All character rights belong to Watsuki Nobuhiro, Shueisha etc. This is a fictionalized account based in part on historical facts.
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The Courtship of Lady Tokio

by Misaki Toyodome

Chapter 24 - Poetry and the Death of a Swordsman

Kyoto, February 1865 –

"Okita-sama!" A young female voice rang out in the street.

Okita Souji halted his horse and turned to see a familiar figure approaching.

"Okita-sama, it has been a while," Tokio smiled as she bowed.

"Tokio-san, it's been too long!" Okita exclaimed as he nimbly dismounted and patted down his clothes.

"I do not mean to keep you from your work."

Tokio looked at the horse, which seemed much too big for the slight man. It tossed its head and stamped its hoof as Okita slung the reins over its mane.

"Don't worry, it's no pressing matter, and it would be criminal of me to deny myself such pleasant company."

"As charming as ever, Okita-sama. No wonder the men of Kyoto warn their womenfolk about you."

"Surely you have me confused with Harada-san," Okita said laughingly.

A forced cough sounded from behind them as they smiled at each other.

"Ahem. Ojou-sama? Do we not need to hurry back to Koumyouji?" Tokio's guard frowned.

"Gojou, I am sorry, but I have not seen Okita-sama for a while, and I hope you won't mind terribly if I take a few moments to greet him?"

She said this in an apologetic tone, but her escort knew that he had no choice in the matter as he watched Okita wave her over to a tea shop. Gojou snorted in unison with Okita's mount and guided the horse towards a resting post down the street – there really was no point in arguing with either the lady of Aizu or with the Shinsengumi's First Captain.

As Tokio sat down opposite Okita, he quickly ordered two batches of dango and tea for them both. After the serving girl retreated with his order, he focused on Tokio and said quietly,

"I hear that you are returning to Edo with your father soon."

"That is right. We will be leaving as soon as my father has completed his projects in Kyoto."

"His projects?"

"Oh, just a few administrative duties, matters of intelligence, the usual house-keeping chores."

"I see."

The serving girl returned with the tea and sweets and placed them on the table. Okita picked up a skewer and started to eat.

"We'll miss you."

"That is kind of you to say." Tokio lowered her gaze as she warmed her hands around her teacup.

"I mean it. I, at least, will really miss you. Promise me you'll come back."

"... I never really got a chance to thank you about the other night. I owe you my life."

"You changed the subject." Okita quirked an eyebrow.

"I have not seen you since then, and I am sorry that I have not had the chance to thank you properly."

"Yes yes, we got an official letter of thanks from Matsudaira-kou and Aizu, and then Hijikata-san hit me on the head, because he couldn't give out to me for neglecting my official duties because we'd saved your lives, but he was still annoyed at me so he thwacked me anyway, but anyhow, promise that you'll come back." He was more insistent this time, and also swallowed three pieces of dango off the skewer in one go.

"... I will miss you too. I will miss Kyoto very much. There is so much happening here-" Tokio was cut off as Okita spluttered and choked.

"Okita-sama, are you alright?" Tokio, startled, thumped him hard on his back. Half a dango nearly flew out of his mouth as a result, and his eyes bulged momentarily. He quickly gasped, then gulped some tea and sighed.

"Ouch! Tokio-san, you hit rather hard."

"I'm sorry Okita-sama, but you were choking."

"But still, it's a waste of half a dango" Okita said ruefully, to which Tokio chuckled. After a moment's contemplation, he asked, "... So, it's true then? You are going to Edo to be married?" He took another sip of tea.

"... That is what my father wishes." She smiled wistfully at him.

"Oh is that so? Well then, you can just marry me, and stay here! Hahaha!" Okita threw his head back and grinned.

"I should be so lucky!" Tokio laughed. Then, in a more serious tone, she added, "Okita-sama, I am honoured to have known such men as the Shinsengumi."

"Really? Because we're still not very popular here in Kyoto."

"I feel that to be such a shame, as I know just how hard you all work to keep the streets of Kyoto safe."

"Although with men like Saitou-san, it could be argued that we're making it more dangerous." They both smiled at that.

"Still, your ranks are growing." This was true; the Shinsengumi was now the largest that it had ever been. "And I hear that you have a powerful new addition to your executive ranks."

"Oh, Itou Kashitarou and his group you mean? Well, yes, I guess that Kondou-sensei is very pleased."

