The Mamushi Gang is out for Kenshin's blood and the police are after him for supposedly starting a gang war. It's going to be tough finding a way to leave Osaka in one piece.

The Characters:

Mizuki Michio: tea-shop owner and co-okashira of the Osaka Oniwabanshu

Mizuki Takeo: police officer, twin of Michio and co-okashira

Yoshida: Kenshin's old wartime friend (a character from my story Descent into Madness)

Eiko: Yoshida's wife

Nakahira Masayoshi: Kaoru's uncle, older brother of her father, who has been trying to defraud Kaoru

Me: Wish I held the copyright. Watsuke: He's glad he holds the copyright! Viz, Jump, Sony, and all the other copyright holders: Okay, they're not the evil empire. After all, they let us write fan fiction with out having to pay royalties!

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Learning to Live Again

by

Conspirator

Chapter 8

The warehouse loft was one of the most spacious places Kenshin had ever stayed. It ran the entire length of the big warehouse, and with high windows facing west, the room was flooded with pink and orange light from the sunset that was breaking through the clouds. Surprisingly, although the loft was extensive, it was not entirely filled up. In fact, the only items it seemed to contain were several ornate chests of varying sizes. Kenshin immediately recognized them as storage containers for various kinds of weaponry. This, then, must be the secret armory of the Mizuki clan of the Oniwabanshu.

Mizuki, however, had directed Kenshin to the other side of the loft. There he found a futon, a traditional wooden neck pillow, a chamber pot, a few books and magazines and, thoughtfully, a sword stand. He glanced at the books-tales of bushido, it looked like, the kind Yahiko enjoyed reading. He picked one up and flipped through the pages. He occasionally read them himself-he often found them unintentionally amusing-but right now he was just too tired. Between the day's exertions and not getting enough sleep the night before at Mizuki's house, the words just seemed to swim in front of his eyes. So, he leaned back against the wall, his sakabatou propped against his shoulder, and fell asleep.

He was startled from his slumber by the sound of someone trying to open the trapdoor to the loft. In an instant, he was on his feet, sword drawn. Then Yoshida's head popped into the loft.

"Hey, it's just me, not the Mamushi Gang!" Yoshida laughed.

Kenshin lowered his sword and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry! I was asleep. What time is it?"

"Around six."

"Six!" He did a quick calculation. He must have been asleep a good two hours!

Yoshida had by now hoisted himself up into the loft. "Well! I've just had an interesting time at the Osaka Army-Navy Joint Forces Base. Seems your friend the Osaka police chief lodged a formal complaint with the Army base commandant about the 'rogue hitman' the Army brought in from Tokyo and has demanded your immediate arrest should you turn up at the base. You can imagine they were relieved when I showed up to give them an eyewitness account of what really happened."

Kenshin sat back down. "Did they believe you?"

"Well, mostly. I did have to tell them more than those few lines you approved back at the house, but I didn't tell them about..."

He saw Kenshin pointing to the walls and his ears before placing his finger across his lips. Yoshida got the message. He quickly grabbed a blanket, sat down next to Kenshin, and pulled the blanket over their heads.

"Just a little trick I learned way back when," he said softly. "Most of those gaijin weapons dealers coming through the waystation didn't speak Japanese, but some did, and those walls were damned thin. Let me know if you can't breathe."

"I'm fine. You were saying?"

Yoshida shifted the blanket slightly, then said in his softest voice, "I didn't tell them the business about the stolen death benefit-thought that was best left out since that's your insurance policy against Nakahira, so to speak."

Kenshin nodded. "So we're in the clear?"

"Not quite. They've demanded a copy of the actual police report, though from what Mizuki-san says, it sounds like it supports my story. The police chief, however, has made it sound like your sole purpose in coming here was to cause mayhem on the streets of Osaka, in which case the Army would be duty-bound to turn you in. After hearing me out, the base commandant now thinks something else is going on. Seems this police chief has a history of bad blood with the Army, something having to do with the samurai uprising last year, and they said it wouldn't surprise them if these are trumped-up charges designed to make the Army look bad. Anyway, they told me that if your story checks out, they'd be more than happy to give you safe haven and even procure a safe-conduct pass for you from the governor of the prefecture. What they can't figure out is why you'd want to take a troop transport back to Tokyo when you could just take the train."

"You mean aside from the fact the Mamushi Gang has supposedly staked out the train station looking to kill me?" He shrugged his shoulders. "It's simple-I can't afford a train ticket. Anyway, the troop transport wasn't my idea, it was Mizuki-san's. I wanted to disappear into the countryside. I've walked the Tokaido Road before, it wouldn't be the first time, but Mizuki-san pretty much ruled it out. That doesn't mean I couldn't figure out a way to do it, but to disrespect his clan to that degree when they've given me invaluable help, not to mention their ties to my friends in Kyoto..."

