Author's Note: A big thank you to everyone who reviewed/favorited/followed this story! It really means a lot to me. This chapter was easier to write; I think I'm finally getting the flow down. Thirteen pages—enjoy!

"Get back here, you dirty piece of shit!" An angry shout came from behind me. It was close. Too close.

Inwardly, I cursed. Usually they weren't this persistent; it was just my luck that I ended up stealing from a guy who wouldn't give up even after chasing me for ten minutes. Clutching my precious cargo, I wove through the streets, ducking behind people and stalls. Hopefully, I would lose him in the crowd soon. At least I didn't have to worry about someone helping him catch me. Altruistic acts of kindness didn't exist here.

First Rule of Rukongai: No one was going to help you. Here, it was every man for himself.

An arm grabbed me roughly around the elbow and shook me violently. I winced; that was going to leave a bruise. The vendor I'd stolen a loaf of bread from turned me around to face him.

"Damn gaki," he hissed, face purple with anger and exertion, "Don't you know what happens to filthy thieves like you? Why, I ought to slit your throat. Better whores like you end up dead than cluttering the streets like you do." That was as far as he got before I spit in his eye. His grip loosened as he broke off cursing and seizing the opportunity, I kneed him in the gut as hard as I could. Not waiting for him to recover, I broke free and ran off in the opposite direction.

Second Rule of Rukongai: If you wanted to survive, you had to learn how to defend yourself damn quick.

I wandered around in circles for a good ten minutes to make sure he hadn't managed to follow me, before heading back home. 'Home' was a small, rundown hut located close to the outskirts of town. It was little more than a shack, really, barely inhabitable, but it kept most of the rain out and was relatively isolated. All I could ask for, really, given the situation we were in.

Rukia and I had been dead for two weeks now (and wasn't that a strange thought?). After the tsunami, I'd only had time wake up and register that Rukia and I were dead before a Shinigami performed konso on us. I'd faded away and had ended up on the outskirts of Inuzuri, the 78th district of South Rukongai, with Rukia a couple of feet away. It hadn't taken me long to figure out that we'd ended up with the short end of the stick when it came to new living arrangements. Inuzuri consisted of seventy percent slums, ten percent semi-well-off merchants and shopkeepers, and twenty percent yakuza and gangs. And for all that the dirt poor people outnumbered them, the yakuza and merchants held one hundred percent of the power.

Third Rule of Rukongai: Don't get on the bad side of anyone with a number of hired thugs under their control, unless you want to wake up one night with your throat cut open. Keep your head down, don't make waves and you might just survive.

Rukia was awake when I got back. She whined plaintively when she caught sight of me and her face scrunched up. Uh oh; warning signs began going off like crazy inside my head. I counted myself lucky that Rukia wasn't one of those fussy babies who wailed nonstop, but she did cry her fair share. Thankfully, she usually calmed down relatively quickly. Making my way towards her, I picked her up and began hushing her. "Hey there, don't cry. Yeah, I'm sorry I had to leave again, but I can't exactly take you with me when I go out shopping, can I?" Carefully, I took out the wild carrots I'd managed to find yesterday. Picking up one I took a giant bite out of it, chewed thoroughly and spat it back out with a grimace. One thing I'd noticed was that most people didn't seem to get that hungry here. Oh sure, people still sold food and some people still ate, but they didn't really need to. Something that confused the hell out of me, since I sure as fuck still got hungry. Not as much as I used to—I only needed to eat once every other day, Rukia every three to five days—but I still needed to eat.

Taking the chewed-up carrot pulp, I put some on my finger and held it up. "Hey baby girl, lunch time. Yeah, I know it doesn't look appetizing but dead or not, you still need nutrients. And as long as I'm taking care of you, you're going to get them." It went against all my medical training to feed a baby using only my unwashed fingers (because eww) but silverware and sanitation weren't luxuries I could afford. All I could do was hope that when bacteria died it went to a different afterlife or something.

