"Eh?!" Ichigo's eyes widened.
Renji grinned and got to his feet, "We're getting closer!"
"Then I believe training is done for today," Byakuya murmured, jumping down from the rock. Rukia grinned and got up, brushing herself off.
"Let's get going then," she urged.
"Going? To Soul Society? Now?" Ichigo asked, a bit shocked by the news.
"Yes. Least you want your reputation sullied by just being late," Byakuya said calmly, sheathing his sword. Ichigo simply stared back for a moment before looking over at Rukia. His eyes were visibly full of surprise, anxiety, and even slight fear. Rukia came over to him and put a hand on Ichigo's arm.
"Don't worry, everything will be all right," she assured him gently, "Let's get you cleaned up first though."
"Alright," he said trying to calm down and not let the others see his hesitation.
Renji separated himself from his gigai and drew his zanpakuto, ready to open the gates to Soul Society. "Wait, Renji," Rukia called while pushing Ichigo in the direction of the hot spring nearby.
"I'm just getting ready," he called back flatly.
"You're probably sore. Get in there," Rukia growled, nearly pushing Ichigo in the pool before trotting away.
He struggled for balance so that he didn't plunge into the water fully clothed and once his feet were steady, he turned in the direction that Rukia had left. He paused a moment, then turned back to the spring and began to take off his shihakushou. Rukia was right, he was pretty sore, and he stretched as he lowered himself into the warm water. Relaxing and allowing his wounds to heal, he gazed up at the painted ceiling which almost gave the impression that it was moving because of the rising steam. "To Soul Society, huh?" he said quietly. Byakuya came over to Ichigo, frowning faintly. He stood a few feet away so that the other wouldn't feel like he was being watched.
"Wagh?!" Ichigo spun around, causing water to splash about him. Even though the water and rocks hid most of his body from sight, it was still felt extremely awkward for Byakuya to be there. "W-what?"
"Rukia has told me that you are uneasy about becoming a captain."
"Um... well... yea..." He slowly lowered further into the water so that only his shoulders and head were above the surface of the spring. Byakuya settled on the ground, back to Ichigo.
"It's because you have friends and family here."
Ichigo watched the captain's back, surprised at the accuracy of the guess. "Yes," he replied and his eyes dropped to the rocks on the edge of the water. After a moment he continued, "I'm... I'm still human. Whether or not I have shinigami powers, I still have a life in the human world. It's not like I can up and leave... But at the same time... I... I can't protect everyone if all I do is live a human's life..." He said all this quietly, not quite sure why he was opening up to Byakuya.
"It must be a hard choice. But in the end, it's up to you to decide; you know that. Do you remember what you told me?" The captain's head was bowed slightly. Puzzled, Ichigo simply raised his eyes. "About saving Rukia because she's my little sister. Isn't family the most important thing to you?"
Ichigo's eyes again sought refuge by focusing on nearby rocks. "I want to protect them. Not just family though... I want to protect everyone that I can... And even though I can't keep the whole world safe, if it's in my power to protect more people than I am, shouldn't I do it?"
"If you believe it is right," Byakuya murmured. Continuing to gaze at the rocks Ichigo sat silently, reflecting on Byakuya's comment. Byakuya stood and brushed himself off before walking away. After watching him walk away, Ichigo sighed heavily and allowed himself to sink down into the spring, the water lapping up over the top of his head as he submerged. When he resurfaced he shook the hair from his face and looked up at the ceiling again.
"If I believe it's right?" He sighed again, lifted himself out of the spring, and proceeded to get dressed. Only moments later, they were all back in Soul Society. Rukia stretched and looked around. Byakuya didn't stop to do that and simply walked forward. Renji trotted after his captain and Ichigo followed silently behind Rukia. Byakuya paused again and turned to them.
You three wait here, he said before walking away again.
I hope youre ready, Renji grinned at Ichigo as he turned to face him. Ichigo stared back in reply, his eyes slightly out of focus. After a moment Renjis grin morphed into a perturbed frown and he stomped over to Ichigo and waved his hand in front of his face, Hello
Anyone in there? We didnt bring his gigai back with us did we? Ichigos hand shot up and stopped Renjis.
