Chapter Seventy Two: The Path Beyond

The moon was high over District Six by the time the Senkaimon opened, and Shirogane stifled a shiver at the cold, brisk wind, stepping out onto the familiar worn cobbles and gazing around him in pensive silence. Behind him, he heard his companion follow suit, and he let out a heavy sigh, reclaiming his weapon and watching the blackish butterflies disintegrate into particles of spiritual ash as the gateway closed.

Well, so he was home.

"Shirogane?"

Kinnya's voice made him start, and he turned, shooting his great uncle a rueful smile.

"I had so many thoughts through my head about how it would be when I came home," he murmured, sliding Ginkyoujiki into its sheath and releasing his grasp on its finely carved hilt. "I had things I wanted to say, and matters I intended to face up to and resolve. I had many ideas of what would happen, but now I'm here, I feel...somewhat strange."

He raised his gaze to the star-specked sky.

"It's almost anticlimactic," he added, "and I have the distinct impression that my entire presence in this affair has proven useless. I fled my responsibilities here and was certainly of little use or import when it came to Aizen's assault on District One. True, I managed to help push back his shinigami puppets, but overall..."

"Overall, your biggest victory is managing to stay alive," Kinnya told him frankly, resting a hand on his companion's shoulder and giving him a little push towards the manor's main entrance. "Your life is important here, and you are still young. Great things may or may not be yet to come - but had you died, all your training and promise would have amounted to nothing. Guren kept you away from here because he knew that. You are not replaceable, Shirogane. Remember your uncle's feelings and be relieved to return here in one piece."

"I still feel ashamed of myself, somehow," Shirogane sighed, "but I suppose you are correct. I can return home now, and I hope, begin to put the events of the past few months behind me."

"Shirogane!"

Before Kinnya could respond, there was a swirl of shunpo, and Guren materialised on the cobbles between them, his expression uncharacteristically anxious. At the sight of his uncle, Shirogane felt a lump form in his throat, but he forced his emotions back, dropping to the ground in a gesture of apologetic obeissance.

"My apologies for leaving your side, Guren-sama," he said softly. "I have not proven to be a worthy or responsible Vice Captain, and I am sincerely sorry for the distress and inconvenience my actions must have caused the Clan since my departure. In light of Ribari-sama's death, my duty was to remain at your right hand and I have failed in this completely. Though I know my words are meaningless in light of such misconduct, I beg for your forgiveness."

"Shirogane..." Guren hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward, extending a gloved hand to touch his nephew on the top of his bent head.

"Stand," he said quietly, his words composed and even, and more characteristic of the Clan leader Shirogane had grown up admiring. "Face me, Shirogane, for I would see in what state you return to me after your long time away."

"Yes, sir," Shirogane obediently straightened his body, raising clouded grey eyes to his uncle's, and Guren frowned, his eyes narrowing for a moment as he ran his gaze over his young subordinate.

"You are uninjured?"

"Fortunately, sir, my wounds are minimal," Shirogane agreed. "In my travels, I did take some harm, but have almost fully healed from those, and am ready to be deployed in whatever way you see fit from this point on."

"I see," Guren pressed his lips together, nodding in acknowledgement of his nephew's words. His gaze flitted briefly to Kinnya, who bowed his head slightly.

"You have completed your task satisfactorily, Ojiue," the Clan leader murmured softly. "I am grateful to you for returning my nephew to me unscathed."

"I would like to accept such praise, Guren-sama, but I confess, I cannot," Kinnya admitted. "Shirogane's life was not in particular danger whilst I was in District One, but I encountered and fought the exile, Aizen Keitarou. I released Raiurei and I fought to be decisive, but by some fluke, the rebel survived and managed to escape. Though his wounds must be grievous and his survival is not guaranteed, I am afraid that I was not able to truly avenge the death of Ribari-sama, nor the other hurts done to this Clan."

"I see..." Guren's expression became momentarily weary, then he sighed. "Well, so this will go before the Council, after all. A wounded target may prove easier to catch than a fit one, and there is still the matter of the girl. I will address that matter tomorrow...for now, I am just relieved to see you both home and safe."

He offered his uncle a faint smile.

"Keiichi is within, and I'm sure, would appreciate seeing you have returned unhurt," he added. "He has been most diligent in his support of me, but I know his concerns have been for you the whole time. If you wish to go debrief him, I shall not force you to linger in my presence."

A gaze passed between the two men that Shirogane did not fully understand, then Kinnya lowered his aging body into a proper bow.

"As my Clan leader wishes it," he murmured, before disappearing into shunpo, leaving the two, uncle and nephew alone in the moonlight.

"Thank heavens."

Before Shirogane could speak, Guren had wrapped his Vice Captain in a hug, throwing decorum and caution to the wind, and it was all his startled companion could do not to let out a yelp of surprise at the sudden and unexpected display of emotion.

"You are safe," Guren held his nephew at arm's length, and Shirogane was dismayed to see tears glittering in the depths of the Clan leader's gaze.

"Guren...sama?"

"I was worried I'd lost you too," Guren murmured, his grasp on Shirogane's shoulders tightening. "After burying Ribari, I could not bear to have buried you as well. The young should not go before their seniors, Shirogane. I am determined that they never again will."

"I...I don't..."

Shirogane faltered, confused, and Guren released his hold on his companion with a rueful laugh.

"You think I have lost my wits," he observed sheepishly, "and perhaps, in some ways, I have. Your long absence has been trying on my nerves, that is all. To see you stand before me like this brings me genuine relief. So many things have occurred, and yet you are returned at last."

He smiled.

"There is no secret in the fact that you have been like a second son to me since your mother died," he added. "Ribari would be relieved to see you back here, and the Kuchiki court will feel likewise when they understand that Sixth Squad once more has its Vice Captain in District Six."

"You are...not angry with me?" Shirogane hesitated, and Guren shook his head.

"I have no reason to be angry with you, do I?" he asked lightly. "You might have fled in haste, but I understand the circumstances that led up to that event far more clearly now. Shibata has spoken to me about your arrest, and we now know that the Kyouraku hime was really Aizen's accomplice in disguise. Shibata has confessed to using considerable force to try and bring you into his custody, and though reckless, your actions are explained. There is no crime or charge to bring against your name...I am simply happy to have you home."

Shirogane stared at his uncle for a moment, then he let out his breath in a heavy sigh, tension flooding out of his body at these words.

"It's good to be home," he admitted, "but even though Kinnya-sama and Genryuusai-sama said that you would not blame me for what happened to Ribari-sama, I couldn't be sure...I was with him, and I should have protected him. That was my duty to my Clan's heir, and I failed in it."

"I failed in my duty as a Captain by sending you both into danger, when both of you could have been killed," Guren said gravely. "This is my Clan, Shirogane, and I take responsibility for the good and the bad. That is what Father bequeathed to me - Ribari was murdered by the wiles of Aizen and his co-conspirators, but the initial carelessness was mine. You followed my orders and did as you were bidden. You are not at fault."

"But..."

"I will not hear this again," Guren warned, shaking his head. "You are not at fault. Besides, Ribari is gone and whilst as a father I will never come to terms with that, as a Clan leader I must look beyond it. Come, inside. It is cold out here, and there is much which needs to be discussed."

"Guren-sama, about Seiren-dono...?" As they made their way through the halls of the manor, Shirogane raised the question tentatively. "Does he know...that I'm returned home? Kinnya-sama said that he was unwell, but I was not sure..."

"Seiren..." Guren's eyes became shadowed, and he nodded his head. "Your uncle is indeed very sick, and at present, I do not know whether he will live. Your coming home has not been discussed with him, but he has already withdrawn his accusations against you in light of the lack of evidence and I do not believe that there will be any further hostilities from his people against you now you are here. Ryuu is still with him, and so is Retsu-sama - they are at Seiren's manor, or rather, what is left of it, as much of it has been destroyed by fighting. I have commandeered your own manor to treat those injured in the explosions and the aftermath - so if you have any plan to return to your own land, I must advise you against it."

"My own...manor?" Shirogane's eyes narrowed, then, "Okaasama's manor, you mean? I've never considered it mine, not really. It was Father's, but we barely lived there. My home...this has always been more my home, Guren-sama. I should sooner stay here, if it is not to your inconvenience."

His fingers brushed against the cheap wooden flute that poked out of his obi, and he smiled.

"For the present, I would simply like to be reunited with my mother's keepsake," he added. "I borrowed the flute of a peasant girl on my travels, but I have missed my own. I did not realise until I was parted from it that that instrument was Mother's way of keeping watch over me once she left this world...I will be glad to have it back."

