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.
Act 1, Scene 1
Act 1, Scene 2
Act 1, Scene 3
Act 1, Scene 4
Act 1, Scene 5
Act 2, Scene 1
Act 2, Scene 2
Act 2, Scene 3
Act 2, Scene 4
Act 3, Scene 1
Act 3, Scene 2
Act 3, Scene 3
Act 3, Scene 4
Act 3, Scene 5
Act 4, Scene 1
Act 4, Scene 2
Act 4, Scene 3
Act 4, Scene 4
Act 4, Scene 5
Epilogue, Part 1
Epilogue, Part 2
Graduation day was a marker of change and of moving on. The superstitions said that love confessions on such a day would mean everlasting happiness; in reality, love confessions on such a day were just a last chance grab for a possibility. It was a safe day for if there was rejection, you would most likely never see who rejected you or who you rejected. It would surely save a lot of embarrassment for all involved. It would be isolated to that one special day.
That was why Aoi was not so surprised when Kaoru-sama had told her about his graduation day. It seemed that he had received a love confession from a friend. He was not specific as to who confessed, most likely wanting to be respectful of that person's privacy, but Aoi was surprised, and yet not, all at once.
Really, she knew that Kaoru-sama was attractive to the other girls in their small circle of friends. Among them, some were more vocal about their attraction to him than Aoi was comfortable with, but she had assumed the strength of her relationship with her beloved was enough to deter them.
Apparently, the occasion had steeled their resolve, even if only for a day.
Aoi was sure that Kaoru-sama would have gently rejected them. From what she had come to know of him, he was kind and never one to hurt his friends. He loved her, his actions and behaviour with her said so, and that love would surely be stronger than any temptation and flattery he felt.
That was why she was doubly surprised when he admitted to seeing another possibility with the confessor.
Then she was devastated when he admitted to giving into temptation and being so unrestrained with that other girl.
And this was where Aoi and Kaoru stood, on opposite ends of the kitchen in their home. The tension and the distance was enough to make this home feel like nothing more than an empty house.
Aoi stood, her back to her promised one. Her posture was stiff, exuding restraint and dignity. Even the tremor of her clear voice was artfully glazed with unshed tears.
"Which one is she?" Soft words lined with an edge.
"Which one is she?" Clipped words repeated.
Kaoru approached her back and embraced her from behind. He felt her tense at his touch and he waited until she would relax into the feeling. He would have been kept waiting.
He tried to placate her. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again, I swear."
"Liar." The first time she had ever sharply spoken to him.
"I'm not lying. We'll put this away and forget it. No one will ever know."
Aoi's shoulders were still tense as she contemplated his words. She felt his nose nuzzle into her hair, breathing in.
"Just like no one will ever know that we were together."
A nervous chuckle rippled through his body. The tremors almost made her want to run from him and find cover.
"Ne... They will know, Aoi-chan."
"Look me in the eye and tell me that you can go through your entire life with only me."
"Can you go through your entire life with only me? No other women? I was bound to you first by tradition, and that was a tradition you did not want."
He knew what she could offer him, and so instead of answering her, his head turned, nose sliding away to be replaced by his cheek.
It was foolish of him to do this to her.
The red threads of fate that bound Aoi to Kaoru wove a rich cloth, and it was something that Aoi wrapped around herself so tightly like a blanket and kept before her eyes like a veil. Every woman needed to hold onto her precious illusions. He was her first and only love. Patient, understanding, sensitive and caring, and he would stay by her side and never stray. His fidelity would be just like hers: unshakeable, unbreakable.
That was her most precious illusion.
She may have been patient, demure, graceful, selfless and kind... but she was only a woman. A woman with her own insecurities and jealousies. He took the beautiful curtain of her hopes and tore it away, as if it were the cheap fabric of that other girl's dress.
The very thought pained her.
But none more than the uncertainty she was cruelly exposed to.
"Say something, Aoi-"
She had made a small step away from his body, not strong enough to break his hold, but enough to let him know she wanted release.
Her hand smoothed itself over a wrinkle on her chest, and she looked straight ahead so that he would not see the disobedient tears running from her eyes. Her throat burned and stretched as she tried say these words, as if each one were a heavy stone. It may have been impulsive to say it, but she had to save face and salvage both of their dignity, her dignity, while they still had it.
"No. I do not know you, Hanabishi-san. Please do not dishonour me. I can not act so intimately with a man who is not my husband."
With that declaration, his arms fell away, and with them, all she ever knew.
[Act 1, Scene 1]
Aoi's eyes wandered over the line of women before her. They were assembled like suspects, and with each passing glance of their faces, she could feel the threads of fate each one held to Kaoru. Her eyes itched to narrow at them in suspicion. Which one of them was she? Who was she who dared to intrude on what she and Kaoru-sama shared? How was this one better than her that he would choose her?
Every moment that she spent here with them, those other women, the threads wound themselves into a noose around her neck.
Was it Tina, who was so audacious as to fling herself at Kaoru-sama without abandon?
Or was Kaoru-sama seduced by the similar timidity and mildness that Taeko held?
Could it have been Mayu, who boldly expressed her desire for Kaoru-sama that he could easily take advantage of her?
She felt the noose tighten.
Of all the faces present and showing themselves to her, Kaoru was the only one who would not even look at her, let alone face her.
Out of shame, guilt, or pride, it did not matter.
He had willingly turned away.
Tina's raucous laughter grated in Aoi's ears, and the arm that Tina clamped around her shoulders felt too heavy.
"Oi, oi! Do you really have to leave, landlady? We'll miss you so much! Let me give you a special goodbye check!"
A person who could chatter and laugh and smile, though a heart was breaking.
Aoi couldn't bring herself to say anything in reply before Tina helped herself. Thankfully, Miyabi could.
"Aoi-sama must return home," Miyabi said sternly. "Her family has very urgent matters at hand, and she belongs there."
Taeko eagerly leaned forward. "When will you come back, Ooya-san?"
Aoi looked down. I don't know.
"It is undetermined. Only until the matter is resolved." Miyabi's tone left the issue at that.
Chika whined sadly. "Nyaah... I'll miss Aoi-neesan! Who will I help with the chores?"
The maid could only offer a smile and demure tilt of her head. "Ah, you'll still have me, Chika-chan..."
"And I will also help! We'll keep this place running just as perfectly as Aoi-san did, if not even better!" Mayu declared. She brought herself to the forefront of the farewell party. "It will be great and grand and it will look like you never left at all!" Mayu grabbed onto his arm, looking up expectantly and cooing the suggestion to him. "Don't you like the sound of that, Hanabishi-sama?"
"Hey! Stop bothering Kaoru, you brat!"
Taeko tentatively hung close behind Kaoru; she hesitantly raised one arm as if some signal to halt them, and her other arm swayed forward, ready to take Kaoru's hand and pull him away from the fray. As if he sensed her, his fingers twitched back to hers. "Ah... Tina-sempai... please stop arguing..."
Below the flying arguments and noise, Aoi resisted the urge to frown, to scream, to cry at how they could go on without her. All of them were vultures, ready to swoop in and take her place. She glanced at Kaoru, who was still turned away.
Her eyes traveled to him, and the girls' attention followed.
Tina bolted and jumped on his back, arms wrapped around his shoulders and hanging off him. How casual and presumptive... invasive.
Aoi's throat hitched as it choked on her unspoken accusations.
"Kaoru! Don't be so rude! Say goodbye to Ooya-san!" The blonde's lips were dangerously close to brushing against his ear as she loudly encouraged him.
He looked at her through half-lidded eyes and his lips itched to force a smile, but he became suddenly aware of the situation he was in, so instead he looked down and away.
"Stop being so gloomy and just say goodbye! She'll come back, ne?"
Miyabi frowned. "That is yet to be determined," she declared.
She had said it so sharply at Tina that the girl disentangled herself from Kaoru.
"As for Kaoru-dono, maybe he would prefer a private goodbye." Her nod to him was imperceptible, but this was her last favour to him. This was the last time she would turn her eyes away from him and Aoi-sama and let them have their intimacy. She began walking away, and so Tina and the girls followed until they had congregated to Miyabi's awaiting luxury car.
Though Aoi did not feel brave, though she wanted to leave quickly, she wanted his last words. She at least wanted the dignity of a goodbye. Her sandaled feet peeked out from under her kimono with each step towards him. She stopped at a distance away from him. The space between them could have been filled by both their arm lengths, if they had chosen to reach out to each other at this time.
The address was hollow, only for show. Her voice was quiet but clear; she could feel the other girls' ears straining for any finality, any confirmation that she was severed from Kaoru-sama. She would not give them that satisfaction.
"It is unfortunate that we must part like this."
The meaning was veiled but he could see through the pretense.
He glimpsed upward at her and then his head followed. He nervously rubbed the back of his neck.
"Aoi-chan..." He said it so faintly, but it was barely an audible whimper to the other girls.
His lips worked slowly, his tongue sluggish, trying to find anything to say to her without having to look at her. He could not even bring himself to bid her goodbye.
She bowed curtly.
"Hidoi... You truly are a son of Hanabishi."
Aoi turned away. She did not dare meet his eyes to see them widen, or look down to see his fists clench at his sides. She knew that she was the cruel one for saying that. She had never spoken or done anything with the intention of hurting someone. It surprised her that for her first time, she had done it so easily, she had hit her mark, straight and true. What was more surprising was though the taste of the barb was bitter on her tongue, it was something that she enjoyed and wanted more of.
Now that she had her goodbye, it was both much too long and much too short for her. Escaping her uncertainty, she briskly moved towards Miyabi's car, graciously seating herself on the passenger side and finding that Miyabi was already warming up the vehicle.
The heavy slamming of both doors and the screech of tires resounded in the air outside the once cozy and intimate home. Its mistress sped away from the memories in the house, hoping that none would follow her.
Aoi had said so herself: This will not last.
She was ashamed that though she knew, she could not bear it.
Blue eyes glanced about the inside of the luxury car. Aoi could not look at Miyabi directly, only look at her hands. She was clenching the steering wheel so tightly, her knuckles had gone white. Her gaze was but a glare at the road ahead and her foot as heavy as Aoi's own heart on the gas pedal.
As Aoi could feel the distance between herself and (what she presumed to be) home widen, the noose began to unwind, string by string. It was too late as she felt the last one snap, leaving her crumpled like a broken marionette.
[Act 1, Scene 2]
The sprawling Sakuraba family compound was located far enough from the bustling cities and deep enough in the quiet countryside. For one of the largest estates that housed one of the most powerful families in Japan, it was accessible through one dirt road in the mountains and foothills. The simple, unpaved road circled the entire estate, leaving many smaller, less used paths to be cut through the underbrush.
The Sakuraba family proudly upheld their 200 years of tradition, as evident in the design of the buildings that housed all who were within the clan. Not many were privileged enough to see what went on inside, for the entire compound was fenced in by high walls. Though the design was simple, their job was apparent and done well.
Beautiful. Traditional. Rigid. Isolated.
This was where she grew up.
And though Aoi was curled into herself and closed off to the world, it did not feel like she was back in her home.
The moments felt prolonged and anywhere didn't matter. Her room was entirely silent, when it was not filled with her muted sobs, and the white noise of unbearable, unasked, unanswered questions filled all the spaces. Her eyes were closed, and she lay huddled under the covers like a hurt child.
Although it was bright outside with the creeping tendrils of summer, it was dark for her. She was cold and clammy, the sickly residue of self-loathing and self-doubt clung to her skin and made her feel unclean. She was nauseous, and lacked an appetite as she tortured herself with the questions and answers that she pulled from the air.
How could he do this to me? Why would he do this to me?
He never had experience with other women, he must have felt trapped by me.
Did I offend him? Am I not good enough for him?
It's natural to feel that way, even when you love someone.
I should have been enough. If he really and truly loved me enough, then he would have been strong enough to resist temptation.
Everyone is confronted with temptation.
I have never been tempted.
You've been sheltered. He grew up in an abusive environment. He couldn't have come out of it perfect.
But he didn't come out of it any worse! He was still kind to me.
And he was damaged beyond your repair!
And so back and forth it went between emotion and logic.
Aoi desperately tried to find some reason, some consolation in a random and unfair event.
A large hole, a gaping wound throbbed in her soul. The betrayal had cut through her, that much was true, but the questions and thoughts that she was left with stung endlessly and unmercifully.
What had made her less of a woman in his eyes, his arms, that he should turn to another?
Ultimately, the root of all such pain, was "Why?"
Why wasn't I good enough?
Her muted sobbing could only answer uselessly.
[Act 1, Scene 3]
The month was coming to its close at the Sakuraba "dormitory" and Miyabi was growing more worried and agitated within these walls. Personally, her first duty was to Aoi-sama, and as much as she wanted to stay by the girl's side, other duties bound her to a place she was growing to hate.
It was not the home itself that bothered her. It was the people and the memories that were becoming unbearable.
She would have been more than glad to evict all of them, or as she entertained morbidly, she would be ecstatic to board up the entire building and set it on fire, with its residents still inside.
But Aoi-sama, in her sad and restrained insistence, had convinced Miyabi to stay to continue the charade that the dorm was still operational. It would be a signal of weakness to the dissenting elements of Sakuraba if the facade of inn manager and landlady dropped upon her return home.
For her sake, she agreed. For Aoi-sama's sake, she put up with this.
Tina's voice cut through her ears, forcing Miyabi to wince.
Suspicion over which other girl was responsible for Aoi-sama's pain had soured her to the other female residents.
Tina bounded down the hall, intercepting Miyabi as she exited her office. "How is the landlady?"
"She is still at home. I told you before, Aoi-sama will be confined to her family home until matters are resolved. And no, I do not know when that will be! I told you, told all of you, before, so do not dare ask me again unless you try my patience!" The annoyance could not be kept from her voice for long.
The American backed away, holding her hands up in defense. "Eh, eh. Don't be so snappy. I just wanted to know how she was doing."
Miyabi sighed heavily and crossed her arms tightly. "She is healthy. Is that enough?"
Tina scratched at her cheek, digesting the scant answer. Her eyes widened as she saw Kaoru come down the hall. "Hey, Kaoru! Manager is being mean! She's keeping secrets about landlady! Will you help me get some info out of her?" She grinned mischievously, a hint of fang in her smile.
