THE NEW FRONTIER

The gush of energy expanded outward like a supernova, blasting the snow away in every direction. Rukia held fast to the blade, feeling it weaken and watching it dim as the spiritual energy flowed into the teen's body. She watched as his skin became flush with color again, and his hair regained its vibrant orange shade, as well as the skull-side of his face regenerate back into its true form, resorbing into him as it disappeared. His clothing changed, pulling in towards him through the ice until nothing but a simple white robe remained.

"It's not enough...!" She said, "He's...right at the edge...!"

Rukia then dropped her zanpakuto and took the blade in her right hand with both hands, holding tightly to it.

"Take mine!"

The torrent renewed, and Rukia could feel the ice breaking beneath her knees. Her vision wobbled and started to get dark around the edges. The winds were dying down and the permafrost beneath them thawed. The ice surrounding Ichigo's body started to melt and break away, and soon, the both of them were collapsed on the ground.

The once-glowing sword was now just a simple blade, and it dissolved away with the last bit of power that drained into Ichigo's chest, restoring his shihakushou. As the sword retracted, it revealed that the Hollow hole had finally filled in, and as Ichigo was cast free from the confines of his icy prison, he fell to his hands, as he was already on his knees. Rukia was unconscious before him, and he squinted his eyes closed a few times and shook his head, trying to clear the swirl in his mind.

The memory of everything that had happened since Lucca first took him to Hueco Mundo suddenly rushed into him all at once, and as he saw clearer the image of his friend...his love...with her eyes closed before him, the grief started to sink in.

"No...no no no...NO..." He shouted, reaching for the woman and pulling her to his chest, "NOOOO NO NOOOOOOOO! NO HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN!? WHAT HAVE I DONE!? RUKIA! RUKIA WAKE UP!"

. . .

In the Dangai pit, Byakuya could hear the teen's laments. He looked out into the light, "Keep this gate open!" With that, he took off into the air, leaping above the edge of the pathway and looking for the source of the whailing.

There, in the distance, he caught sight of Ichigo trying desperately to rouse Rukia from her unconsciousness. The long-haired teen picked her up in his arms, sobbing terribly, and started carrying her towards the man in the distance.

"HELP ME, PLEASE HELP ME...!" Ichigo screamed, running slowly and bare-footed, his tattered uniform revealing his ragged rebirth, "BYAKUYA...HELP ME! HELP RUKIA!"

The Captain was there in a second, and pulled the small woman from his arms, just before Ichigo collapsed onto the ground.

"You have to take her..." Ichigo cried, "Please...take her to a healer...I'm begging you, don't let her die! I didn't..."

The older figure looked at him, perplexed. He looked at Rukia and understood what she'd done, "That's the second time she's gone against the rules and given someone her power when she shouldn't have. You're one lucky idiot."

"Wh...what?" The weak and crying man looked up, finding Byakuya reaching down to help him stand.

"Come along, Kurosaki."

. . .

Outside the open gates of the Senkaimon, the group found themselves surrounded by familiar faces at the main gates in Soul Society. Ukitake, Zaraki, Hitsugaya, Matsumoto (both of whom had already started bitching at Isshin,) a few others, and of course, the Royal Guard. They watched in anticipation as Byakuya finally returned from the Precipice World, carrying Rukia and helping Ichigo walk.

Nearby, they saw the telltale signs of an artificial Garganta opening, and joining them was Urahara, with Hachi in tow, and Yoruichi following close behind.

"Hachi-san!" Orihime called, waving from where Ulquiorra had pulled her aside, refusing to let her go.

The large man waved back, but then realized where his help was needed. Byakuya set Rukia down on the ground and revealed the extent of her injuries. Hachi went straight to work, setting up his kidou around her wounds and rejecting the damage to her limbs. To the amazement of the group around, her legs started to regenerate.

Ichigo hauled himself up to his feet and looked around. No one was looking back at him, and he tried to make an escape. His father easily stopped him.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I don't belong here. This is all my fault. I should leave and never come back." He answered, his eyes red.

"After everything we did to get you back? Don't even think about it."

"...I can't..."

Isshin glowered at him and just did the appropriate thing; smacking his son so hard on the back of the head that it knocked him out cold.

. . .

Elsewhere in Soul Society, Renji was finally coming to. He pushed himself up from the ground and scrambled for his sword, "What...how the? Damnit!"

. . .

When Ichigo awoke again, he was no longer clad in a Shinigami's uniform, and his hair had been cut. He stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling, felt the warm blankets around him, and listened in silence to the world around him. He could hear voices, but not what was being said, or who was speaking.

