Author's note: I'm trying to get my creativeness back. So here's another AU bite. It snowballed after a while, but I decided to try from Aoshi's POV for a change. Let me know how it goes.
The Secrets We Keep
The spring rain drizzled off of the eves of a small yellow house among other small houses of a Southern city suburb. A man wearing an un-tucked and wrinkled white shirt stood in the doorway. His hands were shoved into worn jean pockets as he leaned against the doorframe, his back to the unlit space behind him. The early morning light was dim, but the damp air created a waking atmosphere. The atmosphere was given greater context by the groan rising from a gray couch.
Bleary blue eyes appeared over the back of the couch. They tried to focus on the man who faced the dripping world beyond. Delicate fingers pushed back a wave of long black hair.
"Aoshi, it's six in the morning. How is that being lazy?"
The man finally turned to give the woman a small smile. "You fell asleep much earlier than usual, Misao. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet."
The woman blinked but offered no explanation. Instead, she gave a tremendous yawn. He couldn't help but smile at that – always so free spirited, even at this unpractical hour. Even, his smile faded, among friends. Perhaps it was strange that he considered her ever-shining personality a bit off. Most people believe it was how she was, no matter what the situation. Yet in the five years that he'd known her, he sensed something dark that drove that ever-cheerful face onward.
He pushed off of the doorjamb and took a few steps into his living room. He restrained himself from laughing when Misao vigorously rubbed her face in an effort to fully wake. Despite his suspicions that his friend was much more complicated than she let on, he did enjoy her lively company. Aoshi silently watched her straighten the pale blue t-shirt over her stomach. When she stood up to stretch, he could see the red pressure marks of her jeans on the skin of her waist. He forced his eyes away.
It was two years ago that he noticed a pattern. She would appear on his doorstep without warning, or would wait for him on the porch if he were making an errand. Her hands would be full of snacks, homemade cookies, and a few bottles of beer. He knew for a fact that she didn't even like the stuff. But without question he would offer his living room, and she'd enter with a smile. They'd stay up late, talking or watching TV. He would tease her, and she would smoothly return the favor. They would usually sit on the floor, cross-legged with their backs to the couch and talk about the latest girlfriend of Sano's or the newest argument between Kenshin and Kaoru. They would talk, casually brush hands, bump knees, and dance with words till the next morning. Then she would pack up, wash whatever dishes they had used, and vanish for a few days or a week.
It happened every month during the spring. This season was no exception. Aoshi had been in the middle of washing his dinner plate when she had knocked at the back door.
"Hey there!" She had chirped with her arms full of a paper bag. "It looks like rain. Mind if I come in?"
He had smiled, taking the bag from her. "The television said possible showers all night."
She had smiled back, but a shadow in her eyes reinforced his suspicions that her visits were more than simply casual tradition.
They had settled down into their usual routine.
Only in the spring would she bring alcohol. Not enough for her to pass out, but just enough to make her red-faced and sleepy. He was a bit of a lightweight, but could still handle twice the amount that it took to get her to that point. Aoshi had to admit that her behavior became even more childish under the influence, resulting in pouts when she lost some small bout of arguing and found revenge in the strangest ways – like finishing his beer when his back was turned, or messing his hair with an evil laugh.
Last night had been the same. She had set the beers on the coffee table with small clinks of glass before tearing open a bag of her favorite ranch-flavored potato chips. They had argued over a movie (the choice of which was decided with a game of rock, paper, scissors) and halfway through the film, Aoshi had looked over to find her sound asleep on the couch, one hand slipping dangerously from the neck of her bottle. He had taken the beer and thrown a blanket over her before retiring to his own room. Why she never thought to bring more comfortable sleepwear, he never asked.
Misao moved from the couch, long hair falling down her back. He couldn't help letting his gaze slide down the mass to the cute little rear that was hiding in her cargo jeans. Despite her laments about not having enough of a womanly figure, secretly he always did like that part about her the most.
"Do you feel up to breakfast?" He left the open door and followed her to the kitchen.
She shook her head. "Just coffee if you have it." She curled up on one of the wooden kitchen chairs, one knee pulled up to her chin. "What time did you get up? Usually I'm the one awake first."
He shrugged, opening the cabinet above the microwave to take out the coffee grounds. Habitually measuring out enough for a full pot, he dumped it into the filter before filling the stainless steel container with water. He poured the water into the coffee maker and placed the pot in its holder.
"I didn't feel like sleeping." Aoshi hit the power switch. Or really, he hadn't been able to sleep with the knowledge of her passed out on his living room furniture. It was a secret of his – that having her in his house overnight resulted in his sleep being shallow and restless.
He watched her as she sat at the kitchen table, her mind somewhere out the window. Her usually animated face was still. The bright, eager, look of curiosity was glazed over. It wasn't often she was so unmoving. Not a finger or eyelash stirred as she stared unseeing at the drizzling sky. Her sudden question almost made him jump.
