai anyway, but she didn't ask. Instead, she resolved to leave and get out of his way as swiftly as possible. She didn't understand why he was being kind to her, but whatever his reasons, he would surely not be so tolerant forever.

'Thank you,' she whispered, keeping her voice at its lowest to save her throat from some of the roughness.

Her stomach grumbled, suddenly and loudly, and her eyes widened, a deeply embarrassed blush rising to her cheeks. She clasped her arms over her torso, pleading mentally for it to be quiet. She had been through worse than this before, even though the reminder was enough to send spasms of hunger around her empty belly. Her most nightmarish fantasy - a handful of freshly picked strawberries, smelling of sweet pure summer - ran around her head tauntingly.

Too embarrassed to look at her host, she glanced around the room warily. She wasn't wearing her own clothes, she noticed now - a pure white sleeping yukata instead, made of strange, satiny fabric that felt odd and glossily smooth against her skin.

'Where are my clothes?' she asked cautiously, glancing up at his face but intentionally not catching his eye.

'I had them burned.' he replied dispassionately, as if he wasn't talking about having destroyed her only worldly possessions. She couldn't help the small gasp of horror that slipped out. He gave her a look, and she was momentarily captured in his gaze, like a frightened rabbit in the spotlight. 'There are others that should fit you just there, I believe.'

She turned her head to see, and found that there was indeed a small pile of folded garments sitting on the floor beside the futon she was resting on.

He stepped past the bed and walked across the room, pushed the door open, and then paused in the doorway.

'Dress. A meal will be provided for you in a few minutes.' he informed her.

'I-' she began, and then stopped. 'Thank you.' she said after a moment, a little uncertain. 'I... Can I ask... Why... I mean, you have already done... so much, you don't have to...'

His lips curved up at the corners just a fraction, in what was probably a smile.

'Unohana recommended that you be fed before I let you go. She was kind enough to save your life for me, and after putting her to so much trouble, it would be only proper to take her advice.' he observed.

Hisana stared at him, wide eyed. 'You... Unohana... Retsu? You called a captain... for me?' she breathed, appalled.

His frown returned. 'Unohana and I have an understanding.' he said curtly. He seemed about to leave again, so she blurted out her last question quickly.

'Who are you?'

He paused and cast her a glance over his shoulder, face unreadable. He was silent for a moment, and then answered.

'My name is Kuchiki Byakuya.' he said.

Hisana's breath hitched in alarm. Of course... that made perfect sense. She had heard a little about him, although not much. The head of the Kuchiki clan, although he had ascended so young... Nobody seemed to know much about his personal life, but one thing was unanimous; he was to be feared.

'I... I see.' she whispered, and then remembered her manners. 'I- My name is Hisana. I'm... very grateful that you... have been so kind to me.'

His lips twitched into that almost-smile for the second time, and he nodded briefly but said nothing more. He stepped out of the room and closed the door without saying another word.

Hisana had lost the power of speech at several points in her lifetime, but never before had she entirely lost control of all functions of her brain in quite such short order as when the servants stepped into the room and quickly and efficiently set up a table and spread it with the most stunning feast she had ever seen in her life.

Byakuya had said that a meal would be provided. Hisana gathered that he was not one for hyperbole.

While she had been alive, she had been from a small family. They hadn't been rich - nothing like - but they had been acceptably well off, and mostly self-sufficient, with a small farm of their own. She could remember a few of the best meals there - the special dinner her mother and aunts had once made for the New Year, and the spontaneous celebratory banquet her mother had laid out for them when her father had been given a whole quarter of a cow, in payment for some assistance he had given a friend who could seemingly afford to butcher a beast every once in a while. All had been wondrous at the time, and the subjects of horrible aching hunger dreams in later years. But never, not even in her wildest fantasies, had she pictured something so sumptuous as this.

Her eyes roamed over the tableau as the servants left again without acknowledging her, and she found herself alone.

She wondered how it was possible for her to become any hungrier.

A pot of fish broth, sitting on a small stone box filled with bright orange coals, filled the air with tantalising scented steam and the sound of complacent bubbling.

