Calm After the Storm
Chapter 6

Surprisingly enough, when the visitors entered through the Senkaimon, they came out of the official one in Seireitei instead of near the west gate as before.

"Yo!" said a voice in the distance. They all turned to look at the approaching figures… one was very shiny.

"Oi! Ikkaku, Yumichika!" yelled Ichigo enthusiastically.

"We got stuck babysittin' you punks," Ikkaku answered glumly as the two Shinigami finally got close to the group.

"Oh, Orihime-chan, you look as beautiful as ever!" gushed Yumichika. He leaned in to embrace her, but a small stone knocked him in the head.

"Idiot! This ain't the time for that!" Yumichika rubbed his head with tears in his eyes mumbling something about cheap shots. Whether Ikkaku heard and ignored it or was selectively deaf no one will know.

"Man, I hate this. A'right Ichigo, the meetin' is at noon. The bosses wanted to get you guys settled first, so we have to show you 'round the place." They moved off down the path.

"It's not like we didn't spend months here killing hollows last year," interjected Ishida not moving along with the rest of the group.

"What you talkin' 'bout? Ikkaku asked with a frown. "'Less you know of a bar that I don't (I doubt it) you should start walkin.'" He turned around again, Ishida jogging after them.

'I must be out of my mind…'

xlxlxlx

"You didn't even let us have sips!" cried Keigo silently, whose shoulder was being patted by Mizuiro.

"Idiot, were underage and we have a huge meeting to go to in a few hours!" scolded Tatsuki evenly. The group had to make due with watching the fellow Shinigami in the bar get completely hammered and Keigo try to sneak drinks away from the 11th members. His hands were smacked away every time. Ah, the joy of slow torture.

Ikkaku currently leaned on Yumichika for support as he stumbled down the streets of Seireitei. His friend wasn't nearly as wasted; he possessed enough brains to control himself (although whether from a sense or duty or his assurance that a drunk Yumichika is not a beautiful Yumichika is up for debate).

Said Shinigami looked back at the group of odd friends talking with each other. He smiled as he announced he would take his inebriated friend to the 11th division quarters to sleep it off.

"You guys can go explore, you know your way around. I'll find you again." He didn't have to mention he would do that by following the obvious reiatsu of the substitute Shinigami. Ichigo stopped him before he ran off.

"How's Kenpachi doing?" he asked quietly. The group quieted and Yumichika turned again.

"…Hangin' in there." Answered Ikkaku quietly. "He's rougher 'round the edges –"

"If that's even possible," interrupted Yumichika with a (beautiful) snort.

" – but still going." Ichigo nodded slightly. He looked the two Shinigami in the eyes.

"I'll be around later," and it was enough to see Ichigo understood. He left to drop Ikkaku at the division.

"Yachiru-chan!" shouted Orihime. They saw the small girl stand above the fallen Kenpachi, her usual grin faded. They were surrounded by hollows and the battle had already lasted too long. A surprise visit from an Espada felled the monster of a taicho, but he still breathed, albeit raggedly, while Yachiru defended him with everything she had left.

The humans came as reinforcements to the battlefield, but not in time as they saw a hollow's tail swing in from behind the girl and stab her small frame through. She cried out softly, lifted roughly into the air before she was flung back to the ground, right beside her taicho. Ichigo and the others finally made it and they beat away the hollows furiously. Orihime sprinted to the still figures on the desert sand, calling on her power desperately, pouring everything she had into the healing.

Yachiru slowly pulled herself up, crawling under the high dome, to climb onto her taicho's chest, already being pieced together, and lay on her stomach.

"Did I win, Ken-chan?" she asked tiredly, resting her chin on her folded arms, eyes closed.

"Yah," he responded in a voice so gentle Orihime almost looked around her to see who had spoken. His still intact arm rose to embrace his daughter.

"Arigatou, tou-chan," whispered the girl with a last sigh as she turned her head sideways, as if merely taking a nap.

"Yachiru-chan!!!"

Orihime shivered at the memory, then looked sideways at Tatsuki as she lent a supportive arm around her shoulders. Orihime swiped at her eyes.

The group set off silently, not really noticing where they were heading. After a while of walking aimlessly Orihime's tears stopped and Tatsuki loosened her hold, although not quite letting go. The red head looked around and stopped and tilted her head slightly in confusion.

