Chapter 1: Rumors and Whispers


Is it true what they are saying?


‘The Wolves are descending to the streets of Edo before they head to Kyoto.’

They are searching for someone.

Do you know whom they are searching for?

Ano, we cannot talk here. Meet me at this location tomorrow night.


            As the pair disappeared in the darkness, only the moon could see the paths each of them had taken. One man hurried off into the surrounding darkness of the buildings. Slipping quietly in between, using the night to shield his progress from unseen eyes. He mostly kept to the shadows, only discarding their cover as soon as he arrived at the riverbank. He moved slowly through the grass, in sync with the wind that blows the night air, until he reaches his destination. His horse was hidden among the tall reeds and carefully, he reached out to grasp its reins. He led the horse off the grass, carefully retracing his earlier steps as the pair made their way across the bridge and disappeared into the night. The other man shielded himself with his kasa and walked the opposite way. He kept to the dark as well until he reached the main road. Carefully, he crossed the bridge and hurried to the side of another building. He eyed the building at the end of the path he chose and made his way towards it stealthily. He slipped into the shadows again as soon as he approached the local dojo. The sign - Kamiya Kasshin Ryu Dojo - hung prominently next to the door. He eyed both sides of the road and once behind him for reassurance before passing into the shadows once again. The back gate was opened and he sneaked into the house silently.


“Tousan!” Kamiya Kaoru jumped up from the front porch and approached her father. “Where have you been? I was worried.” She ran to him and gave the older man a big hug as he smiled at his affectionate daughter.


            He gently tugged at her ponytail. “Kaoru-hime, why are you still up? Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping right now?”


            Ne, ‘tousan.” The fourteen-year old girl shook her head. “I was worried. You left right after dinner without telling me anything.” She pulled away from him and stomped her foot. “You promised you would tell me!”


            Kamiya Koshijiro couldn’t help but smile at the scolding tone his daughter took up with him. She looked so much like his wife that he could almost hear her voice in their daughter. Maa, Kaoru-hime. There’s no need to get upset.”


            “Demo, you promised!” Kaoru said as she stomped her foot indignantly.


He reached out to brush a hair off her face. “Sometimes, it is best that you do not know what I do or where I go, Hime-chan.” Seeing that his daughter was getting ready to put up another fight, he quickly changed the subject. “Ano, don’t you have a big day tomorrow, Kaoru-hime?”


             Kaoru’s eyes went wide as she remembered what tomorrow was. “It's my 15th birthday!” And she also remembered what her father had told her about the tradition when a samurai turns fifteen.Genpuku! But she was not really a samurai; at least that is what the people in the market whisper when they thought she could not hear them. The whispers began when she was seven years old and her mother had died. They would talk amongst themselves saying that it was unfit for a young girl to be taught kenjutsu. Her father would ignore the talk and kept to teaching her early in the morning and in the late afternoons.


She shook her head and focused on tonight as she banished the tears the memories brought to her mind. She turned to her father with disbelieving eyes. Ashita, ‘tousan. Will I be tested?”


             Hai, Kaoru-hime.” Her father grinned as the smile got bigger on Kaoru’s face. “Now, get some sleep.”


He kissed Kaoru on the forehead and the young woman bowed politely, trying hard not to show her excitement and forgetting the cause of her earlier worries. He smiled as he watched her go and listened to the hurried slide of a shoji opening and closing.


             “Tomorrow always comes too soon, Kaoru-hime.” He walked towards the front of the house and stood on the front porch. He looked up into the sky and found that it was a cloudless night. The stars were shining brightly, possibly brighter than he had ever seen them. He sighed wearily, not for the first time, as he thought about Kaoru’s mother, Hotaru.


             Everyday, he could see a little bit of his Hotaru-hime in Kaoru. Every time her dark blue eyes lit up in happiness or in surprise, she was there. He could see her in Kaoru’s enthusiasm and her stubbornness. He could see her in every smile that Kaoru flashed him as he had watched her grow up. Tomorrow, she would turn fifteen.


             Fifteen. Tomorrow, his questions would be answered. If Mibu’s Wolves are on the hunt then they would surely be coming for him soon. He shook his head as he gazed into the stars once again. He wished that he had more time to spend with Kaoru. There was so much he wanted to protect her from. He wished that she would be strong enough to carry on if something should happen to him. Maybe he wished that she would find someone to share her happiness. He wanted someone that would love his Kaoru-hime for herself and not try to change her.Maybe, he looked up at the stars, he was wishing for too much. “So many wishes for my Kaoru-hime and not enough time to fufill them.”



Chapter 2: In the Company of Wolves


             “We need you to head to Edo, Okita. Take the Koshu Kaido road and Yamazaki will meet you just before you reach the guards in Edo. He will give you the name of the person you will be looking for and proceed with the mission.” Kondou Isami, commander of the Shinsengumi, spoke to the captain of the 1st squad of the Shinsengumi. He turned slightly to watch the young man’s reaction to his newest directive.