"I see," Guren inclined his head, "then it is well. You'll remain here, and we'll talk. Futsuki is also eager to see you, and we both have an important proposition to put before you."

"Before...me?" Shirogane was surprised, and Guren nodded.

"Perhaps that too can wait until tomorrow," he mused pensively, "since it is late and you are clearly tired. I would like Ryuu present for this discussion, and I had thought about summoning him here, but with Seiren so delicate, I do not like to do it. I would prefer to involve Seiren as well, but whether that is possible or not, I do not know..."

"I should like to see Ryuu, too," Shirogane admitted. "I've found him to be a valuable ally and a loyal kinsman in my time in exile and I would like to thank him. Guren-sama, if this discussion is about Ryuu becoming your heir, then I will do nothing to contest it. I am more than willing to support him as the next leader of the Kuchiki Clan, and will happily swear an oath accordingly."

"We will discuss the future of the Clan, but we shall do so as a family, tomorrow," Guren decided. "We will then address the court as to our decision. I am resolved, Shirogane, that from now on the Kuchiki Clan will overcome dangers that threaten it through unity and mutual trust. The divisions and intrigues this family have indulged in for so long have made us vulnerable to outside attack, and we must close ranks and prove too strong for them to try again. Do you understand?"

"You want me to make peace with Seiren-dono?" Shirogane asked astutely, and Guren nodded.

"Whatever his condition, if it is possible, I should like you both to accept and forgive one another for recent events," he admitted. "Both of you are important to me and I do not wish to take sides against either one of you. Seiren is determined to live, despite the fierce odds against him, and so I will take him at his word and believe he will one day be back at my side. You are my Vice Captain and a nephew whose life I cherish dearly. I will not forsake you either, so the only solution is for you to bury your ills and move on."

"I agree," Shirogane rubbed his chin pensively. "Reflecting on my conduct and on his, I believe we were both manipulated and that we acted unwisely. I will try, Guren-sama, I promise. I will no longer look to antagonise or interfere with my uncle's commands, and I will do my best to maintain a peaceful relationship. My friendship with Ryuu, perhaps, will help us find common ground. Ryuu is a person who knows his own mind and I respect him for it. If he acts between us, surely all will be well?"

"I trust so," Guren responded. "For now, though, you will wish to bathe, change your clothes and put on something more fitting to a second degree son of the Clan. The family will expect to see you at dinner as my nephew, not as a nameless shinigami fleeing through the Districts as an exile."

He reached across to finger Shirogane's rough tail of hair, and the young shinigami flushed, nodding his head.

"I understand, sir. I will attend to it right away."

"Good boy," Guren looked approving. "Well, then, till the evening meal. With luck tomorrow the future of this family will be set in stone, and I can then pursue Aizen's fate with the Council in the firm knowledge my Clan are united behind me."


"I must admit, Ginji, that I didn't expect to return to find so many pieces of my school in such stages of devastation."

Genryuusai gazed up at the ruined rubble of the Kidou chamber with a sigh, tapping his cane pensively against a nearby hunk of stone. It was the next morning, and, with the departure of the Kuchiki and the withdrawal of First Squad, the Academy were beginning to wake slowly from the nightmare that had descended over them. With Genryuusai back at the helm, the staff and students alike had drawn a collective sigh of relief, and none more so than Kazoe, who nodded, fixing his companion with a rueful smile.

"I assumed that you would sooner I did damage to your property rather than the lives of your students," he remarked off-handedly. "Seidoiki has still not entirely forgiven me for drawing my weapon and using it offensively, but I hope you will look past the vandalism just this once. I am not suited to take your place, we both know that - in the circumstances, it was all I could manage."

"On the contrary, I'm relieved that you did," Genryuusai rubbed his beard. "You are right, of course. I am relieved and gratified to know that I have the same number of students now as I had when I left and that, with one or two exceptions, none have suffered serious injury. I had not anticipated Aizen's web spreading as far as it did, nor could any of us have predicted the way in which he would use that poor girl's sword...but it is over now, thank goodness."

"Yes," Kazoe's features shadowed, and he nodded his head. "Sensei, about Naoko..."

"You are concerned for her?"

"She turned her weapon on herself," Kazoe said grimly. "I have spoken to both Edogawa and Shiba about what happened, and both are quite clear Naoko was under enemy control. Shiba crossed blades with her, and during that confrontation, Naoko told her she'd ended lives. I believe the men found dead in the barracks were probably killed by one of Dokusou Houshi's less pleasant techniques. I wondered what you would do about it...she has clearly violated many school rules and acted rashly in confronting Aizen in the Real World in the first place, but..."

"Naoko will not be punished, as Naoko has done nothing wrong," Genryuusai shook his head. "I should have realised more quickly what was afoot, and stopped it before it could begin. Naoko did not hurt anybody of her own volition, except for herself. Clearly she will need very gentle care as she recovers her strength, but I will ensure that no action is taken against her by anyone from First Division. Hashihiko will listen when I explain to him the unique circumstances of this business, and that will be that. Do not worry, Ginji. Your kinswoman will not be made to suffer more than she already has."

"Thank you," Kazoe's expression became one of relief. "After losing Suzuno, I didn't want the Unohana to have a second reason to grieve."

He sighed, shrugging his shoulders.

"I have always been fond of Naoko," he admitted off-handedly, "because I see in her something I recognise in me, too. My blade does heal, admittedly, and in that sense I am as most Unohana are. Truthfully, though, my mindset is far more similar to hers than it is to the majority of my Clan. I am not afraid to use violence if I must to defend those around me. Naoko's actions in the Real World were ill-advised, but stemmed from loyalty to a fallen friend and kinswoman, and I do not fault her on it. Like me, she will never really belong in Fourth District and like me, she will have to branch out and make her future elsewhere. Retsu-sama is understanding, and she will give the girl support if she wishes it, but I think...Naoko will want to find her own path. It is forbidden for a healer to kill another individual, no matter what the circumstances. Whether of her own will or not, Naoko has committed a taboo. Turning the weapon on herself only compounds that sin - the Unohana believe in life at all costs."

"You think that she might find it difficult to return to District Four, now that all of this has happened?" Genryuusai looked startled. "I can't imagine Retsu would exile her based on events that weren't her fault. Even if what you say is true, Naoko did not kill anyone. It was Aizen acting through her and not her will at all."

"Her blade is defiled," Kazoe said helplessly. "Healers feel such things, and whether consciously or otherwise, they pull back from them. A healer's sword should act to mend, not to break. Naoko's sword is not like other Unohana swords, and it has been tainted by blood shed in violence. Her own family will not discard her, but she will find it harder than she did before to return to the Clan. Nobody will have to say anything...they will all know. They will all see the stains on her weapon, no matter how clean she wipes the blade."

Genryuusai cast his companion a thoughtful glance, a look of comprehension entering his clever dark eyes.

"Just as they did yours, when first you made the decision to come to District One?" he asked softly, and Kazoe offered him a rueful smile.

"My self-imposed exile was a little different," he acknowledged cautiously, "and the results of it were not entirely without benefit to me. I have been very fortunate...in all ways, that it was your land onto which I strayed, and not that of some other lord."

"Really?" Genryuusai pursed his lips. "I have always supposed it to be my fortune that a young man of such talent and natural skill should stumble across my path. It seemed prophetic that, when I first started to consider how Seireitei needed to change, you appeared before me as though to tell me my thoughts were right."

"I have no grudge against my Clan, Genryuusai-sama," Kazoe said dismissively. "I am not unwelcome in District Four, now, nor is my name considered unspoken among them. Even after so long, though, I know that I still do not belong there. Just as Naoko is, I am somewhat out of place among my kin. District One is far more to my liking - I am able to be myself here with no fear of repercussion. Maybe it is a foolish softness within me, but I should like Naoko to experience the same opportunity to find out who she really is."

Genryuusai was silent for a moment, reflecting on Kazoe's words as a long past memory began to stir itself inside his brain. The image of a young man, thin and pale and clad in tattered, dusty robes slipped into this thoughts, his weapon hanging limply at his side.

An Unohana who takes life is never forgiven by the Clan. An Unohana who claims the life of another and uses their blade to stain their souls with blood will be cast out, never to return. The Unohana believe in life, and reject anything contrary to that view. Retsu's father was a strict, unswerving man in that regard and his dedication to those principles meant those who made errors were not easily able to find forgiveness. The rash actions of a young, untrained adolescent to protect his mother and sister from a violent, drink-sodden man made a villain into a victim and a hero into a demon - censure you've lived with ever since. Your father's death at your hand remains carved into your whole existence, but I have never looked at you and seen a man who kills.

