Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach.


EPILOGUE

Several months later

Rukia stood proudly on the podium. Promotion day was exciting. There was heavy turnover today, so there was lots and lots of things to be happy about.

Ise Nanao was the biggest event of the day, proudly donning a blue haori (she didn't do capes) and taking her place on the podium next to General Yamamoto. She had been promoted to Head of the Kido Corps, effectively giving her the rank of Major General. Tanabi's former lieutenant had quibbled a bit, complaining that maybe he deserved the job, but it wasn't even a question who would get the position. After Nanao demonstrated her talents in a new branch of kido called bahido, it was clear to everyone that she was by far the most superb candidate. Besides, Tanabi's former lieutenant didn't have bankai like Nanao did now.

When exactly Nanao had achieved bankai, Rukia had no idea; nor did she know anything about what it did. All her friend would tell her was that Banzo Tanabi had helped her before he vanished from the face of the earth. Rukia suspected that Nanao had something to do with his disappearance the day she and Ichigo got married; but as far as Rukia was concerned, getting rid of that asshole made for an awesome wedding present.

Things between Nanao and Kyoraku had gotten tenuous for a while, but Rukia supposed it had to do with revelations about how Nanao had received her vice captain's badge. Nanao had done a lot of venting to Rukia, and she had learned all about how Kyoraku had promoted her out of combat "to keep her safe". The moment Rukia heard that, she knew Nanao must have been really pissed. Nothing affronted Nanao more than to suggest she wasn't worthy of something, but it was hard for Nanao to stay mad at Kyoraku for long; so things were better now.

Interestingly, Rukia noticed that she now insisted on calling Kyoraku Taicho 'Papa' outside of the office. This had confused Rukia a bit - previously, Nanao had always acknowledged his role in her life in more subtle ways than that - but her friend seemed to be more comfortable with it now. Nanao, who had a highly secretive personality in general, would only share her thoughts in a roundabout fashion, even though Rukia knew all about the one time Nanao and Kyoraku had shared an evening. When Rukia would press her, Nanao would just thank Rukia for setting a good example; citing the fact that Rukia called her brother 'Nii-sama' instead of 'Kuchiki Taicho' like everyone else did. Rukia didn't exactly buy that excuse, but she figured Nanao would explain it to her when she was ready.

Of course, as secretive as Nanao was, she would share obscure tidbits with Rukia. Although Nanao refused to tell her the details, supposedly Nanao got Kyoraku's niece to berate him silly for being so overprotective. It sounded bizarre, and Rukia thought it seemed more than a bit random, but Isane Fukutaicho had told her the best way to show Nanao you cared was not to ask questions. Rukia agreed that it was good advice, having independently reached the same conclusion herself a long time ago.

Eventually, though, some good came out of that mess. After that conversation with Kyoraku's niece (as weird as that sounded), he had decided to recommend her promotion to captain of the 5th division - but the Soutaicho declined after seeing Nanao's bankai. Supposedly, Nanao had been hiding a wealth of reiatsu that rivaled even Rukia's zotokai; rumors had it that even the Soutaicho was surprised by what she was capable of. So instead, Yamamoto had gone straight to Central 46 and recommended her promotion to lead the Kido Corps, citing that it would be valuable to have its leader be a former member of the Gotei 13 so that the two organizations would interoperate better.

Nanao was originally leery of the offer; worried that it was another desk-job promotion - especially since Nanao didn't have the greatest relationship with the Soutaicho to begin with. Immediately after Central 46 had agreed to Yamamoto's proposal, though, the Captain-Commander sent Nanao on an arrancar hunt with Byakuya, Ichihime, Rukia, Kiyone, Zaraki, and Yachiru to El Salvador. Reports said that there had been over fifty arrancar there, hiding in a desert enclave. Included amongst them was a former Espada, who was supposed to be captured alive. Espada or not, arrancar were still beyond the abilities of most shinigami; so General Yamamoto mobilized this expanded front-line unit to deliberately test the offensive capabilities of Kiyone, Nanao, and Ichihime; supported by the others who already had Espada-level experience.

