Return To Innocence
"This meeting will now come to order." The Captain Commander announced inside the great hall.
Head Captain Yamamoto called for an emergency meeting. He recently received significant information regarding the substitute soul reaper. Over the last two years, the Gotei Thirteen had grown dependant on the young man. Many of those within the thirteen squads came to rely on him. More than half of the seated officers, Lieutenants and Captains were very close friends with him. Therefore, it was imperative that everyone be informed of the newest development regarding the substitute soul reaper.
"It has been brought to my attention that we will be receiving a new arrival in the Soul Society. I was notified only an hour ago that Ichigo Kurosaki has been killed in the world of the living."
A collective gasp filled the room. They stared at him for a moment as though hoping they heard him incorrectly, before they started whispering amongst themselves. They all knew that one day Ichigo would be joining them in the Soul Society on a more permanent basis, however, it was far too soon for his arrival. He was supposed to live out a long and happy life in the World of the Living before he ever had to set foot in the Soul Society as a resident.
Yamamoto's eyes traveled around the room, stopping momentarily on each of his Captains and Vice-Captains. The few he knew would not be greatly phased by this information, Soi Fon, Kurotsuchi, and Komomura to name a few, were simply giving Ichigo a moment of silence. It seemed that regardless of the short time, they understood and accepted the boy's untimely fate.
He knew of course that the Ichigo's close friends, mainly Rukia and Renji would be appalled by the news of his death. It was absurd that Ichigo didn't make it to the age of 23. He saw other faces that looked just as abhorred by the news: Rangiku, Hisagi, Izuru, Toshiro, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Yachiru, and of course his own two surrogate sons, Kyoraku and Jushiro.
Kenpachi allowed Yachiru to hug his neck and cry. The little girl had taken to Ichigo early on during his battle with her Captain. His own seated officers bowed their heads, swearing about the injustice of it all. The beastly man was grinning. Though he felt bad that Ichigo wouldn't have the opportunity to live into his old age, he was excited to have his favorite sparring partner joining them in the Soul Society.
When Yamamoto's gaze fell on Captain Kuchiki, he paused. Byakuya's face was hardened. His fists were clenched. He was doing a great deal to hide his shock and, to Yammamoto's surprise, anger. Even though his eyes shielded his emotions, the Head Captain caught a tinge of sorrow behind those steel grey eyes. If he didn't know any better, the old man thought Byakuya looked rather affected by the human's death.
The Head Captain was well aware of how easily the substitute soul reaper entered the hearts of others. He gained respect without trying. He gained loyalty as easily as most people smiled. However, Byakuya never showed anything other than contempt or annoyance for the boy. Perhaps the noble was hiding something unexpected beneath his mask of indifference. It was something to watch out for. He so hoped that Byakuya would open up and return to the lively man he once was. It may just be that Ichigo broke through his barriers after all.
He continued when the noise died down, "The Soul Reaper currently watching over Karakura Town informed me that his death was the result of wrong place, wrong time."
"Meaning what, exactly?" Ukitake pressed, wiping his tears with the sleeve of his white robes.
"It seems that the boy's desire to protect did not dwindle after the winter war. He stepped between a young, pregnant woman and a gunman in a convenient store. They fought for control and the weapon discharged. He took a bullet for a complete stranger. I'm told Ryuken Ishida, the young Quincy's father administered treatment. He was unable to stop the bleeding. Ichigo's father assisted." Yamamoto explained.
"Poor Isshin. He must be heartbroken. " Unohana said, lowering her eyes to stare at the floor.
"First his wife, now his son. I can't imagine what he's going through right now." Kyoraku said, tipping his hat forward to cover his tearing eyes. Jushiro laid a pale hand on his shoulder, his eyes closed in mourning.
A strangled noise drew their attention to the Captain of the Sixth Division. Byakuya was gritting his teeth and his whole body was shaking. After a moment, the noble finally spoke.
"That fool! Such disregard for..."he said angrily, unaware that he'd said anything aloud.
They assumed he was talking about Ichigo's behavior, but they were all taken by surprise at the fury behind his words. He was far more angry than they thought he would be. Ichigo never meant a damn to Byakuya. His constant insistence that he hated the boy stuck in the forefront of their minds. Was it possible he grew to care for Ichigo? How had they missed the signs that anything changed?
"Ichigo Kurosaki must be found. He's served us well in the last couple of years. He fought for our sake in the Winter War with Aizen and he didn't have to. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He will be an esteemed member of the Gotei 13."