Kondou's trip to Tokyo the previous October had been fruitful. As well as delivering his message to the Shogunate, Kondou had met and invited Itou Kashitarou to join the Shinsengumi. Itou was renowned in Edo as a master swordsman and an intellectual (and also for his handsome features). Itou had agreed, and had brought with him a considerable number of followers. Upon joining the Shinsengumi, he had been assigned the executive position of military counsel. Itou Kashitarou, it seemed, was making waves.

"... Though, if you may excuse me for saying so, he is not a person that you would think would typically join the Shinsengumi?"

"You think so too? That's what Hijikata-san said to me, and he was kind of annoyed that Kondou-san decided this in Edo, but then he muttered something about ‘needing to diversify our image'."

Tokio narrowed her eyes slightly.

"So, Kondou-sensei at least is aware that softening the Shinsengumi's current image would be beneficial to their relations with the public?"

"Softening our image? Well if Hijikata-san could hear you say that, he'd probably throw things at you! Hahaha!"

"Hijikata-san doesn't necessarily want to ‘soften' your image, I take it?" Tokio smiled slyly.

"Pftp. There's nothing soft about Hijikata-san. And he's increasingly grumpy these days, you know? I mean, if he wasn't so stubborn, then maybe Yamanami-san might not have gone away..." Okita's voice trailed off, as Tokio's eyes widened.

"Yamanami-sensei has left?" Okita nodded. "But when, and why?" A creeping sense of disbelief entered her voice.

"He disappeared last night. Nobody knows why, really." Okita smiled sadly.

"But then that means..." Yamanami had left the Shinsengumi. One of the strictest codes of the Shinsengumi forbade leaving the group, under pain of death. Deserters were hunted down, and forced to commit seppuku. Tokio gasped quietly, and asked in a hushed voice. "Okita-sama, have you been assigned to track him?"

"Yep. I have to hurry to Kusatsu, because the road divides there and it'll get harder to follow the trail."

"But then, you have not a moment to lose! You must go now! Bring back Yamanami-sensei so that he might explain before this gets more serious!" Tokio rose to her feet, biting her lip.

"Relax, Tokio-san, it's going to be alright." Okita stretched his arms over his head.

"Okita-sama, please, you must go!"

"It's going to be alright, Tokio-san, really. Don't worry." Okita leaned his head to the side and grinned. She did not miss the wistful look in his eye as he looked away. He waved to Gojou, who untied Okita's horse and led it back towards them. "Everything is going to be fine." Tokio gave a hesitant nod though she was not altogether convinced. "Just promise me that you won't leave for Tokyo without saying goodbye." He thanked Gojou and mounted the horse.

"I promise." Tokio bowed her head. "Please, take care."

"You too."

Okita coaxed his horse to start walking. As it ambled down the street, Okita looked back and waved at her. Tokio knew as she watched that Okita had no intention of bringing Yamanami back. She realized that he had been sent by Kondou and Hijikata as they did not want to see Yamanami brought back. She understood – the code of the Shinsengumi was unrelentingly harsh, and they wanted their friend to stay alive.

It was two days later that Tokio hurried to her father's quarters, bearing the news that Yamanami Keisuke had returned to Mibu, and was scheduled for seppuku that very night. As he listened, his face unmoving, Tokio's voice trailed off.

"... You already knew about this?" Her cheeks flushed. "And you mean to do nothing about it?"

"What can I do, Tokio?" He looked up from the papers in his hand. "This is a matter for the Shinsengumi to decide. Their internal affairs are not under our jurisdiction."

"We see fit to intervene when we want to get rid of Serizawa Kamo, but not to save Yamanami-sensei's life?" She said hotly.

"Tokio –" Kojuurou began but his daughter interrupted.

"Father, they would listen to you. Please, Yamanami-sensei does not deserve to die."

"Tokio, you are going to have to learn to not interfere in affairs that are not of your concern."

"It is of my concern. Father, you were the one who charged me with keeping an eye on the Shinsengumi. I have watched them from their inception, and I know who they are and what they stand for. I know that for whatever reason Yamanami-sensei left the Shinsengumi, he does not deserve to die for it!"

"Tokio, you do not need to convince me. But it is not your place to decide. That is a decision that Kondou Isami has to make."

"But you could plead on his behalf. Surely Aizu might have a say." She was distraught when her father simply shook his head. "Very well. Then I will have to go myself."

"Tokio, please." Kojuurou threw up his arms as Tokio bowed and stood up rapidly to leave. "Tokio!"

