Author's Note: Here's the last chapter. Hope everyone enjoys!
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
A Persistent Hope
It had been a long night. She hadn't felt very festive since returning from the sleigh ride that had started out so well, but had ended so abruptly. Any hint of the Aoshi she had seen in the forest was gone. His stoic mask was firmly in place once again. She had deliberately delayed retiring for the night after dinner, hoping that Aoshi would leave the men's gathering in the library early and come to speak with her. When it was apparent he wouldn't be leaving anytime soon, Misao departed to the room she shared with Kaoru and tried to get some sleep.
It was impossible to sleep, however. Every time she closed her eyes, Aoshi was staring back at her, his eyes full of emotion, his hands cradling her face. Misao sucked in an unsteady breath and studied the ceiling.
Was it too much to hope that he returned her feelings even a little bit? Her stomach clenched at the thought. It would be crushing to get her hopes up now, only to be let down gently and told 'You're a very nice young woman, however…' She wouldn't be able to bear that. It felt like everything that she had been hoping for almost all of her life depended on these next few days. She had always been anxious for such a time to come, but now that it had, she almost felt like dragging her feet.
With a frustrated sigh, Misao sat up and pushed the blankets aside. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, shoved her feet into her slippers and hastily grabbed her wrapper. She was careful to be quiet to avoid waking Kaoru. Carefully, she opened the door and slipped out. Warm milk had always helped her to settle her nerves and sleep. Though she was unfamiliar with the complete layout of the manor, she was fairly certain that she remembered where the kitchen was located. She only hoped that the cook wouldn't be too irate by one of the house guests helping themselves to the supplies and stove.
Five minutes and two wrong turns later, Misao rounded a corner and finally found the kitchen. She had taken several steps inside before realizing that she wasn't alone. A single candle flickered on a worktable in the center of the room, softly illuminating the lone man.
It seemed like a private moment that shouldn't have been interrupted. Aoshi's sleeves were rolled up to reveal corded forearms, and the neck of his shirt was unbuttoned displaying the skin of throat. His left elbow rested on the top of the table while he held a fork in his right hand. A piece of half-eaten chocolate cake sat before him.
Normally, she would have walked right up to the table and requested a bite, but Aoshi had left her out-of-sorts this afternoon, and she remained frozen in the entranceway of the kitchen.
"Looking for something?" he asked, breaking the silence. The dim light hid his features.
"Milk," she responded quickly. "I came for milk."
He motioned to the small pitcher of milk resting on the table. "Help yourself."
She spied a collection of clean glasses to the right, reached over and grabbed one. Slowly, she walked over to the table, sat down in the only other chair – one only a few feet from where he sat – and then reached for the pitcher.
After pouring a glass, she gulped down a mouthful and almost choked when she noticed his eyes hadn't left her face.
"I couldn't sleep," she blurted out, her cheeks warming.
"Neither could I," he responded, surprising her. "Usually I end up working the night away, but I couldn't help myself. The cake called to me."
Misao lifted a skeptical brow. "It called to you?"
He was utterly serious when he replied, "Yes. It's my favorite and very hard to resist. This seemed like the best way to pass time."
Misao was silent for a moment. "Warm milk helps me sleep."
"Having problems, I presume?"
"Well, it's not everyday that I'm accosted in the middle of the woods," she retorted before thinking.
"Accosted? If I remember correctly, you were the first to attack. I merely retaliated."
She snorted. "That's all it was? Retaliation for being hit by a small snowball?"
"That snowball was not small."
Misao pursed her lips. The comment demanded defense of some sort, but something in his expression made the words die in her mouth.
He set down his fork and she watched as he shoved his chair back slowly and stood. Wordlessly, he grabbed the back of her chair and pulled it back slightly. Cupping her elbow with one hand, he exerted enough pressure to get her to stand. Once she was on her feet, his hands slid from her elbows and up her arms, across her collarbone, fingers caressing the sensitive skin of her neck before stopping at her cheeks. His eyes burned into hers, and there was desperation in them tonight, something she had never seen in them before.
"Pardon me," he murmured, and lowered his lips to hers.
It was soft and delicate and wonderful. His lips molded seamlessly to hers, shifting, brushing, teasing her. She sighed against his mouth, welcoming the gentle press of his lips against her own. Her parted lips were invitation enough and when his tongue slipped inside, Misao's eyes flew open in surprise. He tasted of rich chocolate and brandy, and as his tongue traced the inside of her lips, she relaxed, her fingers curling in his short black hair, her body pressing against his. His lips gradually became more demanding, coaxing her, encouraging her to follow his lead. She had never experienced something so delicious and sensual. She wanted to drown in his kisses and never leave the comforting circle of arms. Coherent thought slipped from her mind and all that was left was Aoshi, his lips, his hands, his hard body against hers. A fire lit in her and she slid her arms around his neck, bringing him closer, deepening the kiss and the onslaught on her nerves.
