A/N: What's up guys? Sorry for the...ever-so-slight delay on this chapter, especially after I said they would be more regular -back in April. I won't make any excuses, and henceforth it'd be best to not have any expectations on chapter uploads. They'll get done, and that I will promise, but they might take some time -given the length. Bi-monthly? Maybe? Seems to be the norm with long, multi-chapter fictions with a decent word count.
As always, a huge 'Thank You' to all the people that have been following, favouriting, and reviewing in my absence! Your support keeps the story alive!
MerryKitten: At this stage of his life, I think everything he does has a kind of 'GOT-LOTR' vibe about it. He's ancient, horrifically powerful, and vein -all in equal measure! I expect he would have whisked Ichigo away under any other circumstances. He was probably cackling and cursing! I've been so excited about introducing Shunsui, that encounter had been playing out in my head all day when I eventually got around to writing it -so I'm glad you liked it!
Enjali- I couldn't imagine him reacting any other way, going off of the example of the earliest Bleach chapters!
Alqui- You're not the first person to point out that kinda-sorta typo...it was pointed out to me in beta actually, and I liked it enough to keep it there. Not for any narrative purpose, mind. Just thought it was amusing! Yes, I was referring to FMA. Though I notice your name's since changed. My guess at the time was something to do with explosives.
Hollow Reaper123- The pairing thing has been shelved, for now. I just can't think of any believable way to make one work, whilst ensuring that this story still holds water. If one springs to mind later on, then sure, but I doubt it'll be that one. As someone eloquently pointed out to me before, Ichigo would be 'whipped' if he and Retsu were a pairing.
John Campbell Ohten: From you, the 'so-far great' review must be shining! I joke, and thanks for your input! I did go a touch over-board with the rain clouds, but hey. Anime tropes have a place in the world, and now it's been used I won't use it again. The Kuchiki clan thing was almost intentional, I felt that his entrance would be all the better for it. Their interactions are going to be fun to write: from which you can take that I haven't started yet, and you'd be partially right. This story is more off-the-cuff than I'd like to admit. Yes, Yama will be the lynch-pin for all of their development. Which likely means that Ichigo will have to call him 'sensei'. Brace yourself.
Forgotten Cross: As if he would! He'd get someone to do it for free!
Landocali: Hopefully you didn't have to trawl too far! The community pages are a great place to go for all the best stories! Check out Coolio's 'To Walk Two Lifetimes' if you haven't already, as well. Along with Coolio's other stories, very enjoyable.
Hisoka's luver: No they aren't attending the academy currently, this is before that. As to what Yama-jii did, you'll have to wait and see. It will be explained! Glad you liked it!
Arxheologist: Glad the progression works! It's very important for the story in general, given how much time we have to cover! Unfortunately, I am classically educated when it comes to literature. I break up the paragraphs when I feel as if they need breaking up, people may just have to pay attention! Ichigo & Co. look around eighteen at the end of this next chapter, however, this will be changing frequently. I'll likely provide descriptions when they've changed enough to make them necessary. Thank you! I love imagery! Take a lot of time to write them because of it!
Accursius: HAIL! He needed to make a sufficient entrance, no? Sorry for the delays as well, I'll stop making promises now! The young Yama scene was a joy to write, because we never really see him during his 'free and easy' days, so it was all up to interpretation based on what we know already. A lot of improvisation! No, Sautsaki isn't a Japanese name. Why? Because I made it up. Maybe there is a relation, it'd make sense -when you think about it. I think the revelations surrounding the Ise house are important enough to keep, despite my desire to not acknowledge any of the Bleach story after the end of the Winter War.
Doctor Dandy: It won't be that way for ever!
A Nameless Ghost: Sorry to keep you waiting. Glad you enjoyed it! Ah, yes: Ichigo's hollow. We will see. Consider this, however: Ichigo has been jumped, not only backwards in time, but also to a completely different timeline. One could almost say it's a 'parallel universe'. For this reason, Ichigo's soul is technically new. However, what this does to his inner world and spirits is yet to be seen, or is it? You might have caught a glimpse already. As always, this will be explained later on.
Tealovingshrinemaiden: Ichigo is currently Nineteen, if you count the years he spent in the living world. Which most people in Soul Society don't. In which case he's coming up to two years old at the end of the last chapter. Jushirou is around Thirty years old, and Shunsui is around about Thirty-Five. None of them are keeping track of this, however, as it's pretty-much just a number here.
The Dark Eupie: You can count on it!
Sandaime Hockage, Peluche Kawai, Sakurayuri89, Sagar Hussain, The Weeping Turtle: Thank you so much! Gland you all enjoyed it!
That's...that's a lot of reviews...thank you all so much, and hopefully you're still around to read this. Now, without further ado...
Disclaimer: Please. As if I could ever write something as good as Bleach.
Rise of the Slaying Moon
Chapter Four: Dream-scapes
The hair-raising sound of steel clashing against steel, along with the gentle impression of feet swishing through neatly trimmed grass, and the soft whisper of breath leaving the mouth were what accompanied a dance of beautifully controlled lethality. It permeated the soft, morning air like the delicate scent of forest pine after rainfall, gentle and unobtrusive. Yet, simultaneously, it carried with it all the dangerous connotations of a popular urban legend told to disobedient children just before bedtime. Scary, dangerous connotations with more than enough potentially painful outcomes to warrant second, then third thoughts.