             He loathed sending out his men to carry out these assignments. If the daimyos wanted to control their areas, they should have their own local police come in and control its citizens. But there was a rumor of a growing rebel faction from Tokyo, and several dojos were suspected of aiding the Ishin side. He had no choice but to send his strongest fighter to squash the rebels in hiding.


             “I trust that you will carry this assignment out to the best of your ability,” Kondou smiled as the man nodded firmly.


             “As always, Kondou-taicho.” Okita replied softly, his smile framing his face. Outside of the smile, his mind called back a memory from a few months ago. He had also been called in for a special assignment to bring one of their own back to Kyoto. A member of the Shinsengumi, Yamanami Seisuke, had decided that he wanted to leave the group and ran away. Okita had been sent to capture him and realized, belatedly, that he was going after one of his childhood friends. Choosing his duty to the Shinsengumi over their friendship, Okita successfully returned to Kyoto. After their return, Yamanami was tortured and ordered to commit seppuku by Shinsengumi vice- captain, Hijikata Toshizo. To serve as a future warning to other would-be transgressors, he ordered the rest of the Shinsengumi members to watch his torture and execution.


             “Make sure that you use the quickest route to Edo, Okita.” Hijikata Toshizo came out of the shadowed corner, startling the young captain back to attention. He reminded the young captain. “We need you back here as soon as possible.”


             Nodding his understanding, Okita left the room and headed outside to find his men. As his footsteps faded away, Kondou turned towards Hijikata as if in thought. “Do you think it’s wise to send him instead of Saitou?”


             “Okita needs to get out of Kyoto for a bit,” Hijikata watched from the window as Okita called to his men. The members of the Shinsengumi 1st squad gathered around their captain to listen to the latest assignment. Kondou stood beside his friend and observed their surroundings, a frown slowly creeping on his brow.


             “I sometimes forget that he is only seventeen.” Kondou sighed. “Even if his strength and skill with the sword surpasses most men, he is still only human.” Kondou remarked.


             “He cannot be weighed down with doubts.” The other man concluded as he turned his back on the window scene. Okita appeared to have dismissed his squad as they all prepared to move immediately. Even if Okita did have doubts, there would be no way for him to turn back now, Kondou added silently.


             A pack of wolves traveled silently through Koshu Kaido. It was the fastest road to Edo, albeit a difficult one because of the rugged terrain. Their passage was marked only by the sounds of the wind and all else seem to ignore their progress.


Just before the dawn began to break over Edo, the wolves arrived at its outskirts. One by one, they came to stop a few feet away from the edge of the woodland. Pausing slightly, they waited for their leader to make his way towards the front.


             The light morning fog seemed to have settled upon the city, adding to its mystery as it enveloped the landscape in a feathery embrace. The sunrise seemed to be inevitable and a longing sigh escaped Okita’s lips unwillingly. So beautiful, he thought, as he studied their surroundings. He could faintly hear the sounds of city guards interacting with each other. He closed his eyes to see if he could sense the person they were waiting for.


             Finding his surroundings clear of hostile thoughts, Okita still felt a sense of uneasiness settling on him as he watched the lightening dark that surrounded them. He straightened up and sensed someone’s approach. Was it an ambush? No, he thought, there was only one set of footsteps. Silently, he unsheathed his sword and a low growl escaped his throat; the footsteps grew louder as it came closer to their place of refuge. Balancing on his heels, he watched as the figure broke through the fog and recognition finally set in.


             Okita smiled as his old friend, Yamazaki Suzumu, approached him quickly. He motioned for two of his men to watch the road and prompted Yamazaki to follow him deeper into the woods. Sheathing his sword, they walked away from the main group and further into the forests. Once back in the shadows, Yamazaki began to speak.


             “It is good to see you again, Okita-san. It has been too long.” Yamazaki nodded at the young man. “I knew they would send for you.”


             “The last time I believe was in Kyoto, Yamazaki-san.” Okita replied, ignoring Yamazaki’s last comment. He did not want to contemplate too long about what it meant. “It has been too long.”


             “There is still much that needs to be done, Okita-san.” Yamazaki sighed as he rested his back against a tree. “I’m afraid that our list of allies in Edo is diminishing. The rebel ideals are beginning to take hold even in some of our most loyal followers.” Okita’s face registered a frown as he listened to the report, the ready smile from his face slowly turning into a grimace. “They are using their dojos as recruitment bases for the Ishin. One man in particular should be investigated.” Yamazaki whispered his name and the other nodded in understanding.


             “Do you have news for me?” Yamazaki inquired after a short pause.


             Aa,” Okita smiled. “You are to return to Kyoto. Kondou-taicho is in need of your skills once again.”