Kaoru looked between Miyabi and Tina. He only shook his head, trying to placate the blonde. "No, Tina. Leave Miyabi-san alone. She has lots of work to do."
"Aw, you're mean too, Kaoru!"
"Tina." His tone had changed. "Miyabi will tell us when she believes we should know."
Quickly, he turned around and walked away.
Tina watched him go. When he turned the corner, she took off after him, yelling loudly all the way.
When the sound of Tina's voice and the loud slapping of her feet faded away, Miyabi allowed herself to scowl and punch the wall.
As much as appearances had to be kept up, Miyabi wanted to see if Kaoru felt as Aoi-sama did. So far, she could see that the boy had become more quiet and less active in the house, though not quite to the point of brooding. It would have placated her if she caught even a glimmer of reaction, even a slip of anguish.
It was enraging that he would not let on any indication, even to her, that he was hurting as much, if not more so, than Aoi-sama. He did not appear wracked with guilt or full of remorse.
He appeared to not even care for Aoi-sama at all.
How could he even deserve Aoi-sama's consideration, let alone her love?
That old resentment was baited, and it filled Miyabi with bitterness as those buried feelings rose anew.
[Act 1, Scene 4]
Aoi's presence at home was not heralded loudly; rather, it was as if she had never been away. She had seamlessly slipped back into the life of waiting for Kaoru-sama. When word had reached mother and father that their only daughter was home, she had already been settled there for a few weeks. Many of the family servants had politely chalked up Aoi-sama's reluctance to step outside of her room to her trademark shyness.
As short sighted and selfish as it was, Aoi was purely content to brood and live out the rest of her days enclosed in the confines of Sakuraba, torturing herself behind the maze of shoji and high walls. And as much as she hated to worry Miyabi and her family, there was little she could do, or wanted to do, about the pain. It was almost a month, and it still felt fresh.
She had precariously left the safe isolation of her little room for the narrow hallway, and was following it to where her father awaited.
At this moment, being summoned to hold an audience before her father frightened her. She had presented herself before him many times, and the worst she had ever felt was anxiety. The thought of explaining herself to her father, explaining how Kaoru-sama had betrayed her, made the heat of anger and shame blossom from her chest throughout her body.
What could she say to him? How could she explain her sudden return home?
She silently padded into the empty chamber. It hurt to be there, for it was the same room where she and Kaoru-sama had made their case before her father. To admit how wrong she was to that stony figure of clan authority... the heat in her chest throbbed. How could she admit defeat when she had fought so much already?
Aoi kneeled at the far end of the room, facing the front where her father would most likely sit: underneath the red banner with the Sakuraba crest. She tilted her head downwards and closed her eyes, feigning a pose of serenity and inner peace that she greatly lacked.
The shoji slid open, and the heavier steps of her father entered. Cloth rustled and his weight fell as he also took a formal position before his child.
She bowed passively.
Aoi straightened in her father's presence. She made her body as rigid and unbending as his will, trying to contain herself.
"You are home so suddenly, daughter. I trust that things are well with you and the Hanabishi boy?" His tone was piqued, almost expecting her return to be the result of some tiff. His fatherly inflection almost asked: Why do you not smile? What did he do to hurt you?
"Things are well, Otou-sama." Aoi bowed until her forehead touched the floor. She could not let him see her face as she strained to explain her retreat. "Kaoru-sama and I had discussed our arrangements and we had come to the mutual agreement that we must be prepared for the future. Should he be unable to find himself in a good position where he can provide for both of us, I must be taken care of. We must be realistic, considering ourselves and our situation. He is not part of Hanabishi and I am still of Sakuraba; I am of the head, while he is not." She licked her lips, as if that would help the lie slip through. "Though we must separate, we still care for each other deeply. Each of us has realized that there are duties greater than us. So I have come home to consider another arrangement." She slowly righted herself. "I owe you and Okaa-sama that much."
If her father knew that she was lying, he did not let it show.
Her eyes were half-lidded, and she could not bear to look at him as he contemplated her words. If there was one thing that made her so anxious about her father, it was when he was thinking; it was much easier to bear when he barked out his straightforward demands. His face was always so grave and he looked as if he were weighing someone's life, questioning their worth to live. While such wild thoughts had faded away as she grew older, the fact that he held the power to control the lives of the family, the zaibatsu, intimidated her. Even more so now that it could be turned against her, against Kaoru-sama.
Aoi tried not to jump at the movement.
"Very well, my daughter. It is your choice."
She did not know how to take this acknowledgement. His tone did not give anything away.
[Act 1, Scene 5]
It had been a few weeks since Aoi had that meeting with her father. Whispers in the house talked of the change of heart, years after the betrothal was annulled; they had looked forward to the union for years and their mistress had loved the boy all her life, but there was also the possibility that she would be ready to find another husband. All that their mistress needed was time to recoup before finding a suitable match.
Now that Aoi's reasons for coming home were redressed as something more presentable, more palatable to Sakuraba, all she had to do was hide herself away and try to recover.
She had left her home, the mansion, to escape her memories, to come back to Sakuraba, another home, only to find that it too had memories of him.
So home was not a place; home was people, a person.
Aoi decided to take a walk along the grounds of Sakuraba in an effort to stave her thoughts off Kaoru-sama and the past.
She passed by one of the family's servants, an old woman who she remembered was there even as a child. The elder smiled and bowed. "Aoi-sama, please smile. Your devotion to him is admirable, but some things can't be helped. Smile, ne, and know that any man would be so lucky to have you for a wife."
A small nod and a tiny smile, and she continued on her way.
Through her drained senses, the cool summer day was filtered to a drab autumn one, even though it was still months away. The blue sky was as bright as ever, but through tear-tired eyes, it was washed out to the point of grey. The sparse clouds could've overcast the sun. She looked up as one errant cloud drifted overhead, and all she could see was a sheer curtain covering a bright disk, like a dim paper lantern. Even the cool breezes felt more like the harsh whispers of cold.
The meeting with Otou-sama turned in her head. What she said, what she did.
Aoi was almost disgusted by her softened words. How could she cover up the hurt that he caused her when she wanted nothing more than to let everyone know how disgusting and terrible he was with his betrayal? She wanted to spew and rage and let it be known the misery he caused her, and yet, she couldn't bring herself to.
Maybe she was being more prudent. Even though the relationship failed, if it was revealed, it would cause internal rebellion within the Sakuraba group.
That was the problem of having a hidden relationship. Neither of them could not show it, and if anyone else intruded on it, they could not stop it. Appearances had to be kept up.
So this was pride. This was what that held every illusion together.
Aoi pondered her reflection as she stood by the still waters of the pond that she had found herself at. The surface acted like a mirror to her past, for she remembered another time held within those waters. She looked over her shoulder to the small building behind her.
She had spent countless hours there, engrossed in her wifely lessons. She was drilled and indoctrinated in the ways of dancing, cooking, presentation, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, etiquette, and so on.
This was the tradition for the daughters of the clan, of the zaibatsu conglomerate, and among her family, tradition was its own religion.
Her own mother had gone through the same, as had her aunts.
So that was the world she was born into and raised in.
At times, her mother and aunts had helped with her instruction. Miyabi may have been knowledgeable of the why and how and had a good eye for perfection and error, but as a modern woman, she was lacking in the application or the true inner workings that such lessons would come into play.
Useless. Everything for him was now a waste.
Everything she did was for him. She - his wife.
A hot ball of anger and grief welled up in her chest, creeping up her throat, and her eyes began to sting with a new wave of tears, but a deep inhale and clench of her jaw stopped that. She had done enough weeping, and now was not the time to start again. She had to try to be strong, even if for a little while, and think of what she had presented to Otou-sama.
Bundled amongst those forcibly sensitive words, she had implied that she would find another person.
I owe you and Okaa-sama that much.
A future without Kaoru-sama.
A future with someone who was not Kaoru-sama.
If she could not think about the happy past, nor the painful present, then all that she had left was an uncertain future. Whether she could bring herself to be with another person, let alone love him, remained to be seen. She said what she had said, and though it was not a true promise, she wondered if she could uphold a deceitful, half-formed one.
Aoi looked into the waters and caught sight of one of the large mottled koi fish swimming over an algae covered rock.
It had been years since she stood in this spot, with no one else but her thoughts. If only her memories were more cooperative, because she could not remember anything to ease her pangs of nostalgia.
She tried to think of something other than grueling lessons and persevering for Kaoru-sama's sake, and all she could conjure up was her mother.
Aoi knew that her mother had been in the same situation as she was. Her mother, a very stoic, very private woman, never spoke much about what she went through with her father; Okaa-sama did not even recount her past experience to ease the anxiety of being betrothed.
The circumstances, the procedures were common knowledge, yet not the feelings.
Before she was known as Lady Sakuraba, she was Lady Rankawa. The Rankawas' flagship industry was the innovation and manufacturing of dyes, especially their shades of indigo, and chemicals. For the Sakurabas, who spearheaded kimono fabrication, a dye operation would be a convenient addition to the group.
A corporate takeover was too impersonal, too distant; it could breed resentment amongst the workers. A union would be more effective with instilling the idea that two groups were coming together and cooperating towards one goal; this way, the resentment was isolated to those within the marriage than those outside of it.
Sakuraba was the bigger of the two zaibatsu, and it held more prestige. So it came to be that the Rankawa's eldest was betrothed to the Sakuraba's eldest, and so the merger was cemented with Aoi as the issue of the marriage.
Okaa-sama must have given her some words on the subject of marriage, and she must have tucked this memory away because it would have been useful for her life with Kaoru-sama.
Aoi gazed into the pond again and recalled a time of feeling loss and confusion. Ah... that feeling of loss... It must have been around the time that her engagement to Kaoru-sama was nullified.
She must have been brooding here, just watching the water. Some of the koi aimlessly swam over the submerged rocks, and from the grimy layers of algae, she could see some white peeking through. She wondered if she should go and feed the fish, but the thought was stopped when she remembered the weight of a hand upon her shoulder.
It was Okaa-sama.
Her mother suddenly grasped her by the shoulders and pulled her close into a tight embrace.
When her mother finally did pull away, Aoi had looked up at her, tears threatening to spill at her confusion.
"Cherish what you have and never mind the hardships. Never, never let your grief consume you. Never..." Okaa-sama momentarily looked down and away.
She paused and then smiled tenderly.
"Know that with life comes many disappointments, many heartaches. I have lived with many, but Aoi-chan, I tell you that you are not one of them."
Her features rippled, smoothing over so that she looked stern again.
"Your father is a good man. He has given me you. He has been good to us and has provided for us."
Was she reassuring her daughter or herself?
Her mother must have interpreted the lost look on her face as confusion.
She clucked her tongue and shook her head. "Such a fragile child. May you know never the meaning of my words."
Such a fragile child, one who has never experienced hardship. That was how she was described. And so she was transparent in her emotions, a stark contrast to her parents' countenance.
Okaa-sama's words must have been about this, about the disappointment of an arranged marriage.
Aoi briefly wondered if mother ever felt as nervous, as excited, as full of hopeful expectation as she was. Maybe she lost that kind of wide-eyed innocence and notion of love a long time ago. Or maybe she never had it in the first place.
Throughout Otou-sama and Okaa-sama's marriage, they understood their duties and obligations and never hesitated in performing them. As far as Aoi believed, though it was not entirely a love match, they were faithful to each other and had a strong mutual respect and understanding that carried them both with dignity; this was something that was as close to love in the world of tradition and the zaibatsu.
They knew so much about each other; they made small gestures to let each other know that there was some feeling between them: a ghosting touch on the hand, a glimpse from the corners of their eyes, noticing the nuances in their rigid posture and knowing what each one meant.
Though Otou-sama and Okaa-sama never expressed themselves as freely as she did, Aoi had grown up feeling a strong sense of family between all of them.
Maybe that was why they were hardened, not because they resented each other, but because this tradition only brought them together only to keep them apart.
Aoi had never felt so much respect for her parents in her life than at this moment. She truly understood that while they did not initially love each other, maybe they did grow to love each other quite deeply; it was guaranteed that they would always be there for each other. Tradition bound them to constantly stand beside each other for the rest of their lives.
To think, she could have what Otou-sama and Okaa-sama have if she had just taken to another. She would not experience the cruelty of holding onto such great love only to have it purposefully sabotaged. All she would have are the constants, the guarantees, and a lifetime to appreciate them.
Oh, if only she had obeyed her mother and Miyabi when they beckoned her home. If only she had obeyed Miyabi when she came through the apartment door. If only she had resigned herself to the fact the engagement was over.
Aoi blinked. The cool breeze made the newly wet trail feel like an icy line on her skin.
Aoi turned slowly, cheek pressing to the shoulder of her kimono to dab the tear. She faced the servant girl, head still tilted but rising away from her shoulder. Her eyes were closed and a wide smile was on her face, appearing coy.
"It... it's getting colder, Aoi-sama. It's almost evening."
She opened her eyes.
The girl was young and nervous, and she held out a tray with a small cup and tokkuri.
Aoi contemplated the offered sake.
"Could you please draw some hot water and leave it by the tub?"
The girl left quickly and diligently, making sure none of the tray's contents fell over; she was not to refuse a lady of the house.
Aoi turned to the pond and looked into it again.
It was a good idea to take the drink with her to the warm water; it would help her relax as she took her bath.
[Act 2, Scene 1]
Another hot sweltering day had come, a reminder that it was still summer and that it was still appropriate for such days to occur. The cool respite of the other day would be missed, but Aoi did not pay mind to such a difference. It was just another day alone with her regrets.
So she sat, on the little wooden walkway that was outside of her room, with her head bowed; she stared at the fabric of her kimono, as if she was analyzing the weave and stitching as she picked herself apart flaw by flaw.
Aoi wondered if Kaoru-sama would have stopped himself had she been more honest. Maybe that was what made him so displeased with her that he would go to another. If only she had done as he asked.
"You know everything about Kaoru-sama. Kaoru-sama wants to know everything about Aoi-chan."
She had just shook her head and smiled coyly. She wanted to surprise him. She assumed she had a lifetime to surprise him.
He could not wait for her surprises, or he got tired of waiting.
Well, she could wait for him. Wait until Orihime and Hikoboshi crossed the Milky Way and into each other's arms. Wait forever.