Surprisingly, however, these sweat-inducing connotations were actually positive things. They were proof that there something being cultivated that not every individual could boast of possessing: talent. A rare commodity that could neither be bought nor sold, unless the personages that possessed it were already in the possession of another, but that was neither here-nor-there. Certainly not to those participating in the dance, at any rate. Nor were they ones to boast about it either, because it simply wasn't within their nature to do so. They were aware that they possessed a talent, of course, as those around them seemed to take great pleasure in pointing it out to them. They simply preferred to keep quiet about it, keep it subtly tucked out of sight to avoid becoming the subjects of intense scrutiny and expectation.
The dance continued, a swish of feet over soft grass, the slow exhalation of breath, the rustle of fabric as the accompanying orchestra built up to yet another crescendo. Then, at the critical moment, two blades met like the crashing of a great cymbal. They stayed locked for no more than a second, scraping apart when the dancers span away from each other to give themselves some distance, and then they met again from a different angle. One blade came from the top right, slashing down with speed akin to that of a loosed arrow, whilst the other came up from the centre to block it, angling at the last moment to send the aggressor away to the side. Then, seizing the moment of distraction that this created, the formerly defensive blade shifted, becoming predatorial, and struck with all the conviction of a starved wolf. It arched downwards in a tightly controlled curve from its previous, defensive position above the wielder's head towards the back of their target's neck, whom had to twist sharply and batt the blow away with a surprising lack of finesse.
Recovering quickly, Jūshirō shifted his stance so that he was aligned behind his sword and thrust it forwards towards Ichigo's mid-section from nearly point-blank range. Ichigo, having already brought his sword back from the side to which it had been knocked, twisted sharply to the side in a swirling tornado of robes to avoid the strike. He barely had time to reorient himself before he was forced to jump backwards and away from the horizontal cut Jūshirō followed up with, but quickly capitalised on the opening his friend had left for him and jumped back in with a straight, vertical cut that started life behind his back and looped over his head towards Jūshirō's shoulder.
In terms of positioning, Jūshirō knew that he was at a distinct disadvantage at this stage. He had been crouched low at the start of his thrust, and stayed that way through his follow-up to try and get underneath Ichigo's line of sight. Now, he was stuck beneath Ichigo's crushing strength, like a piece of red-hot metal waiting to be shaped by the smith's hammer, and could only see one way of escaping.
Jūshirō dropped his sword hand to the ground, trapping the hilt between that hand and the grass, and swept out with his legs in a semi-circle; feeling the subsequent, painful crash as he caught Ichigo's own legs. The orange-haired male inhaled sharply, the only indication of his surprise, when his legs were removed from beneath him, and could only tuck his shoulder in and roll with the impact when the ground rushed up to meet him. He sprung back up quickly, parrying Jūshirō's pressing strike to avoid having his stomach torn open in the process, then brought his sword around towards his friend's neck. Of course, the blow was avoided with the grace of a cat in the dark of the midnight hour, Jūshirō was far too good to fall for something so obvious.
It was strange, Ichigo mused, that he was still identifying Jūshirō as 'friend' whilst they were trading blows that, by all rights, should be lethal. They didn't hold back when they sparred, despite doing so nearly every day. It was routine to them. Indeed: it was a sort of therapeutic process, ideal for getting rid of any extraneous stresses and frustrations that might have built up during the day with someone they knew could take the hits confidently. Every day, for anywhere from one to three hours, the two of them would spar in the vast expanses of the southern fields, where they knew they wouldn't be disturbed unless it was a matter of dire importance. They would meet either in the early evening, or in the very early morning under the light of the moon, and would go for a maximum of three hours until stopping. Never any more, Ichigo would got concerned about the state of Jūshirō's health if they fought for any longer, much to the chagrin of the white-haired male. Although, in complete fairness to Ichigo, Jūshirō's breathing would tend to get laboured after three hours, he would be a little less steady on his feet and would lose the drive that powered his strikes. It was these little things that added together to make 'danger' in Ichigo's mind, because they went about sparring in such a way that one mistake could make for a serious injury. Better that they stopped before it got that far, and knock Jūshirō's pride a little, than stop later because one of them was bleeding from the chest.
So far on that day, they had been sparring from just over two hours. The situation at this stage was as it usually was, there was no clear advantage to either of them. Instead, one of them would occasionally gain something akin to 'the upper hand' only to lose it through some skilled manoeuvring on the part of their opponent. Now and again, one of them would try something risky, only to have it backfire and land them squarely on the back-foot, forcing them to fight harder than normal to regain what traction they had lost in the fight. It was a constant trade. Neither one of them held any sort of advantage for any length of time, and neither one of them allowed themselves to remain at a disadvantage for long.
Just as they were best friends, they were fiercely competitive with one another.
Ever since Ichigo's exponential growth rate had been revealed, Jūshirō had been pushing himself to keep up. Of course, he had the theoretical head-start, but whatever force was pushing Ichigo's ability further had negated much of his hard-won experience, accumulated over years of training, within a few months. Thankfully, Ichigo's unexplainable growth had petered out to a more normal level after a while, much like a growth spurt, and Jūshirō could finally breathe easy with the knowledge that Ichigo wouldn't outdo him in terms of skill just yet. That didn't mean he was going to get complacent, oh no, but it did mean that some of the pressure was alleviated.
The pair continued to trade blows for another half an hour, movements as violent as a tsunami and yet as soft as a summer breeze. The naked eye would struggle to keep track of every strike, and thus would be hard pressed to tell that the two of them were locked in a fierce stalemate. Neither of them gaining any real ground. That they were constantly moving made no difference, because how much ground one had was a measure of advantage, in this case. It was a measure of how much pressure you could exert on your opponent, how far onto the back foot they were, how many mistakes they made.