With a muffled curse, Aoshi's hands slid to her shoulder and gently, yet firmly pushed her away. He was breathing heavily, and his eyes were a stormy, dark blue. Misao stepped towards him to close the sudden distance between them, but his face suddenly became shuttered of emotion. In a hoarse voice, he said, "I apologize for my behavior. Please excuse me."
She watched as he spun on his heel and stalked out of the room, leaving her alone and trembling in the candlelit room. She could still feel the imprint of his hands on her skin, the brush of his lips against hers. Misao shuddered and hugged her arms about herself.
It had been two days since Aoshi had kissed her in the kitchen. He had been skillfully avoiding her since then. He managed to time his breakfast perfectly so that he was already finished by the time she arrived. He always seemed to be occupied with one guest or the other, out riding, working in his study – staying as busy as possible. He acted as if he couldn't be still for one moment, fearful that she would pounce on him.
Which was probably true. At first, she'd been filled with eagerness to see him and to be with him once more. However, that eagerness had morphed into annoyance and then finally into anger. When she had glared at him over dinner the previous night, he had stared at her a split second longer than normal before turning to speak to the man seated next to him. At least she had gotten some sort of reaction from him, no matter how small it had been.
Kaoru told her to be patient – things would eventually fall into place. Misao felt, however, that she had waited long enough. If their relationship continued on its current path, she'd end up dying an old spinster still pining for Aoshi. She had tried a few tricks in an attempt to catch him alone, but all had failed to her utter disgust and dismay. If an award existed for 'The Most Annoying Man to Walk the Earth', Aoshi would have won it, hands down.
It was hard to remain in a truly bad mood, though, with all the beautiful Christmas decorations. They set a stunning festive scene that seemed to calm her nerves a little when they threatened to careen out of control. Kaoru helped, too, with her own comforting presence.
Christmas Eve had arrived, and several servants were carrying the heavy Yule. Misao watched as they placed it in the hearth with several remnant splinters of the last year's log and then set it aflame. Beside her, Kaoru clapped and smiled as she watched. It was good to see her so happy, enjoying the festivities.
A dance had been planned for later in the day, and Misao wasn't looking forward to it in the least. Dancing held no appeal and neither did the prospect of watching other woman fawn all over Aoshi. She was tired of him avoiding her, and she had half a mind to confront him, but knew that making such a scene would not only look terrible but ruin her reputation.
Lady Petunia and several of her friends stepped forward and suggested come caroling. There was an overwhelming agreement between the guests and they all crowded around the piano. A well-known holiday tune filled the air and was soon accompanied by plethora of voices that ranged from heavenly to horrid. Kaoru stood off to the side, a small smile on her lips as she watched the guests sing merrily. Misao felt her stomach twist painfully when she saw Aoshi's dark head lean close to Lady Petunia's. He wasn't singing, but he seemed caught in the moment.
With a heavy sigh, Misao hurried to the terrace doors and slipped out. It was too cold to stay outside long without some sort of cloak, but she welcomed the biting cold. It wasn't quite dark outside, and while the garden below offered no pretty flowers for contemplation, there were several nice stone benches interspersed among the naked bushes. Misao went down the steps to the barren garden and meandered down the path. Stopping near a particularly interesting looking tree, she reached out to tug a branch and the thick bark bit into her fingers. She shivered involuntarily as a particularly strong gust of wind blew straight through the thin fabric of her dress.
Misao gasped when a man's dinner jacket enveloped her small frame, providing warmth and shielding her from the wind. She turned quickly from the tree, her gaze darting to her sudden companion. Aoshi slid his hands into the pockets of his trousers and stared not at her but out across the garden with something akin to wistfulness in his gaze.
She didn't know what to say, which was irritating because she always had something to say. The second she had seen him standing there, her tongue had become thick and her lips had sealed shut – a terrible combination. She was warm, too. Warmer than she should have been even though she now had his jacket. The warmth seemed to start at the tip of her toes, climbed swiftly up her legs, and pooled comfortably in her chest.
He sighed and turned his piercing gaze to hers.
"I think our children will like it here," he remarked matter-of-factly.
For the first time in her life, Misao's mind went blank. Her eyes widened and her lips parted as she stood in an unbelieving stupor. She could only manage an incoherent garble in the back of her throat that made her sound ill.
