Epilogue

It was well past midnight in the Soul Society, with the night falling across everything and blanketing the white buildings of the Seireitei in a temporary darkness.

Only temporary..

In here, however, the night was eternal.

Kagi sat on the ground in her inner world, beneath a Sakura tree who had long since died, its empty, lifeless limbs stretching up into the night sky and clawing at the pale full moon that never waned. Outside, her "master" lay curled up beside that cursed green-haired ditz, the silly arrancar known as Neliel, and Kagi drew her upper lip back in disgust at the thought. The disgust only deepened when she sensed Anrak slip an arm around Neliel's waist and pull her close, embracing her.

On some level, she knew and accepted that the humanoid hollow was actually good for Anrak: she cared about him, comforted him, supported him, even loved him. Still, that didn't take away the sting Kagi felt at having her master choose Neliel over her.

The dual sword rack mounted above Anrak's bed held both Kage Shitsukoi and Neliel's own Gamuza and Kagi wondered what the other zanpaktou would think about the situation were it capable of the same kind of sentience a shinigami's weapon had. Would it be as disturbed? Would it be happy for its master? How would it deal with this unwelcome change?

She supposed that it wasn't all bad, though; since Neliel had moved in with her captain, the inner world had begun to warm up once more.

Long ago, before ever coming to the Soul Society, Kagi had been a different entity, Reddo-en Hime, the Red-Flame Princess, and the inner world had been a very different place, too; it had been a warm place, vibrant and full of color and life, very similar to the small patch of Sakura trees in the forest Anrak loved to visit so much. The inner world had been an endless summer day, beautiful and full of potential.

And then, Death had come…

The dark influence of the dying hollow had changed Reddo-en Hime into Kage Shitsukoi, Unrelenting Shadow, and it had drastically altered the conditions of the inner world as well. Sakura blossoms withered and died quickly, shriveling up and disintegrating into a fine dust. The cheery blue sky had become black and purple and the brilliant golden sun had become a forever-full moon with a pale blue glow.

What had once been an endless summer day had instead become an eternal autumn night.

As the Red-Flame Princess, she would have been appalled by the darkness and lifelessness around her; as Kagi, she embraced the darkness and adored the shadows, reveling in the gloomy misery of it all. The only thing she hated about her little world was the temperature, as it had become much chillier since crossing over.

But somehow, with Nel present in her master's "life," things had begun to warm once more…

The eternal autumn night had finally become a never-ending summer's night.

She wondered briefly about the "why" of it all, why everything had turned out the way it had, before deciding it would be best to follow a piece of advice Captain Kyōraku had given her master once; never question good fortune. After all, she had grown very fond of her dark little world.

And as much as it pained her to admit it, yes, Neliel did have some redeeming qualities that had enriched both her and Anrak's lives.

Of course, if the wench ever made a mistake or if Kagi could find a way to manifest herself in the material world whenever she pleased, then Neliel would be history…

A smile that wasn't exactly evil but wasn't really anything else spread itself across her face slowly at the thought of dispatching her unwanted rival.

"One day…" she muttered to herself.

Reaching into the shadows around her, she pulled out the hated mask that was both another painful reminder of her own hollow side and the source of her greatest power. She held the white, bone-like monstrosity up to her face, wearing it for just a moment, exhaling a long breath that came out as a distorted animal hiss, a promise of death to any who would hear it. Amber-colored eyes gazed up at the sky, a sky that had become far blacker because of the mask's presence, with the moon hidden behind extensive cloud cover.

With a sigh, she pulled the cursed object away, her bright sapphire-blue eyes looking down at the mask in her slender hands. The clouds above parted and allowed the moon to spread its soft light across the landscape once more as the mask itself began to disperse itself back into shadows, fading away into the night.

At least Anrak knew about her secret now, knew that truth at least. In fact, their relationship as shinigami and zanpaktou had never been better: there was less arguing, no distrust, no hatred…

She frowned as she realized that Neliel was responsible for helping to improve that, too.

Grunting more from irritation than effort, Kagi rose to her feet and walked out into the small clearing to bathe in the moonlight, trying to shove the idea of that silly arrancar out of her mind for at least a little while.

A lot had changed for Kagi and Anrak over the past century, especially the past few months, and she couldn't help but smile as she looked back upon it all.

They had arrived, and no longer were they considered weak and worthless; instead, they were hailed as being among the strongest shinigami the Seireitei had to offer.

The crowning achievement in Kagi's eyes had been Zaraki's eagerness to duel them, and then his request for a rematch despite having won the first time around. It was praise unlike any other and only those who truly understood how Zaraki's deranged mind functioned could ever fully appreciate it.

Zaraki had always looked down at Anrak as being nothing while they were in Squad 11 and now the captain treated him like an equal; hell, according to Shunsui, Zaraki had in fact been the strongest and most vocal supporter for Anrak's own promotion to Captain. For Kagi, the approval of the infamous Captain Kenpachi Zaraki was the greatest victory they could have ever hoped for.

So very much had changed and all of it was for the better…even Anrak's relationship with Nel, she admitted to herself reluctantly.

Overhead and unseen to Kagi, the single remaining bud on the sakura tree, dormant for nearly two hundred years, finally blossomed against the moonlight.

End

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Author's Note: And so we have finally reached the end of this tale. Not sure if this was what anyone expected or not, but it is at least the scene I always intended. Hope it's been an enjoyable read for everyone, and this is my last chance to plead for reviews from my other readers who have thus far been silent. I know it's taken me a lot longer to push this out than it should, but there's a part of me that doesn't want it to end.

But the Winter War is over, and so this tale must come to a close. And wow, looking at the recent manga updates, the war turned out considerably different than I would have expected...but then, I always knew this would end up as an AU before it was all said and done.

Mercy, from the Star Wars Artists Guild, has graciously done a picture of Anrak and Kagi for me! The link is in my profile, since FanFiction apparently doesn't like it when I try to insert it here. While I will certainly make sure that any comments on it left here find their way to her, please leave a comment on her page to let her know how incredible she is if you have a DA account. Thanks, Mercy; I cannot express my appreciation of your time and work nearly enough!

Many thanks to all those who have left reviews, as well as those who have simply been following the story silently. This may be the end of this story, but I do have other tales for Anrak and Neliel and will likely visit them again in the future (maybe a short spinoff for Takk and Satsu...I love those two idiots).

Also check out Espada's Masquerade if you enjoyed this story; it's set in the same AU and while it follows a different cast of characters, it does serve as a sequel in many respects and offers a few looks in on Nel and Anrak.

Special thanks to Animelover1993 and Stormcrowley, my two most consistant reviewers; you don't know how much I have appreciated your comments and support.

Also many thanks to my friend Ryumaju, who beta-read most of my chapters for me. He's still working on his own story entitled The Road to War, which details the adventures of Enjeru and Kisutera, so please look him up and give it a read.

I've learned a lot over the course of this story and looking back I can see a lot of mistakes I made, things I would have done differently... But hey, maybe next time. Thanks to all for sticking around this long, and I hope everyone will return for my future offerings.

Update: I'm constantly re-reading my works and finding things to improve, clarify, remove, or add, and while this story has been marked as complete for a long while now, that does not mean I have abandoned it; several chapters have had edits done, though nothing that substantially alters the fabric of the story. Kagi's release command is finally mentioned, but if you blink you're likely to miss it!