A/N. O-bon is the traditional four-day festival of the dead, held on the second week of July. An occasion for religious services, family reunions, and general merrymaking. ^.^;

Mune no Monogatari

by Mirune Keishiko

Prologue

Spring, Meiji 13

The air took on a palpable chill as the sun sank lower in the whitewashed sky.  Rain threatened in clotted clouds, and Makimachi Misao, clucking mock-sternly over the heedlessness of full-grown men, made her way through Kyoto streets bearing two brightly colored umbrellas.

From the Aoiya's wide window, Okina watched her skip past.  He was having tea with Okon and Omasu, but as talk turned to Niitsu Kakunoshin—who, they lamented, had not been seen in town for far too long—he found his gaze and his attention wandering.  Now he wordlessly tracked the lithe eighteen-year-old form until it vanished into the crowd, and then he shut his eyes and sank back in his seat.

His two companions tried to continue their chatter, but they glanced at him and knew.  They fell silent, fidgeting with their cups, staring out the window even though the young woman in blue had long since gone.

Shinomori Aoshi watched the first fine drops fall through shadowed eyes; breath left him in a sudden sigh that did not break his meditative rhythm so much as part gently from it.  Any minute now, any minute, she would arrive, and he would have to face her shining eyes.

Every day, such sorrow.

And paralyzed by such sadness as he had rarely been paralyzed by fear or fury in all his years of fighting and spying,  Aoshi would quietly accept her meek presence, answer her softly spoken questions, take the umbrella from a slender hand that trembled visibly, and walk with her what always seemed to be the long, long miles back to their home.

He knew now why he distanced himself so carefully from emotion.  It had not taken him too much meditation to see that.  Too close, and feelings tended to hurt far worse, and fester far longer, than any physical wound.  Now he hated how it trapped him, how it kept him from movement, from action—and every glance at the woman who stirred such freezing sorrow in him only served to drive this home.

But as always, in rationality was his salvation.  Two years was more than enough time to stay enchained.  He had hoped, at the back of his mind, that things would change—for him, perhaps, or her, or even both of them.  But only the seasons had changed, the maples from green to red and gold and back again.  It was time at last to let go of useless feelings that only dragged him down—dragged them both down.

Rain was dripping fat and fast from the eaves when those familiar light footsteps came pattering up the stairs and sent a fresh wave of dread through his heart.

She approached without a word.  He sighed again, inaudibly.  She would wait for him, as she had waited for so long, so patiently; she would sit down some paces away, alternating between her own meditation and keeping tabs on his, eager to serve any need that appeared, as if not knowing that he was acutely aware of her sea-colored eyes burning brightest when they fell on him.

Then again, perhaps she did know...

 "Misao."

 "Aoshi-sama?"

He rose to his feet and turned to face those shining, endless eyes.  Perhaps, if the former Oniwabanshuu Okashira had the strength, he could give her at least a hint of the smile she so doggedly sought.  It had, after all, been two years.

Still, somehow Aoshi knew it was not going to happen today.

 "Once again, you need not have brought these."  Her gaze dimmed; her delicate pure face was crossed with shadow.  He longed to reach out and touch her, somehow make her smile again, but his hand stayed fixed at his side and he looked away.  "I thank you for your kindness."

Misao smiled—a small, hesitant shadow of her usual indefatigable grin, but a smile nonetheless.  She stood, hastily scooping up the two umbrellas that had been lying beside her.

 "You mustn't get wet in the rain, Aoshi-sama," she chided good-naturedly as she went ahead of him down the stairway, heading out of the temple.  "You know how Omasu and Okon absolutely hate playing nursemaid.  They'd as soon kill a patient as cure him, since that would be easier."

Her cheerful talk blended into the pleasant, lilting hum of the spring rain around them.  At the entrance to the temple, they paused.  He took one umbrella from her; as their fingers briefly met, the sweetest of blushes drifted across her cheeks.  Aoshi glanced away.

At the temple doors, they paused to open their umbrellas.  Misao's was her favorite, a pale blue one with golden narcissus blossoms.  Aoshi eyed without comment the brightly patterned orange and yellow one she had brought for him.

They fell into their accustomed places on the walk home:  Misao prancing ahead, as if unable to keep still, but frequently glancing back to where Aoshi followed at a more sedate pace.  Sometimes, when she remembered something to talk about, she dropped back to walk beside him; but Aoshi's calm, minimal responses hardly sustained conversation.  Soon she strayed ahead again, and only her voice raised in greeting to passing friends and acquaintances floated back to him above the hubbub of the crowded street.