That statement caused the anticipated uproar that quickly followed. Everyone started asking questions and bickering with each other about which squad Ichigo would be joining. Everyone wanted the hero of the war in their respective squads.
"Silence! " When the room fell quiet once more, "I intend to let Ichigo choose his own path. We have many openings in every squad. Ichigo Kurosaki has proven himself time and time again. He has the power and prestige of a Captain. He could serve another just as well as he could lead it, making him a powerful Vice-Captain. Should he decide he does not want the burden of responsibility, he could very well be a seated officer. Whatever he decides, he will still be treated with the utmost respect."
Murmurs and cheering rose and then fell at the Head Captains gaze. "Find him. I'm not certain where he will emerge. See to it that he is brought straight to me for placement. That is all."
They couldn't leave the great hall fast enough. Everyone was eager to find him. Rukia, Renji and his other friends went out together. They agreed to work as a team to find him. The Captains either paired off or went on their own. Finding Ichigo Kurosaki was their only priority.
Yamamoto returned to his office, his Lieutenant in tow. There was a hell butterfly waiting for him. It delivered a message from Urahara Kisuke. The former Captain's voice filled the room. He told the Head Captain when the service for Ichigo would take place and he requested a time for his human friends to visit the Soul Society. It was clear they were worried about him.
The old man agreed and sent word back with a date and time. He usually liked to keep travel between the World of the Living and Seireitei to a minimum, but with the current events, he would find it hard to keep the boy's human friends away. He would have to make an exception in light of Ichigo's death. He ordered his Lieutenant to acquire hell butterflies for Ichigo's four friends. They would be permitted to cross over at their discretion. They fought for the Soul Society as well, it was only fair to allow them that courtesy.
He opened his eyes, waiting for his vision to clear. His body hurt. There were people surrounding him, concern etched on their faces and sympathy in their eyes. He lay flat on his back and looked around, turning his head in any direction he could. His head was starting to clear. He recognized this place.
He sat up. His chest hurt. He looked down at himself. He was wearing his shinigami robes. Looks like his interference landed him in the Soul Society. He was sure that this time he hadn't come here through the Senkaimon Gate. He was truly dead...the 'no going back' kind of dead.
"Are you okay, little guy?" A woman asked.
'Little guy? What the hell? What was with this little guy stuff?'
He stood up slowly. The older woman who spoke was warily watching his movements. Something was wrong. He looked down at himself again. He raised his hand up in front of his face. It was smaller than he remembered. He ran a hand through his orange hair and over his face. He ran through their legs and found a bucket full of water. When he looked at his reflection, he understood.
His appearance changed on his journey to the Soul Society. He looked like a toddler, about five years old if he had to guess. If he was a kid again, what happened to his soul reaper abilities? What about Zangetsu? He reached around to his back, looking for his zanpakuto, but it was gone. Crap. This wasn't good. What was he going to do? Was he really supposed to live here in the Rukon District? Would he have to go through the Soul Reaper Academy to get Zangetsu back?
"Are you alright little one?" When he didn't answer, she reached out to him. Ichigo flinched away from her, "I won't hurt you, honey. Are you hungry?"
A mild panic sank in. He didn't know what he was going to do. He knew that one day he would die and that he would find his way into the Soul Society, but with his background, he thought for sure he would be in the Seireitei. Suddenly, he had a thought. All he had to do was find Rukia or Renji and everything would be alright. They would know what to do.
Without answering the old woman, he started walking toward the Seireitei. He knew his way around, though he had to admit, this was an entirely different perspective. He was a lot shorter than before. Finding it might be a bit more difficult than the thought. What he didn't understand was how he retained his adult memory even inside the body of a child?
The old lady followed him, concerned about his well being, "Come on, honey. I'll take you home. We'll get you some new clothes and something to eat." she said gently.
Fear took over once more, which was another aspect he didn't expect. Perhaps some of his childlike tendencies could take over from time to time. He hoped he wouldn't have to be like this long. He froze for a moment. What if he was stuck like this? What if he eventually turned into a kid and lost all of his memories?
He ran, apologizing to her over his shoulder. She was only trying to help after all. All he had to do was find the gate to the Seireitei. He was sure that he would have no trouble what so ever getting inside to see his friends. He bolted when he saw a drunken man come too close for comfort and then slammed into something solid.
