Blossoms for the Blind
"I'm heading to the market today, Aoshi-sama," Misao told him as she refilled his cup with steaming tea. "It'll be good weather this morning, I think. Do you need anything?"
"Your usual? Green tea and lemon?"
"Aa. If it's not too much trouble."
She sipped at her own cup, beaming. She liked early mornings in the Aoiya, when everybody else was fast asleep; the rest of the world simply seemed to melt away in these hours, and there was only them, with their pot of bitter tea and china cups warm in their hands.
"None at all, Aoshi-sama! I was planning on doing a personal run anyway. Okon's asked for some good sake -she's going up to the mountains again- and I need to pick up some honey and string."
"Misao," he said, a tinge of exasperation in his voice, "No more pranks."
"Oh, okay, if you say so. Though I'd bet my best blade that you enjoyed them more than you let on." She leant in to observe his reaction more carefully; if she wasn't mistaken, there was genuine amusement glinting in his eyes, and not just a trick of the light. Four years had passed, and she still hadn't given up on making good on her promise to Himura. One day, she'd make Aoshi-sama smile for sure- she just hoped she wouldn't be an old maid when that day came.
She pressed on. "Come on, Aoshi-sama! What about the one with the feathers and bucket of tar? Only a Makimachi could pull that one off- Kuro never saw it coming!"
"It was funny, right? It's not my fault nobody in the Aoiya would recognise comedic genius even if it smacked them in the face. Which it has."
"Sano would've appreciated it," she grumbled. "It's too bad he's off gallivanting around the continent. Who knows when we'll hear back from him again? He's probably racking up debts all across the mainland about now, and a wanted man by all the local authorities." A slow smile came to her face. "Speaking of freeloaders, I should probably write back to Himura's lot soon. I hear that up in Tokyo, the brat's finally confessed to Tsubame. About time, hmm?"
Could she hint any harder? She wasn't sure, but tact had never been her forte so she carried on, blithely. "They say little Kenji's growing up to be just like his dad, and that he's inherited his hair, and his good nature."
Far away, Aoshi looked cold and untouchable as ever, but up close, when she could see every contour of his stern face, every fleck of vivid colour in his eyes, he seemed somewhat warmer, more human, and she would be reminded of exactly why he occupied such a very large space in her heart.
It was almost enough. Almost enough for her to resign herself to a lifetime of watching him, close but never touching. But she was still longing, still caught half-way between dreams and reality; and she wanted more.
Eat, sleep, train, love Aoshi-sama. It was as easy as breathing.
He occasionally sought out her company, if only to hear her chatter on about this and that, and occasionally his eyes would soften, so that she might even think that he treasured these moments as much as she did. But did he see her? She was a woman now, no fragile thing of tender years, and he ought to know it.
"Kaoru says that she might be pregnant with her second child," Misao informed him. He nodded, somewhat absently; her eyes narrowed, and sudden courage flooded her. "Maybe in a couple of years, I'll be awaiting a child of my own. What do you think, Aoshi-sama?"
There was a sharp, almost imperceptible intake of breath through his lips.
He would not look at her.
Well, looks like we've reached a stalemate, Misao thought, determined.
But not for much longer.
Things are about to change.
And into motion went Misao's grand plan.
On Monday, she began to sing outside of Aoshi's window: short, simple ballads that she remembered hearing Shikijo hum long ago, when she was young. Misao was under the impression that serenading a lover was terribly romantic, and though it was true that Aoshi was not a terribly romantic man, she had a sweet voice and was certain that she had enough romance in her for the both of them. He barely raised an eyebrow at her performance, and after the first song, returned to completing the paperwork that the current Okashira was presently neglecting in favour of singing outside the former Okashira's window. When he was finished, he asked her if she wanted to come with him to feed the ducks; she did, and so music was quickly abandoned for squawking birds and stale bread. So much for romance, she thought, trying to wipe the grin from her face and failing spectacularly.
She bought him a new pen and a wooden box full of sweet cakes from the market on Tuesday, and presented them to him dressed in her finest silk kimono. His gaze lingered on her for a second longer than usual, and he ate a sweet from courtesy, then left the rest of them for her to finish, knowing her insatiable sweet tooth- and to her, that was quite as good as if he had bought the sweets himself with her in mind. The pen had been ever in his hand since; she derived a huge amount of irrational glee from having a piece bought and chosen by herself so close to him at all times. A success, she declared to herself, and made sure to send plenty of paperwork his way.
