Watsuki owns them

I just borrow for a while

No harm intended

Thanks for reading and reviewing to Susan, Midori Natari Himura, Firuze Khanume, dementedchris, Tomoe-chan, Kaze' Yurei, Akin Sijin, Tiian. Erin, Me, Sai, test, Serei rurouni, and Shinomori no Kami Daiji. 

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Please leave me a review with your comments.  I'll be posting new RK fic(s) soon.

When She Smiles

Chapter 26: A Brighter Future

Aoshi walked back to Kyoto. He needed the time to think. To consider all that Himura had told him, all that he had learned, would take more than a few days. The irony of a man who had spent so much of the last couple of years of his life in meditation needing to think was not lost on him. But Himura was correct; he had been acting on his emotions where Misao was concerned ever since Yukishiro had come to Kyoto.

Time for him to apply his ruthless logic to his own activities. Time to see if he could find his own way to the future. First, to take Himura's advice, what would he have done if he had decided to expand the Oniwabanshuu at 15, and Enishi was a man whom he wished to recruit? At that time, the Oniwabanshuu was quite a powerful group, with close connections with the Shogunate. He would have had power to offer. He would have investigated Yukishiro to find out what he wanted. Then he would have found a way to give it to him within the Oniwabanshuu, or he would have proposed a more limited relationship. He would have thought out the possible parameters of a lesser relationship. He would have won Yukishiro's loyalty through favors, through camaraderie, or through mutual interest. And he would never have sent another to approach him, not for the kind of commitment he wanted in return.

So, logically, he had intrigued Yukishiro by using Misao, but he had not presented him with a reason to join them, a reason to work with them. He had also ignored Yukishiro's previous offers of making amends, which were not inconsequential. At 15, he would have seen them as a golden opportunity from a man who had so much to bring to them. He had been gone from the Oniwabanshuu too long. It was time to begin this process anew and think it through from the beginning.

First, well first there was Yukishiro. He knew exactly what Yukishiro had to offer. Resources, connections, government access, international relations, and most of all, his gift for strategy. If the excessive and largely successful provisioning of Shishio and planning of Earthly Justice were not enough; his new business was a huge success. Even his orchestration of his relationship with the Meiji was masterful. Aoshi was clear on why he wanted Yukishiro to help with the revitalization process.

What did Aoshi have to offer – setting aside Misao, of course. He was not certain what he had to offer Yukishiro. As he had told Misao earlier, if he had been able to recruit Enishi before he began his business, before he had reached his agreement with the Meiji, he would have made a fabulous spy. He would have had much to offer him then.

Now, Enishi was successful, wealthy, well known and well traveled. What did he want? What was he missing that would attract his help? Since Aoshi could not answer this, he again challenged himself to think as he would have at 15. What would he have done? The answer was obvious. He would have used his own skills to find out what Yukishiro wanted from his most intimate associates. He would have been resourceful and relentless if the target was as valuable to his interests as Yukishiro.

Who were Yukishiro's most intimate associates? He counted Oibore, Misao, Saitou, and maybe even Himura. Well Himura had already given his advice, so for the moment that avenue was not open to him. He could pursue it later if necessary. Oibore and Misao would both be open to him – if he approached Oibore with Misao and carefully couched his inquiry. Misao was his, she would tell him anything.

But Saitou, that was a most intriguing possibility. Aoshi wanted to recruit Saitou for a lesser or at least friendship role in the near future, which made this line of inquiry especially interesting. He had not applied his ruthless logic to considerations regarding Saitou, either. Aoshi was beginning to be very glad that the road between Tokyo and Kyoto was a long one. He had much to do and must be ready to act upon his return.

Over the next few days, Aoshi had completely reviewed and considered every avenue, approach and possibility with regard to both Yukishiro and Saitou. Surprisingly, many of the considerations and opportunities were the same for both men. Shinomori found the exercise fruitful on many levels. It honed his former skills that were sorely out of practice, and it was also satisfying to reach a reasoned conclusion after careful thought. Maybe his years spent in meditation would be of some use now, too. It was fortunate, because the more he considered what he would have done at 15; the more he tapped into his former resources and skills. He felt renewed, and it rekindled his passion for the Okashira's position. He did not wish to relinquish it again.

