Aoshi waits a season after he and Misao have returned from the mountains, content to let Okina's network supply information. And while it was more than satisfactory for Himura's purposes, a season past, it does not suit his.
There are certain matters to settle: closing down the routes by which Kanryuu acquired his gatling gun, removing the means by which Shishio obtained his firearms — if his methods weren't connected to Kanryuu's smuggling ring — and ending any schemes Gein may still have had.
But Okina's information network does not have the required inroads into Tokyo or Yokohama. And if he wants information from the police, he'll have to resort to either breaking into a police station or finding the right officer to bribe.
Aoshi does not wish to do either of those. The former has the potential to attract too much attention, while the latter would be far too time-consuming.
He begins to ponder other options.
A week later, Omasu rests a slim envelope on the table before him, next to a bowl of thin green tea. She bows, murmuring appreciation of his patronage, and retreats. All a charade for the benefit of the other guests.
Aoshi opens the envelope at the table, as if it's a bill. He doesn't bother trying to disguise the way his eyebrow twitches — anyone watching will assume he's been over-charged, as so often happens in Kyoto ryokan.
Four meagre lines. Four.
He cannot stop himself from drawing parallels: four shots to his legs, four men he lost to Takeda Kanryuu.
A four line report is not enough.
"It's time," Aoshi says later that night, safely tucked away with Okina, Shiro, and Okon in the business office on the second floor. Kuro and Misao are preparing dinner, while Omasu serves the Aoi-ya's only guests.
Shiro and Okon both stare at him as if they have no idea what he's talking about. Okina simply strokes his hand along his goatee, deep in thought.
"To rebuild the Oniwabanshuu," he tells Okon and Shiro, folding his arms across his chest in response to the questions of logistics that his mind now swims in.
There's the question of putting the word out. The reformation of a ninja group isn't something one advertizes. And after so long, how many will be looking for the message?
There's also the question of re-assigning teams when the Oniwabanshuu has been all but disbanded for eight years. Okina will have destroyed much of his information on his operatives by now, for their collective safety. Time will have rendered what survives — his own memory, primarily — inaccurate at best.
Okina unties the ribbon from around his goatee, waits a moment, and then reties it. "I assume you'll choose the Aoi-ya as your base of operations?"
Okon claps her hands together once. Her eyes hold a glitter Aoshi doesn't trust; the hunted expression that crosses Shiro's face only makes him warier.
"That's quite a lot of overjoyed former operatives descending onto this poor inn," Okina says.
"You assume they'll have been waiting for this news."
More likely, the first action of what teams he assembles will be to seek out their former brethren.
Okina's eyes glint as well. "You were a well-loved leader, Aoshi. And you surely don't imagine all of us re-integrated as well as these four?"
"That was my understanding."
"For the men, I'm sure that's true," Okon's voice has gone soft, regretful. "But it isn't so easy for women. It's hard to marry, after — years of active duty. And it's hard to live without being married, once you're a certain age."
Shiro nods agreement. "Wind the threads around the trees, raise the banners in the lookouts... they'll come in droves."
"We're going to need an excuse," Okina says. "An explanation for why so many people come to see us in such a short time frame."
Okon lets out a sparkling laugh. It draws all eyes toward her — even more quickly than usual. Aoshi remembers too well the edge that undercut that laugh when she forced it. That edge isn't present: she's genuinely amused. More than amused.
"Something to share, Okon?" Okina raises an eyebrow.
Okon covers her mouth with one hand to stifle a few chuckles. At length, she drops the hand and says, "There are only two things women travel for in any number."
Aoshi doesn't bother to hide the way one eyebrow twitches.
Okon looks at him for a moment. Her lips curve into a wicked smile, the sort that she once used to lure in targets, once appearing as an ingenue became more difficult.
He tenses, automatically steeling himself for some impossibly irritating riddle, or possibly a harebrained scheme. He remembers too many of her plans from their childhood.
"And those things are?"
She chuckles one last time, not bothering to hide it, and says, "A girl's wedding or the birth of a family member's first child."
That leaves Shiro stunned, but Okina wears a thoughful look that Aoshi mistrusts. He's seen that look too many times, and whatever Okina's plotting...
Aoshi intervenes. "You intend to fake a pregnancy?"
