The regular meeting of the captains was about to start. All of them were standing neatly in two rows with strange quiet engulfing the room.
The Captain Commander made his entrance, faced his subordinates and opened the meeting.
"Oi, Renji! Are you paying attention to anything that I am saying?" Ikkaku poked his friend.
"Sure." Renji hummed in response.
"So?" Ikkaku leaned back on the grass. Renji's tone of voice went unnoticed.
The red-head was lying on the grass, too. The two of them were near the barracks of the Eleventh. It was a nice place, calm. Treetops created a shadow over the small hill they were lying on, but one could still watch the occasional clouds go by. Renji was currently lost in the nature surrounding him and thoughts that were running through his head. At the moment his bold friend presented only a background for all that.
"You are not listening." Ikkaku said quietly while looking at the sky.
"Hm." Renji's autopilot answered. The bold guy threw a stick at him.
" 'The hell?"
"I asked you, like five times already, if you know what made Ichigo so angry?"
"Why would I?" came the answer in a half bored and half angry voice.
"Seriously?" Ikkaku asked in a pissed voice of someone, who knows things are being kept from him.
"What?" Renji snapped back. He propped himself up on his elbow and was now daring his friend to continue.
"He came in, started yelling at you – not noticing anybody around him except you – and then left. What he was yelling was something about breaking your captain and killing him…that was just to freshen up your memory a bit." Ikkaku calmly answered and finished with raised eyebrows and slightly turned head towards the redhead.
"And?! What happened, Renji? What the hell happened? That…that state he was in, was…fucking unbelievable. I could not get one hit on him and he barely moved! He was beyond angry. And you know why! I mean, if he went and got all of that out of his system by fighting me, I'd be dead the instant the decision would cross his mind! So WHAT did your captain do?"
"You should be fucking grateful to me! If we did not call for the captains – mine included – you'd be shredded into pieces! So stop implying things, will ya'?" Renji answered in a very hostile tone.
"Yeah, like I care for that." Ikkaku made a face. "But he did something to Ichigo and you know it. Hey, I wouldn't have said anything if it was just between the two of them. Unfortunately their little drama seems to be getting out of hand a little, don't you think? Hell Renji, who knows what Ichigo would have done if it weren't for us in the pub! One bad word and…"
"I know, already!" Ikkaku was cut off. "I know! But what do you expect me to do, huh? It is none of my business what they do in their free time or to each other. There is just nothing we can do. Ichigo either tells us later or doesn't. Hell, I don't even know whether he is alright or not. Kuchiki-taicho obviously is, since I saw him today at the office."
"Did you ask him?" Ikkaku offered.
"Did Zaraki knock your brains out?" Renji shot him a meaningful look to accompany the statement.
"What's wrong with asking? You called them there to solve the problem, it would be ok to be curious about the finish they had, right?"
"Yeah, well. You never worked with Kuchiki-taicho, so you wouldn't know." Renji replied with an almost ironic smile on his lips. "It just doesn't work that way."
"Maybe we can.."
"I already thought of that, Ikkaku. I stopped by Ichigo's on the way here but he was not there. Though I don't think he is severely injured lying on some bed in the Fourth. That would get to me, or Rangiku for that matter. And tomorrow they have the meeting, where the final exam should be discussed. I am kinda glad that Rukia has been deployed few days ago for the Real World. Even though she does not talk to him that much, she still considers it her duty to watch out for him at least a little. And.." Renji chuckled slightly. "..I am usually the one who gets caught in the crossfire then." He took a deep breath. "But this time it was…like a bomb of bottled up things went off inside of him. You know, I have been thinking. It has got to be hard walking in his shoes. Ichigo not once said that after the war he would like to stay here in Seireitei with us. Nah, he wanted back home to his sisters and friends. But no, instead he is stuck in here. Captain Commander promoted him to captain and made him do twice or three times as much work as the rest of the captains, never really explaining what for. At least I think, he didn't. It kinda sounded like that from what Ichigo told me. And having Kuchiki-taicho teach him kido must have driven him nuts. Those two just cannot get along. It's impossible. It's like…"
"Enough already! The psychological hour for chicks is long past. You're a man. You wanna do something about it, do it. You wanna know what happened, go ask or something. But man, really, do not cry here for your.."
"Who The Fuck Is Crying, you ass?!" Renji yelled.
Ikkaku chuckled, stood up and on his way by his hippie friend patted him on the shoulder, saying: "Good."
"I do really hate you, Ikkaku." Renji growled.
"Are you coming or what?" The mentioned one called back over his shoulder.
Everything looked the same. Shunsui was clad in his pink haori and was smiling with his head bent, Zaraki was cracking his spine - which was the only sound in the room, Unohona and Kuchiki both looked like a human statue, Soi Fong was daydreaming as it seemed, Komamura and Hitsuguya had their badass face on, Ukitake was smiling and Kurotsuchi was anxious to get back to his experiments. But something was off. Had to be.
