Well ... i can't believe that another chapter is up so soon! Heh heh ... thanks for the reviews everyone! I just hope that I didn't make Kurogawa a bit TOO mean in this ... but - well, you'll see!
warriors blue: Thank you! Whoa ... I'm not sure whether it's that good ... but thanks for th review! And enjoy this one as well!
no one: Thanks! I really was stuck for a moment, not knowing when he left her. Heh, like you said, at least he's there for three years! Thanks a lot! Oh, and Kurogawa does get what he deserves in this ... I hope that's okay, or does he deserve MORE? For everything that he's done? heh,i hope this one's good too.
cleo: Well, I've updated - and I hope it's as good as you hoped it would be! Thanks a lot for the review!
kennii nii chan: Heh, I don't know whether i'll be able to continue to update like this ... so I'm doing it while I can! Heh heh ... thanks for the review and I hope you enjoy this too!
PRoyalAngel2004: Oooohhh ... draw! Draw! Heh, I know - I just wish that we had a BIT more of Aoshi when he was younger. But I guess what we have been given is enough huh, especially since the series is not supposed to focus mainly on him? Oh yeah, Okita rocks! So do Saito and Hijikata ... hmm, i hope to write something about them one day. Well, we'll see ... thanks for the review, and enjoy this one too!
Chapter Three: The Limit
Kurogawa was walking down one of the corridors of the Aoiya, a thoughtful frown on his face as he did so. Thinking about everything that had happened ever-since the Oniwabanshuu had taken up residence at the Aoiya in Kyoto; he was rather pleased with himself – and with the ninjas that had unwittingly helped him. He had, for a moment or two, thought that everyone would agree with Okina and Aoshi, about sending everyone back to their respective bases, and leaving only the handful of ninjas in Kyoto. If they had come to that decision, it would have ruined Kurogawa's plans, as it would have meant that he would have been sent back to Osaka. There was no way that he was going to go back to Osaka, leaving the Oniwabanshuu in the hands of that young upstart.
Che … WHAT was Makimachi-sama THINKING when he agreed to Okina's proposal and named that brat the next Okashira? Come to think of it, why had Okina recommended the kid in the first place? Ah, yes … he had said something about the kid's youth being advantageous for the group or something like that. Hadn't ANYONE realized that the little brat wasn't experienced? Fine, he may have been raised in the Oniwabanshuu, and he may have had a great ninja for a mother and a brilliant strategist for a father, but surely that couldn't have earned him the recommendation? What about Yoshio? Kurogawa Yoshio had a few more years of experience than our current Okashira had … and most people had thought that he would indeed be named the next Okashira. But no, apparently it wasn't to be. And now … all of us have to face the shame of having to follow the orders of an Okashira who is many years younger than us.
Shinomori Aoshi may be strong in battle, but the only thing that he's REALLY good at, is looking after other orphaned brats. He would have redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes if had stayed, battling the other ninjas instead of foolishly running back to the burning village, only to save a freaking five year old child. What IS up with him and that child anyway? He's been hanging around with her quite a lot during the past couple of weeks – ever-since the whole false-alarm with the Shinsengumi was raised. Heh, that just goes to prove my point. Our 'dear' Okashira is too concerned about the five-year old brat to actually take his job seriously. Hmm … maybe I shouldn't complain. Maybe … maybe I can use their odd relationship … to my own advantage …
He stopped short when someone bumped into him from behind, causing him to lurch forward slightly. He turned around sharply, a scowl on his face as he opened his mouth to tell the person off.
"Gomen! I didn't mean to do that!" said the little girl, smiling sheepishly at him. One thing that he immediately noticed was that she looked a bit more cheerful than she had been, the week after he had told her about her mother's death. He scowled inwardly as he stared at the kid. How had this insignificant, weak thing managed to be labeled as a person of great importance?
"That's alright," he said, smiling at her and turning back around. He had a meeting to get to. There was no time to 'talk' with the brat. He took a few steps forward, when an idea suddenly popped into his head. He wanted to reduce the respect and the patience the other men had with their Okashira … and he had just thought of a way to start about it. Placing a smile on his face, he turned back around to face the little girl, who had obviously been waiting for him to leave. "Misao dear, are you busy right now?"
