Standard disclaimers apply. Hope you enjoy.
Sound of Snow Falling
by Sigel Phoenix
The first time she tried to seduce him, it was in the bath.
The second time, it was in the garden. The cliched scenario of passion in the steamy water had failed, so she tried a different tack and went for nature's ambience. She did, of course, make judicious use of the old standard of the bedroom, as well. And whenever else the opportunity arose. Levels of success were mixed on all counts.
Aoshi found it just a touch odd that his wife would be putting so much energy into these attempts, and he shared his thoughts with her one afternoon after she'd pounced on him in an empty hallway. But Misao had declared, with the blithe cheerfulness that was her typical nature, that it was important to keep the spice in a marriage, and that she was merely doing her part for theirs. Never mind the fact that they had been married for barely two years, and such concerns were conventionally rather further along in a relationship.
He had decided to indulge her. Inwardly, he was pleased; her energy had seemed to return to normal along with the reinvigorating warmth of spring. If she was feeling up to these exertions, she must have felt restored physically. She had resumed training, as well, and was almost at her previous level.
The weather seemed to help. The clear skies of spring that bloomed into the piercingly bright blue of summer helped burn away even the most acute pain, and Misao was no exception. It seemed, to Aoshi's relief, that she was beginning to heal.
The Aoiya virtually hummed with the energy of its inhabitants and workers, who were trying valiantly to handle the increased numbers of the holiday crowd. Voices calling out requests for help or giving out commands provided a constant low buzz in the background, while the clink of dishes worked in high-pitched counterpoint.
Aoshi and the other men had been relegated to transport duty, carrying anything from tempura and rice flour to soy sauce or sake from the storage rooms. Most of the women were confined to the kitchen in what could be described as marathon cooking. Those of either gender who could not find room or use for themselves were taking orders and bussing tables.
Emerging from the relative quiet of the back rooms and into the noisy bustle and inviting aromas of the kitchen, Aoshi searched the busy crowd for the petite form of his wife. She appeared beside him and took the bags of rice he carried with hurried thanks.
"How are you doing?" he asked quietly, and she glanced up from washing the rice to give him a bright smile.
"Going crazy, but other than that I'm fine," she replied, watching as he nodded and turned to leave. "Anou -- wait!" He paused. "Can you go to the rooms we reserved and take out the futon? Kaoru-san's train should be arriving later this afternoon, and I don't want to forget." The Himura family and their friends were visiting to celebrate the New Year in Kyoto. The Aoiya was that much busier preparing for their arrival, but considered the extra work worth it to spend the holiday with friends they hadn't seen in over a year.
Before he left, Misao tugged on his sleeve and he bent to grant her a quick kiss. She watched him go and suppressed a sigh, vague annoyance scraping at her nerves. It was always like this, lately. She couldn't really complain that he was doing anything wrong; anytime she asked for affection, she received it. But, she thought petulantly, she shouldn't have to ask for it! Somehow it had been different, before; he came to her, and she would find without having to seek. There were little things, like the taking of a hand underneath the table, or a quiet moment alone ... it was like he was simply there more.
A frown crossed her face, and she turned away from the rice to look out the window. Snow had begun to fall, a supplement to the light dusting already on the ground from that morning. Sadness stabbed through her, and Misao tried to ignore it.
Delicate and guarded, she was like a piece of valuable china, at first. Handled with the utmost care, she knew she lacked nothing, and her husband had been by her side nearly every moment. He was acting in regard to her physical condition -- they all were -- and yet she couldn't help thinking of herself as that fragile porcelain, given respect and consideration as due to a cup in the tea ceremony, but always cradled gently and never truly held.
Frustrated, she tried to prove to them all that she was fine, but they remained maddeningly skeptical. She wheedled, she begged, she whined and she snapped, but it was not until everyone else said so that she was finally considered well again. Everyone seemed inordinately pleased, as if it were something they had achieved and which Misao herself had not been insisting all along. She pouted for days.
Her first mission following her proclaimed recovery had been returning her husband to normal. She had relied on him most of all to help her through the days, and then the weeks and months; she knew he needed time, and he had his own healing to do, but it was partly for that reason that she turned her attention solely to him. She was singularly determined to prove that she was fully restored, in all areas, and set to work encouraging her husband to move from comforting her to simply loving her once more.
