Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach or the name Kurosaki Masaki, both belong to Tite Kubo. My OC belongs to me under the name of Mai.

Feedback: Comments, suggestions, corrections welcome. Flames are not. My sincerest gratitude to all my reviewers, your support keeps me writing.

AN: Yes, finally an update! I can't believe it's officially now 4 years since I've posted this story and I'm still not done. My deepest apologies, I never meant to get so far behind on my updates in 2013 (well really since late 2012) but as I warned you guys I knew it could very well happen due to life. Again, I'm terribly sorry. If I could control time I would easily update on time all the time, sadly neither or you can do that. Please bear with me with my spotty updates, I will do my best. I'm committed to finishing this story. Btw, Masaki's improved design has been posted. Please check it out. Thanks Laikkuseia for your help! Please check out her sketch of Masaki as well.


Indistinct opaque shadows followed her whenever she went. Usually warm cinnamon eyes cut through the gloom with a sharp, scalding glare. Her tenebrous surroundings could not harm her or dissuade her from continuing. The darkness around her was not true darkness. She had stared at genuine malevolence hundreds of times and had never flinched. Already frowning lips grimaced even more.

She had been a complete fool.

An absolute idiot.

She now understood the magnitude of her stupidity with achingly, piercing clarity as she never had before.

Aizen Sōsuke, the man she had revered and admired and served under for years, had never existed.

It had all been a façade…an illusion….

He had never been a man, but a monster.

There was no denying that had always been his nature.

She had just been too blind to see it, to even comprehend it….

Whatever remnants of her shattered heart remained throbbed agonizingly within her chest. Not once had she ever questioned her superior's orders during her tenure at the Fifth Division. Aizen-taichō had always presented himself as a sensible, kindhearted intelligent leader that wanted the best for his subordinates. His actions had never given her any reason to doubt him, and even if she had reservations about his motives for anything, he always had a perfectly reasonable explanation.

He had been the perfect taichō as far as she was concerned.

He had been strong yet unassuming and humble. His warm encouragement had always inspired the division to strive hard to perfect their skills.

His wise and compassionate nature had always instilled confidence in anyone that met him. His sage counsel had always proven useful to anyone seeking it.

His devotion and faithfulness to the Soul Society and all it stood for had been unquestionable. He had been highly respected among the taichō of the Gotei 13.

There truly hadn't been a reason to doubt his integrity, but she had failed to see past his perfection. As his fukutaichō, she should have been able to detect his flaws…she should have realized he wasn't all that he appeared….she should have realized what he was really up to….

If she had realized her taichō's true nature years ago, Soul Society wouldn't be in the state it was. She had failed the Soul Society. Her impaired vision had permitted this war to happen.

She felt disgusted and upset with herself.

She had served a murderer and had never done anything to stop him.

She had shed tears and crossed her sword against those of her comrades for a man that had never cared for her, or anyone. Repugnance filled her as she thought back to those moments. She had been prepared to die to carry out her mentor's last wishes, though it had pained her heavily to think she would have to kill her childhood friend. She had allowed her sorrow and loyalty to her taichō override her intuition that Tōshirō couldn't have been the killer.

Her heart had screamed at her that he couldn't have committed such a heinous act, but in spite of that, she had forced herself to try and avenge her fallen mentor. Her foolishness could have cost her life or Tōshirō's.

It nearly did.

She did not deserve Tōshirō's forgiveness in the least.

When he had dismissed her actions, her heart had lightened in spite of her underlying guilt. Now pure revulsion pulsed through it.

She should have never raised her sword against his.

She should have never allowed her emotions to dominate her.

She was supposed to reign in her emotions, she was a fukutaichō….

She had been pathetic…. She did not deserve the title.

She was not even sure she ever deserved it….

She had known there had been better candidates for the vice-captaincy than her, but Aizen-taichō had chosen her over them. She had been proud and overjoyed that he had noticed her skills. She had believed in his words that that he had complete confidence in her to do the job, that her talent in Kidō and hardworking nature were aptitudes that made her a viable candidate for a fukutaichō...She had worked even harder upon becoming a fukutaichō to please him, to prove her worth as a fukutaichō….Did he ever care about all of the effort she had put? Did he ever appreciate anything she had done for him?

The fire in her chest expanded, sweeping through her.

She inhaled suddenly, as though suddenly overcome by the blistering agony within her.

The skin where his blade had entered her, prickled and tingled, blazing hot with tinges of harsh metallic coldness….

Of course, her efforts had been meaningless….

He had held her, soothed her, and without hesitation thrust his blade through her. She had been nothing but a sightless companion that had helped him achieve his goals…. All his words and actions had been a front…..

She recognized it now….

Weeks ago both her heart and mind could not fathom the idea that Aizen was genuinely a traitor. Despite the fact she had come to accept he had betrayed the Soul Society, she had still clung to the undying belief that he had been forced into it by Ichimaru Gin….It had seemed a likelier and more reasonable explanation for Aizen's actions, though a part of her had been aware it was ridiculous for Aizen to be forced into anything….Ichimaru Gin had always been rather disturbing and unsettling. His behavior and mannerisms had often made her somewhat uneasy despite his playful intentions and made her wonder how Kira could stand such a man for a taichō. Treachery seemed like conduct more befitting of him than her own taichō. Or at least that's what she had thought….

Without Unohana-taichō's help, she was not sure she could have ever accepted the fact the man she admired and respected had willingly turned his back on her and the Soul Society for his own selfish reasons. Her heart and mind had been frantic and desperate to fight off the notion in spite of the glaring evidence. Pain had dulled her senses, making her lose all logic….her sense of self….Her thoughts had merely revolved around her taichō and his death…his reappearance…and his abandonment…

She could not explain why her mind had broken down so badly, why it had taken her so long to fully recover and admit her taichō was a defector, but she was glad the haze affecting her mind and heart had finally cleared. She wished she could have been strong like Kira-kun and Hisagi-san, but she hadn't been able to stave off the searing pain attacking her cognizance, she had been weak.

He must have seen the weakness in her.

It must have been the real reason he had chosen her….

She could admit it now, could accept the harsh reality that everything she had known had been a lie, without breaking down.

Though it pained her deeply, she would not allow the pain within her to dominate her again…She had already wasted too much time shedding tears….Perhaps, she may have never deserved the armband fastened to her left arm, but if she succumbed to her emotions now that her division was as demoralized as ever since they had finally learned the truth regarding their taichō (they had thought him merely missing until Yamamoto-sōtaichō's recent revelation about his betrayal), she would only be showing her utter uselessness as a leader….

She could not afford to do that, no matter what.

He might have never cared about his subordinates, but she did.

She had to be strong for them, it was her duty.

She had failed them before, but she would not do so again…..

She had to be strong just like Hisagi-san, Kira-kun…and Hitsugaya-kun….

Her heart squirmed.

She had seen Tōshirō firsthand struggle to settle himself in the position that had once belonged to the man he most admired, the man who had been something of a father figure he had never had… Though he had tried to hide his feelings beneath his usual icy façade, she had seen the obvious distress he was under despite his attempt to appear as cool as ice….She had witnessed the raw pain in his turquoise gaze herself…..

He had felt betrayed and abandoned by his taichō….He had had a difficult time believing his taichō had killed someone, least of all his niece, and yet in spite of the agony and confusion within him, he had managed to put those feelings aside so that he could ensure the Tenth division carried on….She had admired his strength and resilience to bury himself in his duties and training and truly grow into a taichō despite his age….

He had endured pain he shouldn't have suffered at all thanks to her former taichō….

She remembered he had offered Tōshirō comfort and encouragement….At the time she had thought it had been kind of him, now she knew they had been nothing but empty, insincere words….

How could he have uttered them knowing Kurosaki-taichō's apparent demise had been his doing?

She clenched her fists.

Kindness and empathy had never lurked within his heart only cruelty and selfishness…..

She wished she could have known better….wished she could have been able to prevent the incrimination of an innocent man….

It was her taichō that deserved imprisonment for his crimes…He had only been a saint in disguise whereas Kurosaki-taichō had truly always been a frank and kind person…

The irony was not lost on her.

Aizen Sōsuke deserved to pay for all his wrongdoings….

She could not comprehend how he could have joined the Gotei 13, worked hard to become a Shinigami, and yet have been secretly plotting all these years to destroy them and everything they had been sworn to protect .What did he gain by destroying everyone?

She did not understand….could not understand such a dreadful goal….

It was nonsensical.

Why would he even want to live in a world like that, without anyone, save Ichimaru Gin and Tōsen Kaname?

