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You Who Never Arrived

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Prologue: Kyoto, Japan -1882

Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

Because in that moment you'll have gone so far

I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,

Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

"Don't Go Far Off" – Pablo Neruda


It always disturbed him, this feeling.

Aoshi watched Misao as she poured the tea with an uncharacteristically gentle bending of the wrist—an act that revealed the pale, almost fragile white skin, marred by the elusive mound of bone that disappeared as soon as it appeared. Her skin was mostly covered by the rich blue silk kimono she wore today. He watched as she withdrew her hands—feeling, without touch, the calluses on each finger, counting them, knowing them by heart. Sometimes, he would wonder how it felt to actually grab those child-hands and hold them, ever so gently, the same way she gently poured the tea as she served him…

There was the imperceptible narrowing of his eyes. And he watched, almost impassively, as she moved away from him and placed her hands primly on her lap. Misao was serving him, whereas she could be outside, laughing blissfully, uncaring of the shadows he bore. She could be planting some mischief elsewhere, leading people to shout with utmost indignation her name. She could be running to the market with the others as they taught her to become a lady, and screaming as she refused to be one just yet. But instead, she was here, before him.

Aoshi calmly set his cup down. As always, he wondered why Misao willingly put herself in servitude, for him. And he wondered about the ever expectant look that brightened her river eyes, or that barely noticeable shift of anticipation in the way she sat, or, dare he say it, that small, nervous smile on her lips that dimpled and reddened her skin when she thought he was not looking. He wondered why she cared, why she always came.

Always, she would come. She came every morning, always with a smile, sometimes with a disgruntled pout, or a mischievous grin, sometimes with a bandaged finger, or a scraped knee. Sometimes she came with an encumbering cold, or a sore throat (from yelling, no doubt), sometimes in a kimono, or with an umbrella. And she would always regale him with her stories for the day, no matter how insignificant, or painful, or humorous. And she would pour his tea and he would listen, drinking in the sound of her life-filled, seemingly hypnotic voice. And while to him, this child-woman would never grow old, the glow that surrounded her continued to grow before his very eyes each day. And he would wonder, again, at the miracle of her constant coming to him.

And yet, the days had grown shorter and the nights longer, and seasons had passed. And still Misao would arrive, sometimes with red, shifty eyes, and a weak voice, and a pale face. He would then see her fingers tremble, ever so slightly… And he would wonder at the mystery of how, despite what pain she went through, whatever things she could have done, and wherever places she could have gone to, she always came before him.

She gave him so much of herself.

"Kuro's still nagging me about cleaning the pails today. Hmp, I keep telling him, how can I do that when I'm wearing this—darn dress?" She sighed, and he watched her parted lips. "I can take on those pails any day, but not with this on. Besides, it's not my fault I had to wear this. Jiya insists, and for what? For the useless hope of finding someone—" she stopped her retort in time. And her eyes, usually full of emotion, lost its glitter.

And these were the days when he felt her slowly slipping away. "Someone?"

"To wed me." She whispered quietly.

And then there was a sudden coldness in the room. "Aa," he could only reply, and after that, there was silence. He could feel the cold darkness seeping within him, tightening his lungs so he couldn't breathe. He took one last sip of the tea for reprieve, and set it down.

Silence, once more. She spoke no more. And he couldn't. Couldn't give her anything in return.

He had nothing to give her in return. Nothing to give that would compensate for the hours she spent with him, hours that, at damned times, he felt were his salvation. There was no smile he could offer in return to hers. And if she gave her heart—what heart could he give, in return? All he had were his memories, and his memories consisted of a farce of life: fruitless toil, countless battles, consuming hunger, blindfold insanity, and of death. Those would never do—would not be enough to encompass what she constantly gave him.

There were good memories, though—of brotherhood and companionship, and they were mostly filled with images of her, with wide eyes, looking up at him, tugging at his sleeves as she laughed her child's laugh. It was her face that made him endure and win past Gein's trap. How would she feel, knowing that even in his most treasured memories, she still existed?

It was all she. And he had nothing truly of himself to give her, nothing to repay the entirety of all that she had given him. Nothing.

"I—I have to go." She said, brokenly.

He nodded, closed his eyes, and bowed in acknowledgement. She wouldn't see his face.

He heard the patter of ceramic on the wooden tray as she arranged the cups. Heard her sharp, barely contained breath. He heard the urgency in her movements, in her footsteps. "Goodbye, Aoshi-sama."

He finally opened his eyes to see her departing figure in the doorway. Despite the coming rain that darkened the sky, she still looked majestic; the image of her back bathed in sad white.

She turned her right hand to leave some incense on the bowl that hung beside the temple doors.

And he saw her wrists tremble as she softly tapped the red sticks on the gold bowl.

And she was gone.

And the room grew so cold and dark that he found that it was suddenly so hard to breathe.

And he wondered, as he always wondered whenever she came, if she would still come back tomorrow.


It disturbed him, this feeling.

He was coming back from the temple, aiming to escape the returning rain, when he saw her again. He was surprised to see Misao, still in her now noticeably soiled kimono, running across the mud-filled yard.

"Shiro! When I see you, you'll be madder than a wet hen!" She held a filled pail in her right hand; her kimono sleeves were hastily folded up. She then crept slowly…

Kuro appeared behind her, quieter, carrying two buckets of water. He was making his way towards her, ready to throw the water…

"Ha!" Misao's triumphant scream echoed throughout the yard. She had thrown the pail at Kuro before he had the chance to ambush her with his. Splash! And Misao was just as wet all over. She shrieked and laughed. It's been such a long time since Aoshi heard her laugh like that. Kuro went dashing away from Misao. "Beh!"

"Why you—" Her eyes glittered dangerously, and she pulled the infernal skirt up and ran after him. Aoshi saw her white legs, made even paler by the mud that clung to them. Saw the womanly curves that were revealed in the kimono's clinging wetness. He saw what they couldn't show and see in each other's company in the temple. He couldn't turn away.

And he was justly rewarded for the indulgent act, for the next thing he could see was that she was running away, away from his sight, and away from him.


The voices were faint now.

They carried different themes. Some accused him, others judged him, other called all the blessings unto him, and offered him praise. Most of them spoke of his guilt, his regrets. They all united, haunting him with their hollowness, screaming to him, sometimes so loudly that he had grown as hollow as they were. But now… now, their intensity had fallen to a mere whisper, a faded cry in the distance.

And he was walking, walking away from the flames that wrought the shadows of his past, leaving them all behind. There was much dust in the road and his bare feet hurt, but he walked further, taking care not to step on those shadows that he was once so much a part of. These shadows fell unto the dark of the trees and the blackened the sides of the path.

And he realized that while he was walking away from the voices, he was also walking towards the darkness of the night, in an unfamiliar road. He suddenly felt so weak—tired, wounded, and lost. His step faltered. He had nowhere to go.

You are nothing without your pain. A voice cried out rebelliously in the vestiges of the distant fire. Where will you be without your pain to give you meaning? Where will you be without your shadows to shield you? Where will your peace take you?

Where will you go?

Silence replied.

"No, no." Not after all these years—not after trying to escape those ghosts for so long. He could not give up now. He had to walk further. But his legs lost strength, and he crumpled to the ground.

The darkness overwhelmed him. He couldn't tell the difference between the shadows he had run from and the darkness he had run to. The suffocating oblivion was swallowing him, and all directions were no direction, and there wasn't depth or nearness, no substance and no abstractions—and he was trapped, trapped in the darkness. There was no where left to go.

And he felt it… He felt fear.

"Aoshi-sama."

Her voice. "Misao." He whispered.

And he knew, even before he saw her, that she would be there. Then there were no more questions, for he was already running to her. He would always go to her, for all, all that he was—all of himself, all that he could and never could be—all of it was already hers. He could no longer be possessed by shadows, for he was already hers to possess, hers to create and destroy. He would run through the darkness and straight to her. Because she was all he could ever need—and one touch, one instance of her would be enough, enough to make him feel that leaving the pieces of his soul behind had been worth it; because in her, he had found home.

It was in moments like these, however brief, that he knew, and not only feared, that she was his salvation.

He reached out for her moon-white specter before she disappeared from his sight. "Misao."

For it was during moments like these that he believed that he could actually love her.

"Aoshi-sama!"

And he awoke to the image of her, hovering before him, bathed in gold light. And for moment, he couldn't believe it, himself. He couldn't close his eyes, wouldn't dare miss sight of the girl who sat above him with her worried eyes and watchful gaze, or of her lips, slightly parted by his name—lest she disappear the moment he lifted his eyes again. Urges stretched his senses—relief, longing, fear and agony—so completely that he couldn't breathe. His fingers, clutching at her shoulders, were shaking. He couldn't let her go.

Misao suddenly spoke, breaking his desperate transfixion. "You're awake! I'm so glad… I was so worried. I was scared that you wouldn't…" She faltered. She bit her lip abruptly turned towards the lantern at her side.

"You're here." He let out roughly.

You're real.

Misao seemed just as taken aback. She hurried to explain. "I'm sorry for intruding. I heard noises, and I…I just came in. I was so scared that something might have happened to you… that you might be taken away from me again—" she halted, as if suddenly realizing her words. "I…I'm sorry—I…"

His hold on her tightened. Kuso, he was trembling… "Why?"

Misao started. She then took a deep breath and looked away. "You were calling out my name."

Her voice had been so soft. "You're really here," he whispered to himself.

Damn it, his voice sounded so strained. So weak. So grateful.

Misao suddenly turned to him. "Is that so hard to believe?" she asked quietly.

His throat suddenly felt so tight; he couldn't breathe. His chest trembled. Here she was, yet again, before him…

"Why?"

Why, after all? Why, when they had abandoned her when she was so little? Why, when he failed them and they died? Why, when he lost his sanity and had lost sight of her? Why, when he had nearly killed Okina before her very eyes? Why, when he could never offer her what she wanted?

Why, when I hurt her each and every time?

"Why," he demanded finally, his raw voice cracking, "are you still here?"

Misao's eyes narrowed, weak. "Aoshi-sama," her voice shook, "don't you already know?"

That she loved him?

Yes.

Yes!

"No." His voice reverberated painfully, and the agonizing burning behind his eyes intensified. "You can't."

"I can!" Misao suddenly cried out, as emotions long buried returned with startling vengeance. "If I couldn't, I wouldn't…"

She wouldn't have followed you when you left her. If she couldn't, she wouldn't have asked Himura to bring you back. If she couldn't, she wouldn't have forgiven you for everything, and she wouldn't have welcomed you home.

He heard her deafening anguish in the silence.

"If I couldn't…" she finally choked out "I wouldn't be here." Tears fell from her eyes as her small fist pounded at his chest. "I'm here before you—can't you even see that? Can't you even see me?"

He closed his eyes. He saw. He saw. He could see.

Misao crumpled before him. "I love you, Aoshi-sama. That's all I have ever needed. You don't need to do anything else. I don't care about anything else. I can be happy as long as you're happy and content. When will you ever accept that?"

He saw her wrists tremble as she softly tapped the incense sticks on the bowl.

A foreign sensation took hold him, that of his eyes painfully burning, filling.

But he couldn't let go. Because he needed her, because he was hers, hers to possess, create and destroy. Because she was his salvation.

He reached for her and took her face in his hands. Her glassy child-eyes slowly lifted to bear into his. "Forgive me, Misao," he whispered as he kissed her wet cheek.

Her eyes shut just as his lips brushed over them, and she shivered. He pulled her nearer. Because you love me…

His lips touched her skin reverently, as one savored life giving dew in the breaking morning, and as one drank the rain after a long drought. It was like madness—his passion reigned, and his passion told him to consume every drop of her, to feel every inch of the life she possessed. It was the ultimate pleasure when his kissed her left breast and met the powerful beating of her heart. He selfishly felt like he was taking some, even the smallest amount of her life into his.

Because he couldn't…

She trembled, smiling tremulously behind her tears.

Wipe the tears off her face.

But he needed this. He needed her. He had no choice.

Yet he discovered, without uncertainty, that he did indeed love her when he stopped himself from kissing her lips.

Because he would never,

She looked up at him, uncomprehending, "Aoshi-sama?"

He looked down at her and stroked her cheek. "I can't be that selfish."

Make her happy.

Despite her slumbering daze, her eyes narrowed weakly, in question, and she was unable to reply. Her eyes shut against his words.

And he held her sleeping form and pulled her close to him—and he held tighter and closer than he ever had all those nights of his life when he had held her as a child. He held onto her through the night with the fervency of someone who needed her to supplant him with life, to survive.

He regretted and wished, cried and laughed, and hoped and despaired that night. And that night, he had come to a decision.

At dawn, he left the Aoiya.


You who never arrived

In my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start…


Shinomori Aoshi, the former Okashira of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, returned to the Aoiya four months later.

When he arrived, he was presented with the temporary title of leadership once more.

For shortly after he had gone, four months before, Makimachi Misao, the present Okashira of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, had herself left the Aoiya.

Fin – Prologue.

Chapter Text

Interlude One: Kowloon, Hong Kong - 1885

The sky was disturbingly, almost frighteningly, white.

Saitou stared at the pale vastness that surrounded him, the stormy deluge that threw the impending structure before him into shadow.

Che. He muttered, grasping the hilt of his sword. Might as well get it over and done with. After taking a deep, distended breath, he opened the door and entered the mansion and went to them.

He saw the girl. She stood at the end of the hallway, before the door. Her skin was pale, too pale; dark rings underlined her eyes. Loose strands of hair from a hapless braid framed her face. Some servants surrounded her, but she was oblivious to them. She was gripping her hands, staring straight at the door.

Things were never that simple.

He stopped behind her. The long night lay ahead of them.

"Saitou." He heard her whisper.

He held still.

Her voice, though strong, shook. "This is it. This is finally it."

He closed his eyes and lifted a cigarette to his lips.

It ends tonight.

"Yes." He knew it would all come down to this. It was inevitable. He knew she knew it, too. They both knew she would have to make it through this. That was why he had allowed things to come this far.

It was best if she accepted it now, tonight.

He stood behind her after that. He did not speak to offer any words of comfort, like the nursemaids were doing. He simply stayed. And they both remained silent, unwavering in the dying light, in the growing storm.

He watched as her breaths grew sharper, more pained. As her eyes grew more haunted. As her lips grew painfully thin. As her shoulders trembled.

When he took a drag off his cigarette, he realized that his breath was unsteady. His fingers were shaking. Che. He flicked the damned thing away. His eyes returned to her face.

It was beyond him, this. He had been many things in his life, and he had seen many things. He was considered ruthless, and indeed, he had seen and been what ruthless was. He had pursued evil; he had lived off it. Nothing should occur to him as disturbing anymore, as such that shouldn't be, as plainly not right.

But that frail, desolate look on her face—that, he had never seen.

She suddenly spoke, eyes shadowed. "This is how it feels."

He paused. She went on, taking a deep breath. "I thought I'd gone through this before; that this wouldn't be any harder."

He lifted his eyes. "What do you mean?"

Misao finally looked straight at him, then whispered, "The long wait."

He stilled, tense.

She wrapped her arms around herself. "Just standing here, unable to move, frozen in this long, agonizing moment, waiting… waiting; wanting to believe that things will be all right—that he will come when out when that door opens, and that in the morning, the sun will shine on you both again. And at the same time fearing, each and every second, that you might wait forever but he might never come back again, and that beyond everything, nothing is left." She held his gaze, "And always, always waiting in unbearable, excruciating fear, when that second—that final second when it does happen—falls."

A different kind of agony. For a moment, it took him, unwillingly summoning, on her words, an image.

Misao closed her eyes. "You fight your battles. You have your swords and your honor. But we, we're left with our hearts… our hearts, and our solitude. This is what we have to go through. We, who get left behind."

He froze, disturbed and—awed. He had never realized…

"He won't make it." He finally let out.

"Yes." She nodded, then her head fell. "Yes."

Kuso. He opened his fist to the girl's hand when she allowed herself to lean onto him. No tears fell from her eyes.

Finally, in the middle of the night, the door opened, and the girl was called within the room. He watched her go and saw the bleak look on her face as she stepped in; saw the child he recognized vanish before him. He closed his eyes. I now understand, Tokio. I now understand.

At dawn, she wore black. She didn't tremble, nor did her voice quiver. She didn't fall apart; she did not cry.

At dawn, Saitou Hajime finally gave up his sword.


You Who Never Arrived

A Story by Annabelle Guillermo

Chapter One


One: Yokohama, Japan – 1887

Au wa wakare no hajime.
Meeting is the beginning of parting.

It was a night that put all other nights to shame with its brilliance, its eminence, and its revelry. The ballroom was awash in great magnitudes of color, swirls, sound, scents, and spirits. The banquet was bursting with delectable fare, and the bowls were overflowing with wine. Music and laughter tinkled from the dance floor, and lively conversation filled the tables. Colonel DeWitt would not be outdone; he had invited the local and foreign elites alike. Anyone who was considered someone in Japan's higher society was present in this tribute to good living.

Shinomori Aoshi gazed at the picture unfolding before him. Around him, men in western suits ambled, sauntered and stumbled, holding canes and wineglasses in their gloved hands. Women, on the other hand, sashayed, stalked, and minced in their high slippers. Indeed, the elite and Western tastes formed an amusing combination.

A slender woman with gold hair swayed before him, giving him a long, deliberate stare. Indeed. The coy attention was something he should have been accustomed to by now. He averted his gaze and ignored the woman.

He remembered when the old Okashira brought him to an official social gathering with the emperor once. The mechanics were different then, the overtures more formal. But it was all the same. "It's all about pursuit, Aoshi. People are standing here, wearing what they have to wear, bringing what they have to bring, and saying what they have to say, in order to pursue their own interests: favor, reputation, power, wealth and fulfillment. It is the elaborate chase of the rich."

Aoshi raised a glass to his lips. He did not care for the festivities, or the social exchanges. They had long ceased to amuse him.

He had his own chasing to do tonight.

There were many of them, like him. Anyone who was someone was present at the party. The Mizuno financers, the Mitsues, the Mikage Group, the Kaze Organization, the Katsuragis, the Ryuoken onmitsu—clans of power, onmitsu groups, organized forces, rich financers and backers, Oniwabanshuu allies and enemies alike, were gathered under the same roof. All assemblages of considerable power and influence outside the government had been invited to convene in a covert meeting tonight.

Apparently, the government had deigned to admit that it needed the help of outside organizations unanswerable to them. What was not apparent, however, was what they needed help for. Something of such scale must reasonably be important—important enough, that is, to send all of them running here.

And why wouldn't they? In this day and age, the government was increasingly being wary of forces not answerable to them. While the old samurai clans had already been eliminated, ninja groups and organizations remained potential threats; their only recourse was to remain covert and never to deal directly with government affairs. The Oniwabanshuu itself had to settle for the ambiguous front of the Aoiya. The continued existence of their groups relied solely on their ability to tread dangerous ground and remain hidden. Should they explicitly lose the favor of the government, they would pay a very high price.

So here they all were, chasing after the government's favor—chasing after their own peace, and safety, and existence. And he, he was here to ensure the Onmitsu Oniwabanshuu's immortality.

"Well, now. Shinomori Aoshi, to see you here is a pleasure."

Aoshi glanced at the man who had appeared out of nowhere. "Izikawa." He acknowledged with a noncommitent bow.

Izikawa was a rotund old man with a stomach that was bulging, a head that was balding, a cocky grin that was evidently made for insult, and a swagger that imposed high airs about him; it wasn't hard to surmise what type of person he was. Many considered him a bastard by all means.

Aoshi eyed him carefully. This bastard, however, was a shrewd bastard.

"And how has the Aoiya been doing lately? I hear it has recovered well and is doing pretty strongly these days." Izikawa grinned. "Am I right?"

Unfortunately, he was also the bastard who supported the Oniwabanshuu financially from time to time.

Aoshi nodded. "You heard correctly."

"Ah, no doubt it has done so with the help of the acting Okashira." Izikawa proclaimed deliberately.

Aoshi stilled at the emphasized word.

Izikawa raised his brow. "I heard that it was you who turned around the fate of your—restaurant with your leadership, Shinomori."

Aoshi turned to him sharply. Yes, he had turned around the fate of the Aoiya, whose strength as a restaurant had not been enough to sustain the household. When he returned to leadership four years ago, he had taken on the task to restore the Aoiya—the Oniwabanshuu—to its original standing. He had worked hard to grant more income opportunities for them through expansion. And while the Oniwabanshuu no longer recruited new people, he had worked to reestablish and strengthen ties with old members and connections, making the organization as formidable as it had been when he left it for Tokyo more than ten years ago. Indeed, the Oniwabanshuu was as strong as before, maybe even stronger.

"Which brings me to my next question—has your real Okashira actually returned?" Izikawa asked intentionally.

The air surrounding them froze, giving way to a pregnant, tense silence. Izikawa raised his eyes, almost in anticipation.

"No." Aoshi returned shortly. "She hasn't."

Izikawa bit his cheek smartly, unfazed. "Ah, and we wonder why the girl has not come back yet."

Aoshi said nothing.

Izikawa eyed him thoughtfully over the rim of his glass. He then sighed. "I remember when the girl stepped into my office almost six years ago and demanded a loan that she claimed was my obligation to give. Why, that girl spit venom and stood up to me! I knew then that I didn't stand a chance. She was proud and irreverent, but so unstoppable, her grandfather Makimachi would be proud. She's got fire in her eyes, that one." He relented. "I looked forward to seeing her again."

This zaibatsu had wholeheartedly supported the Makimachi, and only continued to support the Oniwabanshuu because of a Makimachi.

"No doubt your Okashira will find things perfect under your care upon returning. You have done a good job, Shinomori, it's the least you could do." Izikawa took one last sip from his glass, and walked away, throwing one last glance at him. "Do inform me when the girl returns—if ever she does, that is."

Aoshi merely acknowledged him with a short glance before taking a sip from his glass. He turned his eyes away.

He set down his glass on the table.

"Ah, Fujita-san, you're here! What a—surprise."

Saitou.

He watched as the man known as Fujita Goro smirked at a fellow officer. "Surprised, Lieutenant?" He narrowed his amber eyes, feral. "Contrary to what many ahous think, I still live and breathe. Don't look too disappointed."

The hapless man sputtered, and Aoshi admitted that he was surprised himself. He had not heard from Saitou Hajime in years. He heard that the former Shinsengumi captain had retired from his post years ago, and had disappeared from the face of the earth. His sudden presence could stir suspicions. It wasn't hard to see, however, why it would do them well to have Mibu's Wolf in a gathering as crucial as this.

He allowed their eyes to meet, and inclined his head in acknowledgement.

Saitou's eyes widened, perhaps in surprise as well, but he then his expression dissolved into the familiar smirk. He then nodded at Aoshi and turned away when someone placed a gloved hand on his arm.

Aoshi's gaze fell to the face that came with that hand.

Bright brown eyes that shone with a defiant, eye-catching twinkle, never settling for anything less than brilliant; a smile that was mischievous, daring, and breathtaking all at the same time; a glow about the face that spoke of her youth; a taking redness to her cheeks that said that she wasn't quite ready to be the woman she was growing into, but was just nearly there, and laughter, laughter so rich, clear and affecting that it took you and bathed you in her delight.

Murmurs surrounded him as the people around him were similarly drawn irrevocably to her visage, like men to a siren's song. "Mitsue Himeko… heiress to the Mitsue fortune…"

He fixed his gaze on her, intent. She was the picture of youth and life itself, with her dark brown curls and her deep eyes, so much so that she enchanted every single eye without fail. In her vivid rose dress, she blossomed like a flower in the sun. She was beautiful… almost like a memory.

Too beautiful.

The girl started to move away, however, and he found himself weaving through the crowd in order to keep her within his sight. He kept her russet crown within his vision as he pushed other people away in order to remain close. His heart pounded with chaotic, newfound rhythm.

He had the right.

There were things to give chase to that night. But this was a different chase. This was the preservation of a long sought image. This was rare, all-encompassing breath for the deprived of life. This was the pursuit of memory.

He was cursed, after all.

The girl finally stopped, cornered by the imposing crowd.

"Himeko!" another woman panted after her, scolding "You just had to make me run after you, don't you! Why the sudden rush?"

Aoshi laid his eyes on the girl's face. Her eyes were anxious as she replied breathlessly, "Gomen ne, Akiko-san. I thought I saw—someone."

The governess look puzzled, "Who?"

Aoshi looked quickly in the direction the girl Himeko had been trying to watch, just in time to see a man with a shock of white hair disappear into the shadows. His eyes widened.

Yukishiro Enishi?

End, Chapter One, Part One.

Chapter Text

Yukishiro Enishi slipped from the between the pillars and entered the drawing room. He threw a watchful look back. He had been delayed in his task because the Mitsue girl had recognized him—even tried to follow him. He frowned to himself. Next time, Saitou would do well to listen that it would be better not to be out in the open in familiar gatherings like this.

He slipped out of his coat and dressed in his dark uniform, but left wearing his mask for later. There wasn't a second to lose. Their subject, Murasaki been approached by an unidentified man and had left the ballroom, heading towards the gardens. He had to reach his partner and intercept Murasaki in the gardens before anything happened. He grabbed his watou from where he had concealed it under the oak furniture, and turned—

To feel twin blades touching both sides of his neck.

He raised his eyes to find ice blue eyes burning into his.

"Drop the sword." The man ordered, his voice hard.

Enishi narrowed his eyes, recognizing the man in the dim moonlight. "Shinomori." The Oniwabanshuu Okashira, one of those who had come to his island to claim Kamiya Kaoru. The irony struck him.

"Yukishiro." Shinomori addressed him, "What are you doing here?"

The mission. Kuso." I find myself asking the same question. What are you doing here?"

There was no perceptible change to Shinomori's expression. "I won't repeat myself, Yukishiro." He pressed his blades further. "You're still armed."

He raised his brow, but refused to move. "This is nothing that concerns you."

"I find," Shinomori cut in coolly, "that discovering a wanted criminal in a gathering such as this should be my," he paused, "concern."

"I'm not here to threaten, blackmail, kidnap, or murder anyone." This is absurd. Enishi bit back a sigh, exasperated. "I'm now a free man—or have you not heard?" His records had been cleared because of his cooperation with the Japanese government in Kowloon.

Shinomori, apparently, didn't take official records at face value. Enishi would have found such astuteness commendable, were he not in this situation. "Freedom makes you all the more dangerous."

He found his patience wearing thin, "You have my word, Shinomori. I am not here to cause anyone harm. I have business to attend to. And regardless of what you do, I will accomplish it." His voice lowered. "Do not stand in my way."

Shinomori merely moved his blades further, "I do not care for your threats."

"I do not care for your swords, either." This time, coldly.

Shinomori's eyes narrowed. Enishi smirked.

He'd had enough.

This would not be an easy battle, he assessed, his muscles tensing with anticipation. He knew how this man fought. Kodachi Nitou Ryuu—such a graceful and deadly art could not possibly be unknown to him. Calculating, strong and gifted with incredible speed, Shinomori was not one to go down without a fight. Shinomori Aoshi, therefore, was a formidable opponent; a worthwhile challenge. And his blades were mere millimetres from Enishi's death.

Damn enjoyable, he thought haughtily, was he not so pressed for time. He could not afford to do this right now. His partner would scream at him to death.

Shinomori readied himself to move.

He snorted to himself. Feh. What's one battle?

The familiar heavenly strength rushed to empower his limbs. He moved his sword and made to evade the blades—

"Drop the swords. Now."

Shinomori stilled; swords motionless in the air

Enishi looked up to see him kept in place by a small blade pointed to his neck from behind. He recognized the person holding it immediately. Ah, just in time. His lips quirked up in amusement when he spotted her worried—and furious—blue-green eyes. Once again, the irony struck him.

"I should have known," She began accusingly, "that you would find a way to get yourself killed again."

Enishi grinned. He couldn't help it. "Took you long enough, Itachi."

Shinomori's swords fell.

 


 

He could feel the cool blade pressing ever so softly into his blood.

He could feel his blood singing into his veins. Pounding maddeningly, willing him to do, to be, to see, to feel. To reclaim.

It wasn't her.

It had merely been her name that Izikawa mentioned; only a vague image of her that Mitsue Himeko reminded him of.

But the voice…

Itachi.

No.

This shouldn't be happening: this betrayal of his soul, this creation of his shadows, the loss of control, and this deception of his being—this memory incarnate that violated. He'd once endured her haunting ghosts, the constant reminders of her being, but he would not tolerate this whisper of her presence. He shut his eyes.

He felt it; he felt her. The sweat on his brow, the sudden stillness in the air, the prickling of skin behind his neck, and the warmth—that most traitorous warmth—that touched him from wherever she was. The damned sense of awareness, the cursed need to hide and to bare himself whole at the same time—they were there, alive again, after all these years.

No. He clenched his jaw. No.

A betrayer, such was memory.

(Okina's eyes, dark, "You were not the only one who had to leave, Aoshi.")

"I just couldn't wait for you anymore. I knew something had to be wrong. I'm only glad that I arrived in time."

His eyes flew open.

Before him, Enishi snorted in response. "Baka. You know how well-loved I am by so many people. Don't count your blessings yet."

Enishi, he reminded himself. She had been addressing Enishi.

She.

He clenched his jaw.

This was not her. He had played deception's fool once. He would never, again.

"I know that!" Her voice came from behind him, stung. "I just can't help remembering the last time—that happened." From before him, Enishi hesitated, taken aback. He heard her take a deep breath. "I didn't want to be too late again."

…But there was that catch in her voice, as familiar as the day he left. ("You know me so well." A brilliant smile, half-hearted though it was.)

"I know." Enishi finally answered, his voice low.

When she spoke again, her voice was steadier. "The subject is already visible. We have no time." She sighed. "You could have done away with this altogether."

…And he could recognize everything with such startling clarity; the disappointment in her voice; the lilt of her words, the underlying tone that made her feelings resonate like a taut string. (Light and water in her eyes. "Aoshi-sama, don't you already know?")

Enishi's eyes hardened as he returned his gaze to Aoshi. "Not so easily this time, Itachi. Not so easily."

And she shifted cautiously from behind him to regard him more thoroughly. "We apologize for the trouble, sir, but we mean no harm."

Her voice, to him; her gaze met his back.

And his skin prickled in recognition. His lungs felt tight. He was on fire. (She always watched him. And he let her. For all it was worth, he let her.)

No. He released a shuddering breath. No.

She gasped. And he heard her.

He opened his eyes

She knows.

She stumbled away from him.

And so he finally knew.

She.

Aoshi started to turn, fast as lightning.

"Itachi-Musume!" Enishi was yelling. "Don't waste time. Vanish. Now."

Everything spun around him, and his heart pounded viciously. The world slipped from his fingers. He turned, the sound that would give name, form and reality to her memory escaping fleetingly from his lips.

"Misao."

Chapter Text

Misao.

And the girl known as Makimachi Misao ran.

"Are you alright?" She heard Enishi's disembodied voice from beside her. They had just endured a two-story jump and set off into a run, him barely escaping a fight, and her barely managing to conceal the both of them

Her heart pounded unheedingly in her chest.

Was she alright?

She had merely been waiting for Enishi in the study. She had spotted Murasaki in the gardens, and had expected Enishi to be there to alert her. And when the minutes passed without him, dread had filled her. In the years that they had worked together, he had never been one to be late; he was too skilled and too much a professional for that. And then she'd remembered the one time that it had happened—even now, she shuddered at the image of him, lying prone on a field, his blood so red as they pooled around him, and the distant roar of gunshots.

"I'll live." She said, trying to smile. "And you?"

"Should you even ask?" He answered scathingly, but then gave her a fleetingly solemn look, "Don't worry about me." He turned away abruptly, not giving her the chance to reply.

But she had worried. She remembered how anxious she had been to find him. In a rare but powerful moment of blind panic, she had run across the halls, suddenly fraught with the possibility that he was in danger, and that she would, yet again, not arrive in time. And when she had emerged in the study to see him cornered, she had unwittingly lashed out a reproach at him.

She remembered how Enishi had reacted to that, and measured a glare at him. The arrogant bastard had actually grinned at her, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, as if her worry was amusing. And it was all too easy, all too easy to allow herself to become preoccupied with him, all too easy to neglect the man whose neck she held her knives to in her frustration.

But then she remembered finally turning her eyes to him.

It had only taken one glance.

It was the familiar unreachable height, the recognizable breadth of the shoulders, and the same enviable leanness of frame. It was the solitary heat emanating quietly from his form, the same subtle strength held under precise control. It was the exact bearing that stood apart from the rest, distant and secluded. And recollection came too easily, the return of the image of the man who had once haunted her dreams, the resurrection of a memory she had thought long dead.

And it was then when a sudden coldness had gripped her heart.

It was hard to recollect all the thoughts, sudden, plaintive and desperate, that had seized her that moment. Was it really him? Hadn't he gone? And why was he here, then, now? Why should she see him once more, after so many years? She had long resigned herself to accepting that he was disappeared from her life forever, and she, his. It couldn't be possible. It couldn't be fair.

And through it all, her entire being shook with the realization: it was him, it was him.

And when he started to turn around to see her, for a moment she had felt so weak, unable to fight against the possibility of seeing the man, for she might never do so again. Perhaps, a long forgotten part of her had wanted to run to him, to see if he was real; for that moment, to be the child she had been once more and to throw herself into his arms, to feel as if he could protect her from the world again. It was a part of her that dared to seek completion in his eyes again.

And through her feeble mind, a final, terrifying thought emerged: If he saw her now, what would he think?

And at that moment, she knew, with certainty, that she had to run from him.

But it was also then when she heard him whisper.

The same reverent silence in his voice whenever he spoke her name.

She then knew, without doubt, that it was him.

She opened her eyes and turned to the man beside her. "That was…" she couldn't bring herself to say the name.

"Shinomori Aoshi," Enishi responded flatly. "Yes."

She closed her eyes at the name. It was too much to be true. The irony of it all was too astounding.

And yet, despite herself, she lifted her lids in wonder, "Aoshi-sama, it really was him."

Enishi paused to give her a brief, measuring look. "There is something you're not telling me."

— "Oi, Itachi-Musume!" She lifted her gaze sharply to look for Sano. Darned nickname. Saitou had a field day when they grudgingly agreed to use his name-calling as a reference for protecting their identities during operations.

Surely enough, Sagara Sanosuke himself appeared from behind the copse of bamboo trees, his hair sticking out like a rooster should. "Tori-Atama. You just had to be that loud." she groaned, and he grinned unrepentantly.

Enishi regarded him coolly, "Sagara. Where's the subject?"

Sanosuke lifted his chin to his right, "By the bridge, unharmed for now."

She sighed, relieved. "Good, I thought we were late."

Sano raised a brow. "What took you anyway?"

"Well," Misao hesitated.

"We had a run in with someone." Enishi answered abruptly before she could continue. "Unsurprisingly, Shinomori Aoshi suspected me to be the culprit."

"Aoshi? Shinomori Aoshi?" Sano's eyes widened as he whirled towards Misao. "Shit. Is it really him?"

Him. His concerned gaze bore into her, as if he expected the man's sudden presence to define and defile her, as if all that she was had suddenly become Shinomori Aoshi's to make or to break. And for a brief moment she felt the world closing in on her. Her vision dimmed, and her breath stopped.

Don't.

Her stage appeared before her.

"It's okay." Misao informed him lightly. Clear your mind. She took a deep breath. Suit the action to the word, then gave them a bright smile that encouraged the notion that it really was. The word to the action." We handled the situation the best way we could. We have to focus on Murasaki first."

All the world is a stage, and all men and women merely players,

She endowed Sano with a perfectly self-satisfied, smug expression.

Play.

Sano looked at her with disbelief, but Enishi prevented him from saying anything else when he cut in brusquely, "We have a mission to accomplish. We should commence." His eyes remained narrow as he looked at her, however. Inwardly, she bristled. He knew her too well.

"Ah, the mission," Sano repeated, a wry tone to his voice. Enishi didn't bother to acknowledge him. And Misao grinned widely. It was easy to smile at that.

She nodded as she reviewed their strategy. It had been established that any would-be assassins would aim to accomplish their goals securely away from the watchful eyes and the crush of the ballroom. They had set up a system of responsibility according to position should Murasaki ever escape the safety of the party. Sanosuke would take position in the perimeter of the garden, since that was where the assassins would most likely position themselves. He was to disarm them as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Enishi, on the other hand was to position himself between Murasaki and the assassins. His task was to prevent any of them from ever reaching Murasaki, who was Misao's responsibility. Her job was to remain with him at all costs and to take him to safety.

The plan was strategically sound: Sano's short range skills at the perimeter were complimented by Misao's long range kunai sets at the centre, and Enishi acted as a powerful equalizer. Indeed, even with his sword covered with a sheath, no one was skilled enough to get through him, and it was a truth neither Misao nor Sano took for granted. The Watoujutsu was a very specialized sword fighting art, and regardless of the ambiguous motivations that had held sway over him through the years, Yukishiro Enishi was its master.

"I don't think the Weasel should go out in the open." She heard Sano speaking distantly. What?

"Sano." Misao looked sharply at him, annoyed.

"You saw Aoshi, Misao. He's here." Sano began, his voice quiet.

She gave him a dark look. "I told you, that's beside the point. I'll be fine." Let it be, Tori-Atama.

But Enishi had already turned towards Sano. "What do you mean?"

Sano levelled Misao with a discerning look. "I don't think it would be a good idea for him to see her."

"Sano!" Misao started. She was needed for this mission; he knew that! To face Aoshi-sama was not the issue. They all knew she wouldn't allow such a thing affect her more than it should. She never should.

But to actually confront him…

Aoshi-sama.

She closed her eyes. Fate had dealt her too many blows already. She didn't know if she could take another one.

"Believe me." Sano was talking to Enishi. "I know this might not make sense, but it's not just something we can brush aside."

I can't think about this. Not now. Misao raised a hand, perplexed, "Sano, I can't let something like this affect me anymore—"

"Listen, Itachi." Sano faced her, his expression determined as he placed his hands on her shoulders. "Did Aoshi recognize you?"

"I—I think so, yes." She let out hesitantly. Enishi narrowed his eyes at her.

"And how long has it been since you'd last seen each other? Four years? Five?"

Misao slowly nodded.

"And do you honestly think," Sano continued, "that he would let you go just like that? That he wouldn't come looking for you?"

Look for you.

She closed her eyes and slowly shook her head, "Don't be silly, Sano. He could barely even be bothered with me before." When she lifted her lids, her eyes were perfectly unreadable. "Why should now be any different?"

But Sano's eyes were intent, his tone unnerving. "Believe me. He will."

Look for me.

She didn't know what to say to that.

"Agreed." Enishi's voice broke her thoughts. "You are to remain here, Misao."

She whirled around to see him giving her a hard look, "But…"

"You are much too stubborn. This is what's good for you. Don't do anything foolish." Misao couldn't help glaring at him. Like not listen to you, perhaps?

Sano rose, giving her a grin. "Don't worry Itachi. We can handle them. Just stay here and take care of yourself."

She gritted her teeth, flattered and insulted at the way they chose to protect her without her consent. "Wait!" she called out before they could set for their posts.

They looked at her. "Yes, I will agree to stay. No, I'm not lying." She let out exasperatedly when Enishi raised his brow. "But I absolutely refuse to let this—thing affect my job anymore than it should. If anything happens to Murasaki, I will go, regardless of what you say." At the dark looks on their faces, she broke into a sudden grin, "Just so you would know."

"Warning us that you're not going to listen to us in advance," Sano finally relented with a grin. "Seems only fair."

But Enishi merely smirked. "Don't keep your hopes up."

"Bastard." She bit out, but her tone softened when she teased, "Don't allow them to beat you up too much."

"Goes for you too," Sano saluted. "Remember what I said."

Enishi then levelled her with a steady look. "In case anything happens, vanish."

A sudden rustling sound disturbed them from the east. Enishi's head snapped in that direction. Sano looked at him and nodded. Now. They set off.

And so Misao turned to watch them. She climbed up the tree beside them and hoisted herself on a branch that offered a good vantage point. From her perch, she had a good view of Murasaki as he moved further into the gardens.

He was wrong, of course. Tori-Atama.

Shinomori Aoshi was never one to stop or wait for anybody. It was just mere truth; a sad, bitter lesson that she had to accept a long time ago. He no longer could, for he had his own tormented soul to tend to, a soul he never found acceptable enough for anyone to help him with.

Not even me. Not for me.

But her heart pounded too strongly for her comfort. Vaguely, she heard a voice, her own, but younger and more expectant, encouraging her feebly, Just wait a little longer and he'll look. He'll finally look at you.

"Kya!" She raised her head sharply. And suddenly, there they were, the assassins, darting towards the clearing.

Murasaki had let out a surprised yell. And from before her, she saw Enishi emerge swiftly from the shadows to stand before him. He was confronted by three assassins immediately.

The field came alive with the unfolding battle. Suddenly, more men appeared from below her. Two, three, she counted. Goodness, five assassins at the same time? She shifted her gaze lower, and saw Sano dismantling… three assassins? She gasped. Eight! She heard another rustling sound from the right. More?

She counted five figures quickly making their way towards the clearing. Further footsteps followed them. Masaka. They had expected a group of assassins, four, perhaps five. But a bloody squad? She clenched her teeth.

And through it all, Murasaki stood in the centre, frozen in shock.

Move! Misao told him. Her headcount had already exceeded fifteen, and there were too many of them for the Enishi and Sano to handle successfully without having Murasaki hurt in the process. Why don't any of these damn politicians know how to run?

As if her frustrated pleas were heard, Murasaki broke from his stupor and turned to run… Yes!... towards the trees? Why wasn't he heading towards the party? No, no, you can't be that much of an idiot, Murasaki... But indeed, the man darted underneath her, away from Sano and Enishi's zone of absolute safety and, further into the danger of the garden, into the arms of the assassins and into sure suicide. It was like watching a play gone terribly wrong where none of the actors knew what they were saying, where they were going, and what they were supposed to do. She slapped her palm on to her forehead, unable to help herself when she exclaimed in Chinese, "Aya!"

"The people this job gives us to work with…" she exclaimed to herself in frustration as she leapt towards another tree to follow the wayward target. It must be the man's rattled nerves. The darn politician didn't even give her the chance to sigh with relief. She narrowed her eyes as she saw Murasaki.

Could she actually stand by and do nothing?

Three assassins were darting after him. More were following.

To hell with Aoshi-sama. This is what I do.

Misao didn't need to think twice. She launched herself into the air and into the thick of the battle.

 


 

 

Shimatta.

Sanosuke swore under his breath as he battled with not one, or two, or even damn three, but six, six bloody ninjas. Great! They just had to send a damned army.

He landed a well-placed uppercut on a fighter's jaw and sent him flying backwards, but just as he turned to confront another ninja, another grabbed him at the neck ungraciously from behind. Kuso! They're crawling all over me! He swung the man towards the tree before him; he dropped, unconscious.

Damn.

He ventured a look towards Enishi, who, with his covered sword, had eight people contending with him. The swordsman, while as efficient as ever, wasn't faring quickly enough himself. Like he said, too damn many.

His eyes narrowed, where the hell was Murasaki?

He then felt a sickening feeling in his stomach as he turned and saw the petrified politician being stalked by some assassins from beyond Enishi in the trees. What the hell is he doing there, so far away?

"Behind you!"

He heard Misao's voice before he saw her, dropping to a crouch before Murasaki in the shadows. He frowned as Enishi heeded Misao's warning and evaded a tanto attack from behind him. The Weasel shouldn't have had to be out in the open. With Shinomori Aoshi somewhere near, this was a bad situation that could potentially turn into an absolute disaster—

"She meant you too, idiot!"

Sano moved before a punch hit his jaw. "Gah!"

From between them, Enishi whirled at her. "How many?"

Misao had grabbed hold of Murasaki's hand and was leading him away, eyeing the four assassins before her. "Eighteen, last count."

"Fuck." Sano let out inelegantly. He turned back towards the four remaining standing before him. All they had to do was get Murasaki to safety, and there would be no problems. He knew what had to be done.

Misao unleashed a hand of kunai at the men before her, setting off into a run when the group scattered apart. Sano ascertained its purpose without doubt: to give her space and time to perform her act. Murasaki followed her into the open field.

Through her mask, her eager grin shone. "Get this back for me, okay?"

And without another word, she removed the sash around her waist and threw it in the air. The fabric glowed a vivid, entrancing pink that seemed to flicker in the moonlight, and Sano watched as everyone stopped, transfixed.

Time seemed to slow, and all eyes followed as the cloth fell gracefully, soundlessly, dramatically to the still ground.

Where neither Misao nor Murasaki could be found any longer.

He smirked, Show off.

And Sano watched with a lazy grin as the assassins sputtered before them, "T-they just disappeared. How could that have happened?"

"Well," Sano shrugged as he raised his fist to the assassins before them. "Now that that's taken care of, let's get back to business, shan't we?

His smile grew as he anticipated their thoughts right now.

Shimatta.

 


 

 

From behind the gazebo to the east of the gardens, Misao watched as Sano and Enishi cheerfully proceeded to deal with the stunned assassins. Well, that's taken care of. She turned towards Murasaki, who was still trembling, "It's all right, Murasaki-sama. You're safe and well."

Murasaki shook his head disbelievingly as he gestured towards the scene helplessly, "H-how did you…"

She merely gave him a mysterious smile, "Your secrets and mine, Sir."

But by now, Murasaki was shaking his head in wonder, "But they couldn't see us, like we just–disappeared before them. You! You actually vanished from my sight during those few seconds—" His eyes suddenly brightened. "Vanishing." He turned to her swiftly, "You work for Saitou, don't you?"

Misao nodded without explanation. "You're lucky you accepted his offer to protect you."

His face grew dim, "I didn't expect the threat he warned me about to actually be real."

Her eyes caught the familiar red object he held in his hands. "Sir, I hope you won't mind if I had a look at that."

Murasaki started, as if forgetting that he had the thing in the first place. "Yes," he let out hesitantly as he handed her the red scroll. She unrolled it and narrowed her eyes at the text. "Sir, may I ask where you got this?"

Murasaki stared at her, his face now uneasy, "Someone gave it to me during the party. A servant told me that a man was waiting for me in the gardens with a matter regarding my wife. I was told to come with the scroll so that the man would recognize me."

Misao continued, her tone unreadable. "No wonder you left the ballroom. It would have been better if you'd stayed put."

"Why?" Murasaki asked anxiously. "What does it say?"

Misao stared at the written Chinese character for 'Death,' its vivid red ink splashed starkly against the pale parchment. "This is the Red Order. Assassins use it to identify the subjects they are supposed to kill." Wing Fang.

Murasaki's face turned white. "And the swarm of ninjas there…"

Misao nodded darkly, "This is a syndicate we're actually dealing with, Murasaki-san."

Murasaki, finally realizing the gravity of the situation, gestured frantically at the men in the field. "They want me dead, that much?"

Misao frowned, still suspicious about the actual involvement of a syndicate and the number of assassins sent. "Apparently, sir. You are a very important man in the field of foreign relations with the British, Murasaki-san. Although we're not entirely sure what their motives are, or what you did to incite such sentiments, you should learn to take care with your actions in the future."

"And if none of you had come…" His shocked voice trailed into a mere whisper. "I owe Saitou a life-debt."

You and I both. Misao shook her head, and gestured towards the ballroom. "You might want to warn—the people concerned. I don't think we should be convinced this danger involves only you."

Murasaki nodded, and Misao continued as she led him up the steps to the mansion and stopped at the landing, "The best thing for you to do is to head back. Use the main entrance—attract attention if you must. The danger is not yet over, sir. You must keep safe."

"I understand." Murasaki answered resolutely, and Misao watched as he turned away. But before she herself could turn away, he turned back to her and touched her shoulder, "Thank you."

A smile broke out in her face, one that redeemed the man for all his faults. "The honour is ours, Murasaki-sama."

Misao watched as he made for the ballroom and smiled to herself as she turned would have thought? Not all of their subjects took the time to show gratitude. Most of the rich thought of their protection as their right. Something for the boys to hear…

She eyed the scene below her. Enishi stood, imperiously waiting as Sano continued to knock two men unconscious. Mission successful, she thought smugly, now it was Saitou's turn to sort out the mess. She turned to hoist herself over the ledge of the balcony when she sensed Murasaki's presence again nearby. She turned to face him, "Sir. Is there a problem?"

But he didn't look at her. "I was attacked."

He had spoken to someone behind her.

She tensed; her neck prickled in unexplainable apprehension.

"I am aware of that." A cool voice replied from her back.

And she just froze.

"I am just here," the voice continued smoothly, "to see for myself who owned this garment."

Misao half turned and watched, suspended, as Murasaki caught the sash of pink satin that fluttered in his direction. Her eyes widened.

Murasaki raised his head sharply to the man behind her. "She defended me with this from the assassins."

"With an ex-gangster and a criminal to assist her, surely you must be aware," the voice cut in. "How certain are you, Murasaki," the voice continued, deceptively even, "that she is not one of them?"

She gasped.

Murasaki cut a glance at her, his gaze doubting. "I… she let me go…"

And Misao finally broke from her haze. Goodness, no, not now, not here. She whirled to escape through the balcony—

But her hands were immediately caught in large, heated ones. She stumbled into the man's chest, and was then pulled against him in a hold that embraced and imprisoned at the same time. She tried to struggle, but he touched her elbows and held it in a grip that was both delicate and firm. Her fingers splayed on his chest. Dangerous white fire surged tantalizingly under her skin at the barest whisper of his touch, warning her. She shivered, overwhelmed.

"Look at me," he spoke, his voice unreadable.

She could only stare as her fingers trembled before her.

"Look at me!" He demanded hoarsely, hands tightening painfully on her arms.

And so she raised her eyes…

… to behold painfully familiar ice blue ones.

Thunder clapped in her ears. Her eyes widened in recognition. Her breath deserted her.

They're the same. My goodness, after all these years, they still look the same…

She could vaguely remember putting her small hands to the side of his face and touching her forehead to his, staring with childish wonder at his clear blue eyes. She then distantly saw herself turning her gaze away from their chilling depths when he warned her never to show her face to him again in the wake of Okina's half-murder. Then there were those endless days of gazing at them searchingly as they closed his soul off into the torturous penance that was of his own making. And finally, she remembered running her hands through his hair and watching his eyes as they burned with the quiet flame of passion and grief when he placed his lips on her shoulder.

But now, his eyes grew ablaze with every second as he beheld her visage, and she was too afraid to recognize what it meant. Slowly, he removed the mask from her face, his eyes growing as he stared at her.

He's seeing you now. What will he see? The anxious voice whispered within her. What will he think of you now?

She watched his narrowed gaze, the icy glints that emerged from his eyes as he assessed her face, the clench of his jaw, the tight line his mouth was drawn into. She could almost read the accusation in his gaze.

Don't look at me now. Ignore me. Ignore me like you'd always done. Don't look at me.

She would have given the world to see any emotion in his eyes once. It would have been beautiful. Now, she could no longer bear to look.

She closed her eyes off when she saw the fury in his eyes.

Chapter Text

The world fell still around Aoshi, save for the pounding of his heart, dangerously loud.

Her face—the face he remembered—it was no longer rounded with health, but was slanted with cold, precise angles and prominent bone. Nor did it have the seemingly inherent flush of youth; it was instead encased in mercilessly pale skin. The lips were drawn, devoid of the once-constant smile. And her eyes, once so wide open, were now too narrow, too dark, and too disturbingly withdrawn and without.

This was her. She was here, finally, before him.

And he could hardly recognize her.

He stared at her face, hers yet not hers, altered by the smallest of details yet transformed so unnervingly. The stolen light to her features made her look diminished, gaunt—almost like a shadow of her former visage.

What happened to her?

"What have you done?" He whispered harshly, his hands trembling as his voice echoed the same question back to himself.

Misao's eyes shone with unshed tears, and she finally looked away.

No.

"I'm taking you home." He told her curtly, moving abruptly to take her back to the gathering.

"What?" Misao was jolted.

He only looked at her as he ignored her protest, pulling her with him. His balance was gone—his thoughts were in havoc. He was too disconcerted to think properly, but Okina…When he took her back, he would know how to deal with her. He found that he could not look at her, with her unnervingly dark eyes, but his hand held her wrist tight. Lest she disappear again.

Misao instantly recoiled, suddenly pulling back. "No, Aoshi-sama. I can't go with you."

He whirled around, again losing breath at her image. "You don't have a say in this, Misao." He bit out tightly.

Misao then started at his words, raising her eyes to his disbelievingly. "Is that what I still am to you?"

The suddenness of her accusation made him stop. "What?"

Misao gazed at him, "Look at me, Aoshi-sama." She gestured towards herself. "Do I still look like a child to you? I'm old enough to live my life now. You can't just make decisions for me like that anymore." She then shook her head. "And you can't just take me home because I look—wrong to you and expect everything to be okay."

Aoshi started at her words, unable to form any reply.

Misao turned away from him. "My life is here now, Aoshi-sama. I have commitments of my own making here, and I must fulfil them." Her voice lowered. "You don't have to consider yourself responsible for me anymore."

She was cutting off ties with them.

He took a deep breath and let out evenly, "Has it ever occurred to you that the Oniwabanshuu is still waiting for the return of their leader? That Okina and the others still worry needlessly, night and day, about how you are? Haven't you even considered letting them know where you are?"

Misao shook her head. "I can't go home, Aoshi-sama. Not like this." She boldly looked up at him, her eyes now determined despite their wet depths. "I can no longer go back and be someone you, Okina, or anyone else can blame yourselves for."

Aoshi's eyes widened at her words.

Blame yourselves.

And in his mind, the vision of countless days enduring distant looks and hushed whispers, of endless nights haunted by answerless questions, of the constant worry lurking in their eyes, of the presence of the brush of tender fingers and the warmth of gaze that were mere memory, and of the cursed persistence of, dare he say it, blame, rose with cold, searing, accuracy.

