Okay, here it is, a few hours early because I'll be busy until like two tomorrow and I didn't want to make you guys wait that long.
But this is it. The conclusion. The finale. The end. El fin. The cessation of this story. It's been a ride, dear readers, one that I wanted to get off at times only for you to pull me back on right before we all flew over the finish line. But I'll save the theatrics for later. I've hit bumps in the road (that were more like land mines, really), but I finally managed to finish.
So, let's end it, shall we?
Renji sighed, placing his hands on the counter and staring resolutely down at the sink. He couldn't look up; the moment he did, reality would come crashing down, and he wouldn't be able to deal with that. It was just too terrible to think about, too horrible to contemplate, too disastrous to dwell on.
But he would have to eventually, and Renji figured that it was best to know before someone – Rukia – forced him to acknowledge it. The petite Shinigami was far less merciful than she appeared when it came to winning or finding humor in Renji's situation.
"You can do it," Renji said aloud, trying to give himself a pep talk. "Just look up. That's all it will take. Just a quick glance and you'll be done. There's no reason to drag this out. You'll be done in no time. Just. Like. That."
With a deep breath, Renji closed his eyes and tilted his head up. He clenched his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms for a few seconds before he forced his eyes open.
He was greeted with the familiar sight of his tattoos, but what drew his eye almost instantly was the monstrosity that was his hair.
"It's worse than I thought it would be," Renji whispered as he felt his entire world come crashing down around him.
His hair was a terrible, horrible, obnoxious yellow. Kisuke and Rukia had been extraordinarily thorough with the hair dye and hadn't missed a single spot.
Renji hated to admit it, but Rukia had been right.
His hair did remind him of a pineapple.
The redheaded—now yellowheaded—lieutenant groaned and rested his head in his hands while wondering if he could find some way of calling in sick to his captain that day.
Ichigo stared at the small cup in his hands. He didn't want to look up; the moment he made eye contact with Kenpachi, the fight would begin, and Ichigo was still trying to prepare himself for what was to come.
It had been amusing, at least, to see the Shinigami scramble to set up a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Soul Society because no shopkeeper was willing to have Ichigo Kurosaki and Captain Zaraki of Squad Eleven fighting on his property.
That was probably pretty smart, all things considered. They were probably going to destroy the town they were in anyway.
The Soul Society, however, had found a solution to their problem. It was creative, and something that Ichigo hadn't expected them to come up with.
Ichigo watched the reflection of his surroundings in his drink. Even distorted as they were, the buildings reflected were clearly those of Karakura town.
The fake replica, at least.
Apparently, after Aizen had been defeated, the real and fake Karakura Towns had been switched back and the fake one had been forgotten about. It made for a convenient battlefield, though Ichigo wasn't entirely comfortable with fighting in the town where his house – real or not – stood. He was all too conscious of the danger his family had been in the last time he'd been in Karakura Town.
"Get a move on, King. I ain't waitin all day for this."
If you've waited this long you can wait a little longer.
"That's the stupidest thing you've said ta me. Start the damn fight already!"
The Old Man remained quiet and Ichigo knew that he found the entire affair distasteful. The teenager had no problem with that; the fewer voices in his head at any given time, the better.
Ichigo swallowed the last of his drink, keeping his eyes closed. He could feel Kenpachi's bloodlust, had been able to since the captain got within a kilometer. Apparently, Kenpachi had been looking forward to this day since the moment he had heard about the bet.
And whoever had told the captain about the bet, Ichigo vowed, would find themselves in a rather difficult situation sooner or later.
The substitute Shinigami set his cup down, feeling the tension saturating the air increase with every move he made. The very air seemed to freeze as the wind died and the seconds stretched to their breaking points.
He opened his eyes.
"It's starting!" Captain Ukitake declared, taking his position on a bean bag chair. The other captains and their lieutenants hurriedly took their seats, their eyes glued to the giant monitor that now took up on the the walls of a large meeting room in the First Division headquarters. A few seated Shinigami had even been allowed into the room, including Ikkaku and Yumichika of the Eleventh Division.
