In time, Elias has learned to be cautious around Crisostomo Ibarra.
He has learned, through his short excursions and walks around San Diego, how to appear to the other man. How to talk to the other man. How to maintain conversation. How to appeal to the other man despite the obvious differences in social standing (Elias is glad that all his secret time spent in public libraries, writing unknown words on a spare piece of paper and burying his face into different books, helped). He has learned to read Crisostomo Ibarra’s mannerisms, his quirks, his way of speaking…
He has them all jotted down in his mind so he wouldn’t forget.
(He has no intention of forgetting anyway. The man is too precious to him already to forget.)
In those months of short excursions and encounters with Crisostomo Ibarra, all of those learnings have boiled down to a single moment—a single moment that he has been planning for a few days, and he hopes it will not fail, lest he be damned.
This single moment of decisive planning is crucial to him, because only then will he learn to stop being so cautious around Crisostomo Ibarra.
Step one of Elias’ plan is to simply appear at the man’s doorstep. It is the easiest step of them all, but the most heart-racing one, because for now he will appear differently to Crisostomo.
In the months of excursions and encounters where he kept his heart tucked away and sealed with a lock and guarded with a knife, he appears before the man with his heart in his hands, behind his back, and he doesn’t know how to gauge Crisostomo’s reaction, as he has only appeared to him the way he his, guarded heart behind bars.
A servant ushers Elias into the waiting room, and warily eyes the bunch that he’s holding in his hands. He didn’t pay mind to the servant, and only anxiously waited for the master of the house to appear.
“Ah, Elias, it’s good to see you again—”
Crisostomo comes down from the grand staircase in the middle of the hall, and pauses halfway when he sees Elias, and what he’s holding.
Step two of Elias’ plan is to smile and feign innocence. Crisostomo doesn’t know.
He doesn’t know yet, and it’s best to continue that farce before breaking the ice.
“For you,” Elias said, holding up the bouquet of red roses for Crisostomo to see. He smiled a rare smile, hoping to hit another switch.
Crisostomo nervously gulped, and in the bright light of the mansion, Elias could see that he’s flushed a light pink.
“Let’s discuss the matter in my study, shall we?” Crisostomo said calmly, trying to maintain his composure. Elias isn’t sure if this is a good sign that his plan is working, or not. Nonetheless, it’s a sign that he should continue and see what would happen next.
The boatman followed up the staircase, and to Crisostomo’s study, where Crisostomo told the servant on duty to not disturb them, and immediately locked the door afterwards.
Then, he turned to Elias, who was still holding the bouquet of red roses in his arms.
“W-what’s this?” Crisostomo finally spluttered. Despite his aristocratic exterior, Elias knows deep down that Crisostomo Ibarra can easily get flustered and confused when something unexpected comes his way.
(Like, for instance, the appearance of a close friend with something rather foreign in his hands.)
“A gift for you,” Elias replied simply. “I’ve read about this tradition in a book before.”
Crisostomo’s eyes darted to his own extravagant bouquet at the other side of the room, intended for Maria Clara, then back to the one that Elias was holding in his hands. It was wrapped in white Japanese paper, and secured with a felt red ribbon. It was simple, like the man holding it, but it carried so much gravity.
“I know it’s rude of me to ask, but where did you get the money for this? The Philippines doesn’t grow native roses as far as I know, so getting a whole dozen of them…”
“I’ve been saving up.”
“…just for this?”
Crisostomo opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again.
Internally, Elias pet himself on the back. Maybe his determination would convey a short message to Crisostomo, and he wouldn’t have to go through the embarrassingly long speech that he prepared the night before.
Then, hesitantly, Crisostomo asked, “That’s…for me?”
Elias smiled again, Crisostomo felt a weird pang in his heart. It ached, and he didn’t know why. Elias’ smile was so full of…something that Crisostomo couldn’t decipher.
“Yes, senyor Ibarra.”
Step three of Elias’ plan is to simply give the roses. It’s the hardest step of them all, but the easiest to execute, because even if steps one and two failed, he could perform step three just by delivering the thing at Crisostomo’s doorstep.
(But no, he so desperately wanted to perform steps one and two, because he wants to stop being cautious around Crisostomo Ibarra, and he wants to give his heart bunched up among the flowers as well. Such wouldn’t happen if he just asked a servant to give it to him. Crisostomo needs to know. Elias would be damned if he died and Crisostomo still knew nothing.)
He held out the bouquet of red roses, and very gingerly, Crisostomo took it. The Japanese paper crinkled upon being received into the hands of another.
"I...thank you, Elias." Crisostomo smiled at the bouquet before noticing something odd.
"Elias, there are thirteen roses in this bunch."
Elias simply nodded his head. "So there are."
Step four of Elias’ plan was the waiting game. The obscure, subtle realization.
He waits for Crisostomo to realize something, by looking at the flowers, at the meaning, at his heart lying in wait inside.
Crisostomo coughed, pulling Elias out of his reverie. “Ah—ehem—well, if that’s all then…”
(He’s reluctant to let Elias go. He’s always liked Elias’ company, even if it was just the two of them standing in silence. It wasn’t awkward nor stifling. It was the comfortable kind.)
Elias felt his heart sink.
(Step five is throwing all rational thought out the window and lowering his guard. Enough was enough, and if Crisostomo couldn’t get the subtle message that Elias liked him, then maybe a physical act would do because Elias had suddenly remembered that Crisostomo Ibarra can be as a dense as a rock.)
He took a rose from the arrangement that Crisostomo was holding, and snapped the stem into a shorter length.
“Elias!” Crisostomo said in alarm. He whimpered at Elias tossing the rest of the rose stem aside.
“I know I’m not in a position to say this,” Elias started, “but…”
In Crisostomo’s peripheral vision he could see Elias raising his hand. Crisostomo blinked repeatedly, until he felt Elias’ hand graze against his skin, and brush his hair back.
(Elias had to fight the urge to just hold the man like that.)
Startled, he pulled back, and reached up to touch his cheek and his hair.
He stopped when he felt a cold long thing perched on the shell of his ear, and soft flower petals.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, senyor.”
The first thing that Simoun did upon his return to the Philippines was to find that same spot near the Pasig river, that same place in the trees where the boy Basilio made a funeral pyre for Elias as his dying wish.
He had something to give him, and Hell could swallow him alive if he wasn’t able to give it.
When he saw the tree marked with a large “x”, he stopped. Simoun knelt down, and reached into the breast pocket of his coat.
He pulled out a flattened, dried rose, the only one that he kept after the rest of the bouquet wilted and died.
(The rose that Elias tucked in his ear years before, which he pressed in a heavy tome afterwards, which he managed to salvage even after his mansion was burnt to the ground.)
Simoun laid it at the base of the tree, tears starting to well up in his eyes.
“Why?” he rasped angrily, balling his fists until his knuckles were stretched and white.
“Why didn’t you tell me back then, you idiot?”
I wouldn’t have another regret placed upon my shoulders if you did.