"You do know there's a ticket in your name waiting at the train station, don't you?" Yoshida cut in. "Of course, the police would arrest you the moment you claimed it, but still, it's there."

"That's impossible. I haven't bought a ticket, and I can't imagine who else would buy one for me, either."

Yoshida stared in disbelief. "You mean you really don't know? When the Tokyo police sent you and the other policemen here, they bought you round-trip tickets! How do you think the other policemen got home?"

Kenshin looked stunned. Really? There was a round-trip ticket in his name? And all this time he thought he might have to walk for two weeks to get home!

The look on his face caused Yoshida to burst out laughing. "You've obviously been a rurouni too long, my friend!"

"Shhh!" Kenshin said as he covered his friend's mouth with his hand.

"Listen, about that death benefit business," Yoshida said more softly as he pulled an envelope from a pocket, "I've brought the papers we held back from the Municipal Registry Office. I didn't think it would be a good idea to keep them at my house, what with the yakuza on the prowl."

Kenshin reached out to take them, but Yoshida held them back. "You should be turning these over to Mizuki Michio, you know. If the goal is to use them if Nakahira tries anything else, well, you won't know if he does and I won't know if he does, but the Mizuki's certainly will."

Kenshin hesitated. It went against all his instincts to hand these over to the Mizuki's, but Yoshida was right: if anyone should hold them, it would be them. Once again he was reminded of Sano's words last summer-it was time to place a little trust in others, and despite their prickly reception of him, the Oniwabanshu in Osaka had given him no reason not to trust them, "You're right, of course," he said.

The two sat staring at the documents, a strange silence coming over them, Kenshin thinking about the lengths to which Kaoru's uncle was willing to go to get what he wanted, Yoshida pondering Kenshin's plight. Yoshida felt his anger slowly rise at the unfairness of Kenshin's situation, but now it almost seemed that Kenshin was smiling. "What could you possibly have to smile at?" Yoshida asked roughly. "You help the police uncover not just one criminal but two, and they thank you by trying to arrest you for your efforts?"

Kenshin laughed softly. "Oh, that's nothing new, at least for me, anyway. No, it's because I now realize that I do have something to offer Kaoru-dono as a husband, even if I am penniless and jobless-protection, and I don't mean the kind that comes with a sword." A feeling of calm started to settle over him for the first time since, well, he couldn't think of when.

"I mean, think about it," he continued. "She's an orphan who's barely the age of majority, and the Mizuki brothers were right last night when they said no judge would ever prevent a relative from trying to force an adoption or a marriage on her. It's just the way of the world for a young woman who's single. I guess that's how that statement I made to Nakahira, that I'd marry her, just popped out-somehow, I must have instinctively known it was my best shot at protecting her." He laughed softly again as his smile grew. "And to think, for once it has nothing to do with my sword skills!"

"Well, of course it doesn't!" Yoshida started to say, but Kenshin cut him off.

"Yoshida, you don't know how important that is to me. People always seem to assume that I'm nothing more than my sword. Need a politician saved from a psychopathic hypnotist-assassin? Call Himura! How 'bout dealing with a crazed former assassin bent on taking over the country? Call Himura! But Himura isn't his sword! Himura just wants to live his life in peace! This, though?" His smile grew even wider, if that was possible. "Marrying someone? Why, it's just the normal course of events for any man and woman-it doesn't matter who they are or what their past." He stopped for a second as he conjured up Kaoru in his mind's eye. "For all I know, this may be as close as I'll ever come to knowing what it's like to be just a normal person," and he gave a sigh of contentment.

"I never realized..." Yoshida began, but he stopped as Kenshin suddenly stood, throwing the blanket off the two of them.

"Yoshida, you're right, I do want to take that train." He strode over to the trapdoor and flung it open. As he did, he heard a cry-someone had been standing on a ladder propped against the opening, trying to listen in. Kenshin watched as the man fell, did a backflip in midair, and managed to land like a cat on all fours, unharmed, on the floor twelve feet below. The man looked up at Kenshin, then ran like the wind to Mizuki's office.

At the sound of the commotion, Mizuki shot out of his office, nearly colliding with his onmitsu. "What the...?!" he exclaimed as the man hurriedly whispered in his ear. He looked up at Kenshin peering down and yelled, "Close that door and wait for me!" He was not happy.

"That was some stunt that warehouseman pulled off," Yoshida exclaimed as Kenshin pulled the trapdoor shut, "and I must say, it looks like you've pissed Mizuki-san off royally."