"Busy? No," said Misao, wondering what the big man wanted from her. She didn't know much about him – except for the fact that he had saved her from an encounter with one of those filthy insects, the co – ckorache – well, whatever they were called.
"Do you want to do something fun?" asked Kurogawa, forcing the smile on his face to stay in place as he watched the girl nod eagerly. He had expected her to say that. "Then come with me …" Taking her hand, he changed his course and headed outside, into the garden. Now let's see what you do, Aoshi…
"Are we waiting for anyone?" asked one of the ninjas, a little impatiently as everyone sat in silence, without starting the meeting. Aoshi nodded.
"Yes," he said. "Kurogawa-san and Okina." There was another silence after that, as everyone found something in the room to stare at, feeling rather uncomfortable with the quiet surrounding.
"Ah, that reminds me Aoshi," said Ryoken, smiling at the Okashira. "What have you decided to do about Misao?" Aoshi glanced at the man seated close to him for a brief second, before looking down at his Kodachi again.
"What do you mean?" he asked, slowly.
"We know that she's going to be staying here," said Ryoken, softly. "But … is she going to be trained? As a member of the Oniwabanshuu?" Aoshi was forced to look up at the male again, not because he had asked the wrong question, but because he had asked the question he had been asking himself lately.
"I don't know …" he said, at last. "We should probably train her in the skills of the ninja, but … will she need them, in this era?" Kobayashi Ryoken nodded.
"That's true," he said. "She won't need them. But still, you never know what kind of things and people Misao will run into when she gets older. She'll at least need to know enough for self-defence …"
"You have a point there …" said Aoshi, not showing any expression on his face. Truth be told, the past few days had seen him brooding in his room – when he wasn't at meetings or playing with Misao – about various things. The most important thing that he had been brooding about had been Misao's future. He knew that a little girl like her had no need to learn the ways of the ninja, and especially when the country seemed to be at peace. If he followed that line of thought, then Misao would probably have to be handed over to Omasu or Ochika – or one of the other female ninjas, to be trained to ultimately become a good, well-behaved young woman.
But THAT would mean that he wouldn't be looking after Misao anymore. That would mean that Misao wouldn't be in his hands anymore. That would mean that Misao would probably turn out to be like the other females around, who simply giggled, gossiped and did god-knows-what else. Somehow, he couldn't see Misao turning out to be like that.
He had also thought about another option – about seeing to it that Misao was trained in the ways of the ninja, which would help her at any point in her life, when she was faced with danger, and 'danger' also meant rowdy groups of men. If Misao was trained, she would grow up to be a strong young-woman, who wouldn't really need to depend on the protection of anyone – unlike some other females that he knew of. Training Misao would be a good thing for her, in that case.
Besides, if Misao was trained, that would mean that she would be in his hands – he flushed – in the sense that he would still be looking after her, like he was doing now. That would mean that Misao would be saved from growing up to be a giggling, gossiping girl whose sole purpose in life would be to find a 'good-looking' man and settle down, as that was what most of the females he knew cared about.
" – oshi?" He looked at Ryoken again, startled as he called out his name.
" … Nothing, never-mind," said Ryoken, wondering why the fifteen-year old had zoned out during the conversation. That was not like him. He shrugged. He guessed that everyone had their days.
"Aoshi-sama, are we going to start the meeting?" asked another ninja, now really impatient. Aoshi sighed inwardly. Where were Kurogawa and Okina?
"We'll just give them a few more minutes," he said, quietly. "And we'll start."
At the same time:
Misao gulped as she stared at the tiled roof the bathhouse that loomed in front of her. She glanced at the man standing next to her, trying to figure out whether he was being serious or not, with his suggestion. Kurogawa continued to smile at her.
"Well, what do you say, Misao dear?" he asked, looking down at the girl and noticing that her face had paled slightly. "Do you want to do it?" Misao looked away from him and stared at the roof again, her gut telling her that this was going to result in something bad.
"I – ano – " Misao stopped, her childish voice faltering. "I – "
"Mou, are you afraid, Misao?" asked Kurogawa, kneeling down next to the girl. "Is Makimachi Misao afraid of doing something as little as this?" Misao stared hurriedly at him, her deep-blue eyes hardening with resolve.
