Shunsui opened bleary eyes, lifting a heavy hand to shield his gaze from the painful glare of the bright sunlight that crept in between the slats of the window shutters. He had no idea what time it was, and for the time being, he truly didn't care. With a groan, he dropped his arm back onto his pillow, closing his eyes once more as he attempted to get back to sleep.
From somewhere not too far away, he could smell the soft mingled aroma of fresh tea and fish being cooked over a low-slung fire, and he rolled over, trying to place why those scents should seem so appealing. Then, as if he had been struck by a sudden deluge of icy water, he remembered.
Saku's house. Saku's cooking. Saku's scent.
He hauled himself into a sitting position, suddenly no longer wanting to sleep as memories flooded his sleep-clogged mind. He groaned, rubbing his eyes with the back of his fists as he struggled to bring himself more clearly into his surroundings. Where was he, anyway?
A quick glance around told him that whilst his memory might have been drawn to Saku, his surroundings were unfamiliar and as different from his old friend's lodgings as night was from day. The chamber was small, with a low-slung beamed ceiling, and even as he pulled the rough blankets more tightly around his body, he realised that wherever he had woken, it was in a small, old property, more suited to one of the outskirts villages than the kind of town that Saku and her father had originally made their home. From the density of the cooking smells, Shunsui realised that the house's kitchen was a bare few steps from where he was huddled, through an arch like doorway into a tiny cupboard of a chamber beyond. As his eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, he could make out the shadow of something which could be an aging seat covered with a woven blanket to hide the tears and patches, and his gaze narrowed, little by little putting the pieces back into place.
So last night had been a bad one then, had it?
He pursed his lips, wishing his head did not ache so badly. Try as he might, he could not fully recall the events of the previous evening but a quick assessment of his attire soon told him that he had probably spent the night with another of the local village girls that lived just over the rise from the Kyouraku mansion. At the realisation, he sighed, resignation setting in in his heart as he dropped back against the wall, folding his arms across his chest.
His brother was probably wondering where he was, by now, considering that the sun had already risen. Yet Shunsui was in no hurry. After all, in a place like this, there was very little danger of him being found or recognised by anyone in the local surrounds.
He glanced down at his shirt, noting the loose ties and the rumpled nature of the fabric. He never left the mansion in full Noble regalia, not since the meeting with Saku when she had stared at him and so coldly demanded to know his identity. Yet even so he was more dishevilled than usual, and from the buzzing, pounding rhythm that kept pace in his skull, he had probably had more than his fair share of some or other cheap sake between leaving the manor and arriving at his current location. The only question was, what kind of girl had he chosen to go home with this time?
He kicked back the blankets, swinging his legs over the side of the low slung wooden shelf that acted as a bed, and pulling himself to his feet. It was chilly, he realised, stifling a shiver, and he glanced around him automatically for his warm winter cape, a wry smile touching his lips as he realised that he would not have brought that with him either. It was, after all, woven by the finest seamstresses of the most expensive imported material - and as such, was a dead giveaway as to his true status.
"So you're awake?"
A voice from the doorway made him pause, raising his gaze to meet the quizzical dark eyes of his host, and as he did so, a sense of shame and guilt struck through him. She was young, he realised, probably about his own age or a little older, with thick black hair in a long tail down her back, and from the condition of her day clothing, he knew that she was not one of the village's richer settlers. In fact, he wondered, as he eyed her up and down, perhaps she was more even than that. He had heard, after all, rumours of those who had snuck into Seireitei during breaches in security and bribed border guards between the inner settlement and the outside no-mans land known as Rukongai. Perhaps she was one of these, after all - an outside dweller with nothing but her body and her rough skills to recommend her in Seireitei's unforgiving social hierarchy.
And here was he, the son of one of the Noble Families, sitting there looking back at her knowing that every word he was going to tell her would be a lie.
Just like all the others, there was a hint of Saku in her features. Her petite build, the eyes like dark pools and the precise, dainty features that concealed a will of iron within. Yet unlike Saku, this girl did not have freedom in her gaze. And unlike Saku, he was not in love with her.
He had simply drunk too much and allowed himself to be easily led astray.
So I am Father's son after all.
He got slowly to his feet, bowing his head towards her.
"I've encroached on your home and your time. I'm sorry." He murmured, and the girl sighed, shaking her head.
"You don't need to apologise." She said simply. "You didn't do anything wrong, after all."
