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Crimson Skies
By: Chibi-angel

Chapter 1


Standard Disclaimers Apply.

~~~~~

[Misao]

I love you, Misao.

I had always loved you.

I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner.

Be my wife.

These were just few of the things Aoshi had not told me… yet. I don’t know why. Was it because he was nervous? Yeah, right.

Maybe he was just waiting for the right opportunity? Nah, I gave him the perfect opportunity every single day of my life.

Maybe too much meditation made him forget things. Important things like that. Yup, that must be it. There couldn’t be any more rational explanation than that.

I stretched out my arms, breathing heavily, smiling widely. It was time to dress up. I had done enough daydreaming for the morning. After donning my morning clothes, I went out of my room, greeting Omasu, who just happened to pass by.

“Good morning, Omasu!”

“Good morning, Misao-chan!”

“You seem to be in a good mood this morning!” she observed, grinning mischievously.

“Omasu!” I protested, placing my hands on my hips. “I am always in a good mood!”

She gave me that look and smiled knowingly.

Omasu was one of the few people who knew what I really felt inside. She knew that beneath my happy exterior was a yearning. A deep yearning for love. She knew how I felt because she loved Shiro all her life. Though our exact cases were different… unrequited love was the same however it was painted.

A few weeks back, we had a conversation, ‘girl talk’ as it may be put. She told me that to be able to capture Aoshi-sama’s affection, I should act more womanly to show him that I was ready for commitment. That I was ready to be loved. I knew her intentions were good but I couldn’t heed her advice.

I want to be loved as who I really am.

And I know I don’t need to change for Aoshi. He just needs a good push. Wait, I had been pushing him for quite some time now so maybe what I needed to do was to push the right buttons.

Turning my attention back to the onmitsu I had considered as a sister, I said, “Do you know where—?”

“Aoshi-sama is at the temple as usual,” she replied, not letting me finish my statement.

“Thanks! Ja ne!” I smiled at her, skipping towards the direction that would lead to the kitchen.”

“Misao-chan, don’t forget our talk, ne?” her voice resonated in the narrow corners of the hall.

“How can I forget? You keep reminding me!” I glanced over my shoulders, giving her a wink and a thumbs up.

As I entered the kitchen, I heard thunder peal. But neither rain nor hail nor storm could deter me from doing our ritual so I prepared the tray I would bring to Aoshi-sama.

I would do anything for him if he would give me the chance to love him. But I guess, for now I have to be content on serving him tea…

…and bringing him an umbrella for that matter.

~~~~~

[Soujiro]

Is this really what life really is all about? Is this the life Himura-san wanted me to see, to learn, to experience?

A life of emptiness and loneliness?

I had been wandering for two years, desperately seeking my answer. I had talked to wise old sages, Buddhists monks, Shinto priests, teachers, doctors, even lay people. But none of them could provide me with what I seek.

None of them understood.

I looked around the town square, my permanent smile still hanging on my lips. Old habits die hard, as they sidy.

I kept on walking to wherever my feet would take me. This was my life after all. Just then, I stopped my tracks, squinting my eyes to remember a vague memory that was pushed back in my mind after my two years of wandering.

Kyoto.

A place I thought I would never return to. The place felt different than before. It felt free… liberated… happy even. Maybe it never really changed. Maybe I was just seeing it in a whole new light. Workers were busy with their tasks, industrious merchants were selling in their stand, buyers were haggling in one corner, children were playing so carefree under the sun.

A couple of years ago I would have seen slaves, taxpayers and minions. Now I saw them as who they really were… people who go on with their life, cherishing their most prized possession.

Peace.

What about me? What do I cherish? What do I deem important to me?

Just then, my trail of thoughts were cut short when my stomach grumbled. I placed one of my hands on my complaining stomach. When was the last time I ate? Surely I had eaten this week or I would be dead by now but…

I held out my hands in front of me, biting my lower lip in concentration. Today is Tuesday so if I started counting backwards….

Tuesday, Monday, Sunday, Saturday, Friday, Thursday.

Masaka! I haven’t eaten in six days!? Stupid! Stupid! I grinned inwardly, slapping my forehead lightly as if it were the most normal thing to forget to eat. Just then, I recalled that ate a piece of bread last Saturday making the count three days. Three days or more, I was extremely hungry.

