~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Chapter 22 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There is nothing quite like the river of time. One moment gentle, the next plunging into rapids, becoming wide, then narrowing, but always dashing forwards. No man can build a dam to harness its strength. No woman can cry enough tears to overflow its banks.

But, at the end, there is the promise of the sea. The river of time spills its secrets there. This ocean stretches on forever, filled with memories, swimming with strong currents of every possible emotion, lined with waves of sighs and ripples of laughter that no living ear can hear.

In the sea, all rivers become one, once again. In joyous revel, no soul is distinguishable from another. They exalt the sky in continuous worship of the day when the clouds come...

To take into their silvery bower the souls of the departed. To draw them out and bestow yet another chance to begin rivers anew...

As rain...

Or as snow.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

December 1893. Tokyo. 14 Years after Saitou Hajime left for Hokkaido.

"I don't know about this." The ten year old kicked the side of the tree beside which a large, round stone had been placed. "We could get in -big- trouble, you know?"

"No one asked you to come, ototo. So, shut up." Tsutomu squatted down by the rock. It was at least twice as big as his head. "I tell you, it's a grave marker. Mother's been coming out to this grove every month for as long as I can remember, and she always sits right by this rock, talks to it, and leaves a little basket of food here."

"Unless she just randomly picked a rock and decided to treat it to dinner every so often." This sarcastic comment came from the tallest of the trio, Tsuyoshi. He was hanging upside-down from the lowest branch on the tree, occasionally pulling off leaves and depositing them in his youngest brother's hair.

"Whatever it is, we'd best leave it alone." Little Tatsuo reached up and scratched at his suddenly itchy head, dislodging a precariously balanced pile of leaves. "Or we could just ask Naoya-san..."

"No!" Tsutomu snarled. The other two brothers bristled slightly, regretting bringing up the Sawagejou family to Tsutomu. Over the last few months, their fearless leader had been acting more and more strangely every time that particular subject entered the conversation. They'd decided it had something to do with the fact that Sawagejou Eiko was a girl.

"What about Eiji-nii?"

Tsutomu shifted his weight, crossing his arms over his chest. He glared at Tatsuo. Unlike the other two boys, Tatsuo had brilliant green eyes the color of summer grass. In addition, he possessed stark white hair so ephemeral that it had to be tied into a tight ponytail at the crown of his head to keep it from blowing into his eyes at the lightest breeze. A star-shaped birthmark marred Tatsuo's face just beside his left eye. The boy's exotic looks made him the constant object of torment by other children, causing his brothers no end of grief in having to perpetually rescue him. But, that didn't mean they wouldn't tease him for being a sissy momma's boy when no one else was around. "No. We're digging it up," Tsutomu finally announced, "And if you don't like it, you can go home. But, don't you -dare- tell anyone. If you do, I'll put you in the grave before I cover it back over."

"Yeah," Tsuyoshi added, "And we'll put spiders in there, too." The middle brother executed a graceful flip out of the tree and came to land beside Tatsuo. He grabbed the boy in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles into Tatsuo's white hair. "And we know how much you like spiders, huh?"

"Itai, Yoshi-chan!"

Tsuyoshi dropped his brother into the grass without another thought, and reached into his gi, pulling out a small bag of orange candy bearing the Snowflake Sweets logo.

"Hey, where'd you get that?" Tatsuo asked, standing up and dusting off his hakama.

Tsuyoshi rolled his eyes. "Out of my -gi-. Duh." As Tatsuo attempted to reach for the candy, Tsuyoshi moved his hand upwards, placing the treats just out of Tatsuo's reach.

"Not for you, squirt-midget-baby-dwarf."

"Would you two bakas shut up? I've never -heard- of such idiocy." Tsutomu shot both of his brothers another deadly glare, and instantly, they both obeyed. Tsuyoshi lowered the candy and, despite all the taunting, shared it with Tatsuo anyway.

"I bet Mother has the corpse of her first husband in here," Tsutomu opined.

Tatsuo immediately objected. "Nuh-uh. That's not true. She's only been married once."

Tsuyoshi rolled his eyes, "If that is true, how come you've got white hair and green eyes, and Tsu-chan and I both have black hair and gold eyes?"

Tatsuo looked prepared to object, but then just formed his mouth into a little round "O" and hung his head, sulking openly.

Taking the spade he'd brought along from their house, Tsutomu began to work. The recent rains made the ground soft, and his task subsequently easier than planned. He dug diligently, attempting to ignore the moronic conversations which would occasionally spring up between his two younger brothers. Tsuyoshi's biting sarcasm and quick wit always amused Tsutomu, but not when used against Tatsuo. Their youngest brother was generally too naive and innocent to understand the jests. Insulting Tatsuo was like beating your fist repeatedly against a stone wall and expecting it to act offended.

The loam of the damp winter ground made his hands a bit numb, but he continued nonetheless. Digging like this always made Tsutomu think of his adopted brother Eiji's gardens and the Tokyo Women's University greenhouse where Eiji worked. At least Eiji wasn't prone to jabbering on like Tsutomu's younger brothers. Unless, of course, you snuck up on him while he was talking to one of his favorite plants. Then you could hear Eiji drone on and on and on about this flower or that seedling, the best dirt for growing, exactly how much light something needed. Otherwise, Eiji-nii was a pretty quiet fellow, always doing something with his hands, but at the same time laid back. The world ran slower for Eiji, or at least, that is what Eiji, himself, always said.

In the end, they probably could have asked Eiji, but Tsutomu thought literally uncovering the mystery himself was the whole fun in the project. And, it wasn't like his Mother would know. There was a whole month for the grass to grow back before she'd visit again. As theories and conspiracies whirled through the boy's head, he said, "See, I bet she killed her first husband, and the buried him out here so no one would know."

"Killed him with what? Her sewing needles? Poisoned mochi?" Tsuyoshi clicked his tongue. Their mother might have a morose streak, but not -that- morose. "I bet he got into a fight with another man over her and they dueled to the death."

"That's so romantic," Tatsuo said with a sigh.

Tsuyoshi snorted and poked his brother's forehead with one outstretched finger, "You keep talking like that and you're going to grow up to be a girl."

"Really?"

Tsuyoshi nodded in the most sincere manner possible.

"Duel to the death? Ridiculous," Tsutomu replied. He didn't care how feasible his brother's theory sounded, it was his duty to lambaste it anyway. He felt his spade hit something hard. "Yatta! I found something."

There was no reply. Not a squeal of horror from Tatsuo. Not an excited comment from Tsuyoshi. Nothing.

"Hey, I said that..." Tsutomu turned around and immediately fumbled his shovel. His jaw dropped, leaving his mouth gaping.

He was in trouble now.

Both of his two younger brothers were being held in the air by the backs of their gis. The newest addition to their company exhaled smoke out of his nose as he pressed his lips together to hold a cigarette in place. A mortifyingly cross gaze remained fixed on Tsutomu's face as the man took a step forward and deposited the two younger boys on the ground.

"Sit," Saitou commanded, removing the cigarette from his lips and crossing his arms. He tapped his fingers lightly on the sleeve of his police uniform, watching all three of his sons like a disturbingly efficient hawk surveying a choice of prey.

Tsutomu's ever-serious face sported a mild frown.

Tsuyoshi grinned roguishly, as he always did when he got caught doing something bad.

And Tatsuo looked like he wanted to cry.

None of the boys spoke a single word. They'd been caught, and lying now would only make the punishment more severe. Father could -always- smell a lie. They just had to wait, which was usually the worst part, anyway. Their father always knew the perfect punishment to fit every crime, but imagining what the punishment might be was its own sort of hell.

"You..." Saitou pointed at his youngest son. Tatsuo's head bent forward, trying to hide his green eyes behind the wisps of white hair that escaped his high ponytail. "Stop believing everything your brothers tell you."

Tatsuo attempted to reply, but just ended up emitting a squeak with his nod.

"And you..." Now it was Tsuyoshi's turn. The thirteen year old's grin grew even wider. "Wipe that stupid grin off your face when I'm talking to you." Tsuyoshi made an effort, but in the end, the natural defense mechanism won out, and the grin returned. He shrugged at his father, indicating that he could do no more. Saitou's left eye twitched. Pointing at his middle son, he said, "You stop telling your brother lies."

Tsuyoshi swallowed hard and nodded, the smile still plastered to his face.

"Now both of you get up and go home. I'll deal with you when I get back. Right now..." Saitou's gaze returned to his oldest son, "I want to talk to your ahou brother. Alone."

The two youngest boys both stood, each giving Tsutomu a quick pitying look before running at top speed towards the nearby dirt road.

Once they were alone, Saitou took a deep breath, letting it come out of his nose in a sigh somewhere between pissed and furious. Sighing. That was a new one. But having three growing boys could drive a man to such extremes.

Tsutomu. Saitou had thought that sending the boy to Kozue for training six months out of the year would instill some sort of discipline in his son. Instead, Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi had returned last month still as rebellious and troublesome as always. Left alone, however, Tsuyoshi would never think up such plans. No, Tsutomu was the leader of all of their escapades.

As the chilly winter breeze blew between father and son, Saitou surveyed Tsutomu. If Tsuyoshi looked like his father, tall and lanky, then Tsutomu definitely looked like his mother. He had her svelte face, lean and catlike, with pronounced cheek bones and small ears. Long black hair, as shiny as a jaguar's coat, was bound at the nape of his neck in a ponytail.

Yes. He looked like his mother, but he definitely had his father's temperament.

Saitou had seen the three boys slinking down the street as he arrived home. Conspiratorial glances between the trio had alerted their father to impending misdeeds, leaving the Fujita family patron no choice but to follow them. But, he never thought they would be up to -this-.

"Yare, yare, what do you have to say for yourself, Tsutomu?"

The boy fought against the impulse to squirm. "I just wanted to know...who was so important to Mother..."

"So ka?" This would be interesting, Saitou decided. "Then why don't you find out?"

Tsutomu's eyes grew wide with the realization of what his father was telling him to do. "You want me to..."

"Dig it up. Find out what's inside. Or have you lost your nerve?"

Of course he hadn't lost his nerve. Of course not. But, with his father egging him on, Tsutomu felt his stomach flip. Maybe...just maybe...there was some horrible secret inside. Maybe there really was a corpse, or maybe even something worse. What could be worse than a corpse, Tsutomu wasn't certain. But, with his father looking at him like that, Tsutomu was pretty sure he was about to find out.

The boy bent down and dug a bit more, resolving not to falter under his father's gaze. A rectangular shape began to form beneath Tsutomu's toiling hands. The box wasn't large, only about the length of his fingertip to his elbow, and appeared to be made of lacquered cherry wood. With some effort, Tsutomu dislodged it from the ground and set it next to the hole.

"Open it."

"That's alright, father, I don't care anymore..."

"Open. It."

Tsutomu clenched his jaw, preparing himself for the worst as he fumbled with the rope and wood latches on the side of the box. He pried the top up with one hand, leaning away from the contraption just in case the undead warrior hoards of hell decided to spring out.

But, nothing did jump out. Instead, a deep green silk-lined interior held a smattering of bleached white objects.

Bones.

His interest captured, Tsutomu leaned forward and removed one. He turned it over in his hands, trying to comprehend the meaning of a box which would contain...a cat's skull.

"I don't understand," Tsutomu finally confessed, depositing the skull back in the box. He looked up at his father who appeared to be suppressing an wicked laugh behind his hard glare.

"Your mother loved that damn cat. Doted on it. Even named her store after it. The thing died in the spring of eighty-two. She buried it out here for Kami-sama knows what reason."

"Oh." Tsutomu felt more than vaguely relieved. They'd only ever had one cat, as far as he could remember. Midnight. But, Midnight belonged to Tatsuo, since the vicious old minx bit anyone else who came near.

"Now," Saitou intoned, "You have two choices. You can go home and tell your mother you dug up her beloved dead pet. Or, you can stand up, take that shinai off your back, and fight me. I want to know if that training sunk into that thick skull of yours, or if you've been goofing off in Osaka, too."

Tsutomu weighed his options for only a moment. At least if he fought, his punishment would be over quickly. If he told his mother what he had done, she'd spend the rest of the week giving him...that look. That horribly hurt and disappointed look which made him feel lower than a dung beetle.

Saitou's eldest son stood up after placing the box back in the ground and re-covering it with dirt. He wiped his hands on his hakama before reaching up to pull his shinai from his back. His father, Tsutomu knew, had some skill with a sword once, or so people said. He'd fought in some wars, and still carried his katana everywhere. Yet, Tsutomu had only ever seen his father use it when they practiced kata in the evenings. But, he was an old man. His late forties. To Tsutomu, that was -practically- ancient.

Tsutomu set himself into the second position, just like Kozue-sensei had taught him. He held his shinai outstretched, parallel to the ground. Pulling his left shoulder back a bit, he bent his knees, and waited.

"Aren't you going to draw your katana?"

Saitou snorted in response. Draw his katana? No. He wasn't even going to stop smoking his cigarette. "Come at me."

As ordered, Tsutomu let out a formidable battlecry and charged his father. 'Aim for the jaw', the boy told himself. Tsutomu lunged at the last second, swinging his shinai towards his father's impassive face.

The next thing Tsutomu knew, his father was standing over him, holding the shinai in his left hand. Saitou dropped the bamboo sword beside the boy's hand as Tsutomu reached up and grabbed the spot on his shoulder where pain began to blossom.

So fast, and with just one hand...his father had caught the swing. Then he'd used his other fist to knock the boy to the ground.

And he hadn't even stopped smoking.

"Move your arm."

Tsutomu complied. It hurt, but it wasn't broken.

Saitou squatted down beside his son as the boy sat up. Evening was fast approaching, the sky swathing itself in robes of purples and oranges as both father and son sat silently together. The trees in the distance all danced franticly with the wind, a ballet of limbs and leaves that held no synchronicity. Finally, Tsutomu worked up the courage to ask, "How'd you win? I did everything Kozue-sensei taught, and I did it right."

"Who do you think taught Kozue?"

A long pause cut the conversation before Tsutomu murmured, "Oh."

Saitou picked up the shinai and turned it over in his hands. It had been a long time since he'd used such a weapon. He'd been younger than Tsutomu then, and just as brash and unwilling to listen to anyone's advice or warnings. Despite his failings, Tsutomu had a good heart. He protected his brothers, he practically worshipped Eiji, and though he didn't hang off her skirt like Tatsuo tended to do, he genuinely cared for his mother.

He'd turn out to be a very good Meiji Era gentleman someday. Someday.

"I won because I have discipline. Not only of the body, but of the mind and spirit. Fighting has less to do with the skill, speed, or strength of your sword than the caliber of the man who swings it. Do you know your worth? Your ideals? If you do not know who you are, and what you believe, how can you expect to know your enemy? Discipline -yourself-, Tsutomu, and someday, after you understand the warrior within your soul, you'll stand equal to your father."

Tsutomu thought this over for a while as his father handed him the shinai. His father had never spoken to him in such a manner before. Most of their previous communication revolved around Saitou telling his eldest son to be less of an idiot, or doling out punishments for something Tsutomu had done. Well...discipline, huh? It sounded grueling, but maybe.... "Father?"

"Aa?"

"Can we spar again soon?"

"Aa. Every week."

"Do I still have to tell mother about digging up her cat?"

Saitou stood, extending a hand to pull his son up, "Not if you know what's good for you."

"Uh,...okay." Tsutomu took a big breath of relief.