Wednesday morning was passed writing a sheaf of failed sonnets and poems, which she eventually tore apart and tossed. She settled instead on cooking Aoshi-sama a romantic dinner for two, which quickly turned into four, when Kuro and Shiro barged in, both eager for a good, hot meal after a mission completed early. The candles was wasted on them, Misao thought, so invited Omasu and Okon to join them, thus making up the usual party of six. However, she did not lose heart, though she had lost her appetite by the time she'd watched her dishes made with love wolfed down by two hungry men that held none of her romantic affections whatsoever.
On Thursday, she bought a bunch of flowers from the local florist, with the few coins still left in her purse. She hummed and hawed over various brightly coloured blossoms, changing her mind once, and twice, and thrice, before settling on a beautiful, bold bunch. They were a brilliant crimson, soft to the touch and sweetly scented.
And on Friday, she confessed in pen and ink.
Night had fallen by the time Aoshi escaped from the veritable mountain of paperwork in his office and wandered out of the Aoiya. Warm air rushed to greet him as he stepped out into the garden. It was a beautiful night, indeed.
He wondered how many years had passed in which he was blind to the majestic Kyoto skies, so vast that he could not perceive their end, so dark and clear. A certain contentment settled over him, a feeling becoming increasingly common in recent months. Yesterday's sins and sorrows were sinking into the depths of the past, where they belonged; and he, he was striding ever forward.
He walked along the side of the Aoiya, drawing his gaze over the horizon, then turned the corner.
Because there, on the porch outside the hallway that he shared with Misao, was a bouquet of camellias. Lovely and fresh and fragrant and like a knife to the gut.
Red for passion, for romance, and for love.
Had Misao been receiving gifts from a suitor? His heart clenched painfully, but he checked himself immediately. Misao was a pretty girl, and whatever was to be said about her mannerisms, she was an easy person to admire. This should have been foreseen.
So why was he feeling so startled, so perturbed? Well, he knew the answer to that question, though it was not one he particularly liked. His years of denial and obstinance were finally catching up with him.
He'd always thought...
His selfishness was deplorable. He'd always thought they knew she belonged to him.
Clearly that was not so, and it was a mistake to have been wallowing in false security for so long.
He should have seen the signs. Misao had been acting so strangely as of late. Singing strange songs outside his window, buying him little gifts and knick-knacks; he had initially shrugged it off as Misao being Misao, but now it was becoming painfully clear that it was the happy manner of a girl who was being pursued.
She had even donned the kind of kimono she had once scorned, and cooked a meal, something she had previously had avoided at all costs in favour of honing her onmitsu skills.
And she had been hinting about marriage for some time now...
A pink card poked out of the bouquet, and instinct told him to snatch it up and find out who trying to win the girl's heart. He stared at it for a moment, thought of Misao's smiling face.
It's none of my concern.
But still he could not bring himself to turn away, and for a split second, he was gripped by a sudden and dark urge to burn those terrible flowers, burn them up so that Misao would never know her suitor, so that she would never consider another man, younger and undoubtedly more deserving of her than-
And all his sins came flooding back to him, and he was stained again.
For a fleeting, unguarded moment, his masochistic tendencies kicked in and he imagined it all; a man, a good man, at her side, taking care of her, kissing her. Wedding her, fathering her children, growing old with her. The thought twisted his innards and left a poisonous, bitter taste in his mouth.
Aoshi had lost many things, and thrown away more, but Misao, Misao-
What did he have left, except from her? When he closed his eyes, he only saw her bright smile again, and his chest ached.
He stepped away, and left the flowers at the porch.
I think I'll burst into a thousand million million little pieces if I don't write this down right now, and I'm sorry because I know you hate cowardice over all else but I just can't seem to summon the courage to tell you in person. I hope you understand.
And so here it is:
I love you.
I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
I love you, and these aren't the words of an insincere little girl, I promise. It's the vow of a soul who has been searching for you for as long as memory can serve, and then further back still. You have my heart in your hand; you always have, Aoshi-sama.
I will be
Sincerely Yours, forever and always,
Okon and Omasu were like sisters, in that sometimes Misao loved them more than life itself, but more often, she just wanted to bash their skulls in.
"Oh dear, Misao, has he still not said anything?" Misao dearly wanted to say something sharp to silence Okon's haughty amusement, but her mind was weary, and she could not think of a suitable retort.
"When you started singing to him, I thought he was going to choke on his tea!" Omasu tittered.
"Did he at least thank you for the meal? Granted, Misao, you aren't much of a cook, but still, it's only common courtesy."
