|The Circle Game; A Rurouni Kenshin
Fanfic by Kitty Woolfson
First draft of The Circle Game, 2/2001.
Chapter 9: Red, Black and Blue
In a darkened room, a thin figure lay on the bed under the window. A few rays of butter-yellow light seeped from under the drawn curtains and fell in a bar across the face of a girl. She was pale and looked feaverish. A cat was curled up in the crook of one arm, tail twitching occasionally. Next to the girl a small radio was playing pop music softly.
With a mewling noise, the cat leapt up and went to the door to sit and stare. After a few moments the door opened and young man came in. He wore a navy blue jacket with a badge on the breast pocket and a white dress shirt unbuttened to expose the collar of a simple undershirt. He tugged at his cowlick and smoothed his hand over his bangs before entering. The cat ran back to the bed and walked primly over the girl's chest and stomach until she roused and woke.
"Hey, Chiho," Gisuke said softly. "How are you feeling today?"
Chiho smiled and sat up on the bed. "Better than yesterday. You?"
Gisuke nervously smoothed his hair down again. Chiho's smile faded and she lightly touched the back of her boyfriend's hand. "Yousuke-kun found a bomb today," he murmured.
"If this gets anymore serious, they'll have to close the school. I brought you the transfer request forms."
"I'm not leaving!" Chiho insisted as Gisuke pulled several pieces of paper out of his bag. "I paid a lot of money to go to Yakihata! I'm not letting a few wires and timers scare me off."
Gisuke shook his head, a pen clamped firmly in his mouth. He shuffled through a stack of papers and handed Chiho one of the pages.
"'Due to the recent bomb threats and bombs found on the Yakihata campus, we are asking students to select alternative schools to attend until this issue comes to a satisfactory conclusion,'" Chiho read in a tense voice.
"'Students will not have to pay new tuition, or continue to attend the school of their choice once this situation is resolved. Students will be notified which school they would attend in the unlikely event of Yakihata being temporarily closed, and should purchase uniforms promptly.' Oh, how awful!" Chiho cried.
"Aoshi-kun, Misao-chan and Enishi-kun all selected Ishin-bashi. I figured you would want to, too," Gisuke said.
Chiho looked over the packet from Ishin-bashi. Finally, she nodded and filled out the forms. Gisuke sat with her, working on his own forms. Both were silent.
"How the hell am I suppost to afford a new uniform?!" wailed Misao in anger. Aoshi placed a hand on her head in a silent admonision to silence herself. Misao wouldn't let herself be quieted.
"This is impossible! Jiya and I are just making due; we can't afford to buy me a completely new set of uniforms."
Enishi groaned as he looked at the uniform pictures. "These are gross."
Aoshi looked at his own sheet. "Hmph. Well, at least we know we'll all look equally bad." Misao made a face when she saw the Ishin-bashi uniforms.
"Hopefully we won't have to go to Takashino," Misao commented. "I'd HATE to have to wear that uniform and have people look at me like I was a prissy little rich girl."
Aoshi looked at Misao firmly. "Misao, you ARE a little rich girl," he informed her levelly. Misao blushed and Enishi chuckled.
"But- but I can't USE the money!" Misao protested. Enishi only laughed harder.
The week after that, Chiho proudly returned to school and handed in her school selection sheet. She was still a little shakey on her feet sometimes, but she didn't need to sleep most of the day anymore. Every morning, Chiho and Misao slowly walked to school together.
One morning, Misao turned to Chiho and said unexpectedly, "Chiho-chan, do you think Enishi-kun is lonely?"
Chiho pondered this silently. "I'm not sure," she said. "He doesn't seem to like anybody, and he's got plenty of friends at school now. I think he may miss his parents, that's all."
Misao swung her bag back and forth lazily. 'I feel bad, ignoring Enishi-kun. I know he likes me. I can tell. But... I just wouldn't feel right dating him.
'Why, though?' she asked herself irritably. 'I'm not going out with anybody now. It would be nice to have a boyfriend. I know Enishi-kun is perfectly nice and all that. I just feel like I'm lying. No... It would be like cheating on somebody.'
Misao felt a blush and smile creep across her features and brisquely shook her head to dispell both. 'It's Aoshi.' Her tall, dark friend was on her mind more than she'd like to admit. He treated her almost impassively, as though he didn't really care. The only reason Misao had any hint that Aoshi thought of her in any way other than just plain friendship were the moments that a flicker of emotion would cross his face.