But the onset of summer brought with it a certain malaise that she could not shake off. At first, Misao tried to attribute it to the enervating heat, a temporary summer lethargy that they would both overcome. Yet she couldn't help but feel the phantom pain that echoed in his touch, and knew something from the winter had lingered. Resolve doubled, she attempted to pour her energy into Aoshi, almost as if she were pursuing him in the same manner as she had before their marriage.
Eventually, she urged him to go on the business trip he had delayed since winter, thinking that the resumption of duties would be good for him. He was noticeably reluctant to leave her, but could find no real argument to the contrary. And so she watched his departure, firmly convinced that his return would find things better than they had been all year. And they were, for a time.
Bundled and layered and thoroughly fortified against the cold, Misao left the Aoiya a few hours later to make the trek to the train station. Her various wrappings did well to keep her warm -- a little too well, it seemed, as heat was trapped in pockets against her body and sweat produced in unpleasant places as she walked. But she didn't remove a single glove, grateful for the protection against the snow.
The actual amount of snow still falling from the sky was admittedly very little. It was because of the relatively favorable weather that Aoshi let her go to meet the Himuras alone while he stayed behind to pick up the slack at the restaurant.
It was good that he did. Really. But Misao couldn't help feeling a little resentful that he left her to face the snow on her own.
The path took her past the temple, the place where her husband had retreated to following one of the darkest periods of his life, and where he still went to meditate every morning. Misao could still see where the damage to the stairs had been repaired, covered as they were with glistening mounds of white still unmarred by human tread. Memory threatened to rise up with the force of an avalanche.
She shivered. Crossing her arms tightly over her abdomen, Misao hurried on.
She arrived as the train was lumbering noisily to a stop, and broke into a jog, then a run, as she saw her friends emerge. The air in front of her puffed whiter than the steam from the train as she pulled down her scarf and called, "Kaoru-san!"
Himura Kaoru, out of practice in the reception of Misao's special brand of hug but long familiar with its effects, quickly handed her son off to his father and bravely met suffocation head-on. Somehow, she sacrificed her remaining reserve of air to squeak out a "How are you, Misao-chan?"
The young woman, still small and bouncy and nearly indistinguishable from the girl they'd met years ago, gave her a bright grin. Grabbing one of their suitcases and swinging it over her shoulder, she turned to Kenshin. "Great to see you, Himura. Why don't you introduce me to this handsome little guy?"
Kenshin carefully shifted Kenji, making him face forward, and introduced him. The boy, still very much in chubby infancy, regarded Misao quietly, most of him hidden underneath protective clothing, except for a thick fuzz of red hair sticking out from under his hat.
"Hi, Kenji. I'm your Aunt Misao." She wiggled the fingers of her free hand at him. He blinked, not making a sound, and Misao shrugged her shoulders in theatrical defeat. "Well, at least you'll talk to me, right, Sanosuke? ... Sanosuke?"
The tall and lanky form of the ex-gangster remained motionless, the eyes unblinking and failing to register when Misao waved her hand in front of his face. She nudged Megumi. "Er ... Sagara-san?"
"I'm not sure I want you calling me that and advertising my connection to this chicken head," she replied, rolling her eyes. "He'll need to be on non-moving ground for a while before he recovers."
"Right ..." Misao spun on her heel. "So, I guess we should hurry back and get you out of the cold." The party shouldered their bags and followed Misao off the train platform, Kaoru beside her at the front. "So where's Yahiko?"
"Well," the older woman said with overly wide, innocent eyes and an undisguised little smirk, "we're such a big group, he didn't want to overburden you guys and decided to stay behind ... So he said."
"Tsubame." Waiting a while until the others fell into their own conversation -- that is, Kenshin and Megumi spoke, while the former held his silent son and the latter her husband's hand -- she asked quietly, "So how are you really doing, Misao-chan?"
At her direct words, a frown crossed her friend's delicate features, and she stared downward at the snow shifting and crunching beneath her shoes. "I'm all right, I guess ... I'm fine, really. It's just Aoshi. I think he's still --"
"Still?" Kaoru murmured when Misao broke off, a little cloud of steam rising from her lips.