This was what she had to say, after all these years.

When he lifted his lids, he spoke coldly. "Perhaps I had expected too much from a person who should be worth all that her family went through for her."

Misao flinched, as if physically hurt by his words. "I have my reasons for staying away, Aoshi-sama." She let out. "I am not doing this for mere spite. This is a decision I chose to make. And if you," He did not mention himself. "If they really understood me, they would respect my choice."

Aoshi's eyes widened.

She was choosing to stay away, on her own.

Wasn't this Makimachi Misao, the girl that left a shadow hanging over the Aoiya, the one they refused to completely move forward without? Wasn't she the prodigal child whose return was inevitable? Wasn't this the hapless victim whom Okina looked at him with silent accusation for? Wasn't this the girl whose arrival everyone had been waiting for all these years?

She had chosen not to come back.

"What happened to you?" Aoshi finally asked, his voice unreadable.

Her body tensed at his words. "What?"

"This," he spoke evenly, his voice cold as he gestured at her, "Is this what you have become?"

Misao just stared at him, her own eyes shining with disbelief. And then slowly, as his hard stare pervaded, her eyes narrowed, almost in weakness. "You're asking me that?" She shook her head and spoke, her voice becoming just as chilling. "Aoshi-sama, I ask myself the same question each day."

He stilled.

The roaring in his blood quieted.

The world returned to calm, sharp focus with dangerous slowness. He first took in the uncharacteristically detached hostility to her visage, too altered and too unfamiliar, then suddenly realized how truly striking the changes to her features were. They transformed her face so entirely that he could no sooner see Misao in that girl Himeko earlier than he would, this woman. And her words, the self-recrimination that he found hard to acknowledge, the bitter tinge that he'd only found in her words in the rarest and most unbearable of moments, those words had once been his. Not hers. Then her spirit, the passionate energy for life and for her loved ones that once engulfed those around her; it was gone.

Only then did he realize how transformed, how unknown to him she had become.

The girl they were waiting for would not arrive.

And Aoshi closed his eyes.

How could she do this to them?

Unheeded, another voice cried out within him, bitter. How could you do this to me?

Because he had waited. He had damned himself with the conviction that it was otherwise until that very moment, but he had waited.

He had waited.

"Misao." He finally whispered.

He heard her react to the sound with a flinch.

"I no longer know you." Was all he said.

Misao looked away in the silence. Then, her voice came back, just as quiet, just as dark, "Aoshi-sama, I don't think you ever knew me."

Her words clutched at him; a sudden coldness coalesced within him.

And in his mind, he remembered walking back to the Aoiya, his steps slow and almost hesitant, but steady and unheeding.

He was inescapably cursed with weakness, a weakness that rendered flight from her useless. He was helpless to her existence. From her to her he would go commanded. As always as she had come to him, he would return to her.

He had lifted his hand to the door, and almost stopped, unsure.

He saw her wrists tremble as she softly tapped the incense sticks on the bowl…

And he remembered finding her gone.

She had never arrived.

His eyes snapped open to black vision. She dared to presume she knew. His voice rose, "You think to know how I see you, Misao?"

"Let the girl go, Shinomori." Yukishiro Enishi's voice, deadly silent, cut into his words, and he felt the cool steel of his sword against his neck. "This time, I won't be polite about it."

Aoshi clenched his jaw and cut his fevered gaze sharply at the intruder. "Yukishiro. This is none of your business."

Yukishiro edged his blades nearer. "Let her go."

"Aoshi." Sagara Sanosuke's voice, almost gentle, spoke to him. "Let Misao go. You're hurting her."

His eyes fell back to the unmasked ninja.

But his anger faded into bitter nothingness at the sight of her, and the only thing he recognized was a girl who refused to be recognized herself. In the empty coldness of the moment, he suddenly found that he had lost sight of what it was he once saw in her, and could no longer imagine what he was looking for.

His eyes fell to the hands he was clutching and saw the faint, trembling wrists and, feeling strangely separate from himself, let her go. She retreated shakily until Sano caught her.

Aoshi suddenly found that he did not feel anything.

"That's no longer going to stop me, Sagara." Enishi gritted out from behind him. "He touched her."

"No." Sagara replied, his voice holding enough meaning and warning to pause Enishi's plight.

"It's enough," Misao let out softly to Sano. "Let's just go."

Aoshi only continued to look at Misao, and then, his voice deathly quiet, "It's me you do not know, Misao."

Misao stared at him, and for a bold, fading moment, he held her gaze.

"They work for me, Shinomori," An almost indolent voice cut across imperiously. "I understand your concern, but none of them are here to cause anyone harm."

Aoshi's gaze moved to Saitou as he stood outside the doorway, the other delegates to the meeting that night surrounding him. Murasaki stood beside him, clearly relieved. Enishi withdrew the watou from his neck, and Sano had straightened into an alert posture.

Roused into action, Misao snapped back into attention, and, having masked herself quickly enough, took the chance to hand the scroll she has been holding to Saitou. "A Red Order, Chiefu. The Wing Fang syndicate," she reported, her voice now devoid of its earlier agitation.

Moulded into another visage he again could not recognize.

Saitou nodded us as he unrolled the scroll. "Very well. This is enough. You may leave."

Misao nodded and moved, disappearing from sight. Sano and Enishi had themselves seemed to have vanished into the dark, to the astounded murmurs of the crowd. "Saitou's vanishers… How could a mere theatre-owner have…?" Aoshi's eyes narrowed.

"We're not sure Murasaki was the only target today," Saitou announced. "Too many assassins had been sent to accomplish a singular mission. Information had been leaked about this meeting. You're all potentially in danger."

Seeing that this gathering was already compromised, DeWitt, himself, had agreed to postpone the meeting. "We meet tomorrow at the Miradono hotel in Yokohama at six. I will make the arrangements. Take care on your departure and in your dealings in the meanwhile."

Aoshi followed Saitou with his eyes. It seemed suspect that the man was a mere—he listened to the whispers of the other men—theatre-owner now. It had been he who had hidden and shielded Yukishiro, Sagara, and Misao together; it was he who stood at the centre of this whole affair. There is much to be accounted for, Miburo.

Saitou turned his discerning amber gaze to Aoshi, "Then, all your questions will be answered."


 

"Everything will change tomorrow, for all of us." Sano mused darkly as he gazed outside the carriage. "Those people, they'd enter our world, and they have no idea what's in store for them. They don't know Yokohama; they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between its common street rats and its gambling lords." He gave a low laugh. "This will be one large production."

Enishi remained silent before him, staring at the girl on his side. Misao was looking quietly outside the window, arms crossed around herself. Outside, Senzo rode on, oblivious to the tension within the vehicle he led.

"I have never known you to be so stupid. Why, then?" Enishi bit out the question, the rigid steadiness of his tone revealing his anger.

Misao refused to answer, and Sano watched as Enishi glowered.

"Che. I don't need to deal with this now." The other man let out heatedly as he rapped on the carriage ceiling, as if Misao had inconvenienced him by making him concerned. When the horses stopped, the man threw one last baleful stare at his partner, then swept out.

Sano rolled his eyes. And Kaoru saidhad an uncontrollable temper." It's gonna take days for you to patch that one up."

"You knew didn't you?" Misao suddenly spoke, catching him unaware. "You knew I'd still go and look for him. That's why you tried to keep me away."

Aoshi. Of course.

Sano paused to watch her face, almost determinedly turned away from his, and spoke carefully. "I think even Saitou knew. Why didn't he let you attend the ball tonight, when it should be obvious that your name and status could get us the furthest with those rich bastards?"

Misao shrugged, than shook her head with a low, sardonic laugh. "Well, that obviously didn't stop me."

He shook his head, grinning at her, "I don't think anyone could, once you put your mind to something." Misao sighed, and he met her gaze gently, "You were always looking for him, Misao," Part of him already wondered if that was what she had been doing, all of these years.

Misao seemed to crumble at the comment, but she merely turned away and closed her eyes. "It's all useless, Sano. It always has been."

Sano remembered the chilling look in Aoshi's eyes earlier that night. "Okay, maybe he seemed a bit too upset tonight. But give the guy some time to adjust, Itachi. It's not everyday that you meet your long lost—" Almost-lover? Ward? Daughter-figure? What in the world were they?

But Misao was shaking her head. "Did you see how he reacted to me tonight? It's like—" she made a wordless gesture, "he was horrified with what he saw—horrified, Sano. He said he no longer knew me. Imagine how he'd react when he finds out who I really am now." She shook her head. "I'd rather not find out."

Now Sano was confused. "I don't understand. He didn't really find out anything tonight. All he could possibly see now is," he stared at her profile, then suddenly remembered how odd it felt when he saw Misao like this for the first time, "that you've… grown up."

"Exactly," Misao concluded, her voice almost sad. "I committed the one sin I would have never been allowed to do had I stayed with the Oniwabanshuu" She turned towards the window again and gave a defeated sigh. "I grew up."

And Sano couldn't speak any more after that.

The rest of the ride back into Yokohama's elite underworld was then filled with the silence of unanswered questions, and the vision of the Oniwabanshuu Okashira's cold, piercing eyes.

Chapter Text

It was the night of the second meeting.

And Hajime Saitou was waiting. Patiently.

Of course, patience had never been one of his most outstanding virtues. Wolves themselves weren't known for patience. Of being made to wait, he'd usually have none. He had the advantage of authority that allowed him to never have to waste his time on such frivolity. Yes, people knew better than to make Hajime Saitou wait.

But, the man mused as watched the people move about in the conference room, there are some things, no matter how idiotic, that are worth waiting for.

The workings of power, for instance.

His eyes narrowed, feral, as he stared at the people within the room. Here itself, as the room's inhabitants formed groups and alliances among each other, the balance of power was already evident.

To his left were the leaders of the clans and tribesmen of the rural Japanese towns in the country. Yokohama was too grand and too decadent a town for these small-town and forest dwellers, and their wariness of the place was evident. Among the sparkling gold and filigree of the chamber's gilded furniture, they clearly stood out of place in their hakamas and traveling clothes. Near them and scattered about were the city lords, who evidently were more comfortable in their surroundings, but were still in awe of its unsurpassed stateliness.

On the other end of the room, however, another group stood out. In their Western attires, expensive cigars and glasses of wine, they were the undisputed lords of the place, as ostentatious and as condescending as the rest of Yokohama. They were right at home in the hotel's grandeur, yet disdainful all of those who did not. Saitou smirked as he stared at them—the Yokohama elite.

And yet, they weren't even the last, or the most influential of these groups. The military men. They hadn't arrived yet. Saitou knew the government officers who, having all called for the meeting, had the arrogance to feel they could get away with arriving late—these men had reason to look down on the country and city clans and despise the Yokohama elite. Whether the offer they would offer these groups tonight would be enough to unite them all was questionable.

The seeming triviality of all those power games had always amused him—at least, enough to stay around to wait for such a balance to be shattered.

And so in stepped Yukishiro Enishi, who passed by dismissively as the city and clan leaders from the north began to whisper in shock behind him. He took his post by the grand windows and leaned imperiously, arms crossed, gloved fingers tapping indolently at his elbow as he swivelled a glass of red wine. The whispers intensified when the Yokohama men began to speculate among themselves. The man, after all, had an infamous notoriety that surpassed his actual deeds—he'd been rumoured to have done everything, from leading a Shanghai black-arms syndicate to murdering his own kin for wealth.

He had situated himself between the country dwellers and the urban elite. Yukishiro Enishi would always remain an outcast by choice. He would remain considered far above both parties in skill and repute, feared and envied at the same time. Saitou knew, however, that his much-envied disaffected air hid cunning; behind the dark glasses, the eyes were narrowed with sharp calculation.

And, he noted as people kept watching him cautiously, this suits its purpose.

"It won't work." A voice cut in evenly from behind him. Saitou paused.

Shinomori Aoshi made himself known as he stepped forward from behind him. "You may have distracted their attentions from you by using Yukishiro as a diversion, Miburo." His eyes narrowed as he glanced at Saitou from the side. "But you forget I also survived the worst of the war. I am aware of your tactics."

Saitou raised a brow, then murmured after a pause. "Too well aware, it seems."

Shinomori was, indeed. For beyond the people in the room were men like him who, like Saitou, knew better than to be fooled. They knew too much. It was an awareness that they had paid for in blood. And such men, rare as they were, were not to be underestimated.

"You are trying to avoid the questions from the people who recognize you." Shinomori was shrewd enough not to ask. "The demand for answers can be deadly."

They were, after all, the last ones of a dying generation of survivors.

"Feh. Annoying sayings about a 'right time' for everything do exist for a reason, you know." He dismissed.

"They may look at Yukishiro as much as they want." Shinomori's expression remained hard, and his voice lowered. "But I will get the answers I want from you."

Saitou paused.

"Miyajima-sama, you're here!" a soft, eager voice cut like the fall of silk between them.

Shinomori stopped, and his eyes turned sharply towards the doorway.

And then suddenly, the same way it had when Enishi had come in, the air in the room shifted. There was a sudden unity in movement that made all alliances and groups irrelevant, as gazes suddenly moved and conversation suddenly stopped to give way to one scene, a single image.

There she finally stood, greeting an old man. Her eyes were vivid with delight, and her lips were lifted in a bright smile. "This is absolutely amazing—I can't believe it…" she was saying, and the hard-looking man she was talking to answered her with uncharacteristic fondness in gaze. She laughed and lifted her arms to embrace him, and the older man obliged. The men in the room were entranced.

"Depend on it, Misao. Lady…"

Shinomori had started, as if the image physically affected him.

Saitou eyed the girl, clothed in the same elegance as the elite and holding their attentions in raptures—a far cry indeed from the child who once stowed away in his ship to Kowloon. So altered from the girl Shinomori once knew, whose eyes were brighter, whose actions were less guarded, and whose words were less jaded.—and yet this was only the beginning. Too much has been lost, he thought with some unsummoned regret, but she had paid her price.

They all had their own roles in this new world. He wondered if Shinomori would understand, and if he would really see her as she was.

After all, men like Shinomori, as powerful as they were, also had their weaknesses. They too could fall.

He looked at the man's eyes as they inevitably followed Misao across the room, losing interest in Saitou himself. Here he nodded to himself, both with an appreciation of such irony and with unexpected understanding.

The rise and fall of power was too dangerous, and indeed it was worth waiting for.


 

It was the night of second meeting.

And Misao was going to kill Hajime Saitou.

She hesitated before the ballroom entrance, then paced to her left and shook her fists in frustration.

'You already defied orders to see him once. What's the difference in repeating your idiocy one more time?' Saitou had dismissed the night before.

She stopped to snort. Certainly, the man's persuasive skills were not his best. But goodness…She shook her head. He had given her one of those long, typically insult-filled lectures about not following orders last night, and then in an untypical manner contradicted himself by telling her to attend the meeting today—cutting her off when she tried to argue. (It's a meeting. You are needed. I don't care if the ice-block is there. It's not the end of the world.) She had sworn that she wouldn't be coming. She couldn't.

She'd already seen Shinomori Aoshi once. Once was enough.

But now, here she was, before the doors to the hotel venue, with a file of company accounts that needed to be signed by Saitou alone today, to secure a delicate loan for the theatre. He told her he would meet her here, outside, to sign the papers. And the man was nowhere to be found. She knew he was inside; she knew he wasn't coming out to meet her like they agreed to, and she now understood what he'd planned all along.

Outsmarted again. She glared at the door. The cop deserved to be disobeyed—and to be slapped for insensitivity and for all-around annoying Saitou-ness, just for good measure.

He knew she no longer wanted to be here. He knew.

Because beyond those doors… Briefly, a pair of vivid ice eyes passed her vision, and she closed her eyes. She couldn't do this; not anymore. She knew better than to even try now. Not after all that had been said and done. Not when she knew that she no longer had the power to do anything about it.

"How could he?" She finally whispered to herself, her anger now replaced by desperation.

"Will you remain standing there like a fool or will you ever go in?"

Misao gave a small jump and whirled, putting a hand to her chest. And there Enishi stood before her, in his usual immaculate glory, a glass of what was undoubtedly the hotel's finest wine in his hand. It was no wonder even the noble ladies of Yokohama threw themselves at his feet, Misao absently thought to herself. Give him a cape and he would look like a prince. "Enishi! I didn't hear you!"

"You are standing in my way." He spoke, his voice cool. Misao sighed, still annoyed with me then, and moved aside wordlessly. Most princes were pompous jerks anyway.

Enishi proceeded, but his footsteps stopped at her side. Perhaps he wanted an apology now? She sighed, knowing he deserved one anyway—or at least, an explanation for her behaviour the other night. "Okay, what is it I have to do now for you to forgive me?" she began.

But when she lifted her eyes to his, however, he did not return her gaze. He merely spoke, his voice even, "You are being too troubled. I have never trusted Saitou, but if he wants you there, it must be for a good reason."

Misao started. At his undeniably accurate perception, however, she tried to respond, "Well Aoshi-sama is in there, and Saitou is being an insensitive, annoying, scheming, old asshole."

Enishi raised a brow, but refused to say anything.

Misao groaned to herself "Okay. I know I'm not making sense. It's just that—Aoshi-sama, he's the man who raised me. He knew me. He—"

"He's the one?" Enishi finished for her, his voice hard.

"No!" Misao shook her head vehemently. "It's just…" she released a deep breath, and her voice wavered, "He's never seen me this way. He doesn't know. He's…" her voice trailed off. "He's one of the reasons I came to Kowloon in the first place."

She only noted how heavily she was breathing in the silence that followed.

She never realized how hard it had been, merely admitting that one thing.

"Here," Enishi finally said, handing her the glass as he took the papers from her. She eagerly accepted the wine and let the bittersweet liquid trace soft fire down her throat, calming her. When Enishi returned with another glass, she gave him a grateful look, "Thank you."

"What you are," Enishi let out suddenly, "is an idiot."

She almost sputtered into her glass. "Excuse me?"

He kept his grey-shard eyes trained on the doors, "You and I have both walked among these people countless times; we have been judged on too many counts. You know what it feels to be envied and hated." His voice lowered. "But you also know better than to be influenced by them. You know that at the end of the day, whatever they or Shinomori might think, it is you who know yourself; it is only you who possess that truth. You know better than to ever be ashamed."

Enishi then fixed his hard gaze on her, his eyes firm, and her breath caught in her throat, "You have never let them own you before. You will not let them rule you now. This is your stage—your territory." He then smirked, "And despite this occasional foolishness of yours, surely ruling it is not beyond you."

Even as Misao registered the insult, she had to close her eyes. It was overwhelming, how easy it was to forget how even arguing with Enishi could make things right. This was where four years of being made to work together had brought them. This, she thought to herself, is one of the reasons I've made it this far. She gave him a brief look, respect finding its way into her voice, "Enishi-kun."

But he dismissed her with a shake of the head. He merely closed his eyes, a small, ironic laugh escaping his lips. "Indeed," he murmured softly. The sneer came back in an instant, however, as he glared at her and stepped ahead. "Stop bothering me with useless problems, Itachi."

Misao smiled to herself. The arrogant snob. "I hate it when you're right!" she called out, and at his answering snort, she whispered, "But thanks." She watched as he opened the doors; the hushed exclamations began the moment he stepped in. "Thanks."

Misao took a deep breath again as she stared at the doors closing behind his lean form. What I am, she thought derisively, is pathetic. How many times had she done this before? She had stepped into countless ballrooms, had faced the predatory scrutiny of many aristocrats, and had remained standing as she held their gazes too many times. She had even managed to handle herself well against the overconfident army men they were supposed to meet tonight before. If there was anything she should not doubt, this should be it.

She closed her eyes. She really did hate it whenever Enishi was right.

Besides, she still had to get to Saitou before she could properly kill him.

And so she pushed at the doors and entered the ballroom.

She was suddenly awash in sensations as a sea of known and unknown faces opened unto her. The world came into being, and she willed herself into being calm. This was nothing she hadn't done before. This should be nothing.

But seeing the sharp, piercing gazes of the ninja clansmen, she suddenly found herself lost, as if brought back to a time when she once sought to prove herself to them. Once again, she was Makimachi Misao, the young and inexperienced Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu—naïve, protected and unaware. She couldn't breathe.

She suddenly realized that these were men she had tried to deal with as the Oniwabanshuu leader so many years ago. With a sudden panic, she wondered if they recognized her, and what she would do when they did. What did she get herself into? The people from Yokohama did not know of her past—what if she was exposed—

"Well, if it isn't Lady Sotsu!" a rough voice came from right.

Lady Sotsu.

And suddenly, all sound, all sensation disappeared, save for the resounding firmness—the comforting familiarity of those words.

Sotsu.

A whisper in her mind, "My name, I give you."

Her name, her face, her role; her stage.

And then the world slowly fell into place—there she was, standing in the middle of yet another grand ballroom, a wine glass in her hand, wearing a Western dress, and moving effortlessly in yet another circle of social elites. All the experience on social manoeuvring remained at her will again. She had earned her place here. She was known by people here. This was a game she could play; this was a technique she had mastered. This—this was her world. Her territory.

You will not let them rule you.

Her eyes moved and met the gaze of the man before her. At the moment it began. And so she played, inclining her face towards the aristocrat, "Miyajima-sama, you're here!" Her face broke out into a smile. It was Juro Miyajima—a rich steel magnate, one of the hardest businessmen in the country, and fortunately, one of the few wealthy patrons Misao genuinely liked, despite his renowned grumpiness. "This is absolutely amazing," she exclaimed, moving to kiss his cheek, "since when have you returned from your trip to Vienna?"

He smiled—and Juro Miyajima rarely smiled, "Just this week, girl. I had meant to call on you earlier, but I had business to settle."

She then lifted a brow archly as she released him. "I swore to myself I would never tell you this, but I did miss your company." She then gave an almost conspiratorial whisper, "Yokohama simply doesn't have any other bully who's as challenging or as interesting."

"Depend on it, Misao, this wayward old man might be bullying you a lot more in the meanwhile," the man spoke gruffly, "I will be staying in Yokohama for quite some time, Lady."

The expression on her face was mock serious, unperturbed, "By all means, sir. We can even start arguing again, if you want."

And Juro Miyajima, one of the most feared and wealthiest steel magnates in the country, threw his head back and guffawed.

The shock on the faces in the room made it even easier for Misao to bestow another smile on him as she moved to excuse herself, but before she could, another voice stopped her, "I must say, your powers of persuasion amaze even me, Lady Sotsu."

"Kinobe-sama," Misao recognizing the rolling voice without missing a beat, an elite noble granted his power through British favour in shipping; married, but kept two mistresses and frequented gambling houses. She raised her chin and turned to face the man, prepared to make the necessary small talk. "You flatter me too much."

The man took her hand and offered it a kiss, "It is me whom you flatter too much with your presence."

Misao caught Enishi's eye from the other end of the room and watched him snort in mild disgust. She then gave Kinobe a smug grin, which said she could see through what he was doing, and knew better than to fall for it, "Pardon me, your grace, if you feel any discomfort, I assure you it wasn't intended. Far it be from me to make you uncomfortable then, lest I be deprived of your future—presence. I will excuse myself." She then moved away.

It was Sano—thank goodness he had finally arrived—who had suddenly cut between her and Kinobe when the man gave chase. He took her by the arm and, in that unmistakably suave way of his, led her off. Misao gave a small laugh as she noted his conspiring wink, instantly reminded why it was great to have male friends.

Sano gave her a knowing grin as they walked, murmuring, "Heck, you think the men in this room had never seen a woman before. This is far too easy for you, Itachi—you didn't even have to fix up and use an evening gown. I told Saitou he should have let you do this in the ball last night. If you could take on Yokohama, you could take on the rest of Japan."

Misao laughed anxiously "Careful, Tori-Atama, you don't want my head to grow too big; I'm not even sure of what I'm doing yet."

Sano gave her that attractive half-smile of his, one that Misao did not doubt won too many hearts too easily. Enishi's air of mystery might have caught the fancy of women, but with his western suit and unmistakable charm Sagara Sanosuke was easily the unwitting rogue of every girl's dreams. He surveyed the eyes from all over the room. "You can handle yourself from here?"

They could both hear murmurs around her; the hastily concealed amazement, especially among the country lords, "She looks familiar… But who is she? What is she?" Misao suddenly started. Was this why Saitou wanted her here?—her eyes widened. To act as a diversion?

In case she hadn't told herself enough, Misao vowed to make the bloody cop pay. She shook her head determinedly, giving a vindictive smile. "I can handle myself. I just need to know where our dear leader is."

Sano was intrigued. "Uh-oh. Saitou's in trouble, with you? No way. You're usually the man's champion defender."

Misao narrowed her eyes, "Not today."

Sano whistled, actually delighted. "I'd love to see this. He's by the west doorway—Go get him." He grinned evilly. "Oh, and don't tell him I was late."

Misao didn't even have to roll her eyes as she said, without missing a beat, "Tori Atama, love, you're always late."

Sano merely laughed as he sauntered off to a position with a good vantage. "So I'm a hopeless case. Save me."

Misao shook her head, wondering dryly how often that line worked, before turning in Saitou's direction.

Saitou's amber eyes narrowed when he spotted her approach, and he suddenly stood up from his comfortably concealed corner in the room. She might as well have been carrying the scythe of death in her hands, judging from the disconcerted look the man was giving her. The room's mood shifted considerably as her actions drew attention to Saitou, the one whom she knew people should rightfully be turning to. Even Enishi himself perked up from his dispassionate observance from the grand windows as he saw what was unfolding. She vaguely heard Sano calling out to her, and she walked further, giving Saitou a suspiciously sweet smile that was bound to unnerve him even more.

It was only when she was a few steps away from him, however, that she noticed who was standing beside him.

From somewhere behind her, she heard Sano cursing.

The gaze the man was giving her was inscrutable—neutral, cold, and unnervingly familiar. There he was, towering over her, silent, but not indifferent. No. Dark. Watching. How could he bear to still look at her? Taut—her throat. Bare, she felt. Her heart drowned all sound out. She realized she was holding her breath.

Aoshi-sama.

She then turned to Saitou, surprisingly calm. "I'm sure you know I intend to make you suffer for this, Chifu. Slowly."

She turned back to Aoshi, "I beg your pardon, sir," she spoke, her voice tenuously steady, "Please excuse us for a minute."

She then made her way towards the enclave which the western doorways led to, pausing to grab Saitou's cigarettes from his shirt pocket (a move sure to make the old bastard follow—yes, he was no longer merely a bloody asshole). She heard Sano's whistle in the distance (was he relieved or was he impressed?) but she never looked back. She could not.


 

Things are just getting interesting.

It was the night of the second meeting, and Sanosuke Sagara was actually enjoying himself.

"I know you can make my life miserable for this," Sano announced, grinning. "But I have to say this now or I might never get the chance. You're in trouble. Deep trouble."

Saitou snorted before him, and Sano had to hold back a chortle. The Weasel had actually threatened Saitou. And in front of Shinomori! Damn, he thought, impressed. Even he knew how rare it was for anyone to get away with it and walk out alive.

But what made the whole thing even more hilarious was the fact that the Wolf himself distinctly looked uncomfortable—ha! Dreading the girl, as Sano would have it. Anyone who knew the extent of Misao's temper would know fear. "Ahou. You're late. It is you who will be suffering if you don't wipe that look off your face."

He couldn't help it. "Awww… And she just had to take your cigarettes, didn't she? Under your wife's instructions, I distinctly remember." His wife Tokio, demure as she seemed, was the only other living person who could get away with threatening him—damn, this must be killing him.

For a moment, he thought he saw Saitou's nostrils flare. "Urusai. If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me."

Sano abruptly choked on his laughter. What the— "You wouldn't dare."

Saitou bared his teeth, unnerving Sano. "Oh but I would. I am known, after all, for being an unscrupulous bastard who would slay evil, even in its most irritating form, swiftly. You wouldn't want to annoy me." He sneered. "Now make yourself useful and stand guard over the door. And get me a cigarette while you're at it."

"Gah, now that would make the Weasel blow up on me. I don't have a death wish, thank you very much." He shot back. Darnit, he was now on guard duty, in a stuffy meeting. Fate could be kinder, he sighed as he lifted his hand in mock surrender and moved towards the doorway. "Good luck, though."

Saitou snorted dismissively. "I've survived the Bakamatsu and married life. I can handle myself." He gave Aoshi, who was now intently watching the doorway Misao exited to, a sideways glance, "If you will excuse me," then made to enter the proverbial lion's den.

Sano stood by the glass-paned doors, and drew the thick curtains over it shut. The crowd, thankfully, had stopped paying attention as soon as the only female had left the room. We really can be that stupid, can we? He chuckled to himself. However, some people had remained, hovering over the doorway. His eyes narrowed—clan leaders from the North, people who had known Saitou personally before. Anyone wise enough would know how important Saitou actually was to this meeting—he know the most people and had the most knowledge. It was amazing that it was only Aoshi who had known better to find Saitou in the first place. "We're clear, but you'll have it rough when you go back there. They're hovering like sharks." He muttered. "Bet you're wishing for that forbidden cigarette now, eh?" he just had to add.

When Saitou didn't reply, Sano lifted his head to see the man taking a deep breath as he slowly walked into the room. He really was apprehensive, Sano thought in wonder. It was only then when he realized that he had never seen Saitou and the Weasel fight.

Of course they argue all the timeIt's hard to live with the Psycho Cop and not argue. But if there was anything that surprised Sano ever since he joined them was the firm relationship between the two. Misao followed the man's orders, no matter how questionable, and took his well-being personally. Kuso, she could get so riled up in his defence. In return, the Wolf was unexpectedly tolerant, if not trusting, of the Weasel. It was surprising, and he always wondered how it had happened, and how it managed to survive this long. He had never really seen them—fight, fight.

It was hard to spot Misao in the darkness, and Sano had to squint to see the girl by the wall, her back turned to Saitou, her posture ramrod straight.

"What are you doing?" Saitou asked carefully.

Sano's eyes widened as her shoulders, impossibly, stiffened more. "Counting from one to ten," was the leaden reply. "This is my fifth time. I've decided to count backwards."

That bad then, Sano thought, wincing. He had a lot of work ahead of him.

"Would you like to carry on or would you rather throw a fit now?" Saitou then asked casually, and Sano nearly fell over.

What the hell—

"Why," he heard the gritted out word from the girl, who had started to breath heavily. "I want to know why."

"Why, what?" Saitou, impossibly, merely raised his brow.

And that was when Misao whirled to face him, her face flushed red and her eyes bright. "You wouldn't want to be playing games with me right now, Saitou. We both know you're the Grand Schemer here. You want me to act as your cover? Fine. But why him? Why now? Call me weak and pathetic—call me anything, but he's in there, and I don't find this amusing."

Sano, who up to this point was finding the whole scenario amusing, finally realized how it actually wasn't. Aoshi, Misao—it was far too complicated. He had already foreseen the potential mess it would bring last night. Kenshin and Kaoru's situation was bad enough, and even then it took them forever to settle things between them. But even without knowing all the details, Sano was sure Aoshi's raising Misao, her one-sided affections, the never ending guilt and distance that he knew fighters like Aoshi and Kenshin could not shake off, and Misao's leaving the Oniwabanshuu were too many issues to deal with, and especially not within a single night.

But Sano's hair rose as Saitou gave a distinctively amused grin. "Who ever said it was amusing?"

Misao turned disbelievingly to him, her eyes narrowing. "You actually think this is funny?"

But all of a sudden, she stopped, abruptly cutting off her words. Saitou eyed her warily as she paused, taking heavy breaths. She then closed her eyes and turned away. "Forget it." She let out evenly.

Now it was Saitou who started. "Eh?"

Misao spoke softly, her eyes blank, her voice low. "I'm neither here to be toyed with, nor to play games, sir. I merely came here to remind you of the contracts you have to sign." Sano felt his back prickle at the sight; Saitou's eyes narrowed, "And now, I will leave."

She then handed him back his cigarettes, then made to move away, but Saitou grabbed her arm. "Not so fast, Weasel."

She had just closed in on herself again. It always unnerved Sano when she did. "I have nothing further to say, Chifu."

Saitou rolled his eyes, and let out evenly, "I should have known you'd do this wrong."

Misao started, and Sano's jaw dropped. "What?—"

"You usually explode."

Of course she does! But is he out of his freaking mind?

Misao's brows rose and she spoke with deliberate slowness. "You… want me to… explode?"

"You should be swearing right now. Despite that silver tongue, you can still out-curse that rooster Sagara when you want to." (Hey!) Saitou spoke with deliberate casualness. "Don't you have those names you use against me? Didn't you once call me a heartless, brainless, stinking overgrown bleeding arse—"

"Asshole! Lung-less, and you forgot, old!" Her voice rose. Even Sano had to take a step back. The colour was rising back to her cheeks.

Saitou, to his credit, didn't step back. "For the last time, I am not old; you are the loudest brat I ever had to work with, yet you can't even scream things right."

Misao looked absolutely infuriated, "Well, you don't even deserve to be screamed at this very moment!"

Saitou's voice rose with equal force, "And why is that?"

"Because you should know that this is not me! That he is not a joke to me, and that I can't look at him without realizing the fact that I—" she paused, breathing differently, "I am not okay. I am not right. And I can't lie to myself, I am not the person they—he wanted me to be." Her voice faded. "I've ruined too much."

Shocked, Sano stood still.

Saitou watched as she stared at her hands. "He asked me yesterday, 'What have you done with yourself?'" She shook her head, as if disbelieving. "Done with myself, as if I had somehow destroyed who I was… He was blaming me for not being the person he'd expected to see. I'm not who I used to be, but I—,"she gestured to herself, "this was not what he wanted me to become. And to think he doesn't even know the worst of it yet." She raised her eyes to his. "Can't you see why I can't to face him?" She shook her head, her eyes watering. "You knew." She finally whispered, "You knew."

The cryptic words she had revealed to Sano last night floated in the silence. "I grew up." And this had caused Shinomori's anger.

She then turned her back to him and stared at the wall, accepting the handkerchief he gave without a word. In the silence that followed, Saitou waited for her to regain her composure. It was done so straightforwardly, as if the two of them had done this countless times before—a ritual that, somehow, remained.

It was during moments like this, Sano realized, that made him see how much he really didn't know about Saitou, Misao, Enishi, or what it was that happened in Kowloon that forced them together this way before he stumbled into them a year ago.

Back then, things had simply become too different for him to understand. Enishi's unwilling but inevitable participation would always remain a mystery, but Saitou's unexpected candour and shifts in attitude had stunned him. And Misao, whom he used to know as a strong character with a free and reckless spirit, she disturbed him most of all. It unnerved him, the dark reveries she would fall into, or the way the two men, despite the hostilities between them, would sometimes unite in being careful with her, almost as if she was glass that could easily break. And despite living with them and learning to accept all these changes, Misao, inflicting those words on herself, and Saitou's telling silence—those were reminders of what remained unknown to him. What happened to you? What was so horrible that it made you like this?

He started, however, when he suddenly heard Misao speak, "Go ahead. Say it."

He turned to them and saw Saitou raising a brow as Misao faced him. "Say what?"

She dabbed at her eyes, "Don't you enjoy pointing out an idiot when you see one? Enishi already did me in today, so," she made a sweeping gesture, "shoot away."

The moment had gone as quickly as it had come. Even as Sano shook his head, he smiled, glad to see the Weasel was falling back into place.

Even Saitou had to chuckle, "That pampered, arrogant runt? You couldn't have compared two people who hated each other more, Itachi."

Misao stubbornly shook her head behind the handkerchief. "You're both arrogant asses. And you two should at least try to get along. It's been years. I have a hard enough time, playing messenger and mediator to the both of you."

"Never going to happen." Saitou answered without missing a beat, and Sano rolled his eyes; he'd been forced to play mediator once—it hadn't been pleasant.

"Che. Women and your tears," Saitou snorted as he spoke again, exhaling as he took drag off a cigarette he had lit earlier.

"I am so going to kill you. You can still be such a bastard. And I hate tears." She sniffled as she blew her nose. "And stop smoking, darnit. I don't want you to die on me." Her words made Sano smother a laugh.

"So you really believe you're an idiot, eh?" Saitou suddenly asked, startling her. "You're 'not right' and you've 'ruined' yourself."

Sano frowned at hearing the words. Misao winced, and hid her face away, "I don't want to talk about it anymore. You know I hate it when you throw my own words back at me."

"Because they're so untrue, it's absurd?"

"No." Misao answered quickly, then levelled a glare at him, "Because they might be. And you still make me feel absurd either way."

Sano had to grin in spite of himself; the girl's frankness with the former Shinsengumi captain was refreshing.

"I heard he intended to take you back."

Her eyes narrowed at his sudden words, "I already refused. It doesn't mean anything."

"Not what I heard." Saitou's responded enigmatically.

Misao then turned her back to him. "It doesn't change things. He didn't want me before, he wouldn't want me now."

"How can you be so sure?"

She turned to him. "Do you really think I can still go back now?" she looked away. "I can't change myself anymore—not for the Oniwabanshuu, not for anyone—not even for him." She finished wearily, "I can't be better for him." She sighed. "And I don't want him to hate me for it."

Sano flinched at her words. He could only guess at the extent of Misao's anxiety. Sano had merely been Misao's friend, and seeing her like this had already disconcerted him. How would Aoshi react—knowing her all her life and suddenly seeing her this way, without knowing how she had been, where she had gone or why she had changed? How would he react to not knowing?

But Saitou snorted after a pause. "Che. You don't know how the man feels."

Misao started at the thought, then replied. "I may not know exactly how he feels, but there are some things so obvious, even I can see it for myself."

"Not good enough." Saitou returned flatly. "Since when did I teach you to hold so much on an assumption?" He shook his head. "If I'm going to let you stupidly waste away on the ice-block's rejection, I might as well be certain you're sure about it."

Misao's cheeks flared. "What's your point?"

"The point is simple. You can be an idiot when it comes to this, Itachi." Saitou looked at her, "But you can't be a coward."

"You're calling me a coward?"

"What else would you call someone hiding in here from an imaginary rejection?" Saitou shot back, "He wants answers, Itachi, and someone stronger would go there and confront the man once and for all."

Misao's eyes narrowed coldly. "You think that's easy for me to do? After all that has happened—after how he reacted last night? I never even expected to see Aoshi-sama again, and yet now you want me to leave myself—bare for him to judge? And it's not just him—you know how society here sees people like me! He'd never forgive me."

"Then let him see you, let him hate you, if that's what it takes." Saitou answered with equal force, "Yes, it's hard, it's brutal, and it's unbearable, but how long have you been carrying this thing with Shinomori? Believe me, Itachi, you wouldn't want to throw away half of your life on fears that may not be real. Being consumed by a mistake like that is something you would not ask for."

Sano was awed. Words like those only came from experience, and the Wolf had never been one to share. And despite the sudden harshness of those words, it became clear, as Misao turned her eyes away, that she knew he was right. "I don't think I can bear the truth."

"Shinomori is not stupid. If he truly knew you, he'd see right through everything, even what people think of you. He'd know better."

"Don't." Misao shook her head vigorously, her voice catching as she spoke, "I can't hope in that anymore. I can't do it."

Saitou's reply was uncharacteristically soft. "You won't be able to help it."

"What if he still ends up hating me?" was a bare a whisper.

"Then he's not worth any of this."

Misao closed her eyes, giving a small, bitter laugh. "And if I don't make it through that?"

Saitou closed his eyes. "It's simple, Itachi. You get the chance to move on." He finally extinguished his cigarette. "And if that chance is not worth this risk, I don't know what is."

Misao took in a sharp breath at his words, and even Sano had to pause. "To move on, finally, from Aoshi-sama," she began, "I never thought of things that way."

Sano closed his eyes himself, pushing away the unbidden memory of eyes so green. To move on… he never imagined how hard it would be. It was something that even the strongest of them found hard and constantly failed to do. How ironically profound was it that even now, after all these years, Aoshi still unknowingly had the power to devastate Misao with his disappointment?

"And yet you've had a life beyond Shinomori, these past few years." Saitou responded quietly, "There's so much more ahead of you than even he could understand."

Misao had closed her eyes and released a deep, weary breath, "Even now, after all this time, there is still so much more we have to do." She shook her head, "I can't afford to let anyone affect me like this anymore."

Sano, who realized they were venturing into territory that was unknown to him, didn't have time to ponder her words as Saitou nodded, "All the more reason to get on with this. Chakugan taikyoku."

Look at things from an overall perspective. It was a tactic to win board games. Sano cocked his chin. Saitou always thought in terms of battles and strategies, and yet his words made sense.

Misao had raised her eyes to Saitou, "What do I have to do?"

Sano watched as Saitou spoke to Misao. And as he saw Misao's eyes slowly shroud over, as if weakening with fear, he turned his eyes away beyond the doors towards Aoshi, who remained a strong presence even as he stood in silence from the crowds.

Sano didn't know how things were between Aoshi and Misao—if things were over, if they had never ended or, he thought, reflecting on Enishi as the man watched Aoshi with narrowed eyes from across the room, if they had never begun at all. But standing between all of them, he suddenly realized that he was the only one who really knew Misao both before she had disappeared and after she had returned from Kowloon, without knowing what actually happened there. It made him uniquely safe for Misao, who no longer wanted to know, convenient for Saitou, who had known too little, and contemptible for Enishi, who had known too late. And, he suspected as he looked back outside, potentially crucial to Aoshi, who knew not.

Sano now understood why Saitou took him to witness this.

Chakugan taikyoku, to play the game without losing sight of the whole, without getting lost in the details, in the here and now; to choose actions for the greatest benefit in the future—to head in the direction one of the final outcome one aspires for.

Sano might not have had affinity for roles Misao had, but he understood games, and the moves that needed to be played—the sacrifices that had to be made. And for a brief moment, Sano felt he understood how things were meant to fall into place and saw the moves that he would be required to make.

Saitou had known, despite Misao's denials, that Shinomori Aoshi's sudden arrival into their lives shouldn't be taken lightly. It had all been inevitable.

Suddenly, it wasn't all fun and games anymore.

Everything will really change, for all of us. And as Sano met Saitou's eyes for a brief moment, he nodded. Misao wasn't aware he had heard the whole conversation, but he was ready to make sure she could execute the moves she was required to make. And in his mind, his words to her as she offered him a chance to join them more than a year ago ironically repeated themselves.

I'm looking forward to it.


 

So she had let her hair down.

It was the night of the second meeting, and though he knew that the military men they were waiting for hadn't arrived yet, he remained still, solitary by his post; eyes coolly intent despite the crowds that moved like a listless current —silent, unreadable, ready, just as he knew to.

Shinomori Aoshi knew when games were afoot, and he knew better than to walk into one blindly.

It was Yokohama itself, he knew. He could see it happening now—the awe that worked like glamour on the eyes of the men in this room. They all moved enchanted, under the powerful spell of the city. Even as he had made his way here earlier, he could see how its grandeur seduced, leaving even the strongest of men enthralled by the decadence in its Victorian streets, its brick houses, and its exotic trade. It was hard not to be taken in by the bewitching novelty of the Western clothes, the swirling edifices, and the sound of foreign tongues. There was so much to experience, to touch, to see and to taste—and it was only too easy, only too easy for one to indulge and to lose sight of one's purpose.

Aoshi could see why they had chosen this hotel as the venue for the meeting. Miradono epitomized Yokohama at its finest. Each banister, each awning, and each corner shone of burnished goal; it had crystals for lights, marble for floors, and oil paintings for walls. Indeed, Miradono did more than just fascinate—it overwhelmed. It was a powerful tool that could be used to manipulate. And this was just as it should be, not just for the government men they were waiting for, but also for people who knew how to play this game, for people who found it convenient not to be noticed, and for people who knew what they wanted, and how to get it.

People like Hajime Saitou, for instance.

"Saitou! You son of a gun, where the hell have you been and why didn't you tell us you were here sooner?"

Aoshi watched as the man emerged from the outdoor room, following Sagara, who had disappeared into the crowd. "I would have thought you knew," the man spoke with narrowed eyes, "that I am never under anyone's beck and call."

Aoshi turned to make his way towards him as the other men cornered him, but a voice stopped him,

"He's trying to avoid you, you know. That's why he's taking his chance on those men. Unlike you, they weren't shrewd enough to seek him out in the first place. It's no use going to him now."

Aoshi turned his eyes towards a young man—perhaps only twenty—whose eyes shone inquisitively. "You're Shinomori Aoshi, aren't you? I've heard so much about you from my father. You're a legend."

"Of course. Which explains why he is the only one who saw what none of us did." Another voice smoothly interrupted, and Aoshi lifted his gaze to see Gakushi Gai, second-in-command of the Takanobu clan, a wiry, middle-aged man that managed to survive the end of the Bakamatsu era. "He was the first one to suspect that 'Fujita Goro' would know more about the real nature of this meeting than anyone else. Saitou in a unique position of power—not only is he familiar with the powerful clans of the North and the South, he also knows more about Yokohama and the men who called for this meeting than most of us. If there's anyone we could go to for information about what this is really all about, it's him."

Here he gave Aoshi a shrewd look, "It's a wonder then, that no one else noticed."

Aoshi bowed. "Gakushi."

"Shinomori." Gakushi nodded, then pointed a thumb at the boy "Let me introduce Takanobu Shinichi, the heir of the Takanobu clan. I'm guiding him until he could lead the clan one day."

Aoshi stared at the boy, recognizing the familiar—openness to his eyes that only someone of his generation could have. He would have done everything to prevent someone like this boy from having to witness the things that the men in the room had.

Takanobu shook his head, however, "I should have known better. I was too busy looking at Yukishiro Enishi—"

"Another legend?" the dark-skinned Gakushi asked with some air.

Takanobu paused, mildly annoyed. "All of us were too busy looking at him to actually notice Saitou. I've heard rumours that Yukishiro is actually working for him. It was incredibly cunning of him. He knew exactly what to hit us with that would work to his advantage." He then turned to Aoshi, admiration in his eyes. "You didn't fall for it, and that makes you all the more dangerous to him."

Aoshi said nothing at his observation.

Gakushi was busy rubbing a finger on his chin, "And yet there was that woman…"

"That woman!" A mystified look suddenly went over the heir's face. "The way everyone followed after her! Who is she? Masaka, have you ever seen such a—"

Aoshi stood. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he nodded, walking away from them.

"Shinomori-sama, where are you going?"

She had let her hair down.

He had come to this meeting for the sole purpose of determining what the government was willing to offer the Oniwabanshuu. To take the best settlement, have it agreed upon, and to leave as soon as he could. It was the way it always should be: fast, efficient, and uncomplicated. It was simply that, and nothing else. Not anymore.

He hadn't expected to see her again.

Takanobu had nodded to the older Gakushi, following Aoshi as he stopped by the wall near the group of leaders surrounding Saitou. He would settle for learning as much as could satisfy him before going through with any agreement tonight, and despite Saitou's efforts, Aoshi would rather not let him out of his sight. Sure enough, he could hear the tail-end of the questions being directed at him.

"You're a theatre-owner now?" someone's loud voice boomed.

"Now why do you sound like it's too hard to believe?" Saitou replied in a bored tone. "And it's Chief Producer of the Nishitaka Theatre, incidentally."

"The Nishitaka? That's the most expensive theatre in Yokohama!"

He merely shrugged, "Before you ask, I don't give tickets out for free."

"Rubbish. Since when did someone like you have an artistic bone on your body?" The second member, a round man, had retorted. From behind Aoshi, Gakushi snickered and Takanobu cringed.

"Are you saying that my tastes aren't refined enough?" Saitou bared his teeth. "Try harder, man. If you're going to insult me, the least you could do is be good at it."

The third man, a lanky figure, placated him, "We're all happy you've gone ahead and made yourself, well, civilized, Saitou, but this is—unexpected."

"Almost as unexpected as the rumours that you have Yukishiro Enishi, of all people, working for you," The second man added. "A murderer, an arms syndicate leader, and a gambling lord!"

"Or that you actually recruited him in Hong Kong." The first man continued with a suspicious look. "Just what were you doing outside the country, Saitou?"

"What do people do outside Japan? Aren't you supposed to be smart enough to figure that out?" Saitou responded with ire. "Besides, shouldn't you be more concerned about the meeting than asking me about something as trivial as my yearly trips?" And for all that it worked, leaving his cross-examiners sputtering, Aoshi stared at him evenly. The Wolf was stalling.

"Fujita-sama."

Aoshi lifted his gaze.

She had walked past him, entering from the doorway on his right, her shoulder almost brushing his. His eyes caught sight of her features for a mere second, a whiff of scent, pale skin and eyes that shone blue in the light, and finally the single ribbon that pulled her hair back, before she had gone on. She walked away from him towards Saitou's group, her hair swaying even as the rest of its weight fell down heavily on her back. Aoshi followed her with his gaze.

It was indeed remarkable, how the absence of one thing could render everything else unfamiliar.

It had always been in a braid.

He momentarily closed his eyes. Astute as the boy Takanobu's observations were, he was still wrong. Hajime Saitou had considered him his greatest threat, but he had known exactly what to hit Aoshi with—the one thing that would work best to his advantage.

If he had known better, he should have seen it coming.

"Gentlemen," Saitou announced, a knowing look on his face, "let me introduce you to the infamous Sotsu Misao."

Aoshi looked up.

Sotsu.

She has given up her last name. And although he, of all people, understood what names could do and how harmful they could be when well known, hearing her use another name first hand unexpectedly left a bitter feeling. For what else could she be other than a Makimachi? And here, he narrowed his eyes.

Why would she change her name?

Meanwhile, it was evident that Saitou couldn't have introduced her with more flourish, for the three men had all turned their eyes to her the moment she entered the room. And in a perfect presentation of manners, she stopped before to bow respectfully, "Akiro-sama, Baku-sama, Chuugo-sama. Forgive me, gentlemen, I have been very lax with my duties."

And like clockwork, the leaders of three of the most powerful clans in Northern Tokyo fell apart before her, stammering like schoolboys. "W-what do you mean?"

"Seems like the government officials who called for this meeting are late." Saitou scoffed. "Keeping people waiting is the one thing they're good at. And I don't like waiting." He gave Misao a passing look, "This is what you're good at."

Aoshi straightened imperceptibly at Saitou's words, and Misao turned to the men, a smile ready on her face.

"He wants me to be tonight's hostess in the meanwhile."

Chapter Text

She had let her hair down.

"He wants me to be tonight's hostess in the meanwhile."

Aoshi narrowed his eyes.

From beside him, his temporary followers were more vocal. The young lord Takanobu mumbled to himself. "Sotsu, where have I heard that name before…?" while his trainer Gakushi exclaimed, "Hostess?"

What was Saitou planning?

In Saitou's group, Akiro, the first man, began. "Forgive me—Sotsu-san, but are you saying you work for Saitou?" The second man couldn't help adding, "In his theatre?"

Misao raised a brow and shot Saitou an amused look—and here, Aoshi eyed her sharply, recalling how, just a few moments earlier, she had instead been glaring angrily. "I take it our Chief has been an ass as usual and told you nothing useful about what we do in the theatre. Has he only been insulting people left and right again?"

Stupefied by the frank way she described the Wolf, the men nodded, and Misao went on, an arch look on her features despite the apology in her tone, "I apologize for him, gentlemen. We produce foreign plays in the Nishitaka. We take stories from the West, from China, the Indies and from the rest of Europe and translate and rewrite them for the Japanese audience. It's an art that's been mastered in Kowloon, thanks to the British."

Their group had a theatre as its cover. It all seemed too grand, too artificial for Aoshi to take without doubt. But Gakushi had interrupted his train of thought when he hissed, "So that's what Saitou's been doing in Hong Kong? Translating plays?"

"And what do you do in the theatre, then?" the more hostile second man accosting Saitou asked, his usual hostility replaced by genuine interest.

"Oh, too many things, Baku-sama. I go here and there, helping run things. Nothing as important as your work, I'm sure." Misao turned the question aside with suspiciously expert ease.

"Right now, I suppose I'm here to do damage control." And before Aoshi's eyes, her face suddenly fell and she gave the men an imploring look. "Our guests from the government haven't arrived yet, and people are waiting. I would really appreciate your help, Gentlemen. What do think should I do for the people here in the meanwhile?"

And one by one, the men all fell over in their eagerness to help, "We should give them something to pass the time with!" "Something to help those who have traveled far to relax." "Perhaps drinks?" "That would do. Yes!"

And at each suggestion, he watched Misao's face as she nodded brightly, giving them all her individual attention until each of them puffed with pleasure at having gained her confidence. She was too brilliant at it; encouraging, full of praise and smiling at the right turns, the same way she used to whenever she'd trick Aoshi's men into giving in to her whims as a child. She knew what she was doing.

And all the while Saitou stood there, unscathed, a smug look on his face.

Aoshi's stare grew hard. He was not impressed. Saitou was using Misao as a diversion, and Misao was clearly allowing herself to be used. The men had all but forgotten about interrogating him.

"Should I ask Enishi about the drinks, then?" Misao had turned to Saitou.

"Enishi? Yukishiro Enishi?" Baku asked incredulously. "That blackguard and murderer? Why him?" He then turned to Saitou. "Does he work foryou too?"

Saitou snorted, "You wish."

Misao laughed. "Baku-sama, I suggest you never ask Enishi that. He prefers to think he has to work with Saitou than for him."

The third man finally spoke, "I don't understand what you mean."

She turned to him, "Why, sir, you didn't know? Yukishiro Enishi is the owner of the Miradono Hotel."

It seemed almost comical, how each man reacted to that revelation. Aoshi may have hardly twitched a brow at all the exclamations, but the three clan-leaders started sputtering all over again ("This hotel? This very hotel we're staying in? Yukishiro?" ), while beside him, Takanobu and Gakushi nearly fell over.

