He saw a baby, months old. A girl-child. She was the color of wild honey and toned with pink.
Memory could recall the look of her, but not the feel. The missing softness and warmth of the infant, quiet and still and pliable in sleep.
The dream changed. Her hair was growing long and she had learned to move around by herself. Toddling, she was into everything, chewing on bits of paper she pulled off books when no one had been watching and losing her balance to fall on her bottom.
More time passed. She caught frogs and stored them inside her clothes where they would wriggle loose and escape at inopportune times, like the evening meal. She doodled on the floor with ink and a brush swiped from Okina's room and threw a fit when she was made to help scrub out her artwork.
She was a vocal child, expressing her thoughts before she could even speak and Aoshi felt a soft moment of wonder as he watched her in his dream walking with sparkles like little fireworks bursting quietly around her, and tiny flowers of brilliant colors grew from her footprints as she ran and jumped in the way that only a free and happy little girl can.
But he always watched her from the back, or saw her face blocked by blankets that swaddled her, or smeared and masked with ink.
By the time he thought to catch her and turn her around to see her face, his hands passed through her and she evaporated like she had been nothing more than a shape made by shadows on the mist.
His eyes opened sharply, his body automatically bracing for a hit he wouldn't be able to escape. Except no blow came, and he realized what woke him was an ice-cold hand on his shoulder.
He blinked a few times, his vision cleared and his face went slack in surprise.
"Kenshi--" he began, and Himura Kenshin, teeth bared with raw, unrepressed anxiety, pressed the heel of his hand against Aoshi's mouth the silence him.
Aoshi, remembering where he was, quieted instantly, and his gaze moved past Kenshin, sweeping around the cavern.
The area had emptied considerably since Aoshi had last been awake. He was not certain whether he had passed out or merely fell asleep, not being able recall the transition from consciousness to unconsciousness, but it must have been a while. Many of the prisoners who had been questioning him were gone, as was the woman to whom they seemed to listen.
The people who remained lay sleeping, some huddled together, others curled alone close to places of warmth. No one guarded him and, he supposed, considering his condition and his inability to remain lucid even under the shock of pain, and being sufficiently and skillfully trussed up, they had been correct in assuming he had no chance of escaping.
Not by himself, anyway.
He felt relieved, seeing Kenshin alive and in bafflingly better shape than when he had last seen him. So much so that Aoshi was suddenly skeptical that what he was seeing was real. But after a blink or two, Kenshin remained where he was, as he was.
On a closer and more believing inspection, Aoshi noted the warm clothing and new sandals and neatly bandaged wounds. He also saw new, untreated cuts and scrapes, and rock dust on his clothes and skin and in his hair from the cave-ins. He also saw the tremble in Kenshin hands and shoulders, the sweat at his hairline and on the bright flush across his face and decided it had not been such an unbelievable image after all. Having gained some experience in hallucinations, Aoshi was fairly certain that in a dream, one who had come to help would not look so much like he desperately needed help himself.
He had many questions, but decided to start with the basics.
"Are you all right?" he breathed through unmoving lips.
Kenshin nodded once, then seemed confused and started to shake his head, and stopped again. He paused, as if considering that neither answer was quite truthful. Then he shrugged, a very small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
Aoshi felt an answering but infinitesimal crinkling of the corner of his right eye. He recalled a remark Misao had once made, about a situation that could be so "not funny" that it was funny. When there was nothing funny, but one almost felt he had to laugh.
Aoshi felt no urge to laugh, but somehow still sensed this might have been one of those moments she spoke of.
"Are you with the others?"
Kenshin shook his head.
Aoshi's mouth thinned at the unwelcome news that Kenshin was all alone, but here was help, and Aoshi had needed it in any form. He would make it enough.
He flexed his wrists, suddenly remembering that he had given Kenshin his kodachi. He started to ask about it, but Kenshin was already leaning forward, studying the rope through narrowed eyes.
Kenshin touched the knot with his left hand. Tight and taut there was no way to pull it apart one-handed. Nonetheless, Kenshin grasped the knot with his good hand and dropped his head to catch another part of the knot in his teeth.
Several long, tense minutes crept by, during which Aoshi had time to realize Kenshin did not have the kodachi on him. It might have been lost during his fall.
He waited tensely, his eyes on the sleeping bodies, waiting for the inevitable moment someone would roll over or open an eye and discover them, or the woman and her company would return.
