Apologies for the delay, and thanks to the many nice, patient readers who had reviewed and who has been sending me emails to er… encourage me to quicken my pace of updating. I know that it's the norm to actually list and thank the readers individually, but I'm afraid I might take up an entire page or more just on the replies and thanks, so let's just let me say a very great "THANK YOU" to everyone generally.
Again, the conversation in underline are in Chinese, the rest in Japanese. With that, on with the show
Kaoru tapped her feet impatiently, hands on her hips as she stared at her cousin menacingly.
Long Ao eyed her nervously, while furiously racking his brains for an excuse, fictional or otherwise, to keep her from making sashimi out of him. Especially keeping in mind Kaoru's skills with a kitchen knife… he'd probably end up having to carve himself in the end, just to shorten and lessen the agony. Long Ao shuddered imperceptibly as his ever-active imagination came up with a vividly realistic image of Kaoru carving him into sashimi, and fumbling with the knife in the process.
"Ano… you really should calm down, Biao Mei. I really don't understand why you are so upset about my… er… sightseeing and socializing with potential business associates and partners in Japan. Besides, you are always nagging on how irresponsible I am and how I should take a keener interest in our business. Aren't you glad that I am, uh, actively developing our business in Japan?"
Kaoru arched an eyebrow. So that's how he wants to play, is it? Fine, I'll play along. Pretending to consider his argument, Kaoru frowned thoughtfully, and pondered aloud, "You DO have a point there. I mean, socializing is a part and parcel of the business, and you are definitely the better choice than myself for carrying that burden…."
Long Ao tensed even more. While Kaoru's words appeared auspicious for his continuing good health, all his warrior instincts were screaming at him to make a dash for it. Besides, he knew his cousin all too well, it was just not like Kaoru to be so easily sidetracked, especially when she was bent on 'educating' someone. As unobtrusively as possible, he positioned himself to flee at the slightest warning of danger.
Pretending she had not noticed the change in his stance, Kaoru continued wistfully. "And the potential additional revenue we can make from trading in Japan… but Biao Ge, since when did we conduct any business transaction with the Mibu's Wolf?" And with the last question, Kaoru cornered Long Ao before he could make a run by bringing one of her foot to just an inch away from Long Ao's face, ready to kick him if he so much as made a false move.
I knew it, Long Ao thought sourly. It was too good to be true. As Long Ao tried for an innocent smile, Kaoru cut him off before he could even say a word.
"Don't bother. I am not falling for another one of your "Oh-So-Innocent" look. Out with it. Why were you visiting the pleasure quarters in unsavory districts every night for the past week, with Saitoh not-so-discreetly following you no less? And what happened to your search for Enishi?"
Long Ao threw an amused grin at her. "Biao Mei, do you really have to ask why I have been visiting the pleasure quarters? I mean, you are what? Eighteen? Nineteen? And still unschooled in the facts of life?"
Wham. Long Ao had forgotten about her vigilant foot before his face, and was reminded relentlessly for the next twenty minutes, as Kaoru mercilessly kicked and stomped every inch of his face and body.
And this was how the Ambassador found them when he walked into the receiving quarters to join Long Ao for his nightly trysts, as he had been doing for the past week.
Noticing the Ambassador's presence, Kaoru halted her attacks abruptly. Trying to hide her flaming red face, she bowed to the Ambassador while murmuring her apologies over the unsightly scene, to which the Ambassador waved off with a careless laugh.
"Don't worry, I know how frustrating Long Ao can be. Goodness knows, I had been tempted oft enough in the past to do the same. I just didn't have the guts to carry it out, knowing that I would be the one on the receiving end. It's a pleasure to finally see justice meted out, by a beautiful heroine, no less. Don't let me obstruct you in your practice of justice." The Ambassador winked.
"Hey!" Long Ao called out indignantly. But his protest went unheeded as Kaoru gave the Ambassador a brilliant smile of gratitude before returning to her task. Meanwhile, the Ambassador settled himself comfortable on the settee in the corner a safe distance away from the cousins, and poured himself a glass of red wine to enjoy the play before him.