As the pair walked together towards the road, Saitou put a hand on his son's shoulder, "Let me tell you a story about the day your mother decided to cook a chicken..."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

One month later.

"A little bit of blue, a little bit of pink pink pink..."

He'd been working on that same damn painting for the last fifteen years.

The tiny woman pressed herself against the far shoji, the longer of her two kodachis already drawn. She kept her eyes focused on her prey's back as he swayed back and forth, taking in the canvas from different angles. Okita brought the wooden end of his paintbrush to his lips, adding yet another set of teeth marks as he held it in his mouth.

The assassin which had once terrified the police of Kyoto flexed her naked left foot, curving it until only her big toe touched the ground. She'd dash when he turned to add more paint to his palette. Yes. Then he would be turned at an awkward angle, and there would be nothing he could do.

"Ah, flowers for the pattern. Sakura or...no...not flowers at all. Stars. Hai, hai. -Stars-. Brilliant, Souji. Thank you very much, Souji. No, thank-you, Souji."

She'd have to be quick. Very quick, or be in danger of being sensed. Nakenashi the Ghost had never had such troubles, but she would have never prevailed. No, only -Jikiri- had the experience and patience to win this battle. Yes, this had gone on -far- too long...

The evening's shadows would assist in the endeavor.

She'd tied back both her sleeves and in an effort to make attack noiseless. She'd subdued her ki with meditation and the practiced skill of a ninja. She'd even gone through a rigorous schedule of stretching and limbering her body over the past week.

'Okita-san will never know what hit him.'

"The moon, the moon, as good as a spoon, to scoop up the light and put it...put it... Ah, I've run out of moon. Where'd I put that color, Souji? I don't know, Souji. Under the blue, perhaps? Hai, hai..."

Jikiri leapt forward as soon as Okita turned to look through the tiny pots of color. The movement of every muscle calculated, every inch of air in her lungs expelled, Jikiri rushed towards the man at the easel. She slipped to his blind side with a final flounce, and when Okita turned back to the canvas, he found a kodachi blade under his chin.

Okita's gaze dipped downwards, and then slid along the blade until he could see the arm holding it. "Not a fan of art, Jikiri?"

"You're our hostage now, and you must meet our demands," Jikiri hissed. "Lest you wish to face the most drastic of consequences."

"Demands? So ka? And what would those be?"

Jikiri paused for a moment. What -were- her demands? Oh yes. "This Jikiri demands you fire Eiji. You must make him go."

Okita pressed his lips together in an attempt to keep himself from smiling. "But, who would teach botany and horticulture? Who would keep the gardens? Who would drive Jikiri to wits end on a daily basis?"

"Feh, Okita-san, this isn't supposed to be funny. You're my hostage."

Okita held up his hands and put on his best possible 'serious' face. "Oh yes. I'm quite frightened, I promise. Do continue..."

"We also demand a feast in the form of dumplings and kampyo."

"Ah, Jikiri, are you asking me to accompany you to dinner?"

Jikiri withdrew her kodachi and put her hands on her hips, pouting through her scowl. "You knew this Jikiri was there, hiding in the shadows. You knew, didn't you, Okita-san?"

Okita shook his head as fervently as possible, "No, no. I was completely surprised this time."

"Mmm." Jikiri leaned forward to sniff her mentor's shoulder, "You smell of lies!"

"Well...I..." Okita decided to change the subject. Jikiri's attempts to sneak up on him, so far, had failed. She tried to defeat his ability to sense ki on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis, but could not seem to prevail. But, he definitely enjoyed the ritual nonetheless. "Say, weren't we speaking of dinner?"

"Yes. Can Jikiri drag you away from your beloved painting long enough to indulge in a feast? Naoya-san made it before I returned."

"Hai, hai. Mustn't paint on an empty stomach. Shall we have a picnic here in the office?"

Jikiri chuckled as she crossed the room to retrieve the basket of food. Okita grinned. The years had not changed her much. She'd grown a few inches in her late teenage years, thankfully, but still stood a good half-head shorter than him. Her hair had gained some length but no matter how much Naoya fussed at her to wear it in a more contemporary style, Jikirijust kept it in a thick and practical braid, which she twisted into a loop which hung at the nape of her neck. Unfortunately, she hadn't filled out in more womanly ways, and still looked sometimes like a boy trying to pass as a girl.

Okita took a small blanket out of the cabinet and spread it on the floor. They ate like this often, neither of them having much time for a formal dinner. Jikiri worked now as the school's headmistress of both security and discipline. The job was demanding, as many of the girls came from wealthy families, lending to attitude problems as well as longstanding rivalries and outside enemies looking for easy targets. At first, Okita had attempted to have Jikiri teach kendo. It turned into a disaster. Apparently Jikiri was no good at -teaching- sword skills, only using her own to dispatch opponents. Several of the girls had ended up hospitalized.

But the school was growing, and for that, Okita was thankful. They had added several new buildings over the last fifteen years, notably a western greenhouse. And Okita could think of no one better to take care of it, and teach the young women botany, than Mishima Eiji.

Okita almost giggled at his own craftiness. Him? Play matchmaker? Never. It was a coincidence. Yes, just a coincidence that he had maneuvered two of his favorite people to have to work together.

"Now, that's not a good smile at all, Okita-san. Are you being wicked behind those eyes?"

Okita kneeled down on the blanket beside Jikiri as she began to unpack the food. "I'm hurt, Jikiri, truly I...oh...there really are dumplings."

"Aa. Naoya-san said you'd like that." Jikiri passed the bowl to her mentor.

Okita pulled out one of the dumplings and popped it in his mouth. Naoya really had turned into such a great cook, and her dumplings were divine. Everyone agreed, even Tokio. Such an odd thing, the knowledges of women, secret skills passed from one to another like sword styles. You could definitely tell the influence of master on student in both. And now, Eiko would be next. She'd conquer the basics and then add her own flare into the mix.

"How did it go? With Naoya and Chou, that is? Did they approve of my plan?"

Jikiri nodded as she lifted one of the kampyo with her chopsticks, "Quite. Naoya said, 'Tell Okita-san that he's brilliant, and if he weren't so short, and so old, I'd kiss him.'"

"Aie! I'm not that old. I refuse to be old. Now, Saitou-san, -he's- old."

Jikiri said -nothing-.

"I'm not fifty yet. I still have some years to go!"

Still -nothing-.

"I've got all my teeth See?!"

"Yes, yes, Okita-san, yes, yes."

"Don't placate me like I am an old man."

"No, this Jikiri is placating you like a little boy."

Okita laughed quite hard at this, and ended up almost choking on his food. He liked this. Yes. This was the best. Just sitting here with Jikiri. Eating. Talking. Not a care in the world to be had. You could go to the ends of the world in search of delectable earthly pleasures, fight a thousand battles for your ideals, and witness the dawning of a new era. And still, nothing would compare to a simple meal shared with a kindred spirit.

"Is that unagi?"

"Yes." Jikiri slid the container in Okita's direction after pulling out a piece for herself. "Anyway, after Naoya-san said that, Chou-san said 'Tell Kita-san it'll never fuckin' work, and he'll end up with a katana through his throat.' He said he won't try to stop you, though."

"And Eiji?"

Jikiri blinked and put her hand down, resting her chopsticks on the edge of the bowl.

"What about Eiji, Jikiri?"

Okita watched as Jikiri's entire face became taught. Her eyes clouded over, not with joy or anger, but just with extremely deep thought. Finally, she leaned back slightly and put her fingers to her forehead, as if trying to use pressure to defend against a headache. "Eiji...he...Eiji said he'd help us if I would marry him."

Okita's eyes grew wide. He dropped his chopsticks and grabbed Jikiri's hand excitedly. Finally! It had taken years, but Eiji had -finally- asked her. "Really? What did you say?"

"This Jikiri said no. And then Eiji said that of course he would do it anyway. Then he said that he didn't mind my answer. He'd just wait and keep asking until I say yes."

"He's very patient, Jikiri. He learned from the best. I doubt he will give up on you." Okita released Jikiri's hand and tried his best to give her a reassuring smile. Deep down, Okita believed, Jikiri really did enjoy Eiji's company. She possibly even loved him. Jikiri trusted no one with ease, especially those who proclaimed their love for her. The terrors of her past caused her to keep most men at arm's length. Unfortunately, the men she had killed, they had stolen her most precious innocence. Frankly, if they weren't dead already, Okita would have done everything in his power to send them screaming to their graves.

"And what about you, Okita-san? Did I not see the widows Kanjuriko and Tabaki on the school grounds yesterday?"

Okita looked like someone had just shoved a smelly fish under his nose. Those widows, they came around every week for tea. But they were such officious, gossipy women. "I already have over four hundred students," Okita declared, "That's enough women for any man. I don't need to marry someone just to have a woman's touch on my world. And, if I want my bed warmed at night, I'll put my blankets by the fire."

Jikiri quirked an eyebrow at the speech and shook her head, changing the subject. "Do you really think this plan will work, Okita-san?"

"Don't you?"

Jikiri's eyebrows crinkled in thought. "I agree with Chou-san. You're going to end up with a katana through your throat, and this Jikiri will be locked in prison. But..." Jikiri leaned forward and tapped her mentor on his head with the end of her chopstick, "This one doubts she has the wherewithal to deny you anything, Okita-san. You could talk a lion into having tea with lambs."

"Good. Then, we're set." Okita gave the tiny woman a wink, and turned back to his food. Oh yes, and what a plan it was. They'd be so surprised. And so what if Saitou got angry? For once, that man was going to do something romantic with his wife, even if it killed Okita to force him into it.

"Aie! You've eaten the last dumpling, old man."

"No," Okita said, indicating Jikiri's bowl with the end of his chopsticks, "I gave it to you."

"Oh." Jikiri smiled sheepishly as she picked up the stuffed noodle. "So you did."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Late January, 1893.

Tokio held her mending up to the light. Those boys. Truly amazing how many rips they could manage to get into their clothing. And Tsuyoshi kept growing like the wildest summer weed. He'd definitely be as tall as his father, if not taller.

In the yard, they were lined up in order of their ages. Tokio looped her needle through the fabric for a moment to watch as the quartet silently performed kata in the back yard. Hajime had been teaching them the moves since the day they could lift a shinai. And now, every day, without fail, the entire family would gather for the practice. Tokio would sit on the engawa and watch the private performance, imagining their futures, reminiscing on the past, and always smiling quite openly at the display.

Her youngest, little Tatsuo. The poor boy, with his odd looks, he made so few friends beyond his brothers. Because of it, he suffered greatly when the older boys left to Osaka for training. As best Megumi-sensei could figure, his strange traits likely had to do with a terrible fever Tokio had contracted while pregnant. He'd always be slight, they figured. But what he lacked in size and health he more than made up for in kindness. And he was definitely more than spoiled not only by his mother, but by everyone else. Okita and Jikiri were constantly brought him books, and Tokio felt certain that Naoya snuck him sweets more than absolutely necessary.

Little Tatsuo tripped on the hem of his hakama as he attempted to perform one of the more complicated lunges, and stumbled, ending face down in the dirt. He made no protest, however, and stood back up to continue with a determined scrunching of his lips.

Then there was Tsuyoshi. He was grinning, even now. And when the four turned in such a manner that Hajime couldn't see their faces, Tokio's middle son stuck his tongue out at his older brother. Tokio tried her hardest not to chuckle. But, that was Tsuyoshi, tall and gangly, always trying to make everyone laugh. He'd inherited not only his father's looks, but that cutting wit of Hajime's as well. Tsuyoshi definitely was the best with people, and could charm a dowager out of her jewelry. He'd end up with a bevy of beauties vying for his attention one day.

And then, executing his moves with precision nigh identical to his father's, was Tsutomu. Such a serious young man, and with such a horrible penchant for getting the trio into trouble. Everyone said that Tsutomu resembled her, but that sneer on his face definitely belonged to Hajime. Tsutomu had her husband's temperament, yes, and along with it the awesome charisma that warned the world not to stand in his way. He brought his shinai up over his head and thrust downwards, sending a shiver up Tokio's spine. Yes. He'd be a swordsman, just like his father.

Hajime, of course, stood tallest. His katana traveled not a centimeter, not a millimeter, without his consent. Every move reminded Tokio of that first night she'd seen him perform these exact moves, that night in Osaka when she'd first began to understand the extraordinary raw power which could reside within a single man.

The performance came to an end, with Saitou re-sheathing his katana and the three boys slipping their shinai into the belts of their hakamas. They bowed towards the setting sun, but no one moved until Hajime turned and began to walk towards the engawa.

"Tatsuo, you tripped again," Tsuyoshi said, grabbing his younger brother by the arm to take a look, "And your ear is bleeding. Mother! His ear is bleeding."

"My hakama..." Tatsuo replied, bringing his fingers to his ear and wincing, "It's too long."

"It wasn't too long -yesterday-, you must be getting shorter."

Tokio put her sewing in her lap as her youngest two sons approached. "Yoshi-chan, take your brother inside and wash off his ear. You know where the bandages are. I'll re-hem his hakama tomorrow. There's food in the kitchen if you are hungry."

Tsuyoshi was -always- hungry, and therefore practically dragged his brother into the house by his wrist, despite the complaints of, "Itai, Yoshi-chan, ITAI!"

"Bakas," Tsutomu muttered, moving to stand beside his now-smoking father.

"Go heat the bath."

Tsutomu looked like he was going to object on the grounds that heating the bath was Tsuyoshi's chore, but then decided to act sensibly due to the fact that he was standing well within his father's reach. The eldest son disappeared around the side of the house in search of wood for the fire.

Saitou climbed the steps of the engawa and sat down next to Tokio. Silence passed between them like a shared meal, each devouring the mere presence of the other. Finally, Saitou asked, "Is he ill?"

"You know he's never been a healthy boy, Hajime. Sometimes he eats, sometimes he does not. Sometimes he goes outside to play, and sometimes he's so tired that he can not. But, Megumi-sensei says it is good for him to continue with the kata whenever he can. It will keep his heart strong and his blood flowing."

"Hn. I worry less about Tatsuo's heart than his brothers causing him harm."

Tokio closed her eyes and leaned to the side, resting her head on her husband's shoulder. "No matter how much they tease, they adore him, truly."

"Aa."

"I think that, in time..."

Tokio was cut off by a shout from her eldest son. "Eiji-ni! Mother! Eiji-ni is here!"

"Send him out back, please, Tsu-chan!"

Eiji arrived carrying a large basket overflowing with soy beans. Tokio gave a nod to her adopted son. He'd grown so much over the years, and now had arms thicker than her husband's from his constant toil in the gardens. His skin, sun-baked past golden, bore the remarkably earthy texture of a seasoned farmer. Hajime always said that it was a shame Eiji had never taken up the sword, to which Eiji would always laugh and say that he was more interested in causing things to grow than in cutting them down prematurely.

"Oi, Fujita-san, Auntie Tokio. Brought you the soy beans I promised. First of the crop." Eiji sat the basket down by the back wall of the engawa.

"Eiji," Tokio stood and grasped the man's large hands, "You didn't have to come all this way for that."

"Well, no. I suppose I didn't. But, I thought I'd take the boys off your hands for a while. Do you mind, Fujita-san?"

"No. Put them to work doing something useful. That bunch of layabout worthless ahous could use..." Saitou's sentence came to an abrupt stop. His eyes darted towards the end of the engawa, where a second later a short shadow appeared, followed by its owner, Okita Jikiri.