Kenshin started finger-combing his hair, which he could tell had been seriously tousled by the blanket. Yoshida took the hint and did the same. Within minutes, Mizuki joined them in the attic just as Yoshida was folding the blanket. It took Mizuki only a second to figure out how the two men had managed to thwart his onmitsu's efforts at eavesdropping. The onmitsu had, however, heard Kenshin's declaration about the train.

"So you're intent on taking the train," Mizuki said, his eyes shooting daggers at Kenshin. "You understand that we cannot give you any aid whatsoever in this endeavor."

Kenshin bowed to Mizuki as a soldier would bow to his commander. "I understand the difficult position this puts your family in. I mean no disrespect, but please hear me out. When I came to Osaka, I could have no way of knowing that there would be heavy involvement of yakuza in what I thought would be merely a negotiation between myself and Nakahira Masayoshi. If events had played out as I had expected them to, I would not hesitate right this moment to begin the two-week trek back to Tokyo on the Tokaido Road if that's what I needed to do. But now I am concerned that the threat level in Tokyo could approach a point that could overwhelm even your clan in Tokyo."

The daggers in Mizuki's eyes turned even more dangerous, if that were possible. "Are you saying my clan can't hold its own against yakuza?" he growled dangerously.

Kenshin straightened up and looked him in the eye. "I would never say that about the Oniwabanshu."

Mizuki looked ready to throttle him. "That name is not to be mentioned in public!" he hissed.

"I've known who you are for a long time," Yoshida said pointedly.

Before Mizuki could spit any more fire, Kenshin said, "My concern is this: what if the Mamushi gang uses a telegraph to contact their yakuza allies in Tokyo to attack Kaoru-dono and the dojo? It could happen before anyone could prepare."

"We'd know instantly," Mizuki retorted, throwing angry glances in Yoshida's direction as well. "There are only a handful of telegraph offices in Osaka, and we have people at every one of them."

"But they could have their own telegraph, could they not? Shishio Makoto had his own telegraph at his mansion on Mt. Hiei."

Mizuki stopped short. He had not known that.

"And yakuza in Tokyo already have a grudge against Kaoru-dono and myself for saving a young boy from their clutches. My impression is that your clan in Tokyo right now is a small one. If these two scenarios came to pass, even your clan could be overwhelmed."

Mizuki was simmering, but at least the pot had stopped boiling. Kenshin was right. The clan was small in Tokyo, a match for any yakuza gang but not for an all-out assault. "What would you have us do?" he asked grudgingly.

Yoshida, who had been hanging back, now strode forward and said, "The base commandant said he'd be willing to facilitate getting Himura on the train. He's even now in the process of obtaining a safe-conduct pass from the governor of the prefecture. That should take care of the police. As for the yakuza stalking the station..."

"Let me confer with my brother about that," Mizuki broke in. "You can't count on the regular police to confront the yakuza at the station, but there are a number of men whom my brother trusts who have helped in his investigation of the police chief. This could possibly help him secure an indictment." His temper was calming now at the prospect of something positive coming from this unanticipated turn of events.

As Mizuki turned to leave, Yoshida nudged Kenshin and pointed to the documents still lying on the floor. "Oh, yes, one more thing...," Kenshin said.

Mizuki spun around on his heel. He was beginning to lose what little patience he had just managed to salvage.

Kenshin held out the documents. "Earlier, on the boat, you asked how I knew Nakahira would not go to the police. This is how." He held out each document one by one. "They are all forgeries filed by Nakahira with the Municipal Registry Office so he could steal his brother's death benefit and take over his brother's property. As you know, he would face the death penalty for crimes such as this. I told him I had the documents but would not show them to the authorities unless he tried to make another move against Kaoru-dono. I was going to leave them with Yoshida, but under the circumstances..."

"I convinced Himura that you were the best person to hold these, not me," Yoshida broke in. "If Nakahira did try something, you're the most likely person to know of it."

Mizuki took the documents in a somewhat stunned silence. After Kenshin's testy exchange on the boat, this was most unexpected.

"Mizuki-san," said Kenshin as he took in the man's rare show of surprise, "I am a reticent person by nature, and I've lived a hidden life for so many years that I'm finding it difficult to learn how to live more openly. I know, though, that I can trust you to hold these and abide by the promise I made to Nakahira."

Mizuki's eyes bored into Kenshin's as if he were trying to read his very soul. Then he bowed slightly and said, "I am honored by your trust. Even my brother will not see these," and he disappeared through the trapdoor.

"Well, that went well, relatively speaking," Kenshin commented once they were alone again.

"I thought he was going to kill us both, to be honest," Yoshida replied. "But that business about saving a boy from the yakuza, was that true or were you just trying to lay things on a bit thick?"