I absent-mindedly placed my hand in my pocket, jolting me back to reality. I had no money. I had no work. I didn’t have anything besides the worn-out clothes I wore. I couldn’t afford to eat.

Sighing deeply, I headed to the woods, praying to the good Lord for fruit-bearing trees that would help me get through the day.

Just then, it rained.

I ran towards a huge shady tree, feeling cold trails of rain running through my back, sending shivers down my spine. I sat down in between the roots, curling up my legs to my chest, wrapping my arms around them to preserve the little body heat I had left. Chilly air pierced my skin and my heart hurt to beat. My insides felt unnaturally hot but I was shivering because of the cold.

Funny how I felt like such a weakling at this time. I had been through much worse. I had spent winter nights outdoors but now, with just an autumn rain, I felt like…

Why is everything fading to dark—

~~~~~~

[Misao]

“Here is your tea, Aoshi-sama,” I greeted brightly as I laid down the tray in front of him. I did everything with practiced grace, almost automatically if one may put it. I have done this, served him like this for as long as I can remember.

… well, two years ago since he came back to be precise.

Although this had been a routine for me, I never grew tired of it. I will never grow tired of it for this is my favorite time of the day. Even in such a formal manner such a tea ceremony, I was able to be with him. To sit with him close enough to see that a sparkle, no matter how small it is still remains on his eyes.

“Thank you, Misao,” came his reply. As usual, he regarded me with cold blue eyes but I could see past his façade. He was not as emotionless as he projected.

Trying to start a conversation, I put on a bright smile on my face, “I brought you an extra parasol, Aoshi-sama. It’s raining again.”

“Ah yes. The monsoon rains are becoming more frequent this season.”

My heart skipped a beat when his fingers brushed against my skin as he reached for the cup. I turned my head to hide my impending blush and continued, “Jiya went to the market today to buy extra umbrellas just in case the hard wind breaks our umbrellas at home… And you know—” I paused, seeing his uninterested face.

Maybe Omasu was right. Maybe I talk too much that it irritates Aoshi-sama. No, I’m sure he enjoys my company. In a few seconds, he would ask me what was it I was supposed to say.

Seconds turned into minutes but we were silent still.

If he wasn’t interested in what I was supposed to say, why didn’t he bring up a topic for a change? Why wouldn’t he start the conversation?

My smile slowly faded as I watched him almost expectantly.

He said nothing. He didn’t even regarded my presence. It was as if I wasn’t there.

I sighed audibly, feeling my heart sink with each passing second.

When he had finished, I returned the cup back to the tray, held it up expertly with one hand and winked at him, trying to mask my confusion inside, “See, Aoshi-sama, I am so good with this.”

“…”

I sighed once again at his lack of response, turning around to head back to the Aoiya.

“Misao.”

“Hmmm?”

“Don’t forget your umbrella. You might get sick.”

At that, a wide smile formed on my lips as I accepted the opened umbrella from him.

This was going such to be a beautiful day. He cared for me.

~~~~~

[Soujiro]

Slowly, I opened my eyes, squinting them momentarily to adjust to the light. My mind was still hazy that I could not make sense of what I was seeing. My mouth and lips were parched. My body felt heavy.

“Where am I?” my mind asked as I reflexively pulled up my body to a sitting position. Just then, a bolt of pain shot through my head, almost rendering me breathless. I clasped my aching head with one hand as I slowly laid back down on the bed, trying to keep still, not wanting to aggravate my headache. Then, I closed my eyes, concentrating on blocking out the pain.

Ugh! I had never felt so much in pain ever since I was beaten as a child. I could feel my pulse throbbing from inside. The pain was driving me insane. I felt as if my head was stabbed by a double edge sword, only now, I was alive to feel each agonizing second.

For what seemed like eternity, the shoji door opened, creating a creaking sound as it rubbed against the floor.

I gritted my teeth to control the pain as I opened my eyes, trailing it upwards to where a kind-looking old man with a tray on his hands stood. I watched him carefully, squinting my eyes upon seeing a patch of red dangling from his beard. If I was not mistaken, his white beard was kept neat by a band ribboned with a flourish. He slid the door closed with his foot as he kneeled in front of me. “How are you, Seta-kun?” he asked, concern apparent in his tone.

