A/N: Hey guys! Been a while since I last updated, I know, and right off the bat I'd like to say a huge 'Thank You' to all the people who have been following, favouriting, and reviewing this fic in the meanwhile! Hopefully, now that my ICT is properly sorted out, I can start giving regular updates. However, as time and experience has told me I will make no promises!
Merry Kitten: Shout out for you, my friend! Thank you for the positivity! Glad you like it, and I shall try to be a touch more regular in the future!
Blackseal: I'm not actually sure about how to address the zero squad, though I only know for absolutely certain that the lady from the 12th will feature (can't remember her name off the top of my head, Hokifune?) Some of them seem to be from the original captain lineup, though I'm not certain. Thanks for the feedback!
Drakainen: Thanks! The zanpakuto issue will be brought up soon!
Sadistic Avacado: Remember, it isn't a sure thing yet! Still the physical assessment to do! I agree with you about Zangetsu, the Old Man'd spend hours in there given half a chance. Thanks for the feedback!
jcampbellohten: Thanks again for the feedback!
Accurcius: Thank you! That's the vibe I was going for Saburo, glad it came off! Also, Jii-san is appearing soon and we shall see whether you were right or not! I'll bear those points in mind as well, will make some of the tricky AU messing around stuff a lil bit easier.
sir636: You'll have to wait and see~
Ataraxia Device: There will be regular time-skips to bring us up to the events of Bleach, stopping at important bits and pieces along the way!
shininchioiyx: At the moment, I'm not going to have a pairing. Ichigo's just...Ichigo. I don't think that kind of thing really registers for him very well.
Queen Karin: Thank you~ I'm glad you like the descriptions, cos I like writing 'em! As for Ichigo's memories, I'm considering incorporating little bits and pieces- but there won't be anything that gives the plot away to him, at least in that sense. I agree about the pairings, I'm most likely not going to have one atm.
Lotusalchemist (What's the speciality!?): Glad you liked them, I enjoyed writing those parts. Ukitake is definitely my favourite captain, without doubt, and he's a strong contender for favourite overall character as well, so when I came up with this idea there was only one option really! Shunsui will be appearing very soooooon~
Alexzandria: Thanks! The pacing of this fic is very important, I feel, as there has to be certain things expanded on and elaborated. So I'm glad it's working for you! Thanks for the feedback!
Enjaji, Tylothos, Weeping Turtle, Hisoka's luver, Scarese, Jedi Master Albus, Parker Reid: Thank you, guys! The feedback is really appreciated and I'm glad you're enjoying it!
Rise of the Slaying Moon
Chapter Three: Walking Sun
With the verbal interview now complete, Ukitake Sabūrō led his eldest son and potential new guardsman back out the front door and into the manor grounds. Despite the hours that they had been talking, and choking on various bits of pastry, the sun was still high enough in the sky to keep any long shadows out of the gardens. This meant that Ichigo got the opportunity to see them in all their splendour for the second time, and the sight was still as breath-taking as it had been before- perhaps more so, now that he was coming from within the house. He wondered how Jūshirō could bare to leave such surroundings in order to spend time on a plain-old, grassy hill; he wasn't sure he'd be able to. From the front door one got a full view of the extensive flower beds. Now that the sun was hitting the eastern most wall half-way up, it made white stone glow slightly behind a dazzling array of blue and lilac flowers, creating a sort of blue-and-purple-tinted shimmer in the air. The colour explosion caused Ichigo's brain to slacken like a detuned banjo string and left him wondering when his jaw had made landfall. Thankfully a discreet nudge from Jūshirō brought him back to his senses, and the two of them made after the Ukitake patriarch.
Instead of walking back down the path to the front gate, Sabūrō led Ichigo and Jūshirō on the path that branched around the side of the house. This area, Ichigo noticed rather quickly, was a decisively plain affair when compared to the massive amount of colour he had seen elsewhere. Whereas at the front there were myriads of different tones and hues, this side of the house had only grass and walls with the occasional tree dotted about to offer shade from the sun. It was still well-maintained, meticulously trimmed and neat, but it was more restrained and minimalistic. Despite this, Ichigo still knew it was far nicer than anything he had ever seen outside the walls. Along the Eastern wall there was a long, low building that Sabūrō identified as the guard quarters- the side of which Ichigo could recall seeing from the front of the house, but understandably hadn't paid attention to it at the time. It was white, just like the walls, and had a slanted roof that was presumably to keep any of the rarely occurring rain from collecting and causing leaks. There was a double door near the centre, from which Ichigo assumed the rooms branched off to the left and right due to the windows that were dotted along the outward facing wall at regular intervals.
Sabūrō led them past this building as well, following the path as it curved sharply around the back of the house. This side of the grounds was almost as stunning as the front, though for an entirely different reason. It was huge. Grass dominated the space, with one large tree standing a lonely vigil in the middle surrounded by a kind of circular bench that hugged up close to the trunk in order to protect any who were to sit on it from the sun. The path also circled around this tree, with offshoots going to all edges of the garden, with two others -including the one they were walking on now- branching off to the east and west towards the closest sides of the house. Directly across from them, hidden slightly by the tree, there sat another long, low building. Rather than being set against the walls like the barracks, this building stood away from it. Furthermore, it was made of polished wood rather than stone, and had traditional sliding screen doors instead of the hinged ones seen on the main house and the guard quarters.
As they slowly approached this building, Ichigo properly registered for the first time just how extensive the grounds were. It had taken them a good few minutes just to get to the tree in the centre of the field from the eastern corner of the house, and the building they were walking to now was an equal distance away, meaning that the entire walk took a little over five minutes in total. Add to that the slightly wooded area with the barracks on the eastern side, and the extensive gardens at the front, and a western area that Ichigo hadn't seen but assumed was there…it must have been the size of the town at least.
Noticing the awed expression on his friend's face, Jūshirō couldn't help but grin. He had been tempted to prepare, or at least attempt to prepare, Ichigo for this experience, but seeing his jaw dragging all the way around the grounds -Jūshirō was positive that would leave a nasty graze- was a far more rewarding experience. A part of his conscience scalded him for being purposefully cruel, but he dismissed the thought. He would make it up to Ichigo later, maybe with some sweet pastries from the kitchens. For now, he decided, he would make the most of this.
"The western side of the grounds are more extensive than this" said he, his casual tone masking his extreme amusement. "In fact, I would say they're even more beautiful than the garden at the front when the Sakura trees come into bloom. Wouldn't you agree, Otou-sama?"
Sabūrō cast a glance over his shoulder, saw the flabbergasted expression on Ichigo's face, and faced forwards again quickly to hide his smile. "Mm" he hummed in affirmative, "Truly breath-taking. I, personally, rather enjoy watching the moon shine across the koi ponds. The effect is almost ethereal, in a stunningly ironic way."
Ichigo stumbled suddenly. Is this what Jūshirō had? Was the gap between them truly this big?