I sighed, biting into the bread Doucheface-san had so kindly 'donated' and shivered as a slight breeze swept through the room. I could tell the days were getting shorter, and it had started getting a lot cooler at night. I focused on Rukia as she gurgled happily while sucking on my finger and tried not to think about how I'd make it through the winter.

"Look, I'm not asking for much. Just a meal and a place to stay for the night! I'm willing to do any work you give me, and I know how to cook and clean. Just please, let me and my sister in!" I pleaded. The woman at the door sneered. "And risk you making off with all the money? I know what your type is like. Trash, all of you. If you really want a place to stay, I'm sure you can find someone's bed to spend the night in." With that, she slammed the door in my face.

"Yeah? Well, screw you too!" I screamed at the closed door. Rukia shivered from where she was huddled against my chest and I smiled ruefully at her. "Looks like attempt twenty three is a bust too, huh?" I began walking down the street again. It was cold enough outside that most people were indoors and my hands had gone numb hours ago.

"At least it isn't as bad as the winters in Connecticut, though," I said to Rukia. "You've never seen one, but Japanese winters are nothing compared to the winters in Northeastern America. At this time of year you'd practically be buried beneath four feet of snow. This? This is nothing." I stopped for a moment to catch my breath as my vision blurred out momentarily. Black spots danced in front of my eyes. "Of course, back then I had a house, heating, and a family to go back to."

"Let's take a break, and then I'll go back to house-hunting, okay?" I turned down an empty alleyway, hoping it would provide some shelter from the wind and slowly sat down against a wall.

Surviving through winter was going to be near impossible. I'd known this peripherally, had known in some back corner of my mind that my current house, with its missing door and thin walls, wasn't going to provide enough shelter during the cold. It wasn't until the days started getting shorter and the temperatures dropped to the point where I couldn't leave Rukia without worrying about her freezing to death that I started to understand how hard it was going to be. I only had a handful of ryo left; enough to last me maybe a week. Staring down at Rukia's peaceful face, I couldn't help but wonder if this was how the original Hisana felt. Had she felt the same hopelessness in the face of such overwhelming odds? The futility of trying to raise a child with no food, no money, no job and no decent shelter? I'd always felt that the original Hisana was weak; surely there had to be a better way than simply abandoning her sister and hoping for the best? I suddenly wasn't so sure anymore.

"Are you really better off with me though?" I murmured. Because what could I offer her, really? I had no real marketable skills (I could offer to treat injured people, but who would trust a ten year old peasant to heal anyone?), no allies, no home…she was doomed to a life of poverty and hardship should she stay with me. Would it really be so bad to leave her here? It would be cowardly, yes, but it would also be unbelievably selfish of me to keep her with me. The original Rukia had turned out fine. Someone had obviously found her and taken her in until she grew old enough to fend for herself. Even if Byakuya never took her in (because the chances of him meeting me in Rukongai and falling in love were laughably small), she'd find friends to stand at her back and would become a Shinigami either way. She might find herself in danger, if things went anything like the original timeline, but Kuchiki Rukia had always been one of those people who turned out fine in the end. How could I deny her that future?

Yet at that moment, when I turned to go, all I could think about was a memory from another lifetime, when I was eight and Dave was ten. I'd wanted to play basketball with him and his friends. Dave's friends, understandably, didn't want to play ball with a little girl two years younger than them. When I wouldn't go away, they'd let me play reluctantly. The game was brutal—they'd take turns shoving and tripping me; when I fell down they made fun of my clumsiness. I'd finally left when a basketball was thrown at my face hard enough to almost break my nose. What I remember most however, was when I turned teary, accusing eyes on my brother. He shifted uncomfortably, guiltily, and for a second I was sure he'd say something. Then he turned away, told me to scram and that no one wanted me there.