"Hijikata-sensei, I know you said that you didn't want to be disturbed -"

"Then why am I being disturbed?" Hijikata threw a vicious glare at the young guard as he shoved the notebook in his hand roughly into his sleeve.

"I'm sorry sir, but there is a lady from Koumyouji at the gates and she is insisting she talk to Yamanami-sensei or Kondou-sensei."

"Someone from Koumyouji?" Hijikata's frowned deepened.

"She says her name is Takagi Tokio -" The young man quickly got out of the way as Hijikata stormed out of the room.

He saw her in the courtyard just inside the gates. She bowed low as he approached and he noted that she tensed. He felt that wave of disquiet wash over him, the feeling that she always seemed to provoke in him whenever they met – she was trouble as far as he was concerned. However, as far as appearances went, she was a high-born lady of the Aizu court and had to be addressed accordingly.

"Tokio-san, to what do we owe your visit today?" He was fairly certain of the reason, but it was a standard question to ask, and an easy one to inject a modicum of venom into.

"Hijikata-sama, please excuse my sudden imposition, but I would very much appreciate it if I could speak to Kondou-sensei or Yamanami-sensei."

"Kondou-san is busy. Yamanami-san, as you've no doubt heard, is preparing for seppuku. I'm afraid it's out of the question." His face hardened while hers paled. "Don't make my work any harder for today."

"Then you truly intend to kill Yamanami-sensei?" Her voice lowered in harsh objection.

"Don't speak about what you know not!" Hijikata's tone was even lower. "You have no idea what you're talking about-"

"Aah! Tokio-san, what are you doing here?" A large voice boomed across the courtyard. Harada Sanosuke waved to Tokio as he walked towards them.

"Harada, you're supposed to be with Yamanami-san." Hijikata pressed his fingers to his temple as if to ward off a headache.

"Yeah, I was getting kinda restless so he said it would be alright if I took a break. Glad I did now, Hijikata-san, stop hogging Tokio-san for yourself."

Tokio looked alarmed as she imagined she could see a vein throbbing in Hijikata's forehead. This was not going well at all, but then, what had she expected?

"Harada, get back to your post, NOW."

"Tokio-san! I thought I heard somebody say you were here!" As if things couldn't get worse for Hijikata, Okita came running around the corner.

"Hello Okita-sama, Harada-sama. Please excuse me for this sudden visit, but I came to see Kondou-sensei and Yamanami-sensei."

"If you wanna see Yamanami-san, come right along with me!"

"Harada!" Hijikata barked, beginning to turn red.

"Hijikata-sensei," a young man came towards them, making Hijikata press his palm against his head in exasperation. "Kondou-sensei is asking for you."

"Fine, I'm coming." He inhaled sharply, taking a few seconds to compose himself. "Harada, get back to your post. You," he pointed at Tokio, "can go back to Koumyouji. I'm sure your father will tell you not to meddle in the affairs of men. And Souji, you, go, do something, make yourself useful!." He stalked off stiffly, glaring at Harada until he shrugged and followed the Vice-Commander, flashing a smile at Tokio.

"Boy, he's mad today. I haven't seen that variation in a while." Okita smiled innocently.

"That variation?" Tokio inclined her head.

"Yep. Twitches, vein and glower, along with flared nostrils, gritted teeth and jutting jaw-bones. That one means that we're all going to be on double shifts for at least a month." Okita sighed. "Oh well."

They stood for a few more moments in silence. A brisk breeze blew across the courtyard.

"Tea?" Okita asked after a while of scuffling his toes in the dirt.

"Oh, yes please."

After all, they had no intention of following Hijikata's commands, and they might as well disobey in some comfort.

"I guess you were surprised to hear the news." Okita smiled gently as he divided up the sweets evenly.

"I must admit that I was," Tokio murmured as she poured the tea.

They were seated in Okita's room, with a brazier lit and the screen doors open to the inner garden. A lone bird sang in the chill afternoon – it would be Spring soon, but not yet.

"To be honest, forgive me for being so presumptuous, but I did not expect you to find Yamanami-sensei..."

"... Neither did I. And I didn't. He found me."

Tokio's eyes widened and she was on the verge of asking when footsteps turned onto the corridor. They stopped at the room beside Okita's, went in, and came back out again. Saitou Hajime's figure came into view, and he stopped for a second as he observed the two sitting there. Without being invited, he entered and sat down cross legged. Tokio swiftly poured another cup of tea and handed it to him.

"So, I take it you came to try and talk Yamanami-san out of this." Saitou stated in his typically matter-of-fact voice.