District Four's loss was my gain, Ginji. That emaciated, ghost of a man who crawled onto my land half-starved and on the brink of death has become such a strong individual, capable of making the right decisions and in guiding vulnerable young ones forward towards a better Seireitei future. The sins of the past are forgotten here - wiped away by years of hard work and diligent service. You seek the same for Naoko, now. Her sins are not like yours, and Retsu is not like her father, but the Unohana will react nonetheless. You are right to be cautious, and I will take note of your words. Naoko will not suffer the same helplessness as you did when deciding how to move forward.

He nodded his head.

"I agree," he responded evenly now. "Naoko is a very talented young shinigami, and her skills should not be overlooked. If they will not be accepted in her own family, then I shall simply help her find a place she can better use them. I know you don't want to talk about the things that led you to my side as a teacher of Kidou, rather than a true healer among your own kind, and I don't believe there is any need to unbury such skeletons now, especially before the girl. You found your path, and I trust you are content in it. Naoko will do so too - you have my word in that."

"I cannot act as her sponsor, but I will speak to Retsu-sama on her behalf," Kazoe reflected. "Few Unohana know of the exact circumstances that led me to your door, but she does, and more, bears me no ill will. She has been kind to me, and I believe she will be supportive of Naoko, too. Most likely she will inherit Edogawa, in any case...that girl's healing skill is already of a phenomenal level, and Naoko's survival and stable condition now is testament to what she can do. I could not have done it, with all my years of training with Seidoiki, but I am glad that one of Retsu-sama's pupils could."

"Ah yes. Mitsuki," Genryuusai inclined his head. "I imagine you are correct. Retsu has already broached with me the idea of tackling Guren-dono directly once things there settle down. She is fairly determined that the Kuchiki will not have a claim on that girl, and I am sure once she sees the level of care Mitsuki has given Naoko in her absence, that resolve will be even stronger. Retsu is very persuasive when she wants to be...I anticipate that Edogawa Mitsuki will indeed be a part of Fourth Division come the spring."

He turned away from the ruins of the classroom, glancing back towards the school as something stirred across his senses.

"I will go to the Healing Bay and speak with both girls now," he decided. "Mitsuki has permission to miss class so long as Naoko needs her, and I think I just felt the patient stir. I should like a chance to talk to both of them about what happened, so I will leave it to you to work out where you intend to hold your next Kidou class. There's nothing of salvageable value here, and it's far too cold for an outdoor lesson, so I suggest you go find an empty lecture theatre and an eager first year to carry a message to your students. The sooner we get back to normal routine, the better for everyone. The Seniors will take longest to deal with what's happened, but there's no reason for the lower school to be upset more than necessary."

"Understood," Kazoe nodded his head. "And Genryuusai-sama? Welcome back."

"It is good to be back," Genryuusai admitted, offering him a smile. "I shall leave any further pursuit of Aizen Keitarou to the Council, and focus my attentions instead on my proper job here, starting with two of my Senior Class."

With that he slipped into shunpo, re-materialising in the hallway outside the Healing Bay. Pushing back the sliding door, he stepped inside, drawing it shut carefully behind him and crossing the mat floor towards the little alcove where Naoko had rested since her assault on herself outside the First Division barracks.

"Sensei!"

At his approach, Mitsuki let out an exclamation of surprise, and her companion's head jerked up, anxiety and fear mingled in her greenish eyes. She was pale, Genryuusai noted, and as she drew herself into a more upright position, he was aware of how gingerly she moved, as if fearful of reopening the deep wound in her chest. Despite this, though, he was encouraged - a child who had been briefly on the cusp of death was now most definitely holding on to life.

"Genryuusai-sensei?" Naoko's lips parted slightly, allowing the faint word to slip between them, and Genryuusai nodded, moving to stand beside the bed.

"Good morning, Naoko," he said quietly. "I am glad to see you have returned to wakefulness - although I am a little surprised by it, too."

His gaze flitted to Mitsuki, who reddened, shaking her head.

"There was...an idea that Naoko-chan should stay sedated until Retsu-sama came back," she said hesitantly. "I didn't...I didn't know when that would be, and I didn't want to use too much Kidou. Naoko-chan's body is healing, and...and I didn't want to...to make things more complicated. I'm not as good at that as Retsu-sama, and I didn't want to make Naoko's wounds worse."

"I see," Genryuusai lowered his aging body down beside the bed, reaching to touch Naoko's arm gently with a wizened finger. "And you, Shikibu? How do you feel now that everything is past?"

"Sensei, I...I killed people," Naoko's eyes swam with tears. "I can't stay here...I did something awful and I can't be forgiven for it. Suzuno's death...Suzuno...that was bad enough, but now...now my sword is..."

She cast a fearful glance across the chamber to where Dokusou Houshi was propped up against the wall, and Mitsuki sighed, taking Naoko's hands in hers and squeezing them tightly.

"You didn't hurt anyone," she said, and from the tone in her voice, Genryuusai realised that it was not the first time she had made this assurance. "Please, Naoko, don't keep talking like that. You didn't do anything wrong, and Sensei knows it too, I'm sure. He hasn't come here to punish you - he's come to see how you are."

She glanced at the old man anxiously.

"I mean, that's true isn't it, sir? You have come to see how Naoko is?"

"I have indeed," Genryuusai agreed gravely. "Not just on my behalf, but also on Kazoe-sensei's, as he is also quite concerned. Mitsuki is quite right, Naoko. You shouldn't look so frightened - I didn't come here to shout."

"It doesn't matter," Naoko said dolefully. "I remember everything that happened, even though I couldn't control it. I know what I did...I saw myself do it. I even drew my blade on Sora and Mitsuki, and I would've hurt them, too. My sword...my zanpakutou...it wasn't like it was mine at all, and I couldn't hear his voice. My body acted without my telling it to, but it was still me that did those things. That can't be changed."

She shivered, and Mitsuki picked up one of the blankets that lay nearby, putting it gently around the other girl's shoulders.

"Unohana can't be forgiven for taking life," the redhead whispered, grasping the cloth loosely between her fingers and pulling it more firmly around her as though forming a defensive shield. "I can't ever go back, can I? They'll never allow me...I've crossed the line. Whether it was my fault or not, this time..."

"That's crazy!" Mitsuki objected. "Retsu-sama would never reject you, not based on something like this!"

"The Unohana do have some firm rules connected to life and death, Edogawa," Genryuusai reflected. "Naoko probably understands them in more detail, having grown up around them. What she seems to have forgotten, however, is that there are eight Districts in Seireitei, not just one. You may not be a healer, Naoko - but that does not mean your life holds no value."

"I don't want to shame my family," Naoko whispered. "I don't want them to know that I killed shinigami, or that I was manipulated and defiled by Suzuno's killer. Even if Retsu-sama did forgive me, I still couldn't go back. Maybe I can't ever...I don't know. All I know is that my family...would suffer if I went back and everyone knew what I had done. I can't go back, Sensei. I know I can't. It frightens me, but I know it's true."

She closed her eyes briefly, composing her thoughts.

"Even turning my weapon on myself is a sin in District Four," she added helplessly.

"You did that so you didn't hurt Sora or I," Mitsuki reminded her gently, "and Sora and I used our swords to make sure you didn't die. Listen, Nao-chan, you're the one who told me that you were stronger in dealing with folk who didn't like you being different from your Clan. You and I, we're the same in this respect, but you've never said anything about giving up before. I know that, in the heat of the moment, you did the only thing you saw to do to make sure Sora and I didn't get harmed, and that in itself was a brave thing to do. Now, though, all of that is over. Aizen's control over you is gone, and your wound will heal. Now it would be unforgivable, if you decided there wasn't a reason to keep living. Sora and I don't want that, or we wouldn't have saved you. Lots of the Seniors are worried about you and have been ever since the Real World. Even if it is hard for you to go home to your family right away, it doesn't mean you're on your own."

"Mitsuki...?" Naoko eyed her friend uncertainly, and Genryuusai nodded his head.

"Edogawa is right," he said gruffly. "Your life is precious, and taking it would be a sin in everyone's eyes, not just in the eyes of your Clan. Your sword is potent and strong, and your skills are not inconsiderable. What this is is a crossroads, and you alone must choose your path ahead. If you are brave enough to face that, I will help you, but I cannot choose for you. If you are adamant that you can't go back to District Four, I will do all in my power to help you find a place elsewhere, but you must work hard, too. Just as Edogawa has, you too must decide what kind of a shinigami you intend to be."

His eyes narrowed.