"Ah, yes, Yahiko. " Kenshin smiled. "He's turned out to be quite the young swordsman. His mother was left destitute at the end of the Bakumatsu, and the only way she could support her child was to sell herself..."

"You don't have to explain," Yoshida said. "I can guess. She died, they took the child and trained him to steal, right?"

"Aa, and I'll bet he brought in quite a bundle because he was good at it, so you can imagine they were not happy when we...intervened."

"You mean you took them down."

"Well, something like that. But now I've got to make sure things don't spiral out of control. Soon I may not be able to wield a sword anymore, and that means I can't have yakuza gangs from all over Japan coming after us."

"What do you mean, before you might not be able to wield a sword anymore? What are you talking about?"

Kenshin stopped. He hadn't meant to say anything about that-it was a subject he was still trying to come to terms with himself. Well, too late now, so he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and said as if reciting a script, "I was told last month that my muscles are so scarred now that in a few years I probably won't be able to perform Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu anymore-maybe not even wield a sword." He opened his eyes and fingered the hem of his hakama where the yakuza's sword had sliced it, then held it up and said, "This never would have happened even six months ago. There's no question. I can already feel the difference in my muscles."

Yoshida was flabbergasted. Kenshin not able to wield a sword? It was unimaginable, but then again, hadn't it been unimaginable that he himself would ever be able to raise his own damaged arm above his shoulder after nearly losing it in battle all those years ago? And now he could.

"Himura," he said, "remember how I couldn't even lift this arm above my shoulder? But look at me now," and he raised his arm high. "It's thanks to that German doctor I work for-he knows how to get rid of the scar tissue by pounding the muscle. I'm sure he knows someone up in Tokyo you could see, and..."

"It's quite alright, Yoshida. It's something that's going to happen to all of us sooner or later. It's just that with me, it looks like it'll be sooner. Anyway, you know I can't afford a doctor, and certainly not a gaijin one..."

"Actually, you could if you wanted to. One of the reasons I've got so many doctors hiring me as a translator and interpreter is that a lot of these British and German doctors seem fascinated by our Japanese medicine, and when they find out that my wife still makes the old-fashioned remedies, well, let's just say it's been a mutually beneficial arrangement. She teaches them her formulas, they teach her theirs, they keep giving me their translating and interpreting business. And that's on top of her side business of selling her father's traditional medicines to anyone who comes by and asks, including those gaijin doctors. They may be way past us in their knowledge of muscles and bones, but their potions can't hold a candle to our remedies for everything else."

"But I thought the government was trying to downplay Japanese medicine in favor of Western medicine."

"Well, that's the thing, " Yoshida continued. "Once the government started requiring pharmacists to learn how to make Western medicines and stop selling the traditional ones, people had nowhere to turn except to people like my wife. It's providing us with quite a nice side income, I must say. You've got those skills, too. You could do the same thing."

Kenshin thought for a moment. He had been mixing medications for the Oguni Clinic for awhile, and one or two people had indeed stopped him on the street during that time to ask him if he knew how to make one potion or another.

"You've just been out of society for so long you don't realize that you do have skills other than your sword that can earn you some money," Yoshida added.

A glimmer of optimism was starting to grow in Kenshin. That was always a dangerous sign, of course-its presence always seemed to precede some terrible catastrophe. But what if this time his optimism was not misplaced? "All I know are really the basics, like styptic compounds and cold remedies," he demurred.

"Well, Eiko seems to think the ones you know, especially the ones you learned from that shishou of yours, are top-notch."

Well, if Yoshida was right and he could make some money selling the remedies he had been making for himself all these years... He suddenly felt a giant weight lift from his shoulders.

"You know," Kenshin said, "for the past week or so I've been sitting up on the dojo roof every night wondering how I would ever make it as a settled man, considering that I'm penniless and unqualified for almost any job. But you're right, I do have that one skill..."

His eyes now seemed to focus on something only he could see. Then he said, "I guess I've known for a long time that Kaoru-dono means more to me than just a friend, but of course she didn't know the truth about my past-about Tomoe-until just a few weeks ago. I mean, how could I ever be more than friends with her with that in my past? But I was so happy living there, being accepted for just being myself, I thought maybe I could just keep my feelings in check. It's not that she didn't know I had been a hitokiri, but she certainly didn't know all the details, and I was sure that if she found out the whole truth, she'd ask me to leave.

"But then Enishi came, and I had to tell her. In fact, I told her and all my friends everything about my time as a hitokiri, every bloody bit of it. I thought they'd be disgusted, but they weren't, not even Kaoru. And when I thought she had died at Enishi's hands and then found she was still alive, I knew I had to act on my feelings. But how could I when I have no money, no job prospects? I mean, surely she must have been promised to someone more suitable than me before her father died..." He suddenly realized he had never actually asked her if that was the case.