'And that night; the night we found out about Chiho-chan's illness...' She blushed at the thought of Aoshi so close to her.
"Misao-chan, you look a little flushed. Are you feeling okay?"
Misao looked up hastily at her friend and quickly changed the subject.
At lunch that day the kids in the cafeteria spoke in low voices. Eyes darted to the corners of the room every few minutes, and before anybody sat down there was a surrepitous glance under the table, just to be sure.
Misao, Aoshi and Enishi silently noted the adults that appeared in the room at odd times and wore purpousfully nice clothes. When Chiho asked politely if one of them needed any help, he replied too quickly that he was only observing for his college class.
"I think it's sick," Chiho said firmly around a mouthfull of rice. "They should just clear us out. It's like going to prison every day."
"But if they," Enishi said, jerking his chin in the general direction of a pair of plain-clothes police officers, "weren't here, we'd probably all be bombed by now."
Aoshi listened with only half an ear to the conversation around him.
'Something is coming. The timing of these bombs seem so familier. I really
can't figure it out. I've almost got it, but I just can't get a hold on it.
Something about the way each note and bomb leads in an entirely new direction... Like a
web, and the only way to find the spider is to let yourself get caught and have it come to
Misao's scream tore Aoshi away from the memory. He had seen a flash of flames, a skull, and heard screaming. He looked up.
Chiho was sitting back up off the floor, rubbing at her head. Her eyes were a little unfocused, but she managed to smile and reassure Gisuke, Misao and Enishi that she really was quite alright.
"No, you're not," Aoshi said. Everybody turned to look at him. "You shouldn't have come back to school. You're still too weak. Or maybe you over-exerted yourself in gym class. Go and lie down in the clinic."
Gisuke stood and helped Chiho stand up. Misao packed up her things and Chiho's, glanced and Aoshi, nodded slightly, and said to Chiho, "I'll come with you Chiho-chan."
Enishi turned to Aoshi as soon as the three of them had left. "What's going on?" he groweled.
"Something big is going down," Aoshi said in a voice so low Enishi had to strain to pick up the words. "I don't want to be here a minute longer. I feel like I'm caught in a trap."
Enishi stared at Aoshi. He felt and urge to hit the older boy.
'Know-it-all,' Enishi thought sourly. Despite the fact that he and Aoshi had become better friends, they still didn't completely trust each other.
The bell chimed, interrupting their thoughts. Enishi stood and gathered his things together. As he left, he glanced over his shoulder at Aoshi. His rival was staring blankly into space, his eyes unfocused and mouth slightly open in vague thought. The white-haired boy felt his heart soften a little. He turned back to the table and hesitated briefly before shaking Aoshi by the shoulder.
"Hey, Aoshi-kun," he said kindly as the older boy started out of his trance, "you'd better get to class."
"Uh- yeah... right," Aoshi muttered, still half in his vision. Enishi glanced at Aoshi out of the corner of his eye, and for once, didn't feel the surge of jealousy and anamosity.
'What is this?' he thought in confusion. He stumbled a little over his own feet while his thoughts were distracted and his shoulder bumped Aoshi's.
Aoshi didn't even glance at Enishi. It wasn't the ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away kind of non-glance. It was the it's-no-big-deal non-glance. 'Aoshi couldn't be my friend, could he?
'No, we're enemies!' he reassured himself. 'We fought in the past; I know that much. And now we're still fighting. Fighting over Makimachi.'
"See ya," Aoshi grutned at Enishi as he turned towards his classroom.
"Yeah, later," Enishi replied without much thought.
'There, see! I did it again! It's like I don't care about Misao.'
The hallway swam for a moment and the dark-clad backs of students blurred for a moment. When they clreaed again Enishi was looking down a dusty street filled with the same students. The sun shone high overhead in a pristine blue sky. Buildings lined the street.
"Wha-?" Enishi gasped. "Old Japan?" The hills behind the city caught his eye. "Osaka!" he realized. From far off down the street a girl called his name. He looked up. A girl with a pale blur of a face and a long tail of light hair raised a rose-clad arm in greeting.
The young man raised a hand to shade his eyes and peered at the figure, but saw nothing.
"Darling, I've been looking all over for you!" The young woman cried excitedly. Enishi blinked in surprise. 'Did she just call me "darling"?'
