Written for hakuen's "Like a Petal" for Remix 9. "Like a Petal" and the other fics in the same AU arc can be found at Archive of Our Own. Thanks to Olna Jenn for cheerleading and to Hope of Dawn and my husband for beta reading.
Looking back now, I feel sorry for Aunt Kaede. Not entirely- she was the adult, and I was only seven- but a bit. It might be best to say that I understand her decisions now. I don't agree with them. I think she should have asked more questions. Of course, if she had, she'd have followed my father in meeting with an 'accident.' What the Foundation wants, it gets. One way or another.
Not that the Foundation wanting me makes any sense at all. Certainly, I responded to training and became skilled, but I don't have any of the unusual gifts the Rosier Project was designed to exploit, nothing that should have been obvious when I was six or seven. What did they see to make it worth the trouble?
Because it was a lot of trouble- theft, murder and forged documents, all for the acquisition of a seven year old girl. There must have been a reason, but I'll likely never know.
Getting back to Aunt Kaede- She was ten years younger than my father, so she must have been about twenty-four. I don't know much about her life. We didn't see her that much. She'd probably been to university. I don't know what she studied or whether she'd gone on to work on a masters or had gone to work somewhere. She and I were equally unprepared for each other.
The men came three days after my father's funeral. They arrived in the late afternoon, as twilight was descending. One of them, I recognized. He'd come before and had held quiet, urgent conversations with Aunt Kaede that all seemed to center on money, specifically the lack of it.
I didn't realize how momentous their visit was. I was so young that I didn't really believe that my life was changing. Even now, two decades later, I remember that day with a sense of unreality, of impossibility. That was the last day I had the luxury of being a child.
Aunt Kaede served the two men tea in the library. She allowed me to stay in there, too. I have no idea why. Usually, she shooed me out before adult conversations got going. I, in turn, usually loitered near the door, wandering back and forth, pretending I had a reason to be there that wasn't eavesdropping.
"...would solve several problems."
My attention had wandered. I didn't understand all the adult words, and the man I didn't recognize spoke Japanese with a heavy accent. I'd heard enough to know they were discussing me, what to do with me.
I touched the window. The snow glowed as it fell past the streetlights. I spread my fingers, letting the cold of the glass seep into my bones. I needed to be cold. I wanted to cry, to scream at the world. A tantrum would make me feel so much better.
"...question of expense."
The man with the heavy accent started speaking. He went on for a while. I could only pick out the occasional word.
My father had told me that I had to be brave, had to be responsible. A tantrum would betray the promise I'd given him. My fingers curled against the glass until my fingernails were the only parts touching. I wondered what would happen if I interrupted to ask for dinner. Aunt Kaede wasn't predictable about that sort of thing, but I was hungry. Mrs. Fuwa, our housekeeper, almost certainly had a plate ready for me in the kitchen.
I loved Mrs. Fuwa uncritically. She'd been with us since my mother's death when I was three. I think I knew, in a sort of abstract way, that my father paid her, but that fact hadn't connected in my head with the fact that there was no more money. If I'd made the connection, I don't think any promises I'd made would have kept me from tears and tantrums. Mrs. Fuwa was the only certainty I had. I knew her. I didn't know Aunt Kaede.
I glanced at the clock, taking a few moments to decipher it. It was after six and not yet six thirty. Bedtime was eight o'clock, and the adults might continue to talk for hours yet.
The man with the heavy accent was still talking. He was going on about something called a curriculum. I had no idea what that meant.
I walked over to stand next to Aunt Kaede.
The man who was speaking broke off to look at me. I think Aunt Kaede and the man I recognized were surprised to find that I was still in the room.
"Please," I said, "may I go eat dinner?"
Aunt Kaede hesitated. Then she smiled. "Of course, sweetheart. Please ask Mrs. Fuwa to prepare something for the three of us, too. I think we'll be a while yet." She paused, her smile slipping a little. "When you're done, come back. There's something we need to discuss."
I couldn't bring myself to smile back. Instead, I nodded solemnly. "Yes, Aunt Kaede." I bowed and walked to the door. I let myself out then, heading for the kitchen. I didn't quite run.
"Aunt Kaede wants food for three," I announced as soon as I saw Mrs. Fuwa.
She wiped dishwater wet hands on her apron. "For three, is it?" She pursed her lips, considering. "I thought they'd be needing dinner, so I used tomorrow's fish and the last of the cabbage. I'll need to go shopping." She uncovered a plate of food, leaned over it and sniffed. "Food's cold. I expected you sooner."
"Aunt Kaede had me in the library while they talked." I made a face. "It was boring."