And she looked -awful-. Her face, covered in sweat, was tied up into the most venomous scowl she had sported since her days with the Hachinisasareru. He clothes had been slathered in dirt. Blood soaked through a bandage around her left wrist.. Worst of all, she carried her sheathed kodachis clamped in her right hand.

"Jikiri!" Tokio said, her voice echoed by Eiji's. "What's happened? Are you alright?"

"This Jikiri is fine, but...." Jikiri replied, her voice strangely quiet. The woman sat down on the engawa without being invited, hanging her head as if in defeat. "It's so bad, even to begin is daunting...."

"Take your time, Jikiri."

All eyes focused on Jikiri as she placed her kodachis beside her knees and folded her hands on her lap. "Chou-san came to see me today. This Jikiri had never seen him such a mess. His hair was down around his shoulders, and he reeked of sake and sweat. If not for his coat, I wouldn't have recognized him. He brushed past me and said that he had come to hire me, or rather, hire Nakenashi, to kill someone."

Eiji shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Kill someone? Kill who, Jikiri-kun?"

"Kill..." Jikiri closed her eyes, unwilling to look at her friends while relating the news, "Naoya-san's lover."

"Preposterous. Who would have the rat-girl besides that ahou?" Nonetheless, Tokio noticed her husband's fingers now lay on the hilt of his katana.

"He must be mistaken, don't you think, Jikiri? Naoya would never do such a thing. Not only would it ruin her reputation, but she's utterly devoted to Chou." Tokio pressed her hand to her collarbone. Such a distressing turn of events. It must be a horrible mistake.

"No," Jikiri said, "I'm afraid it's true. Naoya-san confessed everything to Okita-san last week. It is possible that she was afraid of how disappointed you would be, Tokio-san, and didn't want to tell you."

"My goodness, how horrible," Tokio replied.

"Yes. She's taken Eiko-chan and gone to her aunt's house, outside of Yokohama. This Jikiri thinks she means to leave Chou-san for good. And Chou-san...he's gone crazy. He said that if Nakenashi would not kill this man who had taken Naoya from him, then he would do it himself and 'damned be the consequences'. As enraged as he is, it seems doubtful that Naoya-san will be safe, either. This Jikiri attempted to calm him, to get him to stay, let things be worked out. But...he fought desperately, and escaped. It won't take him long, I fear, to figure out where she's gone..."

"Those. Two. Idiots," Saitou declared.

"Tokio-san, will you go? To Yokohama, that is? If anyone can talk sense into Naoya-san, if she trusts anyone, it is you."

Tokio nodded, "Of course, of course. But, what about Chou?"

"Well, this Jikiri had hoped that Fujita-san..."

Everyone looked at Saitou, who was staring into indeterminate space, releasing heavy clouds of smoke into the air between drags on his cigarette. This was unexpected, and he hated unexpected things. Domestic disputes were matters for the local police, and he was not a policeman local to Yokohama. Still, if Chou -did- kill Naoya, and he didn't do anything about it, Tokio would be inconsolably upset. But, damn it, this was none of his business. If Naoya wanted to run off with some other man... It was probably all that broomheaded ahou's fault, anyway. Saitou always knew that Chou would fuck things up -somehow-, someday. The only amazing thing was that it took him so long.

"Please, Hajime, won't you come?"

"Aa, I suppose I can't let my wife get murdered by some crazed sword collector."

Eiji, who'd been sitting silent all this time, piped up and said, "I'll look after the boys, Tokio-san, so you don't even have to worry. They enjoy staying with their Eiji-ni, anyway."

"Oh, thank you, Eiji, that would be most helpful."

And so, it was decided. Hajime and Tokio would go to Yokohama to rescue Naoya and Chou from the impending catastrophe. Tokio went inside to pack their things, and Saitou went to see what was taking Tsutomu so long with the bath.

This left only Jikiri and Eiji on the engawa, staring at each other.

"Eh, don't worry, Jikiri-kun. If things go wrong, I'll protect you." Eiji stated.

A high-pitch snort emanated from Jikiri's nose. "With what? A soy-bean? A bunch of radishes? The overwhelming beauty of your orchids?"

"So, you like my orchids, hm?"

"No, I...this Jikiri didn't mean..."

"You know," Eiji said, standing to go inside, "They only grow so incredibly lovely because I'm thinking of you when I tend them."

By the time Jikiri had composed herself enough to utter a scathing retort, Eiji had already left.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Whatcha got there, eh, 'Ko-chan?"

Eiko scrunched up her face as she looked up, and up, and up, and finally found her father's face. "It's a doll, of course, Papa. Jikiri-nesan gave it to me the other day."

"S'at so? What's it for then?"

"Just for looking at, I suppose." Eiko put the doll back on the wooden stand and scratched her blonde hair. "I don't know any ladies which look like that. Do you?"

Chou bent down to examine the porcelain doll. Come to think of it, the thing looked a bit like Yumi when she dressed up as an oiran. But, it probably wasn't a good idea to tell his daughter anything about that. Not for a few good years yet, at least. "Nah. Don't know any. Speakin' of ladies that look funny, where's yer Ma?"

"Kitchen."

"Take yer Pa's swords and put 'em up, eh?"

"Hai, hai, Commander Papa." Eiko saluted her father and waited for the bulk of his swords to be removed. The thirteen year old began to take them one by one and put them back on the enormous set of racks that lined the wall of the family room.

Chou walked towards the kitchen, admiring his house along the way. They'd taken that old shack on Miraiyu street, and turned it into quite a home. Built the extra rooms with his own hands, he did. Sure, parts of the house did still lean a bit to one side, but so did his hair, and so did Naoya's obi. All in all, it seemed about right for everything belonging to the Sawagejou clan to be just a bit off. It suited them all just fine.

Chou slid the shoji to the kitchen open to find his wife cutting vegetables. "Nao... Oi! What're you doin'? I told ya not to cut food with your damn tanto."

Naoya thrust the offending weapon into a melon as cleanly as a soldier stabbing a man in the eye. She turned around, her hands on her hips. "Well, what am I supposed to do, hm? Your daughter took it to mind to bury all the kitchen knives out in the back yard, and now she can't remember where...or even for goodness-sakes, -why-."

"Prolly all those pirate stories I been tellin' her... Ya know, got her thinkin' bout buried treasure n'all."

"I knew this was somehow your fault."

"Calm down, woman. Me and Eiko-chan will go find those knives later. You know I can sniff out a blade anywhere." Chou put his nose to the air and took a long whiff as if to demonstrate his formidable powers. "Oi. That's dumplings. Who's comin' over, eh?"

"Eiji's bringin' the boys." Naoya turned back around to stir the food, "Okita-san's plan went into action today."

Chou shook his head sadly as he stepped behind his wife and laid his hands on her waist. "'Kita-san's fuckin' psycho."

"Nah, he's brilliant."

"Insane."

"Genius."

"Crazy, I tell ya."

"But, it's so sweet."

"This melon is sweet, Okita-san's just got a death wish."

Naoya slapped her husband's hand away from the food. "Don't touch that!"

Chou grinned wickedly and slid his hand up Naoya's torso until he found a handful of breast. "Bet this is sweet, too."

"Aieeeeeeeee, don't touch that -either-."

"What about the other one, then?"

"Sawagejou Chou, you incorrigible damn fiend."

"Uh oh, she's usin' the big words again. Well, if I can't touch ya there, can I touch you here?"

"Eiko! Get my broom!"

From the other room, Eiko's voice piped, "Hai, hai, Commander Mommy!"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tokio pulled back the flap covering the carriage window, and watched the countryside roll past. The snow captured by the branches of the trees, the carpet of powdery flakes that paved their journey, it all seemed more brilliantly white than winter in the city. It exuded a friendly silence, one welcome to Tokio's ears after the noise of the train and the bustle of Yokohama.

If only their reasons for coming here weren't so dire, Tokio might have even described the journey as 'lovely'.

Letting the flap fall back down, Tokio turned towards her husband. He hadn't said much the entire journey, which wasn't unusual. But, from the way he had been smoking one cigarette after another, Tokio deduced that he was more cross than normal. She'd tried not to bother him, not to interfere in his planning, trust in his appraisal of the situation, but for once curiosity won over patience.

"What are you going to do, Hajime? If Chou shows up, that is?"

Saitou turned his head only an inch so that he could see his wife out of the corner of his eye. He was more surprised that she'd asked the question, than by the question itself. "I'll subdue him and take him to the Yokohama police. They can deal with him until the matter is resolved."

Tokio nodded her approval of the plan, and returned to looking out the window. Really, it was quite exciting being this far away from Tokyo. She hadn't left the city since they'd come from Osaka all those years ago. Being away from her children only exacerbated the butterflies in her stomach, causing an uncomfortable queasiness that made her feel light headed.

And Naoya...what was she thinking? How could Naoya do such a horrible thing to Chou? It seemed beyond the realm of all possibility.

The carriage came to a stop beside a narrow path leading into the nearby woods. Saitou exited the carriage first, and proceeded his wife down the unstable steps into the snow. The driver handed down the smaller of their bags to Tokio, and the larger one to Saitou.

"The house you're looking for is about a mile down that path," the driver said. "I'll be back next Tuesday around noon, provided the snow doesn't get worse."

The pair walked up the snow-covered path, through the remarkably thick forest, Tokio following Hajime. Thankfully, the snow was only an inch or two deep, leaving the journey chilly, but not difficult. Tokio watched her husband's back as he walked, taking care to attempt to step only where he stepped. His black haori and grey hakama stood in sharp contrast to the landscape, and reminded Tokio of a photograph she'd once been shown. Pictures taken by those western cameras had a way of sucking all the color out of the world, as if life itself were too vivid to be reproduced in all its glory.

The forest, too, lacked certain dimensions, such as sound, giving it the surreal quality of a particularly familiar dream. Tokio wondered if, by the crunching sounds of their trespass here, they had broken some natural law for which they would end up paying dearly. At any moment, the steel-colored sky would fall, the trees dissolve into poison, the snow rise up and claim the last of each body's heat.

But, no, she was worried, mostly, about Naoya...and Chou, that was all.

"Are your feet alright, Tokio?"

She should have bought thick boots in Yokohama, since in her haste she'd left hers at home. But, how could she really justify such an expense? She'd probably never wear them again after this trip. Well, there was no reason to let Hajime know how stupid she had been, just to save a bit of money. "I can make it, Hajime."

"I only ask because you are walking so slowly."

"My apologies. I'll try..."

"Stop it." Saitou turned around, his thick black coat fluttering noisily with his movement. With a quick snap of his fingers, his cigarette went flying into the underbrush, settling with a hiss into its newfound home within the snow. "You always do this, Tokio. This self-sacrificial game of yours is getting quite old. If you want to play the martyr, do it some other day. I'd like to get to that house before the snow starts falling again."

"But, Hajime, I..."

Saitou dropped the large suitcase into the snow. It tipped over, sending a small cloud of white powder into the air. As for Saitou, he walked towards his wife, pried the smaller suitcase from her hands, and tossed it on top of the larger one.

Before Tokio knew it, he'd bent and looped his arms under her knees, lifting her off the path. She found her head against his shoulder, her torso pressed at an angle against his. He started on their journey again, leaving the suitcases behind on the path.

"It always ends up like this, doesn't it, Hajime?"

Saitou looked down at the woman in his arms, his brows knit in mock annoyance. "Aa. I'm beginning to think you do it on purpose."

"One of these days, you'll be too old to carry me somewhere. What then?"

"Then we freeze to death, Tokio. What else?"

Tokio pressed her face against his shoulder, hiding from the rising winter winds. How was he so strong? How, even now, as he grew ever closer to half a century old, did he still have all the answers?

How had she ever managed to live without him?

"Hajime?"

"Aa?"

"Don't..." Tokio bit her bottom lip, in an attempt to keep from choking on her words, "Don't die before I do, Hajime."

She felt it before she heard it, his chest shaking with deep guffaws, vibrating through her clothes into the pit of her stomach, killing off the butterflies fluttering there. Tokio could count the number of times she'd heard her husband laugh like that on one hand. And exactly -none- of the times was she ever able to figure out exactly what caused it.

"Yare, yare, of all the things you could be worried about at this moment, Tokio, you'd pick the one least likely to happen anytime soon."

Husband and wife continued down the path in this manner for some minutes, Saitou watching the path in front of them as fresh flakes of snow began to dot the air, and Tokio watching the line of her husband's neck and jaw. He had grey hairs now, just a few, right above his ear at the hairline. And, his skin had grown more leathery and rough, likely from constant exposure to smoke. The tiny scars from this or that fight, she could read them like a novel of his life. The nick on his throat Okita had given him, a small one just above his brow from Himura Battousai, and by his ear, three little dots from where she had once bitten him.

Suddenly, his arms went rigid, and their progress stopped. Saitou turned his head to the left, peering into the forest for quite a few seconds.

"Hajime?"

"Do you smell oranges, Tokio?" He smelled them. Oranges. In the middle of winter...

Just like Okita's room in Shinsengumi headquarters, like the man himself, always smelling perpetually of oranges. It must be a trick of the senses, like the time in Hokkaido when he thought the sea smelled of soba.

Because if he wasn't merely imagining things...

This...wasn't....right.

Chou wasn't the sort of person to fly into a jealous rage.

The damn rat-girl would have no one else -but- Chou.

And Okita Souji was suspiciously missing from this whole escapade.

A peal of familiar laughter rung through the forest, the echoes bouncing off mounds of snow. Okita's laughter. A strained look crossed Tokio's face, but she made no mention of hearing Okita's voice, or of the fact that her husband had started walking again at a ferocious pace. A tiny gasp escaped her lips as she looked away from her husband and peered into the nearby trees.

"Hajime?"

"Aa?"

"Please stop digging your fingernails into my arm."

They arrived at the clearing moments later. The thick forest growth had been long-since removed, leaving an abbreviated yard in front of the log cabin. Snow blanketed the roof of the small building, ending at the easements in military rows of icicles. Thick curls of smoke rose from somewhere on the far side of the roof, mocking Saitou's desperate need for a cigarette by their scale.

Very desperate.

Because he didn't like this situation at -all-.

"Wait here, Tokio." Tokio found herself upright, and watched as her husband stalked towards the house. Tokio wasn't certain what had caused him to so suddenly become more disturbed than usual, and decided not to dwell on the subject. He'd elaborate when and if he cared to do so. On the other hand, Naoya's aunt's house struck Tokio as surprisingly picturesque. Strange. Naoya hadn't ever mentioned an aunt, but, Naoya tended not to talk much about her family. Perhaps they were, until recently, estranged? Well, the possibilities were limitless and it was perhaps less than dignified to speculate upon them.

Hajime climbed the steps and stood in front of the door for quite a few seconds, as if trying to decide something particularly distressing. Finally, he raised one thick-gloved hand and, with his fingers splayed, gave the door a small push.

It swung open.

Saitou stepped inside to find, just as he deduced, nobody was home. Yes. People often left their houses unattended with fires still burning, with lit candles littering the front room, and dinner laid out on the floor.

Saitou barged into the room, grabbing the most obvious object, a sheet of paper laying on the middle of the floor.

He read it.

And then he stomped back outside.

"OKITA!"

No one tricks the Wolf of Mibu. No one tricks him and -lives-, that is.

"Show yourself, Okita! Do it now!"