Did he truly hate this world and everyone in it?

Was he really that heartless?

She hoped with all her being all those infected with his horrible virus would soon be cured and that he and his companions would be taken into custody…..

She was not sure what she would say or do if she saw him face to face, but all she wanted was this war was to be over.

She wanted to put behind her all the hurt he had caused her and she wanted to truly help restore the Fifth Division to its former glory….but more importantly she was eager to see her Baa-chan once more…

If anything happened to her, she was not sure what she would do….

Her stomach churned at the thought.

She has to be okay! She will be! I have to think positive. Hitsugaya-kun is right. I can't assume the worst. It won't help me. I have to be strong!

Momo came to a sudden halt and stared at the building decorated with the familiar Fifth Division sign in front of her. Though she had often regarded the Fifth Division office with fondness, her eyes now regarded it with an oppressive blend of indifference and contempt.

While just entering the Fifth Division had been somewhat uncomfortable to say the least after her recuperation, entering this building in particular had been quite daunting for her despite her attempts to pretend otherwise. Merely climbing up the steps and standing in the front door had elicited a multitude of memories involving her former taichō….How many times had she not scrambled up the steps, breathless, to inform her taichō of an urgent occurrence? How many times had she climbed up, following him? Too many to count. Crossing the threshold and actually making her way inside the building had only continued the barrage of recollections and emotions. It had been difficult not to surrender to the sorrow that threatened to overwhelmed her, but somehow she had managed to hold onto whatever resolve propelled her to enter the office.

Although a trace of sadness lingered within her now, the emotions swirling within her where not of grief, but rather anger and resentment.

The lightless window on the left side of the building had belonged to him.

His office though closed and off limits remained there. The Onmitsukidō had ransacked it of his possessions in a bid to inform themselves of his motives after his departure and had closed it off. Previously she had been relieved it had been locked, because she had been afraid to venture inside….but now she wanted it gone….It was a reminder of him that the Fifth Division did not need.

Though people tended to avoid looking at it, it was undeniable that his presence seemed to linger because of that room. It was as though he still haunted them….

The fingers of her right hand ghosted over the pommel of Tobiume.

A part of her was tempted to burn away this unnecessary reminder….It would certainly help people begin to actually put him behind them….

It would be reckless….

Shaking her head, she removed her hand quickly from her Zanpakutō and made her toward the office.

Upon entering, she swept through the hallway rather hurriedly, without so much as glancing at his room. She stopped near her office, but noticing the illumination emanating from rooms further down the hall, she continued on.

Standing at the threshold, she noticed two men, her third and fourth seat, standing over a desk, discussing something. Her gaze immediately softened and her heart swelled with pride. She was proud with their work ethic and that of all the other Fifth Division soldiers who had been pretty responsive and attentive with their duties in the light of the current situation. Though she knew they hurting, they were doing their best.

"That won't work," the taller of the two men suddenly said in a loud whisper.

"Why not?" demanded the other Shinigami.

The other man just shook his head.

"It's better than your idea…."

"No, it's not..."

"Excuse me, but what are you guys discussing?" Momo interrupted, coming into the room.

The taller man looked across the room, surprised. "H-Hinamori-fukutaichō?"

He immediately lowered himself into a bow just as his companion slid into his.

"Hinamori-fukutaichō, what are you doing up at this hour?" asked the shorter man when he arose from his bow. "You should be resting…."

"I'm fine, Fourth Seat Akimoto. I've rested enough," she lied. She had not rested at all since leaving Hitsugaya's quarters. "I needed to come on in to check on things…"

"Oh, I see, Hinamori-fukutaichō….but you needn't have worried. We would have informed if you something urgent occurred," The taller man said.

"I know you would have, Third Seat Watanabe, but like I've told you before, I'd rather come in when I can. So, what exactly is the problem?" She said, eyeing her two subordinates expectantly.

"Well, we were just…trying to decide which units to send out," Akimoto said.

"More are necessary?" Momo asked, looking crestfallen.

"Hai, Hinamori-fukutaichō," this time the third seat responded. "Unfortunately we've lost some more troops…." He said, glancing down at the ground.

"I see," Momo said quietly, her expression looking sad yet determined. "T-They did their best….I'm sure whomever we send out will do their best…to fight for the Soul Society and…the Fifth Division."

Both men looked at each other, looking slightly contrite and nodded in agreement.


Underneath her eyelids, Rukia could see and feel the sunlight splaying across her face. Morning had come. Violet eyes peeked through fluttering dark lashes. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she noticed the futon across from hers was vacant. The sheet and pillow were neatly arranged and folded tidily atop the pillow was the yukata Masaki had slept in. As Rukia lifted her head up and glanced around the room, she realized Masaki was nowhere in sight.

Her gaze fell on the sunlight entering though the shōji screens.

"It's late," Rukia noted, startled. "I can't believe I overslept…"She muttered to herself.

Judging from the amount of light penetrating the shōji screens, it was clearly more than an hour past dawn, perhaps nearly two. She always woke when the sun rose if not earlier. The instinct to wake up early had been ingrained in her since her childhood. Sleeping to your heart's content had been a luxury in Inuzuri. Sleep would only be allowed if it was safe to do so, whether it was day or night. This habit had proven useful in her career as a Shinigami since most of the time she was told to report early. She had only overslept twice in her life…

Frankly, she was amazed she had even managed to fall asleep last night. Her mind had been teeming with so many thoughts and emotions… it was truly a miracle they had been quelled by the lull of sleep….

As she flung aside the blanket and scrambled to her feet, she was reminded of why she had probably managed to fall asleep. Her sudden movements appeared to have awakened every nerve in her body. Aches and throbs erupted all at once, making her feel as though a wildfire was spreading through every cell, nerve, and muscle within her.

Training must have worn my body out more than I realized, Rukia thought, grimacing.

Her fatigue had been forgotten in the aftermath of Kurosaki Isshin's revelations, but her body was obviously continuing to pay the price for yesterday's training. By nature she was a light sleeper, but she had not even heard or sensed Masaki moving when she had slipped out of the room. Masaki either must have moved as noiselessly as a shadow or she must have fallen into a deep sleep.

Ignoring the aches rippling through her, Rukia hurriedly dressed in her Shihakushō.

When she was ready, Rukia slid open the shōji doors and stepped forward. She blinked when a bright light obscured her vision. Holding her hand up to shield her eyes, she realized that the light was being reflected off of something white.

It took her eyes several moments to register that it was Masaki's hairpin.

Although she was no longer staring at the hairpin, the urge to blink remained.

The young woman's naturally incandescent hair seemed to be aflame wherever the morning sunlight touched it. She was sitting cross-legged near the edge of the wooden terrace. Rukia had often thought Ichigo sported a spiked fireball on his head due to the way the sunlight would bring out tones of fiery red-orange, light carrot, bright tangerine, and dark rust, but the effect on Masaki's longer tresses was even more dazzling. It appeared as though the young woman had strands of orange fire issuing from her head.

"Masaki," Rukia called out several seconds later once her eyes adjusted to the scene, but the orange-haired woman did not turn around or acknowledge her.

It took several more moments for Rukia to realize Masaki sat perfectly still, as though in profound meditation.

She must be performing Jinzen, Rukia thought, noticing that Masaki's white sheath lay next to her right thigh. She could see the metallic glint of the edge of Masaki's sword protruding over her left thigh.

Rukia placed her hand over Sode no Shirayuki's hilt. A pang of guilt swept through her. She had not conversed with her Zanpakutō since she had worked on recuperating her powers. Although arriving and staying in Fake Karakura had been quite hectic, she should have taken a few moments to commune with her katana. Sode no Shirayuki deserved much thanks after all they had been through in Hueco Mundo. She had promised her Zanpakutō she would visit her more….

The yuki-onna had been quite affronted and unhappy when Rukia had appeared in her inner world after she had regained her reiryoku. It had not been the welcome Rukia had expected to receive after their time apart. Sode no Shirayuki had only treated her coldly when she had not known her name. After she had learned it, the yuki-onna had treated her in a much friendlier manner though she had undoubtedly been stern and demanding when it came to disclosing her techniques. Rukia considered the relationship they had forged over the years as strong and special. Sode no Shirayuki had been her one constant as she joined the Kuchiki family, became a member of the Thirteenth, lost Kaien-dono….She had always been by her side no matter what she faced. She had always provided comfort and counsel whenever she had needed it. It had been bizarre and unsettling to be apart from Sode no Shirayuki when she had given her power to Ichigo….

