Ichigo Kurosaki found himself adrift in a space between spaces and untouched by time. All around him was a resplendent monsoon of reishi, every color imaginable and some that humans had never even contemplated. The very air around him seemed frenetic, crackling with the untold power held within the spiritual matter that whirled and festered in that most odd of places.
He found that he couldn't move. He couldn't even breath; he had no use of such a function anyway.
Even thinking seemed a terrible chore to somebody adrift in that vast, glimmering vortex, and he wouldn't bother himself with the prospect. Ichigo just let himself lay still and be carried, at breakneck pace yet as smoothly and gently as if he were the charge of some guardian angel.
He felt small; infinitely so. There didn't seem to be any barriers to the vortex he was rocketing through. Normal Ichigo might have been scared by this, got a queasy feeling in his stomach knowing that all around him there was nothing to keep him on course, to keep him from getting lost and never being found. But this wasn't normal Ichigo. Nothing but that glimmering myriad mattered, even existed to him at the moment, and the concept of spending eternity in it didn't seem half-bad.
Can't see…have I gone blind?
Can't see….can't move…but I can hear…why am I being shushed?
All at once, his eyes shot open, and for a moment Ichigo wished that he actually had gone blind.
The noon sun hung directly above him, beating down mercilessly into his unadjusted pupils. Sucking in air through his teeth, the disgruntled young man shielded his face and jolted into a sitting-up position. After a couple of agonizing moments spent rubbing at his assaulted peepers, he found himself able to squint at his surroundings. The sharp intake of breath that had accompanied his bewilderment at the harsh rays of his awakening was now countered by an exasperated sigh.
His last coherent moment was spent at the entrance to Kisuke's Senkaimon, back in the world of the living. After that…he could recall sensations, general, ambiguous feelings, but no specifics would come to mind. Ichigo had no idea how much time he had lost, but the thought that he had absolutely no control during the passage unsettled him in a way that only the threat of an eternity spent paralyzed in a world-between-worlds could. He recalled the marble gates, yawning into an iridescent purple abyss, the hissing sweep of sand being blown over the cave floor, the softness of Yoruichi's lips on his as she kissed him Goodbye and Good Luck…and then what he guessed what was the fluid intelligence capacity of a drug-addled ninety-year-old.
Nonetheless, the scenery before him did much to take his mind off of such vexing matters.
He found himself atop a massive hill, one of the many that rolled ponderously over the land around him. He seemed to be on one of the largest, since this vantage point granted him visibility for miles, all the way to the smoke-grey mountain ranges that seemed to mark the border of this grassy lowland. As far as the eye could see, the earth was coated in an almost uniform dark green with a healthy, organic sheen to it. Ichigo could feel the stalks beneath him rub up against his shifting palms in that curious, part-tickling, part-scratching way that untamed plant life seems to have. Here and there a wildflower poked up above the pervasive, three-inch canopy, but the dominance of that most basic life form was clear.
Okay…I'm going to make a leap here and say that I've landed in Soul Society. The question is: WHERE?! Among all of the things that had been racing through his mind during his departure, the exact location of his emergence wasn't one. Smooth legs, shimmering eyes and a voice like honey tend to distract from such objectives. He wasn't in any area of the Rukon District that he was familiar with; since he technically wasn't part of the Seretei he had only been in this realm on official business. Kind of a shame…Ichigo reflected as he once more hazed upon the lay of the land. Something about the overwhelming simplicity, the purity of the grassy knolls around him evoked a notion of beauty that the most ornate the Seretei had to offer couldn't. The soft Autumn winds lazily gliding over the dips and rises of the earth gave the impression of waves passing among the blades of grass, the sleek indents traveling and disappearing in a perfectly natural rhythm that put Ichigo's nerves at ease. If he had time, he would definitely take another stroll through this part of Rukon…
That still begs the question of where HERE is. Ichigo didn't know a whole lot about how a spiritual entity held up against the elements, but he could tell that the seasons of the Soul Society and those of the world of the living corresponded, and being caught exposed on a hilltop when the frigid Fall night set in was a prospect that didn't quite appeal to the lad. He had recovered his jacket and dry clothes before leaving for the realm of the departed, but the fact remained unchanged that sitting on his hands was a counterproductive course of action.
Ichigo yawned, stood up, and stretched his arms outward, relishing the faint cracks and pops that came along with it. Curious, he held one hand out in front of his face, turning it over and over again in his inquiry.