As he spoke, they heard a rapping at the trapdoor. It was Mizuki bearing a bento box and a writing box. The bento box he handed to Kenshin, the writing box to Yoshida.

"Himura-san, we leave for the army base in an hour, when businesses are out making their last deliveries of the day. Our boat will raise no suspicions then. Yoshida-san, I need a dock location, passwords, anything else we need to know when we bring Himura-san to the base."

Yoshida immediately took the box and sat down to write the information.

"Himura-san, with me."

Mizuki herded Kenshin to the other end of the attic. He leaned against one of the armaments chests and said very softly, "It concerns me that Yoshida-san is aware that the Oniwabanshu still exist in this city. There are very few authorized to know, and he is not one of them."

Kenshin sensed a momentary pinprick of approaching danger, a danger he had a feeling was directed more at Yoshida than himself. How far would this branch of the Oniwabanshu go to protect their secrecy? He had no idea, but he had the feeling that elimination was not beyond this man. "Mizuki-san, I would say that Yoshida is himself concerned that information about himself that he considers secret, such as his connection with me, was known by you."

"He should not be surprised. We make it a practice of investigating anyone we hire to work for us."

"Then you would know that Yoshida-san is the soul of discretion, otherwise I would have been dead long ago in Kyoto."

Mizuki wasn't expecting that.

"I trusted him with my life then, and I still do. I'm sure your onmitsu will have seen that today. Don't let his easy-going nature fool you. He has a mind like a steel trap. For instance, it was his knowledge of old and new writing papers-such a tiny little difference-that led him to catch Nakahira's forgeries. As an agent, you will not find better."

"An agent who also reports to someone else," Mizuki added tersely.

"I believe his other paymaster has the same goal as you-the safety of Osaka, not just Japan itself."

Mizuki grit his teeth. His family couldn't care less about the rest of Japan-they would never make peace with the Meiji government-but Kenshin was right. Hadn't one of the tea shop's European clients recently let slip some information about actions a certain foreign government might be contemplating towards Japan? It had no immediate use to the clan, but if it came to pass, Osaka's business community could suffer, and that could lead to civil and political unrest. "An alliance of a very limited sort might occasionally be useful," Mizuki allowed cautiously. Then he turned his back on Kenshin and stalked over to where Yoshida sat waiting for him. Mizuki could not detect it, but inwardly Kenshin heaved a sigh of relief, for he had a feeling he had just saved his friend's life.

Yoshida rose as Mizuki approached and handed him the instructions for the rendezvous at the army base. Mizuki grabbed it unceremoniously and said brusquely, "Your work is now done. Meet me in my office to wrap things up."

Yoshida seemed somewhat astonished at his abrupt dismissal. "Mizuki-san, shouldn't I accompany...?" but the sentence was never finished, for from the corner of his eye he caught Kenshin subtly shaking his head 'no.' Quickly regrouping, Yoshida instead said, "Yes, Mizuki-san, certainly. Just allow me to say my good-byes."

Mizuki turned his glare now to Kenshin. "Remember, one hour." Then he descended through the trapdoor and pulled it shut behind him.

It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room and then suddenly returned to it. The relief was palpable.

"What was that all about?" Yoshida asked, sitting down somewhat shakily.

Kenshin sat down next to him, his faced drained. "I'm afraid I almost cost you your life."

"What?!"

Kenshin put his hands out as if to stop an onslaught. "It's okay now, but if you had finished that sentence, I was afraid Mizuki-san would do something he'd regret."

"Like what?"

"Like throw you through the trapdoor? Of course," Kenshin added as an afterthought, "he probably wouldn't do that in front of me. Still, I'm betting you wouldn't have made it home. It's because I mentioned the name Oniwabanshu in your presence."

"But I told him I already knew about them."

"Yes, but Mizuki-san made it quite clear to me that you are not authorized to know of their existence, and I got the distinct impression he was prepared to make sure you would never be able to spread that information-ever."

Yoshida's eyes went wide as that sentence sank in.

"Don't worry," Kenshin said, "I let him know in no uncertain terms that if you weren't absolutely trustworthy, I would have been dead long ago in Kyoto, that I still trust you with my life, and they can, too. I believe you are safe now, but still, I am ashamed at having been so thoughtless..."

Yoshida reached out to grab Kenshin's shoulder. "You're a good man, Himura Kenshin. You have nothing to be ashamed of. They, on the other hand..."

"I believe they may want to use you as an intermediary with the military. They are not bad people, just...difficult."

