To anyone who said (or thought) that it was stupid Ichigo was beat by normal Soul Reapers: Who said anything about him being beat? I just said he couldn't fight full strength because he didn't want to kill anyone (or at any rate Rukia did want him to). He certainly wasn't beat, that's just dumb.
Epilogue – A Moment in Time
-:-:-:-:-Three Years Later-:-:-:-:-
"One more story Daddy!" Ichigo Kurosaki said, smiling and resting a hand on three-year-old Kaien Kurosaki's messy black hair.
"No more stories, buddy. Bed-time. You're starting pre-school tomorrow, remember? You have to be all nice and rested for it," Kaien grinned.
"'Kay Daddy." And he nestled down under the covers. Ichigo was sure someday he was going to get lost under that huge of comforter of his. "Hey Daddy?"
"Can we look at some more pictures?" Ichigo knew exactly what kind of pictures his son wanted to look at. And there was no way he could say no. Kaien knew that. He always seemed to pull this right before bedtime.
"Of course we can. But only for a few minutes." He left and returned a minute later with a thick, leather-bound photo album. He sat down on his son's bed and opened the album.
"There's Mommy!" Kaien chirped, pointing a small finger at the first picture on the page. It was one of Ichigo and Rukia, standing outside Urahara's shop (why they had taken it there, Ichigo didn't remember). "Mommy was really short compared to you, Daddy."
"Yeah, I told her that too." Ichigo said, smiling as he turned the page of the album. "She used to hit me for it."
"Mommy hit you?"
"Only because she loved me"
Kaien didn't look like he understood what his father had said. "Mommy hit you because she loved you?" He asked.
"Love's a funny thing Kai." Ichigo said, jostling his son's hair again. "Don't worry, you'll understand someday, when you fall in love with a girl who insists on beating you."
"Yuck!" Kaien made a face similar to the one he made when Ichigo made him eat vegetables, then grinned as he looked at another picture. It was a solo shot of Rukia. Yuzu had taken it on a trip to the beach. Rukia looked incredibly embarrassed in her bathing suit; her face was bright red (of course, that might have also been due to the fact that Ichigo had just said she looked cute when she was embarrassed). "Daddy." Kaien said after a minute. "You said Mommy left, right? Does that mean she'll come back someday?"
Ichigo's heart clenched. "No, buddy. Mommy left, and she...she went somewhere she can't come back from"
"Oh," Kaien looked very put off by this. Then, "Did Mommy love me?"
"Mommy loved you a lot," Ichigo assured his son. "She loved you so much. She loved you too much, I think. She loved you enough to do anything to save you. I don't want you to ever think otherwise, understand?" Kaien nodded. "Good. Come on then. Bedtime"
Five minutes later, Ichigo closed the door to his sleeping son's room, and tip-toed downstairs to the kitchen to make some coffee.
It had been three years. The Soul Society (partially out of guilt, and partially due to the fact they were under heavy fire from the sixth squad captain and lieutenant) had agreed to leave Ichigo and Kaien alone at last. A little too late, of course. It hadn't save Rukia's life, or Ichigo the pain. But at least he wouldn't have to spend every day wondering if Kaien was still going to be around when he got home from work.
Not that Ichigo had been around for the negotiations. He had left pretty much right after they had gotten out of the twelfth division, and Renji had finally calmed him down. The same Soul Reaper had come to Ichigo in the living world about half a day later (despite the fact that Ichigo had told Renji he never wanted to see a Soul Reaper near him again) to inform him of the decision. But Ichigo couldn't face the Soul Society anymore. He hadn't even stuck around for them to find Rukia's body. He wouldn't have been able to look at it. He didn't want to have to.
The news had been a crushing blow to Ichigo's friends and family. Yuzu in particular (who had loved Rukia like the older sister she had always wanted) was devastated. They had decided, in the end, not to have a funeral. Where there was no body (and Renji had said, considering the condition the twelfth division building was in, the chances of thereever being a body were slim), they hadn't been able to bring themselves to. It would have been nice to have a memorial. But at the same time...it would have been admitting she was really dead.
And even though it was true, they didn't want to admit it.
Ichigo sat down at the kitchen table when he finished pouring his coffee, and stared at the photo album. He and Kaien no longer lived in the small apartment Ichigo and Rukia had shared. They'd found a small house on the outskirts of Karakura Town that was in their price range right after Kaien turned one, and Ichigo had taken it. He was glad. He hadn't been able to live in that apartment. Every bit of it was Rukia to him.
