A/N: I'm going to start this short note by saying that I am fully aware that I am going to have haters for this story, simply because it will be a story in which Ichigo will develop feelings for both Rukia and Orihime. Now, I realise that this is not a particularly original idea, however, I hope that you will at least give it a chance. In this first chapter alone, there is violence, a smattering of familial bonding, and Keigo! What more could you possibly want?

Whether you are an IchiHime or an IchiRuki, I hope that you will allow me the chance to show you the opposite side of the argument. Too many stories have I read where the only way one of the couplings could exist is for the author to completely change the other's personality. I am going to attempt it in a natural way, one that will please everybody.

Also, the whole graduation thing...

I'm not sure if it's the same in Japan, or if it is different. Since I don't know, I'm basing it off of many such things I have seen in drama and on TV. Thank you.

Anyway, without further ado, and pointless gesticulating on my part, here is the opening to Life and Soul.

oOo

Inside a certain building in a certain town, a young man is sound asleep.

Kurosaki Ichigo (黒崎 一護)

His steady breathing echoes around his small room.

Eye Colour: Brown (目色 茶色)

The early morning sun tries, and fails, to flood his room with light.

Hair Colour: Orange (髮色 橙色)

His sleep is unhindered by anything, living or otherwise.

He is a Shinigami. (彼は死神です。)

Not even by one overly hyped-up former Shinigami Captain, who takes it upon himself to be his son's eternal tormentor.

One day, you'll thank me for this, thinks the man as he prepares his greatest attack.

Whipping the door open, he flies, soars and otherwise zooms towards his prone son with his usual battle cry. "Good Morning, Ichigo!" He smirks as he sees his son remain motionless.

I have you this time.

Without warning, the young man sweeps from his bed, dragging his bedsheets with him. The older man has no chance to stop himself from falling head-first into a bundle of bedclothes. Ichigo grips the ends together, effectively sealing his father inside.

Allowing himself a victorious grin, he begins pummelling the older man through the sheets. "You thought you were gonna get me?" he taunts as he viciously thumps away. "Not in a million years!" After a minute of punching, he is thoroughly sated and he allows the sheets to open, revealing a very bruised, but otherwise, smiling Isshin. "You've come a long way, my son. I have nothing more to teach you," he says sagely.

"You keep spouting that, yet you keep insisting on getting your face into my business, every day," grumbles Ichigo as he begins to make his bed.

"Come now, Ichigo," begins Isshin as he stands aside for his son. "You aren't a little kid anymore."

That's right. He isn't.

Age: 18 (齢 十八)

Not after all of the things he has done. Not after the lives he has changed. Not after the lives he has ended.

Shrugging his shoulders, Ichigo turns to his father. "Just because I'm not a kid, it doesn't mean I need you trying to jump me every morning. I swear, if it wasn't for the fact I know you'd just use Kidō to escape, I'd have you sectioned."

Isshin's smile turns upside-down. "I'm merely keeping your reflexes in top shape. You never know when a Hollow will come biting at your backside. You can never be too prepared."

Ichigo sighs heavily.

"I know. Listen, I'm gonna get changed. Give me a minute, yeah?"

"Sure thing, Ichigo. I'll make sure your sisters are getting ready." Isshin turns towards the door, takes a quick glance back at his son, then heads out, locking the door behind him.

As soon as Isshin leaves, Ichigo sits on his bed and breathes deeply.

Stupid oyaji. As if I needed reminding. I know what I am.

With a heaving sigh, he hoists himself to his feet and goes about getting ready.

Outside the room, Isshin breathes heavily himself. The punches were as nothing to him, and, to be completely honest, he rather enjoyed letting Ichigo let off some excess frustration. He knows how his son feels, even if his son cannot come to terms with it.

Taking a life is never easy, even when you know that it is for the best. Even when you know that you are cleansing a soul and allowing it to flourish once more, pure and innocent. It fragments your soul, chipping away at was once whole and good, turning it slowly into a cracked and uncertain plain.

Never lose sight of yourself. If you do, Masaki will never forgive me.

oOo

The door knocks as an auburn-haired young woman yawns widely. "Coming," she mumbles as she wearily rubs the sleep from her eyes. With a quick tug, her door is opened, revealing her best friend in the entire world.

"Tatsuki-chan!" she crows delightedly, grabbing the aforementioned girl's arm to drag her into a hug. She can't help but laugh lightly.

"Good morning to you as well, 'Hime." Taking a look around her best friend's apartment, Tatsuki is dismayed by how little character it has. "'Hime?"

Orihime looks around to face her friend. "What is it, Tatsuki-chan?"

"Don't you think it's about time to turn this place into your home?" All around her, all Tatsuki can see are bland walls, bland furniture, bland, well, everything. It's as though Orihime doesn't live here, she simply stays here. It isn't a comforting thought.

Orihime simply smiles.

"I don't really see much point to it, Tatsuki-chan."

"Why not?"

Orihime sighs.

"I don't plan on staying here long enough for it to warrant being decorated to my tastes."

Tatsuki begins pacing, her feet beating a groove into the wood of Orihime's apartment floor.

"While that sounds smart, and would save you a lot of money in the long run, I know that the 'Hime I know would never pass up an opportunity to express herself. What's happened? Why have you changed?"

"What are you talking about, Tatsuki-chan?" blurts Orihime, who is visibly flustered. "Nothing has changed, least of all me." She smiles deeply, yet Tatsuki can tell it is nothing more than a façade, a cover-up for what she is actually feeling.

