School's out! Freedom, sweet freedom!

Well, I'm sad to say it, but this story's finally come to a close. It took over a year to write, but it was a hell of a fun ride. Thanks to all of my loyal readers who helped give me enough pointers and encouragement so that this could go on for a whole twenty chapters and end completely finished. You guys really helped me out, so I thank you all! (Bows)

So, enjoy the final installment, and have a wonderful summer!

We were strangers starting out on a journey,
Never dreaming what we'd have to go through.
Now here we are and I'm suddenly standing
At the beginning with you.

August 12, 1612
10:30 PM

Kurosaki Ichigo, age twenty-one, quietly tip-toed into the one-story house along the Osaka streetfront, pulling off a crimson kosode from over his navy blue haori, a gift which Renji had given him for his birthday a month ago. With the same amount of caution he used to enter the house, he removed his obi sash and katana from around his waist and set them on a small wooden table by the door. A slow, deep yawn worked its way out of his mouth as he crept towards the back room, weaving around pieces of furniture.

He slowly slid open the door to the room in the back of the house, expecting to see his wife, now eight months pregnant, sound asleep on the wool futon in the center of the room. Instead, she was sitting up and rubbing her swollen stomach, the bottom of her violet kimono open. Ichigo smirked as he walked in, musing about how much of a fuss she made every day about how only a few of her clothes still fit her pregnant form. Not that he was complaining; the more skin she showed, the more he liked it. Besides, he liked looking at her large abdomen, knowing that the baby he helped make was growing in there.

"Rough day?" Rukia asked as he dropped down next to her with a groan.

Ichigo scoffed, laying back onto his pillow and shutting his eyes. "Most of those kids don't even know how to hold a sword, much less fight with one."

"You're the one who accepted the job," she retorted, snickering as he opened an eye and stared at her.

"That's because," he replied, propping himself up on his elbows, "I desperately needed a new one. Let's face it, when we got back here, my house was too small and my 'job', for lack of a better term, sucked. Besides, I like this place better; it's more roomy, and everything's really close. I don't have to walk ten blocks to just buy some overpriced food."

"But you hate the job?"

"I don't hate it," he stated defensively, his eyes straying down to her stomach. "I just dislike it. Teaching new recruits how to fight with swords is probably more dangerous than the job I just quit."

"…So why did you accept the job?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes, sitting up and running a hand through his disheveled hair. "I thought we've been over this. First off, there's no way in hell I'm traveling cross-country while you're pregnant. Second, there's no room for three people in a single-room house. Third, we couldn't even afford to keep three people on the money I was making. Just be happy I even have a job."

She smirked, and nearly laughed out loud when his mouth turned downward into a fierce scowl.

"What's so funny?"

"Your face."

"Yeah, that's real mature, shorty."

She shot a glare at him and threatened, "I really want our baby to know his father, and I'd hate to have to rob you of the privilege to see your firstborn."

He simply sniggered and scooted closer to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. "So, how far along are you?"

"The physician said that I look to be about eight months, which is pretty accurate, considering when the baby was conceived."

Ichigo looked down at her belly in semi-amazement, his head cocking to the side like a curious puppy. "Only one more to go, huh? You ready?"

"Are you?"

"I'm not going to be the one giving birth, and it's going to hurt like hell once you have to."

She sighed and looked at him, seeing poorly-hidden concern in his eyes. "I told you the night the baby was conceived that I would be fine with it. Besides, I want to have this baby."

"It's a little too late not to," Ichigo retorted, reaching down and running his free hand over her exposed stomach. Every time he saw it, knowing that a human life he helped create was growing in there, he just felt the urge to run his fingers over the smooth skin of her belly. In fact, as corny as he knew it was, there were some mornings when he woke up with his head on top of it, instantly remembering how he had laid his head there to try and feel the baby kick the night before. "I wonder what the baby will look like," he murmured, his thumb caressing her skin.

"He'll probably have your attitude, the way he's always kicking around at night while I'm trying to sleep." She turned her head to look at him, and saw him staring in a kind of fascinated reverence at her abdomen. It never ceased to amaze her how awed he was at the prospect of becoming a father and having a child that was part of him. "The baby actually hasn't been moving around much today."

"I hope he's alright," Ichigo stated, still watching her stomach. That had been a major concern of theirs ever since they had found out that she was pregnant; stories of miscarriages and complications during birth ran rampant throughout the close circle of veteran and expectant mothers, but was a hard fact that couldn't be ignored. Anything could happen, but the doctor had consoled them that everything seemed fine and that the birth should be a success.

Nonetheless, that hadn't stopped Ichigo from playing the role of over-protective husband and soon-to-be father. He had set many rules, some a little excessive, to ensure that no harm befell his wife or their unborn child. And it even showed in the way he treated her, like she was a fragile porcelain doll and that if he held her too tightly, she would simply shatter into a million pieces. Even on the days she had morning sickness and would be up all night vomiting, he would confine her to their bed until the pregnancy-induced "illness" settled, staying with her all the while.

"The baby will be fine, Ichigo," she consoled, regretting the loss of contact as he pulled his hand away from her.

He remained silent, diverting his gaze to the pale light from the nearly full moon that cast eerie shadows across the wall on the far side of the room. He hated thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, especially since complications were rather common with first-time births. His own mother had nearly died giving birth to his twin sisters, and the thought of that happening to Rukia made his stomach twist uncomfortably. Her yawn broke him from his absentmindedness, and he decided to push the dark thoughts away; there was no use worrying about something that might not even happen, especially if it would cause him this much distress.

Rukia laid down on the futon, shutting her bleary eyes before murmuring sleepily, "If it's any consolation, I think the baby will be fine. Just call it mother's intuition."

He chuckled and leaned back onto his elbows his gaze traveling from her serene face down to her large belly. Ever since the day she had told him that she was pregnant, he had wondered how it felt to carry a child inside of your body. It looked a little too difficult, and the position of the womb made doing even the most simple of tasks rather complicated, but Rukia had assured him that it was the most wonderful thing in the world. She had even told him that the most beautiful she had ever felt was while she was pregnant with the baby.

She gave a little gasp, which immediately pulled him from his thoughts and sent him into defensive mode. To his surprise, she grabbed his hand and placed it over her stomach where he felt a tiny thump against his palm. "The baby's kicking, Ichigo," she whispered in unveiled amazement, marveling at the feel of the small child shifting inside of her womb.

A wide grin spread across his face as he lowered his head to her belly and rested his ear where his hand had once been, giving a small laugh as he felt a series of small kicks against his cheek and along his jaw line. "God, that's amazing," he said quietly, showering her stomach in soft kisses. "Jeez, and we made that baby that's growing in there."

Hesitantly, he drew his head from her stomach and pulled her into gentle hug, burying his nose into her hair. "I love you, you know that, right?"

"No, I had no idea," she replied sarcastically, curling next to him, her head on his chest. She concentrated hard, gradually picking up the steady rhythm of his heart. It had a soft, definite beat that always managed to lull her into a deep, peaceful sleep. A quiet laugh escaped her lips as his hand wandered up and rested on her stomach yet again, the rough pads of his fingers stroking the skin. "I love you too, idiot."

"I love the both of you," he murmured, tightening the embrace while realizing that he had never before been so thankful for what he had.

The End

The end of this story has brought about the beginning of a new one entitled "Extreme Ways," and is based off of the same song by Moby. If you are interested, you can go to my profile and read it.