Tokio watched as her husband spun around, his eyes darting this way and that, hand flexing over the hilt of his katana. And he was yelling. Yelling for Okita for some bizarre reason. The whole scene was terribly disconcerting, so much so that Tokio clasped her hands together and took a few timid steps towards her husband.

"Is there some danger, Hajime?"

"Yes," he replied, letting the word hiss through his teeth, "Okita Souji is in very real danger of having his head removed."

Unfortunately, Saitou knew, Okita had already made his retreat. The other man wouldn't be stupid enough to stick around after a stunt like this. In all the years of his life, he had never been made to look the fool, especially not in front of Tokio. The concept irked him more than it should, he knew. She'd been duped too, of course, but that fact didn't help to calm his extreme anger.

But, what could he do? Okita's tactics had been executed impeccably. He couldn't think of anyone in the whole of Japan who would even -think- they could get away with such a trick. No one except Souji.

Saitou gave up on the prospects of calling for a man who had left. As he strode past his wife, he handed her the paper and said, "Go inside. I'm going to get the bags."

Tokio watched her husband's retreat back down the path from which they had come before looking at the paper in her hands.

It read:

Well, I guess by now you've figured everything out. Naoya and Chou are fine, of course. We all decided to give this to you both as a present. At least attempt to enjoy it, my friend, before hunting me down. It isn't like you can both walk back to Yokohama in this weather tonight, anyway.

So, Happy 20th Anniversary, my friends. We're all wishing you 20 more.

Okita S.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It took Saitou nearly a full hour to retrieve the suitcases. Actually, it took him only a third of that time to actually perform the task. The rest of the time was spent sitting on a fallen log, smoking, and considering -exactly- how to position his hands when he strangled his best friend.

Visualizing Okita's death had a particularly calming effect when mixed with tobacco. To Saitou, it was an hour well spent.

Not that he didn't enjoy being alone in his wife's presence. Far from it. But, he would do so when he chose, and not when Okita tricked him into it.

Wait. What if -Tokio- were Okita's accomplice?

No. Tokio possessed a severe inability to keep that sort of secret from him. He'd have seen it in her eyes long before they even left Tokyo.

Saitou trudged back to the cabin, suitcases in hand. Night was already falling, but he'd long since grown inured to the cold. A Yokohama winter didn't hold a candle to a Hokkaido winter.

And Okita knew very well that Saitou could walk back to Yokohama if he wanted. But, he didn't relish the idea of leaving Tokio here to return on her own.

Because...

Because...

Well, there weren't any solidly -rational- reasons for it. But, she was his -wife-, and the mother of his children. And she was, quite possibly, the only person who would ever endure emotional torture on his behalf. She didn't deserve to be deserted just because he had a bone to pick with Okita.

'Damn you, Okita Souji. Damn you and your squirrel-girl, too.'

He found Tokio in the hut, kneeling in front of some food. She'd extinguished most of the candles and opted to light a paper lantern instead. As always, his wife was practical, and far from wasteful.

Tokio, upon seeing her husband enter, swayed a bit to one side. Her hands had been behind her back for some reason, and she brought them forward to set the food out.

Odd. She didn't get up to take the bags, or his gloves, or...

Saitou sniffed at the air as he put everything in a pile beside the door. The smell of food, yes. Okita thankfully had enough sense not to bring anything foul. But, some other odor, something pungent and familiar tickled his senses.

Saitou's eyes darted right and left as he turned to face his wife. The room was simple enough, the only furniture of note a large dividing screen which sectioned off the corner of the room. Yes. Simple enough. So...

Tokio giggled.

Tokio......giggled?

"Do you find something amusing, wife?"

Tokio quickly shook her head, indicating that she did -not- find anything funny. On the other hand, Saitou noticed as he knelt down in front of the food, his wife's face seemed to be turning discernibly pink.

He picked up his chopsticks and began to poke at the noodles which Tokio had put into a bowl in front of him. For herself, Tokio seemed interested in pushing a slice of pickled radish around on the black lacquer plate by her knee.

Was...Tokio...playing with her food?

"Ano, Hajime..." Tokio cooed, her downcast eyes hidden behind short black lashes, "Ano...don't be hard on Okita-san, he's only trying..."

And then Tokio hiccupped.

Tokio's fingers leapt to her lips as her eyes widened with horror.

"Say. That. Again. Tokio."

Tokio removed her fingers hesitantly and tried again. "He's only...hic..."

Saitou put his chopsticks down astride his bowl and stood. Walking around the food, he leaned down until his face was only inches from Tokio's. Tokio tried her hardest not to look away, and settled for just slouching her shoulders and leaning backwards a bit. Her husband's eyes danced with what Tokio decided was the wickedness of realization. Did he know? Did he...

"Again."

Tokio took a deep breath in through her nose and squeaked, "Hajime...please, I..."

She didn't finish her sentence due to the fact that her husband was, in fact, audibly -growling-, by this point. He leaned in even closer, squinting his eyes until they became darkened slits of burning coal. Yes, he understood now. That smell. Sake.

"Goddamnit, Tokio. I leave you alone for one hour, and come back to find you drunk? Do you have any fucking sense at all? Don't you know what I went through to stop drinking after Hokkaido?"

Tokio finally gave in to the overwhelming urge to squirm. The room seemed uncomfortably hot, and her husband tantalizingly close. "I...I was so...I saw what Okita-san had done and...and it's just that...hic..."

"Spit it out, woman."

"I was nervous, Hajime. I didn't know what you would think of all this, but I knew you wouldn't approve. I was nervous because I thought that you might think I expected something of you... So, when I found the sake in a cabinet in the back, I drank it in an attempt to calm myself."

He didn't know whether to laugh at Tokio or slap her. On one hand, she -knew- what had happened after Hokkaido. If Saitou's leg hadn't been broken, there would have been no way that Okita would have been able to succeed in keeping him from finding drink. The poor man had had to sit at his bedside for days, keeping watch with a wakizashi, enduring unending insults and the perpetual reiteration that Saitou would kill him as soon as he could stand. She knew, and yet she did exactly the thing which would remind him of the one addiction he'd sworn off for -her- sake.

On the other hand, after twenty years of marriage and three children, she was still worried about what he would think of her. So much so that she, of all people, suddenly decided it would be a -good- idea to drink herself silly. Tokio. A woman whose only personal experience with alcohol involved one day in 1878 when she'd ended up stumbling home and spitting at her husband. It was more than mildly laughable, it was utterly hysterical.

"Oh my, it's so...hic...hot in here," Tokio mumbled under her breath, apparently forgetting that her husband was about 3 inches away and possibly quite angry. "You wouldn't think...it being winter...that a body could get so warm, that is." Shyly, Tokio peered up at Saitou, her face glowing with a sheen that reminded him vaguely of how she looked after giving birth to their first son. "I could see why...one might choose to drink in such a horrid place as Hokkaido."

He kissed her at that moment, not out of lust, or out of anger, not in sadness nor for sweetness. He kissed her because she understood him far too well. He kissed her and found that doing so still gave him the same feeling it had the very first time. Uncontrollable power. As if her body contained an energy source from which he could drink, time after time, and never become weary of the taste.

The dark tang of sake passed from her lips to his tongue, electrifying his senses. Dangerous thoughts sifted through his mind, heightened by the heat of her mouth, strengthened by the soft "Hm" that emanated from the back of her throat. Highly -dangerous- thoughts. He should send her to bed, right now. No, frankly, he should lash her soundly, for once, and -then- send her to bed.

Her lips slid down to his chin, trailing back upwards over his cheek and eventually finding his ear. Warmth slithered down his spine as she caught his earlobe and nibbled at it with immense fascination before moving to trace the ridge of his ear with her tongue. Honeyed words poured from her lips as smooth and tantalizing as sake itself. "Don't be mad, Hajime. You know, I didn't drink it -all-."

Although his mind rebelled, he couldn't help but grunt in appreciation of her efforts. She was being vile, utterly cruel, and completely tempting. How could such a usually polite and reserved woman turn into such a monsterous creature within so short a period of time?

"You can..." Tokio's hand disappeared behind her back and then returned. He felt the mild burn of the liquid coating her fingers as she slid them along his lips, "...have some, too."

Saitou Hajime, a man with very good sense, discerning and reasonable, practical beyond compare, then did exactly what his mind told him -not- to do. He slipped Tokio's fingers into his mouth, indulging in duel the addictions of her flesh and the warm alcohol dripping from it. When they had been cleaned, he lapped at her palm and wrist, finding spilled drops with a suddenly greedy tongue. Small mewls of approval passing from Tokio's lips only served to invite him further, to pass the point of caution and give in to the basest of instinct.

He grabbed at her scarf, holding her in place with the taught material as he twisted the length around his hand. The sudden movement startled Tokio, causing her breath to become stuck in her throat, and her hands to flutter to her captor's. She tried fruitlessly for a moment to pry his fingers from the material, the expression on her face becoming more and more concerned as realization of the true breadth of her misdeed blossomed.

"No, Tokio. You started this little game, and now you will finish it." He leaned into her, crushing her torso with his own, keeping her from falling backwards with only his grasp on her scarf. With his free hand, he felt behind her, easily retrieving the bottle of sake she had been hiding. Putting a few inches between their faces, he held up the bottle for her to see. "Don't start things you can't control, Tokio. You'll wind up hurt and have only yourself to blame."

Tokio's lips parted as if she were going to make some plea to stop the events spiraling out of her power. But, before she could speak, he lifted the bottle and drank so deeply that a small line of liquid escaped and dribbled down his chin. Sake. Kami-sama, the desire, the burn, the ultimate clarity which magnified the world into a calculated equation easily solved with the addition of violence. But, how strange... It tasted...flat and cold.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, watching Tokio's horrified reaction out of the corner of his eye. Gradually, her expression changed from terror to resignation. "If that is what you want, Hajime, then so be it. I..."

But, it wasn't what he wanted. The sake proved unsatisfying for once, and the taste, when not coupled with the deliciousness of skin, held little to no appeal.

He wanted both at once. Now.

Without warning, he moved, a predator conquering the most exquisite of prey. Tokio heard only the sound of the sake bottle being set down, and then found herself on the ground. Looming above her, a wild beast which she had unwittingly uncaged tore at her clothing without regard for propriety or safety. Was he someone else, now? Was he no longer the man who had been so concerned about a small set of scratches on her thigh? The same man who caught her fall from the second story of the apothecary and placed her so gently upon the ground? Was he...the master of control...lost to chaos?

Her alcohol heated skin hit the air, causing Tokio to hiss and writhe. His hands were everywhere at once, both keeping her on the ground and tearing at what remained of her clothes. She tried to see his face, to catch his eye, to find out what exactly she had released, but found his countenance hidden behind the thick shocks of black and grey hair which had fallen into his face.

There was a moment of reprieve, causing Tokio to crane her head in an attempt to discern what had happened, but before she could see, she felt the cool splash of liquid being trailed from her stomach to her neck. The sake dribbled over her hot flesh, pooling in valleys and crevices, running like tiny rivers over every inch of skin. His mouth followed suit, dipping into the hollow of her neck, searching out drops between her breasts, lapping ever so softly at the pool which had formed in her bellybutton.

Not a beast at all, Tokio decided, just a man driven to extremes by her thoughtless actions.

She ran her hands through his hair, pulling back his bangs until she could see his eyes. Rapt orbs of gold flickered their attention from her hips to her face.

"For what I have done... I'm so sorry, Hajime. So sorry."

"No, Kitty," he replied, licking his lips, "But you will be, very, very soon."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Yare, yare. I don't know if I can put up with you for another twenty years," Saitou said, watching curls of smoke dance towards the ceiling.

His wife, completely covered beneath the blankets drawn up to his chest, responded by pinching him on the hip...hard. He nudged what he thought should be her head with his elbow. "What are you doing in there, eh, Kitty?"

"I'm cold now," Tokio's voice responded as she nestled herself more closely to his side, "And it smells like you in here."

He felt her hand slide over his abdomen, followed shortly by her cheek. She rubbed her face there for several moments, attempting to find her body's missing heat. The sensation proved alarmingly amusing, causing Saitou to lift one eyebrow and chuckle lightly.

"Have you forgiven me, Hajime?"

In truth, he had. But, there would be no reason to let Tokio off so easily. "Hn. You're not even close to having paid in full for the damage you caused."

"Oh, poor, poor, teishu. His wife causes him such grief. However will he bear it?"

Placing his cigarette in the now-empty sake bottle, Saitou reached into the blankets and caught Tokio's upper arms. He pulled her until her head appeared from beneath the blankets, and her body covered his own. Tokio hid her mischievous grin by pressing her face into his neck.

"Don't ever even -think- of doing that again, Tokio."

Tokio nodded her agreement and let her eyes close. So warm here. So...completely safe and...

Tokio's smile grew even more wide. Her plan, this time, had worked quite well. But, of course, Hajime didn't need to know that. Making him forget his anger at Okita and the others hadn't been easy, but at least she'd been successful.

"Hajime...?"

"Aa?"

"Can we stay here all week?"

"Is there any more sake in the house?"

"No, I don't think there is."

"Then yes, Kitty," he replied, pulling the blankets over her shoulders, "We can stay."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Three months later. Springtime in Tokyo.

"Naoya?" Tokio lifted the length of her kimono enough to step over a box laying in the back of Snowflake Sweets. April was such a busy time, and the store had become littered with packages waiting for Eiko's attention. The enterprising teenager had started her own business of sorts. Delivery. She constantly ferried orders to the outer districts, stopping along the way to take the next day's orders from busy customers. Eiko's tireless efforts had increased the popularity of the store twofold, leaving Tokio and Naoya nigh shorthanded in the cooking department.

"Naoya? Are you about?"

"Oi!" Naoya replied from behind a stack of boxes, "I'm back here, Tokio-san."

Tokio rounded the shelves to find Naoya packing handfuls of tan colored chitose-ame into small boxes. "Oh my, there's a call for that at this time of year?"

Naoya laughed as she wiped a bead of sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. "A foreigner that Eiko-chan found. He says he's become an addict and can't leave the country without a year's worth at least." Naoya looked up at her employer. "You're dressed nice, Tokio-san."

"Mm, yes. I must go on a visit today. I hope you won't mind my absence terribly?"

Naoya clicked her tongue lightly and shook her head, "Tsk, tsk, Tokio-san. Dressed like that it must be a gentleman you are calling upon, ne? Well, I won't tell Fujita-san, but you will have to give me a raise."

Tokio pursed her lips at her friend's teasing, but did not respond. Instead she slipped two small boxes out of a pile and added them to the covered basket hanging from her arm.

"I should be back before closing time. But, if I'm not..."

"Mou, Tokio-san, I'm not sixteen anymore. I'll handle things. Go...go..." Naoya waved her hand dismissively and turned back to her work. As the store's proprietor left, Naoya muttered, "That woman is as bad as her husband. Everything has to be under her control. You'd think I hadn't worked here half my life. Silly old bat..."

"You're being nasty, Mama. Is it that time of the month?"

Naoya jumped. How long had her daughter been standing there? "Don't say things like that Eiko. You sound like your father."

"Why can't I say what Papa says?"

"Because your father is a goddamn savage. Now, go get more of these chitose-ame from the back before I'm forced to lash you like the little imp you are."

"Hai, hai, Commander Mommy."

Tokio wandered the streets of Tokyo casually. The air tasted remarkably fresh and light after having been so heavy and moist due to the spring rains. Vendors harked their wares with renewed vigor, enticing passersby with the promise of the highest quality, the lowest prices. Children ran haphazardly through the streets, their older brothers and sisters trying fruitlessly to tame the wild spirit of youth. A few of the shop owners called out to Tokio, sharing tidbits of gossip as she drew aside to politely acknowledge their greeting.