"Out of respect for the Ambassador, I will forget about that… that distressingly vulgar remark of yours. But, you WILL answer my questions one way or the other. NOW." Kaoru demanded, as she lifted a foot again to prepare for another round of kicking and stomping should the need ever arise.
Long Ao groaned, and turned to look beseechingly at the Ambassador, who had raised an eyebrow at the mention of 'that distressingly vulgar remark'. The Ambassador, catching Long Ao's silent cry for help, merely grinned as he lifted the glass of red wine to his lips with a nonchalant shrug of shoulder. Long Ao scowled at him, muttering scathing remarks about traitors beneath his breath. Which prompted Kaoru to unleash the promised round of kicks.
"Ouch! What was that for!" Long Ao yelled as he tried to dodge from Kaoru's kicks from his lying position on the floor.
"On behalf of Aunt Aiko, I am teaching you that it is extremely rude to make remarks of unsavory nature about guests, especially guests who had so kindly provided for our lodgings and who are at time of such remarks present." Kaoru calmly replied, not stopping once in her attacks. "Besides, you have yet to answer my questions. Why were you visiting the pleasure quarters, with Saitoh, whom I specifically warned you to stay away from, tagging behind?"
"Because I am an important man and he wanted to ensure my good-health during my initiation with the infamous geishas of Japan?" Long Ao made a feeble attempt to escape Kaoru's wrath.
"Since when do you require 'initiation' to the geishas? Your reputation with the fairer sex has preceded you. Try again." Kaoru did not slow down her attacks, and finally Long Ao gave in.
"Alright, alright! I'll talk. Just give those legs a rest." Long Ao finally surrendered. "Geez, I knew I should not have spent those hours in that mosquito-infested forest teaching you close combat."
Pushed beyond his tolerance, the Ambassador burst into loud guffaws, startling both cousins. "Never thought I'd see the day Long Ao would be thrashed so thoroughly without a chance of defense. God, now I know why you were so defensive about your cousin the other day when we were visiting Saitoh!"
"Easy for you to laugh. Wait till you are on the receiving end of those damned legs." Long Ao scowled.
"Ah, but that's the whole point. I am not, and not likely in the foreseeable future, to be on the receiving end. While you, my dear friend, will most likely be receiving another round once you explained your past association with the Mibu's Wolf. Whom, I recall, Miss Ye Die had specifically warned you not to provoke." The Ambassador grinned.
Kaoru's eyebrows shot up at the reminder (she had forgotten about it), and she replied icily. "Indeed, my Lord. Biao Ge, I am sure you have an interesting explanation as to why you are provoking Saitoh when you had promised me that you will not bait him. Also, why were you bringing him to the pleasure quarters in the yakuzas' districts??"
'How did you learn about it? I thought you had locked yourself in this house since we reached Japan." Long Ao was visibly startled to find Kaoru so well-informed about his movements.
"A fellow merchant paid me a… 'visit', and so kindly informed me about your nightly trysts when he was convincing me to betray you. Apparently he did not believe that we were cousins, and had assumed that I was your mistress." Kaoru's eyes narrowed at the annoying memory. The fellow merchant, a fat middle-aged man with an irritating and lecherous sneer, had actually barged in one afternoon, sat himself down and delivered his 'proposal' with an air of superiority. He was mistakenly convinced that Kaoru would break into tears at the mention of Long Ao's 'infidelity', and would be grateful for the opportunity to be his mistress, after betraying Long Ao to his benefit, of course. Kaoru had taken the opportunity to work off the stress and tension of the past year. In fact, the thrashing received by Long Ao thus far was nothing compared to the thrashing received by the said merchant.
Shaking her head to rid herself of the unwelcome memory, Kaoru once again focused on Long Ao. "Well? The explanation?"