There was nothing beyond the moment of betrayal except the what-ifs, the whys, and what she could have done to prevent it.
If Aoi had to describe how it felt to forcefully keep herself in this standstill, reliving nothing but her surprise and anguish, then it was a torturous progression from a hot, searing pain to a dull and constant ache. She had reached that plateau where she was becoming numb to it, to everything. As much as she did not want to feel this way, without it, she would feel nothing. Perversely, it was the only reminder that she was still there.
She heard someone approach her. From the stiff clicking of the heels, she assumed it to be Miyabi.
She did not mean to worry her guardian so much; consideration flashed for how Miyabi was forcing herself to stay neutral and civil to Kaoru-sama and the other girls while running the "dormitory," it must be such a challenge for Miyabi. Such self-control was commendable and Aoi would have to show her gratitude soon.
The footfalls got closer, and they were heavier. No, it was not Miyabi...
Who else would come to her? Okaa-sama? Otou-sama.
The last possibility she dreaded.
A small gasp puffed from her lips at the voice of her visitor, young and male. The address was vaguely familiar. She looked up to see that her guest was bowed forward, facing only the top of his full head. His hair, so green and so deep that it could have been mistaken for an errant blue, was fully exposed.
She stared at it, trying to find a name for her visitor.
Responding to her silence, her visitor looked up.
The address, the hair, the face.
Aoi was surprised. "Sei... S-Seiji-kun?" she questioned.
She had not seen her cousin in two years, at least!
He smiled so widely that his glasses, small circular frames, slid down his nose. He pushed them back up and threw his arms up in greeting.
She tensed again, wondering if she should ask him the real reason for coming and what he knew of her shame.
She looked him up and down, this smiling young man who wore a dark navy suit and forest green tie. Moments ago, he had carried himself with such restraint and formality, it made him seem dour. If the years had not changed him, then maybe it was the news that was causing him to react like this. He should have looked so utterly humourless in that attire, like so many salarymen and managers that frequented the company, but somehow, it was familiar that he should not act like that at all if his greeting was any indication. She wondered where he would have been in the past few years, but was surprised to find herself at a loss in her memory.
From practical familial knowledge, Seiji was three years older than her and his mother - her aunt - was her father's only younger sister.
Finding something practical to start with, she asked politely, "How is Midori-obasan?"
He started at the question, then shuffled forward to seat himself beside her on the walkway. "...'Kaasan is well."
After a bit of an awkward pause, he groaned and stretched gently, one arm reaching out and brushing against her shoulder. She would have blushed if it were Kaoru-sama.
"Ah... It's too warm today."
"Demo... It is because you are wearing a dark suit."
"Huh?" Seiji looked down to inspect himself. "Well, I guess I am." And he made to remove his suit jacket, revealing a crisp white shirt. He slung it over his shoulder and leaned casually against a post on his left.
Moments of silence passed.
"Are you hungry? Would you like some tea?" Aoi asked quickly.
The awkwardness of the moment did not phase him. He still kept on smiling. "Of course I would, Aoi-hime. Let me go get it for you."
He stood up too fast, but stopped as soon as he heard her. He playfully wagged a finger.
"Ah, ah. Aoi-hime, you should stay here and rest," he chided. "Miyabi-san told me that you were sick and thought you needed company. So let me get it. Besides, you shouldn't serve me. It should be the other way around!"
With that, socked feet hit the hardwood running.
Aoi blinked. She didn't even notice he had kicked off his shoes.
So, Seiji was here because Miyabi called him. Part of her was unsure of whether or not she should be angry. Miyabi most likely meant well, but... just how much did he know? Aoi would be quite embarrassed to admit anything to him; she could not lose face before any member of her family.
Now she was distracted with worry. When would she have to tell? How much would she have to tell? Did he know already? Oh, if he knew, or would come to know, would he keep it private?
Her eyes were fixed down the hall, at the point in the corner before he disappeared.
The questions turned over in Aoi's mind and she briefly wondered if Seiji would be coming back.
[Act 2, Scene 2]
He had returned with a tray laden with their tea and snacks. Of course, Aoi had politely taken the tray from him and set it between them. From there, he stayed all day, keeping her company. He would leave, but only to return the next day, and the next, and so forth.
For today, a tray of tea and mocchi was set in the space between them.
Aoi had reached that emotional level where she was too tired to brood anymore, and since Seiji's arrival, she was distracted by his efforts to entertain her. His mannerisms were livelier, and he brought a sense of familiarity that she didn't know she had forgotten. She had settled into a different routine, and part of her wanted to pretend to have some sense of normalcy and healing. If anything, this would be a reprieve until the next blue mood.
It may have been comforting to be around her first family, to at least talk of things other than what she left behind and what she has come back to, but she still worried.
With every visit, she worried.
Seiji continued to talk about his time abroad and in the country, coinciding with her time spent with Kaoru-sama. He never asked her about what she had done or how she had occupied herself. His body twitched as he wanted to emphasize with his hands, but held back from doing so. Here it was rude to talk with your hands, unlike in such places as North America or Europe. His voice was a little higher and a little louder, always on the edge of a laugh, as he regaled her.
She listened with only half an ear.
His unsaid reason for being here made her nervous. As much as she tried to keep her mind off it... the effort only seemed to keep her in suspicion.
"Aoi-hime? Aoi-hime?" A large hand waved in front of her face.
She started a little. "Mm?"
He looked at her quizzically. "Are you sure you're feeling better? Maybe I should go get Miyabi-san an-"
Now it was his turn to start at the interruption. This was probably her closest display of snapping at him.
Aoi softened her tone. "Seiji-kun, why are you here? It appears..." a sip of her tea, "so sudden."
His deep green eyes flickered away from her for a moment. "I was told you were sick. Can I not be concerned for Aoi-hime? You're my family."
She took a long draught of the warm green liquid, picking her next words carefully. "You came because Miyabi told you to."
"She didn't tell me to do anything," he defended. He tensed momentarily then sighed, looking ashamed. "Sorry." He played with his cup, his finger tracing over the rim, also choosing his words. "Aoi-hime, all I know by far is that you are... greatly upset over something very personal. Personal enough that Miyabi would tell me about your distress and not Sakuraba-sama and Oba-sama. So I will keep you company until you feel that you're ready to tell me why you're here instead of with your Kaoru-sama. I won't ask anything of you until you're ready to tell me."
He leaned away, granting her space.
So they sat there and sipped in the silence. She sat straight and proper and rigid, staring straight ahead into the grounds; she held her cup close to herself, one hand wrapped around it and the other cradling the bottom. He rested against a post to his left, pinning his left arm while he languidly lifted the cup with the other, back and forth between the tray and his lips.
He had not pressured her into telling him anything; all he was simply offering was his company.
Aoi inwardly flinched - awareness of her insensitivity pricked at her.
Seiji's shoulders rolled back, granting him a small slouch. "No, Aoi-hime, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that. You... You're... stressed, and you have every right to question my presence."
"Seiji-kun, thank you."
She sighed to herself and set her tea aside.
"I think you should know why I have returned to Sakuraba. It is because of Kaoru-sama..."
And Aoi told him.
The blue lady folded her hands on her lap and watched her cousin's reaction.
Seiji's brow was narrowed and he was frowning. He sat straight and attentive, and he now sat on both hands. It was easy to see that he was restraining himself.
He was angry.
"I want to hurt him more than he's hurt you."
Apparently very angry.
Aoi was surprised when she darted to settle her hand on his knee. "Dame." It was a reaction. "Please... I do not want anyone else to hate him." A very quick reaction.
The anger faded on his face. "Aoi-hime..." He shifted, freeing his right hand to put it atop hers. "I won't do anything. As much as I want to, I know it's not my place. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Will... will you tell anyone?"
He gave her a gentle squeeze. "Of course not. You should know me better than that."
Another squeeze. "I'm sorry that it happened. I wish it never happened, and I feel responsible for not being able to protect you, Aoi-hime."
"Seiji-kun... I was the one who chose to leave, I was the one who found Kaoru-sama, and I chose to stay with him. Do not blame yourself; you did not know. You were not supposed to know. You had nothing to do with this, nothing at all."
Aoi thought that, despite her reassurance, a look of hurt flashed across his face. Or maybe it was surprise. She couldn't really tell, but pushed it aside when the shock wore off and he gave her a shaky, wan smile. His mouth parted momentarily, as if he were to say something. Instead, his tongue darted out and licked his lips.
"Thank you, Aoi-hime."
She was puzzled by his hesitation, but chose to ignore it instead.
One sidelong glimpse at Seiji: he had turned slightly and was preoccupied with analyzing the grain of the post.
Her gaze was lost amongst the forests where she and Kaoru-sama used to play.
So they sat there, trying to divine memories from the wood.
[Act 2, Scene 3]
Since Aoi's confession, her relief had given way to moodiness since she had brought up such events again. It was some melancholy that was lighter in comparison to the anguish she felt when she was alone. She probably had to thank Seiji for that. He was a welcome distraction, and was surprisingly attentive. He had noticed the slight drop in her mood, and sought to remedy it with more of his stories abroad. He had an excellent memory to remember so many things that happened to him. Aoi felt that though they were exciting, they were not anything she could relate to.
It was today that they sat there in their usual place, she regally still and prim, worry easing her pain over a little, and him leaning casually and slouching, paying no regard that he might wrinkle his shirt or suit jacket. She kept quiet, and he didn't push her. Maybe some more time alone to contemplate would be helpful.
In one of those awkward pauses that hung between each memory, they had reverted to looking away again.
Not to be outdone, Aoi observed him from the corner of her eye.
Seiji always looked at that post, the one that always sat at his left. This time, she spied his fingers brushing against the same whorl in the wood, located at a lower portion of the pole; the motion was followed by a quiet chuckle.
"You laughed. What is so funny?"
He pointed at a spot on the post.
"See that dent? With the dark spot?"
Aoi leaned across his lap and squinted a little.
"I remember I hit my head on this thing."
"Oh... It was the around the time that the Hanabishi delegation came to Sakuraba."
Her eyes widened in astonishment. "You were here for that?"
"Only briefly. It was just a day, and I had a chance to play with you and your Kaoru-sama. In fact, he gave me this." Seiji lifted up his bangs to show a faint scar that ran along the edge of his hairline. He took his hand away, letting the hair fall over and cover it again.
"No, I do not think Kaoru-sama would do something that..."
He made some sort of face at her uncertainty. "Of all your memories of your Kaoru-sama, you don't remember that, huh?"
She looked away, embarrassed. "Gomen."
"No, that's okay. I keep forgetting that it's been so long since we last saw each other, and you have other things on your mind. This is hardly the time to sit around and reminisce."
"But it is. Please, Seiji-kun, tell me. I would like to remember. Anything to keep myself occupied."
"Well, you do know that this was when Hanabishi came here to arrange the marriage."
He extended his arm, sweeping over the grassy area in front of them. "I came here because Sakuraba-sama needed 'Kaasan's counsel for the match. I believe he wanted some confirmation that he was doing the right thing." He shrugged. "Well, I was sitting here, reading, and then I saw you and your Kaoru-sama coming from the woods. You saw me, I waved, and then you came running over..."
"Seiji-kun! This is Kaoru-sama..." The little girl blushed at the name. "Someday, we'll get married! Wouldn't that be great?"
Seiji smiled. "Hai, Aoi-hime." The older boy turned to her playmate and bowed a little. "Hello, Kaoru-san."
The boy shrugged. "Hi." He then crossed his arms. "I'm bored. Isn't there something we can do? Know any good games?"
At this, Aoi jumped up and tugged at Seiji's sleeve. "Seiji-kun! Seiji-kun! I want to play too!"
Seiji looked at his cousin and her betrothed. "Well, I learned something from this book. I like it a lot." He looked down at the book in his lap. The lettering was unfamiliar to them, and Seiji told them that the book was in English.
"What is it, Seiji-kun?"
He opened the book to reveal brightly coloured pictures of stone castles and people in strange attire. "This book is about knights and kings and queens." He flipped a page, revealing a page with metal covered men on horses, brandishing large swords. "These are knights. They're kinda like the samurai who protect the emperor and fight for honour. But knights are different. They're also supposed to protect the princess until she finds her prince and they become king and queen."
"I think that's pretty stupid," the other boy huffed.
"Well, I like it."
The green haired boy saw a discarded stick in the grass, the only evidence of Aoi-hime and her Kaoru-sama's trek into the family woods. He set the book aside and picked it up.
Seiji picked it up and nudged Aoi to stand behind his back; he brandished his imaginary sword. "Eh, Aoi-hime? I could be your knight and protect you!"
"Ano..." She side-stepped him. "Kaoru-sama should do it."
"Knights and princes can protect princesses. We can do both." He waved the play sword around a bit.
"Hey, I said I didn't want to play."
"Well fine, we can play something else." And with that, Seiji off-handedly tossed the stick in Kaoru's direction.
The thin, broken off branch grazed along his side. He wasn't hurt, and he looked shocked at the small contact. Then angry.
Aoi tugged at his sleeve. "Seiji-kun... you hurt Kaoru-sama..."
He turned to address his cousin, but as soon as his back was exposed, the Hanabishi boy jumped onto it with a yell. The force propelled them forward.
They didn't realize how fast or where they were going, and Aoi was too surprised to do anything. She watched as her cousin drove headfirst into a wooden post, one of many that lined the walkways around the building.
A loud wet smacking sound filled the air, then two dull thuds to accompany two boys falling over.
Aoi ran to her betrothed and looked him up and down.
Seiji groggily sat up and touched his forehead. His fingers came away with red.
At the sight, he started to sniffle.
The little girl and the little boy didn't even look when they heard the green child's retreating footsteps and distant crying.
Aoi smiled, still hovering by his side, as Kaoru got onto his feet and dusted himself off.
"You're okay Kaoru-sama."
"...oh, how I ran around crying for 'Kaasan, but she was busy with Sakuraba-sama, so I was bleeding and crying until one of the servants took me to 'Tousan. It was a nasty gash, so he took me to the doctor and stitched me up. I remember I got nine of them, then 'Tousan scolded me for bothering you and the Hanabishi boy, so I stayed away until my family left."
Aoi shook her head at that. "Gomen, Seiji-kun. I am sorry about that."
