Notes and Disclaimers: Amano Kozue, Mag Garden, Aria Company, etc, etc.
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A Single Red Flower
Akari lifted the vase from the sink and shook it slightly. Drops of water splashed – some escaping completely; many settling on individual petals like sparkling cabochons. She smiled down at the flowers, and raised the vase high, turning as she did so.
Alicia-san!” she cried out, although the older woman stood no more than ten feet away. “Alicia-san! Look!” She twirled, holding the vase above her head, laughing.
“Haha,” Alicia’s musical laugh joined the younger woman’s. “Why, you look just like a statue!”
Akari twirled her way over to a table and lowered the vase carefully until it rested upon the surface. “This is the last one,” she said, her voice becoming wistful. “There’s no more room, is there?” She looked around the main room of Aria Company. On every surface stood vases, jars, bottles and even cans of water – all filled to bursting with roses. And still, there were three large baskets full, with even more in a small box lined up by the door.
Akari sighed. “It seems like such a waste.” Her smiled returned, “You’re too popular for your own good!” she laughed and Alicia laughed with her.
“Well, well, it will be really difficult,” Alicia joked, “when you’re a Prima. Then we’ll have so many roses here that we won’t have room for ourselves.”
Akari nodded happily. The roses were all from the Festa del Boccolo, a day to honor not only Neo-Venezia’s patron Saint Mark, but also love – and by extension, beauty. So of course it was fitting that one of the city’s three most beautiful and accomplished undines should have received so many roses. Akari sighed wistfully again, this time for the day when she might take her place among them. She was sure that it must be wonderful to be so popular.
“What are you going to do with the rest of them?”
Alicia looked up from where she was tucking stray roses into one of the baskets, trying to consolidate the remainder into as few containers as possible. Her face was, for a moment, completely serious, then her infectious smile spread over her face. “The same thing I do every year,” she answered enigmatically.
Of course Akari wondered what that “same thing” was, but with Alicia, it wasn’t always that easy to ask. The older woman always answered every question with a smile, but her answers didn’t always actually *answer* the questions.
“Can you take that one?” Alicia pointed to one of the three baskets, and stood, carrying the other two in her arms. Akari hurried to help her mentor, and they shuffled out of the door to the dock.
Without a word of explanation, Alicia untied Akari’s black gondola. The gondola was loaded quickly with the baskets – and, moment later, with its gondolier.
With a flick of her wrist, she lit a small lantern and set it on the stern, then after a moment, another was placed on the bow. “Will you be all right for a while? I’m not sure how late I’ll be.” Alicia took the oar in her hand and stood lightly, waiting to cast off.
“Take your time,” Akari hastened to assure her. “Aria-shachou and I will be fine!” she glanced down at the portly cat that shared their home, nodding.
“Then, I’m off!”
“See you later – take care!”
Akari stood on the dock until Alicia was out of sight. She stroked the white cat contemplatively, watching the sky grow dark and the stars come out like a river of light, flowing across the sky.
The sound of the oar in the water was a gentle gurgle, but it was enough to warn of her approach. The gondola sliced purposefully through the night, the two small lamps the only indication of its presence on the water.
“You’re late.” The voice came long before Alicia could make out the speaker. It wasn’t until Akira moved forward, her uniform pale against the darkness, that Alicia could see where she stood.
“Well well, I’m sorry. Dinner took longer than expected. Have you been waiting long?” She reached out to take the hand that Akira extended, stepping lightly off the gondola onto the old dock. The wood creaked beneath her feet, and creaked again as she leaned forward to make the gondola fast.
“Not long,” Akira admitted, craning her head over the blonde’s shoulder. “Three baskets this year? You’re dropping off.”
Alicia laughed. “I left more than a basketful back home. Aria Company positively reeks of roses.”
“Himeya, too. By the end of the week, everyone is sick to death of the scent.” She sighed, then held out a hand once more. “My roses are already up there.”
Alicia solemnly handed over a basket, taking the other two in her own arms. The two women walked in silence onto land, leaving the creaking dock and the two black gondolas behind.
They headed up a slight incline, following an almost invisible path, and along a wall. The night was dark, but clear. Stars shone at the edge of the sky, out of range of the nearly full moon.
As they reached the top of the rise, the distinctive sound of water cascading over rocks could be heard clearly. They crested the hill and found themselves on the outside of a large garden wall.
Ivy and wild climbers covered the wall, and through a crack just past midway up in the cement, a steady flow of water sailed over the creepers into a pool that had spread below it. The pool looked black in the night, but the water reflected white where it ran over rocks back down the hill to join the sea at some secret place.
Three baskets of roses sat next to the pool, their scent overpowering even from a distance.
“Tied again.” Akira said grumpily. “I swear I’ll beat you one day.”
Laughing, Alicia laid her baskets next to Akira’s, and sat gently on the grass. The ground was warm beneath her, but a cool breeze blew through her hair. Reaching into the basket, Alicia drew out several roses, and laid them gently on the water. The two women watched as they swirled and spun their way around the circumference of the pool and drifted into the stream that led down the hill.
