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You Who Never Arrived

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I would have nothing from you.

Misao closed her eyes and took a deep breath, turning away from Aoshi.

Aoshi turned his unsettled gaze to the men who had just entered.

The meeting was about to begin.

"Colonel Kobe." Misao faltered, her movements slow, now disarmed of her earlier composure. She stepped to them and bowed to the man who led the group at the centre. "We've been expecting you."

The group of military men fanned out in an impressive semicircle before them. In their company, Misao's smaller figure contrasted starkly with their dark, imposing statures. It was Col. Kobe who commanded the most attention—the head of the Southern Divisions of the Japanese military, it was his word that sent all the leaders from far and wide in Japan to this very room. Each of them had a stake in what he had to offer tonight.

"Lady Sotsu," the silver-haired man replied, his face calm despite his worn expression. "What a pleasant surprise."

"What is she doing here?" an irritated voice interrupted the greetings. The demand came from the man who stood beside the colonel, his remarkable auburn hair and fine-features marred by the sneer on his face.

"Lieutenant-Colonel Hirai." Misao acknowledged the younger official, her voice disquietingly soft.

Lt. Col. Hirai was one of the most prominent officials in the region, especially since he rose through the ranks at such a young age. Aoshi was aware that it was in Yokohama where he had made his name, not just for his skills, but for his hot temperament. Criminals and politicians were known to choose to get out of his way rather than risk an explosive confrontation. And from his hostile bearing, it was evident that Misao herself had not escaped his wrath in the past.

But Misao surprisingly remained subdued, not rising to challenge his temper. "The men were waiting, and I had been asked to do what I could in the meanwhile." She moved to lead the men to their seats. "If there is anything I could do for the Colonel and his men—"

"I would thank you, Lady," Hirai enunciated the last word almost mockingly, "but I don't think we'd need anything—Not from you."

Misao finally reacted to that, flinching. From somewhere among the tables, Aoshi looked away, his gaze hardening.

Not from you.

"Oh for crying out loud, man." Lord Deon cut in loudly with an aggrieved sigh, "Are you still sulking because of what happened in that ball last season? She couldn't accommodate your request, Hirai. Take it like a man and move on. Even I cannot tolerate it anymore."

Though Lord Deon's words left people wondering, Hirai merely clenched his jaw, dismissing the lord's recollection. "Women aren't supposed to be allowed in meetings like this."

If a sharp reply had been expected from Misao, none came from her now to satisfy this. "I—I understand." She whispered haltingly, her earlier defiance now silent. "I can leave."

"Why does she have to go?" a country lord suddenly interjected, to the agreement of other voices. "She's stayed around long enough to let us enjoy her company."

"Don't be surprised, lad." another leader replied bemusedly when Hirai turned sharply to them. "She's argued her way through it already. We don't mind having her here, and you'd have to win us over to convince us otherwise."

Though she looked like she would rather retreat more than anything else, Misao looked up, surprised to see people defending her. "I wasn't—"

"Working your infamous 'charms' again, Lady Sotsu?" Hirai had ignored the men and turned his glare to Misao accusingly. "What foolishness did you tell these people to convince them you belonged here?"

"I'm afraid you're two conversations too late for that!" another voice called out, and amused mirth came from the table as the men muttered their assent, and implicit criticism of the military men's tardiness. "Do stay, Lady. Give us that piece of your mind. There's no room for past grudges here, not from any man."

The scowl remained on Hirai's face, but it was his milder-mannered superior Colonel Kobe who finally spoke, making him retreat. "Now, Hirai, it is obvious that she has earned her place in this table. Perhaps we could get along with this. We're late enough as it is."

The room grew silent in anticipation, and Misao hesitantly took her seat behind Saitou and Sano by the table. Colonel Kobe nodded as his men settled down, and Aoshi willed himself to turn his full attention to the official. "We thank you for coming, gentlemen. I come here, representing Major General Maeda. Something of great importance has come to the government's attention, and we realize that the army might need your combined assistance in dealing with this matter."

"What is this all about, Kobe?" Baku asked.

"Drugs, men, drugs." The Colonel revealed beating around the bush. "The devil, as they say, is in the details."

For the past few months armed syndicates had been smuggling more and more opium and cannabis into the country from China and Hong Kong. And while the government had the resources to combat these groups, they didn't have enough information to discover them and route them out. They were incredibly efficient, and some reports claimed that they acted with a structure and method similar to that of ninja clans—some of these ninja organisations were even suspected of being unofficially involved in the illegal trade system.

"We do not know how these people think. At least, not as well as you do. And they operate on many strategic ports that our men have not mastered as well your men could. Yokohama may be a hotbed for smuggling activity, but these operations have also worked in Tokyo Harbor, in Osaka and Kyoto, even as far as Hokkaido. We need a widespread security network within the shortest amount of time possible to deal with these organizations. The government needs help, gentlemen, and we need it from you."

His final words worked like magic on the men. Aoshi noticed the amazed, instantaneous interest among the people.

"Why is everyone making such a big fuss over this? We don't even know what we're getting in return yet." The young lord Takanobu watched it all, fascinated by how quickly the men began to talk among themselves.