"I'll show you around properly tomorrow, Ichigo" said Jūshirō, his good nature finally winning out. "It's been a while since I've fed the koi, in fact. It's a very therapeutic way to pass the time." This was entirely true, Jūshirō did indeed spend a great deal of time feeding the koi in the ponds for the very reason he had stated. It was a sort of mental release, and allowed him to think properly about subjects he might have been too preoccupied, or ill, to think about otherwise. Alternatively, he could not think at all and lose himself in the swirling works of art the fish made in the water as they swam about.
Ichigo could only nod dumbly in response, his head was still trying to get around the sheer size of this place, let alone the fact that Jūshirō whiled away the hours feeding fish in his own private gardens. He realized that he'd never seen his friend in this setting before, and it hit him properly for the first time that Jūshirō was actually a noble heir of some wealth, and yet he had still befriended a petty thief who lived in a shed with a hole in the wall. Ichigo felt, not for the first time, extremely glad to have a friend such as Jūshirō, he didn't have to be a genius to know people like the white haired, sickly, yet healthy hearted boy were very few and far between.
They continued to walk in silence after this, with Ichigo slowly regaining his composure whilst Jūshirō gave him the time he knew his friend needed to do so. If Ichigo was still having mild palpitations regarding the size of his family's grounds during the physical evaluation, he would certainly fail; something neither of them wanted to happen. Thankfully Ichigo was fully recovered by the time they reached the sliding screen doors a minute or so later, and had regained his composure enough to not trip over the slightly raised runners that the screen door moved on.
Sabūrō, meanwhile, had pushed the screen doors wide and was now making his way to the far side of the long, rectangular room to where three sitting cushions were placed. After giving his friend an encouraging smile, Jūshirō moved to join him; taking up the second out of the three seats on Sabūrō's right. Ichigo, meanwhile, stood in the centre of the room, having not been invited to sit, and fought a pitched battle with his urge to fidget. Ichigo had never been nervous before, it was an entirely new experience for him, but he knew the importance of what was about to happen. He knew that he had to prove himself to Sabūrō, or the opportunity that had been gift-wrapped and placed squarely in his lap would slip away and he would never get to know what could have been. He would go back to his shed, to his thieving, and a life of constant uncertainty and 'what-if's, he wasn't even sure if Jūshirō would be able to speak to him anymore if he were to fail.
No. He had to succeed.
So he packed his nerves into a very, very small box and placed that box in the corner of his brain reserved especially for things he had no desire to dwell upon. Then he squared his shoulders, relaxed his stance, and released a deep breath through his nose.
He would succeed.
Then, without warning, the sun crashed down to earth.
A moment ago, Ichigo could have sworn the temperature had been reasonable, a touch warm, but nothing that would make someone sweat unless they had been exerting themselves. Now, however, all he could feel was the most intense heat. His mind, for whatever reason, was transported back to that day two weeks ago, when the heat had been enough to make everything blurred and out of focus, the feeling he had now was similar and yet worse at the same time. What was more, the intensity of the heat seemed to be increasing steadily, as if the sun had now grown legs and was taking a stroll around the Ukitake manor for the soul purpose of making his life unbearable. He raised his eyes -a surprisingly difficult task- to glance at the other two occupants of the room. Jūshirō seemed to be struggling, his brow was furrowed and his breathing appeared to be laboured. Sabūrō, meanwhile, had a sort of resigned expression on his face that said to the world at large 'I'm going to have to deal with something I really don't want to be dealing with'.
No sooner than Ichigo had made this observation, the screen door was cast open and the sun itself strolled in. Ichigo had assumed that the sun would wear yellow, but instead it appeared to be wearing black and white robes and was carrying a sword. It also seemed to take the form of a menacing looking man with even more menacing looking eyes, framed by thick black brows and accentuated by a long scar that ran from the top of his forehead to just above his right eye. Upon the man's head was a ring of black hair surrounding the top of the scalp, and at the back of this ring there was a long tail, tied up in a traditional fashion. The man walked, much to Sabūrō's irritation, like he owned the place and took his time wandering over towards the third sitting cushion on Sabūrō's right.
As he walked past Ichigo it felt as if the air was melting, and suddenly he found it extremely hard to breathe. He emitted a harsh, raspy gasp that was so barely audible that the sound could have come from an insect.
Despite this, it appeared the mobile sun still managed to hear it. He stopped and glanced at Ichigo, and for the briefest moment Ichigo was standing in the centre of a burning star- then the heat simply vanished. Ichigo blinked, barely giving himself time to register that his lungs were working properly before he started taking great gulps of air, leaning over on his knees. He wondered at exactly what that had been, why the temperature seemed to be controlled by a crazy-looking old man and why said man had to appear now of all times. The fairness of this situation seemed severely lacking.
Whilst Ichigo lamented the loss of his composure, the stranger continued his walk across the room with an ease of gait that belayed his imposing stature. "Ukitake-dono" rumbled the man, Ichigo had to glance up to make sure he hadn't swapped places with a volcano, "I apologize for holding you up." He didn't look very sorry at all, in fact the entire sentence had been completed with a wolf-like grin, and he hadn't even bowed to show respect.
Unsurprisingly, Sabūrō had noticed as well, and his frown became intense enough to cause bodily harm. "In future, please refrain from doing so" it was as close to a snap as Ichigo ever expected to hear from the, thus far, calm and collected clan patriarch. "And please keep better control of your reiatsu, it effects my son's illness" Sabūrō indicated the still panting Jūshirō with a slight tilt of the head, and this time the crazy man did manage to look apologetic.
"My apologies for any harm done" said he, folding partially into a small bow. Ichigo expected that this was the best the man was capable of giving. He didn't seem to be one for showing respect to those of higher social status or caring about social status at all, and he certainly didn't appear to be a man known for making heartfelt apologies. The words hadn't sounded particularly sincere, but the bow was enough.
It seemed that Sabūrō had been following a similar train of thought, because he let out a long winded sigh and gestured to the remaining cushion. "As long as you restrain yourself in the future."
The man, now sitting upon his cushion, chuckled. "I'm not so accustomed to spending time amongst weaker souls. Most in the Seireitei can withstand my reiatsu…" he paused, then shrugged "…at least to some extent."
Sabūrō scowled and the air seemed to become thick with tension. "This is not the Seireitei, Yamamoto-sōtaichō. Souls out here in the Rukongai are much weaker, something you should be well aware of", this statement was punctuated by a glare. Ichigo, watching the two interact, couldn't help but feel there was some sort of history between them. The look Sabūrō had on his face was one of long-suffering, not something that could be attained in one or two brief meetings, and this Yamamoto character appeared to be intentionally trying to piss Sabūrō off.
Yamamoto smirked, "It is no fault of mine that the souls out here have little spiritual power to speak of, why should I not be able to travel without concerning myself over my own reiatsu?"
"Because", Sabūrō sounded even more tense now, "as a Shinigami it is your duty to protect those people, which means refraining from suffocating them with your reiatsu! What is more, bandying about such power attracts hollows. How many did you leave in your wake on the journey here? How many have suffered at the hands of your callousness?"