"Where are we?" The others froze and looked around as well. They had found themselves at the entrance of a serene garden. A small stream surrounded by smooth rocks and small bushes cut through the center of the tastefully designed corner of Seireitei. Sakura trees and others adorned the yard as well as plots of flowers. Several benches spread out along the stream and under the well-kept trees.

Somehow this garden felt like their meeting place on the school grounds. Sure it wasn't as elegant as this, but the friends needed it's circle at the moment, and any familiarity was good enough for now.

They moved forward to take their place under the sakura trees, settling into the familiar formation as easily as breathing.

No words were spoken, each choosing a quieter strength as they were lost in their individual memories. They never stopped the flow of support they each sent out and that was the most important thing.

xlxlxlx

Kuchiki Byakuya walked along the corridors of his estate calmly, heading to finish his work scheduled for this morning before the meeting took place. He felt suddenly the now irritatingly familiar reiatsu enter the grounds of his estate.

Withholding an aggravated sigh ('Really, when will the boy learn some control?') and changed his course to kick the boy out of his garden.

The stoic taicho arrived around the corner soon enough to see it wasn't just Kurosaki Ichigo that had taken up residence in his garden. All his living friends were present as well. Something in the back of his head, maybe Senbonzakura, stopped him from forcing the them to leave and instead pulled tighter on the reigns of control over his reiatsu so not as to interrupt.

He watched silently as the group stepped into the garden after pausing at the open gate. He could feel an emotion prevailing over all the others in their thinly veiled reiatsu: relief. For what Byakuya didn't know, nor did he care, yet he still hung back as he watched. He briefly wondered if they had somehow escaped Zaraki-taicho in a fight, but none were winded.

He continued to watch as they walked over the small bridge connecting the halved land and make their way to the shade under the trees. The ignored the benches. He noted with some surprise that some figures stopped in the middle of the ground while others walked by. Soon the taicho could see that they had created a loose circle, obviously a familiar routine. Even more surprising was the a small gap in the formation, empty because the red-haired girl ('Inoue Orihime' his mind supplied helpfully) had settled into the center of the circle, surrounded by her friends… 'No, that is too weak a word… nakama…'

Byakuya could feel the waves of support and strength and companionship from each reiatsu. He felt he was witnessing a long-familiar ritual between this gathering. He was slightly amazed that the bond between them was so strong at such a young age. Only to be expected, they had been through Hell together.

The girl's head lifted a little from her drooping position, her back straightened. A few more minutes almost convinced the noble to intervene when he heard the Kurosaki boy speak, peaking the noble's curiosity.

"You did the best you could, and that's all that anyone asks of you Inoue."

"H-hai, Ichigo-kun, but–"

"But if we had been a little faster," said the boy with brown hair.

"Or a little more powerful," said the tallest of the group.

"Or a little less scared to death," said the other female shortly. They faded into silence again. Until Inoue giggled softly, and the tension faded away.

"Well, isn't this a familiar speech," said Mizuiro lightly. Others nodded and after another pulse of support trickled away, Inoue crawled smoothly to her space in the circle.

Ichigo sighed (Byakuya noted it was a very world weary sigh) and ran a hand through his already messy hair.

"I guess I'll need you after the meeting Inoue. The fight with Kenpachi isn't going to be rainbows and stardust. Ugh…" Chuckles followed.

"You really think it's the only way to help him forget, if only for a little while?" asked Ishida, who knew the 11th taicho enough to know what Ichigo was implying.

"Knowing him, yeah." Byakuya's eyes widened imperceptibly. The boy had actually offered himself up for a fight against Zaraki?! His thoughts halted when he heard the next voice.

"Ken-chan will be so happy," said a softly smiling Inoue.

Ah… He had heard the story of when, despite Inoue's attempts at healing the pink-haired fukutaicho, it had been too late to save her. He had been informed of the necessities about the child's death, but later Rukia had told him of the only half-healed taicho rising early from Inoue's ministrations and not relinquishing his daughter until he had staggered into the 4th division.

The 6th division taicho decided it was a good time to appear when he heard the brunette question the air.

"Where are we??"

"My garden," said the noble smoothly. They all scrambled to their feet at the sound of his voice.

