Earlier that night
In retrospect, Aoshi really should have known.
He knew that his first own reconnaissance mission in Yokohama would not be simple, but this was far from what he had planned for.
The three of them were at counterpoints to each other within the room, tense, waiting for someone to make the first move. Aoshi stood in the corner half-hidden among the glint of its moneyed occupants. Lt. Col. Hirai had positioned himself further down along the wall to his right, too noticeable in his uniform to be unobtrusive. Near the doors, Misao stepped in warily as her escort, the same gentleman with the streak of silver hair from the other night, led her closer.
“Lord Shiya, I apologise for the slight delay. I am accompanied for the evening by Lady Sotsu, whom I believe you’ve never met…” Misao’s eyes tracked Hirai on the wall and went back to Aoshi, widening.
It had been bad enough that his information had turned out to be compromised. Aoshi’s original plan had been to infiltrate Lord Shiya’s rooms to look for any evidence that linked him to the leaks. He had not known that Shiya had changed plans and secured a whole floor in his hotel. There were too many unaccounted factors to continue the mission after that, and he had decided to abort, only to find Hirai, of all people, waiting at his point of exit.
“I knew you would try to catch Lord Shiya tonight.” Hirai had announced knowingly. “Your contacts gave you the correct—if incomplete—information, but they made no promises about keeping your quest a secret.” He had smirked. “I’m surprised you didn’t use the Nishitaka for your dealings; they would have been a lot less inclined to give you away.”
That had an implicit question Aoshi chose not to answer. “What is it that you want?”
Hirai was there for the military, who themselves had an interest in apprehending Shiya. The lord seemed to have obtained confidential information on them as well, but they had no evidence confirming this. Hirai had deliberately waited for Aoshi to come to offer a proposal.
“Shiya is holding a private soiree for a select group of guests in his quarters right now. The floor is secured by his armed men. The only people who can enter are those he has personally invited. I’ve managed to have a way in as one of the guests’ personal guard, but it’s not ideal. You, on the other hand, have the skills for espionage, and I can get you in as another guard. I know we have no reason to work with each other, but we equally stand to benefit from this.”
And that was how Aoshi came to be in the private dining room with Lord Shiya’s inner circle, shadowing a businessman he personally had no knowledge of, working through an unlikely alliance with Hirai, when Shiya’s last guest Lord Nobu arrived, escorted unsurprisingly by Misao.
Misao schooled her face smoothly when she turned to Lord Shiya, lifting a hand which he took to kiss. “My lady, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure. You should meet Sen Kaita, my second-in-command. I know you have other plans for the evening, but you should stay.”
“Well,” She answered after a pause, convincingly pleasant. “I might be persuaded.”
Aoshi anticipated rather than heard the betrayed note in her words. The moment she excused herself to visit the powder rooms, he followed immediately, his feet moving before he was aware it. He closed the door behind them and clenched his jaw.
“You have questions.”
“Aoshi-sama.” Misao flattened her palms down on the dresser and eyed him in the mirror.
Aoshi stopped in spite of himself.
Her voice sounded like a plea.
Misao heaved a deep breath. “I know you feel that you have no reason to trust me. I was wrong about many things. You said I shouldn’t have stayed away or kept you in the dark about missions… and you were right.” She bit her lip. “I thought I was making things easier, but—perhaps I was only thinking of myself. I should have known you’d never settle for that.”
There was something resolute in her words that made Aoshi’s breath catch.
“I… I was going to try to explain last night.” Misao went on before he could speak. “I’ve been out with investors the whole week. They needed reassurance about my return with the Nishitaka, and I had to prove it by being seen at every social event. Other nights were spent on missions. Lord Nobu, my escort, has been a target of company blackmail, and Enishi and I had only just closed the net on the culprits a few nights ago. Fabre was one of them, aside from his role with the Wing Fang, and that was why he was handed over to you and Sano, while we took care of the rest.” Aoshi then remembered how exhausted Misao had been the following evening, “I’m accompanying Lord Nobu again tonight as a matter of courtesy, and that is how I ended up here.”