She had never intended to lose her connection with her, but Sode no Shirayuki much to her disappointment had taken their parting to heart. At first, she could not piece together why the beautiful woman would stare at her, as though she wanted to freeze her on sight and reduce her to nothing but ice fragments. Eventually though, she managed to get the yuki-onna to reveal the hurt and neglect that had arisen in her since she had transferred her power to Ichigo. Rukia had never imagined her Zanpakutō would feel betrayed and resentful because of her decision to save Ichigo. Sode no Shirayuki had always stood by her decisions, and it that split second, it was either death or survival.

Rukia had tried explaining this to her Zanpakutō but it seemed to matter little to her. Sode no Shirayuki continued to voice her discontentment at how Rukia had given her away and yet now had come to her again after so long….Rukia had quickly tried to impress upon her the accidental nature of the loss of all her power, and how the Gigai Urahara Kisuke had lent her along with her arrest and execution had prevented her from recuperating her powers. It had taken a bit more convincing before Rukia saw Sode no Shirayuki lower her defensiveness. However, it had taken several more days before their relationship resumed normalcy.

Rukia's fingers twitched around the handle of her katana. Sode no Shirayuki deserved her attention and gratitude. She did not want to hurt her feelings again. Seeing that Masaki remained motionless, Rukia decided she might as well spare a few moments with her Zanpakutō. She padded softly towards a spot a few feet next to Masaki, then withdrew Sode no Shirayuki and her sheath from her waist and gently lowered herself to the ground. She placed the sheath on her right side and placed her sword over her lap.

Rukia glanced at Masaki.

A sheen of perspiration shone on her forehead. Her eyes were closed, and her eyebrows were tightly knit over them. The thin pair of strands that framed her forehead and fell into her face as well as the thicker bangs framing her face shook slightly whenever she took a deep, slow breath and exhaled. Her right hand held her Zanpakutō handle over her right knee, while the other hand covered her blade over her left knee.

Her bond with her Zanpakutō must be strong, Rukia mused, thinking back to their training yesterday.

Shinigami who had a penchant for swordplay usually developed a close bond with their Zanpakutō. Masaki had clearly demonstrated Zanjutsu was her preferred form of combat, and her level of skill could have only been attained if she had not only practiced on her own but also learned from her Zanpakutō itself.

Physical conditioning and practicing are not enough to become stronger. I have to deepen my bond with Sode no Shirayuki.

With this thought, Rukia drew a deep breath before closing her eyes.


Endless thick white fog seemed to stretch across for miles and miles, like an infinite patch of cloud. Nothing was distinguishable within its dense, all-encompassing veil. Harsh loud grating rumbled within it, distorting the heavenly yet oddly ethereal scene.

Blue light suddenly flashed and the fog parted.

Thunder seemed to grumble angrily.

Water hissed in annoyance for a second before it solidified to ice.

Dark lavender eyes surveyed the crack on the frozen landscape with vague interest. Ice was already beginning to reform itself.

Dark lavender eyes fell closed, and there was a heavy sigh issued from lilac lips.

"That was pitiful."

Without opening her eyes, the woman, who almost seemed to be one with the mist, intercepted a sword strike meant to cut her back. There was a grating sound as she pushed aside the blade, followed by a loud thud and groan.

"I could have taken a nap with the time you took to strike, Masaki."

Dark lavender eyes reappeared, disdain glimmering within their cold depths.

Supporting herself with both hands on the purple hilt impaled on the frozen ground, Masaki slowly stumbled to her feet. Every breath she took immediately blended with the icy atmosphere. Frozen blood coated her forehead and bangs. A new open gash grazed her right cheek. Patches of scarlet and frost adorned her shabby Shihakushō. Crimson streaks peppered with white frost covered her arms.

Grimacing, Masaki tried to pull her katana from the ice, but it would not budge. Her eyes, however, remained fixed upon the pale woman, who nearly blended with the fog itself save for the long, dark purple wavy hair that reached mid shoulder length. A short white dress tied at her neck with ragged edges clung to her shapely figure. There were several tears within her dress, including a large tear that exposed her left thigh. Some of the purple diamonds that adorned her dress underneath her breasts were missing, but she seemed relatively unharmed compared to Masaki.

"Have you given any thought to what I've said, Masaki?" wondered the icy nymph like woman, holding her sword leisurely at her side. The blade glowed bright white.

Masaki did not reply, but released her hold on the hilt, abandoning her attempt to free it by force.

"Hadō 4: Byakurai," the orange haired young woman murmured, pointing a finger at the ground, near the base of her blade.

"I've grown weary of this, Masaki." The purple haired woman appeared before Masaki could reach for hernewly freed katanaand grabbed it. Upon contact, the Zanpakutō froze, and the nymph woman threw it to the ground, shattering it into hundreds of ice shards.

Masaki scowled at her Zanpakutō. Pale lavender light issued from her right hand as yet another sword began to materialize.

"Enough."

Mist soared towards Masaki, reshaping into long ice shards that tore through both her shoulders and pinned her to the frozen ground. The unformed sword in her hand faded.

"Damn it, Kiri," Masaki muttered, glaring at her Zanpakutō, who now looked down on her.

"I said that's enough."

"No, it's not…"Masaki said angrily.

"It is. I told you I've grown weary of fighting you. It's pointless with the way you are now, with the way you've been fighting….Clearly, you have been letting your thoughts get to you, otherwise, you wouldn't have been so sloppy….It's truly unbecoming of you, Masaki."

There was a short pause, during which, Masaki squirmed and struggled to loosen the ice shards holding her captive. Mist issued from the nymph woman's blade and settled over Masaki's arms and legs. Within moments, ice now held Masaki firmly in place.

"So, have you considered my words, Masaki?"

"Hyōketsu Kiri, I told you I just want to fight, not talk…"Masaki said sharply.

"I refuse to continue fighting," Hyōketsu Kiri said, crossing her arms.

Masaki glared at her for several moments, before staring out at the haze covered landscape.

"How could you even suggest such a thing?" Masaki said quietly, her voice laced with disbelief and revulsion. "Do you even realize what you're saying?"

"I believe it is you who does not realize that this existence, if you can call it that, is exactly the same as not existing. Death lurks all around us regardless of the choice you make. I'm merely reminding you that you have the power to meet her head on if you wish," Hyōketsu Kiri said, her arms now unfolded, her left index finger slowly and gently caressing the blade in her right hand. "Or you could even use her if you desired…." She added, lifting her finger when she had reached the tip of the blade. Crimson stained the pad of her finger. She brought it to her mouth and licked it, a dark, excited grin forming on her features.

"I could never do something like that," Masaki said, disgusted.

"Suit yourself, but whatever option you choose would end your turmoil," Hyōketsu Kiri pointed out, dispassionately.

"My turmoil means nothing in comparison to maintaining the present…."

"Stop torturing yourself with uncertainties about what is happening or isn't happening to the present. Face it as it comes. Do not burden yourself now…"

Masaki stared at Hyōketsu Kiri for a long moment.

"H-How? How can you be so calm about this?" Masaki demanded, exasperated.

"This is beyond you or me. Whatever happens, will happen….It is as simple as that."

Masaki remained silent.

Hyōketsu Kiri lowered her translucent blade to Masaki's chest.

"I might as well end you myself…."

"You really hate this, too," Masaki noted quietly, staring at the glowing blade in front of her.

The nymph woman merely drove her blade into Masaki's flesh, and Masaki's face contorted with obvious discomfort.

"Your death is but a mere formality. I already told you, this isn't existing," Hyōketsu Kiri said, as she continued driving her sword slowly into Masaki's chest.

"Remember this well, Masaki. If your will is not as hard and unyielding as a diamond, and your heart is not completely frozen, I will not be of any use to you." the nymph woman said, suddenly plunging the sword hard into Masaki's chest.

The orange haired Shinigami woman gasped loudly, as though she had just been submerged in artic water. Mist emanated from her chest, but there no sign of the sword or blemish to indicate that it had actually entered her flesh.

"Sode no Shirayuki's wielder is calling you," Hyōketsu Kiri said, her back turned to Masaki.

"Sode no Shirayuki's wielder?" Masaki repeated, once she found her voice.

"Yes."

"Oh, you mean,…Ka-" she caught her herself, "Kuchiki-san."

Masaki closed her eyes.

Orange eyebrows unfurled and orange lashes gave way to blinking violet irises.

"Ah, Masaki, I'm sorry to interrupt you," Rukia said, prompting Masaki to turn her head. Rukia was standing in the spot she had previously been sitting in. "I just wanted to let you know I would be getting some breakfast. If you wanted to you could join me, but if not, I understand. I'll leave you be."