But Aoshi's mind couldn't maintain vigilance for long, and his mind had just begun to wander when he felt the ropes loosen. Kenshin jerked his head once, sideways, and the ropes fell away. Hands numb and hardly believing he was free and still no alarm had been raised, the chance to escape still intact, Aoshi rocked back on his knees. But there was no time to rest or to rub circulation back into his hands. He had to get out of the rest of his bindings.
Since he couldn't break or tear the cloth strips, still damp, he patiently untied the knots of the ones he could reach at his chest, wriggled out of the rest, freed his legs and ankles by loosening his boots. Blood returning to his fingers was painful.
Still no one had noticed he was free. He threw the last of his bonds down, slipped out of his ruined shirt and abandoned it also. Jaw set against the pain of his lashed and beaten flesh, he got to his feet and pulled Kenshin onto his.
Aoshi took a deep breath. "Which way out?" he asked, words no louder than deep breathing of the sleeping people around him.
Kenshin led him through the shadows of the cave and showed him a low shaft. Aoshi closed his eyes in frustration when he saw the way Kenshin had come. The tiny tunnel where Kenshin had fit snugly, Aoshi was too broad. He would have to find another way out.
"I-I'm sorry, A-Aoshi."
"Shh. It's fine." Aoshi whispered. He grasped Kenshin's shoulder and turned him away from the tunnel. "We'll try this way."
Aoshi felt the heat of his wounds trapped in his body as he moved, and also the heat of Kenshin's fever through the clothing covering the redhead's shoulder. There were no weapons between them, and the power of Aoshi's martial arts would be reduced because of wounds and blood loss and cognitive and intellectual disorientation.
He knew he would never be able to recall the way back to the others. If they were all alive and uninjured, he knew they would not have lingered at the site of the cave-in anyway. He also knew that there were always the chances or running back into the residents of the labyrinth. Even without Kenshin to protect, Aoshi was not certain that he could outfight or outrun them as he was now. They had to be avoided, as did the minotaurs and Penna Hikaru or any of his force that may have lingered.
He had no idea where they were, did not know how to get out of the labyrinth, and had no idea how he could regroup with the others. No matter which way he chose to go, there was danger. Danger of becoming irrevocably lost, trapped, captured, or killed. By enemies, if a cave-in didn't get them first.
"What a challenge," Aoshi mouthed silently. He could not, in all his eventful life, recall a more hope-deprived situation. Still, even against such odds it was not in him to give up while he could still draw breath.
Small goals, he told himself, keeping a firm hold on both Kenshin and himself. Small goals. One thing at a time.
Quickly and quietly the former hitokiri and shinobi left the cavern. They paused only for a moment at the entranceway, where Aoshi collected a metal lantern and a long piece of iron with a brass handle and a forked hook at the end that was meant to be used as a tool to stoke fire. As sturdy weapon as he could hope to find.
Outside the cavern the only choices were right and left. Aoshi chose left, and prayed it was a fortunate choice.
They never got around the first bend.
Returning from whatever she might have been doing was the woman in the lead of her followers. She held a lantern, jerking to a stop when its light touched Aoshi and Kenshin. The angry, snarling cry she loosed, Aoshi knew, alerted those in the cavern behind him.
He froze, ready to react but not sure what action to take. But Kenshin, surprising him, stepped in front of him and took the iron poker from Aoshi in his right hand with such a firmness that Aoshi allowed it, feeling the strong instinct that the long weapon would serve better with the redhead, as well as the truth that Kenshin would not be able to help in the coming struggle at all without it.
In a movement that was graceful even with a small tremor in hand, Kenshin raised the poker over his head and then brought it down to hold before his face. In an almost normal tone he whispered, "My luck ran out." Then with his voice just a little higher he added, "Aoshi, I want t-to go home so."
Later Aoshi would not be able to recall all of what happened next, only the sense of desperate struggle and Kenshin's fever-hot shoulder against his in the close confines of the tunnel. The crippled redhead still proving that he could be a danger, especially to unskilled men clumsily wielding torches and clubs.
But Kenshin's agility and prowess were not even a shadow of what it had once been, and his wounded limbs left crucial gaps in his fighting stance. As it was, he dispatched four, perhaps five small waves of men and a few women charging with crude weapons, breaking several bones and drawing a great deal of blood before someone broke through his lopsided defense and cracked him across the face with a splintered table leg.
Of his own battle, Aoshi would remember blood on his fists, the fierce slamming of bodies against the close stone walls, once dropping to his knees to kick the feet out from under a man who was bigger than he was.
Then the dementia hit, stronger than it ever been before, as if his mind had been taken into someone's hands and twisted. Faces warped and voices melded together into nonsensical howling. He clutched his head, and dropped, his senses crushed together and screaming.
