For the most part, Kuro keeps his eyes on his assigned dishes — he handles the lighter dishes not involving fish, which are Misao-chan's, the palate cleansers, and the desserts — and lets the various dramas of the Aoi-ya pass him by. His life has been much simpler since he retired from active duty and he rather likes it that way. Which isn't to say that he won't leave retirement when Aoshi-san reforms the Oniwabanshuu. But really, he's been much happier without the drama.

The strange new tensions between Aoshi-san and Misao-chan, however, are all but impossible to ignore. Everyone else may have been awkard around Aoshi-san when he first returned, but Misao has been at his side and seemingly comfortable there from the moment they returned from Tokyo.

This sudden awkwardness, this sudden estrangement, is a direct shift in all the balances that make up how they all relate to each other. What's worse, even Omasu and Okon have been distant.

Honestly, Kuro half expects Shiro to suddenly develop a new personality and for them to start fighting.

But after the third night running that Omasu and Okon don't exchange a word of gossip during staff dinner and Misao-chan seems awkward in her seat next to Aoshi-san, Kuro doesn't think he can continue to ignore it.

Later that night, when Shiro steps outside the Aoi-ya for a quick break, Kuro follows. Misao-chan wails something about being left alone with a mountain of staff dishes, but from her tone, she actually doesn't much mind.

He's never heard of a woman liking to prepare fish or wash dishes, but Misao-chan certainly doesn't mind them.

"Do you have any idea what's going on around here? Omasu and Okon aren't talking, and now Aoshi-san and Misao-chan seem awkward around each other."

"Aoshi-sama listened to Okon," Shiro says simply.

Which actually almost tells Kuro everything he needs to know. He groans a little, then asks, "What did she suggest?"

Kuro groans again when Shiro tells him. It really does explain absolutely everything that's been happening. And it only gets worse:

"So now Aoshi-sama is... well, not happy, that's for sure," Shiro says. "You see what he did to that drunk right before dinner?"

Aoshi-san would never be so crass as to take his frustrations out on any of the staff. But drunken idiots who harass the women of the Aoi-ya? Kuro has no doubt that having some larger plan thwarted may have been in play when Aoshi-san dragged the latest offender out by force and threw him in the street.

Of course, it could have been that the words teach that girl to mind her place got tossed around. The only person deciding the place of an Oniwaban clan member is the Okashira. Throwing casual disregard for the girl in question and a dismissal of his position as Okashira, however unknowing, onto the fire of Aoshi-san's existing frustrations and protectiveness of Misao-chan...

Well. Kuro only heard the bone break in three places, and it's not like a simple tea supplier with three grown sons can't spare his left arm for a few weeks. Really, he doesn't blame Aoshi-san a bit.

It's just... a cause for concern.

"We can't go on like this," Kuro says. "It's just not right."

"No," Shiro says. Unfortunately, he follows it up with, "Oh no. I am not getting involved. This was one of Okon's schemes. We should just stay out of it and let things fix themselves. If we get involved, it'll just get worse."

"Before it gets better," Kuro points out.

"It'll get better anyway. No, I am staying out of this mess." With that, Shiro turns around and heads back in, washing his hands in the basin they keep next to the kitchen door.

Misao-chan has not touched the dishes. She is instead staring at them in something like horror, eyes wide and fists clenched. A flush has begun to spread its burn across her cheeks, not the usual pink but an almost painful-looking red.

Shiro looks to Kuro. Kuro looks back at Shiro.

"So, we'll handle the dishes," Shiro says, blithely. "You... just talk to Aoshi-sama, will you? You might be able to read him better than any of us, but he's got a lot on his mind right now."

Her fists clench even tighter and her eyes narrow. "He's not talking to me. He keeps saying that I've made my wishes clear and the subject is closed."

Shiro keeps his voice mild, reasonable. This is the talking to scary kunoichi with lots of knives tone. "Well, haven't you? You don't want to do the fake wedding thing, right?"

"I'll do what he wants! If he thinks that's best for this family and he doesn't mind the consequences, it's fine with me! I only don't want it if this is some chained-to-the-job thing." Misao-chan unclenches her fists, her eyes widening again as her anger dissipates, replaced by confusion. "Why is that so hard for him to understand?"

"So make him some tea and ask him to hear you out."

There's a moment of silence before she finally nods. "You're right, of course. Why are you and Kuro so sensible all the time? It makes the rest of us look crazy."

