A/N: I'd like to thank you all for your continued supports for Love Takes Time whether by means of reviewing, subscribing or adding to favorite or community lists. I planned to post this chapter sooner, but then I couldn't find the time to sit and actually type the story down due to personal and business trips I had in the past month. With that said, now it is time to bring this little series to its conclusion. Hopefully, you will find this last installment a satisfactory ending; but in any case, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments.

17: Forever and a Day (Epilogue)

Ichigo wiped his face with the back of his hand after he was done staining the last part of a wooden porch of a small traditional house which was located in an outskirt of Seireitei.

The house originally belonged to the Shiba Family; and before it was transferred to Ichigo, it was the only property that the family possessed in Seireitei, since the Shiba Family's main household always located in Rukongai. According to Kūkaku, the house was built to accommodate its members in case they needed to temporarily stay in Seireitei for some kind of business; however, it had not been used for that purpose since the Shiba Family had relinquished their noble titles and more or less cut their ties with Seireitei for decades.

When Ichigo first mentioned his intention to buy the house from the Shiba Family, Kūkaku wasn't sure why Ichigo would want it, seeing that the house was very run-down. In fact, considering the house's condition, it might be easier for Ichigo to demolish it and build a new one on the land. However, since the Shiba Family no longer had any use for the house and Ichigo was more or less a relative, Kūkaku sold the place and the land it was built on to Ichigo at a bargaining price.

After he had started renovating the house, Ichigo realized it would take a lot of time and effort to render the place livable. Ichigo believed the only reason he kept on renovating the house instead of tearing it down and building a new one in its place was because everyone said that it would be impossible to fix the house to its original state and that Ichigo was crazy to even consider that as an option. He supposed he was stubborn like that.

It had been hard work, and after all efforts he had put into the task, the house was still far from being beautiful. There was still a lot more work left to be done, like staining the front steps and furnishing the house; however, Ichigo was still proud of his handiwork so far.

Soft footsteps could be heard walking through long, dense vegetation that covered the front yard of Ichigo's house, reminding Ichigo that he would have to mow the vegetation away and then redesign the front yard at some point. Ichigo then looked to the direction of his visitor before he smiled when he saw that his visitor was none other than Byakuya.

Byakuya returned Ichigo's smile.

"I thought you might need some lunch," the noble remarked, raising what Ichigo perceived to be lunch boxes, wrapped and carried in furoshiki wrapping cloth, up for Ichigo to see.

"Hi, Byakuya. It's lunchtime already?" Ichigo asked before he looked up to the sky and realized that the sun was almost above his head, indicating that it was already close to midday. "I've just stained the whole porch, though, so we can't sit on it until it dries. We'll have to sit on the front steps instead."

"That's fine with me," Byakuya replied as he headed toward the front steps that Ichigo mentioned and then seated himself there.

Meanwhile, Ichigo quickly made his way to a bucket of water to wash his hand. He then untied a tasuki sash to let down the kimono sleeves that were tied up so that they wouldn't get in the way while he was staining the porch. After that, Ichigo walked to join Byakuya at the front steps.

Although there was more than enough space on the steps for the two of them to sit with some space from one another if they so wished, Ichigo still opted to sit down right beside Byakuya, barely leaving any room between them. And even though Ichigo was sitting so close to him that every slight move would make their shoulders brush against one another's, Byakuya didn't voice any complaint.

"So how did the clan council meeting go?" Ichigo asked as Byakuya gingerly unwrapped the cloth to reveal two lunch boxes. Although it would probably be more romantic to think that Byakuya had specially prepared lunch for the two of them, Ichigo knew the food was most definitely prepared by the head chef of the Kuchiki Household, since Ichigo knew for a fact that Byakuya wouldn't be able to cook even if his life depended on it.

Handing one lunch box to Ichigo, Byakuya replied, "It went much smoother than I anticipated, considering the main agenda."