You could usually only tell you had the advantage when your opponent slipped, made a very bad error, or actually said…
Ichigo raised an eyebrow at Jūshirō, whom was entirely unfazed by the fact that his sword hovered a hair's-breadth above his neck. "You sure?"
"You can get out of this really easily, Jū…"
An exhasperated sigh. "Oh? And how would I go about doing that?"
Ichigo grinned. "You could try sweeping my legs again, for one."
Jūshirō snorted in response. "It hurt more than enough the first time, thank you. It was like kicking a tree."
Ichigo's grin gained not even the barest hint of repentance, nor did he look the least bit abashed or sheepish, he simply removed his sword from its penitentiary position and slid it home inside its leather sheath. Once Jūshirō's own blade was safely housed, the two of them made their way towards the solitary tree that stood, isolated and alone like a night-watchman, at the centre of nowhere. Beneath the tree's shadow, a splash of colour brightened up the gloom, a touch of pink that paid tribute to the loss of the old wood's blooms. As the two of them approached, a hand withdrew from within the pink folds that stained the tranquillity of the evening, pushing the ever-present straw hat upwards to reveal a pair of mischievous, fiercely intelligent grey eyes.
"That was pretty impressive, Ichi-chan." Drawled Shunsui, the genuine compliment nearly lost within the depths of his teasing tone. Ichigo ignored the lacklustre attempt to rile him up, knowing now that Shunsui didn't mean anything by it, really, but still allowed the derisive noise that was building up at the back of his throat passage into the open air.
"Whatever." Said he, crossing his arms for good measure. It was an act now, mostly, as the initial distrust that had existed between them upon had largely faded to nothingness after the fifth day of their acquaintance. Jūshirō was the main reason for this, of course, as neither of his friends wished to upset him; whatever quarrels they may have had were insignificant in comparison to Jūshirō's happiness.
Not that it ever stopped Shunsui from whining whenever Ichigo blew off his thickly veiled compliments, treating them instead as the insults or sarcastic jests that they were presented to be.
"Ichi-chan should learn to take a compliment…" Shunsui whined, staying true to form. The over-dramatic pouting that accompanied the statement ruined whatever, wafer thin, chance it had of being taken seriously.
Ichigo levelled his best 'incredulous scowl' at Shunsui. "I'll take compliments from people I respect."
Jūshirō's exasperated sigh cut off any further rapport, such was the strain placed upon the fondness of the expression. Not that the strain was real.
Well, it wasn't entirely unreal. Some of it must have been otherwise it wouldn't have been so convincing, it was certainly enough to stop the other two from continuing their rapid descent into the depths of the deep, dark cave known as 'name-calling'. Kami forbid. It took forever to drag them back out of it again.
This faux friction had come about at some point during the fabled fifth day of them being together, likely at the point Ichigo and Shunsui began to realise that there was no reason to be weary of each-other. Jūshirō trusted them both, implicitly it seemed, and that was enough to make them both realise that the other was probably an individual of good enough character to not take advantage of the noble heir. Granted, Ichigo himself was far more suspect than Shunsui, given his background, but even the pink-clad slack-off had to admit that such machinations would likely be contradictory to Ichigo's character. As for Ichigo's opinions of Shunsui, he had decided that something about the noble must have been redeeming, otherwise Jūshirō wouldn't keep him around.
Although, Ichigo had to wonder at whether Jūshirō was the type of person to cast anyone off, whether they were of good character or not.
Regardless, Shunsui had been within the palace of Jūshirō's confidence for a great many years, if the situation was what Ichigo perceived it to be, and thus it was a given that Shunsui was a man to be trusted. Although there was, indisputably, something about the man whom hid beneath an obscenely large hat that hinted at something more. Perhaps it was the silvery sheen of intelligence that lurked in the depths of his deep, grey eyes. Or, possibly, it was the way that Shunsui could perceive the feelings of both Jūshirō and, slightly alarmingly, Ichigo without any sort of prompting; as if the air the they breathed was tinged with their underlying emotions. Upon thought, Ichigo would always conclude that it was both of those things, and more besides, that hid behind the façade of idiocy Shunsui so casually threw up. It was somewhat intriguing, and -also- completely terrifying all at once; because if Shunsui could hide that much behind the 'loveable moron' exterior, what else could be lurking within the shadows of his persona?
Ichigo tried not to dwell on it much, and the week and a half that Shunsui had spent at the Ukitake house had been that much more pleasant for it. Of course, there was still the reoccurring dream to worry about, but Ichigo had never been one to get too worked up over such things. That's not to say he wasn't concerned, when one starts to question their own sanity it could probably be considered healthy to worry a little bit. He just preferred not to let it get to him.
It wasn't as if there was even much to think about. The dream was always the same, hence 'reoccurring'. The ocean of ashen white sand he always found himself stranded in would, seemingly, whip itself up into a tempest of tumultuous waves of a size that was utterly baffling, considering the nature of the material they were composed of. All the while, the voice that presided over the ceaseless pandemonium spoke in hushed, muffled tones that carried with them dubious motives and even more doubtful intentions. It never varied in volume, always remaining just barely audible over the cacophonous noise. Ichigo found himself doubting that it was there at all sometimes, even whilst it was still uttering its repetitive mantra.
Which was concerning in-and-of itself, because it knew his name. His given name.
Not that it would have made him any less uneasy if it knew his family name. In fact, that might have been worse, considering that he himself did not know of the Kurosaki family beyond the fact that he was likely a member of it.
Of course, he had to remember that this was a being of his own creation. A being with origins in the skunk-works that sat within the furthest reaches of the darkest recesses of his mind. The fact that it called him by name was unnerving because...he wasn't entirely sure. Maybe it was because he couldn't see its face?