Several moments passed before Masaki spoke.

"It's okay, Kuchiki-san. I already spent enough time with Hyōketsu Kiri. I hadn't realized it was already this late…"Masaki admitted, her gaze taking in the daylight.

"You lost track of time, didn't you?"

"Hai. I didn't mean to though..."

"It's okay, Masaki, it happens. Would you like some breakfast?"

"Sure, Kuchiki-san."

Breakfast was a relatively quiet affair. Rukia could not help but get the sense Masaki was being more reserved than what Rukia had known thus far. The orange haired young woman had previously put more effort in maintaining a conversation, but this morning she had not mustered much effort. Rukia had also noticed a tired glint in Masaki's eyes.

Last night Masaki had been quiet after they had returned from touring the Kurosaki Manor, but she had not thought much about it then. Her mind had been consumed by her own thoughts that she had not minded the silence. Now she suspected Masaki must have been affected by seeing the dilapidated Kurosaki Manor. That manor was supposed to be her future home after all. She could only envisage the feelings that must have arisen in her upon seeing what was supposed to be her home in ruins….

It must have been tough for her, yet she had kept her emotions at bay. Rukia supposed, however, those emotions must have done their number overnight. Rukia knew there was nothing she could really say to assuage whatever Masaki was feeling and thus had tried to keep the conversation light, but after sensing Masaki wasn't quite keen to talk, she had abandoned her feeble attempt. She had offered Masaki a chance to leave the Kuchiki manor with her, but the young woman had dismissed the idea and instead requested to use one of the training rooms within the Kuchiki grounds. It was where they were heading now.

Masaki's request wasn't that unexpected considering she had admitted that she found training calming, but Rukia nonetheless found it somewhat disconcerting. She understood Masaki's need to be by herself and respected it, but she knew from personal experience that being by yourself didn't always help lessen your thoughts. She hoped, however, that Masaki would find some comfort in training by herself and that she would be in a better mood afterwards and that perhaps she would be willing to train with her later on.

"The training compound is over there," Rukia said, pointing to the structure jutting out over the hill they were about to cross.

Masaki simply nodded in acknowledgement, her eyes fixed upon the looming edifice.

Masaki had asked if she could use one of the indoor training facilities if possible, which had served to impress upon Rukia that the young woman desired absolute privacy. The training areas within the Kuchiki estate, whether indoor or outdoor, were essentially private. The servants knew to keep their distance, but nonetheless indoor training facilities assured complete seclusion. Rukia had not bothered to inform Masaki of this, she had just granted her request.

"Here we are, Masaki," Rukia said, a few moments later as she stood in front of the building entrance and began to peel back the door. "Feel free to use it as you wish. The servants will clean up later. "

"Arigatō, Kuchiki-san," Masaki said softly, her lips stretching into a small appreciative smile.

"I will see you later, Masaki," Rukia said, as she finished opening the door.

Masaki nodded. "Ja ne, Kuchiki-san."


As the soft hiss of the closing door faded, sheer silence greeted Masaki. Her hand remained on the handle for several moments, before she turned around and surveyed her surroundings. The windows high above her were firmly shut and only the slightest trickle of light permeated through their closed shutters, but it was enough illumination to display the immaculate shine of the polished wooden floor.

Masaki remained motionless, gazing vacantly at the immense training room.

"Inemuri?" Byakuya asked, in a snide, disbelieving tone, as he peered down at Masaki. "What is a matter? Have you had enough shedding blood?"

Masaki knitted her eyebrows, but remained silent.

"Or is it simply that you can't stand doing it yourself and would rather resort to other means like you did with…the ones you called parents? You have no courage, no honor, no pride…no heart….You truly are not their flesh and blood...You have only masqueraded as such…."

Masaki opened her mouth to speak, but instead only inhaled sharply. Widened violet irises slowly lowered from Byakuya to her chest, where a sword protruded, crimson soaking her front rapidly.

Byakuya released her hand and she stumbled, as he pulled out his sword.

"Oji-sama…" She gasped, as she fell.

"It can't be true," Masaki whispered, clenching her right hand.

"W-What?" Masaki's eyes widened, as she came to a halt. "H-How could it have been that long? It can't be…It was just days ago…" She reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the short, white haired Shinigami walking beside her.

"I mean I couldn't have been asleep for days let alone years!…No way… "Her eyes suddenly narrowed as they stared down into Toshi's chocolate brown orbs. "You're joking, right?" Annoyance flashed in her eyes, as her grip tightened around his shoulder. "Toshi," She said warningly. "If this is your idea of a joke…."

"I'm not joking," Toshi shook his head, looking serious.

"That can't be true," Masaki said, her grip tightening further around his shoulder.

"Sorry, Masaki, but…" Toshi started.

The shoulder beneath Masaki's hand crumbled into reishi, floating away into the sky. His neck, his chin, face and eyes soon followed along with his lower body.

"T-Toshi!" Masaki yelled, horrified.

"They're just dreams…" Masaki said quietly, gripping tightly her Zanpakutō handle with her left hand.

Silence.

"They don't mean anything….They have to be okay…." Her hold tightened even more.

Her eyes fell closed, and a few moments later she released a long, heavy sigh.

"Forgive me, Hyōketsu Kiri, I was pathetic."

In one swift movement, she withdrew her Zanpakutō and scabbard from her waist, placing it on the floor. "I won't allow those thoughts to get to me," she said as she lowered herself beside her katana, knees first, sitting in seiza style. Drawing a long, deep breath, Masaki shut her eyes. She sat there breathing deeply.

Fifteen minutes later, with her eyes still closed, she raised her arms gradually over head. She held the stretch for several seconds, before slowly bringing her hands onto her lap. She then extended them out to her sides. As she lowered her arms, her eyes fluttered open. A renewed calm shone in them.

She slowly rose to her feet, careful to limber up her legs, feet, and arms. A few minutes later, she rolled into a somersault and swiftly performed a series of flips before landing neatly before a series of display racks that housed a wide array of training weapons. Her eyes roamed over the distinct stands, organized by sword size and wood type. Katana filled the first rack, followed by the shorter wakizashi, and even smaller tantō shaped bokken. Ichii kashi, the standard red oak, occupied the first stand while the second and third contained the more resilient white oak, shirakashi, and the exquisite but heavier sunuke respectively.

Slim fingers descended upon the sunuke katana suburitō. Masaki freed it, taking a moment to rest the thick blade against her left palm. Seemingly satisfied, she proceeded towards the center of the training room. Once her fingers were properly gripping the bokken, she raised it gently over her head, breathing slow and steady in perfect companionship to her movement. Mirroring the smooth action of a fisherman flinging his fishing rod out to sea, Masaki plunged the wooden blade through the air, perfectly straight, a shout spilling out from her lips. Turning right, she repeated the move and continued to do this until she returned to her original position. Extending her right foot back, she elevated her bokken then swung it as she stepped forward, her hips twisting slightly to the side. The rustle of the stiff blade resounded slightly louder than before as well as her own cry. Masaki continued to repeat the move counterclockwise until she resumed her initial spot.

With every drill, the intensity increased, engaging Masaki's whole body, and she soon discarded her kosode along with her fukutaichō armband. Eventually she took a ten minute break, taking some time to rub and stretch her arms. She switched the suburitō for the shirakashi katana, before launching into another a series of exercises.

As Masaki's meticulously performed moves flowed into a seamless well-choreographed dance, her eyes fell closed. Immersed in an imaginary battle visible only her in mind's eye, Masaki parried and thrust her bokken against an unseen opponent. Every stroke was fluid and swift, as though truly engaged in combat. As she slashed downward, the faintest glimmer of a shadow loomed behind her. Instinctively, she whirled around, slicing the air behind her.

A cheerful giggle rang across the room.

Amethyst eyes snapped open.

"Yachiru-chan," Masaki panted, surprised to see the rose haired girl carelessly and effortlessly bouncing the tips of her toes against her bokken, arms spread out as though she were balancing on a tightrope.

"Good reflexes, Mini Ichi," Yachiru grinned approvingly.

"Yachiru-chan, that was dangerous. You should never sneak up on someone when they're training," Masaki chided.

Yachiru merely smiled. "I wasn't sneaking up on you. I tried calling you, but you didn't hear me."

"W-What? I never heard you…"Masaki said, startled.

"Ken-chan never hears either," Yachiru giggled, leaping off the bokken and gently floating down to the ground.