The meeting covered all the usual things – like money that would go to each squad, explanations (mostly made by Zaraki Kenpachi) as to why do some squads need extra money for rebuilding their quarters or anything else the Shinigami might have destroyed, reports from the Real World were discussed and a timetable of shifts for next month was established, and so on. But the main theme that most were curious about was not discussed yet. There were occasional glances towards the two main actors, but nothing too obvious.
"..and I think with this we covered all the important things, so.." Yamamoto seemed to end the meeting with this sentence, so Ukitake quickly cut in.
"Captain Commander, I .."
"Yes, I know, Ukitake-taicho. Now onto the reason most of you have been feeling so anxious about. Kurosaki Ichigo." Yamamoto finished his thought.
Shunsui chuckled. Yama-gi is still in shape, it seems.
"I have heard that some of you felt uneasy about Kurosaki Ichigo passing the final admission test. I believe it is because of the fact, that he got severely injured while fighting with kido only during that battle and therefore was not able to carry out his mission till the end successfully. Am I right?"
There was a short silence and then Soi Fong voiced her opinion: "Sir, with all due respect, you said that the mission in the Real World was to be Kurosaki's final admission test and he failed. Now, I don't see how come he is still in the rank of a captain. He failed, sir."
The fact that Soi Fong was not a big fan of Kurosaki Ichigo was widely known, so it was no surprise that she would be the loudest complaining one.
Ichigo made a hesitant eye contact with Byakuya.
"I did not say it was a final admission test." Yamamoto calmly replied with his eyes closed. The battle of wits was starting.
"Yes, you did." Ichigo snapped instantly.
There was a smile creeping onto Ukitate's face now, too.
"What I said – literally – was: think of this as a final admission test. I am certain you can see the difference." Captain Commander was prepared, indeed.
"That you did, sir. And we all could take that as a good argument, except all the protocols and reports were filled in and filed as if the mission in the Real World was a final test. All of these have gone on your desk for checking and your signature. I do believe you have approved of all of those, including my report of how well did Kurosaki Ichigo fare on the battlefield." Byakuya voiced his opinion. Neither on his face nor in his voice was any trace of anger or any ill feeling towards his superior.
Ichigo took a deep breath. Byakuya was arguing on his behalf. In public.
There were some grunts of agreement with Kuchiki-taicho in response to his argumentation. Yamamoto never ceased to smile with his eyes closed. He didn't even look the least taken aback by this – Byakuya's reasoning was to be expected.
"Kuchiki-taicho, I believe I have explained to you and Kurosaki-taicho before that this was not the main part of the final exam. I do not deem it wise to discuss the real base for my decision for it has already been discussed with those of importance." Yamamoto calmly replied.
"Neh, Yama-gi, why is it that only Ichigo had to undergo such a thing as a final exam? None of us ever had to…And I would say he had proven his qualities to us many times before." Shunsui joined in.
"Kyoraku!" Ukitake said scoldingly, but the concerned party just smiled back.
"But all of us were trained in the academy first and then…"
"I am very sorry, Soi Fong. But I was not asking you, now was I?" Shunsui cut off the captain of the Second Division. He was really curious about how this would turn out.
"That is the truth, indeed. But think of my actions as you would of a lion, who takes in his group of lionesses a new one. She proved to be exceptional at hunting but no one knows if she will be good at taking care of the kittens, too. There are many tasks in the lion's group that need to be taken care of and the strength of the pack is as good as the weakest part – counting in all these tasks. Thus being good at fighting is not all of the qualities a captain should have, would you agree with me?" Yamamoto answered.
"I don't understand what all this noise about Ichigo remaining a captain is. I am glad. He's a good fighter. Anyone who has a problem with that can spar with me and we will solve the problem once and for all." Kenpachi joined in the conversation.
Ichigo was quiet and looking at the floor since the beginning of the current topic. He knew he should care and he did, but the way of people dancing around the issue, accusing one another of manipulation of facts or people without actually saying it out loud, that was just out of his league. He would say something if knew how. He breathed in and all of a sudden all eyes were on him. He held his head high and waited.
"Kurosaki Ichigo." Byakuya called him.
"You sounded as if you wanted to take part in the discussion, too." The cold voice asked him.
"No, not really. But thank you though." Ichigo answered in a clear and composed voice.
"I see." Shunsui announced. Byakuya shot a sideways glance at him but hardly anyone noticed.
Kurotsuchi shifted and said: "Well, charming as this is, if it's all I would like to get back to my laboratory. Are we done now?"