Shiro just laughs. Kuro can't help but grin, not that he'd fight it too hard. And even Misao-chan smiles at them for a moment before grabbing a tray and one of the less-important household use tea boxes. She's out the door in a flash, then right back in again for hot water. She bobs a quick bow as she leaves.

Kuro looks at Shiro. Shiro looks at Kuro.

"I thought you weren't getting involved," Kuro says.

One of Aoshi-sama's private quirks is that he hates tea that he hasn't seen prepared. If there is even the slightest thing wrong with it, it will be all he tastes. He's never said anything to Misao about it when she brought him tea she'd already made, but she's noticed his displeasure. Sometimes she feels like Shinomori Aoshi was the very first book she learned to read.

And he has to have noticed that everybody else has noticed the strange thing lying between them. He's very, very smart. He understands people even better than she does, and she spent years on the road learning very quickly how to tell when to trust, when to watch, and when to run or fight.

So she doesn't expect him to look so surprised when she knocks on his door with a kettle and her tea supplies. It's a fleeting expression, just a quick widening of his eyes, before he resumes his impassive look.

"May I come in?"

His gaze drops to the tea set for a moment before he steps aside. She moves immediately to the low table in the corner of the room, setting the tea box on the table and withdrawing its supplies with only a little care for their placements beyond the practical.

The tea is a backdrop, an excuse to talk. The conversation is what's important.

"I think we've maybe misunderstood each other," she tells him.

"Misao, this discussion is —"

"I'm asking you to open it again. Because I think we didn't understand each other."

He gives her a long look before seating himself across from her. She makes tea, each step and motion automatic. The movements are economical, functional, easy.

"So what did you mean by necessity? Are you saying it's something you loathe the idea of doing, but the job means you think you have to?"

That startles him. It's another quick flicker of his eyes. But he regains his composure almost instantly and says nothing. He stays silent while she finishes preparing the tea. Their heartbeats, their breath rhythms, her movements are the only sounds in the room.

He transfers his gaze to her hands and wrists when she pours. He accepts the tea, waits a moment, takes a sip. But he still doesn't say anything.

So Misao doesn't either. He's either marshaling his thoughts or weighing the pros and cons of kicking her out.

Either way, the quiet's going to break soon.

Except it doesn't. He drinks his tea without saying a word. It'd be annoying if it wasn't confusing. What's he even thinking? He's got to be thinking about something, he's always thinking about something. Does he still think the subject is —

"The life of the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu is not about what he or she wants."

"That doesn't make it all about what he doesn't want, either," she points out. "And you're obviously not about to insist that all of Kyoto thinks I married you if I don't agree to it."

"Aa," he says.

"Thought so." She pours him more tea, trying to gather her own words. After a moment, she asks, "Aoshi-sama... if this isn't something you hate the very idea of, then... Then I can live with it. I can live with —"

"You deserve better."

"Better than you? You know I don't believe there's such a person."

"Better than an imitation."

"Well, yeah..." She toys with the tea whisk, trying to sort her feelings.

Of course she wants more than some amazake-weak imitation of being married to Aoshi-sama. They both deserve better than that.

But more than that, more than anything — even more than she wants Aoshi-sama all to herself, even more than she wants to see his smile — she wants him to be happy. And if having a good cover story to rebuild the Oniwabanshuu would make him happy, if he could actually be happy while all of Kyoto thinks he's her husband, then... then...

There's no clean divide between "want this thing" and "do not want this thing." She doesn't even see a divide between "want this thing" and "want that thing." It's all — it's —

It's "want this thing a lot" against "want that thing even more."

And if Aoshi-sama will be happy, then she would gladly make that trade. Let go of the lesser wish to fulfill the greater one; pass by the river to visit the ocean.

She looks back up at Aoshi-sama. His lips are turned down in frown that's grimmer than usual, brows hooking — if only barely — in an expression that means he thinks she's about to say something he won't like.

Maybe she is.

"But I don't mind it, if you won't be unhappy."

He stares at her.

Misao pours him another cup of tea.

They say nothing. Time drags moments away slowly, as if the silence got its hooks in and doesn't want to let go.

At last Aoshi-sama seems to find a response, or maybe just breaks down and gives in to his initial reaction.

"Why?" He asks, voice soft but rough.

And so she tries to lay it out for him. It takes her a while — she feels feelings; she doesn't think them. She's not used to nailing them down in words, and she's certainly not as good at breaking things down as he is.

But she thinks, when the last attempt at words dries up, that he's got a good idea of what she was trying to say.

He looks down at the tea she's left on the table. By now it's begun to go cold. His eyes flutter closed and for a moment his features are not only fine but striking. Misao loses her train of thought.