With a slightly disconcerted look lingering in her eyes, Masaki lowered her bokken. With the back of her free hand, she wiped away the perspiration on her forehead and nose.

"You're really focused, Mini Ichi, even though you're so young," Yachiru noted.

Ignoring the young fukutaichō's words, Masaki asked, "What are you doing here, Yachiru-chan?"

"I came to play, of course!" Yachiru exclaimed, grinning broadly.

"I see, but how did you find me?"

"I asked your daddy. He said you were staying with your mommy at Byakushi's house. I looked all over until I found you here," Yachiru explained. "Why are you playing by yourself, Mini Ichi? Where is your mommy?"

"They're busy….Do you want to play with me?" Masaki asked hopefully, gesturing with her bokken toward the sword racks.

Yachiru shook her head. "I want to play something else."

"Like what?" Masaki wondered, the slightest gleam of disappointment flickering in her eyes at Yachiru's response.

Yachiru looked thoughtful for a second, before she said, "Hide and seek!"

"Hide and seek?" Masaki repeated, receiving an overly enthusiastic nod from Yachiru in affirmation.

"Byakushi's place is the best for hide and seek!" Yachiru proclaimed excitedly. "There are so many places to hide in…"

"True, but I don't think we should play that," Masaki said.

"But it'll be fun! We should play it!" Yachiru insisted, immediately reaching for Masaki's hand and attempting to haul her away. Masaki wavered forward for an instant, but she held firm.

"Wait, Yachiru-chan —"

"C'mon, Mini Ichi, let's play hide and seek!" Yachiru pleaded, glancing up at Masaki.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Yachiru-chan," Masaki said.

"Why not?" Yachiru wondered, pouting.

"Kuchiki-taichō won't appreciate us running around all over the place. We should play something were we stay put. Remember, he doesn't even want you here. He barely agreed to let me stay here, too. We wouldn't want to make him upset."

"Bya-kun isn't even here," Yachiru pointed out mischievously, "He won't know."

"Well, he might if the servants spot us all over the place," Masaki countered.

Yachiru opened her mouth to object, but Masaki quickly beat her to it.

"If you really want to play hide and seek, it'll have to be within the surrounding area only. The risk of the servants spotting you is low here. Besides, I don't think I have the energy to look for you if you hide somewhere really far from here."

"Okay, Mini Ichi! I'll hide near here!" Yachiru agreed.

"All right, Yachiru-chan, go ahead and find your hiding spot. I'll be out as soon as I finish dressing," Masaki said.

Yachiru nodded excitedly as she dropped Masaki's hand. "I'll be waiting for you to find me, Mini Ichi!"

Without another word, the young Shinigami girl sped away out of the complex.

A few minutes later, Masaki ventured out of the building with all senses on alert to find the hidden Yachiru. As she scanned the area, nothing seemed to yield a single clue as to the rose haired Shinigami's whereabouts. The surrounding vegetation and rocks did not seem to be sprouting any unusual pink decorations. The building's tiled roof was remarkably spotless and Yachiru free. Masaki explored the immediate area further, looking inside and around the storage sheds stationed near the training compound, but failed to see any sign that Yachiru was there. She eventually redoubled back to the training compound to see if Yachiru had re-entered it while she was searching elsewhere, but she did not find her there. Yachiru appeared ten minutes later, tired of waiting to be found.

"Mini Ichi, you're not really good at finding people," Yachiru commented. "I was waiting and waiting but you never found me….I thought you had forgotten about me."

"I'm sorry, Yachiru-chan, but I just couldn't find you. Where were you?"

"That's a secret," Yachiru grinned mysteriously.

"C'mon, Yachiru-chan, tell me."

The Eleventh Division fukutaichō shook her head. "Nope, it's a secret. You have to find your own hiding spot."

"I wasn't planning on using it. I'm just curious."

"Sorry, Mini Ichi, can't tell you."

"All right, Yachiru-chan, don't tell me." Masaki conceded, looking saddened, "I'll just have to find a spot as good as yours."

Yachiru began to giggle, as though she had just heard a good joke.

"What's so funny?" Masaki demanded, her dismayed look melting away. "I can do it…."

"Nu-uh," Yachiru said gleefully.

"Uh huh," Masaki responded.

"No you can't."

"Yes, I can," Masaki said. "Close your eyes and count to a hundred."

"No."

"Why not, Yachiru-chan?"

"You can't beat my spot," Yachiru said confidently. "Let's do something else."

"But I want to have a chance to hide," Masaki protested.

"But I don't want to look for you."

"But, Yachiru-chan," Masaki said, feigning hurt. "It's only fair that I have my turn…"

"But that's boring," Yachiru said. "Let's do something else—I know!"

She suddenly grabbed Masaki's hand and began tugging it. "C'mon, Mini Ichi!"

"Where do you want to go, Yachiru-chan?"

"You'll see," Yachiru said cryptically.

After stealthily navigating through the Kuchiki manor via several concealed pathways at a rather incredible pace, Yachiru led a somewhat dazed Masaki out of a hidden tunnel beneath some loosened tatami flooring.

"Mini Ichi, welcome to the official headquarters of the Women's Shinigami Association," Yachiru announced, as she pranced into the room and extended her arms out.

Dizzy, Masaki merely blinked, as she attempted to get her bearings so that she could stand. As her vision stabilized, several purple zabuton came into view. They were scattered all over the room along with trays and cups. Old candy wrappers and sheets of paper rested haphazardly all over the place. A large poster board with the title: Shinigami Women's Association's Projects was pinned on the wall across from her. Several items on the listed had been scratched off while others remained visible. Above that list was another sign that was slightly worn out that read the Shinigami Women's Association Conference Room.

Yachiru padded across the room, suddenly squatted down and began sweeping her hands over the floor, apparently searching for something. Within moments, she lifted a floor board and placed it aside.

"Come here, Mini Ichi," Yachiru called out.

While she waited for Masaki, she reached down and grabbed a small bag bursting with bright, colorful star shaped candy and popped several of them into her mouth. A content smile swept upon her face when she swallowed them.

"Here, Mini Ichi, have some konpeitō," She said, when Masaki kneeled by her side.

"Thanks, Yachiru-chan, but—"

"Try them!" Yachiru said, swiftly shoving some of the crystalline candies into Masaki's half open mouth.

"They're good, aren't they?" she asked, when Masaki finally managed to swallow them.

Masaki nodded.

"Here, have some more," Yachiru said, thrusting her candy bag into Masaki's hands, before returning her attention to her secret compartment. "I love them. They're my favorite candies. I always have Ken-chan buy them for me if we come across a candy store. I buy them myself too if Ken-chan's busy. I just use the association's money."

"Are the other members okay with that?" Masaki asked, placing the candy bag beside her.

"It doesn't matter what they think," Yachiru said, as she began to rummage through her possessions. "I'm the president. I can do whatever I want. Besides, I share candy with them, too."

Masaki watched the young girl as she pulled out toys and candy and began to build a pile beside her.

"Let's play," Yachiru said excitedly, after surmising she had enough toys.

The first game they played was ohajiki, a game similar to marbles that involved flat glass pieces. They played five rounds, three of which Yachiru won. The Eleventh fukutaichō had been somewhat annoyed she had failed to win the first game. She had claimed the uneven flooring had ruined her chances of her ohajiki hitting the last two pieces, which would have secured her the win. She consequently made Masaki switch seats with her.

Afterwards, Yachiru grabbed some strings from her toy pile and they played ayatori. Most of Masaki's designs involved rabbits, which Yachiru found cute and amusing, while Yachiru's involved Kenpachi or something related to the Eleventh Division. Next they played with kendama, a traditional wooden Japanese toy shaped like a spike with a knob like cross section at its base tied to a string with a ball containing a hole in the middle so that it could be impaled upon the spike. They followed this game with several rounds of otedama, games involving bean bags,and karuta, a card game.

"So, what do you want to play now, Yachiru-chan?" Masaki wondered, as she grabbed the pile of cards she had collected during the game and handed them to the young Shinigami girl, who was beaming with delight that she had just managed to snatch the winning card.

"I don't know," Yachiru said giddily, taking the cards and throwing them into the air carelessly.

"Yachiru-chan," Masaki groaned, lowering her head as cards rained down over her.

Yachiru just laughed, flopping on her back and swinging her arms to the side, moving the cards around her all over the place.