Fine, 'Hime. I'll play along. For now.

Walking to Orihime's seat, she settles herself. "You need to get ready, 'Hime. Today's a big day."

Orihime is dazed for a second, before recollection forces her mind to realise just what today is and what it means.

"Oh, gosh! You're right, Tatsuki-chan. How could I forget?"

Tatsuki chuckles. "With you, anything is possible." The words may have sounded harsh, but Tatsuki knows that Orihime will accept them in a positive light, just how they were intended. "Now, hurry!"

Orihime nods brightly.

"Right!"

oOo

"Kuchiki-fukutaichō."

"Ohayō, Kuchiki-fukutaichō!"

Several people greet Rukia as she walks along the corridors of the thirteenth barracks. Rukia greets them in return, all by name. She doesn't want to be an impersonal officer. Rather, she wants all of her fellow Shinigami to feel comfortable enough with her, that they can approach her about anything. That is her role, after all. She is in place to ease the burden on her taichō.

Ukitake-taichō...

His health has been declining rapidly as of late. His affliction, which is still undiagnosed, seems to be nearing its final stages. Rarely a day goes by now that doesn't see him in bed, coughs racking his further fragile form.

Rukia does the best she can for him, so that he doesn't have to be concerned. She is considering asking for special permission from the sōtaichō, so that she can attend the Captain's meeting in his place. She knows she will probably be shot down, but at least she will have tried.

Ukitake-taichō is like the father she never had. When everyone felt her a traitor, he stood by her persistently. When her human friends came to save her from being executed, Ukitake-taichō, along with Kyōraku-taichō, risked everything to help her: their positions; their honour; their lives.

It is the least she can do to make his life more comfortable.

However, today, she has a request to make of him. One she hopes he will not decline, although he would have every right to do so. Steeling her resolve, she knocks lightly on his office door, which has been converted to a bedroom/ infirmary of sorts.

"Please, enter," comes his raspy voice. She slides the door open, steps in, and shuts it.

She takes in his state. Sweat beads on his brow, his chest rises with frailty and he seems to be shaking. She wants to rush to his side and help him, but she knows such pity would not help him. No, instead, it would cause more harm. Her misplaced kindness would further damage his pride. So, she forces herself to stand upright and face him directly.

"Ah, Kuchiki-fukutaichō, ohayō." He forces himself to smile.

"Ohayō, Ukitake-taichō," speaks Rukia brokenly. It's only as she notices him trying to get himself into a seated position that she has to interject. "Please, taichō. Don't struggle on my behalf."

"Nonsense," he says as he continues to struggle. Rukia watches helplessly as he forces his tired body to obey his will. Finally, he comes to a stop. He breathes heavily, his brow is now coated in sweat and his eyes are unfocused but he smiles genuinely, as though he is pleased to have managed. His pride remains intact. When he next speaks, his voice is strained but rich in timbre. "What can I do for you this morning, Kuchiki-fukutaichō?"

It hurt Rukia deeply to have to watch him pain himself further, but she also knows that he is a prideful man, one who will not allow his body's limitations to stop him. She is proud to know him, even if it is a painful experience every time she watches him fall further into decline. A double-edged sword, truly.

"I...I wanted..." She cannot continue with her request. It is not appropriate at this time, nor does she think she will be able to leave him in such a broken state. She forces herself to smile, a small, painful one, but a smile, nonetheless. "Never mind. It is not important."

"Rukia-chan, you know you can ask me for anything, right?" When she doesn't answer, he continues with his chain of thought. "If it's within my power, I'll try to make it happen."

While her Captain has given his permission, Rukia still feels it selfish to voice her heart's desire. Withdrawing into herself, she fixes him with a steady gaze. "I appreciate that, Ukitake-taichō, however, I am perfectly fine."

"Rukia-chan," he states in his most authoritative voice. "Tell me what you need."

As always, Ukitake-taichō sees to the heart of matters, thinks Rukia as she fidgets on the spot. In a quiet voice, she speaks her heart's words. "I wanted to go to the Living World. Just for today," she adds hastily, before relaxing into a more subdued state. "Something important is happening today; something I wish to be present for."

"Would that something involve Kurosaki-san?" asks Ukitake quietly. When Rukia's only answer is for her cheeks to darken, he knows he has hit the proverbial nail on the head. "Go, Rukia-chan, with my blessing."

Rukia looks up sharply. "Are you certain, taichō?"

Ukitake waves his hands in a dismissive gesture. "No need for concern. I'm certain Kiyone-chan and Sentaro-kun will be more than capable of managing for a day. They have my full confidence, as do you. I expect a full debrief of today's festivities when you return," he says cheekily as she bows to him.

"Yes, Ukitake-taichō!"

oOo

"Ichi-nii, aren't you ready yet?" shouts Karin from the base of the stairs. Honestly, he's been up there for forever and a day! He needs to get his rear in gear before they end up being late on one of the most important days of his life.

Still, it's kind of funny. No, perhaps ironic is a better word choice. Her brother, hero of the Winter War, and one of the mightiest Shinigami to ever exist, is hesitant. Karin can understand why. It isn't so much the uncertainty. It's something simpler, yet far more important.

So, even though Karin sympathises, she will be damned if she allows him to miss today.

"Ichi-nii!"

Ichigo, for his part, is carefully assembling his uniform for this most important of days. He cannot simply throw his clothes on as he normally would; his father will not allow it. Today is one of those rare, once in a blue moon sort of days, where Isshin's demeanour is one of seriousness.