"Oh? What's the agenda anyway?" Ichigo asked, somewhat curious. He carefully placed the lunch box on his lap before he removed the lid to see what kind of food had been prepared for him.

"To elect the twenty-ninth head of the clan."

Ichigo's hand froze just as he was about to put the lid of the lunch box away on the empty space to his right. He quickly turned his head to his left so that he could get a better look at Byakuya's expression, since the man sounded so nonchalant about the news as if it was just an everyday occurrence when in fact, it was the future of the Kuchiki Household.

"I beg a pardon?"

"The council agreed that we should name a person who would succeed me as the head of the family," Byakuya explained. "After a heated discussion, they went on and elected Kuchiki Itsuki, my second cousin twice removed, to be named as the heir. From now on, he would be trained to succeed my position."

Ichigo blinked once at that.

"Does that mean that your elders have finally come to terms with our relationship?"

Ichigo felt the need to ask because it had been clear to him ever since the day Byakuya introduced Ichigo to the clan council as his chosen life partner that Byakuya's elders did not approve of their relationship.

Even though the elders tried to hide that fact, Ichigo could still see the disapproval in the elders' eyes. Therefore, Ichigo was surprised that the elders didn't try to forbid Byakuya from continuing his relationship with Ichigo right out. Instead, they said nothing to oppose it at that time.

According to Byakuya, the elders didn't know what he and Ichigo had, nor did they know how long it had taken them to build their relationship. Therefore, the elders possibly thought that once the passion died down, both Byakuya and Ichigo would see that they had nothing in common and then come to their senses and break up without the council having to play the bad guys, so they decided to just humor Byakuya and Ichigo for the time being while patiently waiting for the relationship to crash and burn.

However, a year had passed since that day, yet the relationship between Ichigo and Byakuya was still going strong, if not even stronger than before. Therefore, Ichigo had to wonder if the elders had finally accepted their relationship and decided to name someone from the branch family as the heir because Ichigo and Byakuya wouldn't be able to produce them an heir even if they wanted to, or the elders were simply too tired of waiting for Byakuya and Ichigo to break up so they thought naming a new heir might have been able to make Byakuya reconsidered his own position.

"To be completely honest, I don't know," Byakuya replied frankly. "Though I suppose they've started to get used to the idea of us being together because when I declined their lunch invitation and told them I already had a plan with you, they didn't have that certain look they usually had on their faces whenever I mentioned your name in their presence."

"Well, at least they're now being neutral instead of disapproving," Ichigo said with a shrug, "and that's far more than I've ever hoped for."

Byakuya looked at Ichigo for a long moment before he noted, "I'm sorry you have to go through this."

"It's okay, Byakuya. I've known from the beginning that not everyone is going to be supportive. Hell, even Rukia had acted weird for weeks when she knew we were actually dating, and she had already known I had feelings for you since I was seventeen."

Byakuya chuckled at Ichigo's example.

"Rukia only acted weird because she wasn't sure how to treat you correctly. She said that deep down she knew she was supposed to treat my significant other with the same kind of respect she always showed me, but she couldn't quite do that when my partner happened to be you so she was conflicted because she always had an uncontrollable urge to kick you in the face just because."

Ichigo laughed at that.

"I know. Rukia told me that too," Ichigo remarked just before his expression turned back to its more serious look. "But anyway, my point is that I've known from the start that I can't expect everyone to simply smile and say congratulations. I knew the road ahead of us wouldn't be easy, but I still chose this path anyway and so far I have no regrets except for the fact that you have to be caught in the middle between me and your family."

"You are worth going through all the troubles for," Byakuya replied. "I just hope I could have done more for you."

Ichigo felt himself blushing slightly at Byakuya's words. Byakuya rarely uttered anything sentimental, so whenever he did, Ichigo knew the man actually meant what he said. He smiled before he shifted his position slightly and then leaned his head against Byakuya's shoulder. Ichigo then tilted his head slightly so that he could look into Byakuya's eyes.