"And those flowers have been out there for how long now? Such a shame, Aoshi hasn't even glanced at them. He's as icy as ever."
"Most frigid man I've ever made acquaintance with. I'm sorry to say that I doubt he's even noticed any of your efforts, as enthusiastic as they were. Romancing Aoshi was a bit of a silly idea, hmm, Misao?"
"It was yours, Okon," Misao reminded her tiredly, but she wasn't in the mood for pointing fingers or shifting the blame. What had happened had happened; it was Aoshi's reaction, or lack thereof, that had delivered the wound, not Okon, not Omasu.
Misao gazed at the flowers, a hard lump forming in her throat.
She'd seen Aoshi walk past them, ignoring them so completely that it was as if he'd never seen them at all. They were dying now, drooping and dejected. Beautiful not so long ago.
"He'll come around," she told them, but even she could hear the quavering note of uncertainty in her voice. Okon and Omasu exchanged glances, suddenly looking worried.
"Of course," Okon quickly interrupted. "We were just teasing. Of course he will."
"He's probably just confused, Misao. You mean everything to him, you know," Omasu soothed, sounding so much like a mother that Misao began to long for her own. She missed her parents and their soft laughter, missed Jiya and his dirty jokes, missed Hannya and Hyottoko and Beshimi and Shikijo like she missed a lost limb. And when she thought about Aoshi, she missed him too. It was true; he had been distant and cold ever since he had seen the flowers, and it felt like he was slipping away through her fingers, like the rest of them.
A sinking feeling in her gut told her that she'd messed everything up. She fell into Omasu's embrace, let her hair be smoothed down by soft hands and closed her eyes so she would not have to look at the flowers, dying on the porch.
When her pride was in scraps and she could take no more, Misao decided that the flowers had to go. She stole outside, and scooped up the flowers with both hands, humiliation and dejection pooling in her stomach. She resolved to take the bouquet to her room and destroy it all so there was no trace of her failed confession left.
Unfortunately, her plan was foiled when she encountered the very source of her desire and distress in the hallway.
"A-Aoshi-sama!" she spluttered, halting abruptly, burning face level with his chest. No, no, not now. I don't need this.
He wasn't looking at her. He was staring at the flowers in her arms with the intensity of an opponent in battle; it looked very much like he wanted them to spontaneously combust and collapse into ash.
Not that she blamed him. It was an embarrassing affair for both of them.
"Misao," he greeted after a moment, voice level.
For a moment, she thought he'd drop the issue, and walk on by, but instead he stood his ground, in her way. She scanned his face, and found him even more tightly lipped than usual.
"Excuse me-" she began to say, but he cut in, voice carefully controlled.
"Are you planning on keeping those flowers? They have been on the porch for some days now... I thought that you might be intending to throw them out."
A rush of indignation filled her. So it was true- he'd been ignoring her confession for days and days on purpose. And now he was mocking her.
She'd never imagined that Aoshi would be so spiteful, but perhaps she didn't know him as well as she thought she had. After all, a week ago she'd believed him to love her.
"What does it matter to you?" she spat.
He blinked, as if surprised at her sudden anger.
"Why should it not matter to me?"
"You've made your answer perfectly clear."
"I'm afraid I don't understand, Misao."
"Feigning ignorance, Aoshi-sama?" she bit out. "You know, of course you do! After all I've tried, and tried. Do you know how embarrassing it was to serenade you? Did you even notice? What about the gifts, the meals I cooked? Though I've done all I can, you still look past me." She was flushed with emotion, glaring up at him. "And to think I could have spared myself all the pain, if only I wasn't cursed with the damnable inability to give up; wasn't witless enough to hope, or stupid enough to believe that I could ever win you over."
A moment of silence. She would've worried about making Aoshi uncomfortable if she hadn't been so mad at him right then.
"...You were attempting to woo me?" He sounded faintly disbelieving, but her incensed glower gave him his answer. He stared at the flowers, recognising the scruffy scrawl over the piece of pink card as Misao's hand. Then he stared at her.
And for the first time in her twenty years, she heard Aoshi Shinomori laugh.
Misao's anger evaporated as quickly as it came, to be replaced by shock, and she clung to the dying flowers like a lifeline. She was dreaming, or delirious. But surely this was beyond the scope of her imagination. His head was angled back, his eyes closed, his chuckles low and throaty and the most beautiful thing she'd ever heard.
Why hadn't she a recording device, so that she could save this moment and play it back over again and again? Then she could believe that Aoshi-sama was forever happy, that he'd have no more sorrows creasing his brow or guilt weighing down his soul.