Aoshi realised what she was now attempting to convey with her disclosure. “Misao.”
Misao exhaled. “I did not expect to see you here, Aoshi-sama, with the Liutenant Colonel, of all people. I don’t expect you’d want to tell me why. I know what you’re capable of and why Hirai might need your help, but this is Yokohama. Do you know how powerful the people in that room are? How dangerous they can be, when they are crossed the wrong way?” She looked away, “If anything happens to you tonight because you couldn’t trust us, I’ll never forgive myself.”
She was worried. She was worried for him. The unexpected thought left Aoshi staggered, as he had expected something else entirely.
“You have the right to be angry with me, Aoshi-sama. You can blame me, demand answers from me, and ask anything of me. Let me change things, let me do whatever it takes for this to work, but please, don’t leave—” she paused unexpectedly, unclasping her hands, forcing words out. “Don’t leave us in the dark like this.”
Before could Aoshi respond, she turned around, her hand darting out over his, “Aoshi-sama.” Misao looked down. “You were never just a fool.”
Aoshi looked down at her hand, the same hand that had grasped Fabre’s hair as his lips pressed on her neck; the same one that had grabbed him that night as she confessed, ‘You’re still there.’ Her dress tonight was a deep violet shade that made her eyes darker. And for all that he knew he should, he could not look away. She was apologising.
Quietly, she braced herself, “You were never just anyone."
Despite himself, Aoshi’s heart stopped.
But the door opened behind them, and Misao jumped, releasing Aoshi’s hand as Hirai stalked in.
“Well that shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
Aoshi’s heart resumed its beat, just as a neutral look came quickly over Misao’s face, “Lieutenant Colonel Hirai.”
“Lady Sotsu.” Hirai acknowledged her with a suspicious look. “I had worked hard for weeks to gain access to Lord Shiya’s private circle. I had not expected to see you there.”
She only raised a brow at him. “I did not plan to be.”
“You didn’t have to; your exploits have been popular enough over the past week that Shiya had asked to meet you himself.” Hirai answered scornfully. “Between your behaviour at that ball, that scandal with Minamoto and your favourite hotelier—“
Misao only looked amused, “If you really want to know, my feet are not a subject for discussion, and Enishi didn’t actually use the word ‘balls’.”
“—and your current liaison with Lord Nobu, well, it seems as I can take satisfaction in being right about you, after all. You do high-class whoring so well.”
This time, Misao’s lip twitched and she crossed her arms. “As much of a pleasure this all really is, I assume you wanted something other than to tell me to piss off?”
Her words made Hirai sneer triumphantly. “Not quite. You know who I’m after.”
Now Misao stiffened, “Lord Shiya? With those leaks? You can’t be serious.” She shook her head, “That man doesn’t make sense. How can a person that indulgent and ostentatious be involved in leaks? It’s a risky and long term play, yet he’s so brazenly careless. Either he’s living two lives or there’s something we’re missing, since he’s never been caught.” She shook her head, “There’s a reason I’ve refused jobs on him before. I can’t read him properly. You can’t risk being uncertain with a man that powerful.”
Aoshi paused at this, and Hirai, for once, looked torn, and Misao faltered as she glanced at them both. “Does he have information on the military? Is that why you’ve gone so far as to get outsiders involved?” She then turned to Aoshi ponderously. “You’re after Lord Shiya too.” She frowned. “The Oniwabanshuu?”
Aoshi nodded and made the decision to disclose his original goal for the night. “He was responsible for a number of leaks that have compromised us before.”
For all his intentions, his confirmation was a challenge as much as it was a confession. Aoshi expected remonstrations and righteous anger. He had seen how single-mindedly Misao could pursue a goal; how quickly she asserted the Nishitaka’s purpose when backed into a corner. She clearly had not wanted to be involved with Lord Shiya.
Instead, Misao bit her lip. She then simply turned to Hirai. “Fine. What can I do?”
“What?” Hirai came to attention. “Fine, you’re helping?” He sounded disbelieving, as if he had never expected her cooperation.