There followed a heavy silence, during which Ichigo and Jūshirō exchanged a look. One that said 'I have no idea what's going on here but I don't want to risk asking'. It was clear the two of them had some kind of feud, a long standing one as well considering the heat that was injected into Sabūrō's voice and the heat that was radiating from Yamamoto. Ichigo wondered, and not for the first time since Yamamoto had entered the room, just exactly what the old man was doing here. If he had understood correctly, and he was fairly sure he had, the man came from the Seireitei- the walled city that lay to the south of where they were now. If that was true, then Yamamoto had very little reason to come all the way out here to visit a minor noble clan, given the fact that the biggest ones around were sitting right on his doorstep. What was more, Ichigo could think of very little reason why a captain-commander of all things was taking an interest in his physical assessment. It wasn't like he could make people melt with his aura like Yamamoto could, though his scowl could make people sweat.
He doubted it was quite the same thing.
The staring contest between the two older men was ended abruptly when one of the guardsmen entered the room, and they reverted to watching the room at large as if nothing had happened, expressions placid and postures relaxed. The guardsman, having felt the positively murderous aura leave the room like a strong gust of wind when he opened the door, faltered slightly at the threshold- staring and blinking as if he just been informed Ukitake Sabūrō actually had a temper, let alone one capable of snapping. Ichigo could sympathise, he was still trying to get his head around that himself.
After a moment more of owlish blinking, the guardsman gathered himself and dropped to a knee. "Ukitake-dono! Reporting as requested!" the man practically bellowed, Ichigo winced. He was quickly discovering he struggled with over-stated enthusiasm.
Sabūrō smiled, though there was still the ghost of the earlier tension to it. "Thank you for your punctuality, Sautsaki-san" the man beamed, almost splitting his head in half with the act, and fell into a complete -and vastly over-exaggerated- bow complete with sparkles.
"Of course, Ukitake-dono!"
"Now" Sabūrō deftly cut off any further yelling, "May I present to you Kurosaki Ichigo-san? He is applying for the vacant position." Ichigo scowled as the scrutinizing gaze of what he now knew to be the head guardsman fell on him.
How on earth was he going to be able to work under such a nut-job?
"I have already given him a verbal interview, and he understands completely how important the position is to the safety of my family. Furthermore, Jūshirō has been training him in the use of a sword for some time", Ichigo caught Jūshirō wincing, "and claims he is particularly competent. Perhaps you could evaluate this claim for me?"
The implication was clear. Ichigo's scowl morphed into a puzzled frown, he had been aware he would be facing a senior member of the guard- but the head-guard himself? It seemed a little much for an assessment.
"A wise decision, Ukitake-dono! I shall ensure the adequacy of the candidate as you request!" With that, Sautsaki turned to face Ichigo and all the joviality and over-the-top admiration disappeared in an instant. "Testing the mettle of potential recruits allows us to weed out any potential weak links in our protective chain. If you are not worthy of defending this household and those who dwell within, it will be revealed shortly. Prepare yourself, Kurosaki Ichigo!"
Without any further ado the head-guard launched himself into motion, coming at Ichigo with all the speed of a striking snake. As he approached at high speed, the katana Ichigo had observed strapped to his waist flew from its sheath and into an upwards slash aimed for Ichigo's midsection. Some may had considered the strike far too fast for someone with only two weeks training to defend against, in fact it could be suggested that the attack should have been far too fast for someone so inexperienced to even see. Ichigo, however, could see it. He could see it very clearly, so clearly that his own katana was freed of its sheath and blocking the strike far faster than anyone in the room had expected. To Ichigo, the attack had been flawless, but slow. If he had failed to block it, it would have surely rendered him unable to fight, but would have stopped short of killing him; which he assumed was the point. This was negated by the fact that Ichigo also felt he could have blocked it with his eyes shut.
Ichigo pushed Sautsaki's sword away and countered with a slash aimed for his opponent's neck, but Sautsaki jumped away before it got close enough to call it a hit. Ichigo decided to press his attack, however, and closed the distance again with a thrust towards the stomach that Sautsaki had to twist away from due to Ichigo being too close to effectively parry. He then turned the thrust into a slash, using his forwards momentum to carry him through whilst he swung behind him, all the while pivoting on his foot so that the attack itself followed through. This time, Sautsaki blocked the slash, and immediately jumped back before darting in again with a downwards strike that might have opened Ichigo's chest from neck to sternum had he not raised his katana horizontally in a block. Sautsaki pressed against Ichigo's defence for a few moments, testing its strength, then jumped back again when it became evident that it wasn't going to budge.
"Impressive, Kurosaki-san" said Sautsaki, falling into an attacking stance with his sword held in front of him. "Your speed is remarkable, for one of your height and build, yet your attacks still hold strength" his back foot shifted, "But I'm far from done!"
Sautsaki then launched another series of attacks that came with frightening speed. There was slashes aimed at every part of Ichigo's body intersected with regular thrusts towards his chest and stomach, and once towards his eye. Ichigo managed to block them all though, despite the speed and ferocity the attacks came with. In fact, it still felt easy.
Ichigo puzzled at this whilst absentmindedly blocking Sautsaki's attacks. The head-guard was clearly a very experienced swordsman, and his strikes were as precise as they were potentially deadly- but Ichigo couldn't help feeling as if he had seen and faced better. Much better. But why was that? He had only been training with a sword for two weeks, and while Jūshirō was good he wasn't as good as Sautsaki. Maybe it had something to do with that strange feeling, the feeling he got whenever he held his sword. Over the last two weeks it had been getting more intense, he had been progressing in his training so fast that Jūshirō was struggling to keep up with him by the time the two weeks was up. At times, Ichigo reflected as he deflected another thrust with a flick of the wrist, it was like there was a quiet voice in his head telling him what to do. When his swings were to slow, the voice would 'tell him' to increase his speed, when his defence was weak it would 'tell him' to make it stronger. Of course, there wasn't actually a voice in his head, that was just ridiculous.
Kurosaki Ichigo was not crazy.
'A voice in his head' was simply the best way to describe what the experience felt like. It never directly guided his hand, letting him make the necessary corrections himself, but it didn't leave him wondering what he was doing wrong when he messed up; it was like having a teacher, in a way.
As Ichigo blocked yet another swing, he noticed that Sautsaki's breathing had become laboured and his swings were slowing down. He had been on the defensive long enough to wear his over-enthusiastic opponent down. All that was left was to finish the fight.
Attack from the right Ichigo
He did so, swinging horizontally at Sautsaki's side with great speed. The head-guard hastily blocked the swing and attempted to counter with a looping swing for Ichigo's shoulder, only to find it easily blocked. Ichigo then feinted to the right again, successfully fooling Sautsaki long enough for him to spin three-hundred degrees and place his sword against Sautsaki's neck.
There was a pause.
Then there came a clapping.
