Disclaimer: Neither Bleach nor the name Kurosaki Masaki belong to me, both belong to Tite Kubo. My OC belongs to me under the name of Mai.

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Thanks to everyone who reads, you guys keep me writing!

This chapter is dedicated to the fabulous Hese Solstis who always pulls me back from writer's block.

"What are you doing here?"

Each aloofly spoken word punctuated the air like a bullet, piercingly loud and harsh, rendering all other sound null. Even after they were vocalized the air continued to vibrate with their penetrating austerity. Abandoning her attempt to select a pastry, Masaki lowered her hand to her thigh and glanced at the speaker along with Yachiru.

"Bya-kun!" Yachiru squealed cheerfully, after a moment, giving Byakuya a delighted smile adorned with crumbs. "Want some manjū?" she asked, grabbing said pastry and holding it up in Byakuya's direction.

"No," was the curt reply.

"But they're so yummy. Are you sure you don't want some?" The rose haired girl waved the dark pastry teasingly.

"No," Byakuya said firmly, his countenance expressionless. "I asked what you are doing here."

"Eating," Yachiru replied nonchalantly, before she bit into the manjū.

There was a beat.

"Yes, I can see you have procured yourself refreshments from the kitchens, but I believe I told you, you were not allowed on my premises."

"I came to play with Mini Ichi," The Eleventh Division fukutaichō explained after swallowing. "Ichi told me she was here. We had a lot of fun, didn't we, Mini Ichi?" She grinned broadly at the orange haired young woman next to her, receiving a faint, reassuring smile in return.

"Your entry was invalid. If you desired to enter the Kuchiki grounds, you had to ask permission," Byakuya informed her, glaring at her.

"Mini Ichi was okay with it," Yachiru replied brightly, grabbing yet another manjū.

"Her opinion is irrelevant," Byakuya stated coldly. "This is my home. My consent is what matters."

"But you weren't home," Yachiru pointed out. "And besides, her daddy was okay with it…"

An almost imperceptible contraction ran through Byakuya's eyebrows.

"His opinion does not matter either. You should have returned at a later time."

"But Mini Ichi would have been alone for a very long time. I don't think Ichi wanted her to be alone. He told me where she was, so I could come play with her."

Byakuya silently stared at the young Shinigami girl.

He very much doubted Kurosaki Ichigo had sent this devious creature to socialize with his future offspring….unless, of course, this was some sort of unpleasant joke on his part….A part of him was tempted to believe it was, but he knew better. This child shaped demon did not require anyone to motivate her to come to his manor. For some bizarre reason she relished frolicking and romping through his home, as though it were some sort of public playground, despite his attempts to banish this longing. Apparently this time the fact the ojou-san was here was sufficient reason and temptation for her to sneak into his home.

He had come home to take a brief reprieve from his duties, when his head servant had informed him food had disappeared from the kitchens. Over the years vanishing food had been recognized as a sign that Kusajishi Yachiru had entered the grounds, and since he had reiterated his desire for his staff to be mindful of any sign she had infiltrated his property when he had returned to the Soul Society he had been alerted accordingly.

Though he did not find her excuse for entering surprising, he did find her attempt to use logic rather than childish nonsense to defend her actions unexpected. Reason was something she rarely used to explain herself, or was willing to even hear. Granted her rationale was flawed in acting as though the ojou-san was a child, who needed constant supervision or attention, but still she had attempted a sensible excuse.

It was rather ironic that she was utilizing flawed logic to defend her childish desire to play with the ojou-san, whom she believed was younger. She technically was except she was both mentally and physically years ahead of Kusajishi Yachiru.

"Byakushi, wanna play with us?" Yachiru inquired, grabbing yet another pastry. She nudged Masaki to grab one, but the orange haired young woman shook her head softly.

"No," Byakuya replied.

"Why not?" Yachiru asked, with her mouth full.

"I have other matters to attend to."

"Sounds boring. You should play with us instead. It'll be fun!" the Eleventh Division fukutaichō encouraged.

Byakuya closed his eyes in response and mentally sighed.

Attempting to explain the concept of duty and work would be absolutely pointless. It was completely foreign to her and the entire Eleventh Division. The barbarian man that passed off as her guardian and leader could scarcely be bothered to teach her or anyone the concept when he himself had no understanding of it. It was most unfortunate because this child desperately needed guidance and discipline in her life, not a free rein to do whatever she pleased. Life was not all fun and games, least of all in the Gotei 13. Especially not now….Did she have any idea about the current state of things within her division? Or of the Soul Society in general?

Of course, she didn't, she was too preoccupied by her need for amusement.

Why she was allowed to be in the Gotei 13 with the rank of a fukutaichō was beyond his understanding. Her title was purely ceremonial. Endowed as she was with reiryoku, she only utilized it for her own mischief rather than to help the Gotei 13 or her division.

Although paperwork and regulations were hardly recognized at the Eleventh Division, fighting was something they reveled in, and as far as he knew, she did not participate. The Zanpakutō she had somehow materialized was merely treated as a toy. It was rather ridiculous that she would be their second in command even if was in name only, but, of course, Zaraki Kenpachi must have given it to her to please her. Evidently his band of bloodthirsty misfits was not foolish enough to contradict him.

Kusajishi Yachiru was nothing but a little girl dressed in a shihakushō playing Shinigami. If it were up to him, she never would have been allowed into the Gotei 13. The Gotei 13 was filled with enough questionable recruits as it was.

Suddenly he felt a sharp tug at his right sleeve followed by her dangerously sweet, high pitched voice, "C'mon, Bya-kun, let's play!"

His sleeve strained against his arm as yet another downward tug pressed it towards his arm.

"No," he said, opening his eyes and glaring at the overzealous girl pulling at his elbow.

"Why not?" She asked, continuing to yank at his sleeve.

"I already told you why. Release me."

"Don't be a meanie, Bya-kun, play with us!"

Byakuya raised his arm, attempting to pull away from the young girl's grasp, but she held firm. For a moment, her feet lifted from the ground as she swayed happily in the air clinging to him, but in the next instance, she dropped to the ground smoothly, yanking his sleeve to the side so quickly and so strongly, he had no time to react. With a rather loud thud, Byakuya found himself unceremoniously dropped to his knees.

He froze, looking unusually stunned, contemplating for a moment whether she had actually done such an act. A sudden throb in his knees told him, he was not dreaming. The demon child had actually used astonishing force and speed to bring him down to his knees and was standing beside him, regarding him with a wide, gleeful grin, he longed to wipe off.

"You work too much. Let's play, Bya-kun," She insisted, clearly oblivious to any fault she had done.

Grey eyes regarded her for a moment with a slight mixture of indignation and disbelief.

Byakuya closed his eyes, his eyebrows wrinkling slightly as he considered his options.

He desired nothing more than to punish the little gremlin for daring to not only disobey his order not to come to his home, but most importantly for daring to touch his person. She had never had the audacity to use such strength against him before. No matter how insistent she had been in the past, he had always managed to find a way for her to leave him alone, whether he indulged her whims or not.

He did not want her to ever do such a thing again. She had to know her place.

Logically he knew, he could not really teach her such a thing…His words would only fall on deaf ears…If only he could teach her via other means such as Senbonzakura, or Kidō. He presumed both could be effective and a just way of punishing her since she had essentially used Hakuda upon him….

He knew it was fruitless to think such thoughts.

There was really only one option, even if he loathed it…

"Very well. I will play," he agreed, narrowing his eyes as they focused upon Yachiru, "One game only. After it, you must leave immediately exactly the way you came in."

"Okay!" The Eleventh Division fukutaichō beamed. "What do you want to play, Byakushi?"

"Whatever you wish," Byakuya replied.

Yachiru then turned to Masaki, who was slowly coming out of her shock at the scene that had just unfolded before her. "What do you want to play, Mini Ichi?"

"W-Whatever you want, Yachiru-chan."

"You guys aren't helpful…Hmmm," Yachiru murmured, as she glanced around the room. "How about Kendama?" She asked, as her gaze landed upon the traditional Japanese wooden toys.

"That is fine," Byakuya agreed at once. "It is a game of considerable skill, and it is amusing."

"Really? You like it, Bya-kun?" Yachiru inquired surprised. "Bet you can't beat me though!"

Byakuya gazed at her. Perhaps, this was the perfect opportunity to teach her a lesson on terms she could understand. If he defeated her in kendama, perhaps, she would finally listen to him….