Beyond the market, the streets became less traveled, but not enough to be considered dangerous. Sometime later, Tokio stepped off the road, strolling into a grove of trees. A shortcut, yes, but one she often took to reach this particular destination. It cut the travel time in half, and allowed her the solace of the thicket. Birds chirped in the trees, tiny noisemakers to celebrate the confetti thrown down by the cherry blossoms.

Tokio let her thoughts drift to her sons. They'd gone fishing today. Well, as long as they didn't bring the things in the house and annoy Hajime with the smell, she didn't mind. They were growing boys, and likely needed meat, especially Tatsuo.

The denseness of the trees began to dissipate as the sound of water attempted to compete with the songs of birds. The fallen sakura became so thick that it felt like a slick carpet underfoot, and several times Tokio had to steady her journey by putting a hand upon a tree trunk.

Suddenly, as a break in the tree line came into view, Tokio stopped. In the distance, across a creek, two people sat together in a haze of falling blossoms.

Himura-san, and Kaoru-san.

Tokio pushed herself behind a tree, hiding from the pair of lovers upon whose private scene she had unwittingly stumbled. Peeking quietly around the trunk, she watched as Kaoru stroked the rurouni's auburn hair, speaking to him in tones so soft they would not reach Tokio's ears. Both Himura and his wife looked...so pale, Tokio thought, and even from her distance she would make out the bandages encircling the man's forearms and neck.

Tokio was about to turn back when she heard a cracking noise to her left. As she looked over her shoulder, something pressed against her from behind and a hand closed over her mouth to stifle her surprise.

"Yare, yare, Kitty, I didn't expect to find you here." Saitou released his wife's mouth and put his gloved hand on her shoulder.

She turned to find him gazing at the same scene upon which she had been spying only moments earlier. "I saw Megumi-sensei in the market yesterday. She said that Kaoru-san was ill and hardly eating. I thought it might be nice to take her something tempting, sweet dumplings and..." Tokio blinked, realizing her husband had literally appeared from nowhere, "Why are you here, Hajime?"

"My informants sent word as soon as he stepped off the boat in Yokohama. I was surprised. No one's seen him for almost a year."

"Ah." Tokio understood. He'd come to make certain that the man who returned was the rurouni, Himura Kenshin, and not another man, the one who posed great danger to their city and to their nation. But, from what Megumi-sensei said, and from what Tokio could deduce with her own eyes, neither of the pair would be able to draw a sword (or bokken), much less use it to inflict harm.

Tokio felt her husband's hands at her hips, strong arms holding her in place as they both gazed on the scene. It must have been hard for Kaoru, Tokio thought, to wait for her husband, especially if she knew how ill he was before he left. Tokio knew all about waiting. But, Hajime didn't leave anymore. He hadn't for a long time. They'd taken him off active duty and he now spent his time managing the Intelligence Department that he, himself, had helped to create.

He hated it.

Day in and day out with nothing but paperwork and underlings to direct. Nothing but files and Chou's chatter to engross his mind. He hated it, and Tokio knew it.

Tokio watched as Kaoru pushed back her husband's hair, gazing at the paleness of Kenshin's face. The whirl of sakura enshrouded the pair, a beaded curtain of white and pink trying desperately to shield the two from prying eyes. Springtime held them, caressed them, seemed made for the pair of lovers to whom time had been so cruel. The season wished to comfort her children, to stroke their faces, wash away the past, and laughingly seal away the future.

Springtime belonged to these lovers. Himura-san and Kaoru-san were as delicate and giving as the unfurling flower in morning, as kind as the fawn, as compassionate as the warm breeze which troubled no traveler. Tokio had never cared much for spring. It always meant the end of winter, the absence of the sound of snow. Yes, if springtime cherished the Himuras, then it was the crisp chill of deep December which protected Hajime and Tokio.

Behind Tokio, her husband's arms stiffened, only for a moment, and then relaxed. "He's gone."

The tone of Saitou's voice surprised Tokio. It was soft, but not sad, nor regretful. It was a hue of sound that she'd previously only heard him use on very few occasions. Deep and utter respect.

"Should we..." Tokio moved forward slightly, trying to decide if she should go to Kaoru to comfort the woman. She found herself restrained by her husband's arms.

"No. Let her be. She won't be far behind him."

She turned as Saitou's hands released her, looking up at the man who had just watched his supposed nemesis perish, not to the sword, not in the glory of battle, but to one enemy man could not conquer: disease. As always, he appeared unaffected, his countenance as firm and unrelentingly smug as ever. The man was not one to mourn, Tokio knew, especially not for someone he might have respected. As he often said, to do so would be to invalidate their life.

Saitou stepped away from Tokio and lifted his hands. He brought the left one to his mouth and quickly used his teeth to dislodge his fingers from the tight gloves. After removing the left, he pulled the other off, and deftly folded both in half.

He placed them in the crook of the tree's trunk, leaving them as a memorial, or perhaps because they were just no longer necessary.

"I'm quitting the force, Tokio."

"The Commissioner will be peeved," Tokio replied, picking up her basket from the ground. "You'll take the job Okita-san offered, then, I suppose? Teaching kendo to the girls?"

"Aa. For a while, at least." Saitou turned away from the scene, giving one more glance to the pair of lovers in the distance before saying, "Lets go, Tokio."

She took her place behind him, following as he walked through the grove, his western shoes crushing the cherry blossoms below. Long ago, she would have experienced overwhelming joy at the thought that Himura Kenshin had died. But now, she merely felt a bizarre detachment, as if the events couldn't have taken place inside the confines of reality. Besides her husband, there only seemed to be very few people who would possibly live forever. And one had just now died peacefully within his wife's arms. How strangefor him to go in such a manner. But then, he had turned out to be not at all what Tokio expected. Not evil incarnate. Not a murderous demon. Just a quiet and genial little man who very much liked the simpler things in life, and who wanted to put right some very bad things he'd done in his past.

Tokio supposed that he was not a man too many people could truly understand. Except, perhaps, for Kaoru.

"He was a good man, ne, Hajime? In the end?"

Saitou stopped. He plucked a petal of sakura off a tree trunk and rubbed it across his fingertips, slicing it in two with a fingernail. "Better than most, Tokio. Better than most."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Interlude of Many Years.

Many poets will tell you a great many things about Time, and how it relates to the fragility of life. Some will say that time which is lived in happiness passes most quickly, and that laughing days and joyful seasons become fond memories within the span of a butterfly's heartbeat. Others will deny this claim, and announce that those who savor life will be forever caught within the crystalization of every single instant, and that time will stretch itself into an infinity for those who do not take for granted the happiness they have been given.

Perhaps the Japanese poet Sami Mansei said it most eloquently in 352 A.D.

"Living in this world, to what shall I compare it? It is like a boat, rowing out at break of day, leaving no trace behind."

With eyes towards the horizon, and disappearing ripples behind, Hajime and Tokio lived a great many years together. And while it can not be said that every instant contained complete bliss, neither man nor wife could say that they had many regrets, if any, about the lives they had chosen.

They watched as their sons grew into fine young men. Men who walked with pride and confidence, men who soon developed their own well-thought-out ideas of how the world should be, and who set about remaking the land to fit those noble ideals. Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi soon married, and much to Tokio's delight and Hajime's dismay, soon added their own children to the family. Tatsuo did not marry, and instead, became a literature professor and went to work for Okita.

For their 30th anniversary, Okita Souji presented the Saitous with the painting he'd been working on for over twenty years. It depicted the couple standing together beside a frozen stream of water, the dark green of Tokio's kimono and navy blue of Saitou's uniform a stark contrast to the whirling snow. Jikiri teased Souji endlessly about how long it took him to complete the picture, saying that if he wanted to finish another before he died, he'd better get to work straight away.

As for Okita, his school grew and grew. The new era marched on, and as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, more and more young women wished to become educated. Jikiri became his constant companion and assistant, supporting the lofty goal her mentor had chosen. In time, she put away her kodachis, and left them to be quite forgotten at the bottom of some unknown cabinet in their house behind the University.

Eiji never married, but he asked Jikiri every week to do him that particular honor. He remained a simple man throughout his days, content with his gardens, and with teaching young women how to make things grow and flourish. His advice on such matters became highly sought after, with even the head gardener of the Imperial Gardens often seeking his opinion.

Naoya and Chou remained as feisty as ever, and though they had no more children, both took great pride in watching Eiko grow and become quite a remarkable young woman. Eiko soon took over most of the routine operations of Snowflake Sweets, leaving the older women to what they loved best: cooking, and gossiping.

Saitou worked for some years as a kendo instructor at the Tokyo Women's University. As far as Tokio could tell, he enjoyed passing on sword skills and bushido to the next generation, even if they were women. Tokio supposed that he knew that no more swordsmen of a particular caliber existed. He had outlived most, if not all, of their kind. And though Japan still had her enemies, his time was best spent training others for the duty he had once burdened solely upon his own shoulders.

They became quite old together. And though he now carried a bokken outside of their house, Saitou practiced kata every morning with his katana. His movements never became any the less precise. He never slipped, never grew tired, never skipped a single day.

And Tokio watched, every morning, until he finished his performance.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Late September, 1915. Tokyo.

"Where are we going, Papa?" The little girl reached up and slid her little hand into her father's gloved one. He had such big hands, and holding them made her feel very safe, and very happy. They were warm, not at all like her mother's hands, which were always cold for no particular reason, even in the middle of summer. Miyuki smiled a large, mostly-toothy grin. She was six. And yesterday one of her baby teeth had fallen out. It made her quite proud, and she showed it off whenever possible. "Papa?"

Tsuyoshi smirked and bent down to lift Miyuki up, tossing her onto his shoulders with ease. "We're going to see your grandpa Fujita and grandma Tokio, hm? Remember?"

Miyuki did, in fact, remember. She just wanted to make sure her -father- remembered, and that he was going to the right place. Mimi-chan giggled from viewpoint at the summit of Mt. Papa. He was very tall. He was the tallest person Miyuki knew, and she knew a lot of people. She knew Papa and Mama, and her older brother, and her friends from school, and Kumachi-sensei, and uncle Tsutomu and his family, and uncle Tatsuo, and uncle Eiji and grandma and grandpa, and well...lots more people. But, none of them were as tall as her father.

Well, Grandpa Fujita was almost as tall, but not quite.

Miyuki watched as a policeman walked past. She waved at him, showing off her toothy grin. He winked in return. Miyuki liked policemen. Her uncle Tsutomu was the greatest policeman ever because he once saved her friend Kitoyo from some bad men who wanted to steal Kitoyo-chan's necklace. When she grew up, Mikyuki definitely would become a policeman. Or, maybe, she might also become a great dojo master like her Papa. Well, she still had some time to think about it. Right now, though, she wanted to think about getting to her grandma's house.

"Now, which house is it, Mimi-chan? Do you remember?"

Miyuki put her fingers to her lips, and with a prolonged "Hmmmm" looked around Taito street. Aha! "That one, Papa, that one! Oh, look, there's Uncle Tatsuo! Uncle Tatsuo! Hellooo!"

Uncle Tatsuo, who had been walking up the street in the other direction, his nose buried in a book, looked up and waved. Uncle Tatsuo was her Papa's little brother. Miyuki didn't have a little brother or sister, but she was going to very soon, which is why her Mama was still at home.

Miyuki squirmed and wiggled until she found herself being placed on the ground. She ran up to her uncle and tugged gently on his hakama. Sometimes, her Papa said that Uncle Tatsuo was a very important sensei at the big school for older girls. But, then, other times he called Uncle Tatsuo a witless baka without enough sense to come in from the rain. Either way, Miyuki liked Uncle Tatsuo very much. He taught reading, and because of this, he knew lots of great stories from old books.

"Will you tell me a story later, Uncle Tatsuo?"

"Of course, of course, Mimi-chan. Now, look at that, one of your teeth fell out, didn't it?"

"Un!" Miyuki replied, nodding furiously. Tatsuo patted her head, grinning at his brother in greeting.

"Why don't you go on in, Mimi-chan? I bet if you find your grandma..."

But, Miyuki was already gone, flying down the front path of the Fujita home with excited abandon.

Behind her, Tatsuo straightened up, the smile falling from his face as he looked at his brother.

"How is he?" Tsuyoshi asked.

"Who can tell?" Tatsuo replied, removing his glasses to clean them with the sleeve of his gi, "He won't stay in bed, and he refuses to allow me to fetch a doctor. Mother is useless in the matter. She says that Father has never liked doctors, and there is no use in trying to change him now."

"The old fool." Tsuyoshi shook his head, but knew his Mother's words to be the truth. His father wasn't going to just lay around like an invalid, even if he was in pain. "That damn old fool..."

"Oi! Not so loud." Tatsuo looked around carefully, "He still has the hearing of a wolf."

Inside the courtyard, Miyuki skipped up the path. She found her grandpa sitting on the engawa, playing shogi with old Okita-san. Miyuki liked Okita-san, too. She, Okita-san, and grandma were the only people not afraid of Grandpa Fujita, it sometimes seemed.

"Grandpa! Grandpa! Mimi-chan's here!"

Saitou quirked one eyebrow without looking up from the shogi board. "Did you hear a monkey, Okita?"

"Hmmmm?" Okita, playing along, tilted his ear upwards. "A monkey, you say?"

"Oi, oi! I'm not a monkey, I'm a little girl. It's -me-, Mimi-chan!"

"Damnable zookeepers must have fallen asleep on the job again."

Miyuki put her hands on her hips and pouted. But, seeing that neither man was going to pay her the slightest bit of attention, she changed her tactic and decided to crawl up onto the engawa. She sat down next to her grandfather and placed her head in his lap, blinking up at him until he looked down.

"Aha. Mimi-saru. There's the monkey in question."

"Hello grandpa, hello Okita-san," Miyuiki smiled grandly, showing off her lost tooth. "Look!"

"Lost a tooth, did you?" Saitou leaned forward, moving one of the tiles with an evil glare at Okita. When he leaned back, he looked down at his granddaughter again and chuckled. "Did you get in a fight?"

"No. It just came out the normal way." Miyuki sat back up. She blinked several times in thought, "Did you ever lose a tooth in a fight, Grandpa?"

"Aa. Once."

"Did it hurt?"

"Not as much as what I did to the other guy."

Miyuki thought about this for a while and then looked at Okita. "Did you ever loose a tooth in a fight, Okita-san?"

Okita laughed, making his move on the shogi board with excessively wicked glee. "No, Mimi-chan, though I lost one when I fell off the roof."

"You fell off the roof, Okita-san? Why?"

"Because he's an idiot," Saitou replied without missing a beat. "Now go inside and pester your grandmother. Maybe she'll give you a banana."

Miyuki stood up and toddled into the house, scowling a little monkey scowl back at her grandpa and Okita before leaving. Once inside, Miyuki took a deep breath, smelling her grandparent's house. It always smelled good in here. Yes. Grandma's house smelled much better than her own stinky home which smelled like sweat half the time because of all the students running around.

Back on the porch, Okita said quietly, "You shouldn't let her crawl around on you like that...in your condition."

"Shut up, Okita. If you want someone to nag, go get married," Saitou replied.

"You're not twenty anymore, old wolf."