The arrancar dispatch team had been surprised with what they found. First, the reports had underestimated the number of arrancar. They turned out to be much closer to seventy in number, although they had all been Numeros and Fraccion level. The more interesting discovery, though, was that their assignment turned out to be a rescue mission. The former espada that the reports had mentioned was none other than the childish Nel Tu, an Espada rebel that had been held captive by the others. Nel was so excited to see shinigami - especially Yachiru, whom she recognized - that she visibly cheered and begged them to take her far away from the other "meanies".

Nel ended up being taken back to 12th division lockup, where she readily submitted. Rukia went to visit every now and then, since Nel would always ask about how "Itsygo" was doing and remark about how living with shinigami "was the good life". Rukia always got a good laugh out of it. She had no idea what the Gotei 13 were going to do to Nel for the long term - after all, she was still a hollow - but for right now, she seemed to be happy.

Overall, the mission had been an overwhelming success. Kiyone was excited to use her bankai again (Rukia was able to appreciate it a lot more now that Masticora wasn't trying to eat her alive), Ichihime found that detonating arrancar was rather therapeutic, and Nanao picked off her opponents with kido like she was swatting flies. Even Nii-sama seemed impressed with the three of them - he didn't even have to fight at all.

It was Nanao's first combat mission in over fifty years, and she had a ton of fun kicking ass - and boy, did she kick a lot of it. The things Nanao could do with kido were insane - Rukia had never seen anything like it before. Nanao could chain Hado #92: Death Cannon like a machine gun - and Nanao could make mask them with a fused Bakudo #26: Bending Light, too! How the hell can someone do that!

Even Momo-chan would have been floored. Rukia's kido was good, and as flawless as her chaining was, kido fusion was still very difficult for her. She could infuse a Bakudo #4: Crawling Rope with a Hado #11: Bound Lightning, but it was a far cry from what Hinamori could do; combining multiple spells to produce exponentially powerful effects. Of course, Momo was widely known to have been the pioneer of the art, so it was understandable that she was better at it - but Nanao took it to a whole new level. Rukia saw Nanao fuse a Bakudo #73: Inverse Mountain Crystal with a Hado #71: Lava Blast and a Bakudo #86: Implosion to add the pressure. In effect, Nanao created an exploding volcano right underneath an entire unit of arrancar - with the snap of her fingers, she took out six arrancar at once. Rukia couldn't even think of combining spells like that, much less pull it off.

It was truly an amazing thing to witness. Rukia wondered why Nanao had been held out of combat for so long; she was an absolute monster on the battlefield. At some point, arrancar began running away from her, preferring to take their chances with Zaraki rather than tango with the self-nicknamed "Shinigami from Hell." Rukia didn't get why Nanao employed such an unusual title, but she didn't ask. She just assumed Nanao liked it because it made her seem fearsome.

Nanao came back so revved up from the trip to El Salvador that she accepted the Kido Corps position on condition that she would get to go on more missions from now on. The Soutaicho heartily endorsed Nanao's condition, and in appreciation, Nanao promised to coordinate the Kido Corps with the Gotei 13 more closely than they had before. Central 46 even seemed to be pleased, which everyone agreed was a first. Central 46 was never pleased about anything. Since then, Rukia had loads of fun teasing Nanao about how she had shot past her dream to become a captain, calling her 'Shosho-neechan' whenever she could. Nanao loved it.

Shuhei would tease Nanao that since she and Rukia were practically sisters, she shouldn't have been so surprised that Hisagi mistook her for a Kuchiki. (It was still a running gag between them.) They were a fun couple - he really seemed to like her, and even though Nanao did not easily build attachments to other people, he was patient. Shuhei proved to be a dedicated guy and a bit of a softie, because Nanao only had good things to say about him. Of couse, that meant Rukia heard a bit too much out of her girlfriend's mouth, but she was happy for her. Until recently, Nanao had an emotionally turbulent life; and it was good to see it finally working out. Hisagi was even throwing the post-ceremony party to celebrate.

In Rukia's mind, her pal Ise Nanao had managed to find everything she was looking for - the guy, the job, and peace with herself. Perhaps happy endings really do exist, Rukia thought. Of course, if she ever quoted that saccharine line to Nanao, it would likely make her vomit; if not zap Rukia's bottom with a low-grade Hado #4.