"Confound this! Yukishiro, a hotel-owner? Of the most bloody expensive hotel in Yokohama, of all places! And you, a theatre-owner! This is too much!" Baku was saying. "What's with this city and how it has everything twisted around in the wrong way?"

Saitou remained unfazed. "That's hotelier and Chief Producer, Baku—do you really think we're as dull as that? And don't be too surprised, gentlemen. If you think this is Yokohama, you haven't seen anything yet."

All the while, Misao, having excused herself, had begun to walk ahead. People immediately started whispering around her, and these whispers grew more when it was realized she was heading towards Yukishiro Enishi.

"This is remarkable. She's really going to him." Takanobu noted, impressed. "Isn't she worried about his reputation?"

His trainer remained skeptical, however. "I'm more curious about this 'remarkable' woman." Gakushi looked at them, "It doesn't look like anyone owns her."

Takanobu turned to Gakushi, "What do you mean?"

"She remains unescorted even now. Isn't it strange that there's no man accompanying her?" He snorted. "If this woman was my daughter or my wife, I wouldn't let her walk alone among all these men."

Aoshi turned to the man sharply, and Takanobu reacted. "Gakushi, you can't be thinking she's a—a loose woman."

"For crying out loud, boy, I'm not calling her a prostitute. It's obvious you've never seen escorts. I'm worldlier than you: she may look too Western to be geisha, but I know how graceful and elegant female companions could seem." He stared at her body as she moved, "She can't just be able to host, though. She must also be an able performer, and she could be prettier—"

"First you think she's too pretty to be left alone and now you think she isn't pretty enough?"

"That's enough." Aoshi spoke coolly, his voice full of warning. "Worldly or not, it is evident from the way you speak how little you actually regard women, Gakushi."

Startled, Gakushi gave him a dark look, but kept quiet.

Aoshi returned Gakushi's look, barely controlling himself.He realized he was clenching his fists.

Masaka. He was letting this affect him more than it should.

Because it wasn't merely the absence of the braid.

It was also the image of her, standing there, with her long hair falling black on the sudden white of her back. It was the furtiveness in her eyes, secretive, no longer vividly open, the intentional charm in her smile, no longer childlike and wide, and the measured fluidness in her walk, each step no longer spontaneous. It was the guile in her voice, the flattery in her words, and the timed sophistication in her gestures. It was the way that nothing of what he knew was her could be recognized in the performance she was giving.

He had known better than to expect familiarity from her, but he never expected Misao to be the furthest person from the girl whose hair Okon had to tie back for because it did no good for the scrapes she constantly got into-- from the person who had decided from a young age that it was no fun being girl and had tucked away all the burdens of being one into a braid that didn't get in the way. This Misao, this wasn't her.

Could he really fault Gakushi for thinking the way he did about her, when he himself was suspicious of who she was?

Misao had reached Enishi, and by that time, the room had settled into an anticipating stillness. Aoshi kept an eye on Saitou, however, knowing that this was convenient for him, and was just what he planned.

Misao had bowed to Enishi and was speaking in low tones. And everyone else watched with bated breath as she finished, awaiting his reaction for having been disturbed in his solitary post.

Slowly, Enishi placed his fingers to his spectacles, lowering them to give her a dark look. "Is this worth wasting my time on?" he asked tersely.

People flinched at the sight; others stepped back at the heat in his voice.

But Misao merely stepped closer to him. And before everyone's eyes, she rose to her tiptoes and moved her face to his, putting her lips to his ears to whisper. People started hushing in astonishment.

She stepped down and Enishi gave her an indistinguishable look. After a few seconds, he then stood and called to a servant nearby, placing a hand on her back as he spoke briskly, "Follow her wishes." With this done, he inclined his irate face to hers, looking furious "Tell me you're done disturbing me."

Everyone held their breath as Misao started at the tone in his voice. She took a step back.

And to everyone's amazement, she began to laugh.

Talk erupted at the sight, even as the smirk on Enishi's face grew.

The servant returned with a bottle of wine for Misao, which she tasted before lifting her flute for Enishi to taste. The owner of the hotel imperiously obliged, and the volume of whispers rose with shock.

"This is unbelievable!" Takanobu exclaimed.

Aoshi watched as Enishi, after some cajoling from her, rolled his eyes and handed her his own glass to compare. He had been aware that the two of them worked together, but the actual sight of them both, next to each other, talking before his very eyes, remained surreal. There was a time when he would have made sure someone as dangerous as Yukishiro Enishi wouldn't see Misao, much less talk to her. He would have made sure they never crossed paths. But in spite of the sensational disbelief around him, the vision they made seemed disconcertingly apt.

Standing next to the him, Misao looked like she belonged—the regal white of his attire blending well with the satin fall of her dress, the elegance of his movement with the grace in her gestures, the hardness of his features with the her softer outline. Even the way they moved seemed innately synchronized, almost intimate. They played the very picture of the gentleman and the lady.

Lady. Aoshi narrowed his eyes at the word. That woman, they had called her. It was undeniable, for she could not be called otherwise—from the feminine slant to her eyes, to the sudden prominence of her features, to the face that lacked the child's roundness. Indeed, the person that stood before them all was not a girl—at least, not the girl he remembered.

You can't just take me home because I look wrong to you.

Her eyes had been accusing when she said those words last night. And now, watching her, Aoshi realized that he could no longer deny that she was right. She had looked wrong to him, wrong because she no longer looked like the child she used to be.

He had been angered by the fact that she had looked like a woman.

She had changed too much, and whether or not it had been inevitable seemed irrelevant, especially when he saw the different light to her features and the sad awareness in her eyes. They foretold the undeniable changes he could see now, not only in her words and mannerisms, but also in her attitude—even her name. She had become all this in his absence, and every instance of this transformed Misao was a reminder of this.

She had finally become an adult. She had grown up without letting him know, it had felt like a betrayal.

She turned to face them now, her familiar smile made both aloof and alluring, "Gentlemen, may I ask all of you to gather at the grand tables for drinks while waiting for tonight's hosts?" She made a beckoning gesture with her hands.

People followed her immediately, if hesitantly, and within a few moments, they were filing into the next room and taking seats around two round tables capable of seating about forty people. Misao, dutifully playing the part of the hostess, helped people to their seats, soon followed by a ready group of hotel attendants. She would greet each person by name, surprising even those who didn't expect to be known by her, and then would ask if they preferred wine or tea.

Even as they settled down, however, Aoshi could recognize how the evident divisions among the country dwellers, the urban lords, and city dwellers remained. One group in particular stood out, in that they dominated the hostess as she set out to attend to them.

Aoshi identified them without difficulty. The Yokohama aristocrats.

"My dear Lady Sotsu, let me express how pleased I am that you'll be here for this meeting." An impeccably dressed man was saying as she offered him wine, and even before she finished indulging him, another voice continued, "I was much impressed by how well you did in the archery outing Setsuma organized last week." Misao laughed, "It was hardly an effort sir. Archery is the only sport where wearing long skirts does not hinder a woman." Again it went on, "Will you be coming to the Fullerton's summer ball two weeks from now, my dear?" "I fully expect you to come to the races with us this weekend, Lady Sotsu. I insist." And she spoke with them, shaking hands and granting kisses to their cheeks as they spoke with familiarity.

If you think this is Yokohama, you haven't seen anything yet.

At the thought of Saitou's words, Aoshi narrowed his eyes. Just what kind of world did Yokohama foster? What kind of people did it transform its residents to, and what kind of pleasures did it allow them to indulge in?

"I understand you're producing another play this month?" another lord asked.

"The Swindler from Venice," Saitou announced from somewhere in the table, sounding so sure that Misao had to roll her eyes with amusement.

"The Trader of Venice, Chifu. The Merchant, if you will. It's the English play. You confuse it with Faust and the Indian legend from the Ramayana we produced last season. This is why no one believes you run the Nishitaka." She teased. She then turned towards the Yokohama men, "It promises to be a great show. We've worked really hard on it. Mitsue Himeko is top-billing it." Aoshi turned his head at the familiar name.

"And what about you?"

If Misao had been startled by the question, it escaped their attention when a voice interrupted from among those who weren't from Yokohama.

"So it's really true that Saitou runs a Western theatre then?"

The Yokohama men relinquished her to answer the question, and Misao didn't seem to mind, laughing at the inevitable question. "You'd be surprised, but yes."

"Then is it also true that you work for Saitou?"

Her smile grew mischievous. "Yes, yes, sir. It's true. I work for the infamous Fujita Goro." She used his given name. "And before you ask, it isas unbelievable and as hard as you think."

"How do you survive him?" someone from the clansmen asked dryly.

"It's simple, sir." She gave them a knowing grin. "He lets me yell back at him every now and then."

"Never again." Saitou added sardonically, causing laughter to erupt from the table.

"What exactly does Saitou do for this theatre, then?" another skeptic asked.

"Hm," Misao had to think, "Well he certainly gets to order me around."

Laughter broke out from the table, and Gakushi muttered to himself, "Well she certainly knows how to entertain." Aoshi shot him a look.

"What exactly do you do in this theatre, then?" the question came up again, and Aoshi paid close attention.

"That sir, is easier to answer," Misao replied as she moved down the table, "I am the stage manager."

"The what?" Meanwhile another one asked, "Does that mean you're on stage?"

Misao shook her head with a grin, as if expecting those reactions, "Not quite, sir—behind the curtains to be more exact. Let me try to explain," she looked at them thoughtfully, "I act like a middleman, I suppose, between the director and the actors. I remember all the director's instructions and make sure the actors know them. I also get to be the director when he's not around. It's as close as I could get to influencing the play."

There was clear satisfaction in her voice, and indeed, people were well impressed with the position she held, giving their assent. Leadership, as was Directing, was for men, after all.

"Che. I beg to differ. I still think you were better on stage."

"What?" Misao swiftly turned towards Sagara when he suddenly spoke. He was standing among the columns in the room, and she remembered herself and said, "Gentlemen, this is Sagara Sanosuke."

"I'm her bodyguard," Sagara said casually, shrugging. "She rarely talks about the other thing she's good at anymore."

"What do you mean?" someone asked.

"Sano!" Misao let out, her eyes wide. Aoshi could recognize the nervousness in her voice, even as she calmly turned aside to diffuse his comments. "Ignore him, gentlemen, it's not important."

"How can it not be? You made your name from it! Heck, you made our name from it. Why hide that fact?" Sano insisted, ignoring her questioning eyes, "Lady Sotsu, this kind of modesty is surprising, even for you."

"I agree with him, Lady Sotsu." A deep voice assented from among the Yokohama elite. "You could do better than picking up after directors, lady. You were so much greater; I don't see why you have to lower yourself so."

"What is this other thing you do, Lady Sotsu?" Gakushi suddenly spoke, catching on cunningly. "Do tell us." He prodded her with anticipation.

"I…" Left with little choice, Misao took a deep breath, looking away, "They're talking about the time I used to act on stage, sir. It was a long time ago."

Aoshi's eyes grew sharply.

An actress…spread across the table like wildfire.

"So you are an able performer." Gakushi's lips curled into a vindictive sneer. "Somehow I'm not surprised."

The tone in his voice made Aoshi's blood run cold.

Takanobu's eyes had widened, and around the table, people were beginning to make sense of what Gakushi was implying. An actress… it wasn't the most respectable of professions. They were considered similar to other 'entertainers.' Suddenly it wasn't so surprising that she was well acquainted with the most powerful of men in Yokohama.

I know how graceful and elegant escorts could seem, Gakushi had said earlier.

"Don't be a fool, man." An aristocrat suddenly answered Gakushi, "she's not just an able performer, she was the performer."

Misao looked up as, one by one, the lords of Yokohama came to her praise. "She made entertainment respectable!" "I never used to go to the theatre, not until she made it worthwhile for the elite. "One of her shows even made my wife cry." "It made my son cry." "I heard she even performed for Prime Minister Hirobumi's family once." "Of course, how do you think did she earn her title?"

"She was a sensation?" Gakushi pressed back, still pushing the thought that had entered and refused to leave the other men's minds.

"She wasn't a mere sensation. She was Yokohama's biggest star." Sano answered fiercely, to the nods of the said men.

Misao sighed, "Sano, this is really too much—"

"Come on, Misao," he did away with all formalities. "You act as if you weren't made for this. I mean, of course was surprised when I first saw you act, but I shouldn't have been. Someone once bragged to me that you loved acting out picture-book stories as a kid."

Okina. Aoshi saw Misao mutter as she placed a hand to her head, and all too painfully, he recalled the brief memory of a young Misao dragging Hannya to the grounds to play her prince, and Hyotokko, her dragon.

Sano was brutally animated, turning towards the people who were all too eager to listen, "And you can't imagine how I got to know this girl. It was my friend who first met her, and even then she'd been acting! Yes! Apparently, in order to take money from some criminals, she had disguised herself as a—"

"Sano!" Misao hissed.

"Another criminal!" Sano went on, "She stole the money they stole right under their noses, and together, she and my friend returned the money to the authorities."

"My lady, you never told us this." Another gentleman commented, amazed. Aoshi himself had never thought to ask Misao how she had come by the Battousai.

Misao, whose eyes were turned to Sagara, as if to ask him 'Why are you doing this?' finally shook her head, suddenly too weary. "It's not exactly something people would be proud of."

"Are you telling us that then," Gakushi insisted, as if wanting to land a final blow, "that you agree that it is shameful?"

At his words, however, Misao's head suddenly snapped up, "Excuse me," she narrowed her eyes. "What did you just say?"

Gakushi's grin was triumphant, "You almost act as if you're ashamed of what you do, Lady."

"Ashamed." Misao repeated the word slowly, as if recalling something to herself. "Why should I be ashamed of what I do?" Her eyes grew firm. "Being an actor might not be the most respectable, or best-paid of jobs, sir, but who are you to say that there's no honor in it? You don't know who I really am or what I truly do, so who are you—who is anyone in this room to judge what I do as shameful?"

Gakushi started at the sudden turn of her words, and Misao went on, "For some, actors may merely be nothing but entertainers—when we go on stage to take on roles, creating and destroying ourselves in front of our audiences each night, they see nothing more in it than a show, something to entertain them." She shook her head, "But if there's anything I've learnt from performing, it's, what you hear after all the words, what you see after all the acts, and what you know in your heart after all the lies that truly matter."

Here, she lifted her eyes, finally facing them, "There are many things one can be ashamed of in life, but if being a mere performer means that I can see the world with new eyes and discover how to live all over again… if it means that the people who watch us can see, feel, and live a little bit more of what that life truly is, then, sir," she whispered, her eyes softening, "to be just an actress would not be shameful. It would be an honor."

From his corner in the room, Enishi smirked.

Her words had left Gakushi speechless, the Yokohama men nodding with approval, and the rest stunned. Aoshi stared at her, unsure of what to make of it all.

"This is you at your Othello-best." Sano whispered to himself, proud. Aoshi turned to him, finally wondering at how well the man seemed to know her, in spite of all the changes she seemed to have gone through. Giving him an even look, he wondered what it was that brought him, Misao, and Enishi, of all people, under Saitou's wing.

Misao, realizing that everyone was still staring at her, broke the mood by breaking into a silly grin, "Besides, who doesn't have bloody good time, pretending to be someone else every now and then? I'll have you know, gentlemen, my first role was a boy."

The teasing did enough, as people began to chuckle to themselves.

"If this is how you feel about it." Sano went on thoughtfully, "Why did you quit?"

"What?" Misao turned to him again, exasperated. "You're asking me that now?"

"Well, we've all been wondering for quite some time now, my dear." Miyajima, the steel magnate from earlier that evening replied. "It never seemed to make sense why you stopped."

"You left at the height of your career." Someone added, disbelieving. "Those performances were the talk of the season. A lot of us would have paid good money to see you act."

"What made you stop?" even those who weren't from Yokohama had become curious.

Even as they spoke, and the rest could only listen, engrossed, Aoshi began to comprehend to himself that Misao had actually been known to this people—that all the while, when they at the Aoiya had been waiting for her reappearance from the unknown, she had been living a life of luxury, exposed to the world here in Yokohama in ways he had never expected. He was finally discovering where her life had been and what she had been doing. Why then, he mused harshly to himself, didn't any of these answers please him?

Misao shook her head, flustered. "Gentlemen, there are too many reasons, and I don't want to bother you with them. Besides, it was a long time ago."

"Six months aren't long enough to quell our general curiosity, lady."

"There have been many rumors and much speculation, about you being forbidden by--"

"Oh you know how rumors are when it comes to me, sir," Misao shook her head, cutting him off. "Much of it is all nonsense."

"Indulge us dear, just this once."

Misao was still determined to talk her way out of it. "Don't you find it curious that I the only one being cross-examined here?"

But here, Sagara spoke loudly, rounding them off, "Give us just one good reason, and we'll stop bothering you."

Misao glared at Sano murderously. "Fine." she huffed unhelpfully, looking around. "One reason. One reason… it's—it's the roles!" She pointed a finger, as if delighted with having found an excuse, "That's right, it's the roles I have to play!"

Sano crossed his arms, "Huh."

Misao continued, now animated, herself. "Somehow, I find female roles in plays severely lacking."

"What do you mean?"

"Hasn't anyone ever noticed how women in plays are always the same?" Her eyes widened, and her face flushed with liveliness, "Men always get to play the hero, the prince, the trickster, and the arch-nemesis. But for women, we could only either be the virgin," and her she turned her eyes towards Gakushi, "or the seductress." She sighed, "Stories always end with us getting married, or dying. Why is it always like that?

"What's wrong with that?"

"I think it's strange, even unfair, that we're only allowed to portray something entirely pure or completely evil. Why must we always be the victim or the villain? There is so much more to women than our virtue." Misao shook her head. "Why can't we be seen as what we really are, completely? Why can't we have the stories as well? Why can't we be the heroes?"

"My lady, that's always been the way it is," someone attempted to reason out, "all the literature in the world speak of men and their stories, not of women. There simply hasn't been anything on it, or any need for it."

"Ah but sir," here Misao arched a brow, as if anticipating a trump card, "who wrote most of these books? All these literature? Men, sir—Men." Here, people were silenced as she moved from the table. "And how can men say what women really feel? Men only know so much about women. How would they know about who we really are?"

"Then why don't women write?" Someone challenged.

"That's exactly it, sir!" She lifted her chin, "Not many of us have been given the chance to write or read. If we were never allowed the chance to speak out for ourselves, how could you expect to understand what we really feel, or see what we really want?" She looked away wistfully, "I think that if we were given the chance to write over the centuries, there would be so much difference in the way you see us. It would be interesting, wouldn't it?" She gave a small, ironic smile. "Needless to say we'll be producing entirely different plays."

"A liberal thinker," Takanobu whispered, impressed, and though Aoshi remained mistrustful, he nodded. It took courage to talk the way she was in a room full of men.

"Does that mean you're not married?" Someone suddenly asked, breaking the silence. The men started, jarred by the presumption in the question. Aoshi watched her.

But Misao only turned to the asker, laughter dancing in her eyes. "No, not yet. And I don't see anything wrong with that." Whispers rose throughout the room in a mixture of awe, disbelief, and anticipation.

"I'd marry you, lady!" Someone yelled out bravely, causing people to laugh.

Misao shook her head enigmatically, "Believe me sir, you wouldn't want to marry me."

"That's always been your excuse, Lady Sotsu," Lord Kinobe replied. "And it's never been enough."

"Come now, my lord." Misao shrugged as she handed him a flute of wine, "Would any of you honestly want to be married to a woman who stands here sharing the company of men and giving them 'a piece of her mind'?"

Lord Kinobe quieted, staring at her. Someone replied softly, "I'll never let you out of my sight." And Baku swore, ironically in agreement. "Not among these wolves!"

"But what do I need protection from?" Misao asked, lifting her hands. "I think I am capable of taking care of myself, and I don't need other people making choices about what I should or shouldn't be exposed to. I don't need to be protected. I'd want to be here among you gentlemen, hearing what you have to say."

People smiled in approval at her words, uniformly accepting her praise of them.

Baku shook his head, however, "Even so, if you were my wife, I would rather not take that risk, lest you—"

"Lest I be what, sir? Lest I be exposed to men, and people would think me no longer an innocent girl but a loose woman?" Misao shook her head, "I'm neither of those two things, sir, and I would never want to be. I'm a woman, gentlemen. Not sacred or evil." She sighed. "Who could live, simply being seen that way? Who wouldn't want their own freedom? Shouldn't we all get the chance to make our own mistakes and decide our own choices?"

And here, her eyes met his for a moment.

"I'd want to be seen for who I am, not more, not less." She finished.

He held her gaze, challenging her back.

"Is that my dear Lady Sotsu? What in the world are you doing here?" someone's voice interrupted, and here, Misao had to look away.

"Lord Deon!" she exclaimed happily upon sighting the newly arrived interlocutor. She smiled at the handsomely dressed figure, embracing him, "Late with a grand entrance, as usual."

He gave her a rakish smile, "And you're captivating them all, as usual. What?" he asked when she stepped back from him. "Is that it? We arebusiness partners after all, and we figuratively have a marriage of minds. Can't I even take one kiss?"

Misao looked at him sweetly, "Would you kiss Enishi?"

The man gave her a keen look, "Bloody hell, love. Why are you asking me that?"

"He's your business partner as well, isn't he?"

When he blanched, Misao laughed affectionately. "Thought so. You may take a seat, however."

Aoshi watched, unhearing, as the man took his seat with exaggerated stiffness, leaving the men amused as he commented more on her unfair treatment of him. Misao answered him with a wry tone, adding to the hilarity.

So this was what she left home for.

Was this world, with all the praises she received and the attention she got, what she wanted? Was being called a lady and being invited to the playground of the elite what she exchanged her youth for? Was having men at her feet and being revered as a celebrity what she valued the most? Was this what liberty, honor and respect were to her? Was this what she had become?

Is this what you wanted, Misao?

He watched the picture of delight in her eyes as she proceeded to talk to the other participants that night. "I remember going to the city with my wife and watching a play. I think we saw you then. You had flowers in your hair." A country lord was saying, and her eyes grew with wonder, "His grace has seen…?" Her smile grew as she spoke, "I am delighted."

Delight. Smiles. Praises. A life of luxury and comfort. He couldn't ever have provided her with all these. Who had he been to presume he could make her happy then? What foolish sentiment had dared him to believe, despite all logic and effort to the contrary, that she could genuinely be content with him? What guilt had caused him to seek her and return?

Her eyes, shining, exposing her pain to him. "Is that so hard to believe?"

That night, those days… those blessed and cursed moments when she had tried so hard—tried so hard to convince him that it was all enough. That she could actually love, he briefly closed his eyes, unwilling to appear, no, to feel weak—that she could actually love him… Always, that broken look on her face even as she smiled. Always, the way she watched him but couldn't touch him. Time put those memories in a different light now; it shattered those illusions now. She may have wanted to, she may have believed she could, but seeing her stand before him now revealed the bare truth.

He could have never been enough, not for her.

He remembered the fleeting look in her eyes when she first saw him—how her smile fell, and her expression froze. That, at least, he could recognize.

She hadn't wanted to see him as well.

He closed his eyes, finally seeing what his mind had been telling him to realize, but his heart had been refusing to accept, for so long.

It was settled then.

Misao had stopped next to Gakushi and Takanobu, asking them if they wanted wine or tea. Gakushi continued to look at her with wary eyes, saying he could have wine but preferred tea, while Takanobu answered shyly, daring to try the wine. Finally, she stopped next to him, bowing.

Her warmth beside him had always been overwhelming; filled with uncertainty, with so much left unsaid.

"Good afternoon, Shinomori-sama, would you like some red wine or tea?" she asked, her voice low, though unmistakable.

You want me to see you Misao, but have you ever thought to see me?

He finally turned to her, his eyes holding hers, as he answered, coldly. "Thank you, but I will accept neither. I have no need for anything anymore."

The prepared smile on her face fell.

And before his very eyes, that look on her eyes broke, and the expression on her face crumpled, revealing a gaze that was at once familiar to him, unexpectedly childlike on her woman's face. He could recognize it, as clearly as he did that night when she had turned her face away from him the lamplight. He knew as if it had been etched into his own soul. It was the one look that tore at him, one that had conquered his reason, haunted his waking hours, and kept his life unfinished.

Aoshi-sama.

"Oh," she answered, her voice catching, light reflecting brightly in her eyes. "I'm sorry."

would you have let me?

She turned away, and feeling, it rose within him like a heavy wave. His chest hurt, he couldn't breathe. His fingers trembled, his eyes burnt, as surely as it did when he had to trace his steps back home to her, to reclaim whatever semblance of feeling she had inspired in him, to seek out pain because it was real. He took a ragged breath. He couldn't let this go, he had to catch it, catch it because he had released it once and it had disappeared, catch it because if he let go now, it might never come back again. Why are you still here becoming why have you never arrived? Leave me now. Where else would I go? Don't ever leave me. Aoshi-sama, don't you already know? It's enough. It's enough.

It's always been enough.

And raggedly, he reached out a hand to her, to stop her before she could rise. Misao.

She may have heard him. She may have turned back and reached out. Their eyes might have met, and for once, they could have finally seen each other.

"Gentlemen, forgive us for being late."

Misao stood up abruptly, putting a hand to her eyes, repossessing her face. "Colonel Akita, you've finally arrived." She greeted, her voice resuming its contained pleasantness as she put that smile back on. She would no longer look back at him for the rest of the night. Aoshi turned in his seat to face the newcomers; he would never address her again that night.

They might have had each other, but they would never know.

Fate had made its choice for them. She had turned away and he had withdrawn. She never arrived; he never waited.

For before them stood the colonel and his entourage of five men. Their time had passed. The meeting was about to begin.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Interlude:

Kyoto, 1885

One month after the meeting

Okina didn't know if it was simply part of growing older, but he had questions. Too many of them, in fact.

"Are you sure about this, Aoshi?" he asked carefully as they faced the darkness, looking for any trace of movement.

From beside him, the Okashira replied steadily, "These are drug syndicates we are talking about; it is their men who have been trying to masquerade as our ninjas to continue their illegal operations. I will not risk the Oniwabanshuu's good name on their actions. We have worked too hard for it."

The two of them stood by the doorways facing the Aoiya's grand courtyard, their postures still and alert as they stared into the night sky. To those who had been part of the Oniwabanshuu during the height of its glory during the Bakamatsu, this was a familiar sight—their prodigy leader and Okina, their most respected senior, at whose combined command all of them would readily follow.

Now, more than a decade after the clan had buried this part of their past and rebuilt itself around a new existence, both of them again stood, facing a new problem that could actually expose the organisation and risk everything it had made for itself.

Okina shook his head, "It's a good thing you went to Yokohama and found out about this. If the government thinks that we're involved with those syndicates in any way, I don't know what they could do to us."

Aoshi only continued to stare intently into the dark as he nodded. Barely.

Okina gave him a quick glance. Questions.Indeed, the elder had too many, especially during moments like this, when he would see that intensely shuttered, altered expression on the younger man's countenance ever since his return from Yokohama. Well,he figured, if he was actually spending too much time doubting whether or not to ask the boy, then something must be wrong.

Okina cleared his throat, facing the courtyard. "You know I support your decision to not cooperate with the military in Yokohama. You've always made choices clearly, firmly, and with an reasoned mindset. That is what made you so good at leading the Oniwabanshuu." He gave a sideways glance at Aoshi. "But I believe there's something you're not telling me."

The Okashira didn't look at him. His voice remained cool. "I will not pretend to know what you mean."

"Something is bothering you." Okina rubbed his chin, "Okashira or not, I know you. I may be growing old, but I've been around in the Aoiya long enough to recognise the changes everyone went through." He paused at the thought, a touch regretful. "Something happened in Yokohama; something that's changed your behaviour these past few weeks. You've been restless." Detached. Angry. Tormented. "What's bothering you, Aoshi?"

Aoshi remained stoic as he crossed his arms and turned his gaze away, "I thank you for your concern, Okina. But as you yourself said, things change." He paused, his cold tone changing. "I make my choices, and I do what I have to do. And as far as my role as the acting Okashira goes, you have nothing to worry about."

Before Okina could press him further however, sounds emerged from the courtyard and two of their men leapt down from the compound's high walls. "Okashira!"

"You were right." Shiro spoke as soon as he reached them. "The thugs who tried to infiltrate our network do belong to a syndicate. They have former ninjas working for them, and they know enough to try to pass themselves off as Oniwabanshuu. I couldn't believe it myself at first—it's been too long."

Kuro nodded from beside him and handed them the evidence of their findings. "I don't think Kyoto their main target though. We tracked them down to the docks—their main hideout is a ship. This is just a temporary stop for them. We are just a step closer to their real goal."

Okina raised his brow, "Then where is their real destination?"

Before either man could reply, Aoshi raised his head from the documents, his eyes narrowing with dark certainty. Their Okashira already knew. "Yokohama."


 

"Come back."

In the city of Yokohama itself, the beneath the night's veneer of music, laughter and whispers emerged a barely audible plea... that and the ghost of a thousand visions.

You promised me..."Come back!"

She could feel them staring at her as she walked past them, "That's her, Lady Sotsu. I heard that she hasn't been out to any event since that night with Lt. Col. Hirai—forbidden by Fujita-sama, himself! Serves her right for daring to speak against an official. Who does she think she is?"

No, she would not listen, she would keep her gaze straight...

Enishi's cutting words as he shook her shoulders, "Look at me! Who are you to say that you have seen hell and there is nothing left of you? You have seen nothing, you fool. You don't deserve that privilege."

"Delusions made me fall before." Saitou's eyes, sharp in the dark, "This isn't what I wanted."

Tokio-san, turning her beautiful face away enigmatically, "Some wounds never stop bleeding, Misao. But you can't make them vanish, nor can you forget them. It will all keep coming back."

"I should tell you... My life ended a long time ago. There is no returning home for me." A voice speaking to her in the darkness, the unnamed face turning to her, waiting.

"Misao, listen."

But there was blood, so much blood, and hers made the hundredth... so much that she could do no more than surrender to the unstoppable feeling of bloodlust emerging within her and her alone... "I always knew you would be the best of them..."

And Makimachi Misao opened her eyes with frightening stillness.

The ceiling lay dark before her, cut by slices of light from the street lamps below.

She merely stared, now aware. Only in Yokohama were nights never black.

Misao slowly rose in bed and stared, stared into the half-light.

"It isn't real." She spoke, slowly, after a few moments. None of it was. Her nights were merely bothered by disturbing but meaningless dreams. Okina had always told her she imagined too much.

"It isn't." She told herself again as her arms came around herself. She couldn't explain why those visions sought her. She had no reason to feel apprehensive; she couldn't recall any experience, any moment that could do—this to her.

She knew her hands were still trembling, even as she didn't look at them.

The spectre of Tokioh-san's words suddenly rendered her mind suddenly still. You can't make them vanish by forgetting them. It will all keep coming back.

Misao placed her hands on her face and shook her head. "No."

Those dreams aren't my memories. They don't exist.

She shook her head vigorously and started rocking herself. She kept her eyes unflinchingly open and held herself. For how long, she couldn't recall. She rocked herself until the voices stopped, until the visions disappeared, until her recollections faded—until there was nothing left but the shafts of light in the room.

Absolute silence.

And then, a delighted burst of sound in the distance; applause and laughter from the night's celebrations, tinkling from a distant ballroom, roaring from a nightly brawl. She turned, jolted by the sound. It was the cry of people revelling in the moonlight; in mystery and in the freedom of forgetfulness, in the power of abandon.

Only in Yokohama were nights never still.

Misao uncurled herself and moved from the bed, slowly, disjointedly. Her movements were heavy as she headed towards the mirror. She started before her reflection, frightened by her gaunt image, the lingering nightmare in her eyes. Again... she could hardly recognize herself.

This shouldn't be how she looked like. No, this would not do. Her lips should be redder, her cheeks less pale. No dark circles under her eyes; only colour, vivid. Her hair should be pinned up; perhaps jewels would be work. Nobody could stop staring at her in any room when she was like that; she could fool the world, and nothing else would exist. She would be someone else, someone powerful and invincible, unsought by the night's unwanted visions in the shadows, and nobody would know the difference.

If not, she could cover her face with her mask; she could be out there in the night, on a mission for the Nishitaka Group. She could be uncovering crucial information, or protecting someone in danger. She could be running through the trees and feeling the wind in her hair. Nobody could stop her that way; nothing would catch her. She had the power to vanish.

She should be covered, painted, presented, perfect. She should be out; this wrong sight of her should vanish.

She dropped her hand, suddenly remembering why she wasn't. She couldn't.

Saitou wouldn't let her.

Saitou had forbidden her from showing up in public ever since last month's meeting. He stopped sending her out on missions, preventing her from communicating with anyone involved in that meeting. He had even gone as far as preventing her from attending their theatre's opening night tomorrow.

"Damn Psycho cop." She whispered, an attempt at normalcy and self-depreciating humour, but her voice was too hoarse. "How will he run the play tomorrow without me?"

So Hirai had called her a whore during that meeting. She couldn't care less—she had been called worse before, and her reputation mattered to her less than her honour, which she had defended. Then what was he trying to protect her from? There was therefore no reason for him to keep her here.

"What happened, happened." Nothing had hurt her that night, and she couldn't recall doing—or in fact feeling—anything that would make Saitou think that something had actually struck her so much. And yet—

Aoshi-sama didn't even look at her, "I will have nothing from you." –Sano was staring at her, a helpless look on his face, "Misao, Aoshi's gone; all of them are." He struggled to speak. "Tell me what to do. Tell me and I'll do it." He knew there was nothing she could say; nothing he could do. He wasn't coming back –Enishi had to keep her from falling, "You were wrong about me, I was ashamed. It was the way he looked at me..."—That same cold gaze, "It is me you do not know, Misao." –It was all the same, all the same...

Misao shut her eyes hard.

Don't look.

If she looked, she would see herself breaking down in the mirror, falling apart and being caught up in the too-real pain and sorrow from a memory that almost existed. She couldn't afford to see herself that way; only when she could say she was fine would she look.

None if it was real.

Delusions made me fall before, Saitou had said.

Misao shook her head. None of them knew; nobody should know she could still be this way. If she believed she was fine, Sano, Saitou and perhaps even Enishi should believe she was all right, too.

"It no longer exists. I am all right, and I haven't been deluding myself. None of it is real."

She believed it didn't, because she couldn't afford risking anything less. There was no choice for her, only necessity. It was her secret shame; the sad unbearable truth that separated her from the person she used to be.

Because she knew. She knew that if she accepted what those moments were and what they meant to her, she wouldn't make it.

Disturbingly, the sharp pain of that admission gave her strength. Misao accepted this with finality, and opened her eyes.

The hair behind her back rose. For some strange reason, she could feel a presence watching her from behind, intent... could almost see its vague outline in the mirror. She did not fear it, but she did not look. 'You abandoned me once. I don't want to see you anymore.'

She lifted herself towards the mirror again and uncovered her midnight blue mask from underneath the dresser.

Yes; she finally accepted. She may be deluding herself, but the truth was something she could not afford to live with. Yes, she chose to forget, but that was because she couldn't afford to mourn. And yes, she knew not if her visions were memories, and if her memories were real, but it no longer mattered. It was a privilege she no longer had. She couldn't make them disappear, like Tokioh-san said, but then that was fine—she could make herself vanish from them. And if her pain had been real with Aoshi-sama, she thought achingly, now it no longer was. This was the only choice she could make.

She couldn't afford to risk anything less.

My life ended a long time ago too... I am now Sotsu Misao, and I give no less than I deserve.

"Play." Her voice was hoarse but determined; it was a mantra she always compelled herself to follow. To forget... to survive...

She placed the mask on her face, covering her visage. She fell into the role with ease and startling familiarity. Her eyes sharpened in the dark, emboldened by a sudden reprieve on life in the brief shafts of light in the shadows.

She had a role to play; she was no longer.

She was covered, painted, presented, and perfect. There was no pain, no memories; none of it existed, all of it forgotten. They had vanished. There was no weakness, only power.

Nights in Yokohama, after all, were never black, nor still. Nor was Sotsu Misao.

Saitou was going to have to tolerate her disobedience; or he simply just shouldn't find out.

Misao would be out tonight.


"I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the
next moment."

"You Who Never Arrived" - Ranier Marie Rilke


 

Sagara Sanosuke knew it.

Bloody hell, Enishi was actually right.

Before him stood Shinomori Aoshi, facing him in that intimidating, aloof way that Sano knew only men as powerful as him could—imposingly, intensely, and always with a direct sense of purpose. "Sagara. I need an audience with him with Saitou Hajime. Tell him that it's on matters of strict importance."

Well, Sano could only nod, and he stepped aside.

He had actually been expecting Misao when he had opened the door—the Weasel had vanished without as much as word last night and Saitou wasn't happy. Yet of all the possible shocks he had gotten used to in this line of work, this was unexpected. "Come in." He led the onmitsu Okashira into their home. "Follow me."

Okay, he told himself as he began to closed the door behind Aoshi, placing a finger on the bridge of his nose, clear your thoughts and go right back to the beginning again.

It had been more than a month since they last saw Aoshi in that meeting in Yokohama. The government had wanted the ninja clans' unconditional assistance in catching a powerful group of drug syndicates growing in the country, but because their group had exposed the dishonesty of the officials involved, everyone rejected the offer. That was all they had set out to do, and they had succeeded.

Sure, the meeting had been a grand disaster—the military men had pissed off the ninja clans and not a single deal had pushed through; Saitou had to accept a temporary beating to his reputation (not that he didn't deserve it, Sano snorted to himself), Misao had to play the unwanted role of the hostess to divert attention away from them, and Aoshi had to witness the whole messy affair. In the end though, they had all survived the night. Living in Yokohama meant they had been through worse before, and they already knew what it was like. They knew enough, and they began to go on with the expectation that their world to go back to normal.

Right. Sano thought to himself with an ironic snort.

What none of them had expected was the number of ninja-clan leaders who began to come down from all over the country to see them. They all came, one after the other—all with concerns that had started with the Yokohama meeting.

And what Sano really didn't expect was to see Shinomori Aoshi here, now. He didn't even want to begin considering what this would mean for them—particularly Misao.

"Welcome to Ramushi House, Aoshi."

He turned to the man and saw him eyeing the place with a cool gaze. Sano followed his stare, remembering how he himself first felt when he stepped into this place. The townhouse wasn't as grand as other Yokohama highlights such Kannai or the Nishitaka, but the fact that it was part of the British-designed area of the town made it just as impressive in itself. It had chequered marble floors in the hallway, which was dominated by the oak staircase that led to balconies on the upper floors. To this very day, he still found it hard to believe Saitou and Misao had found a place like this. He grinned, "Like the place?"

Aoshi's silent gaze swept over the place, "You have a grand home." He spoke evenly.

Who would have thought, Sano mused to himself. "I'll take that as a yes, then."

It wasn't that he didn't think it was possible to see the Okashira here. In fact, he had been sure that they would see Aoshi again after that disastrous meeting a few weeks back... If not because of the whole thing with Misao, then because of the whole thing with government's drug syndicate problem. It was just a question of timing. When Sano began to speculate about when, Saitou had just shrugged, "the next day or never", and Enishi had bothered to comment, "Not for a month." So Sano thought it would be wiser for him to bet halfway that it would take him a week to come back.

And here the man himself was, exactly a month and a day after the meeting. Masaka .Good thing he didn't make a bet off it, or he would have made white-haired tycoon richer than he already annoyingly was.

"How in the world does Enishi do it?" He muttered to himself.

From within the drawing room to his right, he heard Saitou snort derisively. "Ahou. If you're here to moan about the royal stuck-up, then take your belly-aching elsewhere. I don't want to hear it."

Sano rolled his eyes, ignoring the insult. "Are you done with your meeting in there? You have another guest."

Aoshi turned his head sharply in his direction, and Sano turned to see Saitou rising from his desk within the room, a look of anticipation on his face. They've already sensed each other.

"Show Shinomori in." Saitou's voice broke into his thoughts, "And don't tell me you're actually surprised."

Sano grinned as he motioned for Aoshi to follow, Come to think of it... "Not really. Not by this."

"By that," Saitou bared his teeth, "and by the fact that Yukishiro out-guessed you. Pity."

He had to give Saitou credit for timing the insult well, because before Sano could even have the time to shake his fists indignantly and retort back, Saitou had already turned his attention to the man behind him.

"Took you long enough, Shinomori."

Aoshi had always preferred directness to subtlety whenever it was clear that the latter was unnecessary. It had always been his way to swiftly remove any misconceptions about his aims, or his character, in a way that was unmistakable.

"Don't be mistaken, Miburo. I am here on a matter regarding the Oniwabanshuu, and that alone."

Saitou Hajime's distinct sneer went up expectedly in place. Aoshi had never been affected by the intimidating nature of his character, and he knew enough to recognize the cast of wariness in the man's eyes. Aoshi meant business. He knew that Saitou understood.

Saitou understood that this had nothing to do with taking back what he said the last time they met. He knew that the only reason Aoshi would ever set foot in Yokohama again was for something important enough to set aside the differences they had parted over the last month.

He had made his choice. And he still stood by it.

Aoshi now understood that Saitou had expected him to make a decision that night; perhaps it was something he had wanted to influence himself. In the end, however, none of it mattered.

He had left Yokohama.

For a brief moment, Aoshi's gaze hardened. Saitou's judgement was not his concern; he was simply here to do what he had to.

"Very well," Saitou's eyes had narrowed back at him, "I see."

"Shinomori-sama!" someone interrupted the entente, and Aoshi turned to see Takanobu, the boy who had stood up against the government from the previous meeting. Behind him stood his father, the respected Elder Takanobu whom Aoshi had once forged an alliance with. The fact that he was present with three other leaders in the room wasn't lost on him. This was a full-fledged meeting between onmitsu leaders. Aoshi narrowed his eyes, but acknowledged the boy with a nod. "Takanobu, Takanobu-san. Akiro, Baku, Chuugo."

"I see no need for introductions then," Saitou's expression eased into a smirk, now sounding unaffected. "They were just telling me how they were expecting you to come any day now. I was," he paused, "going to tell them not to keep their hopes up. But here you are."

Aoshi turned the barb aside with admirable unaffectedness and went straight to the point. "The drug syndicates from our last meeting are giving us trouble in Kyoto. They have been masquerading as Oniwa ninjas for their operations, compromising my clan's name. I am only here because of my duty as the Okashira—this is where the evidence has led me to."

Saitou 's eyes flickered. "Don't tell me they had shipments heading for Yokohama."

Aoshi addressed him suspiciously. "You knew this was going to happen."

"Che." Saitou fetched a cigarette from his pocket. "Don't give me too much credit, Shinomori. I didn't ask for this. You're not the only whose having troubles because those pesky drug groups are running around playing dress up as your men."

Takanobu nodded, "They've been going through our region in Yamanashi to get to the South, and they've been using the Takanobu Onmitsu's name to gain fast passage. Now, the regional officials have begun to investigate our clan for drug trafficking."

From behind him, his renowned father nodded seriously. "Other clans are experiencing the same problems, Shinomori. Akiro, Baku and Chuugo here have come to represent the clans from the north. We were waiting for you, because none of us would move without having the leader of the infamous Oniwabanshuu of the south with us here to confirm any action."

The more explosive Baku from the last meeting nodded, "We won't have anything less than you and Mibu's Wolf in this matter. Both of you were the first ones to catch on to the government's schemes last time. There is no one else we choose to trust."

"They think you can be trusted to deal with this?" Aoshi repeated with a glance at Saitou, his voice hard. "And you have agreed."

"Hell, no." Saitou exclaimed, annoyed. "Do I look like the type who would give people a hug and solve their problems? I've told everyone time and again that I was just in that meeting to cover my ass as much as anyone else." He gave the younger Takanobu an irritated look. "Somehow, that hasn't stopped people."

The boy gave an easy, placating smile. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't, as they say." He turned to Aoshi. "At least Saitou-sama doesn't deny what his intentions are; unlike the government, whom we now all know can't be trusted for their word."

"Oho."From his side of the room, Sagara unsuccessfully tried to smother a snicker, and a long-suffering look came over Saitou's face. "Well, looks like this is something you can't get out of," Sano coughed, "Saitou-sama."

It was Saitou's turn to glare this time, "Bakayarou." And, turning towards Takanobu, he began evenly, "Unless you're that eager to welcome death, you will never call me that again. Any of you."

"Now, now," the Elder Takanobu placated, not quite removing that amused look on his face. He turned to Aoshi, "What we all believe is that working with the Nishitaka Group will be in our best interests right now."

The Nishitaka Group.

There irony of it all was almost amusing. Aoshi shook his head and spoke coldly, tasting the foreign name on his lips. "The Nishitaka Group. You have never formally made yourself known to the Oniwabanshuu. There is nothing we know about your motivations and your interests. I came here with the intention of doing what I must to resolve this problem. Unless you give me a reason to trust you, I see no reason why we should work with each other."

Saitou eyed him darkly, his eyes narrowing at Aoshi's intended hit. It was no less than he deserved, however, for it was the truth. Aoshi now refused the acknowledgement he needed... because he didn't let Aoshi know.

He had deserved to know about Misao, at the very least.

Through the cold, focused haze in Aoshi's mind, he finally allowed himself to mention her name. Whatever tightening he felt on his chest was repressed with equally determined discipline, however. He refused to dwell on it any longer, the same way he chose to turn his back on the door to whatever laid unresolved between them the last time he saw her.

He couldn't afford to. Not now. It was a privilege he did not have.

He was merely here for his duty; honour was the only force motivating him now. Saitou knew that it was only for this that Aoshi was risking meeting with him despite their fresh differences.

Aoshi would tolerate no less. From others, but most of all from himself.

"You want to finally find out about the Nishitaka Group." Saitou repeated slowly, amber eyes flickering cautiously.

"Why, I thought you'd never ask."


 

Yes, we are called the Nishitaka Group. Yes, I know this is a bit overdue, seeing that most of you have already heard of us You know who we are—you've met the rooster Sagara, you've heard of that overbearing snob Yukishiro (don't start asking me why again), and you have also met Misao.

(Saitou gave Aoshi a look, but at the unreadable look on the man's face, went on)

What are we then? From the meeting, you will have known that we're a group of operatives. What you don't know is that we're known as a small business conglomerate here in Yokohama—I 'run' a theatre, Yukishiro owns a hotel, and we deal in trade. These pay for our operations, but also to make our cover convincing in 'polite society' as well (Saitou scoffed at this).

No, we do not work for the military, and no, we're not a group of paid spies either (again, Saitou snorted at this). We are a group who deals with the Yokohama black market trade, especially when places beyond Japan itself are involved—illegal international activity, if you will. Like most of my dealings in the past decade, we work as an independent group on assignment for the Japanese government. We began in Kowloon four years ago, and now, we have relocated and are now operating in Japan's most controversial point of entry, Yokohama itself.

I've said this before and I will say it again: Yokohama is a world of its own. It's a part of a new age that's dominated by money and power, and it can't be won simply with swords and stealth. What you have to understand about Yokohama is that here, anything can be bought by money. Loyalty is a commodity—if you know where to look. As a result, our group doesn't need to run a large organization. We negotiate with businessmen and gang lords alike, and all of us use the same networks of information, both underground and through the rumour mill. Anyone can know anything—it's just a matter of getting there first.

This is why secrecy is the key in Yokohama. You can be as rich, as influential, and as bloody charmless as you want, but you cannot let other people know what you are, who you are, and what you can do, because that could be used against you. These fools change face and switch sincerities at the toss of a coin. Letting your act down can be fatal. You can now understand why we have kept small. We have managed to thrive in Yokohama despite this, and we have managed well.


 

"It's probably because none of them are complete morons," Saitou scoffed as he pointed a thumb at Sano, who rolled his eyes. "Each has a good mind for business, for negotiating, and for reconnaissance work. Sagara here is a nightmare who's always up to no good, but he can actually keep things together for the group." Sano nearly fell over at the rare compliment. "And Yukishiro is a royal pain when it comes to planning and being resourceful, but the striped cat is actually brilliant at what he does. Aside from being an unbearable stuck-up."

Some of the men chuckled over Saitou's trademark insults. Baku shook his head, muttering 'how does he get away with it...' while Akiro merely rolled his eyes.

"And what about Misao-san?" the younger Takanobu asked him to finish with ill-concealed eagerness.

Baku suddenly gave a small, fond grin, "Ah, that woman. I remember her from the meeting."

Saitou merely snorted, withdrawing his suspicious gaze from Aoshi.

"Che. The weasel is good enough at doing whatever role is required of her. She is one of the best runners I have when it comes to getting information. But she is so damn troublesome..." he cursed aside, giving the impression that he was definitely not pleased with the girl that moment. "...and so hard-headed that that if you don't wipe that lovesick look on your face," he pointed a finger at Takanobu, who flustered and straightened, "you won't last long in a room with her."

At the chuckles within the room, the man's father, the Elder Takanobu, straightened. "What's with this girl anyway? I've been hearing about her the whole month."

One of the men, Chuugo, decided to do the honours, "She was the one who stood up to Hirai in the meeting." He scoffed, "I myself had been wanting to land a killing blow to that man's ego for ages."

Takanobu raised a brow and looked at his flustered adult son, "I have heard about her speech."

Akiro simply shook his head, "You had to be there to appreciate it. There's simply no other way to explain it."

"The brat you're all praising," Saitou began caustically, "is the reason I got stuck in this mess in the first place. I swear if I hear one moreidiot quoting what she said about honour, to me of all people, someone's going to get hurt," he threatened, muttering "honour be damned."

"I heard, however," the Elder Takanobu began, "that Hirai had not gone down without a fight, that he proclaimed a mortal enemy out of her."

The words high class whore silently fell among the men in the room, quieting them.

It was at that point that Aoshi chose to turn his eyes to Saitou; Saitou's expression grew dark at what he perceived as the masked accusation in Aoshi's gaze. "The girl can handle herself well. Too well even," his tone was low and uncharacteristically ironic. "She doesn't need any one pestering her about the details of that meeting."

"Is that why none of us have managed to talk to her since that night?" this time the younger Takanobu asked.

Aoshi's stare narrowed. So none of them had been allowed to see Misao all this time? In spite of Saitou's apparent indifference regarding what happened to her that night, he was acting more affected than he let on. Guilty. Did he actually feel responsible for what happened?

But Saitou only evaded with a sneer. "Do you think it's actually safe to let the brat give any more speeches to unsuspecting fools? When the Weasel Girl starts talking, she never knows when to stop. You'll be birthing babies in the name of honour, justice, and all that is damn 'good' if she has her way."

Sagara rolled his eyes from the wall, "Face it, chief, you're involved in this already, with or without Itachi's help. You'll get to yell at her later."

"The main point here," Saitou began irately, his patience wearing thin, "is that the girl is aware of her role. She can cooperate with anyone if that's what's needed. She knows what needs to be done, and she will put her duty before anything else."

Not even what happened between you and her, he seemed to say. Aoshi's gaze sharpened. This was the first implicit acknowledgement of what lay unresolved between him and Misao that evening.

Saitou then lifted his gaze to Aoshi. "Is that all that you needed to hear about the Nishitaka, Shinomori? Unless you have more questions, you've heard all the answers I can give you."

What happened to you? How did this all begin? What brought you and Misao together with Sagara and Yukishiro? What are you still hiding?

Aoshi watched him carefully, but asked none of these. "Give me a reason why I should work with you, Miburo."

It was a question that was beyond the other spectators in the room, but Saitou just tilted his head regarded him with equal distrust. "Hn. I have been asking myself the same question, Shinomori. Why should I work with you?"

Briefly, the inexplicable sight of Misao's face when he asked her what happened to her filtered through his mind, "Aoshi-sama, I ask myself that same question every day."

Aoshi turned to regard Saitou directly, "Then it appears there's no reason we should."

Saitou snorted. "You can't get far in Yokohama without my help. None of you would."

Aoshi's eyes narrowed at his unwelcome logic.

"You're saying I need you."

"Yes, Shinomori, I am saying you need me," and here Saitou paused, "the same way I need you for this whole operation to work."

This unexpected admission made Aoshi pause, and Saitou went on. "It would be absurd to deny it. Half of the men who had come to me were inexperienced, the other, uncertain. You're one of the few people who could actually have a good idea what this is all about. And more than that, your name is more important than you think. Some clans aren't willing to push through with this without having you in this. I'm not willing to fight a half-assed battle which I didn't start to begin with. I intend to have full support behind me."

Aoshi shook his head at the undeniable logic to Saitou's words. He then considered his next words slowly. "I work my own way, Miburo. That means that if we're working together, I have to be there at every moment, and see everything with my own eyes. I will be involved, and I will settle for no less. How comfortable would you be with that?"

"You are famous for this approach among the shinobi, Aoshi." The Elder Takanobu intervened between them. "This is why we wanted to make sure you were part of this agreement." He then turned to Saitou. "And we need you. You are the best eyes and ears we have in this situation; and experience shows you know what you're dealing with. Having you together is the best guarantee we have that this might actually work, without the government meddling."

Aoshi regarded Saitou, who, at this point, had a dark, resigned look to his face that showed he understood what Aoshi really demanded for this to work. He didn't want to complicate things further with Misao himself.

"I won't lie, I still have my doubts," Saitou began evenly, turning to all of them. "However, this is no longer about what I prefer. This is about doing what I should do. I have already made a commitment to make this work." And now his eyes narrowed darkly. "This is about duty."

Duty.

Aoshi closed his eyes at the word. There were many things he had lost, much of the world he had given up, and enough choices he had rejected... But duty, duty was the one thing he had chosen to uphold. That, and whatever sense of honour he had left to take with him.

At the end of the day, I will do what I have to, he had sworn to Okina.

"I see."

Saitou eyed him silently with these words. There were too many unresolved questions, too much to consider, but at that very moment it had become painfully evident what their common choice should be.

Any thought, however, was cut off when Saitou suddenly inclined his head, sensing something.

"Crud."


