Epilogue

In which beginnings and endings intertwine.

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And then Orihime felt a strange flutter in her arms, and a cool breath stirred at her ginger locks, and her tears and sobs and cries came anew…

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Every time they ran into each other, it was the same.

Today, it was in the real world. He was just leaving to go to the store to pick up some milk and bread for Yuzu when he passed her on the street. For half a second, he thought of pretending not to see her, if only to avoid the awkward routine, but he dismissed the thought just as quickly.

Even if Tatsuki couldn't beat him to a pulp for shunning her like that, he knew Inoue didn't deserve it. Ichigo knew he should be thanking her more wholeheartedly, but somehow, he just didn't have the energy these days. He was tired, and he just didn't have the faith anymore to produce the constant reassurance she needed.

He might have felt guilty for running into her (it probably ruined her day every time they did), but she hadn't even looked particularly happy before she caught sight of him. He paused in his journey, sighing deeply and stuffing his hands deeper into his pockets as she faltered in her own journey. Her hands were stiff at her sides as she bowed at the waist. He tried to head her off, but just like always, she was a little quicker. "I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun – I'm so sorry –"

"It wasn't your fault, Inoue," Ichigo sighed, watching his words puff into white clouds before his face instead of watching her. "You did more than all of us could have done. You did more than even God's soldiers could do. You saved her."

'In a way,' he thought, but didn't say. He may as well have. The words were thick in the air between them. They both knew.

But he didn't have anything better to say – how could he comfort her when he had no comfort for himself? – and she probably knew that. And, just like the mothering soul she was, somehow she couldn't bear to leave him thinking he had come up short (again). Just like always, Inoue smiled brightly as his words. Tried to let him believe he had made a difference.

"Aa – aa – I suppose Kurosaki-kun is right –" He noticed the way the smile never quite reached her eyes. It never seemed to, these days. But at least she smiled.

It was a start.

"Yeah," Ichigo muttered, the words muffled into the scarf around his neck. Maybe next time they would meet at the entrance to the Kuichiki-estate. By then, he promised, he would have that tightness in his throat under control. By then, he promised, he would have thought of something more comforting to say.

But maybe – just maybe – by then, he wouldn't even need to think of anything. Maybe time would have healed more than their empty motions of 'continuing life' and 'dragging on hope' could alone, and maybe things would change enough that empty words of solace wouldn't be needed.

But he doubted it.

A snowflake fluttered between them, and as he watched it hit the sidewalk and melt, he thought he might cry.

He turned abruptly and continued on his way before the glittering in his eyes could give him away, turning stiffly to walk around her while carefully avoiding her eyes. "I'm sorry," she called again behind him, forlorn, troubled, helpless.

Ichigo pretended he didn't hear.

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Sometimes, she sat and simply stared blankly out the window for hours. The plumb blossoms were just beginning to bud on the trees, and the irony of it was not lost upon Kuichiki Byakuya.

Perhaps, in another time, he might not even have noticed the difference. She had always been quiet and reserved and withdrawn and uncertain of herself in this place; how was this any different? It was a perceptible change… but only just barely.

Maybe the most painful was the realization that the distinct difference… laid in the fact that she did not remember that this place was supposed to set her so much on skittish edge.

"Green leaf tea?" a servant asked, and she only nodded politely, taking the cup and warming her hands upon it as she continued to stare out the window. Gone, was the stammering uncertainty that came from believing she was beneath even serving tea in such a household, much less accepting it.

Byakuya thought he would have been more pleased to see it. Under any other circumstances, he imagined he would be.

She watched the blossoms with some imperceptible mix of emotions. As if they might hold the answers she was looking for. When he had asked her last night at dinner if she cared for them, she had offhandedly said that they were pretty, but she preferred winter.

He thought it a promising response.