The tactical decisions for the initial contacts were settled. Flexibility would be key in how he proceeded thereafter. With the initial activities planned for his return, he could delay no longer in turning his attention to the emotional decisions that were critical to his future. Himura had been correct in his assessment that Aoshi must confront his own feelings on the matter. It was no use any longer to pretend that he was aloof, not when his emotions had been erupting and interfering with what was best for the Oniwabanshuu. How did he feel about Misao? Was he ready to resume his life?

The second question was already answered. He was the Okashira. He would rebuild the Oniwabanshuu, with or without Yukishiro and Saitou. Even now, he felt that the prospects were improved. If Yukishiro could not be persuaded, he would use his own ruthless logic and strategic skills. They were not inconsiderable, as he had just reminded himself. His life was resumed. His future decided.

What were his feelings about Misao? His had loved her as a child, and acted always for her protection. He still loved her. He acknowledged that she was an adult. Yukishiro was correct. Misao was the heart of the Oniwabanshuu; she belonged to the Okashira. Aoshi felt profound relief. He had been fighting against forcing his feelings on Misao. He could not allow himself to admit his own desire due to guilt. Guilt over leaving her, guilt over attacking Okina, guilt over the loss of his dear comrades – and hers. Guilt that would accomplish nothing and artificially distance him from his heart's desire – Misao and the Oniwabanshuu.

How had he misinterpreted Yukishiro's intent? Here was the final question he must confront before returning to Kyoto, and he was almost there. He knew Yukishiro had feelings for Misao. That simple fact had blinded him to obvious opportunities and possible solutions. Misao had no romantic feelings for Yukishiro – at least not yet. Yukishiro was a most adept reader of ki, he would know that Misao loved another. He had sincere desire to make amends to Misao, Aoshi and the Oniwabanshuu – Himura had confirmed this. And no one read ki more intuitively than Himura.

Yukishiro's intent became as clear as the Aoiya, which was just coming into view as he completed his walk home. In a way, this walk had been the culmination of his meditation. His calmness and recovery had prepared him to lead his Oniwabanshuu successfully into the future.

The members of the Oniwabanshuu were elated that Aoshi had returned, and if they were puzzled by his immediate plunge into a new project, it was not for long. Okina recognized the Okashira as he had been at once, but said nothing. The others would find out soon enough, and he was content just to know that good things were ahead. Misao sensed in Aoshi that the vibrancy she had felt beneath the surface previously had blossomed into something more during his recent absence. She was too timid to consciously extend her feelings toward him, but his surface affection for her was more apparent, as was his affection for all of the remaining ninjas.

Almost immediately, Aoshi called his group together to discuss their future and his vision for it. Only Misao knew that Aoshi wished to revitalize their group. None of them had heard any of the plans before. They were excited and eager to participate in the planning. Aoshi's enthusiasm for the rebuilding was contagious. Aoshi had remembered the power of the emotional support of his friends, his family. They did not disappoint him. They embraced his plan wholeheartedly, and each added their own expertise to the mix, enhancing the whole. The Oniwabanshuu had always been, and would be again greater than the sum of its parts.

Okon, Omasu, Kuro and Shiro were each assigned tasks to further their goals, providing them with the information and knowledge to proceed. Before long, they would know everything there was to know about Yukishiro, his business and the status of Saitou's department and secret operatives. Aoshi would see Saitou as soon as they were ready. Misao volunteered to see Oibore. With what had transpired so far with Enishi, she did not feel that some gentle probing for details that would help Aoshi-sama would be an infringement on their friendship. Besides, they wanted Yukishiro to join them, it was not a subterfuge to hurt or harm the Yukishiro family in any way – only to encourage their participation.

Their efforts were rewarded where Saitou was concerned. There were many ways, both small and significant that they could offer expert assistance that would make Saitou's life easier. No government approvals would be required, and no one would question his sources. They had much to bring to the Wolf of Mibu and their interests were aligned now as they had been under the Shogunate. There should be an atmosphere of trust. As much as anyone could ever trust a Wolf.

For Yukishiro, there was not much to uncover that Aoshi did not already know. He was not disappointed, because he had already decided that the path to Yukishiro was through Saitou. Of everyone, Saitou would know what Yukishiro might wish for that he did not have. The real question was whether Saitou would reveal it.

