Disclaimer: BLEACH belongs to Kubo Tite and Shiueisha Publishings.
Author's Notes: I have risen from the dead!
Just kidding. I have been busy (understatement of the century) but I finally had enough free time to finish edits. This chapter will close out the story, and the next chapter will be a quick epilogue!
After the epilogue, I will have a quick post on some old notes, and maybe even throw in an old chapter of the now defunct sequel.
THEN I WILL FINALLY BE DONE WITH THIS STORY!
"In the breaking light, he finally sees hope…!"
Everything was covered in a white and blinding light.
Then the glow finally started to fade away, revealing the whipping sands of Hueco Mundo and broken remnants of the fortress once known as Las Noches.
Kurosaki Ichigo and Kuchiki Rukia were revealed standing in the midst of the war torn landscape. Rukia's glowing white blade of Teni no Shirayuki was still pierced in Ichigo's heart. For a long time, neither of them moved from this position. They were both exhausted; their breaths were ragged and heavy, with neither one looking as though they would be able to stand much longer.
With utmost restraint and care, Rukia gently pulled her sword out from his body. Her sword left a light-filled wound in his chest that healed instantly. However, the powerful technique had drained the last of her strength and her Bankai vanished from around her body just as the black flames of Shingetsu dispersed from around Ichigo's. The two fading powers gave birth to a whirlwind of black and white energy that swirled around them for one brief moment before dissipating into nothingness.
Soon after, their swords simultaneously fell from their limp grasps, stabbing themselves into the ruins of the battlefield with a quick, slicing resonance. Ichigo started to fall forward, no longer able to stay on his feet from the weariness he felt. In response, Rukia moved to support his falling body with her own, and caught him so his head rested gently on her shoulder. Though she was almost as tired as he was, and his weight was much greater than her own, she faithfully stood her ground to keep the both of them standing.
And for a long time, she patiently held him, waiting for him until he was able to stand on his own two feet once more.
Two Way Destinies
Ichigo's voice was weary, but there was a noticeable note of fretfulness about it. He weakly raised his hands to grab her shoulders to push himself away from her. He wanted badly to see her, to make sure that he wasn't just imagining that she was alive in front of him. However, he was still in no condition to stand on his own, and knowing this fact, Rukia held tightly onto him, urging him to stay still.
"Rest." She said sternly.
Despite her statement, he started to push her away, much to her surprise. She tried hard to hold on to him, but even in his weakened state, he was able to overpower her. His desperate yearning to properly see her had given him strength where there should have been none.
She faltered in her statement as their gazes locked for the first time in what seemed like forever. The way he was looking at her caused her to fall speechless. As tired as he should have been, his eyes were much livelier than she had ever seen them. They reflected his happiness, relief, and disbelief – all at the same time. The rush of emotions she felt from him was almost overwhelming.
"I thought I lost you…" He said quietly.
Rukia's eyes widened at his words. She had never heard him speak with so much fear in his voice.
"Ichigo… you…" She managed to mutter.
Rukia's expression suddenly flashed to anger as she sent an uppercut into his jaw. Ichigo reeled backwards with surprise, but as he recovered from her strike, she quickly followed up on her assault with a flying kick to his face. He grunted as he toppled comically onto the ground. As he sat back up, his eyes were wide with shock; she stood before him, glaring at him with such ferocity that he couldn't help but feel that as tiny as her stature was, she was more frightening than the biggest opponents he's faced.
"You idiot!" Rukia yelled angrily. She started to approach him, looking as though she wanted to hurt him even more. "How dare you say something like that to me? Take a look at yourself! You were the one so reckless that you nearly got yourself killed! If I didn't come here, you would have been the one who would have died!"
Looking like a deer in the headlights during her entire tirade, it was a while before Ichigo finally came back to his senses and he quickly scrambled back to his feet.
"Look, I know you're mad, but I'm really hurt here!" Ichigo said as he held up his hands in attempt to settle her down. "Go a little bit easy on me –"
Rukia threw a punch at him and Ichigo closed his eyes to brace himself for the impact. However, the pain never came. He cautiously opened them, surprised to find that her fist had landed gently against his chest, right over where his heart was. With her eyes and face hidden by her bowed head, it would have been hard to tell what she was feeling that moment, but her trembling body had told him more than enough.
