The Circle Game; A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic
by Kitty Woolfson
First draft of The Circle Game, 5/2000.

Chapter 8: Chaos Once Again

While the people of Tokyo prepared for a new day, another person's day was just ending. In a dark apartment in Shinjuku, lit only by a single blacklight bulb, a man sat at a large work table surrounded by wires and bits of plastic. A tiny instrament was clutched in shaking fingers and a computer chip about the size of a piece of Chex cereal was held onto the table by the tweezers in his other hand. The man lowered the instrament and delicately changed something on the chip.

There was deafening silence for a moment. The man exhaled in relief. He pulled his hands away from the table carefully and backed up. Nothing happened.

The man wiped at his brow with the back of one hand. A relieved and tired smile appeared on his face. He carefully placed the chip in a case and sealed it, then connected the case with the chip to the wires. When he had finished, he picked up a cell phone and turned it on. Immediately somebody picked up.

"You've finished?" a harsh voice said to the man from the other end of the phone. The man winced in fear or disgust.

"Yeah. Now let 'em go," the man demanded.

There was a harsh laugh from the other end of the phone. "You're not in a good possition to make demands, Yamada."

"It was our deal!"

"I don't recall..."

"If you do anything to them I swear to all that holy and unholy, I'll blow you up!"

"What!?" The voice wasn't as confident anymore. There was a slight tremor in it now.

The man smiled bitterly. "You think I was that na´ve?" The man's smile tinged his voice with acid. "I've dealt with your kind before. I'm used to people going back on deals. Unless you want to go up in flames, you let them go now."

"Liar!"

Without saying anything the man walked to the other side of the room and typed a few words into the computer. "Want to call that bluff? Really sure?"

"You wouldn't hurt them! I'd kill you!"

"What would be the point? I'm a very careful man." The man hit 'ENTER'. From the other end of the phone there was a dull crash. People swore in the background. The man smiled thinly.

"That was only one room. Now let them go."

Heavy breathing on the other end of the phone grew louder and louder. Finally the man with the harsh voice snapped something at one of the people in the background.

"My boss won't like it, but I don't have a choice, do I? Just fill all the orders, or you'll regret it for the rest of your drastically shortened life."

The man sank back against the door to the apartment weakly as the line went dead. Tears began to leak out of the corners of his eyes.

"Hey, Misao-san. What's with the newspaper?" Enishi lowered himself into the seat across from Misao.

"We're going to Chiho's house today," Misao said without taking her eyes off the paper. She made an angery face and crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it angrily into the trash can.

"What? Why?

"She's lonely. Aoshi and Gisuke-kun are there already. They made me wait for you." As she spoke she grabbed another newspaper and began to skim it. She ran her finger down collumn after collumn until she reached the end of the page.

"Augh!" Misao balled her hands into fists and tore the paper into several pieces as Enishi watched with a mixture of confusion and amusement on his face. "This is great! Just great! I can't find a damn thing! Why why WHY?!" she yelled, crumpling the shreds of paper into a ball and throwing it as hard as she could. There was a thump and a faint metallic sound. She opened her eyes and looked.

Enishi sat with the dilapadated ball's pieces floating around him and his glasses sitting in a rather large cup of tea. A look of long suffering passed across Enishi's face. Misao giggled appologeticly.

Chiho awoke out of a light doze when her door opened. Misao stood in the enterance of her room. Her face had the little dimple on her chin she got when she was pouting or angery about something.

"Uh-oh," Chiho giggled weakly from the bed. Gisuke looked up from his book at her and rushed to her side to begin smoothing her hair and babying her. "Weasel on a Warpath!"

Misao's dimple lightened. "Oh, shut up you," she muttered.

Chiho swatted at Gisuke's hands and gestured for Misao to join her on the large bed. Misao stomped across the room and sank onto the cushions. "What's the matter, Misao-chan?" Chiho asked.

"I can't find a single thing in the classifieds, or the phone book, or the library, or information, or..." Misao listed the various places she had tried traching on her fingers.

"But she refuses to try online," Enishi pointed out. Gisuke tossed him a bag of chips and he reclined in the chair at the desk. Enishi nodded his thanks and popped the bag open.

Chiho sighed. "Your abhorrance of machines is really going a too far, Misao-chan!"

"But they're so confusing!" Misao protested, looking at her feet.

