Cicadas whirred, their incessant hum a loud dissonance, that went hand in hand with the heaviness of the humidity in the air around them. Utsumi bowed to the woman at the door, despite the lack of information given to them, while Yukawa stood behind her, silent. Beside the strands of hair at Utsumi's temple, her skin shone; she was feeling the effects of the same heat that was prickling on his own neck, as well.
"That was a waste of time," she said, as they made their way back, over the inlaid pathway, tiles in jewel-tones, tiny squares placed with care into patterned extravagance. Yukawa agreed, but he only tipped his head. It seemed a waste of energy now, to speak aloud. Ahead of them, the iron gate of the courtyard waited, black and ornate, glossy green leaves a background and cultivated crown to it, dripping with fragrant flowers -- gardenias.
Utsumi moved over the ground, not with care, but with indifference, and a forcefulness to her step that hinted at pique, probably lost inside her own personal annoyance with their lack of progress. Yukawa fell behind, content with having tried. The gate creaked as Utsumi opened it, the scent of the flowers rising up, strong, from fallen petals and whole flowers, gone yellow and brown from age. Yukawa reached up to one blossom that brushed his head as he passed underneath, touching it, but he withdrew his hand when Utsumi said, "We should be going, Professor."
He answered with an affirmative sound, and took a step toward her, but she looked past him to the fall of flowers and said, "They're pretty, huh? And the tree is so tall; it must have been growing for a long time. It would be nice to have a home where I could grow these."
She stooped to pick up a petal, still white, and brought it to her nose. "Have you ever noticed how the fragrance clings to the petals, too?"
"I have," he said. "My mother grew them." Grew them, loved them, made them grand in her imagination, spoke to him of love long gone. Thought but not said, memories irrelevant to the discussion at hand.
Utsumi lowered the petal, and stared. "Really?"
Yukawa reached out, to take the petal from her, and she let it go, dropping it into his palm. He said, "That surprises you, doesn't it?"
Utsumi nodded, eyes still wide.
Yukawa looked down, more to escape her amazement than for any other reason. In this case, it was obvious why she was silent. He rolled the petal between his fingers; the glitter-sheen of cream bruised under the pressure into a dull yellow.
"I always liked the texture of them," he continued. He dropped the petal, now crushed small and sad.
Utsumi's face had gone considerate.
"I'm ready to go when you are," Yukawa said.
"Go ahead," Utsumi answered, "I need to close the gate."
She didn't notice when he turned back to look at her, standing before the closed gate, staring up at the flowers. She didn't notice when he saw her reach down to find a blossom that had fallen.
"What do you want the flowers to be?" she asks him, tapping her pen against her memo book. He has his back to her, examining the chalkboard, and for a second, she sees him as he was over a half-dozen years ago, a little more slender then, with his hair more mussed, as it always was, she thinks, before he started trying to impress her. Before she'd noticed that he was.
"Gardenias," he answers with no hesitation and it takes her a second to register what he said. She tips her head and then says, "Oh, okay," and writes it down. "I like those."
She folds her memo book and slides her pen into her purse, watching him. "Gardenias," she repeats. "They're pretty."
He turns to look at her, a very long one, long enough to make her blink under the scrutiny. He says, "Have you-- " then stops.
He shakes his head, face somber.
"No, what is it?" she prods.
He looks away, off to the side and when he comes back to her, he smiles. It's nothing out of character for him, but small and still not quite touching his eyes -- wistful, maybe, if she were to put a word to it, but it's hard to ascribe that kind of sentiment to him. He nods, as if to himself, more than to her, and says, "They'll look beautiful."
A low hubbub comes from outside the door, cutting off any answer she could dredge up, but she thinks the moment is past, in any case. He thought of something, but chose not to share it.
That's also nothing new. She has lots of time to try to tease it out of him and says so, gathering up her things.
His only answer is a cryptic, "If you don't figure it out before then."
She all but forgets about it, in the influx of planning. Maybe that's what he wanted.
Her mother asks if she's sure about being alone, even if it's just for a short time, and Utsumi assures her she's fine.
When her mother steps out the door, however, Utsumi shakes her head at herself, and covers her stomach with her hands, trying for calm, but the feeling there -- at the pit of it -- is like the hum of bees, or the effervescence of champagne, and it's hard to keep still. Everything is ready. Everything is almost done, and all she has to do is wait.
She wants to go find him. Enough of this stupid sequestering. She paces, kicking her dress out of the way at each step, this room and its walls too small. That hum shivers out through her fingers, trying to escape, as she touches the gardenias set in the elaborate, yet very simple knot of hair at the base of her neck, feeling as though with that trembling touch, that it would crumble... or that she, herself, would shiver into pieces.