             Without another word, Yamazaki turned around and disappeared from his view. Okita moved to join his squad. “We shall proceed into Edo in the morning. Split up into four pairs of three and study the layout of the city. Familiarize yourselves with any schools you come across. We shall return to this location when the moon is high and proceed with our objective.”


             A series of nods met his gaze as they began to assemble into small groups. Okita turned his face upwards and felt the cool air dissipate with the warmth of the rising sun. He looked forward towards the city and marveled at the amazing colors that came with the rise of the sun. So beautiful, he murmured to himself. He closed his eyes as he let himself bask in the sunlight while letting the shuffling of his men wash over him. Its comfort seemed to seep through his chilled body and he felt refreshed.


             He remembered spending many evenings patrolling around Kyoto and seeing many sunrises as well. Okita’s smile slowly turned into a frown as a memory of someone else intruded in his mind. He used to enjoy sunrises too. Suddenly, he thought back to what Yamazaki had said and what he did not say about this assignment. Samurai against samurai, his thoughts echoed. However, the samurai they were looking for seemed to have sided with the Ishin. But isn’t fighting for an ideal, even if it was for the opposite side, being true to the samurai code as well?


Chapter 3: Blue and Blue


             “Well, that’s the last on my list!” Kaoru smiled as she glanced back at the small sheet in her hand. Her basket was already teeming with vegetables and she held the tofu bucket in her other hand. She was already thinking of what a delicious lunch her father could make with the items she had bought for her birthday. She was fifteen today, Kaoru reminded herself. Smiling, she tucked the note inside her practice gi and shifted the tofu on the other hand. Kaoru gave one last glance at the marketplace to make sure that she did not forget anything. Something caught her eye and she crossed the street to take a closer look.


             A dark blue fabric dotted with cherry blossoms rested between the other brightly colored fabrics. She set her basket down and seemed to be hypnotized by the pattern as she stared at it for a few minutes. It reminded her of the darkness of the seas while the cherry blossoms complimented it - light and dark, the pattern was in perfect harmony with the other. Tentatively, she touched the fabric with her free hand and felt the smoothness of silk. She sighed inwardly, knowing it was too expensive and she would never be able to afford it. Taking a step back, she sighed again and bent down to pick up her basket to go on her way.


             At that moment, Okita and three of his men were walking through the marketplace. They had almost finished covering the main roads of Edo and were giving the market a last walk-through. As they came down the path, people recognized the blue and white uniforms of the Shinsengumi and hurriedly stepped out of their way. One of the passer-bys accidentally bumped into Kaoru as she bent to pick up her basket. Water from the tofu bucket spilled onto the fabric as Kaoru watched in horrified surprise. As if the minutes slowed down, the drop of tofu water slowly came out from the bucket and made a small spot as it came into contact with the fabric.


             “What have you done, you stupid girl?”


             Four sets of eyes suddenly turned their attention to the sound of the angry voice. “You’ve ruined my fabric!” Hurriedly, the footsteps came closely behind Kaoru and she turned to see blue and white uniforms swimming before her eyes. Closing her eyes, she prayed that the earth would swallow her whole, so she can escape the humiliation that the woman is sure to unleash. “I’m sorry,” she managed to say in a small voice.


             “Sorry? Sorry?” The woman’s voice getting angrier. “Sorry doesn’t even cover it! You better have some money or else I will have you thrown in jail!”


             Okita stood behind Kaoru and listened intently as the woman carried on her tirade. He glanced at the young woman that gripped the tofu bucket with her head downcast. He faintly heard her murmur an apology and watched as she raised her head. From her practice gi and hakama, he noted that she must practice kenjitsu. Young women who practice kenjitsu are a rarity and that made him take an interest in the proceedings before him. As he watched her lift up her head, she opened her eyes and apologized in a steadier voice.


             “I’m sorry,” Kaoru murmured, this time with more regret in her voice. “Someone bumped into me from behind. It was an accident.”


             The older woman in front of her scowled at her apology. Before she could yell at the young woman again, Okita politely intervened. “What seems to be the problem here?” he asked.  Though it was spoken softly his, voice carried an unmistakable air of authority. Kaoru turned to the direction of the voice and noticed the hint of a smile that seemed to grace the young man’s face. Her mind registered the blue and white uniforms of the Shinsengumi but she vaguely wondered what they were doing in Edo. She could see behind him three more uniforms, but their deference to his authority seemed to indicate that he was their captain. Apparently the woman recovered quickly enough and responded to Okita’s inquiry.


             “She,” pointing a finger at Kaoru, “ruined my fabric.” She gave the young woman a measuring look and continued. “Stupid little tomboy! Kenjitsu is not something that should be taught to young women. This is the result of indulgent fathers who do not know the first thing about raising daughters. Imagine if your poor mother were alive, she would not have any of this happen. She would have taught you better manners.”