Byakuya was determined to do things better this time. He was nothing if not methodically and doggedly set in his quest for perfection, and this time around would be just that. When she had first looked at him blankly, and asked politely who he was, he had not hesitated to take her by the shoulders and embrace her.

"Your brother," he had replied, and if she noticed that the embrace was stiff, and that clearly he was unaccustomed to such a display of affection, then she certainly said nothing. "I'm proud of you; I love you more than anything," he had finished clumsily – the words were thick and awkward, his mouth as unaccustomed to forming them as his arms were to forming hugs.

But these things were coming a little easier each day.

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Abarai had just entered the manor. He knew, because he felt the familiar controlled-chaos of his subordinate's reiatsu.

At first, Byakuya had strongly disapproved of the way Abarai came and talked so animatedly about their past together, splashing colorful language and stories together in a way that could only be seen as unbearably vulgar in this, such a prim household. Byakuya had tensed the first time he used an unsavory word, but then had to hold himself back and remind himself that Rukia was not a child, and to try and shelter her from mere words was utterly ridiculous.

His brash lieutenant shared stories as earnestly as if he thought that if could only tell them insistently enough, he might bring them back in her mind – ignite them back to life, reanimate them. And once again, Byakuya had tensed, and held himself back.

Byakuya didn't want her to remember. He didn't want that awkwardness to return; he didn't want to remember his failure. It was a clean slate given to them, and at first, he resented Abarai for trying to sully it.

But then he saw the way she laughed with him, and he caught glimpse of the wistful expression in her eyes, and he realized, she wanted to remember.

And Byakuya could deny her nothing. So quietly, he turned from the room and departed even as Abarai entered, and left them alone to pursue that easy reminiscing that could only exist between two old friends. It didn't matter if she did remember, he reasoned; things would never go back to the way they were. That, he would make certain of.

The only way to move was forward.

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"Renji… The other one… Ichigo." To hear her pronounce his name so carefully, as if the owner of the name was some stranger and she still felt awkward addressing him so informally… it hurt him. Yes, it hurt Renji, but, he imagined, it probably killed Ichigo.

Smothering these thoughts behind a cocky smirk and a raised tattooed-eyebrow, Renji prompted, "Yeah, what about that idiot?"

She looked confused for a moment, and it was strange that such a subtle flicker on her face could knock the air from his lungs. Sometimes he forgot that she wasn't used to his good-natured ribbing. She almost looked hurt on the absent not-quite-friend's behalf.

"He's not really an idiot," Renji added quickly. "We just joke like that sometimes – remember?" And he winced again at his choice of words. Of course she didn't remember. God, he was the idiot, and an insensitive, unforgivable one at that.

"Aa, yes, I remember you telling me that, Renji. I'm sorry. I forgot for a moment," she apologized, and the demure words hurt far more than her usual cuff to the head ever had.

"Don't be sorry," Renji murmured. Then, too eager to change the subject, he forced the smile back on his face prompted again. "What about Ichigo?"

Back on track, a bit of excitement flickered in her eyes, and she leaned forward from her position on the sill. "Was his hair ever black?" she asked, with the eager, child-like anticipation that could only come from someone who was certain they had found an answer to something.

Renji stilled; something dropped out from inside him, and his smile faltered. In his minds eye, another man's smiling face flickered, and then, another who wore the same but was not him. "No, Rukia. No; Ichigo's hair was never black."

Rukia frowned, as if that confused her. "Oh." The disappointment in her voice hurt him, and he almost wished he had lied.

"Why do you ask?" he prompted, carefully, oh so very carefully – though in reality, he already knew the answer. 'Why do you feel the need to call that… thing… to practice with?' he had asked, and he said 'thing' only because he refused to call it by the form it wore. He would not call it Kaien because it was not, and she needed to understand that.

He understood, later. So belated, too belated, but he understood the pained longing in her eyes, the secret way she coveted and went back to him every time. He understood it, because he felt much the same ties to her. He suspected what had gone on, though he had never spoken a word to Kuichiki-taicho or Ichigo about it.