"'I thought I lost you…'" Rukia muttered. "Those words… they should be mine!"
Ichigo's expression softened. The two of them had suffered in nearly the same way by almost losing one another. She must have felt the same fear that he did. He quickly wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. He then hid his face into her shoulder and said the only words that came to him that moment.
"I'm sorry…" He said quietly.
With their attention focused only on each other, the two of them never noticed the Garganta portals opening around them, nor did they notice their friends and comrades who departed from within. At first, the newcomers were surprised to see their open display of affection, but they couldn't help but eventually smile at the two. Although there were so many people around them, they never noticed them for they had once again faded away into the world where only the two of them existed.
A world where nothing else mattered.
Creak. Creak. Creak. The noise of the spinning centrifuge was oddly loud as it sat atop a desk with several pages of research papers beside it. The insignia on the papers indicated that they originated from the Twelfth Division.
It was not the instrument's fault for being noisy though. The control room of the Shinigami Research and Development Institute was unusually quiet. Being the mainstay information center of the Shinigami world, it was normally the most active place in Seireitei, but the only person currently working there that moment was a researcher named Akon. The normally diligent researcher didn't even look like he had much to do; with his chin on his hand and a listless look set in his pale features, he stared blankly at the large monitor that displayed a map of Karakura Town.
"How boring." Akon muttered. "There hasn't been a single sign of Hollow activity for ages now…"
"For how long now?" A voice suddenly asked.
The person who asked question had suddenly come up from behind Akon, causing him to sit straight up with surprise. He turned to find his captain, Kurotsuchi Mayuri, staring sternly at the screen.
"Captain!" Akon's arm shot up into a shaky salute. He quickly turned and fiddled with his instruments to find the information his captain was asking for. "Uh… About two months now."
"That's exactly how long it's been since the final battle." Mayuri said.
Akon turned to his captain, unsure of why that information was important.
"Sir?" He asked.
With an impassive look on his face, Mayuri fell silent for a few moments in contemplation.
"I see." Mayuri said. "So it's finally happening again. We're going to need to let the Captain Commander know."
"You mean…" Akon started to say. He frowned when he realized the possible consequences. "What are we going to do about Kurosaki Ichigo? If this is happening, then we have to notify him."
A mild sound of annoyance escaped Mayuri's lips as he quickly turned to leave.
"It is not my responsibility to deal with that problem child."
At the other side of Seireitei, a man with short orange hair was walking along a stony path surrounded by high white walls. With his captain's haori wrapped around his right shoulder, he wore it in a similar manner to man who had formerly also been a captain. The Fifth Division emblem was displayed proudly on his haori as it fluttered out behind him. Despite all those distinguishing features, the large wrapped cleaver on his back was probably just as – if not more – well known than the person who was carrying it.
"Your desk is getting cluttered with paperwork. You need to clear it all up – we have more new recruits coming in next week."
The voice came from the smaller woman at his side. She had shoulder length dark hair that covered the sides of her face. The lieutenant's insignia of the Fifth Division was wrapped proudly on her left shoulder. Her left sleeve was also shorter than the other, revealing a fingerless white tekkou that just reached up past her elbow.
The orange-haired man beside her only sighed.
"Shouldn't you be the one who should be handling all that stuff?"
"I'm your lieutenant, not your servant. Besides, it's your popularity that's attracting so many recruits in the first place! This is your responsibility!"
There was a sudden whoosh that caused the air to pulse, and the both of them turned with surprise as they felt the presence of two familiar people appear behind them.
"Kurosaki-taichou… Kuchiki-fukutaichou…" A voice called out to them.
Captain-Commander Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni stepped forward with his lieutenant at his side.
"There's something we need to discuss."
Kurosaki Yuzu's face was cutely scrunched as she frowned at the left-over contents of the rice cooker. There was still a good portion of rice at the bottom of the bowl. It was just enough to comfortably feed one more person.
"What's wrong, Yuzu?" Kurosaki Karin asked. Her mouth was half-full of breakfast as she looked up from the table.
"I still keep making Ichi-nii's portion even when he hasn't been back for so long." Yuzu said as she turned to her twin with a sigh.