Page by page, Ichigo looked slowly through the photo album. He had made it specifically for Kaien, who had never known his mother and never would. But Ichigo had plenty of pictures. And if they were all Kaien would ever have, then Ichigo would make sure he would have them. Kaien deserved more, so much more. But this was all he had. It was so unfair.
Tears stung Ichigo's brilliant amber eyes, his fists clenched. And, in a moment of blind anger, he slammed his fist down angrily on the table, upsetting his coffee. "Dammit!" he said furiously, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand. He jumped up snatched the photo album off the table before the coffee puddle hit it. It wasn't the fact his coffee spilled that upset him. It was...everything else. It was the Soul Society and the position they had put him in, having to raise his son all on his own. It was the position they had put Kaien in. Kaien, the little boy who came so close to being Kurotshuchi's next lab experiment. Kaien, the little boy who was growing up without a mother, because she had risked everything to save him, and in the end it had killed her, but not him. And – most importantly – Ichigo was upset with himself.
Why hadn't he been more careful? Why hadn't he kept a closer eye on Rukia? Why hadn't he noticed she wasn't at his side the moment she disappeared from it? Why had he been so careless? Why had he let Renji hold him back when he tried to help her? Why did this have to happen? Why had he let this happen?
Why had he let the Soul Society take Kaien in the first place?
That was the question that would haunt Ichigo forever. If he had just been faster in the first place, he could have stopped everything. If he had been stronger when the three captains and the lieutenant had attacked, Rukia would still be alive, Kaien would still have a mother, and everything would be...normal.
"Dammit," Ichigo muttered again as tears spilled over. He didn't like crying. It made him look weak. But at the moment he feltweak, so he supposed it was okay.
"Daddy?" Ichigo looked around. Kaien was standing in the door of the kitchen, a blue blanket clutched in his small hands. He was looking up at Ichigo through his bright violet eyes, the eyes that resembled Rukia's so much. Too much.
"Sorry Kaien." Ichigo said quickly, rubbing his eyes. Kaien didn't need to see his daddy crying. "Did I wake you up?"
"Daddy, are you sad?" Kaien asked, bypassing the question. Ichigo sighed and sat down again, trying to calm himself. He patted his lap, and Kaien walked over and crawled into his father's lap. The small boy reached up and rubbed a stray tear away from Ichigo's face. "Are you sad because of Mommy? Please don't be sad Daddy."
Ichigo smiled and wrapped his son in a tight hug. "How can I be sad when I have you around, big guy?"
The photo album was still open in Ichigo's hands. He looked over Kaien's shoulder at the pictures. Rukia's violet eyes looked back at him. A moment in time, captured forever. A moment in time that would have to last one small boy a lifetime, because it was all he would ever see. One moment in time...that would never fade away, even though the person trapped in the moment had.
"Love you Kaien."
"I love you too, Daddy."
Ichigo stared down at the picture. I love you Rukia.
And he could have sworn he heard her voice saying, in his head, I love you too, Ichigo. Please, stay strong.
I will. But tell me Rukia...was it really worth the risk?
Author's Note – Yes, Rukia is actually dead! I'm sure someone out there was expecting her to come back in the epilogue. But...no. No appearances. Sorry. If I tell you there's a sequel, will you let me live? 'Cause yes, there is a sequel to this, believe it or not. It's called What If. You might like it. Okay. Really. Put the knife away. I didn't like killing of Rukia, trust me. But...it had to be done. Okay, really, put the knife away!
Some Emotional Stuff from ForeverSam – I don't usually say too much about my feelings, but at the end of my stories, I like to do a little thing. So here it is for this one: thank you so much for all your reviews and encouragement/death threats. They really motivated me to keep going, even when I felt like giving up on the story (especially those death threats, lol). So thank you. Thank you all very much. You're all wonderful, wonderful people, and without you, this story wouldn't exist
Oh, before I go, just so you feel more inclined to read the sequel (despite the fact you're probably planning my murder right now), here's a quick summary:
Title: What If
Rating: K or T (Haven't decided yet)
Summary: Ichigo spent eight years wondering what if. What would happen if one of his 'what ifs' came true?
All right then. The more reviews I get, the more inclined I might feel to put up the sequel (if you want it). So...review! – Sam