"You'd been drinking and you weren't steady on your feet." The girl told him matter-of-factly. "Some of the men were getting rowdy in one of the inns, and you got shoved over by one of them, so I stopped and helped you up. I brought you back here, since you didn't seem to be able to remember where you lived."
Shunsui pursed his lips, knowing that at least to some degree her words were a lie. Though his memories were blurry, he distinctly remembered that they had done more than simply come back to her house, and he paused, then slipped his hand discreetly against the side of his body, fingering the fabric as he hunted for the small coin purse he kept stitched to the inside of his clothes.
It was gone, and at his covert movement, the girl met his gaze with a challenge of her own.
"Was there something wrong?" She asked softly, and Shunsui shook his head.
"Not at all." He said evenly. "Though I'd rather you told me the truth. Last night I was drunk, and I came here with you. I imposed on you, and you took my coin in recompense. That's the way of it, isn't it? That's what really happened yesterday evening."
The girl's eyes became like slits.
"What are you accusing me of?" She demanded, her tones dangerously low, and Shunsui smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
"There's no accusation." he said lightly. "I'm not asking for the coin back. You're welcome to it. Money isn't everything, after all."
At this the girl stared at him, startled by his casual admission.
"Who are you, then, that money doesn't matter?" She asked suspiciously. "What kind of man lets a girl keep coin and doesn't slap her for taking it while he slept? Because I'm not sorry I did, and I'm not planning on returning it, whatever you say or do. Living in Seireitei's hard when you're like me and on your own. I take it as payment for my time last night, and that's all. Nothing more, nothing less."
"I think I already told you that I wasn't trying to claim it back." Shunsui rubbed his temples, suddenly feeling exhausted and somewhat ashamed of his behaviour. "As for who I am - nobody who has any significance in this world or the next. Just another son of another family who have too much of some things and not enough of others. That's all."
He eyed her frankly.
"I never asked your name." He remembered. "I almost wonder if I should ask it, or if it would be better if I didn't know."
"Last night you called me Saku." The girl said softly, and Shunsui started, staring at her in alarm. She smiled, nodding her head.
"For the coin I claimed, I'll be Saku if you like." She said playfully. "I don't mind. Names don't mean much to me when food is expensive and water hard to come by. There's no provision in Seireitei when you have no connections, after all."
"So you did come from Rukongai, then, after all?"
The girl stiffened, and Shunsui held up his hands.
"It's all right. I'm not about to report you to anyone." He said lightly. "But I can't imagine why you'd want to come here. Seireitei is full of violence, corruption and bad blood. You'd have done better staying there."
"It's no good, doing that." The girl relaxed, shaking her head with a sigh. "Not if you're like me. There's nothing for one like me over that side of the wall, after all. If I'd stayed, I'd have died. So I did the only thing I could. I took a chance and slipped through a crack in the security patrols."
"You could've been killed then, too, you know." Shunsui remarked, and the girl shrugged.
"Death either way for a vague chance of life." She said simply. "That's all."
"But I don't understand..."
"Of course not." The girl snorted. "Whoever you are, you're born in this world and you don't know what exists beyond that wall. You might think Seireitei is harsh, bocchan, but Rukongai is worse. If you're cursed like me in having even the faintest of spiritual power, you're doomed to die a long and agonising death. Either that or the Hollows come for you, and single you out, one by one. No one's there to protect us. They just come, and if you can't escape, you can't and that's that."
She spread her hands.
"There's little or no food in Rukongai. Most souls there don't need it. But for those who do...there's only one choice to make. Come to Seireitei by some means - or die."
Shunsui stared at her, and she smiled bitterly.
"Men like you are my lifeblood." She murmured. "Like I said, I let go of my pride a long time ago. I can survive, this way, through men like you. I don't need to know names or remember faces, and you don't need to, either."
"Most don't realise they've been robbed, however." She acknowledged. "Even as hungover as you are, you're smart."
"Not as smart as I could be, evidently." Shunsui said frankly. He ran his fingers through his shorn hair, then sighed, feeling the faint flickers of familiar reiatsu on the edges of his consciousness.
"I should leave, before I bring trouble down on your head." He said quietly. "There are people who're looking for me, and it'll do neither one of us any good if they find me here."
"If you're in some kind of trouble, don't bring it to my door." The girl looked dismayed. "Leave, by all means - take your robe and go. I don't want any part of anyone else's fight, after all."