"It's simple, boy." Gakushi merely shook his head, himself unexpectedly amazed. "It's because the government doesn't trust ninja clans. They haven't done so for years."

Aoshi nodded. In an age where governments looked at old practices and traditional loyalties with distrust, such words from the Colonel were considered a boon. Considered unnecessary after the Bakamatsu, rebellious Samurai clans had already been eradicated, while Ninja clans were increasingly being regarded as antiquated and dangerous.

"What they are giving us," Gakushi lifted his chin towards the Colonel, "is a second shot at life."

Takanobu nodded, finally understanding what he meant when the others began to speak.

"What do you want us to do?" one of the clan-leaders asked.

Kobe wasted no time. "Cooperate. Extend your networks. Find out these organizations for us. Set us enough evidence to capture them. Tell us how they operate so we can catch them off guard. We'll be relying on your word, and in return you'll receive funding and support from us." Here he turned towards the Yokohama businessmen, "You can regard your financial support as investments with a high return rate of interest, as much as ten percent in some instances. It would be on a case by case basis."

Funding. Support. Aoshi shook his head. If he were anyone other than himself, he would not hesitate to accept their offer. It was the kind of security the Oniwabanshuu needed, and what Okina expected Aoshi to return with. But even so he remained cautious, his instincts alerting him inexplicably. Again, the former Okashira's words resounded in his head. It's important to keep your head about you: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

"What else do you know about the situation, then?" he finally spoke, his voice evenly interrupting the excited hush that had fallen among those in the tables.

Colonel Kobe had turned to Lieutenant Colonel Hirai, who had quickly turned suspicious eyes to Aoshi. The man's voice was nonchalant, however, when he replied, "We have little information on these groups based on successful raids—we know names, but the information trail is vague, and the secrecy in their operations is impenetrable. We rarely catch them on provincial harbours. This is why we're relying on your networks."

Aoshi eyes met his guardedly.

"So this means that you won't be able to give us information to start with." It was Saitou who surprisingly spoke this time, risking attention to himself for the first time that night.

Hirai turned to him surreptitiously. "Why are you asking for help from us? This is supposed to be what you're good at, isn't it?"

The man's defensiveness was fooling neither Saitou nor Aoshi, whose instincts were suddenly in-tune.

"Anything that can help us set up or instruct our own networks would be valuable, Lieutenant Colonel." Aoshi answered smoothly. "You, of all people, would know more about this situation."

"Surely the government would know better." Another leader prodded, catching their reasoning. "We'd appreciate anything that could help."

Hirai had to pause, especially as the Colonel had also turned to him to answer. "Even if we do know some information, they will remain confidential until we believe it necessary to tell you."

"In short, you want to use our information, but not give us yours." Saitou repeated, his amber eyes sharpening.

Hirai narrowed his eyes at Saitou's frank assessment. "You presume too much, old man. This is a matter of national security. You should be thankful the government considers cooperating with you at all. You should be the ones proving yourselves."

"Well, correct me if I am wrong, Lieutenant Colonel," Saitou's voice lowered over his ranking, "but if you can only trust us enough to use us, but not help us, then that's not real cooperation at all."

"Don't think too much of yourself, Miburo." Hirai answered back, heatedly spitting out his title, "If you really want to cooperate, you would be the one giving us information, and then you will be compensated. What we can or cannot tell you shouldn't hold you back. It's a simple yes or no, and from there, we will judge if you're worth trusting."

"You will judge us?" Saitou paused over the statement with deliberate emphasis, silencing the room with his tone. "Well how gracious of the government to give us the chance to earn their trust." He swept his hand out. "You want us to thank you? Well there you go: thanks." And in the sudden pause, he bared his teeth, "But no thanks."

Here, he suddenly turned to Sano and Misao beside him. "Tell me what you think."

What? "Excuse me?" Hirai retorted hotly.

Misao herself had looked surprised by Saitou's sudden order, more so when Sano turned to her as well. While people mulled over Saitou's suspiciously casual turn of behaviour, Aoshi merely eyed them sharply, watching as Misao doubtfully stared back at Saitou. "Chiefu—"

"Well?" Saitou prodded, pointedly ignoring Hirai's earlier question.

"We—we talked about this already," Misao answered slowly. Aoshi narrowed his eyes, realising that she was not shocked that Saitou consulting her, but that he was openly consulting her, in front of everyone. "Why—"

"What is this all about, Miburo?" Hirai demanded furiously, cutting her off.

Saitou shrugged, explaining nonchalantly. "Your offer holds nothing for me, Hirai. Not to insult you, but at this point, I would rather trust my own people than have the government trust me." He glanced at Misao again, pressing further, "Say it."

"I," Misao paused. She glanced at Enishi and Sano. "We told you we'd rather not do it." She revealed, her gaze staring questioningly into Saitou now.

"She's right," Enishi's disaffected voice followed her with his assent. "This meeting hasn't changed anything."

Saitou smirked and nodded to himself. "For once, I agree."

"Well there you have your answer, men. My group has made its choice." He swept his hands in finality. "No, we will not accept this offer. Thank you very much and have a good evening."