My eyes slightly widened in surprise when I heard my name. I wanted to ask him how he knew me and where was I but I couldn’t find the strength to use my voice. I just stared back at him with half-open lids. Although I could sense a strong kenki from him, it was wise and controlled, not hostile so I relaxed, trusting my instincts that he wasn’t an enemy.

Understanding my situation, he nodded. He placed a cold towel on my forehead and said, “Get well soon, Seta-kun. You know, you should take care of yourself more. I’m sure Tenken no Soujiro wasn’t as skinny as this before he went on his journey.”

Who was this man?

“You know,” he began. “If you wanted to find what you are looking for, you should eat and rest regularly or else you wouldn’t be alive long enough to succeed.”

Why was it that everyone had at least an ounce of wisdom to offer? Shishio-san, Kamatari-san, Himura-san and now, him. If I would be placed in his shoes even once in my life, would I say something substantial? Something borne out of my wanderings?

I wanted to answer him, thank him or even nod as a response but I couldn’t. My body wouldn’t allow it, so I just looked it him with as much reverence as my tired eyes could muster.

“Here eat this,” he said kindly, offering me a bowl of misou soup. He aided me in eating as he continued with his advice.

Having someone take care of me was something new. Even the family I had considered before never treated me this way. Shishio-san and Yumi-san, on the other hand, taught me independence. Was this it? Was this dependence?

After finishing the meal, he lifted a cup to my lips and said, “Now sip this medicine. This will be good for you. I know you have a lot of questions on your mind. I do, too, but we must save it for later when you have fully recovered.”

Taking a deep breath, my voice croaked, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He bowed his head slightly before he stood up and left the room.

He was right. My mind was bombarded with many unattended questions and it wasn’t alleviating the pain I felt. If only I could shrug off all these just for today then maybe my healing process would speed up.

If only.

Just then, a sweet melody of laughter reached my ears. It was a sound of pure bliss and it radiated inside the room into my heart, giving me peace.

Maybe my mind could be cleared after all.

~~

I opened my eyes abruptly, feeling my lungs painfully constricted.

What a dream.

I breathed in heavily to compensate my need for oxygen. It hurt to breathe. I placed my hand on my throat, feeling an irritating itch inside. It was then that I realized how thirsty I was. My lips were already cracked like parchment paper. I tried to swallow hard to ease the burn in my throat but my efforts were futile. My mouth was too dry.

Although I didn’t know where I was exactly, I figured that there was a kitchen somewhere inside the residence and if I wanted water that moment, I had to get it myself.

I had imposed on the kind old man too much already.

I stood up from the bed and walked towards the door, sliding it with outmost care, knowing perfectly how much noise it made. It wouldn’t be wise to disturb the occupants of the place especially that I didn’t even know who they were. With that task done, I quietly paced the area, looking around, searching for the kitchen.

As I walked through the dark hallway, I sighed deeply, wondering what kind of mess I had gotten myself into. It wasn’t actually the first time that somebody received me so generously and helped me get through my journey. However, it was the first time that my host knew about my past, not to mention take care of me while I was sick. Ever since I saw that old man’s face, I searched my mind deeply to recall who he was… how I knew him or… most importantly, how he knew me.

Was he an old ally? A follower of Shishio-sama maybe? Surely he can’t be an old ene—

I stopped dead on my tracks upon feeling a furtive presence heading towards me. Ever since I left my room, I had already felt as if I was being watched but I shrugged the thought off, thinking that it would be normal for the residents of the house to be curious of the ‘guest’… but why would he have such a strong kenki?

I cast my eyes to the side, a wide smile forming on my face.

Let’s just see who gets surprised.

It wasn’t that I wanted to slay him for his devious plot, whoever he may be or however he may be connected to the old man, who took care of me.

I know better than that now.

I just wanted to know what his intentions were and who he was.

Wait… something is not quite right about this.

I continued to walk naturally, calculating my timing.

Three.

Two.

One.

“You know it isn’t polite to sneak on people like that.” I smiled, pinning my would-be assaulter against the wall. Just then, blood rose to my cheeks as my eyes widened.

He was a she.

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