He hadn't actually utilized a kendama in decades, but he had been good at it and he had enjoyed it. His grandfather had given him one long ago in order to help him develop his hand-eye coordination, but in truth, he had learned much more than that from the little wooden toy. It had taught him perseverance and dedication, skills that have helped him throughout his life. Skills that Kusajishi Yachiru knew nothing of…at least not in the practical sense…

He wondered if she was really skilled as she was saying. It was hard for him to imagine as hyper as she was for her to have the patience and dedication to develop considerable skill with a trying game as kendama was…Whether she was skilled or not, he supposed it did not matter. He might as well seize this opportunity to potentially defeat her.

"If I beat you, you must never enter my premises without my permission," He proposed.

"Are you sure you want to make that bet, Bya-kun?" Yachiru challenged, grinning broadly. "If I win, then I can come whenever I want, whether I use the front gate, or not."

"That is fine," Byakuya nodded, knowing his loss would simply maintain the status quo.

Yachiru turned to Masaki. "If you win Mini Ichi, what do you want?"

"I-If I win? I-I…um…" She stammered, looking thoughtful. "I –I want you to be able to come to the Kuchiki Manor only if I invite you, If that is okay with Kuchiki-taichō, of course. "

Byakuya met her gaze for the fleetest of moments.

This was unexpected. His chances at defeating the demon child had increased…If he didn't defeat her, he could still win if the ojou-san won….

"If you win he has to say yes," Yachiru assured Masaki. "Right, Bya-kun?"

The foolish child believed the ojou-san was doing it for her benefit, but in reality it would help him…

He simply nodded.

"All right. Let's play!" Yachiru quickly snatched the kendama from the floor and handed one to Byakuya while she kept the other. "I will call out the tricks you have to do. The first person to fail a trick automatically loses. I'll go first."

Yachiru stood with her knees slightly bent, a few feet away from both Byakuya and Masaki, holding out in front of her the wooden stick with a spiked point at the top while the hand grip widened out to resemble a chess piece. Situated between the pointy end and the wide base was a knob-like cross section culminating with concave cups at either end. The right hand cup was larger and known as the ōzara while the left hand cup was smaller and known as the kozara. Tied around the middle of the toy was a sixteen inch string with a bright, cherry red ball with a hole in its center.

"Let's start with the easy stuff first. I'm going to do the ōzara first."

She turned the kendama on its pointed end, her index finger and thumb gripping the toy just above the knob-like cross section. She waited until the string, dangling below the wooden toy, became perfectly still before she tossed the ball into the air and easily maneuvered her kendama under it.

"It's your turn, Bya-kun!" She beamed.

Byakuya arose to his feet. He felt rather awkward as he bent his knees slightly, making sure to keep his feet close together, and held the kendama out the way Yachiru had done. As his fingers adjusted themselves around the handle, he closed his eyes for the briefest of moments, before opening them as he carefully and swiftly threw the ball in the air and caught with the ōzara.

"Go Mini Ichi," Yachiru said, handing Masaki her kendama.

Moments later, the orange haired young woman successfully caught her ball and Yachiru followed suit with placing her ball on the kozara.

Bolstered by his first catch, Byakuya felt his uneasiness drain a little as he attempted the second trick and achieved it. With every trick, he felt as though his fingers, arms, legs, and eyes were remembering how to play even though he wasn't quite conscious of how he was doing it. He supposed all the time he had spent playing the game had been ingrained in his body and was now reacting instinctively. Despite the increasing difficulty with each round, he found himself believing that perhaps he could win after all. If only the demon child would make a mistake….

She wasn't bad at all. Quite the contrary, she was quite skilled. She performed every trick with remarkable ease, making it seem as though she were catching rain drops. Nonetheless, she made a point of screwing up her face in silent concentration and breathing deeply whenever it was her turn. He'd never seen her play so seriously. He hoped her focus would start dropping soon.

The ojou-san was keeping up considerably well. She, too, appeared to be very concentrated. The way she would knit her eyebrows and purse her lips reminded him of Rukia. It was rather unnerving to see traces of his imouto in her...Sometimes he preferred to look elsewhere, whereas other times he focused solely on her hands and the kendama. He had to admit he admired her graceful handling of the kendama. Neither his movements nor Kusajishi Yachiru's exuded such grace and sophistication…. It was a rather beautiful display of precision and agility.

"Go Bya-kun!" Yachiru urged, after finishing a rather complex series of juggling by catching the ball on its side upon the spike and smoothly sliding it into the spike without ever losing touch with the grip until it rolled neatly into the spike as she tipped it upwards.

She made it seemed so simple, but it wasn't.

Breathing slowly and evenly, he settled himself into his stance, as his mind went over the moves he had to perform. With careful precision, he began, adjusting his balance and grip as he moved from one trick to the next. As he approached the end, he nearly misjudged his speed, but luckily he was able to catch the ball and slow its momentum enough so that he tucked into its destination. Relief swept through him.

He stood watching as Masaki began her turn. Her reflexes were sharp and acute, but towards the end, he could see she was struggling with her speed and timing as he had. Unfortunately for her, the ball missed its intended target as she tilted the toy upward. The ball dropped past the spike and swung from side to side in the air instead.

"Aww, that's too bad, Mini Ichi!" Yachiru cried out. "You did way better than last time though."

Byakuya supposed the ojou-san had previously lost to the demon child when they had played earlier. He, however, would not lose. He had come this far, he wasn't about to lose to her.

The pink haired Shinigami took the kendama from her then glanced at Byakuya. "It's just you and me now." She grinned.

Byakuya said nothing as she watched her execute another complex routine.

When it was his turn, he took a few more moments than usual to relax himself before beginning.

It took all of his concentration and agility to move swiftly yet delicately to catch the ball perfectly on every trick. Nearing the end, he found himself struggling with his timing once more. As he tried adjusting his balance, a voice behind him momentarily distracted him for the briefest of seconds, enough to throw him completely off. He watched in a slow motion as the ball brushed past its target.

"Byakuya-sama," called out the voice that had interrupted him. He had heard it as though it was coming from far away. He was staring disbelievingly at the ball, dangling loosely now. A terrible, sinking feeling settled over his stomach as Yachiru exclaimed with glorious gusto, "TOLD YA, YOU COULDN'T BEAT ME, BYA-KUN! HEHE! I CAN COME WHENEVER I WANT! YAY!"

Breaking into an ecstatic dance, Yachiru grabbed Masaki's hand trying to make her join her in her victory celebrations.

"Byakuya-sama, I have brought refreshments for Kusajishi-fukutaichō."

Byakuya slowly turned to face the man that cost him his victory.

It was his head servant, an elderly man with shoulder length grey hair and a mustache. In his hands was a large bag filled with sweets.

"Forgive me, Byakuya-sama, for coming here without your instruction, but I thought perhaps you might need some assistance escorting the fukutaichō out since it has been a quite some time since you were told about her possible appearance."

"She will be leaving now. You can give her the sweets since you've brought them, but next time, do not interfere," Byakuya said coldly.

"My apologies, Byakuya-sama," the head servant inclined his head, before giving the sweets to an enthusiastic Yachiru.

"Kusajishi Yachiru you must leave now. The game is over," Byakuya reminded her, his sharp, cold voice cutting through her gleeful exclamations.

"Okay, Bya-kun, but I'll be back!" Yachiru said, grinning from ear to ear.

Byakuya remained silent, his expression stony.

"Let's go play somewhere else, Mini Ichi," Yachiru said, glancing at Masaki.

Masaki furrowed her eyebrows. "But, Yachiru-chan—"

Her words died in her throat as Yachiru pulled her arm hard and whisked her away. The pink haired girl only paused to sweep up her Masaki's Zanpakutō before disappearing into the tunnel she had come in.

Byakuya gazed at the empty room with an annoyed, disappointed glare.

Aquamarine eyes gazed vacantly at the surrounding lush green vegetation impervious to the lazy, curling smoke issuing from a pipe dangling from slightly pursed lips.

"Nee-chan, are you waiting for Oji-san to arrive?" a loud, unrefined voice asked from behind. "Are you sure it's safe for you be out here?"

With annoyance flickering in her eyes, Shiba Kūkaku reluctantly pulled the pipe from her lips, releasing a white cloud from her mouth.

"Of course not, you fool! He won't be coming back until this war is over," she replied, glaring at Ganju over her shoulder. "We have a barrier, idiot," Kūkaku reminded him.