He suddenly heard the sliding door behind his head open, and he quickly closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep again. He heard someone walking up to him and sitting down on their knees, setting something down alongside him before putting their hand on his forehead.

He didn't expect the touch and flinched when he felt it, betraying him to whoever was in the room. The voice that questioned him was familiar...and welcome.

"Ichigo?" Rukia asked, "Are you awake?"

The teen dared to open one eye a little bit, and saw the woman looking down on him hopefully.

"You're awake! Your father's got quite the knockout punch, huh?"

"...R-Rukia..."

The flood of memories from their night-long romp came back to him in that instant and he panicked, hauling ass out of the bed he was put into and falling immediately to his face in an apologetic bow, "I AM SO SORRY."

"What?"

"It wasn't me! I mean, it was me, but...I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to take advantage of you or pressure you or anything!"

Rukia just crossed her arms, not really that amused by what he was whining about, "You saying I'm not good enough?"

"Huh?" He looked up cautiously.

"Are you saying you don't want me?"

The teen was stunned. He had no idea what to say then, but then Rukia started laughing, and it just made him feel awkward, "What's so funny?"

The woman stood up and picked up the unfamiliar sword that she'd brought in, settling down in front of the man and placing it on the floor between them.

"This is a blank." She explained, "New Shinigami recruits are given one. You keep it with you at all times. Eat with it, sleep with it, go to the bathroom with it. Imprint yourself on it. In time, it will take on the characteristics of your own personal zanpakuto, and it'll have powers that you can use, if you learn how."

"Uh...why are you explaining that to me?"

"Because you're fresh blood now." She said, "You're a Shinigami, Kurosaki Ichigo...or should I say, Shiba Ichigo?"

"...What...?"

"I guess this is too much for you to handle." She deadpanned him, and then knocked on his head, "Get it together, Ichigo. You're just a Shinigami now. Nothing else. You're at the bottom of the totem pole and you have to work your way up like everyone before you."

"But...everything I did..."

"Only a small handful of people know about it."

"But everyone that was at the Senkaimon when Byakuya brought us out..."

"They were just wondering why nii-sama was so insistant on opening the door into the Dangai. He had to get rid of his Hell Butterfly just to get through. No Captain has ever done that. Those of us that were involved haven't had much time to explain what really happened...but we're playing it off like it was a final Arrancar rebellion and Ulquiorra and you helped quash it. Those of us that got hurt just got hurt."

"...So you're gonna lie about it?"

"What they don't know won't hurt them. It would be a giant pain in the butt to try and explain what happened anyway."

"Yeah...I guess so..." Ichigo looked solemn, "So...I'm just a Shinigami now huh?"

"Yup. You'll be starting at the Shino Academy when the next session starts."

"Shino Academy? But I already know how to do Shinigami stuff..."

"You know how to run around like an idiot and wave your sword around."

"I can do Konso too!"

"You need to learn everything! It wouldn't be fair if we just graduated you and threw you in a squad somewhere without a recognized rank!"

"I gotta go home and finish highschool!"

"You're dead, idiot!"

"I'm...? Oh...right..." He looked vacant again, "Sorry...I forgot..."

"We've already convinced Ulquiorra to do a Soul Separation so you can talk to Yuzu. So, when you're ready...we'll take you back to the World of the Living and you can say goodbye."

"Goodbye... But, I don't want to leave them..."

"Like it or not, Ichigo...you're past all that now. You can still visit once in a while...maybe you'll get lucky and one of your first assignments is Karakura Town. But...you're dead, and there's nothing that can be done about it."

Ichigo's brows furrowed, and he lowered his head, clenching his fists in his lap. He opened his eyes as he felt Rukia's fingers on his hands, calming him.

"You were going to have to leave home eventually anyway. At this point, you're just a year and a half early, right? You won't have to look for a job or a new place to stay. You already have that here in Soul Society. So...you don't have to think of it as goodbye. It's more like...you're growing up."

"Yeah..."

"Come on, let's get up. Everyone's outside waiting for you."

"Where are we anyway? This place is familiar but I can't put my finger on it..."

"This is the home of your ancestors. It's the Shiba Clan household."

"You keep saying that, but I don't remember telling you...hell, I only just found out myself."

"You've been out for a few hours, Ichigo." Rukia explained, "After Hachi healed me, I woke up pretty quick. Your father had already gotten into a fight with Captain Hitsugaya and Rangiku...they were his former Lieutenant and 3rd seat. It became pretty obvious when they started shouting 'Captain Shiba!' at him. The rest suddenly made a lot of sense." She huffed a laugh, "So, if you want...you can take the family name."

