Chapter 30: The Pain Will Set You Free

"Damn," said Ichigo to himself, as Aizen withdrew his blade from Ichigo's chest, "that hurts." The pain had brought him back to his senses. He looked down to see his once white haori now red with his own blood. He was dying. He knew it instinctively. There would be no Old Man Zangetsu or Orihime to save him this time.

"Ichigo! No!" yelled Rukia, still trapped in the prison of light. Rukia had felt Aizen stab Ichigo. The pain tore her to shreds. Not physical pain, but the pain of knowing she had lost him, that he was dying. And with that intense pain, the light surrounding her began to fade, and she found herself lying on the ground, next to Ichigo.

Aizen stood a few feet away, but he had not noticed Rukia awaken. Instead, Aizen was watching an enormous column of energy rising from the center of the stone floor. Rukia moved slowly towards Ichigo, taking his hands in hers and cradling his head in her lap.

"You idiot," she said, tears now streaming down her cheeks, "you were worrying about me again, weren't you?"

He smiled weakly. "I did it on purpose," he said, "it was your turn to rescue me, Rukia." He closed his eyes, and she felt his reiatsu fade away. The sound of her name on his lips seemed to hang in the air all around her.

Rukia stood there, numb, still holding Ichigo's hands in hers. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. It was supposed to have been her. She knew she must try to stop Aizen, but she could not think clearly. Her pain at losing Ichigo was too intense, too all-consuming.

"What do I do?!" she thought desperately.

"Rukia."

That voice. Ichigo's voice. She looked down at his body, but it was still and lifeless.

Rukia!"

His voice again, only this time she knew she had heard it in her own mind. She could feel his reiatsu there, as well.

"Ichigo?"

"Rukia, you must know this. I am not the Oken," he said. "We are the Oken."

"I don't understand," she said, still trying to grasp how she could hear his thoughts if he was dead.

"The King designed the key in two parts. A yin and a yang. The Oken was incomplete until Aizen created the other half," said Ichigo.

Rukia struggled to comprehend the words.

"The King always controls the key, Rukia," Ichigo continued, trying to make her understand. "To open the passageway to the King's Realm only requires two prongs. The remaining two prongs are the King's permission. Without the King's permission, without the remaining two prongs, the gateway cannot be closed. And if the gateway remains open for more than a short period of time, it means the destruction of the Soul Society.

"Do you understand? There are two sides to the King's Key. I can open the passageway. You, Rukia, can close it. We, together, are the four prongs."

Rukia blinked hard, still trying to decide whether she had imagined his voice. He was gone. Dead. She willed herself to focus on his body. She looked at his now pale face, peaceful and still. She looked at her hands, which still clasped his.

"The four prongs," she thought, suddenly. "Our hands."

"Yes, Rukia. We are the four prongs. You can stop this," he said to her.

"But I don't understand. Where are you, Ichigo? You aren't dead?" she asked, still staring at his hands. They were growing colder.

"I am on the other side. In the King's Realm," came his reply. "Rukia, you can stop this. You can seal the passageway. You must seal the passageway."

"But, if I seal the passageway, you can come back, right?" There was no response.

"Ichigo, answer me! What happens if I seal the passageway?"

"If you don't seal it, everyone I care about will die, including you. There would be nothing for me to come back to. You must do this, Rukia."

She knew he was right, but the pain in her soul now burned like fire. She had to find the strength to end this.

Rukia released Ichigo's cold hands and slowly put one hand to her face to embrace the hollow within. She would not let Aizen imprison her again. In her mind's eye, Rukia could see the woman in red, laughing.

"I am master here," Rukia said to the woman with the dark hair, "you serve me alone now!"

She gently laid Ichigo's body down on the stone floor and kissed his cold lips. She knew what she had to do.

Aizen was standing inside the wall of energy that was growing larger by the second. The entire stone platform on which they stood was already engulfed by the opening passageway. Rukia stood up and walked towards Aizen, zanpakuto drawn.

"Rukia-chan," said Aizen as he saw her, "you truly have become quite powerful. It seems I can no longer contain you with Negación. Unfortunately, you also have become quite a nuisance. It is time for me to kill you."

Rukia looked at Aizen as he drew his weapon and pointed it at her. She said nothing, but smiled. Then, still smiling, she turned her soul's sword and plunged it through her own heart.

The column of energy, which had now enveloped most of the clearing in which the old stone building stood, began to sparkle and dissipate. Rukia heard Aizen's scream of rage as he, Gin and Tousen were caught up in the disintegrating vortex of energy. She watched as they slowly dissolved into nothingness, along with the energy field.