As she stopped to talk with an old shopkeeper friend of hers, Aoshi too stopped obligingly to wait.  People had grown used to the two of them on the road to the Aoiya.  After the initial awkwardness, Misao had soon learned the futility of trying to include Aoshi in her conversations with others.  For now, he stood patiently some distance away, his gaze inexorably drawn to her as she laughed about something or other with the old man.

It would be her nineteenth birthday come the winter.  And though Misao thought Aoshi never noticed her, on the contrary, he noticed her quite well. She had grown a few inches over the years, had filled out a little more, though not so much that her characteristic free movement was hampered or her typically scanty clothing brought her any further scandal.  Her bright voice had grown a little cooler, as if she were learning to tame it, sacrificing childish exuberance for a more mature steadfastness.  The sensuous curve of her waist, the long pale arcs of her bare legs, the white skin that sloped gently from her throat—Aoshi never permitted himself to look for very long, but he and everyone else knew that Misao-chan was growing to be a fine, very desirable woman.

A woman who had, many years ago, surrendered her heart to his reluctant keeping.

When they arrived at last at the inn, Aoshi went straight to his room.  The sorrow of Misao's crestfallen gaze upon his retreating figure was only slightly dulled by time and repetition.

Okina appeared in his doorway soon afterward.  Aoshi bowed to his former teacher.  Outside, cold prickling spring rain continued to sweep the city.

 "I'll leave tomorrow on the business you gave me, Okina."

The old man raised an eyebrow.  "And here I thought you were going to meditate for a lot longer.  This should be quite a trip, eh?  When do you think you'll be back?"

 "Perhaps in time for o-bon.  Perhaps later."  Aoshi paused and met Okina's gaze head on.  Age had not dulled the old man's perceptiveness.  "When it's safe again."

 "Are you sure this is how it has to be, Aoshi?"

Okina's already low-pitched voice had shrunk further to a near whisper.  As he turned slightly away toward the wide open window, the echoes of Misao's enthusiastic requests to let her help in the cooking filtered to them through the clatter of rain.  As much as Misao adopted more womanly ways in public, in private, at the Aoiya, she was still, defiantly, Misao-chan.

Again, Aoshi sighed,  very quietly.  "You know what's best for her, of course."

"And I know how you tend to think—not just about her, but about the rest of us, and yourself..."

 "Even so."  Aoshi bowed slightly, in silent apology for interrupting the old man.  "I think, even without that..."

 "Sou ka na."  This time it was Okina who sighed, stroking his little goatee with its absurd ribbon.  He did not look at Aoshi as he spoke, but stared out at the rain-darkened city.  "Try to get back in time for winter, then, at least.  Misao's birthday, you know.  The Aoiya needs you.  And whether you believe me or not"—he shot the younger man a glance—"you need the Aoiya."

Aoshi bowed wordlessly, in acknowledgement and in thanks.  Okina made to leave, but then stopped again in the doorway, looked back at him with clear, somber eyes.

 "You could at least give her a proper goodbye this time.  You do understand that, don't you?"

With the sibilant closing of the door, Aoshi was left in the lamplit emptiness of his room, the rain a beaded curtain outside his windows.

After another still, silent moment, he walked swiftly over to the lamps and extinguished them, one by one.  Then he sat down in the near-darkness, glad that the weather deadened the usual noise from the restaurant below.  Despite two years of constant meditation, it seemed he had yet to run out of things to think about.

~ tsuzuku ~

A/N.  A very tentative start.  I hate to publish anything I'm not yet certain of, but I figured if I didn't put this up now, I never would.  I figure this kind of "premature posting" should pressure me into whipping this germ of a story into proper shape.  Fingers crossed. ^.^

I never used to even think about doing any story revolving around Aoshi, since he's an extremely complex character, therefore difficult to write and, conversely, terribly easy to botch.  But the rash of Aoshi worshippers that seems to have sprung up only relatively recently—is it just me, or was it mostly K/K and S/M way back when??—has made me foolish enough to try my own hand at it.  Let's hope this turns out well, ne?  I'd hate as much as any Aoshi-phile to ruin a perfectly good, perfectly hot-lookin' bishounen with a shitty story.  ^.^

I'm really open to constructive criticism here. So please tell me what you think via a nice, meaty review, kay? ^.^ Arigatou gozaimasu!