The days were bright.

Brighter.

Cheerier and sweeter than those past. Unburdened and weightless, she was suddenly inspired. Taking hold of a brittle stick, Rukia pierced the ashy ground with artistic patience and fervour.

Swipe and strike.

Hummed a gratified melody as the stick's point grazed and parted ashy sands with blissful airs. For there were no contaminations to be had; no more disasters or heartaches or a malapropos not-death turned sly and wry. Even her dreams had stilled, the obscure terrors they evoked made naught and no more.

The most tragic days and times of her life were suddenly, profoundly and with inexplicable oddity, the happiest. When nothing mattered, when meaning was rendered to a forgotten corpse of smoke and shadows, now something mattered―

The expanse of a white sky.

An earth of rolling, lingering breaths of ancient time stashed away―at her fingertips. Begging to be unearthed. She could breathe the brisk metallic wind into herself, exhale forgotten truths and finally, finally, make peace with herself.

With life.

For Fate's slaps and stings, the agonising and morose thoughts of death and blood, didn't resonate so much anymore. Its trenchancy precipitously truncated.

And everything suddenly mattered―once more. She could think, and live and simply be. Not as a breathing carcass, piled on high one-by-one, on top of the ashes of countless others. Like some morbid caricature of royalty, even in post-death.

And for the first time in what must have been forever, Rukia thought this was life. Or what life could be. All because of….

She suddenly paused, blinked slowly, eyeing the Chappy she'd reflexively etched in the ground. It was an image she'd drawn countless times past only it didn't seem quite right. Incomplete, somehow. With a critical eye and a tilt of her head, she added two downward diagonal lines above the eyes. The rabbit's once innocent, adorable expression had suddenly taken on a much more mean and conceited guise. It reminded her of someone.

A very specific someone.

Not for the first time she wondered whether she had gone irreparably mad. An image of herself appeared in her mind's eye in response, a simulacrum conjured from yester-years. Hair shorter, grazing her shoulders. Naïve eyes wide in disbelief, lips parted and levelling screams her way. Demanding to know what she was thinking!

She couldn't really say.

There was no guilt tainting her heart thinking of recent trysts, no morbid choir echoing past griefs and injustices in her mind. There were no doubts, no regrets.

Too much had happened after all; too much had shifted along with the rolling ashy winds. And so much of it all was a blur, a deceptive mirage of high-dosage heavens and hallucinating hells. A barrage of extremes, much like Aizen Sōsuke himself.

It had happened so quickly, so suddenly. And maybe that would have mattered, once, long ago. Before an aftermath of a life discarded and left to rot.

He had pulled her from the harrowing depths of ennui and tragedy. Had breathed life into her living corpse and freed her from the perpetual plague of a gnawing, deadened ache. Around him she felt an exhilarating rush, a thrill, a deep pounding in her chest. It caused her to stop thinking, to start living instead.

Being with him felt satisfying, rewarding. It felt right. In some odd, inexplicable sense.

So invigorated and flourished, she felt ready to fly off the world's edge in a whirl of hopes and dreams.

All because of him.

Grinning wide and cheerful, she added a twirl down across the forehead and nose. It mirrored that long obnoxious curl he'd somehow managed to tame since their posthumous encounter, and which only made an appearance at the most intimate hour as he moved above her. A pendulum of highs in motion―a gentle sway back and forth, back and forth―with every thrust.

She stopped, cheeks burning in remembrance. Red as burning embers. In a delirious and drunken and hazy reverie, she recalled his large hands and lips trailing dreamily over her. Memorising every inch of her body in light, reverent whisper strokes, time and time again. With a poetic patience that would drive her to the edge of madness every time as pleas poured from her mouth, willing the wait to finally end. Only then would he finally take her. Sometimes slowly, in degrees, prolonging his delicious torment. Other times hard and fast, his fingers digging into her hips. Or wrapped inside her long locks, pulling her head back as he kissed her hotly and with teeth, all metallic and red, leaving her with bloody, swollen lips.

Eager to see her unravel completely.

He's got her drugged and giddy and in―

Hands shot to her cheeks as she shook her head, squealing in euphoria and elated wonder. She needed an outlet. Stick in hand once more, she enthusiastically proceeded to draw another Chappy.

"Aizen Sōsuke," she tried the name out loud, slowly savouring it like a newly discovered sweet. As thick and rich on her tongue as blossom-honey. Another haughty rabbit took shape and she couldn't stifle the urge to giggle.

"Sōsuke," she hummed cheerfully, testing out his first name alone. It came out easily, fluidly; an unhindered trickle of water. She quite enjoyed the way it rolled off her tongue.

"Sōsuke… Soooooousuke―"

"Qu'est-ce que c'est, Rukia?"

Surprised, she shot upright and darted round in a whirl of ebony silk and locks. Her heart was pounding, her bangs danced, rippling in patterns around her red cheeks at having been caught unawares―in a compromising act. She met Aizen's amused gaze and her blush spread virulently in silent testimony.

He looked her over with an inquiring eye only for his gaze to freeze at the ground beneath her. His brow arched, features turning perplexed and bemused. Rukia looked down and her embarrassment flared all the more upon realising what had caught his attention.

"Sorry," she uttered, awkwardly brushing aside the sandy ashes with a waraji-clad foot. Her avant-garde masterpieces faded into non-existence into non-concern.

A moment passed before Aizen closed the distance between them. White layers brushed against her frame as the view of his chest filled her sight. His warmth and familiar scent cloaked her; a comforting blend of petrichor and humid mist and sunlit rays. It's effect was instantly calming, drawing from her a quiet exhale. Cupping her cheek, he tilted her head up and met her gaze with an indulgent smile.

"Don't be," he assured, thumb grazing her cheekbone. "That's one of the things I like most about you…."

A beat. Then two. Astounded at the seeming compliment, Rukia could only stare back curiously, wondering at his meaning.

"Your innocence," he concluded simply.

Thump.

And just like that her heart's a-pounding once more, and her mind's a-swirling with bright, disjointed thoughts. He actually, admittedly, liked something about her!

She wanted to squeal. She wanted to fly and fly to impossible, dizzying heights, spiralling past mountains and into the sky. Only then to see Aizen's smile disintegrate. Its effect was sobering and she found herself hurtling back down, present and aware and all her focus on him once more.

"Promise me you'll never forsake your virtues. Not for anything."

His tone was unexpectedly grave and sombre. She felt the weight of his words, was compelled to concede even though she didn't fully comprehend the gravity of their meaning, and after a moment of deliberation nodded her acquiescence. It was a gentle motion but the resolve in her gaze assured him it was a promise that would not shatter and disperse and waft away in a million pieces.

Moments continued to pass and her eyes never drifted from his, allowing her to bear witness to the cloud of melancholy swirling in their darkened depths. It was a perturbing sight. A muted alarm was slowly brewing deep within her as lips parted, intent on asking him what was wrong.

Aizen's hand fell from her cheek as he promptly turned on his heel. In a whirl of white that had her blinking out of that despondent trance. The opening for insight slipped by in an instant.

"Come," he pronounced with his usual casual and haughty airs. The change was so abrupt she wondered whether she'd wholly imagined that solemn mood. "I have a small surprise for you."

Rukia perked up at that. "A surprise?"

"Mm-hmm."

Curiosity piqued, she mentally centred herself and caught up to him in a short dash. Possibilities on what it could be played on her mind as she glanced his way. Expression calm and stoic, he gave nothing away. It only heightened her anticipation.

Her heart continued to beat away with bright staccato beats as her gaze swept towards him again and again. His earlier confession—however modest—and claims of a surprise—just for her—whirled round and round in her mind and the taste of happiness bloomed sweeter than ever on her tongue. Greed and gluttony were wholly unknown to her and yet she suddenly found herself wanting more. An even sweeter melody with which to lose herself to, and her focus shifted to the marginal distance between them even as they walked side by side. She found it utterly distasteful.

She needed to be closer.

So her gaze fell to his hand.

Her fingers suddenly burned and itched like the raucous wrenching of a brutal birth. They sought purchase, sought relief. Subconsciously, she reached out for him. Sought a more meaningful connection. Only to waver and pause as her nerves got the best of her—

even though… they were lovers now.

Only it felt too strange and surreal to describe them as such, too uncharacteristic and formal and oddly detached. And that was the crux. Physical intimacy came easily, like a blade through the heart and a honeyed whimper escaping parted lips. Deeper bonds of greater meaning and worth did not and there was still a chasm deep and vast between them. His heart was still closed off to her, every secret and smarting thought veiled from her.

She too had her secrets, all too painfully obscure and buried deep.

And she could leave them be—his and hers—like a shattered mosaic in a botched excavation, shards scattered and soon-to-be forgotten. Or she could unearth them and bring them to light with delicate precision and careful fingers.

A breath, in and out. Slow and steady and her hand was already moving—already decided.

Her fingers gently caught his.

A jolting shock spread wire-like throughout his body. Slowly he looked down at her, quietly surprised. Rukia met dark questioning eyes with the warmest of smiles. It spread easily across her lips and drew his gaze. Captivated, he blinked. Once, twice. Then with awkward, jerky movements he turned away, eyes pointedly set forward once more and not missing a step. A long silent moment passed that left her nursing a numbing streak of disregard.

Perhaps she was being a little too fanciful. A little too greedy.

Disheartened she loosened her hold, intent on letting him go, only to feel his fingers quickly intertwine with hers in a firm grip. It almost felt as if he were clutching onto eternity itself.

And just like that, just that little bit closer.

Her smile widened, deepened, and a happiness immeasurable bloomed anew deep in her heart.

. . .

It was a short trek.

Across flat plains and behind the withered frame of a stony cliff. And there she saw: a utopia.

A watery oasis metamorphosed out of a crumbling chrysalis, beyond dust moths and ashy beetle-bugs. Rukia gaped at the lush green lotus leaves across a wide, crystal clear pond artfully adorned by a thick array of Butterfly Maple, Weeping Willows, Hinoki and bamboo. An antiquated single-tiered wooden pagoda stood serenely at the water's edge, wholly inviting. Leaves danced with the breeze, the gushes of a rushing waterfall swallowed the barren silence. It drew from her an audible gasp.

For a long moment she stood frozen, engulfed in a miasma of marvelled stupor. Thinking her senses were deceiving her; an artistic illusion poised to pull at heartstrings. Slowly she approached the scene before her, rays of light beaming like a helioid magnet, emitting mesmerising, humid, plasma-scorched waves. They wrapped around her slender figure, drew her in as she dipped low, fingers tracing the smooth tip of a large lotus leaf before disappearing below the glimmering water's surface. It sparkled bright like liquid diamond shards. The effect was hypnotic and blinding as bright light engulfed her figure.

"Beautiful," she whispered in awe.

"Yes, it is."

The words had been uttered so softly she almost hadn't heard them. Brushing several strands of hair behind an ear, Rukia glanced his way. He was standing exactly where she'd left him, a look of calm serenity gracing his features. His gaze however wasn't on the spectre of a traditional tea garden, but centred solely on her.

There was no doubt as to his meaning and she blushed furiously.

"So! This is the work of your zanpakutō, then?" she ventured glibly as she stood up straight, breaking the mesmerising lull. Even after all this time he was still able to fluster her with uncanny ease.

Avoiding his gaze she gestured at the green shrubbery and trees. "I hadn't appreciated the complexity of its illusions! It all looks so real. Too real."

Her critical eye scanned the foliage, took in every detail, right down to the faint web of veins spanning across the leaves. They swished rhythmically with the misty breeze, a trailing scent crisp and fresh permeating her senses. Rukia breathed in deep and slow in blissful appreciation as her fingers grazed a floating Willow's branch.

As if coming out of his own stupor, Aizen blinked, gaze refocusing. Seamlessly he withdrew his blade and held it out, its tip facing the ground. She heard a whistling melody in the air, soft and ethereal akin to a divine incantation, as the steel edge caught a ray of light and shone a luminous white.

"Indeed. Kyōka Suigetsu's power is absolute, and an immeasurable reiryoku perfectly demonstrates its potential. I long since overcame the limits of a Shinigami and in so doing transcended being itself. The conventional and expected, the rational, the very laws of existence itself, were rendered negligible and obsolete in wake of my ascension. There are no divisions in such a state, no qualms or follies of the heart. Kyōka Suigetsu and I have been one in essence ever since. Consider too the Hōgyoku I hold dominion over and the result far exceeds anything I could have envisioned."

Re-sheathing his blade, he looked upon the scene once again as if appreciating it for the first time. In the interim she took the time to contemplate the meaning behind what he was saying.