She has half a mind to break this idiotic rule, is already turning the doorknob when she feels the vibration of a knock; the sound itself startles her. She almost trips over her dress backing away. She stutters as she asks who knocks and feels her heart leap in the moment before the answer.
"It's just me," says Kusanagi on the other side.
Kusanagi is the one to point out that Utsumi is no longer in the hall, and by his judgment, has to all indications skipped out on all the necessary socializing. "Has a mind of her own, doesn't she?" Kusanagi asks, and then rolls his eyes at Yukawa's leveling an unblinking stare at him. "A good mind, but you knew what you were getting into. Come on, Yukawa, I'm a little envious. I have to tease you a little."
"I don't think I could stop you," Yukawa answers. Kusanagi has the grace to look chastened. "Did she tell you where she was going?"
"She's out in the garden."
Outside is indeed where she is, sitting on a stone bench, the same at which the photographer had placed them, directly after the ceremony. A few simple photographs, she'd said, but for a brief moment, looking at Utsumi now, whatever those pictures captured would probably be unmatched by what he was seeing now.
It defies description, the impression he's left with, though he could make a list of details: her head bent, coils of her hair in an elegant design at the nape of her neck, missing their adornment, the white of her dress a contrast to her skin. The impression of a flower, grown without attention. The beauty and emotion it evokes are much harder to examine; like art, it only leaves a wordless mark in his perception. Subjective notions.
Relying on objectivity, he can surmise that she needed time alone, that he could join her now in that solitude, and not be turned away, that if he moves closer, turns in to see her face, that she would have it down, looking at the gardenias that were once in her hair.
She has a question; she made that clear.
Yukawa excuses himself almost as soon as they're seated, with an assurance that he'll be back. Kusanagi settles back in his chair, getting comfortable in an almost lazy slouch. Utsumi flicks her gaze to him, conscious of a measuring calculation in his own eyes as she turns back to watching Yukawa go out of sight.
"Nothing to worry about," Kusanagi says.
Utsumi nods in agreement, and reaches for the silverware placed at her setting, releasing the implements from the cloth napkin rolled around them.
She looks up from the task to see that his gaze is still settled on her, his mouth pursing in a contemplative way that she finds grating. She asks, "Is there something el--"
"Oh, nothing much," he interrupts.
He points toward the center of the table, where two votive candles flicker, set opposite the other, with a clear bowl of water sitting between them. "This is pretty, don't you think? This flower?"
It's a gardenia. As she looks at it, for a moment a sense of déjà vu sparkles at the corners of her vision: a sense memory of summer heat, a heavy fragrance and fingers tugging at her hair, and crumpled brown petals. The gardenia inside this bowl on the table is still fresh, however -- still white and shimmery. Confusion bubbles up inside and she furrows her eyebrows, raising her gaze to Kusanagi.
He leans forward. The action resettles the weight of the air around them, granting it a heavy significance, but it breaks when Yukawa pulls his chair out, sits, and reaches for his glass of water.
He says, "And what exactly have you said to Utsumi to make her look like she's about to lecture you?"
Kusanagi grins. "Life is full of mysteries, so maybe I shouldn't answer that and just let you solve it."
"I'd rather spend my time eating, and not having you make her glower."
Before Kusanagi can answer, Utsumi cuts in, her tone annoyed. "I'm right here, you two insufferable men." She reaches for her own water and takes a long sip. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. "Full of mysteries. That's just his way of saying you caught him doing something he shouldn't."
"I'm not really sorry, sir. You set yourself up for that one."
"Me?" he scoffs, all serious denial. Then, he smiles. "I was mentioning that flower. What did you say it was, Utsumi? A --" he lets it trail, looking off to Yukawa, as though he expects him to answer for her. Yukawa, of course, gives no indication he is aware that he is being baited, his attention on his menu.
Or maybe he is, and is just shunting it off on to her. Utsumi says, resigned, "A gardenia." She leans forward; places her glass carefully back in its original spot.
"Oh, that's exactly what you two have chosen, isn't? They're rather delicate, aren't they?"
"Yes," Yukawa answers. "This feels more like an interrogation than a dinner with friends." He puts down his menu and reaches for the wrapped silverware on the table. He says, "Perhaps that's the purpose of it."
Something clicks inside Utsumi at that, and she says, "Wait. Did you have -- did you choose that for me, today? Yukawa?"
He says, "Something like that."
Kusanagi laughs. "Here I am, third-wheeling it with the most oblivious people in the world. You two are so sweet."
Utsumi snaps, "Respectfully, sir, shut up."
"Hey, what's the matter?" Kusanagi says as soon as he enters. "You look worried."