Shunsui took the clothing she tossed at him, pulling it over his shoulders and tying the sash loosely around his waist. He was dishevilled, he knew, but at least he was decent, and although he could not wash away the night before, he could at least clean himself up when he returned to the manor.
He bowed his head towards her, then, without a word, he withdrew from the chamber and stepped out into the surrounding village.
His brother's men were nearby, he knew, which meant that Tokutarou had probably dispatched them at dawn when he had realised his younger brother was once more not in his bed. All he had to do now was be caught, and that would be the end of it. Tokutarou would probably lecture him again, but he was too tired and numb to really care much about that. In the end, he was his Father's son. And, more than ever in the past year or so, he had learnt exactly how much like Matsuhara he could be.
He leant idly up against the trunk of a tree, pursing his lips as he thought it over in his head.
It had been a year since he had last seen Saku, and yet he often found himself wondering where she was and whether she was all right. It pained him to think that because of his involvement she might be forced to live the same kind of existence as the Rukongai runaway who had so cunningly fleeced him of his money while he had lain vulnerable and sleeping on her bed. His natural interest in the opposite sex had become a mixture of obsession and distraction, as he had turned more and more to hiding his confusion and pain in the comforting haze of alcohol. He had learnt with startling clarity how his father had descended so deeply into his sins, for there were some pains that were too tightly ingrained to easily shift from deep within his heart
It wasn't just Saku, or the way they had said goodbye. It was the recognition of futility - that the Kyouraku honour was a lie steeped in blood and betrayal. The memory of his Father's murder and Uncle's suicide were forever emblazoned on his thoughts as cruel reminders of the Nobility's lack of perfection. The more time went on, the more he had become convinced that Saku's words were true - that there were many things they had not understood as children - things which he was only coming to understand now.
And even nameless, sin-soaked individuals like his Rukongai vagabond had suffered from hardship while he and his undeserving, grasping family lived in riches beyond the ridiculous, acting as though somehow by birth and blood right they had forged themselves as superior individuals fit to trample others in the dust.
Matsuhara had known that. Matushara had known and it had destroyed him. With every swing of his blade, Shunsui knew, his Father had plunged deeper into his nightmares, unable to reconcile the destruction of the Hollows he was charged to kill with his peaceful, conflict-hating nature. And now Shunsui knew it too, from his own experience.
That being part of the Kyouraku family was a tragedy from the opening act to the curtain call - and he wanted no part of it whatsoever.
A voice made him start from his reverie, and he glanced up, words dying on his lips as he recognised the speaker. His eyes widened, heart stilling in his chest as he swallowed hard, barely able to meet his mother's gaze. She had suppressed her presence from his senses and he had not noticed her approach, so deep in his own musings had he been. At his clear surprise, she frowned.
"Okaasama." He managed at long last. "What are you...doing here?"
"I came to find you." Yoshiko said softly, and every word she spoke stabbed through Shunsui's young heart. "Because I knew that one of these days, Tokutarou-sama's men wouldn't be able to bring you back. And I've seen this happen already, Shunsui. I've seen it once and let it go unstopped. But I won't do it again. I won't see you fall into the same hole as your Father - even if it means coming and dragging you back home myself."
Her eyes were pools of unshed tears, and somehow this hurt Shunsui more than her anger or censure at his behaviour could possibly have done. In that moment he knew what a pitiful figure he must cut, his hair ruffled and ungroomed, his eyes bloodshot from his night's drinking and his clothing specked with dust and grime, still rumpled from his night's adventures. In Yoshiko's eyes was the same pain he had seen there before, when she had spoken of his father, and in that instant Shunsui hated himself more than he ever had.
I always said I wouldn't make Mother cry like Father did, but yet, here we are all the same.
At his lack of response, Yoshiko stepped forward, slipping her arms around his body and hugging him tightly.
"Please don't fall into that world, Shunsui-kun." She whispered, burying her head in his shoulder, and as she did so, Shunsui was aware for the first time of how delicate and fragile an individual his mother really was. She had always held her head high, he knew, no matter what she had been forced to endure. Yet in that moment all those walls had shattered and from the desperate, unrelenting nature of her embrace, Shunsui knew that, more even than his Father had, he was hurting her to her core.
Despite himself he closed his eyes, not wanting to meet her gaze.
"I'm coming home with you, Okaasama." He managed softly. "I never had any other intention than to return to the mansion. There was no need to come all this way for me."