"Then… is it possible this isn't mere illusion? And that you're able to alter reality itself?"

The idea wasn't as ludicrous as it seemed. He always appeared so detached from the world, like an entity undefined, staring down upon all from on high with dark, lucid eyes. Nothing seemed to affect him, and yet he was able to influence all before him.

Aizen's gaze was still on the oasis, wholly contemplating, even as he smiled coyly at her words.

"That depends on your definition of reality."

She almost huffed aloud at that. Some things never changed, and he was still as difficult and evasive as ever.

Perhaps sensing her dissatisfaction he finally looked upon her, furtive smile still in place.

"Reality is an elusive concept. Many have pondered on its meaning, futilely sought an answer to the question of what is? Does the external world beyond the conscious mind objectively exist, or is it all Māyā? Do our senses afford us a glimpse of truth, or are they the very instruments of our deception?"

Bending at the waist he picked up an ashy rock in one hand. In the other, a purple-white iris appeared out of thin air. Both items were held out to her, inviting her scrutiny. Rukia took them in each hand, feeling their weight, cataloguing the rock's rough and dusty texture in contrast to the smooth stem of the flower.

"Looking upon them, analysing them as they are, can you discern any difference between the two? Anything that would affirm that one is more real than the other?"

Carefully she analysed the flower, seeking a whisper of abnormality. Anything out of place and found nothing at all. It looked and felt as real as any bloom she'd ever known.

She shook her head. "No."

"Yet an indictment against the conjured flower would be that it does not truly exist."

And just like that it vanished from her hand.

"Its existence is elusive, destined to fade. A trick of the senses. But is the rock any different? Its existence too is nebulous and transient. All too easily it too can be made naught."

Sure enough the rock too vanished from sight, nary a speck of ash or dust in its place.

"Can it really be said that it ever truly existed at all?"

She had no answer, even as she mulled over the question more and more. Aizen gazed upon the mirage not-mirage before them once more, a faraway look gracing his features.

"Like an illusion within an illusion, a dream within a dream. It's the flower reflected in the mirror, the moon reflected on the water's surface. Neither one is real. But such insight is to be expected. True enlightenment, rather, is the realisation that the flower beyond the mirror, and the moon above water, similarly, do not exist."

Rukia blinked slowly, quietly awed and lost in her thoughts.

"Well," she began thoughtfully after a patient quietude. "If everything is an illusion, then perhaps nothing is."

Aizen's eyes narrowed in reverie, his lips curled slightly and a soft chuckle echoed in the air. Emboldened, she took his hand. Their gazes met and she prompted him forward in silent invitation.

"For now, let's enjoy this for what it is, even if we have to inevitably wake up one day."

His smile relaxed, was more assuaging, as he uttered his assent. "Ah."

Grin wide and overwhelmed by a sensation of giddy and heady, she tugged him forward, leading the way into a reincarnation of whimsical romance and wakeful dreams. They skipped over stepping stones and white crushed gravel paths, whisked past the glistening waters and emerald greens and everything was right in the world.

Just him and her flying over cloud nine.

Reaching the pagoda she promptly took a seat on the edge, hastily removing her sandals and tabi before allowing her feet to skim the water's surface. In the midst of it all she breathed in deep and was all at once inundated with the scent of him. It was everywhere, in every leaf and piece of wood and drop of water, teeming with verve. With a deep inhale she breathed him in and felt all the more alive.

Aizen took a seat beside her, curiously amused. "I take it you're pleased?"

"Of course!"

Satisfaction played across his features as he watched the unbridled joy radiating from her. So the moments continued to pass, with her staring out at his creation whilst he quietly observed her. His fixation was only slightly embarrassing. Just as she was about to jest that she wasn't all that interesting he was moving round to his side. A second later and a trickle of water caught her attention, followed by a distinct and long-forgotten aroma. Turning around she saw a rectangular chabudai and two jade tea cups. A black cast iron tetsubin was in his hand as he expertly poured the tea.

"Join me."

Not inclined to refuse, Rukia moved into seiza, eagerly accepting the cup handed to her. Took a sip, tasted the slightly bitter and sweet grassy notes as its warmth spread all the way to her core. Quickly she drained every last drop and softly exhaled her contentment.

"I never did learn to appreciate green tea, even though Nii-sama always had it served with evening meals," she revealed softly, lashes downcast as she stroked the cup's smooth surface. A small, whimsical smile played on her lips as her brother's memory filled her thoughts and brought with it a tender ache more sweet than any leftover tragedy. A gentle suffocation of the heart and not the familiar sting of a thousand needles piercing deep.

Rukia was glad she could finally recall the past absent the accompanying crippling torment and residual agony.

Another moment, followed by another exhale as she met his gaze. "Now though, at this very moment, I can honestly say it's the best thing I've ever tasted."

Aizen chuckled over the rim of his cup. "Well, I'm honoured to have been the one to enlighten you to its merits."

She smiled her response. It was so easy talking to him like this. For once he seemed tangible, no longer moving onward and climbing upward, forever beyond reach.

He's been climbing for too long.

Only now, after all this time, after all the marathons that never ceased—never waited—did he finally seem still and grounded.

Rukia breathed in opportunity and reached for him. For a one-in-a-million chance to lay bare his heart.

"Tell me about yourself."

He was in the midst of pouring her another cup as his eyebrow arched in bemusement.

"What would you like to know?" he asked, all blithe and wry, not meeting her eye.

Everything she wanted to say but opted for something simpler. Direct. And the beginning was always a good place to start.

"Where were you from? What was your childhood like?" she wondered aloud, envisioning a grand tale that would help make sense of the man before her. Of the man he would come to be.

Aizen brought the cup to his lips with timely grace, took a sip before placing it down on the low table, still avoiding her eye.

"At the risk of disappointing you, it was largely ordinary and unremarkable. I was found by a Lady's retinue outside an abandoned temple in the second district. Discarded infants were all too common in the Rukongai, even the inner regions. As I recall it, my wails had been ferociously loud and alerted the entourage to my presence. Pitying me, the Lady ordered I be taken in and shortly after I was formally adopted by her house: the Nakatomi."

Rukia blinked at that. He was adopted?

Their common circumstances surprised her.

"The Nakatomi… weren't they a noble clan?"

"Yes. Predominately an administrative and literary one that served under the Tsunayashiro House. Theirs was a long line of bureaucrats and scholars, both at the Shin'ō and Kidōshū."

Well, that helped explain his erudite genius and aptitude for Kidō. Her own tutors had been quite strict; she couldn't begin to imagine how much more taxing and severe the expectations would have been for someone in such a household. Even for someone with Aizen's talent and inherent potential.

"Yet… you didn't assume their name?" she ventured carefully, hoping there were no old wounds she was unearthing.

"No," he responded simply, and thankfully, wholly at ease. "Despite the gratitude owed, I could not. The Noble Houses, both greater and lesser, were the very pillars upon which the Soul Society stood. So too were they exemplars for all it signified and a testament to its purported worth. The Soul Society's laws, its very history, so too was it theirs, engrained deep in the bones of their ancient houses. I could not in good conscience accept such an aegis. It would have been a betrayal of everything I believed and all I had resolved to do."

A pause, followed by another sip of tea. "Moreover, the Noble Houses saw themselves as manifesting the perfection of every virtue by simply being. All too often though they were found wanting. Never did they consider that the nobleman isn't born, he is made. Magnanimity, the right and the good, neither are a right of birth. They are attained by man's own will. So too would I be the author of my own worth."

She slowly nodded along; the snippets of insight coming together like steaks, like blotches of vibrant paint across an empty canvas. Every answer helped form a more clear and distinct picture of him.

"So why Aizen?" she asked after a sip of tea.

There was a slight twitch in the muscles near the corner of his lips as his gaze brushed over her. It was only then she realised his eyes hadn't met hers for the entirety of their exchange. It was odd, so unlike him.

A twisted knot of unease formed in the pit of her stomach just as a heavy weight lodged itself deep in her chest.

"I had been wrapped in indigo silk when I was found," he revealed easily, lips curled into a thoughtful smile that didn't reach his—cold—eyes. "And so 'Aizen' had seemed appropriate."

Indigo.

Her eyes widened in astonishment. He'd named himself after the only thing he'd been left with, the only thing with a fleeting connection to where he'd come from.

As if that would allow him a sliver of understanding of who he was.

The revelation struck her deep and gnawed away at hearts and minds even as the weight in her chest grew heavier. Something about the account struck her as odd. She'd never known anyone in the Rukongai to wear silk. Not even the most unscrupulous and exploitative gangs could afford such finery, never mind anything close to the colour purple. Which could only mean….

Wide eyes shot up in realisation, looking upon him with a singed and poignant expression. To be abandoned by one besieged by the horrors of the Rukongai—as she was—was understandable. To be abandoned by someone who knew not of such hardships….

That….

Such a thing was….

She could only silently retreat as his expression turned blank in his reveries, fell flat, like the rivers during summer-droughts. Where nothing new flowed free, and where all the gunk and muck that remained was left entombed and discarded.

Like him.

Rukia couldn't begin to imagine what he was feeling even as her mind continued to mull over his words, the spoken. The unsaid.

The Lady.

Not Mother.

The Nakatomi.

Not family.

A rejection against all that had rejected him. A resolute, apathetic unwillingness to form any meaningful connections—his entire life. She doubted he was even aware of it. It seemed all too innocuous a defence, deep-rooted and instinctual.

His ghost-aches wound deep, the weight in her chest settling around her bruising heart as it throbbed for him. She felt compelled to reach out. To hold him; to offer some meagre, overdue comfort. She needed to do something, anything—!

"Now then," he declared with a light and breezy tone and a single clap of his hands, eyes finally meeting hers. "Seeing as your curiosity has been sated, what will you have with your tea?"

Rukia almost jumped out of her skin, stunned and shell-shocked at the abrupt change. She met his gaze with wide, startled eyes. "What?"

Her thoughts were a jumbled mess as she tried to make sense of his words even as residual melancholy still gripped at her chest. With a decisive end to the topic, one thing was clear: he wanted neither her pity nor compassion.

Especially when he held neither for himself.

Carefree, Aizen replied. "Surely there's something you would enjoy being able to eat once again?"

She closed her eyes, shook her head. Dispelled mental cobwebs and surprise at the offer as she sought clarity. Food was the farthest thing on her mind. Her lids parted open once more and she saw him looking at her, silently patient and expecting. Words were unwittingly pulled out of her; slowly, laboriously, and past a lump in her throat.

"Uh… tamagoyaki and shiratama dango," she whispered old, long forgotten favourites on automatic rewind.

Aizen gave her a benevolent smile as he attentively echoed her request. "Tamagoyaki and shiratama dango."

And just like that two plates appeared on the low table before her. Rukia couldn't help but startle in amazement as her dejection waned. Upon one were half a dozen slices of the egg omelette, thick and evenly sliced. On another was an array of multi-coloured rice dumplings sprinkled with kinako, others topped with a generous drizzle of red bean paste. Unwittingly her mouth watered.

Her hands moved before she even thought of acting. Starting with the eggs, she eagerly picked up a slice with the accompanying chopsticks and bit into it. An unconscious moan echoed in her throat as her tongue rolled the morsel over, her eyelids closing in bliss as she savoured its delicate sweetness.

She heard Aizen chuckle his amusement but paid him little mind, all her focus on the meal before her. She devoured all six slices in quick succession, imagining they filled her belly with their weight as much as they did her heart with antique whims. Moving onto the dumplings, she quickly popped a few into her mouth and squealed her happiness as she took a moment to enjoy the flavour. They tasted better than she remembered.

"So good!"

"I'm pleased to hear it," he relayed with a terribly smug smirk as he poured himself another cup of tea.

Oh, he was definitely pleased with himself. And Rukia was much too preoccupied enjoying herself to level a retort his way.

Stuffing her mouth with more dumplings she settled on looking him over instead. As was routine he inspired absent contemplation just as a thought befell her.

"You're not going to have anything?"

"Hmm?" he hummed, eyeing her over his cup.

Her eagerness to have him join her was well etched upon hopeful features and beseeching violet eyes that would not waver from his. After a long moment Aizen deeply exhaled, clearly conceding. She inwardly grinned.

She would take her victories wherever she could.

A plate of silken tofu appeared on the table as he wordlessly picked it up and cut a small slice with a wooden fork. Her brows furrowed slightly as she watched him eat with casual motions. His favourite dish, out of a multitude of varying possibilities… was tofu? Something bland, something textureless; he hadn't even bothered with any condiments or toppings.