 

Was this what stood in the middle of all this?

Sano watched the exchange between the two men as around them, the most legendary ninjas leaders in the country urged them to work with each other, unaware of how at odds the two really were with each other.

Saitou himself was restless, unusually held back, as if he wasn't sure how to proceed. And Sano could understand why.

Aoshi was—different. There was no other way to put it. Sano knew it would be stupid for him to claim that he had ever known Aoshi that well. He had seen how Aoshi could be, however: he had seen him hostile, had seen him turn deadly, and had even been lucky enough to survive witnessing him fight while driven by madness. What he had never seen was this rational, unaffected, razor-sharp version of the man. This wasn't Aoshi under the influence of false truths or force—this was Aoshi, the real Aoshi, and now he was rationally, coldly, undeniablypissed.

It didn't take a genius to see that Aoshi was (Sano struggled to find a milder word) unimpressed with being forced into this meeting. He paused to himself, remembering how Aoshi reacted when the Nishitaka Group was brought up—how the evenness to his voice turned sharp, revealing tightly controlled anger.

It was the Nishitaka.

It was through the Nishitaka that Saitou had sheltered and worked with Misao all those years. The fact that Saitou never let Aoshi know this, even when he had returned from Kowloon, was an undeniable insult to Aoshi as Misao's former protector. This was no longer just about whatever lay between Aoshi and Misao, this was above it. Sano realized that to Aoshi, Saitou had betrayed that unspoken bond of respect between them as fellow warriors.

He had deserved to know, at the very least.

Sano had never really fathomed how significant this offense was. Aoshi had more than enough reason not to come back; each of them had broken bridges in more ways than one. And none of these even came close to the unresolved troubles between him and Misao. He never intended to work with us—he had no reason to trust us.

Yet in spite of all this, he had still come.

For the sake of duty, alone.

Only then did Sano realize how strong a sense of duty Aoshi must have felt to make the effort to return to Yokohama. He then turned to look at Saitou, who was now silent, also studying him with the same cautious suspicion. Will they actually agree to work together?

Before anything further could be said, however, Saitou suddenly straightened up, sensing something.

"Crud," he muttered under his breath as he put his cigarette out and hid the ashtray in a drawer.

Aha. Recognising his behaviour, Sano smirked. He didn't have the talent for ki that Saitou had, and it was still impressive how he could sense other people's presences before anyone else did.

"Ah, so the Weasel is arriving any moment now, isn't she?"

Impossibly, Saitou's amber eyes had widened with sudden anticipation. He stood up, as if he was preparing for a fight.

Sano shook his head at this, placing a finger on the bridge of his nose. "I can already imagine you yelling. Is she in that much trouble with you for not being home last night?"

"Ahou, I have been trying to act proper for far too long, and you know how that doesn't suit me. If I can't get away with misbehaving and not following orders, neither can she." Saitou sneered as he cracked his knuckles. "If you'll excuse me," He dismissed them without even so much as a glance.

Sano rolled his eyes. He wasn't fooled far a second. There was that feral gleam in the man's eyes when he was this roused. Saitou, for all the world, positively enjoyed getting angry.

He turned to the people in the room. "Sorry to suddenly cut into a break, men, but the Weasel disappeared last night without letting him know, and he's been itching to yell at her the whole day. Now haven't seen anything as interesting as this in quite a while, so..." he gave Aoshi one last careful look and, gauging no reaction, he exited with a small wave.

He vaguely heard the men scrambling closer to get a better look.


 

When Sano moved to the other side of the hall, the door clicked behind him, and he raised his brow as, ever so slowly, it turned and quietly opened. Misao let herself in gingerly, soundlessly. Ha! She knows she's in for it.

Sano couldn't resist; he cleared his voice behind her, loudly.

Misao jumped with a small shriek. "Aiyo! Tori-Atama! You scared me."

"So, the guilty offender has finally come home."

Sano snickered as she gave him a sheepish grin, now noticing how she looked. Her lips were painted red, her hair was pinned up elaborately, and pearls dangled from her ears. The weasel actually looked— out tonight. "Where exactly have you been, young lady?"

"Shhh! Saitou might hear you! I'm in enough trouble as it is." Misao shushed him, handing him her gloves.

Sano eyed Saitou from behind her as he automatically received them. The wolf had sneered, but was unexpectedly keeping quiet, amused at Misao's distraction. "Well-"

"Besides, Rooster Head, sounding like an overprotective ass doesn't suit you—leave that to Saitou." Misao went on unknowingly as she unbuttoned her cloak (Sano smirked. Saitou had raised a brow from behind her.). Only after that did Sano fully see what she the whole ensemble of what she was wearing—a deep scarlet evening gown that revealed a hint of skin. Sano raised a brow.

"Oy Itachi, you're actually well-dressed, for a change."

It had been a while since he had last seen her looking this dressed up—not since that night of the meeting, where afterwards she never made it to the ball. Sano frowned, struck by the sudden memory. She couldn't even leave her own room without falling apart that night.

Unaware of his thoughts, Misao only grinned at his reaction. "You can tell me I look good, Rooster Head," she said airily, "I know I could still do better, but my ego is big enough as it is, so it won't make much of a difference."

Sano rolled his eyes. How could he have forgotten the boost of arrogance that came with every dressed-up transformation? "Did cheating your height from those heeled shoes get to your head again?"

Misao opted for maturity; she stuck her tongue at him and handed him her coat.

Sano rolled his eyes. It was sometimes hard to believe that this was the same Misao the men were just praising earlier—the same one who had infamously stood up to Hirai a month ago. Famous or not, the Weasel could still take impish behaviour to another level when her antics were in high form. Cheeky little show-off.

To himself, however, he knew that it should actually be a relief to hear her speaking this way, despite her deliberate arrogance.

This is good, this is normal.

Anything was better than how she looked that same night a month ago, when she had that unseeing look on her face and that—brokenness to her movements. It had disturbed Sano so much that he had to call Enishi, of all people, to do something about it. He had felt so helpless that night that the memory of it still disturbed him to do this very day.

But what had been just as strange to Sano was how Misao acted afterwards.

Misao had easily returned to herself the next day, bossy ego intact, and nosy mischief back in full force. It was as if none of it had ever happened; as if she had never encountered Aoshi in the meeting; and as if she hadn't collapsed afterwards. Even more disturbing was how Enishi himself had acted like nothing was out of the ordinary; he remained just as unaffected, as if, to him, nothing unnatural had occurred. And it all happened too quickly, too easily, as if all that had undone them had simply, disturbingly vanished.

She had been that way ever since—at least it seemed so. And while Sano's doubts remained, how she looked that time haunted him so much that he never brought up what had happened again.

This is normal; normal is good.

"Uh, Sano? If you're looking for a way to insult me back, it shouldn't take you this long. You never had qualms teasing me for being too short, or telling me I'm flat..." Misao had mistaken his silence and was peering at him. "Unless, of course, you're staring 'cause you want to make a pass at me again... which shouldn't be that surprising, this is you, after all—but don't you have enough trouble with all the society girls chasing after you?"

Sano choked at her words, "Kuso." The Weasel just knew how to annoy him; she was well aware he hadn't recognized her that time, so many years ago. "You had to bring that up."

"Face it, Rooster Head." Misao crowed. "It's just too good for me to let you live it down."

...Too normal, he now groused to himself. Grumbling, Sano changed tack. "You're too dressed up, and I was just wondering what the occasion was."

The amusement in Misao's eyes suddenly vanished, and their banter suddenly stopped. "What do you mean, you're 'wondering what the occasion was'?"

Uh oh.

Misao's voice lowered dangerously. "You don't know?"

"Er..."

What did I do this time?

At the blank look on his face, the Weasel's eyes turned into accusing slits.

"Don't tell me you forgot!" Sano took a step back at the tone of her voice.

"Come on Itachi, you're beginning to look bossy again, you're face is turning red, and look at that vein... you look prettier when you're calm. See, there you go, an actual compliment..."

At the rage on her face, Sano gulped and raised his hands. "I don't know, okay? Why in the world would you be dressed up tonight? How the hell am I supposed to know? You're not even allowed to go out in the first place!"

"You blockhead! Tonight is the Opening Night for our play. How could you forget?"

Sano started. The play—shit.

"I can't believe it, none of you were there, not even Enishi! I was there, even though Saitou swore I should never be seen in public! You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

Sano cringed, caught between feeling like a cad for forgetting, and feeling absurd for being lectured by Misao while she was avoiding a lecture from Saitou herself. He knew how hard the Weasel had worked on the play, mainly because she hadn't been allowed to do anything else.

"The Odyssey, wasn't it? How'd it go?"

The Weasel wasn't ready to stop being mad. "You would know if you were there, wouldn't you?"

"Aw, Itachi..." Sano placed a hand at the back of his head.

"Oh no, you don't." Misao crossed her arms, "You're not getting out of this easily, Rooster Head. You're still in trouble, and believe me, I haven't even started yelling yet. And you know how annoyingly high my voice gets when I'm at it." She threatened, and Sano gulped nervously, remembering the Weasel's infamous 'fits.'

"Now, Misao—"

"But," she raised a finger as she abruptly changed tack. "I'm in trouble too. You messed up, and so did I. Now, I'm willing to let you off the hook, if you don't tell Saitou I'm back yet. That way I can sneak up into my room and avoid getting yelled at, and we all walk away happy." She then gave an annoyingly self-satisfied grin. "What can you say? No tantrum for you, no lecture for me. Deal?"

Damn, she's good at getting her way. Sano thought, irked. He then eyed Saitou as he detached himself from the wall, now ready to make his presence known. But not always. "A good plan, but I don't think that's possible, Itachi."

Misao, who was at this point trying to remove her shoes, paused dangerously. Up went that brow. "And why not?"

Sano shrugged, trying to control a grin. Her chi-sensing abilities, though much improved, were chronically unreliable whenever she was caught up in something distracting. "Well."

Saitou smirked from behind her.

And finally, Misao felt him. "You traitor."

Sano tried to look innocent, but couldn't help smirking. For such a small person, the look on her face was so murderous that it couldn't be anything but amusing. She's never going to cover for me again after this...

"I thought you would have figured by now," Saitou spared them the argument, "that as amusing as you are when you're running around mad, people fear me more when I'm mad. And as much in trouble as Sagara is, you're in deeper trouble." Misao gave a small jump at this, likely to anticipate more of the Wolf's scathing insults...

...but hell, it's worth it.

"Wait a minute!" she suddenly exclaimed, stomping her feet, of all things, as she turned to Saitou, "You can't get mad at me!"

Sano watched as Saitou's eyes narrowed slyly, more than prepared. And with an instinct that only came from experience, Sano stepped away from both of them. Four steps should do... nah, let's make that six.

"Why the hell not?"

"Because this is your fault, not mine!"

"Che. I'm not the one breaking the rules. If you think you can turn this around like you did with Sagara, you're wrong. I'm not that much of a wimp," Hey! "And I don't care what the hell you're wearing!"

"It's your fault you don't have taste!" Misao huffed back at the mention of her dress.

Great. Two seconds in, and it had already turned into a full-out shouting match.

Misao hadn't been done, however. "And it's your fault I went out without letting you know! I followed your orders and stayed out of sight the whole month, but how could you not expect me to go to the theatre tonight? I gave up blood and sweat for this production. I've spent too many days away from it, and too many nights sneaking in to make up for lost time. I've strung too many composite bows and made too many one-eyed monster costumes! I've spent too much time indoors!"

"Ahou. That's your job. If you hate it that much, you can stop wasting my time and get someone to replace you!" Saitou retorted scathingly. "What were you expecting?"

Misao's face grew red. "You're right; it's my job, so I expect to be allowed to go to our show's opening night. And I expected to see you there. You own this theatre, and you should have been there. I don't care if your thank-you speeches are bad, that's your job." Sano choked at that, causing Saitou to scowl "And most of all, I expected you not to forget that it's opening night—"

"I didn't."

"—What would have happened if I hadn't been there to come up the stage for you? You may be a verbal disaster under a spotlight, but we need someone from the Nishitaka Group to represent us..." then Misao trailed off. "What did you say?"

"You heard me." Saitou crossed his arms.

Misao's eyes widened, "You mean... You knew I was coming? That's why you weren't there? You were actually going to give me permission to go?"

At Saitou's long-suffering expression, she crossed her arms, suspicious. "You wouldn't let me go anywhere outside this house the whole month, and yet you were actually nice enough to let me do that?"

Saitou's smirk disappeared at the unwanted complement, and colour briefly touched his face. "Tch. Stop being a moron."

"Then... then," Misao lifted her hands in frustration. Her voice rose plaintively.

"Then—what are we mad about?"

Sano promptly fell over himself. Hopeless. Only in the Nishitaka...

"Che." Saitou rolled his eyes without missing a beat. "You mean what you were mad about. I wasn't the one stomping around like a mindless idiot."

"Well, how was I supposed to know that you were actually going to let me go tonight?" Misao groused back, mirroring his gesture by crossing her arms.

Saitou raised a brow at her patronisingly, and after a stretched pause in which even Misao soon realized she couldn't keep her chin high long enough for, Sano decided to do the honours.

"He was going to tell you this morning, but you would know if you were actually here, wouldn't you?" He asked her with relish, his grin wide.

"Hah!—" Misao was ready to protest, but stopped abruptly, realizing he had just thrown her own words back at her. Sano smirked.

They all knew she hadn't been home this morning because she had snuck out last night without telling anyone. They had her.

"Um, is this about last night?"

Saitou sneered, his grin growing as she finally came close to how much trouble she was in.

Misao shook her head, a slight note of panic in her voice as she made for one last ditch attempt for reprieve. "But—but I was here... last night."

"Try again, Itachi, and this time, tell the truth, or at least make a less asinine excuse. Even a moron knows that sneaking out at midnight and slipping in when we weren't around does notmean you were 'here last night.'" Saitou bit back sharply. "I do not," he paused, eyes narrowing into amber slits, "appreciate being lied to."

Misao directed her eyes to the floor, knowing better than to protest.

Saitou's words were deliberate. "I will only ask once: where were you last night?"

For a moment, Misao froze. And then she slowly raised her gaze to Saitou and lifted her chin.

Then she crossed her hands ubiquitously, "No."

Huh?

"Er, Itachi..." Sano gulped.

"Why should I tell you anything?"

Uh oh. That was definitely not the right thing to say to an angry wolf. Sano was about to clear his throat when he realized that Saitou had gone suddenly quiet, which was never a good thing. "Misao, er..."

"No, Rooster Head," Misao spoke without looking at him, "Playing turncoat now won't help me. In case you didn't notice, I already know how much trouble I'm in, and I don't need reminding!"

Right. Judging from the look on Saitou's face and the almost-panicked shrillness of her voice, Sano wisely decided to take two more steps back.

The Weasel was either out of her senses, or very, very good at bluffing, for despite this, she only lifted her head higher. "Fine. Do you want to know where I was? Well then you're going to have to wait, because I want answers too, and I am not saying anything until I get them."

She knew that waiting for a reply from the dangerously quiet wolf could only lead to a disaster, so she went on.

"I will tell you if you tell me this first: Is it true you've been hiring other runners to retrieve information for you this week?"

Now Sano—paused, lost at the sudden random turn of her question. "What?"

Surprisingly, this roused Saitou too, who quickly lifted his gaze at her question.

"Oh you didn't get that? Let me clarify." Misao spoke, a renewed, justified edge to her voice. "Is it true, Chifu, that you've been looking around for someone else to do my job for the Nishitaka?"

What in the world? Sano snorted, "That's absurd, why would he bother when he has you to do"— and Sano finally recalled how the Wolf had kept Misao out of everyone's way the whole month. His voice trailed off.

"Exactly," Misao had no such qualms about subtlety, "Why would you?" She turned back to Saitou. "I had no problems following orders. I could take it when you told me to step out from society, I could even handle it when you told me to pull back from my work in the theatre as well—but I never thought you'd go so far as to keep me away from my job as your runner. Now tell me, what is going on, Saitou?"

While Sano believed he knew what was going on, he paused himself, awaiting the man's reply.

Saitou began cryptically, "Where did you get this information?"

Misao uncrossed her arms, "Last night, while I was doing the usual rounds. I had calls from contacts looking to hire me—" she coughed discreetly, "in case you really were replacing me." At Saitou's dark look, she went on defensively, "What? It wasn't like I sought them out myself—you were the one who hired those Asahi agents instead. I would have liked to do rounds under your orders, but you hadn't used me for so long that I just... I needed to be out."

Sano choked—the Asahi agents? Saitou had stooped that low? The man himself had once called them nothing but a group of 'overpriced acrobats.' They simply weren't good enough; the fact that Misao had found out about their job for Saitou was proof enough of their carelessness. Heck, even Sano knew that the wisest in Yokohama preferred having Misao under Saitou as a runner. It didn't matter if it was simply down to the fact that she was an actual shinobi, half-trained though she was, or because everyone else simply had less sense—the Nishitaka already had the best.

"So you've had offers." Saitou remarked caustically, eyes narrowing. "Higher rewards, more freedom. Is that what this whole stunt was all about?"

"You're turning this into another mind game." Misao's voice had sharpened, just as unfazed, "This isn't about how much you give me; I can easily earn what I need on my own. This isn't about pressure; I managed to find in one night what has taken your replacements a whole week to still miss." There was no inflection of arrogance in her voice; she was simply stating the truth. "You know this."

"You know that this is about trust," Misao saw how Saitou's gaze hardened at the word, "I could work for anyone in this town, but I've always chosen you, because I trust you. All I ever asked was for you to give me a place; to let me do what I have to do. I trusted you to trust me in return. That's why we worked—why years later, we still work." She shook her head, her eyes now vaguely pleading. "Now tell me, what has gotten into your head, that you've suddenly decided to pull me back? It's not like you at all. Whoever gave you this ridiculous idea that keeping me away from everything will help?"

From his part of the hall, Sano suddenly found Aoshi's intent gaze among the men who were listening. He remembered that the Oniwabanshuu Okashira and Saitou had had an argument about Misao that same night before the man left. Suddenly he had the answer.

At Saitou's continued silence, Misao, however, wasn't so sure, "Is this still because of the meeting last month?"

"Yes." But Saitou said nothing afterwards.

Misao sighed. "Fine, Hirai insulted me. So what? It's nothing I haven't dealt with before. I live with you for crying out loud, and if I could become immune to you, I can deal with anything." She was exasperated, "I can do this, Saitou. Surely you could trust me to handle this on my own. The more you keep me away from the public eye, the more they will think I can't."

"You know that wasn't what I meant."

Misao paused at the graveness in his voice.

"There is nothing to worry about," Misao began quietly. They were no longer talking about Hirai. "I am fine. I am fine now."

Sano couldn't help himself. He spoke quietly, "You didn't see yourself that night, Itachi." Or what happened after.

"I blame no one." Misao no longer let him finish. "Everything that happened that night was my choice. You couldn't have prevented me from doing or saying the things I did. It's nothing you should protect me from. I'm fine with it."

When Saitou still refused to say anything, Misao sighed, almost desperate. "Don't do this... don't treat me this way. I knew what was necessary. Chakugan taikyoku, remember? Everything had to come out anyway. And yes, things didn't work out the way—" there was a bare pause in her words, "the way I might have wanted... but at least it would give me the chance to move on. I knew this; I accepted this."

Sano paused to himself, recalling from her words from the conversation the two had before the meeting. That was information that even he barely understood—much less anyone in the room. It was a private matter between the both of them. Those were the reasons Saitou had used to convince Misao to face Aoshi that night—the same reasons that had left her undone afterwards.

Misao was just as lost in her own thoughts. "I might not have dealt with it the way you wanted, but I dealt with it the only way I knew how."

Saitou finally looked up at that, the surprise of her acknowledgement prompting him.

It seemed as if Misao already knew what he was trying not to say. "And even if you still think I didn't, you can't argue that keeping me here, isolated—locked up, without even my job to do, will actually help. It doesn't! I can't be trapped like this, Saitou. It's making me feel—"

She stopped short of admitting it made her feel worse. Sano somehow knew this, and he understood that this was the reason she had to escape last night.

This wasn't something Saitou could fix for her.

When Saitou still didn't reply, Misao shook her head, defeated. "This can't be my only choice, Saitou. You can't run things this way forever either. Let me go back out there. I can be good at what I do, so let me do it. I won't ask for more. I'll deal with myself; I'll follow any rules you want. Please."

Sano looked at Saitou, unsure of what the man was thinking. Saitou had always needed Misao for this to work, she was literally his right hand and she knew this; even as she begged, she bargained; even as he offended, he did not cast her off—yet despite all this, it was still she who pleaded to stand by him. Misao had made her choice.

"Are you sure," Saitou finally spoke, his voice low, "that this is what you want?"

Misao sighed, relieved at his assent. She simply raised her head and nodded. "This is about duty, Saitou."

Saitou nodded grimly. Sano saw him coming to a decision. "Just how ready do you think you are?"

Misao gave him a brief, almost suspicious look. "If you're not sure, then send me out again. I already know what you wanted to find out; I can find out more. I've managed to find a brief window of opportunity tomorrow night, at the same time as Kuronova-sama's ball. By dawn, you'll have all the information you need."

"Hn." Saitou's expression was unreadable as he announced, "If we follow this lead, then it seems as everyone in this room will be attending a ball tomorrow."

Misao raised a brow at his cryptic announcement. Though letting her emotions distract her chi-sensing abilities was a chronic weakness, she was now on guard; she already knew something was up. "Why..."

Saitou's silence was enough; he merely moved aside.

"Gentlemen."

Misao took a sharp breath, and Sano cringed—he had never forgotten about the other audience in the room, but he had forgotten to consider what they might do to her. He himself had never realised just how soon she would be tested for her resolve.

"I suppose it's time to mention," Saitou began, his voice sardonic and a touch regretful as he watched her carefully. "That we had guests."

They all watched as Misao's eyes widened, slowly recognizing the men positioned by the study, their alert and slightly embarrassed faces revealing that they had witnessed all. Beyond them stood Aoshi, his face a smooth dark mask.

Someone unhelpfully, if deliberately, cleared his throat. The Elder Takanobu filled the silence with his sly tone.

"I hope you don't mind me saying, Miburo, that now I see what the fuss was all about."

Misao looked at them and then at Saitou again, for the first time, truly at a loss for words.

Chapter Text

"Interesting woman, this Sotsu Misao of yours." The Elder Takanobu began conversationally.

His son choked at the possessive term, giving Aoshi a quick look. "Father!"

Aoshi didn't say a word and the Younger Takanobu embarrassedly ran his hand through his hair. There were only three of them in the carriage at the moment. The other Onmitsu leaders Akiro, Baku and Chuugo had elected to join another coach, and Misao and Sagara were to follow much later, which must have been a relief to the boy.

It was the evening of the ball, and they were getting ready to leave. They had already been briefed and tailored with the proper attire earlier. They were waiting for Saitou to join them in the carriage when the older Takanobu made the statement.

"Fine, fine; this woman you've been talking about," The father said dismissively. "Rather remarkable how she stands up to Miburo just like that each time. " He paused, repeating, "Interesting."

After Saitou and Misao's mercurial argument, the previous night had gone more smoothly than any of them had anticipated. She had simply apologised for not having seen them and had been much more agreeable when she joined them later in the study. It didn't escape Aoshi's notice, however, that Saitou was the one who had become conspicuously more guarded throughout the discussion that followed. In the end, the man had finally relented enough to agree to a tentative plan.

Aoshi remembered Saitou's cryptic words then. "Nothing has been decided. You will have the chance to make up your minds about us, and we will see whether or not we can work with you. Tomorrow, you will join the Nishitaka as we try deal with the Wing Fang our way. We will find out if this – collaboration," he had turned to Aoshi, his voice deliberate, "is possible."

"Tomorrow, we decide."

There was to be a ball thrown in honour of the Russian diplomat Kuronov's wife. Since most of the Nishitaka's sources and connections would be in attendance, Saitou had decided to bring the men along to give them a fuller idea of how they operated in Yokohama. It also gave them an ideal cover for Misao to execute the Wing Fang reconnaissance she had proposed: they were expected to dock in Yokohama that night.

Many had protested when they realised Yukishiro was part of that mission; Misao had not protested when Aoshi announced he would join them. In the end, Saitou had agreed to let the Younger Takanobu come along to satisfy the rest of the elders. They would all meet at the end of the night to decide whether or not they would continue to work together.

A test. Aoshi understood what Saitou had intended. He knew that was the only compromise the man's conscience could allow. After all, he was no stranger to guilt; he could recognise it without difficulty on Saitou's face.

He briefly recalled Misao finally meeting his gaze then – the extended second with the once-familiar blue-green of her eyes, the features highlighted by brushes of colour, the scarlet shade of her attire that rendered her selfsame eyes a touch deeper. This time, she did not tremble as she stared back at him, nor did her voice waver or her face fall. She had then simply levelled that same steady gaze at Saitou. "Seems fair enough." She conceded softly after a second.

She knew that Saitou had been observing her intently the whole night, as if he had been watching for any telling slip that revealed it all to be an act. Like Aoshi, she had understood that Saitou was testing her as well.

"She has spirit." The Young Takanobu broke into Aoshi's thoughts, a tinge of warmth in his voice. "She did the same last month to those military men."

"No, that sort of bearing is not simply 'spirit'." His father shook his head distractedly. "That's exactly my point. You'd expect someone who bites back like that to be reckless instead of precise, to be aggressive instead of unintimidated, uncontrolled instead of compelling. It shouldn't have surprised me." He shook his head.

In the darkness, Aoshi paused.

Takanobu's son looked confused. "That can't be a bad thing, can it? She is wilful in her own way."

"Wilful is one thing, but to be almost indifferent to threat is another. One implies determination, the other a complete absence of fear. And that girl, she sometimes acts like there is nothing left to lose that I can only wonder…."

This finally brought his son up short. The older man had turned to Aoshi, levelling an intent stare at him. "What do you think, Aoshi? I always trusted your perception in these things."

Aoshi looked back at him silently. This wasn't the first time the elder had turned to him for guidance before others. Aoshi was no stranger to leading in making decisions or forming quick, incisive calls of judgement. Their common experience in the Bakamatsu had cemented that. He was acutely aware, however, that the same judgement had to be just as reliable this time... even when it came to Misao.

"You are using my wife against me?" interrupted Saitou's irate voice, distinctive even from outside the carriage.

"Well, you told on me to Enishi, of all people." Misao's voice followed him. "No wonder he hasn't been showing up. You know how difficult he gets when he has a bone to pick with me. That was deliberate and you know it!"

"So what if I had been bothered enough to inform him about your little disappearing act—"

"You two don't even talk to each other!"

"—It's not my fault you chose to put up such a touchy brooder."

"Well, it's not my fault I have to inform Tokioh-san about all those hidden cigarettes, especially after she found out they could be bad for you. You don't question a healer, after all—"

The carriage door opened with force and Saitou grumbled as he swept in. "If I had wanted something to parrot my wife, I would have simply bought a damn pet."

Aoshi detected the lack of heat in his voice, however. There was common affection for the man's wife, and while up to now she had always seemed like an absent factor, he anticipated that they might see more of her soon.

"Besides, moody or not, you know the stuck-up will still show up wherever you are." It took them a second to realise he was talking about the still-absent Enishi. "More's the pity."

Misao suddenly poked her head into the carriage, "I still won't let you get away with this." And when Saitou snorted, she turned conspiratorially at the men and winked. "Two can play this game, after all." The younger Takanobu jumped in reaction, and Saitou rolled his eyes.

"Oh dear," Misao only grinned; "We can't have any of that, Takanobu-san. If you blush so much at me in plain robes, how will you stand up in a ballroom full of ladies in their finest?"

The younger Takanobu turned purple under her gaze, and Aoshi vaguely recalled Saitou's exasperated comment about the boy not lasting long in a room with her.

"Don't worry, you can always ask Sano for advice later. Heaven knows he's used to being surrounded by women."

"Hey!" Came from behind her, and Saitou gave a long-suffering oath. "If you're done wasting our time dispensing silly social advice..."

"One more second." Misao relented, reaching out to fix the disarrayed tie on Saitou's suit. "Good luck, Chifu. Remember, it's just a ball. I know how you feel about them. You'll see me like this again tomorrow."

Aoshi's noted the ambiguity, and he directed his gaze to Saitou.

Saitou was eyeing Misao back carefully now. "We will be making a decision tonight. You know what to expect."

"I know what I am doing, Chifu. Trust that I'll meet all expectations." Misao returned, her face inscrutable. "Besides, there's a whole night ahead of you."

She shot Aoshi a brief look. "...Remember, I'm not the only one you should be worrying about."

And with that, she shut the door and was gone.

"Interesting." The older Takanobu whispered one more time, softly.


 

"Just a ball, indeed!"

Aoshi heard the muttered oath as the men followed Saitou in bewildered awe. Nothing had prepared them for how superlative everything was. Somehow, they managed to navigate a sea of creatures that only vaguely seemed to represent humans, draped in their suits and finery and embellished with jewels under multitude candle lights.

The Younger Takanobu wasn't the only one who was overwhelmed by their surroundings. So many things were going on that it was quite possible to just stand in one place the whole night and observe. Women danced, dressed in bright, voluminous gowns that emphasized curves and exposed sometimes daring amounts of flesh; men walked around with fitted suits and silver-tipped canes. Music and noise came from all sources; voices, tinkling utensils, toasting glasses and instruments alike. It was all of the colours; all of the sounds; all of the lights.

Saitou had already offered them liquor, which upon further reflection, the rest of them would have been wiser not to have turned down. As they weaved their way through the foliage of skirts, smiles behind fans, cigar smoke, words both known and foreign, and a noxious variety of refreshments, even Aoshi had to acknowledge that in this respect, Saitou was right. They were out of their depth.

It was to the clear relief of the other men when Saitou manage to lead them through to a comfortable space on the ballroom. One look at their faces and Saitou smirked, only then choosing to speak tactfully,

"I don't suppose you would like to have those drinks now."

This time, everyone else accepted.

Saitou smirked. "Brace yourself gentlemen, welcome to the merciless feast we call Yokohama Society."


 

Now, you are no longer strangers to social gatherings; (Saitou smirked at the term) you've been to DeWitt's ball, as well as to the meeting at Yukishiro's hotel last month. And judging from the delightful looks of horror on your faces, you've realised that tonight is much different. Before, you were at an open ball, now you are at an exclusive formal gathering. Before, you were travellers that were tolerated; now you are members of my party. You're even dressed to play the part, despite some protests. (Baku huffed uncomfortably at the pointed looks) We've had to pull a few strings, but you will be treated equally as guests here.

What's so important about this event then? Well... it's this. (Saitou gestured towards the ballroom floor)

No, don't be idiotic—not the dancing. Look towards the dance floor and around it. Tell me if you recognize anyone. That's right: they're the same faces you saw during the meeting last month. There's Miyajima Juro, the steel magnate; Col. Akita Kobe, who led the negotiations. Yes, in short order, you are currently in the company of the region's leading dignitaries, tycoons, military officials, politicians, and landed nobles. We're bloody well standing among your very own local aristocrats.

Now, I sure you're not interested in a ridiculous display of the city's social hierarchy. However, you are also looking at the only ones who have enough power to run Yokohama, and more.

I've told you about the money-traded system of loyalty in Yokohama. Every establishment, every connection and every dealing you will encounter in this city, legal or not, can be traced back to these people. Every mission the Nishitaka has eventually ties in with the people within these walls.

"This is the one place you can obtain information on them."

Correct, Shinomori – if there's anything you want to work through Yokohama, this is the place to start.

How do we do it, then? Directly, you can potentially approach the person you seek – although that is not as simple as it looks.

Always bear in mind that Yokohama Society, as with any other class, has its own self-important rules. Although it's a confounded mishmash of Japanese and Western practices, you have to defer to them to take part. Even the most noble of the elite are governed by these expectations. And unfortunately, in order to interact with them, one has to play the part and recite the lines: find a connection, beg for an introduction. It's all a matter of rank - the elite have to talk to you first.

Indirectly, however, you can simply take advantage of the rules. That is, if you can tolerate gossip and sift through the rubbish to discern what makes sense – all you have to do is listen. Yokohama Society is absurdly self-obsessed as it is self-punishing, after all. Anyone who has done anything superficial will be talked about. You only need to look left and right and you will eventually find vital information.

Now is a good place to start, actually. Wait for someone to cross the floor, and like clockwork, you will hear all and sundry unfold. Peel your ears, gentlemen – and get ready to endure the horror we call society gossip.


 

A dark haired man with a cutting figure and derisive curl on his lip crossed the dance floor. Aoshi recognized him as one of Misao's sycophant pursuers from the meeting. He recalled how even she had smoothly avoided him; none of them would like this character.

"Your first subject: Lord Kinobe."

None of them even needed to pause or strain their ears. Around them, words tittered and whispers grew.

"Shipping magnate..."
"...Only gained his position because of lucky connections with the British."
"Not one, but two mistresses – his wife should know!"
"They say he runs illegal gambling dens..."
"... Has never been respected as a moral gentleman. Plays dirty, if you ask me."

"Is this serious?" The Younger Takanobu tilted his head in amazement. "Corrupt, philandering, and illegally running a business? Surely, it can't be this simple, or that true!"

Saitou scoffed. "Don't be a moron; of course not, but it's not far from the truth. People do consider themselves 'privileged company' here." He scoffed. "In this case, what you have heard is correct on all points but one. The bastard doesn't run illegal gambling dens—he's ironically too untrustworthy for that—but he certainly frequents them."

One of the other leaders, Akiro, was still shaking his head in amazement. "This is unbelievable. I had sent out my men to find out more about the men like him from our last meeting, and none of them had succeeded in penetrating the city's networks." Akiro's clan was famous for their skills in retrieving intelligence; this was no easy concession for him. "And yet here I am, standing here, and the information all but comes to me."

"This can be dangerous," Chuugo conceded, "but very useful."

Saitou nodded sagely. "The more rules are broken, the more controversial the person. The more controversial the person, the more people will talk."

"And are these rules different for men and for women?"

Saitou turned to Aoshi, surprised at the loaded question and aware of where it might lead. "All the pertinent questions, Shinomori? Well, there's only one way to find out."

At their questioning glances, Saitou gestured towards the staircase where people were being announced before stepping into the ballroom. There descended a couple whose dignified grace bespoke their position. When Aoshi's eyes landed on the girl who went down with them, he felt a jolt of recognition—

"Your second subject: Mitsue Himeko."

Brown eyes defiantly brilliant, a daring smile and taking redness to her cheeks, her hand on Saitou's arm – Aoshi's eyes narrowed as he remembered her from his first visit to Yokohama. A face he couldn't forget, as at the time, it was the closest reminder he had of—

He shook his head and exhaled. Not now.

The whispers had risen with more volume.

"Heiress to the Mitsue fortune..."
"... Daughter of Lord Mitsue who is of Kazoku peerage, a daimyo family."
"What a fetching dress – always of the highest fashion..."
"...A bit low cut with that Western corseted bodice, but then I am sure no one's complaining."
"She is of marriageable age, after all – and lucky whoever the chosen man will be."
"You mean she's not even engaged?"

"That's how they talk about women?" The Elderly Takanobu spoke, bemused. "Different rules, indeed."

"Goes to show how dispensable they are seen," Chuugo observed, "if they are noted mostly for their clothes, their marriage and the money that comes with it."

"A beauty, but a bit of a rebel."
"...She can afford to be, with all the money she has tied to her name."
"A rebel, how?"
"All those things she does which no normal, respectable young lady would do!"
"...such as?"

Saitou shook his head and added evenly, "And don't forget, also for the rules they break."

Not many paid attention to his cryptic words as the men noticed how the girl now swept the room with her eyes until they landed on Saitou. To everyone's surprise, she began walking purposely towards them.

"Is she coming this way?" Baku demanded, not a little panicked because of the sudden attention their party was getting. "Why?"

"What does this mean, Saitou-san?" The Younger Takanobu pressed on.

Aoshi eyed Saitou carefully, but the man only shrugged dismissively. Still the talk continued as she approached.

"Such as insist on acting in the theatre, of course."
"That's her? No wonder her face is so well-known."
"...A famous theatre, granted, but it's still so beneath her station, it's a wonder she gets away with it—"
"Shh! She's headed this way."
"Of course, she performs for the Nishitaka, fools, and the owner is standing just a few feet away..."

"What?" Baku groaned, "Don't tell me she also works for—"

"Ah, gentlemen," Saitou cut in as the girl in question stopped in front of them, stunning all of them silent. All the whispers around them also suspiciously paused.

"May I introduce you to our theatre's current lead actress, Mitsue Himeko."


 

"Good evening Fujita-sama, gentlemen."

The other men remained stock still, but Aoshi lowered his head into a brief bow. Mitsue Himeko's curious gaze went to his and for a brief moment, it lingered. She was flushing when she returned the bow.

"Forgive the lack of manners, girl." Saitou interrupted with suspicious air, although his unbothered smirk was far from repentant. "But as things currently stand, it might not be in your best interests for me to introduce you to the rest of my party yet. I know you wouldn't mind."

The girl removed her gaze from Aoshi and turned back to Saitou with a good-natured grin. It was no surprise the men were stunned. There was nothing particular about her colouring – she had warm, dark brown eyes and her hair was similarly coloured as well—however, her features were arranged in such a striking way against luminous pale skin. She had eyes that arched beautifully, more like a woman's than the age the pitch of her voice betrayed. She had small rosebud lips that shaped beautifully when she smiled.

What drew Aoshi to her from the very beginning was none of these, however. It was something more intangible, something achingly familiar in how she held herself – full of life; bright, mischievous and yet somewhat still hesitant, as if still at the cusp of finding herself. There was something almost painful in how she appeared to be a mix of fears and dreams at the same time.

"I understand, Fujita-sama. I came here simply to ask about Misao-san."

And right now, Aoshi was slowly piecing together why.

Even as Saitou rolled his eyes , she pressed on brazenly. "I heard you're allowing her to come tonight. You're here, and I know for a fact that Enishi-sama has arrived at the card rooms. Sanosuke-san isn't here yet though, and he usually comes in later with her. Is it true you're finally lifting your lifting your social embargo on her?"

"Social embargo? Who the hell comes up with these terms?" Saitou snorted in mild disgust after nodding at the facts she observed. "I hope you have nothing to do with how the gossips dress up these things."

Himeko shrugged gamely. "It's been a whole month since she's been seen in Society. It's a wonder she was able to attend our Opening Night yesterday at all. She was expecting you to blow up, I'll have you know. We were short of planning a mutiny in the theatre if worse comes to worst."

The sour look on Saitou's face showed he wasn't surprised. "Needless to say, you will need to call off your little rebellion. She will be present tonight. "

As he grumbled, Himeko smiled at her minor victory. "See, that wasn't so hard. I'm sure that will satisfy the gossips for now."

At Saitou's answering snort, she bowed gratefully. "Now I can leave you to your non-theatre business. I know I won't be able to persuade you to take a turn with me so I won't insist, but you might want to know that Lt. Col. Hirai is present too. I hope he won't cause too much trouble."

Saitou raised a brow at the mention of the man who had antagonized the Nishitaka so the other month. When he spoke, his tone was vaguely approving. "Thanks for letting me know, girl. I'm sure you'll manage to see Misao soon enough tonight."

The girl lifted the corner of her mouth to allow a flash of mischief so familiar. "Of course I will; she is my mentor after all." And with that, she bowed, looking at Aoshi once more. "I'll see you later then." And she swept back towards the assembly.

"Mentor?" The Elder Takanobu repeated. Of course.

Saitou had just shrugged. "The girl attended one of the Weasel's performances one night and suddenly decided she wanted to learn to be an actress too. Pressed so hard that even her parents couldn't forbid her. Despite the risk, the Weasel ridiculously took her on. That was almost a year ago, and now, she's our lead actress. Can't say it hasn't worked out."

That explained too many things. "No wonder they somehow seemed so similar." The Younger Takanobu thought out loud.

To himself, Aoshi shook his head. Was it really any wonder that he had been unable to resist seeing more of her the first time he had seen her? It was no less unnerving than the realisation that, indeed in Yokohama, he would inevitably find glimpses of Misao in too many things.

"Not completely similar." The Elder Takanobu let out in a soft voice, which had Aoshi looking back intently at the man.

"That was still quite a trick you pulled." Baku grumbled at something else. "Not warning us about her. Are there any more rogue employees we should know about?"

Saitou bared his teeth, "Best to have you started on people we are more familiar with. Besides, most of what you have heard of her is true. Beyond that, the girl knows nothing about what we do outside the theatre."

That was another distinction Aoshi had noted. "There's your theatre, and there's—" he paused, recalling Himeko's words, "Non-theatre business. What is relevant in this case?"

Saitou smirked, sardonic. "A relevant comment at last." Baku snorted. "For the purpose of events like these, I am here mainly to represent our official business, the Nishitaka Theatre. Like other men, however, this is just our front, genuine business though it is. Unofficially, we are here also to represent the Nishitaka in our main operations regarding foreign dealings in the city. We trade information with contacts, discuss assignments and even execute missions, as we will be doing later... all of these, we get to do in one ballroom." Saitou confirmed. "Those are the reasons why being here counts; why we always need to have access to these events."

Saitou had finally come upon his main point in taking them here; the significance of what a seemingly superfluous society event can do for their operations in Yokohama. Indeed, it still struck as certainly different to what the men expected.

"What does this mean for tonight, then?" Akiro ventured.

"For tonight, there are five people I need to talk to before the mission, at the very least."

Baku crossed his arms. "Shouldn't you be doing that now then?"

Saitou snorted in negation. "I can't simply talk to anyone directly here. I might have been invited, but I am just a theatre owner: I do not belong to this class. I am not titled, landed, or a tycoon. That means they either have to come to me first, or I would have to bite my tongue, exchange pleasantries and grovel my way through all those connections to get to any relevant discussion." He visibly cringed. "Whatever social talents I do have are not suited to that."

"Then—how on earth do you manage all this?" the Young Takanobu asked, confused.

"I don't, usually." Saitou began to give a blunt answer, but first gave Aoshi a look. Instantly, Aoshi made the connection in his mind: Saitou might have enough position in Society to be invited to this feast, but by himself, he did not have enough rank to address most of the elite directly. It had to be done by someone else.

That's what he has Misao for.

This had too many possible implications, and Saitou gave Aoshi a penetrating stare, as if to gauge his reaction, almost as if he anticipated accusations and hostility.

Before either of them could speak, however, Saitou's eyes were suddenly diverted away, instantly narrowing.

"What in the world is he doing down there?"


 

They all turned to find Sagara weaving his way through the crowd near the staircase. It wasn't too hard to find him—one merely had to follow the path of female sighs that emerged in his wake. He was also markedly attired in a dressier fashion, with polished buttons, tiered lapels and tailored coattails. What was most notable to Saitou, however, was the fact that he wasn't accompanying anyone.

"Where the hell is Misao?" Saitou demanded when he found his way to them.

"Before you blow your top off, she's here. She just hasn't entered yet."

"Then why aren't you with her? You're the chaperone. You can't leave her unescorted."

"She insisted I go in ahead of her." Sagara's voice was unusually curt, revealing his uncertainty. "I'm not sure what she's up to, but you know she gets when she has a plan."

Saitou placed a finger at the bridge of his nose, annoyed. "Bakayarou. She can't go down with just anyone. Whoever she comes in with, the stakes are higher tonight."

His tone revealed a note of consternation that had not made itself known in his nonchalant behaviour up to that point. Aoshi noted this silently.

Sagara raised a brow. "Heard you've been getting questions about her since the news got out that she's coming tonight. She hasn't even entered yet, but I suppose much of the talk has been about her already."

Saitou sneered at the understatement. "There are many gossip hounds here tonight – Hirai, on top of all that. They'll eat her alive if they get the chance."

"She did say she knew what she was doing." Sagara candidly gave the unasked for reassurance. "But just in case, I'll go closer to be at hand if things go wrong."

No sooner had he said the words when the master of ceremonies' voice reached them. "Announcing Sotsu Misao, of the Nishitaka Theatre."

The hall briefly quieted despite the continuing music, and everyone turned to the staircase where the announcer did not mention any other name following Misao's. She was to enter with no one but herself.

"Lady Sotsu! Unescorted!"
"It's against the rules. No single woman enters without an escort."
"Didn't she have that bodyguard, that inappropriate substitute for an acceptable chaperone?"
"She should at least have had one man to offer to bring her down."
"To think she's been an exile from Society for all of a month, how embarrassing!"
"I hadn't realised she been that shunned that nobody would go in with her—"

"Damn." Sagara muttered the oath and instantly made his way towards the stairs to control the damage.

However, Misao came into full view above and he stopped as he had a look at her, just as the whispers hushed.

There were many things to note—and later, Aoshi would have the time to properly give it thought. But the one thing that caught universal attention was the look on her face. She didn't look the least daunted, nor shunned. Misao turned to them all with her chin held high, a small knowing smile playing on her lips. Her eyes faced them all directly, daring and not meek. Her gloved fingers slid slowly down the banister as she descended. Unescorted though she was, she walked with the proud dignity of a self-made man.

"The absolute gall!"
"Marvellous," came another whisper, this time male. "She's actually pulling it off."
"Nonsense! It's being done all wrong!" a woman disputed.
"Not in a dress like that she will. Look at what she's wearing!"

Another draw for the eyes was her clothes indeed. The dress actually appeared modest compared to the other ladies in the room. Most of the other women were a sight to see in Western, figure-hugging corseted gowns with layers of skirts and bright shades. Misao's dress draped over her figure from small capped sleeves with simplicity, with a flowing skirt that fell freely after it wrapped around the natural curve of her waist. However, whereas most ladies were dressed in various tints and shades, she stood out for the fact that her dress was purely in a simple, dramatic colour.

Saitou's eyes narrowed as he let out ambivalently. "Black. Of course."

She continued to descend, the dark, wispy material of her dress floating behind her, making her movements appear fluid and her shape defined. Pearls glistened at her throat, and a single white blossom adorned her hair, wound elaborately in a chignon at the side of her neck. The only other touch of colour in her attire was her lips, which were a deep, vibrant red. Her skin almost seemed to glow.

"If you'll excuse me, I see a lady that is in need of escorting."

The young man the voice belonged to cut through them, moving past a speechless Sano towards the foot of the stairs.

The gentleman clearly hadn't been alone in his thoughts; there appeared to be an exodus towards Misao's destination, where a number of men were beginning to gather to be of service. Other voices, now mostly female, continued around them, however.

"...Audacious, walking in without a chaperone or a partner!"
"Yet see all those men falling ridiculously after her."

Misao reached the bottom of the stairs and met her congregation of suitors, somehow managing to address each of them with ease in the seconds that she went through them. When she did emerge from the crush of men, it was in a manner that again shocked the observers and speculators – as, walking on the arm of one man, she accepted the hand of another man as he audaciously bowed before them.

"Not one, but two escorts? The absolute nerve!"

Both Saitou and Sagara relaxed when they saw that neither were unfamiliar faces – on her right was Miyajima Juro, one of the first men who had addressed her from the meeting last month, and to her left was the much younger Lord Deon, the grandiose latecomer at the same event.

It wasn't hard to discern more about each character at that moment, as again, the whispers answered any potential questions.

"Miyajima! The steel tycoon! That man doesn't just bow to anyone."
"He's infamously hard to get along with."
"How did she convince him to let her walk with another man at the same time?"
"And Lord Deon – of all people!"
"...Rich debaucher; too good looking for his own good."
"A real, devil-may-care rogue."
"It's hardly fair!"

"Is this actually happening?" Sano finally found the voice to speak. "From no escorts to two... is she actually getting away with it?"

"Clearly." Saitou replied darkly after a pause. "She knows what she is doing – even when she's breaking their rules."

And break the rules she did. For the moment the threesome started making their way across the ballroom, the female murmurs around them grew in disbelief and viciousness.

"But of course, they'd want to have their fill, she is just a former 'actress' after all—"
"Hanna no Tsukikage, they call her."
"A common lady of leisure!"
"I heard she only offers her favours to those who are influential enough."
"The social climber! But these men with power support her."
"Lt. Col. Hirai did call her nothing but a high class whore—"
"Shh – Goro Fujita is standing nearby. For shame, bite your tongues!"

The Younger Takanobu started at the turn of words and Aoshi levelled Saitou with an inscrutable look, his jaw set in a tight line.

Saitou met their gazes directly, but shook his head.

They turned to watch as Misao and the two men made their way towards the head of the room, where an imperious-looking couple stood. She let go of both of her escorts' arms and shook hands with the tall hard-faced Russian diplomat. She then turned to his wife, Kuronova, in whose honour the ball was being held, and bowed low, showing deference she had up to then not rewarded to anyone.

To Sagara and Saitou's visible relief, the woman appeared pleased with the gesture, breaking her dignified stance to pull Misao up and chat with her. She laughed as Misao answered back and both turned their faces to look directly at someone in the crowd.

Hirai. It wasn't hard to locate him; the man was glaring at Misao with a look of utter contempt. In return, Misao only offered him a beatific smile, and Kuronova looked on approvingly, amused. When Hirai realized that everyone had begun to stare at him as well, he only returned a baleful stare before silently stalking away.

Saitou watched his departure, his face still grim. "That takes care of many things."

Sagara nodded. Upon noticing the looks of confusion on the ninja leaders' faces, he turned to explain. "She's greeted the hostess of the night Kuronova before anyone else. Now even Hirai can't do anything against her. As far as this evening goes, it's only Kuronova's favour that counts."

"Is it really?" The Younger Takanobu added after a pause. "Yet so many people here are like him."

"It still doesn't account for the names." Baku had no problem being frank. "They still called her all those things, and nobody has spoken to defend her. Wouldn't you need to change their minds as well?"

And again, before Saitou could answer, Aoshi finally spoke, letting his conclusions be known. "No, they don't." His voice, though quiet, was hard. "It's a deliberate sacrifice."

Saitou's face immediately darkened at the undeniable hit. Sagara suddenly chose to step in. "Why don't you let me take this?" He gestured for the man to move back. "It might be for the best."

The Wolf gave Aoshi a baleful stare and cautiously followed. Sagara nodded and then turned to them. "Now, the truth is, I'd asked the same question myself."


 

Saitou might have mentioned how important the rules are here. Not many people can mingle in this sort of society, and those who do can't simply act as they want: they have to follow rules and act properly. Yokohama Society is really caught up in those sorts of things.

Connections have to be properly introduced, and they need to be socially acceptable. Men need to behave their class – self-important, respectable and civilized... the whole lot. Even condescending to others needs approval. The rules are hard on women too, as you might have already noticed. Single ladies are never to be left alone without a chaperone, for instance. They don't have that many liberties by themselves; even elder married women are to be treated according to their husbands.

The Nishitaka is not part of this class, though. We don't have noble blood, nor do we have inherited wealth or powerful business empires. To them, we're simply entertainers, tolerated because we provide "culture" as a service. It's fashionable for us to be invited to these balls, but we're not considered their equals. We're outsiders in this world.

This works in our favour, though. Being outsiders, the same rules do not necessarily apply to us. That's mainly class snobbery for you, but it's also because we have less to lose from not obeying them. We don't have our reputation, nobility, wealth or our businesses interests tied up in being socially acceptable. This is why Saitou can get away with not falling after every lord in this room, and Misao can get away with being able to talk to any gentleman who approaches her – the rules aren't stopping any of us. We can act as we need to make the Nishitaka work.

This comes with some limitations though. We can cross some lines, but not all of them. And when we do, there are consequences. The rumours and labels, for instance. Believe me, between Saitou and Misao, and add Enishi on top of all that, there are too many names called out behind our backs. Saitou will never be respected for his manners or be addressed by men of reputation in public (which I am sure actuallysuits him just fine). Enishi still has a notoriety that makes it difficult for him to be accepted in important circles.

As for Misao... You already know the worst of it – Hirai had said enough. She's seen as an entertainer who offers her services to escort only the richest and most powerful men. Being an actress made that a foregone conclusion. That being said though, it's socially acceptable that the men seek her out first, (unlike Saitou) making it easier for us to maintain communication with our genuine contacts.

And that's what counts for us. What's important is what the people who matter think- our contacts, our connections, our business partners and allies. As long as they know who we really are and understand our value, then this system works for us. What the gossips say do not matter. If anything, it's an effective smokescreen. People are so embroiled in our supposed scandalous exploits that they never think to pay attention to what we do apart from the theatre.


 

"That's why we get away with working in Yokohama; Misao circulates and makes contact with our clients and connections. I make arrangements for any meetings, while Saitou or Enishi close the deals. Under the guise of the Nishitaka, we are able to access the workings and goings of the most powerful people, yet we are not bound by their rules."

There was a moment of silence after Sagara's explanation.

"It does make sense." The Young Takanobu ventured, awe in his voice. "But it's controversial... complicated, even risky."

Sano shrugged. "A way to look at it is that it's no different from going undercover, just that in Yokohama, you have to do it by being as loud and ostentatious as the rest of them are."

"She knows what she's doing – if that's what you wanted to ask." Saitou suddenly murmured from behind them.

Nobody replied, unsure who he was addressing, before Aoshi spoke, his voice soft. "Tell me," he exhaled, "how you know."

Sagara shook his head at Saitou, moving to disperse a potentially hostile situation he wasn't certain enough to risk. He then gave Aoshi a solemn look.

"Because she was the one who told me all this in the first place. Misao was the one who gave me these answers."

The Elder Takanobu shook his head disbelievingly over what this implied. "All of it was Sotsu Misao's idea."

"Aha. I hear my name." A clear voice interrupted afresh before any of them could even react.

They all turned to see Misao standing a few steps away from them, raising a teasing brow as she turned to her escorts. "And here I thought I only had the gossips to worry about."

