Please refer to the Prologue for the STANDARD DISCLAIMER.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

Ohayo, minna-san. Thanks to those who reviewed this fic. You don't know how much they meant to me. Anyway, gomen if the concept of Tomo and Soi together makes you barf. There was a time in the past that it made me, too. That is, until I read Gerald Terrant-sempai's fic, the Crossroads, which made me realize how much their personalities complement one another. On the other hand, I know that you won't puke much over this. After all, romance isn't one of its primary genres… That may come in the end, though, but along the way, it'd be pure angst and drama, with the usual bickering and rivalry that these two are known for. Oh, and to a certain reviewer who said (s)he thought these two were perfect for each other, I'm glad you think so. This would give you more reason to read my fic, ne? .:puppy dog eyes:.

Gomen for the delay as well. Our phone line has been under repair for months now so I just have to endure the hassle of accessing the internet though a nearby webstation. .:pouts:. But, the good news is, it'd be finished by the end of this month so…

Gomen for the delay as well. Our phone line has been under repair for months now so I just have to endure the hassle of accessing the internet though a nearby webstation. .:pouts:. But, the good news is, it'd be finished by the end of this month so…

Oh well, on with the first chapter…

BITTERSWEET MEMORY

By: Ryuuen

Chapter One

            Dawn. It may have been too cold and too dark yet for it to be considered morning but the neighborhood roosters weren't to be fooled. There was something in the air that said so. Moments later, the sun would have begun to peek out from the horizon overlooking the capital but it didn't yet at the particular moment that the subjects of our story began their day. Not just yet. It wasn't quiet, though, as it should have been during the early hours of the morning, especially in such a war-ridden country as Kutou, aside from the synchronized crowing of those fouls. Down below the tall boughs of trees in a clearing, a group of Chinese actors began to prepare for their journey.

"Wake up!"

            A scantily clad, eleven-year-old boy with shoulder-length raven black hair tossed in his makeshift bed, curling up into a tight ball, totally ignoring the voice coming from outside the tent.

            "Chuin, wake up!" It was the annoying voice again.

Chuin frowned. It was hardly morning. What in the world would they want?

            "Damn it, Chuin! I know you heard me. Get the fuck up before the master decides that his whip needs some more exercise. My wounds still hurt from the last time." The voice that once originated from the outside now came from a tall blond-haired lad, a year older, holding one of the tent flaps open.

            Unwillingly, Chuin stood up, remembering to scowl at the person who so rudely disrupted his sleep. Grumbling, he got to his feet and quickly got dressed, securing his hair in a low ponytail at his nape. 

            The blond boy noticed that familiar look on his companion's face. "Yeah, yeah, I know you're not a morning person. You don't have to actually prove it everyday."

            "Shut up, Aono," Chuin replied mirthlessly. He really didn't understand why that blond bothered hanging around him so much. It was known and well known that he wasn't one for a conversation.

            "Hai, hai," retorted Aono, unperturbed. "As you wish, your Royal Grumpiness. Demo, are you ready?"

            Chuin nodded and sighed in defeat. He really didn't understand that blond, period.

            "So?" began the dark-haired eleven-year-old, waiting for the other to reply.

            "So…"

            "So?"

            "So…"

            "So what?" Chuin burst our, pissed.

            Aono laughed in reply. "Nothing. The master just wants to start early. We're only five hours till the next town, you know."

            Chuin nodded. "I see." No wonder Aono is such a good mood, he thought.

            "Well, then, we'd better fix up our stuff," his companion replied, softly whistling as he gathered his, as well some of Chuin's, belongings and unceremoniously dumped them into each of their respective packs.

            Yes, even more cheerful than usual, he confirmed. And too well did he know the reason. Every town they reached seemed like heaven for people such as themselves, not to be exaggerating. Every performance was some sort of holiday, every costume they prepared for their masters, some sort of safety blanket. Sure, it was hectic, with all the preparations and such but they weren't complaining. Their masters were as tired as they were at the end of the day and that was a blessing in disguise. They didn't require "the usual" from the younger members of their troupe and if they ever needed "satisfying" of their "urges," there was always the town brothel for that. Chuin frowned even more at the thought as he absently picked up some garments and tossed them into his pack as he watched Aono do the same. He didn't know when and how it started for the twelve-year-old but he seemed to be pretty used to it by now. Just like him. It had been two full years since his guardian had died and two full years since that fateful incident that had changed his life forever. He couldn't help but shudder at the memory.