This was all she wanted. To stand here and listen to the sound of his laughter until she grew old and her bones turned to dust. She'd be happy. She'd be happy.
But her captivation only lasted as long as his humour did; that is to say, little more than a few seconds.
Mere specks on the canvas of forever, and always.
Hopelessness slammed into her gut, harder than ever, followed by the agony of realisation, ripping through her body. Suddenly, it was difficult to breathe, let alone stand. She'd handed her heart to him and he had laughed.
To her horror, Aoshi was blurring behind a film of burning tears- and perhaps it was just as well, because she couldn't bear to meet his clear blue gaze, look at the mouth that had just a moment ago been spurning her in the cruellest of ways.
"Misao?" the mirth had vanished, replaced by something touching concern. He reached out for her, but she stumbled away from his touch, flowers slipping from her arms and crumpling to the floor.
"Don't touch me!" she hissed, clutching at her chest. There was hurt in his eyes, but for once, Misao could not bring herself to tend to Aoshi's injuries- not when he had just cut her down, and she was bleeding out, everything she had, everything she was-
"I get it. I understand. I..." hate you I hate you hate your voice your eyes your hands your stupid stupid beautiful laugh and I love you I love you love everything you are and it hurts you're ripping me to shreds but I can't stop any more than I can stop my heart from beating god knows I've tried if I could stop loving you don't you know I would-
She she drew a fist across her eyes, to try and stop the tears from falling, but all in vain. Her body, like her heart, was traitorous, now heaving a silent sob, eyes overfilling, leaving hot trails down her cheeks.
She thought about pride, and decided that she might still have some intact if she left now, and did not look back. Perhaps it would not hurt so much. Blindly, she spun on her heel and made for the door, paying little mind to the flowers crushed underfoot.
"Misao." Was that a note of desperation in his voice? Well, no matter. She didn't care.
Only she did. She did, terribly, horribly. She cared too much, loved him too hard, gave him everything too willingly. And the worst of it was that she knew she'd happily be mocked, scorned by the man she loved once more, if only to hear him laugh again.
She hastened her step
-but he was faster. A large hand encircled her wrist, tugging her back.
"Don't cry," he pleaded, voice dipping into a low, lost tone, and a fresh wave of fury crashed over Misao's head because how dare he sound so sorry?
She tried to wrench her hand free, but his grip remained firm. "Let me go!" she cried. "Haven't you done enough? Just let me go!"
When she turned to him, he looked at a loss for words, and in a fleeting instant, Misao bitterly thought that today was a day of firsts, indeed.
"I can't," he said finally, sounding pained.
They stood for a moment in silence, Misao with hot tears streaking down her face and Aoshi's steady, imploring gaze boring right into her. She could barely dare to hope.
"Why?" she asked, shakily. He did not answer, and she wasn't sure if she wanted him to.
Aoshi ran his free hand through his hair, looking more agitated than she had ever seen him. "I don't know," he admitted. "Perhaps because I have never had a suitor quite so bold as you... perhaps because I am finding it difficult as of late to control the direction of my emotions." He looked away. "Or maybe it's simply that you make me happier than I ought to be."
Her breath caught in her throat. "Then..."
"I misunderstood some things. My deepest apologies. It was not at all my intention to offend you. I only found it absurd that you thought you should have to woo me. I believed you understood that I-" he halted, took a slight breath before resuming. "I am already won."
She barrelled into him, crying and pounding at his chest with a vengeance, and he stood, already forgiven, steadying hand on her narrow shoulders.
"Did you read the note?" Misao demanded, raising bright, watery eyes from the ground. "Because it said that I love you. And I fully intend to court you."
Aoshi leant down to press his mouth to hers, and through the salt of her tears she swore that she could feel his lips curving upwards against her own.
Forever and always, Misao.
He found an old vase, filled it with cool water and placed the wilting camellias in it.
Delighted, she kissed a crushed, withering blossom, then spun around to bestow her kisses on something altogether more beautiful. His smiles were not so unusual these days.
And though the flowers died soon after, they lived on.
Reusing an old prompt, with a few others picked by a friend: red flowers, death, blindness, reversal and love letters. This edged perilously close to the usual angst somewhere in the middle, but it doesn't quite make it there, I hope. I'm sorry for the sap, I really am, but after I wrote it I didn't have the heart to cut it out. If I have time later, I'll redo the sloppy bits.
Thank you to all the A/M writers still out there, whose stories have reminded me how much I loved this pair when I first read RK, years ago.