Disclaimer: I do not own Ai Yori Aoshi and Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi. This is the property of Kou Fumizuki, Pioneer/Geneon, and JC Staff.
Epilogue, Part 2
To the east of Meiritsu College lay a small public park. Though there was the standard expanse of grass, it was populated mostly by oak trees, but there was the small patch of sakura trees available for the annual sakura viewing festival. The patch had grown larger thanks to the Sakuraba Corporation, they had donated more trees to be planted.
At the edge of the patch, a memorial was situated just before the western gate, so that all who came and went that way would see the stone figure of a young woman. She was kneeling, perched atop a tall marble slab. Her hands rested serenely on her lap, almost ready to smooth down any wrinkles that should arise in her immaculate kimono. She held no colour, and the small smile that graced her lips did nothing to bring her body warmth, but she evoked a sense of peace and serenity in most of those who saw her.
There were a small few who could look at her and feel the opposite of what she conveyed. They did not see a statue, but rather, a painful reminder that she was gone from their lives, and looking at that permanently carved smile only told them that they would never see the sky again.
Time had passed, and all of them knew why that memorial stood there. And one knew more than all the others. He was the cause for it, after all.
And so he stood before the Aoi Sakuraba memorial marker, holding a fresh bouquet of buttercups, yellow chrysanthemums, dotted with pale pink raspberry blossoms and scarlet quince flowers.
The bright and fresh beauty of the flowers was stark against his charcoal grey business suit.
Kaoru Hanabishi laid his bouquet of flowers on the stone maiden's lap. He stepped back and bowed with his hands together in prayer, as it was traditional to pay respect to the dead. When his silent meditation ended, he stood straight up again, eyes not on the smiling visage, but rather on the engraving etched into the marble mantle. He read the carved characters over and over again, and he could still derive no meaning or comfort from them.
"I'm sorry," were the first sure words he could speak. "I wish that I could visit you under our tree, where your ashes are. But that's on Sakuraba property, and I'm not welcome there. I know that this, this is long overdue... but if you could wait more than ten years for me, you could probably wait ten more."
A rueful chuckle.
"I never meant to hurt you, but you probably knew that too. We probably both knew a lot of things, but I guess we never listened. I know I should have never hurt you, and you know you should have just given up finding me. Some days, I wish that you never looked for me and just moved on to marrying someone else.
"But then you would have never been happy, and I would have never known how you made me happy. Above all, I just wish this never happened at all and that you're still here with me."
His eyes flickered around the park.
"Everyone was so sad... you can't imagine how much. You probably wonder how everyone is doing... since then. It's very hard to remember everything, but I'll try. I don't have a lot to tell you about Tina, because I haven't heard from her in years... not since a few months after you... you had gone." He drew a heavy breath. "It was unexpected when she left me, left us. The night before, she..." His voice trembled, trying to bring himself to tell her what their former friend had done. "She and I... We slept together."
He winced as he imagined her pained face.
"I know... I'm sorry. I hurt you again by doing that... but it was the last time I was with her. We were lonely. I was lonely. I don't know why Tina had to do that and then leave... Maybe that was her way of saying goodbye to me. Maybe she was full of guilt. I know she was in love with me; I know that all of them were in love with me. One way, or another, they told me. That's another thing that I knew, and I didn't acknowledge their feelings properly. At least, not in a way that wouldn't hurt you."
His hand reached out and nervously picked at the numerous chrysanthemum petals.
"Taeko and Chika also left a little after Tina did. They went home, back to the beach and to their grandmother. At least they said goodbye. Taeko... Taeko told me that she felt too guilty to continue living with me. Not after what she did. She felt that she was not honouring your memory properly, that she was betraying her friendship with you, by being near me while she still... still had feelings for me. It was unfair to you, and to all of us."
Another rueful chuckle shook him, timed with the slight breeze that caused the sakura branches to shiver.