The silence in the room gave way to unexpected shock. I would rather trust my own people than have the government trust me. Saitou had just insulted the government, effectively turning down their offer, and he had done it with such deceptive casualness that no one would have seen it coming, or prepared a response against it.

Hirai's eyes merely narrowed at them dangerously.

Saitou stood and made as if to leave the gathering. The instant effect of his actions was evident. Yukishiro pushed his chair back as well, ready to leave. A panicked hush fell among the people, as an air of suspicion and uncertainty began to pervade.

"Wait a minute, if Mibu's Wolf is not joining, then I'm not sure I want to."

"He's the only one we're familiar with, here."

"He's risking losing even the government's favour." Even the Yokohama financial backers were starting to doubt. "If he's not joining, it must be for a good reason."

Aoshi watched as Colonel Kobe's eyes began to widen with worry.

Hirai merely shook his head, his smile cunning. "Tell us then, Saitou," he spoke, his voice deceptively nonchalant. "Why is it that you would rather say no?"

Saitou paused, and with a shrug turned to Misao again.

She lifted her gaze to him, again undone, as if uncertain about what exactly he wanted her to do. Why don't you just tell them? Why use me? Why now?

"I had asked you, Saitou, not any of your blind followers." Hirai spoke smoothly, making a steeple with his fingers. "Not the two-faced criminals you associate with." Enishi turned his steely gaze at him, "Or the common street-thugs you have picked up." Here he turned his gaze languorously towards Misao. "Not even your prized little actress."

Sanosuke glared at him, and Misao froze at his words, but Saitou merely looked at him indifferently. "I have no qualms with whom I choose to represent me, Hirai." He glanced back at Misao. "They do not need to explain themselves to you."

"Of course you wouldn't." Hirai replied. "You are, after all, the company you keep."

Saitou's eyes narrowed at him, while Misao suddenly lifted her gaze to Hirai. From beside Aoshi, the ever questioning Takanobu finally asked, "What does he mean?"

Hirai turned to the men in the meeting. "The infamous Wolf has chosen not to cooperate with the government, and now he can't even provide us with a reason why. Somehow I am not surprised." He glared menacingly at Saitou. "Here we have a man who has been changing sides, fighting for the government during the Bakamatsu, and working with murderers and criminals afterwards. How do you think he's gained all that wealth all of a sudden?"

Misao gasped disbelievingly, while Sano swore loudly, disgusted. But Saitou only shook his head at them.

"I am just saying I am impressed." Hirai went on, "Only the best of hypocrites can survive so long in an age where people like him are no longer needed."

Whispers spread like wildfire across the table. Hypocrite. Misao had started at the word, but Saitou didn't bother to reply, turning to walk away with an indifferent, almost bored expression on his face.

"He's really leaving," Baku announced unnecessarily. "All that and he's just leaving."

"Come now, men. Let him leave with his company of traitors." Hirai sneered dismissively. "We all know how the Wolf isn't to be trusted. After all, you can't expect someone like him to side with just anyone: he'd want more. Perhaps 'Fujita' would rather offer his services to those drug-dealers on the other side. He has more in common with those low-lives, after all."

"Chiefu," Misao now began, her voice low. Why wasn't he defending himself?

But Saitou shook his head. He merely continued walking out, his face unreadable. Sano cursed under his breath and followed. Misao's eyes widened as she stared at him, as if with sudden understanding. He was doing it on purpose.

Hirai called out to his back. "That's right, don't face me. Do that thing you do—be a coward." He shook his head, "What of your infamous 'honour?' I wonder how you sleep at night, Miburo, without knowing shame. I wonder how your own wife can bear the thought of sleeping next to someone whose name—"

"That's enough."

Saitou turned to Misao, from whom the words came with unexpected vehemence. "Stop it." She repeated, now turning to face Hirai, who looked amused more than anything by her late burst of defiance.

"Misao." Saitou warned.

"You can yell at me later, Saitou." Misao glared at Hirai, "But it's my turn this time. After all," she turned dark eyes towards him, her face unreadable. "Isn't this what you wanted all along?"

"What's this? A defender?" Hirai laughed, "Not that I had addressed her personally, but what can your little Performer do? Bargain her charms to convince us that you're trustworthy? Or move us into tears to prove your virtue?"

Before Saitou could reply, Misao shook her head at Hirai. "I do not address, or answer to you either, Lieutenant Colonel. But now I will do the answering for my leader," she took the time to smile at him, "Surely you can't be that scared of a woman not to let me."

"By all means." Hirai's smile turned steely, dodging the potential insult she had just returned. "What is it you want to say? Be sure to make it, dare I say, entertaining."

Misao shook her head slowly, smiling with a renewed edge to her voice. "Only this sir, to ask whether or not your shirts have been cleaned."

What?

The seeming absurdity of the question baffled the onlookers, but others like Aoshi merely watched her cautiously, anticipating more.

Hirai sneered as he shook his head, "Have you completely lost your head, lady? What does that have to do with anything?"

Misao shook her head with a smile, and from beside her, Sano smirked. "The uniforms you and your Major are wearing are different from the rest of your group. You're supposed to change for next week's uniforms tomorrow."