When my father found out, he was furious. I'd never seen him so angry at Dave. He was grounded for two months, was made to do all the chores, and banned from the T.V. and the computer. Two days after the incident, Dad called me and Dave into his office. With a face like stone, he'd told us, "I don't care if you two get into arguments and fight. I don't care if you get along or if you damn well hate each other. But when it comes down to it, you had better stick by each other, you hear? You're brother and sister; you stand up for each other. Understood?"

A week after his punishment ended, one of Dave's friends called me an "annoying little brat" and told me "not to show my ugly face around anymore." Dave stood up and punched him in the face.

I blinked and the memory faded. When had I stopped walking? At that moment Rukia woke up and upon finding me standing halfway down the alley, she reached up and whined. When I still didn't move, her face scrunched up and she started to cry. With a sigh, I walked back and picked her up. Swallowing hard, I looked down. I'd already broken my promise to my mom once; could I really do so again? Rukia yawned, and then looked at me knowingly, as if to say, It's not that hard, idiot. You've already made your choice.

I smiled ruefully back at her. "You're right," I said quietly. In the end, it was no choice at all. I shook my head and walked out of the alleyway with Rukia on my back. "Fuck canon." Abandon family? Leave my sister's life in the hands of fate? Not a chance.

"Hey, you there," a voice came from behind me, "Girl with the short black hair. Yeah, I'm talking to you." I stiffened before turning around.

"Yes?" I asked cautiously. "May I help you with something?" The speaker turned out to be a tall brown-eyed guy with gray hair that fell over his eyes who looked about eighteen, not that physical appearances mattered much in this world. He didn't look angry but something about the easy, confident way he walked put me on guard.

"You've only been here a few months, right?" He asked instead. I nodded in confirmation; it was difficult to keep track of time sometimes but I guessed that I'd died about half a year ago, give or take a few weeks.

"My name's Yamato Tatsuya," he introduced himself. "I've noticed you're pretty good at pick-pocketing. You're smart. Quick. And you've got good instincts, with the way you pick out your targets." I shrugged. If anything, his praise made me more cautious.

"Yukimura Hisana—and I do what I have to. Did you go to the trouble of meeting me just to compliment my talent for thievery?" I asked sarcastically. He grinned at me, lips quirking up in a quick, easygoing smile. I didn't trust it one bit.

"You're a spirited one, huh? You can stop glancing towards the door, you know. I'm not here to hurt you. All I want to do is offer you a job, Hisana-chan."

"A job?" I asked wryly, twitching slightly at the familiar honorific. "One that will utilize my considerable pick-pocketing skills, I assume?"

"Got it in one," he said cheerfully.

"And tell me why exactly I should join? I don't know anything about you aside from your name, and even that's a toss-up."

"I've been in this shit-hole for longer than I remember, I like onigiri, and I lead a gang of four other kids. If you join, it'll make an even ten." His smile dropped and his face became serious. "I'll be honest with you, Hisana-chan, since I despise liars. You may have been doing alright on your own now, but it won't last for long. It's true that you can't expect anyone to go out of their way to help you and that most people will stab you in the back at the first chance, but you also can't survive without allies. You stick with me, you do what I tell you to say, and I'll look after you. If nothing else, so long as you don't go against me, you can trust me not to hurt you. After all, I protect what's mine. Also," he shrugged, "it's not like you can afford to refuse my offer. I've heard that you've got a kid to look after, isn't that right, Hisana-chan?" His tone turned mocking as he said my name.

My heart seemed to freeze in my chest as he mentioned Rukia and it suddenly hurt to breathe. His eyes possessed no trace of uncertainty or doubt; he knew that I was going to accept. The offer was just a formality—there had never really been any choice. The worst part was, he was right. I did need his help. I'd barely survived the last winter, and that was only because on attempt forty two, I'd finally found someone who was willing to take us in for a few months.

"Looks like you've done your research, Yamato-san," I said hoarsely. He shrugged, that playful, carefree grin slipping back on his face. "What can I say? When I see something I want, I work to get it." As if I was just some interesting curiosity that caught his eye. Nothing more than an object to be acquired.