Strangely, Ichigo doesn't mind his father being a bit more serious. That's a part of why he didn't speak to his father properly while growing up. The goofiness was a definite deterrent. Oddly, it seemed as though he only started after his mother…

Deciding against traversing the dank corridors of his memories, Ichigo breathes deeply and tries to settle his stomach.

"Hollow!" crackles his daikōshō. Instinctively, he stretches for it...then, he stops. Heaving a sigh, he lowers his hand and glares at the wooden badge.

You caused an awful lot of trouble for everyone, he reminisces as he recalls the Fullbringers and their Xcution. Barely a year has passed since the battle against Ginjō concluded with Ichigo taking his life. Not a day has passed since that has not found him feeling that battle in his heart. It is as though, when he struck Ginjō down, a piece of his Cross of Scaffold lodged itself in his heart, and no matter how he tries, he simply cannot find a way to dislodge it.

Still, even though the whole experience became one big convoluted mess, Ichigo doesn't have the heart to remain angry.

Because of you, I was able to become stronger. Thank you, Ginjō.

Through Ginjō, Ichigo was able to gain a Fullbring all of his own. Of course, this was before Rukia stabbed him in the back, not that he wasn't appreciative of it.

Seventeen months...

A long time by his standards. A minute as to a Shinigami, yet, when he looked into Rukia's eyes for the first time since his victory over Aizen, he could tell that she had felt the time just as keenly as he did. It isn't surprising, really. She is his best friend; at least, his best Shinigami friend. With all the craziness they faced together, if she wasn't pleased to see him, he would have been aggrieved.

The daikōshō continues its keening.

Can't be chasing down Hollows today, he reasons as he runs a hand through his hair. He knows the posted Shinigami is capable of dispatching any low-level Hollows. As long as Menos don't start descending, I'll leave it to them.

"Ichi-nii!" comes Karin's agitated shout. "Hurry the hell up!"

He's been putting this moment off, he knows. A part of him isn't ready for what this day will mean. It's an end and a new start, all in one.

Another part of him is excited by what today will bring. New opportunities and experiences await him. He only has to find and grasp them.

Even so…

There are his friends: Chad; Tatsuki; Inoue; Ishida; Mizuiro; hell, he'll even miss Keigo. How do you just say goodbye? What they've gone through together...they are bonded by more than simple friendship. Theirs is a bond of battle, blood, pain, loss and love. How they can simply forget each other is beyond Ichigo.

What he does know, is that he will fight to maintain his bonds, even if he has to wake at a ridiculous hour to phone, or to travel. For how much he scowls at everyone, inside, he actually cares deeply for all of his friends.

With another sigh and a scowl, he begins to dress.

"Where is onii-chan?" asks Yuzu fretfully, as she waits impatiently, the rice she had cooked perfectly for her brother going cold. "His breakfast is going to be ruined." She looks close to tears.

"Don't cry, Yuzu!" exclaims Isshin, rushing to his daughter's side. "I'll put on the peg beard if it will make you smile." Sure, the peg beard hurts like hell, but he will do anything to ensure his children's happiness.

"Leave her alone, oyaji," says Ichigo as he descends the stairs. Yuzu's eyes light up as she spies her brother.

"Onii-chan! You took too long. Your breakfast is–"

"I'm sure it's great. Thank you, Yuzu," cuts in Ichigo as he stands by her, ruffles her hair playfully for a second, putting a blush on her cheeks, then sits, says grace, and digs into his meal.

Yuzu watches him eat with a pleased smile on her face. Truthfully, she was afraid her brother wouldn't make it to this day. Ever since she found out about Shinigami, Hollows and other supernatural forces, a part of her has wished to be returned to blissful ignorance.

The things Ichigo has had to contend with...

She doesn't know half of what has happened to him, but from what Karin has said in hushed whispers, it has made her fear for her brother and for his safety.

She thought that once he lost his Shinigami powers, he would be free to live a normal life. And for seventeen months, that's exactly what he did. Even though she missed Rukia-chan, she knew that Rukia was purposely staying away to allow her onii-chan the opportunity to be a normal person, free of the Soul Society, free of Hollows, free of Shinigami.

"Yuzu?"

"Huh?"

Yuzu snaps out of her daze to see Ichigo staring down at her, a look of concern on his face.

"Is everything okay?"

Collecting her thoughts, she smiles brightly at him.

"Everything's great! I'm so excited."

He smiles half-heartedly at her attempt to enthuse him. Yuzu frowns when she realises he isn't as happy about today as he should be. Just as she is about to confront him, Karin grabs her arm.

"Karin-chan?"

With a slow shake of her head, she silences her twin.

"Today means a lot more to Ichi-nii than anyone realises. Just, let him sort his thoughts out, okay, Yuzu?"

Thank you, Karin, thinks Ichigo as he overhears the twins talking.

Karin can sense someone's eyes on her. When she turns and meets Ichigo's, an unspoken discussion is performed. Grabbing Yuzu's hand, she rushes towards Ichigo, grabs his in her other hand, then speaks brightly. "Let's go Yuzu; Ichi-nii!"

"Yeah!" responds Yuzu cheerily.

"Ah," says Ichigo nonchalantly.

Isshin watches his children with a steady smile on his face.

They turned out great, Masaki. You'd be so proud of them. Just like I am.