Mrs. Fuwa clicked her tongue. "It's all for you, Sakura love. Things have changed, and it's no good pretending they haven't." She put my plate in the microwave. "It's not as good reheated, but I flatter myself that I've given you a good meal."
"Your food is always good," I told her loyally. The tempura on the plate would be a bit soggy from being reheated, but I'd enjoy it anyway. I sat at the table and folded my hands, hoping she wouldn't try to send me to the dining room.
"You'd better eat in here tonight and save the dining room for the adults." She pulled a pitcher out of the refrigerator and poured me a glass of water. "Did your aunt say when they wanted to eat?"
I shrugged. I was more interested in food than in Aunt Kaede and her guests.
We both watched the microwave as it counted down. When it beeped, Mrs. Fuwa pulled out the plate and placed it in front of me.
"Thank you for the food," I said as I picked up my chopsticks. I ate carefully, making use of every scrap of good manners I could muster. I ate quickly, too, bearing in mind that Aunt Kaede wanted to talk to me.
Mrs. Fuwa started to prepare the fish. As she did, she explained to me what she was doing.
The cooking lesson seemed so normal, that I relaxed completely. I listened as she discussed the marinade she'd used and why the flavors were complementary. I nodded when she talked about having enough liquid in the pan for the pieces of fish to simmer without sticking.
When I finished the last bite, I put down my chopsticks. "I'd better go. Aunt Kaede said to come back."
"Go along with you, then." Mrs. Fuwa turned away from the stove to shoo me away. "I'll see you at bed time." She smiled at me.
I smiled back, a little tentatively, and left with some reluctance. The kitchen was warm and safe, and I had no idea what Aunt Kaede wanted. She hadn't gone out of her way to talk to me since she'd arrived.
I trudged back to the library and knocked on the closed door.
"Come in." The voice was Aunt Kaede's.
I opened the door then hesitated in the doorway.
Aunt Kaede pushed her chair back, stood and walked over to put an arm around my shoulders. She drew me into the room, leaving the door open behind me. When we were almost to the table, she said, "Sakura, what would you think about going away to school?"
I froze. "Away?" I didn't want to go away.
"There's a school in the United States, a school for highly gifted children. They offered you a place last year, when they first opened, but your father preferred to keep you with him. Now...well."
Tears started to come at the thought of being with my father. I blinked hard, trying to keep them in. "I'd be able to come back to the house, right?" My voice shook. Realizing that that didn't sound right, I added, "And to see you, too, of course." I wanted to scream, to throw myself down on the floor and kick, but I knew that nothing I could do would matter. Aunt Kaede had made up her mind. I wasn't sure why she was even asking me.
One of the men at the table, the one who'd been to the house several times before, cleared his throat. "I'm afraid the house must be sold. Your father took out a loan against the house, and that debt outweighs the value of the rest of the estate. The only way to salvage anything is to sell the house and everything else which is not of great sentimental value." He gave me a nod. "I'm sorry."
"That's why I think we need to take advantage of this great opportunity," Aunt Kaede said. "You'll be challenged-"
"But how?" I interrupted. "Where did the money go?" Daddy had always assured me that there was plenty of money.
The man looked over my head at Aunt Kaede. After a moment, he nodded, his expression tight. "The funds were forwarded to a Swiss account. We can't trace them beyond that point."
The answer made no sense to me. I had no idea what a 'Swiss account' was. I nodded anyway. I looked up at Aunt Kaede and tried desperately to think of an objection that would make her change her mind.
"It's a good school, Sakura, a better school than we can afford if you stay here. We couldn't keep you at your current school. It's too expensive."
I felt frozen. Everything was being taken away from me. "Is it safe?" The words came out as the barest whisper. I couldn't think of anything else to say. "Is he a good man?" I jerked my chin at the man with the accent.
Aunt Kaede laughed softly. "Of course he is, darling. You'll be safe in the United States. Completely safe. They'll even have a class to help you keep up with your kanji so you won't forget how to write in Japanese. We'll write each other letters. It'll be fun. You'll make so many new friends. You'll leave in the morning."
I think, now, that she was trying to convince herself as much as anything, but I allowed myself to be lulled. I had no choice but to go. If I'd been older, I'd have had more questions about things like the vanishing money and my sudden acquisition of a passport and visa. I still have questions on both subjects. I can guess at the answers, but why would the Foundation want me enough to forge papers and make money disappear?
Aunt Kaede eased me out of the room, sending me back to Mrs. Fuwa with instructions to get ready for bed as soon as dinner had been served to the adults. My bed felt cold, even with a hot water bottle to warm it. I was going away. I'd never return to this house, to this bed. Nothing of mine would remain.
I cried that night. I waited until the adults were gone, until the tears could be mine alone. I cried, and I didn't sleep. That was the night my childhood really ended.