That sparkling laugh sounds again, just as loud and attention-capturing and genuine as before. This time it's aimed specifically at him. He sets his jaw in response to it.
"I," she says, "don't plan on faking anything."
"Are you already pregnant?"
Shiro chokes on his tea. Okina laughs heartily, as if he's been saving it up throughout the conversation. Okon just looks scandalized.
Ah, yes, Okon always did pride herself on avoiding such complications.
"I was talking," she says, with just a hInt of annoyance in her tone, "about a wedding. We'll stage a wedding."
Aoshi raises an eyebrow at that. There are three women in the household. Only Misao is of an age that getting married would be a production involving extended family.
And Misao is not getting married.
"It's perfect," Okon says, then rattles off a list of names, none of which he recognizes, and requests she'll make of them. After a moment, at the stares of the men around her, she adds, "It'd explain everything. And Misao will be overjoyed!"
Misao is not getting married. Why does Okon think otherwise?
The sheer wrongness of the idea leaves him unable to speak. She's proposing to marry Misao off? And yet she claims to care about her. Care deeply for her. How could she propose such a thing so easily?
His attempts to gather a rebuttal argument leave him wondering about his own motives for objecting so strongly. It's clear that Misao would never agree to marry someone else... isn't it? Has he deluded himself into thinking so, simply because he could not stand to see her marry another?
No. He trusts his senses. It's been perfectly obvious to him for a season; he hasn't imagined it.
"Not an option," he says.
Okon looks at him, clearly startled. It's not often someone interrupts the momentum of her plans. Certainly Shiro never did, and neither Omasu nor Kuro ever truly had the strength of personality to override her.
It always did end up being him. Him or Hannya, and sometimes both of them.
"It's the best of our options. Otherwise we'll just have to smile it off, and nobody in this town would ever believe that," she says. "And it explains you! Makes me so glad the rumor that you're Okina's son never did catch on. I told Omasu that one was doomed, but no!"
Now it's his turn to stare.
"I meant marry you, Aoshi-san," she says. "You didn't think I would ever marry her off to someone else, did you?"
Aoshi ignores the question. "I've been back for less than a year, and you think she should marry me?"
"I suppose, on a private level, the timing might not be perfect, but think practically about this."
He is thinking practically. He very nearly points this out.
Shiro does it for him: "Timing is a practical detail, and I agree. Now might not be the best time for them. I mean, does Misao even want to marry him just yet?" A pause. "Alright, stupid question. But it really might not be the best time."
Okon looks at the pair of them like they've gone insane.
Aoshi looks back. He doesn't bother to glare.
She must read something in his face. Okon looks away a moment, expression shuttering closed, and then she looks back to him. "Will you at least let me discuss the matter with her?"
He wants to tell her no. What lies between the two of them should be left to the two of them. Not meddled in for the sake of a cover story. But the life of a good leader is rarely about what he wants. He learned that lesson long ago. If he wants to reform the Oniwabanshuu, he'll have to live it.
Still. There may be a way to protect Misao. So instead of 'no,' he tells Okon: "Full disclosure. Do not attempt to sway her decision."
She looks surprised for a moment, before her lips curl again. He can see the I thought as much written in Okon's eyes, and doesn't answer.
The conversation happens sometime in the next wee; he can't pinpoint when. Misao, Okon, and Omasu make several excursions. He thinks Okon discusses her idea with the two of them on a trek to a shrine outside the city limits, because relations are cool between Omasu and Okon afterward. He doesn't think Misao notices, but he's not sure what Misao notices in that week; she drifts through the ryokan as if in a daze.
Okon is carefully nonspecific as to how the conversation went. She never explains the sudden distance that's sprung up between she and Omasu, either. It would seem he's not the only one who thinks the idea is cruel.
When Misao finally snaps out of her shock, she does so out of his sight. He hears the faint whisper of a deliberately louder footstep, and then the door to his temporary office slides open. Misao enters blithely, as if Okon hadn't been discussing marriage with her.
"Aoshi-sama? Has Okon talked to you about —" and here Misao pauses, takes in a shaky breath, "marriage?"
"Aa," he says.
"So it's true," she says, and shifts her weight where she stands, looking first at him and then away. "She said... she said it's all going to be staged?"