Arranging a clandestine meeting was second nature to both of these old Shogunate allies. They even used one of the old Shinsengumi meeting places. Shinomori wanted Saitou feeling nostalgic – if that was even possible for the Wolf. At the very least, the reminders of past shared alliances might lend support to future ones.

Saitou lit a cigarette and began, "I trust your recent visit with Battousai went well, Shinomori."

"He speaks well of you, Saitou. But then Himura is a most forgiving soul, ne?"

"And what brings us to this secret sanctuary, Okashira?"

"Our mutual interests. I wish to form several new alliances that may interest you. Especially since you are one of them."

"I had heard you were actively researching my operations. What kind of assistance are you seeking?"

Aoshi's eyes sparkled. This was going very well indeed. "An alliance with the Wolf of Mibu would not benefit the Oniwabanshuu with assistance from you. We seek to supplement your resources with ours where you might wish it. We offer our hidden and loyal talents for your assistance."

"I do not question the worth of your resources, however, they are meager in the face of what I might require."

"Only for the present."

"Ah, you wish my help in recruiting. Or are you interested in an official presence in Kyoto?"

"Neither, Saitou. The expected demise of the Oniwabanshuu is ended. The Meiji Era needs our services, and we intend to provide them. Our resurgence is imminent. We wish to align with you for our mutual benefit. We will provide protection and safety as we always have, but we will not offer assassination or punishment. Where appropriate we would surrender offenders to the proper authorities. Our services will be private and discrete, but not illegal."

"And the authorities, in this case, would be me?"

"For the moment, pending our imminent expansion."

"And for my part of the bargain?"

"We wish to establish a relationship of mutual trust such that our renewed activity would not be perceived as a threat to or misunderstood by the Meiji. We would prefer to offer you full membership with us, it would be an honor for us to associate with the Wolf of Mibu, however secret you might prefer that we keep the relationship. Alternatively, we seek a relationship that suits our mutual interests and assures us that our secret members will not be revealed without cause or notice to me, as Okashira."

"An interesting concept, Shinomori. But I will need to consider whether such a relationship is worthwhile at the moment. What can you offer as a sign of your intent?"

"Anything you wish."

"Good answer. I'll give it my sincere consideration. And in return?"

"If possible, we seek a similar relationship with Yukishiro. As you are more familiar with him than I, I seek your counsel on persuasive incentives that may interest him."

"I assume you aren't willing to give up weasel girl?" Aoshi glared. Saitou paused to light another cigarette. He seemed to be considering whether to reveal his opinion or not. The Wolf was always wary.

"Well, you are missing the obvious, Okashira. He's got, or can get everything money can buy. His business is successful – it could probably run without him by now. His trips overseas only increase his wealth and standing. In short, he's bored Shinomori. Offer him excitement, intrigue, something to keep him out of trouble. Capture his attention so my reports will get more interesting, I'm bored listening to him.

"At least introduce him to some interesting women – maybe he'll keep his eyes off yours if you do.

"Are we done now? Tokio expects me, and she never bores me. I'll give some thought to our mutual interests and we will speak again soon." With that, the Wolf departed.

Chapter 27: Final Plans and New Relationships

It was time. Their plans were complete and Aoshi had decided how to approach Yukishiro. He wanted this meeting to be very orchestrated, very unlike the last meetings with Yukishiro. He wanted to send a clear message of his intent now that he knew what that intent was. And he wanted to send a clear message to Misao, as well. It might be unnecessary, since she remained clearly committed to him, her love shining as brightly in her eyes as it ever had.

Aoshi discussed his intentions with the rest of the Oniwabanshuu at their weekly meeting. He had been taking most of his dinners with them since his return from Tokyo. They still held their weekly meetings, but there was so much to do, and everyone was so excited about doing it, that nearly every dinner was a meeting. The current family was proposing names for membership. Skills needed were assessed and potential teachers were being identified to train new members. In addition, the skills each of them possessed would be passed on to new members showing the appropriate aptitude. The group's enthusiasm was heartwarming to Aoshi. He couldn't say he was exactly happy, but he was more content than he had been since the Bakumatsu.

He incorporated meditation into his daily life, but it no longer occupied so very much of his time and attention. He was far too busy encouraging and assessing the proposed recruits as well as identifying the leadership and organizational skills of his current members. He had not worked closely with them for many years. It was apparent that he could not act in all capacities of leadership. He would need and want help and no one had more of his trust that this current little family. He even considered who might be able to lead various sub-groups in new and foreign locations. At this point, he did not wish to ask anyone to relocate if they preferred to stay at the Aoiya. It had been their home and mainstay for too long, he had no right to ask them to uproot if they were not absolutely ready to do so. He knew that any of them would do it if asked by their Okashira, that was not in question.