Akira sent half a dozen roses after Alicia’s. “Are you cold? It’s cooler this year than last.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Alicia’s voice was gentle.
The next thirty minutes were all but silent as rose after rose was sent off down the stream into the darkness. The two women worked steadily through the first basket, then the second.
Akira dropped a rose with a quiet splash, stifling a yawn. “How many years have we been doing this?” she wondered aloud.
Alicia pulled her third basket closer, but lifted her head to contemplate the sky as she pondered the question. “Well, well, let’s see. Four? No, five years. Remember the first year we received roses?”
Tilting her head back, it was Akira’s turn to ask the stars for guidance. With a sudden laugh, she replied, “Yes. From those two brothers.”
Alicia laughed, nodding. “They were competing to see which one could give the most roses to women for the festival. I think it ended up in a tie, because they both lost count.”
“We tied that year too, didn’t we?” Alicia’s smile was visible in the moonlight.
“I guess so.” Akira stood suddenly. “Would you like some tea? I brought a thermos.”
“That would be lovely. Thank you.”
The roses were set aside as Akira served tea for herself and Alicia. When Akira was once again seated, she said quietly, “Actually, that year, you won.”
“You don’t remember.” It wasn’t a question. “I gave you one.”
There was a moment of pregnant silence, then Alicia’s breath came in a quick, embarrassed gasp.
“Oh my. You’re right! I had forgotten.” There was another moment of silence, then, “But you know, we really tied anyway.”
Akira looked sharply at her companion. “What do you mean? You had two roses – I had one.”
“I…,” Alicia laughed again, her face buried in her thermos mug. “I left a rose for you. In your gondola. But you had already gone back inside.”
Akira stared, open-mouthed. “I always wondered where that came from!” She laughed. “I just assumed it had been dropped from one of the buildings.” She paused. “Then we *were* tied after all.” There was a measure of contentment in her voice that seemed to have nothing to do with the contest.
The two women finished their tea and returned to the task at hand. Methodically, they sent rose after rose into the black water and away. They had never traced the stream – they had no idea at all where they roses went as they disappeared into the night. The first year they had become “singles,” journeyman gondoliers, Akira had found this hill, and the pool under the cracked garden wall. That year, it had been Alicia’s idea to send their roses out into the wide world from this place. Since then, it had been a yearly ritual. The only difference was the number of roses, which every year seemed to grow exponentially.
Together they set the last of the roses into the water; watched as they spun and swam their way around the pond, then made their way into the sparkling stream of water. Together they watched as the roses disappeared over the hill.
Alicia covered her mouth and yawned.
“Next year, maybe we ought to just dump them into the water from the dock.” Akira stood and stretched. She held a hand out, which Alicia took in her own.
“Well, now, I don’t think that would be any fun.” She stood, and brushed her skirt off. Bending slightly, she reached into Akira’s basket and pulled out one last flower. “Oh,” she giggled. “I think you may have won this year after all.”
Akira looked at Alicia suspiciously and took the flower. Cocking her head, she looked at it inquisitively. “It’s not a rose.”
“No. It’s a carnation.”
Akira’s gaze moved from the flower to her friend.
“Carnations,” Alicia said, “grow almost everywhere. They come in nearly every color of the rainbow and are hardy. They can grow in all but the most extreme climates. They are survivors.” Alicia stepped back a little. “They have a clean, gentle scent. It reminds me of you.”
Akira blinked twice, her face darkening with embarrassment. “Embarrassing comments are prohibited!” She shouted before she could stop herself.
Giggling, Alicia scooped up the empty baskets and turned away.
“It’s red.” Akira caught up with Alicia after a moment or two.
“What does it mean?” The dark-haired woman pressed.
But Alicia wouldn’t answer and only laughed. “Wouldn’t that be an ‘embarrassing comment’?” was all she would say.
They untied the gondolas and bid each other good night. The dock creaked as they pushed off, and in a few minutes, the water settled into a slow, nearly silent lapping against the old wood, the quiet gurgle of oar-strokes lost into the night.
Akari set her oar at rest and waved. Aika and Alice lifted their hands in acknowledgment. The gondolas drifted closer and the three girls cheerfully related their adventures of the previous day.
“Aria Company is so full of roses, it smells like a flower shop,” Akari explained cheerfully. “Alicia received so many roses.”
“Athena-sempai too,” Alice agreed. “But she keeps dropping vases, so the whole floor in our room was wet.”
“What about Himeya, Aika? Is it full of roses for Akira?”
Aika shook her head, her dark ponytails waggling behind her as she did so. “There’s a lot of roses, of course,’ she said, “but not in Akira’s room. I stopped by to bring her back a book she lent me, and there was only one flower in a vase by the bed.”
“One flower?” Alice and Akari repeated.
“But she had *so* many roses yesterday,” Alice commented.
“And it wasn’t even a rose.” Aika shook her head again at the strange behavior of her mentor. “It was just a plain old red carnation.”
After a moment’s reflection, the topic was changed and the three moved off for their daily practice.
Notes: in the language of flowers, a red carnation means “admiration.”