Former captain Shiba Kuukaku, who would be marrying Nii-sama in a month, was the person who ended up ascending to the 5th division captain's seat. Rukia couldn't believe it, but she actually saw Nii-sama smile when he was with her. Rukia had always thought Byakuya needed some companionship, but she didn't expect it to go anywhere serious when she set him up on a blind date with Shiba Kuukaku. And for them to get married? Rukia could barely believe it. Somehow, though, Kuukaku had cracked him open and gotten inside that hard shell of his. The servants couldn't believe it either, but they all liked Kuukaku very much; and not only because Nii-sama had given all of the manor's staff a generous raise when they got engaged.

Nanao was also surprised, although less than Rukia was. Nonetheless, she gladly offered to plan the wedding. Rukia could tell that Nii-sama had been relieved when he heard that, as he happily took her up on it. After that, Tori-san even casually suggested to Rukia that considering all Nanao did for the Kuchiki family, maybe it was time they adopted her into the family, too. Rukia didn't think Nii-sama nor Nanao would be too keen to that idea; but it was evident that Nanao was welcome in Kuchiki Manor whenever she wished.

It had taken time, but Rukia could tell that Nii-sama really, really loved Kuukaku. Whenever she would come for dinner (which was often now), Nii-sama and her would sit in the memorial shrine together afterwards, often holding hands. Byakuya had even let her place a wedding picture of Kaien and Miyako next to Hisana's picture. Sometimes, Rukia would see them chat there for hours. Other times, they would sit in companiable silence together. It didn't matter to Rukia, though. Nii-sama had let Kuukaku inside, and he was much more happy with himself than he had ever been before. Rukia wondered if this was what Nii-sama had been like when Hisana was still alive. It was obvious to Rukia how her late sister could have loved him so much if he had been like this; caring and attentive and personable.

Rukia would frequently find them sitting in the orchards, underneath a plum or peach tree. Byakuya would often pick a piece of fruit, and the two would share it amidst quiet conversation; occasionally interrupted by Kuukaku laughing loudly. Once, Rukia even heard Byakuya laugh, but she was pretty sure he wouldn't have wanted her to see that.

Byakuya talked to Rukia a lot more now. A lot more - he had really opened up a lot now that he was so much happier. He spent time with her, reviewing the Kuchiki family heritage and sharing many of the House secrets with her. Rukia had previously learnt much about the family heritage from Tori; but it had been wonderful to hear her brother's take on things.

He even sparred with her every now and then, teaching her techniques that Jii-sama had taught him. Nii-sama even helped Rukia refine her flash-step technique. Even though Rukia's shunpo was fairly good for a vice captain, she had never had an actual shunpo mentor before. Receiving training from Nii-sama was a deeply rewarding experience, not just because of what he could teach her, but because it gave them a means for them to continue healing together from the conflict-laden origin of their familial relationship.

Rukia's favorite moments, though, were when Nii-sama would quietly request her to bring back more of Yuzu's cookies from her weekend visits. In exchange, Byakuya was secretly preparing a hand-written, leather-bound book of the Kurosaki Family Recipes, complete in masterful caligraphy and spectacular artwork. He even wrote an extended dedication himself, explicitly crediting Yuzu for her incredible talents. Rukia knew Yuzu was going to love it, especially since she never would have expected it. The enthusiastic chef was always happy to bake Byakuya cookies; she hoped it would convince him to come and visit.

Ichigo was never allowed to know about his little arrangement, though. If he ever found out, Nii-sama would never hear the end of it. Kuukaku already teased Byakuya enough about it, but Byakuya couldn't keep anything a secret from her, so he endured her playful commentary.

Tori-san had informed Rukia that Senbonzakura and Firefly made for a really funny pair. The servants would hang both sheathed swords on a sword rack in the foyer when Kuukaku would come for dinner, so that they could sit down in peace. When it was time for Kuukaku to leave, though, the manor staff often found the two empty scabbards on the rack with the unbladed hilts on the floor; Senbonzakura's tiny little cherry-blossom-blades flying around the room like a cyclone on fire. One of the waitress servants, Satara, always panicked about this; worried that Byakuya-sama would be upset (or that Firefly would burn down the mansion); but would always saw the same reaction: Kuukaku would laugh, Byakuya would sigh, and the swords would revert back to their sealed state, seemingly embarassed at being caught.