Suddenly, he seems to realise just what is happening. "Hang on! Wait for me!"

oOo

"So, Tatsuki-chan, have you thought about what job you'd like?" Orihime asks of her best friend as they walk to Karakura High School for quite possibly the last time.

Tatsuki considers before answering.

"Well, I'd like something that will let me take advantage of skills I already have. I could become a full-time instructor at a dōjō, I guess."

"Oh, you'd be amazing," beams Orihime. "Tatsuki-sensei," she says with her best attempt at a wizened voice.

Tatsuki smiles at her friend's attempt at humour.

"Of course, that's just something I could do. It isn't as though this world is so simple anymore. At least, not to people like you and me. We know that there is a lot more to this world than that which can be seen."

Orihime glances at Tatsuki in concern.

"I mean, we're all going to head in different directions, most likely. What happens if one of those Hollows comes after you, 'Hime, and I'm not there? And, even if I am, what could I possibly do to help?"

"Tatsuki-chan..."

"I know my reiatsu, or whatever it's called, isn't anywhere near as powerful as yours, or Ishida's, but I want to be able to fend for myself and for others I care about." She stops to take a deep breath. "So, I think that, at some point in the near future, I will have to see Urahara-san to ask for his help."

"What are you planning, Tatsuki-chan?" asks Orihime, the worry evident in her voice.

When Tatsuki fails to answer, Orihime's brows crease and she wrings her hands together nervously. Tatsuki notices her friend's concern and waves a hand soothingly.

"No need to worry, 'Hime." Orihime doesn't look convinced, so Tatsuki tries a different method, one of diversion. "Hey, how about you?" Orihime looks up, her confusion temporarily overriding her worry. "What do you plan to do?"

"Haven't I told you before?"

"Maybe, but, after everything that has happened this year, I thought you might have changed your mind."

Orihime looks thoughtful, her finger resting on her lower lip.

"Well, I like cooking, so I guess I could become a chef." She fails to notice Tatsuki's sudden grimace. "Then again, perhaps I should try something completely different." Her thoughtful expression becomes more pronounced.

"What are you thinking, 'Hime?" When 'Hime has that sort of expression on for too long, Tatsuki knows that it isn't simply a whim of fancy crossing her friend's mind. She is most definitely seriously considering something.

Orihime, meanwhile, doesn't seem to hear Tatsuki's words. "...Maybe, I can do that..."

If Tatsuki is expecting an answer, she is left lacking as Orihime remains uncharacteristically tight-lipped. Seemingly, Orihime is intent on keeping her mystery profession exactly that, a mystery. Whatever it is, it's something she doesn't want Tatsuki to know about. Why though? Does 'Hime think that she will be ashamed of her? It doesn't matter what it is. Whatever Orihime chooses to do with her life, Tatsuki will support her wholeheartedly.

For how close they are, they may as well scrap the 'friend' moniker, and simply adopt their true bond with one another: that of 'sisters.' Ever since Sora passed, Tatsuki has been Orihime's support. It doesn't matter where they may go in this world, no force can ever change their belief and love for one another. With a quiet smile of acceptance, Tatsuki continues to walk with her 'sister' towards the newest 'most important day of their lives.'

oOo

Stepping away from the Senkaimon, Rukia takes in a familiar sight. Karakurachō. The key to the creation of the Ōken. The battlefield on which the Winter War was waged, or, at least, an exact duplicate. The residence of several spiritually aware people.

Home away from home, she thinks fondly as she allows herself to indulge in the smells and sounds she has not experienced for nearly a year.

Not since Ichigo regained his strength, she muses, taking a deep breath, before smiling gently.

Ichigo. Strawberry, she chuckles with a grin as she recalls the moment he said her name as she thrust Urahara's reiatsu blade through his heart. Even after seventeen months, it seemed as though it hadn't been more than a day since they parted. They quickly fell into their familiar pattern, even going so far as for her to smile sweetly at him before giving him a bruised jaw.

Sometimes, he just needs to be given a nudge forwards. And, as his friend, she is happy to provide said nudge, as and when it's necessary. Of course, it isn't a one way street. On more than one occasion, when she has been at her lowest and most vulnerable, he has given her the support she so desperately needed. They are the epitome of friends, giving help without needing any reward other than a small smile or brief hug.

And so, today is about neither forbidden objects nor bloodshed. This day is about her friends and their rite of passage. Today is the day they step out into the world as full-fledged adults.

With anticipation flowing through her veins, Rukia expands her senses, searching out the most ridiculously overpowered source of reiatsu she can. Within the span of a heartbeat, she has found her quarry.

Still as temperamental as usual, huh, Ichigo? She can feel the edginess to his reiatsu. It is broiling. Something has him agitated. Or someone...

Deciding she will discover his gripe when she arrives, she steps into shunpo.

oOo

With an impatient stamp, Ichigo allows Yuzu to ascertain whether he is acceptable. Karin watches the whole affair with a bored expression. After all, how many times does her sister need to adjust his tie? It was fine the first twenty-three times. Now, she's on attempt twenty-four and Ichi-nii looks like his infamous temper is about to reach its limit.

As Yuzu concludes knotting the tie...again, Karin gives it a quick glance, deems it great...once more, then swats Yuzu's hands away before she can decide it isn't quite right.

"Karin-chan," begins Yuzu, her eyes swimming with barely restrained tears.

Karin takes her sister's hands. "Yuzu, it was fine the first time."

"I know!" Yuzu blurts, the tears spilling now with abandon. "I...I just..."