"Nah." He said, "My name is Kurosaki. Kurosaki Ichigo. Shino Academy Student...17 years old...Shinigami."

Rukia was beaming at him, happy the realization went well. She then rose up on her knees, and Ichigo followed suit, grabbing the blank zanpakuto off the floor and placing it into the belt around his waist. He was about to make his way towards the door when he found Rukia holding him back. Looking back at her, he wondered what was wrong, and the smaller woman shook her head before pulling him down by the front of his robe.

She looked him in the eyes, "All that fussing before about how I left you alone...and now, here I am, and you're not even going to do anything?"

"Er..." Ichigo stammered, "I...don't want to seem...clingy? After everything I did, I'm amazed honestly that you even wanna see my ugly mug."

"I know your heart, Kurosaki Ichigo. This is you, not the thing from earlier. Just...promise me that side of you will never get control again."

"Oh, I promise, for sure!" He said quickly and honestly.

"Good, then there aren't any problems." She said, giving him a quick peck on the lips before leading him out of the room, "Come along, Ichigo...let's get you some clothes and then we'll go meet your family."

. . .

Standing outside the Shiba Clan household was the usual group; Renji, Ishida, Orihime, Ulquiorra, Isshin, Urahara and Yoruichi, as well as Kukkaku and Ganju. The second Ichigo laid eyes on the stocky man, he frowned.

"Oh...you."

"Don't think that cuz you're related to us somehow that you're gonna be welcome here!"

"That's my son, damnit!" Isshin argued, "For the 900th time! So that makes him your nephew, whether you like it or not!"

Kukkaku mused at her brother, "Uncle Isshin is gonna break your face if you don't behave."

"Shut it, all of you!"

Ichigo sighed, crossing his arms and shivering, "...My...family...ugh..."

Ganju got up in the teen's face and glowered, "You might be Shiba by blood, but you're NOT Shiba by any other measure."

"It's not like I'm gonna take the name for myself. I grew up a Kurosaki, I'll die a Kurosaki...uh...again..." He then reached down to retake Rukia's hand, "But I don't intend to die anytime soon. I've been given a second chance...I intend to make the most of it."

Isshin suddenly jumped up behind him and held him and Rukia together by their shoulders, "My boy finally has a girlfriend...it's a good day, indeed!"

"DAD." Ichigo argued, trying to shove him off.

Off to the side, Renji was sulking a little bit, but he made sure not to draw attention to himself.

Past Isshin, Ichigo caught sight of his friends from the World of the Living. Ulquiorra and Orihime stood next to one another, their fingers laced together, and Ishida was nearby, his arms crossed, watching the whole fandangle with a smirk. Ichigo let go of Rukia and approached the group, making a 'well this isn't how I expected my day to go' sort of sigh and then huffing a wry laugh.

"I don't even know how to start..." He said, "The things I did to all of you...I'm not even sure I could ever reasonably ask you to forgive me."

"Kurosaki," Ishida started, "What happened today was regrettable, but...we probably should have seen something like it coming."

"That doesn't make it okay though."

"No, of course not...but you're dead. I think that's punishment enough." The Quincy followed up, "Being dead might be the best thing that could have happened to you though. We don't have to worry about you anymore."

"Yeah..." Ichigo nodded, turning his attention to Orihime and Ulquiorra then, "I don't even know where to start with you guys."

"Are you okay now?" The woman asked, "You had us all really scared."

"I wasn't scared." Ulquiorra said flatly.

"Everyone except Ulquiorra was really scared for you."

Ichigo huffed another laugh, "I think I'm good. I'm sorry I cut your hair...it looks like Hachi brought it back for you though."

She pulled it over her shoulder and stroked it once to make it flat, "Yeah..."

Ichigo looked at the Arrancar behind her, though the Espada was trying rather hard to avoid him, "Thanks for not killing me, Ulquiorra."

"It would have been too problematic for me if I had." He answered, "But you should be grateful that you are who you are. Were you anyone else, I wouldn't have made sure to let you live. Answer me this, though...what happened to Lucca?"

"Uhm..." Ichigo looked nervous, "...I...I ate her..."

The gathered looked at him wide-eyed.

"It was right after she initially turned me Hollow! I didn't know what I was doing!"

"Well, at least it's one last thing I don't have to deal with." Ulquiorra said, resting his chin on Orihime's shoulder, "It's just that matter with the Royal Guard left to figure out."

"The Royal Guard?" Rukia wondered, "What do they want with you?"

"They offered me membership."