Rukia found the whole thing beyond funny. She understood it perfectly from her own personal experience. Whenever Ichigo came to sleep in Soul Society (which was uncommon), Zangetsu and Sode no Shirayuki's ribbons were often found tied in a knot, covered in frost. This happened even though Rukia always left her katana in its sealed state while sheathed, so she could relate to Satara's confusion over finding their swords spontaneously released.

She was thrilled for the two of them. Nii-sama and Kuukaku-dono seemed so happy. Rukia had joked about it with Ichihime: the wedding would have the two of them (and Ganju!) officiating as Heads of House. Weird. Who would be the bridesmaids and groomsmen? they both wondered.

Rukia would have felt bad for Momo, who lost an opportunity to earn the haori she had really deserved to wear during her long stint as acting captain. But Hinamori herself seemed too relieved for Rukia to be upset. She finally wouldn't have to do everything herself, and it gave her more free time to spend with Kira Fukutaicho. Rukia could totally relate.

Urahara Kisuke was restored to 12th division captain, although no lieutenant was named. Yoruichi seemed to be indifferent to returning to Soul Society, and chose to continue staying in retirement - although she still departed for the real world every now and then whenever Urahara or Soifon drove her crazy. Which, according to Ichigo, seemed to be pretty often. On more than one occasion, Ishida griped to him about his evening plans being spoiled when Yoruichi would crash at Orihime's place. Rukia wasn't sure how Yoruichi dealt with the food, but then again, perhaps it was easier to suffer through it if you were a cat.

Banzo Ichihime finally got her 6th division vice captain badge, although having been acting lieutenant for so long, it was more of a formality. Rukia laughed as Renji whistled a catcall when Sasakibe tied it on. Unlike most lieutenants, Ichihime wanted her badge to be tied across her back, as though she symbolically wanted it to cover where she would have worn the Banzo family crest. Since the disappearance of her father and her ascent to the role of Head of House, though, Ichihime had toned down a little bit. She was making lots of changes to the House of Banzo, and Rukia was glad to see that she could repair the damage her father did and craft her own destiny.

Rukia was thrilled to see her friends and family receive their due honor on promotion day, but as much as Nanao's promotion excited her to no end, the last two promotions among the elite echelon were the ones that Rukia waited for the most.

The 13th division cheered louder than anyone could have imagined as Kotetsu Kiyone took Ise Nanao's old post as 8th division vice captain, and Rukia could see a warm smile on her captain's face. Since Kiyone was living with Ukitake back at the Ugendo estate anyway, remaining in the 13th wasn't as important to Kiyone as it used to be. Kotsubaki was happy, too; he finally had a chance to step out from under her shadow and serve as the sole 3rd Seat for a change.

Komamura-sensei and Unohana Taicho had informed Rukia that Ukitake was going to propose sometime soon. Rukia had deduced as much but was happy to hear it from the cute couple. Unless Rukia's eyes were deceiving her, Unohana was pregnant - boy, that was fast - but when Rukia mentioned as much to her captain, Ukitake had shrugged it off. Unohana was old enough that bearing children was somewhat of a more expedient concern for her; and from what Nanao told her, Unohana Retsu was a very open-minded woman. Rukia was certainly glad for that; it was nice to see Komamura-sensei with a companion. She was absolutely sure he would make a wonderful father, although like everyone else, she was intensely curious as to what exactly the baby would look like. Unless Rukia was completely misreading the situation, it seemed that even the Soutaicho was curious; which was surprising since he was not known to have any interest in children.

Rukia was proud of Kiyone. She had come a long way from the insecure, raving kid she once was. She was still impulsive and melodramatic, but she had matured quite a lot. The fact that her Kotetsu genes had finally kicked in probably helped - she had shot up an astounding three inches since the wedding.

At 5'3", she was still a far cry from her sister's height, but Kiyone was now at least a full head taller than Rukia. Her height was not the only recent change to her physique: Kiyone still wore gloves all the time - safeguards against the stinging bite of her shikai - but had abandoned the high-collared shirt. She was infinitely more tasteful than Matsumoto, but it was very clear that Kiyone no longer had reason to be envious of Isane's figure. Rukia had even caught Ukitake-sama staring a couple of times - she thought they made a highly unusual couple, but Rukia was glad that they had finally figured it out. It was about bloody time.