He said something too soft for her to hear and then started to walk down the garden path that led back to manor.
Misao blinked and shook her head before rushing after him, clutching his jacket more closely around her body. "You can't just say something like that and walk away!" She darted in front him, her breath coming in short bursts as she pressed her palm flat against his chest. "I demand an explanation!"
There was the barest curve to his lips. "Our children will enjoy this place."
"And where are these children coming from? I certainly don't remember giving birth!"
"We'll have them after we're married, of course."
Misao jerked, and finally allowed herself the slimmest bit of hope to bloom in her chest. "Is that some sort of odd proposal?"
"And if it is?"
Her mouth gaped and she stared at him for a moment before saying, "I can't accept such a proposal. Do it right or not at all!"
He stared blankly at her.
"You haven't even told me that you love me!"
"Do you love me?"
"Don't turn this on me. I asked first."
He gave her a maddeningly calm smile before starting forward again and climbing the steps back up to the terrace.
She followed close behind at his heels.
"Aoshi don't you dare walk back in there so you can ignore me again! I've had enough of that."
Instead of going to the glass doors that led back into the ballroom where the festivities continued, he continued along the edge of the terrace and stopped at a set of doors she had never entered before. He pulled out a small ring of keys from his pocket and swiftly unlocked the room and ushered her inside.
It was his study. Her eyes scanned the ceiling-tall bookshelves holding books on hundreds of different subjects. His desk sat on the far side of the room away from the window as if he feared outside distractions. There was a large mahogany table in the middle of the room with a huge world map that covered the entire surface. Several small, wooden ships were placed in different parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Misao assumed he was keeping track of the merchant vessels he had sailing the seas.
She walked over to the table with the map and trailed her fingers along the smooth wood.
"I haven't seen avoiding you," he said softly.
Misao snorted. "I beg to differ."
"I've been trying to straighten out my thoughts."
"About you, of course. You're haunting me. You've been haunting me for years. I can't seem to get any work done these days. I close my eyes and I see your face, your eyes, your smile staring back at me, and…and…"
After several moments of silence, she looked to see his brow furrowed and his eyes troubled. "This isn't easy for me to say."
Misao swallowed and took a step towards him. His head jerked up and he lifted his hand to keep her in place. He ran a hand distractedly through his hair and leaned back against the desk behind him.
"I've loved you for so long. But, it was never the right time to tell you. Problems kept cropping up, and I was forced to turn away from what I wanted, so that I could do what was necessary."
Misao's eyes widened with every word he spoke. He watched as she blinked rapidly, attempting to assimilate what he had told her. Misao swallowed. "You're speaking of your father's death?"
"Yes. I meant to offer for you a couple years ago, but my situation altered and I was needed elsewhere. I could only hope that you wouldn't transfer your affections to someone else. My whole intention of coming to London recently was to meet with you and judge for myself if you were still – " he stopped and sighed. "…if you still felt for me as you always had."
"And what did you find?"
She could tell that he was uncomfortable. He had never been good at expressing his feelings. In fact, he was dismal at it. But, there was a sincerity in his eyes that humbled and warmed her.
"You hadn't changed at all." His eyes bore into hers. "You haven't changed at all," he clarified. "Still exuberant, reckless, and unpredictable."
He pushed away from the desk and walked to her. His footsteps were muffled by the carpet. When he reached her, his fingers whispered over the skin of her arm, stopping at the sensitive skin on the inside of her elbow. He lowered his head, and she watched as he took her hand in his own and slowly brought it up to his lips where he breathed the lightest of kisses.
"It doesn't seem like anytime will ever be the right time. No matter how much planning is involved, something always occurs to stop me." He pulled her to him, laying her hand on his shoulder and slipping an arm slowly around her waist.
Misao let out a shuddering sigh. "You've had me so confused recently."
"That wasn't my intention."
The corner of her mouth lifted as she stared in the bottomless blue of his eyes, losing herself in the swirling emotion that clouded them. Lifting herself onto the tips of her toes and tightening her arm around his shoulders, she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his.
Aoshi groaned against her mouth, and his hand clenched on her waist. This kiss seemed different, more important somehow that their previous one. It started out feathery light as the merest brush of lips against lips. Gently, Aoshi deepened it, shaping her lips with his, tasting her with his tongue before slipping inside her mouth to explore. Misao's heart beat furiously in her chest as she returned his caresses with her own. She leaned into him, pressing against his chest her fingers digging into the back of his neck.
