Author's Note: Tis a nice lil September challenge!
"Aoshi, a favor if you will?"
Aoshi looked up from his crouched position on the Aoiya porch, where he had been, for the better part of the mildly humid morning, reinforcing the railings with extra support beams. Setting his hammer down, he stood up.
"What is it?"
"Could you perhaps poke around the kitchen and see what we need and get whatever we need? We're a bit backed up so everyone is busy working in the kitchen or on the floor."
"Aa. I'll be finished with this shortly."
The old man nodded and stroked his beard.
"Excellent. I believe the ladies were starting to get a bit upset at the unfairness of that you do not work in the kitchen or serve food."
"I have other matters to attend to." he mumbled, picking the hammer back up.
"Yes, what with you being Okashira again and all. And meditating. Yes indeed, quite busy."
Aoshi sense a bit of patronizing in the older man's voice.
"Are you implying otherwise?"
"Hmm, simply that there's more to life than such things. You should step outside more often and enjoy the simple things. I know it would certainly make Misao-chan happier to see you do something other than paperwork and meditation."
"But she also worries. It's your life Aoshi. Do with it what you will, but perhaps you should take the time to stop and think: is this how you see the rest of your life as going? Don't let things slip you by. It only leads to greater regret later in life."
With that, the old man returned inside to the business of the restaurant, leaving Aoshi to ponder. Pondering things Aoshi did not like to dwell on. He refused to admit that he was stuck, that he was stagnating whatever life he had by drowning in self-pity and the need for redemption.
Redemption, it was the anchor he chose to weigh himself down, to hide his face from the world and not think of moving forward. He would wake up, go to the temple, drink the tea Misao brought, return before dinner for paperwork, eat dinner, retire back to his office. Go to sleep. The same routine over and over, a pattern of consistency that made it easy for him to go through his day without thinking of what to do.
He soon finished up his porch work, and wiped the sweat off his forehead as he made his way inside and through the busy restaurant as discreetly as possibly. He didn't much care for it when it was busy. He did not enjoy the female eyes that gazed at him, the painted faces with the cheaply attempted coy smiles meant to catch his interest...as if he was a studhorse for breeding.
More or less on the mark since rutting was what they were interested it.
It disgusted him nowadays, where once years ago he might have been flattered or even interested.
"And one ginger spiced tea, coming right up!"
He turned his gaze briefly to the right to see Misao whirl by, her braid clipped up into a chignon bun and she wore a thin light blue serving kimono. Her skin was pink from running around waiting tables and while she looked a bit tired, her smile still beamed for everyone to see.
It was a sight he found appealing amidst the other people in the restaurant. Like a breath of fresh air.
He made his way into the kitchen and began looking around as Shiro and Kuro each nodded a greeting to him, but they were busy cooking and ignored him as he began looking around. They were more than well stocked on flour and spices, enough tofu and grains.
He moved to the fruit crates and noticed they were a little low on apples. As soon as he finished his inventory, he left the kitchen to find Okina.
Apples would need to be picked, and he would need to go to the orchard.
Laughter. The blue skies seemed to stretch of forever as a calm breeze shook the branches gently as the small girl with a braid happily collected the fallen red fruit on the ground as Aoshi watched. A very ripe looking apple dangled from a low branch with she sought to reach, her chubby little hand stretching out to the fruit.
"Aoshi-sama, I can't reach!"
With a soft smile, he walked over to her and reached up and grabbed the apple for her. Handing it to her, she smiled brightly up at him.
"Thank you, Aoshi-sama!" she squealed, hugging his leg and happily biting into the fruit.
Misao always loved going apple picking as a child, even thought Aoshi had to often pick the apples for her.
He saw Okina in the hall and stopped him.
"I have gone through everything. All we require is apples."
"Ah, simple enough. I trust you'll be heading for the orchard to get some?"
"Aa, but may Misao accompany me?"
"Misao-chan?" Okina asked, scratching at his beard.
"She likes apple picking."
"Ah, I see. I suppose we can do without for a bit." Okina said, a glimmer in his eyes.