"Your brother is a grown man, Yuzu," says Isshin, strolling to his daughter's side. Gripping her shoulders, he smiles. "Everybody grows up. In a few years, it will be you standing here all nervous, just like Ichigo is now."

"I'm not nervous," declares Ichigo strongly, his posture upright and rigid. Nobody is fooled.

"In any case, while I realise that you don't want him to leave, you only have to think that, realistically, he hasn't left at all," speaks Isshin soothingly, rescuing Ichigo's floundering pride while comforting Yuzu at the same time. Truly, the goof is gone for the day. "While he may be in a different town, or maybe even a different continent, you are never more than a phone call or e-mail away from one another."

Yuzu brightens visibly.

Isshin leans over to Ichigo. "Besides, don't forget that you can use the Soul Society as a conduit to travel for free if needs be," he whispers conspiratorially, giving his eldest child a cheeky wink. Okay, perhaps the goof isn't completely gone, but it's difficult!

"I don't think Yamamoto-ojii-san will appreciate that much, oyaji."

Isshin snorts.

"For everything you've done to aid the Soul Society, the very least they can do is allow you to visit your family when you want."

"Okay, oyaji, I won't forget," says Ichigo.

Karin, meanwhile, glances around herself anxiously. Spotting no-one nearby, she rushes Ichigo. Wrapping her arms around him as far and tightly as she can, she slams her head into his chest.

"Karin–"

"Shut it, Ichi-nii. I just...needed a hug, that's all."

Yuzu and Isshin smile at her back as she struggles to contain her emotions.

It wouldn't hurt for her to be more open with her feelings, thinks Isshin wistfully.

After Masaki's death, both Karin and Ichigo withdrew into themselves. Recently, thanks to the efforts of his friends, Ichigo has begun to be a more expressive person. He really has to thank Sado-san and Tatsuki-chan for their efforts, among other people.

Karin, on the other hand...While she has friends, she doesn't have friends of the same quality that Ichigo does. Of course, there were her chance encounters with the boy Captain, but it isn't as though he can be a constant in her life. Besides, if he had his way, she'd be calling everyone 'Hitsugaya-taichō.' No, thank you! It'd be like living with a miniature, female version of Bya-bo. He represses his shudder unsuccessfully. His children look at him with askance glances, but he is soon forgotten. He will need to resort to drastic measures to remove the imagery from his mind. There will be need of some strong sake tonight...

oOo

"Oh my goodness! I'm going to miss you so much!"

Orihime repeats this message, albeit, worded differently, to the girls she has known throughout her time in high school. They cry happily and exchange promises of visits and the future, and words promising that they will never forget one another. Orihime stands there and smiles, listening to their tearful declarations, except she doesn't promise anything in return. It would be...improper for her to do so. Instead, she nods brightly as they part ways, for presumably the last time.

She knows that she is being impersonal-slash-rude, but honestly, although she likes them, respects them too, there are things that they cannot begin to comprehend, right in front of their veiled eyes.

Take, for an example, the Plus running laps around the school field. She can see him clearly. She can hear his chanting: "Keep up that never-say-die spirit! Yeah!"

'Hime has to stifle a giggle.

If only he realised just how ironic that sentence was.

Regardless, her point is that these girls simply glance through him, as though he isn't there, which, from their perspective, he isn't.

Orihime simply cannot relate to them.

Ever since that dreadful night when her eyes were opened to a whole world she could never have imagined, she has had to become stronger. More dependable. Less of a hindrance.

Less like I was when Sora-onii-san tried to eat my soul.

If not for Kurosaki-kun, with a pyjama-clad Kuchiki-san riding piggyback, no less, there would be no Inoue Orihime. She is so grateful to them for saving her.

And yet, because of Kurosaki-kun and his lack of control over his own power, she was changed, and her life was irrevocably altered. Now, she can no longer think only of which career she would like to pursue, or whether she should attend university. Now, she has to think more deeply about where she will go, and how she will affect the world around her.

Her reiatsu is simply too large for the Hollows to ignore. No matter which way she goes, wherever she winds up, it will end up becoming a target, and all the spiritually aware people living there will become nothing more than victims.

In her heart, she realises that she may have no other option but to remain exactly where she is. With Karakurachō being guarded stringently by the Soul Society, she should be able to live a fairly peaceful life.

Is that what I want, though? Do I really want to force myself into a life where I have no choice? There's an entire world I want to explore...

Her heart clenches as she ponders these unsavoury thoughts. She doesn't want to think about it, but the thoughts spiral without her control.

Tatsuki notices her friend's discomfort. In next to no time, she is at Orihime's side, her hand on 'Hime's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Orihime starts. She was so absorbed in her own mind, she failed to notice. "Tatsuki-chan...?"

"Do you want to talk?"

"I'm fine!" says Orihime. Very unconvincingly.

Tatsuki's eyes narrow. "'Hime. If you don't tell me what is bothering you, I can't help."

For a few beats of her heart, Orihime is silent, her eyes fixed on Tatsuki's own. Finally, her face lowers and she grinds out a sigh. "I've been thinking lately."

Tatsuki remains silent.

"Remembering everything that has happened over the last few years. When I think about how much things have changed, how much I've changed, it's scary. And now, finally, when I should be thinking about my future, all I can think about is how I'm going to have to remain here, while everyone I care about leaves. I-I don't...I don't want to...be left behind."

Her voice stammers near the end, but she is able to convey her fears enough for Tatsuki to understand. In a heartbeat, Tatsuki has Orihime is an all-encompassing hug.