"Wait. I am still confused, so why exactly did Ichigo pass that exam? I do not wish to complain, but as some others have pointed out, there seems to be some logic lacking behind the decision." Komamura intervened.
"We should not be questioning Captain Commander's orders in the first place." Hitsugaya grunted.
"A righteous man has nothing to fear if questioned for his decisions, Hitsugaya-taicho. And to answer you, Komamura-taicho. Winning or losing that battle was not the core of the exam. It was the difference in behavior prior to the mission and after it that was of matter. The reason for not telling him or his teachers about this up front is obvious enough, I would say, isn't it?"
"Thank you." Komamura answered.
"So it is safe to say that the time of examination of Kurosaki's qualities is over." Byakuya said this as a notification not a question. There was also a hidden threat to the Captain Commander that no one else, except for Ichigo, would be able to notice.
"Kurosaki Ichigo is to stay in the rank of a captain." Yamamoto answered. Silence followed, so he continued: "If we are all clear on this subject then, I pronounce this meeting finished. Dismissed."
Everyone began to make their way out of the room. The only sounds were feet in sandals touching the floor and the rustling of clothes. There was nothing to talk about anymore.
Ichigo was already outside on the pavement that led back to his barracks. He was lost deep in thought and not paying much attention. There was a hand on his shoulder. He knew immediately whose and recoiled.
"What do you want?" Ichigo didn't even bother to turn around. He was in no mood to talk to Byakuya now. In fact he was hoping he would give him more space after their last talk.
"You were quiet there. You could have said…"
"What, Byakuya, what could have I said, huh? All of those theories you were feeding to me the other night? Please, I don't even believe those. Well, not sufficiently, anyway. And I did not ask for any of this in the first place!" Ichigo snapped in the middle of Byakuya's sentence.
"Ichigo." The voice stopped him once again. "We made a progress there."
"Yeah, sure. I gotta go." Ichigo muttered. He went a few paces further down the road and then turned around and said: "And do not ever call me that again."
"Hey." Renji called from the door. It was the third time he went to see his friend, who was finally at his office.
Ichigo looked up from the papers he was going through. "Do you need anything, Renji? I am busy."
"I can see that." Renji answered and made his way into the room. " 's no big surprise, considering you have been out most of the day.."
"Your point?" Ichigo was not in the mood to play with words or to humor anyone.
Renji reached the desk and rested his weight on it.
"How are you?" He was serious and visibly concerned for his friend. There were many questions left unanswered from the other night, but he knew he should not ask. If Ichigo would want, he would tell him.
Ichigo's features hardened.
"Do I look like a frigging girl to everybody in here?!" He yelled at Renji.
"Jesus, calm down! You might wanna stop acting like one, though." The red-head snickered back.
"What?!" Ichigo pushed himself from the desk further, so he would lean deep into the chair and then he folded his hands.
"Drama queen…" Renji muttered under his breath and crooked his mouth up in a half smile.
"You said something?" Ichigo sneered.
"Look, I just came to see how you were doing, 'cause the last time you did not look that well. Obviously you are back to your charming self, so I can leave you to whatever you are doing.."
"It is for tomorrow's meeting, Renji. The Meeting is tomorrow." Ichigo cut in.
"Right." The lieutenant seemed to be deep in thought for a while. "Sorry, I guess I forgot. Good luck for tomorrow. And see you afterwards?" He was already on his way out of the office, while saying that.
"Thanks. Bye then." Ichigo was already back at the papers. This encounter was weird in a way but he chose not to ponder about it for the time being.
Ichigo strode down the street. He didn't want to think. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He was hoping, he could burry himself in work and training for a couple of days. To clear his head. To feel normal again.
Apparently that was not happening.
"Oi, man! Oi!" Renji was walking towards him. Has he nothing better to do?
"Not now, Renji." Ichigo gestured for him to go away.
"What happened?" The other guy stopped immediately, ignoring the non-verbal language.
"Nothing. I just don't feel like talking to anyone. I have things to do." Ichigo made his way past Renji.
"Was that Kuchiki-taicho I just saw leaving?"
"I already told you.."
"What did you do?" Renji's voice changed to a hostile tone. His affiliation was always clear. Not even his friends were allowed to toy with his captain. Though, the truth be said, the only one who ever dared to do so, was Kurosaki Ichigo.
"Mind your own fucking business, Renji!" Ichigo exploded and then used shunpo to get away as quickly as possible. He really was not in the mood to talk to anyone, much less to be explaining himself to Renji, why he was not the one doing something.
Screw all of them. I'll go home and no one can stop me from doing that.
I am very sorry for such a long time for you guys to wait. Unfortunately there are many circumstances now that are eating up my free time, therefore time to write new chapters. This story will have to be on hold for a while now. Sorry again.
Thank you very much for all of your support, comments, follows and favs. I do appreciate it.