"Afraid?" she asked, as though the word was new to her. Mou … does this man think that I, Makimachi Misao am afraid!
"It's okay though, Misao dear," said Kurogawa, shaking his head and sighing to get the desired effect of disappointment across to the girl. "I understand why you're frightened. Don't worry about it – I just thought that you were more courageous than – " He smirked inwardly as he saw the girl stiffen. Looks like this is going to work after-all …
"I'll do it," said Misao, bravely. Kurogawa raised an eyebrow, just to make sure.
"Now there's no need to say it simply because – "
"No, I'll do it," said Misao, interrupting him. Kurogawa smiled.
"Good girl!" he said, standing up. "Now … the whole point of this, is that we get on to the roof, and then see who can get down the fastest, okay?"
"O-Okay …" said Misao, gulping. "But – how do we get up there?" Kurogawa smiled.
"I can take you up there, but from there, we need to work separately," he said. "But remember, the person that gets down the fastest, gets a special treat from Aoshi-sama …" He smirked as Misao's eyes lit up at the mention of the 'special treat.' Or was it because he had mentioned Aoshi? Honestly … kids are SO easy to manipulate. "Shall we go?"
"Hai!" exclaimed Misao, as Kurogawa carried her small form in his arms and, using his agility and experience as a ninja to get them on top of the roof in no time. Luckily for him, no one else was around to see him. Misao climbed out of his arms and made the mistake of looking down as she did so. Feeling a little dizzy, she grabbed onto Kurogawa's arm for support, as a wave of fear rushed through her.
"Okay Misao, now, from now onwards, you're on your own, okay?" asked Kurogawa, steadying the girl for a moment. Misao stared at him, her face paler than it was before. He didn't miss the beads of sweat that ran down her face.
"Ano – this place – " Misao fell backwards – on the tiles that covered the roof – on her bottom as Kurogawa hurriedly stood up. "Ano – where are you – "
"Good-luck Misao!" said Kurogawa, turning his back on her, and chuckling at the child's stupidity. "Don't forget about the 'special-treat' from Aoshi-sama! Don't let him down, Misao!" With a last smile, he was gone. Misao looked around her hurriedly, trying to tell herself that the man was still there, and that he was hiding from her. Unfortunately, it didn't take her long to realize that he wasn't hiding from her.
She gulped. Why did she have a bad feeling about this? She hurriedly shook her fears aside as she looked around her again. The area around her, covered with tiles, was relatively flat – it was the area beyond it that sloped downwards, making it dangerous. She caught sight of the ground that seemed so far away, and felt her head spinning again, as she attempted to stand up. She landed on her bottom again, unable to stand up straight in fear of falling off with her head spinning the way it was. The man had told her not to let Aoshi-sama down. What had that meant? Would it really let him down if she didn't manage to make it down from the roof?
Taking a deep breath, and throwing her shoulders back, Misao, with a huge effort, managed to stand up straight – without her head spinning. The tiles all around her were dirty, and covered with bits and pieces of leaves, and with things that she didn't want to know ab - feeling a little disoriented, she collapsed onto her knees on the flat part of the tiled roof.
Her eyes widened as she felt her left hand land on something … gooey. She whimpered in disgust as she saw the thing on her palm – the thing had been one of those things on the roof that she had not wanted to know about. It was bird-droppings. She scraped her palm against the edge of one of the cleaner tiles, and let out a small cry as she cut her palm in the process. Looking at her palm again revealed a bloody mess, with a bit of bird-droppings left.
She glanced down at the ground again, and realized that there was no way that she was going to get out of her predicament. And it didn't help that the sun was blearing down on her, or that her hand was bleeding and hurting her. Strong-willed though she was, she was just a five-year old child. She couldn't stop the hot tears that formed in her deep-blue eyes. Someone … help me …
"Alright then, since we cannot delay this meeting anymore, I declare it open," said Aoshi, addressing the ninjas that were gathered around him, in the usual room. "Are there any – " Aoshi stopped as the door to the room was opened, to reveal Okina, with an apologetic expression on his face.