"Why me?" I wanted to know. "There isn't exactly a shortage of pickpockets in Rukongai, and most of them are more experienced than me."

"I want you because you're strong, Hisana. You're right. There's no lack of thieves in Inuzuri, but not everyone has the drive I'm looking for. Most of them? They're little more than animals, only caring about themselves and how to survive to the next day. You've seen them, begging and whoring themselves out to anyone willing to throw them a handful of ryo," he spat. "And when it gets too much? They break. But you?" His gaze turned considering. "You've managed to retain your dignity. You've still got an honor code. I don't pick people only for their skills; I also want people who won't betray me."

"Save me the flattery," I said flatly. "It's creepy how much you've obviously stalked me. All I want is your word that you'll do your absolute best to protect my sister from harm. If you harm a hair on her head, the deal's over."

"I don't hurt babies," he said lightly, "But you do have my word that I'll do my best to keep her safe. You should lighten up on the paranoia, you know. It can't be good for your health. Don't want any gray hairs now, do we?" I scowled at him, and he laughed, punching me in the arm. "Lighten up! I was just kidding; a healthy dose of paranoia is good in these parts. Keeps you alive and from being fed to the fishes." With another cheerful grin (not even a day into our acquaintance and I was already hating that ever-present smile of his), Tatsuya waved and turned to go.

"Just one more thing!" He called out over his shoulder. "If we're going to be working together from now on, call me Tatsuya!"

Against my will, my lips twitched up and I ducked my head to hide my expression. I still didn't trust Tatsuya as far as I could throw him, and he was an overly-confident, overly-cheerful, manipulative psychopath (or as Takami would say, a yandere), but maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be so bad.

"Whoa, what's with the baby? Aren't you a bit young to have kids? You're like, seven right? Didn't even know that girls could get pregnant that young." I glared at the annoying idiot in front of me. I'd been right. This wasn't bad. This was awful, horrible, terrible, and I was already regretting agreeing to Tatsuya's demands. Next to me, Tatsuya wasn't even attempting to hide his snickers.

"Rukia is my sister, you brain-dead, retarded waste of space! And I'm ten!" I hissed at the moron in front of me. So much for Tatsuya having high standards. I didn't know people came that stupid.

"Now, now Hisana-chan," Tatsuya chuckled. "Horio may not be the…brightest person in the world but he does have his merits." I stared doubtfully at him. Horio was a short, skinny brat with hair that resembled a rat's nest. "He is exceptionally good at creating distractions."

Let's backtrack a bit. Two days after our meeting, Tatsuya tracked me down again, this time at home (I was right, he was a stalker). Rukia had taken one look at him and had burst into tears. I had to give it to her; the girl had good instincts. After managing to calm her down, Tatsuya had dragged me off, Rukia in hand, to "meet up with the others" at what he deemed "the hangout"—an abandoned building not far from where I lived. Which led me to my current predicament.

"Anyway, time for introductions!" Tatsuya announced cheerfully. "Everyone, this is Hisana-chan and her sister Rukia-chan."

"Oh, is this the girl who you've been stalking for the past couple of weeks?" A boy with spiky black hair and blue eyes asked, grinning. Tatsuya pouted. "I'm Kazuki. Nice to meet you."

"Kaori." A girl who looked about thirteen with black hair tied up in a ponytail and bored gray eyes said disinterestedly. The last guy, a tall serious looking teenager with short black hair, nodded in my direction.

"That's Mitsuo. Don't mind him, he doesn't really talk much," Tatsuya explained. "And you might have noticed, but we all call each other by our first names. No need for formality when we're going to be watching each other's backs, right? You and Rukia can stay here, if you want. It's not much better, but at least you don't have to worry about the roof collapsing in, and there'll always be someone at base to look after her. You'll get an equal share of all the profits we bring in, and help yourself to whatever food you want in the kitchen. If you have any other questions, you can direct them to Kaori. She'll be showing you the ropes for the next few months." I glanced at the blank-faced girl. She didn't exactly look happy, but she didn't look upset either. "Got all that?" I nodded.