"I'm not sure," she replied helplessly, turning to look up into Kaoru's eyes. "We used to understand each other so easily before, without having to say anything. And now it's like he simply doesn't get it -- or maybe I'm the one who doesn't. But ... he feels ..." Clear blue eyes that matched the sky slid away, and she bit her lip. "... Distant." She paused, and something behind them managed to elicit a squeakingly happy response from Kenji. Her expression changed, and for a time she seemed focused elsewhere, on a future already closed to her. Kaoru waited quietly, anxious to help but unwilling to push.
Suddenly the ninja's small form straightened, and Kaoru half-expected an audible snap as Cheerful Misao clicked back into place. "It's not a big deal. Everyone's got some problems, right? Anyway, tell me about things back home. How is the dojo doing?"
"Well, it's getting tough to keep up with repair bills. The students aren't coming as fast as I'd like ..."
From one awkward subject to the next. Misao grimaced, but Kaoru wasn't bothered. "You were right," she shrugged, resolutely optimistic. "If it's not one thing, it's another. But you know, Misao-chan, you should talk to Aoshi-san about all this. I don't have much more experience in marriage than you, but I think it would help. Find out if something is bothering him. And make certain that you're okay, too." She squeezed the younger woman's shoulder in a motherly manner; Misao looked up at her and nodded slowly.
They had reached the Aoiya by then, and Misao led the little group around the side of the building so as to avoid the crush of restaurant patrons. Aoshi appeared as they hurried themselves inside, rubbing warmth back into pink-tinged cheeks and admiring the expansions added onto the restaurant since their last visit. Typically subdued and laconic as he greeted the visitors and helped take their bags, he seemed unaware of the frustrated tangle of emotions he stirred in his wife.
What did she really expect, an open display of affection in front of their friends? He had never done that, not even before. Or had he? She wasn't sure -- wasn't sure, really, of what she was even mad about. It's not like she'd been on some week-long journey, she scolded herself. But having her husband's presence evoke such confusion was a strange and troubling concept on its own.
Clamping down on those thoughts, Misao concentrated on helping settle the Himura family in their room, and Sanosuke and Megumi into theirs. By that time, Sanosuke had recovered from the trip, and she listened as his wife cheerfully patted his hand, assuring him that no one had noticed his earlier condition.
Left alone in the bedroom, Misao began to peel off the extra clothing from her foray into the winter wilderness. She took the opportunity to compose herself as well, making sure she wouldn't be wandering off into anymore weird and depressing thoughts while catching up with her friends. As she paused for a deep, cleansing breath, inhaling the warm and familiar air of their room, she caught a pungent aroma, reminiscent of camphor. Her gaze automatically moved to the windowsill, and the small potted plant set upon it.
Aoshi had brought it for her that summer, from his trip. Diminutive but strongly fragrant, its best quality, Misao had decided, was the deep blue of its blooms. She thought they were the color of Aoshi's eyes.
Gently, she touched one of the slender leaves. Rosemary, he had said it was called. For remembrance.
What Misao had not told Kaoru, and what she could hardly tell to herself, was that she was afraid. Long cocooned in the contentment of mutual love and joyful marriage, she was shocked to find herself discontented, and her relationship with Aoshi sliding from her grasp ever-so-quickly since the summer. She had known sorrow in her life, had been prepared for it; and now had experienced it in devastating form. But this other feeling was an unexpected and unwelcome intruder.
She had felt estrangement from him before, caused by eight years of separation and a lifetime's worth of different experiences. Yet she had overcome that distance through sheer love and determination, succeeding with action alone. Now faced with an inexplicable, unidentifiable obstacle, she needed more than that; she needed words to help her understand.
Common grief should have brought them together; Misao couldn't see why they seemed to be passing blindly by one another.
But following her recovery, and his return in the summer, she'd thought everything was back to normal, or at least as much as it was possible for them to achieve. Then she sensed a withdrawal from him, to where or for what reason she couldn't fathom. She felt at times confused, or irritated, or even disappointed; and she hated feeling anything but happiness around the man she loved.