"But...that's... Why would they offer a spot to you? No offense, but you're not even a Shinigami."

"It's because I'm an aberration." Ulquiorra explained, "They're offering me a spot because, as they claim, I'm simply too powerful to be left to my own devices. So it's something of a leash they want me to put onto myself."

"Are you going to go?"

"The Royal Guard has the Ouken grafted to their bones. Part of me wants to say yes because of how the Ouken relates back to my even being here. However, I intend to decline, at least for now. I have only just begun to enjoy my time by Orihime's side, and the freedom of not having to answer to any authority. I won't be changing that for some time."

"I see..."

"I should probably get going to the World of the Living." Ichigo said, drawing the conversation back around, "Yuzu and Karin are probably worried. I guess I also need to go ahead and say my goodbyes to everyone."

. . .

For the next few days, Kurosaki took his time talking to the friends and family in the World of the Living that he would be leaving behind. The hardest for him was talking to Yuzu. Ulquiorra had done as he agreed, pulling her soul out of her body so she could see her big brother, and he Kurosaki was able to explain to her all the things that had happened. That conversation went on for a few hours, and by the end of it, Yuzu had come to terms with what the future held. She made her brother promise to come back as often as he could, and she made Kuchiki-san promise to watch over him.

Kurosaki also spent time with Sado-kun, and then later, Keigo and Mizuiro.

He was present when the ashes of his human body were interred next to his mother's at the Kurosaki family shrine. His dad's body had to be 'liberated' from Karakura Town hospital...Ishida-kun's father wasn't too happy to see how that happened, but at least they got it back.

With everything that had happened in Soul Society, a lot of changes were starting to take effect. For one...Yoruichi-san retook her place as the head of the 2nd Division after SoiFon's death. She returned to Soul Society saying that it was a good time to go back and set things straight. With the revelation of Aizen's treachery and the Arrancar and how the Visored came to be, Urahara-san's exile, and Yoruichi-san's assistance to get him to freedom, she thought it made the most sense. After all, she had never abandoned her post because the position itself was unfortunate. Urahara-san decided to stay where he was, though.

Shinji-kun and Hiyori-san reunited with Hachi-san in Seireitei, and after Shinji-kun's hands were restored, they accepted their positions with the Gotei 13. They held a memorial for the Visored that had been killed, but even they agreed not to out Kurosaki for what had happened. The memorial was mostly private. It was held the day after a separate memorial service for the Shinigami that had fallen during Lucca and Grimmjow's escape.

Speaking of Grimmjow...Nell-san came to ask me at one point if I could help fix his leg. This whole time, she had no idea that I had lost the Shun Shun Rikka...but I told her I would ask Hachi on his behalf. Hachi agreed, thankfully...and as soon as Grimmjow was fixed, he left again. Nell-san went with him. Dondochakka and Pesche stayed behind in Las Noches, waiting for the day when she would return to them.

Ulquiorra finally turned over leadership of the Arrancar to Hallibel-san. He still returns to Hueco Mundo sometimes, but only when he wants to take a break from the World of the Living. He's sworn off all association to the remnants of Aizen's Army, and he's been left alone by Soul Society ever since.

For me? Well, things haven't been all that different, other than adjusting to the fact that Kurosaki isn't around anymore, and not having my hairpins, anyway. After I finished high school, Ulquiorra and I moved into a house. He said he had been saving money since he first started doing that bounty hunting work. He wouldn't admit it, but I think my apartment made him a bit claustrophobic. The house he found is amazing, and because of him, I was able to tell my Aunty that I didn't need her financial help anymore and I was able to immediately go to university without having to worry about finding a part-time job like most other people my age. I'm studying to be a Pediatrician. I think things are looking up. I look forward to every new day.

. . .

EPILOGUE...

20 years later...

The slightly-older looking Ichigo was running for his life through Seireitei. Behind him was a maniacally-laughing Kenpachi Zaraki. On his hip was the newly forged Zangetsu, but he knew better than to draw it within the city.

He rounded a corner and found his arm snagged by an unexpected grab, and as he heaved himself up against the wall to catch his breath, the marauding Captain ran by in a fury. Ichigo let out a sigh and caught his breath, and looked down to see Rukia there smirking at him.

"That's the 3rd time this week." He huffed, "I think he's gotten bored over the years."

"It's been pretty quiet." She answered. The woman then tugged on his sleeve, gesturing for him to follow.

A while later, the two lay out in the sun, looking up at the sky, their hands clasped together where they lay between them. Rukia pulled up the shirt that was draped across her chest, and leaned over her barely-concealed partner.

"You won't believe what I found." She said.