Misao continued to resist the urge to read Aoshi's ki. Their new relationship within the Oniwabanshuu was developing into the one she had always envisioned. He was treating her as an adult. In fact, he was treating her as a trusted confidant, as his second in command. She had been privy to his intentions from the beginning, and if she did not have any idea as to what had caused this most recent change, that didn't keep her from being most grateful for it. He was an active and vibrant Okashira, leading them strongly into the future, with her at his side. She was more hopeful of his feelings, but unwilling to risk a rejection just yet.

Aoshi's position as Okashira had never yielded the personal and emotional rewards he now sought and gained from his family. Their support was not only gratifying; it spurred him on to greater pride and vision for his Oniwabanshuu. With this loyalty and support, they could and would accomplish anything. He began to feel that his bargaining position with Yukishiro was strengthened. Yes, he could still take years off the process, but Aoshi began to clearly understand the inner strength he already had and what could be accomplished with the group he already led.

At last, the time was set. He wished to meet with Yukishiro privately, at least at first. Primarily, he needed to correct the misimpression he had left by utilizing Misao. This new negotiation needed to be between the current Okashira and Yukishiro. However, while he did not share his intentions with Yukishiro, all of the Oniwabanshuu were well aware of the meeting and its importance. The time was again arranged at dinner so that Yukishiro would have the illusion of total secrecy. Aoshi could call all or some of the members to join them easily with a pre-arranged signal. If things went as Aoshi hoped, Yukishiro would join them for dinner.

Neither Oibore nor Enishi had seen much of Misao since the last time Misao had gone to the dojo seeking to visit with Oibore and Enishi had confronted her with her knowledge of ki. While they were both disappointed that she had not been available to accept their invitations, she had made it clear that Oniwabanshuu business was keeping her very busy at the moment and she would be sure to visit as soon as she could. The one notable exception had been an extended shopping trip with Oibore, ostensibly to find a new source of linens for the Aoiya. Misao had made certain to arrive when Enishi was not at home and kept Oibore with her as long as she could.

Enishi's interest had been peaked by the visit, especially since he was continuing to defer his next trip abroad until the issues with Shinomori were resolved. He had little to do but practice in his dojo and speculate on the Oniwabanshuu future – either with or without him. He estimated that he had increased his knowledge of Kyoto's gardens tenfold, and perfected all of his bonsai plantings. In short, he had too much time on his hands. He was loath to go to their warehouses. He did not see any reason to get involved where everything was running fine without his attention.

He quizzed his father closely upon his return from his shopping extravaganza with Misao. Oibore did not have a suspicious bone in his body, and insisted that the conversation with Misao had not been remarkable in any way. However, Enishi persisted and when Oibore related the numerous questions regarding imports and exports, Enishi began to suspect that Misao was mixing business with pleasure.

He used his own sources to confirm the new activity, conducted very secretly, of the Oniwabanshuu. He knew of their inquiries regarding his activities, as well as those regarding Saitou and his operations and operatives. Shinomori began to rise again in his estimation. He was especially pleased when he uncovered Aoshi's trip to see Himura. He was immensely entertained by the thought of the two of them considering his membership in the Oniwabanshuu. He would have given much to be able to uncover the content of that meeting of the minds. But it was futile – unless he was prepared to ask one of the participants, and he was not.

Enishi spent some time recording all of his detailed plans, strategies and contacts for the Oniwabanshuu's future growth in an organized notebook. He was more than ready to discuss matters when he received an invitation to come to the Aoiya to meet with Shinomori. He was most anxious to see how his seeds of opportunity had taken root.

Enishi entered through the kitchen as before, again hearing the frivolity and camaraderie of the family dinner in the private dining room. He retraced his steps to Aoshi's study and again waited for his host to sense him and come to the door. He waited mere moments.

Enough, however, for each man to fully sense the mood and feelings of the other. At this meeting, it was remarkable how similar their feelings were. Excitement, anticipation, openness, and actual respect were in evidence. The undercurrents were also identifable: uncertainties about the composition of their relationship in the future. By now they were each eager to hear what the other might say.