Even up close, she looked no less a foreign creature than from afar, with the features dramatically highlighted by simple brushes of charcoal ink, the skin moon like in contrast to the deep red of the lips and the black of the attire, and the manner stately in the way her chin rose when she spoke. Despite having appeared to them in various incarnations of dress before, she was still somehow striking, even otherworldly.

"What have I done this time, pray tell?"

She even spoke differently.

Sagara addressed her no differently however, shrugging as he stepped closer to them. "Nothing much... except for causing me to panicagain."

The red lips lifted in a smile and the pearls in her ears dangled daintily as she shook her head. "I did tell you not to worry. I was in good hands, as you can see."

From her left, the self-assured Lord Deon winked wolfishly, "Sagara, never doubt that I will always swoop in, as far as this lady is concerned."

The imposing figure next to her chuckled, "A clever girl, this one. Never let her out of your sight." Miyajima bowed to Saitou. "Fujita, I will see you later tonight." Allowing Saitou to take Misao's arm, he bowed to her. "Again, it was an honour, lady."

For a few moments after the men left, their group remained silent, a little tableau of uncertainty. Their conversation, Saitou's cryptic mood, and the arresting arrival of a much-discussed Misao made for an unexpected tension. When her voice finally broke the silence, the dryness to her tone was surprisingly at odds with all this.

"Since when were you bothered with fashion, Chifu?" Her teasing voice was a stark contrast to her imperious appearance. The girl stepped back from Saitou and peered up at him. "Perhaps I didn't make do with a corset and bustle like the rest of the ladies, but I didn't break thatmany rules did I? So why are you glaring at my dress?"

Saitou's brow twitched as he chose to ignore her words. His jaw clenched when he finally spoke. "Is there any particular reason you chose black?"

Misao paused at that. For a few seconds, she just stared back at him.

She then lifted her chin and answered simply. "I've been painted black before I even set foot here, Chifu." Her eyes then narrowed in a moment as brief as it was striking. "They were expecting a high class whore. I simply decided to indulge them and get it over and done with."

Any other person would have been rendered silent by the brief flash of steel in her eyes at those words. Aoshi unwittingly recalled the frank way she had faced down the Wolf the night before – the forthrightness in the way she laid down her choices and spoke of her value. She held herself in a different way that was beginning to be familiar to him—firmly, resolutely—whenever she was questioned. She was used to having to defend herself.

Despite himself, his eyes narrowed as he remembered the Elder Takanobu's thoughts... Like she has nothing left to lose.

But Saitou simply snorted. "Ahou. The whole thing is damn ridiculous and you know it. You're not a whore. Neither are you high class. Anybody with half an amount of sense should figure that out."

Misao started at that; she shook her head. "I do love how you can't compliment me without insulting me at the same time." Was all that she said, but her face had broken into a grin that was finally familiar.

Saitou rolled his eyes. "I should have known what to anticipate when you said you were going to 'meet expectations.' What about that stunt with the two escorts?"

Misao blinked. "Oh, you mean Miyajima-sama and Lord Deon? That was quite spontaneous, I assure you. Going down alone was a gamble that worked in my favour, as the men chose to come on their own. I just thought it would be a good idea to get the two of them talking to each other – Miyajima-sama is involved in steel, and Deon has entered into rail transport. I thought a deal might help Miyajima to cut shipping costs across shorter distances – a big client like that can definitely get Deon's business running."

Saitou eyed the two men across the room, and noted that they were still in deep discussion, aided and not made rivals by Misao's introduction. He gave a long-suffering sigh as he moved on.

"And what about that thing with Hirai?"

"Oh, that one." Misao gave a smirk that uncharacteristically reminded any unknowing observer of Saitou. "That was just me being vindictive."

"Ye gods, what have we unleashed?"

Misao turned back to Sagara with a glare, "Come now, Sano, I know at least that one, you approve of."

The man grinned back. "And here I thought only Enishi held grudges 'til forever."

Misao rolled her eyes at the mention of the still absent character, "I know he's present tonight – he's still ignoring me though."

"Shame." Saitou replied caustically, and after giving him a pointed look, Misao sighed and changed the subject.

"I've set three of your five meetings already. I can have the other two done within the next quarter hour." She handed him a folded piece of paper. Saitou didn't bother to ask how she had managed it in the short amount of time she'd been in the room. Clearly, the men whom he couldn't address directly because of his position had themselves gone to Misao already.

As Saitou noted the details in silence, Misao turned her attention to the other men, who all suddenly made an awkward effort to greet her. She simply shook her head and addressed them with an ease that was again unbecoming of the grand way she held herself.

"I hope it's all going well for you so far, sirs. How are we holding up, Takanobu-san?"

The Young Takanobu managed a shaky smile. "Quite well, Lady Sotsu, thank you. Learning more and more things."

At this, Misao gave Aoshi a brief glance. "I'm glad to hear that."

Aoshi did not say anything. The Elder Takanobu was staring at her with a mystified look on his face. The rest of the men had hesitant, almost pitying looks. The column of her neck moved as she swallowed and looked away.

Misao had turned to Saitou again. "Now, if we're all satisfied, shall I carry on? We have a waiting audience, after all. They will want more to talk about."

Though in their own circle, the men were suddenly aware of how, around them, the rest of the room still watched on speculatively.

Saitou nodded, pocketing the piece of paper. He also turned his gaze to Aoshi. "By all means."

"Catch you all again in an hour and a half." Sagara announced cheerfully, diffusing the tense air as he turned to Misao. "Are you ready to start dancing, then? How long can I expect the list of partners to be?"

Though Misao smiled, she shook her head cryptically, looking at Saitou as well. "I'm afraid it will have to be just business for tonight."

Sagara exchanged a look with their leader. "Very well." He then offered Misao his arm in mock flourish. "I am at your service, as always."

Misao gazed at Sagara with dry humour and exclaimed with equal flourish, "At last, my own escort and chaperone!" before putting her hand in his.

"Of course, who better to face the hounds with?"

And with that, he led her off. Like matching pieces, the quality of their attires matched, striking to the gaze. As they walked away, their forms were followed by all the gazes and whispers, leaving their group again in obscurity.

Saitou turned to them, his face grim. "Gentlemen, this is Yokohama. It's possible to thrive here, I had guaranteed that."

He then directed his eyes back at the path Misao and Sagara had traversed. Though everyone followed his gaze, Aoshi didn't stop looking at him, transfixed—for a brief but significant moment, there was a naked look of resignation on the man's face, worn down with regret. He had seen that look once, the night he confronted Saitou before leaving Yokohama. You couldn't have protected her... we can only go so far.

"But I never said it would be easy."


 

Sagara was by himself when Aoshi found him later, watching observantly against the wall next to a grand arrangement of blooms. He was no more than a few meters away from Misao, who was herself surrounded by a number of gentlemen. It hadn't been too hard to spot them, if not for the telling black of Misao's attire among a sea of colour, then for the number of gentlemen who surrounded her in constant pursuit.

Although surprised, he greeted Aoshi with a one-sided grin. "So you've come. I thought you would."

Aoshi gave him a silent look as he made space, and Sagara shrugged. "You did say that if we're working together, you wanted to be involved – be there, see things, and understand everything for yourself. I figure that Saitou's introduction wouldn't have been enough for you. Are the rest of the men still with him?"

Aoshi simply nodded, appreciating the straightforwardness. "He is currently having another meeting. I have been to one of them."

"Stuffy, aren't they – even with Saitou around," Sagara smirked. "How are you finding all this so far?"

Aoshi predictably said little. "Informative."

There was a rough edge to his voice. Sano eyed him back carefully. "It's all a little bit too much, isn't it?" When Aoshi didn't reply, he continued. "Especially for the other men. You do know that most of them are pinning their choice on yours, don't you?"

Aoshi stiffened, and Sagara went on. "At least, that's what it seems to me. They know you understand more than they do. They trust your judgement, and they'll go with your decision. At the end of the night, it's what you think about all this that really counts."

"It's not a simple case of what I think about all this. I have not come here simply to make opinions and judgements." Aoshi finally let out with a shake of the head. "My purpose is to observe. If this system works and it's in our interest, I have a duty to abide by it... regardless of my thoughts."

Sagara paused. He gave Aoshi a meaningful look. "Still, what I said—"

"I say, are you Lady Sotsu's chaperone?"

Sagara sighed and turned to accommodate the young gentleman who had interrupted. "Yes, and you are?"

He gave his name, that of a famous financial family; he was grandson to the patriarch. There was no change to Sagara's direct manner however. "And your business with her?"

The young man straightened. "I heard the lady wasn't dancing tonight, but I was hoping to talk to her anyway. I heard you were the man to ask."

"I am, but you didn't answer my question. Talk to her about what?"

At that, the man hesitated. He clearly hadn't thought that far ahead. "Uh, just to talk. Right... and to introduce myself, obviously."

Sagara looked towards where Misao was standing and casually flicked a leaf from the floral arrangement next to him. Misao saw this and inclined her chin slightly to the right, which he nodded at. Aoshi kept his expression neutral as he noted this exchange; their interlocutor remained oblivious.

"Sorry, kid, but not right now. You might get the chance to though, if you come back in around ten minutes."

Although the man looked affronted at being called 'kid', the chance to pursue the issue again later was enough to satisfy him. He promised to return and walked away.

Aosh's face remained deceptively impassive. "What transaction was that?"

"Oh that." Sagara placed a hand to his head. "That was..." he tried to find the word. "Crowd control, I guess. I might not be a conventional chaperone but nobody goes to Misao without going through me first. It just makes things a lot simpler for everyone. Tonight's a bit of a crush, of course – I've lost count of the dance offers we've had to turn down. I try not to allow more than four people to talk to her at a time."

"And the gestures?"

"Caught those, eh?" Sagara grinned. "I wanted to let Misao quickly know the kid's agenda, and I also needed to know what she thinks. I had to point to the leaf to let her know that the boy was a 'green.'"

"A... green."

"Yes. Greens are those who have no idea who we are and have no existing relationship with us. They are not interested in the Nishitaka theatre, like the Blues," Sano briefly touched the shade on the vase next to him, "or our undercover work, like the Whites. Misao is talking to two Blues right now and has to arrange another White meeting with Saitou in five minutes – that's probably why she didn't want any Greens hovering around. I'd have to send the kid over later though, just for the sake of realism – she's supposed to talk to genuine admirers after all."

Aoshi's gaze wandered towards Misao throughout Sagara's explanation, and unwittingly, her eyes also rose to meet his. Her stare remained steady and clear, just as piercing, as if to tell him she was just as aware of him. It was only when the man before her stopped speaking that she drew away.

"Of course there are occasional Reds – people who have an issue with us like Hirai, or those people who were talking about her earlier. They almost never go through if I have anything to say about it."

Aoshi's eyes narrowed fractionally, but he didn't say anything.

"Look, I know you're trying to be fair about this whole thing, and it's your decision." Sano turned to him suddenly. "But you have to know this as well – she's not completely alone out there. Saitou trusts me to always be nearby so she doesn't have to handle all of it by herself. It might be her choice to do this, but we also do what we can."

Aoshi faced him fully as he said this, but before he could reply, Sano's attention turned back to Misao again. She had run four fingers across her arm in straight invisible lines.

"Finally!" he exclaimed. "I'm surprised it took this long!"

To Aoshi's shock, Sagara started dragging him by the arm. "Right, we are going to pay Enishi a visit in the card rooms."

"Yukishiro."

"Yep. He and Misao usually partner together in missions like this. That signal she made was for stripes. I don't know if you remember, but at the height of Enishi's... well, infamy, he used to be called the White Tiger. Saitou, of course, prefers to call him just a Mouser... but that's another story. Don't worry; I'm sure you'll get used to all of this soon."

Partners? Throughout this monologue, Aoshi had resisted the unfamiliar urge to blink. He had almost forgotten how – informal Sagara could be. What was stranger than his revelations, however, was the casual ease in his disclosure, as if he was satisfied with the likelihood of Aoshi choosing to join them.

They had reached the card rooms by this time and to any newcomer it was another exercise in adjusting. The area was laid out much differently compared to the ballroom, was almost fully occupied by men, and was misty with cigar smoke and the smell of alcohol. Sagara had let go of him earlier and had made his way to the back of the room, towards a private alcove.

It was in this more exclusive setting that Aoshi finally laid eyes on Yukishiro. The last member of the Nishitaka, unaccounted for until then, was dressed in a singularly white suit and seated in an armchair at the centre of the round table. It was quickly evident from that this was the room for the highest stake games in cards. No other lord in the group was similarly seated as imperiously as him, however, and most of them paused when Sagara and Aoshi entered.

Enishi was steepling his fingers before he finally turned his attention to them.

"What do you want?" The voice, though soft, was caustic and demanding.

"Just a few minutes of your time."

The man's eyes flickered at them. "Outside."

Aoshi waited for Sagara to step out at the curt command, but was surprised when all the other lords in the table stood up instead. If there were any complaints about the interruption to their game, none was voiced in Yukishiro's hearing.

The man had looked up at them scornfully the moment the room was vacated. "Shinomori. So Saitou was right. Should I now expect you to breathe down our necks at every turn?"

Aoshi didn't rise to the bait. Their previous encounter had not been a diplomatic one.

"Whatever you agreed with Miburo, I won't be part of it." Enishi divulged without pretence. "I still see my business as nothing that concerns you."

"I came here to do my duty. No more and no less."

Enishi snorted at this. "We'll see how you feel when you see things as they truly are." Something changed in his tone then, almost ironic. But this was just as easily gone as his voice lowered again, hardening. "I won't stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine."

Having adequately made his point, the man then turned to Sagara, his voice rising with ire. "Now, what does she want this time?"

Sagara, who had been tentatively quiet over the exchange, was now reanimated. "Misao wants to confirm if you're still joining us for the mission. It's in thirty minutes."

"What kind of stupid question is that? She's already dragged me through a hated mission in that area once. Of course I'll be there." His affirmation was at odds with the strength of his disparagement.

Sagara dared a grin. "She's just only realised that you're mad at her for whatever reason. You haven't exactly been forthcoming the past few days."

Enishi glowered. "I was simply returning the favour."

"Aha, so I was right. You're pissed not because she disobeyed Saitou the other night, but because she did it without telling you."

Enishi scowled at his impertinence, but didn't deny this.

The significance of this was not lost on Aoshi. Whatever Yukishiro's connection with Misao was, this certainly wasn't down to simply being 'partners.' It was a surreptitious thought that he had to tread carefully

"If it's any help, I think the whole thing was spontaneous on her part."

"Don't trouble yourself with speaking on her behalf. It never works." Enishi changed the subject instead. "I heard about the dramatic entrance of the night."

Sano shook his head at the critical tone he detected. "You know how the Weasel can be. She's cheeky enough to shock them when they least expect it. She took away any satisfaction from mocking her by delivering the punch line herself. Somehow, she got away with it."

"She'd like to think that, wouldn't she?" He asked softly, his expression dark. He filled a glass with whisky and started swirling it. "And yet she wouldn't dance with anyone afterwards."

"A daring stunt like that might win some respect, but it also reeks of arrogance, which is an invitation to trouble. I've been dogged by talk about her the whole night, and I know not everyone has been impressed. Make sure that neither Lord Minamoto nor Okura ever get near her. Those two have unpleasant things in mind."

Sagara grimaced at this revelation. "Got that."

"Many of us have questionable things in mind." Enishi turned his distrustful gaze to Aoshi again.

"I will arrive in twenty-five minutes at the agreed place. Now you may leave."


 

It took a bit longer to find Misao again in the ballroom. Sagara had thought that she would still be on the floor discussing with her gentleman callers, and was aghast to find her gone. It was while Sano was issuing another search through the room that Aoshi accidentally walked past where she was.

"Aoshi-sama?"

Aoshi turned around to find Misao nestled between two columns, nearly hidden from view as she perched on the table behind her. He noticed how her feet dangled slightly off the ground – they had stones that glittered even in the shadow. She looked up at him, a glass in her hand, her expression slightly abstracted. He was surprised to note how—at least in that very moment—vulnerable she almost looked.

"Is Sano around?"

"He's looking for you."

"Oh."

Aoshi realised that this was the first private moment he had with Misao since he came back to Yokohama.

"Are you alright—"

"Is there anything wrong—"

They both paused mid-sentence, and Misao's face broke into a half-hearted grin.

"I'm supposed to be used to this," she gestured to herself. "Or at least I am trying again. You... you looked overwhelmed."

She looked overwhelmed, herself.

"I'm fine."

The abruptness of his tone must have caught her notice, and she looked down. When she looked up again, her smile was bright. "I didn't mean to say you looked worse for wear. You actually cut quite a dashing figure in a suit, Aoshi-sama."

Her slipper fell from her left foot as she said this, and Aoshi immediately descended to retrieve it. Without being asked, he slotted the item under her ankle, slender and well shaped. Even her very feet were ornamented.

He heard her laugh, and when he looked up, her smile turned teasing. "Remember when you had to keep replacing my sandals for me? I kept losing them everywhere."

He did remember. Her sandals had been too big and had conspired to be snagged from her tiny feet in the most unexpected places.

"Yes." As he said this, his thumb moved across the inside of her ankle in an involuntary caress. Still looking at him, she shivered, and he caught his breath. He immediately let go of her foot and stood up.

"You didn't have to, but thank you, Aoshi-sama." If she was flustered, she hid it by examining her foot. "It's fine, now."

It was moments like this, Aoshi suddenly realised, that were dangerous. Amidst a multitude of questions, of decisions to be made, of uncertainty, revelations and of secrets best kept... moments like this rendered everything else quiet, treacherously insignificant.

He reined in this part of himself with precise control the entire night. And yet now... His chest still felt too tight.

"It seems like that's what we've been doing the whole night," Misao let out unknowingly, "an exercise in convincing everyone we're 'fine'."

His eyes widened. She looked up at him after that, almost as if with fright, as if she hadn't intended to reveal her thoughts.

She also understood the danger of the moment, he realised. They could not trust themselves alone with each other. She had too many secrets, and he, too many questions.

And between them... there lay an unresolved gulf that they both had already chosen not to traverse.

"There you are! Destroy my nerves again, will you?"

Aoshi stepped aside as Sagara placed a hand on one of the columns to rest, himself.

Misao straightened, and her face changed and she looked up at him sheepishly. "I decided to give you a break from having to watch over me on the floor."

"That excuse won't work, you brat."

"Why are you so worked up anyway? Did you find Enishi?"

"Of course. Yes, he's joining us later, and yes, he's got a bone to pick with you." Misao blanched at that and put down her glass. Sano raised a brow at this. Whisky.

"What's wrong?"

Misao snorted. "Nothing. Just that so many things would have been much easier if wasn't being such an ass right now. Did you know how many men wanted me to discuss business opportunities with him in the past hour? Five!"

Sagara shrugged and pointed at her glass. "Well, fighting or not, you and Enishi both take to the same kind of alcohol." He crossed his arms. "If you wanted a break, you could have just told me, you know."

He knows there's something else she's not telling him.

Misao gave a quick look at Aoshi. "I'm fine, Tori-atama."

At his raised brow, she sighed and conceded. "I just needed to rest my feet for awhile. I've concluded most of our talks for the moment anyway."

"It's those infernal shoes, isn't it? Are they getting painful? I swear it's the price you pay for being too vain."

Misao stuck a tongue out at him. "It's not too bad. I just haven't worn any of these for a whole month... I needed to get used to them again."

"Do you want me to have a look?" Sagara looked hesitant.

"Of course not! Anyway, I am ready to go back out there again." Misao took one last swig off her glass, leaving a scarlet mark where her lips were. She stepped down and gestured her complaisance.

Sagara looked down at her sceptically, but allowed it for now. "It's helpful that you're not dancing tonight at least. That would have been much worse."

"Sano?"

"Eh?"

Misao looked up at him. "Thank you."

Aoshi recognized that gaze. Thank you for not pressing.

She gave Aoshi a quick look and exhaled.

He had too many questions. And she, secrets.

Sagara sighed and placed a hand on hers, squeezing briefly before letting go.

"Now, you have around a quarter of an hour of socialising to do before you need to find an excuse for disappearing for the mission. Have you found anyone to pretend to sneak away with?"

Misao only inclined her face, her tone and demeanour changing to the same one she projected earlier. "I am sure I can manage."

"I'll see you both in a bit for the mission."

She then pulled her shoulders back and walked away, her gait determined and her bearing all confident. Her transformation was instant. She was again the dark belle of the ball, the controversial rebel at the heart of its scandals.

He watched as she instinctively bent down to retrieve a handkerchief that the man next to her had accidentally dropped. Their hands went on top of each other just next to her foot, which peeked from underneath her skirt in its sparkling slipper. The man, young and with perceptive dark eyes, caught his breath.

Aoshi had many questions indeed, and chief of those was the one that involuntarily arose whenever he saw her walk away.

Who are you really, Misao, and why have you nothing left to lose?

Chapter Text

Aoshi had anticipated that Yokohama was not going to be easy. He knew that walking back into the city meant confronting not just his duty, but old memories, new names, and the inevitable presence of Misao. He knew that there was much he would have to be ready for.

Yet it had only been one day, more than an hour into the Evening Ball watching Saitou's Nishitaka group, and one exchange with Misao, and he knew that he was already, irrefutably unhinged. It was more than he had planned for, and in itself was quite disturbing.

"So, we're actually doing this."

Aoshi lifted his gaze at the exclamation the boy next to him unwittingly let out. He and Takanobu were standing on the steps outside the mansion where the ball was being held, waiting for the others to join them for the mission. Fortunately, they were distant enough for other crowds not to hear the exclaimed phrase.

The Younger Takanobu's eyes stayed wide with wonderment however. "This is actually happening. A mission – with you, and the Nishitaka."

Aoshi raised a brow at the amazed tone in the young man's voice. He had been used to a certain amount of awe from other people towards him; his reputation preceded him as much as it followed him, for good or for nought. But the note of—reverence in the boy's voice on the mention of the Nishitaka struck a familiar ambiguous chord within him.

Aoshi briefly recalled their encounter earlier before the mission. He had been with the other leaders, waiting in one of the mansion's numerous corridors when Saitou and his team appeared from a different doorway.

For the first time, they were complete. On the far left had been Sagara, who strode with ease, a hand at the back of his head while he spoke dryly. Next to him on the right had been Saitou, who silently led the pack front and centre, his expression focused and shuttered whenever he wasn't biting out insults. Much smaller on his other side was Misao, her heeled steps giving her a bounce of height as she animated the other half of the conversation, even as her alert eyes jumped from person to person. Finally, the last member Yukishiro was present next to her, his walk lean and brisk, his lids lowered and his lips pursed as he refused to speak.

From afar, Aoshi had heard brief snatches of conversation among them.

"…So he is actually coming back. Seems like all roads lead to Yokohama these days."

A derisive snort issued from Saitou. "Spare us the pithy sayings, Tori-Atama. Please."

Misao's lips had quirked into a smile as she quickly exchanged a look with Sagara, "Sano is right though, Chifu. The point is that one of us has to be there when the he arrives tomorrow." Aoshi hadn't managed to catch who they were talking about. "Do you want me to go instead?"

"I can come too." Sagara added, and then glanced at Yukishiro and announced with suspicious cheer, "If not us, then it would have to be Enishi here instead…"

Enishi inclined his face at them with a narrowed, withering stare.

Misao sputtered and raised her hands, "Yare yare, Sano! Remember, it's me he has to ride with later."

A barely-concealed snigger burst from Sagara as Enishi directed his frown towards Misao instead. Saitou merely sneered in disdain as he ignored their antics. "Idiots."

Aoshi had to pause at the sight; there were so discordant in their tones and reactions that, under any other circumstance, it would be difficult to imagine them together as a single group. But even he could tell that there was something curious about these differences; the volley of verbal retorts was easy, the way they audaciously crowded each other was familiar, even comfortable, and their movements, while uncoordinated, still had their own rhythm.

Despite himself, Aoshi had felt something tighten within him at the sight.

It was then when Enishi had spotted them. His eyes had flickered in their direction, and in the same instant, all four grew silent and turned together to face them. For the first time, Aoshi and the others were suddenly subject to the unexpectedly singular gaze of the Nishitaka.

From behind Aoshi, he heard the other men stepping back, as if intimidated.

It had been enough to surprise even Aoshi, and there had already been enough surprises that night.

"I'm sorry I keep thinking out loud." The Younger Takanobu's musings brought him back to the present. "I know we've just discussed the plan with everybody. It's all just a bit too much; I don't know what to expect."

Overwhelmed. Remembering Misao's words earlier that evening, Aoshi knew it was a state he could not fault. Though the Nishitaka had joined their group and discussed the mission without incident afterwards, the directness of their combined approach had been so compelling that Aoshi could only wonder how many men, rich, powerful or influential, have been unsettled by the same piercing scrutiny before. It was no wonder Saitou needed to test their reaction to the group before agreeing to anything.

"Well, it's a fine night for a mission for one thing."

Takanobu jumped, and Aoshi watched as Misao let herself down on the steps behind them, followed by Sagara.

"Misao-san! Sagara-san! I didn't see—that is, I—" Takanobu began to stutter.

"Please, if there's anyone who should be embarrassed about being too distracted to notice other people, it's her." Sagara pointed a thumb at Misao. "It's always easy to catch her out when she's guilty or emotional—"

"I know, I know, and Saitou never fails to point out my 'chronic weak spot." Misao grumbled as she conceded the events of the previous night, "But the point now is not to be seen or noticed."

She was herself now appeared smaller in what appeared to be an oversized coat, hiding any trace of skin and the sweep of her skirts. The only noticeable evidence of her evening attire was the still red lips and the elaborate bun resting at the side of her neck. Without the grand clothes and the regal face she put on in the ball, looking at her became almost—Aoshi tried to pin down the thought—easier...

Though flustered, Takanobu gave a small smile. "Indeed."

Aoshi turned away with a nod, understanding her deliberate transformation.

Less overwhelming.

"Right." Sagara's voice sounded amused at the boy's attentions as he stepped down next to them. "Our transport's arriving soon, and I'm with these guys from now on."

Takanobu turned to Misao again. "You're riding with— Yukishiro-sama," Sagara smirked at the awkward honorific. "Aren't you? Perhaps you could ride with us, if that's what you prefer?"

Clearly it had not only been Aoshi who had noticed the tense air between Enishi and Misao that night.

Misao only snorted. "Of course, I'll be fine." She paused at the word unexpectedly, and Aoshi lifted his gaze to find her eyes on him.

Before anyone could notice however, she had lightened her tone and turned back to them. "It's Enishi, after all. If he looks like he's in a bit of a mood right now—well, he's always moody to begin with. It's never stopped us completing missions before. I've just learnt to work my way around it."

"'Just?'" Sagara choked at the word. "Don't try to make it sound like a simple task, Itachi. Find me someone else he can tolerate enough to work with, and then you can talk."

Misao gave him a pointed look, "I already told you; it's simply a case of finding a way for him to let it all out… and you know how good I am at that." She grinned.

Any thoughts around those words were cut off at the sound of horses. Misao nodded at the approaching carriages and turned to them again.

"So I wouldn't worry about what to expect if I were you, Takanobu-san." The man looked uncomfortable at what they overheard earlier. "You're in good hands with Sano here, and needless to say, your ride will be much more pleasant than mine." Her eyes then fleetingly met Aoshi's again. "Take care of yourselves."

The carriage door opened, and Enishi stuck his head out, "Well?" his voice, when he finally spoke, was cold.

Misao regarded him keenly, and with no particular hurry or trepidation, called out cheerfully. "We were just talking about what a fine night it is for an adventure. Ne, wouldn't you agree—" she paused to tip her chin up and breathe in the night air, "Yukishiro-sama?"

The man's eyes flared instantly. Misao then turned back to them and gave a small wink, incredibly, as if to say, "See?" before making her way towards him.

"Will she really be fine?" Takanobu let out warily as she disappeared into the other carriage.

This time, Takanobu didn't see what Aoshi did; that despite his expression, Yukishiro had still calmly offered a hand to pull Misao up when she lifted hers, and that she did not hesitate to take it; that the more the man glared, the larger her smile grew.

Sagara snorted as he approached the other carriage. "Misao? Enishi is right awful pissed for some unknown reason, and Misao now plans to annoy the hell out of him until he 'lets it all out'. I wouldn't worry about her if I were you; I'd worry about Enishi instead."

Indeed, the Nishitaka kept surprising Aoshi, and, he knew, without hesitation, that they would keep surprising him more.


 

They were to head to the Nihonodori port, where the Wing Fang was thought to have chosen a warehouse with extra security to store their goods. Their makeshift team had a textbook reconnaissance mission to confirm this with evidence and if possible, to find more information about their future plans.

"We're stopping here – can't afford to be detected, see. You can change out of those suits, and we can go on by foot. Misao and Enishi have gone ahead to set things up for us."

The warehouse was one of the outliers in the port, a good distance from the next warehouse on the right, and covered by an outcrop of trees, rocks and crags on the left. Sagara led them through an uneven path towards the latter, where they saw the dark outline of Misao awaiting them on one of the rocks.

Sagara slowly approached her, careful to gain even footing in every step among the rocks. "I take it, you haven't cracked him or been forgiven yet."

Misao grinned and helped him up on the last step, "Nope. He's been so stubborn, I'm actually impressed. Won't be too long now, though."

Enishi had been further away, closer to the copse of trees above the rocks. The man's face was carefully neutral when he stood up from inspecting a satchel of equipment next to him, his lip narrowing only slightly at their approach.

"Here to attack me with more mindless chatter or are we finally focusing on your mission?"

"Mission, of course." Misao replied without pause or preamble. "Based on your small reactions to my mindless chatter anyway, I already figured out that you're not mad about the ball, Saitou, or even that night I snuck out. But you are mad – not about something I did, but about what it meant—the concept, or the ideaif you willNow I haven't figured what that is yet, but I have more than enough time to get it out of you later. So yes, for now, the mission first – All good for these?"

She had already bent down towards the satchel next to Enishi and was examining its contents when she asked the question.

Enishi's eyes had widened only fractionally at her direct, no-nonsense spiel. He then exhaled and nodded curtly. "All in working order. I trust you at least have worked on your left leg?"

"Of course. And you, with your right arm?"

"Obviously."

"Good to know." Misao gave a perfunctory grin. "Off we go then!" She lifted the satchel over her shoulder then began walking ahead.

Enishi eyed her warily for a few seconds before continuing after her. From beside them, Takanobu finally let out a sigh of relief. Sagara shook his head in amusement before gesturing to follow.

A few steps from them, Aoshi noted the dark colours of their uniforms and wondered if it was a choice informed by the Nishitaka as a group, or by simple practicality. Sagara's garb was a standard black tunic with loose trousers to comfortably move in, but Yukishiro and Misao's attires matched each other's, from the Chinese-style fastenings of their shirts, down to their legwear, affirming a shared history. Surprisingly however, Yukishiro kept his sword in a sheath clasped to his back, and Misao kept her pink Oniwabanshuu sash around her waist.

Her tactics with Enishi was also very surprisingly Oniwabanshuu – choose to observe before reacting. He was favouring the same in this very situation.

His purpose in this whole scheme, after all, was to observe.

They were already talking about next steps when they reached the woods above the rocks. "Now this warehouse is very interesting for many reasons. Its position makes it easy to guard – most tenants usually put most of their security around the back and left sides of the building because it's quite impenetrable from this side."

No one argued with Misao on that point as they followed her gaze to the warehouse. The wall facing them was brick-strong and windowless, rising over the sharp outcrop of rocks jutting from the waves underneath. It was certainly inaccessible by boat – any small vessel would be too feeble for those stones, and large ones would draw notice. It would be impossible to climb anyway as there were no handles save for one drain pipe halfway up the wall. Nor was it easy to access from the top – there was no tree high enough to use a roped grappling hook with. Any in-bound journey from afar would have to be an upward climb by rope, and it was not likely any hook can carry their weight for that long from such distance.

"Are you quite sure this is the right place, Wing Fang and all?" Takanobu let out in jest as he stared at the jagged rocks beneath.

"Of course. I asked." Misao answered mildly. From the way Enishi and Sagara rolled their eyes at this, Aoshi figured this was an answer which usually had another story to it. Misao ignored them and went on.

"Now, from what everyone knows, no single man has managed to get through to the warehouse from this side – they always dared the safer, but more guarded points of entry. Groups have tried as well and it's never worked; no grappling hook can get you from here to up there that easily. Of course, what no one realised is that it's quite possible," here she smiled as if with a secret, "if it's done by exactly two people at a time."

Takanobu paused at that, "Huh."

Misao chose to hand Enishi some rope and a grappling hook at that second, precisely as the man exhaled impatiently. "Enishi and I managed it once before, and we should be able to manage it again now. It's nothing too complicated and we're not doing anything new. Believe it or not, this is actually the easy part. All you need to remember is this: two at time."

Enishi tossed back some rope at Misao for her to wind around her torso and shoulders, and she continued. "We need to think in terms of two's. Just keep watching the person ahead of you – move when he moves, and do exactly the same thing. Timing is everything here. If anybody is behind you, they'll be following whatever you do as well, so try to mirror whatever you see. If it helps, we use a signal. I usually raise the small finger on my left hand so Enishi knows when I'm about to move. You can do the same."

"Got that." Takanobu gulped. "What else?"

"That's all of it."

"That's it?" At Takanobu's raised voice, Aoshi heard the man's imaginings about falling to his death among sharp rocks or at the hand of a Wing Fang guard.

Misao grinned. "Well, I'd ask if you're good with climbing ropes and jumping heights, but you're fellow onmitsu yourself and I know that's all standard for you. Enishi was the one who had to work with all those." The man scowled at her in response. "We're here for a reconnaissance – we get in, find what we need, and get out. We'll try not to pick any fights or set fires along the way. We should be fine if we stick to the plan."

"Vanish, if not." Enishi chose this moment to speak, his words cryptic to Aoshi. "We have to move soon." Misao nodded and turned to them one more time to explain.

"Sano will stay here on the lookout of course. If the Wing Fang are indeed onmitsu ninjas themselves, they should be having a rotation of shifts in a few minutes. We're coming in then, one at a time. All right?"

When Takanobu finally nodded, Misao turned to Aoshi, brief concern in her eyes, "Aoshi-sama…"

"Takanobu will go ahead of me. I can bring up the rear and keep our tracks clean." He acknowledged the implicit question. It was best for the boy's nerves if he had Aoshi watching from behind.

Misao obliged with a relieved nod before turning to Enishi, who accepted the bow she handed him.

"Well, it was a good life. It was nice meeting you and an honour to work with you." The man snorted in response. Misao placed the mask over her face, and proceeded to climb up the tree next to them.

"They do that all the time. Don't worry about it." Sagara interrupted before Takanobu could ask.

Enishi took a few steps away from them, eyes narrowing as he watched the tree above. After a few moments, he heaved the bow over his shoulders towards the branches. The bow was caught by Misao's hand, and from then they had visibility of her, a dash of pink cloth among the leaves.

The girl steadied herself on one of the tree's larger branches, lifted the bow, and fired the grappling hook.

Aoshi watched as the rope went sailing over the air, the hook embedding itself at a spot midway up the wall, near the single drainpipe. It was at a downward angle that made sliding down the rope easy, but was nowhere high enough to be able to scale the top of the brick wall. Beside him, Takanobu frowned.

"How can we get over the wall from there? There aren't even any handles we can use to lift ourselves up—"

Another hook was sent firing over the air from above, and it landed a few feet away from the top of the wall. Without the rope, it looked like a workable handle, but wouldn't have been useful on its own, given how far above it was.

Aoshi watched carefully to see how they worked it out.

Enishi began to climb up the tree, and Aoshi watched as Misao zipped from the rope above towards the wall. Her foot found the drainpipe and she steadied herself and started unwinding the rope across her chest. With that, she lifted a hand and showed her small finger.

Takanobu saw the cue, and began to climb up the tree after Enishi, just as Enishi followed down the rope towards Misao.

This was when Aoshi began to pay more attention. To any casual observer, the scene would have been perfectly mundane and nothing out of the ordinary, but being onmitsu himself, he knew that this was not the case. There was not enough foot space on the drainpipe to hold two people, putting both Enishi and Misao in a precarious position. Aoshi watched, eyes narrowing on the minutiae, as Enishi put his right foot on the pipe, precisely as Misao lifted her left.

In an unexpected moment of synchrony, Enishi let go of the hook with his right hand just as Misao grabbed on to it with her left, his arm snaking behind her to keep her falling, just as his right foot steadied her left.

From afar, he watched the nod between them as the man let go of her back and lowered his right arm to catch her left foot.

His right arm, her left leg.

With another nod, they both crouched together, and Enishi launched Misao in a powerful assisted lift, boosting her left foot with his free arm.

Time appeared to stand still as she went through the air, rope sailing behind her back. In no way would she be able to make it up such a distance to reach the top of the wall, but Aoshi stayed still as her hands reached out and grabbed the rope-less hook she herself had launched earlier.

The hook was a short distance from the top, but would have been at too high an angle to support anyone's weight if used as a grappling hook for climbing. However, the much lighter Misao simply used it as a lever, pushing her feet against the wall to steady herself. From below her, Aoshi watched as Enishi took firm hold of the rope dangling from her back and shoulders.

In case she falls.

Sagara sucked in a deep breath next to Aoshi.

And Misao launched herself up the wall with her arms, reaching out through the short distance she could lift herself—

To grasp the top of the wall with her right hand. It was at a strange angle but it was enough: gingerly, she pulled herself over the wall.

"Hell," he heard Sagara curse. "Those two are altogether something else when they work with each other: stark, raving mad."

Enishi let go of Misao's rope, only to have it dropped back to him again when Misao had it secured over the wall. Misao looked back down at him from the top, and from afar, Aoshi could see the grateful look in her face when Enishi looked back up at her.

It would be a memory that he would constantly go back to over the following months to come, during the many times the depth of Yukishiro's involvement would be questioned.

She trusts him with her life.

He hadn't realised he had said it out loud until he saw Sagara looking back at him, his expression showing he understood the rare wonderment in Aoshi's tone.

"Yes, she does, like no one else." Sagara turned to watch them. "I've been around for almost two years and it still makes me wonder."

Aoshi paused at that. "You were the last one to join the Nishitaka?"

Sagara took a second to reply. "Technically, I was one of the first. But I haven't been around as long as those two have been working with each other."

Sagara must have seen something in Aoshi's expression, for he continued with the audacious certainty, "I had many questions at the time myself. We can talk more about it when you've started working with us."

Enishi had lifted a hand for the signal before climbing up. Takanobu set off from the tree above towards the wall. Aoshi shook his head and followed shortly.


 

The mission was an easy success after that. After everybody had finally scaled the wall, it had been no surprise to find that the warehouse was indeed occupied by a seafaring group for the night and was being stocked. It therefore became a simple case of finding evidence while slipping through undetected, which was easier given that they had come in correctly during the rotation of guard posts.

Aoshi would normally have been able to plan out his own route of entry and exit, but the Misao's instructions were surprisingly effective, especially given Yukishiro's lack of onmitsu training and Takanobu's relative inexperience. Aoshi had instinctively kept his observation of their surroundings – confirmed by his own eyes that the men were indeed the Wing Fang, and that they indeed had an organised force around transferring bulk quantities of processed opium. They had their target.

Despite this however, a significant part of his attention was caught up in the two Nishitaka members with them.

Misao and Enishi indeed had a particular way of moving with each other. If Aoshi had observed a notion of this from the rare times he saw them before, then seeing them work together bore this out in full force. There was that same evident synchrony—Enishi had little difficulty mirroring Misao's movements, nor she augmenting his; when he looked high, she looked low, and when she turned left, he checked his right. More than that, they appeared to have a way of anticipating each other: whenever Misao reached out, Enishi was there to grab; whenever Enishi so much as inclined his head sideways, Misao already had an answer for the question he didn't need to voice. It was as if they had an instinctive certainty of each other, like they were of a single entity.

And this, to Aoshi, was profoundly unexpected. He had seen such behaviour in pairs before, usually justified by similarities in training, likeness and experience so strong that it bound them. This was hardly the case for the two – Enishi was a swordsman while Misao was an onmitsu, he was trained in strength and technique, while she was in speed and espionage, he was tall where she was small, and imposing where she stealthy. Even the 5 years where Misao must have met him wasn't enough to develop such familiarity. Yet somehow, their awareness of each other was exceedingly strong – considering, especially, that sensing chi was Misao's so-called "chronic weak spot." It must have therefore been a shared experience that made them so.

Were they lovers, perhaps?

Aoshi ignored the sudden feeling that knotted within him. He was rational enough to acknowledge the possibility and give into his observations. There was hardly any obvious affection between the two, not like the easy fondness she shared with Sagara. Separately, Enishi was more often than not detached, and hostile if he wasn't. Misao did not appear to be offended by this, but was certainly exasperated enough. Yet this strange behaviour when they actually were with each other was another story in itself.

Indeed, he should know better than anybody.

Aoshi exhaled sharply despite himself.

Observe, instead of reacting.

"You're awfully good at handling that, aren't you?" Misao was whispering as Enishi packaged the sample of opium they had each taken hold of from the stock to verify. They were now concealed in one of the darkened upper floors, which gave them a brief reprieve to regroup. "Musically-talented, tri-lingual and familiar with opium packing, and you wonder why I'm always shocked."

Enishi, who had now safely secured their evidence in a style only someone familiar with the illegal trade could possibly manage, simply scowled back at her, "Baka. This keeps it fresh; Cantonese and Mandarin are variants of the same language; and how can you not be shocked when your favourite skills involve impersonating others, making 'surprisingly good' miso soup, and antagonising people like me? At least I know what I am capable of."

He then walked off without awaiting a reply, but Misao quickly followed him, grinning fondly.

"Left." She suddenly announced, and Enishi paused to find a door. "Office, remember? For written evidence, if any."

The man nodded and tried the door, which he very conveniently unlocked with a snap of the wrist. Aoshi noted the textbook technique. If working with Misao this way had made Enishi cognizant of onmitsu skills on top of being a swordsman, what did working with him mean for Misao? He watched as she entered after Yukishiro, not noting any sword on her person. He narrowed his eyes at this, sensing that this would somehow be important in the future.

Misao and Takanobu got to work on the desk, careful to touch only what was necessary and quickly scanning each document. Her eyes lit up when Takanobu lifted a sheet of paper for everyone to see.

It was a list of dates and destinations of various ports around Japan where the group had already docked, and were to proceed to. An itinerary that linked the Wing Fang's operations in various regions around the country – it was as compelling evidence as any.

"I'll look further but I haven't found any records for their sales transactions here. Clever, really." Misao mused as she and Takanobu continued to feel around the desk. "I think this should be more than enough though. Aoshi-sama?"

"I do not see why this won't be satisfactory."

He could see the light of victory in Misao's eyes as she took out a sheet of charcoal paper to replicate the text on the sheet. The information was crucial, and Aoshi and Takanobu had been there to verify the original. They didn't need to take the evidence and risk discovery. "Excellent."

"Of course, you're pleased." Enishi let out all of a sudden, his tone now flat.

Misao looked up at him instantly. More of the language Aoshi knew existed only between them. "Hm?" She eyed Enishi carefully as she folded the paper and handed it to him for safekeeping. "Here."

Something changed in Enishi's expression as he took the paper from her. He grabbed hold of her wrist and slowly lifted it closer to him.

"What," he began softly, a dangerous edge to his voice, "happened here?"

Aoshi saw the marks then, poking just beneath the wrist guard, faint reddish marks that he knew would soon turn black and blue. They appeared fairly new, hidden underneath her evening gloves earlier. Finger marks.

Something within Aoshi's chest grew hard.

Misao looked up at Enishi in alarm and then gave the marks a sweeping look, as if encountering them for the first time. It was the same abstracted gaze she had given him earlier this evening, and suddenly Aoshi made the connection in his head. Enishi's warning about the intentions of some men; not finding Misao in the ballroom when they got back; "I should be used to this," liquor in her hand as she lingered in the shadows afterwards…

But Misao broke the silence, her expression suddenly shuttered and her voice steady. "We need to leave. Now."

She twisted her arm away, and Aoshi saw Enishi clench his jaw. Surely enough, they heard footsteps walking across the doorway, and they all stilled.

When the footsteps moved on, Misao nodded, this time to Aoshi, and he moved to inspect the doorway, with Misao right behind him. The coast was clear for now, but another foot soldier would be reaching the door in the next 15 seconds.

"I can distract them for a bit." Misao offered, "Do you think you can lead the others out? You remember how we did it – with you leading, they're going to be fine. I'll follow after Enishi-kun."

The telling slip in how Misao addressed Enishi was shelved in Aoshi's mind, and he nodded. Misao gave the Enishi one last look – the man looked furious, before nodding and slipping outside the doorway.

Whatever Misao did bought them time as the next soldier instead went the opposite direction. Aoshi hadn't seen what she did exactly, but he remembered enough of her visual trick with her sash the last time to understand her style. He quickly led the other two through the timeliest stops until they were back at the roof and on top of the wall.

Misao reappeared after them and was ready to go when another foot soldier emerged from the opposite direction. In the split second, Misao had jumped opposite the soldie rwith a sound, distracting him from spotting the rest of the group. Before the man could fully turn to see her, however, Enishi had already grasped him by the head, rendering him unconscious with a push of the hand.

Standard kenpo. They would be able to leave the place undetected, as the soldier didn't even manage to see them. And most of all, to Takanobu's relief Aoshi was sure, Yukishiro Enishi never used his sword, even to incapacitate a threat.

Aoshi wasn't sure what this meant quite yet, but he understood its significance. For now, it meant that they could work with the Nishitaka if needed.

Misao caught the bow Enishi threw at her and fired another shot with the grappling hook towards the same tree. Once secured, she nodded to Takanobu, who went first. Aoshi himself was safely on the ground next to Sagara when Yukishiro and Misao jumped down together from the tree, grappling hook and rope also retrieved from the wall.

"15 minutes, right on time." Sagara tapped on his timepiece approvingly. "We have the same amount of time to meet the others at the drop-off point."

"We better get moving before they find the soldier we knocked out."

"Huh. Whatever happened to 'get in and get out'?"

"They won't know unless they discover us now – which is why we need to get going." Misao grated out.

Aoshi knew her agitation had more to do with avoiding a confrontation with the deceptively still swordsman next to her. The moment Sagara saw Enishi's stormy countenance he nodded and moved without asking.

It was only when they had made their way onto the drop-off point earlier, where Saitou and the rest of the Elders were waiting, that they finally stopped and got settled.

The other Elders were surprised by the evidence presented before them – they hardly needed verification from both Aoshi and Takanobu. The dates coincided enough with encounters in their own hometowns that there was no doubt of the Wing Fang's involvement.

"What should we do about this? Report them to the police?"

"We can't be idiots about this. The police will simply arrest this set of smugglers now – we need to arrange something that could help flush out the group in the long run. Perhaps a meeting with the Chief Superintendent to discuss tactics so they can coordinate with the remaining cities on this list."

"Not the army."

"Clearly."

"You have done well by us, Saitou." Akiro announced, although he turned to look at Misao as well. "I had sent out my best informants in the city to find this information. How you got to the bottom of this is remarkable."

Saitou raised a brow. "You will not find any of your methods successful in Yokohama. Every network here has been bought and paid for already. Information is expensive. You have to think differently in this city."

"How did you get this information then?"

"I asked." Misao replied absently when Saitou looked at her, but Sagara cleared his throat in exasperation and explained.

"It is known that the Wing Fang would be docking in Yokohama based on the meeting, and a number of sources confirm that they have been using mid-sized ships for transferring their goods, but that they used large warehouses, for obvious reasons. If you check, you will find that only two midsized ships are signed to use large warehouses in Yokohama for tonight. All this information is readily available"

Sagara pointed a thumb at Misao. "Now Itachi here knows for a fact that Lord What's-his-name—"

"Tsukimoto."

"Yes—Tsukimoto is a furniture dealer who uses midsized ships to fill in stock fortnightly. She simply asked which warehouse he was using when he attended the theatre last night. It then followed that the other warehouse—"

"Is the Wing Fang's." The Elder Takanobu finished. "It was all down to a simple process of deduction. No break-ins, no interrogations." The man exhaled and look at Aoshi again. "Very much your style, Shinomori – you and your Oniwabanshuu, if I recall properly."

Aoshi took some satisfaction from the way Misao paled at that, unwittingly acknowledging the connection. "Indeed, but it requires extensive local knowledge to work."

"This is what we need the Nishitaka for." Chuugo acknowledged

Baku nodded, "Saitou, if it needs to be said, I think we have come to a decision here. We are happy to work together for this, unless anyone objects."

"No one will."

It was surprisingly Enishi who had announced the word darkly, as if in warning. Saitou frowned as he regarded him.

"Really?" The sudden exclamation came from Misao, as if she had just had a sudden revelation, and when Saitou turned to her, he asked no more when he realised she was looking at Enishi.

Enishi said nothing in response. He simply looked towards Saitou before turning to leave. "I am not needed for this. Good luck."

When the man disappeared behind the trees, Misao nodded to Saitou before stalking off after him. "We'll meet you back at the ball, Chifu. Let us know what you decide."

Aoshi saw Sagara's worried gaze at this, and was not surprised when the man looked back at him. Their sentiment was the same.


 

They eventually located the two awhile later. It was already settled that they would be working with the Nishitaka. Sagara had made an excuse to leave, ostensibly to look for their equipment and pack up, and Aoshi went to join him.

Aoshi had continued further on his own, and he heard the voices before he saw them.

"Stop fixating."

Aoshi turned to his right at Misao's voice, past a copse of trees.

"Fine – instead of talking to me, you're standing there having a mighty sulk and staring at my arm. What's the problem here? You've seen me worse before – you were there when half of my face was black and blue from that paddle; you've pulled out a knife from the back of my thigh once, and you've had to cover so many of my cuts and bruises – I know because half of the time, you were there injured with me, and I was there doing the same for you."

This struck Aoshi, and again his thoughts went to their affinity with each other. Bonding by shared experience –if not shared intimacy by being lovers, it could well be shared pain from surviving the same traumatic experience. It was too relevant to dismiss.

Misao wasn't done, "So somebody gripped my arm a little at the ball, I took care of it already and they won't bother me now, I'm—"

"Do not," Enishi's voice rose; he sounded like he was barely controlling himself, "tell me that you are 'fine.'" He spat the word out. "There are only so many deceptions I can tolerate."

Misao did not say anything after that.

Aoshi gazed past the foliage and finally saw the two of them in a small clearing. They had packed their equipment and appeared to be re-dressing for the ball. Enishi had been fastening the buttons on his shirt while Misao was putting on her earrings, evening gloves in hand.

"You said 'your mission', not 'ours'." Misao said quietly after awhile. Enishi gave her a sharp look.

"I remembered. That's when I figured it out. You're not usually so upset when I go off on my own, or when I pull a number on the Feast like earlier. You were even impressed by it—I could tell. But whenever I mentioned them with Takanobu or any of the onmitsu clans, you react differently. You still joined for the mission with us, but you were disapproving of it to the very end." She shook her head. "You don't like the idea of this whole collaboration with the clans. But why?"

Enishi still refused to respond, and Misao looked at him, alarm spreading over her features. "Unless you finally want out of this whole thing?" Her voice suddenly sounded faint. "Because if that's what you want, I won't…"

"Now who's being an idiot?" Enishi finally cut in, his voice heated. "I said I would stay, didn't I? When have I ever done anything I didn't want to? Look at me." He paused only until Misao did. "I have no problem being in this damn city, going on dangerous missions or working with whatever fool you saddle me with. What I have a problem is joining you in ill-thought out choices when you yourself are bloody undecided."

The dazed expression of panic on Misao's face finally cleared. "What are you talking about? I decided to support the deal, and I made it clear—"

"Have you really?" There was a cutting edge to Enishi's voice. "You were in near collapse after that meeting with the Elders last month, worrying everyone, and yet you decide to push for this mission on your own. You decided to attend the ball tonight as a high class whore, but you then went and acted like you're better than the rest of them, being picky about who you associate with, and not even deigning to dance with anybody. You've broken too many rules. It's no wonder half the people are of a mind to put you in your place! I may not be the best judge of self-knowledge, but how can you be that ignorant?"

His tone was severe, straightforward and unrelenting, and this time it was Misao who appeared to be struck dumb by his words. "I—I didn't realise—"

"And now you're wondering what makes this 'deal' different from the rest of them…" Enishi's eyes narrowed "If you ask me, you don't want to push through with it any more than I do."

Misao's eyes snapped back to his. "That is untrue."

"Is it, now? Then you do realise that joining this collaboration means that you again have to go back into every ballroom, simpering like an idiot after every dignitary, bowing when they say 'down', and never objecting to whatever they say?" His voice was ironic. "Ah, of course you should know this – this is Yokohama, after all, and you've mastered that game already. But know this as well—it also means keeping your gaze down," here Enishi paused, "even when they label you a whore, a tart, or whatever insult they choose, in the presence of Shinomori Aoshi."

Misao stumbled back as if she had been slapped, and through the shade and silence of the forest, Aoshi suddenly found himself in the direct gaze of Yukishiro Enishi. The man was aware of his presence, even though Misao remained oblivious –chronic weakness notwithstanding. It only meant one thing – Yukishiro was also sending him a message.

"You should know this."

He clenched his jaw.

Enishi regarded her again. "Turn around." Misao slowly did, exposing her back to him. Methodically, the man started clasping the remaining buttons that he probably already knew she could not reach.

"I don't know your history with him and I know you're not going to tell me. But let me tell you this." Enishi continued as he worked his way up, "I am not here to respect your wishes out of some sense of familial obligation like Saitou, and I'm not inclined to give way out of some sentiment from a past friendship like Sagara. I am here because after I fought against you in Kowloon, you now fight with me here in Yokohama. I have owed my life to you, but I've also seen you fall apart in more ways than you can remember. I know what you can't do. I know what you fear."