"I'm sorry for getting late," he said, nodding at Aoshi. "I just had to organize the Aoiya's finances." Aoshi nodded, as Okina sat down, closing the door behind him.
"That's fine," he said. "Now – "
" – Where's Kurogawa?" asked Okina, interrupting the boy. Aoshi shrugged.
"No-one knows," he said. He usually might have sent someone out, to look for the man, but he just didn't want to. He had a feeling that the meeting would go well without the middle-aged man around. "As I was – " He stopped, interrupted again, as the door slid open once more, this time to reveal Kurogawa. Without bothering to acknowledge Aoshi, or give a reason for his being late, he simply closed the door behind him and sat down at his usual place, in the right side of the room.
"What?" he asked, as a few people stared at him, waiting for him to address Aoshi.
"Aren't you going to explain yourself?" asked the other elderly ninja, staring at Kurogawa through eyes full of wisdom. Kurogawa smiled.
"Explain myself? For what? I'm only a few seconds later than Okina was," he said. "There's really no need for an explanation is there, Aoshi-sama?" Aoshi, keeping his temper in check, shook his head.
"No, there's really no need for an explanation," he said. "Seeing as how it would be made-up anyway." Kurogawa simply smiled as he stared at the fifteen-year old, waiting for his plan to come into fruition. Let's see how you embarrass yourself today, Shinomori Aoshi.
"Whatever you say, Okashira," was all he said, as he waited patiently. Aoshi took a moment to start talking again.
"The first thing that I want to discuss with you all today is about letting-go of a few of our ninjas," he said, slowly and calmly as usual. "Before we start discussing this, I would like to give my reasons for this suggestion as well, as it will take less time if we do it this way." He paused again. "Since we are obviously approaching a more peaceful era, I feel that it is rather meaningless to have all the members that we have with us now. For example, the older women, experienced though they are, would be better off leaving us, to start their own lives or to continue with their lives. This does not mean, in any way, that they will not be considered as a part of the Oniwabanshuu. On the contrary, they will just be taken off 'active-duty' which, I feel, would suit them better." He paused again. "And then – "
"Just a second, Aoshi-sama," said Kurogawa, interrupting him. Aoshi said nothing. He had been expecting that. "These 'older women' that you speak of … exactly how old are they? And have you asked them for their opinions on this matter?"
"I wasn't sure about the women in their early twenties, but the ones in their late twenties, or probably their early thirties and above," said Aoshi. "And no, I haven't asked anyone about their opinions yet, because I felt I should bring it up here, at the meeting and then ask them."
"So you basically want to take all the women away from the Oniwabanshuu?" asked Kurogawa. "Is that what you're trying to say?" Aoshi fixed him with a cool gaze, not really liking the man's tone.
"No, that is certainly not what I'm trying to say. The women can choose to remain on active-duty if they wish. However, I happen to know that a certain number of them still remain on active-duty only because they feel that they have to, whereas they would much rather appreciate to stay at home with their families, or to start families," he said. "I just want to let them know that they are not under any obligation to remain on active-duty. It's not fair on them."
"Ah … our Okashira is so concerned about the women, isn't he?" asked Kurogawa, raising his eyebrows at the dark haired boy. Okina coughed as ice-blue eyes flared for a mere second.
"Before you were so rudely interrupted, Aoshi, you were going to say something?" he asked, turning his attention to the boy and hoping that he did not lose his temper. Aoshi, grateful for Okina's interruption, nodded.
"Yes, I was going to talk about the children. I thought that it would be better for them – if they wanted – to start their lives again," he said. "Especially the children whose parents died in battle, and I'm sure that there a few families, connected with the Oniwabanshuu, who wouldn't mind taking in a few of these children and looking after them, effectively giving them a second chance at life." Kobayashi Ryoken smiled admiringly at the boy. He had not known that he thought so much about things.
"I think that that's a good idea," he said, nodding at him. "I'm sure that a lot of people are still staying with us because they feel that they have to, and not really because they want to." Okina found himself nodding as well.
"But what about the men?" he asked, hoping that Aoshi had thought of that as well. Aoshi nodded, shooting the man a small smile to tell him that he had thought of them.