"No? But I did beat a potential thief senseless at the museum last week. And -he- was twenty." Saitou made another move on the shogi board. He'd been working at the Tokyo Education Museum as a security guard for some years now, having finally given up his teaching position at the University to Narajirou Fujiko.

Miyuki found her grandmother no place else but the kitchen. Miyuki liked a lot of people, Mama and Papa, and -sometimes- her big brother, and uncles Tatsuo and Tsutomu and Eiji and Grandpa Fujita...but she couldn't say she liked anyone quite so much as her grandma. Her grandma loved to show her everything fun, how to cook, and how to sew, how to do up your hair like fine ladies, how to make flower arrangements, and how to pick the best vegetables at the market.

Her grandma even showed her how to whistle.

Her Mama said that Grandma Tokio didn't have any daughters, and she had only -one- granddaughter. That was Miyuki. So Mimi-chan knew she was pretty special to her grandma, too.

"Grandma! Grandma!"

"Oh, Mimi-chan, look at you, aren't you getting big?" Tokio leaned down to look at her granddaughter, only to have the little girl whisper something in her ear.

"You lost a tooth? My goodness. Well, we should celebrate with some raisin jam, ne? But, shh, don't say anything or Okita-san will come in here and gobble it all up." Tokio tapped the little girl on the nose and set about finding her a treat. So, perhaps she did spoil Miyuki a bit. It was a grandmother's right to do so if she pleased. Tokio handed a little rice cake smeared with jam to Miyuki. "How is your Mama doing?"

"She's -huge-!" Miyuki declared, outstretching her arms and puffing up her cheeks to demonstrate. "My new baby brother or sister is going to be as big as a whale."

"So ka? Well, I suppose we'll have to make some food for you to take to her before you go home."

Mimi-chan nodded, her mouth too full to make a reply. Grandma Tokio took Miyuki's little apron off the peg on the kitchen wall. Miyuki knew that this meant they were going to cook, and cooking was always quite fun with grandma. The pair bustled around the kitchen together, making great bowls and pots of this or that. Miyuki told her grandma all about school and her Papa's dojo, and about how stupid her brother could sometimes be. Yes. Being with grandma was the best thing in the whole world.

"Grandma?"

"Yes, Mimi-chan?"

"I thought I might want to be a policeman like Uncle Tsutomu, or a great kenjutsu teacher like Papa. But now, now I think I want to be just like you when I grow up."

Tokio smiled as her granddaughter hugged her waist. "That's just fine, Mimi-chan. You be whatever you want to be. In this age, girls are going to be able to be so much more than when I was little. You just put your mind to it, and never give up, alright?"

"Okay!!!"

Tokio felt a sudden wave of sadness wash over her. There were so many possibilities for Miyuki. She lived in a world made safe, a world without slavery, and where crime and rampant prostitution were in decline. It was a civilized world now, one where man had learned to fly, where science made new discoveries each day in every field. Sure, there were still problems in the world...but little Miyuki could walk the streets, her head held high, proud to be who she was. She'd be a fine woman, Tokio knew, and probably do and see things Tokio could never even begin to imagine.

Miyuki lived in a wonderful world...a world that her grandfather and grandmother had helped to make.

Tokio closed her eyes as she heard the pounding footsteps approach the kitchen.

No. Not yet.

"Mother! Oh, Kami-sama...Mother..." Tatsuo slid the shoji of the kitchen open with a snap. He stood there, panting, strangely out of breath for how short a distance he would have had to run.

Tokio opened her eyes, looking up from her cooking as she placed her paring knife aside.

"It's..."

She had hoped the family could have had a few more meals together.

"Father..."

Just one, at least. One more meal before saying goodbye.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tokio sat in the corner of her room, her sleeping granddaughter curled in her lap. After they had brought Hajime, who still insisted he could 'walk his goddamn self', to the room, Tsuyoshi had gone to fetch everyone else. The house was crowded, overflowing with the dark whispers of family and friends. The sounds of feet and hushed voices pounded into her mind, intruding upon her thoughts, keeping her from thinking of much of anything.

Hajime looked...like Hajime, except his skin seemed a bit more grey, his commanding voice just a smidgen less cutting. He lay propped up on the futon, asking occasionally for a cigarette, and being firmly denied by anyone in the room.

As night fell, only a single lamp lit their bedroom on Taito street. Someone had suggested incense, but Hajime had called them a moron and shouted them out of the room.

One by one, people came to say their goodbyes. Or rather, Saitou -sent- for them. He had a few choice last words, a piece of his mind, to give to people before he would consent to rest.

He told Naoya that she was a rat-girl, through and through. Nonetheless, she'd done far better for herself than he'd ever expected. She was the daughter, he said, that he never wanted, and just couldn't seem to get rid of.

He told Chou to cut his goddamn hair. And he told the man from Kansai that he hadn't always been a horrible employee. Just usually.

To his sons, Saitou gave practical advice. Among other things, he said, "Never hit a woman. Never drink to excess. And practice your kata, because you'll never know when your country will need you."

Tokio wasn't in the room when Saitou spoke to Eiji, but noted that the gentle gardener had a strange look on his face when he left.

What he said to Jikiri was also a mystery, which was whispered in her ear. Tokio caught only two words. "Your father."

And then, sometime after midnight, Saitou sent for Okita. The short man entered, his face red and puffy from crying. Okita knelt beside the futon, his hands folded in his lap, looking down at his dying friend with tremendous sadness welling from his eyes.

"Well, Okita..."

"Yes, Saitou-kun?"

Saitou's eyes darted towards the corner where Tokio had been sitting all evening. He was quiet for quite some time, letting seconds pass into minutes before his gaze returned to his friend. "To the very end, Okita, I will live to the very end without a single drop of guilt, dishonor, or regret."

"I know, my friend, I know. I am so glad to have known a man like you."

"Aa, Okita. As much as it pains me to say it, I feel the same way." Saitou winced, not from the admission, but from the pain laying havoc to his gut. Well. It didn't feel quite as bad as being shot in the leg, but this one wasn't going to heal with a bandage and some stitches. And neither of that injury or this ailment were going to hurt as much as the one person left, the one person still waiting to be called to his side. "Okita. Bring Tokio."

Okita stood and walked to the corner of the room where Tokio lay in a half-zombie state of physical and emotional exhaustion. He helped her put the sleeping Miyuki aside and stand.

Together, they made their way to the side of the futon. Tokio knelt near her husband's chest, and Okita beside her. Unsure of what to say, Tokio slipped her left hand into her husband's, and used her right to brush back the sweat-slicked hair at his forehead. He watched her evenly, his eyes still as clear and keen as the first day they met, though now they were surrounded with cutting lines from age.

"Tokio..."

"Yes Hajime?"

"No crying. It is forbidden in this house."

Tokio nodded, trying her hardest to hold back her tears. She bent her head down, pressing her cheek to her husband's. She found his ear, and whispered, "You weren't supposed to die before me, Hajime. I don't know...I don't know if I can take you leaving me...for good..."

Tokio found her chin being pried away from his cheek. Saitou gnashed his teeth at the pain of moving, his nostrils flaring as he held his wife's face with a grip that never faltered. "I know what you are thinking, Tokio. Don't you dare even consider it."

"I...Hajime...I don't want to say...goodbye..."

"No. We've never said that, have we?" With what remained of his strength, he pulled her close, kissing her softly, gently, finding her lips as delightful and giving as ever they had been. He felt Tokio sigh, losing herself in their last moments together. She became, just for a moment, not a woman losing her husband, but a woman kissing her beloved. It felt like an instant, and at the same time, like an eternity.

"Tokio..."

"Yes?"

He closed his eyes, his body becoming strangely still. "I will return."

"Yes, Hajime. I know." Tokio watched as her husband's breathing disappeared into nothingness. "I will be waiting."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Miyuki woke up in the middle of the night. Or, at least, it seemed like it must be the middle of the night. The house was very, very quiet, and very dark. A lamp was burning in the room where she had been sleeping, and next to it, her grandma Tokio was sitting, some cloth draped over her lap.

"Grandma..." Miyuki said sleepily, crawling across the tatami to lean her head against Tokio's knee. "Everyone was so sad today. Are you sad, too, grandma?"

"A little, Mimi-chan, I am a little sad," Tokio replied quietly. She turned over her embroidery to pull her stitch through on the other side. Miyuki held up her fingers to touch the silky cloth. It was white, but it seemed to shimmer a million colors even in the dim lamplight. Her grandmother had embroidered grey and black snowflakes up the side, creating a beautiful winter scene with her needle and thread.

"Pretty, grandma. What's it for?"

"It is for a lady going on a very long journey, Mimi-chan. She has to be dressed very pretty, because the man she loves went on the journey before her. She wants to make sure he recognizes her when she gets there. And to make sure he forgives her, because he told her to stay and wait for him to return."

"Oh." Miyuki's mouth formed the word, but she didn't seem to understand. It was very late, and she was very tired. She rubbed her eyes, trying to stay awake to watch her grandmother sew, but ended up yawning. Her eyes fluttered open and closed, taking sleepy snapshots of her grandmother as she fought off the world of dreams.

Sometime later, Miyuki found herself being carried into the other room, and gently tucked into a soft futon. Her grandma smiled at her, kissed her on the cheek, and told her to go back to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Eiji found Tokio the next morning. She wore a white kimono, decorated in tiny snowflakes at the hem and sleeves, and a deep blue obi the color of midnight. Her face was pressed into the crook of her husband's neck, her hands holding his.

Beside her was an empty basket. It had once contained candies so sweet...

She never tasted the poison.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A great many people came to the funeral of Saitou Hajime and Saitou Tokio. Strange, they said, that a lone wolf and his quiet wife could have known so many people. It took place in early October, amidst a sudden cold snap that overtook Tokyo as if from nowhere.

Among the people who came were:

Sawageou Chou, and Naoya, along with their daughter Eiko.

Narajirou Kozue, and his three daughters, Fujiko, Ichimi, and Ayami. Unfortunately, Narajirou Kume could not come, having died the previous year in a fire.

Myojin Yahiko and his wife Tsubame, along with their children. Himura Kenji, too, came along with his wife and children.

Takani Megumi came along, and told Okita that she had sent word of his friends' passing to Sagara Sanosuke.

Fujita Tsutomu, his wife, and two sons.

Fujita Tsuyoshi, his wife, daughter Miyuki, and son Jirou.

Fujita Tatsuo arrived, but had to be taken away from the scene quickly due to being overcome with emotion.

Harada Shikiko, having come back to Japan to pursue her studies, attended the funeral on the behalf of her father.

Several remaining members, children, and grandchildren of certain members of the Shinsengumi were in attendance.

Members of two ninja groups, the Oniwabanshuu, and the Hachinisasareru, were said to be in attendance. But, being ninjas, no one saw them or could substantiate the claim.

Many of the faculty of the Tokyo Women's University, the Tokyo Educational Museum, and the Tokyo Police Department came to the funeral.

A great number of market vendors, as well as long time customers of Snowflake Sweets also arrived.

Okita Jikiri, Mishima Eiji, and Okita Souji arrived together. Eiji and Souji took turns giving the eulogy, with Okita reading a few bits of poetry, and Eiji relating fond memories of his adoptive parents.

In the end, their ashes were interred in Tokyo Cemetery. The stones read:

Saitou Hajime (Jan. 1, 1844 - Sep. 27, 1915) One sword, one ideal, one woman.

Saitou 'Kitty' Tokio (Feb 12, 1857 - Sep. 27, 1915) One step behind the man she loved.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

One year and three months later. Tokyo.

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

Okita had never particularly thought about the sound of snow underfoot. Imagine that. Seventy three years old, and he could still find new things to think about. Life never ceased to be interesting.

Of course, there were new things in Japan every day now. Strange but wonderful things from the West. Every year new girls enrolled in the school. Jikiri never stopped trying to find new ways to sneak up on him. Naoya had a new recipe for him to try every time he visited.

But, this new sound felt like poetry, light and crisp, echoing only mildly between the trees as his journey continued.

The fact that his joints ached just a bit could no longer easily be slid aside. Old sword wounds he'd long since forgotten attempted to make themselves known. Jikiri couldn't sneak up on him, but age certainly had. It must have been only yesterday... 'Well, then, if I am going to think like this, I'll certainly have to end up admitting that I am old. And I shan't do that. No. Definitely not.'

Grieving for his friends had been so hard. It was then that he had begun to realize that age had creeped up on him. It had been stalking him in the shadows like a hitokiri of old. Saitou-kun would have had some choice words about how a simple morning kata routine would leave him sweaty and ragged.

But, then, Saitou-kun could always pick at a man's weakness until that man unraveled like a ball of yarn.

And Tokio-san, if she saw him now, she probably would have worried. "You're not eating enough, Souji," she'd say with that enigmatic smile, "It distracts me to see you so frail."

Ah. He missed them deeply. Sometimes, he even caught himself wondering how long it would be until he could see them again.

They had such wonderful times. And some bad ones, too. But, of course, he regretted none of it. In the end, using his sword to make a safer Japan never pleased him even a fraction as much as using his heart to make so many good friends.

Okita paused at the gate to the Tokyo City Cemetery and said a few words of prayer. He'd never been particularly religious, but if praying was to be done, he'd prefer not to do it in front of his friend's graves. Saitou-kun would think it silly, and Tokio would likely find it too sad.

As Souji passed the bucket he was carrying from his right hand to his left, a sudden pain seized his chest. The bucket fell into the snow, thankfully upright. Okita put his hand to his mouth, leaning on the gate for support as he coughed.

Three perfectly round spots of crimson blossomed in the snow.

It had been like this for three days now. Ever since that night he...

He'd gone outside to take a brief stroll around the campus. The day had been long and full, requiring too much paperwork and too many meetings. A quiet walk could calm the mind. He'd taken to the garden behind the greenhouse, appreciating how well the full moon bathed Eiji's plants in a peaceful glow. A sudden wind had brought him from his reverie to the realization that someone else was in the garden. Jikiri trying to sneak up on him again? No.

And then he distinctly heard a very familiar voice say, "I can hold back the river of time for you only so long, Sou-chan. I'm sorry."

Souji became dizzy after that, so much so that he gave in to the overwhelming urge to lay down on the stone path. He'd found himself looking at the sky, the sound of rushing water assaulting his ears like he'd just fallen into the deepest, most unnavigatable, rapids.

And the sky...

The sky...

It was completely starless.

Okita remained leaning against the cemetery gate until his fit of coughing had completely ended. He bent to retrieve the bucket before heading inside. Well, at least Saitou-kun was dead, and couldn't ask pesky questions about why Okita smelled of blood.

He found their graves without much trouble, having been here many times before. Brushing away the snow which had accumulated on top of their stones, Okita smiled a bit. It wouldn't do to -not- smile. If he didn't smile, how would they be able to recognize him at all?

"Saitou-kun, Tokio-san, how are you today, hm? I've brought a bit of soba with me, see? Well, you can't taste it, but I had a bit and I assure you, it isn't as good as yours. So you don't have to worry, Tokio-san."

Okita used his toes to push some of the fallen snow out of the way, making a clean patch where he could sit. He bones creaked as he lowered himself to the ground. Souji pushed his hands inside the sleeves of his gi, hiding them from the advancing cold.

"We all miss you very much, you know," Okita said quietly, "Life seems so much less thrilling without you two troublemakers constantly stirring things up. Yes, I mean you, too, Tokio-san. You could be quite naughty when you wanted, couldn't you?" Okita laughed, the soft lines around his large brown eyes crinkling with mirth. "But, I think everyone has done their best to live their lives in a way that would make you both proud."