"... I do not see why a good man should have to die. There is no reason in it." She answered softly after a while.

"It's what Yamanami-san himself has decided. And the Commander has accepted his decision. I fail to see why you would have any say in the matter."

"Do you not care then?" It came out as an accusatory whisper. "He is one of your leaders, and you would just let him take his own life?" Saitou did not flinch in her gaze. "Why, how could you allow such a thing?"

"... Tokio-san, it's alright." Okita smiled at her comfortingly. "It's really going to be alright."

Tokio flushed as she met his eyes. Okita simply drank his tea and ate his sweets and looked out at the garden and smiled. They couldn't say how long this silence lasted – such silences were not measured in seconds but by how it weighed upon them. It seemed to bear down on her until she could bear it no longer, and turned her back on them both. Both men were seemingly unconcerned and continued to stare at nothing in particular. It was while they were in this state that a servant came with a message for Okita to come see Yamanami. As Okita left the room, he smiled again at Tokio and said,

"It's really alright."

After he had gone, Tokio murmured,

"He says it almost as though to comfort himself."

"Hmph. Would you find it so strange?"

"... Okita-sama says that he didn't find Yamanami-sensei, that Yamanami-sensei found him."

"Okita wasn't exactly trying his hardest to find Yamanami-san, you might have gathered. Yamanami-san deliberately waited for him at Kusatsu and called out to Okita. Even then, I doubt that Okita would have brought him in except that Yamanami-san insisted."

"Yamanami-san came home prepared to face his own death?"

"Tokio, we are prepared to face death every day, in case you haven't noticed." Saitou's lips curled sardonically at her question. Tokio swallowed her breath. "Yamanami-san is samurai. He understands what he's doing. And there is absolutely nothing you can do."

"But why? What reason is there for this?" She wanted terribly to reach out and grasp his hand, to seek the warmth that his voice lacked.

"Nobody knows." Saitou exhaled deeply as she looked at him expectantly. "Tokio, did you even think before you came here about who this is hardest on?"

Tokio looked down and closed her eyes. She knew, she already knew. There was Okita who had been sent out to track one of his most respected mentors and friend. How long must Okita have argued with Yamanami, pleaded and coaxed and cajoled the older man to reconsider his decision. Kondou and Hijikata, who had founded the Shinsengumi with Yamanami, what a bitter twist of fate for them to lose an old friend in such a way. The men of the Shinsengumi who looked up to Yamanami's wisdom and gentleness as much as they feared and esteemed Hijikata's fierce determination, it was a vicious blow to the group. She had known this but had still felt the overwhelming urge to be here, to try to do something.

"Yamanami-san won't tell us his reasons for leaving. But he did say that with his passing, a stronger Shinsengumi will emerge. It will show the level of commitment necessary to be a member of the Shinsengumi, that not even the leaders and founders are exempt from its principles and code. We are for the Shinsengumi, the Shinsengumi is not for us." Saitou looked at her piercingly.

"... I am sorry." She hung her head.

"Things happen as they should, don't they, Tokio?"

"Don't they?"

Saitou did not answer but simply closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Tokio was gazing into the embers of the brazier.

"Have faith." His voice was low, and strangely comforting.

She nodded and pulled closer to him. Was it strange that she should seek comfort in him? What an unlikely sympathetic figure he cut. Silently, they drew closer, and found that in each other's presence, the unbearable was made just that bit more bearable.

Okita returned to his room after almost half an hour. The cold sun of a winter afternoon was glaringly bright and a brisk draft swept through the room as he entered. Tokio looked up at him with hopeful concern, in answer to which he smiled and said,

"Tokio-san, if you want to talk to Yamanami-san, he said he would be glad to see you."

"He would meet with me?" She asked, taken aback.

"I told him you were here and that you were upset at the circumstances." She flushed and lowered her gaze. "Go on, he's waiting, it's the second right and then the first left. It'll be first room on the corridor, and anyway, you'll see Harada-san and Nagakura-san there."

"... Thank you, Okita-sama."

Saitou and Okita watched as she rose to her feet and left the room. After she had headed down the hall, Saitou raised a questioning eyebrow at Okita.

"... Yamanami-san asked me to stand as his kaishaku at the ceremony." Okita announced after a laden pause.

"... Hmph."

"Ha ha, I know that's usually your role, but there's no need to be sore about it."

"Ahou ga." Saitou glared at the other man, and stood up. Just before he stalked out, he halted. Without looking at Okita, he said simply, "Keep it clean."