"I have you, Byakuya, and that's more than enough for me."

Ichigo then offered Byakuya yet another tender smile, which Byakuya returned in kind before he leaned down and brushed a gentle kiss against Ichigo's temple.

"You know I really love you, Ichigo."

"I know," Ichigo replied, "and I love you, too."

They would have just sat there in that position for a lot longer had Ichigo's stomach not growled and reminded them that they had yet to have the lunch that Byakuya had brought for the two of them.

Byakuya laughed lightly at that while Ichigo just covered his embarrassment by giving Byakuya the trademark scowl that he had not worn in front of the older Shinigami in a long time.

"What? I've been working on the stain all morning, so I'm hungry."

"I didn't say anything," Byakuya replied although he was still smiling. "Anyway, since you're hungry, let's just eat, Ichigo. After we're done eating, we can work on this house a little more. I'll even help your mow your front yard."

Since Ichigo couldn't keep up his scowl for so long in front of Byakuya, he ended up laughing as well. Then they opened their respective lunch box and began to eat while continuing to exchange words, smiles and laughter.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Ichigo's inner world, the Hollow lay on his back with his hands crossed behind his head, looking up to the deep blue sky, enjoying the fact that the world had been pleasantly calm of late.

When he first learned that his King's feeling for one Kuchiki Byakuya had finally been reciprocated, the Hollow had half expected the inner world to be turned into something completely corny and cheesy like a world with rose-colored sky, fluffy clouds, glittering rainbows with unicorns and butterflies. However, the world had never taken that turn. In fact, not much had changed aside from the fact that there had not been any dark clouds in the sky in the longest time and that the ground that was usually paved with cold, hard stone was replaced by a field of pink roses.

Reaching his hand out to pick one rose from the bush that was closest to where he lay, the Hollow then put the rose close to his nose and then breathed in its gentle, sweet scent.

"You seem to enjoy this new setting."

The comment came from right over his head, so the Hollow tilted his head just enough to see his lifelong companion, the old man Zangetsu and then smirked at the old man.

"It no longer rains on me without prior warning, so yeah," the Hollow replied. "I still don't get why pink roses, though. I mean, I'd get it if these flowers were sakura."

Zangetsu tilted his head slightly and then looked at the field of pink roses that extended all the way towards the horizon.

"I suppose it's because pink roses symbolize happiness?"

"Happiness, huh?" the Hollow repeated, looking carefully at the stem of rose in his hand. Then he shrugged. "Well, then, in that case, it kinda makes sense. I guess the King has chosen the right Queen, after all."

Zangetsu chuckled at that.

"Perhaps, but I don't think he would appreciate being referred to as such."

"You mean the Queen?" the Hollow asked. "I don't think he'd mind too much. I mean, it's not like it'd be the first time he hears me refer to him as joō."

Zangetsu shook his head.

"You know, after everything that has been said and done between Ichigo and Kuchiki Byakuya, I'm truly amazed they still manage to come to this point in their relationship."

The Hollow didn't say anything in response to Zangetsu's remark as he turned his attention back to the rose stem in his hand. The air between them was filled with silence for a long moment until the Hollow broke it by asking:

"Hey, old man, how long do you think this is gonna last?"

Zangetsu raised an eyebrow as he tried to figure out what the Hollow meant to ask.

"The rose?" Zangetsu wondered. "Probably just a few days. You've already picked it off the ground, after all."

The Hollow rolled his eyes.

"I'm not that stupid, old man. I know the rose won't stay fresh forever after it was picked. I was talking about the King and the Queen. How long do you think they're gonna be together?"

Zangetsu looked up into the blue sky and then back down to the field of roses. Seeing one more rose blooming right in front of his eyes, Zangetsu smiled.

"I don't know, Hollow," he said, "but if what I've seen so far is any indication, then I'd say forever and a day."

The End