Title: The Little Act of Giving
Author: Western Ink
Disclaimer: I do not own RK.
Notes: Response to "Chopstick Challenge" from the Shinobi Love ML
Summary: When Aoshi discovers Misao has an unusual dilemma, he comes up with a more than suitable solution.
When he returned to the Aoiya, he expected to find it bustling with activity as he did on any other day. It was mid-day, prime time for customers.
Still, strangely, there was no one about. Thinking little of the anomaly he headed for the stairs intent upon finding something to slip on his feet. Despite the warm temperatures he was feeling chilled and he suspected he might be coming down with an illness, but didn't want to dwell on the possibility.
As he came to the landing, he turned his eyes toward Misao's doorway. He'd developed the habit since his return to the Aoiya. More of an automatic response to ascending the stairs than a matter of curiosity.
Usually the door was closed, still and impersonal. There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was just like any other door with the simple distinction that it belonged to Misao.
Today, however, the door was open. He moved toward it, compelled at the odd sight. The moment he was near enough he peered about even as his feet carried him closer.
On the floor, at a low table, she sat. She was quiet and very still, her head tilted downward looking toward the table and something he couldn't see that rested there.
Her onimitsu uniform was gone, replaced by a simple white yukata. Her braid fell down her back. The gold clasp at the end was missing, the ends of her hair fraying apart into gentle waves.
He stepped closer and knocked lightly against her doorframe and she whipped around surprised.
"Aoshi-sama! You're back early!"
In a moment, she was up standing on bare feet. She stood to stand and face him, directly between him and the table. Her hands clasped behind her back, almost as though she were trying to hide something.
"Is something wrong? Did you need something? I could've brought it for you."
"Everything is fine," he replied, remaining where he stood letting an awkward silence lapse over them.
She shifted, rolling from her toes to her heels back and forth just staring right back at him.
"You're sure?" she asked.
He ignored the question. "What are you doing?"
He could see now the tiny sash about her waist was white also. Where was she going in such an unusual outfit? In fact, the tie around her waist looked very much like it belonged on a man's kimono...
He was puzzled.
"Nothing," she replied, entirely too quickly in his estimation. "Just ... um... sitting around."
"Why is the Aoiya so quiet?"
"Oh, that..." She waved a hand in a dismissive motion. "Festival preparations."
Festival? There wasn't a festival at this time of year.
"I know. There isn't any this time of year." She smiled, practically repeating his own thoughts. "Jiya's doing, of course. It's an Aoiya party theme; he's having the Aoiya Festival of Love. I told him it was a lame idea, he told me to 'hush and get dressed'. The Aoiya reopens after about two o'clock."
He stepped forward over the threshold and into her room. It marked the first time he'd been in her room since his return to the Aoiya, the first time since he'd been in this room with her and she wasn't a small child...
The significance of it struck him as he neared her, never straying more than two or three steps from the doorway. It manifested in the quickening of his heart and swift, powerful awareness of his surroundings. The faint scent of her surrounding him, her clothes, her things, the mere essence of her personal space…
He reached out and slid his fingers along her shoulder, tracing halfway down her arm before tugging on it, urging her to bring her hand forward. Confused as she was at his actions, she simply went along with it. He rubbed the material at her wrist between his fingers, feeling its thickness and texture.
"Is this what you are wearing?"
She blinked. "Um... No, this is... just a slip, actually. But I've got two of them on so I didn't really feel all that uncomfortable. Actually, I just opened the door looking for one of the girls but they were gone and I just sort of left it open... never really thought anyone would... wander in... or anything..."
He let the comment go and released his hold on the material she had dressed herself in. It explained a few things.
Over her shoulder, he peered at the tabletop, curious to see what she'd been staring at. It was covered with sets of hair sticks and hairpins. Everything from light wood grained shades, to bright pink sakura blossoms, to shiny black sticks with vibrant carved beads on the ends. Was she having some sort of dilemma over her hair accessories?
She, finally realizing what he was looking at, paled.
"Are you having trouble deciding?"
There were more sets of pins and sticks there than he imagined she had a use for. At least, she couldn't use them all at once. There were three sets of four hairpins and four sets of hair sticks, all with different colored beads.
She growled. "Deciding." She turned around and kicked the table and it skidded several feet across the floor, a couple of the sticks rolled off and clattered to the floor by the legs of the table. "You know what these things are?"
Had he judged them incorrectly? He would not consider himself a man of the highest fashion order, but he was fairly certain he knew a woman's hair accessories...
"They're gifts! Stupid idiots, Omasu and Okon actually accepted them for me! Can you believe that? How dare they?"
