Meifu's Gate: Fourth Maki
I keep saying I'm done, and then I keep not being done. So I guess you can't believe me when I say this is the end either - and therefore I won't say it. BUT it is the last Juu and Shun at the Academy story, because this is their Senior Year. Two years or so have passed since the last story, and Team Stupid are about to enter the final stage of their training before entering the Gotei.
The angle of this story is somewhat connected to the past two and somewhat not. By that I mean that the Clan of choice has once more changed - from Shihouin and Endou in the first story, to Endou and Urahara in the second...we're now onto the Kuchiki and perhaps to a lesser degree the Shihouin and the other Clans. A few loose ends from earlier stories will turn up and be tied off in this tale. As for the Kuchiki themselves, I intend the events in this story to mark the forming of the modern Kuchiki Clan - in essence, the shift between the ancient line of the Kuchiki and the line from which Byakuya and Ginrei are descended.
I also took the decision to give not only Juu and Shun but also the others their zanpakutou in this story. I do not know whether people do or don't generally raise swords at the Academy because, frankly, it's not information Kubo has given us. We have fleeting data about Rukia learning from Kaien - but Rukia left the Academy early and didn't graduate. We do know some squad officers never have releasable swords, but we do know that Gin and Kaien graduated in a year and if so they must have obtained some kind of major skill to do that - probably a zanpakutou. There's also the case for the nobility who must have been training and raising swords among themselves long before the Academy existed. I don't consider the movies canon, but Kubo was consulted on that Hitsugaya movie, and in that both Hitsugaya and his friend obtained their zanpakutou whilst Academy students, before graduation. Therefore I've taken the decision that in this era, those in the Senior Class are either in possession of their zanpakutou or well on the way towards obtaining it. I think it highly possible that students of the top class in the canon Academy graduate with their swords raised, and have worked to that assumption with this story.
At present I have no intention of going beyond what we already know from canon for Juu and Shun's swords, although that may change for Juu's since we barely know his shikai at all in comparison to Shunsui's.
The title of this story is Fourth "Maki". A 'Maki' or 'Kan' can be a volume of a book, but it can also be a roll of fabric. In ancient/mediaeval Japan, religious texts were often written out on fabric scrolls in elegant Chinese hand-lettering. One such in the British Museum in London sort of inspired me to give this part that name. So this is either 'Fourth Volume' or 'Fourth Scroll' - whichever takes your fancy. :)
Team Stupid are not my possessions, although I would give them good rates on room and board if they wanted to move in O.O. They and all Bleach-canon characters/concepts are copyright to Kubo Tite. Everything else, good and bad is my own work and any deviations from canon that may result from future manga chapters are beyond my control.
Updates to this story will be at most weekly. It is still being written and I am still very busy, but atm Team Stupid are keeping me sane(ish).
Prologue: Moonlit Shadow
"All's quiet in this sector now."
The young shinigami tapped his fingers against the hilt of his sword, turning to face his nearest companion with a rueful grin on his face.
"Hunting hollows seems almost like a game of hide and seek at the best of times, Shirogane – it would be nice if we actually got to take a few down instead of walking for miles in the freezing cold without even a single sign of one."
"Not finding a Hollow makes for a good night's work, Ribari-sama." The man labelled Shirogane sheathed his own gleaming blade, turning to cast the youngster a reproving glance. "Aside from the fact that fighting them is messy and unpleasant, while there are Hollows, people are in danger. And part of our job is to protect them from that danger – I'm sure that Guren-sama has told you that time and time again."
"Yes, I know." The young man sighed, kicking idly at the dirt. "But it's boring and I don't like it. It's not as though I even wanted to be a shinigami in the first place. Just Father said it was the Clan's will and the Clan's way and…I find these patrols boring. I'd rather be at home if we're not going to at least find some action."
He cocked his head on one side.
"Will we have to do this again tonight, Shirogane? It's already dark, and…"
"And I am quite sure Guren-sama has also said that whilst we're patrolling, you should refer to me as Fukutaichou." Shirogane spoke mildly, but there was an edge to his words that made the younger boy flush red. "You are the heir to the Kuchiki-ke, and you are my superior in all respects – I do not doubt this and I will not ever disrespect it by referring to you as anything other than Ribari-sama. However, Guren-sama's orders override everything in this regard – while we are out like this, he has been quite firm. I am Vice Captain. You are third seated officer. And he will be cross if he thinks you haven't paid attention to his words."
"Father's always so fussy about so many things." Ribari muttered, gazing sullenly at the ground. "I've always called you Shirogane and just because you're older than me, I don't see why that should change now. You might be his Vice Captain but it's only because you're an adult and I don't turn twenty till midsummer. That's the only reason, so I don't know why he makes such a big deal out of it."
