“You’re certain this will work?”
“Ladies go nuts for this sorta thing, the bigger the better! ‘Course, Kadsuki-han ain’t a lady, but he’s a gentleman, and that’s close enough.”
The entire place stank of flowers. There were too many of them, all clashing, and some of them so crushed under the weight of their fellows that they’d begun to rot at the edges.
It was an … interesting effect, to say the least, though they did add something to the otherwise-barren and grim landscape of Lower Town. Some of the braver kids hovered behind the broken pieces of walls, watching, and the boldest had already darted to grab a handful of flowers and dash off with them.
Emishi whistled when he saw the lot of them. “Where’d you find all of that?” he asked. “No florist in his right mind delivers to the Mugenjou. ‘Specially not anywhere past the doorstep.”
“I went looking myself,” Juubei said stiffly. “It would not do to delegate all the work.”
“Hahhh?” Emishi’s head tilted. “I don’t get what you’re sayin’.”
“This is my duty,” Juubei said. “While I could ask for help, I could not simply direct, as a lord does. It would not be proper.”
“Proper. Right.” Emishi crossed his arms. “… You do know we’re not really like that any more? Like, it’s not really cheating if you get takeout. I promise.”
“This is the proper way of doing things!” Juubei scowled. “Emishi, you were the one who said–”
“Right, right, I gotcha.” Emishi held up his hands. “Still, this is a lot. How’d you get it here?”
“…” Juubei said at first, and then, grudgingly, “I hired the GetBackers.”
“But they’re retrievers, not transporters.” Emishi squatted down and tugged a wilting lily from the heap. “How’d you do that?”
Juubei shrugged. However, light pinged off his visor and he might have smiled just a little. “Even Midou’s pride isn’t strong enough to withstand an empty stomach and no work for over a month. I had them retrieve flowers from whatever shops they could.”
“Didja give ’em the money for it?” Emishi lifted his prize up, making a brief face at the soggy sad thing. “If they didn’t have the money for food, they–”
“I did not ask how they found the necessary items,” Juubei said, almost prim. “What matters is they were obtained.”
“Dumpsters,” Ginji told Emishi later. “We went dumpster-diving. ‘Cause eventually, most florists will throw away their older flowers, right, the ones they didn’t sell? We just got those. And I think Juubei paid for a few new ones. The roses, maybe.” He glanced at Ban, who was seated at the Honky Tonk’s counter, nursing the same cup of coffee he’d had when Emishi had wandered in over an hour ago. “Ah, but don’t mention it to Ban-chan, okay? He’s still sulking.”
“Juubei, we have to do something about this mess,” Makubex said. He’d emerged from his control room to see the still-growing pile of flowers for himself; they now filled nearly an entire small lot, though the smell was getting decidedly more rotten-green than floral. “How much more do you need?”
“I’m looking for the perfect ones,” Juubei said. He was seated, seiza style, among smaller mounds of flowers. There was a pile in his lap and bits of vegetation in his hair. “I’ll know them when I find them. I haven’t yet.”
“But, Juubei,” Makubex said, “you still can’t see.”
Juubei dug his hands through the pile of flowers and brought them to his face, breathing deeply. When he put them aside, there was a bruised and browning petal on his lower lip. “I’ll know it when I find them,” he said; the fragment on his lip bobbed with the words, but didn’t fall off.
“Er,” Makubex said, then sighed. “Just try to hurry, all right? It’s creating a mess.”
Still serene, Juubei reached for the next pile of flowers and put them on his lap. Then he sifted his fingers through them, discarding whatever fell free, and repeated the sniffing process.
“I’ll find them when I find them,” he said, and reached for more. Makubex watched him a few moments longer, then made his escape.
“Juubei-han,” Emishi began. “Yanno, when I said flowers would be a good idea, I didn’t really mean anything like–”
“This one,” Juubei said. He held up a rather bedraggled-looking rose. “What color is it?”
“Er? It’s red, Juubei-han, but I don’t think–”
“Red,” Juubei said; he sounded rather satisfied with himself. “Perfect. This one?”
“Red too, Juubei-han–”
“This one? Emishi, this is important.”
“So’s the mess you’re making,” Emishi protested. “We’re Makubex’s kings, we’ve got a reputation to uphold! We’re followin’ in the footsteps of Kadsuki-han and Shido-han, we gotta do ’em proud! Eh? Ehhh?”