"I always knew that you were a bura-con." Karin said before quickly shuffling the rest of her bowl's content into her mouth.
"Karin-chan!" Yuzu yelled, her face red with embarrassment.
"Don't mind her, Yuzu. We were hoping to get here in time for breakfast anyways."
The two sisters quickly turned their heads towards the person who walked into the kitchen. Rukia, who already in her Gigai and modern attire, gave the two of them a small smirk. The look of surprise on their faces quickly turned into happiness.
"Rukia-san!" Karin said as she suddenly stood up, causing her chair to scrap loudly against the floor.
"It's been a while." Rukia said brightly. "It's nice to see that you two are in good spirits."
"Rukia-san!" Yuzu said happily. She paused as she realized something. "If you're here, then that means…" She turned to the other person who was entering. "Ichi-nii!"
"Yuzu, watch out!" Karin yelled, quickly pulling her sister out of the way as the shadow of a familiar person flew right over their heads.
"Welcome back, Ichigoooooo!" Isshin yelled.
With a form that even the most meticulous martial arts master would have approved of, Kurosaki Isshin's body soared over his young girls like a flying eagle with his right foot extended forward. However, to his and everyone else's surprise, the kick cleanly struck Ichigo right across his left cheek as he entered, sending the younger man toppling down onto the kitchen floor.
Ichigo grunted as fell flat on his backside.
"Huh…? Clean hit?" Isshin said dumbly.
Rukia knelt down beside him.
"Ichigo! Are you alright?" She asked.
"Ichi-nii! Are you okay?" Yuzu cried out as she quickly ran forward to help her brother.
"Ugh! You stupid old goat!" Karin said angrily as she pushed roughly past her father to join her brother.
With an unusually serious expression on his face, Isshin quietly observed his son as he rubbed his bruised cheek with his hand. The lethargic look Ichigo had on his face and the lack of an angry retort worried him. He subtly made eye contact with Rukia who was helping him up. Her gaze locked with his, and she curtly nodded at him, confirming his suspicion that there was indeed something wrong.
It was a little later that morning. Karin and Yuzu were walking down the sidewalk along the Karasu River. Their uniforms and backpacks indicated that they were both heading towards school. They walked with a slight drag in the steps, and things were unusually quiet between the two sisters. Several kids their age ran past them excitedly with cheery faces, a feeling that neither of them shared.
"It's good to see Ichi-nii and Rukia-san again." Yuzu said as she tried her best to break a smile. Her smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. "Karin-chan… What do you think is wrong with Ichi-nii?"
It took a moment before Karin could answer her.
"I don't know." Karin said as she looked up in thought. "But if Rukia-san hasn't been able to cheer him up, then it's probably something he has to deal with himself."
Back at the Kurosaki household, Isshin and Rukia were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. There was a depressing silence between the two, broken occasionally by the ticking clock on the far wall. Isshin looked especially grim, and his normally goofy demeanor was all but missing. Rukia wore an expression that matched his, though there was also a subtle hint of sadness in her eyes as well.
"So that's what's happening." Isshin said. "Everything makes a bit more sense now."
"Yeah…" Rukia said quietly.
"To think he'd have to face something like this after all the pain from the events of two months ago." He said. "Even though it's never been my style to coddle him… It still feels like I can barely do anything for him."
"I once felt the same way." Rukia said as she looked away. "When I met Masaki-san back then… I told her the same thing. 'No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't protect him from the pain he suffers.' But I've also realized he won't grow unless he experiences these things, and our only job is to help him back to his feet if he can't get up."
She turned back to Isshin with a grateful smile on her face.
"And you and Masaki-san have already done so much for him – for me. I don't know how to thank the two of you for saving my life and Ichigo's."
Her sincere words surprised Isshin, and he couldn't help but grin lightly. A hearty laugh escaped his lips and he changed back to the goofy man that she had always known him to be.
"I know a way!" He said as he gave her a wink. "You can name my grandson after me!"
Rukia looked quite taken aback by his request, and shifted uneasily in her seat.