"Hmpf. Well, if you're right, then my superiors will be very happy. Forming an alliance with the Mizuki's is one of the reasons they let me sign on to work for them. As for me, well, I knew they were dangerous from the get-go, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised." He stood now to open the trapdoor. "I'd better be going or Mizuki-san might change his mind about me. Promise you won't drop off the face of the earth again."

Kenshin smiled. "I promise, though I doubt I'll be welcome in Osaka anytime soon."

"Well, just write. And Himura, take care of yourself, will you? I'm tired of putting you in the memorial shrine all the time."

Kenshin chuckled. "I promise," and the two men embraced each other. Then Yoshida was gone through the door.


An hour. That could be an eternity or the blink of an eye.

Kenshin opened the bento box and started eating, but his mind was on the train station. He remembered some details about it, but he hadn't thought he'd need to memorize its layout. The tracks, he recalled, had a wall on one side-not too high, if he remembered correctly-and there was a kind of open-work roof above them made of steel or iron. He remembered thinking it reminded him of the string game cat's cradle. Its open lattice-work could serve him well. The reception hall, however, he had avoided and therefore had no idea what it looked like. If it was anything like the station in Tokyo, however, it was an area he'd want to avoid, for above all he was determined not to put innocent civilians at risk of harm from angry yakuza.

He continued to eat, not really noticing the food, as his mind turned to Kaoru. It had never occurred to him before that her father might have promised her in marriage to some family or other, and if her father had, then the only honorable thing for him to do would be to move out immediately. If he had ever wondered if what he felt for Kaoru was truly love, he knew it now-his heart sank at the prospect. On the other hand, no one had ever come forward after all this time to claim her, and Kenshin suspected that if someone did, he'd be met by a well-aimed bokken.

But what about Kaoru herself? He had known for months that Kaoru had feelings for him-really, he wasn't as dense as people thought he was!-but since returning from Enishi's island, something had changed. It wasn't that he thought she didn't care for him anymore, but sometimes, when they were together, she'd seem somewhat... anxious? No. Afraid? Maybe. He had certainly not helped matters the other day when he lost his temper with Yahiko; she had seemed positively shaken by his outburst. Of course, as a rurouni he could never allow himself lose his temper, but now that he was a settled man? Maybe that was the problem, that she only knew him as the rurouni...

He was interrupted by knocking at the trapdoor. Where had the time gone! He quickly popped the last bit of food in his mouth (what a delicious fishball, he suddenly realized!), then stood to pull the door open. It was one of Mizuki's warehousemen with a stack of clothing and something furry-looking in his arms, which he handed up to Kenshin.

"The okashira orders that you put these on," the man said. "Then come downstairs immediately for a briefing."

Kenshin handed him the bento box in return and said, "Hai."

He looked at the items the man had delivered: a green hanten with the crest of the Black and Green Tea Shop, black monpei, and a black, short-haired wig. He chuckled at the wig. So, Mizuki was going to make him hide his hair after all. Well, it only made sense in this instance. He quickly removed and folded his hakama, put on the monpei, tucked in his kimono, then donned his own warm haori and slipped the tea-shop hanten over it. Last came the wig, which was roomy enough to accommodate his ponytail and still be cinched tight with its drawstrings. Then he packed away his hakama in his travel bag, slipped the sakabatou into the bag's holder, slung the bag on his back, and descended the ladder into the warehouse proper.

The warehouseman was waiting for him at the foot of the ladder. "This way," he said, and led Kenshin to Mizuki's office.

It became apparent at once that something was not quite right. There was no reason for an onmitsu, for that was what the warehouseman was, to totally mask his ki while merely escorting Kenshin to a briefing. Kenshin had, of course, been carefully monitoring what he himself was allowing to be read, but he was at least allowing something to be read. He knew instinctively that there would be no overt signs of danger, but now he cast out his senses for covert signs and found them: just the faintest hints of the presence-maybe-of many more than just Mizuki Michio in the room ahead of him. A briefing, the warehouseman had told him. Something else was going on. He prepared himself mentally for a confrontation.

The warehouseman opened the western-style door, then stood back to allow Kenshin to enter. Before him, arrayed in a semi-circle on slightly raised cushions, were Mizuki Michio and his twin Takeo, their elderly mother in the center between them, a middle-aged woman on either side of the twins-wives? sisters?-and three adolescent boys, two on Takeo's side, one on Michio's. Behind them stood five warehousemen, presumably cousins. The arrangement was clearly designed to place Kenshin in a subordinate position. As etiquette thus demanded, he seated himself on the waiting tatami mat in front of them, bowed low, then remained seated formally, his hands on the floor before him and his eyes lowered as if in the presence of a great lord. There was the slightest rustle of surprise at this.