Ganju stared at her for a moment before speaking. "I can't believe you knew all along who Ichigo was and you never told me. You should have told me, Nee-chan!"

Kūkaku gazed at him.

Leaning comfortably against her cushions with her pipe in her hand, Kūkaku's gaze is fixed upon the black feline sipping from a saucer several feet across from her.

"That Ichigo kid…he's Oji-san's son, isn't he?"

Yoruichi looks up and says, ""It's fairly obvious, isn't it? Ichigo looks a lot like your brother Kaien, except of course he has Isshin's eyes and his hair takes on more after his mother's. Sort of. For some weird reason his hair ended up on the lighter, brighter side."

"Pft… You can't compare him to Onii-san! Onii-san was handsome unlike this kid…and a prodigy! Ichigo seems to be on the low end of the brain department just like Ganju. As if one idiot wasn't enough in the family…"

Yoruichi chuckled. "Ichigo may be dense, but he does have promising potential just like your brother did."

"I don't see it…The boy can't even control his reiryoku!"

"He still needs a lot of training," Yoruichi allowed, "but trust me, he does."

Kūkaku takes a contemplative drag from her pipe while Yoruichi resumes drinking from her saucer.

"Does he know…?" the Shiba leader asks, a few seconds later.

"He doesn't even have the faintest idea…."Yoruichi replies, twitching her tail. "He thinks his father is nothing but a normal human."

"I see."

"I already told you, there was no point in you knowing," Kūkaku said.

"It's not fair, Nee-chan. You always keep me in the dark about…everything…"

"Quit your whining! You get to know when you need to know, and that's that. If I had told you back then, you would have opened your trap and spilled the beans. It wasn't our place to tell Ichigo about his heritage."

"As if I would have admitted he's related to me…"Ganju said, looking disgusted.

"Whether you wanted to admit or not, you would have said something. You have a big mouth, Ganju."

"But I know when to shut it…"

"Really? Since when?"

"Ages ago. I'm not a complete idiot you know.."

"Coulda fooled me…"

"Nee-chan," Ganju groaned.

"Ganju," Kūkaku said sharply, her expression suddenly growing serious. "If you really want to prove you aren't an idiot, then you better do something in this war. You can't fail like you did last time…"

Ganju froze, his face becoming solemn as he completed his sister's words. "You want me to head to the Seireitei?"

"I thought I just said that."

"B-But…"Ganju started.

"Don't tell me you're afraid? If you die, so be it, but you better take down as many Hollows as possible while you're at it. The Shiba Clan has to do their part to help the Soul Society."

"Uh, okay…Nee-chan…" Ganju agreed, nodding grimly.

Ice glistened like sparkling diamonds in the warm afternoon sun. Breathing wearily, Rukia sat on an ice formation she had created earlier, staring at the beautiful icy sight before her. She could feel her heart still thrumming in her chest, slowly relaxing, but her mind and body were already soothed by her workout, by her surroundings….

She had always felt drawn to the cold, to snow and ice…She had never been able to explain why, though she had partly supposed it was something to do with how she had been born in winter (at least that's what she been told). Surviving winter in Inuzuri had been difficult and yet in spite of that she could not help but admire how the snow and ice could actually render her usually bleak surroundings into a majestic white wonderland.

As a child she had often wondered how freshly fallen snow could be so soft and gentle, but with an even greater drop in temperature, it would become hard and rigid. She had found it perplexing and strange how as harsh and relentlessly frigid snow and ice could be, they could also be delicate and beautiful. The contradiction had always amazed her.

Learning Sode no Shirayuki was an ice Zanpakutō had finally helped her understand why she was drawn to wintry conditions and it had deepened her bond with the season even more. When she had first activated her Shikai, she could not believe she possessed such an exquisite, pristine Zanpakutō that was unlike any other in the Soul Society. Never in her wildest dreams had she ever envisioned her soul would bring forth such a magnificent sword. All the dreams she had ever had about what her Zanpakutō would look like paled in comparison to reality.

Her eyes drifted to the stunning white sword gleaming amidst the ice, less than a foot away from her. Its white ribbon stirred with the gentle caress of the air sweeping through.

She could feel her Zanpakutō's contentment with her continued efforts at training. Sode no Shirayuki had been rather pleased to see earlier. When Rukia had thanked her for all the help she had received during her battles, the yuki-onna had responded by saying she was grateful Rukia was finally putting all of her heart into using her power. This had perplexed Rukia. She had always believed she had been doing such a thing….

"What do you mean, Sode no Shirayuki?" Rukia had asked, furrowing her delicate brow in confusion at the beautiful pale snow maiden before her. She was standing in a snowy landscape. "Haven't I always used you with all my heart? I've always trusted you…"

"But you stopped believing in yourself a long time ago, Rukia-sama."

"I-I stopped believing in myself…?" Rukia repeated, looking thunderstruck at such an accusation.

"Hai," was the soft response.

Rukia blinked, continuing to look baffled. "W-What?"

"Your faith in me is only as good as the faith in yourself, Rukia-sama. Your heart has been like a fragile thin sheet of ice for quite some time now. Occasionally it has thickened, but at times, it has melted. It is only until recently that your heart has finally remained steadily solid and has become more resilient."

"I-It has?" Rukia asked.

Sode no Shirayuki nodded. "Yes, the cracks in your heart have finally started to truly congeal."

"T-The cracks in my heart…?" Rukia echoed.

"I'm referring to the pain and remorse that has plagued your heart for so long, chipping and cracking it."

Rukia looked thoughtful, as she considered her Zanpakutō spirit's words. "Oh, do you mean….my guilt…for Kaien-dono?" She questioned, realization glimmering in her eyes.

"Yes. You are no longer of the same mind as you were. You have finally begun to genuinely accept you are blameless. I'm glad." Sode no Shirayuki smiled.

Rukia gazed at the yuki-onna for a long moment.

"I-I'm so sorry, Sode no Shirayuki," Rukia began, closing her eyes and inclining her head. "I never meant for my guilt to affect you….to weaken our bond…."

"All that matters is that you have regained your belief in yourself, Rukia-sama," Sode no Shirayuki said reassuringly.

"I-It's n-not okay," Rukia said, raising her head. "I never really realized how much my guilt affected you too...I tried not to let it…like you told me to, like Ukitake-taichō and Nii-sama told me to…I tried the best I could to put it behind me…to not let my emotions get in the way of my duties…but I've been failing, even though I thought I wasn't…that I was past it…I'm sorry."

"Rukia-sama…."Sode no Shirayuki started, but Rukia continued.

"T-This is why you thought I had actually given you away when I shared my power with Ichigo, isn't it? You must have thought I didn't want you or the life of a Shinigami anymore, because of what you have sensed in me all this time…I'm sorry Sode no Shirayuki, I never meant for you to doubt me. I never meant to lose you…or run away from my duties…I just wanted to protect Ichigo…."

"Yes, I know. Because the kozō resembled your fukutaichō, fear and guilt clouded your heart that night…You desperately wished to save him, to not fail again…but you did not turn to me…instead you gave your power and me away…I had felt as though you didn't trust enough in yourself and me to protect the kozō because you remembered I had failed to save your fukutaichō…I used to believe you blamed me for your fukutaichō's death, although you only seemed to hold blame for yourself…"

"I have never felt that way, Sode no Shirayuki. I only ever blamed myself….I'm truly sorry I have made you feel this way."

"And I offer you once more my deepest apologies, Rukia-sama, for doubting your intentions when you gave your power…You have proven you are truly committed to me and your duties."

"It's okay, Sode no Shirayuki…I understand better now why you felt that way… I had thought you resented the fact I had saved Ichigo, but you actually resented that I gave you away to do it, because you thought I had actually given you up…"

"I resented how you allowed fear and doubt to enter you merely because of his appearance. I feared I had lost you forever…However, now I see, why you encountered him….He has given you courage and strength and has succeeded in restoring your heart whereas I could not. I'm grateful for this, and I'm pleased to know he will be in your future."

Pink tinted Rukia's cheeks.

She stared at Sode no Shirayuki for several moments, unsure of what to say.

"T-Thank you, Sode no Shirayuki for telling me this…I'm truly am grateful for all the help you have always given me…I'm sorry I failed you before, but I promise to always use you with all my heart from now on…"

"I believe you will, Rukia-sama," Sode no Shirayuki smiled.