A voice behind him made a thrill run up Enishi's spine. "Is something wrong?" Enishi's voice said. The voice was deeper, a little bit more rough, but undeniably the same voice. The white-haired boy stood, quivering, in shock. He longed to turn; wanted desperately to, but he couldn't make himself twist his head even a fraction of an inch.
A sudden breeze shook Enishi's frame through his very soul. A broad muscular back appeared before his shocked eyes. A dark blue vest with a slightly Chinese cut and mandarin collar covered the hard muscles. White hair stood up on top of the person's head.
Two Enishis stood in the middle of an old Osaka street.
"Oh, no! Not at all, darling," the girl said, running lightly the rest of the distance to the older Enishi. She was a beautiful young woman with pale eyes, that Enishi in a sudden moment of clarity remembered were grey, and long light brown hair.
"What then?" Meiji-Enishi asked in a slightly teasing tone. The girl ran into his arms, clasping his forearms lightly, and Enishi caught her elbows.
The girl looked away slightly. "Oh, it's nothing I guess. I- I just missed you, that's all."
Enishi withdrew a simple pocket watch from a pocket in his Chinese-style pants and regarded the hands. "Ah, I see." He put the watch away and regarded the girl solemnly. "Not having seen me for all 23 minutes we've been separated must be hard on you, Otomi."
The girl glared at him in mock anger. She grabbed the watch out of his pocket and pulled the two of them together. "Some times, Enishi, you can be really infuriating."
Enishi lowered his head towards hers. Younger Enishi felt akward watching the exchange; no matter that he was the one participating in it; or that the past-him was obviously madly in love with this Otomi girl. Hastily, he turned away...
...only to find somebody hailing him from behind.
He turned quickly, thinking to see a dusty street of Osaka. Instead he was
looking into the eyes of his teacher. Except his mind, immersed in the Meiji-era,
didn't know who the person standing in front of him was. For a moment his mind
grasped at names, places, facts, numbers, faces, until finally coming to rest on one name.
"Yes, Ozama-sensei?" Enishi replied glibly. He let out a breath of relief at guessing right. It was still a challenge to remember names even on a good day.
"Where are you going?" the short, bespecticaled woman demanded. "It's time to start class."
"I just remembered I left my notebook in my last classroom. May I go get it?" Enishi adlibed quickly.
Ozama nodded and made shooing gestures with her hands. "Be quick about it," she said tiredly. She reentered the room and shut the door behind her.
Enishi stood staring blankly at the door for a moment, then he headed off in the opposite direction than the one he had come from. He had time to kill, and things to think about.
"Only one of you can stay. The other MUST go to class."
The lean nurse stood with her arms crossed in front of the rest room.
Behind her, four beds with faded cotton blankets were lined up against the walls. Two square windows at the far end of the room were open to a small early spring breeze. Chiho lay in the closest bed, her eyes closed though she wasn't asleep.
"But we both want to stay with her," Misao protested.
"Only for a few more minutes," Gisuke added, "until she falls asleep."
The nurse shook her head firmly. From behind her Chiho spoke up softly.
"Misao-chan," she said barely above a whisper, "I need to talk to you."
Gisuke shrugged and appologized for arguing with the nurse before leaving.
The nurse retired to her office at the front of the clinic. As the woman's straight back disappeared behind the closing door, Misao quietly took a seat next to Chiho on the bed.
"What is it, Chiho-chan?"
The ill girl lay with her eyes closed for several long moments before replying, "Aoshi-kun." Misao started in surprise. Chiho's eyes opened and she smiled slyly. "Ah, I knew it. You're in love with him, aren't you, Misao-chan." It was a statement, and left no room for useless denials.
Misao sighed resignedly. "Yes, I guess I am." She glared at Chiho. "And wipe that self-satisfied smile off your face. You look like a cat."
"Misao-chan, you need to get over this. No, not get over Aoshi-kun. Get over that fact that you're in love with him. He's a great person; you know that already. He's wonderful and caring and loves you very much. And don't you deny it!" Chiho snapped when Misao opened her mouth. Misao obediently snapped her jaws shut, then opened them again.
"But it's not true. He's never shown any interest in me, and he's always so aloof. He only cares about- well, I don't even KNOW what he cares about!"
Misao sighed deeply and dramaticly. "It's like he's locked away. He told me that before Tomoe-san died, he was much more outgoing. But after he death he couldn't find any point to living. He told me that he's only alive because she would want him to be. He's like a hollow shell; all that's left is what Tomoe-san would want to see."