"Because it sets a bad example to the rest of Sixth Squad." Shirogane said briskly, turning to gesture to the three or four other young men who were hurrying to catch up to their tracks. "And Guren-sama wants you to be able to set an example – since as you say, one day you will outrank a lot of people and hold full sway over this land in its entirety."
"I still think Father's being too stiff and unreasonable." Ribari sighed, shaking his head slowly. "But all right. I suppose I see, then, if it's that way. I'm sorry, Fukutaichou. I'll try to remember from now on."
Shirogane offered him a faint smile.
"It makes both our lives easier, if you stick to Guren-sama's instructions." He said lightly. "Tomorrow, I'll work with you some more on your sword skills and you can call me Shirogane all you like – but until we return to base, squad rank has to be preserved."
He turned to glance at the approaching group, tut-tutting under his breath as he ran his gaze over them.
"Have you lost so much fitness even from one short roam into the forests?" He scolded them, his tones even yet pointed as his sharp slate gaze bored into each of them one by one. "Have you forgotten that this is a Kuchiki squad? If we don't set the precedent, how can any other hope to follow us?"
"But there are no Hollows, Fukutaichou. It seems to have been a false alarm." One of them paused to lean against a tree, breathing heavily. "And you and Ribari-sama shunpo so quickly – it's difficult even now for us to keep up."
"None of us are as strong or as quick as either of you." Another agreed.
"Then you should work harder on that." Shirogane was unsympathetic. "Excuses are for people who've given up trying to improve their skills. I won't tolerate anyone using them – if you're not quick enough then get quicker, else Guren-sama will not have you in his squad. This is not just another shinigami patrol but the Kuchiki-ke's key and most honoured group of shinigami – with Guren-sama himself as our Captain and Ribari-sama also numbered among our ranks. Slowness or weakness isn't likely to be tolerated – so if you don't want to be left behind, learn to catch up."
"It is cold out tonight." Ribari shivered, rubbing his hands against the sleeves of his shihakushou as if trying to warn them. "Although there are buds on some of the trees, I'm sure that winter isn't really over yet. There's a freezing wind coming down from the North – Sh…Fukutaichou, do we have any further patrolling to do or…?"
"For now, we'll return to the manor." Shirogane shook his head. "This sector is clear and safe and we've checked it ourselves so I can report to Guren-sama that whoever saw or felt a Hollow in this vicinity was mistaken."
"Peasants." Ribari pulled a face. "Probably they saw an old tree or something and couldn't make it out for mist and darkness. If they don't have spiritual senses as sharp as ours, they can't possibly tell what's going to eat them and what's not…but thanks to that we're out like this getting frozen instead."
"Well, the sooner we go back, the sooner we'll be warm." Shirogane said meaningfully, although he drew his own cloak more tightly around his shoulders as a sudden chill breeze whipped around their bodies. "Come on. We'll return to base and report to Guren-sama and that will be that. I'll write up my report – Ribari-sama, you can help me – and then we'll be done."
"Must I?" Ribari looked decidedly unamused, but Shirogane took no notice, merely turning on his heel and heading off along the pathway that led back to the main Kuchiki manor. If he was honest with himself, he too was cold and fed up at having had to lead such a pointless and time-wasting mission into the rural scrub that surrounded their main estate – but an order was an order and no matter how much he liked things his own way, Shirogane was smart enough to know that defying Guren, head of the Kuchiki-ke was something no sensible man did.
Even though he is my Uncle, it makes no difference.
He sighed, his gaze flitting back to see that his subordinates were following him. They were, Ribari dragging his feet, and Shirogane let out a little sigh, shaking his head slightly.
And he's got a lot to learn, still, about being the heir to a Clan. I never thought I'd think this, but a few terms at Genryuusai-sensei's Academy would actually do him some good. At the very least, it'd teach him a little discipline. Being here, he knows everyone around him is beneath him except for Guren-sama himself – and that can make him harder to manage. I wonder if it will be all right – when he becomes old enough to be formally inducted as heir to the Kuchiki.
His eyes narrowed as he ran this thought over in his mind.
I wonder if then Guren-sama will choose to promote him over me to the Vice Captaincy, on account that he'll need the experience more than a simple second degree string of his Noble Clan does. It's not an impossibility - and one I should be prepared for. If Guren-sama orders it then…so be it, I suppose. But I can't say I'll be happy about it – or that it would be to Sixth Squad's benefit, if Ribari-sama was to be given such an important position with so little training. Now if he were one like…
He paused mid-thought, a rueful glance touching his features.
