MASKS A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by Peregrine Vision

Prologue - Paper Thin

"Sometimes I wonder if he's going to stay in there forever," Okon said with a sigh, as she set down the empty tea tray. "He's in there so often."

Omasu's eyes went to the shut door down the corridor. "Well...maybe he doesn't feel, you know, needed," she suggested. "After all, he isn't officially our okashira any more."

Both women sweatdropped as they remembered their "official" leader.

"Where is she, anyway?" Omasu asked.

Okon smiled. "Out back with Okina. She's practicing with a wakizashi, if you can believe it."

"What? Why?"

"That's what I asked her. She said something about the kunai being...*unimpressive*. Claims she's carrying on an okashira tradition."

Omasu blinked. "Eh? Aoshi-sama's predecessor never carried blades."

"I said that, too. But you know how Misao-chan gets. I think she's hoping Aoshi-sama will pass his technique down to her." The older woman's voice was very dry.

Omasu rolled her eyes. "Not likely, I should think."

"Tell that to Misao-chan."

* * *

The steaming cup of tea clinked as Aoshi set it down on the little table in front of him. He had been contemplating the other objects on the table for a while now.

A paper balloon.

//I'm a woman now. We can talk about that sometime, if you like.//

She had grown. She had grown worlds in a few months. Himura had been good for her, and Aoshi chuckled at that, that the man he had once named his enemy had been the best teacher to the most precious person in his life.

Indeed, Misao was quite the little woman now. She had cut her hair and let it down, and Okon was teaching her that a fighting woman didn't have to act like a boy. She even wore kimono now, frequently. It pleased Aoshi to go into town with her and see the admiring glances she drew from boys on the street--although any man who did more than look, without permission, would soon taste Aoshi's blades as well as Misao's.

He was so proud of her. With a little twinge of guilt, Aoshi admitted to himself that he was more than a little relieved that she'd grown up so fast. He didn't have to take care of her any more; she could do things on her own.

The trouble was that she still *wanted* him to take care of her. She always looked to him. Whenever she noticed his eyes on her, she seemed to change back to the blindly adoring child he'd known for years. Everything she did had to have "Aoshi-sama"'s approval. Everything she said was to make "Aoshi-sama" proud. She still didn't understand that he already took pride in her, that he did love her. But he could never love her the way she wanted him to.

Even though he had tried.

And others had certainly tried. He cast a slightly exasperated frown at another object on the table...a paper crane.

He had made one very like it for those two sweet little girls, Ayame and Suzume, when he visited the house in Tokyo. And as they went off expressing delight with their gifts, Himura had taken the opportunity once more to lecture Aoshi on the merits of giving in to Misao.

Ever since their battle, Himura had simply not stopped prattling in his well-meaning, thoroughly annoying way. Just because mentioning Misao, and Aoshi's connection with her, had helped bring Aoshi out of his self-destructive madness.

//You say Misao-dono is a strong girl and can take care of herself. That strong girl wept when I promised to bring you back to the Aoiya no matter what.//

That interfering little busybody. Somehow Himura had got it into his fluffy red head that Misao was just the right person for Aoshi to settle down with. The last time they had had that conversation, Aoshi was tempted to retort that although marrying so far beneath his age group was all right for Himura, their cases differed on two points: one, no one noticed how much *older* Himura was compared to Kamiya Kaoru, and two, said Kaoru did not tail after him like an adoring puppy.

The worst part of it was, Aoshi was genuinely sorry for Misao. How long had he wished he would grow to love her?

He had foreseen this blind adoration since her childhood. Even then she had shown signs of infatuation with him. That was a very small factor contributing to his departure, compared to the true reason he had left with the rest of the Oniwabanshuu--the "old school", Okina had called them. However, it was still a factor.

He had wanted Misao to grow up depending on no one but herself. He was happy that she, at least, had made friends on the way. But Aoshi himself was the biggest obstacle in her path to maturity, and he had known it well. It was Hannya who had told him, but he had known already.

The plan had backfired. Without him around, Misao had grown up with an idealized vision of him, the perfect person she called "Aoshi-sama". He had destroyed her illusions with the Okina incident, but ever since he had returned, she had hit upon a new obsession: trying to make him smile.

It was all Himura's fault. The nosy little swordsman had given her the idea, telling her that Aoshi "needed to smile". It was enough to make his teeth hurt.

Actually, after Misao had made that awful joke about "stopping the bucket", Aoshi had locked himself into his room, buried his face in his pillow and laughed himself sick. It wasn't so much the stupid joke as it was so much fun to keep his face impassive and make her wail. He was damned if he'd give Himura the satisfaction.

One of these days, he promised himself, he *would* allow himself to laugh. Misao was still his favorite person and he did enjoy spending time with her, but it was just too soon to get everyone started on their none-too-subtle "why don't you go on and let Misao make you happy" campaign.