Nothing superfluous, no embellishments.

Only a detached ascetic simplicity.

Hmm.

She unhurriedly chewed on her dumplings as she mused on the revelation. Thought back on what she knew of him:

Scholar, idealist. Forever engrossed with his thoughts and visions—of a better tomorrow.

Refined and reserved. A man of simple pleasures, if any at all.

Las Noches too came to mind, floated across the depths of antediluvian imagery. She'd thought the minimalist design a simple aesthetic choice. Now however she saw the empty, austere lines and white marble hues as a deliberate aversion to material stimuli that sought to seep deep into hearts and minds. Like an enduring, artless trickster intent on weaving a miasma.

Quietly musing, her gaze swept over the tea garden, noting its beauty. Its complexity. It occurred to her he could have created something similar far sooner with which to indulge in. Something to offset the hellish landscape and alleviate their tragic circumstance. And yet he hadn't. Wouldn't have allowed himself to, she concluded, loath to loose himself within a deception. A lie.

Whether invented by his hand, or not.

For existence was elusive and intangible; he himself had taught her as much. And in his heart was a lone desire for truth. For the mirror of illusion—of being itself—to shatter and reality itself to at long last be laid bare.

Rukia blinked slowly in insight and swallowed her mouthful. It was thick and cumbersome as it went down her throat. Putting the plate along with the remaining dumplings down she quickly crawled to his side. In a flash of sidereal charm, she curled up close beside him. The air turned thick with his surprise as he put down his plate.

"Rukia—?"

"Thank you," she whispered softly, expression content and avoiding his gaze.

Finally she understood the significance, the weight, of everything around her. He'd done all this for her when he needn't have.

Wouldn't have.

Her hands clutched onto white layers as his arm eventually curled around her, holding her close. A smile bloomed across her lips as waterfalls continued to thrum in the distance and leaves danced with the breeze. She'd had her fill of lovely fantasies and her heart now ached for the only real thing left in this world.

Her grip on him tightened.

. . .

It came as a surprise when Aizen didn't immediately dispel the phantom paradise.

Seated leisurely within the pagoda, their lessons continued across the blur of passing days. Grand overarching theories of everything filled the void, the echoes of reincarnated faiths were extolled in rhythm and rhyme. Rukia hung on his every word and mentally memorised them verbatim.

During a lull they would fall into a familiar pattern of Go. Aizen had been teaching her various tactics all the while reciting wartime strategies by ancient masters. She heeded his instruction, his tactical brilliance—even when there were no more wars to be fought. Her game nevertheless improved; she could last much longer against him now and even take portions of his territories.

She never missed the eager delight shining in his eyes during those moments.

When not engaged in a battle of wits he'd taken to teaching her calligraphy. So she currently found herself: enveloped in his arms, her small hand encased in his, petite figure and head pressed against his warm chest as he guided the thick brush in her hold across a sheet. Cheeks stained red she watched the single line flow in calligraphic arabesques; a midnight-blanche, black ink printed across alabaster white. Sheet after sheet, each character was immortalised in perfect dabs and masterful strokes.

Mesmerised, she could not look away.

Only to feel his lips skim the shell of an ear, a warm puff of air against her skin. Her breathing faltered, her body jerking and the hand holding the brush along with it. Like a series of snapshots she saw garish and harsh streaks appear across paper. A ruined work of art. And his amused chuckle, vibrating against her neck.

"We'll have to do something about your self-control."

Rukia pouted at his teasing, annoyed despite herself. The sentiment however didn't linger with Aizen placing a hand under her chin and raising her face towards his. His meaningful gaze caught hers, a beat, and he was tilting his head down to kiss her. Soft. Supple and drawn out and all was right once more.

"And there's no better time than the present," he declared after finally pulling away.

Detaching himself from her he promptly stood before offering his hand. Interested in what he had in mind she easily took it and allowed him to help her up. Not relinquishing his hold he closed the distance to the pagoda's edge and stepped down, right into the water. Rather than sinking into the pond's depths however he was standing atop it as if it were firm and solid.

At his beckon she followed his lead. Gathering and solidifying the reishi beneath her feet she gingerly stepped down to join him on the water's surface. Finally releasing her hand he paced a couple of meters away before turning to face her. Extending his arm out to his side, she felt his reiatsu flutter just as a fluid stream swelled heavenward. She watched as it twirled around him, a crystal ribbon in an artful dance.

"Reiatsu isn't only a demonstration of our overall power, but an indicator of our own mastery. Unwieldy and chaotic spiritual pressure, no matter how immense, reveals a lack of conviction and control. The contrary then is actualised excellence."

Another stream of water rose seamlessly into the air to join the other swirling around him.

"Often the simplest execution proves the most challenging," he relayed just as one of the ribbons of water flowed her way, circling her, before returning to him.

"Your reiryoku has grown significantly, now it is time to hone your reiatsu. Follow my lead."

She watched the ribbons of water weave and twirl in graceful motions. At his nod, she attempted a similar feat. Releasing her spiritual pressure, she directed it towards the body of water and willed an upward force. A ripple formed and not much else. A little more forceful, she tried again, which resulted in a chaotic splash. She could only frown, all the more dismayed by how effortless he made it all look.

"You're too hesitant and over-exerting yourself. Remember that everything is an action and a reaction, an advance and a retreat. A rising and a sinking. The more obstinate your approach, the more unruly the outcome. Calm. Clear your mind of all thoughts and breathe."

Rukia sighed but did as told, breathing in slow and deep.

"Slowly stretch out your reiatsu towards everything around you."

Closing her eyes, she felt her release unfolding, broadening. Brushing against her surroundings, she allowed it to weave itself along every particle like a cascade of white ink. Quiet and still, she made no other move.

"Good. Maintain that awareness, feel the water beneath your feet. Allow your reiatsu to flow with it."

Her spiritual pressure gently thrummed as it moved alongside the water's surface in time with its currents. Simultaneously a chill spread in the air. The atmosphere cooled and carried a scent like bleached snow at the brink of dawn.

So engrossed she was in a mindful meditation she scarcely noticed everything steadily freezing around her.

"Now direct your reiatsu to the surface and with it a stream of water."

Rukia did so. Envisioned a rivulet similar to his, felt the cold vibrations move along with the water, entwined in its flow. Gently she willed her spiritual pressure to the surface and beyond.

A trickle of sound broke the silence and she opened her eyes to a watery torrent steadily flowing upwards, wisps of ice dancing along its edges. It wavered slightly, tenuous and lacking in grace, but maintained its form. A gentle exhale of relief passed parted lips as she felt the soft gust of snowflakes in the wind.

"Well done," Aizen commended with a pleased smirk.

Expression at once bashful, she smiled softly at the praise as she worked on calming the ribbon of icy water before guiding it his way. It wavered only slightly as it flowed around him. One of the streams circling him made its way towards her in turn, dancing around her ribbon of ice as their reiatsu met in a delicate caress. It brought forth a shiver across her frame wholly unrelated to the surrounding cold and a smile to her lips.

Invigorated by the spectacle her confidence grew and the icy torrent's movements smoothed. It grazed his periphery before returning to circle her in a shower of glistening snow specks. Aizen's lips lost their haughty edge as he took in the sight of her, his smile softening a fraction more. His gaze all the more wistful and in a haze. Amidst a frozen paradise he suddenly seemed many a world away.

"You've been smiling a lot lately," he finally commented as both their streams continued to glide back and forth between them.

"Well… I have a reason to, now," she replied happily before sheepishly adding, "thanks to you."

Aizen blinked at that, eyes just that little bit wider. Expression astounded and dumbstruck. After a moment of simply staring at her, all quiet and still, he raised a closed fist to his lips. Quietly coughing deep in his throat he awkwardly looked away.

Rukia resisted the sudden urge to giggle at the sight. Through a handful of sparse and rare and never-forgotten moments she'd come to realise he could be so uncharacteristically self-conscious at times.

So uncharacteristically human.

When faced with a moment of absolute sincerity—the long denied and avoided and unfamiliar.

All his life.

She sobered slightly as she thought of how much he'd gone without, how much he'd closed himself off to. The never experienced and unknown.

Until now.

Her heart swelled with bitter happiness and throbbed with an even sweeter pain. At the very least he was slowly letting her in, allowing her a glimpse—allowing her to shine a light—upon his elusive heart-soul.

She eyed him gently over the pulsing, weaving waves. He seemed all too aloof and withdrawn, engrossed in a moment of contemplation—

pondering the higher philosophical—nebulous—relationships between Man and Woman.

And she may have left him like that if she weren't feeling a little daring. A touch spontaneous.

Taking hold of a once-in-a-lifetime chance she carefully stretched out her reiatsu just that little bit further. Felt the gentle currents weave unhurriedly beneath his feet. Then without timidity or qualm she willed a surge at his back. An icy wave rose and quickly descended upon him like a miniature hurricane. Crashing down—crashing hard—with snow gusts whipping his skin raw. Left dripping wet, he stood there soaked in silent shock and a maelstrom of incomprehension.

Losing all vestiges of her composure, Rukia broke down laughing at the sight.

"A truly masterful demonstration of sobriety and vigilance, shishō!" she teased through inhales of much needed air. Her petite frame keeled over as she tried to still the hearty chorus.

Aizen blinked, long and slow, before narrowing his gaze. She had no time to react.

In the next second a wave was hurtling straight for her. She cried out as it washed over her, soaking her to the bone. She retaliated with a wide arc of her arm and an accompanying gale of frost. It disintegrated into a burst of steam as it collided with his burning reiatsu. His expression was at once merciless and amused.

Thinking only of escape she quickly darted away with a shriek. She could feel the stirring currents beneath her feet as they echoed the frenzy of her beating heart. The water closed around her, pulling her down into its depths. She could feel him gaining ground, his heat close at her back. Desperate, she pushed on, waddling through unforgiving tides. Before her stood the withered cliff and the gushing torrents of an imposing waterfall.

There was no escape.

Turning around she made another swipe, hoping to catch him with another wave before he had her. Only he was already upon her. Grabbing her wrists, drawing from her another yelp, he had her effortlessly pinned against the cliff. Time slowed and snow drifted down, evaporating as it neared his pulsing reiatsu. Her heart pounded as she stared into his eyes through wet bangs. The world was a sight of melting ice and an emergent dense cloak of vapour reminiscent of an onsen in the midst of winter.

Rukia breathed heavily with metallic lungs. They held her rooted to her body and mind present as her focus centred solely on him; thoroughly drenched in a humid cloud, long wet curl waving gently in front of his features. His lips were a thin line, his eyes dark with the promise of retribution. Her lips parted on a plea for mercy—

That promptly morphed into a gasp when she felt the length of him press against her, water rippling around their hips as he trapped her further against the cliff.

Releasing one of her wrists, he waved a pointer finger in front of her face in disapproval. She could only stare back at him through heavy-lidded eyes.

"Such insolence," he commented lowly, before cupping her chin, the pad of his thumb landing on her bottom lip.

"Now what am I to do with you?"

The digit caressed her mouth and a shiver traced her spine at the prospect. Vivid images played over and over in her mind, a multitude of possibilities that set her blood alight and tightened the coil of anticipation at the pit of her stomach.

Like a blaze, his reiatsu flickered bright and she yielded—caught herself on fire.

Body willingly burning with want for him, she closed her lips over his thumb, her tongue gliding over it languidly. Her gaze never left his, even when his eyes darkened and narrowed further. Licking over the length of it, sucking gently, she moved slow and low before releasing him with a resounding pop.

Neither moved for the longest time after that.

"When did you turn into such a minx?" he asked after a pregnant pause.

Rukia gave him a teasing smirk, expression playing at thoughtful. "I'd say right around the time I got involved with a bad man."

His lips curled in dark amusement. "A bad man, you say?"

She hummed an affirmation as her free hand fell between them. Eyes never leaving his, she tugged open the sash below his waist.

"Very bad."

His smirk grew in response.

The next moment was a blur of movement, a whirlwind of flying clothes and moving limbs and a haze of chaotic highs. Skin brushed against skin. His large hands moved over her, fingers tracing her figure. Rukia moaned in tune with his deliberate caresses. Encouraged and more than slightly amused, he bent to suckle her breasts. Drew from her a hiss when his mouth closed around, bit down upon, her modest mound.

When he exhaled against her chest she could feel it, hot and heavy and heady. Her sight blurred, her thoughts swam in molten lava streams.

In the pall of a scorching mist, she found it difficult to breathe.

