The whole world is storm cloud grey and sea green.
There are dragons in the cliffs.
Once, a very long time ago, there were more dragons, in more cliffs, in more places. But they're gone now, and only these ones remain. No one knows about them.
They don't want anyone to know about them.
Sometimes, Ichigo wonders why he is special enough to know, what separates him from all the others in the closest village or in any of the villages near the cliffs. He wonders what made the dragons choose him, of all the people to come walking down the beach, to be carried up into their caves so they could crowd around him and breathe on him and fill him with dragon-spirit until he could all but fly himself.
Someday, they tell him. Someday you will know.
But Ichigo doesn't care for someday, even though he cares for the dragons. And he only wonders once in a while, instead of all the time, so they don't get annoyed with him asking every day. He has enough to think about, to worry about, because the dragons are failing.
People think they're gone, and they almost are.
Ichigo's not sure what he can do to change that.
He sits on the edge of the cliff and stares out, to where the steel-colored clouds curve around the calm green sea, and thinks about the dragons. Twelve of them, in these cliffs, all that remain in the Empire. Three Queens and six young males, two old Grand-dams and one ailing Grandsire are all that are left of the dragons. It's a tragedy, one so horrific that it can't be put into words, and it gnaws at Ichigo deep inside his chest.
There must be something he can do.
But there's nothing.
Except that he's not, because several minutes after the darkness settles in, a sinuous form slithers out of the shadows and comes to curl around him on his perch. It's one of the older males, the one he's come to think of as his in all the ways a dragon can ever be someone's. Though, to be fair, he's just as much Zangetsu's.
The wind is sharp, and the warmth from his huge body is a comfort. Ichigo leans into him and murmurs, "Zangetsu, what are we going to do?"
Zangetsu—freshly come from a bath in the ocean, with his scales gleaming like midnight—doesn't need to ask what is worrying him. Nor does he try to reassure Ichigo that everything is fine. They're too tightly connected, too intimately bound for a lie to ever work between them. Rather, he drops his huge, heavy head—nearly as long as Ichigo is tall—to the sandy bluff and gusts out a sigh that smells like roasted fish.
You will bring them back, he says, and it is with a weight of certainty that would crush Ichigo, were it coming from anyone else. You are our hope, Ichigo. You will bring back the days of the Dragon Lords.
"With twelve dragons and one rider?" Ichigo asks, because it has been all he can think of for months now. The people are still terrified of sorcery from the last Great War, when the Dragon Lords fell before the invading armies, all but wiped from existence by a King who feared sorcery and magic above all else. His totalitarianism was short-lived, but the fear of warlocks and witchcraft that he peddled remains. Now, there are only the faintest trappings of government left in the capital city. Soul Society is weak, and needs the Dragon Lords—no matter how much the people fear them now.
Yes, Zangetsu answers, implacable as the dream-green tides below them. Senbonzakura has seen glimpses of others. We aren't alone. The Rukongai was never completely taken. Ichigo—
"I know." Ichigo cuts him off, because he can't take mention of the only other human to know of the dragons' existence. Not when Urahara is so far beyond the reach of any help, so far beyond Ichigo's reach. He draws in a shuddering breath that the sharp wind tries to steal back, and presses his face to Zangetsu's gleaming scales as he wraps his arms as far around the muscular neck as he can manage. Zangetsu is very large, so it's not far, but it's still comforting. "I know," he repeats. "But it's dangerous, and I'm not there to help him. He doesn't even have a dragon with him."
Zangetsu simply huffs out hot air, like a human would chuckle, and twists his large, lithe body until Ichigo is curled in the middle of a nest of warm, gleaming scales and surrounded by the dragon's smoke-and-sea-brine scent. Oh, Ichigo, he whispers. You will be fine, as will he. And someday, they will tell great tales about you, about the two warriors bound by forbidden love, who saved an empire from ruin and brought back the Dragon Lords.
It's oddly ridiculous, when he puts it in those terms, and Ichigo can't help but laugh. Urahara has always been the smart one, hardy, able to last and survive and win through with his cunning plans and sly manipulations. Ichigo is…not. He has too sharp a temper, once it's roused. He sees things in straight lines and black and white. It's not a bad way to be, but he's always admired the older man for his brilliance, and he knows that if ballads are ever sung about them, they will be about Urahara, who is a warrior and a tactician and handsome and charismatic and brave. That's all right, too, and Ichigo doesn't mind, because that's the way it should be.
And this thing that is between them? Forbidden love makes it sound like something special, something wonderful. It's simply strange, unnatural, for two men to desire each other in such a way. Ichigo knows it's his own weakness that draws Urahara to this, his own failing that pulls the elder man down with him, and that it's wrong, but he can't help it. He loves Kisuke more than it should be possible to love anyone.
"It will take years," he tells Zangetsu. "You know that, don't you? We're going to be rebuilding the Dragon Lords from nothing, even if Urahara does find other dragons. We're going to be looking for a lost heir to the old ruling family that everyone is already looking for, and has been looking for already for decades. And what if, when we find the heir, he or she's not suited to rule? What will we do then?"
Have them cede the throne to one who will rule well, Zangetsu answers, as though it is obvious and simple and not a matter for which thousands of lives have been lost. Dragons do not have to respect human laws of succession, dear one, and neither do our riders. This land was given to the humans by the dragons, and we have the right to fix it as we wish. They are simply unfortunate that we did not step in sooner, distracted as we were by the Purges.