"Great!" He clasped me on the shoulder. "Welcome to the family."

Until now, I'd thought that while I wasn't the most talented thief around, I was good enough at it to be decent. Passable. Seeing Kaori pickpocket, however, made me realize how woefully inadequate my skills really were. She had it down to an art form, from being able to tell from a glance who had the most money, to being able to stroll down the street, casually bumping into people and lifting wallets, all without their owners noticing. She walked back to where I was hiding, smirking at my expression.

"How did you do that?" I demanded. "No one even looked up!"

"Easy," she said, "In order to be a successful thief, you have to be invisible. We have an advantage there, since no one pays attention to street urchins, but it's more than that. You have to be perfectly confident in what you're doing. Nothing gives away guilt more than doubt does, and nothing is more noticeable than someone with an obviously guilty countenance. Learning how to blend into the background is hard and it took me years to do it properly. Human beings have an innate desire to be noticed, to be important. That's why it's so difficult to learn how to be under someone's notice."

"And how do you know who to target? That last guy was dressed in rags!" I asked. She shrugged. "Everyone gives off signs. They're pretty obvious, if you know what to look for—a shift of the eyes, the way they bargain, how they walk. That last guy may have been dressed like a beggar, but when he passed by that stall selling sake, he paused for a moment and his fingers twitched towards his pocket. I can't really explain it. You'll learn with time."

"You should be careful around Tatsuya, you know." I glanced at the girl next to me. I'd known Kaori for a week now and this was the first time she'd initiated a conversation beyond simple orders and explanations. I still wasn't sure what to think of my…mentor of sorts. She didn't seem like the type to stab me in the back, but she didn't seem like she'd go out of her way to help me either.

"What do you mean?" I asked. If there's one thing I learned over the past couple of days, it was that every member of Tatsuya's group followed him with unshakeable loyalty. Though Kazuki teased and joked with him, not once had I seen any of them go against his orders. In our little 'family?' Tatsuya's word was law, which is why it was so uncharacteristic of Kaori to warn me against him. She sighed.

"I normally wouldn't bother telling you this, but you're my responsibility and so I guess I should warn you. Tatsuya…as happy-go-lucky as he seems, you don't ever, ever want to cross him. Even Horio, idiot though he is, knows better than to anger him, though whether that's because he's so stupid the idea hasn't even occurred to him, I don't know. Tatsuya is very used to getting his way, and he won't stand for anyone who he sees as under his authority challenge him." I fell silent.

"Don't get me wrong. Tatsuya isn't a bad guy, and I owe a great deal to him. Just…just do what he says and you'll be fine." Kaori shook her head and then grabbed my arm. "Come on. See that woman haggling with the vendor over there? She's your next target. Do what I showed you yesterday and she won't even notice she's been robbed until it's time for her to pay."

(It wasn't until months later when I witnessed him stabbing a man in the gut and leaving him to die before turning to me with a bright smile to ask what was for dinner that I started to understand what Kaori was saying.)

It was a month after joining Tatsuya's group that I finally found my niche. I wasn't stupid. Though Kaori was forever polite, Horio talked to me incessantly, Mitsuo always greeted me with a nod and Kazuki never failed to give me a grin, it was clear that in their eyes, until I proved my worth to them, I was nothing more than a burden. I didn't have Tatsuya's charisma or people skills, or Horio's knack for distraction. I wasn't physically strong or good at fighting like Mitsuo, or a conman like Kazuki, and I was a complete amateur at thieving compared to Kaori.

I was, however, good at cooking.

I didn't know if the others needed to eat. All I cared about was that they did eat (and in the case of Kazuki, quite a bit) and thus there was usually something lying around. For the first time since arriving in Rukongai, I had the luxury of being well enough off to experiment a little. And so, early one Saturday morning, I went into the kitchen with the bright idea of introducing French Fries to Edo era Japan.