"Eiji is still Eiji. I can't believe what a fine man he has become. He loves Jikiri deeply, and tries to show her at every turn. One of these days, I know she'll give in to his advances. I hope it will be sooner rather than later. As for Jikiri, well, she's so busy now. In title, yes, I still run the school, but Jikiri is really the one who does all the work. She says that she wants to make sure that every girl realizes that they have great potential, and that there are so many possibilities for a young woman, if only they work hard. I think you gave her a good name, Saitou-kun. It fits her life."

"Ah, and there is exciting news, as well. Naoya and Chou went to Europe last spring. I tell you, they wouldn't stop talking about it for months after they returned. Apparently, Naoya made quite a splash among the social scene there, and everyone wanted to meet the 'refined lady from Japan'. The recipes she brought back to inflict on all of us were quite...ahem...interesting." Souji giggled into his hand. "And they went to Paris, so that Chou could put Yumi-san's ashes into the Seine. Well, I don't think you'd recognize Chou now. His hair is very short due to a...hrm...an incident wrestling Naoya in the kitchen which apparently tumbled too close to the stove. They took him off active duty a while ago, though he protested vehemently, and he now works as a clerk in the armory."

"Naoya is taking very good care of Snowflake Sweets. Well, Eiko does most of the work, now. The store's patented sakura mochi have become somewhat of a local favorite. The business is doing so well that Eiko is discussing plans to open another shop, possibly in Yokohama!"

Souji stopped for a few moments and looked up at the sky. Even though they were dead, it was still hard to say the next part.

"Tsutomu is doing well, and his family, also. Tsuyoshi's wife had her second daughter, and they named it Toki, after you, of course, Tokio-san. But..."

In a way, it made him glad that his friends were gone. He wouldn't have been able to stand seeing their faces if they were alive.

"I'm afraid Tatsuo... There was a fever that spread through the city in the fall. He...he didn't make it. But, his brothers were there with him when he went. We were all heartbroken, but Tsutomu most of all. He told me that he worried that you would both be disappointed that he couldn't protect his little brother. They didn't put his ashes here, because Tsutomu thought this place of death might not be appropriate for a young man who tried so hard to live. He's out by Snowflake and Midnight, which he would have liked, I think."

The sob in Souji's throat irritated the already sore tissue there, causing a sudden bout of uncontrollable coughing. Okita bent forward, and his cheek pressed against a mound of snow as his body was overtaken by painful convulsions. "Kami-sama..." Souji whispered to his friends during a lull in the fit, "I sound like a dog, barking coughs like that, don't I?"

Souji slowly tried to compose himself. The walk here must have been longer than he remembered, as he felt uncharacteristically tired for this time of day. His cheek remained in the snow. It felt soothing, especially with how strangely hot his face had become. Old eyes, still shining and rimmed with laugh lines, but suddenly weary, gazed at the gravestones of his friends.

"You know, I don't think I can put into words how much I've enjoyed this life of mine. Such sweetness, and such beauty... Such an amazing adventure. Each day more magnificently delicious than the one before. But, as much as I marvel..."

Another fit of coughing took hold of Souji. The small man outstretched his arm, catching a fist of snow which he squeezed in his hand until it became a hard rock of ice. His entire chest was pressed against the ground as blood leaked unchecked from the side of his mouth.

"As much as I marvel at the wonders of this world, I doubt I've ever known anything as unexpectedly dear and precious as the friendship that you both gave to me."

Souji's eyes closed as his chest exploded into a conflagration of pain. He could hear his own breathing, like a sharp whistle as he tried to suck in air that would not come between sputtering and progressively unproductive hacking. Darkness beyond darkness pulled at his mind, drawing him away from the agony of body and the sadness of spirit.

"...Why, if I close my eyes right now, I can hear spring already..."

'How nice it smells here, like cigarettes...and honey...'

"...If you just close your eyes and listen, you can hear them. At first, they may seem indistinguishable from the cacophonous sound that composes the symphony of water's journey. There. Can you hear them?..."

'Is it springtime already? Just a moment ago, I thought...it was winter..'

Okita suddenly became aware of someone cooing his name. Over and over, like a warm breeze tickling his ear.

"Souuuu-chan. Sooouuuuu-chan. My, oh, my, such a lazy one, at that."

Opening his eyes, Okita found the world bathed in not the fierce brilliance of snow, but the gentle glow of sunlight. And, not six inches from his face was...his own face?

But, not his current face. No, a younger version of himself, one shining with the pinnacle of youth and health. The lips on that face curved into a beatific smile, and its owner leaned back, clapping his hands with delight.

"Yatta! Most excellent! Ahhh, what's that look now? I thought you'd be at least somewhat happy to see me."

Souji blinked. "Ss...Seichii?"

"Well, of course it's me, silly. Is there anyone else who looks exactly like you?" Seichii put his hands on his hips and took a step backwards, blowing air upwards into his bangs. "It took you so long to get here, Souji. I'm going to tell you all the bad jokes and horrible poems I made up while waiting as punishment..."

It -was- Seichii, but not as Souji had hardly ever seen him. He was so...well...it was like he'd never been sick a day in his life. Seichii hopped from foot to foot, doing a bit of a jig of celebration as Souji slowly sat up.

A low male voice muttered from behind Souji, "You'd think he'd at least know his own twin. Ahou."

"Come now, Hajime. He's only been dead for a few minutes," a soft voice answered.

"No excuse. It is terribly irresponsible to not have your wits about you at all times."

Slowly, Souji turned his head, blinking into the sunlight as he attempted to make out the silhouettes. One tall one, angular and lean. And a shorter one, her arms entwined around the first, long white kimono flowing in the breeze as she rested her head on his chest. As the figures became clear, he found they looked just as they did when they, too, were young. Saitou rested his left hand on the hilt of his katana as he glanced from Tokio to Okita and back again.

"Sa...Saitou-kun? Tokio...Tokio-san!"

"Aa," Hajime said, one corner of his lips upturning to mar his sneer. Tokio, however, wore a quietly enduring smile as she waved. "Hello Souji. We've been waiting for you."

"Waiting...for me?" Okita Souji had never looked so confused.

"Hn. We'll explain on the way," Saitou said dismissively, turning himself and his wife away from the twins.

"Hai, hai, Sou-chan." Seichii extended a hand to his brother to pull him up off the ground, "We have to get back before Katsu-san starts making fun of Kume-san again."

"Katsu-san is here, too? And..."

"Oh everyone, Souji. Tatsuo, and Nagakura-san, and all sorts of people from the Revolution days. Even Himura-san and his wife are here. So, we'd best go."

Souji looked down at his hands. All of the wrinkles of age, the thick veins and swollen knuckles were gone. As he moved, he felt so light, the creaking bones and small aches of his advanced age having melted away to nothingness. As he peered at his brother, the patent Okita Souji smile once again returned to his face.

"Where are we going, Sei-chan?"

"Ah, to the ocean, of course."

Souji scratched his head lightly and shrugged, resigning himself to be led by his very energetic brother. Wherever they were, everything seemed fine now. Seeing old friends would be nice. And maybe the others would come along someday, too.

Hajime and Tokio watched as the two twins walked past, Seichii speaking quite animatedly to his older brother, and Souji laughing at just about every other sentence. Saitou raised one fine black eyebrow as his wife peered up at him.

"Shall we go, too, Hajime?"

"Aa," he replied as they began to walk, "Though, I do despise the sea."

Tokio's silent laughter made her shoulders quake lightly. "As do I, Hajime, as do I."

"Lets not stay here long, Kitty..."

As they disappeared into the blur of the springtime sunlight, Tokio finished her husband's sentence, "This place irritates you. I know, Hajime, I know. But, next time..."

"Aa, Kitty?"

"Next time lets try to avoid cross-dressers."

"Good choice."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Next Morning.

The officer bowed his head reverently as he opened the gate for Okita Jikiri. Overnight the city of Tokyo had experienced quite a devastating freeze, and as Jikiri meandered through the cemetery, her breath left a trail of translucent fog marking the last few steps of her path. Bundling her hands tighter into her woolen muff, Jikiri bit the inside of her cheek.

Eiji would be so upset. Jikiri took a deep breath in through her nose and blew it out her mouth slowly. But, at least once she told him, he'd tell the others. She couldn't bear to repeat such news more than once.

She found him laying on his side, one of his arms under his head. His other arm, bent at the elbow, lay outstretched as if he'd wished to embrace the frozen earth. Okita's hakama had blown upwards during the night, revealing his left leg up to the knee.

His skin. So blue and so fragile. His legs...so small. Was he really such a small man? To Jikiri, he'd always been massive. His extraordinary zeal for living made him larger than his little body could ever contain..

His head, tucked between the two gravestones of his friends, lay in a pool of rust-colored blood. Okita's ice encrusted bangs obscured his eyes, but the mysterious smile on his lips let her know that at the end, at least, he'd been amused by some parting thought.

Jikiri knelt down beside the body and ran her fingers lightly over frozen strands of hair. "Finally, this Jikiri sneaks up on you." The tear that hit Okita's face froze before it could roll down his cheek. "I just wish she could have told you that she was so glad you found her..."

"...Father."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The last page fell from her remarkably tiny fingers, joining hundreds of its companions in the pile.

She couldn't believe it. She just couldn't believe...

Jikiri leaned forward, stifling her mouth with the inner flesh of her palm. She let the taste of her own hand capture her mind. Anything, anything to dull horrible feeling. Salty. Her hand was salty. Or, perhaps, the tears were salty.

She had to focus on something besides this all-consuming feeling which she dared not attempt to name.

He couldn't have done this...not just for...not just because...

How many years had it taken him? How many nights by insufferably dim lamplight, scrawling out character after character? Where had he hidden it? Underneath the petunias? Inside the cabinet where he kept the seeds? How long? How long would one man wait to capture the heart of one woman?

The first pages were so yellowed and crinkled from time. He'd started this long before...before they died.

Jikiri felt like she'd been asleep for years. The mid-afternoon sun streamed into the office, making shadow-puppets of the objects on her desk.

Her desk, which had once been Okita-san's desk.

It was like she'd been asleep, and at the same time, like she'd never slept her entire life.

Summoning her strength, Jikiri wiped her moist hand on the leg of her skirt and reached down to turn over the pile of papers.

She had to look at it again. Just to be certain that what she'd read on the first page wasn't her imagination. Because she'd started reading this tale when she came into the office this morning and found it on her desk. And she hadn't stopped, not even for water, since that time. The only interruption had been her secretary banging on the locked door in a futile attempt to find out if Jikiri was inside the office.

The pages fell back onto the desk with a thump. And, on the first one, written in impeccable kanji, were the same words she'd read this morning.

"Hajime and Tokio"

by Mishima Eiji

Dedicated to Okita Jikiri:

"You are the flame that fuels my fire when it is in danger of dying out."

Jikiri brushed her fingers across the text. She could almost feel the words, shocking her fingertips like a heartbeat had been embedded within the paper.

He wrote...

He wrote the entire thing...just for her. Just for her eyes.

The next thing Jikiri knew, her legs were carrying her away from the desk. The office doors burst open with a bang, causing the poor secretary in the antechamber such a fright that the stacks of school forms in her arms went flying into the air. Jikiri's legs paid no heed, she just kept going, racing down the stairway of the elaborately decorated western building, running through the flocks of girls clustered there.

Girls and, remarkably, one red-headed teenaged boy, who was clutching the hand of a little girl holding a violin case.

"Ken-ni, that's the headmistress..." The girl watched as Jikiri sped past, "Rather, it -was- the headmistress. Oh my. Such a hurry things are here."

"Nevermind, Tsu-chan. Try not to get too excited. You know what the doctor says about that. Let's get to your audition, hm?"

Jikiri disappeared down the western corridor, thankfully mostly deserted since it was lunchtime. Underneath her feet, the marble floor stretched on for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she found the back door, and emerged into blinding daylight.

The ex-ninja had never lost her nimble lightness, and traveled over the field at an impossible speed. The greenhouse. It had never seemed so far away before. Kami-sama, couldn't Okita-san have built it closer to the main building?

Finally, she reached the doors of her destination. Her hands pulled them open so forcibly that one of the small glass windows shattered.

"Eiji! Eiji!!!!"

No human answered. Several of the plants within swayed with the addition of the outdoor air, perhaps whispering a reply in the language of flora . Jikiri ran down the main aisle, looking right and left to see if Eiji had been bent over, tending something on a lower shelf. No. Nothing. Eiji...wasn't here.

Though her panic rose, her pace slowed. Where else could he be? He must have known that she would come...after reading...then why...

Jikiri pulled open the back door, feeling suddenly lost. Beyond the greenhouse sat a small outdoor garden tended by the upperclassmen, a favorite place for the girls to gather and trade western magazines and local gossip, due to the shaded privacy of the large bushes and trees.

And on one of the stone benches, quietly reading a stack of papers, was Narajirou Fujiko, the kendo teacher.

"He went that way..." Fujiko said, without ever looking up from her reading. She motioned laconically to the west, and turned a page.

"Eh? Oh...ano...um..."

"My father was -not- this clumsy," Fujiko said with a scowl, "Nor was my mother this...insane."

"You...have the book, too?"

"Nay, just parts of the draft. I forced him to give it to me when he asked me to wait here all day for you to show up."

"Ah." Jikiri just didn't know what to say to that. Fujiko had been sitting here all day? Then Eiji...

"Are you going to go, or what? I told you, already, he's that way."

"Arigato, Fujiko-san." With that, Jikiri started down the path. Strange. She'd been all over the school grounds, but she certainly didn't remember this particular section of the gardens. The path had been painstakingly filled in with dark colored stones that glittered almost obsidian in the sunlight, and high bushes trimmed with the most delightful smelling honeysuckle lined the sides.

The path came to a curve, and Jikiri heard the sound of water just beyond. As she rounded the corner, she came face to face with a most remarkable sight: a stone wall, lined with moss, which perpetually leaked drops of water over jagged rocks into a pool below. But, even more amazing was that into the rock had been cut a long, perfect rectangle, capped with glass. It allowed the light to shine into the grove from the other side of the wall, illuminating the two objects imprisoned in the waterfall:

A sword, around which had been wrapped a delicate silk scarf.

"Did you like it?"

Jikiri's face followed the voice. She found Eiji standing against one of the bushes, his clippers in hand, as if he couldn't resist touching up the scene while waiting.

"Eiji...I..."

"Yes. I like it better when you refer to yourself in first person." Eiji smiled and put his clippers into the front pocket of his gardening smock.

"It is so lovely, Eiji, so lovely that it terrifies me." Jikiri could feel the tears on her cheeks, but didn't know what else to do. She was trapped. The magnitude by which someone could love a woman known once as Nakenashi completely destroyed everything she understood to be true about the world, and especially about men. She felt her knees give out. She wanted to faint. Or to die. Anything to stop feeling so incredibly wanted. So wanted and cherished, she felt certain that it must be unnatural.

And then she felt Eiji's arms wrap around her shoulders. She'd hugged Okita-san a few times, but nothing felt like this, so safe and right and...

"Come now, Jikiri, I hate it when you cry. It certainly isn't what I had in mind."

Jikiri laughed through her sobs, recalling the story she had just read. A man hates to see the woman he loves cry. And, he'll go to the ends of the earth to prevent it. Jikiri sniffled a bit more and pulled her head off of Eiji's chest, peering at the damp likeness of her face that had imprinted onto his clothing.