And in front of his eyes, widened painfully, he thought he could see Shikijo's broad, bare back, striped with scars. Shikijo…was he moving forward? Or keeping back death from his leader…again?
The shadows swayed, and Aoshi lost sight of Shikijo among the moving shades.
They put their questions to Kenshin. An ally of Aoshi's, dressed in fine new clothes. They would not believe he was like them. A prisoner in the labyrinth, a victim torn by the Mindsifter.
And their questions weren't posed as gently as they had been with Aoshi.
Kenshin curled as much as he could, trying to protect his vitals. The mace struck him again, this time across the abdomen. Aoshi nearly bit through the inside of his cheek as he watched. There was no breath for the redhead to use to cry out for a very long moment, and then Kenshin drew in air in a strangled gasp, sobbing for breath, blood dribbling from the corners of his mouth.
Aoshi's arms were shaking from the pressure he put on his bonds, but he would never be able to break free. The mace was lifted again. Desperate, Aoshi raised his voice again. "Stop! Stop! He doesn't know anything! Truly, he doesn't!"
Dark, shadowed faces turned to him, and Aoshi fought not to close his eyes to the monstrous shades closing in on him, or the darker ones moving over Kenshin. They wouldn't believe it. They just wouldn't believe it!
The mace rose high again, but Aoshi had had his fill of helplessly watching. His arms were pinioned into the stone, but his legs were free. Lurching up with all his might, he threw the lower half of himself over Kenshin just as the mace came down, taking the blow on his lower back. Kenshin's eyes were feverish and pain-glazed as they widened in terror. Aoshi's actions were not lost on him.
Another blow, this time meant for him struck Aoshi, further up his back. He set his jaw and moved over Kenshin's chest, curling around him as best he could, sheltering him from the bruising, crushing strikes.
"No!" Kenshin's voice near his ear was little more than a rasping croak. "No, stop. Pl-please stop…please…"
Aoshi knew that Kenshin was begging him, not their tormentors, to stop. To not take his punishment. But this was all the former okashira could do, and so he would do it. A phrase came to mind, words that Aoshi thought might have come to him second-hand, though he could not recall who had told it to him or even who had been quoted.
Still, he spoke it. "I won't…" He sucked in a breath as the mace slammed into his ribs, his eyes never moving from Kenshin's. "'I won't let you get away with being miserable." Another blow, to the side of his head. "Just because you won't ask for help.'."
The last blow came to the back of his head, and white exploded before his eyes. But he finished the last of the words, floating out to him from their obscured place in his mind. "'And don't you forget it…'"
From very far away, he thought he heard Kenshin rasp, "Misao…" And her fierce, determined face followed Aoshi into the darkness.
Floating and bobbing on black water were broken pieces of a mirror. Bits and splinters and shards, things which should not have able to float, as light as petals on the water, and shining with faint color and light that came from within the shards instead of reflecting off them from another source.
With hands he could not see, he reached out and touched the pieces on the outer edges. Gently he drew them closer to the ones in the center. Knowing he was short on time, he began to press the jagged areas together, hoping some of them might begin to form a recognizable picture. Might tell him something he needed to know.
An image in the left center formed first. A face. A cherished face. A face still round with youth, but alive with the promise of a different kind of beauty than anything one such as Shinomori Aoshi believed he could ever know.
For the first time in his life, he let go of his inhibitions and touched a feeling that was sparked by this sort of beauty.
He had seen young women that were much more lovely than Makimachi Misao in his life, but there were none that were quite as…beautiful…as she was.
The bright eyes, as bold as sunlight. Her smile was full, unrestrained, honest…and somewhat manic. The rest of her was sound and music and motion, a cacophony of nonsense and poetry that he remembered so well now. Every noise, every note. All the shouting, the wailing, the whistles, the laughter.
And for the first time, the very first time…he let himself love it.
In the dark, where he could see the broken fragments floating gently, but not himself, he made a choice with his heart. Then he sealed his decision by tracing his unseen hand over the cracks that separated the parts of Misao's face. By the time he was finished, her image was whole again and he had managed to sum all he needed to say into a single phrase. It was something he had to tell her. That he would tell her.
Time was running out. Aoshi, leaving Misao's likeness reflecting in the center-left of rest of the mess, began searching the other fragments until he found the bits of pieces of something else he needed just now.
Pressing them together, and holding them against each other as they tried to bob apart on the black water, he recognized what he needed. It was a long time ago, when he was a boy.
His very first bondage-escape lesson.