             Her words cut Kaoru to the quick and she bowed her head. Deep down inside, she felt that the woman’s words rang true. She would never have picked up a bokken had her mother been alive. But her father loved her as much as a father would love his daughter and he taught her Kamiya Kasshin Ryu so that one day she would be able to teach it to others. Her eyes reflected sadness as she remembered how her father used to describe her mother as being gentle and ladylike. She would never be able to live up to that, and the woman’s words just confirmed her worst fears.


             Okita noticed as the young woman beside him droop her shoulders as if in defeat. Her earlier fighting spirit had been nearly crushed by this woman’s words. He did not want to see that happen and before he could change his mind, he heard himself inquire: “How much?”


             Surprised, Kaoru snapped her head up and stared at the young Shinsengumi captain next to her. Behind him, she could see three other faces that registered confusion at this discourse. The woman in front of them, opened her mouth and closed it immediately before naming a price. Without hesitation, Okita withdrew his wallet from the inside of his gi and counted out a few coins. He looked at the woman and handed over his money.


             “Will this be enough?”


             Seeing the flash of coins, she nodded and hastily added them to her own purse. Hastily wrapping the fabric, she handed it to the young captain. She straightened herself and glared at Kaoru once more. “You’re lucky that someone took pity on you.” She eyed the young man next to her. “Mind my words, young woman. No one will want you for a wife. Not some ill- tempered, clumsy, sweaty little tomboy.” The woman turned towards Okita. “Don’t be fooled by her appearance. I’ve heard the stories about her. She’s willful and ill-tempered. Her father has spoiled her to no end and she is unfit for anyone.” With that, she turned her back on the pair and went further inside her store.


             Okita could feel his anger rising at the harshness of the woman’s words. His normally smiling face was drawn in a grim frown as he glared at the woman’s retreating back. Remembering the young woman next to him, he turned towards her to offer the wrapped package. Noticing her silence, he stood in front and spoke quietly. “Here you go, miss.” Okita offered the package politely as he held it in front of her.


             Her ears still ringing from the verbal assault of the woman, she failed to hear the young man in front of her. Her eyes were a little dazed and yet her anger was beginning to rise up once again. How dare that woman call her ill-tempered and willful. Besides, she had no right to speak about her father that way. She should hit that woman with her bokken, if she had the mind to bring it with her to the market. Maybe the tofu bucket would suffice as a weapon. Then her mind reminded her that the tofu bucket was the reason why she got into trouble in the first place.


             Kaoru suddenly became aware of a pair of dark brown eyes smiling in front of her. Alarmed, she made a brief note of his ponytail, the smile on his lips, and again, the blue and white uniform. It was the last detail that made her eyes widen back in realization as the words seemed to reach her ears this time. “...okay?”


Chapter 4: A Place To Stay


             “Excuse me?”


             Okita watched as confusion reflected in the dark blue eyes that stared back at him. The dark blue reminded him of the fabric that was neatly wrapped in his hands. “Oh, here!” he exclaimed as he tried to push the fabric into her arms. Noticing her reluctance, he cocked his head to one side as if waiting for a reply from the young woman.


             “I’m very sorry but I cannot accept such an extravagant gift,” Kaoru replied softly. “Why don’t you keep it?”


             “Frankly, I don’t think the pattern would compliment my looks.” Okita countered jokingly. “I think dark blue does not suit me at all.”


             “Not for yourself,” Kaoru said as she stomped her foot, a little frustrated at the turn of events. “You could give it to your special someone. I don’t deserve such fine gifts.”


             Okita’s smile grew wider as he noticed the spark of life return to her eyes. “Would you mind if I escorted you home?” Noticing Kaoru peer around, he gave an embarrassed laugh. “Oh, I had sent them ahead. They were getting a little hungry, and a hungry wolf is not a good thing.” He grinned once again before he noticed Kaoru frowning in front of him. “Is there something wrong?”


             Kaoru looked at him and then at the other people discreetly watching them, “Aa, you don’t have to walk me home.” She fidgeted with her tofu bucket and itched to grab her basket that the young man was blocking with his legs. “I can take care of myself.” Besides, if she walked home with a Shinsengumi officer in tow, her father would be alert to what had happened at the market. Assuming that his silence meant that he agreed with her, she stepped around the man and bent down to pick up her basket. Unfortunately, Okita was faster than her, and he easily scooped up the basket.


             “But it would be dishonorable for me to let a lady walk through the streets unescorted,” Okita persisted, still with a smile on his face. “Besides, there could be a lot of unsavory characters walking through the streets at this very moment. It would be negligent of me to let any harm befall you.”


             Kaoru opened her mouth to protest before Okita stepped back on the main street and looked both ways. “Let’s see, which way is the direction to your home?” As he picked a random direction, Kaoru had no choice but to steer him the other way. There was no point in arguing with him, and he did have her basket of vegetables, so she resigned herself to his company. She held the tofu bucket and turned left in the direction of her home with Okita keeping close to her side. He cradled the basket in one arm and tucked the package in the inside of his gi. They walked in silence for a few minutes before each got lost in their own thoughts.