Perhaps it was because, whenever it called his name, he felt a stirring deep within him, as if his soul was the chorus that accompanied the call. It wasn't just a regular stirring, either; not like a rogue bowl movement or the feeling of goose-bumps trailing arctic pinpricks up one's arm. No, this stirring could only be described as power.
It was like a bottomless, clear lake of liquid potential. Ichigo could not see it, nor was it something that he felt able to reach out and touch in his mind's eye, but he could feel it. Like an imposing presence hovering on the very periphery of his vision, it was steadfast, comforting, and utterly terrifying all at the same time. Never-before had Ichigo experienced such paradoxical emotions, he wanted to reach out and grasp the lake and simultaneously get as far away from it as possible, then build a wall between him and it for good measure.
It was a tiring conundrum, and was the main reason he felt so utterly drained upon blinking the sands of his mind away in favour of the calm rationality of the waking world.
Jūshirō had definitely noticed the increased weight of his fatigue, characterised by the noticeable slump in his shoulders and the way his eyelids seemed to be made of lead, but had refrained from commenting. Well, he hadn't commented out loud, instead opting to send Ichigo looks that conveyed a thousand silent-yet-glaring concerns. Still, he hadn't openly confronted Ichigo about it yet, and for that Ichigo was more than a little grateful. He wasn't sure he'd be able to articulate his problem even if he did want to, which made it all that much harder when he didn't. So, he bottled it up, brushing Jūshirō's quiet-yet-firm offer of friendly support away in favour of keeping the bottle at arm's length and refusing to pop the cork. If he kept the cork in the bottle, the contents couldn't come out, and he wouldn't have to deal with the rancid, liquid-fear that the voice and swirling sand drove into the core of his being every night like the flag of a conquering nation.
Thankfully, he was good enough at ignoring his problems to do his job at the usual standard of diligent lackadaisicalness. One could only stare at the same patch of sky, or the same spot of dirt amongst the larger expanse of slightly less eye-catching dirt, for so long before one's mind started to wander. Especially when one's mind had far more pressing things to worry over, such as its own sanity. Not that Ichigo was concerned, not at all: any concern he had about the dreams was in the same bottle as the fear, the one held at arm's length that he would stubbornly refuse to admit existed even if it was a tangible thing that someone could point at ask questions about.
Regardless of the denial of his own denial, he operated during his working hours much like how he would usually, and could continue interacting with Jūshirō as if nothing was going on at all.
Unfortunately, this did not account for Shunsui.
Later that evening, after they'd eaten a generous dinner in the pavilion which overlooked the Western Sakura fields, Jūshirō had announced that he was turning in for the night. Ichigo had frowned, for it was much earlier than the time that they usually went their separate ways, but had refrained from commenting. Everyone present knew the reason, and everyone knew it was best that Jūshirō take any flare in his condition lying down rather than standing up- due to how far away the ground was for someone of his height. A quick glance at Shunsui told Ichigo that he'd been correct not to press, as the hat-clad man was staring straight ahead over the sea of nature with a far-away sort of smile, seemingly unconcerned by the developments.
So Jūshirō departed without much fanfare, only receiving one, mildly concerned look from Ichigo and a sort of friendly-yet-dismissive wave from Shunsui that would have offended anyone else. This meant that Ichigo and Shunsui were now alone, at a time which would usually see all three of them together for quite some time yet -the night being young and offering much. Not that it made much difference, some nights, whether Jūshirō was there or not. Silence had a way of prevailing when one was confronted with views such as the one before the two of them now, or the one to be beheld at the front of the house. Even the vast expanse of the southern fields had an abstract way of inspiring silent reverence, likely because of how far they stretched without interruption. There were no hills, very few trees, and only one building sitting at the very far end. Such emptiness was guaranteed to have some form of impact.
Even now, when they sat facing the western gardens, the southern fields were an imposing presence at the corner of their periphery. Refusing to be ignored, and determined to remind all within range of its scope. Ichigo had never-before encountered an obnoxious field, but he had a strong feeling that this one ticked all the correct boxes. Of course, his urge to label a large body of grass (with the occasional tree) as 'obnoxious' might have been, somewhat, down to the fact that he was alone with Shunsui -who had yet to say anything. Indeed, it felt as if the man beneath the hat was working his way around to broaching some form of topic, which was discernible by some strange taint to the air that Ichigo was suddenly hyper-aware of. The taint also informed him that, whatever it was that Shunsui wished to talk about, it was not going to be a topic that enthused him.
They sat in a confused sort of silence for a long while, one that drifted uneasily between comfortable and awkward, settling on one or the other for only the briefest of moments before becoming unsure and switching yet again. Which served only to make the silence more awkward, ironically. It also meant that Ichigo had no idea how to sit. Should he slouch? Slouch and give Shunsui the impression that his guard was down? Or should he sit upright, prepared and ready for whatever uncomfortable conversation was inevitably coming his way. The silence always switched sides again just before he could decide, and so he was left with a very sore behind and a twitchy leg -rather than any useful, actionable solution.
Then, Shunsui sighed and tilted his hat down to shadow his eyes in a manner that created a greater sense of foreboding than one of Sabūrō's loathed 'dinner invitations'. The greater noble clans only invited him to such functions when they had something unpleasant to discuss, it was said.
"So…when're you going to tell him?" Shunsui asked, his head tilted at such an angle that suggested he was regarding Ichigo from beneath the shade of the headwear.