"I will not report any sin back to your family, if you choose not to go back there," he added quietly. "I will tell them only that you have found a true calling for your sword skills and will be assigned in such a way that you can make Soul Society proud without causing them discomfort. If you take your own life, though, then there is no alternative but to tell them. Your body must return to them, just as Suzuno's did to her parents...and they must mourn their daughter just as Suzuno's family mourns their child."

"Sensei?" Mitsuki's eyes widened at this blunt appraisal, but Naoko swallowed hard, reaching up to wipe away the tears that still lingered on her lashes.

"You understand," she whispered, "that I really don't know what I should do? Mitsuki is braver than I am. She knows and has already decided, even if it means rejection by her family. I...I want to be as strong as that, but everything that's happened..."

She glanced at her hands, her brows creasing in disdain.

"Blood stains these," she said flatly. "Even without healing abilities, I can sense it against my skin. I might not have chosen to end anyone's life, but I still know I did. I won't erase those memories easily...it frightens me to fight on with them still lurking at the back of my mind. It terrifies me that one day I might be forced to kill again, and stain my blade even more than I have this time."

"Every young shinigami has that fear," Genryuusai told her quietly. "Every new recruit to a squad worries about the first time blood is drawn. You're not unusual, Naoko. In fact, you're quite normal in all respects. Not by Unohana standards, maybe, but as a shinigami in training for a Gotei combat squad, you are exactly what I would expect. It's true that mostly swords like yours are found in the hands of young men, not young women, and certainly not from District Four, but the world is changing. If you don't want to grieve your family, you need to accept from this point on exactly who you are. Shikibu Naoko is a fighter - a warrior - with a poison blade to match. Her skills will never have value among the healers, but this world needs more than just those who mend."

"Sora and I agree," Mitsuki interjected with a firm nod. "I'm no use at combat stuff, so I can't do much other than be moral support, but Sora can and probably will, if you ask her. We'll help how we can, Nao-chan. You're our friend, and through everything, we'll stick together. When we graduate, there'll be a place for you just as much as there'll be one for me. Sensei's right - this is a chance for you to find where you belong, just like I've found where I do."

She dimpled, patting her friend on the arm.

"I'll trade with you, and take your place in Fourth," she offered playfully, "so you don't feel that it's being left empty. In my place, you can take Dokusou Houshi, protect Seireitei and kill Hollows. You're far better at all those things than I'd ever be, and though I probably can take down a Hollow if I really have to, I'd rather trust that duty to you."

"I suppose so," Naoko eyed her friend doubtfully, but Mitsuki was already clasping her hand, giving it a little shake.

"It's decided," she said frankly. "You'll get well and then Sensei will help you find the right place after graduation. Retsu-sama will support you, I'm sure she will, and I'll ask her to as well. It will all be all right, so stop looking so worried."

"You have the most valuable asset already in your possession," Genryuusai got to his feet, eying the two girls pensively, and Naoko looked bemused.

"I do?"

"Yes," Genryuusai tapped Mitsuki's arm lightly with Ryuujinjakka's cane. "Friends in whom you can trust. Skills can be honed and abilities strengthened, but building alliances of depth and meaning can be much more difficult. You may not go home, Naoko, but you are not alone. Edogawa is right. One of the most important lessons of being in Senior Class is being able to work as part of a team - remember that when it comes to your final exams, all right?"

"Yes...yes sir," Naoko pinkened, faint colour rising in her cheeks, and Genryuusai smiled.

"It will take time. You have been through much, and I doubt it will be forgotten overnight," he warned her. "Your memories will also be probed and interrogated, probably by the Council, as evidence of Aizen's movements and anything else that can be gleaned from them. I believe, however, that Shikibu Naoko is a strong individual, despite her recent experiences. They have shaken you, but I won't believe they have broken you. Kazoe-sensei doesn't believe so, either - we will both do our utmost to ensure that our hopes for your future are not disappointed."

"I...I will too, sir," Naoko nodded her head, and Genryuusai was glad to see a flicker of the girl's usual strong spirit glittering in the greenish eyes. "I'll do my best, and I...I'll trust in Mitsuki and Sora to help me, too. I won't let you down, I promise. I'll work hard as I can to be a student you can still be proud of, even after everything I've done."


The sky was clear that morning.

From his place of vigil at his father's bedside, Ryuu raised weary eyes to the window, his gaze tracing the skyline beyond the destruction that still surrounded his family's manor. Among the ruins, he knew, Futsuki's men were still hard at work searching for survivors and the remains of those killed, and he gave an inward shudder, turning his attention back to the sleeping figure in the bed.

His father's face was pale and drawn, a greyish tinge to his skin, and every breath he took into his ravaged lungs was a victory in his battle against the looming shadows of death. Even now, when he lay so quietly and so still, Ryuu could not help remembering the masked creature that had come so strongly to his aid against Keitarou, and absently he wondered how much worse Seiren's condition had been made by that intervention.

Did I make you sicker?

He frowned, remembering his conversation with Guren. Late the previous night, a messenger had come from the main manor bringing news of Shirogane and Kinnya's safe return to District Six, and despite himself, Ryuu had been relieved to hear both had come back unharmed. There had been only a fleeting reference to Aizen Keitarou in the message, but although the exile was still alive, Ryuu felt as though a dark cloud had been lifted from his family as a whole.

He moved his hand to touch his father's wrist gently.

Now, if only your wounds can heal, we can start to move forward as a Clan. I don't know what gamble you took when you ingested the Eiminyaku, but Unohana-sensei said that she couldn't detect any trace of it remaining in your blood when she examined you this morning. She said that, if you wake now, we'll know how things are going to be. You and I, we haven't spoken in a day or two. I wonder...are you still my father, or have you been lost in the mist like Onoe and like Grandfather? You gave everything for my sake and for the sake of this Clan - and even now you've put yourself through this for us, knowing that we don't want to see you die. Were we selfish, Otousama? Would it have been kinder not to have made our emotions so plain when you have such grievous wounds?

"Ryuu."

The voice from the doorway made him start, turning to see Futsuki watching him. At his surprise, the man smiled, inclining his head slightly in apology.

"I didn't mean to disturb your time with your father," he said softly, "but my people have finished their search of the grounds. We now believe that we have retrieved everyone unaccounted for in the explosion."

"I see." Ryuu bit his lip. "In Father's absence, I suppose you need me to make a decision about what should be done with the manor as a whole, don't you?"

"It can wait a little longer," Futsuki shook his head, coming to stand beside Seiren's bed. "He still sleeps?"

"Maybe he always will," Ryuu shrugged helplessly. "He hasn't stirred more than once since Unohana-sensei gave him the Eiminyaku to drink. At first, she sedated him for pain, but she has not done so recently. She told me that the Eiminyaku has passed through his blood now, and neither she nor I can sense any of the malevolent aura that pervaded him when he collapsed. His reiatsu has settled and become stable, but whether or not there is anything of Father left is still a mystery. I do not know...and all I can do is hope and pray for the best."

"Yes," Futsuki rested a reassuring hand on his nephew's shoulder. "At the very least, though, he has you here at his side. He might not ever find the words to say it, but more than anything, I think that would comfort him. You are everything to him, you know - what you do, where you go, what you will become...ever since the first time you took breath. This is where he'd want you to be, and I'm glad you're here."

"It would be difficult for me to return to school not knowing how things would evolve," Ryuu admitted. "I realise I may put my grades and my graduation in jeopardy by lingering here after the initial danger is past, but even so, I cannot bring myself to withdraw now. If he wakes, I wish to know whether he is in his wits or is not. If he is still my father, there is much we need to discuss. If not...if not..."

"We will face that when we come to it," Futsuki said matter-of-factly. "To Guren and I, he is our brother, Ryuu. We will both do everything we can to support him, and make whatever decisions are best. It seems unlikely that Shouko will return, given everything - and with the exception of Murasaki, your sisters don't seem too bothered about his fate, either. That leaves him in our hands, and we won't let him down."

"I have no fondness for my mother, and I consider my sisters a nusiance most of the time," Ryuu admitted baldly. "If they should abandon Father now, it comes as no surprise to me. They can discard me also, if it suits them. I have made my choice. My family has never been one warm in affection, but I am beginning to understand that what I perceived to be Father's ambition for me was in fact something else."

"Sometimes it takes a crisis to realise those things," Futsuki said evenly. "You are a son for him to be proud of, though. Don't ever think otherwise. Seiren has every reason to think highly of you."

"Mm," Ryuu pursed his lips, getting to his feet and moving to the window. "Futsuki-dono, if Murasaki-aneue is so concerned for Father, why does she not come here? Maybe the building is crumbling and from outside, it appears fragile and dangerous, but if she is so anxious..."

He trailed off, and Futsuki smiled.