At last, he opens his eyes and looks to her. But he says only, "I see."

His voice is flat, as if simply accepting new information.

And Misao thinks back to I can accept necessity and in its own way it's almost as bad as Never show your face to me again.

She was only trying to help, only trying to step across this strange new gap between them. And now she suspects she's gone and hurt him.

"I'm sorry," she says, plainly. "I guess I should have just left this all alone."

"No," he says. He doesn't say anything else for a while, then adds, quietly, "Enough, Misao."

It's just two words, but she can hear the I need to think as plain as if he'd actually said it.

So she gathers her things and goes, bowing before she leaves the room. It's not the quick bow she uses with Jiya and Himura; it's slow, deep with the weight of respect. She holds it for just a moment longer than common courtesy would say she has to, then steps backward through the door and closes it.

Aoshi-sama doesn't say anything more to her about Okon's fake wedding idea. But he seems more relaxed around her the next day. She spends most of the day near him — or maybe he spends the day near her. It seems like every time she turns around, Aoshi-sama is in the kitchen, or sitting in a corner of the tea room and watching her so intently she can feel it like heat on her back.
By dinner, they're their usual selves. Well, their usual selves plus Aoshi-sama's staring.

Unfortunately, they're the only ones. Omasu and Okon are still basically ignoring each other. She can see it in the way they never make eye contact and the way they never really talk. It's not quite "Shiro, tell Okon to pass the pickled vegetables"/"Kuro, tell Omasu I don't have them" yet, but if this goes on much longer...

How sad. From what Misao understands, they've been friends all their lives. Certainly as long as anyone can remember.

She leans forward to grab a dish and lets her arm rub against Aoshi-sama's. It only lasts a heartbeat, but it still feels forward and invasive and she almost regrets it.

When he looks at her, as if asking why she felt she could touch him, she turns her head to look at Okon.

He looks at both Okon and Omasu, then back to her. His head dips in a brief nod.

So he reads her as well as she reads him. She thought he did, but it's nice to be sure. She can't help the smile that curves across her lips.

And she can't help but be delighted when his mouth softens just a bit in response to her smile.

Later, she takes him tea in his room again. Just like before, she prepares it in front of him.

Just like before, the tea's an excuse.

"Well, whatever we think of the idea, I don't think it's a good reason to stop talking to Okon," she says.

He lifts his cup to his lips, takes a deep sip. "And you propose...?"

"I have no idea. We can't exactly make them talk to each other. I guess I should talk to Omasu. I'm not sure why she's still so mad, anyway."

Aoshi-sama raises an eyebrow. Then he says, coolly, "You are quicker to forgive than most."

"You make it sound like a bad thing." That gives her pause. She poors him another cup, then asks, "It's not, is it?"

"Not often," he says. But his gaze has gone distant. He's thinking of something else, some other place or time.

Misao gets the sinking feeling that he's thinking back on the things he's done, the way he's hurt the family, and the fact that she forgave him for it. That she could still love him through all of it, that she still loves him now.

So she asks: "So was it just me or were you shadowing me today?"

"Aa," he replies.


But he shakes his head once. Apparently, he's still thinking something over.

So she gathers her things and leaves again. This time, she can feel him watching her go; his gaze burns along her skin, leaves her cheeks pink and her heart trembling in her chest.

The next day, someone leaves a bolt of silk for her with Omasu. It's bright, shimmering blue with embroidered with roiling waves at the bottom and seagulls along the top, where the shoulders would be if someone sewed it into a kimono. Misao can't help running her hands over the silk, eager to start sewing, even if she can't wear it in winter.

Omasu seems to like it, too. She runs her fingertips over the bolt of cloth and smiles at Misao.

"Who sent that?" Okon asks upon seeing it.

"Our usual silk merchant's son delivered it," Omasu says, automatically answering Okon. "Someone bought it for our Misao-chan and didn't leave a name."

"Hmph. I knew he'd come around," Okon says, and Omasu rolls her eyes.

"I don't think it was Aoshi-sama," Misao says. He's never been interested in extravagant gifts — either giving them or receiving them. And he'd been watching her all day; when would he have had time to purchase her silk?

But it's good to see Omasu and Okon talking again.

Sorry it took me so long to get this chapter out; unfortunately I think I'm kind of in a corner in Breathe+Blow (though I may not be). It should hopefully be out within the next week.

Interestingly enough the doc manager removed my previous changes. So here's the chapter as it was supposed to appear.