For a moment Misao thought Chiho had fallen asleep. Then she said, "Aoshi-kun just needs some time to get used to you loving him. I won't tell you to stop lying to yourself again. You and Aoshi-kun both haven't had exactly easy lives. You're still missing your parents, and Aoshi-kun still misses his sister. When the two of you will just stop denying what's plain as- Misao-chan, is something the matter?"
Misao didn't hear her. Something was wrong. Something was very very wrong. She felt a tickle at the back of her head, and it spread throughout her entire body. Everything felt alive. Her limbs coursed with raw energy, making her want to jump up and move- fast. The world was so much clearer; the flush of Chiho's cheeks, the blue of the blankets, the green of the tree outside the window, the smell of cut grass, the feeling the wind made as it brushed across her skin. Everything seemed more real, more rich.
A sudden sour note in the symphony around her drew her entire conciousness to that one spot. It looked like a small can of beans, black and grey, with a few little odds and endds sticking out on the two bases of the cylender.
A fast clicking noise filled the room.
The engery that had been flowing through Misao moved her body without any thought. She threw herself across Chiho's body and dragged her to the floor on the opposite side of the bed from the ticking cylender. There was a blast of sound that deafened her, a shudder that passed through the ground, and a wave of heat washing over her.
Chiho's scream echoed forever in her ears.
Something burned across her cheek and above her forehead. Blood ran into her eyes.
Too much heat... too much noise... the quaking of the floor beneath her... smoke... flames... the smell of burning cloth, medicine...
'Oh, Aoshi-sama! Aoshi-sama!'
Enishi felt his hands itch. He rubbed them on his pants and abruptly turned down another hall. More itching.
'Geez, I wonder if something's wrong with me,' he thought as he brisquely scrubbed his hands together. The itch persisted. His hands clentched into fists as though around a sword. 'Lord, I wish I had a sword right now...'
His ears heard the sound of breaking glass. The smell of smoke filled his nose. Beside him a door was thrown open. Enishi was only slightly surprised to see Aoshi standing there. Their eyes met for a moment, then they began to run towards the clinic.
Aoshi sighed as he pulled his book out of his bag. The day seemed to drag on forever. He longed to go to Misao, to sit by her side and listen to her ceaseless chatter. At one point he may have been annoyed by it, but now it just seemed to natural to stoicly listen to her every word. Abosrbing it like a thirsty plant, and just be with her.
He felt something stab at his heart. Something was wrong. The ninja senses he had almost forgotten he had came alive with a burst of awareness. He could see the individual threads on the shirt of the boy in front of him, smell the soap in the skin of the girl next to him, feel the fibers of the pages in his hands. Everything jumped out at him with surprising clarity.
'Oh, Aoshi-sama! Aoshi-sama!'
The words sprang into his mind as clearly has if they had been spoken, but the sound didn't hang in the air. The words buzzed in his brain. The tears in the voice, the breathiness of the labored gasps, the panic, the fear, the sadness, the overwhelming sense of loss; all were feelings not his own.
'Oh, Aoshi-sama! Aoshi-sama!'
The repetition was clearer than before. A roaring seemed to fill his ears.
He saw Misao, laying on the floor, her face bloodied and smeared with ash.
Next to her he recognized Chiho. A trickle of blood ran down her neck from a cut on her head. She had collapsed limply in Misao's arms.
Misao's face was streaked with tears. The tracks snaked through the dirt and blood to her chin. Her lips trembled on the verge of sobs, but her chin was stubborn.
Her eyes, though still slightly watery, were strong. She would not give up. She would not die. Misao's emotions hit him again; fear, anger, worry, strength, persistance.
'AOSHI-SAMA!! HELP ME!!'
Aoshi became aware of where he was again. He was on his feet, his hands trembling in the fists he had clentched them into. The ringing was still in his ears, Misao's emotions still coursed through him, but he wasn't in the clinic any more. All around him students were staring. The teacher turned a sharp eye on him.
"Shinomori, this is hardly the time to--" she began firmly.
Aoshi didn't hear her. Misao was in danger, and he stood here arguing with a shrew of a woman about manners? He uttered a single word in a strangled voice.