And sure enough, Hirai and the man beside him were wearing brown uniforms, as opposed to the navy attires the rest of the military men were still wearing. Hirai merely raised a brow, however, "Much as your interest in our clothes is surprising, not to mention unwarranted, I fail to see what the significance of this is."

"Nothing much," Misao let out lightly, "except that you should really have those shirts cleaned. The dishes at Shinzawa's are good, but that's a nasty sauce spill you two had while taking your lunch, off-duty, yesterday."

"So? What's your point—" Hirai's eyes widened suddenly, and Aoshi himself began to comprehend what her words meant. Shinzawa's. It was a famous restaurant in Yokohama's port—one of the most active hotbeds of smuggling and illegal entry.

Misao's smile was patiently chiding. "It's perfectly understandable, however—considering that your men were distracted by watching the Wing Fang syndicate unload opium from their ship at the same time. You really shouldn't do both together you know. Eating and spying, I mean."

They had him. Hirai's jaw dropped, the man beside him sputtered on his tea, while the rest of them stared in shock.

"You wanted our reasons for not joining, didn't you?" Misao raised her brow. "As much as you want to believe in it, we didn't say no just because we wanted to be, what's the word," her eyes narrowed, "hypocrites."

Sano went on, explaining smugly. "You obviously know which groups are involved in this smuggling business—enough to catch them in the act. But none of you have tried to arrest them. Worse, you're trying to get us to catch these criminals for you without telling us that you already know them. Now why does that sound fishy?"

"What is the meaning of this, Lieutenant Colonel?" Colonel Kobe had turned to Hirai. "Why wasn't I informed?"

But Hirai had already recovered from his shock. "That doesn't prove anything! So we do have information about these people, and we refused to tell you. We've done nothing wrong. If you're going to accuse us, you might as well make sure it makes sense."

But it to people like Aoshi, it already made perfect sense.

"Who said we were accusing you of anything?" Misao shook her head, her eyes hard. "If you want to protect your interests, surely you'd understand if we'd want to protect ours. You wanted us to prove you can trust us, but could we trust you?"

"You hide too much from us." A lord reacted with a shake of the head. "That makes you dangerous to work with. I would never risk my men or my ninjas on something like that. It's not good enough."

"Negotiate with those you can trust, or don't negotiate at all." Baku quoted the ninja tenet nostalgically, his voice now hard.

"You get too carried away." Hirai replied hotly. "We have important information on some of the smugglers, yes. But I've chosen not disclose them because I'm not sure whether any of you can be trusted yet. You're lucky the government considers you worthy at all."

It was the same spiel he had used on Saitou earlier, but this time, his argument seemed futile in light of what was just revealed about them.

"Even now, that's all you can think of? Our worthiness?" Misao shook her head. "Lieutenant Colonel, if you think ninjas careless when it comes to information, then you don't know anything about ninja clans at all."

"She's right."

It was Takanobu who had unexpectedly spoken from beside Aoshi, his earlier hesitation suddenly gone. He now stood, his bearing suddenly imperious, his voice firm.

"Information is gold for Onmitsu organisations. It's what we've lived on for ages, what we've built our existence around. In a world where we've had no second chances, knowing was what made the difference between survival and failure." He shook his head. "That's why our networks are so important to us. How do you think our clans have managed to exist until now?"

Misao looked at Takanobu, respect finding its way into her voice when she nodded with him. "Ancient ninja clans have risen and fallen because people like you chose not to tell us enough, because you doubt our worthiness." Her voice suddenly became softer, and her eyes lowered. "We've lost many of our loved ones because we didn't know enough."

Aoshi felt his chest tighten at the sight. Hannya, Beshimi, Shikijou, Hyotokko.

Takanobu went on with renewed vigour, "If we supply you with our combined networks, then you'll have unimaginable power, not just over drug smuggling, but over many clans and individuals in the country. You can even use it against us. You want to know if you can trust us?We should be the ones asking if we could trust you. You are the ones who are lucky we're considering your offer at all."

Misao finally turned to Hirai, and for a moment, the dark glimmer of determination in her eyes made her look as strong and tragic a ninja leader as any of them ever was. "If you really knew what being shinobi is about—if you respected what ninja clans really stood for, you would know this."

Around the room, elder leaders lowered their heads, struck by the words of the two younger ninjas. Most of them had come here believing they needed the government more than the government needed them. It had never occurred to them that it could be the other way around as well.

Hirai, who had backed up in his seat when they were speaking, narrowed his eyes as he responded.

"Rubbish. What do any of you know about surviving in this new world? You're all aging groups who are losing importance in an era which no longer needs you. You need the government to keep you alive."

"That's enough, Hirai." Colonel Kobe ordered the man, but it was too late. Many clan leaders were already standing up, shocked.

If Hirai had been expecting the same silent subservience as earlier, he was mistaken. Leaders stood up, a renewed determination in their eyes.

"So this is what you think of us." Baku spoke slowly, disbelieving, barely containing his anger.

Another nodded angrily, disgusted. "You're not worth negotiating with, lad. You're not even worth talking to."

"Unacceptable."

"No, what's unacceptable was that we almost let you get away with it."