             From the corner of her eye, she studied at her companion’s profile. He was a little taller than her, short dark brown hair that was collected in a small samurai knot. His dark brown eyes crinkled at the edge as he seemed to be perpetually smiling at everything. The next thing she noticed was the blue and white uniform of the Shinsengumi and that where her thoughts seemed to get confused. How did this young man seem to be involved with the Shinsengumi? How was it possible for a delicate looking man to be able to command the other men? Why did he help her back there with the fabric vendor? How was she ever going to repay him?


             And why does he seem to have that infernal smile on his face?


             On the other hand, the man in question was pondering several questions himself. First, what compelled him to step in on behalf of the young woman beside him? He was Shinsengumi and whether it was in Kyoto or Edo, he still had a duty to keep the peace among the citizens. Still, why did he pay for the fabric? It certainly cost him a fair amount of money, but he rarely used the salary he received from the Shinsengumi, so why not buy something nice with it. He felt himself get a little angry as the memory of the sharp words that the woman had spoken about the young woman came to mind. She had no right to bring up the memory of the young woman’s deceased mother.


             He turned his head towards the sky as he cleared his mind of other thoughts. The sun had risen and it was probably half an hour past mid-day hour. He noticed last night that the sky had been clear, although the stars that came were few. This morning, he had felt the dry dust come up from the ground and the wind blew a cooling breeze. He felt it, this time in his bones, that a storm was coming towards Edo. He was not aware that he had spoken this thought aloud and was startled when his companion repeated his statement.


             “A storm is coming?” Kaoru asked as she looked up towards the heavens. She covered her eyes with her free hand as she tried to peer into the sky. “How can you tell?”


             Okita turned his attention to her and smiled at her curiosity. He noticed how the wind blew a few strands of her hair out of her ponytail and into her face. They were crossing a narrow bridge and as the wind blew, a faint scent of jasmine filled his surroundings. Closing his eyes, he smiled as he let the fragrance settle around him. He opened his eyes and noted that she was still looking up at the sky. Hiding his smile, he replied to her question. “When you become more attuned to your senses, you can start to feel the spirit of everything around you. As a student of kenjitsu, you must always be aware of nature and how it will affect you as well as others.”


             Kaoru nodded slowly. The storms would bring in the rain and everything else with it - thunder and lightning. She shivered suddenly at the thought of the cold rain in combination with the other two. Her shoulders began to droop as she remembered how she hated the thunderstorms and the fact that it was going to rain on her birthday. She pouted momentarily, unaware that Okita was watching the play of emotions on her face as they stood on the bridge. Okita could read the hope, fear and then the disappointment and wondered briefly what was going through her mind at the moment.


             Without warning, Kaoru asked him another question. “Do you and your men have a place to stay?”


             Okita blinked back his surprise. “A place to stay?” he repeated as he frowned, unsure of where this conversation was going.


             “To take refuge from the storm,” Kaoru finished, a little exasperated that he seemed unable to understand what she was talking about. “If there is going to be a storm, then you would need a place to stay, right?” Kaoru’s face brightened as Okita nod his head slowly. He suddenly got a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. He noticed how every step they took, her face became brighter and her smile got a little wider. Subconsciously, he was also slowly recognizing the part of town he was in but for the moment it was eluding him.


             Kaoru did not notice Okita’s smile falter as they reached her home. Finally, she would have a way to show him her gratitude for helping her back at the marketplace. “If you like,” Kaoru continued as she stopped in front of the compound. “You and your men could stay at the dojo. I’m sure there’s plenty of room.” As soon as she mentioned the name of the dojo, Okita’s mind howled a resounding denial. He looked up, hoping that it was the wrong school or that he didn’t hear her correctly, but the plaque on top of the entrance confirmed his earlier dread - Kamiya Kasshin Ryu dojo.


Chapter 5: The Wolf and His Prey


             “Kamiya Kasshin Ryu,” Okita murmured softly as he read the sign. He bent his head down as he recalled Yamazaki’s whispered words:


             / Kamiya Koshijiro owns a dojo where he teaches the Kasshin Ryu. An honest and devoted family man, he lost his wife a few years ago and was left to raise their daughter. Since then, he has been teaching her his style of swordsmanship and this created quite a stir in town. Unconventional, some have noted his loyalties may not lie with the Shogunate although there has been no concrete proof of this. He may be trouble in the future. /


             Distantly, he heard the young woman beside him. “You don’t have to accept my invitation.” He looked up and watched as she stepped through the gates with her greeting, “Tadaima!”


             A faint response of ‘Okaeri nasai’ was heard somewhere in the house.


