Aoshi eyed the box with trepidation; Okina was keeping it at arms’ length, rattling it with glee. The sound was like that of multiple envelopes, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Think of it as New Year’s money and your birthday gift all in one.” Because of the switch to the new calendar, the start of the year was only a few days before Aoshi’s birthday.
“I’m far too old for New Year’s money.” He deadpanned, and then the old man let go. Aoshi acted out of reflex, catching the box before it could hit the floorboards, and instantly regretted it.
“Hope you like them, I’m off to clean the cellar.” It was as if someone had set a fire at his feet, the former leader moved that fast.
But he had to confess: it was a good distraction from sorting through the mountain of files in his room. After sitting at his desk and opening the box, he could only blink in surprise. Colorful origami greeted his eyes and the inside of the lid had a taped note, explaining to unfold them in a particular order. Too mystified to rebel, he complied and plucked a green frog from the assortment. It was almost too small for his hands and the creases were well worn. On the backside, there were a few sloppy hiragana characters.
Come home soon. The sentence was signed with a doodle of the Aoiya and a little girl, hands on her hips and a frown that was literally too large for her face.
The next one was a treasure box, an almost painful yellow. Please come back, Aoshi-sama.
At the pang of guilt, he quickly counted the rest. There was one written for every year he was gone, and the reason was in the next letter. A simple scarlet rose hid the message: Happy birthday. I miss you.
The fourth, an amber sparrow, was decidedly passive-aggressive. Happy birthday, Aoshi-sama. I can’t wait until you return to the Aoiya. I will throw knives at you. He had to stifle a laugh.
As she switched to kanji, they became symbolic. A stark white crane and a black tortoise prayed for his health, but he was struck by the tied pair of butterflies that followed. One pink and the other pale blue, they were used in weddings.
So, she was getting bolder. Especially since together, they read that he would have to marry her as recompense for leaving. And as hard as he tried, he could not imagine the girl who would have declared that, only the grown Misao of his time. A sure, cheeky smile lighting her face…abruptly, he set them aside and returned to the box.
But that boldness had disappeared. The next two, a dark green praying mantis and a navy dragonfly, were only curt birthday wishes. She would have been fourteen and fifteen, and most likely disillusioned.
The last was a lotus, sculpted from purple paper. He was absorbed enough in the message to miss the faintest sound of footsteps. When Misao called out, he startled and looked up. She stood at the threshold, short hair swaying as she inspected his room. She was twenty-two, he realized, not the child tagging along after him or the teenager who led the Oniwabanshuu after his fit of madness. A woman who could have been married by now, but had waited for him. And she was still waiting for him.
“Aoshi-sama, how’s the cleaning-noooo!” She howled and launched herself over his desk, but he lifted the paper out of her reach. “How did you find that? Never mind, just don’t read it!”
“Then forget everything!”
“Not when you didn’t keep your promise.”
He turned the paper so she could see, keeping his expression passive as he silently recounted the contents.
This is the last letter I’m writing. Because by this time next year, I promise I’ll have brought you home and I can say to you that you’ve come back. And that I love you.
He tapped a finger at the last sentence and gravely said. “I don’t think this has been accomplished yet.”
At this, she seemed ready to boil. “You…you…”
“What is it?” He drawled. “Would you rather write it down?”
And suddenly, she calmed and her face became perfectly blank. Then, her fingers tugged at the collar of his coat and forced his head towards hers. A brief, soft pressure at his mouth made the world freeze. Misao pulled back just as quickly, the letter now in her grasp.
“So there! I got the last laugh!” A nervous gurgle left her, and then she was racing out. He bit his lip, trying not to grin.
If it’s a chase she wants, she’ll get one.
But before leaving the room, he stuffed the butterflies in his pocket. After all, they would need them soon enough.