Humming to myself, I stoked a fire underneath the stove and began cutting some potatoes into strips (even in the afterlife, potatoes were cheap). I poured some oil into the pot hanging over the stove and waited impatiently for it to heat up. I really hoped this would work—there wasn't exactly a McDonalds I could go to.

I'd thought about trying to recreate some of my favorite foods from my previous life for a while now. Unfortunately, my parents didn't let me anywhere near the stove. Once I died, I was too busy trying to find anything to eat to think about what to eat. Here, I noticed that Mitsuo seemed to be assigned the duty of cooking, even though his repertoire appeared to be limited to rice and fish. It would be my first time attempting to cook in this world.

After I deemed the oil hot enough, I threw in the potato strips. I had to refry them about three times before I managed to get their texture to at least slightly resemble the fries I remembered. I was just about to sprinkle them with salt and some seasonings (since I sorely doubted I was going to find any ketchup) when,

"Whatcha doing?" Tatsuya's voice came from right behind me and I jumped.

"Geez, don't scare me like that! You're going to give me a heart attack someday," I grumbled. He grinned. "Looks like you've got to work on your situational awareness then. I wasn't even trying to be quiet," he teased, poking me in the shoulder.

"It's not my situational awareness that has a problem; it's you walking like a damn cat. And this is just an idea I got. Fried things taste good and potatoes are the best food ever, so I thought I'd combine the two." I shrugged and began sprinkling on the salt and some red pepper flakes to add spiciness. Why no one in Asia had come up with the idea was beyond me. I bit into one and chewed it slowly. It didn't have quite the same flavor or texture as the ones in fast food restaurants, but all in all it was pretty good. I'd try soaking them in water next time to remove the excess starch and maybe heat the oil up some more. I started sprinkling on more salt.

"Would you like one?" I offered, handing one over to Tatsuya. He took it and stared at it dubiously. "It's not poisoned, you know," I said dryly. He shrugged and popped it into his mouth. I watched smugly as his eyes widened and a look of bliss crossed over his face. He immediately grabbed another three and shoved them into his mouth.

"These are delicious! Hisana! You didn't tell me you could cook! You're a culinary genius! Oi, Kazuki! Horio! Come over here! Try this!" I watched as they experienced their first French fry with much the same reaction as Tatsuya. Mitsuo even graced me with a quiet, "These are good," when he came over. Kaori didn't outwardly react, but I caught her sneaking a plate to her room. By the end of the morning, Tatsuya and dubbed me the gang's official chef and I caught a glimpse of respect in Kaori's eyes for the first time. I beamed. Even in the afterlife, the power of a French fry was undeniable.

I'd been with Tatsuya's group for four months that I finally found the answer to why most people didn't seem to get hungry. I'd quickly found out that the group didn't only specialize in thievery and scams. Tatsuya also ran a delivery service of sorts. We'd deliver boxes to all kinds of people and would be rewarded with a few ryo each time. I never asked what it was that I was delivering. I didn't want to know.

I'd just delivered a shipment to one of the seedier bars in the area and was waiting for the bartender to pass me the payment when I overheard a couple men at the table across from me talking.

"Heard lil' Daichi's gone and become a Shinigami," one of them slurred to the other, "He's livin' in the Seireitei now."

"Lucky bastard," the other grunted. "He was always a weird one, always whining about how hungry he was. Man, wish I were him. Those damn Shinigami are rich as fuck. Some people got all the luck."

"I don' know," the first speaker said slowly, "I don't trust those guys. You hear some of the stories? They say a Shinigami can take out fifty men with his bare hands."

"That ain't nothin'. I know a guy who said he saw a Shinigami take out a whole pack of hollows with just one swing of his sword. Said he saw one of them get injured—by all rights he should have bled to death. Instead, one of his buddies came over and his hands started glowing green, no joke. Cut was gone in minutes."