"Aoshi could explaine it to you, I'm sure," Gisuke pointed out.Enishi glared at him over his glasses, but Gisuke didn't see it.  Enishi sighed and poked at the squashed chips.It's just as well, I guess,' he conceded.  'If everybody knew that I was in love with Makimachi, I'd never hear the end of it.  It's bad enough that she's meant for Aoshi, no matter what I do.  That and he could kick my ass without thinking twice about it.'  He smiled grimly at the object of his affections as she obliviously nodded and left the room in search of Aoshi.

Aoshi stared at the screen in front of him.  Words flashed by his eyes so fast the screen could hardly keep up with them.  He glowered angrily at the words began to blurr together.'I can keep up with this, you stupid machine,' he thought fiercely, 'can't you?'

"Aoshi-?"

Aoshi stopped the rapidly scrolling words with a tap of the mouse and turned at Misao's inquisitive tone.  She stood in the doorway of Chiho's family room.  A flat TV hung on one wall and the parts of a stereo, in pieces, lay scattered all over the floor.  A tool kit full of tiny instraments was tipped over near the couch.

"Do you know why this room is in pieces?" Aoshi asked her obliquely, gesturing at the mess."No.  Why would I?"

Aoshi gave her a hard glare.  Misao swallowed and squeezed her eyes closed in concentration.  'C'mon, Misao,' she urged herself.  'You want to work on your ninja skills, and half of being a ninja is in the mind.  Think. Think!'

"You won't fingure anything out with your eyes closed," Aoshi informed her. 

She made a face in his general direction.  "And your aim is horrible." 

Misao blocked Aoshi out of her mind and dragged the image of the room back to the front of her eyelids.

After a moment, she said in a firm and steady voice, "Ichiro was dismantaling the stereo when he was last here.  Keisuke was helping him.  He got halfway done and stopped because he had to leave in a hurry.  Knowing Ichiro, he had forgotten about his flight, and had to leave in a rush." 

Misao opened one eye and glanced cockily at Aoshi.  He was looking at her with raised eyebrows.  "They were putting in new components to give the stereo more power."

Aoshi turned away, appearently satisfied.  Misao knew this mood.  It was the "Aoshi-sama the Okashira" mood.  Something was bothering him and he would get no rest, nor would anyone else, until the problem was solved.  "What's so important?" Misao asked.

"The bomb threats.""Bomb threats? Where!? On who!?" She paused and looked at the computer screen over Aoshi's shoulder before remembering with a rush.  "The same night I had that dream, red hair, violet eyes, 2-o-clock, bombs, no action, warm milk and... and... dirty newspapers," Misao said swiftly.  Aoshi listened to her with his eyes closed in silent concentration.

"When?""The same day as my little incident in history," Misao said a little wryly, fingering her head where the bump used to be.  Aoshi nodded.

"That was the first report.  Look.  There've been others.  Several.  And a bomb was found under Takeda-san's car just the other day."Misao stared at the article, aghast.  "What, nice little Yoko-san? The principal's secretary? No way!"  Takeda Yoko was the new secretary, replacing the gruff and cold old woman that used to run the office.  She had a long slim face with high cheekbones and dark eyes with short, thick lashes hidden behnd heavy-rimmed glasses.  She was soft-spoken and polite almost to the point of rudeness, but she smiled often and if you got in trouble, as Gisuke had many times before, she would pull a package of crackers out of her desk and listen to your side of the story while you waited to see the principal.Aoshi highlighted a few lines for Misao and tapped the screen.  "Not exactly.  The principal's car has been in the shop for the past couple of days, and Takeda-san drives him to and from work in a borrowed car.  He was going home late that day and so Takeda was going to take the car to her house.  She went to open the door, saw it was unlocked, and checked to see if anything was missing before getting in the car.  She saw the bomb then."Misao let her breath out in a gust.  "So somebody wants to kill the principal.

"Mmm.

Misao's head felt woozy.  'Why would anybody want to kill the principal? Sure, we've all had our run-ins with him, but he's not a BAD principal! I've never heard of anybody getting in MAJOR trouble with him.'  Misao felt the world slide.

"Sit down, sit down..." Aoshi said gently.  Misao felt herself being eased into the soft, cushy chair.  The articles spread out on the screen glared accusingly at her.  Misao lay her hands on the keyboard absently.