"Aoshi, we've known each other for, what, four years?"
"Five years this summer."
She nodded. "I just thought you should know that I think you're one of my best friends."
He leaned against the kitchen counter and carefully turned his next question over in his head before speaking. "I appreciate it. But I have to admit, there's something that's been bothering me lately."
Aoshi didn't know the full story of her past, but he sensed something that ran much deeper than the always cheerful, always helpful face that she turned to the world. It was easy to just assume she was forever selfless, but really it was human nature to be selfish. He knew that there was a tragedy of some sort – there were hints of it from both their mutual friends and the teasing, all-knowing statements she had made while being overconfidently buzzed on some fruit cocktail. Not that he could begrudge her of anything – he had his own closet full of skeletons.
"You want to know why I come here so often." She paused to rethink her words. "No, you want to know why I come here with the intents that I have."
Her statement made him blink. "Well, yes actually. I've not said anything till now, but I think you and I have shared enough with each other that you can tell me what's going on."
Blue eyes focused abruptly on him. Anger stiffened her shoulders. "What's going on? Nothing – we're just hanging out."
The sudden change in her attitude took him momentarily by surprise, but he didn't let it distract him. He sensed a shield being thrown, not answers.
"Misao, I know that you don't like beer, but you bring it over." He pushed away from the counter and turned to fill two mugs with fresh coffee. "Not only the fact that you bring beer to my house, but you stay the night. The others want to know what's going on between us, and I can't give them an honest answer. What is going on?"
He dropped a splash of milk and a spoonful of sugar into her cup before taking them to the table. She took it with a short grumble, "Well it's none of their business."
He only waited, knowing that the silence would speak louder than any question he could formulate. Aoshi watched her fingers slowly stir her coffee spoon. She was lost again inside her thoughts. He was struck with the impulse to gather her small frame into his arms and let her find herself in his arms. He was attracted – that much was non-negotiable. Even hard headed Sanosuke had pointed it out during one of their outings to a club one night. Aoshi wanted to make their friendship more, but he also knew that something was holding them both back. He was fairly certain that she was aware of his hopes as well, but she had chosen to ignore them.
Yet lately things had slowly been shifting. Trained to pick up the smallest details, he had carefully orchestrated his own actions to compliment hers and the dance was changing.
He had seen it in the small, hidden question in her eyes after they shared a laugh among friends. He had felt it in the casual, accidental touch. He had heard it in the innocent requests of companionship. Yet there was some kind of fear that screened out any other advancement. Whatever it was, it was something that only she could break free from before any other progress with the present could be made.
He wondered what she had wanted, what were the things she had been denied and most likely told herself to be happy with. Had she put up a fight? He found himself hoping she had. Turning his gaze to his own cup of coffee, he took a sip.
Her voice broke into his introspection.
"Aoshi, I am sorry for acting so strange. I just can't think of anywhere else to go. I can't stand being alone, but none of the others will simply let me be."
"Yet you come to me – are still Misao, and most of the time, you won't let me be. Where's the logic in that?"
She had the grace to look embarrassed but he brushed it aside.
"We all have a history, Misao." He watched the rainfall in the reflection in his cup. "I have one that I'm not very proud of, and I gather that you do as well." He felt her question before she voiced it. "But I don't want to live in the past. I've done enough of that."
He let her digest that information. The rain was slowing outside and the dripping tree outside the kitchen window looked refreshed. It wasn't long before she took a gulp of her coffee and sighed, "What if I just can't seem to get over it? I try. I really do, but there are some things that will never leave me alone."
"You learn to live with it. You seem to do well for the most part. Then Spring comes and you're here."
"I come," her reply was shaky. "I want to come here because I feel safe. I feel like this is where I can be me – no matter how strange that may be."
"You shouldn't go anywhere else." He startled himself with the vehemence in his voice. When her bright blue eyes locked on his, he braced himself. "I think you know that sometimes my thoughts don't follow along a merely friendly line. I've seen a lot, I've heard a lot, but I haven't been able to find a way…"
Misao set her coffee cup on the table with a sharp clunk. The liquid inside splashed over the edge and onto her hand, but she ignored it. Her eyes locked on his.
"I trusted someone once, a long time ago. I gave them everything. I thought it would be forever, but I was shot in the back. The thing that burns me the most is that I lived with knowing the guy had a second girl, but never had the guts to tell me himself."
"And you let him do that to you?"
Misao pushed herself away from the table and snapped, "I never let him do anything – it just happened. It happened and it hurt. I trusted him and waited for a straight-up confession that never came."
She brought her coffee-stained hand to her mouth as she moved past him to the kitchen. He put an arm out to stop her.