            Aono noticed the faraway look in his eyes and playfully waved his hand in front of his companion's face. "Hey, in there. It's too early to be daydreaming."

Chuin snorted. "It is too early to actually be awake."

            Aono chuckled. "You're never really awake."

            The younger boy raised an elegant brow though he had to admit that the blond was right. He never was really awake. There were times when his body was in one place but his mind was somewhere else. He couldn't help it. His experiences taught him to develop a conscious detachment from reality and an affinity for illusions and daydreams. It came in handy during all those nights of cold passion when he would lie on his bed, staring unseeingly at the roof of the tent, as one of his elders did with him as he pleased. Then, he would pretend that it wasn't happening, that he didn't feel the pain of each touch and the ache of his lithe form crushed beneath a much bulkier one. He would pretend that it was all a bad dream and that once he wakes up, he'd find himself safe in his bed, in a home he never knew with parents he never missed and a brother or a sister he never even dreamed of. And when it wouldn't work, he would amuse himself with thoughts of how he would get revenge over his assailants, which would range from harmless pranks to the most gruesome form of death. The others thought him queer, always wrapped up in a world of his own, but he didn't care. His illusions were the only thing that kept him alive. 

            Having packed the last of his meager belongings, he stepped outside and joined Aono as the two of them dismantled their tent in relative silence. Having done that, Aono carefully packed it away.

            "Hey, you two! Over here!"

            The two looked up to see a dark-haired boy waving at them. "Yukaze!" Aono waved back and started towards his direction. Chuin frowned but followed as well.

            "Ohayo, Aono, Chuin. Did you sleep well?"

            Chuin glared at him. Is this guy being a jerk or is he just plain stupid?

            Aono noticed his friend's gaze and sweatdropped. "Err, hai, Yukaze-kun. Very much."

            Chuin glared even more, but this time, it was directed at his "friend". Hn, bakayarou…

            Aono sweatdropped. "Anou, don't mind Chuin, Yukaze-kun. He just had one of his old nightmares last night, that's all."

            The older boy looked concerned. "Nightmares, eh? I heard somewhere that nightmares go away more easily when you talk to other people about them."

            Chuin glared and frowned.

            The older boy didn't seem to notice. "Oh well, I guess I'd better go help the others pack up. See ya around. Ja!"  And with that he left.

            "Baka know-it-all…" Chuin muttered under his breath. He never did like the seventeen-year-old jing performer. Yukaze was one of the best actors in their troupe considering his age, there was no doubt about it, but did he really have to flaunt it in front of everyone? He was drawn back to reality by a playful slap at the back.

            "Who… What…"

            Aono laughed. "Relax, Chuin. It's just me. For a minute there, I thought you were going to rip his head off…"

            His companion glared once again.

            Aono sighed. "You really hate him, don't you?"

            Chuin looked away.

            "Why?"

            "Why what?"

            "Why do you hate him?"

            Chuin's eyes softened for a moment before returning to their icy exterior. "He doesn't deserve what he has," was his curt response.

            Aono wisely said nothing. He knew what his friend meant by that. They walked on in silence, quickening their pace to catch up with the rest of the troupe that was merely a speck in the distance. Behind them, the sun began to rise.

* * *

            "Kaen!!!"

            A young girl, aged nine, turned over in her sleep and frowned unconsciously. Did she just hear someone call her name?

            "Kaen, you good for nothing girl, where the hell are you?"

            There it was again, the cold, angry voice. Could that be her mother? She blinked a couple of times before her vision finally focused in spite of the darkness. Sitting up, she shook her head. No. She never heard okaasan speak so harshly to anyone, let alone her. It couldn't have been her.

            "Kaen, for the last time…"

            The door to her bedroom, or what passed as one, burst open to reveal the enraged face of a middle-aged woman scandalously dressed in what seemed like a garment two sizes small for her and adorned with accessories that made it hard to tell where she left off and where they began.

            "Mmm…Mistress…" the little girl stuttered, moving back against the wall in fear. She was going to get a beating once again. She was.

            "Who were you expecting? The tooth fairy?" her mistress snapped. "It's good that you're awake. I have work for you to do at the kitchen so get off you filthy butt and make yourself presentable. The Opera Troupe will be arriving any minute now. Sheesh, if your mother and I weren't such good friends…" And with that, she left.