Popcorn had already been distributed, and other snacks were available at several tables set up along the corners of the room. Refreshments had already been passed around.
The entirety of the upper echelons of the Gotei Thirteen watched the screens with rapt attention.
In another dimension, Kisuke Urahara finished setting up the screen in the back room of his shop.
"Everyone, get in here!" He called, turning on the screen. "I've hijacked the signal from the surveillance cameras; we should be getting the same feed that Soul Society is getting!"
"We're already in here, dumbass!" Hiyori growled, though it was difficult for her to appear intimidating when she was munching on cotton candy and reclining on a bean bag. The rest of the Visored were there as well, having wanted to see Ichigo's fight since the moment Kisuke had told them about the bet all those months ago. A black cat lingered in the background, its eyes glittering with decidedly human intelligence.
"C'mon, Kisuke, get it started already," Shinji drawled. "We didn't come all this way just ta watch a blank screen."
Sporting a pout that faded to a smile in less than three seconds, Kisuke turned away from his audience and, with a dramatic flourish, switched on the screen.
The battle would be remembered for as long as the Gotei Thirteen survived. It was a clash of monsters, a battle between titans. The ground shook every time their blades clashed, and the shockwaves of power they released by simply moving forced any surveillance equipment to hover at an extreme distance lest it be short-circuited.
Kenpachi Zaraki, captain of the Eleventh Division of the Gotei Thirteen and by far the most bloodthirsty captain to have ever commanded a division, had never felt so alive. His eye patch had long since been removed and he fought with no reservations, his blade flashing through the air with terrifying strength.
Ichigo Kurosaki, substitute Shinigami and the human responsible for changing Soul Society, couldn't help the savage grin that stretched over his features. His bankai had been released when Zaraki had gotten serious about fighting, and he and Zangetsu seamlessly switched who was in control at any given moment, forcing Zaraki to deal with two different fighting styles almost simultaneously.
Ichigo dodged another one of Kenpachi's swings and lunged, taking advantage of a brief gap in Kenpachi's guard. Tensa Zangetsu was a centimeter away from Kenpachi's skin when a punch from the captain forced Ichigo to disengage and leap back. Kenpachi's reflexes were incredible, his stamina even more so, and Ichigo found himself enjoying the fight far more than he ever would have expected.
He wondered why he had tried to avoid the fight.
In an instant, he and Kenpachi were clashing again. The sound of steel meeting steel rang throughout the remains of the fake Karakura Town. The combatants had come to a silent agreement to stick with their blades, and only their blades.
Ichigo was fine with not using Getsuga Tenshō, Zangetsu even more so. It would draw out the fight, which both Kenpachi and Ichigo wanted.
Neither fighter bothered to speak; their battle was one of instincts and inherent skill, nowhere near the realms of psychological. Brute strength clashed over and over again and Ichigo found himself laughing when he managed to draw blood in much the same way that Kenpachi did.
Perhaps it was Zangetsu's influence; when the hollow was in control, Ichigo did experience his madness. During the fight, however, it made little difference. In fact, Ichigo enjoyed it.
The ground cracked and broke under the pressure, and cratered when Kenpachi blocked an attack from above since Ichigo had jumped into the air to change up the pattern of the battle. The captain pushed Ichigo back with a swipe that pushed Ichigo back several meters. Ichigo landed lightly and flickered out of view before surrounding Kenpachi with afterimages.
In a second, Ichigo's assault began.
Kenpachi blocked attacks from all angles. They came from everywhere, almost all at once in a never-ending stream of blows. Kenpachi's grin widened despite the blood trickling from a cut on his forehead. With reflexes that caught even Ichigo unprepared, Kenpachi grabbed Ichigo's wrist, causing all of the images of the teenager to vanish.