When she had awoken, he had known before all the rest what had happened. He knew she remembered nothing even before she opened her mouth and confirmed it, because if she had remembered, that dark, all-encompassing longing would still have been in her eyes.

She no longer had to bear those sins – and the only one left to bear the knowledge of them was him. But he would do that, gladly – keep that knowledge tucked safely away so that he could protect her from it, forever.

'Was his hair ever black?' she asked, and his world dropped out from around him, and for one panicked moment, he thought everything would come back to her in a rush, and that she would be ruined again, this time with no way to bring her back.

But the moment passed, and she smiled (albeit sadly), and shook her head. "Because… I thought I was remembering something."

"Aa."

"But it must just be my imagination," she continued brightly, and did not notice that it was only now that Renji dared take in a shuddering breath. "Ne, Renji?"

"Aa," he replied, and forced himself to return her bright smile. "Something like that." And when he reached forward to take her hand, he took comfort in the face that it was warm again.

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Sometimes, when Orihime visited, she would still try and use her powers to see if she might 'fix' what she had 'broken'. And Rukia would brighten and cheer, "Sugoi, Orihime! That's so sugoi!" every time.

Orihime. Not Inoue-san. Orihime. It was what Orihime had always wanted, she reasoned, but in the back of her mind she wondered if perhaps it was a bit much, for Kuichiki-san (Rukia-chan, she corrected herself stoutly in the back of her mind) to use such familiarity with the one who had, essentially, caused all this.

But then she would see the bright cheerfulness in Rukia-chan's violet (purple - not white – but beautiful, iridescent, sparkling purple) eyes, and she saw the way the other girl was no longer in the drawn-out agony she had seemed to be in for months before it all happened, and Orihime reasoned that perhaps it wasn't so bad after all. Perhaps she didn't need to punish herself anymore. It hadn't been a win, per se – but it was far from a loss, and she had honestly tried her best.

Maybe – just maybe – she reasoned – things were looking up.

And so, Orihime would smile, and pat Rukia-chan's hand when the ultimate failure of her rejection technique was revealed each time (she could not, it would seem, reject the event of her own rejection; she could not undo what she had done), and she would brightly tell Rukia-chan of a time that she had called her sugoi.

And Rukia-chan would smile and laugh and listen intently to the stories, and later, when there were no more real stories to tell, to the imaginary robot-adventures Orihime was always crafting, and then later still to the recipes Orihime was always developing so dedicatedly. Though, oddly enough, after the first time Orihime brought a dish along to share with the other girl, Rukia-chan seemed to pay less attention to the ingredients themselves than to Orihime's animated way of describing them.

And, later yet, when Tatsuki-chan started coming along for the visits, Rukia-chan would concentrate hard when she showed her how to make a fist, or how to kick. And when they had exhausted themselves, Orihime would offer to go to the Kuichiki-kitchens to prepare them something to eat, and both Tatsuki-chan and Rukia-chan (and even some of the servants within earshot) would eagerly explain that the kitchen-staff was more than happy to do it for them. And so, Orhime would sit between the two dark-haired girls (her two dark haired girls), and clutching their hands to her chest, she began to think that no, maybe this wasn't so bad after all.

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Minus the screaming and shouting and insults, Ichigo realized that he wasn't entirely certain how to act around her anymore. She seemed to take his visits quite seriously, and would sit cross legged with her hands on her knees and quite an intent look on her face, as if she meant to memorize every second of their encounters.

Once, she would have lackadaisically ignored him, chattering on in that 'better-than-thou' tone, tossing around the term 'idiot' to emphasize that she knew more. She would have talked over him, even, when he did choose to speak, though he would have simply raised his voice, and then she hers, until the shouting match was recommenced and until the veins in his head felt ripe to explode.

He would have never guessed he would miss it, now, when she latched on to his every word so very carefully, listening to him speak as if the each word was some careful edict.