            Kaen blinked back the tears that began to form in her eyes at the mere thought of getting whipped so early in the morning. The Opera Troupe? She let out a small smile. She had remembered going to see one of them perform in her hometown when she was younger. Her mother had been given free tickets by one of their neighbors so they all went, she and her oneesan and two younger brothers. Of course, all of them got a beating from her otousan when they got home, even okaasan, but it was worth it just to see the many pretty colored costumes and fireworks and to watch the actors sing and dance and perform. She had always looked back to that day ever since, the only single ray of light in her bleak childhood. She wondered how it felt to be up there, in front of a seemingly never-ending crowd, trying your best to entertain them, how it felt to receive a thunderous applause from the audience at the end of every performance, how it was to have eyes look admiringly up at you and lips whisper words of praise, how… She shook her head, snapping herself our of her daydream. It wouldn't do to think of such things right now. Pulling on robes that were a little bit too big for her, having been merely handed down to her by the youngest "employee" at the brothel, she berated herself for having her mind wander off like that, hoping that she didn't take too long for her mistress to change her mind about her beating. Besides, she added mentally. It's not like I'd even get to see them perform this time.

            A faint knock on her door drew her back to reality as a girl around eleven came in. "Kaen-chan, are you alright?"

            Kaen finished pulling her wine-tinted tresses into a neat bun before answering. "Hai, Megumi-chan. The mistress seems to be in a rather good mood today. Is there anything that you wish for me to do?"

            The older girl came up to her and began smoothing her robes into place. "Nothing, Kaen-chan. I came in here just to see you." She smiled. "These robes fit you well, Kaen-chan."

            The younger girl managed a smile. "Arigato. Michiko-sama gave them to me."

            Outside, there seemed to be a commotion.

            "Megumi-chan, what's that?"

"Oh, that must be the Opera Troupe," she answered distractedly. "Come on. The mistress must need us now."

            Kaen nodded, glancing at the boarded up window of her room. The Opera Troupe… If only…Sighing, she followed Megumi outside.

* * *

            "Chuin…"

            "…"

            "Oi, Chuin… I know you can hear me. You just can't keep ignoring me the whole day."

            The boy referred to sighed and stopped to face his companion unwillingly. "Hai, Yukaze-san. I can hear you." Though I wouldn't mind you leaving me alone for a while. Aono had gone off to jest with the other boys when he saw that Chuin was in another one of his moods and had done just that.

            The elder boy smirked. "Well, now. Why weren't you answering me?"

            You are not worth any of my time, Chuin interjected mentally, though out loud he answered meekly, "Gomen nasai. I wasn't really paying attention."

            Yukaze laughed, a laugh that came out mocking for the eleven year old standing before him. "You never really are paying attention. No wonder Tensai-sama and the others love picking on you all the time."

            You do not know anything about me, Chuin seethed though he chose to keep silent.

            Oblivious to the younger boy's thoughts, Yukaze continued. "It makes me wonder, though, what the old leader saw in you that made him decide to make you his protégé. Must have been a nut, that man."

            Chuin was glaring daggers at him by then and formulating in his mind the worse possible form of death for someone who dared insult the only man who became the father he never really had. If only he could…

            "Anyway, enough of that, eh, Chuin?"

            The boy glared even more and answered. "Hai. Was this what you wished to speak to me about?"

            Yukaze grinned sheepishly. "Err, no, actually. I was just wondering if you minded working as my personal helper by the time we reach the town, you know, do my chores and run errands for me and stuff. Don't worry. I told Tensai-sama about it."

            That's not what I'm worried about. Yukaze never asked the same "favors" his other masters demanded of him but Chuin didn't like him in the least bit. Why? He would probably have been too proud to admit it but he envied Yukaze for what he had and what he didn't have, things, in his mind, he knew he should have attained. Nevertheless…

            "Hai, Yukaze-san. I understand. Is there anything you wish for me to do today?"

            "Well, this may be a bit embarrassing but…" He brought out a small package with a scroll attached to it and handed it to Chuin. "By the time we reach the town, please bring this to the brothel and ask for a certain Kohaku and give this to her. Tell her I and Tensai-sama shall be waiting in my tent the night before we leave so she'd better make that two." He winked. "Oh, and here," he tossed Chuin another package. "Buy yourself whatever you want while you're out. As long as you keep this in secret from the others…" he trailed off.

            Chuin raised an elegant brow. The town brothel? He looked at the other package which he surmised to be a moneybag. Nonetheless he nodded.

            Yukaze beamed. "Well, I'd better go catch up with the others. Ja!" And with that, the seventeen year-old jing performer jogged off after his comrades.