Rukia was not surprised that Kyoraku Shunsui was willing to take Kiyone on as a vice captain. Ukitake Taicho probably convinced him. Kyoraku had been a bit crestfallen since his kawaii Nanao-chan had decided he was no longer date material, but not too many people were sympathetic. He had no shortage of other women banging down his door. In fact, Ukitake probably argued that it was good for Kyoraku to work with someone who he knew he couldn't sleep with; although Rukia dared not repeat this theory, even to her husband.

"Here she comes," Ichigo said, standing next to her.

"Candidate for Lieutenant Representative, Kurosaki Karin!" the announcer had called out.

General Yamamoto had finally decided to create an official division under Kurosaki Ichigo. It wasn't numbered, but it encompassed all spiritually-aware humans that fought alongside the Gotei 13. Ichigo was officially given the status of Captain, seeing as how he was long overdue for the title anyway. They even gave him a haori, although his was black instead of white for some reason. At first, Ichigo didn't like the idea; but after Rukia explained to him that it gave him an excuse to come into Soul Society every now and then, he acquiesced. It would mean he could spend more time with his wife.

Typical male, Rukia smirked. Wave the prospect of more sex in front of their face, and you can get them to do anything.

After returning home from the wedding, Karin insisted that she wanted to become a shinigami. Rukia was eventually able to convince Ichigo that if he didn't allow it, she was going to find a way to do it on her own; so Ichigo relented. Ichigo was surprised that when he first whacked her with his badge, she popped out with a red ribbon right away. Even more interesting, Karin was the first shinigami since Captains Ukitake and Kyoraku to have a daisho sword pair for a zanpakutou, although it was more like a short kodachi/tachi pair than full swords.

Seeing as how she was the only other shinigami officially in Division Black (the title chosen for lack of a better name), Karin was automatically given the rank of lieutenant. That being said, she had an impressive history of killing hollows without so much as even a sword. Kurosaki Karin wasn't exactly a pansy. As much as she still needed an extensive amount of training - she hadn't achieved shikai for either of her blades yet; a requirement for lieutenancy in the standard 13 divisions - giving her the rank of vice captain wasn't so far-fetched. She had figured out shunpo entirely on her own, and she was reasonably fast for someone who had just picked up the skill. The fact that she hadn't yet hit her thirteenth birthday left most people realizing that it wouldn't be long before Karin was just as scary in battle as her older brother.

"Kurosaki Karin," General Yamamoto announced, "you have been examined by your captain, and he has found that you meet all the requirements of a vice captain's position. Do you feel his assessment is fair and just?"

"Hai," Karin responded, loud and clear.

"Do you swear to honor the Gotei 13, protect the the World of the Living, and all souls?"

"Hai," she confirmed again.

"Do you swear to purify the hollow so that the balance of all living things in this world and on earth may be maintained for all eternity?"

"Hai!"

"And do you promise to serve your captain and your squad with honor, dignity, and righteousness?"

"Hai, I swear by the honor of my name and the honor of my sword, I shall!"

Rukia remembered making that oath. It was what she chose to write on the inside of Ichihime's badge, too; knowing that Ichihime had to learn to feel comfortable with both kinds of honor. Now, though, that oath weighed heavily on Rukia's mind as she contemplated that Karin was committing to a life filled with trouble. She couldn't help but feel responsible - she had brought Karin into this life the moment she had taken Ichigo into the world of the shinigami. On the other hand, Rukia didn't think life would have turned out as wonderful as it had if not for that fateful day. Which, in truth, was only a consequence of even earlier events. Fate was funny that way - you never knew when something really ended or began. It was all just a series of interwoven threads that ultimately combined to create the fabric known as Destiny.

Not surprisingly, no one presented a challenge; so Yamamoto concluded. "Arise, Lieutenant Representative Kurosaki Karin, and don your badge, so that all shall know your strength."

Rukia and Ichigo cheered as Sasakibe tied a Substitute Shinigami badge to her uniform's sash, similar to the one that Ichigo had. Before Karin took her place next to Ichigo, though, she startled Hitsugaya by grabbing his collar and planting a big, dramatic kiss on his mouth. Toshiro blushed, and his fukutaicho snickered endlessly. Only then did Karin stand next to her brother and sister.

