Rukia's Epilogue: 200 Cherry Blossom Lane, Seireitei

The old man was sitting in the beach deck, enjoying the seascape. He heard the noise of a slow bustle inside the house, and figured that the new mistress of the house had finally arrived.

"Grandfather Kuchiki," she said. "It's been a long time."

Ginrei Kuchiki greeted Rukia with an avuncular embrace. "I am glad you decided to stay."

"I did not want to come back here so soon," Rukia answered with all honesty, "But Nii-sama insisted. The Karakura press was getting intolerable, especially after Hisana's assets were turned over to me."

Ginrei nodded, his eyes partly closed.

Rukia misunderstood the old man. "Nii-sama didn't force me to come back," she clarified, "And I can leave whenever I want to. I just thought… it would be Hisana's wish, for me to remain near."

Ginrei leaned a gnarled hand over her young one. He was touched by her stumbling explanations. It was time to change the topic to something more hopeful. "Did you give your thanks to the young inspector?"

A passing shadow behind the palms paused, and waited for the reply.

Rukia's eyes went blank. Surely Grandfather Kuchiki was joking. "I think Ichigo knows that I'm thankful," she replied vaguely. "He must be busy fighting crime, and all that."

"No, he isn't," Ginrei shook his head. "Ikkaku told me that Inspector Kurosaki was put on administrative leave. Apparently he didn't follow protocol while working on your case."

"Oh." Rukia was dumbfounded. He hadn't thought of mentioning that important detail when he accompanied her to Hisana's grave. Suddenly she felt guilty all over again. She wanted to shake off this self-doubt.

"Do you think I can invite him over, Grandfather?" Rukia's voice was uncertain. She knew there was a boat somewhere with her name on it, but it was a hazy idea in her mind, just like all the money suddenly in her bank account.

"No, Rukia," the older Kuchiki replied, stroking his chin sagely. "Not if you wish to treat each other as equals. A man like that must be met on his own turf."

A slight flush colored Rukia's cheeks. She shook her head. She wasn't ready for the possibility of this yet. There was too many painful associations to recover from first. Didn't she just promise herself she would not set foot on mainland Karakura until she felt healed and everyone had forgotten about her?

Perhaps in another lifetime, she would barge in and take charge of Ichigo Kurosaki's life just to irritate the hell out of him. Then maybe if he was worth it she would never leave his side.

It wasn't fair – because of those tapes, and that scene at the graveyard, Inspector Kurosaki knew her much better than she knew him. She'd need to rectify that, somehow. All she had of him was a worn-out handkerchief and the knowledge that he'd saved her life.

But I am a Kuchiki now, Rukia reminded herself. I cannot abandon this new life that Hisana wanted for me. At least… she amended, not yet.

Standing behind the palms, Byakuya seemed satisfied by this conversation. He moved on without announcing himself.

Seeing that she was getting lost in her own thoughts, Ginrei drifted away and left her to enjoy the serene solitude of the dusk.

Rukia sat down. Propping up her feet, she watched in silence. The moon began to rise and the ocean's waves licked the shoreline. And for the first time since her sister died, she began to feel at peace with the world.

Her fate -- whether she liked it or not -- was now entwined with Ichigo's. She had been in desperate need, and he had answered that call. As much as she hated the idea of being rescuee, something in his demeanor said that he felt the burden of always being the rescuer, too. Rukia would have to return the favor one day, perhaps to even out the score.

His real kindness was not in taking an interest in her case, but in his taking an interest in her welfare after all mystery had ended.

Yes. She would definitely see Ichigo Kurosaki again.

-- finis --

Many thanks for reading. I also thank you for your patience in waiting for me to finish this.

Thanks to Adam for spotting most of my typos. If you find any more, any corrections will receive e-strawberries dipped in chocolate.