"Chika tells me how they're doing. When she has the time. Didn't you know? Chika is going to the Olympics. She says she'll break the world record and take the gold for swimming the women's one hundred, and then she'll work on that idol album of hers. Always ambitious, always at her best. And Taeko... last I heard, Taeko takes care of the family inn and beachside teahouse. Her mother and grandmother are arranging her to be married by this fall. Chika-chan and Natsuki, her girlfriend, are worried for Taeko, but she just smiles and says it needs to be done, even if she doesn't love him."
His voice wavered, almost on the verge of begging as he confessed to the cool slab.
"And Mayu-chan... we got married a few years ago. Out of all of them, she stayed; despite what she did and what they all did. It was a... a mutually beneficial marriage, considering our history. I've learned from my mistakes; I try not to keep any secrets from her, and so she knows about my past with Hanabishi. Grandfather died a year after we were married, and Mayu-chan, Saionji-san, Miyabi-san and Seiji helped take over the Hanabishi companies. Sakuraba took one half and Miyuki the other. I guess that Mayu-chan believed by doing that, she could help heal my scars. And somehow, knowing that Hanabishi is gone has helped. Only a little though.
"But even after that, she stayed. She is as devoted as you were. I would never hurt her like I hurt you... but somehow I end up doing it anyways. Mayu-chan knows that I'm still in love with you, and that I will always love you more than I'll ever love her. I don't say it, but she knows. It hurts her every day, even though she won't tell me, but she stays with me.
"What a mess I've made... Please forgive me... Please..."
His voice hitched as he choked out her name.
"Aoi-chan... No one could heal me like you did..."
Kaoru threw his head onto the statue's cold lap, greatly disturbing the fragile bouquet. Petals fell off and were scattered by the wind, as were the tears from his eyes. He desperately held onto the stone replica of Aoi, trying to derive some comfort from the action. He wanted to feel her warm hands stroking his hair and forehead, and her tender lap cushioning him, and his ears strained to hear the sweet hum of his mother's lullaby from her lips. The silence of the statue and the cold, hard stone against his cheek only left him feeling empty.
Aoi... Aoi made him feel whole and at peace; she made him feel like he could be a good person. She was acceptance and healing and unconditional love and everything that was most likely too good for him but he wanted and she gave him anyways.
He couldn't even bear to think or say her name.
Her. She made him acknowledge his flaws and feel so much more real because he was scarred. She made him feel alive, she made him feel like himself. She was imperfection and gratification and everything that was so wrong and so human.
Kaoru gave in to weakness because he thought that those two concepts could never be reconciled.
Aoi could have been everything, everything, everything to him, had he taken the time, and he lost her.
Because he was a coward. A complete and utter bastard.
All he had now was his guilt and grief over what was and what could have been.
"Aoi-chan, why couldn't you stay?" he quietly rasped.
The clipped sounds of shoes on pavement greeted Kaoru's ears. From far off, there were two sets. There was a slight pause with hushed voices carried on the wind, then the softer, higher pitched footfalls sped away, past the pavement and onto the grass. The heavier steps continued again, onward, only to stop a distance away from him.
There was a nervous cough, politely alerting Kaoru of another's presence.
"I will leave if you're not done yet."
Kaoru straightened himself, pulling away from Aoi's statue. He looked back to find the now head of Sakuraba Corporation, still in his suit and looking like he had just finished a day at the office. "No, stay."
The older man nodded and stepped forward to join Kaoru at the memorial.
Like Kaoru had done earlier, Seiji offered the stone Aoi a more modest gift. He laid two entwined flowers - a blue rose and white hollyhock - beside the mangled bouquet.
As Seiji took his turn to pray and pay his respects, Kaoru could not help but feel a pang of jealousy and pain. Jealousy that the man's meager offering conveyed more than an entire meadow of his flowers could, and pain at seeing the colour blue.
When the grass-haired man finished, he stated, "This is your first time here."
"Then you should know it angers me that it took you this long to visit."
He paused, considering that the younger man must be guilty enough.
"She left a lot of money for Meiritsu. It's called the Blue Fund. It's mostly used for scholarships, but also as financial aid for off-campus students and clubs... It appears that every time the school pranks happen, it isn't just the founder's statue that gets vandalized. They usually don't do anything too bad to her, though; just paint Aoi-hime up and put some make-up on her.