Misao started at that and she turned around to face him, but he only went on. "You might not want to hear what I have to say, Misao, but I have worked with you for far too long. I can bloody clean up after your mess, but I am not here to indulge you." His gaze turned piercing. "I am not just anyone; I am your damn partner." His voice seemed to burn at the word.

Partners, just as Sagara had saidAoshi's mind had clouded over the word, and yet, somehow, that answered his questions better than 'lovers' or 'survivors' did. Indeed, the whole statement was a richer source of information than anything he had ever heard that night - it was Yukishiro Enishi putting his foot down and proclaiming his place.

"You can try to convince everyone else that you are certain; you can lie to Saitou, Sagara– you can even lie to yourself. I have seen you do it many times." Enishi let out harshly. "But do not try to lie to me."

Misao appeared lost and smaller than herself. "I… I'm sorry Enishi-kun." Was all she could say.

Enishi did not move, and his voice remained cold. "You're not just apologising for trying to deceive me."

"You are right." She struggled to let out, this time as if it was him she was trying to pacify. "I have been going about this the wrong way. I wouldn't say it if I didn't agree but—"

"Then bloody re-think your decision!" Enishi bit out. "You might say you're not, but you are clearly tiring of this game in Yokohama; the fact that you've become so affected since Shinomori was involved only proves the point. You care about what the man thinks, but he is here for his own reasons: neither would he back down. Will you be able to stand up to any more reminders of your past?" Here he paused. "Is your sense of duty really all that matters?"

Misao made herself look up at him, and from the way she stood, Aoshi knew she had something to say that the other man would not like to hear. "This could be it, Enishi-kun."

Although Aoshi did not understand what that meant, the darkening in Enishi's face revealed enough. "Don't be a fool, Misao." His voice turned cold. "Saitou already did the right thing for once by giving you a way out. Don't waste the chance by not taking it."


 

"Is that offer to join you still available?"

Sagara started and Takanobu jumped at Misao's voice, but Aoshi had not been surprised to see her at the doorway to their carriage, a wan smile on her face.

"I'll take that as a yes then," she swept in assuredly, and the others moved to make space for her. She ended up sitting opposite Aoshi and next to Sagara.

The man had a clearly worried look on his face. "What happened?" Neither of the other two had heard the conversation Aoshi did, although Sagara had found them both afterwards. When Misao only rapped on the carriage ceiling to signal their readiness to leave, he went on, "Did you not crack him properly?"

"Oh I did, never doubt that." Misao replied listlessly, as if in afterthought.

"Then why are you suddenly here? You two have fought countless times, but you've always stuck around and never gone separately like—"

"Like I'm running away you mean?" Misao cut in softly. Sagara stopped at the tone in her voice.

"Perhaps, I'm just giving him space." She went on, her eyes elsewhere. "I've pissed him off enough for the night and I can't keep letting him down. He'll need time."

Sagara frowned, as if he didn't know where to even begin with that. After a second, "Itachi—"

"It means," Misao cut in gently, "that he's right, this time around. I'm the one who messed up."

Sagara paused. Misao took out a little pouch and had begun to methodically apply touches of colour and powder to her face, only speaking after a few seconds.

"Tonight, when you and Aoshi-sama were looking for Enishi, two men approached me." Her voice was no-nonsense in her narrative while she dabbed powder on her face. "One of them wanted to discuss a—business proposal, if you will. I found it unsatisfactory and said no, and neither of them took it well."

Misao then took out her right glove, fully revealing the now darkened finger marks on her upper arm. Sagara hissed, and Takanobu was taken aback. "What the hell—"

Misao shook her head, "That's not the point, really. I gave them as good as I got – just used my fingers, really, on that pressure point on the hand—and I was free. Nearly broke the other one's wrist though – he was much more belligerent."

"Bloody hell," Sagara swore. "Lord Minamoto and his lackey Okura? Enishi had warned me about them. Does he know about this?"

Misao inclined her head. "In a matter of speaking; I didn't confirm it. I had handled it myself. I can take care of my own mess; I don't want him cleaning up after me any more than he already has. So please, don't bring it up again?"

Sagara looked incredulous, "But we can't just—"

"It was their words, more than anything." Misao revealed, her voice suddenly small. "I don't mind the marks, they disappear; it's what he said that disturbs me." She looked up at him, her eyes distant. "He offered me a sum, in foreign gold sterling, mind, for every time I would—dosomething for him."

Even Takanobu stilled at that.

"It was an enormous sum, enough to pay rent for the Nishitaka theatre for two months at the very least. And for what, for me to lie down flat on my back for them?" Misao shook her head. "The way these people throw money at you, just to prove that you are worth little to them… That is what stings... the whim to take away someone's self-worth, and all at the price of 400 pounds sterling."

Misao slid her gloves back on when they all stayed silent, "That's Yokohama for you, I suppose, but what's worse is that it was my fault."

"Now wait a second," Sagara lifted a hand, "It was their crude behaviour. How the hell is that related to you?"

"It was how I behaved, don't you see?" Misao calmly answered, but her fingers shook as she held a pointed brush of red to her lips. "Enishi called me out on it. I used to be good at this, at playing the role. I could work anyone and say the right things and charm their heads off, even as I got information from them. I didn't use to care about what anyone thought of me, and that's why I did my job well. Tonight, though, I did – I cared. I had to bloody act above it all and be bitter and proud and superior to the rest of them. And that was my mistake. No wonder people like Lord Minamoto wanted to bring me down a peg. I've made myself an easy target, when I can't afford to."

She then turned to Sagara and looked him straight in the eye, "I can't keep caring anymore. If I will keep working in Yokohama, I have to do it right."

Her voice was steady, but Aoshi could hear the plea in her voice, almost as if she needed him to understand.

Sagara held her gaze back for a few long seconds, "Are you sure that this is what you want?"

Misao exhaled, her gaze again distant. "Enishi asked the same thing, and here I am at this carriage, not at his." She turned her gaze back to Aoshi this time, and suddenly he was aware of what she was going to say.

"I might have done things the wrong way tonight, but I stand by my choice and I won't change my mind."

Aoshi looked back at her, at the pale face of the woman he once knew as a child, who now stared back at him blue-grey eyes so piercing, her deep set lips pressed in determination. Enishi had been right about the both of them. She would not back down either.

Misao then turned to Sagara, her face shadowed. "You and the others can head off if you want, but I'm staying to do this, and I need to get ready." She looked down. "I'm sorry, Tori-atama."

But Sagara dismissed her with the shake of a head. "The usual, then? I can have a list of names and a full glass of whiskey ready for you when you need it."

Misao gave the barest of surprised pauses. She then nodded without preamble. "Half a dozen dances at the very least. That boy who approached you earlier, Mizuno, it might be best to start with him."

She gave a small, ironic smile. Her voice changed then – lilting, low, and luxuriant.

"In fact, let it be green for the rest of the night!"

Aoshi remembered the colour assigned to new admirers from earlier; Takanobu simply appeared confused. The man never had the opportunity to ask, however, as while Misao had been speaking, she had also begun to pull her skirt up to thigh-level in various places, holding them long enough to leave visible wrinkles on the fabric.

The places where a man would put his hands...

Misao met his eyes at this point, her hand still high on her nearly-bare thigh. Without stopping, she then started ghosting fingers through her hair, loosening the curls from the bun at the side of her neck. She arched back slightly as she did this, and he saw the rise and fall of her exposed neck. Aoshi narrowed his eyes.

Where a man would touch with his fingers...

Takanobu coughed uncomfortably from beside him, Misao uncurled back from her position only to place a finger to the red on her lips, rubbing some colour with her thumb and spreading it towards the back of her neck and shoulders.

Where a man would press his mouth...

Despite himself, Aoshi was stolen of breath; her transformation from the girl he already chose to let go was almost complete, and yet he couldn't tear his eyes away.

'You should know this.'

She held his gaze nevertheless. It was as bold a declaration as any.

She was not going to hold back anymore.

"Right on time," Sagara announced, his voice a twinge dark. He had been looking out at the window the whole time. He gave her a quick look, "Are you ready?"

Misao nodded and looked towards the door.

It was then when Takanobu finally found his voice. "What is going on?"

Misao started at that, and when her eyes snapped back to his, her gaze turned steady, even sad, as if she knew that Takanobu would never see her or Yokohama the same way again afterwards.

"I am going back in there, Takanobu-san." Misao gestured towards the mansion, where a soft glow and the faint notes of music beckoned, "And I am going to smile, dance, and defer until they they see what they want to see, and say what they want about me. This is Yokohama society, after all – it might be beautiful, rich and amazing, yes, but it's also brutal, foul and merciless."

Her eyes sharpened, and the look in them turned lethal. It was a sight Aoshi knew even Takanobu would never forget, "This time, I am going to play their game."


 

It was awhile later when Sagara found him again. Aoshi had been standing on one of the higher floors facing the ballroom, watching the scene below. Again, it was never too hard to find Misao – if not for the shock of black among the sea of colour in the dance floor, then for the constant crowd of watchers and whisperers.

The talk had been fairly consistent this time. When Sotsu Misao returned to the ballroom, it was universally agreed that she looked different. Flushed, breathless, and with a furtive look in her eyes, it was as if a fuse had finally been lit, and she started cracking fire afterwards. She had then set the whole place ablaze—no longer was she reserved, closed off and hard to reach; suddenly she was disposed to talking, charming, dancing and making merry with whomever she was with.

There could be no doubt as to where this transformation came from, of course– it was clear from the tangles in her hair and the wrinkles in her dress that she had clandestinely disappeared the past hour in the company of a gentleman whose identity still remained a mystery. Some say it was the son of a country-side tycoon whose favour the government was chasing, while other said it was the financier Mizuno's heir, whom she had also danced first with. It was now her third dance in the last thirty minutes, and current partner, according to the whispers, was a foreign diplomat.

In short, it was universally acknowledged, she had reverted to form. It hadn't taken much, really.

Aoshi released the railing, which he hadn't realised he had been gripping quite tightly. "Really" – the people there was fond of using the word in every other sentence, almost as if it made their sentiment superior.

"And there she goes," Sagara sighed as he stepped next to Aoshi on the balcony. "She actually does prefer dancing, you know. When she has a good partner, they can blow the whole Feast away. In fact, although this rarely ever happens, you should also see her dance with Enishi –it's something to see."

Aoshi briefly recalled how the two moved around each other when they worked; the effortless choreography of their spontaneous movements. "I do not doubt that."

"I heard you'd agreed to stay; Saitou just told me."

Aoshi said nothing at the quick change in topic. Below them, he watched Misao turn in her partner's arms as the music ended. The diplomat looked down at her and began to whisper in her ear. A knowing smile bloomed on Misao's face and she quickly moved back before he could reach for her, escaping with a promising look. The crowds twittered. Seamless. Masterfully done, really.

But then she now stepped up to her next partner, devoting her whole attention to him; she looked up him with a different light in her eyes as her hands came up to his shoulder, for all as if nothing mattered in the world anymore but he. It was a look that would be the undoing of any man.

"I know it must have been a hard decision to make, but I'm glad you did. I was in the same boat as you, you know. Hell, I know I've had too many questions, and Saitou, Enishi, Misao—none of them are good with answers." Sagara sighed. "One thing I can say is this: when you stay long enough, things do become clearer, but only if you give them a shot."

Aoshi turned to him slowly, suddenly remembering Enishi's words. "How did you join the Nishitaka?"

Sagara looked up at the sudden question and gave a small laugh. "That is a long story… where in my travels, I accidentally bumped into Misao when she had nothing more than her ideas and a new life to start in Yokohama. Little did I know that I was actually the last of us; that Saitou, Enishi would soon come back from Kowloon themselves."

Sentiment from a past friendship—Sagara had actually been the latest one to join indeed. He had not been in Kowloon with Saitou, Enishi and Misao, and yet he was still around now.

"And Saitou's wife, Tokioh, is she part of this as well?"

Sagara's eyes widened at that, as if he was surprised at what Aoshi knew. "Not in the way we are, but yes. Saitou hardly be as involved if that wasn't the case. Tokioh actually trusts Enishi, and Misao is like family to her. Unlike Saitou, she has both their loyalty, and in many ways, they put her first."

Sense of family obligation—part of Saitou's involvement was certainly due to his own wife, of that Aoshi could now be sure. Did Saitou owe her life to either Enishi or Misao as well? And wasn't she a Healer? The questions were only just beginning.

"Sagara-san!" Takanobu's voice suddenly interrupted them. "I'm glad I found you, come quick!"

When they stopped running across the hallway, it was to find a man crumpled unconscious on the floor, and his companion forcefully pinned to the wall—by a dangerous-looking Enishi.

"He broke my fingers!" The man who could only be Lord Minamoto howled at them, "Just because we decided to teach his arrogant little mistress a lesson." He looked back frantically at Enishi. "Do you even know who I am and what I can have done to you for this?"

He was cut off as Enishi closed his hand tighter around his throat, his wrist hanging limp and useless in the man's hand.

"You imbecile," Enishi enunciated, "It doesn't matter if she is my mistress or not. If you think you can touch anyone I tolerate enough to work with, consult in my businesses, and trust my own men with, then you are astoundingly," here he flexed his other hand, which had been holding the man's limp right wrist, "misguided."

The man howled in pain. "One finger for every mark you left on the girl's arm; payback in a language even your simple minds can understand." Enishi sneered. "This may be Yokohama, but I do not care who you are or what you do; you are not untouchable to me. If you think you have the men and the connections to ruin me, let me reassure you in no uncertain terms that my men can do worse to you. I am Yukishiro Enishi;you should know who I am."

Minamoto actually whimpered.

"If you touch, threaten, or even breathe a word of insult against Sotsu Misao again," Enishi lowered his voice, "I'll have no hesitation breaking off another part of your body, pride or no."

The man's eyes widened, the threat rendering him speechless, and he was left trembling when Enishi let him go.

When he turned to face them, though, the expression on his face remained taut and barely controlled, his eyes still dark with fury. "He would have caused more trouble if nobody puts him in his place." He gave the two lords slumped on the floor next to them a disgusted look. "Get somebody to look at that hand. He won't be able to grip anything for awhile."

Sagara nodded immediately, now smirking. A thought gave him pause however. "How did you know—and Misao does she—"

"She doesn't need to know about this. I've taken care of enough egos for one night. I won't be bothered with hers." There was again that harsh tinge to his words. "I don't care what that brat says about cleaning up after herself; there is enough we need to worry about."

He suddenly shifted, again directing his gaze to Aoshi. "It's already been a long night; and there's no telling what more would come tomorrow."


 

It was an hour past midnight when Misao gingerly descended the carriage in front of Ramushi Hall. As she made long, throbbing steps up to the front door, she couldn't help recalling how she had left the house this way two nights ago.

She gratefully slipped the key to the lock. Goodness she was bone-tired. If the physically demanding mission hasn't been exhausting enough, then the repetitive act of lifting her toes and turning in circles from dancing would have done her in anyway. It had been awhile, she admitted; her feet burned at every step, sending jolts of pain up her limbs, keeping her alert.

She immediately grabbed at the wall table in the entrance hall, keeping her hands steady as she felt around for the drawer underneath. She accidentally caught sight of her reflection in the mirror as she did so.

It was altogether not too bad, she decided. Loose hair framed her face as the well-coiffed bun she favoured earlier surrendered to active bouts of movement; her eyes, though ringed by dark circles, were alert and wide, charcoal-lashed and smoky. Though her skin was a little too pale, it retained a flush of red from a full glass of champagne a while ago. Anything was better than the raw, pitiful sight that greeted her two nights ago after disturbing nightmares plagued her sleep.

She briefly closed her eyes. It had been a long night hadn't it? And there would be more going forward; there was no turning back from this. She exhaled. The world had shifted a bit in the past two days, and yet there she was, still standing—albeit with agonised feet, marks in her arm, and a perhaps, not a few aches from within from too much confrontation, too much forced smiles, too much stolen looks, too much everything.

Right. This had to stop before it even began. A glass of something was necessary. Now. She couldn't afford to break now, yet this was the hardest part, really. There was too much thinking in the dark, too much silence that she could almost hear herself, and too much that threatened to overwhelm her from holding herself together. She tugged at the drawer, managing halfway through when her eyes opened and she spotted Aoshi-sama in the mirror.

She was proud of herself for not showing her surprise—damned chronic weak spot—but of course, he had also agreed to work with them hadn't he? The rest of the men were roomed at the Miradono, after all; it would be no surprise that Saitou had also offered him a place to stay.

The stormy expression on his face was another story however; she had seen that face on enough men to recognize the signs.

She was doubly proud when she managed to lift her lips in a smile. "Couldn't sleep? I get nocturnal here myself – it must be all the high ceilings, the distant noises. Nights in Yokohama are never quiet. Takes some getting used to."

She was babbling in Aoshi-sama's presence, she realised with belated horror. What was she, 16 all over again?

"I didn't realise you were returning tonight." He said after a while.

For some reason, this made her defensive. "Of course I always come back home; I live here." She never stayed the night in any man's house—except maybe Enishi-kun's, but that was again a different story.

Aoshi-sama's eyes bore at her in the dark, and for some reason, she felt a strange sense of having been here before. It felt astonishingly like that night before he left, when so much had been said, and so much had almost happened between them.

"Was there something you wanted?" She tried, knowing she didn't have the strength for any more mind games. She then saw the tense jaw, the lidded gaze, and knew she had to bite the bullet, "…Or something you wanted to ask, maybe?"

"I heard you weren't good with answers."

Sano must have said that. It was absolutely his style, damn him.

"I'm not." She admitted, unable to begrudge the truth. She then exhaled, knowing it must have been a long day for Aoshi as well; he must have had to put up with too many revelations and make difficult choices the same way she did. Night time will not be easier for him either. Sighing, she leaned back on her arms at the table for support.

"You get one shot out of me tonight, Aoshi-sama. You did decide to join us after all." She conceded out loud before she knew it. There was no taking that back now.

It took him some time to answer. Misao realised he was considering her offer carefully – there must have been too many questions he had been holding back on.

"Would you have returned anyway?"

His eyes glinted in the dark, and she knew he was no longer talking about Ramushi or Yokohama. To the Aoiya; he meant home.

She instantly regretted her promise then. Anything but that. She resisted the temptation to close her eyes and vanish. Anything, anything else, but that.

But the world had just shifted, she was tired, and she was no more than a 16 year old again, standing before a man she had been sure was meant for her.

"I used to think about little else, I think." She was saying before she could stop herself. "There must have been so many nights when I thought, 'Surely this wouldn't be happening to me if I had stayed home instead… surely this would stop if I go back now'."

There was a different, half fascinated light in Aoshi-sama's eyes as she went on. "Of course, there was no turning back; there couldn't have been. But part of me still does keep hoping—one day. One day I'll be able to come back and face everyone again."

Aoshi-sama stepped closer but only just, almost as if was aware that anything more would frighten her silent. "Then," he began quietly, "why haven't you?"

Misao breathed in quickly. Something welled up within her, rising to dangerous levels. Again there was too much… and this had to stop; this had to stop soon, or she wouldn't know what she would say or what she wouldn't be able to hold back.

Then, a thought arrested her. "I can ask you the same question, Aoshi-sama."

He started; Misao gripped the edge of the table from behind her and went on. "You were gone with the others for more than a decade. Did you never think of coming back? What stopped you?"

There – he looked away; she knew that look. She had watched and yearned for this soulful, powerful and unreachable man long enough not to recognize it, that small sign of fear. She was getting somewhere. She might as well keep running.

"In fact, why could you not kiss me that night?"

Aoshi's repressed gasp, almost like a curse, cut between them.

Misao suddenly found that she could not stop. "I can't judge you for it now. Because it's all the same, isn't it? This sense of—not being ready, of not being worthy enough for the good things; for peace, happiness and belonging." Love, she did not say.

Aoshi looked –undone, his breathing deep and his mouth half-opened. Suddenly, the thoughts and questions she had wanted to avoid started forming in her head, creating a force that was not ready to be stopped.

"It's the same here with me now, Aoshi-sama. There is so much I've done, for good or for bad, and there is so much more I need to finish. You saw me tonight; look at me," she exclaimed, gesturing at herself. "I can't go back like this, half-finished and foresworn a whore!"

His eyes snapped back to hers unwittingly. There. Again, she caught him; therein lies the rub. Aoshi-sama saw; he more than saw. Misao understood the fear she glimpsed in his gaze now only too well. She had also cared, only too much.

Suddenly, she was fully aware of herself again; of all that she had already decided to give up and push forward with, and of what she would have to lose because of this choice. Guided by a compulsion to do something she had always been tempted to, she found the strength to push herself up from the table. It was best to do it this way after all, wasn't it? This was how she worked.

Let it all out.

"You must have heard what the people here think I do." She took a step forward, taking advantage of his distraction to cut the distance between them. "You must have an idea of how they think I behave behind closed doors."

She then grasped at the collar of Aoshi's yukata before he could move away, and saw his throat move as he swallowed. She pulled him down closer to her before he could even think, satisfied when unwittingly he allowed himself to lower his head to hers.

Do not give him time to observe; make him react.

She pressed lips to his ear, "They think I'm bold," her hand suddenly snaked around Aoshi's neck, and the man gasped when she allowed her nails to graze the back of his neck. "They think I do unspeakable things," she exhaled into the side of his neck and delighted in watching him shiver, "They think I bite." Emboldened, knowing she might never be able to again, she allowed herself to nip at his ear.

Aoshi jolted his head away from her, his hands suddenly at her hips.

Misao had known what she had intended with this demonstration, and she had expected his retreat. However, she also suddenly felt more alive than ever; her veins were on fire, humming and trilling with anticipation, making it hard to resist. She allowed her hand to slide to his chest, and he shuddered. "They think that this is who I am."

"Misao, stop." He suddenly let out, ragged, hands encircling her wrists as he closed his eyes. Misao recognised this point as well, when he pulled himself back, soon with ruthless control. It was his sense of discipline that, in any other man, she would have found commendable.

"Is that not the truth, Aoshi-sama? You must have heard them tonight. Is this not what people expect of me?" Misao now allowed softly.

She saw the laboured look on his face, even as he closed his eyes. "What's worse is how they reacted when I refused to play their game at first. Do you not want to know what Lord Minamoto wanted me to do for him?"

"Enough, Misao." Aoshi gritted out, and his grip on her wrists tightened. Misao felt her heart beat louder.

Let it all out… and let the pieces fall where they may.

Misao used his hold on her hands to push her up closer and pull him back to her. "He wanted me to put my feet up on his shoulders—and squeeze him tight."

Aoshi-sama's eyes suddenly snapped open, and he released her hands. "Enough."

At that point, Misao knew that the Okashira Shinomori Aoshi was back. Now was the time to strike.

"There we have it. Did I surprise you? It's all vulgar, crass, and sickening isn't it? It's degrading, it's dirty – it's debasing." She choked out the words, surprised at how broken her voice sounded. She needed to hold it together just a little longer.

"I live with this reputation every day, Aoshi-sama. You will hear things like this and worse. How will you be able to stand it? More than that, how do you think someone like this," she looked down at herself, "can come back to the Aoiya with my head held high?"

Aoshi's jaw clenched. "Misao."

Misao shook her head, needing to finish. "I thought about this, you know. I cared about what you would think; about how Takanobu-san and the others would react. How could I not when they remind me of home; how could I not when it's you?"

Misao then held Aoshi's steady gaze in equal measure. "But I can't anymore; I can't afford to."

Aoshi's eyes narrowed into dangerous slits; she never forgot that look. When he told her never to show her face again.

She steeled her nerves one more time, preparing to cut. "I can't care anymore if I need to keep a foot in Yokohama; I have to keep playing the game. I have to accept that this is what you will see from tomorrow onwards. You don't need to accept it, or my behaviour; I know that might be too much to ask.

"All I ask is that you let me do what I need to. I won't be difficult anymore, I promise. I won't approach you or hound you or try to get you to see me, not like I used to. I'm not here to make you feel guilty or obligated. I'm leaving you be." She vowed, keeping her gaze straight. "We both made a decision to be here, after all, and our own reasons for that come first. You have enough to work with without me, and all of this, getting in the way."

She looked him in the eye one more time, saying what she needed to tell herself for the last time.

"I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine."

The flinty, piercing look Aoshi gave her in return stole her breath for all of a second.

A sudden light came on, jolting them out of their impasse.

"Shit, Itachi, is that you? You were supposed to be back over an hour ago." Sano looked down at them from above the staircase, a gas burner in his hand.

And Misao finally exhaled, gasping to herself as she gave him a weak grin. "Sorry Tori-Atama, you know how it gets with these things. Kuronova-san wanted to share a toast because her ball is now 'the' event of the Season..."

"No doubt because of all the stunts you pulled, but never mind that. You're standing next to the medicine cabinet, and it's half-open. That means… bloody hell, are your feet okay?"

Misao suddenly remembered the damn heels, "It's—" she hissed to herself as she lifted one foot. "It's most definitely not fine."

Sano was down next to her in an instant, assisting her to the nearest chair. She refused to look back at Aoshi-sama from this point onwards. She refused to look especially when Sano helped her remove her shoes and she had to bite her moan down, seeing blood crusting the fabric.

"What did you do, Itachi, skip and hop all the way home in these infernal things?"

Misao tried to smile; she really did. "It's been a whole month since I last used these; I just need to get used to them again." Babbling, she was babbling again. "Just give me the salve and let me go to sleep." Let her get away from here as soon as possible.

Sano was blissfully efficient at treating and wrapping the wounds – he had dealt with this problem enough times to form a strong opinion against heeled footwear—and the last glass of drink he consolingly offered her also helped. Before Misao knew it, Sano was already helping her up the staircase in an undignified piggy-back lift, and she, cowardly still, buried her face into her arms and did not look back at Aoshi.

She could feel his eyes burning into her, but she refused to turn.

She had said her piece; she was staying away from him, cutting off all care for what he thought. From tomorrow onwards, she wasn't going to look back. She was good at that. She only needed to make it through tonight, and not look back at Aoshi-sama.

She won't be able to make that look in his eyes vanish in her memories if she did; she wouldn't be able to hold herself together. And heaven knew there had been enough shifting of worlds tonight – if she dared look back, she didn't know if she'd be able to stand on her own two feet again.

Chapter Text

Again… those words again.

                     

“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”

 

Aoshi shook his head against the memory of Misao’s declaration that night… and the cold fury that had roared to life within him, unbidden.

 

There was a heaviness weighing on his brow. He felt too sluggish, too stiff… leaden.

 

“You’re angry. I disappoint you. You think I cannot be trusted.” She looked up at him differently this time, eyes dark and pleading despite being a picture of dishabille with her red lips and parted blouse, the small marks on her neck.

 

“Misao, I frankly cannot care less.”

 

A groan cut through the haze of his memories. He made his eyes open, and his heart started pounding when he realised he couldn’t move. His limbs were bound.

 

Aoshi grunted, trying to lift his head. To his right was Misao, tied to a chair, slowly coming to consciousness; further to her right was another man bound to his seat. Aoshi blinked when he recognised him. Hirai?

 

What had just happened?

 

“Ah you’re finally awake.”

 

Aoshi’s instantly tensed. It was dark, but in the faint candlelight he could see their captor move forward.

 

“It seems we have made quite the catch tonight.”

 

Their captor was a dark haired man with a familiar but seemingly unassuming face, the kind one hardly noticed daily. His chiding voice, however, was a distinct smooth velvet.

 

“Lady Sotsu, Shinomori Aoshi and Lt. Col. Hirai. A most unlikely group, but quite intriguing – certainly the last people I’d expect to come together to try bring down our operations.”

 

Aoshi tried to remember. Was it not just a week ago when he had decided to join the Nishitaka? Too much had changed in that time. He closed his eyes as he tried to recall more of what had happened since...

 

I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine” – the roaring fury that drowned out all his senses, leaving him unsettled still. He grated his teeth to regain focus.

 

“Since I’m sure you’re all disoriented let me try to help clear your minds. You had been on a mission tonight. My master Lord Shiya was your target due to his involvement in a series of recent information leaks.”

 

Of course. Lord Shiya. It was a mission Aoshi had set himself: the man’s name had come up in the leakage of Oniwabanshuu intelligence the past year, and his presence in Yokohama was timely. Lt. Col. Hirai and the military had clearly been thinking the same way, and Misao ensured the Nishitaka’s involvement at the last minute.

 

“Tonight, you nearly succeeded when you managed to steal some documents from Lord Shiya’s suite. But none of you anticipated that I would act.”

 

Aoshi then remembered running towards the woods away from estate, Misao near him, and Hirai a bit further ahead. He recalled the sudden faltering in her steps—the way she turned to them jerkily, “Make sure you get to Enishi-kun, he’ll know what to do.” She turned to Aoshi as her eyes glazed over, “Go!” before falling down, a poisoned dart sticking from her neck.

 

“It is of no matter now however, I have acted in time. You have failed in your mission.”

 

Aoshi looked up to find Misao staring at him and read the silent question in her gaze.

 

“Wrong.” Hirai responded curtly. “I was able to pass the evidence to one of my men, and we had Lord Shiya taken away for custody. I am fairly certain we did not fail.” Aoshi also wondered at him; He must have come back for them.

 

The man before them waved a hand dismissively, “Yes, but even though Yukishiro Enishi has the evidence and my Lord Shiya is currently behind bars, no one can do anything more at this point, not when I am out here and I have the three of you in my hands.”

 

Misao turned to him, pensive.

 

“You are Sen Kaita, Lord Shiya’s second-in-command. I met you earlier tonight. We had focused on Lord Shiya, but I knew something was off… it couldn’t have been that simple.” Realisation dawned on her face. “It’s been you all this time, hasn’t it? Not him.”

 

Kaita smirked, “Very good, Lady Sotsu.” His voice lilted patronisingly. “Took you long enough. It’s not the most obvious place to look, granted. I’ve run my operations with Lord Shiya’s money and influence, if not his knowledge.” He grinned at them disconcertingly. “But then again, that’s what I have always specialised in. Information.”

 

He then started pacing leisurely before them, disappearing from sight where the candlelight could not reach. “I was told to be careful of the Nishitaka in Yokohama, and I’ve been keeping an eye on your group. After that public scandal between you and Lt. Col. Hirai last month, I had it on good authority that that there was no need to worry for now. Imagine my surprise when in a single week, you managed not only to make a memorable comeback into the Feast, but also catch Lord Shiya’s attention.”

 

He stopped in front of Misao, “And you had your same public enemy and a legendary Okashira working with you, no less! An alliance of people that been on my trail for some time now, and you almost got away with it.” He paused and regarded all of them thoughtfully, “Like I said, very good.”

 

He then smirked. “But it’s my turn now.”

 

At this, he lifted the candle to fire a gas lamp, bathing their location in brighter light. Aoshi’s eyes widened at the familiar room they were in, the mirrors at opposing walls. He had been here before. Backstage in the Nishitaka theatre.

 

“Why here?” Aoshi looked around, tense. And where was everyone else?

 

Kaita only sneered. “You’d be surprised how little people look for the missing in their own premises. Not the most obvious place to look, remember?”

 

He grabbed a chair and set himself at ease in front of them. “Now, I have enough influence to do undo the damage you have done, and it won’t take more than a few hours. In the meanwhile then, I might as well do what I’m good at and get some value out of this.”

 

“It’s my turn for information now. It’s time to learn more about you and your Nishitaka group.”

 


  

One week earlier

 

For all that Enishi had portended what the morning after the ball would bring, it turned out to be surprisingly quiet for Aoshi. There had been too many things to catalogue from the previous night—and too many things he couldn’t even yet begin to examine—but after a bout of early morning meditation, he had returned to find that Misao had already gone for the day, avoiding any confrontation. Aoshi had already been too unsettled by his reaction to her from the previous night – defied, refusing her decision to stay away without his leave, even when he hadn’t wanted her near in the first place – but the way his mood turned darker at her absence had been even more disturbing.

 

And yet he had much to do, especially when the day included meeting with the rest of the Elders to finalise their agreement. After a visit to an Oniwabanshuu checkpoint on the outskirts of town, Aoshi went to meet with Sagara as agreed the night before. It was only when the doors were guardedly opened for him that he realised that he was at the famous Nishitaka Theatre.

 

“I’m afraid I can’t let you in. Show tickets aren’t for sale until the afternoon, if that’s what you’re after.”

 

Aoshi would have found his suspicion insulting had it not been for his encounter with the other side of Yokohama from the previous night. “I’m here to meet Sagara Sanosuke.”

 

The door opened wider, and a man stepped into the light. He had auburn hair and piercing green eyes that peered at Aoshi with caution.

 

“And your business with him?”

 

“I was told to meet him here at 9 in the morning.” Aoshi had come a quarter of an hour earlier just in case.

 

The man narrowed his gaze at him, “Bit early for that aren’t we?” His lips quirked upward, and the doors were opened to allow Aoshi entry.

 

Upon stepping inside the Nishitaka theatre, Aoshi had to hold his breath. Despite the morning light on the high ceilings, the place looked like the darker cousin of Yukishiro’s Miradono hotel; a sweeping staircase greeted them, rich-coloured furnishings gilded the walls, and accented details provided a unique, secretive mystique.

 

“My name is Daiichi – you can call me Dai. I’m not sure if Sanosuke-san is in, but you can try him through the stairs at the Gallery. We have lots of unwanted guests today so I have to stay here at the box office, but it should be easy for you to get around.”

 

What followed next had been unexpected.

 

Aoshi was led on a seemingly fruitless search from room to room in the building, where he encountered one theatre member after the other, but saw no sight of Sagara.

 

In the Gallery, he had met Eisai, whose identical looks to Dai momentarily confused him -- “We’re twins and we share a face, but I’m the actor, the one who loves all the ladies,” an unabashed grin, “while Dai’s the one in charge of staging. I’m sorry, what was your business with Sano again?”

 

Aoshi was then advised to go to the staff rooms (as Eisai had to ‘train the pups’), where he again had to repeat himself to Naomi, a woman whose bright skin and long black hair belied a classical beauty and a sharp tongue. “My, would I love to dress you up… I’m sorry if I’m forward, I used to be a dressmaker before I joined. I take care of Costumes, but I was also lead actress for awhile when Misao-san quit. Anyway– did Dai really tell you to come up here? And what’s your business with Sanosuke-san?”

 

Finally, once Naomi had been comfortable enough with Aoshi to lead him through the studios and work rooms towards backstage, he was introduced to Haru, a tall, quiet figure with a pale complexion and piercing grey eyes. It emerged that he was a foreigner (Harold was his actual name) who had been sailing with Enishi’s crew before choosing to settle in the theatre instead. He had the striking looks for the stage, but preferred art and languages, “I work on theatre props, and I only go onstage with a mask or disguise. There are other actors and actresses though, but they don’t live here like we do.”

 

Aoshi had already met one such actress, and when he heard, “Shinomori-sama, we meet again,” and turned around to see Mitsue Himeko, it had been ironically timely. The oft-mentioned heiress greeted him with a warm smile and tried to make sense of everything as she led him back to the Gallery.

 

“You’ve just met the Regulars of the Nishitaka theatre, Shinomori-sama, the ones who actually live here. It’s all quite unexpected. You’ve met the twins – Dai is very careful, but he let you meet his brother Eisai; Haru isn’t sociable, and Naomi gave me much trouble when I replaced her as lead actress. And yet they took to you quite easily… all while Sanosuke-san wasn’t even in the building yet. The question is, why?” Himeko placed both hands behind her back and smiled. “And I think I’ve figured it out. Shall I enlighten you?”

 

Himeko’s company was unexpectedly easy; her enthusiasm welcome. “By all means.”

 

“It’s because you asked for Sanosuke-san, and you were a quarter of an hour early.”

 

Aoshi’s blank look prompted her explanation.

 

“People usually come to see Fujita-sama and Enishi-sama, but the best way to get their attention has always been through Misao-san. Enishi-sama consults her on everything, and he doesn’t have the patience to entertain anyone unless they go through her first; as for Fujita-sama… well, you know how he is. However, Misao-san is notoriously hard to get hold of – she’s always moving from one place to the next. It’s only Sanosuke-san who ever knows when and where she is always. So anybody who knows the Nishitaka knows that the fastest way to get something done is to go through Sanosuke-san first. And you did.

 

“What’s more, the fact that you arrived early also works for you. Most guests, the aristocratic ones especially, tend to look down on Sanosuke-san and order him around. You showed courtesy, which to Dai makes all the difference.”

 

Aoshi found himself raising a brow. First impressions. “I’m beginning to understand.” This was Yokohama, after all. He shouldn’t be surprised to be scrutinised, himself.

 

Himeko’s smile was infectious. “You may have passed a test without knowing it, Shinomori-san. Dai introduced you to everyone because he knew you were important, but most of all because he knew we would like you.”

 

There was a brief moment of silent—collusion between the two of them at that, as if they both privately agreed that though her explanation seemed unbelievable, it might actually not be far from the truth.

 

Aoshi paused now, surprised at himself.

 

Masaka, Aoshi,” Sagara’s wry voice cut through them. “I’ve just arrived. On time. How is it possible that you’ve already been kidnapped and given the tour by the Regulars?” He allowed Himeko to greet him hello and placed an arm on her shoulders, “And what has our Himeko been telling you?”

 

They were interrupted when the theatre doors opened from the floor below to let Saitou in, followed by Misao. They fell in step with a sense of authority and purpose, talking in hushed tones. It was the same neutral but unbreachable front they presented at every meeting.

 

“Ah, she must be briefing him now. For some reason, she had been out the whole morning.” Sagara deduced.

 

Aoshi felt another unexamined tendril of ire unfurl within at the thought.

 

However, from below, Misao caught sight of the box office, where Dai, Naomi and Haru had all paused to gather. The blank look on her face fell away and her mouth bent into a wide smile. Saitou rolled his eyes.

 

Misao then ran to jump onto Haru’s back without preamble, and all but squealed.

 

“That’s right, underlings, I am back! And right now,” she added unnecessarily, “I’m taller than all of you.”

 

Kisama,” Saitou swore as he quickly escaped up the stairs, “Couldn’t you have waited until I was safely away before the histrionics?” He was gleefully ignored.

 

“No more sneaking about after hours!”

 

“And you can finally stop shirking from training the pups… if you can call them actors at all!”

 

Misao sniffed, managing to look indignant from the pedestal of Haru’s shoulders, “In case you didn’t notice, I was not shirking. I was just—banned from coming in.”

 

Dai smirked. “I heard you managed not to offend too many people last night to be embargoed from society again. I don’t know if we should be impressed or insulted.”

 

Misao grinned. “I know I’m talented at it, but is that all you think I’m good for? Who should I offend this time? Glad to know you think so much of me.”

 

“You don’t need to climb on a high horse for us; I thought my shoulders were quite adequate.” Haru let out with a small teasing grin.

 

Naomi snorted. “And there’s no need to hold back on our behalf. I’d walk into a ballroom with three gentlemen if I could get away with it.”

 

Misao paused and gave them an incredulous look, “Right. Gossip does not spread that fast. You got that from an insider.”

 

Himeko cleared her throat from next to Aoshi.

 

“I see you’ve decided to spy—” But Misao’s grin froze in place when as she looked up into Aoshi’s direct gaze. All sound fell away.

 

—“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine”—

 

Aoshi turned away, just as Misao resumed her focus.

 

“…Of course we needed to watch out for you.” Himeko spoke, sighing dramatically. “We needed to see if you really will be back and annoying as ever.”

 

Misao turned to find Sagara shrugging, amused. Dai had covered his laughter with a hand and Haru coughed. She then shook her head slowly, disarmed for all of a second as a different smile grew on her face.

 

 “Unbelievable, you lunatics actually missed me back.”

 


 

 

Present

 

Aoshi exhaled sharply at the recollection of how he came to know the very theatre they were being held hostage in.

 

Before them Sen Kaita stood. He was not a tall or imposing man; he did not look naturally threatening or powerful. At the moment however, his exposition had rendered his face in its best light—cunning, focused, in control.

 

“I have used intelligence on the Oniwabanshuu before, and it’s no secret that our target this time was the military. There was quite a price for any information I can find on them.”

 

Kaita stopped to look down at Misao. “The Nishitaka however, you are quite good. You may have been only operational for no longer than two years, but you have become quite a presence in this city. And my, have you ruffled some feathers, and not just for your unconventional theatre. There is a high price for information on you, if you need to know, but so far, none of the usual routes have been successful.”

 

Kaita drew a file from the desk behind him and began rifling through its pages. “They say you can pay for any intelligence in Yokohama, but this is worthless. Fujita Goro – no information, but everyone knows his history as Hajime Saitou; same with Yukishiro Enishi and Sagara Sanosuke… nothing to explain what they are doing in Yokohama and what their motivations are. No weaknesses to exploit.”

 

He took out a page in particular, “Your file was interesting however, even though it seemed equally unusable. There is a lot of detail on your reputation, your exploits and paramours.” He sniffed disdainfully, leaning on the chair to level his eyes with Misao, “Tell me then, where do they get this information from? Thieves, lovers and gossip-mongers?”

 

Misao paused. Her face fell into a neutral smile. “I’m fairly familiar with all three.”

 

“Ah well, I won’t be surprised if you know exactly what’s on these pages then.” Kaita grinned as he tossed the file aside. “I also won’t be surprised if threatening to harm you for actual information will get me nowhere, especially when none have succeeded before… Now don’t look too shocked, I am fairly familiar with these things too, you know.”

 

Misao narrowed her eyes at the misdirection, and he simply went on, “Let me change tack then.” Their captor shifted his pose, “I also know other things… say, about the—residents here in your theatre, for instance. What do you call them, the Regulars?”

 

That changed the look on Misao’s face instantaneously.

 

“They don’t take kindly to guests, for instance. You have a quite impressive pair of twins downstairs who fought us tooth and nail when we arrived here earlier tonight. There’s also that strange pale man who got in the way between us and that woman with the mouth. But no matter, we took care of them.”

 

Misao’s eyes widened and Aoshi could see how Kaita’s vivid descriptions summoned up names: the twins Dai and Eisai, Haru, and Naomi. People Aoshi had only just met himself and was beginning to know. 

 

“I know they are merely theatre employees, but it’s quite impressive, their loyalty once they saw that we had you captive. I’d say they actually cared for your safety, which is all quite sweet and dear. It’s really all too obvious now for me then, how to get you to speak.”

 

Misao looked up at him carefully, “What do you mean?”

 

“Their lives, for your cooperation, Lady Sotsu. I have men waiting just outside on the stage, who would shoot your little theatre-family at my orders.” He moved across the room to open the door, revealing a jarring view of the others slumped on the stage, kept under the watch of two men with arms. “It is stage-worthy enough, don’t you think?”

 

Aoshi fell still. Next to him, Misao stared at Kaita for a long moment. She then directed her gaze towards the doors.

 

Aoshi suddenly remembered the look in her face two weeks ago, the smile that made its home in her face as she looked in wonder at the people around her. There would be many times when he would question Misao’s actions and intentions, but that was the one look he would always know was genuine. It was also the one that, despite all that happened afterwards, will have the power to sting the most.

 

Misao then turned back to Kaita, closing her eyes as she conceded.

 

“Ah, Kaita-san, you are very good, indeed.”

 


 

Three days earlier

 

Aoshi’s memorable encounter with the theatre Regulars would be far from his last; in fact, he would spend most of his time with them over those early weeks. It was partly a natural result of his arrangement with the Nishitaka: nights consisted of missions, and mornings of debriefings and reports sent to the Elders back in their own towns. It left his afternoons free.

 

Aoshi had initially spent this time to explore Yokohama, building a mental map around its markets, gated establishments, migrant regions and transport links. For all that the city’s underworld had a nefarious reputation, it quickly became evident why this side was hard to access, much less breach. People were generally tight-lipped and tight-fisted, easily wary when it came to questions that did not come with bribes.

 

Aoshi came to spend afternoons in the Nishitaka initially by accident. While Saitou, Misao, Sagara and Yukishiro did not seem to spend as much time there, the Regulars were a constant presence, and Aoshi had been on his way after a briefing, when he saw the foreigner Haru fall without reason, his fingertips trembling as his limbs locked onto himself.

 

When his eyes rolled back, nobody around him seemed to understand what was going on. Aoshi, however, had seen seizures like this before—Hannya—and went to work immediately. He went down on his knees, laying Haru on his side to prevent him from choking on his own saliva. “It’s a medical condition. Grab something flat and firm; something that would fit into his mouth—quickly now!”

 

It was a device that looked like a shoehorn that did the trick in the end. Dai had been called and had found the very object in Haru’s pocket and Aoshi slotted it onto his mouth to prevent the seizures from injuring the tongue. He kept a steady eye on the man until the trembling ceased and reassured the others when stayed unconscious after that, saying he only needed rest.

 

“You were remarkably calm during Haru’s episode.” Dai observed, his first words to Aoshi since the morning after the ball. “Have you treated people with those symptoms before?”

 

“No,” Aoshi found no need to accept credit where it was not due. “But I’ve seen it done before. One of my men had a—phase—where he had similar episodes.”

 

He felt Dai’s assessing gaze on his face, but he did not probe. “Not many people know about Haru’s condition. Even Enishi didn’t. Nobody else would have known what to do in a situation like that. He could have been harmed.”

 

Aoshi dismissed this with a nod. “You have nothing to worry about. I can be trusted not to reveal any more details to the others.”

 

Dai exhaled. “I am trying to say thank you, Shinomori-san. You’ve done more than I would have expected.”

 

And this became the final push that brought Aoshi into the confidence of the Regulars. He had yet to realise it then, but their company would answer his questions more than any of his own outside ventures would. Their knowledge about the city and their audiences would display a breadth of perceptiveness that Aoshi would not be able to find elsewhere.

 

Eisai and Himeko, for instance, gave him his first taste of the how the theatre operated and was perceived in society. They both were its most popular talents, performing onstage every other night. They embodied the skill required to create characters for their audiences, and before he knew it, Aoshi would find himself learning about their twice-monthly production turnover, or being invited to read with them during rehearsals. Aoshi learnt more than just their trade however. Individually, their knowledge of Yokohama society was quite impressive.

 

Eisai, whose popularity as an actor made for invitations and access to many events, had an extensive knowledge of the issues, controversies and scandals that circulated among each social set. “You have no idea how much people talk about these things… I’ve become our resident Master of Intrigue!”

 

Himeko, herself a much-discussed figure in the city’s social circuit, was the one who knew the most about its rules and expectations. Despite this, she was too curious not to ask questions or test boundaries. She was well aware of her label as a ‘rebel’ for choosing the theatre, as opposed to fulfilling her role as an heiress by marrying. Her unself-conscious daring was hard to begrudge, if a touch naïve. She was the one who took to spending time with Aoshi of her own volition, and he found himself not minding in the least.

 

“I believe you are a mystery, Shinomori-san,” she once confessed to him in a low voice. “But I’ll take my chances were I can.”

 

“Careful, you don’t want her falling in love with you.” The other actress Naomi told him later that evening, an arch look on her face. “You would want to avoid encounters in the dark.”

 

Aoshi had simply given her a neutral look, unwittingly recalling a particular encounter he had yet to forget. “I wasn’t aware this was something to discuss.”

 

Naomi shrugged. “There are enough eyes watching people when they think they’re not looking.” She looked at him with familiar candidness, “Enough trouble has come from that.”

 

The trouble was that Naomi was also most likely correct. Among the people he had met so far, she had a particular kind of perceptiveness, one that came from seeing patterns in the whole and that allowed her to accurately predict situations. The problem, in her own words, was that she couldn’t keep her mouth shut about it.

 

Naomi had never made any secret of her background. She had come from a respected family of tailors, and had been talented enough in her craft, aside from being blessed with her own classical beauty. However, she had a strange propensity for blurting out whatever came to her mind—most of which, while true, lacked the subtlety to be socially acceptable.

 

“I ran away when my parents thought they could change what should come out of my mouth,” She once revealed with surprising casualness. “At least in the theatre, I can decide which other person I can pretend to be.”

 

The man almost always attached to her by the hip, Haru, was the opposite experience however. It was clear in his demeanour and preference for quieter, less ostentatious pursuits that he had been seen as ‘different’ from a young age, if not from his medical condition, then from his appearance. His fine features and grey eyes spoke of a mixed heritage that was not always welcome, and it was no surprise that he had first been in Enishi’s employ as a sailing traveller before. In the Nishitaka however, all awkwardness fell away whenever his skill in stage design and arts came to full force.

 

Haru and Naomi were both similar in their how they saw things. Their combined approach of loud silence led to an unlikely alliance that was legendary in its creativeness, as well as its scrutiny of everything, profound or ridiculous.

 

It was the two of them who invented the infamous “Sulk System” that impacted everyone from the Nishitaka theatre to the Miradono hotel. It was a system that was (rather impertinently) linked to the state of Enishi and Misao’s day to day interactions.

 

“One,” Naomi began, “usually means they’ve been arguing, as they always  do, over the small things… like which food tastes better, or which décor is less annoying—I kid you not, it’s things like that. They are still quite manageable that way though. It’s their default state.

 

“Two is when they start butting heads over something that sticks… the sort that leads to some shouting and sulking for days. Misao stops dropping by the Miradono, and Enishi-sama gets more bad-tempered with everyone else. You can imagine what this means for the Miradono staff…”

 

“More blow ups, and more of them hiding out here.” Haru supplied with a small grin. “Remember that the Miradono hotel is just behind the Nishitaka. We share a back garden with them—that’s how his staff escapes to hide here. The more of them you see, the fouler his mood is.”

 

“Three is rarer, but it’s hellish for everyone else. They last a little more than a week, nobody knows what the hell the argument is all about, and they just get downright bitter.” Naomi then continued, “And we’re talking about Misao here. It’s happened once or twice.”

 

Four as an idea hadn’t happened yet, but they were all gearing up for the possibility. “They’re our bosses. We all know how Enishi can be. Misao-san is the only one who bothers with his moods, and when she throws a tantrum instead… well there’s nothing anyone else can do.”

 

As it turned out, right before the evening of ball, Sagara had deduced that they were on a level Two scale, which he upgraded to a Three after the mission.

 

“Misao-san had complained about that. She insists it wasn’t supposed to be that bad.”

 

Aoshi, who remembered that particular argument in the woods, privately disagreed.

 

“Well, it’s no matter – they’ve moved back to One now after they had it all out the other day.”

 

Aoshi remembered the story well, even though he had not personally been there to witness the event. The watered-down version involved Misao finally going—rather, stomping—towards the Miradono to confront Enishi when she heard certain rumours about his role in defending her honour at the previous ball… by breaking Minamoto’s fingers.

 

“I can imagine her yelling, ‘You broke Lord Minamoto’s fingers and threatened to cut off his balls? And you didn’t let me know?’ Some of the guests must have been scandalised!”

 

“I still can’t believe she didn’t know about what Enishi did.” Haru mused, “It was the most sensational part of the gossip that pitched her straight back into the public eye. It’s made her comeback to society certain— if a bit on the notorious side.”

 

He was right. Despite discouraging Misao’s return to society, Enishi’s actions had inadvertently guaranteed it, if their prominence in the rumour mill was anything to go by. Eisai had heard this himself; there were many versions of what Minamoto did to Misao to provoke Enishi, ranging from the lurid to the sensational.

 

“They say Minamoto bit her hand and said filthy things about her feet. Or that he wanted to kiss her feet but ended up bruising her hand—I have no idea!” Naomi chuckled. “How much can you say about hands and feet anyway? They usually don’t get that much attention.”

 

“It’s how Enishi reacted that’s making people talk. They’re speculating that Enishi and Misao have been lovers all this time.” Haru paused to consider, adding, “Again.”

 

Aoshi didn’t bother hiding his curiosity this time. “Are they not?”

 

Naomi shook her head and scoffed as if it was obvious, “They’ve made it clear time and again that they aren’t, and I for one believe them. Not that it matters, given how they are.”

 

That answered one question, yet, “How they are?”

 

Naomi shrugged as if it was clear, “You know. Mad, never made any sense, except to each other. Take this latest argument for instance. I heard how it ended was plain absurd.”

 

Haru smiled ruefully. “Misao was starting to rant again because Enishi called her ‘suicidally self-dependent’—don’t ask me—and while she was saying ‘Minamoto’s balls’, she just lost her train of thought and started laughing. You should have seen Enishi cursing; he had to drag her to the hotel bar so she could calm down. When she finally stopped though, he just poured a drink and called her an idiot. Just like that, they were back to normal. Sano-san nearly fell over.”

 

Naomi raised a brow knowingly, “See? Only in their own convoluted way do they work. They aren’t lovers, yes, but in that sense at least, anything can happen.”

 

And that caught Aoshi’s attention, even if such answers led to more questions. Much of what Naomi and Haru said was always filled with loaded conclusions that could only come from candid perception. He never took what they said for granted, no matter how vague.

 

There was one person however, that even Naomi and Haru deferred to, the same way Himeko and Eisai did. The most respected, and yet the most enigmatic of all the Regulars. Their own figurative Gatekeeper, Dai.

 

Despite sharing Eisai’s face and easy nature on the surface, Dai was much more of an introspective person. He had a self-possession that seemed to have borne him through rougher tides in life, and his awareness of his surroundings far outmatched the others.

 

He found that Dai used to act on stage himself, switching roles with Eisai every other night, and that like Misao, he had chosen to give it all up for obscure reasons. He had then become more involved in all the other aspects of production, receiving more responsibilities in the process. During downtimes however, he had also taken on manning the box office, and when he offered Aoshi to join him one afternoon, he quickly understood why.

 

It was the same reason Aoshi was there at this very moment, as the lull of the afternoon slowly gave way to more visitors purchasing tickets. The box office had a special kind of glass partition that allowed them a better view of their customers than the reverse. Dai usually took this as the opportunity to observe each person and to make quiet assessments about their life—yet the most invaluable skill Aoshi had to learn about this city.