Then Michio said, "Himura-san, you are aware that when Shinomori Aoshi, our chief okashira, told us of his alliance with you and requested that we give you aid and assistance, we were not happy about it. What did we know of our chief okashira after his total absence of nearly eight years? Our brethren in Tokyo had been forbidden by him to say anything of his whereabouts or his doings during that time, and they obeyed. Now we know that he worked for a notorious drug lord in order to give his four most trusted comrades a chance to live in the new era, and that thanks to you, those four died protecting him. We know he was so consumed with revenge that he gave himself over to a man dedicated to destroying the hated Meiji regime so that he could kill you, only to find himself defeated by you. He now claims that you brought him back to the world. What are we to make of this?"

Kenshin said nothing.

"As for you, what do we know of you, the most hated symbol of the revolution that ended our way of life? As you say, you have lived a hidden life, so hidden, in fact, that even our own onmitsu were always a day late-sometimes just an hour late-finding you. And yes, we did search for you; the bounties that first year or two were worth the trouble.

"And so, we rely on what we hear and read in books-that you're a bloodthirsty demon, that you kill for sport, that death and chaos follow in your wake. So when our brethren in Tokyo told us last winter that the Hitokiri Battousai was engaged in a killing spree in Tokyo, we believed it, until they gave us the description of the man. We at least knew that about you, that you were not some giant but a very small man with red hair. But then came a flood of reports from them about that red-haired man, that he was mild-mannered, that he fought but would not kill. Yet an onmitsu who witnessed it said this man displayed the unmistakable mastery of the sword for which the Hitokiri Battousai was known, that he then became an ally of Saitou Hajime of the Shinsengumi to wage war against that very same man who was dedicated to overthrowing the government, the one our former chief okashira had joined. And so, by extension, you were waging war against Shinomori Aoshi. Yet our brethren in Kyoto took you in with open arms when you were at death's door. What are we to make of that?"

Still Kenshin said nothing. He was not sure where their talk was heading. He started calculating what actions he might need to take to escape.

"Himura-san," Takeo broke in, "what my brother is trying to say is that you confound us. Instead of a proud, cold-blooded killer, we find a seemingly humble man who carries a non-killing blade. Instead of taking justifiable revenge against your adversary Nakahira, you show not just restraint but mercy. Your skills are indeed worthy of legend, yet you seem to try everything not to have to use them. In fact, you seem to be..."

"...a man of integrity," croaked out a scratchy woman's voice. "He is a man of integrity."

Every head in the room, including Kenshin's, turned toward the elderly woman at the center of the circle, the matriarch of the clan. Clearly, hearing her speak was not only uncustomary, but totally unexpected.

"Himura-san," Michio continued once he had collected himself, "to be told that the man who would resume the mantle of chief okashira has formed an alliance with the symbol of our greatest defeat did not sit well with us. It raised the question of whether Shinomori-sama was still the same warrior he had always been-or whether he'd lost his mind. Now we see the wisdom of his alliance with you."

To Kenshin's astonishment, at some unseen signal the entire group bowed to him. He immediately bowed lower and began to say, "Sessha is not worthy of such praise..." but he was stopped by the sudden appearance before him of the family matriarch, who had moved silently and swiftly as if sliding on glass to sit directly in front of him. She placed a small parcel on the floor between them.

"Our rarest tea," the old woman croaked out, "as thanks for bringing our chief okashira back to the world." Then, as silently and swiftly as before, she was back between her two sons.

Kenshin stared at the small packet, dumbstruck. If he remembered correctly from when he browsed the store the day before, this tea was worth a small fortune. Not trusting his words, not knowing what to say even if he did, he immediately put his forehead to the floor. No greater honor could he imagine than to have this family trust him.

"Himura-san, please raise yourself," Takeo said. "Our clan wishes you to know that should you ever need our assistance again, we would be honored to help. Now, we'd better get moving or we'll miss the last launch of boats for the day. Himura-san, if I could speak with you briefly?"

Kenshin watched as the rest of the family silently filed out of the room. Then he bowed once more to Takeo, taking the time of this small gesture to try to recover from his total astonishment at what had just happened. Takeo moved to sit across from him.

"Himura-san," he said, his voice now all business, "my brother has told you of my investigation concerning the chief of police, correct?"

Kenshin nodded yes.

"It is thanks to your pursuit of Nakahira Masayoshi that the final pieces of this puzzle have fallen into place." At Kenshin's look of incomprehension, he said, "It was the loan shark your comrade Yoshida-san tracked down, the one who loaned the money to Nakahira, who held the answer. His books showed payments by all the main yakuza gangs to the police chief-payoffs that appear to be in return for the chief assigning each gang their own turf in the city and a promise of police non-intervention if they stick to their territories. This is apparently how this new chief-for he was only brought in two years ago to quell the chaos from the samurai uprising-brought order so quickly to the city. We, of course, all assumed it was due to the new methods of police deployment he used, and I am not ashamed to say that I thought it an honor to serve a man who could accomplish what he did.

