Spring of the 18th year of the Meiji Era ------- nearly two years to the day since their last picnic on Mount Ueno….
Aoshi was completing their packing when the urgent message arrived from his Okashira. The birder had sent only a small paper with a single word: Okashira. There was no more urgent or important message in their clan than this summons. It was something he had rarely used after the Bakumatsu, and as far as he knew Misao had never used it.
Now she was using it with him. To summon him with great urgency when she knew he was on his way to her doorstep already. He and Megumi were to take the next train from Aizu to Tokyo where they would stay at the Crane. Misao had to know that he could not arrive any faster than that, yet she had sent the message. It was a puzzle even the fine intellect of Shinomori Aoshi could not unravel.
Tucking the message into his coat, he completed packing for both of them and went to retrieve Megumi from the porch. He had insisted that she remain seated on the porch and wait for him to escort her to the front of the Koi. He had arranged for a carriage to take them to the Aizu train station.
Megumi sat on the porch and fumed, waiting for the most over-protective father-to-be in all of Japan to allow her to stand and walk all the way to the front of the Koi. Or maybe he would insist on carrying her. He was being so entirely unreasonable she was planning to ask Kaoru to borrow her boken to try to smack some sense into him while they were in Tokyo.
They were going to be in Tokyo for the duration of her pregnancy, and she was beginning to feel that the next four months couldn't fly by fast enough. She had gone to see Dr. Oguni in Tokyo early in her pregnancy and taken Aoshi with her on a whim, a decision she had been regretting ever since. Dr. Oguni had cautioned Aoshi sternly against letting Megumi "do too much". And why was such caution needed? Why indeed. Megumi fumed some more as she remembered Dr. Oguni's officious tone as he counseled the newly married couple.
"Megumi-san is in very good physical shape, of course, but still rather old to be having her first baby. It could lead to dangerous complications for both mother and babe." As her mouth hung open in total shock and dismay, he continued with his lecture directly to Aoshi.
"It's up to you to keep her from doing too much, Shinomori-san. I know all too well how far your wife will push herself for her medical practice. That is not possible for her during this pregnancy. If all goes well this time, perhaps she may be more active next time. Bring her to stay in Tokyo no later than her sixth month so I can watch her myself. She won't be able to do any work by that time anyway. Or would you prefer to return to Kyoto? I can easily refer you to a doctor there."
The men had taken over the entire conversation at that point, discussing and agreeing to her upcoming limitations on activities, eating habits, and work schedule without so much as consulting her in the matter at all. Megumi had sputtered and railed at such high-handed treatment, finally standing with her hands on her hips, ready to yell at both of them. It was then that Dr. Oguni had stood, taken her hands in his and looked her deeply in the eyes.
"My dear Megumi. Would you have me risk your health and that of your unborn child? You know I am correct in this. Your dedication to your patients is admirable, but if you want to return to them happy and healthy, with a healthy baby in your arms, you will heed my advice. I have only your best interests at heart."
The warm affection in his eyes melted Megumi's ire. She couldn't argue with the standard medical practices at the time, no matter how well she was feeling during this pregnancy. She knew he was giving her the "safe" advice. One look at Aoshi told her she would have no further choice in the matter.
So here she sat, five months pregnant, well and healthy and waiting to see if her totally pig-headed husband would "allow" her walk on her own or insist on carrying her. They were going to Tokyo early and staying at the Crane. This year, the traditional Kenshingumi picnic would take place the following day at the Crane instead of Mount Ueno, for a variety of reasons, including the one kicking inside her at the moment.
When they reached the front door of the Crane in Tokyo, by carriage, of course, Megumi didn't even attempt to try to manage the front steps. She had barely smoothed her kimono over her expanding abdomen before Aoshi scooped her up and swept her into the Crane; oblivious to the very public spectacle she felt he was making of their entry.
Once Aoshi had her tucked away in their room, he left to find the Okashira. He stationed Akoto in front of their doorway. He knew Megumi would try to escape while he was away. She was extremely predictable in her reactions to the unwelcome restrictions this pregnancy had placed on her. He didn't trust it to Makiko, either. She might agree with Megumi or worse, be intimidated by his beautiful but sneaky wife. She had used every trick she could think of to try to gain more freedom from his "care". He didn't object to her efforts, they were most entertaining and some were so inventive his admiration for her intellect as well as her wiles had increased. None had succeeded. That might not be so with Makiko, but Akoto would not allow her to leave their room, period.
He would have preferred to have Sagara watch her. Who better than the Oniwabanshuu Chief of Security? Then he smiled to himself. Sano had his own problems, if the birders were right – and they usually were.