"It's alright," she says soothingly. "Everything will be okay."

oOo

As the remains of the Hollow she encountered on her way dissolves into nothingness, Rukia sheaths her zanpakutō.

Damn. That took more time than I wanted it too. Where was the posted Shinigami?

This incident has put her behind schedule. She wanted to be there to greet everyone before they were called upon. Now, she'll be lucky if she manages to arrive before they all head home.

This is such a hassle. The one time she wants a stress-free journey, she ends up engaged in deadly battle. Well, not really deadly battle, as such. Of course, all Hollows are dangerous, and should be treated with a wary respect. Rukia is, however, a fukutaichō. Her strength is greater than a normal Shinigami, and, as such, she knows that she can dictate the flow of battle.

If only I could have been this strong before...

She knows it is a wistful thought. Still, it is one she has no conscious control over. If she had been as powerful as she is now when Inoue was captured by Aizen, she could have been of more help to her friends. As it was, she was still able to defeat her opponent, barely.

After that battle, however, she was useless to the continued success of their objective. If it wasn't for Byakuya-nii-sama, she would have surely perished.

Byakuya-nii-sama, she smiles lightly.

For seventeen months, she waited patiently, knowing that a time would come when Ichigo would once more be called upon. She used the time wisely, training both herself and her skill with the blade, and strengthened her bond with her zanpakutō, Sode no Shirayuki. While she knows she isn't as powerful as any of the Captains, she is certain that she can now hold her own against most opponents.

Byakuya was instrumental in her progress. He came upon her one evening, her body drenched in sweat and her breathing heavy from exertion. She noticed him, finally, and began to go through the usual meaningless rituals of respect, before he raised a hand to still her.

"Rukia. I have watched your training. I admit that I am impressed by your fortitude. If you are agreeable, I would continue to watch you practice. I have noticed that there are moments where your defence is severely compromised during your strike. I would improve this oversight."

His words may have seemed belittling, but it couldn't be farther from the truth. Rukia had learned long ago that what Byakuya said was not the same as what he meant. When he said he would improve her defence, he was actually saying that he didn't want her to be hurt.

Rukia, of course, accepted his help. With a short smile that she was certain he had never gifted her before, he sat and watched her form. As she flowed elegantly from strike to block, parry to riposte, his eyes followed. Occasionally, he would call for her to stop and repeat a step. She didn't mind. Byakuya was finally paying her attention. As if that wasn't enough, she knew for certain that training with one of the strongest Captains of the Soul Society could reap nothing but gains.

Seventeen months later...

"Rukia, I am pleased with how much you have progressed." High praise, indeed. "I do not mind saying that you are most definitely the second strongest Lieutenant in the Gotei 13." Very high praise. Her cheeks were glowing. "If you can attain further mastery of yourself and your zanpakutō to achieve bankai, I guarantee that you will become the strongest. I will make certain of that fact."

Rukia smiled deeply. "Thank you, Byakuya-nii-sama."

Thank you, Byakuya-nii-sama, she repeats as she begins to draw near her destination.

oOo

Finally, the time has come.

Ichigo, along with Ishida, Chad, Inoue, Tatsuki, and all their other friends and peers stand in an orderly queue at the back of a raised stage. One by one, names are read out, the student will step forward, accept his or her diploma, shake hands briefly with the headmaster, smile sheepishly for a few photos, then be unceremoniously dumped aside so another can take their place.

Repeat. Ad. Nauseum.

Ichigo stifles a yawn as he watches the proceedings with a bored expression. His insides are churning, not that he'll let on. After all, it wouldn't do for Kurosaki Ichigo to express his hesitation and nervousness. Not at all.

Orihime can sense it though. She can sense the agitation rolling off of all her friends, but especially Kurosaki-kun. With a small tap on his arm, she grabs his attention. "Kurosaki-kun?"

Ichigo glances to his side and notices Inoue looking at him, a furtive expression on her face. "Oh, what's up, Inoue?"

Orihime doesn't even blush when he speaks to her. For seventeen months, her feelings have slowly been maturing. Where once she would have been shy and tongue-tied around him, now, she can speak to him as easily as she would Ishida-kun or Sado-san. Perhaps not as comfortably as with Tatsuki-chan, but some things can only be understood by another girl.

With her mouth in a hard line and her eyes focused, she speaks up. "What's bothering you?"

Ichigo starts.

Wow. That's kind of direct. What's gotten into you, Inoue?

Rather than voice his thoughts, however, he focuses on answering her question. They've already reached 'H,' and Inoue will soon be called up. With a shrug, he replies nonchalantly, "...Nothing."

She frowns at him.

"...You're lying." When Ichigo moves to deny her accusation, she continues. "I can tell. Everytime a question arises that you don't want to answer, you just shrug it aside, like it doesn't matter. What are you afraid of?"

"Inoue, Orihime-san."

Orihime smiles at Ichigo. "I have to go, Kurosaki-kun." Without a second glance, she turns around and walks composedly to the stage. With one hand clutching her diploma, the other firmly in the headmaster's grasp, she smiles for the photos she knows will become another relic, gathering dust in some forgotten corner.

Just like I will...

Ichigo watches her walk away, confusion blurring his thoughts. Never has she been so forward with him. As she steps onto the stage, he allows himself a small smile. Watching her smile as she accepts her diploma, he knows that, despite the hardships they all faced in Hueco Mundo, they were so totally worth it.

This is your day, Inoue. Enjoy it.