"Your Father began with things like this." Yoshiko held him at arm's length. "He drew away from me, and little by little his aura grew darker and more uneven and I couldn't get close to him any more. You...you're starting to do the same, Shunsui. I know you've been through so many things - I know your Uncle's rebellion and death must've had an impact on you, and I know you've been pulled and pushed around so much since you were a small boy. But I don't want you to be destroyed by this family. More than anything, I want to protect you from that. And Matsuhara would want it too. He wouldn't want his son to fall like this. I know that."
"He's not here to ask." Despite himself, Shunsui could not stop the words from leaving his lips, though he regretted them the moment he felt his mother's body flinch in his arms. That was when he knew that his mother still loved Matsuhara as strongly or even more so than he'd ever dreamed he'd loved Saku, and again he felt tainted and ashamed by his behaviour.
Mother has endured much more than me. Yet Mother is the one who's been strong. Not me.
"True." She said softly now. "But there's no way of us changing that. We can't always look back, Shunsui. Forward is sometimes the only direction we can go."
She released her grasp on him, sliding her fingers into his and squeezing his hand.
"Your brother and I have been talking, and have spoken too to an old acquaintance of your Father's." She continued softly, leading him gently away from the village towards her carriage as she did so. "He's a man of good repute and someone under whom Tokutarou-sama did some training while living with the Shiba-ke. To all intents and purposes, we feel that you might benefit from such an acquaintance, also. After all, this can't go on. I can't let this go on - and neither can you."
"What do you mean, you've been talking about me?" Shunsui looked startled, a wary expression in his eyes, and Yoshiko sighed.
"For the last year you've spent more nights roaming away from the mansion than you have sleeping in your own bed." She said tiredly. "There's no secret in your actions - even the house staff are aware of them, though most of them are too discreet to allude to the fact in front of either your brother or I. I always knew you were interested in girls, Shunsui - I read your letters, after all, until your Uncle stopped them, and I know also that you've developed quite a charm for dealing with them in the three years or so since you came home. When Tokutarou-sama's Shiba relatives have visited, you've always been willing to give more attention to the girls than the boys, which is something I would expect from a young man of your years."
She sighed again.
"And it's not wrong for a young Lord to have a good sense of different vintages of alcohol, nor strange for him to be familiar with a wide range of tastes." She continued heavily. "But it's gone beyond that, hasn't it? You're not just drinking occasionally but enough to black yourself into a stupor. And as for the attention you've been seeking in places like this..."
"I suppose I am my Father's son, in the end."
"And your Father died a tragic, melancholy death, without reaching out to his family for help." Yoshiko said softly. "I won't wait till you're in the same situation. You won't ask for help either, I know - you're good at concealing your true feelings, and you always have been. I had no idea that you'd seen Matsuhara's death till Tokutarou-sama told me of it - you kept even that a secret and went on as though it had never happened. You bury too much in that heart of yours, and I don't imagine I'll ever get you to talk about it. But if I can find a way to help you manage it, somehow, then I will. And that's why we've been talking. For your sake, Shunsui. Not for the pride of the family or anything else. But because neither Tokutarou-sama or I want to see you fall into your Father's hell."
Shunsui was silent for a moment, digesting this.
"I don't really understand." He admitted. "What you think it is you want me to do."
"Your Father once worked somewhat in conjunction with a man called Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni-sama." Yoshiko began softly. "And since that time, Yamamoto-sama has set up some form of training Academy, with the hope of bringing the limited knowledge and skills of the Shinigami to a wider scope of people. It's clear to both Tokutarou-sama and I that you're not a foolish child, even if you sometimes lack good sense in your actions. You're academically capable, even if it was mostly done under duress at your Uncle's behest. You have a good and deep grasp of many things, even if you like to keep them hidden...and you are not easily misled, even if sometimes you'll pretend that you are. More, too, as a son of a previous Kyouraku Shinigami, your own reiryoku potential is..."
"No." Shunsui said flatly, pulling away from her grasp and taking steps away from her as images of his Father's death crossed his mind once more.
"I don't want to be like Father in that way." Shunsui shook his head. "I don't want to carry a blade. I don't want to hunt things. I just want to be left alone."
"Well, it's gone too far for that."
Now his brother's voice joined the conversation and, as they reached the waiting chariot, Shunsui registered Tokutarou standing beside it, the tension in his body clearly telling him that the Kyouraku lord had about reached the end of his patience.