"I wonder..." she murmured.  Aoshi leaned closer.  "How would one find out who's been in trouble with the principal?"  Aoshi shrugged.  Misao's hands darted from the mouse to the keyboard and back again several times.  Aoshi watched as the screen flickered.  There was a sudden stillness, and Misao looked up at Aoshi.
"Cool! Look what I did!"Aoshi looked at her in surprise.  She had the air of a child that was thrilled with their ability to do some small feat.  "How'd you do that?" he asked as levelly as he could.  'Misao hates machines.  She doesn't understand them.  Even calculators are confusing to her.  How could she hack a city computer system in just seconds? That must have taken less than a minute!'

Misao shrugged and began to scroll down the list.  "I dunno.  I was just thinking how simple it would make it if I could just see which kids got in trouble with this principal.  And here we go!"  She waved a hand lazily at the screen.

Aoshi suppressed a shudder of apprehension.  'Misao in the Meiji always wanted the best and newest of everything.  She wanted fancy guns and lenses and wired things to help us spy that even I couldn't understand.  Maybe it's coming back as this new flare with computers.

"Hey!" Misao said suddenly.  "Tomoe-san is on this list! Insubordination... multiple uniform violations... and a problem with attendence.  Weird..."

"Look, I'll go over this list," Aoshi said after an uncomfortable pause.

"What was it that you wanted?"

Misao poked at the keyboard for a moment more, printed a screen and snatched the page out of the printer as soon as it was done.  Aoshi scribbled down the names on the list as fast as he could and as he resumed perusing the articles on the bombs Misao shrieked in delight.

"Yahoo! Perfect! Chiho-chan! Chiho-chan! Guess what!"

Aoshi watched her tear out of the room at top speed.  Something was bothering him.  If Misao could just focus her mind and get the skills she needed, shouldn't he be able to do that too?

He thought for a moment, then closed his eyes.  He felt himself floating down through layers of memories.  They flickered across his eyelids like an old reel film playing just a little bit too slow.

Then he felt the spot he wanted.  There was a little pinch at his heart, and he stopped the film.  He was a child.  Only ten.  'No... I was so happy.  I would be 11 in only 2 short months...'

---------------

The swords were heavy in his hands, but it was a comfortable sort of weight.  The sweat ran into his face.  He couldn't pause to wipe his eyes clear. 

Besides, it was good practice.  A boy slightly older than him danced nimbly out of the reach of Aoshi's blades.  A single bead of sweat rested by his eye, an irritating blurr on the edge of his vision.

"You're not concentrating, Aoshi-kun!" the older boy chastised.  "Never let your attentions waver until the job is done!"

At that moment an infant's wail reached Aoshi's ears.  The older boy's face lit up and he hastily set his sword on the ground.  Aoshi leapt at him, knocked his feet out from under him, and let his swords fly down until they were a mere hairsbredth from the pulsing jugular vein.

"Never let your attentions waver until the job is done," Aoshi repeated, one corner of his mouth turning up.  The older boy grinned and the two of them ran from the practice room eagerly.

The crying had cesed by the time Aoshi and his companion had reached the room where their Okashira and his kunoichi wife sat.  A red-cheeked baby sat on its mother's lap, waving her fists in the air drowsily.  Her eyes were barely open, but they were already sporting long lashes.

"How cute!" sqealed the 12-year-old Omasu.  Her hands were clasped in delight under her chin.  Aoshi gave his classmate a slightly odd look.  How could this puny little thing be cute? It just looked troublesome to him.  He really didn't understand either of his female peers.  The more mature and calm Okon was already cleaning up the room, but her gaze never strayed far from the baby.

"Okon, would you like to hold her?" the weary-looking mother asked.  She let the thrilled girls play with her child as she reclined on her husband's strong cheast.  He smoothed her hair and spoke lightly and jokingly, but the skin around his eyes was lined.

'She's not strong enough,' Aoshi thought critically.  'She was frail to begin with, but childbirth is really too much for a woman like her.'

"Eek! She's crying!" Okon gasped worriedly.  "What did I do wrong!?"

The Okashira's wife laughed gently.  "Nothing.  She's probably just hungery."

"She has the appetite of a boy," the baby's father commented jokingly. 

Everybody laughed, knowing how nice it would have been for their Okashira to have an undisputed heir.

"She- she won't be quiet!" Omasu said, near tears herself with worry.

Aoshi groaned inwardly.  "Oh, don't be silly," he said in exasperation."Look."  He lifted the baby from Okon's arms and cradled her in the crook of one arm.  With his free hand he stuck the tip his index finger into the baby girl's mouth.  She closed her mouth in surprise and grabbed his finger with both tiny fists.