Others had begun to stand, preparing to walk out without another word. Colonel Kobe watched this all, amazed at the sudden strength their renewed sense of unity gave them. It was a sight he hadn't seen in the longest time, calling back to the days of the Bakamatsu. He had lived long enough to remember the time where being ninjas meant bearing pride for being part of a tradition of hidden glory. Hirai may have had a point about their reduced significance today, but at that moment, they looked as strong as they ever did, unexpectedly empowered by the words they had just heard, and he could only watch in quiet awe.

"Gentlemen!" he called out, standing up, "We can still push through this like civilized people. The government is willing to negotiate," he ordered, momentarily calling everyone's attention as he turned to Hirai. "Hirai, I demand you to apologize for your disrespectful behaviour."

Hirai turned to him shaking his head, "Me? Why should I apologise for telling the truth as I see it? With all due respect, sir—I know these people need us, and I know I am right. I do not need to learn about surviving from an inexperienced, half-learned brat," he pointed at Takanobu, "and I do especially do not need to learn about respect," he spat the word, "from a pretentious, high-class whore."

His words rang through out the room.

Misao who had been turning to leave, stopped.

No one said a word.

Her gaze fell to her hand.

He had called her a whore.

"Say that again, kisama." It was Yukishiro Enishi who unexpectedly broke the silence this time when he spoke softly, dangerously. "I dare you to."

Hirai shook his head, facing Enishi boldly, his eyes slit, "Don't tell me that isn't what she is. You're one of them. You, of all people, know how she escorts all those aristocrats who invest in that theatre." He spat out. "Don't tell me none of you realised that tonight. That's why they're always on her side. That's why they fall for her act. Clearly, that's what respect is all about to women like her—"

"Hirai."

Aoshi. It was his voice that made the man stop. Darkness had seeped through the man's features with inexplicable ferocity, making his words sheer ice when he spoke. "You are seriously out of line."

"No."

The whispered command had come from Misao.

She did not move. "Don't, please." Her voice finally broke. "Don't do this for me."

Aoshi turned to her, shocked, but she refused to look at him, her eyes low. "I don't deserve it, and I don't want it. Not anymore."

And here, his blood ran cold. Misao. "It can't be true."

Misao turned around to lift her dark gaze to Hirai, her eyes blank, her skin pale. "Hirai-sama can call me anything he wants," It was then when the shadow that had fallen over her features deepened, "As long as he gets some other high-class whore to do his work for him. Because this," she pointed to herself, "this one isn't."

"Misao," Sano whispered, awed. "You…you don't have to—"

"No. I've had enough of this." She shook her head vehemently. "That's what he's been trying to call me the whole evening, isn't it? There's no point anymore." She then turned to face Hirai, whispering bluntly. "But tell me, Lieutenant Colonel, is that really all you have to say?"

Hirai looked taken aback by her sudden question. But Misao went on, "Tonight, you've been given the privilege of meeting these leaders, yet you have just insulted their skill, their honour, and their traditions." She stepped forward. "They had shown you respect—respect which you didn't return, just because you knew they needed your help… and in the end, that's all you have to say? That I am whore?"

Her voice had gotten stronger, rising. "I may be nothing more than a whore to you. I may be just a woman. But I came here tonight with what little honour I have left—because more than a whore, more than just an actress, and more than just a woman, I came here as a person who is a ninja first. And that, at the very least, I will never compromise."

Aoshi could only gaze at her wordlessly, the dark look in his eyes deepening at the bare expression on her face.

"I hope you're satisfied." She spoke, her eyes clouding over. Aoshi felt her voice speaking to him even as she kept her gaze on Hirai. "It ends here. You've seen me bare, and you've made your judgment clear. And from now on, you get nothing," even as her voice hardened, it fell, "nothing at all from me."

No one spoke after that. Outside, it seemed the world itself seemed to have fallen into silence. Aoshi stared at her.

She had been shamed, but this had been her choice.

He closed his eyes and turned away.

Sano had walked to touch Misao's shoulder, she jolted suddenly, shivering, "Don't!" she cried out, her voice shaking. "I can't. I can't breathe.I can't."

Sano flinched. "Misao…"

Misao had to take a step back, "I'm sorry," she put her hands to her face with jarred, broken motion as she turned to the rest of the men in the meeting.

She summoned a smile, one that looked brave and tragic at the same time. "I'm sorry, forgive me for being rude. I must have been too tired by today's meeting." She turned to Saitou, who had been quiet throughout the entire interlude, "I'm sorry I spoke out of turn, I don't know what came over me. Colonel Kobe, I never meant any disrespect. Now If—" she tripped on her words, and yet she performed. "If you would excuse me." Her voice fell into a whisper. "I bid all of you goodnight. I've—I've had a wonderful time."

And without another word, she turned towards the enormous ballroom doors, opening them with disjointed steps and disappearing behind them, leaving a solemn thud echoing in her wake.

Enishi stood. "We're not negotiating, Saitou." Saitou no longer needed to argue, and he nodded silently at Sano to follow her. Enishi turned toward everyone else. "You may show yourselves out when you're done, and you," he eyed Hirai, "make sure to never show your face to me again."

Hirai, who had remained stupefied by Misao's capitulation until that moment, finally seemed to realize what was happening. "She's the one who was out of line," he sputtered heatedly, attempting to reason. "She doesn't get to shame me."