"Go- gomen, Kuchiki-taicho," stammered Inoue while Ichigo just crossed his arms and stared pointedly at the stoic man. He seemed to be saying 'Yes I knew you were there and I let you listen. What are you going to do?' He also seemed to be threatening him, daring him to make the wrong move. If he did, it would probably mean a trip to the 4th division.

Whatever Ichigo saw in Byakuya's eyes (which was very, very, very, subtle) calmed him a little and he lowered his arms to his sides.

"Come on guys, we're disturbing the noble Kuchiki Byakuya's grass. See you at the meeting, Byakuya!" As soon as they were gone, the noble sighed.

'Truly, that boy is infuriating.'

xlxlxlx

Yumichika found them a little ways away, wandering along the narrow paths. He told them Ikkaku was currently 'snoring loudly enough to put Jidanbou to shame.' With only an hour left until the meeting began, the group made their way leisurely to the Central 46 chamber.

Their escort took it upon himself to update on all the news (coughgossipcough) from all sorts of sources. Hitsugaya and Hinamori had been caught being… affectionate in the 10th division office. The officer that had barged in had to be thawed before they got anything juicy out of him. The SWA had released a new calendar to raise funds… guess who Miss January was… Keigo immediately asked Yumichika if he could smuggle one for him, and all of them were surprised when the 5th seat laughed and said he wouldn't be a true beauty if he couldn't appreciate it himself. He would give one of his copies to Keigo for free.

Their carefree banter continued until they reached their destination, and suddenly the smiles were gone again. Two guards stood in front of the door that flaunted the Central 46 insignia.

"I can't pass; this meeting is for you guys. Good luck." He turned abruptly and was gone. The group turned as they heard the guards chant a spell to open the door. The guard on the left passed through the doorway first, beckoning without words for the visitors to follow. The hallway was long with many door leading who knows where lined along the walls. Five minutes passed before they reached the end of the corridor, which was simply another door and two more guards. They chanted yet another spell and all three let the humans pass into the spacious room that was the meeting place for the Central 46 members and the Gotei 13.

As soon as they were all through, the doors slammed shut behind them and the group formed a single line, allowing their 'superiors' to get a good look at them while they themselves surveyed the setup. There were five tiers in a semicircle overlooking the door they had just entered through. The top most was the shortest and had only six occupied seats. The two below had ten seats and the last raised tier held twenty. On the floor sat the Gotei 13 taichos and their fukutaichos (standing directly behind and to the left). Three seats were empty, although the fukutaichos were present.

One of the men sitting on the tier behind the Gotei 13 stood, looking no older than his mid-40s. He addressed the humans with well suppressed scorn.

"My name is Aizawa Kazuki and I have been voted as Overseer to this meeting. Will you please state your names." The group did so, in no particular order. The man, Aizawa, sat back down and Yamamoto-soutaicho stood in his typical position. He spoke in scratch tones that had always sounded like a grumpy grandfather to Ichigo… very grumpy.

"You have been called here in total isolation of what would be spoken of today. No one but I and the Central 46 Councilmen know what this meeting is about." At this Ichigo flicked a gaze to Byakuya and Renji, but their faces were carefully sculpted stone.

"In light of recent discoveries you have been summoned to stand here to answer our questions in all honesty about your power." The humans blinked… what was going on?

"Ishida Uryuu, Kojima Mizuiro, Asano Keigo, and Arizawa Tatsuki: Is it correct that you have enough power to defeat Privaron and low ranked Espada?" The four nodded their agreement. The soutaicho shifted his gaze.

"Sado Yasutora: Is it correct that your powers awakened fully in the heart of Hueco Mundo and that they are more closely related to a hollow's abilities than any other?" Chad merely nodded, frowning.

"Inoue Orihime: Is it correct that because of strong bonds between these people you are able to use your power to bring them back to life, and have indeed done so?" The girl flinched visibly (no one should know that!!) at the words spoken harshly and the murmurs that arose but nodded. Tatsuki hissed in annoyance. Noise died down once the soutaicho continued.

"Kurosaki Ichigo: Is it correct that you have committed the crime of obtaining the powers of a hollow and become a Vaizard, and knowingly communicate with others?" At this news the taichos whispered to each other. The group looked at each other then at Ichigo, waiting to see how he would respond. His face revealed nothing, not even the familiar frown marred his features. Silence fell again as they all waited for the boy to acknowledge the man's question. Finally, he nodded.