Okita watched after Saitou as he disappeared into his own room. ‘Keep it clean'. He smiled sadly – it would be the last act of mercy he could perform for his old friend and mentor.

"Come in, Tokio-san."

Yamanami Keisuke, Vice Commander and Counsel of the Shinsengumi, called out in his characteristic gentle voice. Tokio slid open the screen door and bowed as she entered.

"It is good to see you, I hope you have been keeping well." He smiled at her, seemingly genuinely happy to see her.

"I am most sorry for the imposition, I know that it is not my place nor my right to be here, but ..." Now that she had arrived at her objective, the words escaped her.

"That's alright, Tokio-san. Okita-kun tells me that you are concerned about me. And it does me much good to see you."

"I am extremely concerned, and I fail to see..." Her voice trailed off again, and then a plaintive "Why?" hung in the air.

"I am sorry that I cannot explain it to you, but I do have my reasons." Yamanami sighed.

"Then why did you return? It would have been better if you had not!" Tokio pleaded.

"Because it was my duty, of course, according to the laws of the Shinsengumi. My comrades were not happy with how this transpired, but they have accepted my decision. At least, I can assure you, it is not for some base cause."

"So you really have not explained to anyone?" Why, they all wanted to ask, and why, she also wanted to plead. "You are a good man. They have need of you."

"I have not explained, and I cannot explain. I am sorry, I cannot help you with the one question that you would like answered. But I will tell you, after I have passed, the Shinsengumi will emerge stronger than ever."

"How can that be? They will be losing a cornerstone of their being, their spirit."

"... The Shinsengumi is a hard dream to follow. Sacrifice is required, and we cannot be afraid of it. We, as the group, but also as individuals." He laughed softly. "Commitment. Dedication. The Shinsengumi have nothing if not our duty. It is thanks to our duty that we exist. And there will be no exceptions for those who break our laws. Not even for me."

"You are setting yourself as an example to those that waver?" Tokio asked incredulously.

"That is one effect." Yamanami nodded. "But those who really need to be set an example are the ones who will never waver, who are most committed, life and soul, to the Shinsengumi."

After a moment's thought, Tokio spoke quietly.

"You are doing this for Hijikata-sama, and Kondou-sensei."

"... They think nothing of throwing their own lives down for this ideal that they believe in. However, they need to remember more the lives that are not their own."

"... It will hurt them more to lose you than to die in the line of duty."

"We cannot be afraid of sacrifice." Yamanami smiled wistfully.

"But that cannot honestly be the sole reason you decided upon this!" Tokio protested heatedly.

"No, as I told you, this is only an effect. I have my reasons." Tokio fell silent and bowed her head. "Tokio-san, I am sorry this upsets you. But you, you must look forward to life. Life promises you so much. Saitou-kun is a very fortunate man." At that unexpected statement, Tokio blushed noticeably. "Don't be embarrassed. I know that you have been discreet. But it is true that you care for him, and he does care for you. That, that is a rare treasure and one that will give you comfort throughout the hardest times of your life." Tokio urgently felt like she needed to say something but found herself tongue-tied. "I wish you both the very best. It gives me such comfort at this time to think of the two of you."

Tokio bowed her head again.

"Some might think he is a strange man, but he is a good man. You chose well, Tokio-san."

"... But we cannot be together." Tokio murmured in a near whisper.

"Life will be what it will be. Have faith."

Have faith; that was what Saitou had said to her as well. She wondered whether Yamanami had also spoken to Saitou. They sat quietly for another while, and she found that all she could say was,

"I do not want you to die, Yamanami-sensei." It sounded so feeble in the light of that day.

"I know, Tokio-san." He smiled and sighed. "And neither do I."

"... I will be praying for you."

He smiled so gratefully, and looked so wistfully at the sky through the open door as she left.

Harada and Nagakura, who had been standing guard, smiled at her as she exited the room. She smiled back, and then took a few deep breaths. What now? She would head back to Okita or Saitou's room, she decided. She was not ready to leave just yet.

"Hey Tokio-san, wanna hang out for a while?" Harada gestured invitingly with his hand.

"That is most kind, Harada-sama, but I must go. Thank you all the same, and please take care, and you too, Nagakura-sama."

She bowed and begun to walk down the corridor.

"Tsk. I don't see what she sees in that guy." Harada grumbled under his breath.

"Hmm, I wonder that about you when I see all those women around you." Nagakura said calmly.