The servants had set the table for two. A platter and pair of ornate chopsticks waited invitingly, hinting suggestively at her to come and make use of them.

She gulped, finding her mouth full of saliva.

More neat platters of thinly sliced raw meats surrounded the simmering dish, ready to be flash-cooked and eaten straight from the savoury stock. Small pottery dishes of sauces sat around, and she inched closer, leaning over to look at them. She licked her dry lips nervously, fancying she could taste the delicious steam on her tongue.

Two large bowls of rice, sprinkled with spices, sat at either end of the table. They too were steaming gently.

Hisana hesitated, trying to recall if she had just whimpered.

Right before the plate that she could only dream might have been set for her, another dish held an offering of whole quails eggs, which she guessed were still raw, a heap of steamed green vegetables oozing golden-brown sauce, and a third of stripped uncooked prawns.

She searched the table for something she had tasted before. She settled on the rice and then rested a hand on her groaning stomach and sighed.

Glancing furtively up at the door, she reached out a trembling hand, picked up the chopsticks - it took her a few tries to get it right; she hadn't used them for far too long - picked up a sliver of dark pink meat, and dipped it unsteadily into the hot liquid.

The door slid open with a click.

Hisana dropped the chopsticks with a gasp and scrambled back, going deep red with embarrassment. The wooden utensils clattered ungracefully onto the table, and the piece of meat sank into the stockpot.

Byakuya looked at her for a moment, expression unreadable, and then lowered his gaze calmly and padded across the floor to kneel comfortably on the opposite side of the table.

'Please be seated.' he murmured after a moment.

Hisana crawled across the mat and settled herself diffidently on the empty cushion. Her dropped chopsticks seemed to be glaring accusingly at her, and she coloured again, feeling like a fool.

Byakuya picked up his own neatly displayed pair and held a slice of what looked like duck flesh in the stock for a moment to cook, not seeming to notice or care about Hisana's nerves.

After a minute or two of watching Byakuya eat in silence, Hisana was almost ready to faint she was so ravenous. She swallowed again, checking with paranoid vigilance that she wasn't dribbling.

Byakuya glanced up at her, his chopsticks pausing in the air above his plate.

'Are you not hungry?' he asked quietly.

Hisana's stomach interrupted her before she could attempt to speak by growling deafeningly. She wasn't sure how she could go any redder.

He continued to look at her for a moment, as if he hadn't heard - which was blatantly absurd, Hisana wouldn't have been surprised if everyone in the manor had heard it - and then returned to his meal without enquiring further.

Hisana twisted her hands in her lap. She actually had to restrain herself physically from grabbing handfuls of food and stuffing her face, quite probably without bothering to discriminate between what was cooked and what was not.

At last she gave up the fight. She picked up her chopsticks awkwardly and dug into the container of rice, managing to get most of what came out onto her plate. She kept her head down, unable to look at her host in case she saw in his eyes the ridicule she could picture in her mind. Once she had a sizable pile of food on her plate, she lifted a portion to her lips with violently shaking hands and took a bite.

Her eyes rolled back in her head as the taste hit her and bowled her over entirely. The simple flavour of the rice, the trace of the vinegar it was cooked with, and the tiny bursts of coriander and pepper that had been steamed with it... The warm texture of the grains on her tongue, and the smells coming from everything before her...

She swallowed the mouthful slowly, and then put her chopsticks down very carefully. She sat perfectly still for a moment, her breathing a little unsteady.

Byakuya watched her dispassionately, the corner of his mouth quirking a fraction in amusement.

Hisana took a deep breath and opened her eyes. They watered slightly.

'Is the food not to your liking?' Byakuya asked.

She blinked at him, seeming almost dazed, and then went pink. 'It-' she began, and hesitated. 'It's... wonderful.' she finished in a reverent whisper.

She looked back at the food, half in awe. Her tastebuds were still recovering from the assault. She had spent a long time teaching herself not to taste at all as a defence against the revolting stuff she was forced to call sustenance in the slums, but the invasion of simple, appetising flavours was nearly too much. She hadn't eaten anything even vaguely palatable for so long she could hardly remember what it was like outside her daydreams.