"It was a long time ago, we were too young to know any better." He smiled again. "It wasn't your fault I got hurt."
"I meant to apologize for what Kaoru-sama did to you."
"We were just kids. Kids fight, get a few scraps and scars, but they don't mean anything by it. Why apologize for him?"
With pursed lips and hands clenched around the fabric on her lap, she told him why.
"Mmm... Then I can at least understand now why he reacted the way he did, why he attacked me way back then." He tapped his temple. "But betraying you, hurting you like that, after all these years... I can't understand that at all."
"Mm. I do not think I can, either."
"But you can't help it. You try and try to understand this entire..." he searched for the word, "...thing no matter how painful it is for you. You shouldn't feel like you have to bear this entire thing yourself. Aoi-hime, the least you can do is talk about it. Maybe it will help you feel better."
She shook her head. "No, no, no. I could not. I cannot. Kaoru-sama is a very private person and-"
"Aoi-hime, there must be a lot of things that you had to keep quiet for years. A lot of things you wanted to shout to the entire world, but weren't allowed to." He looked straight at her. "I think you want to talk to about it, to tell all the stories about your time with him, even if it did end, even if it is too late, just to prove that you had your Kaoru-sama."
He was right. It stung a little that he was right.
"But you don't have to say anything now. It's never sensible to just blurt things out without thinking them through."
She mutely nodded.
They sat there again, the silence no longer awkward, but heavy with thought.
[Act 2, Scene 4]
It took many more visits from Seiji for her to become more candid. He was right; Aoi really did want to confess everything, just to prove that she was with Kaoru-sama, that there was a concrete time that she existed with him. And it took a few more sit downs on the walkway for her to recount all her stories. She showed that she treasured everything - each joy, each tear, each little trifling thing - she had experienced with Kaoru-sama since she had found him (and since she had left him).
Her feelings felt much cooler now that she had confessed. It felt good to tell someone, someone who was close enough that she could trust. It wasn't like she had anybody else. Miyabi had other obligations, and she didn't want to infuriate her guardian any more with the subject.
"Even now, you're always talking about him," Seiji chided her. "Ever since we were children, it was always 'Kaoru-sama! Kaoru-sama!' I don't think I ever got a word in edgewise."
Aoi bowed her head. "Gomen."
"Eh, Aoi-hime, I was just joking around..." He pushed his glasses back up. "Sa... I shouldn't be making jokes at a time like this..."
"Was I really that bad?" She fleetingly looked up, her eyes a flash of blue.
Seiji scratched his chin. "I wouldn't say bad. You had a purpose, and you focused on it intently. You worked hard every day and your motto always was-"
"Ai yori aoshi! That will be my love for Kaoru-sama, bluer than indigo!"
For a moment, childish laughter drifted in her ears, but it was just Seiji's gentle chuckling.
"Mmm...." She nodded.
"I never really understood that phrase."
"Well, technically, indigo is indistinguishable to the eye. It exists, but no one can really see it, or tell it apart from blue and violet. On the colour spectrum, it's just a point between violet and blue, a shade in-between. How do you get to indigo?"
Her gaze joined his upon the early evening sky. It was fresh from the sunset and still retained a light hue, somewhere wavering from blue to purple.
"What if you already start from indigo?" she asked.
"If you become bluer than indigo... You move away from it until you're still just that, blue, and you certainly can't get to violet by being more blue... Where else can it go?" he asked back.
"Maybe it takes someone very special to know how to see, how to get to that colour."
"Then they would be a very unique, but very lonely person. They would understand when they're surrounded by people that don't, and they'll end up thinking they're all alone and no one else knows what they know... It would be frustrating, depressing." He sighed. "I think it's very sad then that indigo is stuck in the middle. It's defined by two colours, making it so hard to see, I doubt anyone would believe it actually exists on its own."
"I believe it does."
They watched as little pinpoints of light emerged, following after Venus, the evening and morning star.
They watched until the chill in the air seeped into their lungs with each breath.
Aoi didn't even look as she heard the shuffling of Seiji's body as he got up.
"It's getting late, and I should go... but I'll come back. Same time. Oyasumi, Aoi-hime."
"Hai. Oyasumi, Seiji-kun."
Her eyes were affixed on the now navy sky, trying to find if the space between each star was illuminated to its true colour.
Maybe Aoi was the only one to see indigo.
But maybe it didn't take the eye to see it.
Maybe it only existed in her heart.
[Act 3, Scene 1]
Seiji still came to visit her, like clockwork every day. And they would sit in their appointed spot as he preoccupied her with his own memories. It was a strange process, both awkward and familiar that relatives should reacquaint themselves with each other. He was reminding Aoi of things in their childhood that had happened, but which she, for the life of her, could not remember at all. While her own memory was not as sharp as his, she could take those forgotten episodes in her life as vivid dreams. In a way, it was comforting to have someone who remembered her as a child. There was some sense of constancy, stability in knowing that Seiji held that little part of her, and it was freer to go to him for reminiscing than Okaa-sama and Otou-sama.
Some days, she would ask him to repeat a few stories, and he would oblige. He reminded her of his visits in the summertime spent celebrating her birthday and the Tanabata together, reading books in the afternoon, playing in the nearby mountains, and other events during those faraway years of her life.
Seiji was always full of stories and memories, and he was always happy to retell them. He had a very long memory, which Aoi believed was most likely helpful in his work or studies.
Right now, he was telling her about his internship away from and at home, and his own ambitions when he would, inevitably, take helm of one of Sakuraba's satellite companies.
"There are some foreign markets that Sakuraba can break into, I mean, North America has lots of potential, Aoi-hime. The market was always there, but it was never effectively mined. It shouldn't even be a department store, but a boutique! Think of it - Sakuraba Kimono Boutique. And... and... And you're bored of this, aren't you?"
"Hm? No, no, I was not bored, Seiji-kun."
"No one wants to hear about market share and industry growth unless they're in a board room. And I assume that you, most of all, would rather have a better distraction than my ramblings." He was getting up now. "Don't worry, I'll be right back."
He reassured her that he would return every time he would go refill their tea, bring back more sweets, and before he left.
It was so kind of him to do it, even when it wasn't necessary.
Like he had said, they were family.
For now, she was alone, momentarily, and that melancholy feeling crept in.
Familiarity and routine were ideas that Aoi was warming up to. And for a while, she was grateful that things were beginning to settle, that she was regaining some sense of herself. But that meant things were changing, changing without Kaoru-sama, and that scared her. Kaoru-sama was fading from her thoughts, and she thought she was moving on, but it became more and more apparent that she was just deluding herself. There would always be a break in the illusion, and she would brood on that tear until she could stitch the illusion back up again.
But she could appreciate the distractions that were offered to her. It was good to know that people cared, and somehow, it gave her the smallest bit of hope that she could move on.
Until she fell into one of her blue moods again.
"Aoi-hime, are you ready?"
She looked up. She didn't even hear him return.
He was holding a duffle bag in each hand.
He beamed at her. "You should go out more, have some air and exercise. I was thinking that we could spend some time in the city."
She held up her hands and shook her head. "No... Seiji-kun... I cannot..."
"I have rackets in the trunk," he sing-songed.
She turned away.
He peeked close to her face. She turned away, arms still up, and he tried to follow until she could only see him from the corner of her eye.
"I saw a smile, Aoi-hime."
Aoi dropped her arms, uncovering herself. Rather, she crossed them and faced him, pouting, ready to give him some small scolding. "Seiji-kun... you are almost as... almost as bad as Tina. I would rather that you did not live in America at all if you find that behaviour amusing."
Her cousin extended his hand, which she took. It steadied her as she got on her feet.
"I take offense to such a comparison. I'm not some drunken gaijin, and I didn't just live in America, Aoi-hime. I also lived in Canada. And Hong Kong, and Singapore... All along the Pacific Rim, so I've learned all types of amusing behaviour to annoy you."
As Seiji escorted her to his car, his chiding rankled at her. She didn't let it flare up too much, as sensitive as she was. He was only trying to cheer her up, to make her laugh her way past her pain. The very idea bothered her again, but she pushed it down. This was a gesture of kindness, not pity. This was someone of her family, as distant as they had been, and she had to appreciate his efforts.
She sat primly in the passenger side of his car, and then felt a weight settle on her lap.
It was one of the duffle bags - blue with pink straps and zipper.
She turned to see him settle into the driver's side, and she put a smile on her face.
He smiled back at her. There was an optimistic twist of his hand as he started the car.
She heard him say that above the engine's rumble: "I think we'll have a good day, Aoi-hime."
[Act 3, Scene 2]
Today was not a good day at all. It was through no fault of Seiji's; she only had herself to blame for ruining his efforts. Playing a game of tennis with her cousin didn't sound like such a bad idea.
Aoi was reminded that it wasn't entirely Miyabi who introduced her to tennis. It was actually Seiji, and Miyabi was the one who encouraged and trained her in the sport. Aoi was somewhere around eight, and he eleven. There was some sort of business function that Sakuraba-sama and Okaa-sama had to attend, which was held at a country club. Of course, it was mandatory for her to attend, and in her boredom she explored the grounds with Miyabi keeping a sharp eye on her. The two had found themselves in the tennis courts, Aoi following the strange sounds coming from it.
Whoosh. Grunt. Crack.
They had found Seiji matching himself against the ball machine, and in her curiousity, she convinced Miyabi to let her try whatever it was he was doing. So the two children played against each other since then.
They had somewhat of a tradition to share at least one tennis game together during his summer visits. Their skills, when contested against each other, were evenly matched and their games always ended in close wins on both ends. Aoi had suspicions that Seiji was merely humouring her and letting her win, but for this current play, she really did feel the competitive edge. She could see his surprise at her aggression on the court, and he wasn't holding back this time.
They were currently tied and it would only take one miss to find the winner.
It was difficult to see who would emerge victorious as the ball hypnotically bounced back and forth between them and the net.
The activity did not bring back old matches and friendly games, but a day where she had opened herself a little to her new family. She recalled him watching her and playing against her. Her offering him a cup of green tea and then having it snatched up and greedily gulped down by another girl.
Aoi kept her focus on the ball, on hitting it back to him. At him.
Each swing made her more determined to win.
She couldn't lose. Not to him; not to her.
She would not be defeated.
But for all her exertion, for all her straining, there was a slip in her defense and that bright green ball flew past the edge of her reach.
"I guess, ah... that's game, ah... set, and match." Seiji sounded so distant when he panted that out.
She lost, and yet she was playing her hardest. She gave it her all.
She lost to him.
She lost to her.
What came after that realization was unexpected.
Aoi had screamed and tossed the racket in his general direction.
Luckily, it went wide from Seiji, but he was stunned to see Aoi-hime collapse to her knees on the green clay, shrieking and crying.
The green boy had jumped the net and ran to her side, kneeling and wrapping his arms around her, crushing her to him. He pulled her up onto her feet, all the while shushing gently in her ear to comfort her. He had no words for her, and he had listened as she gulped for air and hiccupped, making noises and barely formed syllables. Probably an apology, but possibly just the hysterical babbling of her feelings.
That was hours ago. They were in the car now, simply driving around the city and watching the people bustle to and fro. They hadn't said anything about the incident on the court - it was unnecessary, but it hung between them.
Aoi swallowed, despite her dry mouth. "Sumimasen, Seiji-kun." She was still feeling sullen, still staring down at the duffle bag in her lap.
"That's okay. Shouganai."
The air cleared a little. She didn't look at him, he said no more, and it was enough.
Braking at the stop light, she stared outside.
It was a Sakuraba storefront, where mannequins dressed in bright seasonal kimono were posed behind the glass windows. Aside from the traffic of shoppers coming and going, passing by and through the store, she had noticed one person out of the movement. Some brown-haired young man, bogged down with bags and boxes, was standing still before the display case; he was most likely staring at a purplish blue one with a bright pink obi.
Aoi shook her head. Really, to notice one young man out of all the people in the city. This reminder... that would be quite silly and more painful than she was prepared for it to be.
No, it couldn't be him. It couldn't, because what were the odds, and how prepared was she, and how painful could it be if-
He turned around to reveal his profile.
His eyes widened and he smiled as he saw something in front of him, which was all of those girls, in shades of gold and chestnut and violet and black.
He must have felt someone's eyes on on him, for he turned and caught a fleeting glimpse of blue as his gaze traveled back to Aoi.
With a small gasp, she turned away, just as the light turned green.
The small car shot off, leaving Aoi to stare at her lap, her expression melancholy. She barely noticed Seiji's glance flicker from her to the rearview mirror, watching the storefront with Kaoru and those girls disappear behind them.
[Act 3, Scene 3]
Sunset was swiftly giving way to evening, and the rest of the winding way to Sakuraba was filled in silence. It was a strange and depressing day, which Aoi quietly blamed on her own deficiencies. Putting on a wan smile, she touched his arm.
"Sumimasen, Seiji-kun. I ruined everything."
"Sa..." He pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Shouganai, Aoi-hime. It couldn't be helped; things just got in the way. What matters is that we tried."
She nodded, and resumed watching the scenery fly by. They were driving deeper into the mountainous forests, where familiar land marks appeared as they came closer and closer to what was supposed to be home. They had just passed the bamboo grove on the edge of the property; deep inside was the small shrine to the kami of fate and lovers. The bamboo was giving way to trees, and she barely glimpsed the top of the shrine gate. Soon enough, the first gate along the thick, high walls of the compound appeared.
Aoi knew what lay behind that gate: a pond, a tiny villa. It was most likely the same as all the other guest houses scattered on the edges of Sakuraba, but she knew what distinguished this one from all the others.
"Please stop the car, Seiji-kun."
She could feel the car slowing. "Aoi-hime?"
"I want some air."
He looked at her, his face twisted up in concern. "Would you like some company?"
"I would prefer it if I were alone." Her voice had taken on that tension, where she was almost angry and ready to cry.
"I don't think I should let you be alone at this time."
"And I think you should." That terseness threatened to spill over again.
The car backed up to the large entrance.
Aoi exited, then bowed slightly to her cousin. "Do not worry, Seiji-kun. We are home."