"But you should see Aoi-hime when it's her birthday. Her kimono is painted every year for the Tanabata. Every design is breathtaking. One year, her kimono was painted exactly like the night sky. The Milky Way on her obi and the middle of her kimono, with Hikoboshi here-" he pointed at a spot left of the centre, over where Aoi's heart should have been, "and Orihime there," and he pointed at her left thigh. "Every year, I remember taking her prayer flag from her and hanging it for her, just like when we were children. It was always the same wish, and I always put it on the highest branch. I told her that I'll make sure the gods see her wish first."
Kaoru watched as the other man reminisced, a fond smile peeked through Seiji's lips and his eyes sparkled as he looked into the statue's face, daring to face her when he himself could not.
At that moment, Kaoru wondered if his jealousy was the same that Aoi felt. He understood, more than ever, that must have been how Aoi felt whenever he and Tina, or Taeko, or Mayu would share stories and pictures of their time together. It was the jealousy that in his absence, someone else made precious memories and shared crucial moments with his beloved - that someone else took a part of Aoi that he would never have.
Of course, each man held the hollow consolation that no one else would have more of Aoi than the other.
For Kaoru, he had almost all of her heart.
For Seiji, he had almost all of her years and her last days.
And it was not enough.
Seiji's voice broke the grim tension. "How is Miyuki-san?"
"She is well... And Souten-san?"
"Sora-chan is also well."
Kaoru never really kept himself updated on the Sakuraba family, though he read the odd headline here or there. All he knew was that Sora Souten was Seiji's wife, and the heiress to the Souten construction empire.
The Soutens were practically new money, therefore Sora was not schooled in the wifely lessons like the women from older zaibatsu. She was definitely more modern since she wanted to pursue fashion and design, but balanced a love of tradition by trying to update the styles of wafuku and creating strangely patterned happi coats. They did not have an arranged marriage; Seiji had negotiated a contract with Souten Construction to work on Sakuraba projects for the next few years, and after the deal, he had accepted an invitation to celebrate a mutually beneficial arrangement with Souten-sama and his family. Of course, he met Sora, and with her long, sky blue hair and deep black eyes, he was attracted. They dated and found each other agreeable and likeable. It was nothing passionate and all consuming (both of them were sensible enough that it should not get to that), but they had found someone to love nonetheless.
"Are you here alone?"
"No. My daughter is with me," Kaoru answered.
"Really? As am I."
"I didn't know you had a daughter..."
"Sora and I are protective of her. She's a very delicate girl."
"Mmm... I'm the the same way with mine. What is her name?" asked Kaoru, even though both men knew the answer.
The name summoned two little girls, emerging like sprites from the trees. Both of them were the same height and age, garbed in little kimono.
Each man regarded the other's daughter, tongues holding back the accusation: Imposter.
Kaoru looked down at Aoi Sakuraba. For a moment, he thought he saw a forest with a tipped over tree behind the little girl, and a sandal strap of a different colour on her foot. The kimono and obi were the exact same colour as he remembered them (most likely the originals were handed down) but the memory disappeared from his vision when he saw her green eyes and teal hair. The little girl's hair was straight and styled the same, except the length was longer and reached her chin instead of the nape of her neck. Of course, the facial structure was almost the same - smooth and feminine - and though she was young, the resemblance was apparent since the original Aoi seemed to favour her father's cheekbones, and this little girl inherited that prominent Sakuraba trait.
Then he looked to his own daughter, Aoi Hanabishi. That was her name and it sounded depressingly pleasing. His daughter's hair was cut the same length as she had always kept it, except it was such a deep shade of violet it was almost black, until the sun hit it and the colour was more apparent. That, and the fact that it was wavy like her mother's, gave the hairstyle more of an outward curling bob, which was something that shouldn't have disappointed Kaoru, but did. She took after her mother too much. His daughter was wearing a light pink yukata with sakura petals imprinted on the fabric in a darker shade. It was a replica of one that she wore; maybe all her love had been transferred onto the fabric too, but that was doubtful. Still, naming her, dressing her and grooming her that way did not make his daughter Aoi.