The delicate bite of autumn chill began to deepen into the harshness of winter ice, and with the first snowfall, Misao found herself as lonely in her futon as if none other shared it. She hadn't told this to anyone else, not Okon or Omasu, and not Kaoru ... if Megumi knew, she'd likely say something clinical and scandalously blunt about the lack of bedroom activity being the source of Misao's frustrations. She might have welcomed the diagnosis as some form of answer, comprehensible and classifiable, to focus on. It was always easier to address the individual issues, anyway. Unconsciously, Misao balked at the prospect of a thorough examination of the state of their relationship. She avoided opening her eyes wide enough to see it all at once and risk being overwhelmed by the magnitude. She didn't want to admit the depth of her worries, the natural result of looking at them full on.
Such analysis would lead to description, and perhaps allow discussion. For its simplicity, Kaoru's advice was very reasonable and potentially effective ... It was ironic that Misao, who rarely hesitated to say anything either significant or not, feared words now. Maybe she doubted her ability to find the right ones. Maybe it was the response that such dialogue naturally instigated; or maybe it was the sheer reality that speaking brought. She feared, all the same.
Her husband had always been the one who avoided words. How would he deal with this, she wondered. How aware was he, or was he simply waiting for her to say something? She couldn't read him like she used to. As much as she had discovered about love these past years, she had so little knowledge, so little experience, and none like this. She didn't know if this was an irrevocable change, and if there was nothing she could do. And so Shinomori Misao was scared.
The delicious jolt of just-barely-cooled-enough tea ran from her tongue and down her throat, and Misao set her cup on the table contentedly. Cradling it between her hands, she watched as Kaoru, seated across from her, bounced her son in her lap. From the moment he was carried off the train, Kenji had remained wrapped in the quiet observance with which he had received his first glimpse of Kyoto, and Misao could see now that laughter and joyful garbling were things reserved almost exclusively for his mother.
He must be about six months old by now, she figured. The Himuras had sent them a letter sharing the news of the pregnancy, in late winter. The news reached the Aoiya just as Misao's own letter had arrived in Tokyo.
They had wanted to visit Misao, but Kaoru's pregnancy prevented travel; she sent letters expressing condolences, as well as heartfelt, though futile, desire to be there for her friend. Later, after the birth, the newborn Kenji would be the determining factor of their schedule. So it was not until now that the Himuras and Sagaras could visit, and now they were here as friends rather than fellow mourners. Or so Misao had wanted them to be.
It happened later, when Kenji fell asleep in his mother's arms. Okon and Omasu, utterly enamored, cooed over the child's angelic expression in slumber. Sanosuke made some teasing remark concerning his resemblance to his father, while Megumi only smiled, holding her husband's hand. The little family, Kaoru beside Kenshin and their son laying against her breast, presented an image so natural, so small, safe in the fulfillment of hope. Misao swallowed, suddenly feeling as tumbling and out of control as a falling snowflake.
She placed one hand flat against the table, first. Then, once she felt secure in that movement, she rose to her feet and picked up the teapot. She did not look at Aoshi, so that they wouldn't suspect anything, or maybe so that he wouldn't suspect anything, and announced in a surprisingly normal voice that she would get more tea.
Her legs still worked, and they carried her to the kitchen, even though she felt as if someone were pressing her heart between their hands, very slowly and very hard.
She remembered being surprised that her hands still worked when they slowly gripped the sheets, because it felt so strange to be able to touch, as if she were still alive ...
Determined, calling upon the strength that had gotten here through that first devastating minute, and then through the year up to this very evening, she set herself to completing her task. But her vision was so badly blurring she could no longer see the teapot, and by then her hands were shaking so much it didn't even matter where she aimed. Hot water spilled everywhere as she finally put everything down. She placed her hand against her mouth, trying to cover the noise, but somehow it hurt as much not to sob as it did not to breathe, so she let out the low, choking moan. Feeling the tears running down her neck, Misao wrapped her arms around her shaking body, because she was alone and did not have a child or a husband to hold.
The arms came around her, then; not the ones that held her when she woke up that time, but slender ones, wiry in their strength.