"Umm..." She muttered embarrassedly. She then looked at Isshin as seriously as she could. "Ichigo and I have not discussed such prospects as having childrenin our relationship together... but if we ever do, I will definitely make sure to bring this up with him –"
Isshin laughed again, and Rukia only blinked back with a look of surprise and confusion. His expression quickly changed once more, shifting back to the older man that she never could completely figure out. He then looked away for a moment, as if reminiscing about the past.
"My son doesn't change much, does he?" Isshin said with a small smile. "Even when he was little, he would go to his room to be alone every time something was bothering him."
"Ichigo just needs time to think to himself." Rukia said.
"What do you think he'll decide?" Isshin asked.
"I don't know." She said.
Isshin was amused by her honesty.
"What do you want him to do?" He asked.
Rukia smiled sadly.
"I just want him to make his own decision."
A lone finger rubbed across the picture frame of a middle-aged woman. Known to all as Kurosaki Masaki, she was an undoubtedly beautiful person; her long orange hair was only outshined by the bright smile on her face. Ichigo stared solemnly at the picture of his mother for a moment before finally placing the picture frame back to its place on the shelf.
He turned his gaze onto the other items in his room. His bed was still clean and well made despite his long absence. The posters on his walls still weren't taken down. Most of his personal items had been left untouched. It was as though he had never left in the first place, and this world had just been waiting for him to return all this time.
Outside his door, Rukia's footsteps came to a halt as she walked up to his room. The familiar fifteen sign still hung there. Her hand slowly reached for the door knob, but she hesitated. She seemed unsure of herself, as if though she didn't know if she should enter. So instead, she knocked on the door to get his attention.
"We need to go meet the others soon, Ichigo." She said.
Ichigo lingered just a little longer in his room, taking a long look at everything that he grew up with.
Karakura Park; it was there where Rukia sat on the branch of the tallest tree. From where she sat, she had a good view of the park and of the cityscape on the horizon. The sight was breathtaking. It was hard to believe that only two months earlier, Karakura Town was the central battlefield of a three world war.
Her friends from the material world sat on the ground further below, enjoying a picnic on the fresh green grass. They all looked happy despite the ordeals many of them had suffered just two months earlier. Inoue Orihime, seemingly unscarred from her second encounter with Ulquiorra Cifer, talked cheerfully with a smile brighter than Rukia had seen in ages. Sitting next her, Ishida Uryuu's normally stoic expression was unexpectedly soft and tender as he listened. Sado Yasutora, like always, sported the normal calm aura that defined him. Along with their other friends from school, they looked like any other normal group of teenagers.
But every now and then, they would look around for a moment as though they were searching for something or someone – the only person missing from the group besides Rukia herself.
"Ichigo…" She muttered.
Soundlessly like a ghost, Rukia quickly jumped down from the branch she had been sitting on and landed lightly on her feet with a surprising grace. She then started to walk towards that overwhelmingly familiar presence that was Ichigo's existence, which she knew she could feel even if they were worlds apart.
It didn't take long for Rukia to find Ichigo, and she stopped walking just as he came into view.
Ichigo was standing atop the bank side of the Karasu River. With his backside turned towards her, it was an all too familiar scene to her. For the longest time, she had fought to reach a place where she wouldn't have to see such a sight, a place where she would never have to see his shoulders burdened with responsibilities that he was forced to carry. She wanted the power to stand there by his side so he would never have to face things alone.
Yet, as the memories from a few days before flowed into her thoughts, a part of her knew that perhaps that was no longer a possibility.
"What do you mean the Senkaimon is closing?"
Ichigo's question echoed bitterly throughout the captain's meeting hall. The captains and lieutenants standing in straight lines at the sides of the room all glanced at him, but any worry or surprise they felt were neatly hidden underneath their stony expressions. It was a deep contrast to how upset and angry Ichigo looked; he clearly showed no intention on hiding his feelings on the matter.
At his side, Rukia couldn't hold back her own surprise at the news either, though she was able to control herself much better than he did.
"Lower your voice, Kurosaki Ichigo." The Captain Commander said calmly. "Let me explain the situation and then you may speak your part."
"Che." Ichigo grunted.
"Every thousand years, the equilibrium between the two worlds becomes perfectly balanced. Your victory over the Hollow King's powers may have been the final contributing factor. The two swords that comprised his power are now sealed away once more in Seiretei. As Shinigami, it is our duty is keep balance between the worlds, so when everything is in perfect balance…
Our presence in the material world is no longer necessary.