With a great sigh, Aoshi unfolded his legs and got up. He went over to the cabinet of drawers on the opposite side of the room, to put away the deflated paper balloon and the crane. Looking at the cabinet, he realized he hadn't organized it in a long time. There were quite a few drawers, and although the Oniwabanshuu were known for their extensive network and resourcefulness, a secret failing of the organization was that they were pack rats to a man...or woman, as it were.

After going through several drawers (there were no designated drawers for each member, hence no allowance for privacy--he needed to speak to Okina about that) housing Shiro's butterfly collection, Omasu's sparse hoard of jewelry and an amazing amount of what were clearly love letters, all addressed to Okon, he found a very small hide pouch pulled shut with a string. He opened it.

The ensuing scent made his head spin. It brought back a thousand memories he had tried to repress, memories that sent him through a gamut of unaccustomed emotions. It was the scent of orange blossoms, subtler than the sharp citrus smell of the fruit itself but still distinct after all these years.

He spilled the contents out into the felt-lined drawer. Even the strong smell of cedarwood could not dispel the scent that rose from the innocent-looking paper packets. Aoshi felt as if that perfume was pulling him down into the drawer, as if he was falling into his own past....

What are you doing? That was him, leaning against the wall of Kanryuu's lab, watching her handle the opium papers with tongs. Delicately but efficiently, paper after paper was dipped in a dish of clear liquid, with what looked like crushed petals at the bottom. The smell in the lab was not strong, but Aoshi nevertheless felt strange: hot and just the least bit dizzy, as if he had had a little too much to drink.

A disdainful toss of long black hair. If you actually *cared*, I would tell you I was marking the special product by scent.

Opium doesn't smell. Unless it was burned, but only an idiot burned opium while they were working on it. And she was no idiot.

Thank you for the information, was the cool retort, although I assure you I knew that already. I am, after all, the manufacturer of your drugs.

Aoshi's eyes narrowed, but he showed no other reaction. If she wanted to take refuge from her helplessness in sarcasm, it was no concern of his.

He expected that she would fall silent afterward, but instead she made a little *tsk*ing sound and proceeded to explain. If there was anything he had learned about her in her captivity, it was that she considered ignorance another form of illness. As such she felt beholden to cure it. It was an amusing trait of hers, although Aoshi did not like to admit that it amused him.

I happen to have soaked the paper in my own perfume, so I know which packets hold our product and which ones have ordinary opium...if you can call that stuff ordinary. Buyers don't like having the packets marked, but I like to be able to tell mine apart. Her eyes narrowed as she said this. Aoshi very much doubted she *liked* anything about the whole operation.

When he had opened the door of the tower room and thrown her the tanto, the orange blossom smell had surrounded him just before he had gone to meet the man he called Battousai in their first match...just before he had seen his men die for his sake.

When he had gone to the dojo looking for Battousai, that same scent had filled his head as he leaned close to her. He had actually reached out to stroke her cheek! He did not remember thinking about her at the time...his mind had been occupied with the thought of Battousai's title of "strongest" and how Aoshi could claim it for the glory of the Oniwabanshuu. But his hand had moved on its own. The action had disturbed him, and he had perhaps overcompensated by threatening to kill her. He might have done it, too, if Saitou Hajime had not been by, simply because she had diverted him for a moment from his goal.

Terrible days, for all of them. But the last time Aoshi had taken in that scent, it had been overshadowed by the scent of cherry blossoms, and that memory was one of peace and happiness with friends.

Aoshi picked up one of the packets and fingered it. The pouch had been in a pocket of his coat the day he fought Himura at Kanryuu's mansion. He had been preparing for a visit to a prospective buyer, but the events of that night had put the visit and the little pouch out of his mind for a very long time.

How had the thing survived till now? He remembered practically living in that coat, wandering like Himura, only filled with thoughts of bitterness instead of thoughts of atonement. He had never done anything practical like check the pockets before he took it off to sleep. He had hardly remembered to eat, much less inspect his coat.

When he had had that fight with Himura, the one that had brought him back to himself, his coat had practically been shredded. Yet this had survived, and taken so little hurt. How? Why?

Aoshi remembered a Buddhist story he had been told as a child, a long time ago. He remembered its moral most clearly: he always remembered the lessons better than the stories themselves.

Coincidence is a construct of human foolishness. There is no such thing--everything happens for a reason.

//Everything happens for a reason.//

Slowly Aoshi brought his fingers to his face, and inhaled. The scent of Takani Megumi brought back that strange unsteady feeling he had first experienced in the lab.

He piled the packets of opium back into their pouch and pulled the mouth shut. Then he replaced it in the drawer.

After a pause he opened the drawer again, took out the pouch and placed it in the drawer that held the balloon and the paper crane.

An interesting thought had just begun to form in his head. But Aoshi was tired of meditation for the moment. The thought could be attended to another time.

He opened the sliding door and looked into the Aoiya garden. Okon and Omasu, on the other side, looked up at him in surprise. He gave them a little smile.

"Thank you for the tea," he said, enjoying their openmouthed stares. "I believe I'll go look in on Okina and Misao."

And they could make of *that* what they wished, decided Aoshi as he headed for the training yard.