The two girls each took their place at their fathers' side, smiling at each other.
"I see that Aoi-chan has made a friend," Kaoru said, ruffling his daughter's hair.
She beamed up at him. "Mmm! Chichiue, her name is Aoi-chan, too! And she was born around the Tanabata, just like me!"
Aoi Sakuraba tugged on her father's pant leg. "Papa," she said timidly, "can Aoi-chan come over to play?"
"Sa... that depends..."
The little girl's face furrowed as she struggled with a thought. "But, papa... I'm tired of playing with only oniichan."
"Chichiue! I want to play with Aoi-chan and her brother! Chichiue!" Kaoru's daughter pleaded insistently, just like her mother.
Without meaning to, Kaoru's face piqued, and Seiji caught it right away. They held it, looking evenly at each other as Kaoru formed his reply to his daughter.
"Of course, Aoi-chan. You can meet him, and Sakuraba-san and I will discuss matters. I'm sure your son wouldn't mind."
"No... I don't think he would. He could meet her... But, you and I, we have many things to discuss."
In the almost indigo hue of twilight, both men knew what this meant: an unspoken pledge before the memorial statue that a son of Sakuraba and a daughter of Hanabishi would meet. The four of them clapped their hands and bowed in respect to the statue, Seiji and Kaoru hoping and praying that they would do right by Aoi, the beloved woman the stone was shaped into.
First things first. While I'm personally not too fond of original characters in fanfiction, I thought I'd take up the challenge of creating an OC since the existing characters at hand couldn't be used to convey the ideas I had in mind for Aoi's progression. Though Miyabi knew Aoi for most of her life, she is much too old and too close to provide a more different and less biased perspective, and Aoi's parents are most definitely out of the question.
Seiji, as a plot device, had many uses. He was representative of the "outside world," a world that had little to do with Kaoru and that Aoi chose to ignore because of that lacking. His most basic purpose was to act as a window to Aoi's past and to fill in some of the blanks as to what happened during the in-between years. She had a life and a family before Kaoru. Now, the Sakuraba main family isn't entirely perfect, seeing as how Aoi was mostly raised by her grandmother and Miyabi, but there had to be others who cared for her and interacted with her. Having a cousin of similar age was more convenient because I wanted to show Aoi "at play" during her childhood and how some events shaped her life, even though they weren't directly related to Kaoru.
Using him, I also wanted to show the unfairness of the very traditional clan system that Aoi was born into. It appears to be very rigid and there is much discontent to the point where lines of family matters and business matters blur. There is in-fighting amongst clan factions, weddings are company mergers, and the matter of Aoi's purity reflects on the entire group's reputation. In regards to the unfairness and internal rebellion, I was influenced by the main and branch houses of the Hyuga clan in "Naruto," and the character Neji's situation - someone who has all the talent to lead but is unable to because of the station he was born into.
Unlike Neji, I didn't want to make Seiji bitter about his situation. I wanted to invert the usual take on it - in having a lower position, there is less expectation upon him, and thus more freedom, which is reflected in his more cosmopolitan upbringing. Even though he is of a "lower position" than Aoi, he still tries to retain strong family ties, and not clan ties, as seen in his rejection of Aoi's marriage proposal.
In terms of his personality, he is supposed to be more light-hearted in order to balance Aoi's brooding melancholy. In a way, he is the sense to her emotion. But, in being older, he has more experience in life, which is why he is very understanding of Aoi's pain and is accepting and accommodating of what he can expect in his life (shouganai - these things can't be helped). Of course, he has his moments of optimism, but only within the capacity of what he knows, or believes, he can achieve.