Funny…I don't feel any different than I did back home…after my Chain of Fate was severed I could hardly move, but now… He threw a few practice jabs at some phantom assailant. I think I'm a bit STRONGER than normal… Strawberry wondered if this was how Orihime had felt when she had come to Seretei with him to rescue Rukia, and not just this physical euphoria. That feeling of uncertainty that had accompanied his passing from one world to another was something he never wanted to experience again, but he knew that for somebody he cared about he would endure it regardless. Had she known just how much a risk she had been taking, simply by showing up to the Shoten on that Summer night? Of course she did. Ichigo was speculating; he knew. The answers were clear as day in his mind, but these realizations that had lurked just beyond his field of vision for so long felt somewhat alien to him, to his thought process. She knew that there was danger right off the bat, and that it wouldn't let up until we were finished. But she went through it all to save Rukia…to be by my side. Ichigo had stopped beating himself up (for the most part) for his earlier obliviousness. The guilt that had bitten at him seemed to have subsided rather quickly when he learned to simply be grateful that those times were in the past. Besides, the present and future were what demanded his attention at the moment.
Despite his vantage point, the earthly obstructions presented by the surrounding hills kept Ichigo from a clear line of vision as far as if he were looking down upon a plain. However, he guessed that Urahara's Senkaimon wouldn't have dropped him off in the middle of nowhere, so civilization had to be somewhere nearby. The mountains off in the distance, the bigger cousins of the grassy giant he was standing on, didn't seem very promising. Having no outdoorsman skills to speak of, Ichigo simply turned away from the looming monoliths and proceeded in the opposite direction, hoping to whatever God resided over the Soul Society that he wouldn't die of exposure before…
Before what? The question rang out in his head like a copper kettle dropped on the floor. The only thing Yoruichi arranged was the Senkaimon's use itself…no instructions, no contacts, no certainty… He was beginning to think that the love-struck teenager side of Yoruichi had its disadvantages. Oh, well. Not too much I can do about it at this point. Happy thoughts.
Clearing his mind and focusing once more on the two women awaiting his return, and the third on her way to joining that following, Ichigo started what he was sure was going to be a long, arduous trek.
The going was easy, to be sure, but the constant incline and decline of the terrain was taxing, to say the least. The nip in the air, for the most part, didn't phase the lad, but the moisture soaking into his sneakers was sure to give him literal cold feet as the sun sank below the horizon.
The sheer terror of finding oneself stranded in an unforgiving wilderness seemed lost on him; the same rules didn't apply in such a bizarre (or was this the real normal) plain of existence. As far as he knew, there were no wild beasts to worry about where the souls of humans went, at least nothing beyond the extent of what he would encounter in rural Japan. He had heard of the brutality that was commonplace in the outer Rukon district, the savagery that had bred such creatures as Kenpachi Zaraki; but he would need to find some trace of civilization before the cracking of skulls became an issue. For now, this was nothing more than a battle against nature, and his own willpower, once again.
With no companions but the falling sun and the soft whisper of the wind over the grasses, Ichigo found himself switching between mental states of detached, unstructured contemplation and satisfied empty-headedness. He thought back not only about Yoruichi, Orihime, and Tatsuki, but of things that he had thought long-since lost to his everyday thought process. His time spent as a Shinigami, his childhood, the people present throughout both, how much he missed some of them…
Rukia…an obvious first. Like it or not, she was the twin sister Ichigo had never had, and was pretty sure that he never wanted. Their personalities clashed like two volatile chemical compounds placed next to each other by mistake. Had he known anything about chemistry and the nature of such reactions, he would have been red-faced and huffing to know that the very reason such materials make the spectacle that they do is because, at their basest level, they each have something that the other needs, and the force of their bonding is what causes sparks to fly and water work to a boil. Serendipity, maybe, or a close cousin of dumb luck. Ichigo had no idea how he felt about Rukia; he had never dwelt upon it. But now he found himself on a crusade to define what he had never cared to, perhaps been afraid to, dredge up. Strawberry was happy beyond words to be on his way to seeing her again, to say something on their adventure other than a choked "goodbye", but speaking with her about what they really felt for each other might turn out to be an awful lot like climbing stairs in the dark; every step brings a pang of fear at what may (or may not) lay in wait.