She spent most of the rest of the meal observing appreciatively. She was still hungry, of course, but she guessed, realistically, that anything more would send her reeling, so she contented herself with looking and occasionally picking out a grain or two of rice, and then a small slice of carrot from one of the platters to nibble on it like a rabbit.

Byakuya poured some misty pinkish gold liquid from a delicate pottery pitcher into a matching cup, and after a moment or two, Hisana followed his example. She took a very cautious sip, and realised belatedly that she had gone to heaven after all. She swallowed the rest of the cool peach juice almost in one gulp and served herself to more.

The servants returned once Byakuya seemed to have finished, and the table was cleared in record time to be replaced with even more food. Hisana hadn't realised it was possible to have this much in one place, and it was only meant for the two of them! It was more than she had ever seen all together at one time in all her life. She wished with a sigh that Rukia could be there with her, and the thought made her eyes tingle with tears.

The second course, too, was marvellous beyond anything she had ever imagined. She gazed captivated at the arrangement of fruits, most of which she had never seen before. Some were familiar, however, such as the piles of fresh, dark cherries, the peaches and plums, and the slices of pineapple. Not that she had ever eaten the last one - she had only seen it in a market once, far too expensive for her family's budget.

Byakuya dropped something onto her plate, and she startled slightly, looking up in confusion. He wasn't looking at her, however, so she took a look at her plate. He had given her a small fruit, sliced in halves. It looked rather like it was made of pale wax, and not all that appealing, but after Rukongai, anything that appeared even vaguely edible was welcome. She picked it up warily and tasted it. It was sweet and slightly tangy, but not overwhelming, so she ate the rest and looked up hesitantly, searching for whatever it had come from.

Byakuya placed another small object on her plate, and she picked it up with eager curiosity. It was different - a whole fruit, with a lumpy, reddish pink casing around it that seemed more like a crust than a skin. She picked at it for a bit until it tore, and found to her delight that it held more of the waxy white fruit. She peeled it and put it into her mouth, but her teeth encountered a large kernel, and she had to spit it inelegantly into her hand.

Finally the table was cleared for a second time, and she found herself sitting, feeling rather exposed, in front of her intimidating host.

He regarded her with an unreadable expression for a long and unnerving moment.

'Was the meal acceptable?' he said suddenly.

She stared at him uncomprehending for a few seconds, wondering why exactly he could be questioning it, and then nodded hastily. 'Yes! It was so generous of you, Kuchiki-sama.' she added uncomfortably. 'I'm very grateful. I don't know what I've done to earn...'

'You have earned nothing.' he said flatly, cutting her off. She stiffened fearfully.

There was a minute of odd silence, while Byakuya appeared to brood thoughtfully, and Hisana contemplated her fate doubtfully. Then he spoke again.

'Unohana informs me that you should rest in bed for a few days to recuperate.' he said, and Hisana shivered again self-consciously at the thought of having an accomplished and important healer such as Unohana tending to someone so trivial as herself. 'I have ordered my manor's staff to assist you and help you to feel as comfortable here as possible.'

Hisana nodded quickly. She wondered if she should thank him again or keep quiet. She opted for the latter, hoping he wouldn't think her too disrespectful.

He stood up abruptly, and she shifted nervously. 'Unohana will return when she has time to make sure you are recovering acceptably. I have things to do, if you will excuse me.'

'Of course. Thank you.' Hisana whispered, although he didn't seem to need a reply. He was already closing the door behind him.

Hisana looked back at the table and noticed that somebody had left a plum behind. It sat on the polished surface, a glorious, dark glossy purple. She cast a quick look at the door again, making sure it was firmly closed, and then snatched up the fruit and pressed its warm, taut skin to her lips gently. She could smell the sweet tartness of it, and she took a tiny bite, closing her eyes blissfully as its taste filled her mouth. It was perfect.

She was in heaven, she decided contentedly. She couldn't stay, of course - she knew it, if reluctantly. But for a few days, she would be allowed to remain here, in paradise.

If only Rukia could be there too.

Hisana awoke for the second time that day. She had gone back to her futon to doze after her meal, and when she opened her eyes again it was early evening. She lay in bed and looked out of the open screen at the garden. Now that the sun had moved she could look at the plum tree, all its branches cloaked in rusting leaves. As she watched, one fell from a twig and span through the air to rest on the edge of the deck with a rustle, swaying gently.