"To an extent." He pauses, trying to frame the nebulous warning instincts of a ninja in words someone not trained to paranoia could understand. "The Oniwabanshuu cannot afford my name on any official document."
That seems to amuse her a moment, until she realizes exactly what he's saying. "You mean give the priest a fake marriage certificate."
"And destroying it after."
She looks at him, meeting his eyes. He watches her brow furrow and mouth open, lips parting just a little. She doesn't need to say a word to beg him for an explanation.
"So it's not, it's not —" she stops, shakes her head, and looks at him again. "Is this what you want?"
"It's an option," he says.
"But is it what you want?"
There's a fundamental misunderstanding here, he thinks. Aoshi watches her, unsure how to correct it. He could explain that recognizing this option is not about what he wants. But he knows how she'd respond.
"It's not," she says into the silence. "Then... we'll tell Okon it was a crazy idea —"
"Is it not what you want?"
She says nothing for a few moments. At length, she indicates one of the zabuton and he nods. At his nod, she sits, watching him with bright, intent eyes.
"Aoshi-sama, I can understand the fake wedding." She pauses. "But if I get married so publically, the rest of this town is going to expect something that looks like a marriage after that."
"And you're okay with that? With, with faking a wedding and pretending to be married? To me?"
He's no more content with the idea than she is. For once, he hates the pure pragmatism of a plan; Misao deserves better. He supposes he does, too. At least in this. And so he has no answer for her.
Almost no answer for her.
"I want to reform the Oniwabanshuu. I can accept necessity."
She has been serious, nervous, worried. But she recoils now as if struck, eyes watering, lips parting.
"Necessity," she says.
A poor choice of words. But she's already bowed her head. Her bangs drift to shadow her eyes. She won't be able to hear logic past the hurt.
For an instant, he hears nothing but the hammering of her heart. It beats furiously, as if seeking to escape her chest. He forces himself to look away, to focus on their surroundings again.
There's a second heartbeat outside the door. No footsteps. Okina, then; he has always excelled at concealing his movements about the Aoi-ya, where the other Kyoto Oniwabanshuu have been merely adequate.
The door slides open and Okina steps through. Aoshi watches his former mentor take in Misao's bowed head and his expression. The smile bleeds away from Okina's face.
"Did you hear?" She asks. "Aoshi-sama understands necessity." There's no mistaking the faintly bitter twist she places on the last word.
Okina gives him a look that tells him, quite clearly, that he's going to be making amends for that remark even if he actually marries Misao. Not to Misao herself, of course; she'd forgive him anything save betraying the family again. She's likely already forgiven him.
"Perhaps Aoshi-sama and I should discuss this matter alone," Okina says. The old man sounds blithe, but Aoshi catches a sharp undertone.
"Why? What can there possibly be to say to him about this that you can't say in front of me?"
Okina pauses, most likely recalling that Misao was raised amongst men with little concept of what a young girl's ears should hear and even less patience for censoring themselves to match.
Aoshi watches the moment tick by while Okina looks for a way to remind Misao of the concept that some things are between men. Certainly it would be impossible to convince her that any part of this conversation might not concern her — after all, it's about marrying her off.
When it's obvious Okina can come up with nothing, he intervenes. "Enough, Misao. We will discuss this later."
When she's gone and will not hear them, Okina steeples his fingers and asks, "Have you thought about asking her to marry you?"
Aoshi feels his eyes begin to narrow. He doesn't stop them. Okon's scheme has poisoned that well.
"I mean it, Aoshi. Make her a Shinomori, or become a Makimachi, or change your names to Kashiwazaki. She's not getting any older, and neither am I. I'd like to see my great-grandchildren, you know."
He can feel a headache coming on. "She is no relation to you."
Okina waves a hand, as if to dismiss a minor fact. "Tell her you want to marry her. Can you honestly say either of you would be happy with anyone else?"
"Not to her."
And, damn him, the old man is right. But emotionally blackmailing Misao into a course of action Aoshi is uncertain of? No. He owes them both better than that.
He should never have permitted Okon to talk to her about this.
Well, somebody wanted to see it, so here it is. As yet incomplete (of course, but you can draw a few conclusions from Breathe+Blow), and I have no idea what anything like an update schedule will be. Next chapter of Breathe+Blow is about halfway finished.