That consideration made it so much harder to speak, he realized. Before, he was goaded into speaking recklessly. Now, he choked on the words because none seemed adequate enough in the face of her rapt attention. And so, often, like today, they sat across from each other in awkward silence.

"You know," he began, and cleared his voice when it cracked embarrassingly. She leaned forward; he averted his gaze. "Before… by now… we would have been yelling at each other and arguing."

She nodded sagely. "Renji has told me as much," she replied, and Ichigo felt stung. Did Renji find it so much easier, that he had exhausted his own special memories with her and moved on to Ichigo's?

"Aa," he replied, because he couldn't think of anything better to say.

"Renji says that you are someone very special to me," she continued, almost dictating. And then, just as matter-of-factly, she asked, "Did I love you?" Though the question was innocent enough, the past tense furrowed deep in his chest, and he tried not to cry.

"We gave up everything for each other," he replied, honestly. "I would still give up everything for you." He said the second as an afterthought – a quiet whisper. He felt so tired.

She was quiet for a long time after that, and each second was like another stab in his gut. The rejection was tangible, and Ichigo thought he might be sick. But then –

"Then I will love you again," she announced suddenly, and there was something about the doggedly stubborn naivety in her voice that shone with the Rukia of another time. "Memories or not."

He looked at her, startled, and the curve of her lips seemed a bit condescending. "It's the only logical choice, isn't it?" There was something about her tone – an unspoken 'idiot' trailed at the end of the sentence. For a moment, he was able to pretend that nothing had happened.

That everything was the same.

Ichigo nearly wept in relief.

But then her face shifted into one of gentle concern, and her voice softened into something dull and foreign and confused. "Did I say something wrong?" she asked, genuinely upset. "I mean – if you don't want –"

Ichigo shook his head vigorously – and though he didn't remember moving, suddenly his arms were around her, and she stiffened, but only a little bit, and only for a moment. "No. No, no, no – I do. I do want to! It's just - it was – perfect," he replied. "You said it… perfect."

Her hair smelled like rain, and perhaps a bit like lavender – which was what she had always smelled like before, he realized.

She looked wary for a moment, but then slowly, she smiled. And Ichigo knew, it might be a long and hard journey – but by whatever powers that be, she would love him again, and things would be ok again.

Someday…

And even if her memories never did come back – even if they were starting everything over fresh right now, and even if they spent the rest of their lives (and their afterlives) just trying to restore what they had before – Ichigo realized that he was ok with that. It was the journey, not the destination, that counted. And now that he knew he was not making this journey alone... he actually found that he was almost (kind of, sort of) looking forward to it.

A few moments passed, and then, awkwardly, she spoke into his chest. "Um – Ichigo – this is nice, but could you please –" She trailed off awkwardly, and Ichigo almost laughed.

"Only if you don't say please," he goaded, and when she smacked him in the chest on impulse, he did laugh (really, truly, honestly laughed) for the first time in months.

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"There's something I think you would have wanted to see," Ichigo started – then paused, and rephrased. "There's something I think you want to see."

She understood the reason for his phrasing (it was not would have wanted – she was not dead – and though she might not remember everything, she was still Rukia, and hadn't she proved only just a short time ago that she wanted to be something the same – desire and enjoy the same things?), and so she only smiled brightly – and when she slipped her hand into his, he actually smiled back. She thought it odd when she looked at him that it seemed that a scowl would be more at home on his face than a smile, when she had seen so very little of either of those expressions in these months when he had come to visit and simply looked so melancholy.

And though she forced bright cheery smiles with all of them – and sometimes, didn't even need to force those smiles – often she thought that it was only with this Ichigo (this man-boy-child who meant so much to her, they all told her in so many different words, in so many different stories) that she was able to recognize what she truly felt. She knew when the others were forcing their cheer on her behalf, and she felt obligated to share the facade, for niceties sake. But with Ichigo – with Ichigo, it was never fake, and it was always so painfully, beautifully, spectacularly real. She didn't need to pretend, and sometimes – just every once in a while – it was nice to sit quietly and mourn with him.