He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until she crossed her arms and glared outright.
"That's right, gifts. I told you, this is the Aoiya's Festival of Love, remember? Jiya's been skipping around town gabbing about it, handing out papers, posting flyers... Apparently I have been receiving handsome young suitors all week. They've been delighted - I'm just annoyed. Then they started accepting gifts for me and lengthy love notes and poems about my eyes and my hair and argh! I just could kill them."
Ah, those kinds of gifts. Now, he understood.
"I don't know what to do. They obviously expect me to do something with them, but the person who gave me them will probably come and what will they do if I wear one of these things? And wouldn't it be rude if I gave them back?"
He paused a moment and then turned. "I'm sure you'll manage."
He left here there, unmindful of the sour look she tossed at his back and quietly slid the door closed behind him. He didn't like things be having unusually.
Turning back toward the stairs, he headed up to the kitchen. Inside, Kuro and Shiro were bustling around, talking as they prepared some small dishes. They both paused, surprised at seeing Aoshi.
"Did you get the new chopsticks in?"
"The disposable ones like the Akabeko picked up? With the red paint on the ends?"
It had been pure coincidence that he'd walked into a conversation the previous week about chopsticks. They'd asked him if he thought ordering the fancier version would be good for business and after noting the price, Aoshi had concluded it couldn't hurt and advised they do that.
Now, of course, it was proving to be vastly convenient for him.
"Yeah, they came in a few days ago. Nice," Shiro answered.
"Where are they?"
Kuro turned back and produced a box from an upper cabinet before tossing a white packet toward Aoshi.
"And a rest."
Neither blinked as Shiro fished a little chopstick rest out from a drawer and dropped it into Aoshi's upturned palm.
Neither said anything until he was very much out of the room. Aoshi had no doubts they'd say nothing about it anyway, at least, not to his face.
Ripping open the paper wrapping, he stepped into the Okashira's office that used to be his. If he remembered correctly, he'd left a set of inks back here...
He deposited the chopsticks on a desk and headed for the small closet, searching the box he'd left on the top shelf in the left corner.
Mostly it was paper, full of his amateur ink paintings, one of the things he'd been interested in when he was younger. He wondered if Misao knew about it...
Finally hunting down the blue and white silk printed box, he replaced the items and set aside the sumi-e set on the desk and headed out once more.
He'd forgotten his water.
When he returned, he sat himself at the western styled desk in the office and set about mixing his ink. He dipped and dabbled, slowly, meticulously adding minute detail to the chopsticks he'd pilfered from the kitchen supply.
When, at last, he was satisfied with the finer touches, he sat them aside to dry and began to clean up. He moved slowly, in no rush. He replaced his ink stones and brushes, making sure everything was clean and dry as he slid them back into their box. It took several lengthy minutes to return everything to the way he liked it, perfect and precise.
By the time he had slid the set back into his discreet place on the top shelf, his ink had dried on the chopsticks.
Gathering the sticks in his hand, he glanced over the office. It looked the way it had when he'd come in. Quietly, he left.
He turned to the stairs and headed up, toward her room.
The door was still closed. If she remained within or had long since gone, he could only know by knocking.
He stepped up to do so, knocking lightly upon the surface, the sticks now hidden away in the folds of his shirt.
He waited and heard nothing and waited longer. Was she in there? Had she gone already?
Repressing a disappointed sigh, he turned to go when the door slid open.
He had disturbed her dressing, he noted, seeing the crooked tilt of her kimono.
"May I come in?"
She hesitated and then agreed. He watched her walk ahead of him, her gait slow and graceful, something so unlike what he was familiar with.
It was startling to see how unfamiliar really was with the young woman Misao had become. Himura and Okina's words about it had been nothing more than words, he saw Misao the way he saw her... now, he realized, that wasn't so at all.
He hadn't been seeing her at all. He'd been seeing a strange juxtaposition of Misao, a combination of something present and past, but something that wasn't there.
Even as he said such things to himself, it couldn't be completely true. No simple thoughts of childhood had sent him to the kitchen, no thoughts of keeping Misao's hero-like adoration selfishly for himself had made him paint those chopsticks... No desire to remain Misao's childhood infatuation had inspired him to...
He turned his eyes to the floor where the hem of her kimono pooled around her ankles. Suddenly the sticks in his pocket seemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things...
Where were the women to help her dress?
He wondered and didn't care. He pulled the makeshift sash she'd tied about her waist and slid it off her, causing her to gasp. Coming up to stand behind her he smoothed his hands around her waist, tucking it around her correctly. He held it closed for her, merely holding and letting her guide as she tucked her kimono up at the appropriate length and then wound her obi about her waist.