There is sorrow in his mind-voice, which sounds in Ichigo's head like a sun-warm echo. He has heard the story before, how Zangetsu's former rider was killed in the King's quest to root out all remaining magic in the land, and with it all opposition. With such a deep bond between Dragon and Lord, Ichigo is ever amazed that he never gave in to grief and allowed himself to waste away, as many other dragons had done. Zangetsu is strong in a way that Ichigo hopes he will never have to be, and the dragon shares that strength with Ichigo even when Ichigo thinks he would be better served to retain it for himself.
But if there is one thing Ichigo can do right now, and do well, it is dream. It is the only comfort he can give. He sinks back against the banked fire of Zangetsu's side and lets his mind open to the dragon's, to the other dragons he can feel hunting or dozing or grooming themselves, and then he lets the dreams he has been building all day wash over them—dreams of a time when dragons are free to fly again, and the Dragon Lords watch over the land from their mountaintop fortresses, and the Empire is at peace. Dreams of venison and beef and mutton instead of fish for every meal. Dreams of harmony and open skies and endless plains where they can wheel and dip and dive and soar without worry, where they don't have to fear being seen and hunted.
Soon, Ichigo thinks to all of them, and hears the echoing agreement. Soon this will be our world. And it will, even if Ichigo has to pull down the walls of Seireitei by himself, brick by brick, to make it so.
When he opens his eyes, the dragons still lost in their waking dream, the whole world is storm cloud grey and sea green.
There are twelve dragons in the cliffs.
Ichigo is in love with another man, who returns his love even though he shouldn't.
Together, they are going to rebuild an empire.
Sode no Shirayuki, a beautiful white Queen, is nearly ready to nest, and Ichigo does not know whether to be ecstatic or terrified. Once she does, there will no longer be only twelve dragons. They will have started to truly restore the Dragon Lords. But nesting means eggs, and the cliffs of the Eastern Sea are no place to raise a clutch of hatchlings. There are too many people, too few animals for prey.
More than that, the dragons want to go home.
Ichigo doesn't know what home is. He's never had one. Always, always, he's been traveling, first with his family as part of a caravan and then with Urahara, and now he exists in some odd, transitive space that feels like it should be home, but isn't. Maybe, someday, he'll find the home that Zangetsu and the others speak of so longingly, but for now, his home is Kisuke, and that means his home is nowhere to be found.
The sun is coming up, invisible beyond the storm-grey clouds that forever hang over the peridot-green sea. Only the bare lightening of the air marks its rise, the steady shift in color of the foam capping the waves as they break, break, break against the foot of the cliff in never-ending rhythm. Ichigo watches the foam change from wet-stone-grey to eggshell-white, sitting on the edge of the cliffs as the dragons glide back in from their night of hunting.
Ichigo watches them all come in, because they are beautiful and what he is truly fighting for, in the end. "My people" is an abstract idea, as is "Soul Society" or "the right thing." All that is real to him is this, the rush and sweep of leathery, iridescent wings, the smell of smoke and fire and myrrh that clings to bright scales as they move apart into their carved-out nests in the cavern. They are beautiful, and fierce, and so very, very proud. Ichigo loves them for what they could be if they were free, for what they are despite everything that has happened to them. He loves them for what they will be, when the Dragon Lords have been restored and they can live as they were meant to.
As much as he doubts his own abilities, he has no doubts about what they are trying to do. What they will do, even if he has to lay down his life for the cause. Even that isn't much of a price to pay, and he will pay it gladly if he must.
Those are deep thoughts, young one. Zangetsu settles in his hollow, curling his long body up enough to fit and folding his shimmering wings back along his spine. The fish land in Ichigo's lap, and though he grimaces faintly to himself, he still offers the black dragon a thankful smile.
One golden eye watches him with the wisdom of a dozen human lifetimes, and then Zangetsu blinks slowly. Truly, we are fortunate to have found you, Ichigo, son of Isshin—you and your beloved both. Your strength is incalculable, and you will let nothing stand in your way.
He's right, of course. Ichigo smiles and thinks of Kisuke and his brilliance, and Ichigo's own stubbornness, and what they'll be able to do together.
The future can't come soon enough.
The whole world is dry-grass gold and autumn-sky blue.
There are dragons on the mountaintops.
Once, a very long time ago, there were Dragon Lords in the Rukongai, fortresses high up among the craggy hills. The fortresses themselves are still there, still tall and proud and foreboding in the twilight-shadows cast by the mountain range.
There are dragons in them, but no one knows about them.
But someday soon, they will.
Kisuke pulls up his mount at the very edge of the mountains' shadows, reining in the flighty beast before she can follow the others in the trade caravan. The mare doesn't like being left behind by the other horses, but Kisuke learned to ride a dragon just six months ago, and her fights are something he can handle. Rather than leave him arguing with a beast ten times her size, who is far smarter than Kisuke himself, and who would eat Kisuke before accepting a bit, all the mare does is kick up her heels and spin in a circle. Kisuke rides it out with amusement, then lifts a hand in farewell to the traders and spurs her onward, straight for the hidden gorge that will take him to the foot of the nearest fortress.
There are many fortresses in this part of the Rukongai, and he will have to check them all for dragons, because what the dragons see is never truly clear. Still, it is enough that Kisuke knows to check the fortresses, because otherwise he would be searching on foot through the mountain range for signs of dragons. This way is faster, and the faster he searches, the sooner he will be back with Ichigo.
It is not safe to be so dependent, not now, when the fate of an empire hangs on their shoulders, but Kisuke has already spent five years denying that such feeling existed. Now, he will make the most of them.
He kicks the mare into a canter, lifting his face to the wind.
Soon, he tells himself. All we have to do is save the world.
Somehow, it's not nearly as daunting as it really should be.