Juubei waited patiently for the spiel to end, then gestured with the next flower again.
Emishi sighed. “That’s red too. Any particular reason why?”
For a moment Juubei fell silent, sorting through a new pile of flowers by touch. Eventually he said, “The lady of the house used to keep gardens that she tended to — not the gardeners, she’d do the actual work herself. She grew red peonies, which she planted the day she learned she was pregnant.” His fingers twisted, and one of the stems was neatly beheaded. “They burned with the rest of the estate.”
Emishi said nothing as he looked at Juubei. Then he reached out and took the next few flowers from Juubei’s hands. “These aren’t red,” he said.
Juubei nodded his thanks.
Eventually, though, the big guns had to be brought out: after two weeks of flowers slowly piling up and mulching near the New VOLTS headquarters, Sakura went to speak with her brother. She stood and watched him for a while, and then said, “Juubei.”
“Sister.” Juubei did not look up from his work. “Was there something you needed?”
Sakura nudged a pile of vegetation with one foot. “While I’m sure the sentiment is very nice,” she said, “but this is going a little too far.”
Juubei’s hands paused. “It’s for Kadsuki’s birthday.”
“I know.” She continued to look at him evenly, and after a moment Juubei shifted — not quite a squirm — under her watchful gaze. “But something a little simpler might be better.” She bent and picked up a single red lily — one on the top of its pile, and remarkably undamaged. She twirled it between her fingers. “Lady Fuuchoin always believed in elegance and simplicity as the true signs of beauty.”
He said nothing. She walked over to stand beside him and took his hand, pressing the lily into it.
“I don’t get it,” said Emishi. He’d taken a clump of Juubei’s flowers and dropped it over his head — camouflage, he’d called it — and was now peering over a broken stone wall at the Kakei siblings. “How does she do it?”
“It’s because she’s Sakura,” Makbuex said. He wasn’t quite comfortable with the crouching and spying thing — it would’ve been easier to view from his control room, he’d pointed out, and had still been dragged out for his protests. “And she knows how to deal with her brother.” In spite of himself, he leaned up a little to get a better look as she pressed a flower into Juubei’s hand.
“Imagine that!” Emishi put his hands over his heart and sighed. Bits of muddy greenery slipped at the movement, hanging down half the side of his face. “Just like you’d expect from the wonderful Sakura-han, right?”
Makubex gave him a look. “Emishi?”
“Next time you have a brilliant suggestion for Juubei, run it by me first.”
“I’ve seen this work before,” Kadsuki said thoughtfully. He ran his fingertips lightly down the sides of the vase, tracing from base to lip. “Your mother’s style of ikebana, isn’t it?”
Juubei shrugged. He sat with his legs folded under him in seiza, hands on his knees. “You always said my mother’s ikebana was the most elegant you’d ever seen,” he said. His expression remained deadpan, but there was something shading into embarrassment in his voice. “If it’s not sufficient, I can still–”
“I’d forgotten,” Kadsuki interrupted gently. “Your mother had a wonderful eye. She taught you well, if you can remember this much without seeing.”
“I had help,” Juubei said. “In getting the flowers–”
“So I’d heard.” Kadsuki’s lips quirked into a half-smile. “You never do anything by half-measures, Juubei.”
Juubei squares his shoulders. “Kadsuki. I–”
“And all this for me.” Kadsuki knelt beside Juubei covered one of Juubei’s hands with his own. After a long moment, Juubei moved to lace their fingers together. “You remember nobility as well as any other.”
“I could have done more,” Juubei said, his voice heavy now with shame. “But I was blinded yet again by my own desires. I became too involved in my pride, and forgot my promises to you–”
Kadsuki pressed a cool finger to his lips. “None of that,” he said. “There have been kings who have killed for less.”
Juubei’s arms lifted slowly. Kadsuki put the arrangement aside, out of the way, and leaned into his embrace.
“Happy birthday,” Juubei muttered, into Kadsuki’s sweet-smelling hair, “my master.”
“But Juubei, my brithday is January first.”
“… Oh. Happy anniversary, then.”
“Our anniversary isn’t — never mind. Thank you, Juubei.”