"Yes, I was thinking that we should give the men the same choice as well," he said. "Since – "
"So … you want the Oniwabanshuu to be left with a grand total of around 20 ninjas?" asked Kurogawa, rudely interrupting him again. Aoshi forced himself to breathe evenly, and to keep his temper in check.
"He's right," said another ninja. "If you give them the choice, most people will leave us."
"And then what are we going to do when we find ourselves in danger?"
"What a disgrace to the name of the Oniwabanshuu, to be reduced in number!"
"What are you trying to do here, Aoshi-sama? Ruin us?"
"What point is there in having a large number of ninjas working for us, when none of them are really doing it because they want to?" interrupted Ryoken. "Isn't having large numbers of people who are a part of this organization just for the sake of it much worse than having a reduced number who really are interested in whatever they do?"
"I have to agree there, Kobayashi-kun."
"Yes … he does have a point there."
"Besides, a smaller group will be more manageable as well, won't it?"
"Everyone please – "
"I agree with Aoshi-sama's proposal."
"So do I."
"Well I don't. I think that it's a ridiculous idea to do this at this point in time."
"Exactly. What would Makimachi-sama say if he found out that this was going on?"
"He would be happy that we have an Okashira who actually thinks about our welfare in the same way that he did!"
"The only reason that Makimachi-sama couldn't do this when he was alive was because we were still at war. But now, with peace just around the corner, it can be done, and we're all arguing about it!"
"When you spoke of children, Aoshi-sama," cut in Kurogawa's voice. "Were you speaking of yourself as well? I mean, you lost your parents as well … and you are a child. I'm sure that there will be many families out there who would love to take you in and give you a second-chance in life." There was a tense silence in the room as everyone stopped arguing, and stared at Kurogawa. They all gulped when they felt a flicker in Aoshi's life-force. If the Okashira lost his temper …
"No, Kurogawa, I wasn't speaking of myself," said Aoshi, as calmly as he could. "Simply because as the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu; I cannot leave this organization. Besides, I'm here because I want to be here."
"Oh, so you're not doing anything just because Makimachi-sama told you to?" asked Kurogawa. Aoshi stared at him through ice-blue eyes.
"I am doing my work as a result of Makimachi-sama's instructions," he said. "But I was speaking about the other people, and how they might change their minds, if they were given a choice."
"Makimachi-sama apparently asked you to look after his grand-daughter, didn't he?" asked Kurogawa, slowly. "Well, there's no need to look after her just because he said so. If you put this plan forward, you'll have a choice too – you can send her away to one of those families you were speaking of before." Aoshi and Okina both bristled as Kurogawa spoke, enjoying every moment of this.
"Kurogawa, that's enough," said Okina, his voice hard. "This is not a personal attack on – "
"What do you say, Aoshi-sama? If all children are to be sent away … then surely there should be no exceptions?" continued Kurogawa, smirking at Aoshi. Ryoken sighed inwardly, as did a number of other ninjas. They had all noticed that … recently, Kurogawa seemed to be launching personal attacks on the Okashira, and they didn't really like it one bit. "Surely Misao will have to be sent away as well."
"Yes, she should be sent away," said Aoshi, at last, knowing that if he said there were to be exceptions, he was not being an unbiased leader. He had to remain fair at all times, whether or not he liked it. "However, what makes you think that we – that I, since this seems to be a personal attack on me, am looking after Misao simply because Makimachi-sama asked me to?" Okina smiled inwardly as he watched Aoshi. This had to be the first time that the boy had spoken about his role in Misao's life.
"Hmm?" asked Kurogawa, not having expected him to retaliate in such a manner.
"I have known Mis – I have known the girl ever-since she was born, Kurogawa-san," said Aoshi. "I am looking after her now because I want to. Not just because Makimachi-sama asked me to. I wouldn't expect you to understand this, Kurogawa-san, since, as far as I know, no-one has ever placed any serious obligation on you." Okina and Ryoken exchanged wry smiles. They had known that the day would come when Kurogawa would drag Aoshi to the limit of his calmness. Aoshi, meanwhile, was surprised at himself. He hadn't expected those words to come tumbling out of his mouth. He – he didn't know how, but … the words seemed to have come into his head and out of his mouth from nowhere. But that was impossible, wasn't it?