"What is it?"

The dark-eyed woman reached down and pulled out the metallic object she'd held in her pocket since the morning. Ichigo squinted at it, but then he sat up with a start, "That's Inoue's Rikka! But...how!? I thought they were destroyed!"

"I only found a tiny bit this morning by accident." She explained, relaxing into him, "I wasn't sure if it was actually a piece when I saw it, but I took it to Hachi and he restored it. Sure enough, it was this one hairpin. We should go return it."

"Yeah!"

. . .

The older Orihime, dressed professionally and wearing a white physician's coat, was walking out of Karakura Hospital with Ishida, who himself was dressed in a suit and tie.

"So he's finally going to retire?" She asked him.

"Sort of. He's still going to practice medicine, but he's going to turn the business side over to me. Not that it'll change much...I just get the fancy title and my own parking spot now. I've been doing everything else for a long time already."

"Well, that's great!" She cheered, patting him affectionately on the shoulder.

A small wind picked up and the duo paused. Looking around, Ishida sighed, "Does he always have to make such a grand entrance?"

"I don't think he can help it." Orihime mused, scratching her head. Before the pair, the ground seemed to darken a little, and veins of green light erupted like water from the solid concrete. A crack shot straight up into the air, which then split horizontally, pulling open like a tent curtain, but bearing the telltale right-angles of a Garganta.

Out stepped a rather intimidating figure, clad in a white hakama and long white coat, wearing a black cloak overtop, and with two large, black wings sitting on his back. The half-helmet on the left side of his head was pointier than before, and it had become fused with the helmet of his first released state, bearing a second horn protruding from under the first. His eyes were the same vivid green as they'd always been. The pale man held out his right hand, and Orihime gladly took it.

"How did it go?" She asked.

"The uprising has been quelled. You'd be surprised how different Soul Society is for the Europeans."

"Isn't it different for Hueco Mundo, too?"

"No..." Ulquiorra explained, "Soul Society is the only afterlife that differentiates itself based on the nationalities of the dead. Hueco Mundo is homogenously Hollow. There is none other than myself that would be capable of dealing with an Adjucas invasion."

"What about Hallibel-san?"

"Her goal these days is simply finding and integrating the natural Arrancar with the artificial ones. There are more of them than we once believed." The former Espada hugged his woman and nuzzled her neck, "You're not on call anymore? Dr Inoue-Schiffer."

"Nope! I'm free and clear for the whole week!" She cheered, throwing her arms around the Arrancar's shoulders, "Where do you want to go?"

We coul—"

"Oh! We should go to Mexico and see Sado-kun! He and his girlfriend are going to the ruins!"

The Arrancar relented, "I suppose that's fine."

Behind them, Ishida laughed and shook his head. Ulquiorra shot him a glare, but it didn't deter him, "All powerful Arrancar, 4th level hybrid, member of the Royal Guard...still lets a wee human tell him what to do."

"It's a fair balance." He quipped, "I can live with it."

As soon as his words ended, the group was caught by the sound of a Senkaimon. Turning to see it manifesting in the sky, the group was nervous and excited about who it might be that was going to come out.

"A Senkaimon...I wonder who's coming...?" Orihime said.

The gates swung open, and two figures took shape in its light. To their surprise, it was Ichigo and Rukia who, by comparison, looked rather much the same as they always had.

"Kurosaki-san! Kuchiki-san!" Orihime cheered excitedly, "Heeyyy!"

"Hey!" The two answered back, coming down to greet their old friends, even Ulquiorra. Rukia dug into her sleeve and withdrew the hairpin, but didn't show it off just yet.

"I have a surprise for you." She said.

"For me?" Orihime wondered. Her eyes then beheld the ancient piece of jewelry, and her expression changed to one of tearful exuberance, "My hairpin!"

"A hairpin?" Ishida echoed, "You don't mean...from the Rikka?"

"Yeah!" She held it up, then turned back to the Lieutenant, "But...how?"

"Just by accident. I saw a fleck of gold on the ground near the base of Soukyoku Hill and it turned out to be this. I'm hopeful that the other will be found one day, too."

Orihime let the hairpin come to life, and the spirits of Lilly, Shun'O and Tsubaki manifested, "Oh wow! You guys are okay!"

"What...what happened?" Shun'O wondered. "My head is spinning..."

"It's been a long time. There's so much I have to tell you about...!"

Ulquiorra and Ishida stood next to one another, grimacing.

"She's gonna be totally preoccupied by those guys for the whole week." The Quincy mused, poking the Arrancar with his elbow.

Ulquiorra just sighed.

[THE END]