MASKS

A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic

by Peregrine Vision

Chapter 3 - Embarrassments

It was dark: the velvet home of the ninja, the silent mother that enfolded all good spies. No true Oniwabanshuu could be anything less than comfortable in the dark.

Aoshi was far from comfortable. He was wet through, his clothes were in a disgusting state, and there were things sticking in his hair that only a thorough wash could dislodge--not likely, as the nearest river was miles away.

How humiliating.

To be fair, it wasn't his fault. He had traveled for almost two weeks without incident. Then there had been a bad rainstorm that night--one of those abrupt summer storms that seemed designed to catch the traveler unawares--and he'd had the misfortune of being in an area of thick forest when it happened. He'd taken shelter under a low tree with heavy branches. Deciding the storm wouldn't be over for a good while and that he was mostly dry and warm, he settled down to catch what sleep he could.

Aoshi must have been more tired than he'd originally thought--he hadn't woken up until just before the lightning strike. Fortunately that was enough time to jump clear of the bolt, but not enough time to get out of the way of the dislodged earth. He tried to leap away, but his foot had become caught in a branch. Aoshi was borne downhill by a full-blown landslide.

When the world stopped crashing and flowing, Aoshi found himself in a completely unfamiliar place. There were no stars to guide him, and any available land on which he might have used his extensive knowledge of pathfinding was now hopelessly destroyed.

A tree branch crashed to the ground beside him, one flailing twig snagging on his sleeve and tearing a hole in it. Aoshi firmly reminded himself that it was neither clever nor proper to swear.

Even when alone.

Even when alone, cold, wet, ears still ringing from the thunderclaps, and struggling to make headway through all this...no, don't swear!...this entanglement.

His mood only improved a little when the dawn began to show, a paler grey against the wet pitch-blackness. It improved a little more when the sun showed faintly through the grey and he could finally get his bearings.

A few hours later, Aoshi saw that the trees were thinning. Over the next rise was the tiny port town of Okada--his first destination. He was still cold and wet, but at least now he was cold and wet and focused.

It was a beautiful morning, fresh from the previous night's shower. Megumi yawned as she slid open her door, and settled down on the veranda to look out at her little garden.

The garden of herbs was Megumi's special pride, and the secret of many of her remedies (as well as a few dishes that Shigeru's wife Yuka had begged to learn). One of Megumi's special pleasures was working with her hands--it was a very Japanese thing, and she suspected Kaoru would have laughed at her for enjoying something so domestic. But whether it was a human, or a green growing thing, Megumi liked taking care of creatures. It came naturally to her, this nurturing instinct.

That was probably why she had been so drawn to Ken-san, and to Sanosuke. Now those were men who needed looking after.

Megumi frowned. Just for a moment, she had been thinking of them without the sore spot that always came into her heart. She sighed, sitting back on her heels, and gazed out over her plants, not really seeing them.

For a doctor, she wasn't doing too well at her own healing, was she?

Her natural common sense took over, reinforced by the harsh light of day. Oh, for goodness' sakes just finish that letter. You miss them, don't you?

Ten minutes of indecision later, Megumi was sitting on the veranda again, reading Kaoru's letter. Her eyebrows lifted and they stayed lifted several lines down the page.

"Megumi-chan!"

She blinked up at Yuka, who had hurried into her room without any warning. There was a frightened look in the older woman's eyes.

"You have to come," gasped Yuka. "Shigeru says you need to see this--hurry--"

Megumi was already dressing. She snatched her kit and followed Yuka to the clinic. Shigeru raised panicked eyes to her. "Oh, good, you're here," he said. The unease in his voice rattled Megumi even more; his calm, professional air was shaken. "I didn't know what to do."

On the examining table lay a man, pale and sweating. Shigeru had stripped him to the waist. The man's eyes had rolled back in his head. One arm reached out, groping for something no one else could see. When Megumi had washed her hands and stepped up to the bedside, she could smell the sour odor of dried vomit.

Shigeru's eyes were haunted. "Megumi...please tell me this isn't what I think it is."

The sinking feeling in Megumi's stomach agreed with him. But she couldn't lie to him or to herself.

"This man is an opium addict," she said quietly. "Did you search his clothes?"

"We found these," said Yuka breathlessly. She picked up a few scraps of white paper on Shigeru's desk that had been twisted into makeshift packets. Megumi took one and undid it.

A tiny dark glob nestled in the piece of paper. It emitted a sharp, sickly perfume. The smell was stronger than she remembered--more chemical--but it was familiar enough to create a tight, squeezing knot of dread in Megumi's gut. She looked up into her brother's fearful face.

"It's the same stuff, isn't it?" Shigeru asked quietly.

Megumi remembered a Buddhist priest chanting at the funeral of her family. The soul returns to the soul's path because that is the path the soul has chosen. We walk the same roads over and over again because we do not know there is another road to take. Only when we understand our path, we are free to choose another path. If we cannot release the past, we are doomed to repeat the past.

The image of Sanosuke's eyes, brilliant with anger and accusation, came to memory. Megumi gritted her teeth. She didn't want to go back to the past, but it seemed the past had found her.

As she helped Shigeru strap the thrashing man to the table and sent Yuka for bowls of hot water, Megumi suddenly remembered the agent that Shinomori Aoshi had sent. A fresh wave of anger rose inside her.

If I learn he's involved in this, I really will kill him.

There was, of course, one way to find out. She was going to write the Oniwabanshuu headquarters. Misao would know what was going on, and if anyone could get it out of that man, it was her.