Rukia was truly thankful she now understood why Sode no Shirayuki had felt the way she had when she had lent her power to Ichigo. She felt this revelation combined with the change of state in her heart had permitted them to grow closer. She hoped to commit to her promise and allow their bond to deepen even more in the future, but for now she was content to know she was headed in the right direction. Their conversation had strengthened her resolve to give it her all in training, and she had felt the difference when wielding her sword.

She also recognized the difference in her heart that Sode no Shirayuki spoke of. Last night she had felt as though her heart would crumble and break away with the reopening of the old wound that had afflicted it, but now it felt restored and surprisingly cleansed, as though it had been thoroughly decontaminated, leaving her feeling nearly completely healed…

She knew it would take some more time for her heart to fully heal, but she was as close as to it as she had ever been….She felt relieved and light, as though a great burden had been lifted from her…

Kaien-dono's reishi body had been saved… and Kurosaki Isshin and Ichigo believed in her innocence…

She felt purified and at peace with this knowledge.

"Kuchiki-san!" a girlish voice rebounded across the valley she had been sitting in, bringing her out of her thoughts. Blinking, Rukia glanced at the source of her intrusion.

"Inoue?" Rukia gasped, surprised to see the caramel haired girl making her way towards her.

Orihime waved when she noticed she had Rukia's attention and her right foot suddenly skidded as it made contact with an icy patch. Immediately she spread out her arms in an attempt to balance herself, waving them helplessly, but as she leaned backwards, she was caught by Ichigo, who had been trailing her.

"Careful, Inoue," Ichigo said, pushing her up until she could stand up on her own.

"Arigatō, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime replied sheepishly, as she steadied herself.

"Inoue, Ichigo, what are you doing here? Has something happened?" Rukia asked, once the two of them stood but a few feet away from her. She was now on her feet.

"Nothing's happened, Kuchiki-san. Or at least we don't know of anything if it has," Orihime replied. "I'm here because I came to deliver Ukitake-san's medicine. Unohana-san asked me to take a break since all the critical cases have been taken of, but I didn't want to just idly though, so when I heard she needed to send Ukitake-san's meds, I volunteered. I ran into Kurosaki-kun along the way. Apparently he was trying to avoid fighting Zaraki-san. Kotetsu-san and Kotsubaki-san told us you were training, so Kurosaki-kun and I decided to pay you a visit while we were here and, I guess, more importantly while you're still here. I hadn't realized things were really bad with the Hollows."

"I'm afraid it only stands to get worse. The Hollows don't show signs of slowing. The Thirteenth Division has lost the majority of the soldiers it has sent out. Nearly half of the division is out of commission counting the sick. It won't be long before I'm tasked to go into Rukongai."

"Kotetsu-san mentioned that," Orihime admitted, looking troubled. "How horrible. It feels as though there's no way we can win this war….When Unohana-san mentioned Kurotsuchi-san had found a cure, everyone at the Fourth Division was so glad…but it seems that even if all the sick get better, then they face the danger of dying at the hands of a Hollow…"

"This war isn't hopeless, Inoue. I know it may seem that way, but all we have to do is beat Aizen and all this destruction will stop," Ichigo said matter of fact.

"Ichigo's right, Inoue. Somehow we will find a way to beat Aizen and end all this suffering," Rukia said.

Grey eyes flitted from Ichigo to Rukia. "T-That's true. Masaki-chan is proof of that," she said softly.

Pink patches erupted on Ichigo and Rukia's faces.

"I just hope it's soon," Orihime added. "Too many people are dying…."

"I think it will be soon, Inoue," Ichigo assured her a moment later, his expression grim. "With the number of people dying every minute, it won't be long before Aizen we'll be ready to make his move."

Silence overcame them for a few moments, before Rukia broke it.

"How are you, Inoue? Are you feeling okay?" Rukia wondered, her gaze focused upon Orihime.

Orihime stared at the petite Shinigami, before replying brightly, "Yup. Don't worry, Kuchiki-san, I took all necessary precautions, so I'm still as healthy as an ox. There were some Fourth Division Shinigami that got sick, but they were quickly taken off their duties."

"I'm glad you are doing well."

"It's been tough seeing all those sick people suffer, but I'm glad I was able to help them."

"Fortunately, you have the power to do so, Inoue. You should be very proud of yourself. You have saved lives in a way no one else could," Rukia said, smiling.

"Yeah," Ichigo agreed. "Otherwise, those poor guys would have been goners."

"A-A-rigatō, Kuchiki-san, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime smiled. "I should probably head back now and continue helping. It was nice seeing you, Kuchiki-san…"

"So soon, Inoue?" Ichigo asked, furrowing his brow in concern. "I doubt Unohana-san would mind if you rested some more. Things are probably under better control since they have a cure now."

"But even so, they need all the help they can get."

"You'll be more use if you're well rested, Inoue," Rukia pointed out. "Just a stay a little bit longer."

"I've rested enough. The walk here has been refreshing. Besides, Kuchiki-san, you should get back to your training."

"I would invite you to join me, Inoue, but that would undermine your rest. You should stay and watch me train with Ichigo though," Rukia said, swiftly turning her gaze to the orange haired male.

"W-What?" Ichigo said, surprised.

"You're being idle, Ichigo. You shouldn't waste whatever chance you have to train. If you aren't willing to train with Zaraki-taichō then train with me."

"But, Rukia…"Ichigo started.

"No buts," Rukia said dismissively, reaching for Sode no Shirayuki and freeing it from the ground. "C'mon, Ichigo, draw Zangetsu. Inoue, you should watch from above." Rukia gestured to the cliff top.

Hesitation flitted across Ichigo and Orihime's visages.


"I told you, 'no buts.' Just draw your katana," Rukia ordered.

"Kuchiki-san is right, Kurosaki-kun. You should train all you can."

"You see, Inoue agrees. Besides, Ichigo, you wouldn't want her to get bored while she rests, now would you?"

Ichigo stared at the petite Shinigami for a moment, before saying, "Fine. Inoue, go up there. Just stay for ten minutes more, okay?"

"Uh, okay, Kurosaki-kun, but just for ten minutes more."

Once Orihime was situated in the cliff above them, Ichigo and Rukia took their battle stances.

"Don't hold back, Ichigo," Rukia warned, as she placed a foot forward. "You won't be doing me any favors if you do. I can handle whatever you dish out. I'm not weak."

"I know you aren't, Rukia. You defeated an Espada." He said the latter with just the slightest trace of gentleness underneath his serious tone.

Rukia stared at him, feeling her chest flutter with an odd mix of pride and discontent at his acknowledgement of her strength. She had barely won. Her power had not been on par with the Espada, but her conviction to defeat him allowed her to push herself to her limits to defeat him. She would have died if her brother hadn't found her and had Hanatarō by his side.

She wanted to grow stronger, to increase her skill, and to be able to defeat her opponents without being on the verge of death if possible. In order to do this she knew she needed to pit herself against stronger opponents, which is why she decided she might as well put Ichigo to use and why she didn't want him to treat her any different than he would Renji or Third Seat Madarame.

"That's right, Ichigo. So don't underestimate me," she found herself saying confidently, hoping to squash any misgivings he had about bringing up the Espada. She had seen a bit of worry of his gaze that he might have upset her.

"All right." He nodded in agreement.

They stared at each other for a few moments before Rukia charged forward.

Ichigo blocked her attack with the broad side of Zangetsu.

The white blade pushed against the longer and larger cleaver blade for a few seconds, before it was pulled back and swiftly directed forward to strike again. Ichigo moved his katana to the side deflecting Rukia's stroke.

With every clashing of their blades, Rukia could tell two things. One, it was going to be up to her to increase the pace and intensity of their training in order to get Ichigo to treat her seriously, and two, her arms would probably feel like falling off after she finished training with him. The distinct shape, length, and weight of his sword was already reawakening the pain in her arms that had been numbed earlier. She had no choice but to endure it. There was no gain without pain after all.

As their blades met again and again, Ichigo couldn't help but note Rukia was definitely not bad when it came to Zanjutsu, but she was having a bit of difficulty contending with his larger blade. Nonetheless, she was giving it her all to adapt fighting it. With every stroke she seemed intent on keeping him at bay, so that the fight would be on her terms.

He would not make it so easy for her. He braced himself as he parried Rukia's stroke to the side and began to force her to jump backwards to flee his reach. He could see her expression grow grim as she dealt with defending his attacks.

Eventually they broke away from each other.

Rukia was panting while he was barely out of breath.