He put his hands where she instructed, her voice only rising to give him short, clear instructions and wordlessly, he obeyed.
As he watched, her little hands tie off the little knots and tucks he moved his hands up, slowly unbraiding her hair. She turned her head, as if to see what he was doing, but he turned her head forward, guiding her with his fingers.
He found her brush nearby and set about sliding it through her silken locks and then repeating the task with his fingers. Sliding the sticks from his pocket, he tucked them into his waistband for easy access and grabbed her hair, twisting, and twirling it up, and then secured the ornate hair bun with the two sticks.
When he saw that it was tight enough to remain standing, he set his hands upon her shoulders and turned her to face him.
Her voice was quiet and almost unsure.
"How did you know how to do all this stuff?" she asked.
He could only wonder what she was imagining and manage to smirk, just slightly. "Before I became the Okashira I went on spy missions dressed as a woman."
"Missions?" Her eyes widened. "More than one?"
"Several," he replied.
She brought a hand to her mouth to cover her smile or repress a laugh, he wasn't sure.
He didn't mind.
She had turned out beautifully. Her furisode was white and speckled with blue and purple flower petals along the left side and the hem. He never would've thought to put her in white, but he decided she was quite lovely in it.
Was this too, a gift?
"Where did you get this?" He tugged on her sleeve once more.
Her smile brightened fractionally. Was it, perhaps, truly a gift from some admirer?
"Shiro and Kuro gave it to me. They said it was a thank-you present for all the help I'd been giving them lately and how much they were proud of me and glad they were I was turning into such a lovely young lady. I thought it was really sweet of them."
Her smile was tender and somehow softened his heart. On the other side of the room, however, the door clattered open quick and loudly, ruining their moment.
"Oh, Misao, I'm so sorry, I forgot!" The gushing apology came to an immediate halt as she realized whom she was staring at. "H-Hello, Aoshi-sama. Am I interrupting?"
"No," he replied, and stepped away from Misao. He moved to the door, paused there beside Okon, and turned his gaze to rest upon Misao once more. "You look pretty. Enjoy your party."
He didn't stay to see Misao's face light or the girl's beaming smile. He passed by Okon without comment and vanished into his room several doors down.
It was hours later before Misao found her way back upstairs. She was achy and tired and feeling slightly irritable. She stepped into her room with the full intention of dropping into bed and falling dead asleep and not answering her door until noon the next day.
In the darkness of her chambers, she forgot she'd left several books scattered by her bed and caught her toe on the edge of one and toppled forward.
Already loose from hours of movement and shuffling, her hair finally fell free, the sticks she'd dared not to touch since Aoshi had placed them there, tumbled to the floor. As did she when she fell, growling at her own clumsiness.
She groaned in pain and reached for the chopsticks after standing herself up, wanting to admire the gift he'd given especially to her. In a shaft of especially bright moonlight, she peered over it and felt her knees weaken.
There was no way...
Among the swirling, vibrant red designs on each side, blazing black kanji scored each side of both chopsticks. She felt her breath catch.
She'd worn these in her hair all night?
Everyone had seen them except her!
She whirled back around and headed for the door. She found herself at Aoshi's doorstep and had knocked before she could stop herself or even rationalize it all away, the chopsticks still in her hands.
"Come," he called, his voice deep and rich and perfect.
She trembled faintly and slid open the door.
It was relatively early, the others were still downstairs.
He was sitting on the sill of the window, his back to the moon. She couldn't really see his face, he was too heavily shadowed.
"Aoshi-sama?" she spoke, tentatively.
She crossed the room steadier than she thought herself possible at the moment and held out the chopsticks toward him.
He didn't take them.
"Are you giving them back to me?"
His voice was impassive.
"No. I want them," she clarified. "But..."
With that, he slid his fingers over hers, and the sticks she was holding feel free, a faint, light sound was all that disturbed the silence as they toppled to the floor.
Holding her hand, he pulled her forward, her body against the sill, between his knees.
She gasped, feeling halfway to faint.
"Did you have fun?"
Questions about that stupid party seemed so ridiculously out of place. She shrugged, hardly remembering it. She could barely remember anything with Aoshi so close...
"Sort of," she answered, realizing with abrupt and rushing anticipation, he was getting even closer to her.
She could've sworn she lost her breath as his lips touched hers, his hands sliding around her waist.
She melted against him, lost, and his arms tightened about her.
In the dim light of the room, the text "Shinomori"was just barely visible on the fallen chopsticks resting at their feet.
AN: quick editor or what not keeps deleting my puncutations, which really sucks. Argh.