“Yes, I will help. Aoshi-sama is one of ours. Whatever he does, the Nishitaka will be fully behind him.” Misao repeated. She didn’t look at Aoshi, but he heard an echo of her earlier plea.
She launched straight into the details, “What are your plans then? He’s already seen your faces so we better get this right. This man is known for dealing with information so he’ll know how to come after us next if we fail. I assume you have some men waiting if uses his armed guards, so our main concern should be what happens in here.”
Hirai nodded mutely, genuinely surprised as she went further, “I have an advantage because I’ve just been invited and he’ll have no reason to suspect me. If I play my cards right, there’s a good chance he will ask me to—”
“No”. Aoshi only realised he had bitten the word out loud when the two paused before him. “I am coming with you.”
Misao gave a short nod as Aoshi went on, “You and I will find time to infiltrate his quarters, but we will have to coordinate this precisely. We can meet outside afterwards, but it will have to be under—“
“—Hirai’s watch, exactly what I was thinking.”
And before they knew it, they were forming a plan that was much more considered than what they had come in with. He was surprised to find an agreeable rapport between him and Misao as scenarios came tumbling freely about their common methods.
They had just finalised their plans when Hirai blurted out, “When you said you were a ninja, an onmitsu… you weren’t actually embellishing, were you? You were saying the truth.”
Misao looked up at him, her face unreadable. “Would you rather I hadn’t?”
Aoshi saw the flush rise on Hirai’s neck as he looked away. “This could actually work,” he muttered despite himself.
“It has to. We don’t have any more shots at this.” Misao did not look up this time, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” Her eyes did not meet Aoshi’s at those words.
He found himself taking a deep breath anyway.
Kaita withdrew in favour of pacing again. “I now understand why you knew just how to talk to Lord Shiya. You knew of his desire for the best of everything—from the best floor in the hotel, to having the most sought-after guests. I was there when you talked to him about the other lords you have been with recently. You may have quit the stage, but you worked on the impression that you were the best escort Yokohama has to offer. The fact that it was his rival Lord Nobu who had you on his arm was enough justification. It was no wonder he asked you to stay after the meeting.”
He swivelled towards them, “And that was when you and Shinomori infiltrated his rooms, while the Lieutenant Colonel waited on the sides to accost him as soon as you got evidence.”
All three looked at him in surprise, and the man smirked, “That was not too hard to deduce. My methods are not so different from the Lady’s here. My dear Misao—I feel I can call you that personally now—you might say we have kindred skills. Believe me when I express my appreciation. In my business, observation is key. Watching, knowing where to look.”
Kaita’s tone effused self-satisfaction, “In fact, though you might be wondering about the tangential nature of my questions tonight—scandals, investors and society lies alike, let me reassure you that they are all quite relevant to my aims. Like I said, the Nishitaka has interested me for a while.” He gave an almost trite frown, “I’ve been trying to get a hit on you, but my information was not enough; you were my next target after I’d finished my trade on the military’s naval exercises in Nagasaki at the end of this month.” When Hirai cursed at the blatant disclosure, he only scoffed, “I can be very equal about my revelations. It’s only fair, given what I’m about to uncover about the Nishitaka.”
But Misao only acknowledged Kaita shortly, “You seem to know a lot already.”
“It hasn’t been easy, I’ll give you that. You have been very helpful tonight though.” Kaita gave a small laugh. “But I intend to make things clearer for myself now. Shall I?”
Kaita settled down on the chair before her and began his narrative. “The Nishitaka seems a straightforward enough story: a purpose-built operative group formed by a man who’s had the right history with underground operations. Your core people even make sense, given what we do know of your histories. But, to use your own words, something was ‘off’. Why the need for a prominent presence among Yokohama’s elite? Why the necessity of a real theatre for a superficial cover? There is nothing to indicate why you’re in Yokohama, and what your motives are.”
He paused to pick some lint off his sleeve. “I have not been idle though. It took a bit of digging, but I am aware of the speculation that Saitou has a—personal stake in the city through his wife. It’s surprising to find that he could potentially have a genuine link with one of its most infamous families; he’s certainly visited enough times over the past ten years. That he would keep it hidden is not wholly unexpected though, with that clan name.”