OOo

Despite leaving the Soul Society with plenty of time to spare, Rukia finds herself strapped for time. The random Hollow attack really slowed her down. Finally, she spots the school in front of her. She can see the young people gathered on and about the wooden platform. She scans them agitatedly.

Am I too late?

"Inoue, Orihime-san."

She hears a familiar name. Looking to the stage, she can see Inoue walk, tall and proud, towards the centre. She is on display, yet she doesn't bat an eyelash. While Rukia is proud of how much she has matured and grown, a part of her feels regret.

Her kind heart has been forever tarnished by the hands of Aizen.

She sees Inoue start and look in her direction. With her eyes widening, Inoue smiles brightly and waves at her. Rukia returns the wave, her own mouth splitting into a grin.

Only here can I truly be myself.

Back in the Soul Society, such enthusiastic waving would be frowned upon. Most harshly. Here, in the Living World, amongst her friends, she can be Rukia-chan, rather than Kuchiki Rukia-sama, or Kuchiki-fukutaichō.

Honestly, the titles annoy her more than anything. Even though she respects the meaning behind them, she'd much rather be on first name basis with those she cares about.

Like how she and Ichigo called each other by first name instantaneously. There was no standing on ceremony with them. Friends from the very start.

"Ishida, Uryū-san."

Judging by the fact that Inoue was first, followed by Ishida, it would seem I have arrived in the nick of time.

She settles herself in to wait for his turn, clapping politely as Ishida claims his prize. He notices her, of course, but refrains from overt displays of happiness. She is not offended by his actions. She knows the kind of person he is, and respects him regardless.

"Kurosaki, Ichigo-san."

Finally.

oOo

The cheers begin, starting with Ichigo's family, Isshin applauding loudly. The twins clap without restraint.

"You go, Ichi-nii!" shouts Karin excitedly, even as her brother steps onto the stage, a look of menace on his lips. Yet, no-one pays him any mind. They all know him far too well.

Yuzu tears up and holds onto her father. Absently, he strokes her hair as tears fall from his own eyes.

"Well done, my son," he whispers proudly.

Ichigo can sense her. As soon as she entered the Living World, he felt her familiar reiatsu. Now, she is here. He's surprised. It isn't that he is angry or upset that she's here, not at all. He just didn't think she would be able to leave the Soul Society whenever she pleased any longer, what with her new position and all.

Even so, he is glad she has managed to come. If things hadn't have conspired against them so rapidly, perhaps she would be collecting a diploma all of her own. Still, when he collects his prize, he will be glad to know that she is watching him, even if he despises the whole premise.

Oh, well. May as well get this over with.

He shuffles towards the headteacher, who looks at him expectantly. Turning his head towards the cheers from his family, he spots Rukia standing at the back, a steady smile on her face. She sends a flare of her reiatsu in his direction, letting him know that she is there.

I already knew, he chuckles inwardly, sending a spike of his own hurtling her way.

Her smile becomes more pronounced.

Strawberry...

oOo

Ichigo collects his diploma with an air of frustration. He hates being on display like this, even if it is only for a second. He just wants to grab his scroll, shake hands, have a photo, which will conveniently be burned later, then get the hell out of there.

Unfortunately for him, life just never works out the way you plan.

"Hollow!"

The daikōshō at his waist goes crazy, while Rukia's Soul Phone begins bleeping rapidly.

That's when they feel it.

A massive surge of dense, dark reiatsu descends upon Karakurachō, suffocating all.

"Damn. Of all the times," curses Ichigo as he watches the sky rip apart, revealing numerous Menos. Many smaller Hollows begin randomly appearing, the air distorting around them as they penetrate the Living World.

He knows he must change into his shinigami self, but there is nowhere for him to hide his body.

Hell, if needs be, I'll have to get Rukia to wipe everyone's memories.

Though he dislikes the method, he knows he hasn't the time to argue with himself about it. Slamming the daikōshō to his chest, his body falls away while he stands tall, Zangetsu strapped to his back, its new release and shape still surprising him.

Let's go.

With a flash, he is heading for his first opponent: an ugly Menos.

Wait. They're all ugly.

Shrugging inwardly, he begins to bear down upon the tall Hollow, his zanpakutō gripped lightly in his hand, his arm fully extended. With a battle cry, he charges it. The Menos may be moderately powerful, but they are slow, clumsy, and perhaps most importantly, predictable.

They attack with sharp claws and shuffling movements, but these are easily dodged as Ichigo draws ever closer, Zangetsu gleaming with blood-lust. Flash-stepping from a horizontal swipe that would have rent him, Ichigo cleaves through the Hollows leg, sending its limb tumbling to the ground below. The Menos gives a shriek of pain before, in predictable fashion, it charges its Cero.

Just like they always do.

Bringing Zangetsu behind him, he shouts out his attack.

"Getsuga Tenshō."

He slashes the air before him, sending out a colossal wave of dark reiatsu. His attack screeches toward the Hollow. As it connects, the Menos cries uselessly as its entire being is wiped from all plains of existence.

Ichigo shoulders Zangetsu before looking around himself. Several battles are taking place around him.

"Damn. Where did they all come from?"

Spotting Keigo and Mizuiro running from several smaller Hollows who are giving chase, Ichigo speeds towards them, intent on delivering a heavy price to those who would try to hurt his friends.

Never again!

oOo

People are fleeing in every direction. They may not be able to see the Menos gathering, but they can sure as hell see the damage they are causing. Explosions from Cero are peppering the school grounds and several large footprints are mysteriously appearing, crushing anything beneath them.