The world became more sharp again. The ninja senses were back, and with a vengance. The energy flowed through him like a tidal wave, sweeping all doubts and fears from his mind. They coursed through every inch of his body, an ivigorating flood of power. He felt alive; more alive than he had ever felt before. Before he realized what he was doing, he had dashed for the door and thrown it open.
Enishi stood in the hall, a mildy surprised but no less worried expression on his face. Blue eyes locked on blue eyes. Aoshi saw all of Enishi's thoughts laid out as puzzle pieces on a table, ready to be joined but needing that one hand to set them in their exact places. Words sprang to mind. "I concede" and then "But that doesn't mean I don't care for her."
The two young men raced down the hall side-by-side, strides in time with the other's, determination incarnated.
On the ground floor the principal sat at his desk, watching a clock. The minute hand moved with a click. Only seconds later the man felt the building around him tremble ever so slightly. A satisfied smile touch his thin lips. The man leaned back in his chair and examined the ceiling.
"Shinomori Aoshi," he said in a quiet, dangerous voice barely above a whisper. "Your sins against me will be repaid. One. By one. By one..."
The office door opened almost silently and then closed again.
"Is it done?" he asked sharply.
There was a prim sniff. "My brother never told me about this. I was only suppost to help you out; be an easy contact!" The chair across from him creaked a little as a person sat on it. The young woman exhaled in gust.
"I never expected you would ask me to do THIS, sir. I doubt my brother will stand--"
The principal sat up abruptly and slammed his open palm against the desk with a resounding crack. "Shut up, woman! Your brother," he said with a sneer that twisted the word into something filthy, "will stand for what ever I tell him to. And he'll like it!"
"Y- yes, sir."
"Now answer my question. Did. You. Do. It."
"Yes, sir. As much as I don't like it."
The principal waved a hand languidly at her. "Well done, Yoko. Give them another few moments... ah, yes," he said as the phone rang on his desk.
"Answer that, Yoko. And Im away from my desk."
The young woman nodded, resettled her glasses on the bridge of her nose primly, and with a fastidious sniff, picked up the phone.
"Hello. Yes, this is Ms. Yoko. No, I'm sorry. He's away from his desk at the moment. Would you like for me to take a message?" She glanced at the principal, but he had risen and was standing in the darkest corner of the room, his fingers twitching at his sides. "Ah, I see. What?" she gasped.
Her face remained the same, but her voice took on the tone of one shocked.
"Yes, yes! I'll call right away!" She replaced the phone on it cradle and glared at the principal.
"Just so you know, that was Mrs. Yamamota. She said that she smells smoke, could swear a bomb just went off down the hall from her in the clinic. She hears screams."
"Just call, you coward," he snapped in reply.
She sniffed again and picked up the phone, speed-dialing the fire department. "I never knew I would be KILLING people. Nii-san only said I would be an assistant. ...crazy old man will burn the entire school down around our ears..." She broke off with a gasp.
Across the room, the pricipal stood with one hand cocked at her. She could feel the tiniest pressure in a circle against her neck. She gulped nervously and a line of blood welled up around her throat. A few drops appeared the float in a line through the air before dropping with little plops onto the desk. The ringing of the phone on the other end of the line drummed in her head.
"You will do what I tell you; nothing more and nothing less," the principal said from the shadows. A subtle shift of the pressure at her neck forced Yoko to her feet, then onto the tips of her toes. "You are no longer your brother's agent any more. You are mine." Yoko gulped again and the blood flowed more freely. "Understood?" His voice was a dark hiss from the shadow of the corner.
The pressure loosened just enough to speak. She stammered, "Y- y- yes, s- sir."
"And this time," he added lightly, "make it believable."
A voice on the other line said, "Hello?"
"Oh, thank goodness!" Yoko gasped around her invisible collar. The
blood had seeped down to the collar of her shirt now. Her voice sounded faint; she
felt faint. "Th- there was a bomb!"
As she continued, the principal allowed himself another small smile.
"Shinomori Aoshi..." he murmured to himself, and began to laugh quietly.
Yoko's eyes rolled towards him and she began to tremble.
END CHAPTER NINE
NEXT CHAPTER: What happened to Misao and Chiho? Aoshi, Enishi and Gisuke have to use all their brains and brawn to help them. But now that the school is half-way burned, the friends will have to change schools. Can Aoshi, Misao and Enishi keep their secret in a building full of curious high schoolers? Is it just me, or do some of their new classmates look familier?