Aizawa stood up again behind the aged Shinigami leaning his hands against the desk in front of him.

"It has been decided that in the chance that these statements are true by the humans' own acknowledgement that these humans are to have their power sealed down to a maximum of ten percent, only to be heightened to twenty percent in the case of emergencies. Substitute Shinigami Kurosaki Ichigo is exempt from this; he will remain at the ten percent seal at all times and is to be exiled from Soul Society for the remainder of his existence." Humans and Shinigami alike broke the silence to shout their surprise at the slightly smirking Overseer.

Kenpachi jumped out of his chair with a roar of disapproval, probably at losing his favorite playmate. Byakuya's hair swished gently from the taicho turning his head sharply to stare at the soutaicho. Ukitake and Shunsui verbally announced their disagreement. Hitsugaya's frown deepened. Kurotsuchi couldn't wait to get started on the seals. Others remained stoic.

The visitors were just as appalled and enraged.

"You can't do this!"

"We haven't done anything!"

"What the hell are you thinking?!"

"This isn't a meeting, this is a trial!!"

Yamamoto thumped his staff on the floor, silencing everyone. Before he could speak Ichigo walked forward, and for the first time it was noticed that he hadn't made a sound or acted out. As he stepped away from the group all eyes were drawn to him (even the new Councilmen had heard of his infamous rashness and short temper). His body was relaxed; no tension at all at hearing his power was to be forced down. …Was his hair… lighter? He tilted his head to the side, spoke a single word.

"Why?"

I was soft, gentle, almost carefree, and it disturbed his friends greatly.

"Kurosaki?"

"Yeah?"

"You okay?"

"Of course, I'm just agreeing…"

"…?!"

"Agreeing with who Ichigo-kun?"

He smiled lazily.

"We need to leave," Chad said suddenly.

"Nonsense, Sado, it's fine," Ichigo declared. He looked over heads to give the giant a grin. "They invited us, it would be rude to leave without their permission!" He turned back to the shocked assembly to look at Yamamoto.

"Why?"

"In order to keep your reiatsu from leaking and affecting the humans closest to—"

"No," said Ichigo coolly. "Try again." Yamamoto opened his eyes to look at the smiling boy. His instincts told him if they made one false moved all of Seireitei would be destroyed, and the boy wouldn't care.

Aizawa stood again, clearly outraged, flying out of his seat, yelling.

"How dare you interrupt Yamamoto-soutaicho thus!!"

"Sir," whispered Mizuiro. "Don't talk." The man sputtered.

"I will speak, human! The Vaizard is out of line! I can have you all exe—!" The killing intent in the sudden reiatsu stifled his words, forcing him to clutch at the table desperately to keep from passing out.

Zaraki grimaced.

As soon as it had appeared it was gone, the humans seemingly unaffected, Ichigo was still grinning.

"How about this, eh? We leave for today, Kurotsuchi doesn't make the seals, and we come back tomorrow for an answer to my question. Same time of course. Enjoy your day gentlemen, taichos." He waved and was almost out the door before he turned around.

"Oi, Kenpachi! I made a play date with Yumichika earlier, you comin'?" The taicho shot out of his chair.

"Hell yeah!!" The two disappeared and everybody breathed.


Whew!!! I had no idea that was coming! I have an awesome plan now!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!

clears throat Anyway, a few things I want to mention...
1-- I am using my authoress priveleges and I made my own Central 46 building because I don't like the original.
2-- I LOVE YACHIRU!!!!!! I didn't want her to die I swear! My heart was breaking while I wrote it, believe me! I figured if I felt that strongly, then so would others, so... yeah... sorry... no killing please!
3-- I love the idea of Byakuya running into things he never expects... lets upset that little noble face of his, shall we??
4-- If you think you know what is going on with Ichigo, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING!!!!! One of the things I hate most is spoilers... if you are desperate to let me know, then message me, k? Thanks!!!!

Thanks to all reviewers, and trust me, more are appreciated!!! And let me know if you have any questions or think I did something bad!!!

Disclaimer: Me no own Bleach... unfortunately I own the dude named Aizawa, but I don't wanna keep him, he's up for grabs! GARAGE SALE!!!!!!!