Well, who would have thought it? That my mind would unthinkingly move towards such an idea but…even so…there's some truth in it. If he were one like that wretched District boy, perhaps things would be different. But Ribari-sama is spoiled and wilful and at times, completely unaware of the dangers that this world has to offer.
His eyes narrowed.
But such thoughts are treasonous and I must stop them. For now my only duty is to return to the manor and take my men with me, so I can make report of tonight's mission.
The call startled him out of his reverie, and he turned, his hand resting on the hilt of his zanpakutou as he registered the anxiety in his subordinate's voice. They had stopped, he realised, and he hurried back down towards them, confusion in his slate grey gaze as he tried to work out what was going on.
"What now? Why are you dawdling?" He demanded, and the officer who had yelled turned to him, a troubled look on his face.
"Something is following us." He said softly, and Shirogane's eyes became like slits.
"Through the undergrowth, step by step." A second officer nodded his head. "But when we stopped, it stopped. So…"
"And yet you are sure that you are being followed?" Shirogane put himself between the apprehensive men and the dark knot of wild briar and trees that provided ample coverage for anyone who was choosing to conceal their form. "So you cower away from it and do not even draw your swords to defend yourself? A beggar, a peasant, even a thief – have you forgotten who you are and why you are here?"
"There's something not right about it, Fukutaichou." Ribari murmured softly, and Shirogane turned to glance at him, seeing that the young man's face was ash pale and his eyes were big with fright. "I don't know how to explain it…just…it's not right."
Shirogane sighed, closing his eyes briefly for a moment as he stretched his senses out across the surrounding area.
"There's nothing here." He said quietly. "No presence of any kind that I can detect."
And yet, even though that was the case, the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end, as though from somewhere in the undergrowth, someone's eyes were boring deep into his back. He swung around, opening his own eyes as he scanned the scenery for any sign of an interloper, but again, he saw none.
"We can't sense it either, Fukutaichou." One of the shinigami murmured. "But we can feel it. Like they're…watching us. Following us."
Shirogane's lips thinned, his gaze moving towards Ribari once more. The boy was distinctly ill at ease, rubbing his neck absently as he gazed around him with fearful, anxious eyes. It was not often that the youngster was so easily put on edge, and something in the fluctuating of his aura made Shirogane frown.
Was that the reason? Was someone following them to ensure that no harm befell their Lord's only son – or was it something else – had they been sent in order to carry out some other mission? From his expression, Shirogane was sure Ribari had had the same thought – that if someone was on their trail, be it thief, beggar or something worse, they couldn't fail to notice that the Kuchiki heir was among the group. As the only son of the Lord Guren, Ribari was impossible to ignore – for even though he was dressed in the same black and white robes as they all were, he still wore his Kuchiki pendant about his throat to mark his position as Guren's successor. More than once Shirogane had tried to tell him not to – yet even as Vice Captain there were some things he could not order someone of Ribari's importance to do, and consequently the youngster stuck out like a sore thumb, announcing his presence to all who happened to be nearby.
And now it seemed they were being followed. A suppressed reiatsu – perhaps even the power of kidou was keeping whoever it was cloaked in their leafy hideaway, yet Shirogane was now certain that his men had not imagined it. There had been someone there – and there still was, even now, someone lurking in the forest watching them.
It was not a nice feeling, and Shirogane made up his mind.
Saite, Ginkyoujiki!" He exclaimed, and the copse was lit up with silver light as his blade fragmented into a spray of metal shrapnel, shooting out into the trees. Several of the accompanying Shinigami jumped at the suddenness of his release, yet there was relief in their auras too, and Shirogane focused his gaze intently on the undergrowth, looking for any sign of a shifting shadow.
"Fukutaichou! There!" One man exclaimed, and Shirogane turned, seeing the unmistakeable shadow of a man flit between the trunks of two trees.
So, no Kidou then. Simply a suppressed reiatsu. And the shadows of trees don't move to avoid the fragments of a spirit blade.
Shirogane's expression became grim and he raised his left hand, twitching his glittering fingers in the direction the shadow had gone. Immediately the razor sharp silver fragments followed his instruction, slicing through and splintering holes in both trunks in an attempt to bring down the unknown stalker.
There was a moment of silence, then Shirogane withdrew the shards of metal, reforming them into a single blade once more. He examined the gleaming surface in the moonlight, letting out a muttered curse. It was clean – there was no blood, and so he had not managed to hit the secret attacker.
"We need to return to the manor." He said aloud. "Whoever it is, we have no further business with them and it's getting late. With any luck I frightened them and they're long gone, now. And we can report this to Guren-sama, too."