Masaki watched the ecstatic girl for a moment, before surveying the now messier room. The scattered cards had fallen all over the room. Some had fallen inside the empty cups and trays, while others had fallen over the new candy wrappers Yachiru had added to the pile of candy wrappers that had already been there when they had arrived. The otedama they had used were all over the place. One of them had ripped, and its contents were dispersed across the floor. The strings used for ayatori rested in a tangled heap atop a zabuton. The kendama toys were strewn several feet away from them while the ohajiki pieces lay somewhere underneath all the clutter. Yachiru had been too eager to move on to the next game that she had not allowed Masaki a chance to put away the toys they were using.

Masaki sighed.

"Think about it while I clean up," she said, standing up.

"Don't clean! We're still playing!"

"We can't keep playing like this, Yachiru-chan," the orange haired Shinigami replied. "It's too messy. You're gonna end up losing your toys like this."

Masaki began collecting the otedama. Once she had collected all of the ones that were still whole, she carefully placed them inside Yachiru's secret compartment. She gazed at its contents, surprised to find a horde of other toys and sweets still nestled there. It appeared Yachiru had not even taken a fourth of her belongings out.

As Masaki's gazed roved over the different toys and figurines, she noticed a doll behind a blue ball, whose shiny black hair was messy due to her loose hair ribbons. Her features were pale save for her ruby red lips. Glassy grey eyes stared fixedly straight ahead. A small fracture marred her forehead. A beautiful and elegant blue and grey kimono covered her slender frame. Her neckline was slightly askew and her obi was untied.

Masaki stared at the doll, slowly lowering her hand and grabbing it to take a closer look. She delicately ran her fingers over the doll's face and carefully adjusted her kimono.

"Oooh, do you want to play dollies?" Yachiru asked, popping her head over Masaki's shoulder.

"Where did you get this?" Masaki whispered, continuing to smooth out the wrinkles in the doll's kimono.

"Oh, I found that dolly in one of Bya-kun's rooms," Yachiru explained. "He used to have a room filled with lots of dolls, but I haven't been able to find it again…. It's pretty, isn't it? "

Masaki nodded, a distant look flooding her eyes.

Laughter and amusement filled the atmosphere as people congregated around several tables placed in a large courtyard. White, pink, and lavender balloons attached to the guests' chairs swayed and danced jubilantly with the wind. Lavender vases filled with violet flowers surrounded the courtyard, and at the center of it, above a large table draped in a white cloth, brimming with many gifts wrapped in brightly colored fabric and paper, hung a large white banner with purple kanji that read: Happy Birthday Masaki.

"Open mine, Masaki," Renji said excitedly, stepping forward, his long scarlet pony tail swishing, as he bent down toward a small Masaki dressed in a blue and fuchsia kimono decorated with white crescent moons. Her hair was swept into two pig tails by ribbons that matched her kimono.

The red head, who was clothed in a brown and tan kimono, grinned happily at the young girl, who only stared at the oddly wrapped small parcel placed in front of her.

Masaki took the gift tentatively and stared at it.

"Open it, sweetie." Rukia said encouragingly. She was standing behind Masaki. Her hair was swept away from her face but her trademark lone bang hung across her face as usual. She was dressed in a lovely royal blue tomesode kimono with light blue accents. The Kurosaki kamon were embroidered on either side of her neckline.

"C'mon, Masaki, open it. Let's see what Renji got you," Ichigo said, amused by Renji's gift wrapping attempt. He was standing next to Rukia, wearing a royal blue kimono that paralleled hers,

Masaki slowly began peeling away the paper, letting it drop to the floor, revealing pink Chappy shaped sunglasses.

"Let me see what he got you," Ichigo said, and Masaki turned showing him the rabbit shaped spectacles.

"Sunglasses?" Ichigo exclaimed, incredulous.

"Aren't they great?" Renji said, grinning proudly.

"Great?" Ichigo repeated.

"They're so cute!" Rukia gushed, bending down at Masaki's level to examine the gift.

"But why would she wear those?" Ichigo exclaimed.

"What kind of question of that?" Renji demanded. "She needs them to protect her eyes from the sun's rays, you idiot! Why else would you wear them?"

"I know what they're for, moron," Ichigo retorted.

"Then, what's your problem?" Renji said. "I just gave my niece a perfectly useful gift that will protect her young eyes from the sun. Oh, I get it, you're just mad you hadn't thought about it before…"A smirk flitted across the red haired man's face.

"No," Ichigo snapped, glaring at him.

"Ichigo, Renji, doesn't Masaki look so adorable?" Rukia's voice interrupted them. Ichigo and Renji turned to see Rukia standing behind Masaki with a hand on both of the girl's shoulders. Sitting upon the bridge of the orange haired girl's nose were the Chappy shaped sunglasses.

"Well, doesn't she?" Rukia asked after a moment's pause.

"Yeah, she does," Ichigo admitted, his lips twitching into a smile despite himself.

"I knew she'd look great in them," Renji said approvingly.

Rukia slipped off the glasses from Masaki's face and placed it on the nearby table next to the other unwrapped gifts. "So, what do you have to say to Renji-oji-san?"

Masaki blinked, then glanced at Renji and said softly as she lowered her head, "Arigatō, Renji-oji-chan."

"Sure thing, kiddo," Renji grinned, patting her head affectionately.

"Okay, let's move on to the next one," Ichigo said. "So, who's next?"

"It is my turn," announced a firm, emotionless voice.

Dressed in a formal silver and white kimono with the Kuchiki kamon embroidered on the lapels, Byakuya stepped forward.

"So, which one is your gift?" Ichigo wondered, glancing at the unopened gifts remaining on the table.

"It is not there," Byakuya informed him.

He snapped his fingers and several servants appeared carrying on their shoulders an elaborate display filled with a multitude of dolls sitting on a finely embroidered scarlet carpet. They settled it down carefully in front of Masaki.

She peered at the variety of porcelain dolls dressed in intricate silk kimonos, their features pale and delicately painted. Their glossy tresses swept into a multitude of styles. At the top of the platform with a miniature gold screen serving as their backdrop sat a handsome male figurine next to a female figurine, robed in ornate, lavish kimonos. Two vases filled with peach branches sat between them while miniaturehibukuro decorated with pale sakura blossoms rested on either side of them. Below them resided four dolls whose exquisite attire sported four distinct patterns. One of these dolls had a kenseikan in her hair. The following tier contained several dolls clothed in slightly less extravagant kimonos, but whom nonetheless radiated sophistication compared to the two dolls below them, who wore subdued apparel in grey and black and carried a thick book in their arms. The last platform housed familiar figures outfitted in shihakushō, including a certain orange haired figure.

"They're beautiful, Nii-sama," Rukia breathed, stooping down beside Masaki to admire the dolls. Wrapping an arm around Masaki, she began to point out things about the dolls.

"Beautiful but unplayable," Ichigo remarked, a slight edge of annoyance underlining his words. "Thanks, Byakuya. I'm sure Masaki will enjoy staring at her fancy dolls…."

As Masaki glanced at her father, she noticed her mother shooting him a withering look.

"It is customary for a young girl to receive a doll set depicting the Soul Society's social structure for Hinamatsuri," Byakuya informed him, unfazed by Ichigo's comment. "The festival is only two weeks away and you've yet to put out a display. I wanted to make sure my niece enjoyed viewing her dolls for more than a day."

There was a pause during which amber eyes glimmered with acceptance and discomfiture.

"Each of these dolls and their garments were handcrafted by the finest doll makers. They were specially commissioned except for the Soul King and Queen. Those dolls have been passed from one generation to the next in the Kuchiki Clan."

"I'm sorry, Byakuya, but Masaki cannot accept this gift," Ichigo interrupted, his voice deadly flat, his countenance solemn.

The air thickened with noticeable tension as the two men stared at each other.

Masaki glanced uneasily at them.

"Nii-sama, what Ichigo meant to say is that while we appreciate the gesture on behalf of our daughter, we simply cannot accept such a precious Kuchiki heirloom," Rukia said, quickly intervening. "We can, however, accept the other dolls."

"Whether you choose to accept them or not is irrelevant. The dolls are hers. I have already decided it. They are her birthright. You can pretend otherwise"—grey eyes flitted to the crescent moons adorning Masaki's kimono—"but nothing or anyone can change her lineage."

"Nii-sama," Rukia began, apologetic, "we aren't trying to deny her heritage, but—"

"You know damn well why we won't accept it…"Ichigo snapped.

"I stand by what I said," Byakuya said firmly, slate eyes fixed upon hardened amber. "The dolls are hers whether you admit them into your home or not. I will display them in the manor in her honor as is customary for the festival." He paused. "I merely wish to ensure her well-being."