She could half remember dreaming during her nap, but it was all blurred now. She had been on a boat, she thought. It had rocked softly, like a cradle, back and forth, back and forth in a soothing rhythm. She had been on a boat once during her life, but it had been dirty and cold, carrying too many passengers from one island to another. It had been noisy, everyone shouting and arguing. Hisana had been sick most of the way, and had hated it. But in her dream it was different. It had been quiet, with only the lap of the swell against the bows, and she had lain on the wooden boards of the deck in the sunlight, with her eyes closed.

More had happened than that, of course, but she couldn't remember anything else. She was a little sad about that. They had been pleasant things, the type she wanted to keep in her heart forever. But instead she was left only with the feel of the deck beneath her shoulder blades, and the peaceful motion of the boat, and the scent of blossoming cherries.

She sighed regretfully and sat up. She saw immediately that someone had left a tray beside her bed, bearing a cup and a small pot of tea.

She poured some for herself and sipped at it. It was green tea, sweetened a little with honey, and it was still pleasantly warm. Whoever had left it there had had good timing.

Once she had finished her drink, she slipped out from under the coverlet and knelt. For a moment she paused, trying to find what was different about herself. Her body felt odd. She was warm, but it was more than just that. Usually, when she moved every part of her, from her toes to the top of her head, screamed at her in agony, neglected and wasted with lack of nutrition, yearning for attention. Now she felt... light. Almost numb, if lack of pain could be called that. She felt... healthy.

She got to her feet, stumbling a little as she found her balance in her strangely weightless form, and then wrapped the white silken yukata closer around her and stepped out onto the covered veranda.

The garden was perfectly tended. Past the autumn plum tree she could see meticulously raked patterns in the pale gravel. On the other side of the stony masterpiece, flowers, trees and shrubs grew all around. It was all a little dog-eared due to the falling leaves that got everywhere no matter what you did, but everything else was scrupulously precise. To her left, further away but still visible, there was a large pond. In between the reflections and beneath the shadows of the arching trees hanging over the surface, it was just possible to make out the faint outlines of koi swimming languidly through the waters. There was even some grass around the pool's borders.

Sometimes people ate grass in Rukongai, when there was nothing else. There wasn't often anything else. There wasn't often grass, either.

How different this world is, she mused, reaching up to touch a crisp brown leaf of the plum tree. It crackled under her touch. It was hard to believe she was really here, in this strange and wonderful place where she did not belong.

'How are you feeling?' a soft voice asked from behind her.

She jumped around, wondering if she were trespassing - was the garden off limits? But the woman standing in the doorway smiled at her tenderly, and Hisana relaxed without even thinking. The woman had long black hair bound into two long braids that met around her neck and hung down to her waist, and she had an immaculate white haori around her shoulders.

'I- I'm fine.' Hisana said absently.

The woman smiled again. 'I'm glad.' she said bowing her head a little. 'Your injuries were severe. I was quite worried at first. I feared I would be unable to save you.'

Hisana suddenly realised who the woman must be, and tensed up instantly. She was in the presence of an extremely powerful woman; Unohana Retsu, Captain of the Gotei Thirteen's Fourth Division. Hisana didn't know much, but she had heard scraps of stories about her, and she sounded very kind. And formidable.

'Kuchiki-san requested for me to check up on you again,' the woman continued. Hisana tried to remember what Byakuya had said about it - she was sure he hadn't put it quite like that, but correcting the Captain would be disrespectful. 'May I examine you?'

Hisana hurried to her side obediently. She felt slightly incredulous. She had actually met one of the Lords of the Great Houses, and a famed captain of the Gotei Thirteen, both in one day. Both of them had saved her life. Her life, the life of a worthless Plus from the slums. It was beyond her comprehension; all she knew was that she was more thankful than she could possibly express.

'Your name is Hisana, is that correct?' Unohana asked lightly, stepping back inside the room and motioning for Hisana to sit back on her futon.

'Yes, my lady.' Hisana said timidly.