Going back even further, there was his mother…how long had it been since he had thought to miss her? It used to feel as if he had the weight of her corpse on his shoulders every morning, especially when the first rainy days of Summer rolled around. In retrospect, she had been around for so short a time in his life. She hadn't been able to see him ride a bike, go on his first date, finally beat Tatsuki in a match…Not even the big things…In a way, Ichigo couldn't imagine his mother fitting into his life as a Shinigami. She had always been an anchor point for him, a point of peace and gentle normalcy he could rely on. It still pained him occasionally when he recalled how strong he had become, and that Masaki would never be able to be proud of what he had grown up into. In a way, his entire adolescence had been a struggle to balance his father's values on being a true man with upholding the memory of his mother, of being a caregiver and guardian.
And now, within the past few weeks of his life, three more doors had opened in the corridor of his life, and while he was perfectly content to marvel at the craftsmanship of such thresholds, the real excitement laid in what he had yet to explore in the rooms they led to.
The sun sank slowly but steadily as Ichigo navigated his way towards civilization, with no company but his thoughts. For the first time in a very long one, such a partner didn't leave a sour taste in Ichigo's mouth. Was there uncertainty, even fear in what he was headed toward? For him, surely. But even Strawberry in his young years and fixed mentalities knew that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the will to overcome it. Not as if Ichigo had ever feared the dark, or the cold, or the aspect of solitude. He had, for a time (and then some) considered himself one with such concepts, not in a state of lament or self-pity, but in a sort of grim reassurance that he was untouchable; that by only letting on as much as he pleased he could stay ahead.
And just as he did not panic over the setting of the sun, but acknowledged the implications of being caught at night in a strange land, he now knew that the most genuine feelings can't always be controlled in their own expressions, and while it certainly scared him in some small way, the excitement and sense of pseudo-danger that came whenever he let his autopilot take over gave sort of a gambler's rush. And why not? So far he'd lined up more cherries than lemons.
The waning light did, however, bring an unexpected blessing. As the purple hues of the sky grew ever deeper overhead, Ichigo could make out a single prick of light below the horizon, beyond the hills but not unreachable. The knolls had already started to give way to grassy plains, and the going was getting easier with each step. With renewed vigor Ichigo marched towards the promise of a well-earned respite.
One hour's hike, and the last of the Soul Society's daylight found Ichigo clear of the hills, and beating out a steady pace on the easier going of the flat meadows. The light he had seen earlier stayed ever far away, however, flickering in the distance like some playful will-o'-wisp dancing in the night. The moon overhead was impossibly large and crystal-blue, illuminating the serene landscape in a way Ichigo doubted he could find anywhere in the world of the living. All around him rustled the same grass ocean that had carpeted the earth since Strawberry's arrival, a darker, duller, more rugged variety albeit, softly cracking underfoot. Crickets were everywhere to be heard, but nowhere to be seen, their delicate melodies accompanied only by the whistle of the breeze.
Instances such as these awoke the poet, the romantic, deep inside of Ichigo. The same dreamy elation that Shakespeare and Wolfe brought to the youth churned inside of him at the effortless beauty the night radiated, and had he not a white-hot resolve burning in his gut, he might have been content to sit and absorb as much as he could from this rare moment of peace and satisfaction.
And yet, as soon as it came into fruition the moment was gone. A distant rumbling, like muffled thunder introduced itself, and before he could discern its source the voices of many men could be heard, laughing, yelling, swearing. The ruckus was coming from a discernable direction, but as it seemed they spanned out a couple dozen yards at the least, Ichigo couldn't pinpoint their location. Knowing full well what kind of characters roamed the Rukon district unattended, he hit the deck, hoping that the uncut grass was high enough to conceal him. If these men were on horseback, however, like they sounded to be, it would do nothing to keep him from being trampled. C'est levi…
"Come on, boys! Just a little farther! The runt can't be that far off!"
Ichigo's breath caught in his throat. Still a fair ways off, he could recognize that voice from somewhere nonetheless. However, that did nothing to make him the happier; for some reason he couldn't quite place entirely happy experiences with it.
"Hey, Boss, you sure you felt his Rietsu? All the way out here? And isn't he just a-"
"Just shut your trap and leave the thinking to big brother. That goes for all of you!'
Closer now. Fifty yards at the most.
"But Boss, you said yourself that it was only a brief moment that you sensed something…"
"Don't question my instincts! A man knows these things, you know. Besides, we all know how unmistakable that dope's Rietsu is."