Misao scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her right hand, trying to be strong despite the dread that swam inside her. Not only did she have a bleeding left hand, after trying to get the bird-droppings off her, but she was now sporting several bruises and cuts on her legs, as a result of sliding down the tiles several times, and cutting herself on the uneven edges. She was sweating profusely, and was as white as snow. It didn't help that she felt like she was going to be sick either, what with the dizziness that she had.
Ignoring the protests of her whole body, she reached out with her uninjured hand, and gripped the edge of a tile, making sure that it was fastened firmly to the roof, before putting most of her weight on it. If she couldn't stand and walk down, she was going to have to try and crawl to her destination.
Her mind screamed at her to stop what she was doing, as she was overridden with fatigue, and her limbs were barely moving. Her heart, however, pushed her on, telling her not to give up and not to scream for help. The only thing that had kept her from screaming was what the man had said about Aoshi-sama. If he was counting on her, how could she let him down?
Awkwardly, she started moving away from the flat area of the roof, trying to crawl down tile by tile. Unfortunately for her, the two tiles she was gripping then came lose and fell from her hands, causing her to lose her balance. She tumbled forwards, and rolled down the sloped side of the roof, wincing and crying in pain as she cut herself. She was going to let herself fall, when she caught sight of the ground – that seemed to become further and further away from her, despite the fact that she was rolling down.
If I don't do something I'm going to fall off and probably die.
In a last, desperate attempt, she reached out with her uninjured hand, and managed to stop herself from rolling off the roof completely, and plummet to the ground. Hanging on to the tiles she had managed to grip with her right hand, she breathed heavily, blinking fresh tears away from her eyes in an attempt to clear her vision. Her tiny body, bruised more than it had ever been before, and bleeding from the many cuts she had, begged her to let go, as the pressure her arm had on it was too much for it to bear. All she had to do was let go – no. She couldn't do that. Her eyes widened in horror as she felt her arm slip away from the tiles she had just managed to grab. She swung her feet around, trying to regain her hold on the tiles, only to find the hold lessen more.
She closed her eyes, tears falling freely from them. She needed help. Why wasn't anyone coming to help her? Where was that man? The one who had brought her here? Finally unable to hang on, she opened her mouth and cried out, for help.
"HELP! SOMEBODY, PLEASE, HELP ME!"
At the meeting:
"Yes, we know how concerned you are about that girl," said Kurogawa, after a small silence. "You put her safety before your duties as the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu."
"I have never done that," said Aoshi, tensing up.
"Oh? Then how about the time when you went to 'rescue' her from the burning house, leaving your men in the battle, and causing many of them to lose their lives?" asked Kurogawa.
"We have discussed this before," said Aoshi, coldly. "I did what I felt was right. The men there didn't need me with them. If they did, I wouldn't have left."
"Just admit it Aoshi-sama, ever-since you rescued that girl, you have neglected your duties as the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu," said Kurogawa.
"Kurogawa – "
"If I have done anything of the sort, I would admit it," said Aoshi, interrupting Okina. "But since I haven't – "
"Fine then, prove it," said Kurogawa. Aoshi stared at him. "Prove that you feel that your duties as the Okashira are more important that anything else."
"Just give me the test, and I will do my best to prove it to you …" he said, confident that he never put anything before his duties to the Oniwabanshuu. Kurogawa smiled. He had guessed that the boy would say something along those lines.
"Aoshi, calm down, don't – " Okina was stopped when the desperate cry reached their ears. Everyone sat up straight, looking up. Sure enough, they heard it again. It sounded like someone was in a dire situation, and –
"That voice …" said Ryoken, his eyes widening as they strained their ears to make out what was being said. "Isn't that – "
" – Misao's," said Aoshi, reaching out to grab his Kodachi. Knowing Misao, he knew that she would never cry out for help like that unless she was in a really bad situation.
"We should hurry," said Okina, standing up as well, concern etched on his aged features. The girl had charmed her way into his heart easily.
"Hang on a second," said Kurogawa, staring at Aoshi.