"No, you don't need the lady for that, Lieutenant Colonel." His superior Kobe told him grimly, "You've already done it for yourself."

He bowed towards the men in the room. "We're sorry for wasting your time, gentlemen. All of you have accepted this with admirable grace. I could only hope to compensate." And he himself walked out of the room with as much dignity as he could carry.

The room fell into an uproar. The meeting had ended.


 

Saitou was already making his way down the hotel's steps when Aoshi's voice stopped him "You don't get to evade me this time, Saitou."

Saitou stopped, pausing over his breath. "Shinomori. I would have thought you'd gotten all the answers you needed. What else do you want from me?"

Aoshi's eyes were so dark, so intense it seemed to burn. "Why?"

Even a man such as Saitou could tell the thousands of questions behind that single word. "Why not?"

"I saw what you did tonight, Saitou." Shinomori continued, his voice fevered, "You put her up there for the world to see, for everyone to judge. You left her alone before them to fend for herself—"

"And she did it." Saitou's answered firmly. "Didn't you see what happened in that room? She held herself before them. She rose to the challenge, and she stood her ground. She could do it."

"So was that what it was?" Aoshi shook his head, breathing heavily as he turned his eyes to the night sky, "A demonstration for me to see? To show me that 'she could do it'?"

Saitou's eyes narrowed at him, "Don't tell me you didn't see that."

"See what?" Shinomori turned to him, a harsh laugh escaping his lips, "To see her calling herself a—"

"Whore?" Saitou shook his head, "If you really think that, then you're less deserving of the girl than I thought."

"You want to judge me as deserving?" The black look in Shinomori's eyes grew, "You're the one who allowed her to become like this, you were the one who set her together with these people, in this cursed city—"

"And what makes them any worse than you, huh?" Saitou lifted his chin. "None of us are clean here, Shinomori, least of all the two of us. You, yourself, have taken more lives than even Yukishiro ever did. Him, Sagara, Misao, all of them are part of that generation that young lord Takanobu beside you belonged to. They may be different, but they are not blind to what we are."

Shinomori had clenched his jaw at his words, but he shook his head, "I tried to keep her away from me, so that she would never have to become—"

"Become what, Shinomori?" Saitou shook his head, his voice dangerous.

Shinomori shook his head, unfazed, as if all the words in the world weren't enough. He was left shaking his head. "She let her hair down." His voice became low, too soft. "If you were in my place, to know her before, and to see her so changed now…"

"I would be nothing less than proud." Saitou swore to him. "And if you can't see that, then maybe it's a good thing she chose not to go back with you."

Shinomori started at his words, animosity filling his face. "Don't dare, Saitou." His spoke, his words barely controlled. "Insult me, but never presume to have the right to tell me what's good or bad for me—for her—"

"Now you're telling me I do not deserve to tell you what's right for her, or for you?" Saitou angry voice rose as well, causing the people loitering down the steps a few yards off to move away quickly.

Saitou closed his eyes and turned away, calming down. When he spoke, his voice was ironic. "Frankly Shinomori, you're right. It's none of my business, and it never should have been. Why would I even bother?"

Shinomori paused at the turn in his words, and he went on. "When I found her stowing away in our ship to Kowloon four years ago, I ignored her. When she tried to join my troops, I turned the girl away. Even Yukishiro shunned her. She was none of my business. And do you know what I did? I sent word for Kyoto. I waited for someone, someone who deserved the right, to come look for her. I wanted her off my back, and I did what was in my place. Ask me then, why do I bother now?"

Shinomori's eyes had widened halfway through Saitou's narrative. When he turned away, Saitou shook his head. "Hell, I knew better than to listen to the brat when she said you wouldn't look for her. I never expected it; it was all annoying drama. But she was right, wasn't she?" He gave a small laugh as he lit a cigarette. "You never came."

"She was better off without me." Shinomori spoke back instinctively, a sharp edge to his voice. "She chose to leave, and I wouldn't force myself on her unless she—"

"Came back?" Saitou challenged back. "Well it's too late for that now, isn't it?" He took a drag off the cigarette, "You didn't come, and now she can't go back either. Too much has happened already." He stared off darkly, "And now, I can't go back."

Shinomori's eyes rose at his statement. "What do you mean by that?"

Saitou laughed ironically, staring at the cigarette in his fingers. "Fate is a strange thing, isn't it? The young replace the old, but tonight they glorified us. Enemies become saviours, and the sorrows we experience are self-made." His eyes clouded over for a while, and after a pause, he turned back to Shinomori. "You couldn't have protected her, Shinomori. Not any of them. They live their own lives, and we can only go so far."

Shinomori froze at his words. "Do not tell me this, Saitou." He spoke slowly. "You do not know me." His voice shook "I can't."

"I do know that I can't let you use me as an excuse to punish yourself." Saitou spoke, his voice set. "Nor do you get to use yourself, your mistakes, or your own blasted flaws as an excuse. She had made a choice, and it was her path to make. You should have seen that tonight, and if you can't respect that, then I don't know what we're both doing, standing here."