Long Ao sighed, looked at the grandfather clock at the far end of the room, and shook his head in resignation. "Yi Tien, seems like I won't be able to make it tonight. In fact, I might not be able to live through this at all. Why don't you go home first and have an early night so that you can prepare for my funeral tomorrow?"
The Ambassador, trying to hide his amusement by covering his mouth, nodded wordlessly. On his way out, he stopped by the door and left a parting remark before leaving. "Long Ao, don't worry, I'll let the Mibu's Wolf know that you won't be able to make it tonight due to family obligations." With that, the Ambassador walked towards the door, grinning when he heard Long Ao's yells as he walked towards the gate.
Saitoh frowned. His prey was late tonight, which was unusual, since the prey was as eager to play as himself. His prey normally left the mansion within 5 minutes of the Ambassador's arrival, but tonight the Ambassador had been in the house for half an hour and yet no sign of either men. The only sign of life so far from the mansion was the yells that he heard, but the identity of the person making the yelling was as yet uncertain.
At that moment someone left the mansion, and Saitoh eagerly awaited for the presence until he noticed that it was the Ambassador, alone. Again, another diversion from the norm. Saitoh watched as the Ambassador stood in the open, not going into his carriage. After a moment, it was apparent to Saitoh that the Ambassador was trying to locate something, or someone, namely himself, Saitoh acknowledged. But it would be most undiplomatic to openly admit that he had been shadowing the Chinese Ambassador and his friend for the past week, hence Saitoh remained in the shadows.
Finally, the Ambassador heaved an impatient sigh. "Alright, Saitoh-san, can we forego the niceties, forget our station, etc just for a moment?"
Saitoh raised an eyebrow at the mention of his real name, a slip his prey would never have made. Nevertheless he obligingly stepped out of the shadows.
"Lord Ambassador." He greeted the man.
"There you are. I am to convey the apologies of Long Ao, who has other engagements tonight. Why don't you go home early for once? There would be nothing for you to accomplish tonight, except for a cold night standing in the streets." The Ambassador advised.
"Engagement?" Saitoh queried, and at the precise moment there was another yell, louder than the previous yells accompanied by sounds of many things broken. In fact, it was accompanied by the sounds of the dismantling of a room, and the Ambassador visibly winced as he listened to the ruckus. Obviously Long Ao's explanation was not convincing enough.
"Aa. A family engagement. While he would no doubt enjoy another night of baiting you unnecessarily and entertaining the geisha, which no doubt he would do regardless of your presence, he has a family obligation to honor tonight." The Ambassador made no effort to disguise the amusement from his tone.
Saitoh said nothing, studying the man before him. Understanding Saitoh's skepticism, the Ambassador added.
"It's none of my business if you two wants to play, but know that I am only assisting him in the capacity of a personal friend, and that his presence in Japan as well as his mission is totally unrelated to the China government. You also have my word that Long Ao does not mean any harm to Japan or to yourself, and that he would be gone as soon as he finds Yukishiro Enishi. That's all I have to say, but if you two insist on continuing this bait-and-prey game, well, it's entirely up to you gentlemen of course. I am merely a spectator enjoying the play before me. But I would seriously recommend that you simply hand Enishi over to him, and then he can be on his way back home. While I wouldn't dream of interfering with either his or your entertainment, I am certain that both of you have more important matters requiring your attention. That's all I have to say, goodnight." The Ambassador climbed into his carriage, without waiting for Saitoh's reaction.
Saitoh stared after the disappearing carriage, and only when it has totally disappeared from view, while the yells continued to emit from the mansion, did he leave his spot and followed the Ambassador's advice by going home early for once. Oh well, at least Tokio would be happy about this rare occurrence, he thought wryly.
The next day, in Kamiya dojo.