Unohana smiled. 'I am Unohana Retsu. It is a pleasure to formally meet you, Hisana-san.'

Hisana nodded, and then gave her a small, shy smile.

Unohana knelt gracefully beside her and slid the yukata off Hisana's shoulders. Hisana blushed modestly, noticing how pleasantly cool and soft the older woman's fingers were on her skin. She unwrapped the soft white bandages that wrapped around Hisana's entire torso, as she had noticed when she first got changed. Unohana looked her over, not seeming fazed by Hisana's partial nudity - which made Hisana unspeakably embarrassed, although she resisted the urge to try to cover herself - and then smiled at her.

'You are recovering well,' she praised. 'But you are not yet fully healed, so you should be careful as you move about for the next few days. It would be best if you keep warm and well fed. Try not to exert yourself. Your wounds are healed externally, but internally you could still cause yourself damage if you strain yourself. Your right lung partially collapsed, and it has not healed completely, but it should heal fully within a few weeks, assuming there are no complications.'

A few weeks? Hisana thought, worried. As much as she was already growing to love it here, she couldn't stay for long. Leeching off Byakuya's inexplicably bountiful hospitality would only remain acceptable for a certain amount of time, and it would be better to leave in good graces than to outstay her welcome. Besides which... Rukia was still out there. She had to find her as soon as possible. But there was no need to bring that up in front of Unohana.

'I understand, my lady.' she said.

'Good,' Unohana said, doing up the bandages again with swift efficiency. She folded the yukata back over Hisana's shoulders, smoothing and straightening the collar smartly, and then got to her feet with enviable elegance. 'I will tell Kuchiki-san that it would be best for you to stay some time, in addition to the time you have spent here.'

'How long have I been here?' Hisana asked, Unohana's phrasing catching her attention.

'Two days,' Unohana said, raising a fine eyebrow in surprise. 'Did nobody tell you? Of course I healed as many of your injuries as I could when Kuchiki-san brought you to me, but your body has done all the rest.'

Hisana gasped. 'Two days? I've been imposing on Kuchiki-sama's home for two days?' More importantly, I've been sleeping for two days, without once being able to search for Rukia.

Unohana smiled. 'I don't think you should worry about that, Hisana-san. Kuchiki-san would not have offered his home to you grudgingly. You are welcome here.' she said simply. 'Now, you should rest. Sleep, dream, and wake refreshed.'

'I can't! I don't have time-' Hisana began urgently, trying to explain as best she could, but Unohana stopped her. She placed her palm lightly on Hisana's forehead, and Hisana's vision swam instantly, her head growing dizzy. She tried to open her mouth, to tell Unohana why it was important, why she couldn't waste more time here in this beautiful, peaceful place, but no words would come. She struggled to even form the thought. She had to... Had... to...

Unohana caught the small body as Hisana fell gently sideways and laid her back onto the pillows. She covered her up and stood looking down at her sleeping face for a moment, lost in thought. Doubtless Byakuya had been thinking of duty when he had saved Hisana. Doubtless too that he had still been thinking of duty when he had brought Hisana to Unohana, ordering her urgently to save the unknown girl. And yet there was more to it than that; Unohana could feel something, see something in Byakuya's normally expressionless face, a kind of pleading desperation for the life of this nameless peasant girl to be saved, against all odds. Unohana had worked all night to keep her breathing, as the shock set into Hisana's nervous system and her brain attempted to shut her body down entirely.

For once - just once - Byakuya had acted on impulse. He had let his emotions take hold of him, let himself save somebody he knew nothing about, to whom he had no obligation. Perhaps - perhaps there was a chance that he might lower his barriers, if only for a little while.

Unohana studied Hisana's small features, bony from under-nourishment. A strange choice on Fate's part, she thought. But then, the chances of this delicate, frail little woman gaining the trust of one of the coldest and most feared shinigami in Seireitei could be no worse than those of anyone else.

Friendship could be nothing but a blessing for Byakuya. And if looks were anything to go by, Hisana needed it as much as he did.

Apologies for the ridiculous length. It didn't feel right to chop it into bits for chapters.

And that's that. Hope you enjoyed it! Tell me what you think.