Standing tall once more, he hooked her legs around his waist, pressing closer against her. His large hardened shaft brushed the juncture of her thighs as two fingers slid back and forth between her legs, the pads of his fingertips seeking out the wetness there before proceeding to play with her clit. She released a sharp breath through her nose, head tipped back, staring at the heavens. His name stuck on her tongue like a prayer that hurt—burned, bled—to make.

Sōsuke.

Not Aizen. Sōsuke.

His spiritual pressure vibrated against her, skimmed and teased and punished her as surely as his fingers. Across every plane and every inch of skin, all at once. She gasped, her body suddenly feeling like a vibrating cord wound tight, seeking a release cruelly denied. Her head shook from side to side, her hands sought purchase as her blood thrummed and her mind and being unravelled. His smug chuckle only added to the fire.

The humid air, his hands and reiatsu all conspired to undo her.

"Please," she managed through a short, heavy pant, gaze imploring. "Sōsuke…please!"

It was the first time she'd used his given name in such a way, hot and heavy with longing. He froze at the sound of it as everything came to a still, converging upon a moment of absolute finality. Something flashed in his dark irises, suddenly burnished bright and platinum-gold.

He did not let her catch her breath before he drove into her, hard.

Her lips parted on a silent scream as she came there and then.

Rukia sucked in a harsh mouthful of air as she felt herself sinking, falling, pulled back from vertiginous heights with every deep, pounding thrust. Her hands clutched onto him, a broad shoulder and well-defined bicep that tensed and flexed under her fingers. The firm solid lines of his frame, the fingers digging into her hip and the harsh rocky ridges against her back helped ground her.

He breathed heavily as he watched her, hooded eyes, and she felt naked in an entirely different way; skin peeled back raw and her very soul exposed. His alone to bear witness to. One of his hands left the underside of her thigh. Reaching out to her, cupping a breast, he gave it a squeeze before his fingers spread higher and settled over her heart.

Claiming it.

She could feel it pounding in frantic beats against his palm.

He could feel it too.

Barely any sound left her as she panted heavily in time with each impel into her core, her mouth open on a silent, torturous song as their breaths mingled. Heavy-lidded eyes remained locked on his, beseeching. Her body thrummed, the coil tightening once more.

She was close. So very close.

Her muscles tensed, her features contorting in agonising ecstasy. A soundless cry echoed in her ears as her insides clenched and thighs tightened about his waist. Her hips bucked, inviting him deeper still. His fingers dug a little more harshly into her hip, his own pushing forward with more force just as his forehead brushed in contradictory gentleness against hers. And then his lips, skimming tenderly across a temple.

Her heart was all at once full even as she felt faint. The air she was breathing in wasn't enough.

The world blurred around her, a bleeding mirage until everything was black. Was nothingness made real.

. . .

A large white moth danced across her violet eyes, pale and fluttering.

Gaze refocusing, Rukia looked beyond it as a spectrum of colours spread out like star bursts seeking the eternal horizon sky. Slowly they settled and filled the outlines of a myriad of trees and flowers.

There were so many flowers.

Across a wide open expanse, white and purple blooms unfurled tall and proud under a full ivory moon, brilliantly suspended like a luminous jewel against the clear night skies. A gentle breeze picked up, petals wafting against her and into the air, inviting her fancy. Teasing her curiously, leading the way into a whimsical secretive fantasy—

into the sky, where the castles were pristine and perfectly not-real.

Rukia followed their lead down a path etched with déjà vu. The familiar sound of crickets and a trickling stream called out to her, pale moths and delicate fire flies danced around her. She'd been here before, once, in another time. The view akin to a mirror unfolded in silk; a retrospective memory obscured and piercing way back when.

A silent exhale of wonder and anticipation escaped her.

Enthralled she ventured further forward. Past the forest-trees and found herself before a wide pristine pond singed bright, serenely reflecting the hallowed moon above. Lotus blossoms unfurled upon its surface, leaving in their wake a trail of ascending geometric outlines and light spurts. And at its edge she saw a man, all silver and greys. Seated calm and serene with a long delicate brush in hand, he traced characters upon the water's surface. They spread out in bright light-strokes, illuminating white lines that shone stark before slowly fading from sight.

Hesitantly she approached, her posture deferent and curious. A meter's length away and surprised awareness finally gripped him as he paused from his writing. Tilting his head up, long silver hair parting, he looked upon her past a grey band of silk.

"Hello," she greeted softly. "I think we met, once, long ago."

No response. Tentative and nervous, fingers fidgeted with the material of her hakama above her thighs as her gaze darted around. "Can… can I sit with you?"

A moment's pause, an instant of veiled consideration, and he gently nodded his head. Unable to hold back a wide grin, Rukia eagerly sat down in seiza next to him, watching as he resumed his silent calligraphy. His presence was at once otherworldly and peaceful, inspiring wonder whilst calming her tenuous heart.

He didn't seem to mind her being there; if anything he seemed all the more at ease after his earlier surprise. And so time lulled and thoughts quelled as she basked in the solitude and quietude of a never-ending repose.

With a sidelong glance—demure and discreet—she took in his flawless pale white skin reflecting the midnight lunar light. The lines of his grey robes, upon closer sight, were translucent and fashioned out of delicate smoke-fabric. Tranquilised and materialised, like an apparition carried over from a sea of dreams.

A hallucination, a piercing reminder.

Quietly she sat, pensive, and wondered what was missing from that time, long ago. What she was forgetting. Characters continued to illuminate the water's surface, a transient insight into her enigmatic companion's thoughts.


Wisdom

Courage

惻隠

Compassion

内省

Reflection

済度

Redemption

A spark of insight and in her mind's eye an image of Aizen appeared, hunched over, suppliant in his sorrows and tortured melancholy. Crying out:

God is dead.

God is dead.

And we have killed him.

The thread of revelation and remembrance jolted alive inside her as she bolted upright, spine straight and on edge. "Is Sōsuke here?"

The man paused in his writing. His focus was still on the pond as the last word slowly faded from sight. Without turning towards her he gently nodded his response.

Anxiety gripped her heart as his ancient visage, forlorn and tragic, floated in and out of her mind like a flickering mirage. "Can I see him?"

Her concern wasn't lost on him. The corners of his lips curled up ever so slightly into a small, sincere smile. So slight, she might have imagined she was seeing it. With another nod, he slowly turned and gestured towards a path hedged by a thick growth of ivy and irises.

"Thank you," she exhaled with a deep bow before setting off in fervent strides.

She ran across the cobbled path free of hindrance, felt the brush of flower petals against her skin and breathed deep the anticipation in the air even as it hit her with a raw, aching yearning in between organs. Not knowing what awaited her, she prayed for a moment of serendipity.

Rukia ran, and ran, and ran, and finally came upon an open clearing; a wide pool, marble pillars and an altar, all laid bare before her. And at the crux of it all sat Aizen, head tilted towards the heavens, arms resting on his bent knees, all alone with his thoughts.

A moment to calm her erratic breaths was all she allowed herself before she was moving again, quickly making her way to him. As she neared she heard a chorus of whispers; soft utterances absently recited under hot-heaven, bluntly moist air.

"…Remember that you were led all the way these years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you… to make known what was in your heart…."

Rukia gingerly kneeled down next to him, loathe to disturb him in his reveries yet eager to draw his attention.

"Sōsuke?"

It came out as a gentle exhale and just as promptly faded into night as he continued to stare wholly engrossed upon the full silver moon, whispering quietly.

"Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life…."

He seemed less aggrieved than she remembered but worry still tightened about her throat. Moving without thinking, she gently pressed a palm to his cheek and maneuvered it to face her.

His features were blank for the longest time as he simply stared straight through her, prompting her to once again whisper his name. "Sōsuke?"

Slowly he blinked, gaze refocusing and settling squarely upon her. All at once he appeared to deflate, shoulders easing, body unwinding with a relieved breath. A small gratified smile graced his features, gaze unbearably tender, as he raised his hand. A warm palm covered and trapped her own, a confirmation of blood and skin all too real.

"Eden…," he whispered with such unabashed fondness her breath hitched and heart skipped.

Speechless, Rukia simply gazed back at him. Heart thumping, thoughts whirling, wondering at his meaning. Not knowing what to say or do she could only watch on as his face began to oddly blur in front of her. As if across currents, a cascade of water vanishing into a traceless torrent of unfamiliar lines and arabesques

बोधि

that vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Water slid through her outstretched fingers, his cheek and hand an illusion cast away into wispy light streams. Ephemeral, he drifted further away.

Alarmed she reached out, thinking if she were quick enough, if she reached just a millimetre further, gathered just an ounce more strength and good will, she could reach—

Him

Eternity

God

One and All.

Only he was already gone. With her anchor suddenly vanished—vanquished—Rukia felt herself splintering, parts divided, and drifting off.

To another world.

Something gripped her as an influx of rapacious whispers skimmed her ears. Painless—parasitic—and had her spiralling through a vortex of light blurs and warbled sounds, like water siphoned from an unravelling chute until she, similarly, was no more.

. . .

Nothing.

Once again that was all she knew.

Life was no longer a vision, existence scarcely even a dream, and all that remained was an infinite emptiness marred by a single thought.

Of which, too, was nothing. Poised to become another inconsequential shadow of naught.

The idea of an enduring yet all too fleeting mortality was enough to petrify her out of anxiety and bewilderment. The remaining slivers of her consciousness spread out, wandering futilely against the endless darkness. Perpetually seeking.

Seeking something.

Confined beyond space and beyond time, her efforts seemed trifling. Though at some undefined, indistinguishable point she heard the surrounding echo of a distant melody. It sounded like an instrument of some kind, something with strings, its tune sombre and melancholic before shifting into something far more dramatic. With the change a flicker of light suddenly appeared. Instinctively she made a mad, frantic dash for it, or so it seemed. The sound of strings grew more chaotic, echoing her urgency as the entirety of her focus sought an avenue, an out

from this game, this nebulous, miasma-laced realm of obscurities and deceits.

The light grew larger and larger as she neared, a speck into a blur into solid lines until she was glancing upon a large ornate throne forged from white jade. Life-like images were etched upon it—a rendition of creation thousands of years ago, a setting sun and encroaching end. Neither scene was static, rather perpetually shifting, pulsing.

As if breathing, in tune to the slowing, fading symphony.

She could only watch on, mystified and hypnotised.

"Hello again."

A melodic voice cut deep across the midnight void, booming with imposing splendour, and she felt its echoes deep in her spectre heart. Its chords were at once liberating, like invisible threads weaving amidst the void and succeeding in pulling her out of the depths of nothingness. With wobbly legs and strangled gasp Rukia fell to her knees in a sea of black. Feeling all too stunned and frazzled. Wary and anxious.

Vigilant, she kept locked the insane.

As her eyes darted round they froze upon a white porcelain mask coming into view against the throne. As if seated upon it, this veneer of a divine pedestal, looking down at her with invisible night-eyes. An ice-hot shudder came over her.

"Tell me…," he began after a drawn out pause, eyeing her curiously. "Are you pleased with your choice?"

"What?"

"Aizen… Sōsuke," he intoned slowly, tone weighted, as if uttering the mere name was an unreasonable encumbrance wholly beneath him.

"I—" she began but was instantly cut off.

"Curious… given his iniquities. Those of days past… and those yet to come."

"He—"

"Committed innumerable wrongs. Against Heaven. Against the right. Against his fellow man… against you."

"No! I mean… he…," she impulsively sought a defence but was instantly overwhelmed by his persisting chorus and an oppressive, encroaching weight in the atmosphere. A pressure was building, steadily finding its way down her throat and lungs before clouding her thoughts.

"He killed Ishida Uryū before your very eyes," he began, launching straight into a grand indictment. Intent on levelling charge after charge like some divine adjudicator, omniscient and absolute.

"No! Uryū… Uryū was already gone by then!" she relented despairingly.

"He viewed all around him as mere means. Nothing more than pawns and tools to be utilised as he willed… and summarily discarded when no longer of need and absent of worth."

She shook her head, a hopelessly tacit denial even as Hinamori Momo's heartbroken, betrayed features faded in and out of sight. The faces of his Espada, of Ichimaru Gin and Kaname Tōsen, and a flash of ancient insight as she bore witness to his blade cutting into a blonde female Arrancar.

Tōsen's wounded body imploding with scarce a glance from him.

And an armless Ichimaru falling before an angelic monstrosity, purple-white eyes gazing down indifferently as blood danced in suspended, morbid grace from an open wound above the dying man's heart.

It felt like she was sinking in Ichimaru's place. Panic wrapped its frigid mantle about her heart as Rukia looked upon Aizen's dead-cold eyes and felt ice in her veins.