Ichigo glanced up in the direction the three non-combatants, noticing that the two Ukitakes were throwing questioning glances towards Yamamoto; the source of the clapping. Plastered on his face was a grin that stopped just short of predatory, and his eyes shone with something Ichigo couldn't place.
"Well fought, Kurosaki" said Yamamoto, punctuating his name with one final clap. "This fool didn't even know what hit him!" he laughed, a sound that heralded untold destruction in Ichigo's mind. He withdrew his sword from a now seething Sautsaki and replaced it in its sheath, then bowed to his opponent, who silently returned it.
"Indeed, well fought, Kurosaki-san" Sabūrō spoke up. "I believe that this concludes the physical assessment, unless Sautsaki-san has any objections?"
The man in question shook his head, "Absolutely none, Ukitake-dono!" he yelled, the previous slight already forgotten. Ichigo rolled his eyes, the man was an emotional mountain range; all peaks and valleys.
"Then let me be first to congratulate you, Kurosaki-san" Sabūrō smiled kindly, "You have proven yourself a very capable warrior, and I'd be a fool to turn down such talent."
"Too late for that" everyone turned to face Yamamoto, who heaved a sigh and stood from his cushion. "I shall take my leave, I've seen all that I needed to see." He strolled towards the door without even a by-your-leave, though from the look on Sabūrō's face he had expected such actions.
When he walked past Ichigo, however, he paused and turned his head to regard him with one, narrowed eye. Then, he quickly clapped Ichigo on the shoulder. "I meant it, kid, good fight. You should join the Gotei someday" he then removed his hand continued his walk. Ichigo, however, was not paying attention to this.
When the old man had touched him, it had felt as if someone had kicked him hard in the chest and forced all the wind out. Though he had managed to keep himself upright through sheer stubbornness, he had been mentally sent spinning; unable to gather himself until the hand was removed and Yamamoto had moved a sufficient distance away. All he been able to comprehend for those few seconds was an unbearable pressure, like someone had placed a great weight on his shoulders and then lifted it off again before his legs buckled beneath him. What was more, the pressure had burned. His body and his mind. It was like the heat coming from Yamamoto earlier, but condensed and intensified then injected straight into his bloodstream with a white-hot needle. The whole thing left him panting, wide-eyed and confused.
Understandably, therefore, he flinched violently when another hand landed upon his shoulder. When it withdrew again, Ichigo glanced up into the worried eyes of Jūshirō. "Ichigo?" the unspoken question was obvious, personified by the pensive frown and still hovering hand, poised as if to prevent Ichigo from falling.
"I'm…" Ichigo took a few more deep breaths, calming himself and recollecting his melted composure. "I'm alright" he managed a small smile that seemed to do a very poor job of reassuring Jūshirō, "Seriously, Jū, I'm fine!"
The hand that had been hovering at around shoulder height retreated, but the pensive frown remained. "You were completely out of it, I called several times."
Ichigo blinked, he hadn't realized how out of it he had been, nor for how long he had been out of it for. "Sorry, Jū" he didn't know what else to say. All he could think of at that moment was the sensation of having the sun rammed into one's stomach, if he thought about it he could remember being distinctly frightened.
Jūshirō perked an eyebrow. "You're apologising now? That must have been a traumatising experience…" the jab successfully brought Ichigo out of his dull thoughts.
"Oi!" he seethed, shaking a fist at his friend. "You make it sound like I never apologize for anything!"
"That's because you don't."
Unsurprisingly, Jūshirō let the matter drop after that.
Ichigo followed Sautsaki into the long, low guard barracks he had walked past earlier, taking a right straight through the door and heading to the end of a long, narrow corridor with doors all up the right-hand side. Shortly after Jūshirō had ascertained his health -through the medium of pressing his buttons- Sabūrō had declared that Ichigo would start working the very next afternoon, and dismissed him and Sautsaki with instructions to locate Ichigo's new quarters. This meant that he was away from Jūshirō's worried expression and questioning glances, and he could finally think about what Yamamoto had done to him.
Well…he would be able to, once Sautsaki had stopped bouncing off the walls.
"Here we are!" exclaimed the head-guard, stopping in front of the door at the very end of the corridor. "This room belonged to your predecessor, but considering his conduct he will never be in a position to use it again! To think one could possess enough nerve to even attempt to violate Haru-sama!" this was punctuated by a dramatic 'harrumph'. During his grumbling, Sautsaki had been fiddling with a key chain attached to his belt- going through a host of old, worn looking keys in search of the needed one. How he could tell them apart, Ichigo couldn't even begin to guess. They all looked exactly the same.
After some more jingling, and some further grumbling, Sautsaki pushed one of the keys into the lock and twisted to produce a soft 'click'.
"These are your new quarters, Kurosaki-san!" said he, strolling into the room and throwing open the curtains, allowing the setting sun to light the room. "A bit on the small-side, I know! We all must start somewhere, dear boy! But, for now, you must be exhausted! I shall let you have some peace and quiet to reflect on today's events!" With this he strode back to the door, throwing over his shoulder on the way out "Meet me in the southern gardens first thing tomorrow afternoon, and I shall begin your orientation!"
Then he was gone, taking his overbearing enthusiasm with him -though it did take some time to completely leave the room. It was like a smog.
Ichigo flopped down onto the- his futon. It was a hard thing for him to get his head around, actually owning a space of his own. Though, he had to remind himself, technically it was Sabūrō's property; he was just letting it out to him in exchange for his service. Just as Sautsaki had pointed out, the space was small. Four metres long and three across, if he were any judge. His futon was rolled out along the left wall -facing in from the doorway- and along the other wall was a selection of hooks for the purpose of hanging up the uniform Sabūrō had promised him, along with a single rack for holding the katana Sabūrō had also promised him. That was another thing, Ichigo had never had a single coin to his name; he'd stolen what he'd needed to survive. The Ukitakes, however, had enough coins to give him a sword. Not lend. Give. Sabūrō had made himself very clear on that fact, the sword would be his and he would be responsible for looking after it- by which Ichigo assumed he meant polishing it. The only other thing in his room worthy of note was the writing desk, which sat against the wall beneath the window. Ichigo wasn't entirely sure what he would need a writing desk for, but if the situation ever arose that required him to have one, he wouldn't have to go and find one.
His observations complete, he laid back on the futon and scowled at the ceiling. There was a lot to think about, he knew, the day having been as eventful as it was…but his mind kept going back to that awful sensation. He had tried to put words to it in his mind, both at the time and immediately afterwards, without much success- because it was just that: awful. Overwhelming pain and unbearable heat, and so much more besides, all at once. Did it have something to do with the man's aura, his reiatsu? If Ichigo thought hard enough, he could remember that it had been like all of the heat from when Yamamoto had first walked in pushed solely into the palm that landed on his shoulder.
Ichigo sighed and covered his eyes with a forearm, this was giving him a headache. He didn't know what Yamamoto wanted with him, for he assumed there was something, but whatever it was, he had a feeling, would not be good.
It was with this thought in his mind that he fell asleep.