Ichigo bristled unconsciously, tensing in the shoulders and around the jaw. "The hell are you talking about?" The response came out in a far more confrontational manner than he'd intended it to, but the filter between his brain and his mouth had slipped up at a very crucial moment. Instantly, Ichigo knew he'd doomed himself. The fact that he'd gotten defensive proved, without doubt, that there was something wrong. A fact that Shunsui picked up on just as quickly as Ichigo realised his mistake.
"Whatever it is that's got you so wound up, Berry-chan."
Ichigo risked a glance towards Shunsui, whom was still regarding him from beneath the hat with a sort of neutrality that suggested he wasn't going to judge Ichigo for his eventual answer, but reserved the right to call him out for being stupid.
He sighed bitterly, the air coming out of his mouth cold and harsh. "Why should I?" said he, simply. Yet so many concerns and reservations coiled around the simple question like constricting serpents, squeezing the life out of any intention he may have had to tell Jūshirō anything with extreme prejudice.
The hat opposing him was lifted to reveal one, incredulous, grey eye set above a genial smile. "My, my, Berry-chan! So defensive!" He chuckled fearlessly in the face of Ichigo's deepening glower, then continued with a slightly more serious tone. "He's more than a little concerned, you know."
"He's got enough to worry about already." Ichigo shot back, without hesitation. "Anyway, there's nothing to be concerned about. I'm fine."
Shunsui hummed knowingly, then paused -seemingly to make sure his approach was constructed properly. "You don't sound too sure about that, Berry-chan…" said he, taking his all-seeing eye off Ichigo and leaning back on his elbows to gaze up at the sky.
Ichigo opened his mouth the retort, something to defend himself against the onslaught of Shunsui's startling perceptiveness, but he knew he'd been beaten. There was more than one way for the rancid liquid to come out of the bottle after-all, the cracks in the glass were testament to that fact, and he knew he couldn't keep up a stern front and ignore it forever.
There was another silence, this time firmly settled within the boundaries of 'awkward'. It continued for a few minutes, until Shunsui broke it again with his gravely, dangerously-wise-for-someone-his-age voice. "Not telling him just gives him more to worry about, I think. Jū-chan's like that." Said he, by way of explanation. "It's best to just get it out the way, so he knows what he's worrying about. Otherwise he just worries about everything."
Ichigo made a noise that was somewhere between understanding and alarmed. Shunsui chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Berry-chan! It doesn't make him ill or anything! It just makes him lose sleep!" Ichigo made another noise, decisively alarmed this time, and more strangled than the first. Of course, Shunsui descended into laughter at his expense, not bothering to point out that Ichigo's discomfort was simply the butt of his humorous conjecture. He had no way of knowing for certain whether Jūshirō lost sleep over troubles concerning his friends, he just thought that the white-haired male looked a little less alert as of late, more withdrawn and introspective. Of course, the frequent glances directed at Ichigo had something to do with his conclusions, but Ichigo himself didn't need to know that. Shunsui had already gotten enough entertainment out of this.
"Shut up!" yelled Ichigo, feeling the beginnings of a headache forming behind his eyes as it became apparent that Shunsui was just messing around at his expense. "They're just some stupid dreams anyway…it's not like I'm ill or something…"
He pretended not to notice how quickly Shunsui stopped laughing.
"Besides" he pressed on, "He's got stuff to worry about already. I'll just tell him the heat's making it hard to sleep."
Shunsui didn't comment on this plan, simply humming a distracted agreement, then falling into a contemplative silence that made Ichigo feel as if he were intruding on something personal and intimate. This feeling only intensified as the seconds turned to minutes, and the minutes multiplied into the tens. Eventually Ichigo just made his excuses and left for his room in the barracks, to get as much uninterrupted sleep as he possibly could in the hopes of being more awake for the coming day. He therefore didn't know that Shunsui remained on the porch of the pavilion for some hours afterwards, contemplating his own, very similar hauntings.
It took three days, and three restless nights plagued with recurring dreams, for Ichigo to work his way around to talking with Jūshirō. It wasn't a matter of courage, he was not afraid of these dreams, he just didn't want to bother Jūshirō when he had more important things to be doing. Plus, Shunsui was there, and nobody could say for sure when the two of them would next get the opportunity to meet. Ichigo didn't want to monotonise his friend for any length of time, with that in mind. It wouldn't be fair. So, instead, he waited until Shunsui decided that he wanted to take a stroll around town by himself -for a change- before he took Jūshirō to one side.
He'd phrased his request to talk innocently enough, no intones to it that might suggest that he was about to lay upon Jūshirō his deepest troubles. However, it seemed that Jūshirō had seen right through him, because his friend had taken on a serious expression as soon as the query had left his mouth. Apparently, he'd been expecting this.
Without prompting, nor comment, Jūshirō led him towards the Western Sakura fields, then down the stepped embankment. It was that particular time of day, when the afternoon edged its way slowly into evening and the ebbing sun cast strange, elongated shadows using the trees, as if playing with them. Ichigo had never been here at this time before, having never had the chance for various reasons, but now he was left in a curious state somewhere between wishing he had found the time, and wishing he had not. For him, this area filled with ponds and tall, thick tree-trunks was a haven of peace and tranquillity. It always set him at ease, whatever mood he had been in, and allowed him to think upon what had placed him in such a state that required the solace of trees to soothe him.
Now, the trees offered none of their usual quiet support. They were alive.