"Hey! Whaddya mean? Of course the women love me! I, Harada Sanosuke, lover of women and friend to the people!"

Tokio couldn't help smiling as she walked away, their banter fading into the distance.

"Are you satisfied?" A voice called out tauntingly. Tokio halted, and met Hijikata's eyes as he leaned against a pillar of the inner courtyard. "Were you able to ‘save' Yamanami-san's life?"

"Actually, it appears as though Yamanami-sensei is trying to save you," she murmured.

"Save me from what?" Hijikata asked archly as he turned away, glaring at a bird that had chosen that moment to break into song.

"Save you from yourself, it seems." She smiled coldly.

"If he said that, then Yamanami-san is a fool."

"He is wiser than you." She responded in a mild voice with underlying bitterness.

"... If he told you anything, I advise that you tell me now." His voice dropped dangerously.

"And if I don't? I suppose you shall tell my father that I am an impossible woman. How frightening."

She stared at him, unflinching, and Hijikata found her self-assuredness as maddening as ever. She stared at him, and saw there that Hijikata desperately wanted to know, to know more than anyone else, just why Yamanami had done what he had done. She relented a fraction, and told him,

"He did not say what reasons he had for leaving the Shinsengumi."

"Hmph. But he probably told you it was his duty to return."

Of course Yamanami wouldn't have told her, if he wouldn't tell Kondou even, why on earth would he tell her? Hijikata bit the inside of his cheek.

"Something to that effect, yes." She paused, and then asked, "Hijikata-sama, if I may be so bold, just how much are you willing to sacrifice for the Shinsengumi?"

"Whatever it takes, of course." He cut back immediately.

"Including all of your comrades? Okita-sama even? Inoue-sama, Harada-sama, Nagakura-sama?"

"Yes, and including Saitou Hajime." He added acidly, and she blanched ever so slightly. He advanced on her. "Do you think that I haven't thought about this? That I'm an oblivious fool? Do you really think that I have not thought about this more than any other here?"

"Yamanami-sensei is paying the price for your stubbornness." She would not retreat, even though he stood less than a foot away from her.

"And what you flippantly term my stubbornness is all that has seen me through this far in life." He inhaled sharply. "It is so easy for you to look down from that high pedestal that you were born to, isn't it?"

"And you judge others according to your own set of measures. That is hardly fair now, is it, seeing as you consider most men to be your inferior." She retorted disdainfully.

Hijikata took another step forward and looked as though he wanted to spit at her. At the abrupt movement, an object fell out of his sleeve. Both sets of eyes snapped down, and a full few seconds passed before Hijikata snatched it up and stuffed it back into his sleeve, but not before Tokio realized what she was looking at. It was a notebook of haiku, and she stared at the turned back of the Vice Commander.

"... To be a samurai is to live poetry," she murmured thoughtfully after a while.

"... Then that would make Yamanami-san one of the greatest poems to ever exist." Hijikata's shoulders heaved slightly. "Yamanami-san understands. As does Souji, and Saitou, and those men who make the Shinsengumi truly an ideal."

"... I am sorry." Hijikata whirled around to glare at her. "I am sorry for your loss." She bowed her head.

"... We knew when we started out how committed we had to be. We knew and still we chose to follow Kondou-san and the ideal of the Shinsengumi. Yamanami-san will be mourned, but his life will not be regretted."

"Did you ever think that it would take you this far?"

The Shinsengumi had come far, far enough from lowly origins to face the Daimyo of Aizu, far enough to be charged with the protection of Kyoto. And far enough to have to face such loss as Yamanami would cost them. Hijikata did not answer straight away, thumbing through the notebook that he had snatched out of Tokio's view. She did not look at him, choosing instead to watch the bird as it broke into song again.

"... I still believe, Tokio-san, and I will still follow." Hijikata turned to leave. "Your escort is here. Go back to Koumyouji."

He walked away, as Saitou pushed himself off the wall against which he'd been leaning, where he had been watching them for some time. Tokio watched as Hijikata disappeared around the corner, and then turned to face Saitou. He scrutinized her for a few moments as she smiled sadly and shook her head. There was nothing to say.

Then, silently, he started to walk, without as much as a backward glance to see if she followed. He seemed tenser than usual, but that was understandable; it had been a difficult day and would get harder still. His back, broad and strong, it gave her such a feeling of protection – as long as he stood in front of her, she felt as though nothing could harm her. Before she could stop herself, she had reached out to trace a finger down his spine. He froze, but only for a second, and then continued walking. Abashed at what she had just dared to do, Tokio flushed and looked down at her feet.