"He intended to kill thousands in Karakura… and as many more required to achieve his ends."

The human town she had come to know and love flashed before her eyes, the sounds of human children laughing. The chirping of birds, the movement of numerous individuals going about their day-to-day lives.

A moment of peace cruelly brought to a still by a ferocious blast as a violet laced ball of chaos descended. Silence followed silence, before a flurry of purple flames swallowed the world against a backdrop of cataclysmic pandemonium and dying screams.

Hot air whipped against her, the force rattling bones as fire kissed her skin. She staggered back, the endless night swallowing her cries.

"He… he thought he was acting rightly given what he knew," she countered in between tears, but the defence sounded far too feeble even to her own ears. "That he was acting in pursuit of a greater good—!"

that did not come to a close with the end of the world.

"Hell is full of good meanings…," he easily countered, voice echoing deeper and louder. "Is some obscure, lofty ideal such as the 'greater good'… worth the price of forsaking one's soul?"

"He didn't… he didn't know!" she pleaded in between much needed mouthfuls of non-existent air.

"Truly, man's arrogance is proportion to his ignorance. And what arrogance… to rebel against creation… to presume he could do better."

"Please. Please stop," she helplessly pleaded against his words and the brutal suffocating force pressing down upon her frame.

"Heaven is Good, is Beautiful, is True," he continued, unmoved by her suffering. "Heaven's will is just and absolute, mandating order across the realms as it is beyond the highest stars. Those who obey Heaven prevail… those who defy it perish. Such is law. To act against Heaven is the height of lawlessness."

"No! He didn't—!" she gasped in naïve defence. Even as his words rang true she desperately wanted to deny them, to find a lie in them.

She had to!

Because… because….

The pressure was building inside her organs and lungs, pounding against her skull. It felt as if she was suddenly drowning.

"Sin is lawlessness," his voice boomed majestic and interminable. "And the measure of sin… is eternal, just damnation."

"THEN I WILL LIBERATE HIM FROM SUCH A FATE!"

Beyond invisible depths, Rukia emerged with a declaration loud and true as the surrounding pressure instantly dissipated and was no more. Her mind was shot dark, ringing. Her voice echoed against the midnight void and she was panting far too hard as she gazed resolutely upon her furtive stranger.

The mask stared blankly back at her. The moment lingered, stopped, and stretched into eternity.

Finally, he spoke. "Oh?"

It sounded like a taunt, a challenge. It gnawed, it chaffed her raw. And still she would not be deterred.

Lungs burning, ribs diverging, she determinedly steadied her breaths and swallowed a lump in her throat before collecting her thoughts.

"I have glimpsed upon his heart, and there is goodness there," she revealed slowly, quietly, a confession exhumed from a vault somewhere hidden.

"He is not beyond redemption. If ignorance is his failing, I will open his eyes. If he should go astray, I will be the light of deliverance on his path. No matter the personal cost or sacrifice, I will safeguard the dignity of his soul!"

Her gaze didn't flinch, didn't waver an inch as she immortalised the vow into words. Not once did she look away from dark empty sockets—blazing and all too eager to ignite the pyre—as she sealed her fate.

And so too her heart.

Another stretch of silence filled the void between them. And for a split-second, she thought she saw more of the floating simulacrum before her. Surprise etched across her features as she caught the hues of a pure, blindingly bright darkness. A shadow. His shadow. Seated regally upon his white throne, long legs crossed, jaw behind the mask resting on a closed fist. His other hand casually drooped over the armrest, middle and index fingers tapping evenly away at the length of jade.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And just as quickly as it had appeared the shadow was gone. Was no more. The phantom sound however lingered, echoing deep in her skull. A pounding chorus that continued to count the non-existent seconds away.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Why?" he finally asked, the query ripe with bafflement.

Why?

She wondered as much herself. She had just made a promise—on her life—sworn an oath that could not be destroyed. So why was she willing to go to such lengths for Aizen Sōsuke?

"Because…."

Because I….

"I love him," she uttered softly, simply. Suddenly. Bewildered at the revelation despite herself.

She… loved him.

No. Surely she didn't.

But she did, had loved him for a long time now. He was her life's meaning.

She could only live and breathe when with him.

No! Whatever she felt for him, it couldn't be love. She wasn't that kind of girl, the kind that loved a man like him. She didn't love him. She didn't.

She…. She—!

"I love him," she repeated as tears streaked her cheeks, putting truth to words and an end to subconscious wounds. Once again it was too-too quiet as the proclamation hung between them, spun from gossamer and stronger than steel.

"You… love… him?" the mask eventually asked. Dark disbelief tainted every word laboriously spoken, the totality of their meaning a bitter poison. An anathema on his tongue.

A deathly cold had suddenly descended upon her. Erupting like a frozen flame, writhing from a dark, ugly place. Rukia resisted the sudden urge to shudder, to shatter—into a million tiny pieces.

"Yes," she affirmed, relieved she could mask the burgeoning tremor in her voice. The budding whispers of an encroaching fear.

Another pause. It was the only reprieve she got before he went straight for the kill.

"And does he love you?"

He….

Rukia blinked as something icy and numb began to fester deep in her chest. Snippets of their recent time together flooded her mind, as bright as starlight. But stars only shined against a backdrop of darkened night, and his thoughts concerning her were still largely hidden behind smoke-veils and shifting shadows. Like an enigma that cannot be surfaced.

How could she know what a man whose mind, soul and heart, all near impenetrable, truly felt? She could scour every inch of his body, read every glance, every facial twitch, heed every word spoken and envision every thought unuttered and still she wouldn't truly know.

Aizen Sōsuke was beyond worldly understanding.

And, perhaps, beyond love too.

She quickly quieted that thought, too agonising to even consider an unrequited love forevermore. Locked it away where it couldn't be reached, couldn't be touched—somewhere beyond the stars.

"I don't know," she finally whispered, relented, as more tears pooled in her eyes.

"Oh child," he spoke softly, features lamenting and sympathetic. "You have no idea… what awaits you upon this path."

Pain.

Pain like she'd never felt before. Overwhelming in its sheer intensity, tearing into her flesh like millions of hell-scorched specks of ash, each and every one a blazing rendition of hell itself. Fire and electricity coursed her veins as black tendrils of ice encased her exposed organs before settling upon her heart. The blackness spread, all-voracious and consuming, devouring her until she was nothing more than violent scarlet streaks and splatters, suspended mid-air.

Her spine was shot straight, neck bending back at an impossible angle at the warring tortures. Her body was consumed by a violent tremor, pulled every which way by barbed wire and hooks, on the verge of tearing. Her mouth was open but she couldn't scream around the sensation of claws piercing her throat, gorging her on iron and rot.

An even darker blackness swam behind her eyes, the prelude to unconscious oblivion that she still had enough sense to welcome if only so the pain would stop—

PLEASE GOD, MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!

"Open your eyes… and see."

Violet eyes flashed, shined bright at his thundering command and Rukia saw

Aizen standing still amidst a forest clearing, thick glasses ominously catching the light—veiling eyes, secrets and intents—as she ran from him, horror and despair gripping her heart.

Convulsing on the ground, his name pouring from her lips amidst tears, hand outstretched at the sight of his retreating back.

Her back against the wall—a cold, calculated fury simmering beneath the surface of his skin—his lips moving harshly against hers, angry and metallic, and a brutal grip on her locks near the base of her skull as he dragged and hurled her onto a large bed.

His fingers tight around her throat, choking her, purple-silver eyes livid and heartless as he spoke a command that incinerated blood and bones.

Kneeling on marble tiles, eyes closed as bloody streaks traced her cheeks, blindly gripping at him, at anything she could reach, pleading he stay—don't go!—as he stoically detached himself from her and ventured ever forward.

Countless images flashed before her eyes in an instant, ignited a pain more intimate and cruel inside her heart. And just as quickly they were no more. The torrents of agony released their hold on her and she keeled over with a harsh, strangled cry.

Nothing hurt, everything hurt. Rukia couldn't bare it as she wailed helplessly, gasping in air whilst trying to expel the acid in her lungs.

"So you see… your sympathy is wasted on such a man. For the pains he will instil on you, every heartache and lasting tragedy. Forever adamant in his ways… his beliefs. Spiteful against any sacrifice made," his voice echoed forlornly.

Rukia shook her head, whimpering unintelligible nothings as she tried to make sense of anything, anything at all.

"He is not worthy of your love."

Every word felt like a savage slap, smarting across her face. Then, the final blow—

"Between you and the highest throne… he will always choose the latter."

that left her winded. Exhumed and hollow. She wouldn't think of it, locked it away in the darkest depths of her mind lest the stinging truth of it cut chasms in her heart. For the longest moment she didn't move, didn't breathe, as watery drops spilled precariously past her cheeks.

Only when the shock was a bitter tinge on her tongue did she slowly raise her head, unwaveringly looking at him through the tears in her eyes.

"Even so, I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't at least try," she whispered shakily yet sincerely.

It didn't matter that she may never have his heart.

He'd already claimed hers.

And so she would martyr herself across lifetimes if need be. For him.

"Every soul can be saved. Even his," she added more firmly, resolve flashing in her violet eyes.

A streak of something precarious blazed in those dark, empty sockets in response. And his face was all the more a cloak, a mask and a veil and invisible brocades of livid and red, anger, frustration, indignation, betrayal, and rejection. Levelled her way like a condemnation, another sinner on the cusp of judgement as her body was fleetingly reacquainted with prior tortures and memory-aches. And all of a sudden there was water in her lungs, and she was sinking in black frozen waters, all alone with no one to save her. Drowning, drowning, drowning

The maelstrom came and went, in a flash.

A stoic visage stared back at her as her body trembled uncontrollably, a fear unlike any fear past consuming her in a crippling embrace.

"Who are you?" she asked with shuddering, bated breath. Trying to understand something and as if that answer alone would shed light upon everything.

The mask's porcelain lips curled upward, amused yet harbouring a derisive edge that cut like a poisoned blade.

"I am."

"What does that mean?!" she demanded with an exasperated scream.

A distant echo of laughter was the only response as the jade throne disappeared and the mask began to slowly recede into the endless depths of nothingness.

"Wait!" she cried out, willing her abused limbs to move, to chase after him. The mask was little more than a speck of white against the void, and then all too soon, was no more.

Besieged by panic, Rukia blindly pressed on, still physical and whole and not reduced to some aimless, drifting consciousness. So she sought escape, keenly aware of her desperate, tired pants and the anxious pounding of her heart echoing all around her. The world was reduced to empty darkness once more and she forced herself to temper a budding hysteria.

There had to be a way out!

So she kept moving, and moving, and moving, and all of a sudden she was falling.

Falling fast with a cry. With the rhythmic coursing of fresh blood and a frantic heart, and hit a crux with a resounding splash.

Unsteady and disoriented, she took a moment to calm her nerves before surveying what she could of her surroundings. The chill of cold water against palms and shins was all she could sense. It felt shallow, an inch or two in depth, and yet there didn't seem to be anything beneath, only more of that pervasive, insubstantial void she'd been lost in.

More nothing and nothing else.

When she tried to stand she was overwhelmed by the oppressive weight of gravity as it pulled her back down. She tried again, her body feeling all the more heavy, and promptly relented, collapsing amidst a chorus of heavy breaths. Futility weighed down on her in turn, and she swallowed a weary sob. Thoughts a plague, she wondered if she would ever manage to escape this hell.

It was as she was sitting there, exhaling her exhaustion and distress, that she finally heard something. It was faint, but steadily grew louder as it neared, and soon enough she could make out the echo of steps.

Someone was there!

"Hello?" she called out desperately, imbued with a spark of hope. Her head darted around, eager to catch a glimpse of something. "Can anyone hear me?"

More steps, nearing steadily.

"Please, I need help!"

"Rukia…."

Her name! It sounded odd to her ears across the distance, the pronunciation slightly off, but she was certain she'd heard right.

Someone had come for her!

"Yes, I'm here!"

Pale silver light swiftly shone down upon her. Instinctively she squinted, allowing her eyes to adjust, as her gaze skimmed over the black waters surrounding her. Her shihakushō was gone, replaced by a thin white robe. Wet, it clung to her like a second skin, revealed everything and she may as well have been wearing nothing at all. Pink tinged her cheeks as she covered her chest with an arm, hoping to preserve some measure of modesty. The steps of an elusive stranger neared, unhurried, a steady tempo as if against marble. It captured her attention once more as she looked around, trying to discern something amongst the shadows swimming beyond the halo of light. Something shifted in her periphery and she instantly turned towards it.