This was the second time in as many weeks that Saitou wife had been mentioned, and Aoshi knew this was no coincidence. He saw the growing tension in the set of Misao’s shoulders, even as she didn’t respond.
Kaita remained unconcerned however as he went on. “Yukishiro Enishi is another factor. Certainly the man is not unfamiliar with Yokohama, given its illegal trade links with Shanghai and Kowloon. That was years ago however, and I can’t imagine him wanting to settle here now that he’s worked his way out of all charges. Of course, given that it was Saitou who had assigned to handle his work back then, it might be that man has some leverage to force his presence here now.”
Kaira lifted his chin in thought. “I had intended to pursue both since the rest of you just seemed auxiliary to it. But of course, you tumbled into my path tonight… and what a revelation it has been! I think I may have found the missing piece linking everything together. I have never been above playing dirty, but I have always favoured efficiency.”
“I think you overestimating my role.” Misao finally said after a moment. “I don’t recall telling you anything like that.”
“Well.” Kaita mocked, blowing into the air casually. “Your body did.”
Here, even Aoshi started. “What?”
But Misao had frozen, unable to form a reply as Kaita went on, his lip curling, “Surely you know what I am talking about, Lady. You also understand the importance of the smallest details, don’t you?” Kaita stood, moving to circle them. “Just like you, I believe that the marks on our skin are more telling than we realise.” His hand settled on Misao’s nape, jolting her.
Aoshi’s eyes widened at what he was implying.
Misao had moved away jerkily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I am sure you do, if what I found under your clothes is any indication.” Kaita grinned. His fingers reclaimed Misao’s nape and she gasped.
“They are rather remarkable, your scars.”
Aoshi took in a quick breath as Misao stilled.
Kaita started tracing patterns on her neck. “Come now, I know how you onmitsu hide your weapons, and I had to check if you were truly unarmed. What I found instead has been much more valuable. Yes, my dear, the details on your skin led me to the truth about how you really operate in Yokohama, and now everything else feels like it’s falling into place.”
He leaned down conspiratorially. “Tell me then, Misao, what is it that’s had you running circles around Yokohama’s elite? Are you from Saitou’s wife’s clan? Why would you be bandying that name about otherwise? The Sumitomo-Sotsu has fled Yokohama decades ago, but why else would you try to build all these connections, or target the underworld they once played in, if not for their sake? Why now, for what purpose, and why you? It’s now clear that you can be the only reason Yukishiro is involved, but what connects all of you?”
There was much in Kaita’s questions that Aoshi knew was crucial, but all of thoughts faded when he saw Misao’s face.
By now Aoshi had seen Misao enough times in different situations; he had seen her perform, both with unmistakeable confidence and convincing vulnerability. He knew how seamless she was at defending herself. Unintimidated, Takanobu had even said. Yet what he now saw was something he hadn’t seen his return to Yokohama. Her eyes were listless, tormented, and her lips parted but unable to speak. She appeared genuinely at loss with herself, undone.
Frightened, came to Aoshi’s mind with a start. Unstable.
“What you’re saying… I… I can’t.”
Kaita’s fingers went still.
His voice was deceptively soft when he finally spoke. “Ah, and here I thought you knew better than to lie to me.”
Misao’s voice came out in harsh gasps, “No. I can’t.”
There was something about the weight of those words—the helplessness behind them, that grasped through Aoshi’s consciousness. Kaita’s fingers merely flexed at her nape, however. “It seems, my lady, that only those scars of yours tell the truth.”
“I have no name… I can’t…I can’t…” her eyes were haunted, trapped elsewhere.
Kaita’s hand suddenly slipped under the neckline of her dress, fingers settling deep onto her upper back, and Aoshi watched with horror as her eyes locked, her mouth went slack, her pupils blown wide. (The violet silk, it made her eyes appear darker, he remembered irrelevantly.) It was then when Aoshi felt the all sound give way to the pounding beneath his skin.