At that moment the bartender came over with a wad of ryo. I carefully placed it inside my robe and thanked him before quietly making my way back where I found Kazuki playing with Rukia in the main room.

"Hey, welcome home!" He grinned upon seeing me. I waved back, before heading over to join them. Rukia squealed happily upon seeing me and I set her in my lap. She started rambling in that language only babies understand and I smiled fondly at her. She would start talking soon.

"Kazuki?" I said after a few minutes. Rukia had crawled back to him and had started reaching up in an attempt to tug his hair. "Yeah?" He answered, grimacing as she managed to grab onto a handful and pulled it in a way that looked painful.

"What can you tell me about Shinigami?" He looked towards me and was quiet for a few moments. "I keep forgetting, you've only been here for about a year." He sighed and tilted his head backwards. Rukia pouted and let go of her new toy. "I honestly don't know much about them. All I know is that they're crazy powerful, fight hollows, and live in the Seireitei. You don't see them around here often, as far south as Inuzuri is. You're better off asking Tatsuya. He's in the next room right now, if you want to see him." With a quiet 'thanks,' I made my way over to where Tatsuya was lying face up on a tatami matt and repeated my question.

"Hmm? Shinigami? Why do you want to know about them?" He asked.

"I overheard a couple people in a bar mentioning them and I got curious. Plus, they said something about Shinigami getting hungry, and since I do too…" I trailed off. Tatsuya opened his eyes and gave me a curious look. "You get hungry? Well, can't say that I'm too surprised. It's uncommon around here, but not unheard of." Tatsuya motioned for me to sit down. "I don't know too much about them, to be honest. They're a pretty mysterious bunch. See, you can only become a Shinigami if you have high spiritual power, which is just as well since otherwise everyone would become one. It's having that higher level of spiritual power that makes you hungry, from what I understand. Their spirit energy, or reiatsu, allows them to do all kinds of seemingly impossible things, from healing fatal wounds to being able to form spells. They also have what they call a zanpakuto, which is basically just a really powerful sword. Their purpose is to keep the balance between worlds, or something. That's pretty much all that I've learned about them." He tilted his head up to look at me, one side of his mouth quirking up. "Well, that and to never, ever get in a fight with one. They're called 'death gods' for a reason, you know."

That night, I waited until everyone had fallen asleep before attempting to access my reiatsu, as Tatsuya called it. So far, all my spirit energy had done for me was attract hollows and make me susceptible to starvation; it was about time it did something useful. I thought over what I'd learned, and what I knew previously about the Bleach world. It wasn't fighting with reiatsu that interested me. I had no idea how I'd even begin getting a zanpakuto and I didn't know any incantations, so the spells Tatsuya described were completely out of my reach. What did interest me was what I'd heard about healing kido. It didn't sound like it required any incantations and should I learn how to use it, the benefits would be indescribable.

I sat up in a Burmese position (because hey, meditation seemed as good a place to start as any) and focused on calming my breathing. Deep breath in, deep breath out, I thought. Slow and steady, in and out… Ten minutes later, I fell asleep.

On day three of doing the exercise, I finally made some progress. Okay, Hisana, I started giving myself a pep talk. You can do this. You even got a good night's sleep yesterday so you probably won't fall asleep. Again. Yeah, I wasn't that good at giving pep talks.

I was trying a different approach today. Previously, I'd looked through my mind and tried to sense something, anything, out of the ordinary. Tried to find anything that felt like energy of any sort. It's harder than it sounds when you have no idea what you're trying to find, or how to find it. Today, I was going to try a more visual method.

Closing my eyes, I first focused on clearing my mind, entering the first stage of meditation. The only thing that matters, I thought, is the feel of your chest rising, the wind entering your chest, your lungs expanding and contracting, the warm air you breathe out. I don't know how long I sat like that, feeling all my worries and thoughts drift away. Then, I began to paint.