"No. I'm not worried, I'm just--" She shrugs, and sighs, an inhalation and exhalation she draws up from all her anxiety and inability to express.
"Nervous, huh? You've been waiting for this a long time. Here, sit down." He places his hand on her elbow, guides her to the velvet-covered bench, beside the vanity, and sets her down on it. He sits beside her, though there isn't much room, and clasps his hands, stretching them out in front of him, before exhaling and straightening his back.
"Never thought it would happen, myself, but there you are. Before you know it you'll be married and be able to boss him around for the rest of your life." He uses his shoulder to nudge her. She unbalances, but rights herself, and says, "I don't boss him around."
"You're the only woman who's ever successfully gotten him to stay involved in cases. That cord is tied pretty tightly."
"What about Kishitani?"
"Please. We all know know that was... well, to borrow from him, pretty much a failure of an experiment."
"Why are you here anyway? You should be teasing Yukawa, not me."
"You mean I should be making sure he doesn't run away?"
"Don't say things like that."
His face sobers, his easy grin straightening out. "Listen," he says, and places a hand over hers, clasped into a silk-covered knot, "I wouldn't be here if I was afraid of that. I just came to congratulate you, that's all."
She closes her eyes for just a moment, lets his comfort sit there for that brief time, then pulls her hands out from his. He takes them back, hangs his head down for a second before looking back up at her.
"He'll think you look beautiful. You do, with the flowers and everything. Gardenias. Very pretty."
He stands up and for a moment, Utsumi thinks, he doesn't know what to do with his hands. Just for a moment, though, before he plants them in his pants' pockets.
"Yes," she says, distracted, "they were the only detail he insisted on. Everything else, he was happy with my choices. This... this isn't the first time you've talked about them, like you know some--"
Kusanagi lets out a short cough, then says, "You know, you're right, I should just go make sure he's not having any second--"
"What do you know about these flowers?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"Is it because they were his--"
A knock startles them both, and Yukawa's voice comes through the wood paneling. Utsumi stands, her head turning toward the door and her hands twisting up in front of her.
"Kusanagi? Are you there?"
Kusanagi pats Utsumi on the shoulder, and steps past her, crossing to the door. He puts his hand on the knob and then says, giving Utsumi a wink, "Close your eyes; you're not supposed to see the bride yet. All right, I'm coming out." He slips out faster than she can get a glimpse of the other side, and as he does he says, "Come to find out if she looks all right?"
Their voices are muffled, so she moves to the door, puts her hand on it, leans closer, and tries to eavesdrop, ear pressed to the cool wood.
"As though you're the gatekeeper?" Yukawa asks, and Utsumi coughs. There is more than a little bit of dry sarcasm in that question, something that Kusanagi probably thinks is only that, but the fact that Yukawa is being that blunt says he's nervous too.
She hears footsteps, and Kusanagi's receding voice, saying, "Nah. I'm just the matchmaker. Just wait; soon I'll have photographic evidence..."
Utsumi thumps her head against the door, and asks, "Are you still there? What was that?"
"I would never have guessed." She falls into silence, wanting to open the door, to pull him in.
"I'll see you soon," he says.
He's leaving her there, her hand on the doorknob, and a growing sense that she missed a vital clue, should have understood something he'd tried to communicate. It's too late to give him any warning but of the click and creak of turning the knob, but there's no need for it -- he's turned away, leaving her until it's time, but she needs to know --
He stops moving, and she drinks in the sight of him, the ramrod straightness of his back. He doesn't turn; she has discipline to spare, and so does he, but this is a loophole -- they aren't looking at each other, not really.
"I can't believe you're going along with this silly superstition."
"Kusanagi would have my head, not to mention your mother -- and --"
"I'm waiting to see you."
"Kusanagi said something -- I don't understand. Why the flowers? I remember you said that your mother grew them but what -- It's so sentimental, but I don't understand if there's something I'm missing --"
She sucks in a breath that hurts, it's so hard going down, and she holds her hand to her stomach, vertigo sweeping over her in a wave that almost shifts her.
"Are you panicking?"
"Yes, I think I am."
"Are we still getting married?"
"Yes, yes we are."
"To answer your question... all flowers have meaning. Soon."
He walks away.
He sits beside her. Her gardenias are not crushed in her hands, though the petals peek from the cage of her fingers. He takes her hand, peels back her fingers, so he can pluck the blossoms whole from her hands.
"I gave it back to you for a reason," he states. She furrows her brow at him, but this is no time to be impatient, indeed, it is beyond time that he should make it clear for her benefit. "Many years ago. Do you remember? It was--"
Her expression clears. "Oh," she says and goes quiet for a moment while she slots information into empty holes. "I thought you'd forgotten it. It was -- I thought you didn't -- it was for me."