Im here, you idiot! He shouted. Rukia hid a giggle from behind her hand.
Is there ever a day where you two don't fight?" she asked, making it a rhetorical question.
"Of course not," they snapped simultaneously.
I wasnt asking you; it was rhetorical, Rukia stated, pouting a bit as she folded her arms.
Ichigo huffed and shoved Renji's hand out of his face. "What's Byakuya doing?"
"Probably talking to the other captains first," Renji said with a shrug. Rukia glanced back where Byakuya had disappeared.
she agreed softly. A few moments later, the captain reemerged and motioned them to follow. Again Renji followed directly behind his captain and Ichigo behind Rukia. The rest of the walk was silent and soon they arrived in front of a sliding door which Byakuya opened. He walked into the room before taking his place on the left side of the room. Renji was to stand beside him and Rukia would stay with Ichigo. His expression hard, Ichigo eyed each of the captains, making mental notes of those unfamiliar to him.
Kurosaki Ichigo, rasped the eldest captain. Rukia stiffened and stood at attention. Byakuya kept his eyes on his sister and the orange-haired boy. Focusing on the old captain Ichigo stared back in reply, having nothing to say to a simple address. "Captain Kuchiki Byakuya claims that you wish to become a captain of the Gotei 13," the elder continued. He opened his eyes slightly and peered at Ichigo from beneath his thick eyebrows. "Is this true?"
Sensing all eyes turn on him, Ichigo felt his heart speed up but tried to keep his breathing normal despite it. His eyes didn't leave those of the general. It was a while before he answered solidly, "Yes, sir."
At this there was a general murmur among the captains but old man remained silent and continued to study Ichigo through squinting eyes. Silence, Yamamoto growled after a while and the talking ceased instantly. Captains, what is your opinion? Should Kurosaki Ichigo join your ranks?
Absolutely not! Unohana, the fourth captain responded, firmly though gently, He hasnt been properly trained, or gone through school. And to make matters worse, hes still a human.
"If he does his job, what difference does it make what he is? Just look at Captain 7..." Kenpachi said with a sneer. Komamura bristled at the comment and scowled darkly at Kenpachi.
Im not sure hes ready just yet, Hitsugaya finally muttered.
He doesnt deserve it, Kurotsuchi stated.
Yes he does, Byakuya said quietly, We wouldve been worse off if he hadnt been there when Aizen betrayed us. The momentary awkward silence that followed this was broken by Ukitake.
"Byakuya has a point," he admitted, "This boy did stop the execution that Aizen had been counting on. Is that something any of us could say about ourselves?"
"We were acting under our laws," Komamura growled, "Something you cannot say for yourself."
"Oi, oi! That's mean," Kyoraku pouted.
I agree with Komamura-san, Soifon stated, frowning at Ichigo, The laws were written a long time before him.
Also, it may have stopped Aizen for the time being, but didnt he get what he was looking for later? Unohana pointed out. Byakuya swallowed a bit, but he didnt look nervous.
Yes, and Abarai-kun did almost the same things Kurosaki did, didnt he? Hitsugaya put in, Besides, Abarai-kun has been here far longer than Kurosaki and hes had schooling. If Kurosaki is voted captain, then so should Abarai-kun. Rukia glanced at Renji to see what his reaction was. Renji looked tense, as if he wished to say something, but he remained respectfully silent. Ichigo was also tense and his heart raced though he wasn't even sure which side he was on. His eyes followed the shouts through the air and traced through each captain.
"I don't ever recall the 6th vice captain defeating me in a full out battle," Zaraki said skeptically.
I said almost, Hitsugaya stated, glancing at him with a scowl.
Abarai Renji isnt to be part of this conversation. The subject, again, is whether or not Kurosaki Ichigo should become a captain, Yamamoto said loudly.
Hes still a boy
He has a chance to do something more with his life other than fighting, Unohana said softly after a moment, Kurosaki has friends and family back home.
He said himself that he wanted to protect them by doing this, Byakuya countered. Another bit of silence followed as the captains thought over this statement.
