Disclaimer: Tite Kubo owns Bleach!
A/N: I'm so sorry to all of you for my lack of updates. I've just lost all interest in Bleach...
But either way, I was determined to finish this story at least so here's the last chapter. I'm sorry if it seemed rushed. I really just wanted to wrap this up, and honestly, I really can't think of anything else to add. I think I covered everything...
Thank you to everyone who has been reading~
Shiro was fading.
In the inner world, Ichigo stood atop one of the skyscrapers watching as Shiro's form crumbled away slowly into nothingness. It was reminiscent to the time he had first defeated him and when Shiro defeated him himself.
"This isn't over just yet," the hollow said quietly, pride shattered and ego deflated.
"I thought so," Ichigo answered. "See you around then?"
"Pft, don't sound so hopeful! I will overthrow you as King and then next time, Rukia-chan will love me for real," Shiro answered with a scowl.
"She does love you," Ichigo said assuringly. "Rukia sincerely loved you."
"But she loved you better," Shiro said, finishing the lingering 'but' at the end of Ichigo's words.
"I'm sure she loved us the same. We are the same, aren't we?" Ichigo said.
Shiro laughed hard, answering, "I hate your compassion, King. It's your worst trait as well as the one that makes us different. But... It's also the trait that makes her love you more." He sighed warily, scratching the back of his head. "You should lose it. Seriously. For the day she'll stomp on your heart."
"She won't," Ichigo replied with a firm nod. "And if she did, it'd be our heart."
"No, it wouldn't. She just brutally stomped on mine, and I don't even have a heart!" he laughed maniacally. "Ahhh, don't you just love the irony of it? Maybe you two really do suit each other better."
Ichigo stood in silence, unsure how to respond. "Shiro, did you really love her? Or have you just been using her to overthrow me?"
Shiro raised an eyebrow to the King's question and pondered thoughtfully, choosing his words carefully before answering with a shrug. "I really don't know. Whether these emotions are yours or truly mine, I was at one point completely smitten with her. Now, I've woken up from this disillusionment and I know that she and I were not meant to be. So perhaps I did not love her like I believed I had."
The redhead stood there, trying to absorb his words and understand them. Maybe he never would and it would remain one of life's mysteries. "So you were using her?"
"Maybe, maybe not," the hollow answered with a shrug. "I don't know, and I'd rather not find out. I hate these mushy feelings and I'm going to request that you keep them to yourself so I can remain my detached self."
As the rest of the hollow began to crumble away, Ichigo gave a tentative wave, softly saying his farewell. "Next time, just stick to attempting to be King rather than getting your own Queen," he said, trying to keep the tone light.
"Shut up," Shiro snapped, disappearing into the air. They stood in silence. Ichigo remained steady and firm, watching the hollow dissipate and waiting until he was gone for good. Shiro looked away as his body from neck down was gone. "Don't you dare hold this over her," he said, breaking the silence. "Don't you hold this over her. It's not her fault that this happened. You remember that! Well? Go on. She's calling for you," he said, uttering his last words with dignity and a renewed pride.
"Yeah," Ichigo said with a nod. "She's calling for us."
When Ichigo woke up, he found himself in his home's clinic with his father and Rukia standing over him worriedly. Rukia nearly let out a sob of relief as she threw her arms around him tightly. Isshin sighed and left, giving them their much needed alone time.
"You stupid idiot! I thought... I thought..." Rukia stammered, unable to string a sentence together.
Ichigo offered a warm smile and pat her head affectionately. "Shouldn't you know by now that you can't get rid of me that easy?" he said, chuckling lightly. His rich laughter was cut short by a strained cough.
"Take it easy," Rukia said urgently, concerned for his well-being. "You're still recovering."
"What happened? How long have I been out?" he asked, confused.
"When Shiro left, you were bleeding everywhere. I tried saving you, but I couldn't and there was so much blood. I'm lucky that Kisuke can't ever mind his business," she said guiltily. "He was the one who saved you and brought you home. You've been out for only a day." Ichigo pulled away his hospital gown to see the ivory colored scar left behind from Rukia's zanpakuto. "It scarred. I'm sorry," she said guiltily, looking anywhere but his eyes. "This is all my fault. Forgive me."
"It's okay, Rukia. I just have to wonder what the hell was going through your mind when you hooked up with him?" Ichigo answered.
"I don't know," she answered sincerely. "I just... I'm so stupid. Looking back, I regret it all. I just wish I could have taken it all back and not be such a fool." She really was in a state of self-loathing and guilt. "If I hadn't... Then you wouldn't..." She was near tears again and Ichigo really hated it whenever she was crying.
"Rukia, we all make mistakes," he told her kindly as he brought an arm around her. "You'll just have to make it up to me in tenfold."
"Why?" she demanded, pulling away. "Ichigo, I nearly killed you. I let Shiro have your body and I didn't even try to save you. I'm selfish. Why are you so kind to me? I don't need this pity! If you hate me and never want to talk to me again, tell me! It's not right for you to hide your feelings. I've already hidden my feelings long enough. Don't do the same. Tell me the truth!"
"It's okay, Rukia," Ichigo said, pressing his forehead against hers. "You had your reasons."
"I'm so stupid. I hated him, you know? I knew it was wrong. I knew, but I... I liked the attention. I couldn't help it. I'm human, you know. Even if I am a Shinigami, I'm still human, Ichigo," she sobbed, withdrawing from him. Ichigo persistently pulled her back close, not willing to let her get away again. She was still shaking from the traumatic event of reliving her past. He held her close as she sobbed violently into his hospital gown. "I'm so screwed up," she whispered, clinging to him, minding his wound as she did so.
"Yes, yes you are," he answered. "But Rukia, I really do forgive you. You're human after all, and you did the right thing in the end. It's all that matters."
"How did you do it? Take back control, I mean," she asked.
"I was mad at you, at first. You left me in the dark, went behind my back and betrayed me, so I was mad," he admitted. "But when he got mad at you for confessing your true feelings, I knew I couldn't let him hurt you. No matter what, I'm not going to let petty feelings get in the way of protecting you. You're the best thing that has ever happened to me, Rukia, and I put you up so high on that pedestal that you're bound to lose your balance and fall off. I love you, Rukia," he said sincerely.
She gasped at the confession and cried harder, hugging him tightly. "You're too kind. I'm so sorry, Ichigo. I'm so sorry."
"Quit apologizing already. Didn't I already say that I forgave you?"
"Yeah... I'm so-"
Ichigo cut her off with a kiss. He was relentless, kissing her fervently with passion mirroring Shiro's. Maybe even more desperate. It was as if he was trying to prove to her that he wasn't Shiro and that he was real and all of this was real and she wouldn't have to dream any more.
"Quit apologizing," he said sternly when he broke away.
She sat there dazed for a few seconds before snapping back into reality. "This is real," she said, confirming it. "I love you, Ichigo."
"I know," he answered. "I love you, too." Caressing her cheek, he pulled her into a kiss again, murmuring sweet nothings into her, convincing her that he really did love her and he wouldn't hold this over head.
She, however, would hang onto this regret for years, until coming to terms with herself and her guilt. It was five years later when Ichigo gave her an engagement ring that Rukia was sure that she could let go of Shiro and come to terms with herself for good. The fling, fun while it lasted, really was nothing compared to the real thing. It's just a shame she had to learn it the hard way.