 

“This woman… look at the man behind her who keeps glancing at his timepiece. The decision to watch the show was impromptu on his part, mostly to appease her. He is overcompensating for a slight; he looks like he’d rather be elsewhere. They are not happily married. He’s a merchant, someone who can afford a mistress – look at the quality of his shoes. Nouveau rich, as the foreigners would say.”

 

Dai made a daily habit of finessing his skills, and Aoshi still had to struggle not to be too impressed. “It is almost disturbing, how quickly you do that.”

 

Dai grinned and shook his head. “You have to be observant as a performer. None of us would be here if we weren’t. It’s a given – otherwise, how could we be expected to portray our roles well?” He then grinned. “I learned all this with Misao.”

 

Aoshi stiffened; Dai didn’t appear to notice, thankfully. “Before this theatre became what it is now, Misao and I used to spend many afternoons in this booth between rehearsals, learning to observe and understand every person who walked through those doors. We needed to become quick studies in character, see. It’s all about the small details. You should see her perform a role and you’ll understand. She does it so perfectly, it’s no wonder it’s have gotten us where we are now.”

 

For a moment, Aoshi kept silent. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen her as of late.”

 

Misao had indeed been fortuitously absent since the ball. After that first morning, it was almost as if she had gone out of her way to keep her word and stay out of his way, even so far as to avoid the theatre and arrive home really late each night. The hard truth was that Aoshi had no reason to disagree this was probably for the best. Since their last encounter, his own sense of discipline had already been plagued—unceasingly, by memory, instinct, and feeling—in ways that clouded his judgement. For this, self-knowledge had him laying responsibility at his own feet; he could not be certain of any further encounters.

 

And yet always, regardless of what he discovered and learnt in Yokohama, no matter where his own path took him, everything inevitably led back to Misao.

 

Dai was shaking his head. “If she hasn’t been around as much, that’s because word’s out that she’s come back to the Feast, and now investors have been asking for her, and hosts are scrambling to get her in their guest lists. It’s a bit two-faced if you ask me, but that’s Yokohama for you.”

 

That was also true. Aoshi’s thoughts went back to that first day after the ball. After the other Elders arrived, they finalised their agreement in a meeting that Misao didn’t even manage to stay until the end for. They had only been starting when they were interrupted by an urgent request from “an Investor”. Misao had simply risen from her seat when Saitou stayed silent. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

“I knew the circus would begin.” Saitou finally spoke, his tone dark. “I just didn’t expect it to start before noon.”

 

Indeed, though Misao had promised to be back soon, she hadn’t been able to join them again that day. More ‘urgent’ business came to call her away, one after the other. And when the time came for the Elders to leave Yokohama in the evening without Misao in sight, Sagara only shook his head in rueful apology, especially to the Young Takanobu, who had been particularly disappointed.

 

“It would take only a few more days before it dies down. She’ll be back for good before we know it.”

 

“Has she told you this herself?” Aoshi only asked as he was sceptical of the man’s certainty. It seemed not even the other Regulars had seen much of her.

 

“Of course, she said so only yesterday.”

 

Aoshi paused and looked at Dai directly. “What?”

 

Dai glanced at him, noting his surprise. “She still does come by, you know. Where else would she go to regroup, otherwise?”

 

He felt a sudden coldness within him.

 

“She’s been coming here… daily, for the past week.”

 

“Of course, for a few minutes at a time, between her engagements. She asks about you. I told her you were making good progress in the theatre.”

 

Aoshi grew still.  Misao had conveniently been too busy to risk any encounter with him, but somehow had enough time each day to ask about him. To check on him.

 

Had she been observing him all this time, even as she refused to face him?

 

For a moment, Aoshi thought of the one-way glass used in the booth, which as a concept suddenly felt like a convenient, even insulting, cheat.

 

There had been an implicit contract in their last encounter that he had eventually accepted, even as the words plagued him.

 

“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”

 

All of it seemed like a mere contrivance now… another lie.

 

For once, Aoshi did not question the surge that rose within him, taking him out through the Nishitaka doors and making him avoid the place entirely the next day.

 

It wasn’t very often that Shinomori Aoshi felt that he had been played a fool.

 


 

Present

 

“I find the Nishitaka theatre quite contrary, actually.” Kaita mused in the present. “It is a successful business that produces foreign plays, each of them running for no less than two months. The business is owned by Fujita Goro although he leads in title only. It is you who normally run the theatre with your little team on that stage.” He recited, as if quoting from the reports earlier.

 

“All true, of course,” He paused, turning over his shoulder to peruse. “However, everyone in Yokohama knows it’s just a cover for another business, which is far more controversial.”

 

Misao kept her face neutral. Kaita shook his head as his lip curled. “Come now, even I know your real business involves spying on the city’s links to organised crime. Yokohama has enough wealth for illegal networks to thrive, and in a city like this, what you do makes perfect sense.” He shrugged.

 

“But what fascinates me is how you’ve managed to convince most people that, like some theatres, all you do is specialise in a ‘personal’ kind of service. Offering physical pleasure in exchange for wealth and connections, if you will.

 

“You play to this notion so well in public, Lady Sotsu… flitting around from place to place with one gentleman after another. Now, I need to applaud you for that, because to use a lie to detract from another lie—well, that’s just impressive. No wonder nobody questions your place in the Feast, or your unnatural number of—Investors.”

 

From next to Aoshi, Misao stiffened. Hirai himself straightened at the word, the implications, same as what he publicly accused her of a few weeks back, still clear.

 

Kaita had drawn out the notes he procured on her, whistling under his breath as he looked down the list of names. “Since you are clearly well known for this, I have to ask; what are Investors then, and what exactly is their role in your plans?”

 

Misao looked up at him for a moment, her eyes sharp, briefly considering. He simply raised a brow at her, and after a second, she exhaled.

 

“Investors.” She began. Aoshi fell tense despite himself.

 

“We didn’t even come up with that term to begin with. We owe that to Yokohama. ‘Investor’ was the role they gave for every person the we associated with, and so it stuck. To us, investors are anyone we’ve worked or been seen with, who isn’t part of us.”

 

Kaita nodded thoughtfully. “Straightforward, but I’m sure it’s not as simple as that.”

 

Misao paused. “No.”

 

“Far from being business partners and acquaintances, people think they are your clients. Your—personal clients.”

 

Aoshi looked away as she answered. “They do.”

 

“And are they, then?” Kaita was done with levity, his voice lowering. “Is that what you do then, seduce these men in exchange for money, connections and information?”

 

Misao’s response was ready, automatic, even resigned. Aoshi’s gaze snapped back to her.

 

“I have never denied that.”

 


 

Two days earlier

 

They had a mission the following night. By an ironic twist of fate, this time it involved Misao, Aoshi looked forward to it for once.

 

He did not labour to contain his anger this time; it buoyed his anticipation.

 

By that point, Aoshi already knew what to expect from missions. All matters concerning the Wing Fang, he and Sagara usually ended up working on. The two of them had already worked with local officers to flush out their targets; they had visited the various trading dens of Yokohama’s underworld to verify their leads. And although it was clear that most of their information came from Misao, she had made herself scarce each time, providing them leads that didn’t require her presence to manage. Aoshi had connected this with her absence from the theatre as well – that she was doing her job in a way that ensured they didn’t have to be in each other’s way.

 

Until that night, that is.

 

They were meant to confront the man who was supposedly responsible for the tip that led to the Wing Fang’s attack on Murasaki during the first meeting, a French gaijin called Fabre, who had been his business partner. They were supposed to find him en route from a Gentleman’s establishment, but they found out at the last minute that he had opted to go to the evening’s ball instead—which incidentally, Misao was also attending with an investor.

 

“We can’t corner him there. Misao will have to be called in.” Sagara concluded.

 

Misao, who had actually been keeping her eye on him despite her resolution to stay away, who had been using her own people to keep him in sight, but wouldn’t face him herself; Misao, who he had yet to confront since her daring little stunt that evening after the ball.

 

“Alright, Tori-atama, what’s going on?” Aoshi heard her ask breathlessly as she entered. There was a gasp when she saw him, a pause. “Aoshi-sama.”  

 

“Misao.” He only allowed smoothly as he turned to her, his thoughts anything but.

 

She looked different from last time, far from the square-necked work dress cinched in the waist or the shocking fall of black silk from the first ball. Now, her attire was indulgently of the current fashion: rich green in colour, fuller in skirt and more generous in skin at the front, revealing a heaving flush that she might have acquired from drink and dancing. The surprised, almost uncertain look on her face was another matter however.

 

“There you are, Itachi.” Sagara entered the same alcove, drawing their attention as he immediately began to explain the situation. Misao kept glancing at Aoshi’s direction throughout the whole narrative, however. Aoshi was undaunted by this; the more restless she appeared, the calmer he grew.

 

“Do you have any ideas, then?” Sagara was still speaking. “We need to find the bait we planted to confirm he’s our guy. I’m not sure how to handle it now that he’s chosen a place as public as this though.”

 

Misao blinked to attention and slowly nodded. “I need to see him first.”

 

 “I can easily point him out to you later—he is a gaijin after all. Shouldn’t be hard to spot.”

 

Misao exhaled, “I need to see him first,” she repeated, “in order to make a plan.”

 

Sagara’s eyes widened. “Ah. Then by all means.” He led them outside and pointed out the man.

 

Misao’s eyes narrowed in contemplation, and she stood in rapt, quiet observation for a few minutes before finally speaking, her words low as they meandered after her thoughts.

 

“Look at how he’s standing. See how carelessly he talks to those women—how he insists, even when rejected? He’s on the way to being drunk and he isn’t stopping. He’s holding his glass awkwardly though; he’s not a habitual drinker. There’s something about tonight then, something that’s making him reckless. He won’t be quiet – we can’t approach him in the ballroom floor. Best to try his room, then.”

 

“His room? How did you—“

 

Misao nodded distractedly, “This venue is a hotel. He took a key out of his pocket once while trying to lure one of the ladies—he has a room then. He thinks he’s on a hunt tonight, and resistance only tempts him more. Not ideal, but it might work better for us.”

 

Sagara raised a brow and repeated, “Not ideal?”

 

Misao kept looking, her focus lowering her brow in a way that reminded Aoshi of Dai in his observations. We became quick studies in character… it’s all about the small details… You need to, as a performer.

 

Misao had stopped looking at Fabre and was now giving him an odd look. Aoshi averted his eyes.

 

Misao hesitated for all of a second before turning to Sagara, her expression changing. “Right, this is how it will work. In less than half an hour, my escort will leave and Fabre will try to take me to his rooms. Give me exactly half that time alone with him, and then follow, no sooner or later. Find out where his rooms are, just in case. I should have the evidence by then.”

 

Aoshi suddenly remembered how she answered Enishi the first time they worked on a mission. Her focus was now solely on the goal at hand, and Sagara did not question her certainty. “I’ll see you later.” She grinned briefly before heading back into the ballroom.

 

Aoshi volunteered to stay in the ball, and Sagara agreed to inform Yukishiro and their contacts of the change in plan. When he found out where Fabre’s room indeed was, he went back to the ballroom to track Misao.

 

There was something disconcertingly appropriate about being the one to watch her at work, as opposed to the reverse. Aoshi watched the change in her character, her walk showing a bit less control – a bit more like one of the evening’s more active revellers. She let out a giggle as her escort, a man whose dark hair was streaked with silver, took her arm before he could lose her. She apologised carelessly in the man’s ear and he chuckled and led her across the ballroom floor, where she pushed closer to where Fabre stood.

 

If it hadn’t been for their brief interaction earlier, Aoshi would have been convinced she was inebriated—there was something almost masterfully loose in her movements. She stepped a bit too wide, turned slightly too much, and her escort had to reach a bit further to catch her in his arms. However, this turned smiles into shared laughter and politeness into private pleasure. It wasn’t long before Fabre was watching them intently as well.

 

When the dance ended, her escort looked forlorn (a commitment to meet an associate in the cardrooms, which he appeared to sorely regret). Misao shook her head and reassured him (with a hand on his chest), needing the time to go to the powder room anyway. Fabre followed her without hesitation when she departed from the dance floor.

 

That was the signal. They were to follow, fifteen minutes after she left with Fabre. No sooner or later, she said, almost as if it was a warning.

 

Aoshi no longer paused to hesitate. He went and followed immediately.

 

It did not take him long to spot them in a darkened corridor. Fabre had a hand on Misao’s shoulder; Aoshi could only see her back. He moved out of sight, but close enough to catch the tail end of the conversation.

 

“…I’ve heard of you and I can see right through you. I know you’re here with one of your investors, but surely even he knows you can never have too many. He won’t blame you for trying to—solicit business on the side.”

 

Misao shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her tone turned plaintive, “Let go of me, please… sir.”

 

Fabre’s grin only grew.

 

Resistance, Misao had said earlier, only tempts him more.

 

The man took out a sheaf from his jacket suit. “Is this enough to tempt you?” He waved the bills in her face. “You should count yourself lucky, lady. I am leaving this city once and for all tomorrow, and I am carrying enough with me to be generous. That’s as sound an investment as any of your other—offers, I am sure.”

 

That explained the recklessness. Fabre thought he would outsmart his pursuers and escape. Another of Misao’s observations proven correct; all from how he held his glass.

 

Misao was silent for a few seconds turning away, as if not to be caught considering the money. Fabre sneered, turning her chin to look back at him. When she spoke, her voice was low, diffident.

 

“Do you have a room?”

 

Fabre smiled triumphantly.

 

Aoshi’s heart pounded loudly, overpowering all other sound. He moved immediately, vaulting over the window to the outdoor balcony, ignoring the roaring within his ears as he moved from ledge to ledge to find the right room.

 

He found the right room just as he heard the door close behind them. He barely jolted when he heard the shifting of cloth; the sound of impact as somebody was pushed against a wall. No sooner or later, Misao had warned—she had warned. Already feeling as if all of his senses were on fire, Aoshi looked.

 

Fabre had pushed Misao face-first against the mirror, lips leaving marks on her neck as his hands fumbled with her dress. Aoshi’s eyes went straight to her face, half-fearing the worst.

 

His blood ran cold.

 

Misao had her lids half shut, a dark look on her eyes, and there on her face was an unmistakeable smile, purely anticipatory, even predatory against her reflection.

 

The smile grew as she put both hands against the mirror, pushing back to turn fully into the man grasping at her. She angled to expose her neck, which the man took advantage of, sucking at the junction behind her jaw and neck. She gasped loudly at this, her hands going around Fabre’s body, legs to his waist. Fabre chuckled, murmuring in satisfaction. Aoshi let out a rough, shuddering breath.

 

It took Misao’s eyes snapping open a few seconds later, her pupils blown wide, for Aoshi to refocus his gaze. It then became evident that she had been feeling through the man’s garments, searching and finding what she needed, the whole time. She lifted a folded piece of paper to her gaze, even as she ran a hand to grasp at Fabre’s blonde hair. Her eyes narrowed in affirmation at the evidence, and she quickly manoeuvred to slip the paper at her back.

 

She then put a firm hand on Fabre’s shoulder, pushing him back. “Not so fast.” And when she was ignored, her other hand went to the other shoulder, her voice lowering hard. “Not so fast, sir.”

 

Fabre finally pulled back. “What is it?” he growled.

 

Misao easily slid out of his grasp and walked towards the dresser, pausing to remove pieces of jewellery from her person. Aoshi moved back and resorted to looking at their reflection the window pane.

 

“You should know that I have conditions. No exceptions.”

 

Aoshi clenched his jaw; was this an often enough occurrence for her to have conditions?

 

Fabre seemed to accept this, for he indulged her. “Such as?”

 

Misao spoke to him through the desk mirror. “Some are fairly standard. I don’t kiss on the lips, for one. But you seem to already know that.”

 

“There will be enough of you to entertain myself with, I am sure.”

 

Misao said nothing and turned around to perch on the dresser. “No one can remove my clothes except for myself.”

 

There was a pause before Fabre replied. “I can live with that. You’ve had enough practice, I suppose.”

 

Misao smirked and simply leaned forward. The angle afforded a generous view. Aoshi felt his throat go dry at its ease and familiarity. She knew what she was doing.

 

You should see her perform a role. She does it so perfectly.

 

“Finally,” Misao leaned back, resting her elbows against the desk mirror, she placed one foot against the chair, and the other to perch on the table’s edge, in a single motion forming a tempting portrait of dishabille.

 

“You don’t do anything, anything, unless I do it first, or unless I say ‘Yes’.”

 

Fabre finally snapped, at the sight offered before him, or at her words, Aoshi was initially unsure of. “Now that I won’t accept.”

 

Up went Misao’s brow, “How so?”

 

Fabre stalked towards her. “We both know you’d spread your legs for anyone with enough money. I am the one who is investing here, and I am not paying you to wait for your approval. I say enough playing—“

 

He stopped, Misao had placed a foot on his chest to prevent him from approaching any further. The look on his face changed. Slowly, his hand found its way to her calves, sliding it up to his shoulder.

 

“This is what they were talking about, isn’t it? You and the things you could do with your feet. This is what Yukishiro threatened Lord Minamoto for, correct? Tell me, Lady, what did Minamoto want you to do? Let me match his offer.”

 

Misao only lowered her gaze. “Do you agree to the terms?”

 

Fabre sneered. “I told you, unacceptable.”

 

The tone of Misao’s voice changed. “I thought so,” and the usual the deferential pause disappeared as the same predatory smile from earlier emerged in full. “This, I can do with my feet.”

 

Fabre did not get the chance to react; the same foot resting on his shoulder had moved quickly towards his neck, knocking him sideways in blow which had him pitching towards the bed, unconscious.

 

And it was just as well; Aoshi had had enough. He turned.

 

Misao was straddling Fabre on the bed, tying his hands with makeshift cords made from the bed clothes. It distinctly did not help that her dress was still in disarray around her exposed, stockinged thighs; it was too much a reminder of another night, and it hit too close--

 

—She cut the space between them. "You must have an idea of how they think I behave behind closed doors." —

 

He moved towards the window immediately.

 

“What are you doing here, Aoshi-sama?” came her shocked voice.

 

— “Did I surprise you?” Her eyes glittered defiantly as she looked back at him.—

 

For a second, Aoshi would later swear, he couldn’t even see straight.

 

“Let us finish this.” Was all he said as he moved into the room.

 

Something changed in her tone at his response. “Just—how much of that did you see?”

 

—“They think I'm bold," her hand graze the back of his neck. "They think I do unspeakable things," her breath on his neck, making him shiver, "They think I bite." Her mouth at his ear.—

 

“Nothing more than you had already—” he exhaled. He gathered other items that could be to bind Fabre, his hands moving jerkily, “made me familiar with.”

 

Misao stood up slowly. “I had asked for fifteen minutes,” her voice was low, careful.

 

Aoshi turned away from her, moving to work on Fabre, keeping his voice steady as he spoke, “I am aware.”

 

“I asked for fifteen minutes,” Misao repeated, her voice now catching, almost frantic. “You didn’t have to see—“

 

“See what, Misao?” His voice rose. “Or is this something you’d want to deceive me with as well?”

 

“What?” Misao took a step back, her voice sounding faint. “What do you mean?”

 

Aoshi stopped and looked at her directly and spoke, his voice dangerously low. “I don’t care if you want to stay away from me, but don’t use your Nishitaka people to keep an eye on me while you do. I don’t care what you do on your own time, but I did not choose to join for half-answers and set-up missions. I did not come here to be watched, played with and taken out to use as you please. I did not come here,” his voice hardened, “to be lied to.”

 

Here he unexpectedly paused, again suddenly besieged with her words from that other night. “I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”

 

The realisation finally hit him with cold precision, reminded as he was by sight of her unfazed intimacy with Fabre, and even her escort from that evening. It wasn’t what she had said which he couldn’t accept, but what she had done before that.

 

She had dared to pull him close, only to push him away.

 

“I don’t care how you see me, but I am not one of your investors, Misao. Don’t treat me like a fool.”

 

That seemed to snap Misao out of her stupor, “Aoshi-sama.”

 

Her hand suddenly grasped at him as he turned away, and those eyes, those seemingly guileless eyes that had watched him for so many years, that with the same temperament observed the targets she lured to pick apart, those eyes finally settled on him, seeing.

 

“You’re angry. I disappoint you. You think I cannot be trusted… You really believe that.” She observed, gasping.

 

The moment of truth for her, finally.

 

He tried to turn away, but her hand on his arm tightened and she shook her head at him, struggling to speak.

 

“Aoshi-sama, please listen, please understand… This is what I do; it’s my role. I have to keep playing it, even if it means staying away.” Misao emphasized, frustrated. “But how can I? How can I even try, when you’re—there…” She struggled. “You’re all they talk about, the Regulars. How you took charge and saved Haru, or how well you read lines with Himeko, or how you can keep up even with Naomi... How can I not ask about you, how can I stay away, when beyond this, before all of it even began… you’re still there?”

 

She looked up at him differently this time, eyes dark and pleading despite being a picture of dishabille with her red lips and parted blouse, the small marks on her neck. It was damning to realise that even like this, she would make him question himself.

 

Still there.

 

This time, he simply pulled his arm away.

 

“Misao,” his spoke softly, “I frankly cannot care less.”

 

 

To be continued in Chapter Four, Part Two

 

Chapter Text

One day earlier

 

For the second time in as many days, Aoshi chose not to go to the Nishitaka that morning.

 

Before dawn, he awoke and felt memories of the previous night pressing against his mind, as if in warning. He instead closed his eyes again.

 

When he rose in the morning, he instead focused on the many others things he had to attend to. His last visit to their outpost revealed that a man associated with Oniwabanshuu leaks, Lord Shiya, was currently in Yokohama. He chooses to concentrate on that. Missions like that, at least, were his to fully know about.

 

When he crossed a bridge to meet one of the few Oniwaban contacts they had in the city, words from the previous night escaped, scoring through his thoughts.

 

You’re still there.

 

The interruption made him pause in his steps.

 

There was something about Yokohama that, within a mere week, had reduced him to an uncertain, undermined version of himself. There was too much to question all of a sudden. He also felt younger than he was, and that disturbed him.

 

When he later obtained information about Lord Shiya’s whereabouts over the coming days and was relieved at having something else to direct his thoughts on, he realised that even he was not immune to the after effects of temper after all. His mind was turning traitor: after using up most of its energies to spur him in his anger, it then abandoned him for damning, ill-timed reasoning in favour of its victims.

 

He had forgone breakfast; when he found himself standing before a lunch stall that Eisai had recommended, he began to admit rationally that the Nishitaka Regulars had no involvement in Misao’s actions. They were suspicious enough of everyone else in the city, yet none of them had ever probed his history or asked him to explain his purpose in Yokohama. They could not have welcomed him just so they could scrutinise him for her. They would not have extended their hospitality and confidence otherwise.

 

When he walked away from the restaurant, his reasoning interjected, without warning, that his objection to Misao using the Regulars to know about him wasn’t tenable either. If anything, he had learnt just as much about Misao from them, whether by design or not.

 

I frankly cannot care less, he had told her.

 

When he remembered this without warning hours later, he found his hands shaking.

 

His intelligence confirmed that Lord Shiya was going to be at an event the following night, and Aoshi had to form a plan. His experience with Sagara made him better equipped at this. He was pleased to find that from the people they had worked with on previous missions, he could now forge connections in Yokohama on his own if he wanted to.

 

While he was arranging his plans, he at one point suddenly concluded that he still could not condone how Misao had absented herself from their missions or excluded them from how she obtained her information. It was still unacceptable.

 

And yet, remembering how he felt at the sight of her at work with Fabre, he somehow understood why she preferred that he, or anyone else, did not see.

 

In the later afternoon, he found that the one thing that remained true of his anger was the last one for him to recognise—that which had started weeks ago, that night after the ball, when Misao had sworn to stay out of his way, seconds after she had dared to touch him. If she knew she was going to stay away, why put up the act of intimacy? Seeing her do it to other men only aggravated what already festered. Too much; too close. Then suddenly, too little; too soon gone.

 

Too foolish.

 

This, this justified him still.

 

He had finalised a plan and made arrangements regarding Lord Shiya by sunset, having used his own knowledge and resources. It was unexpectedly empowering to realise that he could now be reasonably self-sufficient in Yokohama if he chose to. He could now do what the other Elders failed to. He could successfully pursue his own agenda in this city, and it had taken less than a week.

 

Okina had always said he was brutally efficient.

 

Aoshi knew he could make a choice then. He had agreed to work with Saitou’s Nishitaka group, but he could now act in a way that did not tie himself down with them. He could do away with half-missions and hidden motives. He could avoid the complications of being drawn in by Misao’s theatre kin. He could work better, as he always did, no longer plagued by vague thoughts and fleeting instances. He could avoid the doubts and questions, the strain of keeping his emotions in check, and the words he could not take back. He could walk away.

 

He found himself standing before the Nishitaka theatre one more time, nevertheless.

 

It was a crowded hour for them. Aoshi was usually out on missions with Sagara each evening and had not seen the theatre at its peak. There were many men and women milling about, dressed in relative finery, and it was somehow easier for Aoshi to stand unannounced among them, to simply observe, even though it was no longer—

 

“Shinomori-san! What are you doing standing there? Come in! We’ve missed you for days; the others have been asking about you. Where have you been?”

 

If Aoshi was surprised that Dai didn’t seem alienated by his previous actions, he didn’t show it.

 

“There’s so much going on tonight! You’ve never seen one of our shows, have you? If you’re not busy with Sano right now, you should! Eisai and Himeko are billing tonight. You’ll enjoy The Odyssey, I promise. We can get good seats in one of the reserve balconies.”

 

Aoshi had been ushered into one of the balconies, where Dai gave him a brief overview of his role in producing the show. When the curtains rose, Aoshi was treated to two hours of unexpectedly exhilarating adventure. Eisai played a cunning hero journeying across different lands to find his way back home to his wife, played by Himeko. It was as clever and ironic as it was full of spectacle; the wife deceiving her suitors in her faith that her husband would return; the husband, forging through one obstacle after the other, from riddles, through Naomi’s transformed Siren and other fantastical creatures.

 

The story ended with the long-awaited reunion between man and wife, leaving the audience on their feet as they stood and applauded.

 

Aoshi had yet to revel in the experience when Dai led him through to backstage. There Aoshi was inundated by the high spirits of the actors and stage crew. The Regulars were delighted to find him returned; Haru displayed the masks he had designed, Naomi introduced him to the other actors, and Himeko made him promise to watch more shows. It was with a strange sense of disconnected—warmth that Aoshi found himself pulled back within their world.

 

“You should join us for tea, too.” Dai announced once they escaped the chaos of backstage.

 

Aoshi raised a brow at the suggestion, but indulged Dai as they went through the kitchens to fetch the brew and started walking back to the box office. “Like you, somebody else finally made it here today.” Dai gave him a knowing look before pushing the door open.

 

Aoshi fell still.

 

There on Dai’s usual chair, was Misao. She had her feet propped up on the desk, her head tipped back to lean on the wall, a hat covering her eyes, and her mouth slightly opened as she snored lightly. She was also rather questionably dressed in trousers, a waistcoat, and a button-up shirt.

 

Dai only shook his head impishly as he placed the tray on the desk with a noticeable clatter. Misao jolted awake, the hat falling from her face as she nearly fell from the chair.

 

“Rise and shine, my friend.”

 

“Ah, Dai, you absolute bastard—“ Misao groaned, rubbing at her eyes. She then blinked at them, “Aoshi-sama?”

 

Aoshi tensed. Dai gave him a quick look at the honorific, and Aoshi remembered that neither Saitou nor Enishi had warranted the same title from her. Misao was sitting up, unexpectedly flustered.

 

“Breathe, Misao. Shinomori-san was here to watch tonight’s show.” Dai nudged him unnecessarily. “He loved it, of course.”

 

Aoshi was surprised to find it easy to confirm the truth. He nodded simply. “They are talented, your theatre.”

 

There was much he had expected to see in Misao’s eyes, given all that he had said the other night, but he was startled to find nothing but plain relief. “Do you really think so?” she asked, her voice small, as if it meant much more. He found it achingly familiar.

 

She was still looking at him when her eyes suddenly widened and she turned to Dai, “Wait a second, do you mean the show is done? I was supposed to train the new actors hours ago!” She scrambled to look through the window, aghast. “How long was I out for? Why did nobody wake me up?”

 

Dai shook his head and chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. You should have how exhausted you looked today. Naomi said Enishi-san had to practically drag you onto that chair.” He motioned towards her, “Although that was quite ready of you, getting into your costume for teaching beforehand.”

 

Misao looked down at her suit and swore. “Well, I’m working with your brother, and we all know how much of a slave-driver he can be—the cheery sort, which is worse.” She flopped back onto the chair, “Ugh, I was only supposed to take a nap!”

 

“A nap. Keep calling it that. I’ve had to check in on your drool each hour.” Dai laughed when Misao self-consciously checked her mouth, only to glare at him.

 

“You normally wake me up, that’s why I kip here instead. Besides, Eisai usually checks my office first.”

 

“Ah, our Sleeping Handsome is awake at last.” Eisai’s voice cut in from behind them, and Misao rolled her eyes as Dai’s twin huddled with them on the doorway, looking indignant. “You always make me sound like I’m the bad one; I decided not to wake you up. You looked so dead that I thought we should just move the lesson for when you’re around next time. See how kind I am? Back me up here, Shinomori-san, vouch for my character.”

 

Aoshi was unprepared for his sudden inclusion in the bizarre conversation. He paused however when he saw Misao biting her lip, relief still in her eyes. At his presence? 

 

“I still can’t believe I spent the entire day sleeping; this was supposed to be my time with the theatre!”

 

“No damage done,” Eisai responded with such piercing cheer that felt at odds with the solemn character he had just performed on stage. “We’re all heading to the Floor afterwards, and you can make it up to us. Shinomori-san is coming too, of course!” He nodded at Aoshi, who couldn’t help blinking. “By the way, you’re wearing that suit. Naomi insists that’s your punishment for sleeping on us. If you ask me though, that girl has a frankly disturbing preference for you in male togs.” Misao choked on her tea.

 

Dai ignored the spectacle as he took pity on Aoshi and explained.

 

“The Floor is an entertainment hall. They let the audience perform on stage every night. We try to go once a month, since we know the musicians who work there.”

 

It was again with a sense of disconnectedness that Aoshi found himself listening, even unwittingly involved with the Nishitaka. They had all agreed he was coming, that was for sure, and Misao had suggested they bring the new actors as well. “We might as well have their lesson at the same time, since you’re making me go dressed like this.”

 

“But they’re still too raw to be tested in public!” Eisai argued. “I can hardly get them to shake their legs without making them self-conscious!”

 

“You’re being too hard on them.” Misao crossed her arms. “I can guarantee you I’ll have them on the stage by the end of the night. Now get dressed!”

 

And that was unexpectedly how, despite how his morning started, Shinomori Aoshi found himself in the darkened corners of the Floor public house, sat with no possible notion of getting away between Naomi and Himeko. The four trainee actor ‘Pups’ sat opposite them, while Haru and Dai at another table directly next to theirs with actors from the play.

 

“Look at how nervous they are,” Naomi confided about the trainees. “Eisai told them earlier that they’ll be tested here tonight, but none of them have seen him since. Watch out for what’s coming, Shinomori-san. I can’t wait myself!”

 

Sagara stumbled in at the last minute followed by a strident-looking Enishi, who gave Aoshi a sharp look, “Glad we’re not too late. Saitou’s out of town for the next few night, so.”

 

The host appeared on stage, “Ladies and gentlemen, give your hand for my friends from the famous Nishitaka theatre, who are honouring us tonight with a last-minute performance!”

 

The lights on the stage dimmed for a moment as the applause and merry whistles rose. When the gaslights were lit again, Dai and Misao stood in the middle, heads bowed with their hats on. It was jarring to Aoshi to find that he couldn’t tell who was who; they simply looked like two men.

 

Then someone pressed a quick tune onto the piano, a trumpet blared low, and both moved.

 

It was yet another experience, watching their sudden motion, quick and masterfully timed together. It was like watching synchronised katas, but with a more fluid kind of grace. They glided towards the outer edges of the stage, all but mirrors of each other as they kicked their feet, lifted their hats quickly, and knocked back their shoulders. The crowd cheered.

 

Both were equally given to their movements, athletic in their tricks and attentive to the audience. The crowd started applauding louder when the two parted and began what looked like a competition, where each had their turn performing a step, which the other to imitate or outdo. The reception to both was nearly equal, until the man on the far end jumped off the stage to kiss the hand of a lady in the audience.

 

“That’s playing dirty!” Himeko laughed next to Aoshi, covering her mouth; it must have been Eisai on the other end.

 

Misao, who was closer to them, only moved towards their table smoothly. “Look at her soles.” Aoshi finally noted the thickness of her heels, presumably to make her taller.

 

There was no doubt that her performance as a man was nevertheless practiced to perfection, especially when she pulled Naomi up by the hand towards the stage, and with dramatic flourish spun her around, catching her at the waist and dipping to press a small kiss to her cheek. Next to Aoshi, Dai’s jaw dropped. The resulting applause was deafening, and Naomi’s smile when she was released was decidedly dazed.

 

The music then eased back, leaving only a percussive beat, and the crowd watched with anticipation as both performers faced off in the middle. It was jarring then, when Eisai suddenly shifted, letting Misao have central stage.

 

The crowd was silent. The beat continued as, with nonchalance, Misao touched her lips, the rouge now visible. She removed her jacket just as the murmurs began, revealing the waistcoat that fitted her feminine curves better. There was amazed applause as she lifted her hat completely, allowing her hair to fall from a simple plait. From their table, the trainee actors were flummoxed.

 

Aoshi was not unfamiliar to such twists in shows and he expected her to continue in this transformed state. But Misao then simply bowed and surprisingly reversed her revelation in a few quick movements, jamming her hair back in the hat and donning her jacket again before turning to place her hand in Eisai’s.

 

The music came back with a resonant note, and again, they moved.

 

“Dai and Misao may be known as the best at acting intuitively,” Haru murmured aside to them, “But Eisai and Misao together, no doubt, are the masters of acting physically.”

 

For when they moved next, it was this time as man and woman, as any other pair in a dance floor, with Eisai leading Misao through the music. They were dressed as they were earlier, still the same performers, with the same limbs lifting up in the air, but Misao’s movements were undeniably female this time. It was hard to determine exactly how – from the wider sway of her hips perhaps, or the way Eisai held her closer towards him? From the more delicate motions of her wrist, or the more pronounced way in which way Eisai lifted her off her feet? Somehow, the choice to keep her male attire made the contrast even more obvious.

 

It was a moment before Aoshi realised that the hall had fallen silent, equally engrossed: it was an enigma in motion, a puzzle performed.

 

The music suddenly quickened in tempo, and they started dancing with the same energy as earlier, breaking the silence when the crowd started clapping with them.  Eisai then spun Misao in the same fashion which she did with Naomi earlier, punctuating the rhythm with laughter before the music stopped. The audience stood from their chairs as they clapped, whistled and murmured in amazement.

 

“And that is why we go to their theatre. Kan Eisai and Sotsu Misao everybody, a rare treat these days. Now we’re a small kindly crowd here, show them your appreciation, but don’t hog them – and I am talking to you, ladies!” The host chuckled, “You’ll see them again soon enough, but for now, please welcome our next act… the Juncho brothers!”

 

It was Eisai who returned to their table first, bowing with exaggerated gestures when the others cheered. Eisai turned to the trainee actors and gestured towards Misao, who was held up chatting with the host next to the stage.

 

“You haven’t officially met since she’s been a bit busy lately, but I know you’ve heard of her. That’s Misao, and she’s the one who trained all of us.” He gestured towards the other Regulars, who all nodded, the wry pride on their face undermining any possible doubt Aoshi might have of the fact.

 

There was a sudden devious flicker in Eisai’s eyes, “I might as well tell you what she’ll say to you: if she was able to do that trick as a man on stage, then there’ll be no excuse for you not to.” The neophytes visibly tensed.

 

“Now Eisai, don’t say things like that, you’ll scare them off before I get the chance to.” Misao suddenly interjected as she appeared from behind the actors, making one of them jump. She grinned as she dragged a chair to sit with them, slouching comfortably as she motioned them closer.

 

She was also sitting like a man, Aoshi realised, when she began talking to the recruits in hushed tones. Surprisingly, the actors began to relax, easing into the circle with sudden confidence, smiles growing on their faces as she shook hands with them.

 

“I know that look,” Sagara muttered knowingly next to Aoshi. “She’s planning something.” Enishi only snorted as he sat back down next to them. “I have been warned.”

 

Aoshi had to pause again.

 

It was jarring to see the Nishitaka all together like this, away from the formalities of business, or the social trappings of the ballroom floor, even from Saitou’s all-knowing look. This was the first time, he realised, that he was seeing them as they were, away from work. To see the Regulars at ease with each other, with Misao, Sagara, and even Enishi, as opposed to simply hearing about it, was a new experience.

 

“Right,” one of the new actors announced, jolting everyone in the table. “We’re performing next. We’re going backstage to talk to the host.” And with that, they all stood up and filed away, leaving Misao in their place, looking smug.

 

“How…“ Eisai rose from his seat. “Well, that was quick. Whatever did you tell them?”

 

“I told you, you’re being too hard on them.” Misao grinned knowingly as she accepted the two bottles Enishi had uncapped and slid across the table in her direction.

 

“You were all the same when you started.” Misao continued as she started pouring different amounts of each drink in both glasses, mixing them, “When I began my training, I was too self-conscious too, and to think I’d be performing on the streets for a few months by then.”

 

Dai perked up from his side of the table, rapt as Aoshi felt about that much-unexplored part of their history, “Was this in Kowloon? With that famous mentor? What did she do then?”

 

Misao looked deep in thought as she slid one of the glasses back towards Enishi, who examined the brew before taking an approving sip. “She made us go to a particular kind of performance hall.” Jaws dropped, and she rolled her eyes. “To observe and nothing more. Honestly, the look on your faces! And no, I am not taking you to any of those here, respectable or otherwise. We also went to libraries and marketplaces for training, and I don’t see you complaining about that!"

 

Sagara scoffed, incredulous, and turned to Enishi, “Weren’t you and Saitou in Kowloon as well at that time? Did you know about this?”

 

Enishi’s hand paused on his glass and he put it back on the table without a word. He lifted his eyes cryptically to Misao, who had a sudden look of apprehension on her face.

 

“I don’t think we were…speaking, at the time.” Enishi spoke carefully. Misao stared back at him, suddenly mute.

 

Himeko looked up at this, “What do you mean?”

 

Neither of them replied. Aoshi knew they had ventured into the unknown territory of What Happened in Kowloon. He already knew that they had not always been allies, but there was something there that indicated that they already knew each other at the time, but were estranged for far different reasons.

 

He looked up, surprised to find that Misao’s wide-eyed gaze had turned to him.

 

The moment was broken by a round of applause, jarring Misao, who immediately knocked back a portion of her drink. “That’s our cue then!” and stood up and went back towards the stage where the new actors emerged, just as Aoshi heard Eisai hissing, “Our cue?”

 

What followed afterwards was a good ten minutes of entertainment, as it emerged that Misao convinced the new actors to create an impromptu performance based on whatever tempo and theme the audience chose (“Guilty Crimes" won), on the condition that the Regulars would join them on the stage and follow whatever routine they came up with.

 

She had switched the students with the teachers. No wonder she got the new ones on stage; the Regulars (managing to drag Sagara with them) had to rise to the challenge sprung up on them at the last minute.

 

“I am guilty of… being too lazy!” One of the new actors exclaimed, doing a fake collapse to the beat on the stage, and the Regulars groaned to follow, egged on by the audience, even as they suggested more ridiculous ideas to keep the performance going well after their time was up.

 

I am guilty of making everyone wait!” Himeko had challenged instead, raising a hand.

“…of being trouble!” One of the news actors turned in a wide circle, following Himeko.

I am guilty of being proud!” Eisai pinched the bridge of his nose.

“…of being a slave to my wants!” another recruit professed boldly, drawing cheers.

I am guilty of hiding my face.” Haru intoned.  (“But he’s beautiful, look at him!” was heard)

Dai bent himself low over the stage “…of never knowing when to stop.”

 

“They are all performers at their core,” Aoshi heard Enishi’s voice from behind him. “For all that they complain about it, they are proud of their craft, and they work hard to be able to stand before audiences and expose themselves each time. Each role is important to them.”

 

Aoshi looked sideways at Enishi, who kept his eyes on the stage and continued. “They don’t trust people with their true selves shallowly. It’s not every day that they take to someone the way they have to you. If you find that you would rather not associate with them for whatever reason, don’t make it worse by dragging it out any longer.”

 

Aoshi’s throat felt tight. Of course Enishi would know. Misao must have spoken to him about what was said between them the night before. “I am… aware.”

 

Enishi’s lip thinned. “She had not provided me with details, only that she worried what you might say to them; what they will think if you shun them. I don’t have to explain how important they are to her.”

 

Aoshi turned towards the stage and saw Misao wiping away tears, laughing as the Regulars caught Sagara sneaking off the stage. He had been planning on walking away himself just hours ago. “She has nothing to worry about.”

 

Enishi nodded, then paused.

 

“She’s like them, but more. In many ways both the best and the worst. When she takes a role, she devotes herself to it in—unprecedented ways. She acts like she breathes, like it was a necessity. Each role is sacrosanct, as if there is nothing else left for her otherwise.” His eyes narrowed imperceptibly. “There are reasons for this, and it’s not always predictable or easy to accept. But it doesn’t mean nothing else touches her.”

 

Aoshi went still. The audience began to clap a rhythm as Naomi had pulled Misao to dance male to her female. Misao then switched feet with astounding ease to dance female to Eisai when he cut in with an indignant huff to Naomi, “How come you never let me dance with you like you do with her?” to much laughter. 

 

Aoshi vaguely remembered how with one such step, Misao’s gait turned from sober to drunk the night before, from surrendered to triumphant with Fabre, and from overwhelmed to untouchable the night of the ball. There was no one to for her to deceive this time, he realised with a start—it was just as she was, as she does.

 

“This is not an excuse, but perhaps, it can help you understand.”

 

Of course, who else would understand the nature of his doubts than the same man who had known her through all those absent years, whom she knew well enough to make exceptions for, and who himself had been estranged from her? Enishi as good as admitted that Aoshi’s concerns about Misao’s changeability were valid. Not always easy to accept.

 

“After all, isn’t performing as much about pretending as it is about deceiving?” Enishi mused absently, almost to himself.

 

Aoshi exhaled. He knew it was too late to turn back his back on the Nishitaka. He also knew, with certainty, that something had to change. He would not be able to go on as before with Misao; knowing too little, and trusting even less.

 

And yet, Aoshi also remembered the ease with which Misao acted for Enishi as if it was second nature, making drinks to his taste as she did hers. He only had to look at the stage to see her proud smile as she linked arms with Haru and Sagara. And then he remembered the relief in her gaze whenever he caught her looking at him.

 

All of it still overwhelmed. It still stole the breath from his lungs all too quickly, all too traitorously.

 


 

Present

 

“I have never denied that.” Misao repeated, her voice thick.

 

There was a moment of heavy silence after her admission, almost defensive. She had never made any secret of her reputation in Yokohama; the way she behaved with men.

 

Aoshi involuntarily recalled the image of her on that mirror with Fabre a few days ago and couldn’t help closing his eyes, all too briefly… and his own words faded into an echo.

 

Kaita simply smirked however. “Interesting response, but that doesn’t answer my question.”

 

Misao paused. Aoshi’s eyes flew open.

 

“Just because you don’t deny something doesn’t mean it’s the truth.” Kaita gave them a tight smile. “Tell me what you really do, Lady.”

 

Misao looked up at this in surprise, but Kaita only shook his head, “They call you a high class whore, but I know you wouldn’t remove your clothes simply for anybody, and unless that skin is made of gold, I don’t think spreading your legs alone would get you a list as impressive as this.” Kaita tapped at Misao’s file.

 

Aoshi was surprised to find Misao looking troubled at this. “Nobody’s ever questioned that before.”

 

Kaita simply smirked. “We both know there’s another reason these investors would really want to work with you. They can’t all be Saitou’s clients—he’s not the sort who would choose to be a lapdog for rich fools; nor can they all be business partners, as he doesn’t even run his own, and Yukishiro’s reputation is not exactly pristine. What else could you offer that’s more compelling than business or pleasure?”

 

His eyes then widened as he picked through each possibility, “Of course, it can only be one thing then. Power.”

 

Misao’s eyes only narrowed; Aoshi fell still when he realised this was an answer in itself.

 

Kaita looked at her triumphantly, “I am sure you don’t need me to remind you that we have your people held hostage on stage. Do us all a favour and answer, what you really do.”

 

Misao looked away. He waited until she finally spoke.

 

“I… I get seen, that is what I do.” She let out. “Connections are a display of power, and I’ve been very good with the displays I make. I have been seen, in your words, ‘flitting around’ with powerful men. Being seen with me, then, makes other men look powerful in return. That’s all it takes to explain the list you have there.” She turned back to Kaita again. “The Nishitaka may need all the connections I make, but so do most of the men of the Feast.”

 

Kaita looked at her with silent perusal, his mouth curving slowly. “And that is why so many pursue you. You’ve made yourself a convenient walking, talking display of wealth. It all makes perfect sense now.” His smile grew at the uncovered truth, “They may call you a whore, yes, but a high class one, who men are lucky to be seen with by their side. It is not your body that you actually provide, but much sought-after social endorsement.” He chuckled, “The Lt. Col. might have been right in his choice of words, after all.”

 

Hirai shot him a glare, which Kaita ignored as he looked down at Misao’s file with growing satisfaction. With a sense of ill-ease, Aoshi now recalled the times she had seen her with men, from those she danced with during that first ball, to her escort that other night. All public, very much a performance, a display rather than a consummation… Even Fabre. She always comes home, every night. His own eyes widened.

 

“And yet, it also says here that most of these connections have been brief, ending all too quickly, almost deliberately so.” Kaita focused on Misao’s file again. “You could easily benefit from this by choosing to settle with someone powerful. Why keep playing this public farce? Why keep choosing to lie?”

 

Misao chose not to respond, but looked unsurprised when Kaita suddenly grinned. “Ah.”

 

“Yukishiro’s name is equally prominent in your file. They always ask you to stop associating with him, don’t they? And you refuse to give him up.” He closed the file shut. “He must feel very special.”

 

Misao shook her head slowly, “They also ask me to quit the theatre, get rid of Sano, or stop working for Saitou. It’s not because we are lovers.”

 

“Well… now it makes sense.” Kaita noted, amused, rifling through the stack of other reports on the table. “Quite bittersweet actually, that you would keep choosing a leader who society distrusts, a band of performing outcasts, a wanderer and a former criminal lord whom, you still deny ever having relations with. Even now, you’re trying to cover for them at your own expense. I can tell.”

 

Misao stilled at his words, and with a sense of foreboding, Aoshi saw the shadow of anxiety on her features. “We should all be allowed our own loyalties, I suppose.” Kaita only smiled condescendingly.

 

“Now, I want to hear exactly how you do it.”

 

Misao slowly turned back to Kaita. “What?”

Here Kaita gave her a look of intent, a hard note clipping his tone. “My master Lord Shiya is known for being hard to please and overly discerning, yet earlier tonight you managed to get his attention in a single evening. He has enough influence to have no need of any of your—services, yet even he fell for it. I know what you do now, but I need to know how you do it.”

 

Now Misao—stopped. Aoshi paused at the changing look on her face. “There’s no formula to what I do, Kaita-san.”

 

Kaita gave her a chiding look, “And yet you do it, so well – clearly, with every man you have met.”

 

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong.” Misao objected quietly. “You don’t need to look further than this room to know that not all men appreciate what I do.”

 

Something in Aoshi tightened. Yes, she had meant Hirai to begin with, but he knew whom she really meant. Kaita’s eyes lit on both of them.

 

“I would beg to differ.” Kaita responded, locking eyes with Aoshi.

 

Before anyone else could answer, Misao spoke, apropos of nothing. “I was trained as an actress you know.”

 

Kaita frowned at the unexpected change in topic, but Misao simply went on. “Most people think that I’m an upstart that came from nowhere, that acting in the Nishitaka was just—an excuse, really. That’s only partly true. I had apprenticed under a renowned performer, who only took in three trainees each season. Out of all of us, I was the only one she had endorsed as an actress in the end.”

 

Kaita gave her a mildly patient look.

 

Misao looked up at him then. “This all happened in Kowloon a few years ago. I still cannot speak straight Cantonese now; I knew less back then. My mentor took me on after seeing us perform on the streets.” She paused. “I had survived that way by acting until I became one, professionally.”

 

Kaita chose brevity this time, “And your point is?”

 

“The point is that I can perform a role, Kaita-san.” Misao pronounced curtly. “And when I say ‘role’, it’s not a simple case of lines and actions. Any role I take on is based on understanding the person I am supposed to be and the audience I am supposed to have, down to the smallest details. I’ve learnt how to do this successfully without even knowing the language in Kowloon; doing this in Yokohama, then, is not much harder. If I knew how to get your Lord Shiya’s interest, it’s because I paid attention and saw how to.”

 

Kaita’s eyes widened sceptically, “Do you expect me to believe that—“

 

Misao turned to the other person in the room all of a sudden, her eyes settling on Hirai in what to Aoshi was a painfully familiar way.

 

“Lt. Col. Hirai, I know what you think of me so I expect no damage here. But if I wanted to gain your confidence, do you know what I would do? I would ask you about horses.”

 

Hirai, who had started when she first turned to him, now paused, surprised. “Horses. Why—how—”

 

Misao nodded at him, “You have calluses between your ring and middle finger; you have riders’ hands. You never carry a riding crop on your person though, so you know horses well enough to be able to control them without one. You don’t come from Yokohama, so you must have been raised in the province, from your accent, somewhere east, where horses are farmed.” Her face softened, “To them at least, you are gentle and kind.”

 

Kaita looked on with interest as Hirai stuttered, undone. “That is, that’s... But how could you even…”

 

Here, Misao’s eyes shifted distantly, as if basking in memory. “I’ve seen hands like yours before. When we were in Kowloon, we once stayed in an estate where they kept retired race horses. It’s a popular betting sport, and I had never seen quite so many beautiful Arabians in one place And I can somehow remember learning to ride them free… when nothing else existed except for the sky above, the land stretching before me, the wind on my face… there were times when nothing else could bring me—” she hesitated, “silence.”

 

Aoshi’s eyes widened. Hirai paused, silenced, suddenly bereft, but Kaita chose that moment to cut in with a drawl. “Impressive. If you so choose, you could have had the Lieutenant Colonel eating out of your palm.”

 

“No.” Both Hirai and Misao instantly denied, but Misao’s vehemence was so pronounced that even Hirai had to pause at her again.

 

“No,” Misao repeated. “Because Hirai wouldn’t have even let me this close; not like this.” She turned to Hirai again. “The Lieutenant Colonel can be a kind man. But in Yokohama, he has his own priorities. A man like him must have fought hard to gain a reputation powerful enough to stand up to the city’s most powerful people. He has pride, he has his principles, and he has his ambitions. He won’t associate with anyone who would derail him from his self-made path… and that includes me. And that is why I have not forced my company on him.” She exhaled. “I can be a very good liar… I can be many things, but I am not—heartless.” Her voice broke off at the word. “I can see; I have spent a good part of my life watching. I understand.”

 

She did not look at Aoshi as she said the words; she didn’t have to.

 

Misao then finally turned to Kaita, her now voice rising. “And that is the answer you are looking for. Yes, the Nishitaka works to uncover illegal networks in Yokohama; yes we need access to power to do so, and yes, I have that access because people think I’m nothing more than a good social opportunist. No, I do not ‘spread my legs’ for all of those men yet no, I am hardly an innocent. Finally, if I do this well, it’s not because I am a machine, but because it’s my role, and I’d be damned if I am not good at it. Does that satisfy you? Can we move on?”

 

Silence descended among them in the room.

 

Kisama.” Hirai cursed under his breath. Aoshi looked up to see Kaita watching him.

 

Kaita turned to Misao slowly, as if with utmost caution. “You have now truly caught my interest, Lady.”

 

“And why,” Misao did not bother to look at him, “is that?”

 

Kaita’s eyes narrowed. “Because even you can only play a role so much.”

Chapter Text

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.

 

Kuso.

 

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.

 

 


 

 

Present

 

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.

 

She can’t.”

 

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.”

 

Aoshi performed.

 

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.”

 

Aoshi stilled.

 

“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

 

Chapter Text

1882 - Kowloon, Five Years Before

Over the years, there had been many words used for Enishi. He had been called lethal, demented, emotionless and cruel, and yes, he was all these things and more.

But let it never be said that Yukishiro Enishi was one of the 'good ones'.

Enishi scowled as he stared up at the ceiling of his prison cell. Three weeks into his arrangement with the authorities in exchange for his freedom, and he was already regretting his decision.

It wasn't simply that he didn't have the patience to cooperate with the mindless fools calling themselves the police; it was that he hardly had any motivation to. What did he care about their 'good' causes? What concern did he have for bringing local crime lords and rogue assassins to justice? What did he have to do with the 'victims' whose own fault it was to get in their way? It was someone else's circus to perform; he wanted nothing of it other than to endure for the sake of reclaiming his old life. This wasn't for him.

He wasn't one of them.

"Dinner, anybody?" a gratingly cheery voice called out in broken Cantonese in the hall. "I made my special miso!"

Enishi bristled. The different ones, he thought as he placed a hand on his temple, are not necessarily better.

This one was the worst of the lot, for instance.

Itachi Musume, Saitou called her, Weasel Girl. Its mindlessness was too true: an annoying brat who defied all reason—for would volunteer for every possible role in this cursed place, just so she could be allowed to stay? For the past few weeks, she'd been hard to avoid, always present, from drills to mess hall dinners and raids… and for today, their dinner lady as well. Always bloody pushing in.