"Thank you for coming, Yukishiro. I have been very occupied with considering your conditions outlined at our last meeting. I believe them to be absolutely reasonable based on the information you were given. Unfortunately, I now believe that information to be incomplete. This is in no way a reflection on Misao. I was not explicit enough in my intentions with her, and she in turn was unable to make a full enough offer to you. Let me rectify this misimpression immediately.

"I have decided to withdraw my offer to you of becoming our Okashira. I have lately begun to realize that it is in our best interests for me to continue in this position for the foreseeable future. However, my offer to you of membership in our group is still most sincere and urgent. What I would propose instead is that you set your own terms of membership.

"Let me be specific. My admiration for your skills has only grown since our last meeting. Offer what you will, we can employ it. In addition, I have always felt you would have made a first class spy if you were not so well known. So if you have an interest in more clandestine affairs, I am certain we can work out something which is entirely compatible with your current activities.

"In return, I would wish to welcome you as a member, but I will accept whatever form of membership you believe best suits you.

"As to Misao, you were quite correct. She is the heart of the Oniwabanshuu and belongs to the Okashira."

Enishi could not keep himself from laughing along with his smirk at this last. A worthy opponent this, and perhaps a worthy compatriot.

"I have delayed my own business too long awaiting your reply, Okashira. Therefore, I will leave you with this record of my suggestions to date for the best prospects, contacts, and connections for the rebuilding effort. Consider it a gift to the Okashira and his heart. I will think over your new offer during my travels and contact you upon my return. This will give you an opportunity to review my gift. I believe the Oniwabanshuu has a bright future, Okashira."

Aoshi looked at the notebook Enishi had handed him. He didn't bother to try to hide his pleasure at the content. It was quite a gift. Page after page of contacts, suggestions, and plans, connections and potential clients. Himura had been correct, and here were the amends Enishi had promised as proof.

"Your words are encouraging, Yukishiro. May I presume on your time a bit more and invite you to join us for dinner? The rest of the Oniwabanshuu awaits us in our private dining room."

"I am most entertained and accept, Okashira. Perhaps my considerations would be improved by a better acquaintance with your other members. It appears I know Misao as well as I am going to."

As the two men approached the dining room Misao felt them coming. She was pleased as it represented the first time she had been able to extend her feelings beyond her sight range. She hoped her senses would continue to improve. For now, she delighted in what she sensed. Enishi was amused, entertained and feeling quite at home here in the Aoiya. He was anticipating dinner with them, but she felt that while he was still fond of her, there was no longer the undercurrent of intimacy she had felt so uncomfortable with at their last meeting. Sensing Aoshi was another revelation. He was also pleased and anticipating their dinner. And as she sensed him she felt something more than his customary reserved affection. There was more admiration, more concern and something bordering on commitment. It made her heart leap with hope, but she did her best to calm herself before they entered. She smiled.

In turn, both men felt the anticipation in the Oniwabanshuu dining room towards their entrance. All were unified in their belief that it marked the beginning of a rewarding and close relationship. Misao was excited. Misao loved Aoshi. Nothing unusual there.

The dinner proceeded without serious discussion. It was the warm family dinner they had come to share, with joking and banter and welcoming conversation. As they had before in Enishi's presence, each member, save Aoshi, asked if he and Misao would be demonstrating Tai Chi for them after dinner. Misao's fuming was pretense, and their teasing was good-natured. Enishi suggested that it was unfortunate that Oibore was not there. Surely he and Misao would be delighted to entertain them with their version of the ancient form. Enishi smiled warmly at Misao, who merely shrugged off such a suggestion.

Aoshi saw Enishi out after dinner. Their parting words were brief, but set the stage for their future in ways neither had anticipated.

"While you consider my offer, Yukishiro, think on how we might entice another into an active, if secret, membership. The Wolf of Mibu would be a formidable ally, ne?"

"Indeed, and well worth our consideration. The Oniwabanshuu may make my future most interesting, Okashira. In return, I must alert you that your own future may be far more interesting than you anticipate. I have taught Misao to sense ki."

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(And if you like Inu Yasha, read my NC-17 fic, I'll Have Lemonade, Please.  I will be moving it to a new site soon.  If you leave me a review I will send you an e-mail on how to find it.  Thanks. )