There, out of delusory languish and entropic anguish, the midnight façade and ruse, she saw Aizen emerge from a sea of black. White robes and coat gliding, hooded eyes locked on hers despite the distance. A breath she hadn't realised she was holding left her, incalculable relief consuming every fibre of her being. Arm falling down and away, happiness etching itself all over her face, she eagerly reached out for him

"Sōsuke!" she exhaled, beaming bright.

The corners of his lips twitched, curling slightly upwards, but the smile lacked the usual carefree easiness she'd grown to know during their time together. There was something oddly cold and detached to it now. Daunting, somehow. Nor did it reach his eyes. His eyes. Darker than she ever remembered them being, as black as the nothingness surrounding them and colder than the farthest, lowest circle.

Something caught in her throat, tightened in her chest. A tremor shook her frame and her smile wavered, then vanished.

"S-Sōsuke?" she ventured tentatively, hand retracting, not entirely understanding what she was seeing.

"Tell me, Rukia. What do you see… the longer you stare into an abyss?"

Once again the way he spoke her name didn't sound quite right to her ears. It blew softly across her face, catching light, was a sound—near musical—and a feeling. Not at all unpleasant, and yet for some reason it unnerved her. It felt like a secret, some intimate knowledge about herself that she wasn't privy to. It set her on edge.

His question had her wavering, on the cusp of some precarious fall—right off the edge.

With slow, measured steps he began to circle her, just beyond the luminous circle's periphery, watching her out of the corner of his eye. Half of his frame faintly illuminated by light, the other half engulfed by shadows. Silently waiting.

"I'm not sure I understand," she finally replied, shuffling round on her knees in an effort to keep him in her sights.

He hummed thoughtfully and his gaze flickered forward. "Then answer me this… who are you, Rukia?"

What kind of question was that?!

"I'm—!" she began, exasperation thick on her tongue yet promptly stopped. Residual horror traced her spine once she realised she didn't know how to answer what should have been the easiest question in the world.

"Who are you, Rukia?" he echoed as she fumbled over words and thoughts.

Hearing the mispronunciation of her name only added to her frazzled state as she futilely sought an answer.

"I… I…."

Sode no Shirayuki, how do I not know this?! Surely you know me better than I know myself. So please, help me! her heart cried, only to be met by silence.

Sode no Shirayuki?

More silence as her heart skipped a beat, stopped, dropped. The horror had spread, was in her veins, crippling her with icy dread. When was the last time she even heard the call of her sword-spirit?

Frantically, she searched the recesses of her mind, every past thought and buried memory and recalled

pale skies, bleeding lilac streaks

the taste of plums, sour on her tongue

a numbing emptiness in her chest after another cyclical brush with death and a cry, from on deep, deep in her battered soul—

Rukia…!

Enough…

cannot…

Must… stop!

and nothing more.

On her face was a nameless terror etched, eyed wide, mouth agape. Frozen stiff and still, a living corpse as the off-beat tune of lives-and-deaths suffered and counted played its tune. Aizen had told her there would be a price.

Just what had she sacrificed?!

Panic swam in her eyes, hysteria creeped along her throat and she couldn't think—ohGod!ohGod!ohGod!—she couldn't breathe.

Aizen's hand clamped down on her quivering shoulder and she let out wounded scream. Tried to tear away but his grip on her was a vice, was all hard and steel as he kept her rooted in place.

"Who are you, Rukia?" he asked once more, indifferent to her distress.

He was close at her back but there was no warmth to be found in him, nor any contrary cold. He was all void and nothingness, something beyond transcendent—beyond all understanding—something where time lay dreaming and death itself died. She felt the numbing tendrils of an eternal abyss weaving along and underneath her limbs, threatening to pull her under. Undo her, destroy her.

She was gasping now, trying to form words beyond an incomprehensible mess of supplication and pleas as a large drop of water rose into the air. Dripping as if in reverse, it ascended slowly before her eyes, at once a liquid mirror, allowing her to gaze upon her terrified, tear-streaked face. Watery violet eyes beckoned: who are you, Rukia?

She didn't know.

"I don't know," she uttered oh so softly as the ball of mirror-water clouded, her visage hidden as it continued its ascent, vanishing amidst the darkened heavens. She sounded broken even to her own ears.

She heard Aizen sigh from above as he relinquished his hold. Empty and hollow, she had no desire to move. Even when his fingers caressed her neck, weaving along wet ink-black strands. She scarcely registered his touch.

"Such a tragic thing… to have teetered so close to the precipice. To have gazed upon the void only to lose one's self entirely," he noted pityingly, fingers tracing her jaw before threading through her locks once more.

"Truth is often invisible to the eye. It is only with the heart that one can rightly see."

His musings washed over her, unheeded. Unnoticed, much like his touches.

"Look deep within your heart, Rukia… and answer me this…," his fingers were suddenly like claws as they fisted around a clump of hair near the crown of her head. Surprise and pain pulled her from the depths of inertia, drew from her a panicked cry as thoughts whirled chaotically.

What… what was happening?!

He yanked down, harshly, her neck bending back at an uncomfortable angle, shot with a cramping ache that had her gasping and yelping. It allowed her a glimpse of his face, hovering forebodingly above. All semblance of pity gone, a cold heartless mask in place. Instinctual fear gripped her as the icy black of his eyes wrapped frozen tendrils about her heart. It thumped sorely, anxiously, her breaths morphing into heavy pants as her chest rose and fell before his gaze.

Watery eyes captive, she watched his lips part. Words flew out, imperious and demanding.

"Who am I?"

He allowed just enough time for his question to sink deep, to leave its unholy mark, before hurling her face-first beneath the water's surface.

Her cry was instantly swallowed by midnight currents no longer shallow but boundless in their depths. Water quickly forced its way down her throat, steadily drowning her in the depths of forsaken oblivion as she thrashed about helplessly, limbs floundering against the unrelenting grip keeping her down. Her lungs burned, her mind reeled.

Why? Why was he doing this?!

She scarcely felt the stings in her scalp as she was unceremoniously pulled back out. She heaved and gasped, choked and wheezed as she simultaneously tried to cough up water and inhale much needed mouthfuls of air. Her heart was pounding now, quicker and quicker. Bruised raw with fresh hurts and incomprehension. When she felt his lips skim the shell of her ear she unwittingly froze despite the occasional cough and spasm still reigning havoc across her frame. A petrified whimper followed at the kiss he placed there, a perverse mimicry of intimacy that had her insides twisting in protest.

"Who am I, Rukia?" he breathed hotly with a longing that transcended all meaning.

Tears unbidden rolled down her cheeks as she shook her head, lost and confused. "Please," she sobbed despite her aching throat. "Please, Sōsuke—"

She was furiously pushed down before she'd even finished uttering the name. Wholly submerged in unforgiving waters, immersed in hellish torment and denied any inkling of mercy.

Her arms flailed, hands warring against his hold, trying to lessen his grip on her locks as she strained to tear away. His grasp didn't waver, didn't soften an inch, wholly intent on holding her under. The burning in her lungs had returned with a vengeance, her heart pounding so fiercely it might have imploded there and then. Frantic, she looked up, tried to catch his eye; it was the only appeal she had left. Silently begging, praying, that he let her go.

And there she saw Aizen staring down at her, lips a firm line. Eyes darker than death and colder than purgatory's embrace. It felt as if he'd pierced her with his gaze, flayed her skin, bared her raw. Cracked open her corpse and tore out her frozen heart before crushing it whole. Her supplication discarded, swept up in a soulless, unforgiving abyss.

That's not Sōsuke! her heart cried out as she continued to lose herself in the black nothingness of his eyes. He has his face and his body but it's not him.

It's not him!

It can't be him!

Truth and lies weaved in and out of her grasp as her thrashing limbs stilled in muted terror. The burn in her lungs morphed into a heavy, encroaching numbness as the pounding of her heart began to still. Black seeped into her gaze, down her throat, across her mind.

The blackness was everywhere.

On the cusp of life and death she finally saw a flash of something in his eyes. Then his lips, curling up into a magnanimous smile touched by a hint of something darker still.

"How unfortunate, Rukia, that you have forgotten the first and most imperative Commandment. Consider this, then, your only reminder," she heard him say, voice an echo a deep vibration felt countless times in her soul. She shuddered, colder than cold as her sight darkened and blurred.

His voice was the last thing she knew before the void swallowed her whole.

"Thou shalt have… no other gods… before me."

. . .

Violet eyes shot wide open.

Out of mirror shards crashing, beyond black waters swirling in chaotic ribbon streams, Rukia flashed awake. Frozen stiff, frozen still, a ghost-memory and liquid-pains lingering in the depths of her unconscious mind. Berating, haunting, taunting. And words, a whisper she couldn't recall echoing deep, etched in her soul and waiting to be exhumed.

One day on the morrow.

A shuddering exhale of enduring fear escaped her, heart hammering away chaotically within the confines of brittle ribs at the lingering effects of a nightmare already forgotten. Quietly, she took in her surroundings: a wooden pagoda bathed in the thick of night. A soft ethereal glow of blue hues from the pond beyond. A gentle trickling of water in the distance. Fireflies dancing unhurriedly in the air. The sensation of warm sheets beneath her, and another's presence; the steady rise and fall of their chest pressed against her bare back, arm firmly about her waist.

Aizen.

She quickly swallowed the wounded cry on the tip of her tongue, overwhelmed by instinctual pains and terrors. An anguish that bound, that killed, that struck hard deep in her chest, and her heart was beating faster, paced infinite and thumping loud. All because of him. Like a poisoned mist, thick and heavy, inundating the senses, he was everywhere and in everything, slowly suffocating her.

The agony wound deep, was unbearable. She had to get away from him. Now.

Slowly, carefully, she tried to pry herself from his hold without waking him. Bit down on her lip to stifle a chorus of wails seeking escape like the many tears trailing down her cheeks. Not daring to even breathe, she moved his arm. Counted the seconds, long and ever so slow. A little higher and she could finally wriggle herself free.

He stirred behind her. For a second Rukia thought her life had slipped past, down a landside, a promontory, along with her frantic heart. Panic and fear renewed their crippling grip on her. She was done with care and caution. Fast and in a blur, she tore his arm away and quickly crossed the distance to lean against one of the wooden walls, knees pressed to her chest as she curled into herself. Trying to make herself as small as possible. To disappear entirely.

It was a hopeless wish as Aizen was at once wide awake and alert. Sitting up, he quickly scanned the scene before his gaze settled squarely on her.

"Rukia?"

She couldn't deny the note of concern in his voice. The alarm swimming in his dark eyes, highlighted by the pond's cerulean glow. Her heart throbbed all the more because of it, knowing it was a balm, a peace and a reprieve she could not give in to.

Not quite trusting herself to speak, she merely tightened her hold around her knees, willing the tremors and tears to cease.

"What is it, what's wrong?" he asked, tone a touch more severe, as he stood up. Took a step, two, and his hand was reaching out towards her—

Pain.

The most excruciating pain she'd ever known overwhelmed her. Like frozen, numbing, darkened tendrils wrapping around every part of her. Simultaneously incinerating her, tearing into her. Drowning her.

All by his hand.

Aizen.

Pain.

Aizen.

Pain.

In her mind, in her heart, he was synonymous with unspeakable agony as a myriad of images came and went, in a flash. Him. Hurting her.

Again and again and again and again and againandagainandagainandagain

"NO!" she screamed, blood-curdling and hysteric, crying in horror at the renewed torture.

Aizen instantly froze, features startled, at a loss. And he was suddenly at war with himself; she could tell from the way he wavered back and forth, fists and jaw clenching, shoulders rigid and tight. Compelled despite her protest, he took another step towards her.

"Rukia—"

"NO! STAY AWAY!" she cried, naked figure pressing further against the wall, her hands darting in front of her, shielding her, pulling at her hair, on the verge of tearing into her own flesh—where it hurt most—if only so it would all stop.

It would only stop with him gone!

"Please," she whimpered, fingers digging into her skull, pleading past tears and erratic pants. "Please… I need to be alone."

Her rejection smarted, cut deep, and there was a miasma in his eyes that would not wane. Hollow and inexorable, it filled the distance between them with a symphony dissonant. Beyond the tremors and layers of pain, her heart wrenched sadly in response.

"All right," he finally relented, voice a marble whisper. Expression at once inscrutable, masking his own mutilated, unnamed—unuttered—haunts and burdens.

Awkwardly turning around, she watched as he bent to pick up his discarded clothes before heading towards the pagoda's entrance. He paused once, made to turn, but stopped. A moment was all he allowed himself before disappearing beyond the pond and a thick brush of leaves.

