Author's Notes: A response to a below-1000 challenge. And yes, I'm still alive. 

Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all its characters belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki.

Things That Fall

And without warning, he was gone.

Misao felt his absence more keenly than she had anticipated, glancing over her shoulder at the slightest noise, even though she should have been accustomed to the sound of the falling leaves. It was the season that disappointed her, she convinced herself. The colors were not as bright as they used to be, like letters that faded with each reading. The wind blew with winter's name and none of the familiar coolness of breezes and anticipation. If the Aoiya felt stripped of sound, making a padded footstep resound like a two-day echo, then it was just the season.

Or at least, that was what she told herself.

"Your eyes cannot conceal your sorrow," Omasu told her softly, sliding something across the floor. "Maybe you should try a distraction, if that should help. It's been nearly a month."

Misao took the proffered tray. "I made him tea," she murmured, her voice a thousand oceans away.

"We know," the older girl replied. "Perhaps it's time you begin making it for someone else."

***

For all his vaunted power, it felt strange that he would succumb to disease in the end. It wasn't the glorious death he would have wanted as he wasted his days away. While he kept his sliding door firmly closed, it was not enough to hide the coughs that wracked his body. He refused to see anyone; he had his pride until the end.

They buried it with him, in the time of the chrysanthemum, after the first grains had been offered to the gods.

And while Misao had enough prayers for him, her tears could not come. So many times she had wanted to break through that closed door and offer him comfort, if not peace, but she respected him too much. Had she loved him more perhaps she could have done it, but it was too late for regrets now. In the quiet of her mornings she realized that it was that hint of self-loathing, of despair, that kept her tears in check even when everyone else told her to cry. It seemed to her she did not earn the right to cry when she could not help him, and that knowledge seeped into the cracks of the season, a dull angry crimson.

She thought of how he held her while she was growing up. She fisted her right hand and covered her mouth. This was how she slumbered.

***

The chashaku in Misao's hand trembled slightly as she carefully measured the tea, a little annoyed at Omasu's intrusion in her grief. Once they had kept their distance, knowing the special bond she had with him, but lately they kept poking about her, engaging her in gossip, asking the most trivial questions. It slighted her to be cared for like a child, as if they felt that they had to take up his place.

There was some shuffling to her left, and she turned. Her elbow nudged the kettle, spilling the hot water all over the mats, tipping the tea bowl. While her hands busied themselves with righting her mess, her mind realized that the noise was just some cat in the bushes. Even after a month, it was hard to accept that he was not coming back.

Then a hand descended on her shoulder, warm and comforting in an autumn that betrayed her.

Misao looked up into a pair of blue eyes that bore her no pity or judgment, and she thought it a kindness that she did not deserve. "I ruined the tea," she said, her voice breaking a bit.

"Then we start over," he replied.

Outside, the leaves fell with an inevitability. In Aoshi's arms, Misao felt her tears. "I miss Jiya so."

END