It is the silence that hurts the most.

No, not the lack of power, not the helplessness.

It is the way he feels every. last. bit. of her drain in that one moment, feels her presence evaporate, feels her disappear.

He needs to say something, needs to tell someone something, needs to warn them, needs to stop them. But all that comes out is a strangled gasp. All there is, is the strangled gasp of him trying to come to terms to the hole that just punched its way through his soul.

The first time they meet, he is curious, and she is incredulous.

"I'm not telling you my name," a voice floats around him, "not until you deserve to know it, boy."

His eyebrow twitches and he bites back a scowl. All that effort, all that meditation, just for this?

She laughs.

"Grow up, kid. Not everything comes easy in life."

The second time they meet, he is prepared, and she is amused.

"Defeat me."

He blinks.


"I said, defeat me. I'm not going to tell you anything until you can." She smiles, "And stop asking questions. I won't be answering them until they are worthy of an answer."

His weight shifts and his grip changes.

That day, he learns that her name is Senbonzakura.

It is the 222nd time they meet, he is exhausted, and she is furious.

He has long since lost count of the number of times they have met.

The battles they have fought, both with each other and against a common enemy are as numbered as the stars, and it looks, to those who ever get to see them together, that they are perfect, that there is nothing wrong, that they always get along famously, the master and his servant.

There could be nothing further from the truth.

Every step drew them closer to the edge of the path. The crashing of swords and the rapid, pressing footwork as he slowly forced his opponent back, away from the other members of his squad. But this advantage was not going to last for long. Already he was tiring from being five days out in the field, and his strength was being drained by every clash with this larger and more rested opponent. He was keeping this up for now, but it would only be moments before his opponent realized what he was trying to do.

Distract him, a voice very unlike Senbonzakura whispered in his head. Distract him, and then lay the last blow.

And so he did, feeling rather than seeing the blade of his opponent catch in his rib, just slightly deflected by his own blade.

It was with a very satisfying thud that other man went crashing over the edge of the cliff.

Senbonzakura howled in fury, but he was too exhausted to hear her.

The 223rd time they meet, he is well-rested, and she has been pulling out her hair from worry, not that it shows.

His eyes open, and he sees the walls of the Fourth Division, but they close again as he is forcibly dragged away to see her.

"I cannot believe you did that, you fool!"

"I saved us."

"No, you didn't! I did. I saved you! What were you thinking?"

Two steps and a fraction of a second later, her palm falls across his face.

His eyes widen, then narrow.

"How dare you?" His voice drops, anger seeping into his tone.

If it were an ordinary training session, she would have backed off, would have stepped away haughtily and disappeared from his sight, kicking him out of her world.

But today she is right up in his face, eyes sparkling with what looks like anger, fingers clasped tightly around his shoulders as she shakes them.

"You almost died!" She screams, and he would never tolerate such behavior but she is inches from his face and her hands are shaking on his shoulders.

His heart burns with annoyance, but that does not prevent him from noticing that her hands are shaking.

They never shake.

She also didn't say I, he notices, and she didn't say we either.

She said you.

The realization crashes onto him, and it is all he can do to blink, stunned.

She stops, mistaking his lack of response for annoyance, defiance and stubbornness.

Her hands drop limply down to her sides.

"Forget it," she turns away, "it's been a long day. We'll talk about this some other time."

His hand reaches out just as she disappears into the darkness.

He does not fight recklessly for the next thirty years, and they never talk about it again.

She is not saying anything.

She is not there.

She is not responding.

She is not there.

She is not replying.

She is not there.

She is not there.

She is not there.

It does not strike him yet, he has not yet fully understood it, that much he knows, that much he can still think about at this point in time.

Calm down, he tells himself, since there is no one else to linger in his mind as a reminder. Stay calm, do something.

Observe. Even if you do not have Bankai anymore, you can watch. You can help. This is a bitter pill to swallow, his inability to do anything but watch.

Yes, he can still swing a sword, he has still the shell of Senbonzakura, and there is the possibility that he could still squeeze the last fragments of reiatsu into the blade to strengthen it, but against such an opponent, against such an opponent, he will fall like a rain on a stone, only to be smashed and deflected off its surface.

Yes, he is proud in his confidence but even he, even he can tell what tools he will need to stand a chance against this enemy.

And there is no mercy reflected in those eyes, as there very well should not be.

Their sole opponent is just standing there, holding the black star into which Senbonzakura disappeared, and Abarai is staring at their mysterious opponent with that same look of frustrated defeat he has not seen in a while.

He knows what is coming as he feels the air around him shift. Abarai is reacting, taking a step and drawing his sword.

Can Renji not see this?

Can he not feel this agony?

Why would he do something so stupid?

"STOP!" He all but screams, the empty frame of Senbonzakura dangling from his hand, "You must not let them steal your Bankai as well!"

Abarai has a reply for him, and as impassioned and resonating and desperate as it sounds, as much as his heart is crumbling into pieces as reiatsu fades away all around and even within him, Byakuya knows that he cannot allow this.

Can Renji not see that it is taking him every ounce of self-control to not fling himself at this enemy?

Can he not see that there is nothing more he wants to do than crush this opponent into the dust and take Senbonzakura back?

But he must hold himself back. He must hold Renji back. He must wait. He must bide his time, because there must be a way they can win this.

There must be a way they can defeat this opponent.

There must be a way.

There has to be a way.

Inspired by Chapters 496/497 of Bleach.