That barely-controlled voice was his. He could see the truth for himself; he could see. And it was unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. “Look at her, listen to her!” Misao’s repeated whispers of ‘I can’t’ were as much a scattered mantra to herself as they were a response to Kaita. His voice ended in a low growl.
“Take your hands off her.”
At this, Kaita stopped and withdrew. For a few seconds, all that could be heard in the room was Misao’s convulsive rasps.
Kaita’s eyes were narrowed further ahead of him in the room, and Aoshi realised that the man was looking at one of the mirrors lining the wall, perusing Misao’s reflection with a penetrating gaze. He then turned to Aoshi, regarding him inquisitively.
He then turned to Misao again, “Interesting,” he let out softly, wondrously. Aoshi felt himself go cold at the word.
“You really don’t know at this very moment, do you?” Kaita leaned close to examine Misao again. “I haven’t seen anything like this in a while. You can act normal, yes, but you’re broken in many ways. Very convenient, for a pawn. How do we get anything substantial out of you when you’re like this, purged of everything else? I can’t be too hasty with you, can I?”
Kaita then stood, smoothly disentangling himself. He then unsheathed the blade at his side and after a brief moment of consideration, moved with purpose towards Aoshi. He did not flinch as the man lowered the knife, only to cut off the bindings on his wrists.
“This is the only way to cure you, my dear Misao.” He explained as he turned towards her to cut the ropes on her feet. “It is time you see yourself.”
“No—” Misao, who had been unseeing up to that point, now reacted, frantic. She shook her head. “I don’t want to. I can’t.”
Kaita simply pointed the knife to Aoshi’s neck. “Remember our deal. I can go straight to one of your Regulars, but I believe Shinomori is good enough to start with.”
That was simply all it took. Misao shuddered and her shoulders fell. Kaita stepped away. Aoshi clenched his fists as he found himself faced with Misao’s back.
“I will be kind enough to let Shinomori help you. He knows what’s at stake.”
Aoshi heard the sharply drawn breath from Misao.
“Uncover her back.”
Aoshi closed his eyes, forcing himself to calm down. He knew it was now up to him to cooperate with Kaita’s near-manic impatience where Misao could not. Hirai was right; he knew there was too much at stake in that very moment: Misao was not in command of herself, and he would not risk having Kaita touch her directly again, not when the Regulars were still on stage. Kaita understood she would see Aoshi as the lesser of two evils. Kisama.
His hand, when it settled on the blades of her shoulders, felt her trembling.
Aoshi rubbed a gentle motion over her shoulders, trying to reassure, if just for a second. He felt the tense muscles relax under his ministrations, allowing her to ease into his hands before his fingers went to the first button of her dress, waiting, asking, despite not having the luxury of consent, for trust.
She pressed back against him; resigned affirmation.
He then began to work his way down her back, and his eyes widened as he began to uncover, inch by inch, what he had only just begun to suspect, but never imagined he would find.
Kaita’s use of the word ‘scars’ had Aoshi thinking of the marks he sustained on his chest and all over his body from battles fought. What he saw could not be defined as that.
They were years old, judging by their colour, but they looked no less prominent against pale skin. Small marks littered the dip between her back, deep enough to leave painfully permanent marks, but not fatally injure. Above her ribs and under her arms, faint nail marks scored frighteningly into her skin, tracing an old path. Most disturbingly however, were the two violent scars, long, deep, and mirroring each other as they stretched dramatically from below her shoulder blades towards her waist, almost like carved wings.
Aoshi watched the skin move underneath his hands, almost ghosting at his fingers, and he swallowed. It was a marking, deliberate.
“Well?” He heard Kaita’s disembodied voice, “Tell her Shinomori. What do you see?”
Aoshi saw Misao’s bound wrists clasped pale, bloodlessly tight before him, and the world suddenly came into focus.
This was how Kaita had been able to tell that Misao had not simply removed her clothes for any investor; in a city like Yokohama, anything horrific like this would be known to all otherwise. This was also how the Kaita knew that the best way for her to cooperate was by threatening others, as the marks attested that torture—it could only be that, he realised with a twist in his gut—had not led to any results that he should know about beforehand. The marks were as damning an assessment as any.