Shinomori turned to him with a sharp breath, but before he could speak, Saitou went on. "Now, what you do from now on is yourchoice. If you choose to go home and leave her be, it's not my fault. If you want to keep her off your life, it's your own doing." Here he turned to leave, "But if you want to change your mind, if you're ready for more, --I won't stop you, but you're going to have to do it yourself."

At his words, Aoshi fell silent. "We make our own choices, Shinomori. We are the ones who find our own answers." Saitou flicked his own cigarette away, nodding at him.

"Your meeting is done, and I am finished."

And Saitou turned down the steps left, one legend parting with the other on that fateful night.

Aoshi stayed in place, watching as the stars feebly lit the Yokohama sky, nothing compared to the glare of its brightly-lit streets. He stared even when the wind blew, and he watched even when a brief drizzle poured a chill, warded by the city-goers' thick expensive coats. He watched as all the people left and departed on their carriages. It was beautiful, unreachable, and unforgiving at the same time. In the dark, it was all inexplicable.

The meeting, it didn't change anything.

His gaze fell to his hand.

He couldn't. He can't. He couldn't breathe.

"It ends here."

He's had his answers.

Indeed, even he could be made to fall.

And then Shinomori Aoshi stepped down. It was time to leave Yokohama.


 

There was always a time for everything.

Yukishiro Enishi stood by this principle all his life. Granted, there had always been many who questioned his principles and beliefs, and he himself had to learn, no matter how painfully, where his limitations stood. But this unbreakable rule, he groused to himself while stepping down his carriage, managed to carry through regardless of his state of mind.

He entered the townhouse before him, stalking up the stairs and through the hallways. There had been a time when he suffered loss, and there had been a time for revenge. There had been times when even he had to create his own truth, and there was a time for him to confront the mistakes he had made. Yes, there was a time for everything.

His look grew dark when he saw Sagara at the end of the hallway.

"I was winning in a high-stakes game of cards." He scowled. "There is a time for everything Sagara, and gambling is a time when I am never to be disturbed."

Sagara shook his head, looking more haggard than usual. "I couldn't think of anyone else to call."

Enishi snorted. "Did she send for me?"

"No."

His eyes flared. "Than what the hell am I standing here for? You're the one who's known her the longest, right? You should be the one dealing with this."

Sagara finally sat down, putting his head to his hands. "No, not when she's like this."

Enishi paused, narrowing his eyes. "What do you mean?"

The tall youth shook his head again, motioning towards the door in front of him. "She sent word that she might be late to the ball thirty minutes before we were supposed to leave. That was two hours ago." He was evidently pale with worry. "She wouldn't open the door. I can't reach her." He sat down, "I can't do anything for her when she's like this. I know you can."

Kuso. Enishi turned towards the doorway, angrier. "Then you should have sent for me earlier!"

Sagara had the nerve to offer a brief grin. "This is Misao we're talking about. She knows you don't like wasting your time on her."

"The idiot. Since when did she care about my time?" he cursed, walking towards her room. "Do you have the keys?"

The rooster laughed, shaking his head. "Do you actually think she'd ever let me have them?" And when Enishi started testing the lock, he added, "It's locked. She hasn't been—"

Enishi let out a strong kick and forced the door off its lock. "—Opening it."

Troublesome brat, he cursed to himself. He wasn't supposed to be here; he was supposed to be in the blasted Yokohama ball, winning four-hundred British pounds from the night's set of half-witted aristocrats. This was a waste of his time and money.

"I'll handle this." He said tersely, entering her room. "Take my carriage, go to the ball. Do not disturb me."

After all, there was a time for everything.

He looked for her within the room, and surely enough, he found her before the mirror, "Enishi-kun!" she exclaimed, surprised.

There she stood, encased in a gown of pure white, still incomplete since her shoulders were left bare, wanting for the ensemble's matching sash. Her hair had already been put up on her head, and her face, while powdered, lacked any colour or paint. Her eyes were red, but she seemed to be unaware of this as she smiled at him.

"I said I might be late, but I never asked for you to come for me," she said brightly. The fact that he'd broken her lock seemed to be lost on her.

She spoke spontaneously, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. "I know how you are when it comes to balls, always betting on so much money. You hate waiting, and I am taking forever. I can't seem to get dressed--" she looked around, "For some strange reason, I can't choose. I keep dressing up, dressing down and changing. I can't finish."

Yes, Enishi thought to himself as looked at her, she was unfinished as she ever was, and the look on her face remained broken, her costume only half-worn. But even then, he admitted to himself, she still somehow looked painfully regal.

"Come," he ordered brusquely.

She looked confused, but did as she was told. "Why?"

Enishi carefully removed his gloves, leaving them on her dresser. He took a piece of cloth and stepped closer to her. "Let me."

He put his hand to her face, suddenly gentle, softly wiping away the white sheen she had applied earlier, cleaning her skin until it shone clear. She had tried to moce away, "What—what are you doing? You can't remove that—your suit! I'll be later than I already am—"

"Don't be a fool, Itachi." He steadied her with his arm, "There's a time for everything." Having finished, he turned to undo her hair. "Turn."

When she reluctantly obliged, he murmured clinically. "Now is the time to stop."

"But—" she protested.

