Prologue: Kyoto, Japan -1882
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,
Because in that moment you'll have gone so far
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?
"Don't Go Far Off" – Pablo Neruda
It always disturbed him, this feeling.
Aoshi watched Misao as she poured the tea with an uncharacteristically gentle bending of the wrist—an act that revealed the pale, almost fragile white skin, marred by the elusive mound of bone that disappeared as soon as it appeared. Her skin was mostly covered by the rich blue silk kimono she wore today. He watched as she withdrew her hands—feeling, without touch, the calluses on each finger, counting them, knowing them by heart. Sometimes, he would wonder how it felt to actually grab those child-hands and hold them, ever so gently, the same way she gently poured the tea as she served him…
There was the imperceptible narrowing of his eyes. And he watched, almost impassively, as she moved away from him and placed her hands primly on her lap. Misao was serving him, whereas she could be outside, laughing blissfully, uncaring of the shadows he bore. She could be planting some mischief elsewhere, leading people to shout with utmost indignation her name. She could be running to the market with the others as they taught her to become a lady, and screaming as she refused to be one just yet. But instead, she was here, before him.
Aoshi calmly set his cup down. As always, he wondered why Misao willingly put herself in servitude, for him. And he wondered about the ever expectant look that brightened her river eyes, or that barely noticeable shift of anticipation in the way she sat, or, dare he say it, that small, nervous smile on her lips that dimpled and reddened her skin when she thought he was not looking. He wondered why she cared, why she always came.
Always, she would come. She came every morning, always with a smile, sometimes with a disgruntled pout, or a mischievous grin, sometimes with a bandaged finger, or a scraped knee. Sometimes she came with an encumbering cold, or a sore throat (from yelling, no doubt), sometimes in a kimono, or with an umbrella. And she would always regale him with her stories for the day, no matter how insignificant, or painful, or humorous. And she would pour his tea and he would listen, drinking in the sound of her life-filled, seemingly hypnotic voice. And while to him, this child-woman would never grow old, the glow that surrounded her continued to grow before his very eyes each day. And he would wonder, again, at the miracle of her constant coming to him.
And yet, the days had grown shorter and the nights longer, and seasons had passed. And still Misao would arrive, sometimes with red, shifty eyes, and a weak voice, and a pale face. He would then see her fingers tremble, ever so slightly… And he would wonder at the mystery of how, despite what pain she went through, whatever things she could have done, and wherever places she could have gone to, she always came before him.
She gave him so much of herself.
"Kuro's still nagging me about cleaning the pails today. Hmp, I keep telling him, how can I do that when I'm wearing this—darn dress?" She sighed, and he watched her parted lips. "I can take on those pails any day, but not with this on. Besides, it's not my fault I had to wear this. Jiya insists, and for what? For the useless hope of finding someone—" she stopped her retort in time. And her eyes, usually full of emotion, lost its glitter.
And these were the days when he felt her slowly slipping away. "Someone?"
"To wed me." She whispered quietly.
And then there was a sudden coldness in the room. "Aa," he could only reply, and after that, there was silence. He could feel the cold darkness seeping within him, tightening his lungs so he couldn't breathe. He took one last sip of the tea for reprieve, and set it down.
Silence, once more. She spoke no more. And he couldn't. Couldn't give her anything in return.
He had nothing to give her in return. Nothing to give that would compensate for the hours she spent with him, hours that, at damned times, he felt were his salvation. There was no smile he could offer in return to hers. And if she gave her heart—what heart could he give, in return? All he had were his memories, and his memories consisted of a farce of life: fruitless toil, countless battles, consuming hunger, blindfold insanity, and of death. Those would never do—would not be enough to encompass what she constantly gave him.
There were good memories, though—of brotherhood and companionship, and they were mostly filled with images of her, with wide eyes, looking up at him, tugging at his sleeves as she laughed her child's laugh. It was her face that made him endure and win past Gein's trap. How would she feel, knowing that even in his most treasured memories, she still existed?
It was all she. And he had nothing truly of himself to give her, nothing to repay the entirety of all that she had given him. Nothing.
"I—I have to go." She said, brokenly.
He nodded, closed his eyes, and bowed in acknowledgement. She wouldn't see his face.
He heard the patter of ceramic on the wooden tray as she arranged the cups. Heard her sharp, barely contained breath. He heard the urgency in her movements, in her footsteps. "Goodbye, Aoshi-sama."