Aoshi’s thoughts suddenly sharpened, thundering through everything he could recall since coming to Yokohama, from her own lack of fear before the Feast, to her confrontation with Saitou, so unflinching that it caught even Takanobu’s attention (“She sometimes acts like there is nothing left to lose that I can only wonder…”). And finally, his thoughts went back to that very first day he saw her, when he had asked what had become of her.
“Aoshi-sama, I ask myself the same question each day.”
He pulled back when he realised his fingers, clenched, were shaking.
Who had done this to her? Was it in Kowloon when it happened? What could have caused this, and how could she have carried on as she did in Yokohama, bearing this all the while?
“Aoshi-sama,” he heard her voice, barely there. Again, like a plea.
His stomach dropped. She sounded like she still didn’t know.
Like she couldn’t, otherwise.
A necessity, he suddenly remembered Enishi’s words from the night before. She acts like she breathes, like it was a necessity… as if there’s nothing left of her if she didn’t.
Aoshi’s eyes widened, and he found himself gasping for air.
You should see her perform; he hadn’t understood the enormity of what Dai had promised then, she does it so perfectly.
“What do you see?” Kaita repeated, the blade he lifted glinting in the dark.
And so Aoshi’s eyes went back to her skin, knowing that the patterns would forever be seared in his mind: two long lines scored like marked wings. He then took a deep breath and turned, ready to do what he now understood was necessary, if it meant the difference between dignity and survival.
“Nothing. I see nothing.”
Because he now understood that she couldn’t otherwise. She can’t.
For a moment, time seemed to slow down, and there was nothing but silence.
Misao fell still before him.
Kaita’s head had swerved towards them as he demanded, “What do you mean, there’s nothing?”
After all, isn’t performing as much about pretending as it is about deceiving?
“Misao.” Now Aoshi enveloped Misao’s bound wrists with his hands, pressing gently into the clammy skin. “You can see for yourself. Look.”
His fingers brushed hers reassuringly, and he watched, slowly, as she turned her neck, angling, stretching the skin of her back as her eyes turned to the mirror behind her.
He knew what she would see in her reflection. The scars still stood out in bas relief against the gaslight, prominent in their darkened colour against pale skin.
He also knew what he would see on her face; the blank look as her eyes swept across her back without even a flicker of recognition, as if the marks had never existed or left their damage; the precise appearance of confusion between her brows, and finally, the return of breath to her lips.
Aoshi had once thought of it as artless deception. But what was pretending to be drunk or sober, male or female, or a whore or a martyr, when she had to perform this act, infinitely harder and more painful to execute, with every breath she had to take? At what cost, truth, when all else is lost aside from this?
Aoshi saw; he understood.
“I can’t see anything.” Misao’s voice, when she finally spoke, was steady. “Nothing.”
Kaita paused for a few dangerous seconds. He then erupted. “What is this all about? You see.” He turned to Aoshi, his eyes flaring. “Why would you lie? What is this game you’re playing?”
… An exercise in convincing everyone we're 'fine', Aoshi recalled the words Misao once revealed to him during an unguarded moment. A role to convince herself that she was.
Misao’s hands now grasped back at his. He held on tightly, his other hand brushing hers before pulling on the ropes. They had little time.
Kaita suddenly shifted, pulling at Hirai’s chair to angle him towards the mirrored walls. “Tell them what you see.”
Aoshi watched Hirai’s face change as he registered what he saw. He knew they must have made an unlikely tableau: a small back bearing a canvas of violence in the mirror; before it, Misao with her pale, unmoving face; and finally, Aoshi, next to her watching him in return, silent, knowing and lethal. Their position was tenuous at best, and much of it depended on Hirai, a man who had foresworn himself as Misao’s enemy. If there was any opportunity he could take as vindication, it was now; all it would take was a few words.
Hirai turned away, simply closing his eyes as he shook his head. “I don’t see anything either.”
Misao let out a deep, shuddering breath. Aoshi’s thumb brushed hers confidently as he nodded at Hirai. At that moment, at the very least, all of their minds were one.