"I have forbidden it," he said simply. "This building is far too dangerous for a hime to enter, especially since it appears your older sister is once more with child. Her husband backed me up, and so she is forced to stay away. She has said, however, that when Seiren is well enough and steady enough to be moved, he can be transported to her family's estate to convalesce. Do not misjudge your sister based on what appears to be the case, Ryuu. It is not always true that the world is what it seems."

"I suppose...not." Despite himself, Ryuu was chastened. "I'm sorry. I suppose I do know that...Aneue cares for Father."

"For the time being, let's put other things aside," Futsuki suggested, and Ryuu felt the flickering of reiatsu suddenly at the back of his senses. "I think that indicates that we've been graced with the Clan leader's presence, and unless I'm much mistaken, Shirogane and Kinnya-sama are with him. It seems that this morning's conversation will be held at Seiren's manor - but whether your Father will be able to play any role in it remains to be seen."

He bowed his head slightly.

"I'll go and meet them. I'll guide them through the safest path to this chamber, given the destruction, as Retsu-sama is still away at the Nagoya estate tending to the less severely injured," he suggested. "We shall come to you, Ryuu. It seems by far the best place to talk, since the pillars that support the ceiling of this room are relatively sturdy and undamaged."

With that he was gone, and Ryuu wandered slowly back towards the bed, gazing down at his father pensively.

"Guren-sama's come to see you, Otousama," he said softly. "Shirogane-senpai's here too, and so is Kinnya-sama. I hope you can forgive me for the things I may say and do, especially given all you've done on my behalf, but I hope you'll come to understand why I feel the way I do. I'm thinking of the Clan, just like you did."

As though drawn to wakefulness by his son's words, Seiren's pale fingers twitched slightly, reaching out for the thick fabric of Ryuu's emerald green sleeves. Ryuu started, letting out an exclamation of surprise as Seiren's grey eyes fluttered open, blinking a few times as though struggling to bring his surroundings into clear focus.

"Otousama?" Ryuu grasped hold of his father's hands, hope and fear mingling in his eyes. "Did you hear me? Did you hear what I said - did I wake you from your sleep?"

"Ryuu..." The word was softspoken, and slightly blurry, but unmistakeably Ryuu's name, and despite himself, tears glittered in the boy's eyes.

"You know who I am?" he whispered. "After everything, you remember...?"

"Why would I ever forget?" Seiren's words were faintly reproachful. "For a father...to forget his own son...and heir...is an unforgivable sin."

"I'm sorry," Ryuu bowed his head contritely. "I didn't mean...it's just...the Eiminyaku..."

He trailed off, and Seiren's lips twitched into a faint smile.

"Guren is here?" he murmured, and Ryuu nodded.

"Shirogane too?"

"Yes. Yes, he is," Ryuu gathered his wits hurriedly. "Father, please, I want you to forgive him. I want you...Senpai...didn't do anything wrong. I want you both to...to stop hating each other. Please, for the sake of the family, I want you to accept him. I want you to..."

"Accept him?" Seiren's eyes narrowed slightly, and Ryuu was struck by the comprehension that flooded the hazy grey eyes. "In your place, you mean?"

"Otousama?" Ryuu swallowed hard, and Seiren sighed, closing his eyes briefly. At length he opened them, and Ryuu could see the pain reflected in his gaze.

"I know what you want to say to me," he murmured. "As I was, so you'll become - isn't that the case?"

"You...how...Otousama, I..."

"Bits and pieces, like a fleeting dream, teasing my senses," Seiren said quietly. "I didn't know whether they were real or more delusion. Perhaps this is also...not quite real. I'm not sure. Still, if I get to speak to you, I'll accept it. I was so afraid that...I had put you in such danger...that..."

"I put myself in danger," Ryuu shook his head firmly. "It wasn't your fault or your doing, Otousama. I took the decision to go to the Real World, and was foolish. I live only because I have a friend who is less foolish and more adept at acting decisively when the need arises. I had no idea that...that doing what I did would cause you so much anguish, and I am truly sorry for it. Knowing that...knowing how much my actions affect other people yet not realising it until after it is too late to take back...I have realised that I...that there isn't...that I shouldn't..."

He trailed off, and Seiren curled his fingers briefly around Ryuu's own, offering his son a weak smile.

"You are alive," he whispered. "All else can begin from there."

"Otousama, I..."

"Ryuu...Seiren?"

Before Ryuu could finish his sentence, the door of the chamber had once more slid back, this time to reveal the Clan leader and his companions. At the sight of Seiren's clear consciousness, Guren strode forward, casting his brother an anxious look.

"Guren-niisama," Seiren offered another weak smile. "You will have to forgive...me for receiving...you...in such a poor state of hospitality."

"You idiot," Guren's sharp reproof made Ryuu's eyes widen in surprise. "You're in no fit state to talk like that. Seeing you awake and alive brings me enough relief - I'll not let you apologise for anything else, and if you even think of getting up so you can make any kind of obeissance towards me, I will consider your actions no more than an impudent inconvenience. Given that, you would do better remaining as you are until I give you leave to be otherwise."

Seiren's eyes became thoughtful for a moment, then he nodded slightly.

"As you wish, Oniisama," he said gravely, and Guren grimaced, shaking his head.

"Stop it," he instructed, frustration clear in his tones. "Stop using that name...stop speaking to me with such deferential language! I can't stand it, hearing you speak like that!"

"Guren-sama!" Shirogane put a hand on the Clan leader's arm, but Guren shook him off, shaking his head.

"I won't have it. Not any more," he said in low tones, fixing Seiren with a piercing glance. "You're awake, and clearly in your wits. Now that you are, I want to know once and for all, and I want to hear it from your lips, if you please. Why have you persisted in this deception for so long? Indeed, how long have you known of it? Was it Father? Did he leave you some final message or bequeath you some last order that compelled you to spend the whole of your life as my shadow?"

"Guren, calm down," Futsuki cast an anxious glance at the patient, but to Ryuu's surprise, a wry smile touched Seiren's lips.

"Father...would not have done...anything so crude," he murmured. "Do you really think...he would have told me anything at all?"

"Then you admit to knowing? You admit to...that there was...that you and I truly are..."

Guren's words stumbled over themselves, and he dropped down at his brother's bedside, taking Seiren's free hand in his.

"You know that you and not I should have inherited this Clan?" he whispered, tears glittering in his grey eyes. "You know this to be truth, and yet have never once said..."

"I have never been the heir...to any Clan," Seiren responded calmly. "That...was always..you. Onii...sama."

"Stop calling me that!" Guren was on the verge of losing his temper, and Kinnya stepped forward, resting both hands on Guren's shoulders.

"Guren," he said softly, and Guren swung around, glaring at his Uncle in sudden resentment.

"You knew this too. You concealed it, too," he muttered. "You, and Father, and Mother, and Seiren, and who knows who else?"

"Seiren was not told by your Father, Guren," Kinnya said evenly. "Until recently, I wasn't aware that he had stumbled onto Senaya-nii's secret, and it was something Senaya-nii himself could not have forseen, either. Seiren was never supposed to know any more than you were. For the sake of this Clan, it was decided. If you want to be angry, be angry at me. Seiren has done the only thing he was ever able to do - to work to support you until your time as Leader of the Clan should end."

"But...but..." Guren faltered, and Seiren sighed.

"Ryuu...will you help me...to sit more upright?" he asked quietly, and Ryuu frowned, looking doubtful.

"Are you sure? Unohana-sensei said you were to be kept quiet, and I don't want to disturb your injuries."

"Being shouted at by my brother is hardly quiet," Seiren said acidly, and despite himself, Guren flushed an uncomfortable red. Looking at them, Ryuu was struck once again by the shift in dynamic - here, in the ruins of his family's manor, Seiren had once more assumed the mantle of older brother.

He pursed his lips, but made no more complaint, instead helping to lift his frail father into a more upright position. Shirogane scooped up a pillow from beside the window, hurrying to hand it to his cousin, who sent him a grateful look, sliding it among the others to prop Seiren up more firmly.

"It is a worthless secret," Seiren continued now, pulling his hands free from Guren's and folding them in his lap. Though his complexion was still grey and gaunt, there was something of his old composure in his bearing, and Ryuu was suddenly struck with relief that his father, though still very sick, seemed determined to maintain his grip on life. "Aizen Keitarou ascribed value to it...that it never had. I was never anything but your younger brother, Guren. I was content...even when I knew, I was satisfied to be your shadow. That...was why I was left alive. Any other way...I could not have been allowed to live."

"Even so, to keep it from me..."