"Was it even a person? Could it have been a ghost?" One shinigami said apprehensively, and Ribari shook his head.
"It was a person." He whispered, and Shirogane could see that his companion was sweating with fear. "I saw him…just for a moment…lit up by the flare of Shiro…Fukutaichou's release."
"What did you see?" Shirogane eyed him quizzically, and Ribari swallowed hard.
"I feel strange." He murmured, then, "Maybe I didn't see it at all. Maybe it was just…a trick of the light."
"Tell me anyway." Shirogane rested a hand on his shoulder. "And take a deep breath. Calm down. It wasn't a Hollow – and if it was a trespasser, we need to report it right away."
"Mm." Ribari hesitated for a moment, swallowing again before speaking, his voice thick and somehow unlike his usual carefree tones.
"I thought I saw…a young man. A man with…golden eyes. And…long hair. His skin…was…dark. And…that's all I saw."
"A dark young man with golden eyes." Shirogane repeated slowly, and Ribari nodded.
"They seemed to be looking right through me." He whispered.
"A Shihouin?" One of the other Shinigami exclaimed, and Shirogane shrugged.
"That's for Guren-sama to decide." He said simply. "Not for us. Now for the time being, we…Ribari-sama?"
For the young man had stumbled, almost falling headlong onto the forest floor. Shirogane muttered another curse, only just managing to catch the fainting youngster in time, and as he supported Ribari's body to the ground, he realised that his companion's breath was coming in short, shallow gasps.
A panic attack? Had fear so overwhelmed him that he had collapsed?
The boy's eyes flickered with sudden terror, and then a shudder ran through his body. He twitched back from Shirogane's touch, wretching and vomiting on the ground, and Shirogane tightened his grip, now certain that Ribari's terror had got the better of him.
He's still such a child deep down. He wants to fight with Hollows, but when something like this happens, he's been far too sheltered to really know how to deal with it. This is just proof that maybe the old man's training philosophy isn't so foolish. Ribari-sama knows the story of Grandfather and the Shihouin assassins that allegedly killed him. I suppose he thought it was happening again, and it overwhelmed him. Regardless, at this rate, he'll never make a squad officer, if he's so easily struck down with fear.
Ribari's body shook again, then he let out a faint groan, sinking back against Shirogane and closing his eyes. His breath was still coming in shallow gasps, and his skin was a greyish shade, making him look fragile and pitiful in the faint moonlight.
"Ribari-sama?" The other men clustered round, the stalker forgotten as their concern for their Clan's heir became paramount in their minds, and Shirogane stretched out a finger to brush it against the boy's neck.
"His pulse is racing." He said slowly. "And so he's fainted. Obviously all of this…has just been too much."
"Maybe it was a ghost ." One of the men murmured apprehensively, and Shirogane opened his mouth to rebuff the claim, then paused, blinking.
Was it his imagination, or had the world all around them suddenly become blurry and indistinct?
Goosebumps rippled across his skin as the trees seemed to pull themselves up from their rooted position in the ground, looming heavily out of the dark night sky and reaching their winter-bare branches towards him like fingers intending to rip him to pieces. They were angry, he realised in panic. He had shot his sword at them, and now they were coming to get vengeance, drawing closer and closer until the wood seemed certain to pierce right through the fabric of his shihakushou to his heart.
His grip tightened on his zanpakutou, but he was unable to form the words to release it a second time, and he could no longer remember its name as it slipped back into its sealed form. Sweat beaded his brow, his heart pounding in his chest and he sank back against the grass, a faint whimper escaping his lips as he tried to voice the word .
Even the moon was shooting down towards them, and perhaps the whole sky too…falling on them and trapping them where they stood. Ribari's weight pressed heavily against him, adding all the more to his sudden delusion, and he closed his eyes, murmuring incoherent prayers for it to stop.
In the distance, the shriek of a hollow seemed to echo out across the whole of the surrounding area.
And then, everything went black.
On the hillside, overlooking the land that surrounded the Kuchiki manor, a lone figure stood in the moonlight, gazing down with expressionless eyes on the cluster of trees that lay below. Though the forest was dense, from this angle the branches parted, allowing him to see deeper into the chaos that lay within. From his vantage point he could just make out the fallen forms of the six shinigami, the young lord still clutched protectively in the Vice Captain's grip, but he made no move to help them, simply watching as they one by one gave up the fight and relinquished their grip on their consciousnesses.
Faint fragments of spirit matter tinged the night air, and for a moment the figure just stood there, absorbing it all.
Then the sky opened up behind him, and once more he was gone.