Rukia pulled Sode no Shirayuki out of her chest and waited for her death, expecting to suffer the same fate as Tousen, Gin and Aizen, but it did not come. She could feel the energy field licking at her skin, but felt no pain from it, and her body remained solid. On her knees now and bleeding heavily, she walked over to where Ichigo's body lay and took his hands in hers. His body, like hers, was untouched by the passageway.

"You will always be in my soul," she said to him, as she lost consciousness.

Rukia opened her eyes. White light surrounded her. Not the same light as in her prison. This light was warm and did not hurt her eyes.

She looked around, expecting to see endless walls surrounding her, locking her in. Instead, she saw simple stone columns with large empty spaces in between.

"Rukia." She turned around and her heart soared.

"Ichigo," she said, and she ran to him, pulling him close to her. His black shinigami uniform was now pure white, and she noticed that she, too, was dressed completely in white. "I thought I had lost you forever."

"Stupid," he said, laughing softly, "it's not that easy to get rid of me."

She looked at him sadly. "Why did you have to go on and get yourself killed on me? I really should kick you, Ichigo."

He held her close and smiled. "I'm not dead. At least no more than you are. Just like your gigai, my body in the Soul Society is just a vessel, Rukia." He kissed her softly on the top of her head. Then he kissed her on her lips, and she felt warmth spread through her body. She felt as though she was floating, her body tingling and disappearing, as though she had become pure energy, without form.

"Please," she begged silently, "I don't want to leave this place. Please let me stay here with him." The room was fading.

Rukia coughed. She felt a dull ache in her chest where she had stabbed herself. Her wounds were healing.

"I don't want to go back without you, Ichigo" she thought, willing him to hear her. There was no answer.

Rukia was holding Ichigo's body. All around her were tiny ice crystals that reflected bluish white in the bright sunshine. They covered his body, as well. There was a warm tingling sensation on her skin. She still wore her hollow mask.

And then she felt it. Felt him. His reiatsu. Only this time, she didn't feel it within her, it was coming from his body. His body was no longer cold, and the color was returning to his cheeks. The gaping wound in his chest was, like hers, beginning to heal.

"Ichigo?" Rukia said. Her throat was dry, and his name came out as more of a whisper.

"Hmmm?" he said, opening his eyes and grinning back at her.

"Welcome back."

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Epilogue

Rukia yawned and rolled over to avoid the first light of morning streaming in from the windows of Ichigo's bedroom. She felt his body, warm against hers, and hugged him tightly. He grabbed her around the waist and proceeded to kiss her neck and ears.

"That tickles," she said, laughing.

"Wait till I kiss you here," said Ichigo, burying his head under the covers.

There was a loud knock from the front door, and both of them jumped slightly.

"Damn," said Ichigo, emerging from under the blankets. "Who the hell is knocking this early in the morning?!"

Ichigo hopped out of bed and threw on a kimono. Rukia followed suit and gathered her tousled hair into a knot at the base of her neck. Ichigo was opening the front door as Rukia walked out of the bedroom into the living area.

"You?" A very surprised Ichigo stood, looking at the visitor standing in the doorway.

"Is that any way for a student to greet his sensei, Kurosaki-kun?" said Urahara, lifting the brim of his hat slightly as he nodded to Rukia.

"Sensei my ass," said Ichigo, scowling.

"Ichigo!" said Rukia, her tone admonishing.

"He's been gone from the Soul Society for centuries, and he picks this time to come knocking on my door?" growled Ichigo.

"Nii-san told me it was Urahara-san who convinced Yamamoto to release us from the brig and let us return to our commands after disobeying orders," said Rukia. "We owe him our thanks."

"Hmmm," said Ichigo, eyeing Urahara warily. "What do you want?"

"Kurosaki-kun. I was hoping you would invite an old man in for tea. I have come a long way," said Urahara, coyly.

"I'll make us some tea," said Rukia, intervening. "Better than listening to two grown men acting like children." She smiled to herself as she left the room. Life was, blissfully, back to normal. Or, as normal as it ever had been.

Several minutes later, the three of them were seated at the table, drinking tea.

"So, Urahara-san," said Rukia, after a few minutes of stony silence in which Ichigo continued to scowl at Urahara, "what brings you to the Soul Society?"

"Well, Rukia-chan," said Urahara, smiling and looking at her warily from under his hat, "I may have made a little mistake. You see, it seems as though the Hogyoku was not destroyed when the passage to the King's Realm collapsed…"

Rukia looked at Ichigo and smiled.

"Here we go again," she thought.

For just a brief moment, she saw Ichigo smile back at her.

FIN