Megumi sighed as she made breakfast. A year ago, she would had been ecstatic about her present living arrangements. Ken-san and herself living under the same roof without another woman around to 'distract' Ken-san, never mind the intrusive presence of the rooster and kid. But now, she could not help but wish that Kaoru is still with them. At least her presence would ensure the rurouni's presence. Ever since they returned to the dojo, Yahiko had continued his daily practice without fail and although outwardly he remained the same bratty kid, she had caught him crying silently a few times in the training hall when he was practicing alone. The poor kid is undergoing a severe case of guilt and insecurity, guilt for 'abandoning' the tanuki and insecurity now that the tanuki is gone and Ken-san is becoming increasingly reticent.
A knock on the gates pulled her out of reverie abruptly, as she hurried her to the gates. As she reached out to open the gates, she was startled by the sudden hand which prevented her from doing so, and looking up, she found herself staring into the narrowed, but thankfully still violet eyes of the rurouni.
"Ken-san?" Megumi queried uncertainly, when she noticed that Kenshin had his other hand on his sakabatou.
Ignoring her unspoken question, Kenshin turned slightly to look at Aoshi, who had joined them and was also similarly in defensive stance. Aoshi nodded slightly and Kenshin pushed Megumi gently but firmly to the back, so that he stood before her protectively. Despite the tense atmosphere, Megumi could not suppress the elation as she stood in what used to be Kaoru's position, which was behind Kenshin. But the elation did not show on her face, as she waited apprehensively while Kenshin opened the gates. By now, everyone else, i.e. Sano, Yahiko and Misao, had also gathered around them.
The gates opened to reveal a bald man, approximately in his mid-thirties. The said man was garbed in plain and simple robes, not unlike those of a monk. However, not even Megumi could miss his impressive warrior-like build.
Bowing, the object of attention started speaking.
"Hajimemashite. I am Si Kong. I am a monk from China. I need to speak to the people who… fought not normal people in forest … er.. many days past." He finally resolved his inability to describe his needs.
A long silence would have ensured as Kenshin and Aoshi studied the man carefully had it not been for Yahiko and Sanosuke.
Sauntering up to the man, Sano made scathing remarks about Si Kong's linguistic abilities, to which Si Kong merely smiled apologetically, apparently understanding more than he could speak. Megumi scowled at Sanosuke's rudeness and would have interrupted him, but was prevented from doing so by Kenshin, who merely shook his head. Puzzled, Megumi mimicked Kenshin in observing the so-called monk's reactions, and was startled when Sano suddenly slammed a fist into Si Kong's face. Or tried to at least. Before the fist could connect, Si Kong raised an arm to block the fist and simultaneously turned the fist so that he was now holding Sano hostage with Sano's arm twisted behind his back. And to prevent further attacks, Si Kong forced Sano into a kneeling position by kicking Sano behind his knees and then stepping on Sano's legs so that Sano could not stand up. All of these were completed within a second, and with no apparent effort on the monk's part, who was still maintaining his calm, slightly apologetic smile.
Aoshi, who was highly accomplished in close combat himself, released a sigh of admiration at the skills displayed by the monk. Although there was nothing spectacular about the moves executed, Aoshi could read the message behind moves, and the ease with which it was carried out with practically screamed "MASTER" at him. This man was without doubt one of the greatest masters at close combat. And serves the rooster right for underestimating and provoking the man, even though Aoshi had to grudgingly acknowledge that Sano had done that to test the man. Battousai and myself could have simply told him that the man could easily rival us without having to go through all these trouble, Aoshi thought. Of course, none of his thoughts ever made its way to his face.
"Release him. Now." Simple words, and uttered softly, but neither could hide the fatalness of the warning.
The monk blinked, frowned slightly, then opened his mouth to speak again.
"Very sorry. I don't want to fight, but I need to speak to you."
"By harming our friend?" Kenshin countered.
The monk frowned even deeper.
"Buddha said pain and sufferings are transient, but my master said only idiots run against walls. If can avoid pain, why seek pain?"
Aware that the rest of the Kenshin-gumi could not comprehend Si Kong's words, Aoshi interpreted.
"What he meant was he was merely avoiding Sanosuke's attacks. And Battousai, you have to admit that he did not harm the rooster. If he had the intentions to do so, the rooster would have been dead the moment he countered the rooster's attacks. Although I admit that I have some suspicions about his motives, it could be resolved more efficiently if we just let him talked."