She turned and entered the heavy gate, hearing the car pull away as soon as she was inside. She walked along the familiar polished stone pathway. In the orange hues of dusk, Aoi could already imagine the entire area tinged by moonlight and starlight. Blue eyes saw the pond, the little house, the tables with folded red umbrellas and she tried to push the memories out of her mind.
She looked down at the duffle bag in her hand. So that was the weight she felt on her arm... She was a bit absent minded to just take it with her... all it had were her tennis clothes, a few balls, and her racket.
Her cheeks burned.
Really, she should have had more control. How could she have allowed such an outburst to happen, and right in front of Seiji-kun? She would have been mortified if she hadn't been so hysterical. The only other person she could have shown such a reaction would have been Miyabi, and even that was unlikely. She simply should have known better.
But... it was somewhat gratifying. To let go like that.
She pulled the racket out and clutched handle, feeling its familiar weight. Blue eyes appraised the instrument.
Tennis. Playing and carrying its paraphernalia, all of this was purely for herself. This was the only thing she held that stood outside of tradition and away from Kaoru. With a racket in her hand, the only thing that came to mind was the game; how to play, how to win. Within the chain link fence that enclosed the court, she never felt more free. There were no kimonos or sandals, only sneakers and skirts. Demure and timid movements were cast aside in favour of wide, sweeping arms, and scrambled running. The racket's swing and the crack of a ball against the surface were her flower arrangements and tea ceremonies.
A test swing was executed, wielded by her own power, then returned to rest.
It was all under her own power.
And then she showed that part of herself to Kaoru-sama, shared it with him, made him a part of it.
Aoi suddenly became painfully aware of her surroundings. She had wandered into the room where she and Kaoru made their marriage bed.
The dormant bedroll, the lonely little table, the empty dresser and closet.
So bare, beyond the point of utility, but it was full of their pledges to each other.
Yet the only other inhabitant was his lingering presence. She breathed in and could feel him around her, memories of caring for him, of stolen moments, glancing touches. It was all so painful; the air was hard to breathe and it watered her eyes.
She gripped the racket tighter. She was getting angry at herself, and at him. Anger that she was feeling this way, for all the time and emotion that was wasted, for everything. She wanted so very badly to feel rage at another person. It would be so much easier if she could blame one party, to blame him or to blame that other girl. All she had was herself.
He would never leave her, and she could never let him go.
Whether Aoi loved him now or not, whether she missed him now or not, all that she could feel was betrayal and frustration for being trapped in here with him.
Here, where she gave all of herself to him.
And he gave all of himself to her.
And then he took it all away.
Carelessly gave it away.
If her blue moods had been in remission, here they returned and surged through her until she could see nothing but red.
No one heard the sounds of light alloy swooping and battering walls and furniture. No one heard shoji ripping and cracking as it was punctured. No one especially heard her screaming within that tiny house.
[Act 3, Scene 4]
Miyabi cautiously entered the small house, treading warily. She tried to hide the urgency in her steps; she had wanted to check up on Aoi-sama, but she was not there to greet her at the main house.
Fear had overcome her as she searched until she encountered Seiji. He told her that he had last dropped her off at the little sanctuary at the edge of the family grounds early in the evening.
So she took to her car and raced to where she knew the young woman would be. The little home with the small pond, where Aoi-sama and Kaoru-dono (then Kaoru-dono) spent the night together. Her young charge's depression worried her and she was almost afraid that the girl would do something drastic.
She dreaded having such a fear confirmed as she stopped before the end of the short hallway. That dread grew when she found numerous holes in the rice paper. The contrast was ugly and marring compared to the pristine white of the other walls.
Hesitantly, she slid it open.
The bare room was in disarray.
No. It was utterly destroyed. A torn up bedroll, broken glass, more bits of wood and rice paper, and a mangled racket with tangled strings littered the floor. Holes in the plaster also dotted the walls around the room, complimenting the ruined screen door.
To her surprise, she found the blue princess was placid compared to her surroundings.
Her eyes looked up, half-lidded. Lips curled into a half-formed smile, then wordlessly parted to let a sigh escape. "Welcome home, Miyabi-san."
She was kneeling beside the low desk in the middle of the room, rubbing a cloth on the scratched and dented wood. Bloody fingers did not hinder Aoi as she tried to polish the table until it shone clean.
"Aoi-sama! You're bleeding!"
"Please... Aoi-sama... let me tend to you."
The blue-haired girl looked to her bloody hands. She blinked, almost unbelieving that these were her own hands, which were just cleaning up this place, culling and arranging it to perfection. Oh, what a mess was made, she had to fix it. She stared again, finding speckles on the rag, as if artist took a paintbrush and randomly dabbed it with red.
Miyabi's nervous voice brought Aoi back. This was not her strong and stoic Miyabi-san. The girl shook her head, the incongruence making her aware. "Of course, Miyabi-san." She turned, shuffling on her knees, and held out her hands in offering to her governess.
Miyabi grabbed her arms and pulled her to her feet. She quickly led her charge away, trying not to move her too roughly. They approached her car, and sudden mundane questions came through her clenched voice. "Aoi-sama, did you eat already? Are you hungry? Shall I have a bath prepared?"
Each one was answered by her lilting voice, expressing an unnatural calm; "Ie, Miyabi-san." "Hai, Miyabi-san." "I would like that very much, Miyabi-san."
Somewhere between entering Miyabi's car and stopping before the main house, Aoi had begun weeping again.
[Act 3, Scene 5]
Since that strange and cathartic evening, Aoi felt like the days were passing with a tenuous atmosphere. It was in the way the servants glanced at her bandaged hands and how Miyabi hovered even closer to her side. Aoi knew it was all because of her and embarrassment burned from the inside over her second outburst. She was trying so hard to keep herself together, and yet, it only fed her frustration all the more. Why weren't her efforts ever enough?
No, no... She couldn't strain herself. If she pushed and pushed and became more frantic, she would come unhinged. She had to try and find some sense of calm, or at least pretend to, and then she would feel it. Aoi decided it was best now to kept such turmoil to herself and find more subtle means to expel such tumultuous feelings. She had to retain some notion of control, even if she did not feel it. She had made so many steps and motions towards emotional repair or something like it, only to stumble back.
Maybe acceptance would initiate recovery, but acceptance of what? Of many things Aoi vaguely had notions of. The foremost concept was to just accept that such painful things had happened and will continue to happen; the past was done and all she had was the now. And she couldn't rely on the future, because it would only result in disappointment when all her plans and expectations were dashed. Only in the present could she make the best of things, because they would not always last. She would have to find some intention, focus on it, and work a little harder - mohto, mohto, mohto - towards some end.
It would not last. She could try and try, but it would not last.
Internalizing her discord, Aoi was (by all outward appearances) emerging from her malaise. It meant that Miyabi could readily return to her duties with the "dormitory," instead of fussing over her. Aoi's mood seemed to lift, though it was not entirely of her own doing and it wasn't entirely artificial - she had missed her guardian, and could feel the older woman's reluctance to leave her side. She appreciated the wine-haired woman's presence and conversation, which kept her anchored in the moment and her thoughts on other matters.
Miyabi's companionship was another reminder of Aoi's earlier years, which was mirrored on this day. The two of them stood in front of the same pond where Aoi, as a child, had told her governess about the man she wanted to marry. And it was just in front of the little house where she used to engage in her lessons. Autumn was making itself more apparent, and her hands felt cold. Or maybe the bandages were done up too tightly, cutting off some circulation.
In the chill air, Aoi looked into the pond again. She felt Miyabi stand beside her, her gaze following.
"Miyabi, what do you think of Seiji-kun?"
"He's a fine young man. Very hard working, very successful. Within a year of internship, he made junior manager. He will most likely become a full-fledged manager by the end of this year. And that is not by his standing to the main family. I've heard nothing but glowing praise about him from all the departments he has been placed in. He appears to be a prodigy."
The notion of a smile played on Miyabi's lips. "Personally, I don't like that word, prodigy; it feels like an overused exaggeration. But he has proven to be exceptional, despite the hardship he has faced and continues to face. Some people say it is a shame that he is not heir," she looked at Aoi reassuringly, "but those are the just the rumblings of the discontented factions."
"He never told me about that."
"He was probably being modest, Aoi-sama."
"Mm... maybe. He just told me so many stories of his travels, and very little about his achievements. He is always so lighthearted. I do not think I can ever remember a time when he was not like that."
Both women looked into the water, watching as the harsher breezes disturbed the surface, creating ripples that scattered the koi about.
"Really? There must have been that one time..."
"What time, Miyabi-san?"
Miyabi appeared puzzled, and turned her gaze to the waters again. "You honestly don't remember?"
She shook her head. "Mm-mm."
"It was when his mother died. I believe... I believe it happened some time before the Hanabishi announced the cancellation of your engagement..."
Miyabi did not seem to notice the confusion, rather, she cleared her throat and straightened her posture much more than it already was. "Aoi-sama." Ah, her stern but receptive voice. She clasped her hands behind her back. Aoi knew that she was all business, but was ready to receive some command, however implied, from her. "Do you wish for me to stay with you longer? I am ready to resume my duties to you and-"
"You do not need to trouble yourself on my account, Miyabi."
This was surprising for the governess; it was one of the rare times that her charge ever interrupted her. "Aoi-sama?"
"I think that you should go back. That is, until we can find a way to dissolve the cover story."
"Say the word and I will evict Hanabishi-san and the rest of them." Eagerness crept into the woman's tone.
Aoi spotted an old koi fish, one she remembered seeing ever since she first peered into the pond. "You cannot do that."
"I am the manager, Aoi-sama."
"And I am the landlady."
Miyabi dropped to her knees, fist to the ground and head bowed. Now it was Aoi's turn to be surprised. She was ready to plead with her.
"Aoi-sama! I do not think it is proper that we continue this useless charade!" Miyabi was addressing her like she was a spoilt child again. "It's not fair that they should continue to take advantage of your generosity, not when they have all hurt you, in one way or another, knowingly or unknowingly. None of them are deserving of it, especially Hanabishi-san! Do you know that he has not shown a single sign of remorse or regret since you have left? He continues to live his life as if you were never there! It's shameless, the way that all of them continue to fawn over him, Aoi-sama."
She swallowed hard and continued watching the fish. "Miyabi, do you think that I should become so petty?" It took almost all of her will to keep the her voice from breaking. "Kaoru-sama is coping in his own ways, and I will not question them. I am trying to cope as well; I will weather this with grace, for I am a daughter of Sakuraba. After all, I have over two hundred years of tradition to uphold."
The kneeling woman flattened both her hands to the grass and lowered her forehead until it touched the earth. "Forgive me, Aoi-sama. But something must be done. There is no need to cover anything up anymore."
"At least... provide them with some alternate living arrangements before you close the dormitory."
"Hai, Aoi-sama." Aoi heard the rustle of clothing as she righted herself to her feet, and even then, she felt that she still simmered with anger. She caught Miyabi clenching her jaw, body still tensed. A few moments passed, and Miyabi asked, "If... If it pains you so much to be away from him, why don't you come back?"
Aoi shook her head.
"I think to myself that I was not good enough for him; if I was, he would have never betrayed me... if I were better, he would not have given in to temptation. Everything I ever did was to make him happy, and he still went to another girl... And if I go back to him, when I was not enough in the first place, how could I ever keep him? No, I do not think I could live with being at his side and harbouring the mistrust, the fear, that someday he will leave me, or that I will make him unhappy again." She kept herself from crying, her voice gentle and even, not hitching at all. "It would be very cruel to be given back my hope, only to wait for the moment when it will be taken away. I would not want to go through the feelings of shame, doubt, and self-loathing all over again; it is a terrible burden, and should I bear it again, I do not think I would find life worth living."
"Go back, please." She turned to face Miyabi, head tilted slightly and looking calm as if it was some reassurance that she would be fine. "I have Seiji-kun to keep me company."
A look she could not place crossed Miyabi's features, then disappeared. Her guardian still appeared reluctant, but her expression softened somewhat. "I will go back... but I will return to you."
She bowed slightly, then left the area.
"Miyabi-san! Aoi-hime!" His familiar, jovial voice rang in the air, and the sound brought a hint of summer back to Aoi.
Her fingers twitched.
There were two sets of footsteps, and they stopped as they met each other. Aoi watched over her shoulder, just past the bend of a stretching wing, and saw Miyabi and Seiji standing before each other. The wine-haired woman approached him aggressively, leaning forward, right into his face, ready to exchange a few words with the grass headed boy.
"How could you let her do that?! What were you thinking?! Do you know how fragile Aoi-sama's emotional state is?! She hurt herself! Do you have any idea what she has just been through? I trusted you not to disappoint her, Seiji-san. One man too many has done that to her, and I will not let it happen again!"
It was impolite to eavesdrop, but it was so easy to hear Miyabi's voice from the breeze and pick out the traces of hysteria in it.
But Seiji-kun, he stood still, head bowed and waited until she was finished. He slowly raised his arm, his lips moving quietly. She couldn't hear him, but what he said was enough to calm Miyabi, for she took a step back. She laid a hand on his shoulder, appeared much more composed as they exchanged parting words, then left him.
She briefly wondered what he had said to disarm the overprotective woman, but turned away.
Aoi appeared composed when he arrived, and she did not even glance his way when he stood beside her and followed her line of sight. She tilted her head in thought. "Seiji-kun, about the other day... Sumimasen. Also, I am sorry when I asked you about Midori-obasan and how she was... I had forgotten she died."
He brushed at his bangs, fingers lightly tracing over the faded scar. "Eh? I thought that you were asking to see if I had visited her lately. And I thought to myself, Aoi-hime is a very considerate person."
"Oh no! No, no. I... I am not very considerate at all... I was very rude."
"Aoi-hime? Rude?" He laughed. "Mah, mah... You're always worrying about others and going out of your way to make them happy. You're the most considerate person I know."
She nodded, and wondered if there was some truth to that compliment. She bent over to pick up a stone, and saw Seiji shifting his weight from foot to foot, back and forth. Another fleeting look as she stood upright, and she caught his fingers twitching behind his back.
Aoi did not fidget as much. She slowly rolled the stone over and over in her hands, passing it from hand to hand every few minutes or so.
Her fingers twitched.
She held the rock out to him, and he took it.
His hand fidgeted with the rock, shaking to use it and fingers running along its smooth surface again and again. He flicked his wrist and let loose with the flat rock - it skipped across the water, reaching the other side of the pond.
