Disclaimer: Can I have Bleach as a reward for finishing my story? Pleeaase? ::puppy dog eyes::
Author's Note: Last chapter! I'm amazed, and thank you everyone who's been reading (and especially reviewing)! Over 8000 hits! Incredible! My thanks to the people who reviewed: Peter, Revolation, dbzgtfan, xwhitemoonx, Nicole Miklos, IchigoKurosakiSotaicho, MakotoJinx, TwiliteTGRgrl, NoeBody09, Baka's Angel, OutlawKnight, Have Socks. Will Travel., TAKCH1, SleepingForce, DarkJason, outlaw hunter, RukiLex, and F1yMordecai! Extra thanks go to those who reviewed multiple times, and DarkJason, outlaw hunter, RukiLex, and F1yMordecai: You reviewed just about every chapter, and I am incredibly grateful!
I think it's pretty clear, but the italic sections are memory/flashbacks that both Ichigo and Rukia are having at the same time. Oh, and I completely forgot to mention in the last chapter, but Rukia's bankai name, 'Miko no Fuyugi', is supposed to mean 'Winter Clothes of the Priestess'.
Rukia ran her fingers proudly over the new white haori folded neatly in her lap. She had decided not to wear it until her formal induction as Taichou. Only that morning had it been decided which squad she would lead, and the haori given to her. Rukia hadn't been surprised at the selection. Kurotsuchi Nemu had informed the council that she was nearing the completion of her own bankai, and would likely be taking over the 12th as soon as she succeeded. With the Central 46 still determined to convince Ikkaku to take the 9th, it had been quite obvious that Rukia would be placed with the 5th.
She had been surprised at how quickly her promotion had occurred, though. The test had occured only two days after her confrontation with her brother. Now, only a week later, she had already been awarded the rank. Somehow, from some of the comments Ukitake-taichou had made, she thought it sounded as if Byakuya had actually pushed it forward faster. Perhaps, and Rukia hoped this was so, he was actually proud of the fact that his little sister had achieved bankai and, once he had accepted that she no longer needed his protection, he was willing to offer her a subtle congratulations.
She looked over to the Senkaimon that was just about ready to open. Despite her accomplishments, this moment was more than a little bittersweet. She looked over to the group of her human friends. They stood separately, no longer fully united. Ishida and Inoue were closest to the gate, clearly ready to leave. Rukia's face grew sad. Inoue hadn't spoken a word to any of them, other than Ishida, since Tatsuki's awakening. She was upset about Tatsuki's choice, furious with Ichigo and Yoruichi for agreeing with it, and disappointed with Chad for not protesting it.
And it seemed that she downright hated Rukia, for having struck down the hybrid Tatsuki had briefly become. Rukia couldn't blame her for that. She had had nightmares about that scene every night since their return two weeks before. Those dreams had lessened three days ago, though. Tatsuki, finally released from the care of the 4th division, had sought her out.
"Could we walk?" Tatsuki had asked, and Rukia had agreed immediately. Between her own guilt and Inoue's anger, she had wanted to do anything she could to make things right with Tatsuki. But to her shock, there hadn't been anything to fix.
"Thank you," Tatsuki had told her, after they had walked in silence for some time. "I didn't understand what I was seeing, or maybe I couldn't understand then, but while I was being possessed, I saw everything. I saw myself attack you and then Ichigo." Tatsuki paused, hesitating, and then continued, "Right before you rejoined the fight, it looked like Ichigo was steeling himself to do something either really brave or really stupid. You were just in time, Kuchiki-san."
The short-haired girl turned away to stare into the distance for a moment, then she turned back to Rukia and said softly, "Besides, even if it didn't hurt while it was happening, the thought of my friends being harmed by my own hands is one of my worst nightmares. I'd rather die than have that happen. And you saved me from that, Kuchiki-san. You stopped me before that monster controlling my body could do anything worse. So thank you."
Thinking back on that discussion now, Rukia smiled a little. Kaien-dono had thanked her too, for the exact same thing. There hadn't been time for her to come to understand it then. She had been too young, and too grief-stricken, and Kaien had been dying. Kaien had died. But now she was older, and though she still felt guilty, this time Tatsuki was alive. Maybe, with the help of the young martial artist, she would finally be able to come to terms with her old mentor's death.
She turned and saw Ichigo, a deeper than usual frown on his face. She understood why he was upset. She was too. They had both known, though they'd also both pushed it out of their minds, that with Rukia a taichou now, she wouldn't be able to spend much time in the living world. They'd both be able to visit each other on occasion, of course, but it wouldn't be often. And for the next few months especially, they would be far too busy. Ichigo still had too much training to do, since he only had a year to master kido and come up with a lesson plan before taking on his first students the following autumn. And Rukia's new duties would take a long time to adjust to.
She met her partner's eyes and could see them searching her own as well. For some reason, she could feel herself sliding into memories.
She was running across the sand, ignoring the noise and the fighting going on all around her. The nightmarish scene of Ichigo, crumpled and bloody on the ground at Aizen's feet was all that she could see. She skidded next to him, but was too frozen to kneel. His body was ripped and torn in so many places that she didn't even have to check to know that he was gone. She could feel the tears slipping down her cheeks. Aizen was smirking at her, gloating, and she didn't even register the words. He was laughing and walking away, saying that there was no point squashing such a weak bug. And she didn't care. Ichigo's body was the only thing left in her world. Ichigo's body and Sode no Shirayuki, who had just appeared next to her as if she had always been there.