“Why?” Kaita had turned to Hirai in shock, “I refuse to believe I am the only one who sees this! Why would all of you lie? This is not a kindness! Wouldn’t you want to break her down and expose her for what she really is?”
His eyes honed in on Aoshi, “And you—you pride yourself with the truth, do you not? I know of you as well, Shinomori. Are you not the Okashira who has chosen solitude to pay for past mistakes, to be above all else? You have turned your back on this! How can you condone the exact opposite of what you’ve done?”
Despite himself, Kaita’s words, exacting and deliberate, cut into him, and for a few seconds, he could not breathe.
You have turned your back on this.
Hadn’t Aoshi always tried to remain impervious as he ever was, above his own needs and emotions? But what was his hesitation with the Regulars other than his inexplicable desire to be accepted by them as well? What was his frustration at those missions other than his own unexplored sense of loss at the way the Nishitaka worked together, something long gone from him? And Misao, how could he not have recognised his own jealousy in his fury at how she let Fabre touch her? How could he have been so angry for how she stood before him that first night, when his real frustration was with himself for being so lured—for so wanting, for so yearning, even when he had turned his back on the chance so long ago?
He closed his eyes. All of his excuses seemed far away now; blown aloft in the last hour by the threat against the Regulars on the stage; the lie that came from his tongue that was their only defence against the impact of scars beneath purple silk.
Kaita was no fool, and Aoshi felt exposed.
He could feel Misao’s hands, still held in his, clasping back. Neither of them had let go.
That was when they heard the noise of a scuffle outside on the stage and Aoshi came back to himself, tense. The Regulars. Had Kaita’s anger had roused his men against them?
It was only when Aoshi registered the presence he felt that he let out a deep breath.
There was never a more welcome interruption than when the stage door opened and Yukishiro Enishi appeared behind it.
Enishi looked deceptively unperturbed, still dressed immaculately in eveningwear. He took in the scene before him with a curt nod, his eyes barely flickering with recognition at the reflection of Misao’s exposed back. Behind him, an armed soldier appeared, quickly grabbing Hirai; a sign that the rest of Kaita’s men had been subdued.
“Sen Kaita. We have been looking for you. Lord Shiya has been informed of your actions.”
But Kaita had responded quickly enough, whirling around to position himself with an arm around Misao’s shoulders; the knife, at her neck.
Enishi’s eyes flared only briefly, but no one was fooled. “Kaita. Release her.”
“Don’t think I won’t be able to handle you either!” Kaita sniped at Enishi. “She has chosen you, each and every time. But everything’s much clearer, now that I know how she is. How she’s broken.”
Enishi did not respond, but Kaita laughed, shaking her unresponsive shoulders for emphasis, “It’s clear you’re still undecided about the girl. You feel guilt, yes, but now, she’s just like you… and what an unlikely pair you both make—”
“By all means,” Enishi cut in darkly, the look on his face changing. “I dare you to speak more. Because there’s a reason I carry all the weapons for both her and myself, and believe me when I say that you wouldn’t want to know why, first hand.”
He gave Aoshi a glance as he was saying that, and that was all the indication he needed.
The Regulars were safe now, Kaita was distracted, and Aoshi could finally act.
Without a moment of hesitation, Aoshi released Misao’s hands, forcing himself to let go, and pushed her, with all his strength, towards Enishi, just as he pulled Kaita away.
Kaita let out an enraged yell, swinging the knife towards Aoshi as he pushed against the chair to knock him sideways.
“You’re no better than me, all of you. You know, but you deny! It will only be a matter of time before something ruins you, the same way this ruins me. All of you!”
Still bound to the chair, Aoshi managed to evade the attack and turned to grapple his waist to hold him in place. It was Enishi’s turn to move now as he appeared before them, grabbing at one of his arms. Kaita moved his free arm away, keeping the blade as far as possible from the other man, conscious of his earlier threat.
Aoshi saw his chance. He made for the knife, barely flinching as Kaita slashed at his palm. His fingers went around the blade itself and pushed it out of his grasp.