Aoshi nodded and went back to the restaurant to retrieve Misao.
"Eh? Apple picking?"
"Yes. I would like you to accompany me."
"Is it okay for me to leave?"
"Yes. I asked Okina himself."
"Oh, okay. Give me a moment." she said with a smile, and whizzed into the kitchen to give her order to Okon while taking off her apron and running upstairs and changing into her shorts and gi. Her hair was still up, and it made her look older.
The path to the orchard was an amber colored dirt road that stretched alongside emerald green fields as the two walked past small farms.
"How long ago did we last go apple picking? When I was seven, right?"
"Aa. Eleven years ago."
Aoshi almost staggered at that. Had it really been so long ago? Seemed like just yesterday Misao reached his knees. Now she reached his abdomen.
"Seems like a lifetime ago." she murmured as they reached the wooden gates of the orchard. Grabbing a crate, Misao headed towards the trees as Aoshi trailed behind and watched her as she began picking apples off the ground. He made his way to the trees, picking them and watching Misao from the corner of his eyes.
She was smiling, seemingly content. She was probably thinking of her childhood and those afternoons in the orchard, when life was simple and they were happy. He missed those times fondly, when life felt so much easier. When he felt his age and not older beyond his years. When he could sleep through the night with complete ease. When he could smile.
He saw Misao look up to an apple on a branch, and began to walk towards her to grab it for her, but paused as she reached up and plucked the fruit from the tree.
His breath caught as his chest felt constricted in an almost unbearably painful manner. She didn't...
She didn't need him to grab apples for her anymore, she could reach for herself.
His world shifted, reality slipped away. No. Not reality. The illusion he'd been living in all this time, the fantasy he created to avoid reality.
Misao was no longer a child. She was woman. She had the slight curves, the graceful neck, the thinness in her race, the more almond shape to her once overtly round eyes.
He was so foolish. To think he could pretend Misao was the same as always so he didn't have to dwell on those brief instances of longing that should have made him feel dirty and shamed. He was trying so hard to keep the image of the child she once was, but he couldn't pretend any longer.
She had grown up when he wasn't looking, and he had no idea how to react.
She was going forward in her life as vibrant as ever, and he was standing brutally still.
What kind of life was that? It was no life at all.
He wasn't living.
He wanted to fall to his knees, to grab her, to hold her until he knew it was all right, to beg her to show him how to live.
He needed her, he realized in that moment, so much.
"Aoshi-sama, are you okay?"
He looked at her, swallowing.
"Could you...pick an apple for me?"
"Sure. But you can reach them better than I can."
"Once maybe." he murmured.
She arched an eyebrow, not understanding, but complied and reached up and picked an apple for him, walking over to him and holding it out for him.
It was the chance he hadn't been seeking, to start life anew.
To really live.
He took the apple, his eyes never leaving hers as he lifted it to his lips and took a bite. Chewing it slowly, he swallowed and offered it to her for a bite.
He could see color forming on her cheeks, and he briefly wondered if her thoughts had strayed to less than decent as he took a bite.
She grabbed it and took a bite, chewing awkwardly and then handed it back to him.
The apple rolled to the ground, forgotten as strong arms collected the petite young woman.
Warm lips pressed against hers, silencing her.
He shifted, pressing his face into the crook of her neck, bending awkwardly.
"What?" she whispered, stroking his hair. This was so sudden...his behavior.
"I don't know how to go forward. Please help me."
She held him closer, as if he was the child.
"I will, Aoshi-sama. I will. Now come on, we need to get these apples back home."
He nodded, and they broke apart, but everything was different now.
He would no longer live in the pattern he had built for himself, he would learn to live again in this day and age, with Misao by his side to show him.
As they walked back, Aoshi could for the first time see the blueness in the sky, the lush green of the grass, and the simple sweetness of walking home with Misao as opposed to the bland grey everything once appeared to him.
And it was then he felt he could breathe normally again.
That it al! For those who don't know, please check out Shinobi Love, the Yahoo! Group run by myself and Shin Sankai.
http/groups. also check out Oishi Onsen, an English Aoshi x Misao doujinshi group.