"Aside from the family name being pulled through the mud, neither Yoshiko-dono or I are willing to stand back and let this go on any more." Tokutarou continued slowly, a resolute steeliness in his dark eyes as he grasped his brother loosely by the shoulders, forcing him to meet his gaze. "So this is how it is. You have two choices, Shunsui - there is no other option than these, so listen carefully. All right? Because I won't have my brother causing his mother so much pain. You don't realise, in all this self-pitying of yours, how lucky you are to have a mother who cares for you so much. I won't let you make that person cry any more, and I won't let you give me a headache each morning trying to work out where you've gone this time. So this is the way it's going to be. I've the support of the clan, and there won't be any room for argument or escape. Are you listening to me?"
Shunsui stared at him blankly, somehow mesmerised by his brother's rigid gaze, and Tokutarou nodded.
"Good." He muttered. "All right. Either you can come back with us and listen to us on the subject of Genryuusai-sama's Academy. Or, if you refuse to do that, I'll put in motion moves to make sure you're kept firmly under lock and key..."
His eyes narrowed and Shunsui suddenly felt very uneasy at the way this conversation was heading.
"I have had plenty of people enquire about your eligibility for marriage." Tokutarou said coolly now. "And if you don't want to train as a Shinigami, you'll have to be useful in another way and seal yourself into a suitable betrothal contract. Since you like women so much, I thought, perhaps this would be a way to indulge your interests in a much more stable manner. You're seventeen, after all - a good age for the foundations of such arrangements to be put into play."
He smiled, but there was no humour in the smile, and a prickle ran down Shunsui's spine. He had underestimated Tokutarou's skill at manipulation, but they were, after all, blood brothers.
"Of course, it will mean many, many meetings with the various suitors and their families." Tokutarou continued levelly. "It will mean I won't let you out of my sight even for a moment, to ensure you can't cause offence to any of the individuals during these meetings. And I will be making sure that the eventual choice of bride is one who will keep you and your vices well in hand, Shunsui. That is the choice you're faced with. Shinigami school or arranged marriage. Take your pick."
Shunsui's jaw dropped, and for a moment he merely stared at his companion, trying to gauge how serious the man was. An image of Saku flitted across his senses, and he bit his lip, shaking his head as if to clear it.
There was a long silence, then, at length, he sighed, knowing he was beaten.
"Let's go back to the manor." He said slowly, his heart heavy in his chest. "I suppose if you want to talk about this Yamamoto person...it wouldn't hurt to listen."
Author's Note - The End (for now!)
There it is then :) The end. Thank you everyone who's read to the end of this prequel and who's contributed reviews, comments and other random babble along the way. I had to write a chapter with Shunsui living that aimless life that's referenced in his bio, and this was it! He has had quite a rough ride to get to this point, I realise (huggles Shunsui apologetically) but hopefully it's logical overall.
I had to write a chapter with Shunsui living that aimless life that's referenced in his bio, and this was it! He has had quite a rough ride to get to this point, I realise (huggles Shunsui apologetically) but hopefully it's logical overall.
I have written about the boys at the Academy. Where the story is going to end up only the boys themselves know, honestly - but I will start to upload it to the server in the not to distant future. It will be titled Meifu's Gate: Second Manuscript and currently it stands at about 22 chapters on my flashdisk. It will be a story about the society in which the boys are growing up in as well as their own particular tale of friendship and character development under Yamajii's watchful eye. There are therefore some OCs, most of whom connect directly to characters in the existing series either by obvious name links (Kuchiki, Shihouin, etc) or by less obvious ones (and there'll be cookies for anyone who can spot those connections, hehe :D). Some of the OC characters from this story will also appear or be referenced in the Academy story in a limited degree (some more than others, probably).
It will be a story about the society in which the boys are growing up in as well as their own particular tale of friendship and character development under Yamajii's watchful eye. There are therefore some OCs, most of whom connect directly to characters in the existing series either by obvious name links (Kuchiki, Shihouin, etc) or by less obvious ones (and there'll be cookies for anyone who can spot those connections, hehe :D). Some of the OC characters from this story will also appear or be referenced in the Academy story in a limited degree (some more than others, probably).
The next story will be based on the foundations laid in this story in terms of the boys' pasts and their characters as well as the structure of Soul Society. It's far from canon, but you have to write from some basis, right?