Kenshin nodded, and turned sideways for the monk to pass through, which he gladly did so after helping Sanosuke stand up.
Settling in the dining room, Kenshin and Aoshi sat facing the monk, while Yahiko and Sano curiously, and warily, sat behind the monk while Megumi and Misao sat behind Kenshin and Aoshi. Ignoring the fact that he was literally surrounded and guarded, Si Kong merely smiled in contention as he studied his surroundings.
"This place… good. Can feel, owner kind. Yes?" With that, he turned a questioning look towards Kenshin and Aoshi. Meanwhile, Kenshin's face had darkened at the oblique mention of Kaoru, and he did not reply, merely stared at the monk.
After a long silence, from which Si Kong correctly interpreted that the owner of this place was not a safe topic to discuss, he cleared his throats and started his explanations.
"I am student of Shaolin in China." At this Aoshi's eyes widened and he straightened his back, although this was only noted by Kenshin. "A brother of mine, enemies with the people you fought in the forest. But not know who they are. Maybe you can help?"
While the rest were cursing at this inadequate explanation, Kenshin asked simply.
"Why is your brother an enemy of people he doesn't even know?"
Si Kong shrugged. "This brother, not like other brothers. Still a man of mundane world, and physical pleasures. Who knows why he is enemy? But brother is good man, help many poor people. Maybe that's why. He asked me to find out what I can about these people when I am coming to Japan. But, very hard. Japanese, very hard to learn. And these people very hard to find." Si Kong sighed with heartfelt frustration.
"Put simply: This brother of yours has not cut his worldly ties and is not a monk. He is, somehow, an enemy of the people we fought, and he has asked you to investigate these people, is that it?" Aoshi asked.
Si Kong nodded solemnly.
Aoshi frowned. "What do you mean when you said that your brother is an enemy of these people? Has he been attacked?"
Si Kong shrugged. "Not sure. Brother very secretive. Not hard to know why. Many things he did would make Old Abbot die of anger. Or maybe break vow and kill him. Brother good man, but.. very mischievous. Don't always do things in correct manners. He likes to take easy ways and shortcuts. Also like women a lot." The last was said with a grin.
Again, there was a long silence during which the Kenshin-gumi tried to interpret his words. After finally gaining enlightenment, at various lengths of time, they exchanged dubious glances as they considered this strange man and his apparently 'unorthodox brother'.
"How do we know you are speaking the truths? I mean, you come all the way to Japan to help your brother without even knowing why? And damnit, is there an easier way to talk to you? Your Japanese is making my head spin!" Sanosuke complained. Misao and Yahiko nodded their heads in agreement with Sanosuke's complaint, while Kenshin and Aoshi merely waited for the monk's response, needing a sort of verification themselves.
Si Kong sighed, and for the first time showed a trace of impatience. Apparently even saints have limits to their patience. After frowning for long moments, he finally spoke with resignation.
"I came alone, so there's no way I can produce any proof. But I am a monk, who has forsaken all ties to the material world and has vowed to never take a life, man or beast. What harm can I do if you tell me what you know of these people, who also seems to be your enemies?"
The Kenshin-gumi considered his claims. Kenshin and Aoshi exchanged a glance, and coming to an agreement, stood up simultaneously.
"Come, follow me to the police station. I have some news to share with Saitoh, and you might as well join us. We will explain once we reached the police station." Aoshi decided. Taking his lead, everyone else followed likewise.
Weaving their way through the market streets, they made their way to the more wealthy district, with Si Kong leading them in front. As they passed a business district more occupied by the Chinese merchants, they found the entire district to be in an uproar as both Chinese and Japanese merchants vied with one another to get the attention of some unseen personage.
Mystified by the sight, the entire group, including Si Kong, exchanged baffled looks. Catching hold of the person nearest to him and holding said captive in place, Sano asked directly, "Oy, what's the fuss?"