"Why should a Clan leader be distracted by...trivial detail?" Seiren asked lightly. "It had...no bearing...on anything at all. I had...no spirit power...and now I understand best...why that should have been. I do not want it. I do not need it. I am...content with being...as I am now."

His gaze flitted to Ryuu, and a look of resignation entered his gaze.

"I believe my son is also...content," he added with a sigh, "and if that is so, then it is well. There is no need for you to discompose yourself, Oniisama. Before the Clan, I have no other way of referring to you. They must not ever know what is truly not an important piece of information."

"You can't think that I can continue to live shadowed by deception?" Guren demanded, and Seiren snorted.

"You can, and you will," he said bluntly, fixing his companion with an uncompromising look. "If not, you will render shame on both us and on Father for what he did. That would...not be forgiven. You are Clan leader. I am your younger brother. That is all, and there is no more."

"I've destroyed the evidence Aizen had," Futsuki interjected. "Seiren is right, Guren. This must not go beyond this room. What everyone here knows is rather more than a trivial secret, in my opinion, and would unsettle the court greatly."

"Not only that," Kinnya added reflectively. "Whether we were right or wrong, Senaya-nii and I did for both of you what we thought was best. Guren, if you were to reveal Seiren as your older brother, it would cast shame on him and his position. An elder son who is unfit to succeed is a far more difficult path to follow than a younger son whose entire reason for being is to support the Clan leader. I have played the role Seiren must play, and it is not without challenges. There are cross words, disagreements and deceptions. But, for the sake of the Clan, those things must be done and faced up to. It would have been better if you had never known, but there is no reason for anyone else to know. Guren is Clan Leader in District Six, and that fact must not ever be doubted. Senaya-nii wanted it this way, and, from his long years in your slipstream, I can't imagine Seiren would wish it any other way."

Seiren shook his head.

"I have no complaints with my...position in this life, since it was a life...that ought not have been," he said gravely. "I would...have sooner shed it than betrayed the leader of my...my Clan."

He glanced at Ryuu once more.

"My only regret was...that my uselessness...would cost my son," he murmured. "I did not want...Ryuu to lose out...because I...lived a life of...so little importance."

"Otousama..." Ryuu swallowed hard, and Kinnya smiled.

"Your son is brave, stubborn and loyal," he said frankly. "I confess, it escaped me for a long time, but I'm realising that those characteristics came from his father, didn't they?"

"Ryuu and Seiren are, indeed, very alike in many ways," Guren admitted. "From knowing your son better, Seiren, I have come to understand a little more about you. We have always been rivals, but I don't feel...since we entered adulthood, that that has been quite true. You have been looking out for me, haven't you? You've been watching over me, like an older brother should."

"Father's last wish was...for me to do so," Seiren agreed gravely. "I may not have known about it till after he was gone, and I might never have been meant to learn it, but when I did...my resentment for you left me. I understood...that if you had not lived, I would not have. Father's placing value on us working together suddenly made sense. I was not angry...I don't know if I was ever angry. I simply...made up my mind then to uphold my oath to you and do what I could...as your shadow...for the Clan. I may not be as adept as Kinnya-sama," he paused to glance at his uncle, "but I have tried to do my best."

His eyes narrowed.

"Where...is Shouko?" he asked softly. "She is not here...where is she?"

"Kinka-oneesama's estate. She won't come back - perhaps not ever," Ryuu responded, and Seiren's lips thinned.

"Shouko also knows of this," he admitted. "When I swore...loyalty to Ribari...our marriage crumbled, and this was the cause. She...wanted me to push my claim through Ryuu, and I would not. If you wish...to keep this from the court, Shouko must also be...tackled."

"I will deal with Shouko-hime," Futsuki's eyes became steely. "I will impress on her the extremely negative implications for anyone to commit treason against the Clan leader, and that revealing this matter to anyone of lesser consequence will be interpreted as treasonable behaviour. You need not worry, Seiren. Your wife will not be allowed to create more trouble than she so far has managed to do."

"But that this should be the cause of the death of your marriage..." Guren faltered, and Seiren snorted.

"If she does not return, it will be a relief," he said honestly. "Our lives separated a long time ago. I no longer have a reason to be in her company...nor do I care whether she...shows me any attention in the future."

He pressed his lips together, then,

"You didn't come here just to discuss...the past, did you?" he murmured. "You came...to talk about the future, too."

"We did," Guren seemed to have got a grip on his composure, getting slowly to his feet and inclining his head towards his companion. "I got taken off guard, seeing you awake. I admit, I had not expected it. Eiminyaku..."

"In dilute form, and handled by an expert like Retsu-sama, it seems to have medical applications," Kinnya mused. "I am glad to see it. Seiren's body may take much time to heal, but I am glad for Ryuu's sake that his mental capacity does not appear to have become deficient at the same time."

"Perhaps it worked because Seiren's power has always been sealed?" Guren suggested. "For any of us, who live with spirit power as a native part of our souls, there's every likelihood of something like Eiminyaku destroying us from the inside out. Seiren had to learn to live without it from the start, though. When it was unleashed, it only did him harm. Perhaps, in Seiren's case, Eiminyaku can be used as an effective cure. For Seiren to recover, the spirit power had to be removed - in most cases, that would be absolutely contrary to meaningful life."

He sighed heavily.

"It is somewhat a relief, though, to know that this discussion can be had with all parties thinking coherently," he concluded. "It is my wish that, from now on, the family remains more closely united and that divisions cannot be forced through us a second time. The people present in this room are the core of the Kuchiki, and if we remain on the same page, nobody will be able to rent us apart. For this reason, all decisions that go through the Kuchiki court will first be discussed among ourselves. I want to make this family too strong to be broken down, so that generations into the future people will still look to the Kuchiki as the most significant and senior Clan in all of Seireitei."

"Senaya-nii would be shedding tears of pride to hear you say that," Kinnya chuckled. "I imagine it's exactly what he wished for, when he left this world for the next."

"That being the case, there is one very important matter which must be settled," Guren's gaze rested on Shirogane, who frowned, his grey eyes clouding. Slowly, and hesitantly, he moved towards the bed, bowing his head in a gesture of submission.

"Ojiue, I wish to offer my apologies for my insolence towards you and the conduct that precipitated my exile from District Six," he said softly, his words sincere and lacking in any barb or affectation. "I have had cause to learn a good many truths on my travels, and most of all I believe what Guren-sama has said to be a wise path for this family to follow. I do not wish to remain at odds with you any longer."

"Shirogane..." Seiren looked startled, then a rueful smile touched his lips.

"I was the one who drove you to it," he admitted self-effacingly. "I accept your apology, but only if it is...met by one of my own. You...your mother would not...have liked me to treat her beloved son...with such harshness."

"Okaasama?" Shirogane's fingers automatically strayed to his obi, and glancing at him, Ryuu could just about make out the familiar curve of Shirogane's beloved flute poking out from beneath the fine cream fabric. Slowly and carefully he pulled it free, resting it against his palm as he faced his uncle head on.

"When Okaasama died, I didn't shed tears," he said softly, "and I know you didn't forgive me for it. I didn't really understand myself until now why that was. On my travels, though, I learned something valuable. I realised that the reason I didn't feel bereft at the time Mother died was because she was still very much with me. She always said that, when she left this world, she would continue to linger through the music we had shared. When she was not there, this flute, Oune would be her guiding hand, watching over me until next we met. After she died, I still had Oune, and so...I never felt as though I had really lost my mother. In the wilds, however, Oune was not with me. For the first time, I really understood her words to me. This is my memento of my mother, and my proof she was here to love me. So long as I have it, I will never lose her - and so I will not cry."

"Shirogane..." Guren's eyes widened at this solemn, heartfelt speech, and Seiren's expression softened. Slowly, and with a shaking hand, he reached out to brush the end of the expensive flute with his fingers.

"Masane was always very devoted to her music," he reflected. "I understand, and I'm sorry. Hearing you...just then...I realise that nobody...loved Masane more than you did."

He grimaced.

"Besides, my resentment for you stemmed in my own uselessness," he admitted frankly. "I couldn't be...to Ryuu...what others were to you. I couldn't teach my son about spirit power, nor train swords with him, nor do any of the things a father should do for a Clan son. You were able to race ahead, and I...I resented that. I could not change it, so instead...I resented you."

"Because of that, though, you sent me to the Academy, Father," Ryuu remarked soberly. "I am eternally grateful for you making that decision. Truly, I have never had such pleasant times as I have spent there, nor have I had the opportunity of forming such strong friendships. Perhaps it was begun from something negative, but I am glad for it all the same. I have found my path...even if it is different from what is expected of me."

"You have no intention of becoming heir to the Clan, do you?" Seiren sounded resigned, and Ryuu shook his head.