The Senkaimon automatically closes when such a period starts and it may not open for centuries at a time until our presence is required again. Even now, it will slowly weaken until it is no longer active."
Rukia glanced at Ichigo from the corner of her eyes. He looked deep in thought as he soaked in everything that was being said. She didn't know what he was feeling that moment, not with the unreadable expression on his face. However, she quickly faced forward and hardened her own heart for what she knew was coming next.
"But that's not why we've called you here, Kurosaki Ichigo." The Captain Commander said. "Due to your contributions, you deserve more than just a chance to say goodbye to your friends and family. So – with the central's permission – you are hereby presented with two choices; you may return to the real world and resume your normal life, or you may stay here and continue your duties as a captain of the Gotei Thirteen."
Ichigo's eyes widened at the news.
"Return to my old life? But that's not possible – my real body is gone." He said.
"Perhaps your lieutenant would like to tell you the truth of the matter." The Captain-Commander said, motioning to Rukia.
Ichigo turned to her and Rukia lowered her eyes for a moment, revealing the guilt she felt about having to hide something from him all this time.
"Your real body's not gone." She said. "Before we left the first time, I told Urahara to take care of your real body in case you ever decided that you want your normal life back."
"Rukia..." He muttered.
She looked at him gently as though she wanted him to understand.
"When Soul Society forced you to join our ranks, I knew that you accepted Soul Society's terms easily because you thought you could always return to the material world." Rukia said. "You thought that nothing would really change even if you chose to come here. Up until now, you've been able to live your life all this time with a foot in both worlds, and you were happy with that."
Her eyes fell away again.
"But that's… no longer possible. I didn't do this to betray your trust, nor did I do it because I thought you couldn't decide on your own. I just wanted to make sure that if a time like this ever came..."
She looked up at him again, but this time, her eyes firmly reflected the strong resolve in her decision.
"That you would be able to properly decide your own fate."
The memory disappeared, and Rukia turned her attention back to Ichigo. Taking a deep breath, and gathering the courage she knew she had to muster, she started to walk towards him.
"Ichigo." She said, calling out to him.
The sound of his name snapped him out of his thoughts and he glanced at her from over his shoulder.
"Rukia?" He asked.
"What are you doing out here by yourself?" She asked as stopped at his side. "The others are wondering where you had disappeared to."
Ichigo turned his gaze back over the river.
"Just thinking." He said.
Rukia frowned, knowing it was definitely much more than he had tried to shrug it off as.
"You couldn't tell them about it, could you, Ichigo?" She asked.
"No. You didn't say anything to them either, did you?" He asked.
"No. I thought that it should be you who should tell them." Rukia said. She paused for a moment before she continued. "Today will probably be the last day before it completely closes."
"Yeah..." Ichigo muttered.
An uncomfortable silence fell between the two of them. The cloudless sky was starting to turn a dim orange, signaling the coming end of the day. Rukia frowned at the sight, knowing that there wasn't much time left. Ichigo was going to have to decide now.
"Ichigo… You need to make your decision before it's too late." Rukia said. She looked at him with a somber expression on her face. "I want you to make a choice – a choice that's your own. So please… don't take my feelings into consideration, or think about anyone else's. You're allowed to be selfish because you –"
"You idiot." Ichigo interrupted her in annoyance. "Haven't you realized by now that things always end up falling apart when you're not around?" He turned to her with a look of exasperation, though it was one of amusement. "How could I possibly face this world without you?"
Rukia's eyes lit up with surprise.
"What?" She asked.
"I've already made my decision a long time ago." He said as he turned away. "The reason I've been so uneasy wasn't because I didn't know whether to stay in the material world or the spirit world. I've been uneasy because I'm finding it hard to say good bye to everyone."
"But Ichigo… you…" Rukia muttered.
"You had said back then that I never got to decide my own fate – but it's wrong to think like that." Ichigo said. "Back when I was first told to stay in Soul Society, Gramps, Ukitake-san and Kyouryaku-san weren't there to force me. They knew better than anyone else that I couldn't be forced to do anything that I didn't want to – that I would have gone up against Soul Society if it meant protecting my friends. The reason they were there was because they wanted to see with their own eyes..."