             ‘He may be trouble in the future’, his mind recalled the veiled order to execute this man if he so much as makes a fuss at their inspection. But the inspection wasn’t supposed to happen until much later. He had already counted the various entryways into the compound earlier when he and his men had passed it. Okita let out a sigh as he paused before the door.


             Kaoru, in the meantime, was already halfway through the front yard when she noticed his hesitation. Turning back towards the door, she watched as his small frame seemed to slump forward and heard a sigh.


             “Are you alright...?” Kaoru stopped in mid-sentence and Okita frowned for a second.


             Ara?” He inquired softly. “What is it?”


             “I’m very sorry. I completely forgot to ask you for your name.” Kaoru bowed in apology with a tinge of embarrassment. “I guess that woman at the market was right. After all that you have done on my behalf, I didn’t even think to ask you for your name.” She kept her eyes to the ground and didn’t say another word.


             Okita regarded her for a moment before a smile touched his face once again. The young woman had spirit but she also possessed a kind and generous heart. She was also very beautiful and with her head bowed, he was unable to see her eyes. Her eyes were full of life when they were talking about kenjitsu and sensing nature.


             In the silence that followed, Kaoru started to feel more and more nervous about her mistake. She had been disrespectful and her father will be disappointed. More than that, she was disrespectful to a Shinsengumi officer. What type of punishment would that entail? Maybe she would get thrown in jail, or worse... executed! Weren’t they suppose to be cruel and without mercy?


             “Soushi.” His words broke through her thoughts. “My name is Okita Soushi. Pleased to meet you.”


             Koshijiro padded softly to the front courtyard. He heard his daughter’s entrance and the footsteps of another closely following. A sharp spike in that person’s ki registered in his mind. Alarm quickly spread through his body as he forced himself to go just a bit faster, without appearing to be in too much haste, and he soon came to the front yard. Kaoru was standing with someone that possessed an incredible spirit, and this didn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad thing, it’s just that he would feel more comfortable if he knew that his Kaoru-hime was safe. Rounding the corner, the first glimpse he got of the pair was of the blue and white uniform of the Shinsengumi officer.


             ‘Okita Soushi’, his mind whispered the name as he filtered the information he knew about this person. Captain of the 1st squad of the Shinsengumi, he was a genius with the sword, bokken and shinai. The Wolves of Mibu are indeed in Edo and the rumor is now a fact. And the fact of the matter was standing in his front yard next to his daughter.


             “Kaoru!” he let out a little sharper than he had intended. The wolf said nothing but raised his head towards his prey. For a moment, their eyes met - Okita peering into the older man’s face, searching for an answer to his unspoken challenge.


             Koshijiro, for his part, met his gaze with his own intensity. He did not flinch or let his eyes look away. No, he had made a promise to protect Kaoru’s future and her happiness as well. He was ready for the consequences and he silently willed his daughter to move away before their inevitable battle happened. It was only a few seconds later when Kaoru moved towards her father in greeting. In contrast, it had felt like an eternity between the two men.


             “‘Tousan!” Kaoru grinned as she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Okita-san and his men need a place to stay for tonight. We have room, right? I told him that he should accept it from one samurai to another.” Her father’s attention was still on the Shinsengumi captain but it quickly turned towards her as she spoke.


             “You taught me to develop an understanding for everything,” she whispered knowingly as she touched her father’s arm, giving it a squeeze before moving to stand next to him.


             Koshijiro did not have time to let his daughter’s words sink in before Okita stepped forward and interrupted them. “Of course, Kamiya-san,” Okita bowed before a smile appeared, apologetically. “I had refused the offer.” He did not miss the affectionate smile Kaoru had given her father and suddenly wished he was someone else.


             He wished that he could have her smile for him just the way she was doing now. Suddenly, he wished that he was just an ordinary swordsman. An ordinary life and free to love whoever he wished to love and maybe someday deserve to love someone as wonderful as Kaoru. But he was who he was and he would just have to content himself with her smile and leave immediately. “Our business in Edo has already been concluded and there is no need for us to stay the night.” Okita answered cheerfully.


             Kaoru’s father raised his eyebrow slightly but did not comment. “It was my pleasure to escort your beautiful daughter safely home.” Kaoru’s mouth opened to protest as he quickly turned and made his way towards the door. In his mind, there was no point in staying in Edo any longer and they can leave at first night. He had already planned what to say when he reports back to Kyoto. “I shall be on my way now.”


             He caught the sounds of hurried sandals coming behind him. “At least stay for lunch,” Kaoru persisted. She did not know why she had asked him to stay except for the fact that he had helped her earlier this morning. He turned back to her and had in his mind to decline the invitation. Staying any longer would make it more difficult for him to leave Edo.


             “It’s my birthday today.” Kaoru persisted. “Tousan was going to make my favorite dishes for lunch and it would be nice to have more people celebrate with me.”


             Okita raised his head towards the older man and cocked his head questioningly. “I’m afraid you have to forgive my daughter, Capt. Okita. Once she gets an idea in her head, it is very hard for her to let go.”