"Arigatō, Nii-sama," Rukia murmured, inclining her head, clearly touched.

Byakuya raised his hand and made a motion. Two of his attendants stepped forth, clutching in their arms two enormous plush toys with long ribbons tied around their necks.

"What is this?" Ichigo wondered, watching as the attendant carrying a huge white Chappy rabbit with a bright pink ribbon around its neck, deposited it in front of Masaki and bowed. The second one followed suit with an enormous oddly shaped green creature—the wakame ambassador—with a red ribbon.

"I'm continuing with my presentation of gifts. Surely you did not think the hina-ningyō were all I had to offer to my niece? That is a traditional gift. I have other presents to offer her, ones that she can play with," Byakuya said coolly, slate eyes glinting mockingly.

Ichigo grimaced.

"Byakuya-oji-sama gave them to you, Masaki. You can hold them, they're yours," Rukia told Masaki, who had been staring at the huge Chappy and the wakame ambassador plopped in front of her with silent wonder.

Uncertainty crossed Masaki's face. She hesitantly raised a hand, as though she was contemplating reaching for Chappy, but looked back at her father.

"Go ahead, they're yours," Ichigo nodded.

Masaki slowly reached for Chappy. She tried wrapping her arms around its gigantic neck, but was nearly crushed by its massive head as it slumped forward.

"Careful, sweetie, Chappy is pretty big, isn't he?" Rukia smiled, as she pushed aside the bunny's head away from Masaki to prevent her from being smothered by the huge bunny.

Masaki nodded, smiling slightly as she stared at the shiny black eyes the size of salad plates gazing back at her. Her reflection twinkled in them. Masaki then glanced at the Wakame Ambassador. She loosened one of her arms from around Chappy's neck and stretched it towards the grinning green creature. Rukia pushed it into her grasp. Masaki struggled to hold on to the two stuffed animals at the same time, but somehow she managed it without being completely overwhelmed by their vast size. As she stood there, glancing from one animal to the other, Byakuya's servants appeared before her once more, carrying six more gifts. All of them were elegantly wrapped in beautifully colored fabric except for a glass bowl with two vibrant golden koi, which was simply decorated with a lovely red and white bow.

"Look, Masaki, Byakuya-oji-sama has more presents for you," Rukia pointed out.

Masaki briefly glanced at them before returning her gaze to Chappy and the Wakame ambassador.

"Masaki…"Rukia said gently, placing a hand on her daughter's head to gain her attention. "Byakuya-oji-sama…"

Masaki reluctantly tore her gaze from her stuffed companions and looked at her uncle, awareness suddenly flaring within her violet orbs. She attempted to walk forward, but stumbled since she couldn't carry her plushes with her. Reluctantly she released them and made her way without them.

"Arigatō, Oji-sama for Chappy and Wakame Ambassador," Masaki beamed, inclining her head. She looked up at him, expectantly.

He stared at her.

She gazed back at him.

Her smile began to falter and uncertainty flickered in her large violet eyes as seconds passed and he remained motionless with an unreadable expression.

"Oji-sama?" She murmured questioningly.

She blinked when she noticed his right arm move.

She watched with rapt attention as his hand unhurriedly descended towards her. She lowered her head just as his sleeve fluttered over her head. He patted her head once, stiffly and firmly. "You are welcome, Masaki."

When she felt his hand leave her head, she raised her head and smiled timidly at him.

"So, do you want to play dollies?" Yachiru questioned, prompting Masaki to blink.

"Um, if that's what you want, Yachiru-chan," Masaki said absentmindedly, still looking at the doll. "This doll isn't the kind you play with though."

"Huh? What do you mean it's not for playing?"

"This kind of doll is too delicate to be played with, Yachiru-chan. It's made simply for collecting or viewing."

"That's dumb…No wonder it broke," Yachiru frowned.

"I know it sounds silly, but this is a special kind of doll for Hinamatsuri."

Masaki untied the doll's hair ribbons and began to softly run her fingers through its ebony tresses.

"It is?" Yachiru said surprised.

"Has Zaraki-taichō ever given you a doll like this on Hinamatsuri?" Masaki asked, turning her attention to the rose haired girl at her shoulder.

Yachiru shook her head. "Ken-chan wouldn't give me something I can't play with."

"I see."

There was a pause, as Masaki struggled slightly to untangle a finger from the doll's locks.

"Well, you should be honored to have a doll like this, Yachiru-chan, especially since this doll is from the house of Kuchiki. Normally only Kuchikis are able to inherit these kind of dolls. Consider yourself lucky," Masaki said, smiling gently at Yachiru.

"Really?" Yachiru said, her face lighting up. "Oh, so it's a Kuchiki thingfor even boys to get dollies," she added, sounding amazed.

A chuckle escaped Masaki's lips. "They aren't his dolls, Yachiru-chan, only Kuchiki girls get them."

"They're not? But they were in his rooms…."

Masaki looked as though she was going to say something, but Yachiru quickly exclaimed, "Oh, I forgot they must be your mommy's! Byakushi must have given them to her...And they'll be yours too on Hinamatsuri!

Masaki remained silent as she finished smoothing out the doll's mane as best as she could and then reapplied ribbons to it. "You should be careful with it, Yachiru-chan," Masaki said, once she finished with her work and handed it to Yachiru.

"Arigatō, Mini Ichi," Yachiru grinned, taking the doll.

"I didn't mean to break her…."Yachiru suddenly said, as she ran her finger carefully over the dolls' fracture. "It was an accident…I tried to be careful, but she just cracked…."

"Accidents happen, Yachiru-chan. It's not that bad."

Yachiru spent several moments admiring Masaki's handiwork, before she carefully placed the doll in a safe spot in her concealed treasure trove. When she glanced up, she noticed Masaki had already resumed cleaning and was working on picking up the karuta cards.

"Mini Ichi, what kind of snacks do you want? I'm going to get some," Yachiru announced brightly, two minutes later.

"I don't want anything," Masaki replied, looking startled. "Haven't you had enough snacks, Yachiru-chan?"

The Eleventh Division fukutaichō had constantly been munching on one thing or another while they played.

"Nope," Yachiru giggled. "I'm going to get some more, I'll be right back!"

"Hold on, Yachiru-chan," Masaki started, but it was too late the Shinigami girl had already flown across the room and into a tunnel different from the one they had used to enter the room.

"At this rate, she'll never lose her energy," Masaki noted, dropping her head and sighing heavily. "I have no choice, I have to help her," she said grimly, raising her head. "I hope she brings back chocolate," she added wistfully.

She continued gathering the strewn karuta cards from the floor, cups, and zabuton and separating them into distinct piles, one for the yomifuda, the reading cards, and the other for the torifuda, the grabbing cards. As she reached for a card atop a rumpled stack of papers, she momentarily froze as she studied what lay beneath it. It was the Seireitei Communication Monthly magazine. She placed the card in the yomifuda cardstack beside her right thigh, reached for the magazine, and began to smooth out its wrinkled pages as best she could. Amethyst eyes swept over the cover page.

It was the September edition of the Seireitei Communication Monthly and a large shot of the sōtaichō and his fukutaichō both looking somber but resolute and firm like unmoving ancient boulders dominated the front page. The headline above them read: The Sōtaichō Reveals All. One of the subheadings read: The Ryoka Uncovered.

Masaki flipped the page and scanned through the index of articles. Though there were some articles written by those producing the magazine, majority of them were written by the fukutaichō and taichō of the Gotei 13. Some of those written by the latter had been noticeably placed on hiatus including Aizen Sōsuke's The Yin of the Pine Needle, Tōsen Kaname's "The Path to Justice", Ichimaru Gin's "That's Absurd", Hitsugaya Tōshirō's "Beautiful Crystal", and Ukitake Jūshiro's "Warning of the Twin Fish." Upon finding "The Ryoka Uncovered" article, Masaki placed a finger upon it for a second before turning the pages until she arrived at the indicated page 15.

The Ryoka Uncovered

Written by Hisagi Shūhei, Hayakawa (Kurōbādō) Mizuhō, and Ishishiro (Nōdō) Hiroyuki

The unexpected threat to the Soul Society this past summer has brought about many victims as well as many questions. Who were these Ryoka that dared penetrate the Shakonmaku via unusual means and managed to inflict damage upon the Gotei 13? Why would these Ryoka be willing to throw away their lives in an attempt to infiltrate the Seireitei?