He briefly closed his eyes as he remembered the scene in his mind. Though the captains had their hands ready to draw their swords, their hearts had no intention of cutting him down. The hesitation on their faces, from which centuries of battle experience had hardened, was enough for him to realize that.
"The kind of decision I would make when I had no easy choices. They wanted to see if I was ready to walk a path that I knew was the right one, even if I didn't necessarily agree with it. They wanted to see… if I had truly grown up. "
More memories started to flow through him. The faces of each of his friends and family members flickered past one by one.
"At that time, I had already thought through everything that was going to happen. Even if Chad's and Inoue's powers were taken away, I knew it was only a matter of time before it would be returned to them. Even if I was able to return to the material world at that time, I knew that one day, I might never be able return at all."
He slowly opened his eyes, revealing the spark of determination that always defined him.
"I had already accepted all of that back then."
He looked down for a moment at his right hand. It was the hand that wielded Zangetsu, and represented his strength – but all the power it had could do nothing for what he had to face in the past few days.
"Even though I didn't expect it to be so hard to say goodbye to everyone, all I really needed some time to think for myself, to reconfirm those feelings from back then." Ichigo said. He raised his head as he clenched his fist. "And now, I think I'm finally ready."
Rukia stared at the sight of his resolute expression. It was a face that she had seen many times before, but she couldn't help but notice that it was definitely different this time. The realization made her turn away from him with a small frown.
'Ichigo…' She thought as her eyes softened. 'I had always accepted the fact that I would have to part ways with the people of this world, so I know how hard it can be to face such a prospect. For you… since you've known them almost all your life… that feeling must have been almost unbearable.'
She raised her gaze towards the setting sun in the distance.
'I thought that I had to leave you alone to make your choice, but because I forced myself away from you, I couldn't see the real problem that you were having. Yet, you were still able to deal with it all by yourself...'
She then smiled, feeling both proud and envious as she glanced at the man who stood beside her.
'You really have grown up, Ichigo.'
Along the horizon and illuminating the sight of the beautiful cityscape, the orange sun had just set about mid way. For a long time, Ichigo and Rukia stood there and watched. It was going to be perhaps the last sunset that they would ever see in a long time to come.
"If you're ready, then it's time, Ichigo." Rukia said firmly.
"Yeah… Let's go back to where our friends are." Ichigo said. He turned to her and held out his hand. "And together, we'll both say goodbye to everyone."
Rukia smiled at him as she took his hand.
The two of them returned to the place where everyone was patiently waiting for them. Their friends quickly turned towards them as they came within sight. Ready to make their announcement, Ichigo glanced at Rukia at his side, who gave him a small reassuring nod of approval, before reaffirming the resolution he had made with himself.
"Hey guys…" He started to say. "We have something important to tell you..."
The wooden doors of the Senkaimon slid open and the otherworldly light of the dimensional pathway flooded the real world. Ichigo and Rukia, both already in their Shinigami forms, stepped in front of the opening gate and slowly turned around. Their family, friends and comrades stood before them in front of the Urahara Shoten. They had all come to see them off.
"Good luck, Kuchiki-san! Kurosaki-kun!"
"Take care, Ichigo! You too Kuchiki-san!"
"Bye, Ichi-nii! Bwaahhhhhhh…!"
"Stop crying Yuzu! You're embarrassing me! That goes for you too, Dad!"
Ichigo looked past each and every one of them with a small grin. Some of them were teary eyed, while others held back their emotions behind reassuring smiles. He glanced at Rukia, who smiled softly back at him. She glanced at the Senkaimon, noting that it was time to go. He nodded back; there wasn't enough time left to say much more, but there were just a few more words that he needed to say to all of them.
"Thanks everyone… for everything..." Ichigo said gratefully.
Ichigo then turned and walked forward into the light with Rukia. He glanced over his shoulder, and smiled at them one last time, just as the wooden doors of Senkaimon closed behind him.
"See you guys later..."
"Though different paths have been taken, their bonds will remain unbroken."
Next Chapter: Death and Strawberry, Resolution