"That took guts," Ichigo teased.

"Meh, I learned it from my brother. If he can propose in front of the Soutaicho, I can get away with a kiss."

Rukia rolled her eyes. That crazy Kurosaki family, she laughed to herself. "So that's what you call 'sword practice', huh?"

Karin stuck her tongue out at her older sister.

After the upper echelons, the seated officer promotions were next. Rukia found it amusing that for the second time, she waited for Yamada Hanataro to be promoted. This time, it was from the sixth seat to the fifth seat; finally making it into the ranks of division leadership. For him, it was a major promotion. Although this time around, Rukia actually knew why he deserved it: Hanataro had become a completely different shinigami since he had started dating Isane, and was considered a rising star in the fourth division.

Of course, this didn't surprise her. Hanataro had finally become comfortable with himself, and Rukia likely attributed it to his unwavering devotion to Isane. All he wanted to do was make her smile, so he worked extra hard so that she could be proud of him. Isane was nuts about Hanataro. She said that he made her feel like the most important person in the world.

Rukia knew this because Isane talked about it with her one day when she came to the Kuchiki estate one evening to get a book. Nanao had informed Isane that she had lent 'Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask' to Rukia a while back. Rukia had to do everything she could to suppress a shocked what-did-you-just-ask-me-for-! expression. The thought of Hanataro sleeping with anyone seemed absurd, but Rukia didn't want to embarass Isane. Instead, she thought of Nii-sama and Komamura-sensei and realized that there must be somebody for everyone. Given this thought, Rukia was more than happy to give over the book to the bashful lieutenant.

After all, Rukia certainly didn't need it anymore.

-:-

THE END.

-:-

Kotsubaki's phone beeped as he got a text message. He groaned, knowing what it was before he even flipped open his phone to confirm it. How in the world he ended up in this mess, he had no idea. Fate was such a bitch. Sentaro quickly called his pal, 9th seat Mushishi Kunda.

"Another booty call from the 2nd division captain? What's that, the third time this week?" came the other end with a snicker.

Kotsubaki swore. Ignoring Soifon Taicho's request was a fate much worse than waking up clueless, hanging upside-down from a lamp post with half of his head shaven off. "Come find me in the morning. And bring me a change of clothes this time, okay?"

-:-

THE END. FOR REAL.


Thanks for all the love, folks! Please leave reviews for posterity. It's been fun, but all good things must come to an end. All of that being said:

Didn't get enough? Wondering how you're going to live without more? WELL, THERE WILL BE MORE!

Due to popular request, I am in the process of storyboarding a follow-on tale - possibly even a trilogy, set several years after the Kuchiki Salvation Trilogy. So leave those reviews as encouragement! Especially all you lurkers who have been reading without providing reviews! ;)
A teaser follows below - THANKS FOR READING! IT'S BEEN A BLAST! -njx


Excalibur. Masamune. Durendal. Even the Lightsaber.

Legendary swords and weapons whose might and power were so influential throughout the annals of history that their names became famous even amongst the human race. They are the blades that won wars, defeated evil, restored sovereignty to kingdoms, and entertained millions.

But that's because they weren't just swords.

Zanpakutou were supposed to be gifts from Fate to the Shinigami. They exist so that lost souls could be sent to the afterlife. They were not intended to ever fall into the hands of mankind - because the moment humans even saw one, Fate was irrevocably changed.

Yet, perhaps the powers of Excalibur or Durendal in the hands of mankind were not disastrous. As far as zanpakutou were concerned, they were honestly humble weapons by comparison. Certainly, they were capable of abilities well beyond that of a mortal's hand-crafted, lifeless sword; but not weapons so dangerous that they could alter the fabric of humanity.

What would happen, though, if a sword like Aizen's Kyouka Suigetsu fell into the hands of man? Would mankind ever be able to survive its influence?

Or would all of the world be torn to shreds?


Stay tuned - you'll never see a battle bigger than this! The nonstop, heart-pounding action will keep you on the edge of your seat in the next tale: THE BLADES OF EPSILON!

COMING SOON! (probably not soon enough for you, but hey - great tales aren't written overnight, right? ;D) -njx