It annoyed him particularly. She had some drive, he'd grant her that – a sense of purpose, which was more than could be said for the various fools in here, but it was of the worst sort – ignorant and misdirected. The girl was still young, had a family she was happy enough with (she spoke of them enough, annoyingly) and a comfortable enough life from before. For what possible purpose would she choose to insinuate herself in this kind of life? She was not like the rest of them either.

But not, he had to remind himself, better.

He heard the approaching steps on his door, the switch into Japanese, "Enishi? Ready for dinner? I made some miso!"

He scowled. Worse and worse, the little fool insisted on calling him by name, where the others dare not. This did nothing to soothe Enishi's temper. She presumed some sort of intimacy because of her indirect involvement with Himura Kenshin a few years back. So what if she had been the one to find his sister's journal, no matter how treasured? The sheer gall was outrageous, and it led to frankly insulting notions: they might as well be partners, some had the nerve to suggest, she's the only one who bothers talking to him anyway; they're both inside outsiders.

"Did I say you could come in?" He snapped when the door to his room opened.

Makimachi Misao pushed in without looking fazed, "I can't come in; you won't come out... If people like you get your way each time, where would we be?" She dismissed, pointedly ignoring his glare, "Especially with that nice bruise on your knuckles."

He refused to respond, but she simply went on, "You should have that looked at by Tokio-san – especially if you plan on getting into more fistfights with the other officers." She gave him a tight smile as she placed the tray before him. "Looks like you find them enjoyable. I just don't see the point."

There was an insufferable hint of reproach in her voice. "What made you think," Enishi enunciated coldly, "that I cared for your opinion?"

The girl's eyes flickered momentarily, "It doesn't help if you behave as badly as they predict you would." For some reason, Enishi found that even more intolerable. "The people here—"

"What?" He had to cut the girl off there, shocked by how badly he wanted to put her in place. "Have you come here to represent the collective issues of the Kowloon District 8 Police with me? You, with your handful of Cantonese words, toy knives, little-girl braid, and weeks-long experience serving as their runner and dinner lady?"

She promptly snapped her mouth shut, and he sneered, "I don't know what's more amusing – the fact that you thinking you have a place among these fools, or that you presume to know what I want to do for myself."

The Weasel Girl gave him a wordless look. "I… I didn't mean to presume—"

"Spare me, please." Enishi cut in, "I know what you're like, you with your ignorant ideals and self-righteous sacrifices. You do not fool me, little girl. Don't think I can't see right through you." He lifted his gaze to hers, his lips curling scornfully, "What was it that made you run away from home? Don't they see you as adult enough? Has someone broken your precious little heart? Did you want to see the world, and they wouldn't let you?"

Enishi ignored the way her face turned pale. "Tell me what petty grievances have you come here with, and then tell me why I should care." He added with rancour, "Then you can tell me what makes you think that gives you the right to dictate how I should live my life?"

The Weasel Girl failed to respond, and he met her gaze mercilessly. This end now, this girl with her trite efforts at friendship and her ignorant sympathy – there was only one way to deal with her.

"Never tell me what to do with myself. I am not one of the fools here; don't waste my time with platitudes and meaningless concern."

The girl was stunned into silence, her eyes now distant. After a beat, she mindlessly proceeded towards her pot of soup, grabbing the ladle absently.

"Fine," she let out softly, and turned away to leave.

Enishi blinked, only realising in her lack of response that he actually expected one. The girl made her name in this place by yelling and refusing to be ignored, after all.

He smirked nevertheless. "Don't tell me you forgotten to pour the soup."

"No." She kept moving, "You're not getting any. It's my petty, meaningless miso soup after all."

What?

Just as Enishi raised a brow to argue, she whirled around to face him again, ladle raised like a weapon.

"For what it's worth, I might not be much more than a desperate idiot to you, with my soup and window-climbing missions, but I don't care. I still think I am better off. At least I am not you."

For the second time, Enishi's brow rose, and his lip began to curl. "What makes you think—"

"No. I know you think you're better than the rest of us, and I'm not stupid enough to argue that. Who else in this place can do what you do? Can any of us build connections, lead a group, and run our own businesses like you did? You've built a name feared and admired by good men and bad alike. Can any of us even wield as much power as you have?"

Enishi was stunned at his acknowledged strengths, but the look on her face stopped him, "Yes, you have done so much more than I have – but what have you chosen to do, apart from holing yourself up in this room? You could do so much more, but instead you choose to keep to yourself, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. You keep saying this isn't for you, that you don't belong, but tell me, have you even tried finding out what you do want, and where you do want to go? Because I have come here every day since, and I don't see it."

Now it was Enishi who froze, "I—You dare—"

But he couldn't even finish the thought. It was the one thing he had avoided reflecting on; the one question he refused to acknowledge daily. What would his life be, if not this? What did he have left to go back to? Whether he had an old life to reclaim was something even he had resisted contemplating.

His eyes unwittingly fell on his sister's journal, cherished but left untouched since he had unearthed its secret sorrows.

She had caught the one question he still did not have an answer for.

Misao shook her head, her triumph made bearable only by the bitterness in her tone that strangely matched his, "Yes, I am nobody, I have no name, fame or wealth to speak of, and I don't have a place here yet. I am nowhere near as where you are, but at least I am doing something with myself. I might be petty, small and pitiful, but at least I get up every day and try." She met his glare and let out a deep breath.

"I might be nobody, but I'm fine with that, at least I'm not wasting away, like you."

Almost as soon as she said it, she paused, as if shocked by her own words. The air in the room turned cold, held ransom by the precarious silence before her face shifted, her eyes softening, her mouth turning into an expression of sympathy—

"Get out."

Misao snapped to attention, startled by the vehemence in his words.

"Get out." Enishi, repeated snarling. "Did you not hear what I just said?" He needed her out; he wanted nowhere near that inevitable expression of pity. "I never want you in here again!"

"I—"

"Are you deaf as well as ignorant? Do you not know when you're not wanted? Leave me alone!"

Misao closed her mouth at his words, "Of course," she let out softly. When her eyes returned to his, they had gone cold. "Gladly."

She walked away with such force that her damned braid whipped behind her. The door slammed with such force behind her that it opened again.

"Shimatta."Enishi cursed to himself, rueing this damned place, the damned people, and this damned farce. The sooner he could get out of here, the better. He placed his head in his hand. Fuck.

"You can't have fought over the soup. Even you know how good it is."

Enishi chose not to lift his head, knowing that if he did, he would see that the voice that fancied itself clever would belong to the ever-composed, always-striking entity that was Saitou Tokio.

As expected, the resident healer remained unflappable as she entered Enishi's cell uninvited. "I know you'd prefer me gone, but I also heard that you've injured your right hand in your latest fight with the officers. Will you let me see to it, or will you be just as rude?"

Kuso. Another one of the exceptions, Tokio always left an impression, and though there was a doctor's practice nearby, everyone preferred being seen to by her; hell, nearly every fool in the station was half in love with her. Enishi had always found her measurably more tolerable because aside from her composed grace, she had a sharp mind, an uncompromising way with words, and confidence in her own skills. She still did not pass muster, however, simply because she was bloody Saitou Hajime's wife. It was her biggest achievement and her biggest flaw.

"Be quick about it."

She positioned herself on the stool and took out all her salves and healing implements. "You shouldn't be too hard on her. She's somehow convinced that you're a 'good' one," she sounded fond, if amused at the thought. She turned to him carefully.

"She's one of the few people watching out for you, believe it or not."

"Enough."Enishi snapped, inexplicably stung at the last. "Tell your husband that I want the girl out. I don't want her in here, ever again. Have another server bring me my food – reassign her somewhere else, do whatever it takes, or I will refuse to cooperate completely."

Tokio paused, and Enishi refused to look her in the eye. She exhaled. "Out of all the people in here, I thought you would understand each other the most."

"Do not be impertinent." Enishi's voice hardened. "Nobody here is like me."

He wouldn't have known at the time, but he would get his wish.

Misao would indeed no longer show up at his door from that day onwards. She would be abducted the next day while on duty, declared missing the next, and called a victim from then onwards. Enishi would be forced to end his self-imposed isolation to find her. It would not end well when he does, and it would be some time before their paths would cross again.

There would be many goodbyes between Yukishiro Enishi and Makimachi Misao, and this would be the first of them.


"You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house-, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon,-
you had just walked down them and vanished."

You Who Never Arrived - Ranier Marie Rilke


 

1887 – Yokohama, Present

It's time, Enishi thought crossly as he put a finger on the bridge of his nose, that someone told him what the hell happened last night.

"What do you mean, you don't have more information? You work for me, and it's the Weasel's bloody theatre, our own business, for crying out loud. The witnesses are far from inaccessible to you."

The man before him shifted uncomfortably. Good. He knew how badly Enishi took to incompetence. "They had the military involved, and aside from what your theatre people told us, nobody outside of that room knew what exactly happened in there."

Enishi's eyes narrowed. It was bad enough that Misao had allowed herself to be abducted last night, but the fact that Sen Kaita knew too much and dared to act within the walls of the Nishitaka was disturbing in ways he had yet to contemplate. He needed more information to act.

"Are you telling me," his allowed his voice to rise, "that you can get nothing out of anyone else?"

The man hastened to explain, "Kaita was heavily guarded, and so was Lieutenant Colonel Hirai. I couldn't even use your name to get through, not like with our other connections. As for Shinomori, you said you would handle him yourself." Enishi did not question that; Shinomori was another matter entirely.

"But, if I may, Enishi…"

Enishi snapped back, "What?"

"Your most reliable source is already—well, she's already here. Under your own roof." The man fidgeted. "You've always said that the Weasel was a better set of eyes and ears than anyone, and she was there herself last night—"

"You don't know what you are talking about." Enishi cut him off with a barely-repressed snarl. He was surrounded by fools. "Would I call you for anything if I wasn't sure I could find the information from her first?"

Enishi knew Misao; knew better than anyone how she could be after an incident like the night before. He had witnessed the outbursts, the long silences, the jarring fixations, and the insistent lack of memory of what she had gone through. He remembered how unresponsive she had been when he took her home last night, how his blood had gone cold when her last words were, confessed tonelessly, were “I needed to watch him bleed.”

Misao had been in the middle of it all, and that was precisely the problem.

"Why did I even bother building a network when you hardly come up with anything useful when I actually need it?" He finally bit out. "Go, and don't come back until you find something."

The man knew better than to say more. He gave a bow and took his leave, only to pause in the doorway. "You have a guest."

Enishi nodded, Shinomori. "Show him in."

He allowed himself a moment to exhale before lifting his gaze to their guest. "Shinomori, have a seat."

Shinomori carefully regarded him, his expression neutral. "Thank you."

Enishi settled back down at his desk, "Welcome to my house. I'm sure the circumstances for this morning call could have been better." He squared his shoulders and gestured towards the departing figure of the man he had been talking to.

"That is Jisu – my manservant in this residence, and, very conveniently, my agent to our underground connections. You would have seen him lurking around last night. Unfortunately, he hasn't been very helpful about what happened. I am hoping you, at least, can enlighten me."

Shinomori knew how this worked; they were both experienced in the business of information – an answer to be traded for each question, until they were satisfied with how much they had each divulged or withheld.

Shinomori nodded his agreement. "How is she doing?" he ventured first.

"I am not sure," Enishi said curtly; the short but genuine answer. It was never easy to tell the morning after. "She has a room here. She'll be up soon. We'll find out then."

From Shinomori's careful gaze, it seemed the man was wise enough to accept his word. Enishi started with his first question.

"How did the three of you get involved with Sen Kaita and Lord Shiya?"

Shinomori's answer was straight to the point, "It was a mission I had set up for myself. Lord Shiya's name was involved in a number of leaks on the Oniwabanshuu last year. Hirai and Misao made the decision to join at the last minute; Hirai for the military, and Misao by coincidence." His eyes narrowed. "He already had an interest in the Nishitaka though, and that is another matter entirely. He's been observing you for a while now—he was planning on making you his next target."

As Enishi suspected. They had the fortune, or misfortune, be that as it may, of getting to Kaita before any such plans culminated. That Misao had gotten involved without consulting him first, however, was far from ideal.

It was Shinomori's turn to ask now, and he did so without preamble. "Where did the scars come from?"

That, Enishi had also expected.

He gave Shinomori a long, measuring look. How the man had handled the situation last night, he didn't know. It was perhaps a testament to his character; Enishi knew how easily things could have gone worse.

After all, Enishi did know Misao.

He didn't turn away as he began to speak.

"It happened in Kowloon, during the days when I had to cooperate with the police to clear my records. Saitou had been the officer assigned to me. The agreement was that I would provide intelligence on the city's criminal networks."

Enishi remembered how he had been those days; his refusal to leave his cell, to be involved in the whole business; the way Misao's constant presence had been unwelcome; their argument on self-chosen isolation, and her actual disappearance afterwards.

"There was a hostage situation at the time. It had to do with a wanted assassin. They called him The Beast." He remembered scoffing at the sheer lack unoriginality, "For the way he marked his victims like animals. I hadn't considered it worth my time at first." He bothered with little those days.

"The Weasel on the other hand joined in everything, no matter how Saitou resisted… always like she had something to prove. That was how I came to know of her. And that was how she got in the Beast's way."

He saw the twitch in Shinomori's fingers, and recalled how his own dismissiveness had vanished in the same way. "He was already at the end of his rope that time. He was wanted by the police, and the days where the crime lords protected him were gone. It was time for his last strike, and that, unfortunately, was when the Weasel came upon him. Even then, she had been faster than the rest of the troops."

Enishi exhaled, surprised by his own hesitation at the memory. It was so unlikely, so unexpected that none had anticipated it. "He had taken her hostage instead. I… was called in to help when they ran out of options. It was a full three days before we located them."

He remembered opening the doors, the darkness that had greeted him… the taunts, kill me or be killed. How, much later, when the assassin had been at the end of Enishi's watou, a near-unrecognisable Misao appeared in her incarceration, bleeding, the skin on her back torn…

… the look on her face searing as she pushed the man's own sword right through him.

Enishi blinked away the sight.

"She was alive. The 'Last Victim', they called her afterwards. He had planned for it. He wanted to be killed by something of his own making rather than to go willingly. He got what he wanted." He no longer needed to explain.

It strangely felt distant now, considering the bigger things had changed their lives afterwards. It had not been a grand scheme; by all accounts it had been accidental, so unlikely that no one would have anticipated the damage it would leave behind.

Misao had not been the same after that, and Enishi never fully knew the person she had been before.

What he didn't know was that it would become the first of many times they would shed blood together. Despite parting ways time and again, the incident with Kaita last night would only be the latest in what had become a long, shared history.

A debt in blood, Saitou's wife, Tokio, would later proclaim in that enigmatic way of hers, almost like a bond.

"They looked like wings, the scars." Enishi jolted up at Shinomori's soft-spoken words, no less heated in their quiet intensity.

Enishi looked at him and chose not to mention that The Beast himself had the same self-appointed scars on his back; or that Tokio had made the connection when she had been sewing Misao's wounds. He did not say anything about how Misao would change at the sight of the weapon used to mark her from then onwards, so much that Saitou had to take swords away from her completely. Those details had plagued them enough in their time.

The damage had been done, and far larger issues had changed their lives afterwards. There was no use, wondering if he'd have prevented any of it if he had been involved sooner, or trying to convince himself that Misao had no one to blame but herself. Enishi had no time for second thoughts, no room for—

Guilt, Kaita had said.

Enishi grit his teeth and forced himself to nod. "There is no one left to avenge now." It was all in the past; the abuser long dead. There was no going back. "It's been done." And it wasn’t the worst thing they had experienced.

He turned to his next question. "How did Kaita know about those scars?"

Shinimori paused for a moment.

"He discovered them when he was searching us for weapons. We were all downed by drowsing darts at the time." He looked away. "Everything else, he worked out for himself."

Enishi bit his lip. It was clear that what made Kaita dangerous was not what he saw, but what he deduced about them. Enishi's thoughts unwittingly went back to the man's words, the ones that had haunted him the whole night. Now, she's just like you.

"What else did he find out from those scars?" He pushed on.

Shinomori nodded. "He was able to determine that her—" he paused, "reputation is an act; that her relations with Investors is a power play, rather than the crude business that everyone believes." His gaze shifted. "He also thought it might be connected to some link Saitou has with the city. Something personal, regarding his wife and her family; the Sumitomo-Sotsu, he said."

Enishi's eyes narrowed at the name and the implicit question that came with it. There were doors worth keeping shut if they could help it, and Tokio's past was one of them. "It is not my business to confirm that. Any questions on that, you ask Saitou directly."

Shinomori gave him a long, scrutinizing look. He held his ground.

This time it was Shinomori who exhaled.

"Kaita had some thoughts about Misao's…" he stopped, as if no word was suitable, "condition. He said she needed fixing. It was he who had wanted the scars exposed. He thought it would—treat her to see them for herself… un-purge her."

Enishi's hand stilled on the table. This wasn't the first time he'd heard the idea.

"I remember when you told me about how good she was at performing—at pretending." Shinomori let out in a deep breath, "When Kaita tried to bring up the scars, she acted like she didn't know about them. She sounded so… convinced, that she couldn't; she said she had no name."

Enishi lifted his gaze cryptically at those last words. Shinomori finally understood what Enishi had known for a while.

"Broken." Shinomori quoted Kaita softly, knowingly.

And suddenly, the intensity in the man's visage struck him.

Shinomori remained dangerously quiet behind Misao, his hands over the scars bared to the mirror, while his gaze threatened any who dared approach… Later, his bleeding hand would accept hers in tight hold. Neither of them would let go.

For some reason, something within Enishi twisted at the memory. "What did you do?"

Shinomori only glanced at him, and Enishi went on. "I know Misao. This isn't the first time she has been made to look at those scars; it hardly ever ended well. She will not be forced, and she will instantly reject pity. We both know things could have been much worse last night. You did something differently. What was it?"

Shinomori only remained still, "You haven't answered enough of my questions."

Irritated, Enishi—paused.

Shinomori was not obliged to answer if Enishi wasn't either. The rules of disclosure had been played against him. Shinomori wasn't going to speak if he didn't want to, not even for someone like Enishi.

And it was then when he realised why Shinomori Aoshi was unlike any other person they have encountered in Yokohama so far. The man knew how to navigate around people without compromising his goals. He had outlasted Misao and her deceptions, gained knowledge of how the Nishitaka worked, and cultivated the trust of its people. And yet through all it, he remained in possession of himself. No opponent, pursuer, rival or suitor had come close to seeing through them. He was different; they couldn't afford to take that for granted.

Is this why Misao couldn't stay away from him; was always beside herself whenever he was involved?

"Kaita also spoke about you." Shinimori spoke, apropos of nothing. "You and Misao."

Enishi looked back at him sharply.

Unbidden, Kaita's words suddenly came to him, Broken. A curse, as much as an observation. Just like you.

He turned to Aoshi deliberately, half affronted, half daring him to continue down that road. But the door suddenly opened, jolting with a loud clatter.

Misao stood in the doorway, wordless, her hands held tight, her eyes darting between them.

Enishi pulled back, holding his breath and schooling his expression.

Her voice, when she finally spoke, was forced. "Good morning. I'm sorry for interrupting."

She sounded neither sorry nor well. Misao cleared her voice and tried again.

"Jisu said you needed me." She took a deep breath and gave Enishi a quick glance, "He looks too agitated this early in the morning. He was guarding my door." Her tone now turned deliberately light. "The next time I spend the night here, can you at least leave your scolding until after breakfast? Your staff is beginning to look scared whenever I am around."

She did not forget this time. Enishi noted, exhaling quickly. Despite her teasing tone, he could detect the note of tension beneath her words – she remembered what had happened last night, and she knew he would be unhappy about it. But there was something else. Enishi glanced at Shinomori, with his guarded silence; the watchful eyes Misao would not meet.

Something had changed between them. Shinomori might not be willing to discuss it, but all it took was one look at Misao: it was in the turn of her countenance, the carefulness in her words, and the way her hands were subconsciously clutched into fists, even as she smiled.

Enishi now turned a discerning eye to Shinomori, who had forgotten about him entirely in her presence. They might not want him to find out, but he knew Misao after all. All too well.

And so, he thought darkly, the show begins.


 

"Would you rather hear the good news first, or the bad news?"

Aoshi blinked at Sagara's sudden question. It was mid-afternoon and he had just stepped through the doors of Ramushi House when Sano sprang the question at him from the study.

"Whatever matters more."

Sano rolled his eyes. "Right. Well, the good news is that everything seems to be under control. The Weasel seems well enough, and both she and Enishi will be taking care of the whole Kaita business."

Aoshi remembered the brittle look on Enishi's face that morning and doubted that. Enishi had dismissed him after Misao interrupted them, and it was only when Aoshi had brushed past her that he saw her hands tremble. It was gone just as quickly however, for when he looked up, Misao had already charged on, proclaiming that Enishi might as well "get his angry lecture over and done with so that they could move on to breakfast and more important things." The door had shut behind him before he could hear Enishi's response, but he had felt the man's gaze on his back the whole time.

Unlike Misao.

It took a number of long, unseeing walks throughout the city for his thoughts to settle after that. "Have they?"

"And that leads me to the bad news. We're going to another ball tonight. I know you're not fond of them, but you're coming. We're doing a Display."

"What?"

Sagara shrugged. "A Display… of unity, if you will. That means we're all going in together as a group, from the promenade to the end. Even Enishi is leaving his sacred card rooms to join us. We don't normally bother with it, especially since we get more attention than we're comfortable with, but tonight..." He cocked his head sideways, "getting attention is exactly what we need to do."

Aoshi understood immediately. "You've just been targeted by Kaita, and you need to make a statement."

"Exactly." Sagara's eyes gained a sharp edge at that. "It's not simply about mingling now. We need to send a strong message so that no one would dare try anything like that again. We might not be invincible, but we can show that we give as good as we get. We need to be the victors here." He looked away. "Saitou knew this would happen eventually."

Saitou, who featured too closely in Kaita's motivations, also featured in too many of Aoshi's questions, "Has he come back? Does he approve of this plan?"

Sagara shook his head. "Enishi sent word this morning. Both he and Misao thought that it was safer for him to come back in a few days as planned." He gave Aoshi an inquiring look. "Misao said that Kaita had targeted the Nishitaka because we had enemies who would pay."

Aoshi nodded. If everything he had learnt about the Nishitaka was true, then they were always going to make enemies. They could only keep their head down so much, especially if they were that influential in Yokohama.

"You've been informed." He held his breath. "Has Misao come back, then?"

Sagara frowned, "No. Jisu dropped by earlier. She should have been here hours ago. I thought she might have gone to the theatre."

Aoshi stilled. Just as he was about to voice his concern, the front door opened and Misao stepped in. Sagara exhaled in relief.

"Where the hell have you been? And don't say you were 'just walking' – you can't afford to do that without letting any of us know, especially after yesterday."

If Misao was startled by this reception, she didn't let it show. She took a deep breath. "I was at the theatre."

This time, it was Aoshi who frowned. He had just been at the theatre himself, and the Regulars had all been asking about her as they'd had no word. He held his tongue, however.

Misao straightened. "Anyway, I am here now, all in one piece." The smile she plastered on her face somehow gave her words a hard edge. "We have a Display to prepare for, people to meet. We ought to get ready." And with that she side-stepped around them and started up her room.

Aoshi watched her, his lips in a tight line.

He had witnessed more than either of them had expected last night. He had seen the scars, had heard Kaita forcing confessions from her, and seen her eyes grow dark. He had been there when she cut through Kaita with a blade that had been stained in his own blood. On top of all that, he had just heard the story of where it had all begun; a chapter of the past that she had buried away, closed to all, for all that it now coloured everything she was in a different light.

And through it all, she still wouldn't look him in the eye.

"Wait!"

Misao turned around at Sano's call. "What?"

Sano actually looked hesitant. "Are you alright? After last night, I mean. We didn't even get to see you—just found out later that Enishi had taken you home. His. Not here." He shifted uncomfortably. "I just, wanted to…"

Misao had cut him off by suddenly coming down the stairs and enfolding him in a slow embrace. "Why wouldn't I be fine, Tori-Atama? I'm looking forward to the ball tonight. Remember how fun it is to rib Enishi when he starts complaining?"

Later, when she had gone back to her room, Aoshi thought it wiser not to tell Sano that she hadn't actually answered his question.


 

A Display, Sano had called it.

As with most things in Yokohama, words did little to prepare Aoshi for the reality of the event. Unlike their previous forays into the Feast, he was now bundled along in queue of guests about to enter in their assorted finery.

"This is hateful." Enishi sneered at the people around them, wiping some imagined dirt from his sleeve. "I regret this already."

From behind him, Misao gave Sagara a pointed look. She was dressed in deep blue this time, pristine and rich, with curls that were neatly swept above her nape. Her demeanour was equally recovered: she looked decidedly comfortable in her surroundings, even gleeful at Enishi's expense.

Sagara grinned, "At least you don't have to do this every week, like we do."

"I can't agree more." Misao announced pleasantly. "At least you don't have to endure jealous looks from your mistresses each time."

Aoshi—paused, his eyes narrowed. What?

He looked at Enishi. If Misao had planned to annoy the man, it worked; he had turned to her, instantly irate.

"It's easy to tell." Misao proclaimed smugly, "I know your taste; I spy on you when I have nothing better to do," Enishi snorted, "and your choice ladies tend to glare at me far more than others.".

"Not that I should be surprised," Enishi bit back after a second, sounding displeased, "but why do you care?"

"Of course I am interested, I'm the one they keep glaring at. Look at Lady Midori over there—"

Sagara cut them off, "Level One arguments already, and we haven't even gone in yet.” He chuckled. “And you wonder why we don’t do this more."

All of the chaos stopped, however, when they arrived at the beginning of the line. Sano mercifully turned to Aoshi, "I would advise you to look neutral but pleasant, but I think you'll pull it off without much effort. Just do the same thing you normally do."

"You have a natural grace, so I wouldn't worry." Misao agreed.

She still hadn't looked at him when she said that. Enishi gave him a long, suspicious look.

"Yukishiro Enishi and his party: Sotsu Misao, her escort, and company."

Aoshi vaguely remembered agreeing not to disclose his name like Sano, but was distracted when before him, the Nishitaka changed. Enishi entered first, and even from behind, Aoshi could see the authority he commanded. Sano offered Misao his arm, and she straightened her back, lifted her chin into her own distinctive confidence. Aoshi stepped in behind them.

Beyond the lights shining in their faces, he was suddenly conscious of the many eyes looking at them and whispering among themselves. "The Nishitaka… all together," "But Fujita-sama is out of town…" "Yukishiro Enishi? In the flesh?" "Who is that man behind them? Why do we not know his name? Where did he come from?"

However, all sounds stopped and all the voices faded away at the touch of a warm, gloved hand on his.

Aoshi looked down before him and saw how Misao's hand, which she had casually thrown behind her as she extended her body towards the crowd, now enveloped his. She still had yet to look at him, but her touch was there, grounding him.

Her hand in his, even as his palm bled. Here, still.

He found himself holding his breath.

Almost as quickly, the hand disappeared as Misao extended her arm for the other guests. Aoshi came to attention and realised that they had already moved to the heart of the ballroom.

And before his very eyes, the Nishitaka came alive in full force. Sagara released Misao's hand; she and Enishi moved forward, and the crowd moved with them. They weaved their way masterfully, alternating between making their presence known on the various halls in the house, and secluding themselves with select people in a private rooms. From the ballroom floor to the dining rooms, people murmured about them and headed their way.

"What is all the fuss about?" He heard later when Enishi and Sagara entered the male-only card rooms, a delighted-looking Misao behind them, "It's like they're holding court over there."

"It's Yukishiro Enishi and Sotsu Misao, who works for Fujita Goro of the Nishitaka theatre. Those two are well-connected in… unique parts of Yokohama."

"I hear Fujita is out of town, but his—capabilities are well known among the city's elite."

"Yukishiro has his own set of investments, and has the advantage of being well known, even among the city's… less savoury side, so to speak. He's aloof, though, and doesn't suffer fools lightly."

"Of course, the difference tonight is that Yukishiro is present with Sotsu. All the wise ones know that the only way to get an audience with him is through her."

"Wait, this is the actress, right? The one they call the high class who—"

"Actress, prostitute, there are some frankly absurd rumours that she's a ninja, a con and a poisoner—whatever her skills are, what matters is that she has the ear of Yukishiro and Fujita, and that she's favoured by Yokohama's most influential men."

Aoshi's eyes followed their gaze to see Enishi smirking as Misao spoke directly to his ear, making one of the card players look up at them in apprehension. "What I'd give," the man said, "to hear what she tells them, or what she does behind closed doors."

And the truth was that it was indeed remarkable, watching how they worked. Though he had witnessed closed-door meetings with Saitou and Sagara before, Aoshi already knew that watching Enishi and Misao would be a different experience. The way they aligned their temperaments, argued each other's thoughts and even sat together said as much.

Enishi would always sit himself in the middle of each room, closer to the table, authoritative; Misao would sit half-facing him and the other party, her stance changing with each person, adapting quickly.

"Lady Sotsu, whatever have you done to convince Yukishiro-sama to join us tonight?" one lord had simpered through her first.

Misao leaned back into her seat with a knowing grin, "No need to play coy with your questions, Kusakabe-sama. Just go ahead."

"What do you mean?"

"She means," Enishi answered in a bored tone, "that we all know you don't care why I'm here, you're only glad that I am. Misao tells me you've been trying to get an audience with me for weeks. You have five minutes now. What do you want?"

And later, for another discussion, she instead pushed forward the moment Enishi pursed his lips. "Lord Nato, Enishi isn't going to agree. I've told you time and again that you have to make a clear case for return on investment, not just a buy-and-sell."

The man shook his head, dismissing her. "You simply do not understand country real estate enough—"

"Hardly." Enishi cut in thinly. "Why do you think I bothered to invest in chickens?"

Misao sighed at the baffled look that got, "He invested in farmland the next village over from yours, and the land sold for a much higher return within a year." She turned to Enishi archly, "He's really proud of his chickens."

"Of course," Enishi drawled, "It created value. You're just still upset that I vetoed the horses." And before Misao could protest, he turned back to their guest disdainfully. "Why are you still here?"

Enishi's look of displeasure vanished when the man sputtered and left. "That is what you have to deal with before you send them to me?"

Misao only turned to him, incredulous. "What is your problem with horses?"

And from behind them, Sagara simply rolled his eyes, "After that shining display of manners, the one thing you complain about is the horses? And people think you're good influence?"

The truth was that if the Nishitaka had wanted a display of power, it was working—in their circle of patrons and private meetings, they did seem untouchable. More than that, they were in sparkling form: Sagara was efficient, Enishi in control, and Misao… Misao was, amongst the lights, the looks and the chatter, fine. As a part of a pair with Enishi, she was magnetic.

Aoshi still wasn't convinced.

She still couldn't meet him in the eye.

He had his answer when he came upon their next meeting.

"So, are you the Nishitaka's latest toy then? Everyone's asking about you." Aoshi turned sharply as a portly man with a distinctive mole on his chin entered, "They have more than their fair share of handsome secrets."

He had turned to Enishi before Aoshi could respond, "And you, Enishi, still settling for short affairs with the married ones? When will you actually indulge in what you truly want?" He then pointedly eyed Misao, who groaned.

"Stop trying to cause trouble, Bando-sama. Why you or his ladies think I'm a threat, I don't understand. If I actually did tie Enishi or any man down, I wouldn't have shared to begin with."

"Ah, there we have the problem then," Bando drawled, glancing back at Enishi, who went dangerously quiet, "You do realise that men like him wouldn't put up with sharing you either?"

"Well it's a good thing that's not what we're here for then." Sagara cut in lightly but deliberately.

Misao gave him a quick look, nodding before she placed a sheaf of paper on the table. Bando's eyes widened the same time Aoshi recognized the pages – the files that Kaita had on the Nishitaka.

"It could have only come from you, Bando." Misao said, her voice suddenly low. "Your influence on the press aside, everyone in Yokohama knows you have the resources to find out anyone's background. People pay you for this information."

"Yes, yes, these came from me," Bando answered after a while, smirking, "What are you going to do about it? I'm not going to pull these out, not when they sell so well. Yours, especially." He leered at Misao, "We had an agreement. You allowed this information, and I never mentioned anything about your… other activities."

That the Nishitaka had already bought out Yokohama's informants and press was no longer a surprise to Aoshi. Even Kaita had seen right through it.

Misao pressed her lips together, "We want nothing more than to find out who has been asking about us." People like those Kaita mentioned.

"Ah, is somebody in trouble?" Bando tutted, "I normally wouldn't get into that, but given our beneficial—partnership, I can make exceptions for the Nishitaka. Although," Bando's grin grew, "there's the question of what I would get in return."

Enishi finally spoke in a flat tone, "You get our continued patronage and good will."

Bando laughed outright, "I could sense the 'good will' just fine here, thank you very much, but this is outside of current arrangement. Surely you can do better than that?" He pointed to Misao, "What say you, my dear? We all know you're his dealmaker."

"Bando," Misao gave him a steady look. "One of your clients used information that you provided against us last night. My only interest is in making sure that never happens again."

"Right, and I can help, provided you give me with a juicy rumour or scandal to monger in return. I am sure it will be all fine—"

It was hard to tell how, but Aoshi had known the precise moment when something in Misao changed, even before she stood up, her hand on Bando's collar.

"No, things are not fine, Bando. Somebody dared to threaten us last night. He dared." She pulled his face closer, and Aoshi saw what he had witnessed last night emerge again in full, no less incandescent. "What makes you think that I am interested in negotiating that?"

Bando stared back at her, wide eyed. Her hand remained on his nape, tight. Even Sagara was left frozen behind them.

It was at this that Enishi spoke, his tone deep with warning. "Misao."

Misao turned to him sharply, "No, Enishi," she bit out, making Bando's mouth drop open. "You know what this is. You must have always known. I made a man bleed last night, and it wasn't enough!"

The words fell upon them in the room, silencing everything in its wake. Bando went pale.

Enishi's lips shut, and he stared at her.

Misao heaved unsteadily.

And it was here that Aoshi finally moved. It was a small gesture, the lifting of his hand to his chest; the same hand that had been injured from the night before, now bandaged. It was more than enough.

Misao's attention was caught; her eyes went to his.

It was the same look all of a sudden, the barely there, hanging by a thread gaze that remained there just so, still not letting go, because he was looking back at her, through a mirror last night, and across the room right now—keeping her in place. It was the stare asked, why are you still here, even as it pleaded stay and keep with me with you. It was the cracks that were beginning to show. Her eyes on his, at last.

Misao gasped. She took a step back and released Bando, who remained in place, shaking.

Misao turned to Enishi, wordless. The man watched her carefully, his gaze drawn.

"Go on without me." Misao said after a second, then stepped out of the room.

Sagara moved to follow, but a look from Enishi stopped him. Aoshi stood up despite this.

"What the hell was that? Weren't you supposed to be the unpredictable one?" Bando stuttered, undone. "Was she telling the truth?"

Aoshi did not hesitate this time, he swept out, and Enishi's eyes followed him. He let him go, then addressed Bando in a tone more vicious than usual.

"Don't be any more of a fool, Bando. I held the man myself when she tore at him. Would you want me to demonstrate, or will you just give us those damn names?"


 

When Misao found the night air on one of great house's balconies, she sank down on the balustrade and finally allowed herself to exhale.

No sooner had she regained breath when she felt a presence settle next to her and she froze again. Surely Enishi would know better than to let anyone come after her in this state, much less—

"Are you here to tell me you're leaving?" She bit out at Aoshi before she could stop herself, only too lately realising that her voice was shaking.

Aoshi's voice, on the other hand, was painfully calm. "Why would you think that?"

"Why?" She let out harshly. "You saw what I just did in there. You know what happened last night. I failed to keep the Nishitaka safe, and I haven't been good for anything."

Kaita had said as much.

She didn't know what was harder to accept: that she had been rendered useless save for when she had Kaita at the edge of a knife, or the fact that she would have run a sword through Kaita if she could get away with it, without a moment’s hesitation.

Or, that she woke up this morning to the find scars reflected back at her in the mirror; scars which she was convinced didn't exist until last night, when Aoshi uncovered them—and lied for her.

Misao swallowed, that any of them should make her question everything she knew was true, she hadn't even begun to contemplate yet.

"You were already going to leave. I tried to fix it but I," Misao steeled herself, "You and Enishi-kun had to take care of my mistakes, and I can't be like this. I have to pull myself together. It just wouldn't be fair. So I wouldn't stop you now if you decided to leave."

Aoshi turned at those words, suddenly recalling another night when he heard them, deep in the woods, when she had turned to Enishi in alarm, "If you want out of this whole thing, I won't…" she had offered, before Enishi had interrupted her. I won't stop you, she meant.

She was ready to go, or be left behind. There was that self-same ruthlessness that denied her real scars into phantoms, and that allowed her to defend herself when she wasn't wanted. Even now, before Enishi and Sagara, before Aoshi, this was an act of survival.

For some reason, this made Aoshi's heart still.

He took a deep breath instead. "When you said, earlier this afternoon, that you had been at the theatre… you were lying, weren't you?"

Stunned by the misdirection, Misao actually looked up at him.

"Or," Aoshi continued, "if you did, then nobody had seen you. You were standing outside perhaps, watching from the streets. You never went in." He done the same himself, just a few nights ago.

Misao gave a strangled sound, "I—I couldn't. I… just, what face do I have—"

She stopped talking when Aoshi put his hand on top of hers, pale from clutching the railing too tightly, "I know." He said gently.

"But if you'd had gone in, you would have known Dai, Eisai, Naomi and Haru are all worried about you, and they need to know that you're fine. It was your answers that kept the Nishitaka safe until Enishi arrived. If they were harmed, it was because they chose to defend us. Their injuries were caused by Kaita alone, and so are yours. Nobody blames you. If anything, it was my mission that led him to the Nishitaka last night."

Misao kept staring at his hand on hers, her breath bated, as if she couldn't quite believe his touch. She said nothing.

Suddenly, Aoshi recognized the reticence, could feel the familiarity of the tang of regret under his tongue, the roaring that refused to settle in his ears, the nightly return of memories as sure as moonrise; all this despite the daily silence in the temple, and the constant return of one familiar face trying to smile for him. The irony was not lost on Aoshi, and somehow, he knew the only words that would work.

"How times have changed," he began softly, "When I am the one standing here telling you things you had spent years trying to convince me. Surely you should know of which I speak."

Misao started, looking up at him.

Aoshi continued evenly, "You should not feel—undeserving because Yukishiro and I had to step in for you last night. Because if it's a matter of debt, then you should consider how you had to step in for me, all those years." Here his voice turned rough, "It doesn't even measure, Misao."

"Aoshi-sama," Misao whispered disbelievingly. "I was—things were different then. I—"

"Misao," Aoshi pressed on firmly, because he had to—because despite flaying himself for her right now, it was harder still to linger. There was more to fix than his grieving soul. He pressed a finger to her jaw. "Do you not want me to leave? Do you want me to stay?"

Misao's eyes widened, as if the question was so unprecedented, but there was no hesitation, "Yes."

"Then do what you promised me earlier. Let me stand with you in everything you do. I don't care if it involves the Wing Fang or a mission behind closed doors with an Investor. I don't care what role you have to play. You will not do this alone. I want to walk through the same doors and see the same things. Let me know and understand what you do."

Misao shook her head, clearly remembering how Aoshi reacted the last time he witnessed her in action, "You don't know what you're asking."

"No." Aoshi allowed, rubbing a thumb over her cheek. He lifted her hand to his face, allowing her to touch his skin, his pulse, and finally his lips. She gasped, her reaction unchecked by masks and roles. This part, they both knew intimately.

"But I ask, just the same."

His voice lowered, fierce.

"Let me stay."

Her eyes went to his. This time, she didn't look away.


 

"What the hell happened last night?"

And isn't that, Enishi scowled at Sagara's words and kept his stride brisk, the question still. "Your guess is as good as mine."

"Don't give me that," Sagara scoffed. "Kaita was barely breathing when he was taken out of that room! You didn't tell me what your role was, or what she did. And are we not going to talk about how she sounded just now? I know it's been months, and Saitou's not here, but the last time she was out for blood like this was when she gave up acting on the stage—"

Enishi suddenly turned around to stop Sagara's momentum with a hard hand to his chest. "Don't you think I'm aware of how unhinged she is right now? How about when she starts ignoring the truth, or when she stops speaking for days? We've all been here before. Do you think," he all but snarled, barely keeping his voice low, "I wouldn't have done something about it if I knew more?"

Sagara's eyes widened. Enishi released him and continued walking. "I know as much as I can, which, as always, is as much as she is willing to tell."

Which was more in the way of details, but no more of what Shinomori wouldn't talk about. Enishi closed his eyes.

He halted in his steps, relishing the fact that Sagara didn't bother with the inanity of asking why. Misao appeared exactly then, stepping in from the balcony to their left, followed closely by Shinomori.

She turned to both of them and lowered her lids, "I'm ready again. I'm sorry about that."

Despite her tone, Enishi noted the flush to her cheeks, the brightness in her eyes, and the way she ran a thumb through her hand, as if replicating touch. Enishi's eyes narrowed.

From behind her, Shinomori's normally icy gaze was clear, his posture belying a decisiveness that had not been present before. The steely cautiousness was gone. There was certainty in the way he took his place, in how he stood close to her and looked at her. He gave them a nod of acknowledgement.

"Are you alright?" Sagara asked quickly.

Misao paused, then nodded slowly as Shinomori tipped his head towards her. "Did you get the names from Bando?"

"Of course. It didn't really take much, after you—well…" Sagara hesitated, and Enishi fought the urge to shake his head.

Misao understood anyway. She pressed her lips together and turned towards Enishi, sincere. "Thank you."

Before Enishi could respond, she moved, taking her place next to him, a step now unquestioned in its ease. "Shall we, then?"

Enishi walked, partly out of habit, and partly because Misao followed, and Shinomori finally stayed damn behind.

"It won't happen again." Misao promised quietly, still apologising.

Enishi tightened his jaw for the briefest of seconds.

"Not tonight." Misao amended. "I was thinking... perhaps I ought to leave early, as soon as we conclude our business."

This time, the candid acknowledgement had Enishi responding; she normally held any such confessions guarded. "It may be for the best."

There was hesitation in Misao's voice again. "I think I'd want to stay at yours again tonight, if that's alright. I can come back to Ramushi tomorrow." Just to be safe.

Enishi nodded, satisfied.

"But you don't need to bring me there yourself. You can spend the rest of the ball tonight without me. I can handle myself… and Aoshi-sama can come with me."

This time, Enishi did stop. "What?"

They had returned to the ballroom by this time, and any discussion was interrupted by another simpering fool.

"Director Shoryu!" Misao turned to their interlocutor, putting on a pleased smile.

"It was actually you that I wanted to talk to, Lady Sotsu." The bearded man bowed before them, "As you know, Yokohama is hosting this year's Culture Festival, and we have to present our best acts to our foreign and Japanese guests. I was wondering if your theatre has been in talks with anyone about featuring in the celebrations."

"No," Enishi cut him off testily. "And the Nishitaka is not interested."

"What?" It was Misao's turn to use the tone on him.

Enishi ignored her and turned to Shoryu, "In fact, you can tell all of your fellow financiers to save their breath. It's not going to happen."

Misao exhaled quickly and just gave Shoryu a polite nod, waiting as the man stiffly walked before rounding up on Enishi. "Explain yourself."

Enishi scoffed at her, buoyed by more than he cared to acknowledge. "It's not the Nishitaka they want. Any other theatre can feature foreign plays like we do. They are only interested in the chance that you might perform on stage again." He shook his head. "Everyone knows you were its biggest attraction from last year. Your reputation, in that regard, is still intact."

Misao raised her brow at him. "You don't know that."

"Please. Don't forget, I've seen these men in the card rooms, and now they're gambling on who will offer attractive enough terms to get you back on stage." Enishi sneered her words from earlier. "It's easy to tell."

Misao glared back. "Still, don't you think you ought to leave that decision to me?"

"There's only one decision to make and you know it," Enishi disagreed, "Are you willing to get back on that stage or not?"

"I…" he caught her at that; she remembered what that decision meant. "No, of course not."

"Then I don't see the point in wasting your time, or mine." Enishi dismissed with unexpected vitriol, "I'd rather know the whole story from the very beginning. I have no interest in chasing after each truth." He curled his lip. "I am not here to be deluded."

Sagara suddenly cut between them, catching the tail end of his words. "What's going on? What is this really all about?"

Enishi turned away. Misao only pressed her lips together and said nothing.


 

"That was a Level Three argument just there, waiting to happen." Sano had said of that incident afterwards.

From her seat in the carriage, Misao fought the urge to put her head in her palms. Too close. The Display had just about worked—they had a good showing and got the information they needed—but they had done it by the skin of their teeth. She unclenched her hands and exhaled, glad to be away from it all, though things were far from settled.

She looked outside the window, trying to ignore how conscious she was of Aoshi's presence next to her.

Despite her intentions, the carriage thrummed with a mixture of anticipation and restraint. Though they did not touch or speak, but they remained on the cusp of it, as sure as when they silently stepped in together. She could feel his warmth next to her, could feel his awareness of her, even as their eyes did not meet.

Misao suddenly recognized the lane they were going into. Aoshi turned to her just as she was about to speak.

"Can I ask you to trust me?" his eyes remained steadily on hers, glinting with warmth in the dark. She swallowed and nodded.

"Wait here."

Misao took a deep breath and watched Aoshi's tall silhouette slip into the Nishitaka Theatre. She then exhaled and stared at the brick structure, feeling her heart twist painfully, even from afar. The memory of the stage door and how Kaita made her speak with the threat of what he would do to the Regulars behind it made something in her stomach churn. Stop it.

Aoshi suddenly reappeared just as she was almost deciding to leave. Misao was surprised to feel herself shaking as they stood outside. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, so soon—

Aoshi only stretched his palm out to her, "Take my hand."

His hand still felt the same as it did the night before, when she felt it caressing hers through Kaita's questions, when he put both palms on her shoulders to steady her and shield her, when, through the haze of darkness that followed her thoughts, his hand, firmly on hers, kept her in place.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing before the ticket booth, guided by Aoshi into her own chair. "Is this alright?" He murmured, his hand lingering on her back.

When Misao nodded her assent, she heard a tentative knock on the glass window. She looked up, surprised, to find Eisai on the other side.

"Oy, Misao, are you in there? Don't tell me you've fallen asleep again. Dai's booth isn't your bedroom, you know."

With surprising ease, Misao instantly sniped back at him, "I'm awake, you ass!" She grinned. "I don't spend every second being entirely useless."

She was glad for the privacy of the dark glass, as Eisai did not see how her face nearly broke at the sight of wound on his temple, or the marks on his knuckles. She did get to see his smile when he started bragging as usual.

"We should get more intruders here. Heightens the sense of drama really. And look at my bruise—would you believe the ladies actually love it? Makes me look like a dashing hero."

"Oh, for crying out loud! Really?"

And so it went, Naomi came afterwards to complain about how her workspace had been ruined in the fracas, but it was worth it, 'just to see our boys get their hands dirty – it was hilarious, I tell you. Himeko missed out!' although she actually sounded deeply impressed. Haru, quiet as he normally was, wore the most telling smirk. He, apparently, caused the most damage on Kaita's men. 'I suppose they just didn't know what to expect. You learn useful skills when you travel by sea!'

Finally, it was Dai who came to her last, his hand going through the gap in the window to hold hers. "You alright in there, Misao?"

"I—" it was not a night for platitudes from her, "I'm just not—myself, today," which she wasn't sure of anymore, but was the closest thing she could come to. "I just need to know how all of you are. That's enough." And somehow, it truly was.

"Aoshi told us you were really worried." Dai squeezed her hand.

Misao was surprised to realise that Aoshi had actually stepped out of the booth earlier, allowing her privacy with each of the Regulars.

"After what happened last night, I'm surprised that everyone's still so—so much like us. I'd have thought that…" she frowned.

"That, what? We'd rail against the walls and beat our chests, the way we do in our performances?" Dai snickered. "You talk as if you're any different."

Misao started, and Dai went on. "Remember what you used to tell me about those Greek characters, how you're not like them? You always said, 'I'm not—'"

"—a tragedy waiting to happen, so don't treat me like one. Yes." Misao gave a slow smile and watched as Dai rolled his eyes.

"There you have it."

And there she did have it, actually, and a slow smile finally grew on her face. It was only then when she released a breath she didn't know she had been holding.

It was not too difficult, then, to finally open the door to the booth and make herself face the group she called family. Dai was already waiting for her on the other side.

She watched Dai smile fondly and felt awed. "You idiot."

He embraced her before she could react, and through his shoulder she could see the rest of the Regulars; Eisai, Naomi and Haru all stood at the end of the room, not too far from them.

Aoshi was with them, standing out sharply, both for the fit of his tailored suit and the way he stood next to them. His head was tilted towards them as he nodded at their words, lifting a palm to examine the trinket Haru placed there. Misao recognised it as his good luck charm, and she watched Naomi explain animatedly how she had fitted it into a necklace for him. Aoshi murmured a response, his lips quirking slightly as he returned the item.

It was a sight Misao realised she was familiar with; him, in the midst with people who trusted him and saw the weight of his opinions, who would follow him to battle without a second thought. This Aoshi, who was involved, drew people to him at ease and projected a quiet but compelling confidence—this was a sight she once knew like the back of her hand, but was rarely allowed to witness afterwards.

The Regulars trusted him as one of theirs, and had likely given Misao this opportunity tonight under his suggestion.

Aoshi looked up at her then, and her breath caught in her throat.

Everyone else followed his gaze however, and Misao could only choke out a sheepish, "Come here, the bloody lot of you!" before they converged on her and Dai.

And somehow, it was easier to look them in the eye and tell them that she was better, after last night, if only just, with him standing there.


 

Aoshi could not regret his actions that night when he saw the difference in Misao's demeanour afterwards; she remained silent in the carriage, yes, and she kept watching him, but not with suspicion or wounded restraint.

It almost felt familiar, painful though the acknowledgement was.

It was only when he helped her towards the front steps of Enishi's residence that she finally spoke. "Aoshi-sama. Why did you do it?"

She wasn't looking at him when he glanced back at her. "What do you mean?"

"That night, with Kaita. Why did you lie?" Misao elaborated. "About the scars, I mean. You would have chosen to tell the truth, simply because it was. You could have agreed with Kaita. You didn't even trust me." Her voice lowered, hesitant, "You would have expected the same for yourself."

Aoshi suddenly knew what she meant, and he chose his words carefully, "It was more important for you to be wrong about the truth, than for me to be right."

He heard her catch her breath, and he went on, needing to make things clear. "It was a choice I had to make. I don't regret it."

Misao nodded, her eyes closed. "I suppose," she let out after a few seconds, "I'm more used to arguing with people rather than having them agree with me. It was," she paused, "a change."

And suddenly, Enishi's words from that morning made sense. She had been forced to look at those scars before, and it hardly ever ended well.

What did you do differently?

Misao turned to him and took hold of his hand, this time simply wrapping her hand to shake his. Her smile was hesitant and shy, but it reached her eyes.

"Thank you, Aoshi-sama."

He found it hard to look away. He kept his eyes on her even after she released him and walked back into the house.

Aoshi took a deep breath, then moved his gaze upwards.

Enishi stood on the balcony, a glass in his hand, watching him carefully.

Aoshi looked at the man who was Misao's partner, who protected her and knew the darker secrets of her past. He observed Aoshi in silence, and at that moment, he felt what it meant perfectly.

He looked back at the doorway where Misao had gone, before turning his back to head home. She wanted him to stay, and he would. Nothing had changed that.

But men like Enishi, Bando had said, wouldn't put up with sharing either.


 

Misao wasn't surprised to find Enishi still awake, the door to his second floor balcony still ajar. "I’m back."

Enishi didn't respond, and kept his eyes trained outside. Misao saw the tense lines of his shoulders and in an instant, she knew.

"You knew about those scars, didn't you? You were when it ended."

Enishi's back stiffened, and Misao remembered another time and place where they stood that way. “We never made things easy for each other, didn’t we?” she asked, wistful.

“You hadn’t mentioned them in years.” Enishi allowed, his voice low. “There was always something else.”

Misao swallowed. She knew that she couldn't allow things to continue like this. Not when the Sano and the Nishitaka carried on bravely with an easy face despite what happened.

Not when she had just realised that, by lying for her, Aoshi-sama had given her the chance to stop lying to herself.

She only had so many chances.

“I don’t know what happened, how I managed to go on as if none of it was real. And I'm scared to imagine how I did that, and why.” Her hands shook. “I’m scared that Kaita might be right,” she stopped short of saying broken. “Because it means worse things must have happened, and I’ve been denying them all this time.”

Enishi fell still next to her. Of course he knew. He must have always known.

Misao took a deep breath. "I want fix myself this time, Enishi-kun, and I know it won't be easy, but I need you to trust me enough to do it myself."

Enishi finally turned at that, and Misao met his gaze. "I know I can’t be good for anyone like this. I can’t trust what I know, and I can’t tell which of my memories are real. Our work is far from done here in Yokohama. But I do know that if you, Saitou, Sano and everyone else have put up with me like this, then I better damn try."

Enishi gave her a long scrutinizing look, and though there was much in his eyes that she couldn’t explain, she knew he understood. This was something only she could decide for herself.

Enishi put a hand on her wrist, lifting it carefully. He eyed the same hand that Aoshi held earlier, and Misao could only watch and hold her breath.

He then spoke softly, almost ironically. "We never did make things easy for ourselves, did we?"

To be continued in Chapter 5: Part Two