Yamamoto caught Ichigo's gaze and pinned it down with his. In a demanding tone he questioned, "Kurosaki Ichigo, why is it that you wish to become a captain of the Goeti 13?"
The question struck Ichigo and left him feeling as if he had just been punched in the gut. His eyes widened slightly and he caught a sharp breath that he hoped was unnoticeable. His first reaction was to point at Rukia and say, "'Cause she told me to" but he knew that it had become more than that. He really did want to protect everyone. He wanted to protect... "'Go'" he replied definitively. "My name isn't 'strawberry'. It's ichi, go. One protection. I want to protect my friends, my family, even the people I don't know. That's why I helped Rukia as a substitute shinigami and that's why I still fight hollows even though Rukia's powers have returned. And that's why I'm here. I've thought about what it would mean... and my life in the real world is at a huge risk by my doing so... but I figure that if I have the ability to join the Gotei 13 and the ability to protect more people, then that's what I want to do." As he finished, he stared directly into the general's eyes and he smiled faintly, having won his internal battle. Rukia smiled at him, tempted to touch Ichigos arm to mentally tell him he did good. Everyone else seemed stunned by his response.
I never thought Id hear something like that from a kid, grumbled Kurotsuchi, glaring at Ichigo. Byakuya was watching Ichigo with a slightly lighter expression on his face. It wasnt a smile, but it wasnt a frown either. Unohana still looked a little doubtful.
Are you sure youre ready to leave your life behind? Hitsugaya demanded of Ichigo, Like Unohana-san said, you have other priorities.
"I won't be leaving my life behind. My life is my friends and my family. I'll be protecting them, so I'll be protecting my life." At that, Hitsugaya relaxed and smiled, saying no more. Byakuya glanced around, noting that only a few people were now against Ichigo. Renji noticed this also and the smiled secretly behind Byakuya.
After a few moments, Yamamoto closed his eyes. "Captains, what are your opinions?"
He needs a bit more training, otherwise, hell fit right in, Hitsugaya stated immediately.
I refuse to have a mere boy be a captain! Kurotsuchi protested a second afterwards.
Kurosaki Ichigo deserves to become a captain, he knows when to be mature, Byakuya said after a moment, adding just a touch of humor that startled Rukia.
If he has his heart so set on doing this, then we have no right to stop him, Unohana murmured.
"This is our world! We have every right to stop him," shouted Soifon.
"Agreed," Komamura seconded, "Did the rest of us become captains simply by determination?"
"No, it took our accomplishments as well. However, are you suggesting that Kurosaki hasn't had his own accomplishments in this world?" asked Ukitake.
"Ichigo almost killed me while I was going all out," Zaraki said, tapping his eye patch and grinning in a wicked way that sent a shiver down Ichigo's back.
He defeated me as well, Byakuya added softly, through words and the sword. Determination is what fuels the accomplishments we make.
I still dont think that this boy should become captain simply by saving some girl, Kurotsuchi growled, If anything, he shouldnt have been allowed to come here again in the first place!
"At least it's him and not his little bow and arrow friend though," Kyouraku teased.
Ukitake continued talking before Kurotsuchi could reply. "Kurosaki isn't here because he saved Kuchiki, he's here because he's proven himself to be worthy of our attention."
Hes proven himself worthy of Kuchiki Byakuyas attention, Soifon growled in turn. Byakuya stiffened and pinned her with a gaze that made her look away.
Perhaps he needs to show you what he can do, he suggested in a low voice that set several people on edge. Byakuya's proposition startled Ichigo and his head turned to face him, something that he hadn't directed at anyone but the general since they had started talking. He looked at Byakuya confusedly and slightly concernedly. However, the captain didnt look back at him. Several of the captains glanced at each other and then back at Yamamoto who hadnt said anything yet. Hitsugaya glanced at Ichigo, catching the startled look on the boys face.
Very well, Yamamoto finally said.
"Just what are we planning on doing?" Soifon demanded.
Ichigo returned his eyes to Yamamoto just as expectant for an answer as everyone else. Hitsugaya Toushiro, Yamamoto called and the small, white-haired captain strode forward. You will face Kurosaki Ichigo in a fight to determine his strength and abilities.