Today was different, though. The period of mourning was now over, and the veil had been pushed back. Today was the start of something new, and for that, she found it easy to continue to smile, and found it comforting when he did as well as they padded quietly through the Kuichiki-manor.

"It's so pretty," she said, the first time she saw the beautiful, elegant white katana. She almost expected its owner to step forward and usher her away when she reached to touch it, but Ichigo was oddly quiet and nothing stirred when she ran her finger along its cold, pristine surface.

She felt oddly disappointed – she didn't know she had been expecting something until the disenchantment fluttered inside her, and she frowned when nothing happened.

She noted the way it was hung on the wall, reverent in its placement, clearly cleaned and cared for – but not lovingly. Not the way it deserved. It was alone; it was abandoned. Its owner was gone, she realized, and so this beautiful white katana has been left to decay and tarnish from lack of love even in an abundance of cursory care.

Something ached inside her, and she thought she might cry. "It's so empty," she whispered. There's something achingly piteous about the abandoned katana, and she didn't know why that made her feel so utterly lost.

His hand tightened around hers, and when she turned to regard him she noted that his shoulders were tense. "It isn't empty," he replied, words soft but insistent – eyes caring but glinting with hidden steel. She had no idea why he sounded so doggedly insistent, but somehow, she knew better than to argue.

She turned her gaze back to the blade, and slowly, returned her finger to its edge; her caress strangely loving. "But you are, aren't you?" she whispered again, lower this time, the words not meant for him, and wondered if she might not be a little crazy, to talk to an abandoned and forgotten sword as if it were a person.

"… Shirayuki?"

She doesn't know where the name comes from, but it is somehow fitting, and Ichigo's grip was suddenly almost painful on her own, though he made no motion to pull her back. It's a good sign, she thinks, so she decided then and there that that will be what she calls this perfect, lonely, empty, forgotten sword.

She thinks she sees herself in it, and so, she conspired quietly with the white katana. "You will be mine, and I will be yours. Perhaps we will be less empty together, Shirayuki?"

She imagines a woman smiling, and thinks she feels a warm hand in her own. 'Together.' (At long last.)

She wants to say, 'I missed you, too,' and doesn't exactly know why.

The strange man they called 'Urahara' and the gentle-mannered woman named 'Unohana' had both been hesitant and reluctant to give their diagnoses. Her memories, they said, might come back over a manner of days, months, years, or decades. Or, they might never come back at all. There was something to despair, in a life not even knowing who you are (were, are going to be).

And yet, when she stroked the blade – when she slid it into its perfect, pristine sheath and found it fit snugly in her obi sash, it was as if it (she – can a sword have a sex?) had belonged there all along.

Perhaps they could be more than simply 'less empty'. Perhaps… perhaps they could become something more.

(For half a second, she felt a disorienting sense of remembrance – something sick and twisting inside her stomach, a deep pain, and a reverberating promise – but it was only for half a second, and with a quick shake of her head it was easily dismissed and forgotten.)

Suddenly, a lifetime of rediscovering who and what she was didn't seem like such a bad thing. Her life didn't feel as much like an ending as it did a beginning. She smiled when she twisted the blade in her hand. She fit there. They belonged.

"Ne, Shirayuki?" she asked, and wondered if it was odd, that she was certain she heard a reply.

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Now, we head towards the battlefield

Believe, and our blades will not break

Believe, and our hearts will not bend

Though the roads we take may be different, our iron hearts will beat as one

Swear, that even if the earth is torn asunder, we will live and return here once again!

-Renji to the rescue party, before storming Heuco Mundo

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The Beginning

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Fin

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Author's Notes: Thank you, thank you, thank you. It was wonderful while it lasted, ne?