Witnesses at Sōkyoku Hill assert Kurosaki Ichigo, the man considered the leader of the Ryoka, halted the execution of Kuchiki Rukia, a woman who had been sentenced to death by Central 46. Whether the Ryoka genuinely sought to rescue this woman or if there was something more fueling their actions is unclear. Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni-sōtaichō has simply issued the brief statement, "The Ryoka are not guilty." (Please see "The Sōtaichō Reveals All" on page 19 for further details). Though we cannot elaborate on the Ryoka's true goals we will, however, provide insight on the identities of the Ryoka who wreaked havoc upon the Seireitei.

Kurosaki Ichigo, the leader of the Ryoka, wears a Shihakushō and has bizarre orange colored hair that is so bright it can nearly disarm an opponent upon first glance. He wields a giant sword resembling an oversized kitchen knife and his strength and skills match those of a taichō. Abarai Renji, fukutaichō of the Sixth Division, and the fearsome Zaraki-taichō of the Eleventh Division were dangerously wounded by this man.

Yasutora Sado, a rather tall and powerfully built human whose only weapons are his bare hands, devastated the Eleventh Division with his powerful iron fists. He also defeated the third seat of the Eight Division, Enjōji Tatsufusa. Thankfully Eight Division Taichō Kyōraku Shunsui was able to put an end to his seemingly endless rampage.

Inoue Orihime, another human, appears as a gentle, beautiful flower, but do not be fooled! Inside lurks a deadly poison. This cunning woman ensnared some poor Twelfth Division members within her grasp and left them without clothes, all in an effort to pass of as a Shinigami. Her lethal sweetness managed to disarm even the formidable Zaraki-taichō. She was spotted riding on his back, a spot usually reserved solely for the Eleventh Division Fukutaichō Kusajishi Yachiru. How she managed the deed is a testament to her dangerous persuasive skills.

Ishida Uryū, one of the last surviving members of the human Hollow exterminators known as Quincies, was also part of the Ryoka. His mere existence is amazing, but one wonders if his motivation for entering the Soul Society was revenge for the past grievances committed against the Quincy. The Quincy left the Fourth Seat of the Seventh Division, Ikkanzaka Jirōbō, powerless due to the piercing of his Saketsu and Hakusui. He also fought against Kurotsuchi-taichō before being captured by Ninth Division Taichō Tōsen Kaname.

This concludes our overview about the Ryoka. We will provide more details pertaining to their motives as we continue our investigation.

"Bizarre orange colored hair that is so bright it can nearly disarm an opponent upon first glance," Masaki read, as her eyes reverted to the beginning of the article. "Ridiculous," she mumbled, her eyebrows quirking downward. "It's not bizarre… or that bright…"She said, one hand unconsciously fingering her orange locks while the other began to crush the magazine. "This article is pure rubbish…."She muttered, suddenly glaring at the crumpled paper. "Overview? As if! It didn't answer anything….Nothing's changed in over a century…"She continued, still glowering at the magazine in her hand. "Nothing but terrible, speculative writing…."

"Mini Ichi, I'm back!" Yachiru chirped, prompting Masaki to abruptly relax her hold on the magazine in her hand and look up, surprised. In Yachiru's hands was a tray filled with round shaped pastries. "Here have some manjū!"

"Uh…okay," Masaki said, hastily reaching for one of the dark pounded rice cakes.

"What's that?" Yachiru asked, gesturing with one hand to the rumpled paper in Masaki's hand, as she grabbed a manjū of her own and tossed it into her open mouth.

Masaki said nothing as she bit into her snack.

"Oh, that's the Seireitei Communications magazine," Yachiru observed, as she came closer and took the magazine away from Masaki and uncrumpled it. "Uki's story is my favorite. It's really fun. Here, let me you show you…."

"It's not in there, Yachiru-chan. I checked," Masaki explained.

"Uki always takes breaks. I hope he writes more soon!" Yachiru said. "His story is the best!"

"It is a good story," Masaki agreed, smiling fondly.

"How do you know?" Yachiru inquired, as she reached for another pastry.

"Well," Masaki began, pausing for a moment to swallow her manjū, "Ukitake-taichō shared some of his stories with me."

"Really? Which ones?" Yachiru wondered.

"Uh," Masaki said, looking thoughtful, as she regarded the manjū before her, intending to grab another one. "Well…um, the one where—"

"What are you doing here?" said, someone behind them.


Quick Glossary:

Taichō- captain

Fukutaichō- vice captain

Baa-chan- grandma or granny

Shihakushō- Shinigami uniform

Hai- yes

Shōji- translucent paper framed in wood to be used as doors, windows, or walls

Jinzen-Act of communing with one's Zanpakutō spirit

Yuki-onna- Snow woman

Reiryoku- spirit energy

Katana-standard Japanese sword with a length greater than 60 cm. It is worn with the cutting edge up.

Arigatō- thank you

Ja ne- see you

Seiza- traditional Japanese sitting form where an individual sits on their knees while resting their buttocks on their heels

Wakizashi- short sword with a blade of 30 to 60 cm.

Tantō- short sword btw 15 to 30 cm that looks like a knife or dagger

Bokken- wooden practice sword

Ichii kashi- standard red oak used for a standard bokken

Shirakashi- White Oak. A wood that is heavier than red oak and more resistant to damage. Used for contact practice.

Sunuke- a rare and dense and heavy wood that is only suitable to be used for suburi (sword swinging exercises) and not full contact practice.

Suburitō- a bokken with a much thicker blade than the handle used for suburi and kata (prearranged exercises). It is a heavy bokken used for strengthening and conditioning in addition to the development of the spirit.

Kosode- black outer robe of a Shinigami's uniform

Tatami- traditional Japanese mats made of rice straw

Zabuton- sitting cushion

Konpeitō- colorful sugar candy that resembles stars

Ohajiki- a Japanese game similar to marbles that involves flat round shaped glass pieces (traditionally it was pebbles). This is considered a girl's game.

Ayatori- cat's cradle.

Kendama- traditional wooden Japanese toy that has a ball connected by a string to a wooden spike that contains 3 different sized cups

Otedama- bean bags filled with azuki beans

Karuta-card game involving two sets of cards, yomifuda (reading cards) and torifuda (grabbing cards). The goal of the game is to grab the card associated with the yomifuda faster than anyone else. This game was featured in Bleach Episode 303. It is traditional to play it on New Year's Day.

Tomesode kimono- kimono worn by married women

Kamon- family crest

Obi- sash

Oji-san- uncle

Hibukuro- silk or paper lanterns

Sakura- cherry blossoms

Nii-sama- older brother

Hinamatsuri-Girl's Day or Doll's Day is a festival celebrated in Japan on March 3. Platforms with ornamental dolls representing the Emperor and Empress are displayed beginning in mid-February until March 3rd in honor of young girls. It is a festival devoted to praying for a young girl's happiness and wellbeing. The origins of this festival trace back to Heian period when it was believed dolls contained bad spirits and were set afloat on a boat in order to ensure the bad spirits left (this custom was known as hina-nagashi).

Wakame- sea weed

Hina-ningyō- Ornamental dolls for Hinamatsuri

Koi- carp

Saketsu-Binding Chain

Hakusui- Soul Sleep

Shakonmaku- (Soul Warding Membrane) Spherical barrier emitted from sekkiseki

Manjū- a type of mochi (pounded rice cake) that looks like a bun and has a filling inside. The fillings inside can vary. Anko (red bean paste) filling is pretty common.


Notes:

Traditionally birthdays in Japan were not celebrated, except for a certain important ages. Everyone used to celebrate their birthday on the first of the year rather than their actual birthday because it was believed people aged with the year, not their birth date. It wasn't until the 1950s and the adaptation of Western culture traditions that this changed. Origata is a Japanese gift wrapping technique involving paper and fabric. Neither the paper and fabric are cut, they are merely folded, pleated, and tied in order to wrap the gift. Furoshiki is a technique that only involves fabric. Color symbolism is important in gift wrapping.

The above article was based on an article from Bleach's Color Bootleg (the second half was a copy of the Seireitei Communications mag itself) that basically rehashed everything that happened with the Ryoka's entrance into the SS and gave some info on them. The article ended with the note that they were still investigating who the mysterious figures were that disappeared from the hill making the implication the Shinigami had no clue what happened on top of Sōkyoku Hill , which is why I made a point of saying Yamamoto cleared this up in this chapter and the previous one. The Bootleg mentions that everyone in the Fifth Division is getting along despite their "captain's disappearance". I guess this could be taken as the Fifth Division was not informed of his 'death' and they just always assumed him as missing. Or it could be they know everything. It's not clear.