"I'm so sorry," Kaoru's voice whispered from above her head. "I'm so sorry, Misao-chan." She cradled Misao's head against her chest, similar to the way she had held Kenji earlier. "We shouldn't have come. It was too soon, I didn't know it would be so bad for you to see Kenji-chan --"
Misao shook her head against Kaoru's kimono, hiccupping as she tried to control the sobs. The pressure in her chest no longer felt like it would crush her, and it seemed like she could attempt to talk. "No -- no," she gasped, raising her head as Kaoru said "I'm sorry" over and over. "I'm not ... angry. Just ... sad," she managed between hiccups. "I would be sad an-anyway. This way I c-can be hap-py for you."
She tried to smile, but her mouth kept twisting downward; Kaoru smiled back anyway, sympathetic tears shining in her eyes. Glancing up, she nodded slightly. Misao turned her head to see Aoshi waiting silently in the doorway.
He entered the room at Kaoru's nod, and she waited as he approached them, but did not hold out for him to touch Misao before she released the younger woman. With one last gentle smile, she left the two standing alone in the kitchen, close enough to make contact, hindered by nothing but themselves.
He hesitated, not wanting to say or do anything that would make things worse, and that hesitation hurt her. She stood, watching him, still crying but silently now. Finally, he said quietly, "Would you like to go back to our room?"
Shaking her head, vigorously wiping away tears with the back of her hand, Misao asked, "Why are you always running away?"
His eyes widened slightly. He had been expecting sorrow, not this confused, earnest, almost curious inquiry. "I am not suggesting that you avoid seeing Himura's son altogether --" he began.
"Not that. Not me. You. Why are you running away from me?" She stared at him, cerulean eyes challenging, imploring. She always seemed to him to give the impression of both authority and vulnerability during confrontation: demanding, but also begging, because she dedicated so much of herself to the pursuit of the object that she couldn't live without it.
"Why do you think I'm running away from you?" he asked, voice carefully neutral to mask the hurt and anger her own question caused him.
She gripped her hands together. They were slippery, wet with tears and spilled tea. She opened her mouth, paused, but her lip, then finally spoke. "Lately, it sometimes feels like you're far away, as if you aren't really seeing me or touching me. And sometimes you just feel ... cold."
"I'm sorry. Sometimes I am too consumed in grief, I can't think enough of how I'm acting." An inadequate answer, for both of them.
"You should be able to come to me when you feel like that!"
There was true sympathy in that, but hurt and confusion had lurked in the background and mixed in with the words. They became accusatory in Aoshi's ears, his own feelings of inadequacy, sorrow, and pain doing their own part to warp the meaning and his own response. He countered, voice low and calm and hurtful to Misao's ears, "It hardly seemed appropriate to do so when you were so quick to recover on your own."
She froze, shocked, nearly as appalled at his words as he was. "You say that as if it were bad that I got better," she snapped, losing her temper to make up for the wound of what Aoshi said. "What, do you think I shouldn't have? Are you angry that I recovered so fast?"
"Yes," he answered sharply, to cut off Misao's questions, and to interrupt the downward spiral of their argument. But guilt immediately raked at him at the terrible hurt that registered on her face, and he automatically laid a hand against her cheek, his earlier hesitance over touching her gone.
"Not at you," he murmured, closing his eyes. "I could not be angry that you healed. I thank the gods that I still have you. I'm angry ..." He paused, and sighed. "I am angry that your strength, no matter how great it was, could not save our baby. I am angry that we did everything right, and it didn't matter. I am angry," he whispered, voice harsh with grief, "that we could not do anything to keep our child from dying."
Misao opened her mouth to say something and found her throat too tight to speak. She covered the hand held to her face with her own, running her fingers up and down his wrist, starved for touch, for connection.
"I believed we had both overcome this," he said softly. "I was wrong."
"I want to know," she told him when she could force the words out. "All of it." She looked up at him, biting her lip again. "Aoshi, I don't want to be alone."
Saying the words had sent a tremor of nervousness through her, but whatever it was that she had been afraid of was forgotten before the naked vulnerability of her husband's expression. "I don't know," he said honestly. "What to do, how to help you. I have never known anything I could not achieve, any weakness I could not conquer, by learning on my own. In this, I need your help." He looked her fully in the eyes. "I still may not be able to do what you want."
"It doesn't matter." She stepped closer to him, until their bodies were just barely not touching. "You don't have to know everything ... I only want you back. How you were before ... You used to laugh, sometimes." Smiling a little, she said, "I just want us to be normal again."