A loud scream echoes through the area as a male student, barely Orihime's age is caught beneath a Menos' foot. He coughs up blood as people look on, horrified and mystified, as to why his back is buckling and his eyes are weeping crimson tears.

Finally, with a deafening crack, his whole body bends in on itself, his eyes glaze over and a shuddering rasp of breath leaves his lungs for the final time as he falls. A mother's wails pierce the chaos.

Orihime dashes through the scattering crowds. She has dispatched the weaker Hollows near her, and she is now heading away from the mass of Hollows, trying to see if there is anybody she can help. She knows that she is better suited to a healing role, even if her heart desires to fight.

She has trained herself for the past two and a half years, further developing her skills and deepening her bond with her Shun Shun Rikka. Although there is always more for her to learn and discover, she also knows that she is no longer the wildflower who needs protecting. She can stand on her own two feet.

Spotting a Menos swinging his clawed hands in a deepening arc towards a small group of students, huddling in their parent's shaking arms, she grips her hairclips tightly and calls in a clear voice.

"Shiten Kōshun, I reject."

With a whooshing sound, her clips fragment, then reconnect into her greatest defensive technique so far. Forming around the group, who are oblivious as to its presence, the barrier is in place as the Menos' arm collides forcefully with it. The attack is stopped dead, before a beam of light crashes into the Hollow's head, smashing its mask and sending it screaming to its demise.

"Good," she whispers, looking around herself for any others in need of her help. With a flicker of light, her clips return to their sealed state. "Thank you all."

Steeling herself, she heads towards the latest screams.

oOo

With a flourish of steel, Rukia dispatches a group of Hollows. Sheathing her blade, she surveys the school turned battlefield.

This is an outrage.

This day was supposed to be about young people taking that first tentative step into adulthood. Instead, it has been usurped by forces they cannot even see, much less attempt to comprehend.

Turning her back on the violence, she spies a large Hollow, a Menos, crashing about, its long limbs flailing wildly. She knows that she can easily dispatch such a foe now. She won't even need shikai. This isn't due to arrogance, but more to the fact that she has trained relentlessly with a certain Captain.

Time to put my training to good use. Watch me, Byakuya-nii-sama.

Dashing full speed at the Menos, it is unable to detect her presence until she is directly before it. With quick swipes, she slices into its equivalent of ankles. It buckles as it attempts to move, its shrill roars deafening. Flash-stepping in quick succession, Rukia appears before its head. The pitiable creature prepares a Cero.

"Too slow!" she cries as she thrusts her sword into its skull, deeply embedding it. Its beady eyes express surprise before she yanks harshly down, splitting its face in two. The Menos gives a final snarl of rebellion before it dissolves into nothing.

Spinning on herself, she sees another Menos in the distance being taken down by Orihime. Rukia is glad she has become so capable. She can remember when the girl was near tears due to her self-doubt. Now, she has matured into a strong-willed young woman.

Before she withdraws into nice memories, Rukia shakes her head and sets her sights upon a cluster of Hollows, who are terrorising a terrified group of defenceless humans.

"Unforgivable," she snarls, before releasing her zanpakutō. "Mae, Sode no Shirayuki."

With an accompanying flash of bright light, her sword changes from its sealed state into its shikai form. Pure, brilliant whiteness is all that greets the Hollows as she bears down upon them, menace written in her gaze.

Time to practice my swordsmanship.

oOo

"Ahh! Where do they keep coming from?" exclaims Asano Keigo as he and Mizuiro run as fast as they can from the masked monsters chasing them down. In some ways, he wishes that he was still ignorant of all this supernatural stuff. Just like when he thought that the afro-guy was a mere stunt double, rather than a Shinigami.

"I...don't...know," pants Mizuiro, his breathing laboured. Ever since this situation unfolded, he has been running. "Just...keep...running!"

Ichigo soars towards them at full speed, his sword rippling from the reiatsu he is concentrating in it. With a savage snarl...

"Getsuga Tenshō!"

The wave of reiatsu streaks over their heads and decimates the entire chasing group in an instant.

Mizuiro and Keigo slow to a stop, Mizuiro doubled over and breathing heavily.

Keigo is the first to speak.

"Thank you, Ichigo. That was pretty close."

"Don't sweat it," Ichigo responds, a hand running through his hair.

While he is pleased they are safe, there is still the issue of how this many Hollows were suddenly attracted to this place. A roar of anger from the remaining Menos instantly mellows him. With a deep breath, he heads towards the biggest ugly he can find.

Flash-stepping to it, he finds Rukia already busily slashing at its legs. Sending her an affirming burst of reiatsu so she knows he's there, he begins the task of assailing its torso.

I know you're here, buffoon, Rukia thinks sagely as she hack, hack, hacks away. Honestly, never did she think she would take Ichigo's advice, but here she is, chopping away at its legs to stop its movement.

With a quick flick of her wrist, Rukia has the Hollow bound by a weak Kidō. She knows it won't last long, but that isn't the point. She only needs to restrain it for as long as it takes for Ichigo to plunge his blade into its head.

Sensing what she is about to do, Ichigo streaks towards the Hollow, his eyes tunnelling due to the insane speed. Whirling out of his dash, he slams Zangetsu into its ugly face, straight through its extended nose.

The Menos crumbles and falls.

Dropping to the ground near her, he shoulders Zangetsu, faces her, then smiles lightly.

"So, how have you been, Rukia?"