"Do watch where you are going, boy."
There was no mistaking that voice. That elegant, arrogant tone was undeniably familiar. Ichigo smiled so big, grateful that he ran into someone he knew and instinctively jumped up into their arms. He wrapped his tiny limbs around the individual's middle and squeezed, delighted that he wouldn't have to be alone in the Rukon District anymore.
"What are you..."
"Byakuya! You have no idea what I've been going through."
Looking down at the toddler, he frowned, "How do you know my name, boy?"
The orange hair stunned him. The big brown eyes surprised him. Recognition followed. It couldn't be.
"Byakuya, don't mess around. I might be small, but come on."
The boy nodded. He realized a little too late that he was still clinging to the noble. Embarrassed by his actions, he released his grip and dropped back down to the ground. He teetered slightly before regaining his balance.
"Sorry about that," He averted his gaze, looking anywhere, but at the man before him, "Look, I'm not sure what's happened to me, but I somehow ended up here like this. I think sometimes I really do behave like a kid. I'll try to control it."
"Please do. We should get you back to the Seireitei. We've been ordered to find you and bring you to the Head Captain. Let's go."
"Right. I was headed there anyway."
They started walking. Ichigo was aware of the eyes that followed them up the street. He remembered the first time he entered the Soul Society. The people of the Rukon District were afraid and wary of soul reapers. He had no doubt that they all knew of Byakuya and his place as Head of one of the four noble clans.
Several men were watching them closely, while others were keeping pace behind them. He needed to be careful. His mother and father always instilled caution. Suddenly feeling as though he were with a parent, he reached up to take the noble's hand. He knew to stay away from any strangers or roads and...what was he doing? He pulled his hand out of Byakuya's immediately, apologizing again for his behavior.
Byakuya was not often surprised, but he was completely dumbfounded by Ichigo's appearance. He had no idea how to respond to the boy's childish behavior. He never had children of his own. Yachiru was the only child he came into contact with on a daily basis, but she was over 100 years old. Though she lacked maturity, she made up for it in power and ability. Besides, Yachiru always behaved like a child.
This was just too strange. Ichigo was an adult. He was instinctual. He was aggressive in battle and passionate about everything important to him. He was just and honorable. He spoke his mind and fought for what he believed in. Ichigo Kurosaki was confident, protective, and very courageous. Never, in all his years, had he heard of a soul regressing to their childhood state upon death. He knew most people lost memories of their entire lives, but never heard of anything like this happening.
He looked back down at the tiny substitute soul reaper. He wondered if this was permanent or temporary. They walked back together and made their way to the great hall, where the Head Captain resided. They were shown in and waited patiently for Head Captain Yamamoto. Byakuya stood in his usual place, his eyes closed, his feet apart, and hands clasped behind his back, looking every bit the proper noble. Ichigo walked around the room, feeling very small and intimidated where he once felt confident and comfortable.
They had been waiting twenty minutes. Ichigo grew bored and tired. He sat himself down next to Byakuya. The noble felt weight on him and when he looked down, he found Ichigo sleeping against him. He watched the boy's steady breathing. He was so small compared to the adult Ichigo that once stood against him. He was so preoccupied he didn't notice the Head Captain enter. A throat was cleared and he looked up.
Embarrassed that he was caught unawares, he bowed to the old man, "Captain Commander, I have found Ichigo Kurosaki. You can call off the search."
The Head Captain's eyebrows raised. "That small child is Ichigo Kurosaki? What has happened?"
"I'm not certain. He seems to have retained all of his memories. However, this was the form I found him in. His body has regressed to the form of a child. He looks to be about four or five."
"We will have Captain Unohana and Captain Kurotsuchi take a look at him."
"No! I'm not letting that clown face anywhere near me!" a tiny voice said.
"You're awake I see. Welcome, Ichigo Kurosaki."
"Thanks, Old Man. I'll agree to see Unohana, but you keep that freak away from me."
Byakuya smirked. He would admit, Captain Kurotsuchi of the 12th Division always gave him the creeps too. He didn't blame Ichigo in the slightest for not feeling comfortable around him.
"Hmm...we shall see. If Captain Unohana cannot come up with a solution, he may be your only choice. I will inform everyone that you've been found. We've all been waiting for you."
"Yeah..." Ichigo's eyes became somber.