"We can't. There is no 'normal' anymore, and you know that."
"Okay." Persistent, determined. Hopeful. "It'll always be different, I know. Just ... trust me, okay?"
Aoshi breathed in deeply, watching her. Watching her hope. Gently, he took the hand she held his with and pulled it toward him. Turning her palm upward, he pressed a kiss in the center, softly as the settling of a snowflake.
Misao could feel new, happy -- silly -- tears welling up as she remembered the first time he had answered her that way, as she had watched him with questioning eyes full of nervous, eager excitement. She knew, then, that he loved her; and now as he did it again she knew he would love with her, whatever happened.
He laid both hands on her shoulders and leaned down to kiss away the fresh moisture on her cheeks, the dried salty tracks beneath. "Yes," he answered her, his lips against her tears.
The next morning, Aoshi walked to the temple, through cold that had leeched the air of both warmth and noise, of confusion. Breath burned in his lungs, cleansing and renewing, and he felt lighter than he had in a year.
The wooden stairs were smooth and sturdy beneath his feet. The fall had done comparatively little damage to them; well-used and well-aged, they had been solid and unyielding against Misao's body, soft and round with pregnancy. Large discolored bruises had run down nearly the entire side of her body, including where her arm had been broken when she tried to cushion the impact against her stomach.
It had been chance, mostly. Chance that she would step on a patch of icy snow, half-melted the day before and then refrozen into a slick mass. Chance that her body, already over-sized and unbalanced from her pregnancy, was positioned in the wrong way for her to catch herself. Perhaps if she hadn't insisted on bringing him tea that day; perhaps if someone had gone with her; perhaps if he had simply stayed in that morning ...
He remembered being beside her when she woke up several hours later. The words had been terrible to say, but so was watching her face as she reached out blindly to recall what happened, only half comprehending what she was hearing. And then the meaning of what he was saying solidified into an awful clarity, and her unbearably small form had gone very still. Her face was blank with shock, hands tightening around the blanket laid over her; and then she moved to touch her abdomen, unable to believe that what had been there for only a few months, yet had felt like such a certain and permanent part of her, could then have left her when she was unaware.
Pain twisted her features, and he understood utterly that empty, gasping feeling of knowing that all that she had poured her love into was now emptiness. And that at that moment, the world felt frozen, because a life had ended, different from the lives they had lost before because they had created this one.
He remembered holding her, back then, love and sorrow entwined into emotion of painful intensity. And he remembered holding her last night, when sorrow had been muted into something bearable. How she had reminded him of how it used to be, with laughter and energy and love, and perhaps imperfectly synchronized but with perfect desire. And she lay in his arms afterward, both of them aware of blessings, and that pain was understood and lessened when brought together and shared.
Giggling and breathless, she sprawled against him, contenting herself with running strands of her hair up and down his arms and chest. "What would happen," she asked, relaxed, almost casual, "if we made a baby?"
He heard the other questions beneath that one. What would they do? How would they hope? Waiting until she looked up at him, he smiled and said quietly, like a prayer, "It would be different." An uncertainty, but also a promise.
A few days later, after the temple-visiting and celebrating and sake-drinking were mostly over, the two of them sat on the porch, watching their breath make fog and the sky begin to lighten into the first morning of the new year. The only protection Misao had from the chill was her husband and the blanket wrapped around them both. And neither of them could guard her from the continuous onward movement of time. But she found herself facing the prospect of the future with less fear, now -- there was still some worry at the unknown that lay ahead, but she was ready to meet both the worry and its cause head-on.
A cold wind threatened to loosen the blanket from where it was tucked around their bodies and, shivering, Misao pulled it back against them, glad of the warm cocoon formed by her husband's arms and legs. The wind eventually quieted to a breeze, softening into delicate fingers that pushed at the hair around her face.
As the sky birthed the first red flare of dawn, Aoshi asked softly, "Do you want to visit the grave today?" She could feel the vibrations in his chest against her head as he spoke. Taking one of his hands in hers, she nodded.
Silently she made a New Year's prayer, to whoever might be listening, for their family -- everyone they had lost, and whoever might join them in the future. Then, allowing her thoughts to go as silent as the rest of her surroundings, she leaned back against her husband and watched the snow falling before them, gentle like tears.