The man, giving Sano a disdainful look, replied haughtily. "Let go of me, you ruffian. I must talk to her before the other competitors. Master Fang had refused to talk business since he reached Japan, since he claimed he's in Japan solely for pleasure and had only been visiting the pleasure quarters. And Ms Ye Die had been cooped at the Lord Ambassador's mansion since her arrival. But she's finally came out today with the Lord Ambassador's wife, to do a bit of shopping she says. But we all know that's an excuse, she's here to check out the potential business and I must show her my wares before the others. Now let go of me!"
While the Kenshin-gumi exchanged baffled glances, Si Kong straightened visibly and exclaimed. "Master Fang? As in Fang Long Ao? And his famous cousin, the Night Butterfly? What on earth are they doing in Japan?!?"
Curious, the merchant stopped struggling, as the Kenshin-gumi looked at him in curiosity.
"Do you know them?" the merchant asked unbelievingly, giving the monk's clothes a dismissive glance.
Interpreting Kenshin's and Aoshi's carefully blank expression, Si Kong hastened to explain, more to the Kenshin-gumi than to the merchant. "Fang Long Ao is one of the most successful businessman in the entire China. Might be more correct to say that he is THE most successful businessman in China. No other competitors even come close. He has business dealings from the capital to the farthest provinces, such as Mongolia, or even Tibet for all I know. He is also er…. that is to say, I have met him before." Silently he closed his eyes in a brief prayer to Buddha for forgiveness for the slight misrepresentation.
Opening his eyes, he saw that his efforts was wasted, as the Kenshin-gumi were eyeing him with open suspicion now. Wincing, he continued hurriedly. "I have not met Miss Fang Ye Die, who is known to be Long Ao's cousin. But since she only started appearing with Long Ao last year, I suppose that's understandable. However I understand that in the last year she had been a tremendous help to Long Ao's business. Last I know, they were in China with Long Ao still continuing his er… frequent travelling while Miss Ye Die looked after the business. As to why they are here, I really have no idea. However, Long Ao might be able to help as the Ambassador. Why don't we go and see him?"
The merchant, his interest in the monk awakened now that he learned that the monk is acquainted with the tycoon, eagerly advised him. "Oh, but he's not here. Word was, he and the Lord Ambassador went to the police headquarters, though no one is quite sure why. As I said, it's only Miss Ye Die and the Lord Ambassador's wife, Lady Chen. Do you think you can introduce me to Miss Ye Die?" the last was added hopefully.
"Police station?" Si Kong was understandably startled, while Kenshin and Aoshi exchanged a look. Saitoh's remark about a dragon to hunt was coming back to them, and if the mysterious Fang Long Ao was 'acquainted' with Si Kong, and somehow they had a reasonable suspicion that the relationship was much deeper than that, then Saitoh's interest in the man in understandable. Even shared. And the mysterious cousin who only appeared last year was as intriguing.
As they turned to watch the crowd again, trying to catch a glimpse of the said cousin, two figures pushed past the crowd towards their direction. From the way the crowd tried to close in on the two figures, it was obvious who these two ladies were.
Not wasting any time, Si Kong walked up to them exclaiming loudly in Chinese. "Miss Fang, a word with you please."
The two figures stopped and turned towards them. And the Kenshin-gumi gasped, lost in a mixture of shock, happiness and relief.
"Kaoru-dono…." the whisper left Kenshin's mouth in disbelief. Hearing Kenshin's whisper, the two ladies' eyes turned to look at Kenshin. And in that moment, time stilled to a stop, as clear blue eyes widened in shock to meet startled violet eyes….
Will try to get the next chapter out next month. I have some holidays due to me next month (hehehe) before my school starts in March, and between work and school I won't have time to work on the fic until June (sob).
Special note to Firuze: Really wanted to ask you to help with the editing. But since I dragged this so long, I thought I'd better post this up before someone comes after my blood. The next chapter though, will really need your help. Hope you have spare time next month to do some editing (puppy eyes)?