             “‘Tousan!” Kaoru turned a little red from embarrassment.


             The young captain smiled again as she turned towards him with her embarrassed grin. He heard the loneliness in her voice as she explained about her birthday and could not find it in his heart to refuse. He shook his head briefly before smiling once again. “I shall stay for lunch then.”


Chapter 6: Directions and Decisions


             Their noon repast had passed without incident and he held back a chuckle as his memory turned towards the young captain. He retreated to the well to wash their bowls, confident that the young man would not abuse Kaoru in his absence. Kaoru had passed Okita a bowl of rice and from his reaction something must have passed between them, as he could not hold her gaze for very long after that. Another chuckle threatened to escape his lips as he remembered his comment after the incident that which earned him an embarrassed “mou!” from his daughter and the young captain almost choking on his rice.


             Somehow, Okita had reminded him of how he behaved when he first became aware of his feelings for his Hotaru-hime. How he would lose track of their conversation because he was too busy staring at her. How he would watch the sun highlighting her dark hair and how her eyes sparkled with emotion. His own thoughts brought a sudden frown as he disliked the direction it was heading. He remembered how Okita’s gaze linger over Kaoru with something akin to longing in his eyes when he thought neither one of them were watching. A feeling of protectiveness washed over him and he scrubbed the bowls harder, willing his thoughts to turn to happier things instead of dwelling on their guest.


             Kaoru, meanwhile, stood at the entrance of the dojo with a tea tray in hand looking at the young man standing silently inside. Setting the tray down, she took the opportunity to study Okita from the safety of her hiding place. Although he appeared to be youthful, his eyes and gestures spoke of experience well beyond his years. Sadness touched his face briefly before completely disappearing from the surface and Kaoru caught a glimpse of an emotion for which she had no words to name. For the moment, he had a look of deep concentration as he studied the wall where the names of the dojo’s students were hanging.


             Upon closer observation, Kaoru noticed that his gaze seemed to be fixed on something above the names and Kaoru turned to study the wall as well.


             Kamiya Kasshin Ryu


             The sword that protects. Okita read the words engraved on the school plaque. His eyebrows knitted in question as he withdrew his own hands from the inside of his gi and stared at them. My hands are tainted with the blood of my enemies. These are idealists that have not seen the fear reflected in their enemies eyes as they cut them down. They have not heard the screams of grown men, pleading with their lives as I delivered them to the other world. He clenched his fists tightly as he stared at them and as if seeing blood oozing from his hands, he jerked them open. Kaoru saw him flinch and read an intense emotion running through the young man as he visibly shuddered at what he was imagining.


             I do not protect anything. I only take. I take until there is nothing left but their lives. And I even take that away from them. He opened and closed his palms as if to remember the weight of his sword and the burden of responsibilities that came with it. He imagined himself back to the days when he was younger, Kondou and Hijikata watching him as he practiced with the others. He saw his childhood friend running away from him as he wielded his sword against him.


             He imagined more blood flowing from his hands before --




             It was her touch more than her voice that broke Okita’s concentration. Briefly, he noticed that she had lightly touched his haori and he glanced at her hand. For a second, he wondered if Kaoru’s hands would be tainted just by a mere touch. Her delicate hands should never feel the weight of a life taken, he thought to himself. He imagined Kaoru’s hands seeping with blood and instinctively he drew away from her.


             “Ah, Kamiya-san?” he replied uncertainly, straining to keep his voice light.


             “Would you like some tea?”


             He nodded mutely and followed her outside towards the yard. The only sounds they heard were from Kaoru’s father as he rinsed the dishes but even that faded away as the silence stretched comfortably between them. Okita closed his eyes as he struggled to focus on the present instead of the disturbing visions that plague him during the night. The sweet smell of jasmine wafted through the air and he breathed in a deep sigh.


             After a few minutes, he heard Kaoru’s soft voice breaking their mutual silence. Kaoru looked out into the yard seeming to stare off into space. “I remember her being very beautiful and she had the gentlest voice. Before I went to bed, she would tell me stories about places that only existed in here.” She pointed to her heart, and the corners of her mouth lifted slightly. “It was a place where dreams came true.”


             “Has it always been your dream to study kendo?” Okita murmured as they sat on the porch drinking their tea.


             “After my mother passed away, I made a promise to myself to become stronger.” Kaoru’s lips paused over her cup as her eyes fell away from their intense gaze. “Strong enough so that I can hold on to the people I love and never be alone again.”


             Okita listened as her voice fell to almost a whisper and he strained his ears to hear it. “I wanted my father to love me again and be the son he had always wanted but could never have.”


             “Your father loves you, Kaoru,” Okita replied. “Just as you are. There’s no need to.”