"Like you, I am not suited to it," he agreed. "I will do all I can, from the shadows, to support it, and I will dedicate all of my time and effort to Guren-sama and Sixth Division instead. Guren-sama has already offered me the vacant Third Seat position when I graduate, which, with your permission, I should like to accept."

"I see," Seiren glanced at Guren, who nodded.

"This is Ryuu's will, not my own," he said slowly, "but I have no intention of letting him slip once more from my notice. He is as valuable to me as you are, and I almost took both of you for granted. I won't make the same mistake again - besides, the Clan will need strong support in the future, as well as now."

"But what about the succession?" Shirogane demanded. "If Ryuu refuses, what happens then?"

"I imagine that the burden will fall to you, my boy," Kinnya said casually, and Shirogane's eyes widened, his jaw dropping in unmistakeable dismay. Despite himself, Guren laughed, clapping his hands down on his nephew's shoulders.

"If anything should tell you that Shirogane had no aspirations of becoming my heir, Seiren, that expression should be it," he said teasingly. "Last night, too, he was ready to swear allegiance to Ryuu as his first task on returning to District Six."

"But...how can I...such a thing would never be...and...with what's gone on...how...?" Shirogane was incoherent, and Ryuu laughed, the tension in the chamber suddenly dissipating in light of his companion's reaction. "I don't even carry the Kuchiki name, and surely..."

"That can be rectified," Guren said matter-of-factly. "Futsuki was not born with the Kuchiki name, either, but Otousama gave it to him when he married Okaasama. I have the same power to convey it on you, and you are my blood nephew, just as Ryuu is."

"But...through...the female line..."

"And for that reason, we became a Clan easy to pick off," Guren responded grimly. "The Clan will not easily accept a child through the female line, admittedly, but there are ways around that."

A stricken look flooded Shirogane's eyes.

"Sensei said...about the precedent..." he murmured. "Guren-sama, you mean..."

"I realise your affection for your mother will not change, and I would not ask it to," Guren responded gravely. "For the sake of the family, however, and to make you my heir, I must formally adopt you and make you my son. I will give you the Kuchiki name, and formalise our connection so that nobody in District Six can think of challenging you. You are already my Vice Captain, and with time and training, I believe you have the makings of a future Clan leader. Kinnya-ojiue has said the same to me, and his opinion I hold in high regard. Ryuu has already expressed his intention to support you, and is entirely in favour of us following this course. Futsuki, I know you have no objections, either. Seiren, what say you?"

"If my son supports it, so will I," Seiren reflected. "I wish for Ryuu to follow the path of his choosing. If this be it, I shall not intervene."

"Then it lies with you, Shirogane," Guren's tones softened. "I realise it is hard for you, especially given how close you were to Ribari. Perhaps because of that, though, this is fitting. He would have approved of it, I'm sure. Will you become my heir, and future leader of the Kuchiki Clan?"

Shirogane's hands tightened around his flute, his gaze fixed on the patterned wood and, for a moment, he didn't respond. Then, at length, he let out a heavy sigh, lowering his head in defeat.

"As my Clan Leader wishes it," he murmured. "If this is truly the will of everyone, I will...I will do my best. Mother would want that, and so...I will do my best."

He pursed his lips, sliding the flute back into his obi.

"However, there is somewhere I must visit first before this is made public knowledge and I am weighed down by a heavy escort of unnecessarily officious guardsman," he added dryly. "I made a promise to return something to someone, and now that all is well here, I must keep my word. With your permission, Guren-sama, I will ride from here directly to the Coastal Provinces. There is a young girl by the name of Shikiki to whom the Kuchiki Clan and I both owe a great debt, and I must not delay my going to see her any longer."


The land was quiet and peaceful as Shirogane and his escorts rode along the long, narrow pathway leading down towards District Six's narrow stretch of coast. As they passed by the forestland where, only a matter of months earlier Shirogane had fled for his life, the young Vice Captain cast a pensive gaze across towards the trees, remembering his first encounter with Kuchiki Kinnya and his retainer.

Because of that, I live now, but even more so because of Shikiki.

He touched his toes to the horse's flanks, urging the beast into a brisk canter.

I promised to bring Orihime back to her, and I'm going to prove that even rich Clansfolk can keep their word.

He drew breath into his lungs, relishing the faint scent of salt on the breeze as they drew closer to his destination. He would have preferred to make the ride alone, but, following the surprising revelations of the meeting at Seiren's manor, Guren had forbidden his nephew to disappear out of his site unguarded and, remembering with a rueful smile the last time he had taken it upon himself to head for the coast, Shirogane had reluctantly acquiesced. Consequently three of Guren's own guard had accompanied him on the ride to Kinnya's domain.

None of them yet knew that they were shadowing the future heir to the Clan, for Shirogane knew that until it had been put before the Kuchiki court, it would be foolish to let mere guardsmen in on the secret. Yet, as they rode through the peaceful greenery, a sense of wistfulness touched his expression.

I might not get the chance to do this much, once it becomes official. Ryuu is cannier than I realised, in giving up his right to the succession. His quest for freedom is to my cost, but I'll accept the burden anyway. I'm home, and that's the main thing. If Guren-sama is right, and the Kuchiki can start to function as a tighter knit family, maybe it won't be so oppressive a destiny.

And, the most important thing...I won't be taking it on alone. Strange, for one like me who has always enjoyed his own company - but I shall be glad to have secure allies as I go forward.

They had not passed a house for some time, for the Ukitake manor lay some distance clear of the local town, yet as they turned onto a firmer stretch of road, Shirogane caught sight of the place which had been his refuge for that long, confusing week. Rough and ramshackle though it was, a faint sense of warmth stirred inside of him at the sight of it. It was still here, then, just as he had left it. Though so much had happened in other parts of Seireitei, the people here had not been molested after his departure, and as they drew closer, Shirogane was almost sure he heard the merry shouts and yells of young children as they went about their daily chores.

Ukitake and I come from such different worlds, but we have this place in common, now.

Shirogane gave a little tug on his reins to halt his steed, running his gaze across the mud-moddled, uneven farmland.

I won't forget. It's up to me to remember, and after this morning, it's even more important that I do, if I'm to keep this District as safe and peaceful as it should be in the long term.

He swallowed hard, quelling his apprehension.

I hope that I'll be enough. My journey proved to me how lacking I was in knowledge about District Six's people…a fact I must continue to remedy if I'm ever to be accepted as head of its leading Clan.

"Shirogane-sama?"

The lead man of his escorting group of guards pulled his mount alongside his superior's, turning to offer him a questioning look. "I understood you wanted to ride to the coast. Are we continuing, or…?"

"No, we've reached our destination."

Shirogane passed his reins into his left hand, swinging his body around to dismount his steed. "This is where I wanted to come."

"Shirogane-sama?" The man looked nonplussed, and Shirogane smiled.

"I have business with the family here," he said matter-of-factly. "I gave my word to return something to them, and a Clansman should keep his word, even when given to peasant peoples – don't you think?"

The guardsman opened his lips to respond, then closed them again, confused, and Shirogane laughed, patting the neck of his horse lightly.

"Take care of her," he instructed. "I'm sure I shan't be long, and you may dismount and find refreshment nearby if you so wish. I will send for you when I am ready to return to the main manor."

"But Shirogane-sama, with all respect, Guren-sama instructed us to mind your person and keep you safe," the guardsman finally found his voice, staring at his master in undisguised dismay. "To allow you to wander off into unknown peasant domains might be dangerous…surely…"

"Shirogane-nii!"

The man's words were interrupted by a sudden shriek, followed by a blur of pink and yellow as something flung itself bodily on the young shinigami, causing him to stagger back and almost lose his balance.

"Shirogane-nii! I knew you'd come back, I knew it!" An excited voice exclaimed, and Shirogane grinned, gazing down into a pair of familiar aqua eyes.

"How dare you speak to a Lord of the Clan with such disrespect!" The guard was beside himself, his sword more than half drawn from its sheath, but Shirogane held up his hand, fixing the man with a pointed look.

"I have already told you that you and your fellows are dismissed," he said quietly, his voice leaving no room for argument. "This is the young lady I came to see. You will not lay hands on her or treat her with disrespect."

"But Shirogane-sama…surely…"

"This girl is the one who saved my life, when I was away from the manor," Carefully Shirogane disentangled himself from Shikiki's warm embrace, patting her gently on the head. "If not for her, I would not be here to answer Guren-sama's wishes or give you your orders, so do as you are bidden and stand back. If you draw your weapon on her or any of her kin, I will speak for you with my own blade, so I suggest you do as your orders command you and stand back."