Enishi stilled all of a sudden.
Aoshi followed his gaze and saw that the knife had clattered at the floor, stained by Aoshi’s blood, coming to rest before Misao where she sat steadily on the floor.
Misao’s eyes fell on the bloodied blade, and Aoshi saw how her pupils dilated, gaining single point of awareness, lost though she still was. His heart stopped.
He knew that look well; could identify it in anyone who knew violence in their mind’s eye.
Kaita gasped as the realisation hit him at the same time.
There was a reason why Enishi carried the weapons for both him and Misao—why there was never a sword on her person—and it wasn’t because she didn’t know how to use one.
It took only a second of stunning synchrony.
Aoshi released Kaita’s waist. Enishi moved, twisting to push Kaita before them at the right distance.
The knife slashed upwards in Misao’s hands with a swift, definitive arc, cutting Kaita’s skin from stomach to chest, silencing the man once and for all.
Someone had cut the bindings on Aoshi’s feet, and he was finally able to stand up and stretch his legs.
Misao remained standing, her eyes trained on Kaita’s unconscious body. Enishi appeared next to her, wordlessly draping a coat over her exposed back.
“He will live, but he will be detained by Hirai and his men in the military, as you might expect.”
Aoshi knew that if Kaita was still alive, it was only by the mercy of Enishi’s accuracy. A single measure of distance and the knife would have cut deep enough to be fatal.
“You can let go now, Misao.”
Misao’s face turned towards Enishi, and fell back down to the knife held tightly in her hands. “You want to take away this one as well,” she let out softly. An echo of past sentiment; they had done this before.
“No. You can hold on to that a little longer.” Enishi’s voice, though curt, was surprisingly gentle. “I meant your other hand.”
Misao turned just as Aoshi did, and he was surprised to find that her other hand had found his, her fingers wrapped around the digits, her thumb hovering over the wound that cut through his palm.
Misao stared, abstracted, before uncurling her fingers to let go. Aoshi slowly took his hand back. There was some of his blood on both of their palms. Neither of them could quite look away.
Enishi chose not to comment. “The Regulars are fine. Haru and Eisai needed minimal treatment; the others are shaken, but otherwise alright.”
Misao’s face lifted a little, and Aoshi nodded with unhidden relief.
“They are worried about you both.” Enishi regarded Aoshi. “You should also have that hand looked at.”
“I am not ready yet, Enishi-kun.” Misao did not look up. Her voice lowered, “I’m sorry.”
An explanation, again like a plea. They can’t see her this way; Sagara, the Regulars.
Enishi went silent for a few seconds. He then turned to Aoshi, and the two of them moved back towards the doorway.
“Go to them. Tell them only what they need to hear, but do not lie. An army surgeon is waiting. Ask for a few more minutes from Hirai’s men. It will be me they answer to if they say no.”
It was only then when Aoshi heard how furious Enishi sounded. He turned, only to find a firm hand on his arm.
“And Shinomori,” Enishi bit out, his mouth set in a tight line. “Thank you. I know you will have questions.”
“Shinomori-san!” He heard Dai’s voice behind him and turned. There he was, through the din on the stage, fussing over Haru with Naomi, who peered at him worriedly. “Are you alright?” Relegated to a chair, Eisai wildly beckoned him closer. “Show yourself and let us know the worst of it!” He heard Sagara’s voice. “Where is he? He better be alive!”
Aoshi had to look back one more time. Enishi had walked back inside the room, stopping to stand next to Misao. She looked up at him silently before turning towards Kaita again. They stood side by side, both of their shoulders angled low, sheltered by the shadows of their coats. Neither said a word.
A week ago, Aoshi thought he would remain unaffected by whatever the Nishitaka had to offer. A few days ago, his believed he did not know them at all, and no longer wanted to. Now, at this very moment, he was uncertain that had sufficiently earned that right at all, but he was decided.
Aoshi took a deep breath and stepped back towards the others, closing the door behind him. He could still feel Misao’s fingers in his.
“I am here.”
Fin – Chapter Four