He finally opened his eyes to see her departing figure in the doorway. Despite the coming rain that darkened the sky, she still looked majestic; the image of her back bathed in sad white.
She turned her right hand to leave some incense on the bowl that hung beside the temple doors.
And he saw her wrists tremble as she softly tapped the red sticks on the gold bowl.
And she was gone.
And the room grew so cold and dark that he found that it was suddenly so hard to breathe.
And he wondered, as he always wondered whenever she came, if she would still come back tomorrow.
It disturbed him, this feeling.
He was coming back from the temple, aiming to escape the returning rain, when he saw her again. He was surprised to see Misao, still in her now noticeably soiled kimono, running across the mud-filled yard.
"Shiro! When I see you, you'll be madder than a wet hen!" She held a filled pail in her right hand; her kimono sleeves were hastily folded up. She then crept slowly…
Kuro appeared behind her, quieter, carrying two buckets of water. He was making his way towards her, ready to throw the water…
"Ha!" Misao's triumphant scream echoed throughout the yard. She had thrown the pail at Kuro before he had the chance to ambush her with his. Splash! And Misao was just as wet all over. She shrieked and laughed. It's been such a long time since Aoshi heard her laugh like that. Kuro went dashing away from Misao. "Beh!"
"Why you—" Her eyes glittered dangerously, and she pulled the infernal skirt up and ran after him. Aoshi saw her white legs, made even paler by the mud that clung to them. Saw the womanly curves that were revealed in the kimono's clinging wetness. He saw what they couldn't show and see in each other's company in the temple. He couldn't turn away.
And he was justly rewarded for the indulgent act, for the next thing he could see was that she was running away, away from his sight, and away from him.
The voices were faint now.
They carried different themes. Some accused him, others judged him, other called all the blessings unto him, and offered him praise. Most of them spoke of his guilt, his regrets. They all united, haunting him with their hollowness, screaming to him, sometimes so loudly that he had grown as hollow as they were. But now… now, their intensity had fallen to a mere whisper, a faded cry in the distance.
And he was walking, walking away from the flames that wrought the shadows of his past, leaving them all behind. There was much dust in the road and his bare feet hurt, but he walked further, taking care not to step on those shadows that he was once so much a part of. These shadows fell unto the dark of the trees and the blackened the sides of the path.
And he realized that while he was walking away from the voices, he was also walking towards the darkness of the night, in an unfamiliar road. He suddenly felt so weak—tired, wounded, and lost. His step faltered. He had nowhere to go.
You are nothing without your pain. A voice cried out rebelliously in the vestiges of the distant fire. Where will you be without your pain to give you meaning? Where will you be without your shadows to shield you? Where will your peace take you?
Where will you go?
"No, no." Not after all these years—not after trying to escape those ghosts for so long. He could not give up now. He had to walk further. But his legs lost strength, and he crumpled to the ground.
The darkness overwhelmed him. He couldn't tell the difference between the shadows he had run from and the darkness he had run to. The suffocating oblivion was swallowing him, and all directions were no direction, and there wasn't depth or nearness, no substance and no abstractions—and he was trapped, trapped in the darkness. There was no where left to go.
And he felt it… He felt fear.
Her voice. "Misao." He whispered.
And he knew, even before he saw her, that she would be there. Then there were no more questions, for he was already running to her. He would always go to her, for all, all that he was—all of himself, all that he could and never could be—all of it was already hers. He could no longer be possessed by shadows, for he was already hers to possess, hers to create and destroy. He would run through the darkness and straight to her. Because she was all he could ever need—and one touch, one instance of her would be enough, enough to make him feel that leaving the pieces of his soul behind had been worth it; because in her, he had found home.
It was in moments like these, however brief, that he knew, and not only feared, that she was his salvation.
He reached out for her moon-white specter before she disappeared from his sight. "Misao."
For it was during moments like these that he believed that he could actually love her.
And he awoke to the image of her, hovering before him, bathed in gold light. And for moment, he couldn't believe it, himself. He couldn't close his eyes, wouldn't dare miss sight of the girl who sat above him with her worried eyes and watchful gaze, or of her lips, slightly parted by his name—lest she disappear the moment he lifted his eyes again. Urges stretched his senses—relief, longing, fear and agony—so completely that he couldn't breathe. His fingers, clutching at her shoulders, were shaking. He couldn't let her go.