His eyes snapped open.
The first thing he noticed was that this certainly wasn't where he went to sleep, in fact he was fairly sure this wasn't the same world in which he went to sleep. Instead he was facing an ocean of sand, stretching as far as the eye could see and probably much further. What was more, there was just sand and nothing else. No trees, no animals, no people, no houses…nothing. Above him was a clear blue sky, wall-to-wall, the only occupant of which was an ashen-white sun. He frowned, thinking that the sun should have had more colour to it.
Startled, he spun around in a circle, scanning for the source of the voice. He hadn't been sure of it at first, as he had still been partially asleep, but now he knew for certain that the voice was there. It was hard to make out over the strong wind that whipped up sand into his eyes, but he could make out his name. How did they know his name?
More importantly: where was he?
He growled low in his throat, he hated being pissed about like this. "Who are you!?" he yelled to the sand in general. He didn't even try to shout in the right direction, it sounded as if the voice was coming from everywhere at once.
He growled again, louder this time. "Where am I!?" his voice rose in volume; the volume of the wind rose with it. "Answer me, damnit!"
"That's not a damn answer, bastard!"
"Can you even hear me!?" He was confused, so desperately confused. This whole situation made no sense. He could remember very clearly going to sleep in a room that was very noticeably lacking in sand, and wind, and mysterious, creepy, coming-from-everywhere-at-once voices. What was more, it seemed as if the wind speed was continuously rising, whipping up the sand more, and more until eventually it had formed a massive whirlwind with him at the epicentre.
He was trapped.
Then a silhouette appeared in the storm, whether standing on the outside or inside the twisting sand itself Ichigo couldn't tell. All he could make out was a vaguely human shape.
Ichigo, can you hear me?
"Yes!" he yelled at the figure, "Yes I can hear you! What's going on!?"
Ichigo…can you hear me? My name is…"
"What!?" he screamed, "I don't…I can't hear you!"
The sandstorm was closing in. It's walls getting closer and closer with every passing moment, seeming to suck all the air from the area still within it.
Ichigo screamed when it caught him.
Several hours later found Ichigo yawning and leaning most of his weight against the spear he'd been provided for his shift, watching the vacant road with even more vacant eyes. He had been standing as such for three hours, and had been on duty for eleven; meaning that darkness had long since fallen. This also meant that he was unspeakably tired. It turned out that his stressful experience the night prior had been a dream, or more accurately a nightmare, but he had only comprehended this fact after he had woken up sweating and clasping twisted sheets.
It had looked real, and it had felt real as well. Even now Ichigo could remember clearly the sensation of sand whipping against his face, of a wind that seemed to come from every direction at once. He could still hear the echo of that voice in his mind, the faint whisper on the wind that barely reached him yet still reverberated around his skull. Why hadn't the voice been able to hear him? Had it been the raging winds? Surely if that were so he wouldn't have been able to hear it at all, and he had been shouting at the top of his lungs whilst the unknown voice showed no signs of strain whatsoever.
Ichigo groaned and massaged his head, thankful that he was alone for this particular shift.
Despite this gate being the main entrance to the Ukitake grounds, it was not guarded by two people after the tenth hour in the evening; nor were any of the other points around the grounds. Instead, the guards were spread out along the walls to make sure nobody tried to slip over them under the cover of darkness. For a complete madman, Ichigo had thought upon learning this, Sautsaki was actually fairly switched on. The head-guard had been Ichigo's partner that day for the purpose of orientation, and had explained the key points of how everything worked with complete efficiency born with an ease of long practice. Within the span of eight hours Ichigo knew everything he needed to know: where he needed to be and at what times, proper protocol for receiving visitors (expected and unexpected), procedure when the grounds came under attack, protocol for protecting members of the household when 'abroad', etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
What Ichigo hadn't been told the protocol for was 'dealing with crippling boredom', he would have to ask Sautsaki about it.
Another interesting thing he'd learnt was that the purpose of the large, metal spear he was currently leaning on was not, in fact, combat. It was an instrument for keeping unknowns away from one's person until such a time at which they can be deemed a threat or not a threat. At the point at which an unknown was deemed a threat, the spear was an initial attacking implement which could be quickly discarded in favour of the, much more practical, katana that was currently strapped to Ichigo's waist. If anything, this made Ichigo feel better because now he knew he wasn't expected to use the spear as a primary weapon, and therefore didn't have to do any form of training in its use; meaning more rest time.
Ichigo yawned again, wondering whether half-an-hour had passed yet. He hadn't really known what to expect when he'd started first thing that afternoon, but staring at the same patch of earth for four hours somehow hadn't registered as an option. He wondered idly at how much convincing, or sweet pastry, it would take to get Jūshirō to stand with him for this last part. At least before he had had Sautsaki rambling happily in his ear to take away some of the monotony, even if said rambling got extremely irritating at times.
Ichigo sighed, just standing out here by himself was torture. Boredom aside, it was just so very… isolated. Ichigo couldn't remember a time when he had sighed this much within a span of four hours.
Thankfully, however, he was starting to hear movement in the grounds behind him, indicating -he hoped- that the next shift was rousing themselves. He was fairly sure they would leave themselves half an hour to eat something before coming out, so he guessed that was how long he had left to stand still and stare at a deserted road as if there were something utterly interesting on it.
So he stood there and waited, counting the seconds more than watching the road, until finally he heard the sweet sounds of a well-oiled hinge announcing that the gate behind him was opening. It only opened a small amount, just enough to allow a person passage through it, and from within the walls his replacement emerged, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Mornin'" said the other guard, reaching out to accept the spear Ichigo had shoved eagerly towards him. "Anything happen?"
Ichigo grunted tiredly, "No."
His counterpart sighed, almost sounding resigned. "Aa… nothing ever does" another sigh. Then he glanced over at Ichigo, realizing for the first time that he'd never seen him before. "You're the new guy, right?" Ichigo nodded slowly, "You get used to it, the 'nothing happening' bit I mean. Still boring as hell sometimes but, hey, it pays well, right?"
Ichigo, despite his fatigue, could see what the guy was trying to say and grunted in affirmative, too tired to form the necessary shapes his mouth required to make coherent words.
The other man laughed. "Go get some sleep, ya look like crap" said he, waving a hand at Ichigo in clear dismissal. Ichigo happily complied.
Or at least, he tried to.
He managed to successfully get through the gate without walking into it, and half-way down the path towards the house without tripping over his leaden feet. The treacherous seeds of hope began to flower in his mind as he thought of the warm bed roll waiting in his room, and how he'd be far too exhausted to dream tonight.
Then the door opened, revealing a very-much-awake Jūshirō. The hope garden was trampled mercilessly.
"Ichigo!" his friend called out, descending the one step to the path and briskly walking over to him. Ichigo attempted, valiantly, not to look too grumpy lest his friend take it personally. "Your shift just finished, yes?" Ichigo nodded and offered a tired smile, "Then would you like to see the western gardens? Normally I would wait until the morning, but it's a full moon", Jūshirō motioned up towards the object in question, "And the ponds can be quite stunning at such a time."