He could see determination in her violet eyes.

She was clearly not done yet.

"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren," she said, puncturing the ground four times in front of her as she settled herself into a battle stance. Bright tiny specks of ice sparkled around her as they gathered towards her glowing blade.

Ichigo stared, captivated for a moment by the power emanating from Rukia.

I have no clue what she's really capable of, but I'm about to find out.

This was not the first time he had thought this. He had realized this when he had first seen her released katana and Chappy had babbled about it and her strength. He had absolutely no idea Rukia had the strength of a ranked officer. He knew she was tough, but truthfully, he never would have pegged her for it. It's just that fighting against taichō and fukutaichō class opponents in the Soul Society had opened his eyes to what true power was. Whatever her power level was, she was a lot stronger than he'd imagined. She managed to kill an Espada even if it took all her efforts to do so. It was an incredible feat. Not even Renji had managed it…Hell, not even he had….He hadn't killed Grimmjow and it wasn't his victory against Ulquiorra, it had been his Hollow's (even now that he accepted his Hollow's power, he couldn't look back at it as an actual victory) .

He was curious to see the extent of her real abilities that he had never known she had.

As a wave of snow shot out of her blade, he knew she was using the attack he'd seen her use on Grimmjow and as he prepared himself to move out of the way, he heard someone call his name. On instinct, he turned his head.

Orihime watched as the two Shinigami sparred. A part of her longed to be in Kuchiki-san's place. She wished she could wield a katana and have her strength to be able to spar against Kurosaki-kun, to fight alongside him….If only her Shun Shun Rikka would have been a sword…..It was a silly desire. She really was fond of her powers, but she couldn't help but wonder if Kurosaki-kun would have taken more notice of her if she had a sword instead.

She knew it was a ridiculous idea. Having a sword wouldn't have guaranteed him to notice her, but maybe if she had been a Shinigami, he would have….Would Kurosaki-kun have even liked Kuchiki-san if she hadn't been a Shinigami?

Whenever she had felt jealousy for Kuchiki-san ,she had always been comforted by the belief that a relationship between a human and Shinigami could never be because they belonged to two different worlds…However, apparently it was possible…Kurosaki-kun's father was a Shinigami….which meant Kurosaki-kun was technically part Shinigami… even if he was human…

Would Kurosaki-kun have fallen for a human girl even if Kuchiki-san hadn't come into his life? She had believed it had been Kuchiki-san's fault that his life had been altered, but perhaps, he had always been meant to become a Shinigami…It was in his blood….

Guilt and pain swarmed her chest.

She didn't want to feel these emotions and thoughts again… She knew Kuchiki-san and Kurosaki-kun meant well wanting her to rest, but she had felt better concentrating on other's aches and pains instead of hers…It had been nice to almost forget….

Suddenly she began to feel the ground vibrate beneath her. Was it an earthquake?

No, it wasn't.

Kuchiki-san had just released her Zanpakutō. The ice generated by it glistened prettily as it rushed towards Kurosaki-kun. As the vibrations increased and her hair began to whip about thanks to a sudden wind, Orihime found herself nearly knocked to the side as someone came to an abrupt halt next to her.

"Hi Boobies," greeted Yachiru, unceremoniously dumping Masaki onto the ground.

"Yachiru-chan? Masaki-chan?" Orihime gaped at them, surprised.

Yachiru ignored her, glancing out into the valley below. Waving her hand, she yelled, "Ichi, I had a lot of fun playing with Mini Ichi, but I have to go now, so I brought her to you. Ja ne."

Ichigo looked up, startled. Distracted, he narrowly avoided the hastening ice heading towards him.

"Don't get distracted, you fool!" Rukia chided.

"Bye, Bye, Mini Ichi," Yachiru grinned at Masaki, who was raising herself into a seiza position.

"Bye, Yachiru-chan," Masaki said, before the pink haired girl sped off.

"Are you all right, Masaki-chan?"

"I think so, I-Inoue-san. Or I will be. Yachiru-chan has taken me all over the place….I haven't really had a chance to breathe…"

"She really likes to play, huh?"

"That's an understatement," Masaki remarked. "What are you doing here, Inoue-san?"

Orihime quickly explained why she had come to the Thirteenth Division.

"I see," Masaki said, gazing out at the training occurring in the valley.

There was silence as the two young women watched Ichigo and Rukia.

"That was really clever of Kuchiki-san, wasn't it?" Orihime asked when Rukia used Hakuren to freeze Ichigo's Getsuga Tenshō and quickly appeared behind him and attempted to freeze him with Tsukishiro. Ichigo escaped by breaking the ice attempting to hold his leg captive and fleeing with shunpo.

"It was," Masaki agreed, her eyes attentive to the fight.

"I didn't know Kuchiki-san was this skilled to keep up with Kurosaki-kun. I knew she was strong, but I've never seen her fight before against a fellow Shinigami."

"She is strong, but from what I could tell from sparring with her is that her current power and skill level are hardly a third of her true power," Masaki said, her gaze still on the fight.

"She's even stronger and more skilled in the future?" Orihime said, amazed.

"Hai, and so is Kurosaki-san. Both of them are far from the power and skill levels I know them to be…."

"Really? But Kurosaki-kun is already so powerful…."

"He may be powerful, but he isn't skilled…He doesn't compare to my father…He still has a long way to go to be like him…"

Orihime stared at Masaki.

"Masaki-chan, how come you don't refer to Kuchiki-san and Kurosaki-kun as your parents? I know they aren't your parents yet, but if I were in your place, I would find it really hard not to call them Okaa-san or Otou-san."

"Compartmentalization has always been part of being a Shinigami," Masaki replied matter of fact, her gaze flickering briefly to Orihime before returning to the combatants down below. "This is different from what I'm used to…and harder…but the principle is still the same I'm not supposed to treat them like my parents…"

"I see. So on the job, you don't call them by their familial titles?"

"No, unless it's in private."

"I'm not really sure I could ever get used to doing something that…pretending you aren't related to someone, but it must be nice that you get to work alongside your parents…"

"When I first jointed the Gotei 13 my parents struggled with it a lot more than I did," Masaki said. "Well, my father more than my mother. To this day, he still has a tendency to forget to be more formal around me. And, Inoue-san, I don't work alongside them. On occasion I might, but most of the time, I don't. They have their divisions to attend to, and I have mine."

"Oh, I just meant, that it's nice that you're all Shinigami. Your parents must be really proud that you've followed in their footsteps…Did you start training to be a Shinigami when you were really young?" Orihime wondered.

Masaki stared at her.

"My parents are proud now, but they didn't want me to be a Shinigami….I had to convince them to give me a chance to see what it was like for them to even consider letting me become one… " Masaki explained, a distant look flooding her eyes.

Click clack.

Wood strikes wood as a younger Masaki clambers up wooden steps with her geta. Her hair pulled into a short braid that hangs just above her back, sways to and fro with her hurried movements. Both of her hands partially grasp her sky blue yukata with a bright pink floral pattern, lifting it, allowing her to go up the steps easily.

She stops suddenly when she reaches the top and two Shinigami males step out from the entrance in front of her.

"Masaki-chan," they greet her, smiling, as they lower their heads.

"Hello," She smiles, returning their bow.

"What brings you here?" asks the younger looking Shinigami with shaggy hair and a goatee. "We haven't seen you in ages."

"I know," chimes in the other man, who looks older and wears his hair in a ponytail. "I almost didn't recognize you."

"It hasn't been that long," Masaki replies, grinning.

"Why yes it has," the older man says. "I don't remember you being as tall as you are."

"I'm still the same height as the last time you saw me."

"Really? Can't be….Doesn't she look taller, Honda?"

The younger Shinigami nods in agreement. "Masaki-chan must have grown at least a couple of millimeters," His lips twist into teasing grin.

"Very funny, Honda-san," Masaki says, frowning in mock annoyance.

"I'd say a bit more than that," the older man chuckles. "She's definitely surpassed her mother now, and she's shaping up into a lovely young lady just like her."

Masaki blushes. "Arigatō."

"So have you come to pay the taichō a visit?" wonders Honda.

"Hai. Is he here?" Masaki asks, sounding hopeful with the slightest trace of suppressed eagerness.

"Oh, he's here all right," Honda grins. "I doubt he'll be leaving anytime soon."

A mixture of relief and satisfaction gleams in Masaki's eyes. "I see. Well, if you'll excuse me I'll have to see if he's willing to see me with all the work he has."