"You're not going to this ball. You don't have to dress up, you don't have to be polite, and you don't have to bloody smile. You can stop pretending tonight." He placed his hands on her bare shoulders. "Tonight, you rest."

She shook her head wildly, "But I'm fine, Enishi! I'm fine." She moved away, "And I have to convince everyone else I'm fine. I have to talk with our connections and trade information with our contacts. I have to show up for Saitou—"

"He'll have to understand." Enishi spoke flatly. "If he knew you were like this, he'd want you to stay here as well."

"Like what?" she asked, her eyes flashing. "Nothing's wrong with me. What's wrong with me?"

Enishi watched as tears started to fall unknowingly from her eyes. "Misao."

"What?" she asked. "I'm fine…I'm…" her voice shook.

He should have turned away, he was never gentle.

But there was a time for everything, and he didn't.

"You're the one who acts here." He spoke, his voice now soft as he stepped closer so that she would look at him. "Don't tell me you forgot what the most important rule was."

Misao looked up at him, her eyes widening. Their thoughts were in tune.

Acting is the mastery of deception.

"Deceptions could be dangerous to anyone, but…but mostly…"

"But mostly to yourself." He finished, more harshly than he'd intended. "You have your roles to play, Itachi. And tomorrow, you can play them." And here, a memory of how she held herself earlier came to him. "Tomorrow, you could be strong as you want. Tomorrow, you could stand up again to the people who judge you, and tomorrow, you can make those idiots' hearts fall again."

His voice softened, "But tonight, you could stop. You could breathe. You can shout, you can scream. Be weak—bloody cry if you want. Tonight, you can be yourself, so that tomorrow," for the first time that night, he tore his eyes away from her vivid blue green ones. "Tomorrow you will forget this ever happened."

He knew the way she dealt with her pain, how she denied herself that reality. The girl had gotten so good at pretending her pain did not exist, that she could actually fool herself into believing it was true. He knew the look in her eyes. He knew because he'd been there before.

He knew how easily she could break, because of this.

Misao had closed her eyes and was turning away from him. "No. I can't. Anyone but me. I might not make it back. I don't know how to, anymore."

He narrowed his eyes and forced her to turn to him. "Misao—"

"I don't want to, because I can't, I can't!" she cried out, pushing her fists against his chest. "Because it's all the more painful, and I don't want to hurt, and I've been hurting so long so I can't!" she shrieked, and Enishi could do nothing but pull her to him as she struggled against herself.

"I am so tired… so tired... I can't do this," she mumbled helplessly as he subdued her movements. "I can't…"

He was never kind, either, or patient. But now… now there was time.

"Nonsense, you brat." He whispered softly, his eyes lowering, "Since when has that ever stopped you?"

And she fell onto him, crying into his arms. He closed his eyes, remembering how boldly she had walked up to him earlier, asking his help for drinks, of all things. To his annoyance, her walk had been all confidence, her smile all sureness. But then she had lifted her face to his to whisper, and all of a sudden, her voice had fallen, fragile. "I need you for this, Enishi-kun. I can't do this, not on my own."

Yes, there was a time for everything. There was a time for reckoning, there was a time for pretending, and then, there was a time for truths.

"You were wrong about me, you know," her breath hitched. "I didn't know better. I wasn't strong enough. I was ashamed. I was ashamed…"

Enishi shook his head, "Baka. Why should you be? You were bloody brilliant out there. You commanded everyone in that room. There are many of us who deserve more shame than you do."

"Because it was the way he looked at me." Misao whispered in a breath. "He couldn't believe what he was hearing—he couldn't accept any of it. Saitou said he would know better, and if he didn't, he wasn't worth it, but he wanted nothing from me, and he gave me that look, that look…"

Enishi clenched his jaw. Shinomori. "He's a fool."

"It was all the same… that rejection, the blame…" Misao hiccupped against him. "He once told me to never show my face to him again." She shook her head, "He's never coming back, is he? Not for me. I'll never see him again."

And because it was a night for truths, Enishi closed his eyes as he let her cry on him. He'll be back.

He would come back, if he ever saw even a glimpse of the raw expression on the girl's face, if he ever caught one look into what lay behind her eyes. This, he knew, as surely he knew he would be better off hating her when she first forced herself into his cell in Kowloon years ago, as surely as he did whenever he saw Saitou pause for her benefit, or whenever Sagara would falter at the way she acted. He knew this as surely as he did when he himself stepped back into Japan, years after he swore he'd never return. Enishi exhaled. She had always been too troublesome by half.

But because it wasn't the time for her to know this about Shinomori, he merely let her rest on his shoulder, "It doesn't matter. You'll be all right. You'll be okay."

He rarely ever spoke this way to her.

She placed her small hands on his back and held on for dear life. She always did feel like a child. "Enishi-kun? I'm sorry for always wasting your time."

Four hundred pounds gold sterling. The night was gone, and she ruined his suit.

But Enishi paused to himself, "It's alright, Misao."

He rarely ever called her by name, either.

But it was alright.

It was alright because she'd remember none of this tomorrow; she never could.

It was alright, Enishi mused quietly to himself as he felt her close her eyes against his shoulder.

Because after all, there is a time, for everything.