Ichigo's smile was like glass, he was at a loss. On the one hand he was so tired he was fairly sure he could fall asleep on a bed of nails and not wake up, yet on the other hand Jūshirō looked particularly enthusiastic about this and Ichigo was loathe to turn him down. He realized his friend was likely exited to show him around his home for the first time, especially considering he was going to be living here for the conceivable future. Despite his nature Ichigo got the impression that Jūshirō didn't have many friends, or at least didn't keep many. Whether that was due to his illness, or due to the fact that his illness didn't permit him to stray far from the grounds on any basis that might be considered 'regular' Ichigo didn't know. What he did know was that turning Jūshirō down now might hurt him, and he simply could not bring himself to do that.
"Sure" Ichigo replied, feigning casual enthusiasm in order to hide some of his fatigue and mostly succeeding. "Lead the way."
Jūshirō gestured for Ichigo to follow him and wandered out onto the lawns to the right of the path, Ichigo falling into an easy step beside him. They walked in a companionable silence, the only sounds permeating the night air being the soft padding of sandaled feet on grass and the barely audible sounds of breathing. The night, Ichigo noticed now he wasn't so focused on his own boredom, was a pleasant one. The air was crisp but not cold, and there was only the slightest hint of a breeze wafting gently over their heads and across their shoulders, not even enough to ruffle clothing such was its softness. At the edge of what could be considered the northern gardens was a pool of shallow water, in which Ichigo could make out the tall, shadowed forms of reeds and the faint outline of water lilies, overshadowed by the dark form of a bridge spanning the gap between shores. By the light of the moon he could make out the soft ripples the floating lilies were creating, and how they drifted idly towards the edge of the pool. If the koi ponds Jūshirō wanted him to see were even half as tranquil, Ichigo figured the trip would be worth it.
The two continued past the pond and towards what Ichigo assumed to be the Western Gardens. At first, all he could see was a small summer house slung low against the horizon, and an expanse of grass on his left that he identified as the sizable southern fields, with one the many paths that came from the great tree arrowing towards the same building they were currently approaching. Jūshirō's chosen route was eventually intercepted by this path, and they stepped onto it, following it around the building to front of the building.
When they reached the front Ichigo's jaw impacted the floor at terminal velocity.
He hadn't been able to see anything from behind the building because the ground in front of it sloped downwards sharply, allowing the fairly modest summer house to hide what Ichigo knew to be one of the most amazing things he'd ever seen. Before him was a veritable forest of trees, some clumped together in small groups whist others stood in the gaps between them like bridges. Then, as if the trees by themselves weren't enough, there were ponds regularly dotted amongst them with a neat network of paths leading to each of them.
"You'll like it better when they bloom" said Jūshirō, who had been standing quietly next to Ichigo and allowing him to take in the sight. "All of these are Sakura trees. Around April this area of the gardens is the most beautiful, when the Sakura blossom it's like a sea of pink." He smiled somewhat wistfully, Ichigo would have to wait another ten months to see them in all their glory.
Though, he reasoned as his smile became less wistful and more amused, Ichigo seemed taken enough with them as they were. His friend's jaw was yet to leave the floor, and his eyes were as wide as one of his Otou-sama's best pastry plates. "This…this is amazing" Ichigo managed to force out after a time, voice quiet to such a degree that the light breeze almost carried it away.
Jūshirō laughed softly, he had been expecting a similar reaction; given how Ichigo had been gaping all the way around north, east, and south portions of the grounds. He made a motion for Ichigo to follow him, and led him down the steps needed to traverse the steep embankment. "The koi ponds glow if you stand in the right places, sadly the top of the bank is at the wrong angle" said he, reaching the bottom of the steps and choosing one of the curving paths at random. "They're much better to look at up close, regardless. It's hard to see the koi themselves from up there; much less feed them."
From within the folds of his Yukata, Jūshirō produced two neatly folded bags and passed one of them to Ichigo, whom managed to break off from his gawping long enough to check the contents. Inside the bags were an assortment of diced carrots and lettuce from the kitchens, fine enough for a fish to eat without choking, he guessed. Ichigo still raised an eyebrow at the vegetable matter, yet said nothing. After all, who was he to question the dietary habits of fish?
A few minutes later the two of them were standing on a small, wooden bridge suspended over a pond which rested a small distance away from the embankment, and once again Ichigo was struck speechless. This bridge must have been positioned intentionally at one of the angles Jūshirō had mentioned earlier, because from here the pond was glowing with the light of the moon. The surface of the pond was iridescent, punctuated by ripples and the excited splashing of the koi as Jūshirō threw spreads of food down for them. It was then Ichigo noticed the patterns the koi were making in the water, uncoordinated and yet remarkably precise at the same time. If he squinted hard enough, he could make out patterns.
"This is where I come when my illness flares up" Jūshirō stated suddenly, almost casually, breaking the steady silence between them.
Ichigo frowned momentarily. There had been, since Jūshirō had told him of his illness, an unspoken agreement between them not to make a big deal out of it. Even when Ichigo had been angry at the unfairness of it all, and frustrated he could do nothing about it they had said nothing on the subject until Jūshirō had had enough of lingering frustration in the air. So the fact that his friend had brought it up now was strange, Ichigo wondered whether he had planned it.
He offered a small 'Mm' sound by way of reply, realizing that he hadn't done so after nearly two seconds.
"Of course, there are days when I cannot even leave the house" Jūshirō's tone was dangerously close to bitter, making Ichigo tense slightly and ready a heated retort to whatever admission of weakness he hoped his friend wasn't about to utter. "But those days are thankfully few."
Ichigo relaxed a touch, Jūshirō wasn't one for negativity, and hearing such a tone seeping into his friend's voice had been jarring to say the least. "Aa, I can see why" said he after a short pause, gesturing to the pond.
"It's calming" Jūshirō nodded his agreement, "therapeutic even. For a while the fits simply stop coming, it's like there's an…aura about the place."
Ichigo nodded, looking about him. There was such a sense of peace in the air that he couldn't help but agree, it was very tranquil. He glanced over at Jūshirō, for a moment taken by the temptation to ask his friend why he was telling him this, but he thought better of it. If Jūshirō had a reason, he would have told Ichigo what it was by now; that was just the type of person he was. It seemed he was telling Ichigo for no reason other than the fact he would listen, and that he trusted Ichigo not to show contempt or malice.
Suddenly, Jūshirō pointed out a specific koi. "That's Ilaniya" said he, following the fish with his finger so Ichigo wouldn't miss it. "She's the only one I named, though I'm not entirely sure why" he laughed, a little sheepishly, when Ichigo threw him a sceptical look.
"You nobles really are strange" said Ichigo, completely deadpan.
"We can have our eccentricities."
"Sounds like another word for 'strange' to me…"
Jūshirō laughed quietly, "I suppose so, though it would be even more strange for me to have names for every single koi in the gardens."