"Tch. Just don't distract him too long," warns Honda. "Otherwise he'll never finish."

"I won't," she promises. "It was nice to see you guys." She says, inclining her head. As she raises her head, they allow her to walk past them into the building. She greets the Shinigami that cross her path as she heads down the long main hallway until she reaches the end. Curling her right fist, she reaches out and raps the wooden door before her.

"Don't tell me there's more!" shouts out an aggravated male voice.

A grin breaks out on Masaki's face.

Without further reservations she opens the door and steps inside.

Half a dozen stacks of paper sit amassed on the floor and even on the lone chair in front of a desk that is barely noticeable underneath the towering mounds of paperwork gathered upon its surface. Squeezed in between these white mountains is a scowling Ichigo outfitted in the standard shihakushō with a white haori over it. His orange bangs are slightly longer and so is the hair at the base of his neck. His head is bent low as he furiously scribbles his signature upon a sheet in front of him. Not even letting the ink dry, he flings the offensive object onto the heap on his left, and then proceeds to grab another page from the stack on his right. Without even looking at it, he scrawls his name on it and shoves in onto the slightly tottering pile of apparently signed sheets.

"More what?" She asks innocently, as she closes the door behind her.

Ichigo's head snaps up.

"M-Masaki, what are you doing here?" He asks, his scowl disappearing for the briefest of instances before reappearing, albeit without evident annoyance. "Is something wrong?" He inquires, furrowing his brow in concern.

"Nothing's wrong," she replies, shaking her head in reassurance. "Just came to visit you. Haven't seen much of you lately, Tou-san. I almost thought you were avoiding me, but you really do appear to be swamped with work," She says, gesturing to the piles of forms in the room.

"Avoiding you? Why would I do that?" Ichigo raises his eyebrows questioningly.

Masaki shrugs. "I don't know. It's just every time I tried to spend time with you, something has come up."

"Sorry, it's just I had too much to deal with lately. Trust me if I could I'd ditch my paperwork to spend time with you, but I've already let it pile up too much."

"Kaa-san is right. You really are useless without your fukutaichō."

"Oi!" Ichigo frowns. "That's not true…."

"It's been what a week without her and your division is already falling apart," Masaki points out, stepping further into the room and stopping a few feet away from the piles of sheets.

"We're not falling apart…Yet…"He mutters. "Anyway, grab the chair. Just dump the forms on the floor. You can keep me company while I work through these stacks."

"There's no need for me to do that. I won't be staying long. I wouldn't want you to fall even more behind."

"I won't. I can multi-task."

"That's what you say….but I don't want you to blame me for not getting your work done," Masaki replies, grinning. "Besides, I don't mind standing."

"So much for wanting to spend time with me," Ichigo teases, pretending to look hurt. "I remember there was a time you used to actually want to help me with my paperwork…"

"I wasn't trying to help, I was trying to draw," Masaki corrects him.

"At least you used to pretend you wanted to help back then, now you don't even hide it anymore," Ichigo says, snatching a bunch of forms from the unsigned pile.

"Tou-san," Masaki groans, shaking her head.

Ichigo just grins. "So, how's your day been, Shortie?"

"Pretty good. Ran-chan and Toshi came over for lunch."

"Is that so? There better be some chocolate left," Ichigo warns, looking up from his paperwork.

"Don't worry, your stash is safe. I gave Toshi the other snacks we had."

"Good," Ichigo says. "Otherwise, that kid is never gonna step inside my house again until he goes down to the World of the Living and brings me some. Make that a brand new unopened package," He clarifies, as he moves on to another form.

Masaki laughs.

"Did you do anything else?"

"Hai. We went shopping."

"Shopping, huh? Buy anything good?"

"Not really….Ran-chan and Toshi were the ones that needed to buy stuff."

"Somehow I doubt Toshi bought anything he needed."

"He actually did."

"If both you and Ran were keeping on an eye on him, I can believe it."

"Well, we sorta had to, because he was getting carried away, but we managed to keep him focused on buying his training uniform."

"Training uniform? Why does he need that?"

"Oh, c'mon, Tou-san, as if you don't know…they're starting their Shinigami training with their parents," Masaki says, shooting him a reproachful look.

"Crazy," Ichigo muttered. "They're just kids…."

"There are no age requirements to enroll in the Shinō Academy," Masaki says. "Anyone can join provided they have reiryoku and have the talent to pass all the examinations."

"There should be age requirements. It's ridiculous for kids to train to become soldiers."

"Biological age has nothing to do with a Soul's physical appearance. Some Souls never really age physically, or they take forever to age. It wouldn't fair to be hold their physical appearance against them, and you know it," Masaki points out. "I think Ran-chan and Toshi are mature enough to join despite their appearance."

"Mature?" Ichigo echoes, incredulous. "Toddlers are more mature than Hitsugaya Hitoshi! He has no discipline…He's a pint sized overactive baby. Ran is just as tiny….and…."He pauses, as he seems to be at a loss for words.

"You can't say she isn't mature, Tou-san," Masaki says. "You said it yourself she takes on after her father. Tou-san, Toshi isn't that immature. Besides, I'm sure training will help him become more disciplined. He'll have to be if he really wants to become a Shinigami."

"They're both too young. They should wait until they're older. Don't know what the hell Tōshirō is thinking—"

"Tou-san, why can't you be like him?"

"W-What?" Ichigo stops writing and stares at her annoyed.

"He's giving them a chance to see if they really want to become a Shinigami. If they change their minds after the training, then they won't enter the Shinō Academy. You don't even want to give me that chance."

"Masaki, we've been through this, you're still too young. You just want to try to become a Shinigami because the Hitsugaya twins are trying to be. If they jumped off a bridge, would you?"

Masaki frowns slightly as she gazes at her father. "If I knew how to control the reishi beneath me, it wouldn't be a problem." she says, after a moment, prompting a frown on Ichigo's face. "Tou-san, I'm not that young, I'm fifty years old," Masaki says quickly. "The Hitsugaya twins are even younger than me…"

"I don't care about the Hitsugaya twins, I care about you. You're too young—"

"But, Tou-san, aren't you the youngest taichō in the history of the Soul Society? At what age did you become a Shinigami?" Masaki says, raising a challenging eyebrow.

"My situation and yours are completely different, Masaki. If I had the choice, I would have waited….You're getting to live the life I never had a chance to live," Ichigo explains solemnly. "Becoming a Shinigami isn't something you rush into. It's a serious commitment. Once you become a Shinigami there is no turning back. You should enjoy living life for as long as you can. If you feel you still want to become a Shinigami after you turn a hundred, then I won't mind training you then."

Masaki is quiet.

Ichigo resumes his work.

"Most Shinigami don't start out so young. Your mother for example didn't become a Shinigami until she was—"

"Kaa-san said I could," Masaki blurts out quietly.

"W-What?" Ichigo looks startled. "What do you mean she said you could?" He narrows his eyes.

"Well, she said she was willing to consider letting me train..."

"Forget what she said, you're not going to train," Ichigo declares authoritatively.

Masaki scowls. "Tou-san, why can't you at least consider it like Kaa-san is willing to? I'm not saying I want to enroll in the Academy this fall. I just want to a chance to train like a Shinigami."

"Why would you even want to do something like that if you're not going to become a Shinigami?" Ichigo asks, gazing at her with a piercing, scrutinizing look. "Do you think I'd change my mind about you becoming a Shinigami if you could handle it?"

He pauses briefly, amber eyes still focused upon her. "Being a Shinigami isn't a game, Masaki. It's a dangerous and difficult job. You are putting your life on the line every time you go on a mission, every time you fight a Hollow."

"I know that, Tou-san. I've seen what Hollows can do," Masaki says solemnly, staring back at him.

Amber eyes soften slightly.

"I know you have, which is why I don't understand why you would want to become a Shinigami," Ichigo admits. "Neither your mother or I expect that of you. We are proud of what you do. The job you do is far more significant than ours…If you became a Shinigami, you wouldn't be able to keep helping the kids at the shelters."

"I know that," Masaki acknowledges softly.

"Then why…."

"It's just that… seeing that Hollow a couple of weeks ago in Rukongai reminded of what it feels like to be helpless and powerless…I don't want to feel like that again," Masaki explained. "I just froze when I saw it, Tou-san….I couldn't move, didn't think about running...A-All I could think about was….what happened with….my brothers…."Her voice catches for a second, but she swallows, continuing. "The memories, they just kept replaying in my head…I didn't even move until Konishi-san intercepted the Hollow's attack and yelled at me to run and round up the kids." She pauses, lowering her eyes to the floor. "It could have happened again…"

"But it didn't," Ichigo says at once.