"Not now, Kurogawa," said Okina, his voice hardening as he glanced at the man.
"Aoshi-sama, if you really place your duties to the Oniwabanshuu before anything else … you won't leave this meeting," said Kurogawa, ignoring Okina.
"Kurogawa-san, this is – "
"I was talking to our Okashira, Ryoken, and not to you," interrupted Kurogawa, turning to Aoshi again, amusement present in his eyes. "Prove it, Aoshi-sama." Aoshi stood eerily still, his Kodachi gripped in his hand as he stared impassively at the middle-aged man. The other ninjas stared in disgust at the man they had all once respected. They couldn't believe the nerve of him, to say something like that when the little girl was obviously in trouble.
" … You know what, Kurogawa-san?" he asked, at last, his voice so low that everyone in the room had to strain their ears to hear it. "I don't need to prove myself to you. I never did, and I never will." With a last death glare at the man, he ran out of the room, heading in the direction of the cries. Okina, Ryoken and the other ninjas followed him.
"Please, Misao-chan, all that you have to do is come down," said the tall, masked figure, holding out his hands to the girl who was barely hanging on to the roof with one arm.
"N – No …" whimpered Misao, afraid. She had managed to catch a glimpse of the mask the person wore, and it scared her.
"Misao-chan, you're going to fall off if you – "
"No!" cried the girl, shrilly.
"Misao-chan, please, listen to Hannya and come down," begged Ochika, fear present on her face.
"Misao-chan!" called Omasu, as she slipped a bit more.
"What are we going to do, Hannya?" asked Beshimi, looking up at the little girl.
"I don't know," said Hannya. "If she would just – Beshimi, we have no choice. Call Aoshi-sama." Beshimi nodded. They had thought of not calling Aoshi, knowing that he would be in the midst of a meeting, but it looked like they had no choice.
"Hai," he said, and turned around to run off, when he caught sight of the young Okashira running towards them with a group of people behind him. "Aoshi-sama!" Aoshi made his way towards Hannya and Beshimi, and his eyes widened as he saw Misao, hanging on for dear life, on to one of the tiles on the high roof of the bathhouse.
"Misao!" he exclaimed, surprised. Hannya watched as Misao opened her eyes and looked down, hearing her name being called.
"A- Aoshi-sama …" she whimpered, feeling her arm beginning to tire. "I – " She stopped as she slipped a bit more.
"She won't come down to us, Aoshi-sama," said Hannya. "I think she will come down to you though." Aoshi nodded, dropping his Kodachi on the floor and taking Hannya's place.
"Misao, I want you to listen to me well, okay?" he asked, his voice as calm as usual. "I want you to let go of the tile you're holding right now." Even from that distance, Aoshi could see the fear that glimmered in the girl's eyes as she looked down at him.
"But – but I'll fall!" wailed the girl, getting hysterical. Aoshi shook his head.
"No you won't," he said, firmly. "I'll catch you."
"Aoshi-sama I – " Misao cried out as she slipped a bit more.
"Misao please," said Aoshi, wanting the girl to jump off on her own accord, instead of slipping off and falling. If this didn't work out well, she would even turn out to be afraid of heights, and that would be a blow. "Trust me Misao." Misao stared at him out of tear-filled deep-blue eyes for a full minute, as everyone else stood with their mouths slightly opened, and holding their breaths.
"Are – " Misao didn't have time to finish her question, as she slipped more. Her body going against her mind's wishes, her arm slackened, and she let go of the tile, to find herself falling. She felt the wind rushing against her ears, as her body plummeted to the ground, and squeezed her eyes shut. She was going to –
She felt two arms wrap themselves around her waist, and felt the owner of the arms topple to the ground, with the force she fell with. She stayed still, her eyes still squeezed shut.
"Misao-chan, are you alright?"
"Misao-chan!" Aoshi sat up, still holding the child's frail figure to him.
"Misao?" he asked, softly, causing the girl to turn her face towards him and to open her tear-filled eyes. Aoshi's eyes narrowed as he saw the bruises and cuts on her arms and legs – and the small, bleeding scratch on her cheek. Looking at her arms, he spotted blood on her left palm and gently raised it, to see a deep gash on it – a gash that was bleeding profusely.