Ichigo grinned, "True. Besides, you'd probably lose track of 'em all."
"And if I were to write a list?"
"Then you'd be a crazy nobleman that names all of his hundreds of fish, and I'd probably stop associating with you" said Ichigo with a grin that belayed his serious tone.
Jūshirō laughed again, louder this time. "Then I suppose I'll spare you the trouble of avoiding me within my own grounds and have just the one named koi."
Ichigo snorted in response, and after that there was a curious sort of pause. Everything became naturally still, and yet the sounds around the pond seemed to grow more audible. Trees rustled, koi splashed, water rippled and lapped at the edge of the pond. Neither of the two spoke, they didn't feel any need to, and so instead they stood in silence for a while, watching the koi in the ponds and how the moon splayed across the water. Eventually, when Ichigo's eyes simply refused to stay open any longer, Jūshirō led the way back towards the house, at which point they parted ways to go back to their respective quarters.
True to the nature of the koi ponds, Ichigo's sleep was peaceful that night.
Ichigo's true initiation to the Ukitake Household Guard came five months later. It was the first day of December, and as such the rotations had been shuffled about -as they were every month- so that a few of those who had been pulling nightshifts before were now doing the morning shift, and those they had swapped with had now taken their places on the nightshift. Ichigo was one of those lucky people whom got shuffled onto the morning shift this month, and so he was up 'bright' (dark) and early to take up his post and relieve the one who'd taken his place a couple of days prior. He ate a quick breakfast curtesy of the house kitchens and was out patrolling the walls within half-an-hour, expecting this particular day to be just like any other.
Indeed, his first stint passed without incident, and he switched places with the guard further down the wall without any hassle at all; just like any other day. The majority of his second stint proceeded in much the same fashion as well, with the first clue that today was not going to be just like any other day coming near the end of it.
He had been walking up and down the paths around the southern part of the grounds, occasionally taking breaks to sit under the tree in the centre and look at the sky as he usually did when patrolling this area. They were so massive that one found themselves needing a break every now and again, lest they tire themselves out with another five hours left on their shift. It was during one of these breaks that he noticed the approach of Sautsaki, who was striding down the path in such a fashion that Ichigo decided that maybe the head-guard was looking for him. He quickly stood up and made a show of looking around, just in case Sautsaki had caught him gazing at the sky, but was surprised when the other man simply waved him back down.
"Do not let me interrupt your rest, Kurosaki-san!" shouted Sautsaki, coming to a halt before Ichigo with an understanding smile on his face. "Everyone does the same thing, the southern grounds being as extensive as they are! Do not feel embarrassed!"
Ichigo sighed and rolled his eyes in response, by now he was used to Sautsaki's antics and knew the older man could really care less about what others thought of him. Ichigo was also yet to see the man truly shout, despite his permanently raised voice. He had heard stories, of course; the other guards loved to gossip. Most of them involved some individual or another insulting, however unintentionally, Ukitake Sabūrō or his family, which then usually escalated to the head-guard shouting numerous obscenities about the offending party/parties and their respective lineage. Ichigo would have gladly paid money to see such a thing.
Uncaring about his subordinate's blatant disrespect, Sautsaki continued. "I have come to inform you that, during your time watching over the main gate this morning, we will be receiving a visitor from another noble clan!" Ichigo raised an eyebrow, he'd never had to deal with this before; having managed to avoid all other visitors (of which there weren't many) thus far. "I am aware that this is your first time welcoming a guest, but do not worry! For you have been briefed on such matters by myself and Ukitake-dono! With such instruction, what could possibly go wrong!?" With this Sautsaki began walking back the way he came, "Good luck, Kurosaki-san!"
Ichigo, like every other time Sautsaki interacted with him, had to wait a few moments for his brain to catch up, by which time Sautsaki was already rounding the corner to the eastern section of the grounds. When he said 'used to Sautsaki's antics', what he meant to say was 'able to not jump out of his skin whenever Sautsaki emerged shouting from the nearest dark corner'; which had happened on a few occasions. Testing his reflexes, he said.
Trying to give him a heart attack, said Ichigo.
At present, however, Ichigo was left with the knowledge that he would likely have to welcome a guest, but not the knowledge of who that guest was. According to Sabūrō, addressing visitors properly was essential, and yet he could not do this without knowing their name first. Ichigo muttered a curse to himself, tilting his head back to hit the trunk of the tall tree. He'd just have to wing it, and if he got it wrong he would just have to apologise and hope whoever it was didn't take mortal offense.
He spent the next hour-and-a-half trying not to worry too much, reminding himself that it would be past eight o'clock and he'd have another guard with him. Eight o'clock was the point at which Sautsaki deemed the night to be truly gone at the moment, and as such the guards were doubled up again rather than spread out. They could see further past that time, and therefore didn't necessarily need to be in two places at once to properly patrol the walls. Ichigo took some solace in this fact, knowing that -as the newest member of the guard- all his colleagues would have more experience.
So when the call to change position was sounded, Ichigo was quietly confident that he'd avoid being executed on the spot for insulting seventeen long-dead ancestors and the family cat. He strolled out the main gate, making sure to shut it behind him, and took up his position on the left-hand side of it, sending a nod to the man standing on the other side.
The two didn't interact whilst they stood there, as it was well known that Ichigo didn't speak to anyone outside of Jūshirō, and occasionally Sabūrō when the Ukitake patriarch came to check up on the newest addition to his guard. Everyone also knew that Sautsaki didn't count. He spoke to you, and rarely the other way around. The other guards were content to let Ichigo be, he did his job well and seemed reliable enough; which was more than good enough for them. Plus, it didn't seem as if he liked drinking or like hehad any decent stories either, so he'd probably be pretty boring anyway.
Ichigo was happy to let them think what they wanted, it just meant nobody tried to bother him when he didn't want to be bothered. Which was to say: he never wanted to be bothered. Jūshirō was the lone exception to this rule, because Jūshirō didn't bother him. He was a friend, and Ichigo was happy to make time for him.
The two of them, Ichigo and the other guard, had been standing there for nearly the two full hours, and nothing had happened yet. Ichigo was starting to wonder at whether something had happened to these visitors, or whether something had delayed them. Maybe someone had robbed them? Assassinated them? Maybe someone had misinterpreted the letter, Jūshirō had shown him a letter from another noble family once and the language was so contrived and formal that he'd been unable to make sense of it. Therefore, it wasn't a far stretch for Ichigo to believe that someone in the household could have thought the visitors were coming today when, in fact, they were coming in a decade's time. He probably would have made the same mistake.
He was distracted from his musings by a fidgeting in his peripheral vision, and supressed a sigh so heavy it formed a small hurricane in his mouth. Over the past ten minutes or so his fellow had been increasingly restless, and judging by the number of times the man had crossed and uncrossed his legs whilst still standing up, Ichigo believed he had a very good idea as to why. However, he didn't say anything. This was a grown man in question, if he couldn't take care of such things properly then Ichigo doubted he would have made the grade under Sautsaki. There couldn't be much time left in his shift, he could wait until it was over.