Aoi watched him as she picked up another rock. He was licking his lips.
His mouth worked open and close a few times, considering what to say.
"Did Miyabi ever tell you that Sakuraba-sama had announced your continued engagement shortly before you came home? There was no agreement to be met between the factions, so it was never made official.
"I don't know if it's ever my place to say it, but I think... I think nothing good would have come, whether you stayed, or you left. At the time, I was working with a distant relative in Kyoto, and he's part of those restless factions Miyabi told you about. I had heard about everything from him. Sakuraba-sama was trying to stall for you and your Kaoru-sama, but he was under a lot of pressure. All the factions were moving against him on the issue of your marriage. Since the Hanabishi didn't live up to their side of the bargain, they've been trying to find some way, some one, to take that place.
"To become head, you know. But... well... what he had to do, was about to do... it was the only thing Sakuraba-sama was forced into."
Confusion lined her face. "Otou-sama was forced into what?"
"I heard that there was going to be an ultimatum. Either he returns to Hanabishi, or your 'dormitory' would be closed and torn down."
The never realized threat hung in the air, and in the silence, it felt like winter.
She turned her head to watch Seiji's quickly retreating back, then turned back again to throw her stone.
The rock made a graceful arc in the air and hit the water's surface.
[Act 4, Scene 1]
Aoi settled on a bench on the end of the largest bridge on the Sakuraba compound. It crossed over the largest pond on the grounds, which was conveniently close to the main house. It was the bridge where she told Miyabi that she was supposed to be Kaoru-sama's wife when she was recalled home - it was the first time she had ever felt truly threatened that she would lose Kaoru-sama. That was the night that Miyabi most likely decided to deliver him to her.
She had in hand one of her books, and so she turned the pages slowly, her fingers aching every time she moved them. The bandages were gone now.
A breeze passed by her ear, a few strands tickling her cheek. Tucking the errant hair away, Aoi tried to turn away from the distant voices carried by the wind.
She didn't need to look up when it felt like someone had taken a seat beside her. Granted, he was perched on the other end of the bench, but she knew who it was.
"Ohayo, Aoi-hime. Your favourite, I see." He gestured towards the dog-eared copy of Genji Monogatari on her lap. "The Tale of Genji. How very much like you."
"It's classic, traditional."
"Mm. I read it when Miyabi tutored me. I am still trying to understand it..."
"Don't get too down. Even if you learn everything you can about it, it's still very hard to read, you know. People have devoted their entire lives to studying it, researching it, making sure they understand it first so other people can too."
"Is that so?"
He smiled. "It is. But despite that, it still doesn't take away the fact that it's a very good book. Insightful, too."
"It may be insightful... but it bothers me."
"How does it bother you?"
"I... I never did like how he, Genji, had loved so many women... It saddens me. Even more so, now."
He nudged his glasses back up. "Sa... But he was a good man. His loyalty was admirable; he never abandoned any of his wives."
"A good man... But I don't think good men have affairs. To simply provide is one thing, to... to betray their love is another. Is it so hard to love just one person for your entire life?"
"All right. He was a good man, but a flawed one." He scratched thoughtfully at his cheek. "He was very young, and it was the kind of life he lived, being wealthy and handsome and constantly praised. I think his affairs and the conflicts he felt... it shows how hard it is to reconcile his duties to his passions... It's a very common theme, something that anyone can relate to."
She toyed with a yellowed, warped page. "I would have hoped he never loved again after his first wife died."
"The lady of the Aoi chapter, she dies. I would have hoped that he would be faithful to her, even in death."
"Well, that isn't the way the story turned out, hm? But it's just a story, Aoi-hime, and it's about a time so long ago. Besides, it's not your story... Do you think that there is any way at all to get past this?"
Her silence was the only answer.
"No... I didn't think so. At least no way that any of us would know of. He has consumed all of your thoughts for almost all of your life, and you did say that you've gotten this far because of him."
"Ano..." Aoi started, changing the subject. "You were always skilled at telling a story. Have you ever thought of becoming an author?"
He laughed dimly, not bothering to to change it back. "It was my dream, but not anymore."
"When we were children, then." As if that was any indication. "You would tell me of all the books you read, and of life in... where you were living at the time."
"I used to."
"You still do." Her fingers twitched. "Why did you stop? I could have called you Seiji-sensei instead."
"I stopped because... because in all the stories I read, I learned many things. One of the things I learned was that obligations... well, obligations are very heavy things. And dreams, not so. They are light and delicate. And it turns out that obligations usually break fragile dreams..." Again, he pushed his glasses up. "Sa... Maybe I should stop reading so many books. I usually end up depressed. Or I should just change the kind of books I read. Maybe you should too."
Aoi shook her head. "Mm-mm. I do not think I will. Despite the fact that I cannot understand all of it and that it makes me sad, I still love this story too much." She held up her well-worn, well-loved copy.
His eyes widened at the sight of it. "I should get you another copy of Genji, Aoi-hime. I really should. Look at it. It's all dog-eared, and the spine has been stretched and bent back."
"I think I would appreciate the gift, Seiji-kun."
He turned to her and smiled, a faint reminder of her childhood. "Shall I go and buy it for you now? There's a leather bound edition I've had my eye on in Jinbochou. It's so beautiful; it's kept the original text and it has all these liner notes for better understanding and... and... ah, you should see it yourself. I think it's something you'll like."
She remembered the last time he assumed to do something she'd like. "Please, would you get it, Seiji-kun? I promise I will cherish this present."
Seiji bowed before her. "Anything for you, Aoi-hime."
Aoi was touched. He was her favourite cousin; really, he was her only cousin. He treated her more as his little sister, doting on her, though he was taught that he should be subordinate to her.
She watched Seiji leave again, and here she remained. She looked up at the sun, then at the grass that bordered the large pond.
The tips of her fingers were cold, like ice, and her hands twitched and shivered. She traced them over her palms and the back of her hands, chill as her touch was, and they felt soft. She inspected her hands all over and found all the faintly pink lines that were healing cuts, which weren't deep enough to scar. They appeared fully healed, though she felt (or maybe imagined) that they ached from time to time.
It felt like it was becoming harder and harder for her to heal now. It seemed that more than one illusion had gotten away from her. Home was filled with distant memories that she had forgotten, all because she had no one else in her heart except a boy she was promised to.
Shame filled her.
Aoi realized that her life was divided into three blocks: Before Kaoru-sama, Waiting for Kaoru-sama, With Kaoru-sama. She had never expected there to be an After Kaoru-sama, at least, not until she was well into her golden years. Her entire life had been defined by one man, and she never stopped to think that while her entirety was for another person, it was also inherently selfish. She could not define time in the Waiting Era since all the years blurred together until her goal was reached. In the Waiting Era, she did not pay mind to those who also cared for her, only giving them some token attention and taking in everything they taught and offered her as fuel to propel her towards Kaoru-sama.
The only other death in the family she could clearly recall was Obaa-chan's, and that was more than five years ago; she could only remember that because of the heirloom she received. It was something solid that she inherited, unlike the intangible skills and abstract lessons she was taught.
She could have brought herself to mourn for her dear aunt, but a short time after her death, it was announced that the betrothal was annulled.
So she chose to mourn the promise of a relationship to a man she barely knew instead of a woman she had also been raised and taught by.
She was lost when she heard the betrothal was dissolved, and the time until she would be connected to him felt longer than it should have been.
It was during that blur of years, the years between Meeting Kaoru-sama and Reunited With Kaoru-sama, that anything that had happened between those two points of time became indefinable. If there was some outstanding marker between Waiting for Kaoru-sama and With Kaoru-sama, Aoi would have to call it Finding Kaoru-sama.
She had to wonder, how did she find him in the first place? Her memories were a blur since she boarded that train and wandered lost in Ikebukuro station, and only until she was with him again that everything became so clear and sharp and defined. All she had was a scrap of paper with his address on it, and even then, she had scribbled it wrong.
She was noticing things more and more, and the glimpses of the once unreadable expressions on Seiji's face hinted that maybe he had helped her somehow.
It was an old memory, tied up in a dream. Or maybe it was a dream, masquerading as a memory.
She thought harder, trying to get past the blinders in her recollection. There was more to life than him, as she had learned from rediscovering her family.
Aoi's gaze became distant as she struggled to recall, but when she did grasp it, it played slowly as she tried to piece the words, the voices, the events.
"Aoi-hime, you've been crying for so long. Are you listening carefully? I think I found him. I think I found your Kaoru-sama."
She nearly dropped the phone in surprise, then scrambled to bring it back up to her ear. "Seiji-kun? Seiji-kun?" she asked, panicked by the second of silence.
"I'm still here."
"How did you find him?" She was astonished. She should have asked for the location first before asking how he discovered it.
"Even as a lower level employee for Sakuraba, there are many resources at my disposal." Traces of his smirk came over the line. "Plus, it helps to be closely related to Sakuraba-sama. Now, get a pen..."
Aoi already had the paper and pencil in hand before he even suggested it. "Hai, hai!"
"You'll have to go to Tokyo. He lives in a neighbourhood located close to Izumigaoka Station. The address appears to be an apartment number. It's..."
It was like a dream that she was afraid would escape her. Her hand rushed to catch up and scribble down the words and letters and street names that were Kaoru-sama's. In her haste, she did not notice that she had reversed two digits.
"Thank you, thank you..." she whispered into the receiver, tears brimming in her vision. She needed to hurry... to her room? To the train station? To somewhere, but she had to hurry.
Hope had surged when Seiji-kun had given her his address. She didn't even consider how much he risked to give her those numbers and words. He could have lost his position in the company and any future prospects within Sakuraba to find someone so disgraced, and all she did was grieve and worry.
It wasn't fair.
Aoi could see Miyabi and Seiji and Otou-sama and Okaa-sama and she could now see that the zaibatsu, that tradition, had been very unfair to her family.
The entire clan's reputation rested on Otou-sama because he was the head, and her selfish pursuit was making an already difficult job more so. He already had to deal with in-fighting and the factions that would take any opportunity, any scandal, to usurp Otou-sama; now he had to protect her and the unity of Sakuraba.
Okaa-sama could do nothing, aside from support Otou-sama, run the house, and try to bring some sense and reason to a stubborn daughter who thought the clan reputation didn't concern her.
Miyabi was intimately acquainted with Sakuraba and the business, and highly accomplished in many areas of the corporation. With such talent, knowledge, and stern discipline, she could have been one of the few women to make the board of directors, and yet she was basically playing nursemaid. To a girl who wasn't even her own child! She had robbed Miyabi of a chance to realize her ambitions, to find her own love and start her own family... A lot of Miyabi's time and dreams were sacrificed for her.
And Seiji-kun... He was a prodigy, and from what she had heard, he proved himself to be just as capable, if not more so, to run Sakuraba by the time Otou-sama chose to retire. Midori-obasan was Otou-sama's sister, he was male, and he was born before her - that was close enough to be heir. And yet, he was most likely destined to become some sort of middle manager, or if he was lucky, a board member. All because he was not Sakuraba-sama's son.
Aoi reflected on her cousin, who she had known most of her life, and yet had forgotten about. Seiji-kun had been raised to protect and respect and do anything for her, even if his overall behaviour departed from what formality demanded. Despite her higher position, he had been given more than her: a chance to travel the world, to study abroad, and to be educated as well as become deeply involved in the family conglomerate. His position would be close enough to the top, and he had proved himself to be more than competent to become head if not for the assumption that her husband would be it.
And looking beyond him and all her family, she forgot she even had a life before - without - Kaoru-sama.
But of course, it had to come back to him. If he was to ever be with her, he would have to return to Hanabishi.
Aoi had always said that she could not bear to be the source of his suffering. To force him to go back to that place, filled with terrible memories, because of her... That she would not stand for. He truly deserved to be happy, and with someone who would not bring him pain, or remind him of his traumatic past. He needed someone who could understand him, all of him, heal his scars and give him a brighter future and never hold him back from experiencing all that he wanted.
All of the girls - Tina, Taeko, Mayu, even Chika - loved him and would be suitable for him. Of course, she was an obstacle to Kaoru-sama's pursuit, and she had removed herself. She never wanted to ask Miyabi how the other girls were, in relation to him. She knew the answer would only hurt her, no matter how innocuous it really was. In the instances she brooded, the pain of betrayal was at times replaced with loneliness, for she missed them. She was sure that all of them missed her too, for they were once a family. Even her absence was most likely a hindrance to their happiness.
What could she do to make everything right for everyone she loved and cared for?
Maybe what she could do wouldn't be enough, but it was the best that she could provide.
The trees that bordered one end of the pond began to prepare for the season. Autumn leaves of red and gold were shed as her thoughts turned over and over.
[Act 4, Scene 2]
Aoi had summoned her cousin, though it was unnecessary. He always came of his own accord, and did not disappoint her. But since she had made the summons, it was only right to maintain some decorum, and now he found himself a step behind and to her side, leaning over slightly, trying to maintain a respectful bow. She glanced over her shoulder, and taking that acknowledgement, he relaxed and sat beside her. He set a brown paper wrapped bundle between them, but she didn't pay it any mind.
"Just like the first day, eh, Aoi-hime?"
She didn't say anything, returning her gaze to the far-off horizon. She was pensive, and he saw, for he asked:
"Is something wrong?"
"Should my family be unable to find a suitable husband, you would inherit the company, would you not?"
"I think that would be true... but only if you were unable to run it yourself."
His optimism was touching. "Seiji-kun... Do you think that I could do such a thing now?"
He looked away and he answered so quietly, the words were almost under his breath. "No, I don't think so."
The awkward silence between them only punctuated that uneasy truth.
And then she burst right through it.
"Would you marry me, Seiji-kun?"
"What?!" He looked at her, bewildered.
"If we were married, you would be Sakuraba-sama, and you would have the entire company. Would you marry me?"
He looked at her, his eyebrows quirking and almost squinting, and his face contorting as he considered her question. "If you truly, genuinely wanted me to, I would. This will be good for the clan, despite the fact that I believe differently in familial intermarriage. We are in Japan, I am from Japan; not in America or Canada or England, or anywhere else where married cousins are viewed distastefully. So I think that I would do it because I care for you - you are my family, you are Aoi-hime."