The Oniwabanshuu "outpost", if it could be called that, was a fisherman's hut perched on solid stilts over the water on the far side of the beach. It was one of a scattered number of huts on the water, as well as several further inland. The fishing community was set a little apart from the rest of the town, which was largely made up of merchants and their lackeys.

Aoshi, washed and in clean if worn clothes, sat on the futon his agent provided. Nobu was getting on in years, his hair greying, but still strong and straight-backed. His shoulders were a little stooped from hauling fish, but his eyes had an intelligent glitter that many of the townspeople lacked.

"Forgive the humble quarters, Aoshi-sama."

Aoshi shook his head. "Don't apologise, Nobu. This is fine. Report."

"Yes, sir." Nobu sucked at his teeth for a moment, staring at the wall. "There have been ships anchored offshore during certain months of the year. Last month, for example--the beginning of summer. Mid-autumn. The third or so week of spring. They send boats to shore, but never come to shore themselves. They don't even show themselves, but lurk round the cove. Sometimes the town officials send boats out to them."

Aoshi raised his eyebrows at that. "Officially sanctioned?"

It was Nobu's turn to shake his head.

"And you have confirmed the cargo of these ships?"

"Opium, Aoshi-sama. Unmistakably. All boats to and from the ship go under cover of night, when most of the town is asleep. And the first ship appeared about seven months ago--a few weeks later an opium den opened in town. They don't call it that--apparently it's a moneylending place--but no moneylenders spend several hours in a building and come out with considerably less than they came in." Nobu made a face as if he was going to spit, but seemed to remember he was in the presence of a superior and restrained himself.

"Seven months? Why didn't you report to me before?"

"You didn't ask." Nobu looked abashed. "Illegal trade happens all the time, sir--I didn't think it was anything to be seriously concerned about...until the death, anyway."

Aoshi thought about the letter. "My information said that they were exporting the opium, not importing it."

Nobu's eyes widened. After a moment he nodded. "That explains a lot. More crates going out than coming in. I thought that was the gold they got for it--I suppose not. Also, lots of carts coming in on the roads, but it's hard to tell what's what, when it's all sealed. I wondered why the den wasn't as big as it was in most places." He frowned, his forehead making deep wrinkles. "Why would Japan export opium to China?"

Aoshi did not reply. When he and his four Oniwabanshuu had been under Kanryuu's employ, Nobu had been part of a different network and had no knowledge of that chapter of the past. It wasn't uncommon for different branches of the Oniwabanshuu to be unaware of each other's activities.

After a while he said, "My source believes it's a different type. More addictive, with stronger effects. Cheaper to produce, as well, which is probably why some of it is being kept and dealt locally. But if you didn't know, then the manufacture must not take place here."

"No, sir," replied Nobu. "Never seen nor heard of any place that's making opium."

That made things more difficult. But successful criminals were nothing if not clever. "Find out where the opium is coming from. I'd like an answer in two more days."

"Yes, sir." Nobu stretched, with much crackling of joints. "Not tonight, I suppose? Had a big haul this morning, and kept myself busy lugging fish back and forth. My bones aren't as young as they were."

"Yes, you're right. Get some rest."

The moon shone through slits in the walls of the bamboo hut, cutting through the feeble light of the oil lamp Nobu had lit. The hut was a small space with no walls, just ragged lengths of oiled cloth hanging from the ceiling which Nobu had hastily tacked on to give his superior some pretension of privacy. The thin futon had been set in Aoshi's space. It didn't feel much more comfortable than the crumpled blanket in the corner that Nobu was using as his own bedding.

"Nobu," said Aoshi after some time, "you are not...married?"

"Eh?" The older man looked at him in surprise. Then Nobu laughed, displaying yellowed teeth. "What on earth would I do with a wife? Or more to the point, what on earth would she do with me?" He shook his head. "I can't say I don't think of it sometimes. But she'd only gossip; that's about all there is to do in this town. You know, Aoshi-sama, being Oniwabanshuu and married is a little too much work for most people."

The truth of this had never really sunk in with Aoshi; he had just assumed it was a part of things. Oniwabanshuu hardly ever married; their lives were too secret, there was too much to do. Who could pay attention to a demanding woman and squalling children? The only way that worked was to take a wife that was already Oniwabanshuu. Okina had had a wife once, but she had died in a raid before she could bear him any children. Probably why he'd taken Misao so to heart.

But what about those who were not willing to risk their loved ones? Who died without line, without people to honor their memory and mourn when they were gone? Aoshi thought of his fallen guard--his friends. While it was unlikely that the four of them would ever have married or had children, they had all been very good with Misao. Hannya, especially, had looked on her as a precious little sister. Aoshi wondered if they had perhaps thought of him as a younger brother as well as their Okashira.

Nobu bid his superior good night, and Aoshi stretched out on the futon to sleep. He knew Nobu was lonely. Obviously the man longed for a little companionship, a little more warmth in this flimsy hovel on winter nights, hot meals, and other things that came with having a wife. Aoshi only had rather vague ideas, never having been particularly interested in that aspect of human behavior.

He fell asleep shortly, and had a rare dream. He was standing at the door to the Aoiya's practice yard, watching Misao fight with her shinai. It was not the new Misao but the old one, in her braid and boyish fighting uniform. He heard a noise coming from the kitchen across the courtyard, and went to investigate. As he pulled open the sliding door, he realised he could smell, very faintly, orange blossoms.

-end 3-