Getting into the name, Seiji translates into "green child." I had originally wanted use a female character named "Midori" (going along with the green theme), but a lot of the scenes and situations I wanted didn't work well with a female character. If it wasn't obvious, the names were taken from the male and female leads of "Midori no Hibi." Using green in a symbolic context, the colour represents foliage and growth, thus a nod towards the changes that are made through Seiji, as can be seen in the end of the story; he's moving Sakuraba away from the traditions of inter-clan marriage and fortification, but at the same time, he is immersed in it since (by chance, really) he has pragmatically married the someone from another prominent business family. So while he makes changes, he is changed in turn. By Aoi's death, he becomes more serious and stern, less optimistic. I had hoped to reflect that change in his dialogue, going from light-heartedness and deep understanding before Aoi's death, to being more serious and dour afterwards.
Overall, I wanted to create a well-rounded OC who was important to the story, but wouldn't overshadow the plot while at the same time be reduced to a mere cardboard cutout. I don't think I succeeded quite as well as I wanted to, but I made the effort and did the best I could.
Tennis: The most nagging thing that must be addressed: I understand that Aoi flying off the handle for the tennis portion was a bit too much and probably out into OOC territory, but I believe that given the emotional stress she was feeling and building up in her, it would've been a reasonable reaction that was bound to happen. Love definitely makes people crazy, and sometimes the most restrained and rational person is set off by the smallest things. If anyone has seen the anime Battle Athletes (the TV series, not the OVA), then the tennis freakout will be reminiscent of another sweet bluenette: Anna Respighi. Small nod to a friend of mine who is both an AYA and Battle Athletes fan.
Interlude: This scene could have gone anywhere, and would have fit better at the beginning of the story, prior to Seiji's arrival and when she was contemplating things by herself. It seemed more fitting to be placed towards the end, to show that though Aoi appears to be healing, she really isn't. To be tasteful, I wanted to portray Aoi in a moment vulnerability, and to show that she is most basically human. The love she feels for Kaoru isn't just from the heart, but also from her body. This scene should really drive home the point that she has completely given her all to him, and just how deep that is. It can't be ignored that as a wife, she's going to do more than just cooking and cleaning and being there for her husband, she is also a woman, and Aoi can be very sensual when she wants to be (or she just can't help being sensual sometimes). This is where Aoi as a wife and as a lover comes through. And of course, it a good segue into the... penetration and le (petit) mort scene at the end; yes, horrible terrible morbid puns intended.
Jigai: The female equivalent of seppuku is known as "jigai," and it involves cutting the jugular vein, as well as tying the ankles together to ensure descent into a demure pose. Aoi takes her own life mainly because she feels she has no purpose in her life and that it isn't worth living without Kaoru; her excuse to kill herself is to preserve her family's honour, which she feels she has disgraced by losing her marriage to Kaoru. The ending of "Madame Butterfly" is the biggest inspiration for this scene, and for her secondary motivation to commit suicide.
Now, I've only been familiar with the anime and not the manga, so I'm not sure where characterization diverges, but Aoi has been shown to persevere and try to work through her problems with Kaoru. And on the other hand, she keeps a lot of things to herself to avoid worrying him. Aoi's love and devotion are admirable, but also quite frightening. Since she was little, she has lived her entire life for only one person, and so she probably holds a lot of lofty ideals of Kaoru and their relationship. Should that relationship sour and end, her reaction could be very extreme - she will have lost her reason for living. Of course, the more extreme reaction makes for good drama and for a good story.
I was asked "Why didn't she kill herself when she lost his engagement the first time?" My reasoning is that Aoi sought out Kaoru because she needed to hear it straight from him that the engagement was over between them; she couldn't just take some distant message passed down to her. Now, when Kaoru betrayed her trust, the very act was enough to tell Aoi, "It's over, I don't love you anymore." His actions spoke louder than his words, than his apologies.
There were definitely long chunks of dialogue, both inner and outer, and while the latter is a big turn-off to some readers, I tried to break it up the conversations by interjecting some small actions and by making the way each person speaks unique to themselves. Reflecting Aoi's dignified upbringing, she doesn't use contractions, but I tried to phrase things in a way so that they sounded natural and not too clunky or awkward.
It must be remembered that this is Aoi's story; she is the central focus, which is why the perspective is limited omniscient, with a majority of the inner thoughts and feelings being Aoi's.