What he said, it was too diplomatic, and Aoi frowned. "I am not forcing you to agree because it is your duty to the heir or because I am Sakuraba-sama's daughter. Disregard all of those and answer me, honestly. I want to know, would you marry me?"
"No... I would not. Because we both know that you can't love anyone other than your Kaoru-sama. Your devotion, your passion... it is your greatest strength, and it scares me. It probably scares you too, to see how far it has driven you and to see what it can make you do. But that devotion, that is tempered only by your kindness, your compassion. I also believe that you wouldn't want to cheat me out of finding someone who will love me like you love your Kaoru-sama."
Aoi looked away and straightened some wrinkle in her kimono. "No, no, you are right. I do not think I could bring myself to marry another."
"Then you have no intention of finding another husband?"
"I do not... It is a very difficult choice."
"Well... first, why me?"
"Because... you are my family. And you deserve more than what you can currently achieve."
"I don't understand."
A small sigh. "No, I did not think you would." It was hard to face him now, but she could feel his eyes on her.
"Is this because you think it's unfair that you should be heir and I am not?"
She swallowed hard. "Yes."
"Aoi-hime, I am very happy with what I am doing for Sakuraba. I was born to your father's side! I will end up in a good position, and that's a few years off. I can make my way there, given the time." He turned away from her sudden, sharp look. Seiji could only sigh and push his glasses back up his nose. "And your husband, whoever he may be, he will be more than capable of running Sakuraba. Whether it is me or him. You can't change the fact that you are heir and I am not. I have done the best I could, considering the circumstances. Shouganai."
"Shouganai," was whispered in reply.
"Sa... let's not dwell on such things. If these things can't be helped, they can't. Things will change, and maybe fortunes will turn soon. So for now, cheer up. I kept my promise." He nudged the package her way. He was hesitant and proud, like a child ready to give a present.
Hefting the bundle onto her lap, she neatly opened it along the folds, trying not to rip the paper.
There it was, as he said, the Tale of Genji, bound and new, just for her. There was another book underneath it, and she set the novel aside to see what this extra present was.
"It's a book about flowers and their meanings," Seiji explained. "During the Victorian period, people used to send each other messages with flowers. I... I know you like the Western style, and I thought that maybe... maybe you could use this in your flower arrangements. You can use a Western tradition with an Eastern one and bring the two together."
She opened it up and inspected the hardcover book. The pages had an array of pictures of flowers, complete with names and meanings throughout different periods. Her eyes caught different words and splashes of greens and blues.
"Thank you." And she leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
Surprised, he almost forgot to pull away. When her lips left his skin, he stared at her, his eyes wide and mouth almost hanging open.
"Seiji-kun, I think... I think I feel so much better. Maybe we can go out again tomorrow."
The smile she gave him was like the open sky.
The shoji in her room was opened, bathing everything a bluish hue. Laying in her futon and staring out the now makeshift window, Aoi could see that only the full moon was out, distant and pale, against the midnight blue sky. There were no stars, the air was warm, and her mind began to wander.
She had always been so self-conscious of her robe becoming loose and undone in the night. She had been embarrassed when even a bit of flesh was exposed. She did not want to do anything inappropriate, even as she was beside her beloved.
She carried herself with restrained sensuality even in their most intimate of moments, untouchable and tempting. Wrapped up together on a single bedroll... She felt the most content in their trust and connection, for nothing physical marred it. For her, at least. She must have driven him crazy, now that she looked back on it. And maybe that was why he was so selfish.
Her beloved was not here.
Tonight, it was only her and no other.
Lying back on the soft fabric of the futon, the heavy blanket was thrown aside.
Aoi had undone her clothing, the robe spread open and her body bared to the night. She stared at the perfect moon, it being her only witness. She nodded, pleading for the moon to keep this secret, and closed her eyes.
Moonlight brought a sapphire glow to the pale terrain, and somehow, the illumination helped to guide her hands as they wandered this familiar, yet unacquainted, land. Mountains and valleys and plains of skin were mapped, and the environment's reaction to these pilgrims set the terrain ablaze.
Excitement filled Aoi as she continued on this self exploration. She was emboldened as each discovery pleased her.
Finally, her hands found a flower, a most fascinating flower. Long, slender fingers slid over the shape of petals and sampled the dewy readiness of nectar. With eyes closed, she nurtured it, concentration focused on testing and touching and coaxing it to blossom.
Effort and exertion caused the landscape to change and shift, tremors in anticipation of this spring.
One more caress and Aoi felt pleasure and heat bloom throughout her body. Her body arched and trembled with this blossoming; it was so joyous that she cried out and fell back onto the futon, letting bliss and exhaustion carry her accomplishment.
Her eyes slowly opened and she panted quietly. She realized that she had cried out for him, and with that thought, anger and resentment welled to the surface and spread throughout her body. The feeling smothered the heat, bringing it to smolder. She tightly wrapped that bitterness around her like a warm blanket, feeling insulated and numb.
She could not even have a pure moment for herself without him.
She was so tired, she did not know if she had to let go or force herself in order to cry.
She chose to stare outside and note that blackish clouds were moving to blindfold the moon. The air against her skin felt cooler. Her arm stretched out and closed the shoji. A final clack muted her surroundings in darkness. With one percussive sound, many more followed as raindrops hit the roof and any other surface outside.
Aoi pulled the now cold comforter about herself and turned onto her side, back to the shoji. All that she knew was that she was kept still inside this pristine house and that the free, torrential sky outside would do all the anguished weeping for her.
[Act 4, Scene 3]
Miyabi was surprised when Aoi-sama asked for her company. It had been weeks since she last saw her, and she hoped that her charge was doing well. If anything, Miyabi hated to break a good mood by informing her that the tenants were in the process of being moved out of the house. She picked up her cell phone and dialed a number.
"Sakuraba Group Holdings," was the answer.
"Seiji-san, this is Miyabi. I assume you're at work now. I can also assume that Aoi-sama is alone at home, then."
"Ah... yes... Gomen, Miyabi-san."
"How has she been?"
From what he told her, her hopes were confirmed: Aoi-sama's mood was steadily improving. She was more outgoing, more cheerful. There were her moments of melancholy, but they were becoming rarer, or at least, to his knowledge they were becoming rarer. She was also spending more time with her parents, when they were able to. It appeared that she was reconnecting with her home and was bringing herself to readiness, to move on and start again.
"Ah... she's going into the city more often, too? That's good to hear. Hm? She's also visited Sakata-san? What would she ever want to see him for?"
Sakata-san was the family's lawyer, the executor of the estate and other affairs of Sakuraba. It was a little unsettling as to ponder what Aoi-sama would need to see him for.
She stepped on the gas and threw the stick, speeding down the road.
He must have heard the roar of the engine grow louder. "Miyabi-san, I don't know what they are, but I assume that maybe they have to do with protecting herself for her next marriage arrangement... Whatever preparations Aoi-hime has made, she will tell you what you need to know."
Her eyes narrowed skeptically. "Hmm... it does sound very sensible... But she should have come to me first."
"Maybe she didn't want to bother you; she is doing well to take matters into her own hands."
The rest of the conversation went well and was mostly vague on Seiji's part. It didn't sound like he was hiding anything. There was no cause for concern; no other outbursts, aside from the slight relapses and unknown preparations.
The car slowed as it followed the road leading to the main house. Parking before the large gate, Miyabi found Aoi running up to meet her.
It appeared that everything she had been told was true. Aoi's cheeks, flush from running, were pulled back by her smile, and her eyes were wide upon greeting.
"Aoi-sama. It is good to see you."
Still beaming, she bowed and beckoned her to follow. "Please, come inside. I made some tea and onigiri. It has umeboshi, though... You do not mind, do you?"
"It's fine, it's fine..." she said as they walked side by side.
Falling in step, the wine haired woman surmised that the change was more than superficial. It was in the way Aoi-sama held her head a bit higher, the way her eyes shone a little brighter, and in the small bounce of each step. She appeared child-like, a reminder of the little girl who waited and worked for a little boy she loved for so long.
Even when she was ushered into a private tea room, with but a small, low table between them, this appearance did not drop. Maybe she was trying a little harder. She served diligently, taking care to each step.
At this transformation, Miyabi couldn't help but soften her usually stern appearance.
They exchanged pleasantries, talking of lighter things as to the sights Aoi saw on her outings and how exasperating Miyabi's workload was, drifting closer and closer to what they had hoped to avoid as they got more comfortable.
Miyabi made some small comment about how she missed her cooking, to which Aoi-sama replied that she missed doing such, then led to a mention of how Taeko's cooking wasn't up to par and the chores were lagging, Aoi-sama pondered if the sheets and dusting were still done, and soon after, a tumbling of all the little nuances of the house without her.
"Ano... Aoi-sama... the eviction notices have been given out and the tenants are in the process of packing." She toyed with her cup, looking down into the bottom before adding, "Miyuki-san has offered to let them move in with her and Saionji-san... Just for a little while."
"So it is ending."
Then she became very quiet.
Aoi-sama looked away, and her features were smooth, contemplative. For a moment, Miyabi was worried it would completely melt away into that unnerving blankness she saw many nights ago in that ruined room. But no, her eyes remained fixed on a point in the wall, which a quick glimpse from the corner of her eye followed.
She noted that it was trained on a small flag with the Sakuraba crest.
Turning her eyes away, she left her mistress to her thoughts, not prompting her but wanting to.
"I realized something recently. I am a very selfish person."
This revelation caught Miyabi off guard. "Aoi-sama?"
Her blue-haired charge looked content with this statement. "I said that I am a selfish person. Am I not?"
"Of course you're not!" Miyabi frowned. "You are not selfish. You are the most selfless person that I know. You are far from selfish."
"I am selfless." The phrase was rolled slowly from her lips, as if she were tasting it, feeling how it suited her. "Selfless." She turned her head so fluidly to face her governess. "To a fault." She looked back at the family symbol.
"Over two hundred years of strong Sakuraba tradition. I have a reputation to uphold, do I not? I think it would have continued, regardless of whom I married, and it would most likely go on even without me... with or without a husband for me either.
"I have lived for no one else but him; to make him happy. And now he is gone. The unthinkable has happened. What shall I do now? Start living for myself? Do you think it possible that I should become selfish so suddenly?" A calm sip of her tea. "No, I do not think so. Perhaps I have been selfish all along. Apart from my intense and naive feelings for him, I felt I had to honour this arrangement, even when it was annulled. I refused to let go of this... this need to be the perfect wife, even if I were to have no husband. I had to pursue and make him mine, regardless of whether or not he wanted to take me and all that I entailed. I had forced tradition on him, and that was what he wanted to escape from all his life." She laughed curtly, almost bitterly. "I have been selfish all along, and I am paying for it. I feel like my entire being was never good enough."
Miyabi did not like this outspokenness from her. It was too... too philosophical, too introspective. "Aoi-sama..."
Just as quickly, a smile bloomed on her face. "Maybe I should truly live for others now that I am free of this. I have thought a lot about this. I am the heiress to the Sakuraba corporation. I was taught very little on how to run the company; there was the assumption that my husband would run it on my behalf. Nevertheless, I will become rich. I should put such wealth to good use, instead of being some idle housewife." The smile widened. "I should donate it to charity. Maybe even start a charity. Or begin a scholarship. There is so much possibility, Miyabi, so much good that can come from me."
"Is... is that why you've made appointments with Sakata-san?"
"So Seiji-kun told you? Hai, that is why. I want to make sure that I can help others."
The governess was relieved at such the sudden change of heart. Maybe she was worrying herself over nothing. This renewal... this was what she had hoped for Aoi-sama. This was the generous and kind young woman she had helped to raise. Idealistic and willing to help.
She was distracted from her reflection when Aoi-sama had gotten up from the table and left the room.
Shuffling feet only answered her.
She called again.
Her former charge had returned, gently cradling a blue vase filled with a lush arrangement of flowers and placed the vase on the flowers on the table, right in front of her.
"It... it's very beautiful Aoi-sama..." Her hands moved up to turn the vase, to admire the entire bouquet.
"It is for Kaoru-sama."
She recoiled, pulling her hands back. "Nani?!"
Unfazed by the anger and incredulousness, she explained herself. "I made Kaoru-sama a flower arrangement. I am telling him something important to me by giving him something that I made, through a medium that I have adored... I know that it is something he would never understand, nor would he most likely want to understand it, but nonetheless, I made it just for him. I can only hope that he knows how I feel and that I made this because of him.
"I am a coward for not facing him, but I cannot... I cannot..." She faltered, almost shattering that newfound strength she displayed. Blue eyes snapped to almost black ones. "Miyabi-san, please bring this to him."
She would not refuse the girl- no, woman. She could not refuse her even when she would rather smash the vase over Hanabishi-san's head- no, not Kaoru-dono for he had lost that privilege, that last shred of respect from her, when he betrayed Aoi-sama.
The older woman caught her mistress staring expectantly at her.
"Thank you, Miyabi."
Unexpectedly, Aoi hugged her. She hugged her tightly and buried her head into her shoulder. There was a slight squeeze and an unexplained warmth filled her, as if she could feel all the gratitude and love that Aoi-sama held for her. Unsure at such a display, Miyabi returned the hug. Hugged her stoically, respectfully.
"Thank you, Miyabi. Thank you for everything."
"You're... You're very welcome, Aoi-sama."
When they pulled back from each other, Miyabi saw a large smile on her face. It was as if the clouds had parted and she was seeing the brightest ray of sunlight and the bluest, calmest sky.
"Thank you for taking care of me, for teaching me, for helping me. I know I have not been the most appreciative person, but I wanted you to know. I want you to be happy, and please, please do not let your loyalty to me, to Sakuraba, keep you from finding your happiness."
"You never kept me from happiness, Aoi-sama. You are like a daughter to me. To protect you is a duty that I will gladly undertake, and it has satisfied me."
"Ah... I know. But please, even if you resigned as my guardian, do not feel obligated to sacrifice your happiness for me. Promise me that you will find your own life and family."
"I... I don't think that is necessary... but, I promise you this."
Their arms were still around each other, the familial bond apparent and comforting. Reluctantly, Aoi pulled away.
"Ano... if you do not mind... Could you please deliver it now?"