Akoto surprised him by saying that the Okashira was expecting him and pointing to the room across the hall. They were staying in the family area of the Crane, the same room, in fact, that Megumi had occupied on her last trip to Tokyo. He had not realized that Misao was across the hall.
He closed the distance quickly and executed a rarely used knocking signal of the Oniwabanshuu to let his Okashira know that her summons had been answered.
The door opened very quietly and Shinomori entered the room. It was dimly lit and he could see Misao propped in a chair in the corner with the sunset filtering over her. He tried to decide if he had seen her in a kimono since she was a very little girl. It was a nice enough kimono, but Misao did not look at all comfortable in it, nor was the obi tied with any artfulness at all. He imagined she would have tied it in the front for convenience if that didn't have such unsavory connotations. Her face was mostly shaded by the shadows of the fading day, but the feel of her ki was vibrant and anxious.
Aoshi crossed the room and executed a formal bow. "How may I serve, Okashira?" It was the only possible response to the message she had sent. He sensed Sagara closing the door and moving to stand behind him.
The Okashira motioned him to sit in the chair provided across from her, and Sagara moved again to stand behind her, assuming the most formal protective stance Aoshi had ever seen him take.
"There is a small matter I wish to discuss with you, Shinomori."
She paused, but Aoshi waited with mystified patience to see what she would say. This could be no small matter. He began to wonder if she was going to dismiss him from the clan, her face was so austere and Sagara's behind her matched it in being both stern and unreadable.
"I wish you to assume the Okashira position of our clan, Shinomori. This is not a request, as I have made of you in the past that you can choose to deny. If you wish to remain within the Oniwabanshuu you will agree to both my wishes and my conditions."
"I live to serve." Again, it was the only response for an Omitsu.
"Indeed. And serve you will." Misao squirmed in her seat, and looked extremely uncomfortable. Sagara's face darkened at the action and he barked out, "Two minutes, Misao. Finish it. Now."
Aoshi raised an eyebrow to regard the scowling former street fighter. He was still dressed in Oniwabanshuu blue, a color that suited him exceptionally well. He looked very comfortable in his role as Misao's Chief of Security, not to mention her husband. No other could have addressed her in this fashion before a clan member. Even so, Aoshi was surprised that she permitted it. Her next words started him on the road to understanding.
"I wish you to take over the clan with two conditions. Your efforts in Aizu have been noticed and greatly appreciated by the other branches of our clan. Your security procedures and training program have been greatly admired and followed. While your other activities are not generally known, I appreciate the bonds you have forged with members of the Meiji government and your recruitment efforts. I assure you the original members at the Aoiya have agreed."
"Okina and the others have agreed? Do I have their full support?"
"Perhaps in time." Misao squirmed again and Sanosuke's scowl deepened. He gently laid a hand on her shoulder and she leaned forward to permit him to place a small pillow behind her. It made her obvious discomfort lessen just a bit.
"Your conditions, Okashira?"
"Are to be accepted without question, Shinomori. First, Sanosuke will be your Chief of Security and second in command. I know of your relationship with Goro and his talents are without question, but Sano stays. This is not my choice, it is the will of the clan."
"Why not allow Sagara to be Okashira? I will fully support him."
"He refused. You're our second choice. Deal with it."
"And the last condition?"
"If, at any time in the future I decide you are not acting in the best interests of the clan, you agree to relinquish the position to me immediately."
Shinomori had never heard his Okashira, Misao, be so abrupt with anyone. It was not in her nature. He was becoming truly concerned for her welfare.
"Can I assist you, Okashira? You seen quite unwell."
"Yes, you can assist me by agreeing to these conditions and getting the hell out of my bedroom Shinomori. I'm in labor you idiot and this baby isn't going to wait for you to meditate about it!"
A shocked Aoshi muttered, "Agreed."
Immediately, Sagara ushered him out the door and a waiting Dr. Oguni hurried in. Just before he closed the door, Sano turned to Aoshi and gave him a brief smile and a wink. "Who'd of thought a kid of mine would be early? You've got my full support, Okashira. We'll talk later."
Apparently, the picnic would be delayed a bit. It was a pity. Megumi had been looking forward to seeing the newest addition to the Himura family.
December 23, 2003
Author's Note: Many thanks to all my readers and reviewers!
Thanks for all my wonderful reviewers who inspired me, helped and made some wonderful suggestions. You're the Best!
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For those who reviewed this fic when it first started, back in the fall of 2002. It still pains me that I lost your reviews!
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Special Thank You's to my friends who gave me lots of support and feedback and took their time to care about my little story:
Susan, Midori Natari Himura, Firuze Khanume, Gochan, MightyMightyMunson, and my wonderful beta reader, AutumnFire.
My heartfelt thanks to all of you!