Ichigo blinked and his eyes flickered to gold on black. His Reiatsu exploded out of him and with savage might Zangetsu pushed away from Kenpachi, sending the captain reeling from the force of the kick.
Kenpachi's expression didn't change in the slightest as he and Zangetsu exchanged a flurry of attacks, giving and receiving numerous injuries during het exchange. Unlike Kenpachi, however, Zangetsu was able to heal his wounds.
Per an agreement with Ichigo, the hollow didn't heal any of the wounds that Ichigo had received when Zangetsu was not in control. Zangetsu appreciated the extra difficulty the wounds would provide.
So Zangetsu healed even as he was getting injured while Kenpachi simply ignored any injuries he sustained in favor of cutting harder, faster, more accurately.
Ichigo was a talented fighter. As such, he noticed the exact moment when Kenpachi began to improve. The captain had already sped up and demonstrated strength that he had not seemed to have in the first confrontation he had with Ichigo. Every time that Ichigo nearly struck a fatal blow, Kenpachi would counter it at the very last moment.
The pair dueled for four days and four nights, never wavering in their convictions to win. Every time Ichigo struck, he did so with the intention of cutting his enemy. Every time Ichigo blocked, he did so with the intention of stopping the attack completely.
He never once hesitated, and his blade and body sung with a strength that Ichigo had only barely begun to tap into.
In the final minutes of the battle, as the moon shone down with cold glory, Ichigo and Kenpachi came to an understanding. They adjusted the grips they held on their weapons and braced themselves, drawing upon the power they had yet to exert. The ground rumbled with ominous warning as a golden pillar of Reiatsu shot into the sky, closely accompanied by a black pillar tinged by a crimson reminiscent of spilled blood. The two manifestations of power pulsed before being withdrawn into their creators.
Kenpachi Zaraki and Ichigo Kurosaki tensed before leaping at each other.
And, with a fury that seemed to tear at the very heavens, they struck.
A/N We're done! That's it! It's over! Close the curtains! This show is done! Complete!
Let it be known that I have actually managed to finish a story that has some semblance of plot and pacing that isn't in-your-face terrible! HA! HAHAHA!
No way could I write the entire Ichigo/Kenpachi fight. Sure, you're all thinking that Ichigo would crush Kenpachi (or some of you are), and that's not the case. Kenpachi's gotten far stronger over the months, and Ichigo was weakened for quite some time. They're not equals, but they can put up quite the fight.
Man, changing this story from "in progress" to "complete" is so satisfying.
Special thanks to:
jcampbellohten - your feedback and corrections were invaluable to having my story make sense.
Krazyfanfiction1 - your reliable reviews always motivated me to keep writing.
Lord Necrotis II - your feedback helped me make changes to chapters that otherwise seemed awkward and also helped me fix certain plot holes.
Crimson Homura - seeing your reactions to my writing helped me to judge the general feedback of my audience, even if the rest of them didn't review.
Kira Akuma - in a similar way to Crimson Homura, your occasional reviewing helped me gauge the reactions of my readers.
Heart18 - you are, by far, the most enthusiastic (at least, via interpretation of your reviews) person I have ever had review this story.
To everyone else who reviewed and didn't get special mention, don't feel bad. You're all awesome, and I've enjoyed answering your questions and reading your reviews in general with every chapter that I posted.
Thanks for reading!
Oh, and here's something extra from the "real world" future:
Ichigo stood outside the gates of the Shin'ō Academy, a pensive frown on his face. He had been standing there for several seconds, having paused after something flickered in his memory. The moment he had focused on it, however, the feeling of familiarity had disappeared.
"Ichigo!" Rukia called from up ahead, her patience wearing thin. "Now is not the time to sightsee! We're in the middle of a crisis!"
Ichigo blinked, the confusion in his face fading as he looked away from the Academy. "Yeah, sorry. Let's go, Rukia."
And, with this, I shall make my exit.
This is Reign of Rayne, signing off.
(Maybe we'll meet again sometime in another fictional universe, eh?)