Their shadows danced to the rhythm of the setting sun, wavering and shifting; never for a moment standing entirely still. Perpetually in motion. In fact, the entire field was in motion. The breeze, wafting softly through the branches, pushing them to the side as if making way for a giant to pass between them. The ripples on the water signifying the subtle presence of the koi, turning tumultuously beneath the surface, dancing to the same rhythm that trees were swaying to. Ichigo was struck with a sense of motion, but more than that: he felt as if he were witnessing motion that had been occurring since times long past. Something about those elongated, shifting shadows made the surroundings feel ancient, mystical, and eerie.
They stopped on the bridge, the one on which they had that first heart-to-heart talk all those months ago, and lent against the railing. Beneath their feet, the koi were dancing in elegant, swirling patterns of innocent joviality -proving that they remained unaffected by the sudden sombreness of their surroundings. Blissfully ignorant of any sense that the area surrounding their habitat was engaged in a nightly, almost ritualistic transformation into something unfamiliar and foreign. Unnerving and unsettling every-other living thing in its presence. Ichigo almost wished he could join them, somehow he knew that this grove would never quite be the same for him again.
They stood in silence for a while, just watching the koi play about them. It wasn't an awkward silence, with them it never was, but it was ever-so-slightly tense; loaded. There was a certain expectation placed upon this upcoming conversation. An expectation for Ichigo to divulge all that troubled him, and for Jūshirō to listen whilst reserving any judgement. That meant, of course, that Ichigo had to initiate the dialogue, because Jūshirō couldn't be receptive without anything to receive, but his resolve to burden his friend had been weak to begin with. Within this isolated atmosphere, with so much expectation placed on him to talk, he was faced with the sudden desire to present a bluff and get out of it. To wait until a time at which he knew, with a hundred-percent certainty, that this was what he wanted to do. Knew that he couldn't, simply, move all of his pent-up emotion to a different bottle made of stronger glass, then throw it into a deep pit that he would dig within his mind-scape for the express purpose of storing it.
Just as he was opening his mouth to present a bluff, so that he could act on this solution, he was surprised by the intense gaze of Jūshirō -whom then proceeded to defy expectation and speak first.
"What are yours like?"
Ichigo faltered. "My what?"
"Your dreams. I assume that is what's keeping you awake all night?" Said Jūshirō, masking a nervous eyebrow with incredulity. Despite that latent nervousness, which even Ichigo had a hard time picking up, Jūshirō spoke with a conviction that was backed up by the steadfast resolution in his expression. Ichigo gaped openly. Jūshirō appeared to be trying very hard not to show any signs of faltering, to meet Ichigo's eyes without backing down.
Ichigo, knowing that there was no escaping it now, let out a deep and steadying breath. "How'd you know?"
"Experience." Jūshirō's smile was strained, "I knew what to look for. Although, I did need Shunsui to confirm it for me, but I suppose that was just wistfulness on my part."
Ichigo had tensed slightly at Jūshirō's simple explanation. He had made the connections necessary to come to the conclusions that he assumed Jūshirō wanted him to come to, and he wasn't sure what to feel about them.
He sighed, lowering his head to glare at the koi reproachfully; wishing he could be as carefree as they in that moment. "Guess that means you guys get them too, right?"
"Yes." A small, reluctant smile, "They're not particularly relaxing, are they?" The question was rhetorical, Ichigo knew full well that the dreams were less than peaceful.
There was a moment of silence, the lull giving Ichigo the time to briefly reflect on what had transpired, before Jūshirō decided to speak again. "It was scary, the first time. I 'woke up' in a garden, of sorts, deep in a forest in the middle of a rainstorm. It was loud, of course, and I was extremely disorientated, but there was nowhere nearby to shelter from the storm. I just had to lie beneath a tree and wait for it to all be over, which took hours -it felt like. Time works differently in there. I must have been underneath that tree for hours, because the rainclouds seemed to stretch on forever when I first arrived, but when I woke up it was barely two hours later than when I went to sleep.
"Eventually, I learned that I could walk around the garden at leisure, and found an old house to shelter in. I can wait out the storms in there, even though it's old and run-down like everything else." He shrugged, looking extremely old all of a sudden, as if the sleepless nights were coming back to haunt him all at once.
Ichigo remained silent for a time, even as Jūshirō began to fidget slightly, collecting his thoughts. "It's just sand." Said he, blurting it out as if there had been a pressure building up behind it for some time, and it had now just erupted outward.
"Sand? There's nothing else?"
He shook his head. "It's just a big, flat desert with nothing in it. You can see for miles…which is pretty crazy, come to think of it. Then the wind gets up and turns everything into a kinda sand-tornado, then I wake up." He shrugged, "It's not like it's a big deal or anything."
Jūshirō seemed to consider him for a moment, weighing the amount of truth that he could hear to figure out whether it weight half, or a quarter of what it should have weighed. He then asked the question Ichigo really didn't want to answer. "Do you hear any voices?"
"N…" the lie died on his lips. Surely, if Jūshirō was asking…
"Yeah. Just keeps whispering my name over and over, sounds like a whisper -at least. With all the sand flying around they might be screaming for all I know. Then it asks if I can hear them. Doesn't matter how much I yell at 'em, though, they can't hear me. Makes it kinda pointless."
His friend nodded, expression serious. "I experience something very similar. The voice is especially strong when I'm in the house, but that's likely because the weather isn't drowning it out. I tried calling out to it at first, but it seems that there's something preventing it from hearing me."
"Maybe…whatever's letting us hear them doesn't work two ways?" Ichigo mused, scowling down towards the pool in thought. It made no sense to him, surely if he could hear the voice then the voice should have been able to hear him. That's just how it was. How the world worked. It was frustrating that the dream, not only defied his attempts to understand it, but also defied his deeply ingrained sense of logic. What should be, and what shouldn't.