All of her senses were heightened. She was overwhelmed by the beat of his heart against her own, the smoothness of his skin against her fingertips, and the way he made her feel intoxicated with his mouth. Her arms seemed to lose their strength, and his grip around her wiast strengthened in response.
She felt herself falling. She wanted this to last forever. And so when he pulled slowly away from her, a low murmur of protest left her lips. She could feel the curve of his mouth as a slow smile spread over his lips. His forehead came to rest against hers and with an unsteady breath he said, "Marry me."
Misao's eyes flew open. His eyes were still closed and there was a look of peace on his face that she had never seen before. She drank in his features like a dying woman, memorizing the slant of his nose, the line of his lips, the way his jaw curved. He was everything she had ever and would ever want. Overwhelmed with relief, pleasure and excitement, she grinned and laughed and pressed her face against his neck while saying, "Yes, yes, yes! You'll never get rid of me now!"
She felt his chest rumble as he chuckled, the sound almost foreign to her ears. She leaned back, her smile broad.
"Your life will never be peaceful."
"I'm resigned to that."
"As long you're aware," she replied with a laugh.
"My eyes are wide open. I know everything there is to know about you." He brushed a loose lock of hair from her forehead. "The good. The bad. The unimaginable. I know it all."
"I love you."
He was silent for a moment, his hand cradling her cheek. With the smallest of smiles, he leaned down and kissed her again.
She was being scandalous again. It seemed, however, that whenever Aoshi was involved, she threw all sense out the window and dashed headlong into trouble. She was grinning as she hurried down the dark hallway, her bare feet silent on the cool marble of the floor. As she reached the end of the hall, her gaze darted either way, checking for any stragglers. When it was apparent no one was approaching, she turned and tiptoed to the door on her right.
Praying that the door was unlocked, she exhaled with relief as the knob turned easily and she slipped through the doorway and into the bedroom.
He didn't seem surprised to see her, his gaze nonchalant as he stared at her from his seat on the cushioned sofa next the warm fireplace. He held a book in his hands and one ankle was crossed casually over the knee of his other leg.
Misao felt a rush of affection as she stared at him. He was hers. Hers. There would never be another woman to get in her way. No more Lady Petunias to bother her.
"I couldn't help myself," she said without remorse.
As she walked slowly over to him, her fingers played with the edge of the sleeve of her dressing gown. She settled down next to him on the sofa, drawing one leg underneath her. She was eager and restless. She had been itching to ask him all day, but with the congratulations of her parents, Kaoru, and the guests at the party about their upcoming nuptials, she hadn't been able to find the right time.
Aoshi watched her closely as he set down his book on the side table.
"When can we get married?" she asked.
"A long engagement is typical for my family."
She frowned, sending him a suspicious look. "How long is 'long'?"
"Half a year is the customary period."
Misao frowned and fidgeted. "Half a year? Are you mad?"
"Patience is an important aspect for many people to have," he reasoned with her, though he hid his smile.
"And you know fully well that I have no such virtue."
"You're actually going to make me wait six months?"
"I cannot change traditions."
"Why, yes, you can!"
He reached across the small space separating them and slipped his fingers through her loose hair and then down to the base of her neck. "I can't."
"Out of some misguided sense of duty?"
"Out of the need to do everything correctly," he corrected. "Rushing into things has never done anyone any good."
She was silent for a moment before she raised her hands and placed them palm down in his chest. She could feel the gentle thump of his heart against her skin. She was pleased that he was unaffected by her touch.
"Why do you have to be so unreasonably stubborn?"
"Me?" he responded dryly. "That's funny coming from you."
"I am always reasonable."
"Though I can be a bit stubborn."
She sat in stony silence, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
"I'm not going anywhere, you know."
She scoffed. "As if I would let you."
"There is another reason why I think we should delay. At least for a while."
She sent him a bemused glare. "And that would be?"
"I'd like for Kenshin to be able to be there, if he should choose. His ship will be returning in several months, and he is the best friend that I have. Not to mention, I think a certain young woman we know would benefit from his being near. If anyone can get him to eventually settle down, it would be her."
Misao's eyes cleared and her lips curved into a soft smile. "I see."
"I want him to be happy. Kaoru, too. They both seem to be fine, but I know Kenshin. I know that while he thinks he's doing the best thing by staying away, he's only hurting himself and her."
Misao sighed and shifted. "Alright. I agree to your plan."
He pulled her gently to him, drawing her halfway across his lap. His lips touched her temple and moved down the soft skin of her cheek.
"Are you sure you'll be able to hold off?"
Smiling, she pulled him to her. "I think I'll manage to survive. Besides, I have you, and you're all I've ever wanted."