"My mother's favorite flowers, yes, and thank you for wearing them."
She touches the petals, head bent. He can't really see what emotion she's containing this way, would like to, but this is the way of it. Patience brought them here, patience will lead them on. She says, "She must have been the one to tell you what the meaning of them is."
She raises her head. "You keep some things way too close to your chest. All that time, you knew and even Kusanagi -- "
"I understand your righteous indignation, but none of this was meant to hurt you. You'd forgotten. I enlisted his help. You gave me one first. I thought you knew."
"Years ago. And you returned -- ah."
"We arrived here eventually. Even if we both relied too much on unspoken intentions. Foolish me, for supposing you knew what they meant."
"But I didn't know!"
"Give me your hand, my wife." As he says it, he reaches over to take her left hand, settling it on his own, where he can see her ring. "I am surprised that it took you this long to try to find the message inside them. So you were lacking some information. It doesn't matter. The time wasn't right."
Her eyelids flutter, and he's close enough to see tears gathering. They don't fall, just remain there, as she says, "If I'd know then."
"It didn't have the whole meaning then than it does now. 'If you'd known then' isn't something we can retread. I'm happy that we're here now, with it no longer much of a secret."
She looks down, and it is ridiculous how demure it makes her appear... a thought that is proven right as soon as she takes her hand from his and shoves him on the shoulder. It's gentle, but very pointed.
"Such a surprise you always are," she says. "Sometimes I can't read you at all. Don't do that again."
"I'll just add that to the other promises I've made this day, if that's good enough for you?"
He doesn't wait for an answer, just stands, and holds out his hand. "Come," he says, "we should go show ourselves off again."
"Do we have to?"
"Not if you don't want."
Her eyelids sweep down again and she presses her mouth thin into an indecisive line, before she looks up at him again. "You know what they'll say."
Her answering smile blooms like a flower.
He stood at the car, waiting for her, looking down. As she approached, she held out the gardenia to him, almost unable to look at him as she did so. A flicker of surprise passed over his face, his eyebrows flying up for a split second, as though he were still not used to this kind of nonsense from her, this kind of impulsive action. She said, unable to keep words tumbling over each other, "I didn't pick it; that would be wrong, and I know you're not sentimental, but you could take it to the lab, put it in water, and, and--"
He took the flower, saying thank you, rescuing her from having to explain further, but before Utsumi could go around to the driver's side, he looked up from his contemplation of what she'd given him and said, "Utsumi?"
"Come here, closer."
"What is it now?" she asked, but closed the distance anyway, a bit befuddled by the sharp intensity his expression had gained, in contrast to the soft easiness of before.
He said, "This won't last long without water, so it's doubtful it will stay unwilted all the way back--"
"Oh, I -- you're right."
"I don't want to discard it. It would be a shame that it stays unworn. Maybe -- if I may?"
"What do you mean?"
"Turn around. Let me put it in your hair."
"It's more suited to you than to me. I'll be careful. Would you mind?"
The thought of what he was about to do had turned more than a little surreal, but Utsumi turned around anyway, and felt a tug on the band of her ponytail, before she could even object with the idea that she could have tucked it in herself.
She reached up, touched her fingertips to the flower and her hair -- a creditable job of it, he'd done, at least of what she could feel. She turned back to face him, and saw that he had a satisfied slant to his mouth.
"I was right," he said, "it does suit you."
She flushed; it felt like being doused in doubled unpleasant heat from the crown of her head, right down her front. "It was for you," she grumbled and walked around to her side of the car, pressing the unlock function on her key fob. The chirrup indicating it was open could not come soon enough for her, and she yanked the door open.
Inside the car the air was twice as hot and choked the ability to breathe. Utsumi hurried to start the car, even before buckling, and winced when the vents blasted air, punching with stale warm air. She glanced over at Yukawa; he seemed unflustered, of course, his seatbelt across him already.
She pushed herself up on her toes and to the left, quickly, curious, despite everything, to catch a glimpse of what he had done to her hair in the rearview side mirror. It didn't look terribly disarranged, so she slid out of park and said, aware that it was irrelevant, "It will cool off once we get going." She caught his nod as she reversed out of her parking spot.
It wasn't until she was almost back to her work, after wishing him a good day in the parking lot of Teito University, that she could deal with the flower in her hair. She plucked it out, her hand over the entire blossom, which had, as predicted, wilted, now a pitiful version of itself. She stroked her fingers over the petals, which were still soft, attempting to deny how disappointing -- no, might as well call it what it was -- embarrassing, all her effort had been.
She couldn't convince herself to keep it; practicality demanded she dispose of it. It wasn't worth the preservation of the memory of what she'd intended. It was best forgotten.