"But about a year ago, as the rebellion was ending, I started hearing rumors that the yakuza had not really been reined in, that they were paying for assigned territories and the promise of the police turning a blind eye to their activities. With the Mamushi Gang essentially destroyed, however, the remaining gangs are bound to fight for control of their assigned territory. Now you understand why the chief is apoplectic at the thought that his deal with the yakuza may be crumbling."

"Not to mention the money they won't be paying him," Kenshin noted.

"That as well-if what we believe is happening is really true, for we still have only circumstantial evidence to prove it. That's why I must ask: Would you be willing to put yourself in some small danger to drive the last nail into this coffin?"

"Captain Mizuki, whatever I can do to help," Kenshin answered without hesitation..

"Good. Your desire to take the train sets up the perfect trap. Both the police and yakuza expect you to either break into the ticket office to retrieve your ticket..."

"...which I didn't even know existed," Kenshin noted.

The tiniest beginnings of a smile curled at the edge of Takeo's mouth."Yes, well, they both know it exists. Or they figure you will somehow hide in plain sight, as you are reputed to be able to do, among the crowds waiting to board the train. What I am asking is that you arrive at the station well in advance of any crowds, perhaps two or three hours before departure, and find a way onto the platform without going through the waiting room."

"That should not be difficult," Kenshin said. "In fact, I was already planning to do that."

"Then here's how we set the trap. I will inform the chief that an unimpeachable source has told me this is what you plan to do. If the chief is on the up and up-and I pray that he is- he will place a squad of police at the station well in advance of departure in order to intercept you at the platform. For this reason, you should come with an army escort. Their presence will prevent your arrest. But if I am right about the chief's links to the yakuza, he may leave it to them to try to kill you. That would solve his problem of being pressured by the mayor and the head of the Central Bank to leave you alone. Of course, the only way the yakuza could know you'd be on the platform so early and not in the waiting room would be through the chief. Case closed; I and my men arrest the chief immediately. The catch is, if it is the yakuza who show up, they will try to kill you on the spot."

Kenshin thought out the scenario carefully, then nodded his head and said, "Agreed."

"Good. In the meantime, while you're on the delivery boat you'll act as one of our warehousemen helping to unload crates. When you finally arrive at the army base, you will place the wig and hanten in the one remaining crate. We can't allow you to keep anything with our store's crest on it, and that wig is the one my brother uses when he needs to impersonate me. The monpei you can keep."

Kenshin bowed. "I understand."

"Good luck."


JAPANESE TERMS:

bushido: The traditional samurai code of honor stressing self-discipline, bravery, and simple living. After the revolution, inexpensive little novels stressing this code were very popular.

yakuza: gangsters

gaijin: foreigner

onmitsu: ninja spy

bento box: a box packed with a meal

cat's cradle: Yes, the Japanese had a version of this game, called ayatori, for centuries.

bokken: a wooden sword of about the same weight as a katana, Kaoru's weapon of choice

hanten: the worker's version of a haori.

monpei: pants worn by workers and farmers

haori: a hip- or thigh-length kimono-like jacket, often padded for warmth

okashira: boss

sessha: this unworthy one

Author's Note: Ah, poor Kenshin. Doesn't the poor guy deserve to just board the train like a normal human being and go home to Kaoru in peace? But where would the fun be in that, right?

Many thanks, everyone, for your wonderful reviews. I always hold my breath after I post a chapter for fear I might have blown it. Two reviewers, in fact, wondered if I had indeed "blown it" in a tiny way with my use of the phrase "political football." As it turns out, if by "football" you actually mean what we Americans call "soccer," then yes, Japan had it in 1878. According to an online article from The Japan Forum, soccer was introduced to Japan by an English military officer "in the early Meiji period." Also, another site says that a soccer-like game called kemari had been played in Japan as early as 1000 B.C., so I think I'm safe. Also, thanks to 'Kenshin's Soul' for catching a typo, which I hope to fix when I post this chapter.

Just a note about my reference to the government trying to push Western-style medicines instead of traditional Japanese ones. I have read that at this time, as part of the push to modernize, the government required pharmacists to learn to compound and sell primarily Western medicines in order to receive a license, so in case you were wondering, I didn't make this up! However, I will admit I have no idea whether there was ever something called the Army-Navy Joint Forces Base in Osaka, though I do know that both the Army and Navy had bases there.

My thanks once again to the inestimable 'older woman,' who always manages to find time to help me not embarrass myself with glaring errors or get caught in prolix prose (hit the dictionaries, everyone)!