Misao suddenly spoke, breaking his desperate transfixion. "You're awake! I'm so glad… I was so worried. I was scared that you wouldn't…" She faltered. She bit her lip abruptly turned towards the lantern at her side.
"You're here." He let out roughly.
Misao seemed just as taken aback. She hurried to explain. "I'm sorry for intruding. I heard noises, and I…I just came in. I was so scared that something might have happened to you… that you might be taken away from me again—" she halted, as if suddenly realizing her words. "I…I'm sorry—I…"
His hold on her tightened. Kuso, he was trembling… "Why?"
Misao started. She then took a deep breath and looked away. "You were calling out my name."
Her voice had been so soft. "You're really here," he whispered to himself.
Damn it, his voice sounded so strained. So weak. So grateful.
Misao suddenly turned to him. "Is that so hard to believe?" she asked quietly.
His throat suddenly felt so tight; he couldn't breathe. His chest trembled. Here she was, yet again, before him…
Why, after all? Why, when they had abandoned her when she was so little? Why, when he failed them and they died? Why, when he lost his sanity and had lost sight of her? Why, when he had nearly killed Okina before her very eyes? Why, when he could never offer her what she wanted?
Why, when I hurt her each and every time?
"Why," he demanded finally, his raw voice cracking, "are you still here?"
Misao's eyes narrowed, weak. "Aoshi-sama," her voice shook, "don't you already know?"
That she loved him?
"No." His voice reverberated painfully, and the agonizing burning behind his eyes intensified. "You can't."
"I can!" Misao suddenly cried out, as emotions long buried returned with startling vengeance. "If I couldn't, I wouldn't…"
She wouldn't have followed you when you left her. If she couldn't, she wouldn't have asked Himura to bring you back. If she couldn't, she wouldn't have forgiven you for everything, and she wouldn't have welcomed you home.
He heard her deafening anguish in the silence.
"If I couldn't…" she finally choked out "I wouldn't be here." Tears fell from her eyes as her small fist pounded at his chest. "I'm here before you—can't you even see that? Can't you even see me?"
He closed his eyes. He saw. He saw. He could see.
Misao crumpled before him. "I love you, Aoshi-sama. That's all I have ever needed. You don't need to do anything else. I don't care about anything else. I can be happy as long as you're happy and content. When will you ever accept that?"
He saw her wrists tremble as she softly tapped the incense sticks on the bowl.
A foreign sensation took hold him, that of his eyes painfully burning, filling.
But he couldn't let go. Because he needed her, because he was hers, hers to possess, create and destroy. Because she was his salvation.
He reached for her and took her face in his hands. Her glassy child-eyes slowly lifted to bear into his. "Forgive me, Misao," he whispered as he kissed her wet cheek.
Her eyes shut just as his lips brushed over them, and she shivered. He pulled her nearer. Because you love me…
His lips touched her skin reverently, as one savored life giving dew in the breaking morning, and as one drank the rain after a long drought. It was like madness—his passion reigned, and his passion told him to consume every drop of her, to feel every inch of the life she possessed. It was the ultimate pleasure when his kissed her left breast and met the powerful beating of her heart. He selfishly felt like he was taking some, even the smallest amount of her life into his.
Because he couldn't…
She trembled, smiling tremulously behind her tears.
Wipe the tears off her face.
But he needed this. He needed her. He had no choice.
Yet he discovered, without uncertainty, that he did indeed love her when he stopped himself from kissing her lips.
Because he would never,
She looked up at him, uncomprehending, "Aoshi-sama?"
He looked down at her and stroked her cheek. "I can't be that selfish."
Make her happy.
Despite her slumbering daze, her eyes narrowed weakly, in question, and she was unable to reply. Her eyes shut against his words.
And he held her sleeping form and pulled her close to him—and he held tighter and closer than he ever had all those nights of his life when he had held her as a child. He held onto her through the night with the fervency of someone who needed her to supplant him with life, to survive.
He regretted and wished, cried and laughed, and hoped and despaired that night. And that night, he had come to a decision.
At dawn, he left the Aoiya.
You who never arrived
In my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start…
Shinomori Aoshi, the former Okashira of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, returned to the Aoiya four months later.
When he arrived, he was presented with the temporary title of leadership once more.
For shortly after he had gone, four months before, Makimachi Misao, the present Okashira of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, had herself left the Aoiya.
Fin – Prologue.