"Aoshi-sama!" cried Misao, crying freely. Aoshi stroked her head, glancing worriedly at Okina, who knelt down beside them. Everyone was watching, hoping that nothing serious had happened to the little girl.
"Misao, it's okay … shhh …" said Aoshi, stroking her head, but wondering at the same time what Misao had been doing on the roof. He was sure that she wouldn't have been able to get on to the roof by herself, let alone get off it, as she had shown them.
"Misao, what were you doing on the roof in the first place?" asked Okina, a rather stern not entering his voice, although he himself wondered how she had got on the roof in the first place. Misao only cried some more in reply.
"Misao? What were you doing up there?" asked Aoshi, softly, looking at her.
"He – he told me – " Misao took a deep breath, remembering the fear that had swum through her. "He said that we – were playing a game … and – and that you were counting on me to – to get down from the roof …" Aoshi and Okina exchanged surprised glances.
"Who said this, Misao?" asked Okina. "Who 'played' with you?"
"I – I don't know …" whimpered Misao, her tear-streaked face tugging at the hearts of almost everyone around her.
"Misao-chan, who came to play with you?" asked Ryoken, kneeling down on her other side.
"That – that man who – who killed the croa – the craokroca – " she stopped, unable to pronounce the word properly.
"The what?" asked Ryoken, confused.
"The cockroach," said Aoshi, his voice dull. "It was Kurogawa." There was a stunned silence, where the only thing that was heard was Misao's quiet sobs.
"Misao … was it Kurogawa?" asked Okina, needing proof. Misao nodded slowly. That was the man who had killed the cockroach. Aoshi straightened his shoulders suddenly, catching everyone's attention.
"Okina … take Misao, please," he said, in a barely controlled voice. Okina unwillingly reached out to take the girl into his arms, knowing what Aoshi was going to do.
"Aoshi-sama – " protested Misao. Aoshi gave her the smallest of smiles.
"Don't worry," he said, in a slightly better controlled voice. "Omasu-san, do you think that you can give her a bath and clean up her wounds?" Omasu nodded hurriedly, kneeling down next to Okina and smiling at Misao.
"Come here, Misao-chan," she said. "We're going to clean you up." Everyone else watched as Aoshi finally stood up, walking over to where he had dropped his Kodachi, and as he walked away from the bathhouse.
" … Oh dear …" said Ryoken, watching him go. "It won't go down well if he kills him, will it?" Okina shook his head.
"No, it won't," he said. "But personally, I wouldn't care about his well-being." He sincerely hoped that Aoshi would kill the horrid man.
Kurogawa looked up as he sensed the dangerous presence outside his room. He had only managed to put his cup of sake down, when the door was slid open.
"Aoshi-sama," he said. "What can I do for you?" He watched as Aoshi slid the door shut behind him, and as he walked forward, towards where he was sitting, gripping his Kodachi tight in his hand.
" … … Bastard," snarled Aoshi, punching the seated man squarely across the jaw. Kurogawa was up in a flash, narrowing his eyes.
"You had no right to strike me like that, Aoshi," he said, leaving aside the honorific prefix. He ducked another punch, only to find Aoshi's powerful kick connecting with his stomach. He was sent sprawling back.
" … I told you what I would do to you if you did anything to her …" hissed Aoshi, beside the middle-aged man in a flash. Kurogawa stared defiantly at the fifteen-year old, when he caught sight of his eyes. They were gleaming ice-blue … and something about the lack of emotion in them told him that this was not going to be good.
"What – what are you talking ab – " He was cut off when the sharp point of Aoshi's Kodachi was pressed against his throat, drawing blood from him.
"Shut-up," was all that the now completely different fifteen-year old said, applying more pressure on the Kodachi and drawing more blood from the man's neck. Kurogawa gulped. This was NOT looking too good …
Ah, it feels so satisfying to know that that man FINALLY gets what he deserves, doesn't it? Heh, I apologize for the length of this chapter – for being too long. I'll try and shorten the rest …
Heh heh … hope you enjoyed this one, and comments are welcome!
See ya soon!