"Now?" A bit flustered, she composed herself. "Of course, Aoi-sama."
Confidently, Miyabi took the flower arrangement and left for her car. She barely made it out of the room before she spoke again.
"I do not think you have noticed, but Saionji-san sometimes glances above his sunglasses at you when he thinks you are not looking."
Miyabi blushed. "R-really?"
"I think so." A smile punctuated the suggestion.
The blush resided. "Ah... then... I shall see you later, Aoi-sama."
Aoi, still beaming and bright, bowed. "Sa... Ja ne, Miyabi!"
She still kept herself bent over, still bowing even when she heard the far off engine roar away.
[Act 4, Scene 4]
Miyabi navigated past the boxes in the hall to Kaoru's room and found him rooting around, emptying his shelves and closets. She really did not want to do this, but it was for Aoi-sama. She watched him as he intently peered in a mostly emptied cabinet, then took out a shoebox. Delicately, he brought it out and removed the lid. Amidst the emptiness of the room, of all the packed away possessions, he fondly took inventory of the items in that little box.
He pulled out two ticket stubs, which Miyabi recognized as one night hotel passes that he used with Aoi-sama. Then he laid out a twisted band of green material. Some receipts, most likely purchases he made for Aoi-sama. A small silver key.
She knew it was an invasion of his privacy to watch him like this, but it somewhat eased her. This was the reaction she was looking for from him. Still, it was not enough to take away her anger, but she could respect that he felt something since Aoi-sama left.
Miyabi waited until he put back all the contents of the box to make herself known.
Hastily putting the box aside, Kaoru went to greet Miyabi at his door. "Ah, Miyabi-san, I- huh?"
He looked at the bouquet that Miyabi had so gruffly offered him.
The vase had an uneven hourglass shape, reminiscent of a woman's figure, and was of the same colour as Aoi's hair. Blue violets, campanula bell flowers, cornflowers, periwinkles, and forget-me-nots crowned atop the rim, looking like the water had come up and out of the vessel, rushing to spill over but stopping at a crest.
"Take it," Miyabi said sharply. "Aoi-sama made it for you, though I do not know why she would. Take it and do not refuse her this."
Carefully, but roughly, she handed it off to him and walked off without another word.
Kaoru started at the vase and slowly rotated it, looking all the flowers over. It was a beautiful arrangement, and he could see that she still loved him. He thought of all the effort she had put into this, just for him, even after what he had done to her.
Part of him wondered: Why? What is this for?
And another part answered: Goodbye.
There was a flash of pale pink lost in all the blues, and he tenderly pushed a cluster of forget-me-nots aside to find a tiny sprig of sakura blossoms.
He couldn't help but feel his heart breaking as a single sakura petal fell amongst the sea of indigo.
[Act 4, Scene 5]
Aoi kneeled in the shade of their tree. The tree that was etched into their memories, and their memories etched into it. Her fingers delicately traced the grooves and scratches Kaoru-sama's key inflicted upon the bark, feeling the lines and scrawlings of two happy children.
Her eyes came unfixed, focusing past the rough surface of the tree bark. It was a very beautiful day, and tomorrow looked even brighter.
She would be putting her money to good use by helping others achieve their dreams. Her dear cousin would receive the power and position that he deserved, and he certainly would do a wonderful job. She had made her peace and was able to find herself finally over Kaoru. The life she would live would not be for herself.
She tied her ankles together, then smoothed her kimono back in place.
All her affairs had been settled.
Blue eyes turned to a small wooden tray that settled at her side. To the slender tokkuri and the white yamahai that held a small amount of curiously strong sake.
Aoi picked it up and held it, regarding the drink.
Drinking it in one sip meant haste and greediness.
Three sips would be stingy and hesitant.
So she took two sips, not flinching as the alcohol burned the back of her throat and infused her with numbing warmth. One of those had been for herself, the other for him.
Her hand went to the Hanabishi betrothal dagger, thumb brushing over the lacquered sheath adorned with her would-be husband's former clan symbol. Aoi remembered her father giving her the tanto. It was just shortly after he had given his word on the matter of finding another match.
"Very well, my daughter. It is your choice."
She did not know how to take this acknowledgement. His tone did not give anything away.
Anxious to end the meeting, she made a move to bow and take her leave, but was caught off guard when her father leaned forward towards her, as close to a low bow as he could manage.
She swallowed the gasp that threatened to jump from her lips, making a short noise of confusion in her throat.
Sakuraba-sama evened his gaze on her, momentarily holding his stoic face then letting it go. He appeared tired.
"Aoi, I had told you before that as a parent, all I could wish for is my child's happiness. But I am the head of the zaibatsu, and you are the daughter of the head. It is very difficult to reconcile the wishes of a parent to the responsibilities of the Sakuraba, and happiness is often sacrificed in favour of duty. Daughter, you have realized that responsibility, and the sacrifice you are making... As a leader, I am grateful for it. As your father, I am saddened. I feel as if my blessing was not enough to stop this."
He reached behind himself and brought forward a small dagger. It was beautiful.
Hesitantly, Aoi reached forward and took it, holding it up for inspection.
A black lacquered sheath revealed her reflection, eyes open in wonderment. Her eyes followed the rare and subtle strokes of pink that had been dashed onto the wood; the effect was to look like sakura blossoms scattered in the wind. She turned it over in her hands, and her eye caught a clan symbol painted close to the hilt. She grasped it and pulled away, finding the same emblem engraved into the blade, on the very same spot.
She pushed the blade back in and looked wide eyed at her father.
"That tanto was given to us by the Hanabishi during the betrothal preparations."
Of course she knew it was from Hanabishi. She had spent countless hours memorizing and lovingly tracing over the lines of its flowery kamon.
"In giving that to us, it was a symbol of goodwill; it meant that the Hanabishi would keep their promise. Unfortunately, it was not so. I know that you would have wanted nothing more than to be that boy's wife, and you had gone so far to pursue that, but you are giving up your dream for Sakuraba. What I am doing is a futile gesture, and it most likely does not bring you a lot of comfort, but I give you this so that you may have something of him. As your father, I would offer you more, but as head, this is all I can give."
Tears welled from the pools of blue, unabashedly overflowing.
"Otou-sama..." Aoi whimpered, clutching the dagger close to her.
Her father did not bow to her again, but gave an understanding nod. He shifted onto his feet and left her alone.
It was not out of gratitude that she was weeping.
She was crying because with that dagger, her barely scabbed wounds were torn open again.
She had lied.
She would never find herself over Kaoru-sama.
Why didn't she fight to keep him?
Maybe she was too selfless.
Why didn't he stop and stay with her?
Maybe he was too selfish.
Or maybe it was all reversed, or that they were all selfish.
Fingers lightly traced over the length of it, a sake blush colouring her cheeks as she caressed it tenderly, like a lover.
Her mind ventured towards her most sensual duties as a wife, and she was wryly saddened that she would never again experience such a wondrous and intimate activity with the only person she had saved herself for.
Her hand tentatively gripped the shaft and pulled slowly.
She looked at the naked length, her eyes fixed on the engraved kamon that adorned the hilt.
She regarded the tanto. She could give it back to Kaoru, when she could face him without breaking down at the sight of him. But he probably would not want it back. This dagger would only be a reminder of the cruel zaibatsu he left behind.
To her, it symbolized the promise between two families, the promise in her heart, and it would be a reminder of the one she would always love.
Aoi found that part of Kaoru-sama was with her, always.
Always within her.
She lifted it high in the air, almost in offering, and looked up at it. She craned her neck until it was bared.
A beam of sunlight peeked through the leafy canopy, winking off the metal and into her eyes.
A cool wind blew and carried the far off scent of the sakura blossoms.
The ghost of a stray petal flew past her vision.
She closed her eyes to the world, and within the inky, encompassing blackness, all she could see was pure indigo.
[Epilogue, Part 1]
This tiny party of once close friends entered the funeral hall. This would be their last chance to see the one who nurtured them through the times that cemented their group as a family. They surely felt like they lost a member of their family, most likely a mother or big sister, someone who tended to them, encouraged them, and carried them through their troubles.
They had to give their proper goodbyes, in this room full of strangers. There was no one else they knew in this crowd of family, Sakuraba employees, and other emissaries of the business world. They felt a twinge of anger that a majority of these people most likely did not know Aoi.
As they emerged to the forefront, to where their sweetest, dearest friend lay, they found Miyabi hovering protectively near the casket.
The older woman looked no less distinguished in her smart, black mourning suit. Ever the businesswoman, she was controlled in her emotions, veiled in her threats and tears. Today, she lost that composure. Her eyes widened as she saw them, saw him.
Miyabi had seen Kaoru break formation to approach the casket, and she stormed over to him.
Her hoarse voice struck Kaoru like a bolt.
Before he could apologize or pay condolences, she was upon him, tooth and nail.
"You did this to her! You ruined her! Look at what you've done! Violator!" Miyabi screamed, railing her arms and legs against him.
The hysterical woman was pried off of Kaoru by a young man, also dressed in a black suit. His dark green - almost bluish - hair sparked something in his childhood memory, but it did not register.
The restrained woman stared at Kaoru with smoldering eyes, panting from effort expended to hurt him and effort to prevent herself from sobbing.
He watched as the young man held Miyabi back and spoke evenly to her. "Miyabi-san... Aoi-hime wouldn't have wanted this. She wouldn't have wanted you, someone she loved dearly, to turn against another one she loved. Think of her and what she would have wanted. Do it for her sake."
Visibly calming herself, Miyabi rigidly nodded and stiffened, reining in her raging emotions.
The young man's arms slowly disentangled from the older woman as he released her, and he moved to stand by her side.
"Th-thank you, Seiji-san. I-I only hope that Aoi-sama wou-would forgive m-me," Miyabi shakily apologized.
Kaoru blinked, the name sounding familiar in the depths of his memory. "Seiji?"
The green-haired man approached him. "Hanabishi-san."
A crack across the jaw sent the former college student tumbling.
Awed gasps and small shrieks from the women that accompanied him followed, and they fell to Kaoru's side to tend to him.
Miyabi looked in awe. "S-Seiji-san... what of Aoi-sama?"
"Aoi-hime cares for you much much more than I, and I won't allow you to fall out of favour with her. If she'll hate me forever for this, then I'll gladly accept it. It was righteously earned."
Seiji rubbed his fist and looked down again at Kaoru. He regarded him and the women whom Aoi once regarded as friends in Kaoru's company, not rivals for his affections. "You shouldn't have come here, Hanabishi. The same goes for this... trash. If Aoi-hime were alive, she would let you all stay and suffer herself, and that would be a sickening sight."
Grief only fueled the strong personalities of Tina and Mayu.
"Who are you to speak that way about us?! You shouldn't go insulting people you don't know!" cried Mayu.
"Oi! Oi! You shouldn't speak so ill of the dead..." threatened Tina.
Seiji could only look at them with narrowed eyes. "What's it to you? Aoi-hime told me enough, and I only speak ill of you."
"You bastard! If you're so much better than us, tell us what you know then!" provoked Tina.
The green boy glared at Kaoru, almost waiting to be dared to reveal all. "I would, but it would only expose Aoi-hime's shame."
"Quit stalling and say something!" the girls cried.
Kaoru laid his hands on Tina and Mayu's shoulders. "That's enough. Let's go."
A sharp look back at Chika and Taeko. "I said, that's enough. Come on."
Closing ranks again, the single male and his assorted harem left, leaving only whispers and murmurs in their wake.
Hushed voices circulated among a small gaggle of close family assistants; people who held such similar stations and posts as Miyabi did amongst the Sakuraba family.
"Did you see all that?"
"Was Aoi-sama a... a..."
"Was she pure when she died?"
"I heard rumours she lived with a young man before sh-she..."
"Yes! He was from Hanabishi!"
"The dishonoured clan?"
"Now I'm surprised to hear that!"
"Let us ask Kagurazaki-san about-"
"No. We can find out through other ways..."
Miyabi was ashamed that her outburst resulted in a scene that would harm Aoi-sama's reputation further.
She also burned with anger. She was angry that such... such lackeys would dare to speak of such a thing at such a time. She was angry that they would dare to be curious about such private matters.
She saw Seiji in time to see him conferring with Sakata-san, the director of the family's estate. Of course he would be here by association with the family, but he wouldn't actually talk to anyone unless...
"Ah, Kagurazaki-san. I have something for you," Sakata-san said as she approached the two men. He handed her an envelope, and Miyabi observed that Seiji had one for himself, which he was now intently reading.
"I'm sorry that we have to see each other in these circumstances, but know that I offer my condolences. She was... she was a very good girl, a wonderful young woman."
"Thank you, Sakata-san."
As Sakata-san left, Seiji reeled back on his feet, looking shell shocked.
He pressed his palm to his forehead and muttered something, eyes affixed on his letter.
She grabbed his arm, which seemed to bring back his balance. "Seiji-san? What is it?"
"It's a letter from Aoi-hime, regarding her will..." Dazedly, he passed the letter to her.
She scanned it, and her eyes widened at what was declared.
It was true. There was no other male heir under Sakuraba-sama, and that meant only one other person could succeed the entire group.
Miyabi looked at him, which he caught.
He thought about their last conversation, face to face.
"How could you let her do that?! What were you thinking?! Do you know how fragile Aoi-sama's emotional state is?! She hurt herself! Do you have any idea what she has just been through? I trusted you not to disappoint her, Seiji-san. One man too many has done that to her, and I will not let it happen again!"
Calmly, he raised his arm. "Let her be, Miyabi-san. This is Aoi-hime's own problem, and I will not force her to deal with it in a way that you demand is appropriate. You know better than anyone how hard it must be for her, and it is impossible that she go through this without any pain. I trust Aoi-hime to do what she needs to."
She stepped back. "I'm scared for her, Seiji-san."
"I'm scared too. But... shouganai. What's done is done. It's all in Aoi-hime's hands now."
Seiji stared off at the casket, grief-stricken and pale. "I'm sorry," he said. He nearly started when he felt her hand on his shoulder.
Miyabi gave him a reassuring squeeze. "Do not blame yourself, Seiji-san... None of us knew it would end this way."
But both of them knew that was a lie.
[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. 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 (http://home.comcast.net/~bryant.katherine/flowers.html)