"Your father sent word that you're to return to Koumyouji immediately," he said as they crossed the courtyard. "Your escort's here to take you back."

"My escort? You are not taking me?"

It came out before she could stop herself, and as Saitou stiffened momentarily, she froze red-faced at her second indiscretion against him.

"Hmph, I have more important things to be doing."

She bit her lip – how ridiculous was it of her, that even on a day like this, she still wanted him to spend a little time with her. Gojou bowed to her as they approached, and told her in carefully couched words how Takagi Kojuurou was not the least bit happy with his daughter at the moment. Saitou showed them out as far as the outer gates, and Tokio saw that quite a large crowd had gathered around the compound, drawn by rumours of what was happening inside.

That was when a woman came running up the road, obviously troubled and in considerable distress. Seeing Saitou, she rushed to him, and cried in a breathless voice,

"Please, Saitou-han, please let me see Yamanami-sensei! Please!" She gripped the front of her kimono. A fine set of robes, and ornaments in her hair, somewhat disheveled from the haste with which she had run.

"Akesato-san," Saitou's eyes narrowed, as onlookers started to whisper again with increased intensity.

"Please, I beg you!" She tried to push her way past the guards, just as Okita stepped out.

"Akesato-san?" Okita was obviously surprised.

"Okita-han, please, Yamanami-sensei!" She looked from Okita to Saitou, who was frowning at Okita. "Why did nobody tell me!" She cried out. "Please!"

"... Come this way," Saitou nodded his head at her after a moment's hesitation, the people milling around parted to make way for him.

The lady called Akesato hastily followed. Tokio caught up with Okita as he beckoned to her, and replied in answer to her unspoken question,

"Akesato-san is from Gion. She is -a close friend- of Yamanami-san." He shook his head. "I told him he should think about her, but he had already made up his mind."

Saitou had led Akesato to a low window on the outer wall, and she banged on the frame, crying out Yamanami's name.

"Akesato?" A startled Yamanami opened the window.

"Sensei! Is it true! Please don't, please!" She was crying now, the tears streaking her makeup.

Saitou glared at the crowd who were trying to push closer and casually rested his hand on his sword. None dared to approach. The sobs of Akesato drowned out what Yamanami was saying to her in a hushed voice.

"He was adamant that she not be told, you see, as his only fear was that his resolve would falter if he saw her." Okita murmured to Tokio whose heart was beating wildly.

"But somebody did." Tokio felt a fierce pang pierce her breast as Akesato pushed her hand through a space between the wooden frame.

"Word travels fast. And Akesato-san knew something was amiss when we went to call on her to see if Yamanami-san was there."

Tokio watched transfixed as Akesato nodded even as tears rolled down her cheeks. She saw Yamanami hold her hand for the last time, and smile gently as he closed the window on her. Saitou caught Akesato by the arm as she slumped to the ground. Tokio watched as he held her up and a man in the crowd handed her a handkerchief. A servant girl came over to help and led her away. Akesato resisted for a few seconds but then acquiesced, straightened up and dried her eyes. All around her was quiet as people watched her bow to Saitou and then walk away. She never looked back.

Saitou looked towards Tokio, but looked beyond her. Turning to see what it was, Tokio saw Hijikata watching the retreating figure of Yamanami's lover from the shadow of the gates. Poetry in motion. He met her eyes as he drew back inside the compound. ‘I still believe,' they seemed to tell her. Despite the sacrifice, not just of Yamanami's life but of the woman's love, still their ideal bound them to their duty.

She let out a desperate sigh as Saitou came to stand behind her. He placed a hand on the small of her back, hidden from others' view.

"What was the point in me coming here at all? How pointless and meaningless!" Her voice emerged as an almost hiss.

"To comfort yourself, of course." The warmth of his hand belied the coolness of his voice. He leaned down slowly to speak into her ear. "This will not happen to you." And with that, he was gone.

Gojou was at her side again, urging her to start back to Koumyouji. Okita waved at her as he and Saitou reentered the compound. The guards were trying to disperse the crowds, and she reluctantly began to walk away. She had not, she realized, said goodbye to them properly. ‘This will not happen to you.' It was better than most men's sworn promises, coming from Saitou. And it cut her to her very core. The cold sun was beginning to tilt on the horizon, and the garish sky hurt her eyes. She wrapped her winter cloak around her tightly. It would be Spring soon, but not yet. As a lone bird burst into song, she thought bitterly, what a beautiful, pointless day.