Jūshirō hummed thoughtfully, casting his own, contemplative eyes down towards the pond and the fish that swum lazily backwards and forwards beneath the surface. "Perhaps." He said no more on the subject, letting the matter drop like the heavy weight that it was. Ichigo had to admit, it felt lighter now. It wasn't a big secret that, if revealed, could call into question his sanity, his fitness to work. It felt manageable, almost. He found that he didn't need the bottle anymore, and allowed it to shatter within his grasp -only to find that the contents were no-longer there.
He felt stupid for ever thinking that it would have been better to keep everything within the bottle, stupid and naïve. The weight of such a burden would have crushed him eventually, given that Jūshirō looked so tired of it when he had the benefit of Shunsui's confidence on the matter. If he had tried to weather it alone, it would have been too much. He was extremely grateful for the chance to talk about it, to get it all out of his system -to know that he wasn't alone in this. Support wasn't a sign of weakness, he supposed.
Shortly thereafter, they both began to walk back towards the house -on the agreement that they shouldn't neglect Shunsui any longer for fear of pouting. The evening had well and truly drawn in now, and the eerie shadows had passed and allowed the light of the moon to illuminate the gardens as it usually did. The pale glow made the colours surprisingly vivid, and they continued to distinguish themselves from one another even in the low light- seeming to lap up whatever brightness they could and reflecting it back outwards into the space surrounding them. Ichigo thought they were doing a remarkable job of lighting the various paths around the Ukitake manor, despite their nature as flowers.
His mind was, however, largely elsewhere. From what Jūshirō had already told him, he felt safe in the assumption that Shunsui experienced these dreams, or at least ones of a similar nature, as well. With such a revelation, and with a rudimentary knowledge of what Jūshirō's were like, he couldn't help but wonder what Shunsui's were like. He sincerely doubted that he would ever come anywhere close to the truth in these wonderings of his, considering that these dreams seemed to not base themselves off character traits or any such obvious things. He also doubted that Shunsui would be of a mind to divulge the nature of his experiences of his own volition, such was the state of their current relationship. Had there positions been reversed, Ichigo was absolutely sure the he would refrain from describing the inner workings of his mind to someone he'd just met. Not everyone could be as trusting as Jūshirō, after all. His wonderings were more of an exercise to keep his mind ticking over, so that the knowledge that he wasn't alone in this could sink in all the better.
So far, it was still fairly unbelievable.
Eventually, the two of them managed to locate Shunsui. He was lounging around in one of the family rooms with an ease of gait that belayed any notion that he had been concerned about the conversation that had taken his companions over two hours to complete.
"My, my" said he, a twinkle in his eye that was fully on display without his signature hat. "That took some time…nothing I should know about, is there?" Jūshirō groaned, dragging a hand down his face in a manner unbecoming of a noble such as he. Ichigo, meanwhile, just looked flummoxed.
"What?" he sent Shunsui an irritated scowl when the kimono-garbed man started to chuckle, then sent Jūshirō a questioning glance when the other noble kept his hand firmly placed over his eyes and sighed again, loudly.
Shunsui turned to Ichigo with a remarkably restrained expression. "I'm asking, Berry-chan, if-"
"Don't, Shunsui!" Jūshirō promptly cut his friend off, removing the hand from his eyes to better reveal a look that promised retribution if that sentence was completed.
"Ah! Don't be like that, Jū-chan! I'm just looking out for you!"
"Looking out for me by making a joke at my expense?"
Ichigo watched the exchange with an increasingly lost expression. "What?" the utterance exploded from his mouth with enough confusion behind it to cease any further shenanigans. It didn't stop Shunsui from breaking down into a fit of giggles once again, under the scathing glare of his oldest friend, however. It was at this point that Ichigo decided that this was an in-joke, and he most certainly was not in on it.
"Really, Ichigo, don't concern yourself with it. It's just a joke that I would prefer be forgotten about." Said Jūshirō, directing a pointed glare in the general direction of Shunsui.
The man in question shrugged in a 'what can you do?' kind of fashion. "Man, that's too bad. I've got a pretty good memory for funny stuff."
The sigh that escaped Jūshirō sounded exceedingly tired. "Yes, unfortunately."
Three days later, Shunsui left. There wasn't any ceremony, nor were there any warm goodbyes filled with promises to 'not to leave it so long this time' and to 'keep in touch'. There was simply a brief, brotherly embrace between Jūshirō and Shunsui, complete with backslapping, then Shunsui directed a meaningful look towards Ichigo that was accented with an equally meaningful inclination of the head. The two of them hadn't broached the subject of Ichigo's dreams, and as far as he knew Jūshirō hadn't divulged any element of their conversation to Shunsui either; but that didn't change the fact that he knew.
Frankly, if Ichigo had been of the same mind about Shunsui as he had been when they had first met, he would not have been comfortable with the idea that Shunsui knew. However, this was no longer the case. They had come to a mutual understanding over the course of these couple of weeks, and with that mutual understanding had come a sort of tentative friendship -a framework for building upon. It was a touch unstable, and it wavered in even the slightest breeze, but it was there. It was optimistic, as well, because they had established some common ground during the frequent occasions that Jūshirō brought them together in the early evenings. That they could only refuse such encounters on pain of receiving one of Jūshirō's 'looks' was an extraneous factor. They had managed to discover, around the knee rattling fear of Jūshirō's pent up wrath, that they shared a mutual admiration of nature, as well as a liking for poetry. Ichigo had only managed to find the time to read a select few of Jūshirō's own books, but he had enjoyed all of them so far. More than that, he just knew that he liked poetry -like it was hard-wired into his system. It was nice to find common ground over something so confusing.