"Misao, at the risk of sounding rather callous, don't you think it might be time to let it go?"
She refused to look at him. "I am pathetic that way. Besides, no one else cares enough to push past the past." She gave a short laugh, but it was more of a short bark of self-disgust. "And I've tried to change. Really… when I am here, I feel like I could almost do it all over again…"
Aoshi dropped his arm and let her go. She immediately went to the sink and began washing her hands. She ran her hands repeatedly over one another under the water long after the soap had been flushed away. When she finally did turn off the water, she rubbed her wet hands over her face in a quick birdbath. Aoshi silently crossed the room and handed her a clean kitchen towel. Speaking into the cloth, Misao asked,
"So, what's your story?"
"You said you had something you've gotten over." Her face came out of the towel and she blinked at his sudden nearness. He couldn't help feeling a bit of pride at the light pinkness that spread over her cheeks. "I told you mine, it's only fair that you tell me yours."
He smiled teasingly. "Well, my story isn't as melodramatic as a failed romance." He stoically took the punch to his shoulder. "But I was once a gangster."
A hesitant smirk crept to his friend's mouth. "You're joking right?"
"I would never joke about this sort of thing."
"A gangster? From where? What did you do?"
Aoshi frowned turned away. "I was the boss for a short while – a very short while. But I didn't like it, so I arranged for a replacement."
He could feel her eyes tracing his face.
"You were a crime boss? Have you served time?"
Her eyes widened. "Have you ever killed anyone?"
He couldn't bring himself to answer that. After a long, heavy silence Misao dropped the towel on the kitchen counter and put her hands on her hips.
"You make me feel extremely lame with my moping around here. Who else knows? Kenshin? Sano? Everyone but me?"
"Only the guys know. They've covered for me for a lot longer than you'd think."
She took a step back to lean against his fridge. "And this… maybe thing going on – what is that to you?"
Aoshi smiled at that – an answer he could give without hesitation. "It means I have a chance at a true life and not this dreary day-to-day routine."
Misao raised an eyebrow. "So this is entertainment?"
She laughed at his startled face. "I'm just kidding. I know you don't mean it that way, but I couldn't resist."
He let himself smile back, but refused to be diverted from their topic. He approached her carefully, noting her stiffening with each step.
"Misao, I like you. I've liked you for some time. But I waited – worried that the secrets we keep meant that we were doomed to remain only as friends." He looked down into wide and unsure blue eyes. "But you tease me. It's been about two years since I've stretched my tolerance levels to their maximum."
He leaned in, his breath teasing the fine hairs on the side of her neck. "You wear your heart on your sleeve, surrounded in a glass box." He smiled, though she couldn't see it. "I'm going to break it open one of these days."
He could almost feel her swallow nervously.
Her voice trembled. He knew she hated sounding weak, but took it as a sign of trust. "Would you want it so damaged? I mean, like you said – everyone has secrets. I'm not sure I want to know all of yours, but mine are so immature and I still can't get over them."
"I've left the past. I respect history, but it is still in the making." Aoshi let his hands drift down to gently grasp her waist. "May we start with a little gesture of faith?"
Misao glanced up with a bit of her old nerve. "I think that we might be pushing things as far as they can go for one day."
He released her with a short nod. She stepped away from him and from the fridge. He watched her stride purposely to the couch and gather her light jacket where it had fallen sometime the night before. Her motions were jerky, habitual. She paused, looking out of the window one more time. The rain had stopped.
"Aoshi, I think I can accept the fact that you were a gangster. I don't think you've brought that life here. But I need to think things over."
He had left the front door wide open – a beckoning escape. Casually he made his way to intercept her flight path, fingers hooked in his pants pockets.
"Can you keep a secret, Misao?"
Tossing her long black hair over her shoulder, she gave him a dirty look. "You think I'm stupid? Even if the guys know what you just told me, I wasn't even thinking about discussing it with them."
"I appreciate that." Aoshi watched closely as she approached him. "But I was thinking of something else."
Her eyes widened with sudden awareness. She tried to step out of his reach, but his hand darted out to catch her by the arm. He sensed her reflexive anger start to rise, but knew it was only a defense mechanism. To defuse the potential bomb, he pulled her swiftly against him, trapping her hands between their bodies.
"Misao, I just want to ask one more thing."
She squirmed against his hold. "I thought we agreed on waiting."
"I never said that."
"I changed my mind."
"You can't do that!"
Aoshi chuckled. "Will you just let me kiss you?"
Of all the facial expressions he'd come to know, her one of complete astonishment was something he promised himself that he'd see again someday. He gently pushed her fallen jaw shut before pressing his lips to hers.
Author's Note: This evolved rather awkwardly at the end. Just some more fluffy-poo that backed up in my head. Now it's just a bit of fluff and poo – feel free to review. I miss those little emails