I imagined a ball of light in the center of my mind, lighting up the darkness around it. It was warm, comforting, orange like the sun just before it sets. I imagined streams of bright fire coming from it, blindingly beautiful streams of plasma, arches of liquid brilliance. They danced around, warming my body like the first sip of a perfect cup of hot cocoa, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. I directed the streams towards my arms, where they flowed down like rivers of light. I imagined the energy flowing from my palms, heating the air, reforming into a tiny sun. And when I opened my eyes there was a ball of light, barely larger than an apple, floating before my eyes gently illuminating the room. I slumped back onto my futon, suddenly exhausted but couldn't help but smile. The ball of energy danced before me and I willed it to fade away. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

It took three more weeks before I could sense and direct my spirit energy with ease. It took two months before I managed to get my hands to emit a soft green light. It took every ounce of focus I had, and I had to be completely, utterly concentrated on the idea of healing, of fixing things broken and helping things regrow for it to work. Focusing it, commanding it, purifying it; none of it was easy. Another two weeks after that, I took a knife and made a small cut across my palm, then called to mind every scrap of knowledge I possessed on wound healing. Directing my reiatsu to the wound, I instructed it to reattach broken capillaries, speed up the rate at which fibroblasts were secreting collagen, and force epithelial cells to multiply at an unbelievable pace. Five minutes later, I stared at the thin scar on my left hand. I laughed, feeling elation rise up uncontrollably in me. The injury was barely more than a paper-cut and had used up more energy than I'd expected but this...this I could work with.


"Hi-sa-na," I enunciated slowly and clearly. "Can you say that for me? Heee. Saaa. Naaa." Rukia blew a spit bubble at me.

"Give it up, Hisana," Tatsuya laughed from across the room. "She'll start talking when she's ready. You know people age differently in the spirit world. Don't worry."

"I know," I huffed, "It's silly, but I want her first word to be my name. Well, either that or 'nee –chan'."

"You might have better luck with 'nee-chan'," Tatsuya pointed out. "'Hisana' isn't exactly easy for a baby to say." At that moment, Kazuki entered the room. "Hey guys, what's up—fuck!" He swore as he stubbed his toe on edge of the table. "That damn thing, always getting in my way. Fuck, this hurts!"

Rukia giggled, upon seeing her favorite plaything in pain. Then, to my horror, she opened her mouth and cried out, "Fu—!" Her voice broke off as I hastily slapped a hand over her mouth. Tatsuya choked out something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Upon hearing the word that Rukia had—almost—shouted out, Kazuki's eyes widened and he hurriedly started to apologize.

"Fu—I mean, shit—uh, what I mean to say is, Hisana, I swear Kami that I didn't mean for that to happen! It just slipped out! Please don't be mad!" He turned to me with giant puppy-dog eyes. Tatsuya had started howling with laughter. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a brief second before opening them again calmly.

"Kazuki-kun," I stated pleasantly. His face paled abruptly. Behind him, Tatsuya suddenly stopped laughing. "Kazuki-kun," I repeated. "You know, I really like you. I admire your skills and respect your contribution to this group. You're a great friend, you've taught me a lot, and I think you could be a wonderful big brother figure to Rukia when she grows up. But," a gentle, understanding, kind smile formed on my lips, "If Rukia's first word is an expletive because you couldn't control your language…" I paused, staring him straight in the eye, "…I will castrate you."

My smile wasn't quite on Unohana's level, I thought. I doubted it would ever be, even if I practiced for a thousand years. However, looking at Kazuki's terrified face and Tatsuya's ash-gray one, something like pride spread through me. But it's a good start.

Author's Note: I tried not to make her too strong or too smart…you tell me if I succeeded or not. I know a lot of it is filler, but I wanted to show her struggles in the Rukongai; after all, original Hisana did live in Inuzuri for 100 years before Byakuya found her. Also, what do you think of the OCs? Like them, hate them, I'd love to hear your opinion. Please review—nothing motivates me more than your support!