Despite all of this, Ichigo wasn't about to delude himself, they weren't close. Not anywhere near it.
No. They were friends; nothing more, nothing less. Ichigo was happy with that, for now at least. He could also say, with a degree of certainty, that Jūshirō was happy with this outcome as well.
Considering the circumstances, Ichigo did not find himself surprised to observe that his friend looked significantly more cheerful during the following weeks. Lighter, so to speak. As if the, very real, concern that two of his friends wouldn't get along weighed so heavily on him that it stooped him part way over, and made him increasingly ill. He would have, in all likelihood, have had to either divide his time between them, or choose one to favour over the other.
Ichigo would have loved to say Shunsui and himself were grown-up enough to get along with people that they didn't necessarily like, but he couldn't. He was far too stubborn and straightforward to put forward such an act, it would have been dishonest as well -something that Ichigo had a strong dislike for. To pretend around Shunsui would have been a lie, and he simply refused to lie to, not only Shunsui, but Jūshirō as well. Not that Jūshirō would have fallen for it, because the other reason that Ichigo would not have tried to put up an act around Shunsui was due to his utter failing as an actor. He would have been rumbled in a heartbeat.
Shunsui, on the other hand, appeared to be too nervous around people he didn't -or felt that he couldn't- trust, or those that he felt he could never come to trust. He was extremely cautious around such people, defensive almost. He used a façade -masterfully crafted- to keep people out, prevent them from seeing the core fabric of his being; his true personality. Thus, Ichigo didn't really know Shunsui at all, which was detrimental to any goal of the two of them becoming close. It would, therefore, be an exercise in patience on all their parts, especially Jūshirō -but he was the most patient of them all. It wouldn't be a problem for him at all.
The situation in which they would have to discover how accurate Ichigo's prediction on their maturity had been, thankfully, hadn't arisen. Thus, the two of them had reached their friendly understanding. Therefore, Shunsui's visit had concluded on a positive and constructive note, with all of them feeling slightly relieved that nothing untoward had occurred, and that they had all maintained their sanity.
Somewhat less-pleasantly, in the weeks and months since Shunsui's departure, Ichigo's dreams intensified. They came much more frequently, at least every other night rather than every fourth or so as they had done previously, and -on top of that- they lasted for longer. Ichigo had almost immediately gone to Jūshirō when this sudden change occurred, and his friend had theorised that Ichigo becoming more accustomed to the dream -less wound up and more confident that the dream wasn't actually going to harm him- was the route cause. That would have been a relief, if that meant Ichigo hadn't had to endure what was still the most confusing situation that he had ever been subjected to for even longer than he had ever had to before. Acclimatisation be damned, Ichigo had declared, and subsequently wished to become less confident about these dreams.
A world first, surely.
Sadly, he would have to be excused for not being overjoyed at this development and looking for any potential fixes.
Asides from this, his life remained entirely unremarkable for the next few weeks, months, and years. He continued to watch empty spaces, roads, and fields for a living. Always coming to wonder, at some point during each day, if it were actually possible for someone to die of boredom -and whether it would be an annoyance or a relief at this stage. He continued to spar with Jūshirō in the early evenings before dinner, then in the mornings -just before lunch- once his shifts were swapped around so he worked the night shift.
As a result, his swordsmanship continued to improve, even though it felt as if the skills and the motions were just coming back to him; like retrieved muscle memories. He also noticed a marked improvement in how long the two of them could spar for, how they pushed against the three hour mark more frequently and finished the sessions feeling that they could keep going for even longer. Jūshirō was less effected by his illness during these hours than he been previously, Ichigo noticed. He looked steadier and less desperate for breath, more conditioned and toned. He only noticed on reflection, indicating that it was happening gradually, but it was still impressive. More than a little relieving, as well.
Other than that, he noticed that he himself felt stronger, somehow. It wasn't anything particularly remarkable, he couldn't uproot trees or level mountains, or anything fanciful like that. He just felt that his sword was a lot lighter in his grip, and that he didn't feel so heavy on his feet anymore. More poised, a little more precise.
Able to stand and look at nothing for longer periods of time without wondering at the intricacies involved in dying of boredom.
Now that was true strength.
As the years began to slowly multiply, these changes became more and more pronounced. Jūshirō was even less troubled by illness, lighter on his feet, stronger in the arms, and was noticeably less wasteful in his movements. Ichigo became markedly stronger, his swings were enough to make bones rattle upon impact, whilst he could shrug off some of the strongest attacks like they were nothing. He was quicker too, much quicker than he used to be. Part of this was down to extensive sparring with -the much swifter- Jūshirō, and partially down to spending long periods of time on his feet. He had to be quick, otherwise those attacks that had every right to be lethal would capitalise on their inherent potential, and do some amount of grievous damage to him. Adversely, Jūshirō used his new found strength to deflect Ichigo's increasingly crushing blows, though still unable to absorb them with solid blocks.
The one time that he had tried to do so had resulted in his sword clattering off of his feet, once his numb fingers had released it from a suddenly-slack grasp. Ichigo had been unbearably apologetic after this incident, insistant that they end their day's sparring there -and very nearly calling it off the next day as well. At this point, he had realised that Jūshirō's patented 'looks' had grown vastly more effective as well. Smiles would never look the same to him again. Ever.
This trend of improvement continued, unhindered, until what Ichigo might have called his 'twentieth birthday', had he -or anyone else- been bothered to mark such a date.
It certainly would be marked from that year forth.