His compatriot changed positions again, the rustling of cloth making Ichigo's eyebrow twitch a little.
A minute later, the cloth rustled again. The twitching intensified.
Another two minutes, and the sound of cloth dragging against cloth as the man changed positions yet again was threatening to give Ichigo a mild aneurism.
One minute later, the rustling sound came again. Ichigo had had enough.
"Yo…" said he, voice deceptively controlled and calm even as the rustling persisted. "If you need to go piss hurry up and go already." How he had managed to keep his voice level for a whole sentence was a mystery, even to him.
The other guard glanced at him with a sheepish smile, "I-I can hold it, don't worry."
Ichigo shook his head, "No, no. You don't understand. I'm telling you: go take a piss." His voice had begun to shake the tinniest bit and he began to emit a dangerous aura, which hung in a cloud above his head. The sound of rustling cloth, once again, permeated his eardrums. "HURRY UP AND GO!"
The other man blanched, just now noticing the ominous clouds hanging above Ichigo's head, occasionally spitting out bolts of lightning annoyance. He quickly scampered off behind the gate when Ichigo turned a scowl that promised impending doom his way, leaving Ichigo alone before the gates to the Ukitake grounds. He breathed a sigh of relief and moved to stand in the centre of the road, as he would when he was guarding the gate by himself, and leant heavily against his spear. By now he imagined there was only twentyish minutes left of his shift, and the visitors had still not appeared. It wasn't as if he could have missed them either, Sabūrō had told him to expect an entourage whenever another noble family visited. There would be guards, a small number of servants, and of course the visitors themselves in some kind of formation that would be extremely hard to overlook. Ichigo pondered for a moment, with all of those people it wasn't hard to imagine that they might be delayed. Such an entourage would probably be slow-moving, after all.
A few more minutes past, and Ichigo was just about to let himself believe he was off the hook when suddenly, he saw someone approaching. At first, all he could see was what appeared to be a small dome bobbing up and down just below the brow of the hill, then the dome began to rise above the downwards curve of the road to reveal that it was, in fact, a hat. Underneath that hat, it eventually became evident, was a young man that was, physically, as old as Jūshirō and himself with long brown hair and an almost insignificant, wispy moustache framing his upper lip. What caught the eye mostly was what the young man was wearing: a bright pink, flowery yukata tied with a teal obi, plus the aforementioned hat. From a distance it made the man look quite ridiculous.
Ichigo's primary concern at that moment, however, was the fact that he was walking directly towards the main gates of the Ukitake compound, and -by extension- him. He stopped leaning on the spear and set himself firmly, his feet planted shoulder width apart. The walking fashion-statement was getting progressively closer, and Ichigo could now see that he wore a genial smile whilst his eyes remained conspicuously hidden. A minute later, and he had drawn to a stop a small distance before Ichigo, who had his hand tightly wrapped around the shaft of his spear.
A hand appeared from within the folds of the stranger's yukata and pushed up the Sugegasa hat to reveal a pair of smiling, grey eyes. "Yare yare…what's with that stern look?" questioned the man in what sounded suspiciously like a pout. "I thought you guys were expecting me…"
Ichigo blinked. 'Expecting him'? Why would they be expecting him? The only people they were expecting today were visitors from another noble clan, and while this man wore clothes of a finer thread it was plain to see that he was no noble.
Ichigo decided to be direct, he'd always liked direct. "Why'd we be expecting you?"
The stranger looked slightly puzzled, but the expression was promptly hidden behind the genial smile again. "Well…" he placed a finger against his chin and looked up at the sky, as if in thought, "I sent a letter to Jū-chan a week ago saying we should catch up some time…and I could've sworn I got one back saying to come today…" The thoughtful look was replaced by a sheepish looking grin, "I might have lost the letter though" said he, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly and laughing. "I've never been any good with little bits of paper."
Ichigo, meanwhile, was distinctly unimpressed. "You expect me to believe that?" he asked, levelling the spear at the man in a move he hoped would ward him off.
Instead the man simply reached out and pushed the point away, "Whoa! Careful" said he with a cheerfully oblivious expression, "You might take someone's eye out with that." He chuckled, which only served to annoy Ichigo.
"Oi! Don't play dumb! I'm telling ya to get out of here!" he pushed the point towards the man again, only to find it pushed away once more.
"But Guard-san" the man whined, drawing out the 'san' to extraordinary length, "I'm sure Jū-chan wouldn't mind if-" the point of the spear cut him off again.
"Shut up! I said get lost!" Ichigo chose to be a touch more aggressive now, and jabbed the spear towards the stranger in the hopes of getting him to back away. The actual result, however, was a little unexpected.
Instead of backing away like Ichigo wanted him to, the man jumped up and -in a remarkable display of balance- landed on the shaft of Ichigo's spear, guiding it all the way to the floor with his weight without falling off.
"I thought I said you should be careful with that, Guard-san" suddenly, most of the joviality had drained from the stranger's voice to leave behind only the ghost of his previous tone. His grey eyes had hardened under the shade of his hat, and Ichigo noticed that his stance had become slightly less relaxed.
Ichigo glared at him, signature scowl forming on his features. This guy had shown up, claiming to be invited by whoever 'Jū-chan' was, and thinks he can just waltz right in without having it confirmed first? He'd got some serious nerve, Ichigo would give him that much.
Just as he was opening his mouth to issue another warning, something along the lines of 'I've got a sharp pointy thing strapped to my waist, would you like to see it?', the gate swung open.
There, in the now open gateway, stood Jūshirō.
"Jūshiro!" called Ichigo with a hint of warning, just as the stranger called a jovial "Hey there, Jū-chan!"
Ichigo whirled on his quarry, "Jū-chan!?" Then he whirled back around to face a groaning Jūshirō, whom had the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, "Jū-chan!?"
Jūshirō, still massaging the bridge of his nose, spoke in a commanding tone. "Ichigo, put the spear down" it certainly wasn't a request. Ichigo dropped the spear, sending the stranger stumbling and attempting to keep his hat from falling off. "You would have saved yourself some trouble if you had just asked him to fetch me, Shunsui."
The stranger, Shunsui, raised a hand to the back of his head once more. "I did mention your name, but Berry-chan here", Ichigo squawked, "Didn't seem to recognize it though" said he, the serious attitude from a few moments ago gone in an instant.
"That's because nobody asides from you calls me 'Jū-chan', Shunsui" Jūshirō released his, now red, nose and sent his long-time friend a deadpan expression. "Not only that, but I believe you may have broken him" he continued, gesturing to a now prone Ichigo whom was muttering something that sounded vaguely like 'Berry-chan' and twitching slightly.
Shunsui chuckled, at least having the wherewithal to sound slightly abashed. "Aa…sorry about that, Jū-chan. Though, I've got to ask, is he a friend of yours?"
Jūshirō simply nodded, groaning again.
This wasn't how he'd wanted his two closest friends to meet.