Thirty yards. Strawberry was just on the cusp of remembering that gruff bellow.
"Why don't we go out on midnight runs when I have a premonition, Boss?"
"H-hey! It wasn't a premonition, idiot! It was there, plain as day! And we don't listen to you because-"
"GANJU!" Hearing half-hearted excuses and defensive insults snapped the youth's perspective back into place. Springing up from his hiding place, he witnessed as the addressed convulsed atop his mount, letting out a shriek unbefitting an heir of the Shiba clan. Pulling back the reigns of his boar harshly, the beast came to a halt a scant dozen or so feet from the young berry-head. The other riders, just as meek, either veered one direction or the other sharply or were flung from their own boars attempting an immediate stop.
"Ganju, I never thought that you would be the first person I saw out here. Gotta say, though, it isn't an entirely unpleasant surprise."
The Shiba simply stared back, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. He looked astoundingly similar to some hairless ape sent by mistake to the afterlife.
"Hey, Ganju, you alright? You didn't have trouble talking, oh, about ten seconds ago."
"Hey, DUMBASS, are you always this eloquent or is this a special occasion?"
"Sh-shut the hell up! I come miles out of my way to find some arrogant punk that might or might not have shown up, and this is the thanks I get?"
"I thought your instincts never failed? And how was I to know how far out of your way you've gone?" Ichigo couldn't help a smirk; he'd deny it to anybody, but the mutual harassment present between he and Ganju was the closest thing to having a brother he'd ever experienced. Well, except maybe for Karin…
Whatever he was to the young man, Ganju's face turned red, his jugular bulging in indignity out of his tree stump of a neck. Ichigo just now noticed that his hair had grown out, splaying across his huffed expression and flowing ever so slightly.
"Lighten up, lighten up. I was just kidding. But I do think you're mistaken."
"You couldn't have sensed Rietsu, man…I'm nothing more than human now."
The anger radiating from the addressed dissipated all at once, a puzzled look taking its place.
"I-I felt something, for sure. It wasn't the thick, black storm cloud of spiritual energy you used to put out, but there was…an awareness, and it was unmistakable. So I grabbed my boys and rode out to the countryside to find ya before some chicken-shit raider thought to make some quick kan on a lone traveler. Quite a place you picked for a vacation, bro. Way out there, although not more than a day's march from Big Sis's Fall manor."
"Huh…" Ichigo gazed once again at the pinprick of light flickering in the shaded distance. "Lucky guess when it came to navigation, I suppose."
"You dolt. Could have gotten lost nice and proper out there, and who knows what could have happened? Like I said, we're having problems with roving bandits, hence…" He jerked his head backwards, indicating his ragtag group of friends and Rukon conscripts, the sons and daughters of farmers and merchants, but definitely not born warriors. There was an uneasy air about them; nervous, skittish like a deer venturing out in the open. These boys were still green; they hadn't seen true battle yet. As they shifted uncomfortably in their saddles, the two carried on there conversation.
"We've been breaking up groups of the bastards here and there, but their own lack of organization is saving their necks for the time being. No telling when twenty or thirty of the fuckers will pop up, or where. Gotta be careful out of view of the public eye nowadays. The woods and fields around here are home to thieves and murderers, and other, older things that lay better undisturbed. Good thing we came riding to the rescue, carrot-top." The air of pride engulfing Ganju was almost half-believable.
"Yeah, yeah, you're my hero. Now before any real fighters show up to usurp your glory, can we get going to wherever the Hell it is you've holed up? I could use a meal and a bed."
"A shower, too, by the smell of you."
"Says the one straddling a pig."
"B-Bonnie is a boar, ya hear me? A fierce, proud, beautiful steed to be respected and-"
"Fantastic. Can we get going now?" Ichigo could hear muttering and snickers floating amidst the group behind them. Probably the elder gang members, who knew that their fearless leader lacked an iron fist. Ignorant to the disloyal derision, Ganju straightened up atop his mount.
"You betcha. Hop on, and we'll have you reincorporated into society in no time, Wildman."
"Don't tell me I'm riding bitch on Bonnie."
"There are worse ways to travel my friend." Ganju extended a calloused, meaty hand to his old friend. "Oh, and Ichigo…"
"Don't feed me that 'just human' crap ever again." The spark in his words was uncharacteristic of Rukon's own Big Brother. With a small grin of acknowledgement, Ichigo took the offered hand and his place atop Ganju's sweetheart.