Omasu and Okon peered at the baby girl and Aoshi with unvield surprise and interest.  "Imagine that..."
"She's taken a liking to you!" somebody crowed.  Aoshi looked down at the little girl.

'Her fingers are so tiny! She feels no stronger than a mouse.  How can she be our strong Okashira's daughter?'

"What's her name?" Omasu asked.

"How about Akemi?"

"We wanted to name her Nozomi," the Okashira said proudly.

Aoshi made a face at the baby.  'Eyuch... I don't like 'Nozomi' for you at all.  You don't look like a Nozomi to me.'  The Nozomi he knew was the prim and proper woman that masqueraded as a geisha on occasion for infiltration purposes.  She was so proper she wouldn’t speak to the poor, parentless Aoshi unless under the duress of Okashira.

"Aoshi-kun, you don't approve?" Okashira asked suddenly.  Aoshi looked up.  Everybody in the room was staring at him expectantly.  Aoshi glanced down at the baby.  She yawned at him and made a squeaking noise.  Her eyes scrunched up.  The Nozomi he knew would never behave like that in public.  She was probably a prim and proper baby that never cried or squinted or made odd noises when she yawned.  Aoshi swallowed nervously.

"N- no.  Not really," her said as firmly as he could.  "I think she needs a more... cheerful name."

"Like what?" the baby's mother said curiously.

"Misao.  It's much more suited to a baby like this," Aoshi said firmly.

People laughed.  Aoshi blushed and looked back down at "Nozomi's" innocent face.  He felt like such a fool.  Of course Okashira would want Nozomi for his first, and probably only, child's name!"Makimachi Misao it is, then!"

Aoshi looked up in surprise.  Okashira was still sitting, but he was looking at Aoshi with an odd expression of interest, compounded with something else.  Aoshi met Okashira's deep gaze and felt a flush of shame on his cheeks. He knew what Okashira saw.  An orphaned, scrawny, long-legged boy with cheekbones sharp from an early life of semi-starvation dressed in second-hand clothes that were too small for him.  Aoshi curled his dusty toes up and forced himself not to fidget.  If Okashira saw any fault with him, he could be kicked out of the Oniwabanshuu, shunned, made into a servant or worse.

But in a flash of understanding, Aoshi saw the man he admired most as what he really was.  A man getting on in years with a wife he loved more than the world that was too frail to bear another child.  Okashira loved children, Aoshi knew.  Everybody knew it too.  Okon, Omasu and Aoshi were all orphans of war, taken in by the kind-hearted Okashira.  Okashira wanted an heir.  A son.

Aoshi.

He wasn't a nobody anymore.  He was the mature, strong, talented, tender, insightful, charismatic Shinomori Aoshi of the Oniwabanshuu.

"Misao... what a sweet name, Aoshi-kun!" Madame Okashira said.  Aoshi tore his gaze away from Okashira to smile at Misao's mother.

"I have to admit, I didn't like that idea of Misao being named after that snooty Nozomi," Okashira's close friend Nenji said frankly.  "She's got too much ego as it is.  She might get ideas."  Everybody laughed.

As he gently returned Misao to her mother's arm he felt a small squeeze on his finger.  When he looked down for a moment at baby Misao, he saw a flash of blue in her eyes.  He wasn't the only one that noticed.

"Blue eyes!" Madame Okashira exclaimed.
Okashira gave Aoshi a meaningful glance while everybody else in the room clustered around Madame Okashira and Misao.  "Why, it's almost like she's your sister, Aoshi," he said softly.  Across the room, Nenji turned his head to look at Aoshi, made a note of his friend's whispered words, then turned away again.

---------------

Aoshi shook his head and the remnants of the vision floated away.  On the monitor in front of him floated the message "GET BACK TO WORK!!"  Aoshi shook his head again and bumped the mouse.  The articles popped back onto the screen.  With a head full of new knowledge, Aoshi returned to absorbing the articles.

---------------

Enishi sat at his desk, staring into space.  His mind wandered from topic to topic, always settling on either his past or Misao.  More and more often now, he thought about his past.  Books and papers wers scattered all around his room, but his homework remained undone.A tapping at his door startled him.  He opened the door and saw his aunt standing there.  She looked up at Enishi's face and blinked at him a little, as though trying to remember why a boy was in the guest bedroom.

"Are you coming down to dinner?" she asked blandly.  Enishi felt a stab of longing for his parents.

"I don't think so, thanks.  I'll just make myself some food when I'm done with my homework."