"I am sorry that you lost your life so young. Urahara Kisuke gave me the specifics. It is a real tragedy. I'll make sure that once your situation has been settled, you can go and visit your family. Your friends have already requested to visit you here, though, due to your current condition, perhaps I'll inform them we need to wait a bit."
Byakuya watched the boy struggle with his emotions. He was happy he found his way to the Seireitei, but he was sad that he was dead. He missed his family, but he was happy he would be able to see his friends here. Byakuya was torn between pride at the boy's composure and heartache that a small child had to hold in his true feelings.
"We will have to find somewhere for you to reside until this mess is dealt with. I'll contact Vice-Captain Abarai and..."
Ichigo shrunk back and hid behind Byakuya. To both their surprise, the boy clung to the noble's haori.
"Kurosaki, what are you doing?" Byakuya asked.
"Do I have to stay with Renji?"
"You and Renji are good friends. Why would you not want to stay with him?"
"I...I don't know. I seem to be normal enough. I mean, I know who I am and who you are. I don't really feel any different, but every now and then I behave like a child. You saw it happen earlier. It's like my current self and my child mind compete for dominance. It would be embarrassing to cling to Renji like I did to you in the Rukon District. Can't I stay with you?"
Yamamot's eyes went wide. Clinging to Byakuya Kuchiki? Really? He would have paid to see that. He watched the boy, fascinated. It seemed he felt more comfortable around Byakuya.
Byakuya looked down at the boy, disapproval on his face. Ichigo was pleading with him. His eyes were big and hopeful. His little cheeks were rosy and he was smiling nervously. Byakuya's eyes softened. He wasn't certain how to handle it, but who was he to refuse the hero of the Winter War. No matter how much Byakuya despised the boy, he owed him twice.
"I suppose you can stay with me until you return to your normal self."
Ichigo hugged the noble's leg, "Thank you, Byakuya." His small voice dripping with gratitude.
"It's settled then. You will remain at the Kuchiki Manor until this is resolved. Captain Kuchiki, please bring him to see Captain Unohana tomorrow morning. I'll inform her of your arrival."
Byakuya nodded. The Head Captain left them alone, grinning widely. Ichigo would have his own obstacles to hurdle, but he would also test Byakuya in many ways. It should be an interesting couple of days.
"I'm sorry, Byakuya. I really don't want to burden you, but I don't think I could face Renji, or anyone else again, if I did something weird while I'm stuck in this form."
The Kuchiki noble said nothing, but nodded his understanding. "Let's go."
The noble flash stepped and was gone. Ichigo followed, but was finding it difficult to keep up. He was just as fast as he remembered, but his strides were smaller than before. No matter how fast he was, Byakuya was still too far ahead of him. When he noticed that the boy was falling behind, he slowed his pace. When that didn't work, he stopped. He sighed. This was going to be a constant struggle. He was too used to Ichigo's normal power. He couldn't adjust to this as easily as he thought when he agreed to allow him to stay.
He waited for the boy to catch up. Ichigo stopped and caught his breath, then looked at the Sixth Division Captain. He looked annoyed to Ichigo. "I'm sorry, Byakuya."
Ichigo really was different. The young adult Ichigo was arrogant, powerful, headstrong and stubborn. He was a good leader, protective of his family and friends and completely selfless. This younger version was fragile. As a child he was unsure of himself, shy, a bit skittish and very affectionate. He was always sorry about something, as though he hated the idea of burdening anyone. It would take some getting use to.
He wondered if Ichigo would allow his next action, but decided it would be easier than having to wait for him to catch up all the time. He reached down and picked him up. Ichigo's eyes grew wide and he started to squirm.
"Wh...what are you doing, Byakuya?"
"You may be just as fast as you always have been, but your legs are just not long enough to keep up. This will be more efficient and, I would think, less humiliating for you. Just bare with me, Kurosaki."
His first instinct was to argue more, but Byakuya had a point. He was used to his former abilities. The fact that he once beat this man in battle and could now no longer even keep an even pace with him was more humiliating. He nodded, keeping his eyes hidden.
Byakuya gathered the boy close and took off toward the Manor. Once they arrived, he was introduced to the servants. They were told to treat the boy as an honored guest and that if he asked for anything, they were to take care of it. He was set up in the guest room. It was in the opposite wing from his own, but he figured that Ichigo would appreciate the privacy.
"Goodnight, Ichigo Kurosaki. I'll call on you in the morning."
"Yeah. Night, Byakuya...and thanks."