"Use the final dance, child," she said gently.
Rukia didn't understand, but she couldn't speak. She didn't need to.
"You've used it once before. But you must complete it, this time. Follow me."
Sode no Shirayuki flowed toward Rukia, and then disappeared into her. The petite Shinigami's eyes started to glow with a white and silver light. She started to sway and jump lightly from foot to foot, moving through an intricate dance in a dreamlike trance. Then she stopped and, clasping her sword hilt in both hands, she thrust it into Ichigo's torn chest. The blade punctured the fallen teen's heart and dissolved into a gentle snow. But it didn't stop there. Rukia's hands holding the blade also faded into snow, as did her arms, her shoulders, and all the rest of her body. The swirl of white flakes that had once been a shinigami settled around Ichigo's body and vanished.
Ichigo, standing next to the Senkaimon and staring into Rukia's eyes, didn't understand the images that were flashing through his mind. But he didn't fight as more familiar ones flowed in.
He was lost in total darkness, floundering, knowing that he was needed somewhere, for something, but no longer remembering what. And then a bright light surged around him. It was cold, ice cold, but at the same time it was also the most wonderful, most gentle sensation he had ever felt. The light and the cold were settling around him, flowing into him. The light was ice, living breathing ice, which was surging through his body. He was freezing and burning at the same time, his heart and mind caroling with joy at the feeling of exhilarating perfection that came with the frozen embrace.
He surged to his feet, remembering that he was in Hueco Mundo and he was needed to fight Aizen. There! There was the traitor, turning in surprise, moving back toward Ichigo as he realized the Substitute was not only not dead, but completely uninjured and surging with power. Ichigo swung his zanpakuto in an arc, and Aizen raised his hand to block the Getsuga blast as he had so many times in the first half of their fight. But there was no blast to block. Instead, with a crackling, snapping sound, the sand between the two men froze.
Ichigo lunged forward, his blade leading, and Aizen moved to dodge only to find that his feet were encased in ice nearly 5 inches thick. He snapped his own sword up to block, but Ichigo, with both his mind and body working twice as fast as normal, had already shunpoed behind him. He fired a massive Getsuga blast shrieking through the air with at least ten times the normal amount of energy. It was from pointblank range, from behind, and the electric blue energy was bristling with thick and sharp icicles. An immense cloud of dust and sand rose up in the air for nearly a mile around, and by the time it faded, the only thing left of Aizen was a single glowing particle rising into the air.
Rukia smiled, pleased to have finally seen what had actually happened to bring about the traitor's demise.
She stood on the side of a huge building, staring around at the strange sideways world. She could feel two presences nearby, but she didn't turn. Both were familiar, though how, she wasn't sure. One of them stepped closer, and out of the corner of her eye she saw a black shadow, rippling as if wind-blown. A hand, attached to a black-clad arm, touched her shoulder gently, but still she didn't turn. The figure that owned the hand spoke quietly, "Do not fear. He was born for this."
She smiled, but didn't have a chance to respond, as a third presence entered the inner world.
Ichigo ran over to her, and in a move that was at once felt shocking and perfectly natural, he swept her from her feet and swung her joyfully in a circle. When he set her down again, their eyes met and both felt a burst of intense and unexplainable passion, of pure need. In an instant their lips were crashing together with a hunger neither of them had ever felt before.
Ichigo, glancing nervously toward the waiting group by the Senkaimon, leaned forward. Although he was hesitant, Rukia was not. She reached up to wrap her arm around the back of his neck and pulled his face down closer to her level. He went the rest of the way on his own, and the kiss they shared now was as gently loving as the remembered one had been passionate. Breaking away for air, Rukia smiled up at him.
"We'll never truly be apart, Ichigo."
"Ah, I know."
Author's Note: The End! Until the sequel, of course! :) I hope you all enjoyed reading this story!
About Orihime's behavior/feelings: Remember that the description was from Rukia's POV. Does Orihime really hate Rukia? Not necessarily. Her feelings about the whole situation are pretty complicated, and they're something I intend to work with in the sequel.
About the flashback: I hope what happened was clear (and not overy cheesy!), but if any clarification is needed, please let me know!
About the sequel: I like posting longer stories on a schedule, like I did this one, but I know I have trouble with writer's block on occasion. Because of this, I want to be pretty far into writing the draft before I start posting. My hope is to reach a comfortable point by mid- to late- June, and start posting it then. If, for some reason, the sequel is not up by the end of June, it is only because I don't feel I'm far enough ahead to start posting. Rest assured that it will still be coming, no matter what.
Before I go, here's the working summary for the sequel (which I'm calling 'Laying Foundations'): One year after the events of 'Restructuring Life', distance, new duties, and emotional conflict have caused the Substitute Team to drift apart. But the past never stays buried, and soon Ichigo, Rukia, and Tatsuki discover new and unusual powers resulting from their experiences from the previous year. As they struggle to understand and control them, the long-awaited Rukongai elections begin, and a group of political dissidents with ties to a member of the Team, attempts to seize power. Can the fractured group reconnect with each other in time to prevent a bloody revolution? Or will the fragile peace of the Soul Society be lost to Civil War?
Well, thank you all for reading this story, and I hope you'll give the sequel a try too, when it comes out! Bye for now!