His aunt nodded.  "I had a feeling you would have a lot of homework.  I brought a tray."  Enishi silently took the tray from her, bade her good night, and closed his door.

As he walked back to his desk, the world dipped.  He hastilly set the tray down on his bed, making the water in the glass slosh onto the tray.  Dizy, Enishi clutched at the back of the chair.  He sank to his knees, giving up to the wild gyrations of the world.

The floor in front of him blurred, then turned into a dusty street.  His hands were filthy and he knew that the stench that filled his nose came from his unwashed body.  Weakness dragged at his limbs and he couldn't hold himself up.  He collapsed on the ground, filled with anger and thoughts of unfulfilled revenge.

"Hey! Move it, freak!"

A sharp-toed shoe connected with his ribs.  He grunted and rolled onto his side.  "C'mon whitey!" the sharp-toed and sharp-voiced Chinese person demanded again.

"Water..." Enishi croaked in his accented Chinese.  He prayed he got it right.  His life could pay the forfiet.

"What!? Give you water?" A sharp bark of laughter.  "You've got to be joking!"Enishi smiled sourly and felt his filthy, scratched face hurt.  "If you don't I won't move."

There was silence from the sharp-toed person.  Enishi thought for a moment that he really would get water.  He felt all the hungrier for it, too.  The man spat at him violently.  Enishi felt the hot spit slide off his cheek, stinging every scrape.

"Threatening me? Get off the street!"
'He spit on me.... he spit on me..... He can't DO that! It's not right! I'm human just like him! I'll pay that arrogant jerk back...'  Enishi tried to struggle to his feet.  Roll over, one hand flat on the ground, then the next, one knee under him, other knee... Finally he raised his face and glared murder at the man.  All Enishi could see was the rotund siloughette of the man, and to it he groweled, "Asshole..."

Enishi felt a horrible feeling like a punch in the pit of his stomach.  He tumbled backwards, rolling akwardly, painfully, until he came to rest in a ditch.  It smelled of sewage and rot.  A stick dug into his ribs painfully, and he pulled it out from under him.  A bone...  He tossed it away with a small cry of disgust and fear.

'Will I end up like that? Just another pile of bones in the ditch?'  Panic ripped through him in waves.  He thrashed about wildly, trying to climb the crumbling walls of the ditch, but each time he fell back.  His mind was blank in animalistic fear.  All he could think of was getting away from that place of death.  Finally, exausted, he collapsed back into the bottom of the ditch.  His weakened arms fell away from his body awkwardly.His hand touched a trickle of water.  It smelled like noodles.  He looked up.  An angery chef bereted an appologetic undercook by the back door of a restaurant.  The words came faintly to Enishi.

"...all wrong! Garbage!"

"So sorry, sir!"

Enishi hungrily put his mouth to a small pool of soup in a horse's footstep.  Enishi smiled grimly.  To the chef it was garbage, but to Enishi it was ambrosia.  After the two men had left, Enishi pulled himself out of the ditch and ate the dusty noodles off the ground.  Feeling much invigorated, he wandered off, only slightly unsteady on his feet.  In the distance he saw a copse of trees.

Trees?

He shook his head and looked again.  The framed print on the wall stared back at him.  He looked around the room.  Papers, books, bed, quilt, school uniform, picture of his parents, tray of food...

Enishi went to the tray, looked at the food and began to wolf it down.  As he ate he thought.  Aoshi had said that he and Misao sometimes got visions. 

Dreams so real you thought you were in them.  Your mind wasn't your own. 

You became the person you were 150 years ago.  Was this horrible China the world he knew in his past life? Did he actually do those things? He shuddered at the thought.  He could FEEL the gritty noodles in his mouth and taste the sour broth.

Hastily, he took a large swig of water and swallowed.  The memories were so strong...

'Poor Makimachi!' Enishi realized.  'No wonder she passed out like that.' 

His hand wandered unintentionally to the pit of his stomach where the man's shoe had connected with his gut 150 years ago.  'How many memories has she received? How many times has she lived the same minutes of her life again?' 

A new thought occurred to him, and the young white-haired man sat up straighter.  'How many times will I have to live the same times twice...?'

END CHAPTER EIGHT

NEXT CHAPTER: Bomb threats are nothing compaired to a real live explosion! The newly reawakened powers in Misao, Aoshi and Enishi will have to be put to some use, and fast! Where there's smoke there's fire, but who lit this funeral pyre?

....ew, that rhymed! >_<

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