             “Today is my 15th birthday, Okita-san.” Kaoru smiled at him sadly. “If I had been born a man, I would probably be out there right now fighting for my beliefs or out of loyalty.” Her words fell heavily in Okita’s heart as she continued. “Neither side would hesitate in slaying a woman in the service of justice.”


             “I know what people say about me. I know what they say about my father too. Sometimes, I let the words hurt me.” The brief silence echoed between the two as Kaoru’s words floated in the air. “But then, I remember who I am and everything is clear.”


             Once again, Okita’s gaze seemed to be fixed on the young woman sitting next to him. “And who are you?” he asked softly.


             A bright smile lifted the corners of her mouth and he could see the pride shining through her eyes. “I am Kamiya Kaoru, a student of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu: the sword that protects life. No one can take that away from me.”


             For a moment, Okita was silent before his smile reappeared on his face. The simplicity of her answer had cleared away his doubts. His sword skill was something that only a few men possess, and yet the weight of responsibility that he had to bear because of it was also monumental.


             But to protect the future, he gave the woman a sidelong glance. Then it is a responsibility that I would happily bear. She should never know the guilt of taking someone’s life nor should her sword know the taste of blood. Kaoru noticed his smile and returned her gaze towards the practice yard. Okita followed her gaze towards the yard and viewed his surroundings with renewed appreciation.


             The trees swayed gently in the breeze as it rustled through the leaves. The vegetable patch was teeming with nature’s fruits. He closed his eyes briefly as he felt his spirit return. He could sense the coming of rain and the restlessness of his surroundings. Yes, a storm was coming to Edo but there will always be a purpose for its temper. Just like his skills with the sword would bear a higher purpose.


             With a sigh, Okita slowly got to his feet. “I will take my leave now,” Okita said as he smiled at Kaoru as he stood up from their position. “As it is, I have stayed too long.”


             Kaoru looked at him questioningly as he gave her a wistful smile. “My duties does not often lead me to such pleasant companionship and conversation as yours have.” Briefly glancing at the dojo, he had concluded that his squad must return to Kyoto without delay. The presence of the Shinsengumi was not needed in Edo. Kyoto was waiting for him and his men.


             “Let me get you a kasa.” Kaoru’s interrupted his thoughts as she got up beside him.


             “It is not necessary,” he replied with a genuine smile on his face. “You have already given me so much.”


             At her puzzled look, Okita grinned widely as he bowed before her. “It was an honor to have met you, Kamiya Kaoru. I hope that when this war is over, our paths will cross again.” Without another word, he walked out of the dojo and quietly closed the door behind him.


             Kaoru stood in the practice yard, staring at the closed door and imagining the young captain walking away. “I would like that Okita-san,” she nodded to herself. “I would like that very much.”


She looked beyond the dojo walls and into the tomorrow when the sun rises in Edo once again.



~ The End ~







             May 1868


             I was initially hesitant in writing you a letter, perhaps because I do not know you as well as I would have hoped. I rely only on a fading memory that happened a lifetime ago and yet, here I am. I offer you my condolences on the passing of your father and though I only met him briefly, I do believe that he was an honorable man.


             I had fervently wished that I would be able to see you one more time but I fear it is not to be. Much of my strength had been spent early in my youth and my body cannot endure this world any longer.


             These past months have been kind enough for me to witness the end of the wars and the restoration of peace in our country. The fall of the Tokugawa shogunate not only meant the conclusion of war but also the end of my life as a swordsman. My sword is no longer needed in the coming era of peace.


             My mind cannot recall if I had ever expressed my gratitude for meeting you in the marketplace that day. That chance encounter has given me strength in my battles and comfort during the quiet times in between. I often wondered if the blue in your eyes still sparkle with life and if the kimono fabric has faded over time.


             Still, I am hopeful that you will find the happiness you so richly deserve and that your spirits remain strong, despite the hardships of war. If it had been simply a matter of chance that we met, then my heart is lightened by the lasting image of your beautiful smile.


             Senshouji Temple


             Spring of the 16th year of the Meiji Era


             A young woman stood just inside the temple, clutching a faded letter in her hand. She slowly approached the altar wearing a dark blue kimono that was still bright as if it had been bought yesterday. Cherry blossoms dotted along the hemline, as her footsteps barely disturbed the surroundings. Reverently, she lit the incense sticks and closed her eyes to offer her prayers. She whispered so softly that only the wind was able to catch it - I’ve found my happiness.


             Waiting patiently at the temple entrance was a man with red hair and a fading cross-scar on his cheek. In one arm, he was holding a child bearing his resemblance and, at the moment, fidgeting in his arms. The picnic basket was carefully balanced on the other arm as he watched the gentle breeze flowing through the leaves, unmindful of the child tugging not so gently on his hair. The young woman emerged from the temple and smiled at the pair before taking the child from his arms. The man captured the woman’s free hand and held it as they made their way down the garden path to meet their friends under the cherry blossom trees.