So too her memory-pains vanished, the lingering agonies no more.

Deflating almost instantly, she silently cried, dry-heaved and exhaled chords raw and harrowing. The soft blue light dimmed in turn, the fireflies in the air dwindling before disappearing entirely.

Enveloped in inky darkness, she was left all the more despaired, her thoughts disordered. At a loss to what was wrong with her, deep in her wounded subconscious—where only midnight waters spanned.

In a place where nothing existed save a veil shielding the entirety of the world's secrets.

Nothing, save Aizen. A lingering bruise, a hurt that wouldn't abate.

Yet again her heart wrenched, palpitating like hell and heaven bound to earthly skin.

. . .

The days came and went.

Respectful of her wants and mindful of her state, Aizen kept his distance.

She hadn't seen him at all since that night. Only the slight flutter of his reiatsu, a vibrating chord in the air, assured her that he was always near and never too far. It was a stifling comfort, but a comfort all the same.

It reminded her that she was never truly alone, and Rukia didn't think she would ever be able to endure too long without it.

With the passing of time her fears and haunts seemed more and more elusive. Black-cased, caved in, and deeply burrowed water ghosts. And yet the flashes of insight still came and went despite the avoidance of sleep, the prophetic agonies crippling in their fleeting intensity. They had her head spinning, spiralling. Though try as she might, she couldn't recall the smoke-facets and night-terror that had inspired them. Or why they always centred upon Aizen, his face a thousand expressions equally disturbing. As if in warning; a cautionary note against future hurts and deceits, and the accompanying ache had her perpetually trembling.

With closed eyes, Rukia constantly found herself trying to alleviate that particular dread with a tumultuous heart; one part of her inundated by fresh qualms against a backdrop of ancient fears. Another part of her besieged by sorrow at being apart from him for so long. At allowing herself to be overwhelmed by shadowy whispers and macabre fantasies creeping behind smoke curtains.

Never vivid enough to be really real.

So it was on a pale grey-white day, seated on the pagoda's edge and quietly observing the clear waters with blank, doll-like eyes that she was struck with a moment of belated introspection: were possible future pains more harrowing than the current, existent pain of being apart from him? She knew she'd grown tired of the threat of fear hanging above her head. Of throwing herself further into the abyss, time and time again.

Nothing would be gained from hiding away—from him. It would only come to a close by facing the issue head-on.

So resolved she sat up and latched onto Aizen's reiatsu; a pulsating red cord that reached far into a vista, disappearing within a mist thick and white. As if sensing her touch it instantly flared bright, pulling her forward with unabashed eagerness. No opportunity to reconsider, no time to dissipate, and she was already on the move.

Beyond the sparkling stream and quiet pond, behind the thick foliage of emerald greens, a cobbled path stretched endlessly down an incandescent, blinding track. Rukia flash-stepped across it, heart palpitating with nervous anticipation. Find him, it told her.

Find him and relinquish all doubts. All fears and woes.

She moved fast, a white blur in the wind, with her passage coming to an abrupt end before a large cascade of water coming down over a high cliff. Quiet and still, she scanned the area and promptly found him: cross-legged at the waterfall's base. He was floating just above the surface, the torrents of falling water dissolving into a blanket of vapour as soon as they reached the periphery of his reiatsu. Eyes closed in a meditative pose and for all appearances lost to the world.

With a deep exhale she neared the pond's edge. An undercurrent of stings and hurts flared beneath her skin the closer she got, flashes of agonies unknown filling thoughts. Yet a yearning indescribable proved far more potent. Like a burning vice tight around her heart, and she quickly realised just how much she'd missed him.

Oh how she'd missed him.

With another deep breath, deep and boundless like an azure ocean, she tempered the remaining tendrils of memory-pains as she waited for his solitary contemplation to come to a close.

It was a long time before his eyes slowly opened, steadily falling upon her figure across the distance. All at once she felt herself unravelled, nerves frazzled, and a hand clutched at her shihakushō, just at her breast, as she fought against self-conscious shudders and jitters. Her eyes darted around awkwardly, his gaze piercing in its quiet intensity. Relief only came when he stoically looked down and away.

In her periphery she watched as he unhurriedly stood and made his way over. Waves of white filled her sight as he stopped a few steps from her, maintaining a neutral distance. Feeling more than just a tad diffident and anxious, she timidly looked up, a thousand different words—a greeting, apology, confession and more—all on the tip of her tongue. Nothing seemed adequate, and her nerves worsened as the silence dragged on.

"How are you feeling?" he finally asked, a familiar note of insouciance weaving amidst words and ending the bumbling, buzzing silence pounding in her skull.

Her gaze flickered back to him, took in the blank façade, his face a high wall of cordial impassivity. Closed-off behind invisible armour well-forged and donned long ago. And honestly, it hurt. It hurt in an entirely different way to recent ghost-traumas, and perhaps, far worse. Rukia mournfully took it in with acrimony, irony and hot-blood curdled, feeling as if it was her fault.

This shift into hazy, nebulous waters.

"Better," she quietly responded, gaze sadly downcast and the last thing she wanted was for this fragmentation to continue. Compelled to make things right she bit down on her lower lip, steeling herself, and finally met his gaze full-on.

"Sōsuke, I'm sorry—!"

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. An impasse to avoid, a nonchalance long since mastered.

"There's no need to apologise. After all that's happened, you're allowed to express your sorrows however you feel necessary. I…," and at this he trailed off, turning his head to the side and staring into the distance. Expression resigned, gaze faraway. Caught up in a trance, she waited quietly for him to continue with bated breath.

"I only hope you'll eventually come to trust me enough to confide in me. You don't need to suffer such burdens alone."

If only it were so easy, she thought, head aching from perpetually trying to decipher obscure reveries, eyes red and sore from staying awake.

Not knowing what to say she yet again looked away. It prompted him to slowly close the distance and tentatively place a hand atop her shoulder. Her entire body jolted, hallucinations temporarily melding with reality despite the lack of any accompanying pain. It was an unwitting response she mentally berated herself for, especially when it had Aizen pulling away with a slight frown in place.

Feeling increasingly awkward and guilt-ridden, her gaze remained downcast as her wounded heartbeats counted out the quiet, passing seconds between them.

"I know our prior history was largely… unpleasant," he conceded after a long pause, tone slightly weighted. "And though everything that happened is long cemented to the distant past, know that if I had the chance to do certain things differently, I would."

Violet eyes widened at his confession and testament, shock causing her head to swirl back to face him. Never would she have imagined he would ever admit to any failing, and yet there he was, putting the impossible to words. The implications whirled in her head in a chaotic haze but she had little time to consider them before he was speaking once more.

"You have nothing to fear from me, Rukia. You mean far too much," he began, staring straight at her with sincerity shining in dark eyes, and she might have imagined the unsaid to me, pulling away at heartstrings.

Her heart gave a decisive thump as her breath hitched, something that had always seemed just beyond her grasp now grazing the tips of her fingers. Floating into the air like thousands of butterflies taking flight.

Rukia could scarcely believe it, overcome by hope and wonder and untold happiness—

"I would never allow you to come to any harm. Not when you are the only other soul left alive."

that vanished in an instant.

She blinked confusedly. Played his words over and over, thinking she had misheard. Knowing she hadn't and that… that wasn't what she wanted to hear. That her value and importance—to him—was reducible to her persisting mortality and not in spite of it. That if Fate had not unfolded the way it had… she alone wouldn't have been enough.

His words gripped her, kept her frozen in place. It felt as if she had suddenly evaporated, plunged head first into a cold watery gorge before vanishing completely. She scarcely noticed him closing the distance and coming to a still at her side, wide eyes unfocused and fixated on nothing before her.

"I'll be waiting in the pagoda."

Thoughts static, heart erratic, she scarcely heard him. He was long gone by the time any awareness returned to her.

Blinking slowly, she allowed the droning of the gushing waterfall to ease her awake from her shell-shocked cocoon. The surrounding leaves rustled gently, a reminder of a pristine charade she'd forgotten was perfectly untrue. Much like his affections; the rare glances, tender touches and easy smiles, all metamorphosed into a beautiful reality as real as any dream.

A small, wry smile cut across her lips as she wiped a trailing tear from her cheek. She'd been dreaming for so long now, and the temptation to dive into uncharted waters—as truly befitting a deluded romantic—was ever so strong.

And really, she liked to imagine she still had a chance at winning his heart.

With a deep breath, with her own resolve and his assurances resting comfortingly in the palm of her hand, Rukia turned and ventured down the path he'd gone down, leaving behind all fears and harms. Past whimsical streams and emerald leaves, always dancing in tune to an elusive misty breeze.

She felt better already.

And maybe, just maybe, she could forgive herself for not wanting to really wake up—just yet.

. . .

Aizen was nothing if not effectual.

In his teachings, his illusions. In his uncanny ability to ensnare her to a different tune, to any fantasy she would choose.

She sought solace, an escape from midnight doubts, and he provided.

They easily evaded any lingering discomforts. From the moment she stepped foot within the pagoda and saw his quiet relief and a cup of warm tea, waiting for her, their momentary lapse into nebulous waters was seamlessly forgotten. A thing of the past. They accelerated through enquiries relating to her breakdown that night—the prickliest part—by avoiding them altogether. Yet the offer was there, implied and unsaid, floating gently in the air between them; if she ever wanted to speak on it, on anything, he would gladly listen.

The rest was a blur, an easy falling into usual patterns that were more than mere distractions. Philosophical discourses, Kidō, Zanjutsu, Hakuda, they occupied thoughts and time. Rukia was thankful for the regularity and familiarity. It helped keep her grounded, gave her purpose as the days grew seemingly longer and longer. Much like their games of Go. Long spans of silence stretched between them as they gazed upon the black and white stones, each move carefully analysed and enacted against a misty backdrop of humid fog and dewy greens.

Everything carried on as it was and had been, although….

Aizen still maintained a cordial distance. Rukia appreciated that he wanted to give her space but she couldn't help but think she had partly driven him away. It smarted, now that the pain and anguish that flared when near him had disappeared entirely. Now that she was no longer slipping, no longer falling deeper into unconscious fears. Now that her eyes were no longer drawing glassy and barren.

Heart forlorn, she silently hoped she hadn't lost that intimacy forever.

Another day and she was trying hard to focus on his words, on some lesson or other, but her mind was swimming and his features were blurring and she was moving. Stirred by some deeper, innate want. Strange, she thought, how her hand was suddenly resting on his cheek. He stopped talking as they both froze, gazes caught.

"Are you sure?" he asked, voice heavy with something undefinable. Hoarse in a way she'd never heard it before.

And there was a fire in his eyes that caused her breath to catch, her cheeks to redden in response. For a brief while she hadn't expected it, thinking he would respond with blank indifference, and its presence had her heart wildly beating. Briefly looking down, feeling all too demure despite her bold advance, she took a moment to gather herself.

Maybe this wasn't right. Maybe she would end up getting hurt in the end. Maybe he'd never be able to give her what she truly wanted. Maybe they were destined to become nothing more than the ashes of regrets littering graveyards and forgotten battlefields. But she knew she couldn't allow this to play out like it was a tragic nothing, like it was a calamity in the making, some act of self-ruin.

She couldn't. Her heart wouldn't let her.

Not when she—

"Yes," she whispered simply, unwaveringly meeting his gaze once more past heavy lashes.

A pause, and his hand was moving, closing over hers. And then his lips, trailing an open-mouthed kiss against her wrist, all hot breath and untold yearning. Eyes burning, they never left hers.

Before she realised it he had tugged her forward, drew a surprised gasp from her, as she found herself atop his lap. Close enough to feel his breath across her face, to lose herself in the warm dark pools of his brown, gold flecked eyes. Gently he brought her palm to rest against his clothed chest, just above his heart.

"Undress me, Rukia."

It sounded more like a proposition than a demand. Soft despite the undercurrent of blazing lust. She could feel it; the heat beneath his skin, the way his reiatsu thrummed in delicious bursts of scorching plasma-waves. Her body willingly responded to it as she felt the fire within her rapidly flare.

Slowly, she shrugged the coat off his shoulders. Tugged open the black sash at his waist before working on the remaining white layers. He closely surveyed her the entire time in a way that made the small hairs on the back of her neck and arms stand on end and she was struck by how novel this was for them. Usually Aizen would take the lead in everything; it's what she'd come to expect and grown used to. That he was deferring to her now, allowing her to move at her own speed, was a curious surprise.

The choice, more than ever before, solely hers.