"I know, but, it could have…and it would have been my fault…"Masaki says, raising her gaze to meet his.

"No, it wouldn't have—"

"Yes, it would have, because I wouldn't have been able to protect the kids from the Hollow if I had died"

"Masaki, you did protect the kids. You kept them away from the Hollow, didn't you?"

"Yes, but…."

"It's not your job to slay Hollows, that's what Konishi was there for."

"That's not true. He wasn't there to slay Hollows. He was there to babysit me," Masaki corrects, an annoyed frown forming on her lips.

"He wasn't there to babysit you. He was there to protect you in case any Hollows or anyone tried to hurt you or the kids while you had the picnic."

"Same difference, Tou-san," Masaki mutters.

"It's not the same. It's not like he was watching every little thing you do, or telling you what to do."

"Whatever, Tou-san. He was babysitting me. Do you think he or any other Shinigami you assign to watch me want to be stuck doing it? Of course not! They'd much rather be on a real mission…"

"What are you talking about? It is a real mission…I only ask Shinigami that have already been assigned in that particular area to watch over you."

"They may have been assigned there, but watching over me is a bonus assignment they'd rather not do."

"That's not true…"

"You don't have to lie, Tou-san. I know it's true. Watching the taichō's daughter is not supposed to be part of their job. I bet you pay them extra to do it," Masaki says, eyeing her father knowingly.

"Masaki, I don't do such a thing. They do their job, because it's their duty. Remember, it's my division's specialty to patrol Rukongai. My men are willing to accept any mission I give them there, or otherwise."

"So you say, but I know better," Masaki says staunchly.

There is a beat.

"Tou-san, I don't want to depend on them to protect me from Hollows…Or you or Kaa-san or anyone…I want to be able to protect myself….and others from them. I'm tired of being afraid…and weak…"

"Training like a Shinigami won't allow you to do that, Masaki," Ichigo says. "It's not like learning self-defense, it's far more difficult. Besides, Masaki, you do protect others from them. The shelters you help build and run save many kids, and even adults from them. Your work actually does more than protect them, it sustains them…Why would you want to give up doing this? I thought you loved helping kids in Rukongai…"

"I do, Tou-san. I really do, but I think it's time for me to help in another way…I want to become a Shinigami…"She confesses. "The kids will still be safe and in good hands even if I'm not there to help them personally…It's not like I've always been there anyway. You and Kaa-san founded this project even before I could actually help. It's supposed to continue whether I'm there or not. "

"But you have become an important player. Without you the number of shelters wouldn't have expanded as fast as they did…nor would have they have remained open with all the challenges they faced… And those kids, they really love you…they're always disappointed that you can't always be at all the shelters at once…Think about how they'll feel if you leave…."

A guilty look sweeps across Masaki's face. "They'll be disappointed, I know they will, but they'll understand. Most of them want to become Shinigami just like you and Kaa-san…and Oji-sama and Renji-oji-san…They're always arguing about which division they'll join and who will become the strongest," She smiles slightly at this.

"Becoming a Shinigami does not mean you'll have the power to protect everyone all the time, Masaki," Ichigo says, his expression grim. "Even with all my power….I failed to protect you…And I failed to spare you the loss of your brothers…I've failed many others as well….Being a Shinigami means dealing with loss just as much as saving lives. You've already suffered in ways that I never intended…Do you honestly think you can stand a profession where you face the potential of losing your comrade, or the very ones you are trying to save?"

"Tou-san, I've dealt with that feeling most of life," Masaki says, after a moment. "Every time you or Kaa-san would go away on a mission, I've always been afraid to hear you guys wouldn't be coming back…When I was a little girl I used to beg you guys not to go…and yet you never gave up your job"—A remorseful look appears in Ichigo's eyes—"I know this is a risky job, that I can't protect everyone, but I at least want to have the potential to try. I've given this a lot of thought, Tou-san. It's pointless to have reiryoku and not use it to its fullest potential to help myself and others…I don't want to just get married off to the Ōmaeda Clan, or some other clan, and have a bunch of kids…"

"W-What? Why would you think I'd ever do that to you?" Ichigo asks, looking thoroughly bewildered and disturbed.

"Well, that's what usually happens to noblewomen."

"Yeah, well, that what other clans do, but not us. You don't ever have to worry about that happening to you. I'm never, ever marrying you off…"Ichigo promises, gazing at Masaki intently.

"Good. All I want to do is become a Shinigami."

"If that's what you truly want, you can become one," Ichigo says, after a moment.

"Really?" Masaki's face lights up.

"Sure, when you're a century old."

"Tou-san, I don't want to wait until then," Masaki protests, crestfallen. "I'm ready to become one now…"

"I know you think you're ready to become one now, but you're letting your emotions rule you instead of your brain. I know seeing that Hollow has made you remember painful memories, and that you'd like to prevent anyone from ever suffering like you did….but whether you start now, or in fifty years, they'll be Hollows, Masaki. And even if you started your training tomorrow, you wouldn't be able to purify a Hollow right off the bat…It's going to take time for you to gain a Zanpakutō and learn its name, and well it's just going to take you a while for to become ready to go out into the field…"

"I know it's going to take time, which is why I want to get started now…."

"As I told you before, Masaki, you shouldn't rush to become a Shinigami, and you shouldn't rush training once you start it. It's important to have a strong foundation in the basics and to build upon them. A Shinigami trains for life. You should wait until you've had more time to really think about this important decision, and—"

"But, Tou-san, I really have thought about it," Masaki interrupts.

"With your heart, not your head," Ichigo says firmly.

"Both, actually," Masaki corrects. "I've always thought about becoming a Shinigami since I was a kid, but it's not until now that I actually have given the idea serious consideration. I know it's not easy, but I'm ready to—"

"You're still a kid, Masaki. You're not ready for this."

Masaki's eyebrows twitch somewhat and she purses her lips slightly, but she replies calmly. "To you, Tou-san, but not in the eyes of the Shinō Academy. Did you know parental permission isn't required?"

"That's because most people don't even have parents, but—"

"It doesn't matter if they do. Their opinion doesn't matter," Masaki cuts him off. "I have it on good authority that not even the opinion of a taichō can influence the admission of a student."

"So, what are you saying? Are you going to join the Academy without my permission or your mother's?" Ichigo demands, glaring at her. "I won't let you," he states firmly, not even waiting for her answer. "You've lost your mind if you think you'd actually be able to get away with it. Trust me, Masaki, there's no way the Shinō Academy wouldn't listen to me. I'd drag you out even if you were accepted."

Masaki stares at him for a long moment before declaring, "That's not what I'm saying, Tou-san.. If I really wanted to rush into becoming a Shinigami, I would have already enrolled without your permission….or I would have just asked Oji-sama or someone else to train me, but I don't want to rush into it… or learn from someone else. I want to learn firsthand what it takes to be a Shinigami from you…and Kaa-san.

"I know becoming a Shinigami is a serious commitment which is why I'm asking for a chance to see what it's like first. You've said it yourself that most of the recruits you get can't even hold up to your training. I figured training with you and Kaa-san would be the best way to see if I'm cut out to be a Shinigami. If I can't handle it, then I'll wait until I'm older…or...maybe I… just won't become one…" Masaki pauses, and looks at him pleadingly.

"Tou-san, all I'm asking for is a chance to see what it's like to be a Shinigami by training like one. Onegai, Tou-san…just think about it. You expect me to really think through my decisions then I ask that you do the same."

Masaki gazes at him for a long moment, before turning around. "I'll see you at home, Tou-san."

Ichigo watches her walk towards the door, but before she opens it, he says. "Wait, Masaki. If you want to train like an actual Shinigami, it would mean you would have to spend every waking moment training. You wouldn't be able to go to Rukongai to see the kids or socialize. You'd have to do everything your mother and I tell you, no matter how tedious or difficult you find it, or how tired you are. Would you be willing to put up with that for an entire month, or two?"

"If that's how Shinigami really train, then that's fine," Masaki says earnestly, glancing at him. "I don't want to be babied."

He stares at her for a few seconds before slowly saying, "I-I'll think about it, but it doesn't mean my answer will change."

"I know, but thanks for at least considering it, Tou-san," Masaki says, a soft, pleased smile forming on her lips.