"I…yes sir."

The guardsman's expression was full of confusion, but at length he lowered his head in a jerky bow, pushing his weapon back into its wooden sheath. He gestured to his companions, and one by one they melted away into the surrounding forestland, till Shirogane and his eager young ally were left alone.

"You took a long time coming back," Shikiki was the first to break the silence, fixing him with a reproachful glance. "I knew you'd come, because you promised, but I was starting to get worried about you. Nobody had heard anything at all, and Kamikura-sensei said there wasn't anything in the Ojisan's letters to him about you, so we didn't know if you'd managed to get to District One or what had happened. Shinkei thought the boat might have sunk or something, and well, we didn't know."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you anxious," Shirogane ruffled the thick wavy hair affectionately. "I had to delay some time before seeing Genryuusai-sama face to face, but all is well now. A lot of bad things have happened, but I hope they are behind us…and District Six can go back to being at peace."

"Shirogane-nii has made friends with his family again?" Shikiki asked curiously, as she linked stubby fingers in his, leading him back towards the old Ukitake house. Shirogane nodded his head.

"There were many misunderstandings, but all are resolved," he said gravely. "My cousin who died can never be brought back, and I still miss him, but the disagreements his death caused have been talked through and things are well. The uncle who was cross with me...well, we've spoken to one another, and I think that we both see more clearly how things ought to be. It is all right, Shikiki. You don't need to look so protective or concerned - I am well."

"You're dressed all funny and rich again," Shikiki sighed, pausing to take in Shirogane's finely woven attire. "I really don't understand why Clan people bother getting dressed so fancy when their clothing only gets dusty or blooded by fighting. It seems like such a waste of time to me."

"Perhaps it is, but the Clan world is a complicated one," Shirogane laughed despite himself, offering his young companion a rueful glance. "I don't suppose I'm really cut out for your District one, so I'll have to make do with the one I was raised in. It's my failing, I'm afraid - you will simply have to tolerate it."

"Oh well," Shikiki shrugged her shoulders, letting out a world-weary sigh. "Shun-nii is rich and Clan too, but I s'pose it's okay when it's him. Maybe it'll be all right for you too, Shirogane-nii. That is, so long as you're still Shirogane-nii...are you?"

She eyed him doubtfully at this juncture, and Shirogane's heart clenched for a moment in his chest as once more he was reminded of the baby sister who had died taking her first breaths.

"To you, I will be," he said softly. "To you I owe my life, and therefore will never ask you to call me anything else."

He fumbled at his obi, pulling out the cheap wooden flute.

"That reminds me, I brought Orihime home," he added, holding the instrument out. "I took good care of her, and she was very helpful to me while travelling across lands. I am grateful, but now she must return to her proper mistress, where she belongs."

"Oh!" Shikiki's eyes widened in surprise, then she grinned, taking the flute in her free hand and glancing at it. "She was useful then? I'm glad. I wanted her to watch over you - I guess she did."

"She did," Shirogane inclined his head, "and I also brought a friend with me to meet you, too."

He slid his fingers beneath his obi once more, this time pulling his own expensive flute from beneath the silky fabric. As he did so, Shikiki's eyes grew even more huge, and he grinned, unwinding his fingers from hers and putting the flute to his lips. He played a brief melody, then lowered it, offering her a smile.

"This is Oune," he explained simply, "the flute who watches over me in my mother's place."

Shikiki gazed at the instrument for a moment, then she bowed her head solemnly towards it.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Oune-san," she said properly, "I'm glad you and Shirogane-nii are able to be together again."

"So am I," Shirogane admitted, tapping the finely carved wood pensively with the index finger of his hand. "I at last realise what kind of a gift Mother left me, and why it means so much to me to have this flute. I never really saw it, before I came to stay here with your family...but now I do, and I won't forget again."

"Let me go tell everyone you're here," Shikiki suggested. "The others won't sense you like I can, and Shinkei-nii will cuff me for skipping off my chores, probably, if he doesn't understand why I ran off like I did."

"All right, though I am sure they are less eager to see me than you are," Shirogane looked amused. "Still, I can bring them good news of their brother. Ukitake was in one piece when I left District One - as much as that boy ever is, given his propensity to rush into stupid situations."

"Juu-nii spends time around Clan folk, so it can't be helped," Shikiki let out another world-weary sigh. "Shirogane-nii, do you think that Juu-nii will be with the shinigami mostly when he leaves the Academy?"

"Probably," Shirogane eyed her keenly. "Why? Will this upset you?"

"We'll all miss him," Shikiki looked thoughtful, "and I won't say this in front of Miyabi, because she doesn't want him to go away. I think, though, that it's a good thing, if Juu-nii does that. Juu-nii is like Shun-nii and Shirogane-nii, even though he's not rich and Clan. He has special strength and I think...I think he should use it."

"That might apply to you too, you know, in the future," Shirogane pointed out, and a serious expression touched the girl's aqua eyes. Slowly she nodded her head.

"I think so," she agreed gravely. "That's why...that's why I know that it's all right, if Juu-nii stays with the shinigami and if I don't see Shirogane-nii much now he's back with his family. One day, you see, I think I'll be able to use my power to help, like Juu-nii can. When that happens, I'll be able to see you both much more often - won't I?"

Shirogane smiled, nodding his head.

"I have a strong feeling that's the kind of Seireitei Ukitake intends on creating," he agreed wryly. "Whether the rest of Soul Society is ready for it or not is another matter - I imagine he's intent on doing it anyway, and who knows? Perhaps when the dust clears, we will all be better for having accepted a District shinigami."


Meifu's Gate: Fourth Maki
::Owari::


Author's Note: Final Chapter

As promised, my answers to the questions in the previous AN.

Do you identify with any members of Team Stupid?

Hirata and Ryuu are probably the two characters with most resemblance to my character. Not to the extremes they have, perhaps, but I see more elements of my character in Ryuu and in Hirata than in the other characters I've created. Where Hirata is concerned, I have his physical weakness, as well as his habit of analysing everything with a cynical streak. I can deal with things decisively, but I'm just as capable of being as he was right at the beginning. I was always very shy as a child, and in many ways still am – I would have loved a Juushirou to come and pull me along when I was fifteen! As for Ryuu, he's a bookworm, like me. He's also tactless, which I have been accused of on several occasions. I like to think, though, that behind Ryuu's awkwardness is someone loyal who means well. That part of him I claim for myself, although I'm just as capable of screwing up as he is ;)

Of course, parts of all of them come from me, those who I created, because I made them, but those two most of all. I also have elements of Shunsui's worrying and his knack for seeing bad things in something that's apparently good – though he's a better judge of character than I am at times.

Which member of Team Stupid has traits you'd most like to have?

Enishi's. I would love to be one of those characters who didn't worry about things and just accepted them and got on with life. He's absolutely the kind of person I admire the most, because he doesn't let himself get bogged down and he has no doubts about his loyalty or the loyalty of those around him. He's the character in Team Stupid least like me, but I would say there's a lot of him which I would love to have in my own character make up. Perhaps that's why I created him in the first place.

I would also love to have Juu's ability with people. How he draws folk to him is awesome, and completely canon. I have never had this gift, but really envy people who do. To befriend and gain the trust of others without needing to stop and think about it is a really awesome way to be and I admire him as a character so much for that.

And for those of you who are thinking…

"Hey, hang on a minute, Vraie? You can't end it there! What about GRADUATION?"

This is the last chapter of Meifu's Fourth Maki. However, you'll notice that Juu and Shun have not graduated in this story. Well, it's been my habit in the previous stories not to write to the end of the school year, and there wasn't a neat way of doing that this time without messing up the whole story. However, I felt pretty sure that most folk wouldn't be satisfied with the story ending here. I have, therefore, written a short eight or nine chapter OMAKE about the last week for Team Stupid at the Academy and the way their futures are decided on the lead up to Graduation. This isn't an all guns blazing combat and intrigue story, but rather a short, sweet conclusion to Juu and Shun's time at the Academy. It will not contain what happened to either Kei or Eiraki. At the end of this omake is the epilogue chapter I promised folk so long ago, but never delivered. I didn't want people to read that before reading Fourth Maki, because it would have coloured the story for everyone and probably made it unwriteable. I will post it, now, but I will do so with the caveat you read this epilogue chapter at your own risk. It WILL contain information that will upset some readers, and once read, can't be unread.

I will begin posting the OMAKE at some point during the week, perhaps at the end of next week when Meifu would normally be posted. I will not be posting this one chapter at a time, though – I intend to post it in two or three bits.

Thank you everyone for your support over the past two years, and I hope you continue to back Juu and Shun in everything they do!