No wonder he'd kept his distance, she warmly thought as she tugged down the final layer below his hips, eyes locked on his. He'd been waiting for her to decide on the right time. On when to make the first move.

Blushing furiously and besieged by a newfound affection, she wordlessly brought his hands to her own garments, just above her breasts. Aizen obliged, unhurriedly removing them, not once looking away.

Rukia didn't look away either, not when she braced herself against his shoulders. Not when she lifted her hips and lowered them. Not when she took his entire massive length inside her with one single downward thrust, a wet sound that was half a swallow and half a whimper all rolled into a gasp leaving her parted lips.

She felt full, sated on something long denied. A thirst beyond the physical instantly quenched, and still it wasn't enough.

Aizen's hands found her hips, holding them gently, encouragingly, and they were far too warm as she gradually found her pace. A steady ascent and a faster, harsher descent. Her veins were thrumming, heart pounding, blood scorching. And it wasn't enough.

It would never be enough.

She moved closer, closer. Pressed her chest against his, wanting to feel every inch of him against her. His body fit easily with hers, and she wondered what it would be like to meld into him completely. To lose herself entirely within him.

"Sōsuke," she breathed, overwhelmed by an insatiable want for more. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, wet and gleaming as they wordlessly implored, and she didn't blink—he didn't blink.

"Sōsuke, please…."

"Tell me, Rukia," he prompted, voice a deep husky timbre. "Tell me what you want."

"You… please, move."

His hold on her only slightly tightened as he finally drove his hips up, thrusting into her at a measured yet mind-numbingly deep pace. She sucked in a breath and bit her bottom lip, trying to stifle all sound. A futile effort, particularly when he began to hit that elusive spot that ruined her as much as it had her soaring. Her pants and cries played their symphony in the air, her entire front flush with his as she desperately clung to him. Intent on never—never again—letting him go.

At long last Aizen came, silently, every muscle taut and rigid as he held her close, an arm wrapped tight around her back.

Rukia came too on a long and breathless moan. His hands moved as her entire body shook, caressing up her spine, along her rib cage. Murmuring something she could not comprehend beyond the euphoric haze in her mind.

It was a haze that seemed constant, that rendered the world little more than a passing blur for days on end as they lost themselves in each other, again and again.

Rukia felt as if she was forever living in a single beautiful moment. A single perfect dream.

. . .

When the haze had finally lifted, when she was at long last utterly spent, when time began to move once more, they fell back into familiar habits. In a way.

Aizen had decided she needed more practice controlling her reiatsu. Her task was to maintain a high-temperature, red orb of Shakkahō in the same position, mid-air, with the same shape and diameter. Simple, if not for the fact that she was naked on his lap, back against his bare chest as fingers, ever so tricky, roamed across her body. Gliding over her nipples, rosy and taut, brushing over her sensitive breasts. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, trying to ignore the sensations of his touch, trying to focus her all on the red ball of pulsing energy. She could practically feel the teasing, arrogant smirk against her temple, expecting her total capitulation.

She would deny him that with every fibre of her being.

He palmed a breast. Pinched her nipple and she grunted, her Kidō wavering ever so slightly at the edges. He chuckled, a low rumble deep in his throat that had her shuddering in frustration even as she stabilised the red sphere.

"All battles are battles of reiatsu. The greater one's spiritual pressure, the greater the capacity to overwhelm an opponent, thereby rendering any attack or defence negligible," he relayed, casually launching into an oration even as his hands continued in their ministrations.

Fingers rolled and tugged at one of her erect rosy buds. His other hand ventured lower, tracing her taught stomach, only to palm her sex, all hot and insistent. Her eyelids were closed tight, her breaths short deep bursts as beads of sweat dotted her forehead and neck at the mental and physical strain of being at war with herself.

I will not break. I will not break. I will not break.

The mantra honed her focus, allowed her to keep the glowing orb stable as she pictured it in her mind's eye. Only for him to slide two fingers, brutal and long, inside of her. She unwittingly cried out, wet and stifled from heat and aggravated lust. The Kidō orb fluctuated chaotically in response.

"Focus!" he snapped, hand leaving her breast only to clamp down high on her leg, nails biting into the soft flesh of her inner thigh. The shot of pain allowed a sharp hiss of breath to escape her clenched teeth as her head snapped back against his shoulder. Body shaking from a burst of exhilaration, her hips instinctively bucked up, wholly inviting his two fingers deeper still.

His hold on her thigh tightened, intent on keeping her still, denying her any sought after friction, and the muscles in her leg twitched. There was a loud noise as she hit the heel of her hand down against the wooden floorboards, one part frustration. Another equal part determination to regain control. Breathing deep, she focused solely on the pulsing red sphere, completely static once more.

Seemingly satisfied, his grip softened and his fingers were sliding in and out of her, slow and shallow.

"We mustn't, however, think of reiatsu as the sole indicator of our power. It is but a tool, a demonstration of our will. Of our innate striving to become master over all space, over any circumstance; to extend our force and influence, and to thrust back against all that resists its extension. All existence is a war of wills, a battle of supremacy, whether against all others or the self."

Control. Mastery. She absently heeded the meaning behind his words, turned them over and over in her mind like a newfound source of strength as he slid another finger inside, pushing in with more force. Deeper, in. She breathed, short and shallow, barely audible as the orb pulsed mid-air.

His thumb grazed her clit, another shot of pleasure overwhelmed her before pooling thick and heavy at the pit of her stomach. She could no longer endure it, could no longer deny it, but rather than allowing it to undo her she latched onto it. Reiatsu flaring she grabbed a hold of his wrist, clung tight to it as she rode his fingers with sheer abandon. Her body worked itself to release as she maintained a mental image of the blazing orb, gathering every ounce of desire and frustration with which to fuel her resolve that it persevere. Red flashed behind her closed eyes as she finally came, hot and sweaty and panting heavily against him.

When she finally opened her eyes she saw her Kidō floating unwaveringly mid-air. A deep exhale of relief escaped her as her head rolled tiredly along his shoulder. She felt the vibrations of a small chuckle as his fingers slipped out of her. And then a tender kiss against a sweaty temple.

"Good girl."

Sighing contently she allowed the orb to dissipate as Aizen eased her down onto her front. Heartrate easing, breaths slowing, she quietly stared out at the pond and garden. The soft haze and harmonic thrum of rain she hadn't noticed before filled all sight and sound. Pitter-patter, it washed down gently, wet dirt and shrubs permeating a smell like heaven as rays of light trickled through gaps in the thin white mist. It rinsed out the old and left room and air for new life. New hopes and dreams.

It was a tranquillity and calm that eased tired muscles as much as it did weary hearts. So different, so contrary, to the rains Ichigo had brought….

He'd always been at his worst on rainy days, gloom and depression thick in the air. Clouds dark and ugly, the sky opening its throat and crying out in hellish downpours, all lurid and haunting. Mirroring his melancholy and doubts.

It had been a while since she last thought of him, and a small, wistful smile tugged at her lips as his face floated across the streams of forgotten memory. She hoped, like all her loved ones, that he was absolved from the plagues of sorrow and mortal heartache. Wherever he, and they, were—somewhere, somewhere beyond the great beyond.

She was pulled out of her reveries by Aizen easing himself atop of her, his warmth enveloping her like a protective blanket. It pulled another sigh out of her as she blissfully closed her eyes, leaning a cheek upon folded hands, lost in the peaceful ease of an irrevocable present moment. It lasted only a second. Amidst a mental fog of surprise eyes darted wide open at the sensation of his length settling against the cleft of her arse.

Teetering upon uncharted waters.

She blinked, mind blank. Bit her lower lip, struck by the sudden thought that she wasn't entirely opposed to the idea. Though it seemed Aizen had something else in mind. Moving long black strands aside, she felt his gaze appraisingly sweep across the length of her naked back. A moment, then two, and she felt something soft and slightly wet slide against the skin of her left shoulder blade. Another swipe, then another.

Her brows arched in surprise. "What are you writing?"

"Hush," he playfully admonished, continuing with his calligraphic swerves and strokes.

She tried to make out the characters to no avail. Ruminated over possibilities, some more likely than others, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"If you're writing your name, I swear to God I'll—!"

His chuckle cut her off as she felt him shift, lowering his body while still holding himself up by his arms and sliding further against the contours of her small body. She quickly stifled a moan, trying to focus on the warm cocoon his frame created this close and not the way in which his hips pressed sinfully against her rear. Blushing a deep scarlet, she belatedly noticed the warm puff of air against the back of her neck as he leaned in, lips grazing her ear.

"And here I thought I was your God."

His words echoed with conceited amusement. Spoken in jest, and yet her body unwittingly froze stiff and still. Wide violet eyes went blank, heart turned to stone as chaotic, haphazard sounds and images flashed, all disjointed, deep inside her subconscious mind—

Who… am I…

only reminder…

Though shalt have… no other… before me…

Everything distorted around her and she was caught in a dreamworld of nothing. Where midnight waters spanned and nothingness stretched forth eternally. She wanted to breathe, to move, to release an exhale of cold, latent fear but all she felt was nothing. And thought nothing. And knew nothing.

Nothing became her and her steadily fragmenting soul.

"Rukia?"

She blinked at the sound of her name, awareness all at once returning to her. Her mind was a listless fog as she tried comprehending what had just occurred, only to draw a decisive blank. Inundated by nothing, and nothing more.

"Sorry," she offered, tone purposefully light as she shook her head, doing away with mental cobwebs. "I just had a thought, about something, but it's gone now."

Aizen merely hummed—veiling suspicions—and allowed the matter to drop. Eager to shift course—forget all—she plastered a teasing smile in place as she half turned within the cage of his arms. He raised himself slightly, allowing her enough space to lean on her side and on a bent arm as she faced him resolutely. He eyed her curiously.

"Now, going back to what you were saying. If you are my God, don't you think you should grant this poor, humble servant of yours something with which to reward her undying devotion?"

He closed his eyes, breathed deep, trying to stifle a laugh. A shame, really; it was yet another unknown when it came to him, and she'd love to hear the melody it inspired. Coughing deep in his throat, he took a moment before he looked at her again, brushing one of her long bangs behind an ear. On his lips he wore an indulgent smile.

"For this particular devotee of mine, anything."

"Anything?"

"Anything," he confidently affirmed, smile still in place.

Rukia paused, overwhelmed at the offer despite herself. He meant it; whatever she asked for, he would give it. Endless possibilities whirled in her mind, rolled along the tip of her tongue, silver-scraped, before eventually gliding off. It seemed an impossible choice. Especially when she might never be given such an opportunity again.

The options grew and grew to incredible heights, spiralled far and wide, one by one, and disappeared up into pale white skies. Until she was curiously left with only one.

"I'd like…. That is, if it's possible," she began, fumbling slightly with the sudden onset of nerves and looking at him through weighted lashes. "I'd like to see your bankai."

It seemed innocuous, and yet she felt as if she'd asked him to bare his heart and soul. A request seemingly more intimate than not.

Aizen's brows arched, clearly surprised. They gazed at one another for a few seconds, lingering and fading into minutes, before he finally looked away. And there was a tint on the high points of his cheeks erupting like a crimson pyre, and disappearing just as quickly. Her heart thumped profoundly in response, gripped by elated wonder, and she refused to believe she'd imagined it.

"All right," he agreed, whisper-soft, and her heart was suddenly beating to an eager, ecstatic tune.

Standing up, all at once imbued with purpose, he began to dress. She followed his lead, not quite knowing what to expect. Her fingers shook as she put on each layer, excitement thick in her veins, compelling her to work quicker.

Aizen was already done by the time she finished. Holding out a hand, he beckoned her to him. Rukia had his hand between hers in a second.

"Whatever you do, do not let go of me."

She nodded her understanding, only barely containing her excitement. Wondering what he'd reveal, what she would glimpse of his inner self manifested into the world.

Tugging her close, he unsheathed his blade. It hummed gently, like a soft caress of silk across her skin, as he brought it forward, tip facing down. She braced herself, holding him tight, a shaky exhale leaving her parted lips. This was it.

"Bankai."

The rest of the release command was drowned out as the heavens above writhed in a lake of liquid light, brilliant and blinding, the earth below enveloped by a thick iridescent mist, before everything went quiet and still. Then a chiming, a delicate tinkling of gently falling crystal mirrors.

With wide eyes, Rukia watched as everything distorted and unravelled all around her.


Apologies for the delay! I hope the chapter length makes up for it. Thank you as always to eveyone who has commented, followed and favourited. It means a lot that others are enjoying this niche little ship, along with the story being told. Only 4 chapters remain before it comes to a close!