"Really? I would have thought they might be more open to the idea since, but I guess they didn't want you getting hurt since it's a dangerous job," Orihime mused.

"That was why they were reluctant at first," Masaki acknowledged, her gaze returning once more to Ichigo and Rukia.

There was silence.

Orihime studied Masaki from the corner of her eye, so as not to make it obvious she wasn't thoroughly paying attention to the battle below. She doubted Masaki would have noticed, because she seemed engrossed in what was occurring below. Though the young woman's face didn't show much emotion, Orihime could tell when she approved or disapproved of something by the slightest upward or downward twitches of her mouth and eyebrows. There was something in these mannerisms that was reminiscent of Rukia mixed with a tiny bit of Ichigo in them. She found it to be partly amusing yet partly disheartening.

She returned her gaze to the sparring session.

"Kuchiki-san has such a beautiful and powerful sword," Orihime commented, noticing how the white sword sparkled in the sunlight.

"She does. Sode no Shirayuki is considered to be one of the most beautiful Zanpakutō in all of the Soul Society," Masaki spoke.

"It is?"

"Yes, there is no other one as elegant and as striking as it with its pure snow white color," Masaki explained, her voice carrying obvious esteem. "It's the most powerful snow and ice type Zanpakutō after Hitsugaya-taichō's."

"Oh wow. She's really lucky to possess such a katana then."

"She isn't lucky, it's just an accurate reflection of her soul," Masaki said. At Orihime's questioning look, she added, "A Shinigami's Zanpakutō is supposed to be a manifestation of their soul. Not everyone has Zanpakutō that accurately represent them, but in the case of my mother, I think it reflects her perfectly."

"Oh, I see," Orihime murmured. "Kurosaki-kun's sword suits him as well. It's powerful just like he is…"

"It does," Masaki agreed. "Zangetsu is one of the strongest Zanpakutō. It is known as the katana that can pierce through heaven and hell."

"Masaki-chan, what is your Zanpakutō known for?" Orihime wondered, eying Masaki's katana.

Masaki stared at her, her hand automatically going to the purple hilt at her side.

"It's not known for anything," Masaki said, after a momentary pause. "My Zanpakutō is not renowned like that of my parents."

"But how can that be? Surely it must be known for something. Your parents have such amazing swords, you must have one too."

"My parent s are considered living legends. Their Zanpakutō and their achievements are highly talked about. My Zanpakutō and I are nothing compared to them…"

"But Masaki-chan, I'm sure there's something special about your Zanpakutō…"

"My Zanpakutō isn't like theirs. There's nothing remarkable about it or its powers," Masaki assured her in a firm, definitive tone.

Orihime just gazed at her with a contemplative look.

"So, Kurosaki-kun and Kuchiki-san are considered living legends in the future, huh? T-that's incredible," Orihime noted, fidgeting slightly. "T-They've been t-together a long time, haven't they?"


"T-That's nice," Orihime smiled shakily. "They're really lucky…to have found each other…being from different worlds and all….I-I hope I can find someone too. D-D-on't you?" She added hastily, looking rather flustered.

"I'm sure you will, "Masaki half smiled reassuringly, "but I don't have time for such things."

"I-I will? " Orihime murmured, looking surprised and curious. "i-I" she stammered, apparently unsure of what to say, then suddenly blurted out, "W-What do you mean you don't have time? I'm sure you could make time…I mean, look at your parents…"

"I'm not even sure how they've managed to last so long. It hasn't been easy for them to balance everything…"

"But they did it, and so could you if you wanted to," Orihime pointed out. "Kuchiki-san told me that Shinigami don't really marry or have families…I can't understand how many Shinigami just live to fulfill their duties…I know being a Shinigami means being a soldier, but it's very common for human soldiers to have families…It just seems to me that Shinigami live very lonely lives…"

"For some it might be lonely, but not for me. I may be alone here, but I have kazoku and nakama in my time.I don't need anyone else."

"B-But Masaki-chan—"

"Oi, where's Rukia?" asked a loud male voice behind them.

"She's training with Kurosaki-san," Masaki answered, turning her head around and gesturing to the training ground in the valley below.

Renji glanced in the direction Masaki pointed, brief disappointed clouded his eyes and he grimaced slightly. "I see. What are you doing here, Inoue?"

"I came to deliver Ukitake-san's medicine. What about you, Abarai-kun?"

"I came to check on Rukia and see how things are going at the Thirteenth. Looks like we have it worse. We had an outbreak of that damn virus. A bunch of soldiers ended up coming down with it and they had to be quarantined on site."

"Really? That's awful," Orihime said, dismayed.

"I've heard other divisions have had that happen, too. This isn't good. Everyone is losing too many soldiers as it is. I'm not sure how fast these soldiers will be fit enough to fight again even with the cure."

"I-I think I should head back to the Fourth now," Orihime said, rising to her feet. She glanced at Ichigo and Rukia, noticing them well engaged in battle, and added, "Masaki-chan, could you please tell Kurosaki-kun and Kuchiki-san that I'm returning to the Fourth? I don't want to break their concentration."

"I will," Masaki promised.

And without further ado, Orihime left.

"Are you feeling all right, Abarai-fukutaichō?" Masaki wondered, eying the red head.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You don't have to worry about me carrying germs. I cleaned up even though I haven't spent time with those that got sick. Taichō's orders. Not that I wouldn't have…There's no way I'm going to miss out heading to battle when I'm ordered to."

"I see."

Both watched the ongoing training in silence.

"What an idiot. Can't believe he didn't dodge that Kidō," Renji smirked, when Ichigo got entangled with Hainawa.

"He lost his balance on the ice," Masaki noted.

"Tch. He should have dropped to the ground then."

"I doubt he would have dropped fast enough to avoid dodging it. Kuchiki-san was already half way through the incantation. She could have just changed her aim to get him."

"He's an idiot for getting himself in that position in the first place."

"You think you could have done better?"

"Of course!" Renji grinned. "I'll show you when they stop fighting."

"Why wait until then? How about sparring with me now?"

"W-With you?" Renji gazed at her surprised.

"Yes, with me. What you really want is to fight, isn't it? They may not be available, but I'm. We can spar here," She gestured to the grassy field surrounding them.

Renji regarded her with a thoughtful expression.

"Don't tell me you're afraid, Abarai-fukutaichō?" Masaki said, with a slight teasing grin.

"A-Afraid? Why would I be afraid of you?" Renji snapped, annoyed.

"Then allow your blade to show me your fearlessness, and skill," Masaki said.

"Fine. I will," Renji agreed, his right hand settling over Zabimaru's handle.

"Good," Masaki grinned, standing up.

AN: Is it realistic for Rukia to receive a power up after a week and half of mild to moderate training after her victory against Aaroniero? Keep in mind her history and the fact that nobody apart from Ichigo, Uryū, Orihime, and Sado has gained power ups within the SS and HM arc. Renji was already on course for his Bankai. Rukia's situation is different. I know many of you would like to see her gain a power up, but my intentions have always been to take the time to show her growth as a person and warrior in a subtle way in a way Kubo hasn't done. In some way or another even with the developments he's given her in the manga, he's always put her in a weaker light than others. My intention with this particular story was to build the foundation for her growth which you will see the full extent of in the sequels. Power upgrades aren't necessarily a genuine reflection of a person's strength and neither are titles. Think about it. I bet most of you view the majority of fukutaichō as 'weak.' Isn't it better to be a third seat like Ikkaku with fukutaichō level strength than to have the actual title?

Quick Glossary

Fukutaichō- vice captain

Manjū- a type of mochi (pounded rice cake) that looks like a bun and has a filling inside.

0jou-san- daughter

Reiryoku- spirit energy

Taichō- captain

Hakuda- hand to hand combat

Kendama- traditional wooden Japanese toy with a string and ball

Ōzara- larger cup of the kendama cross-section

Kozara- Smaller cup of the kendama cross-section

Imouto- younger sister

Nee-chan- older sister

Oji-san- uncle

yuki-onna- snow woman

Hai- yes

Kozō- boy

Arigato- thank you

Katana- sword

Shunpo- flash step

Ja ne- see you

Okaa-san/kaa-san – mother/mom

Otou-san/tou-san- father/dad

Geta- sandals with a wooden base (clogs)

Yukata- cotton kimono used for casual wear, sleeping, or bathing

Onegai- please

Kazoku- family

Nakama- comrades/friends