It was later that evening that all the members of the Shinsengumi executive assembled in the hall. There was a look of disbelief on some faces, as though they still could not grasp what was about to happen. Others made no effort to conceal their pain. They sat in full uniform, and then Yamanami entered the room, wearing a kamishimo of the same asagi colour. Okita stood behind him.

Yamanami bowed to them all, and looking at Kondou, declared,

"I am honoured to have known and fought with such men. I pledge my life to the Shinsengumi." Glancing up at Okita who had drawn his sword, he asked, "Please wait, Okita-kun, until I say when." Okita smiled and nodded.

Yamanami touched the short sword placed in front of him, and then bared his stomach. A barely audible gasp escaped from someone. Yamanami took a second to compose himself as he grasped the sword and leveled it to his skin. One deep breath, a sure, inward thrust, and blood spurted, his asagi robes now accompanied by the thick, bright scarlet of his life's blood. A crack of knuckles, a tightening of grip, and across his abdomen he dragged the blade, never deviating, slowly, steadily. Dying as he had lived. It seemed an age before his voice was heard, still clear and gentle, belying the magnitude of the effort required to do so, he bowed his head, baring his neck.

"Now please, Okita-kun."

Okita's blade swung and Yamanami's head rolled. It would be said afterwards that it was a perfect move of swordsmanship in the short career of the First Captain, his last gift to a dear friend. The entire compound seemed to shudder as a great howl wrenched forth from the Commander of the Shinsengumi. Hijikata's body wracked with dry sobs as Kondou grabbed his shoulders and his howls were joined by other voices as they vented their sorrow. Yamanami Keisuke, Vice Commander and Counsel of the Shinsengumi, was dead. And nobody knew why, but only that it was for the Shinsengumi.

Did anyone notice how long it's been since I updated? Did anyone miss me? I apologise for the long hiatus - let me explain briefly. Firstly, there was an increased workload at NHK Washington. Secondly, there was the forsaking of the workload for over a month to tour Japan with a Classical Music group (nobody too famous, though it was to great public appreciation, particularly when our up-and-coming Soprano sang Mononoke-Hime in Japanese), all the way from the islands of Mishima six hours off the coast of Kagoshima, and all the way up to Sapporo. Then thirdly, there was the getting back to work and catching up on all the work I'd missed while I was away. So in case anybody was actually waiting for this chapter, I am sorry. The next chapter is in the works, I hope to have it uploaded by next week, so although I doubt people are anxiously waiting the next installment, I promise that it will be here shortly. Though, if you did miss me, and you'd like to see more, I'd appreciate it if readers could drop me a word.

I've also been receiving several questions to my email, and it's actually quite enough to add to my profile page - if people are interested in the criticisms and feedback I've been receiving. Also, one reader pre-empted this chapter in a review - Yamanami had it coming, but as I really like his character, it took me ages. Sorry!

1. Yamanami Keisuke: As a founding member and leader of the Shinsengumi, he was much respected, and much liked as the gentle foil to Hijikata's ruthlessness. His death was a momentous thing, like that of Serizawa Kamo's though the two executions were diametrically opposed. It is still unclear as to why Yamanami committed seppuku, but it was an enormous shock to Kondou, Hijikata, Okita and the rest. One cannot tell the story of the Shinsengumi without acknowledging the role of the life and death of Yamanami Keisuke.

2. Seppuku and kaishaku: Seppuku is the ritualistic suicide also known as hara-kiri allowed only to the samurai. It was performed to reclaim or preserve a samurai's honour. The kaishaku would behead the subject after seppuku. Often, due to the excruciating pain of seppuku, the kaishaku would immediately behead the subject to spare him prolonged agony. Yamanami, they say, asked Okita to wait until the act was properly over.

3. Akesato: Yamanami's geisha lover. One of the more famous love stories of the Shinsengumi.

4. Sensei: Though it literally translates as "teacher" or "master", it is a term of highest respect – Tokio refers to Kondou and Yamanami as "sensei", but not Hijikata, and Akesato also calls Yamanami "sensei".

5. Saitou-han, Okita-han: "han" is the Kyoto dialect equivalent of the honorific "san" in standard Japanese.

6. Kamishimo and Asagi: Formal clothing required for attendance at court or for ceremonial occasions. Asagi is the light blue colour of the Shinsengumi uniform, it was chosen for its connotations to the story of Chuushingura, said to be the greatest tale of samurai loyalty.
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