            Chuin shrugged and pocketed the packages. May as well use it as an excuse to tour the town… Come to think of it, he never had really gotten anything for himself in a long time. Shrugging once again, he began to walk towards Aono and the others, taking his time, not really minding being as far away from the rest of the troupe as he then was. In the horizon, the silhouettes of their destination loomed

* * *

            "A sack of potatoes, a bunch of celery, a gallon of clams…"

            Kaen looked from the list in her hand to the moneybag that hung securely around her petite waist. She had been assigned market duty for that day and, though she rather enjoyed the prospect of going around town and being able to at least catch a glimpse of the much talked about Opera Troupe, she didn't appreciate the extra load she would have to carry back, not to mention it being unusually crowded. She heaved a sigh at the sight of the final stall that she had to go to. Upon reaching it, she handed the list to the peddler, a middle-aged matronly woman who, from what she gathered, was a spinster. The woman smiled amiably at her as she took the list from the child's hands.

            "Oh, good morning, dear. On market duty again, I see…"

            "Hai, Haneshi-sama," Kaen answered politely.

Haneshi beamed even more as she scooped a cupful of beans and placed them in a sack, which she handed to the girl. "Well, now. Are you and the others going to see the Opera troupe?"

Kaen reached out to take the proffered package and placed it in her basket. "Iie, Haneshi-sama. Only the older ones and Megumi-chan shall go. They said I was too young for that kind of thing."

Haneshi remained silent and shook her head instead. She knew how the girl came to work at the brothel and she truly pitied her and cursed the girl's mother at the thought. Sighing, she handed Kaen the last of the goods on the list. "Well, here you go now, Kaen-chan. Be careful not to spill your milk this time. We don't want to give that awful Mistress of yours a reason to whip you, don't we?"

Kaen shuddered at the thought but replied politely. "Hai, Haneshi-sama. Demo, I do wish I could get to see the Opera Troupe perform…"

"As all of us but not all of us get what we want, do we? Now run along. There are more people than usual now so it's best to go home directly. You may use the alley ways if you don't mind, but do be careful."

"Hai, Haneshi-sama. Arigatou gozaimasu." She bowed and then left.

* * *

            Chuin pushed against the crowd as he made his way from their caravan, which, at the moment, was swamped by an eager mob. The sun was already high up in the sky when they reached the town, a small village south of the capital, and, as was the norm, they were met with much enthusiasm by the townsfolk. The main actors, most likely used to such attention, gloried in the people's praises. The lesser actors watched in envy, waving meekly to the crowd. The backstage boys took a great deal of interest in many a queer fellow who passed such as that fat lady whose feet seemed too small for her body or that drunken man who managed to trip over his feet once too often. Chuin, however, wasn't in the least amused. He didn't like being around people, let alone a crowd. Nodding squarely at Yukaze, he took this opportunity to slip away to do his errand.

            Taking a quick turn at one of the alleyways, he made his way through the market place in search of any sign of the brothel. He didn't exactly like the idea of asking around, remembering the queer stares he got the last time he was sent out on a similar chore. It was a clear, sunny day and Chuin slowed his pace to a walk. There was no need for him to hurry after all. Might as well take a stroll. He neared the end of the alley when he suddenly heard a scream.

            "Help!"

            "Shut up, bitch and give us your money!"

            "No, I won't! The Mistress will…"

            "Screw that whore… Are you going to give us your money willingly or do I have to do it the hard way?"

            "IIE! Onegai!"

            Chuin may have been known as Yuuki no Kokoro among his peers but it didn't mean he was heartless so as not to help someone who so obviously needed his help. Picking up his pace once again, he followed the voices into a dead end where he found a young girl, around nine, with red hair and clasping a basket next to her, cowered against a corner, three boys about four years older towering over her. Evidently she had been the source of the plea.

            "I said…"

            "Don't you think it's quite shameful for big kids such as you picking on a younger one, let alone a girl?"

* * *

            Phew! I'm finally done. Gomen for the cliffhanger ending. That was quite stressful, though. After all, it isn't everyday that I get to write about Tomo and Soi as kids. Anyway, if they sound too mature for their age, it is because they should. After all the things they've been through, one couldn't expect them to be normal kids, ne? By the way, gomen if this is going to take long. I'm really busy with school nowadays so I hardly find time to do stuff I enjoy doing. Oh, and please don't forget to write me a nice little review. It'd really help speed things up a bit. Until the next chapter! Ja! 

            (((^_^)))