The story was originally inspired by Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," and my own personal experiences. The first part was mainly written as a form of catharsis, and soon, the entire story ran away from me. It's the same basic situation with the same basic feelings, but the people and their reactions are different. The entire ordeal is not a smooth one, with many bouts of depression and self-doubt that set back recovery and make for personal revelations. I really hoped to lend a credible voice and sense of understanding to the pain and turmoil that I felt and that Aoi would feel, while at the same time, staying true to her character and never blurring the line between me and her.
The main focus was more about Aoi's turmoil, but to make the situation more separate, her forgetfulness of a family beyond Kaoru was peripheral to the story. This forgetfulness was supposed to show the downside of being so devoted, so single-minded in her pursuit. Of course, the awareness of such insensitivity helped lead towards Aoi's personal revelations and her secondary reasoning for suicide.
Gee, I made him out to be a complete and utter bastard. I call him Bastard!Kaoru, and hopefully he will be showing up more in my future fics - kidding, kidding! While it can be said that he would never, ever, 99.99999 to infinity percent chance cheat on Aoi, a boy surrounded by so much temptation is bound to give in to weakness eventually. I never wanted to identify who the girl in question was because I felt that it would take away from fact that the betrayal had happened. I tried to make it so that all of them were guilty in one way or another; it could have been any of the girls, or all of them! Except Chika, cause, c'mon... loli? No, with a capital "NO!" What remains is that Kaoru had cheated on Aoi, and that act is enough to drive them apart.
Of course, the reason Kaoru does come off as such a bastard is because we do not get into Kaoru's head until the very end. It was intentional to hide his motivations and thoughts until after the fact Aoi is dead and gone.
The only time there was some speculation about what Kaoru was thinking was during Aoi and Seiji's Genji conversation. It's as they said, Kaoru is basically a very good man who made a few horrible mistakes. His weakness could be that he is too good: he's too kind to ever hurt the other girl by refusing her, and he's too honest to ever lie to Aoi about his infidelity.
The Tale of Genji
Since Aoi is a very traditional girl, I think she would prefer to read Japanese classics, thus her favourite book being Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu. I think it's reasonable to assume that Aoi would also love Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. It was by coincidence that I found out there was a chapter in there called "Aoi" and that the woman whom the chapter features was Genji's first wife. One of the most difficult things about the novel is that in its original text, none of the characters are directly named, and so the woman was referred to as Lady Aoi in modern translations. Ironically enough, she also dies, and so I used the reference to foreshadow Aoi's death. Another coincidence is that one of the characters (in modern translations) has been named Kaoru.
Leave it to me to squeeze in a ROD reference with Jinbochou.
Now, the scene at the end with Kaoru and Seiji's daughters, the two Aois, is a borrowing of a theme from Genji Monogatari. The last part of the book features two men who are supposed to have been descended from Genji and try to recapture their predecessor's glory, but are shown to be imperfect copies of him. That is what I wanted to portray through the daughters; Seiji and Kaoru are trying to recapture the essence that was Aoi, to keep some part of her alive and close to them, but they are unable to. All they have are two innocent girls who are unaware of the expectations they have to live up to in their fathers' eyes.
Aoi's bouquet: blue violet - modesty, love, and faithfulness; campanula/pyramidal bell flower - constancy; cornflower - delicacy; periwinkle - early friendship/attachment; forget-me-not - true love, forget me not; sakura - transient beauty
Kaoru's bouquet: buttercup - memories of childhood; yellow chrysanthemum - slighted love, a heart left to desolation; raspberry - remorse; quince - temptation
Seiji's flowers: blue rose - rare and unique beauty, not meant for this world; white hollyhock - female ambition, hollyhock is also known as "aoi" in Japanese
Meanings of most of the flowers (except for sakura and blue rose) used in the bouquets were taken from The Language of Flowers (just remove the spaces for: home . comcast . net / bryant . katherine / flowers . html)
Many many thanks to 2trick for your wonderful beta-reading. You really helped me put together a more effective and powerful story.