"I've..."

"If I could bottle your tears, I would use them to grow the most fantastic of all orchids ever known."

Eiji smelled so earthy, not dirty, but more like a field of spring grasses after the rain. How could someone smell so nice? Jikiri could resist pressing her face into his neck, just to make certain she hadn't been mistaken. Yes. He smelled just as she had imagined.

"You always say such wonderful things to me, Eiji. And I have been nothing but unkind to you. I just don't understand. Why? Why? How can you be this way? Don't you know what horrible things I have done in my life? Don't you understand that I don't deserve to be treated this way?"

Eiji slid his fingers under her chin and lifted her face. He had such massive hands, and yet, he was so gentle. Just like he was with all his flowers. He treated everything the same, with overwhelming care and enduring tenderness.

"I saw Fujita-san once. It was the night after Tsutomu-chan was born. Everyone else had passed out from drinking, or gone home already. I had been asleep, too, but I'd eaten too much and my stomach kept waking me up. Fujita-san, he was standing in a doorway, just watching Auntie Tokio sleep. He must have stood there for hours, just watching her. I don't ever think I've seen such an expression on that man's face. Like he was lost, and just didn't know what to do with himself. It seemed as if he thought that if he looked away from her, just for one second, she'd disappear, and he'd become someone else. Of course, I don't know what really went through his mind. All I do know is that, in the dead of night, when the whole world had reached an equilibrium of silence and stillness, he said 'I love you, Tokio.'"

Eiji took a deep breath and gathered Jikiri in his arms. A smile somehow both happy and sad caught his lips and reflected in his eyes as he stood. "I don't know if she ever understood how completely she captured that man's heart. I don't think anyone ever understood. What they saw was a cold man, slavishly dedicated to his idealism, someone calculated and cruel. But, in truth, he was as human as anyone. He loved, and he wanted to be loved in return for who he was, and for everything which he stood. Before he died, he called me into his room. He asked me if I still had my brother's sword. I said that I did. And then he said something that I will never forget. "I want you to have my katana, Eiji. And when you find a woman, you take out that katana and look at it. Think of every single way you could hurt that yourself with that blade. Every slice of your skin that you could rip, every organ that you could puncture, every stinging line of blood that would fall. Then, when you put the katana away, you look at the woman you have chosen and imagine if she left you. If the second image disturbs you more than the first, you've found the right woman."

Eiji sat down Jikiri down on the stone ledge beside the pool, his arm still draped around her tiny frame. "I say these things to you, Jikiri, because you are the right woman. And because, I don't want you to ever question how dearly I adore you."

Jikiri and Eiji sat together on the ledge for a long time, watching as the sun traveled through the sky, heading towards the horizon, seeking companionship with the low moon. The waterfall behind them trickled gently, playing a symphony to accompany the river of time. Jikiri felt so tired, and though she nodded off once or twice, every time she awoke Eiji was still there, running his fingers through her hair.

"It was a good story, Eiji. I liked it very much. Though, you did fudge some of the details just a bit, ne?"

"A few, perhaps."

"Though, I liked that you said Okita-san was my father. That was very nice. I think he would have approved."

"Mm? Oh yes!" Eiji lifted Jikiri up a bit and searched behind a nearby rock, producing a small lidded pot. He reached up and gently touched Jikiri's chin, angling her gaze towards the pool at their backs. "I wouldn't forget about Okita-san."

Then she saw the three large koi swimming in the pond: A black one, fiercely darting here and there, a snow colored one that moved silently through the water, and a much smaller orange one that seemed to exist without a care in the world.

"Well, Jikiri, shall we feed the fish?"

"Yes, Eiji. I think I'd like that very much."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

THE END!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Is this the END? Well, actually, I have an epilogue planned. I may end up not posting it, though. We'll see.

***Author Notes:

Well, that took just about forever to write. Please send all death threats to jikiri@ninjaforhire.com. But, all other mail you can send to me.

Speaking of mail, I've been so busy trying to finish this, I haven't responded to some email which has been sent. I'm going to have minor surgery this afternoon, but...after that...I should be answering email as soon as I am well enough to sit at my computer again.

I looked back over some of the earlier chapters, and I can't wait to go -edit- them. Yikes. A few months will really open your eyes to past mistakes.

I know a lot of people didn't want this story to end on a "downer", but I felt that this was the way it had to be. The epilogue, if I get around to it, will be more upbeat.

Well, I have enjoyed this journey with you, good reader. I hope it has been pleasant for you as well. Thank you so much for sticking with this story, as long an cumbersome as it is. And thank you to everyone who has written me, helped me through criticism and reviews, and sent in encouragement and artwork.

*** Fan Art Contest:

I've recieve several more entries over the past two weeks, and boy are they GREAT! You can see them on the "Fanfiction Extras" page off my website, which is linked in my profile. Or you can turn your browser to angrybee.vze.com.

The art contest is STILL ONGOING, and will continue until the appendix is posted (which is where I will announce the winners).

Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has enter, and everyone who will send entries. They have really been too cool for words. But, I don't have to gush about them. Take a look for yourself!

*** Historical and Chronicle Notes:

Saitou Hajime died in 1915 at age 72 of stomach ulcers. These were probably from excessive drinking, though he doesn't drink quite so much in this story, so we'll say it was from stress, cigarettes, and old age.

He quit the police force in 1891 (though in this story it was 1893 to align with the events of Seisouhen). I approximated the date of Seisouhen based on Kenji's age. I'm not certain if the year was actually said in the movie.

After working for the police, he went to work at the Tokyo Higher Normal School for Women as a secretary, though in our story, he's a kendo instructor. After that, he worked as a senior citizen at the Tokyo Educational Museum.

Tokio, I believe, outlived her husband by some years, though I can not substantiate this information, nor can I find any references to how she actually died.

From the picture I have seen of Tsutomu and Tokio, it looks like Tsutomu was in some sort of military force, due to his uniform. I put him in the police department, following in his father's footsteps.

Kaoru and Kenshin die as depicted in Seisouhen. No, I'm not a huge fan of Seisouhen, but I included it nonetheless.

***Character Notes:

I have long character profiles which I will be including in the appendix, as well as the meaning of some names and other fun stuff, so I will keep these comments short.

Mysterious Two Characters Talking in the School: The girl with the violin and "Ken-ni" are references to my story "Hot and Cold", which takes place around 1920. Ken-ni is Kenshin, grandson of Himura Kenshin, and Tsu-chan is Tsubame, his sister. Sorry, I couldn't help but stick them in there.

Okita Souji: I had a few extra paragraphs about some of Souji's thoughts on various things which got cut for the flow. I actually wrote his death scene first, and may go back and edit it some, since it seems a bit confusing.

Okita Jikiri: She may not seem like "herself" in the last scene, but you have to remember that she's past reaching 50 years old at this point. Eiji waited a -long- time for her. Very long.

Saitou Tokio: Do you think committing suicide to follow her husband to the grave is too much? Well, perhaps. I think it fits her, though. From the very beginning of the story, she's obsessed with suicide, with dying. She eventually finds a reason to live, and that reason is her husband. Why continue without him?

Saitou Hajime: I think one of my favorite scenes of the whole story is the first one here, where he catches the kids trying to dig up the dead cat. Sure, he's changed a lot through the story, but hopefully in a believable and still-Saitoulike way.

*** Glossary:

Un: Rather like "Aa", meaning yeah or yup, I believe.

Chitose-ame: "Thousand year" hard candy. It is most sought after during a certain fall festival.

Unagi: Eel.

Miyuki: Name means "deep snow".

Saru: Monkey

***Review Notes:

Well, wow. I'm always so amazed at the reviews you send. I'm still a bit drugged up from surgery, so forgive me if my comments are less than lucid. This has been an amazing adventure for me, and I'm so glad that others have come along for the trip. I don't currently have plans for another -really- long fanfic like this, though I will be working on several of my other (shorter) stories. I'm also planning on getting started on working on a book, and I will be taking the lessons I have learned here and applying them to that. Anyway, I digress. Thank you so much for your encouragement as well as your criticism and eye for detail.

So, super-duper end-of-our-story thanks to all reviewers. I wish I could re-list everyone by name, but it would take a little long. So, I will just stick with tradition and reply to those who reviewed since last time.

hoobla: Sorry it took so long! :D

BubblyBoo: I'm glad you liked the ninjas. I currently have two book ideas, one which revolves around ninjas, so that will be fun. The research for the story was all done on the internet and with books and movies I have rented. I will post more about that in the appendix. Thanks again for reviewing.

Charmed-Anime: Recently, I had a dream that Okita was an astronaut and trying to convince me to go to Mars to help the re-formed Shinsengumi fight aliens. Strange stuff! Anyway, who knows what she whispered. Probably something lewd! Originally (in my timeline), that scene was supposed to happen before they got married, and it was where she was supposed to say yes.

Shadow Knight5: Chuckle. Yup. A nod to Princess Bride. It just slipped in there. Chuckle. Oh well.

jbramx2: I liked that line, too! I should try to use Chou's policy more in my life, myself. Chuckle. Tokio is very pessimistic. I originally had a few thoughts along the lines of "What if Saitou's wife wasn't a swordswoman or a ninja or a housewife...but a creepy goth chick?" I guess that thought helped color her personality some. You still have time to enter the contest, so please do! And I would love to see the other pictures, even if you don't want to enter them. I don't know...Yahiko might need a crushed windpipe.....sometimes. *Strangles Yahiko when he's being a jerk*

bobo3: Ninja girl meets farmer boy. Chuckle, yup, that's about right. They're like some freaky episode of the Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres or something. I've never seen the dubbed episodes. Well, I saw one of the Jin-ei episodes once on Cartoon Network. I was so happy it was in English, but creeped out by Kenshin's very "male" voice.

^_^: Hahaha. Okita should have just followed the trail of cigarette butts all the way to Hokkaido, right?

badgerturtle: Hahahaha. Full of it, eh? I don't know if I could make this story any more R rated than it is. Though, someone did tell me that they are working on an adultish side story of Saitou and Okita for posting on adultfanfictiondotnet. That will be...interesting.

Wolfgirl13: I don't usually get this far in my stories either. I think I wrote most of this while asleep, because I just can't freakin' believe how ridiculously long it is.

ChiisaiLammy: Ah. Anji ended up staying in Blue Cove with Mei. It's in the chapter, but it is a very short blurb, so it is easy to miss. Well, I hope you like this newest chapter. :D Thanks again for all yoru reviews!

wazup: I'm actually working on another story right now called "Sundial". It isn't as long as this one, and it deals with Aoshi rather than Saitou. But, it has humor in it, as well as angst, so take a look if you enjoy that sort of thing. :D

Misao Mei Mei: Hey! There you are. :D There are a couple new entries now, which are on my webpage. I'm not doing any side stories, myself, but several people have asked to do some...with ratings from PG to X. If anyone does write some, I will list their names in the appendix. :D

Jade Goddess: No reunion, but...well...there is sake! Chuckle.

Animyth: Well, I hope you aren't -too- sad. :D I think you are probably very sophisticated, I just left out a few details in the last two chapters that would have clarified a few things. Well, I did kill off the main characters. I hope you aren't too mad. I'm not sure how long the story is. But, most chapters are around 20-25 Word pages (I don't write them in word, but in a text editor), so...22 Chapters times 20 is 440. I think my math has to be -off- on that, because that is just -way- long. As always, thanks for all your reviews!

Cherry Delight: Chuckle. Superspicious, eh? My spell checker certainly didn't like that one. Grin. You notice that Saitou -never- hurts Okita, even though he threatens to do it all the time? But, Okita gets to get his thwocks in -three- times (once with his sword and twice with his fists). Poor Saitou. His best friend is always beating him up. Anyway, in the end, Eiko didn't get an animal name (though her mother calls her imp), nor did Fujiko. I might have to correct all that in the edits. Well, thanks for all your reviews. :D :D They always bring happy shiny nougaty goodness to my brainZ.

Crystal Renee: MUAHAHAAHA. You did it! Now I have to go read the incredibly long fic I just noticed written by author "Crystal Renee" called "Coming of the Dawn". I like to finish reading stories all in one sitting, so I will have to eke out the time to do so. Yummy goodness. Hooray. Anyway, thanks so much for reading this monstrosity and blessing it with so many reviews. :D :D (Chapter 18: I guess he did sort of use reverse psychology on her, didn't he? I didn't think of it that way.)(Chapter 17: I was going to do "The difference between Okita and Okina, but that one sort of fell flat.)

Kenta Divina: You know, I just keep coming back to sake, crossdressers, ninjas and cats. If someone were a psychologist, they could probably interpret something about me with that. As always, thanks so much for your review. :D :D

ExternalDarkness: Thanks for reviewing!

Female Sesshoumaru: Hehehehe. Just a -little- drunk, really. Well, thanks for reading!!! I hope to read more from you very soon!

Wolf Of Mibu: Chuckle! OK. Thanks for reviewing!

Tenniyo: What does "momiji" mean? I've seen momiji trees, and they are very -red-, so I am guessing "red"? I actually studied a bit on Buddhism before starting this story, as my personal ethics align well with that ideology. :D Yes. Okita is very GLOMPABLE. Now I just need an Okita action figure to go with my Saitou action figure...and all will be well.

Catnip: Well, so far from the reviews for this chapter, I've had several votes for an epilogue, and several votes for no epilogue. I have it already half written, but I have to go back and edit it heavily because I hadn't added Jikiri to the story when I started writing it, so she's missing. I'm glad you have enjoyed the story so much. I guess the characters just seized my mind, and in the end, mostly wrote themselves, which is good. I wish I could read Japanese, because there are apparently a couple good books on both Saitou and the Shinsengumi in general which have not been translated to English. Well, maybe someday!

tinnitus: Taku Iwazaki did most of the music for the OVAs and OAVs. I really think they wouldn't be the same without the compelling music. I must have listened to the soundtracks from these about 1000 times while writing this story. My favorite is Taku Iwazaki's "Eclipse", which is the song played when Kenshin finally returns to Kaoru in Seisouhen. It moves me every time.

Lasaire: Well, no ladies for Okita besides Jikiri. I just really couldn't think of a love interest which would fit him. Oh, and thanks for your information on the uniforms. I'll have to edit that a bit so that it is more appropriate to the times. And, it explains why Misao was dressed so bizarrely in Kenshin Kaden!

kakashi-fan: Hehehehe. Did you like the interaction between Saitou and his sons in this chapter? Man. I would -not- want that guy as my dad! Well, thanks for reviewing!

IceRain: I hope a DVD of the Shinsengumi Drama will be for sale eventually. I've heard all sorts of great things about it already. And he LICKED his sword? HOW COOL IS THAT? *die*

AiteanE: Chuckle. MUTOTSU! That should be Tsutomu's secret move, eh? Though, I can't for the life of me think of what it would be like. You know, I've given some thought to Saitou's Hair (?!?!!?), and I wonder...did Watsuki do it on purpose to give him a "caged" look. You know, like a -caged- wolf? Ponder ponder. I guess Jikiri is a bit Aoshi-ish. Ninja. Kodachis. Hardly ever smiling. Though, picturing her in a white-and-yellow trenchcoat is a lot like picturing Kenshin in hiko's mantle, ne?

Shimizu Hitomi: Heheheheeh. Thanks for reviewing!!!!

LSR-7: I never thought about Seisouhen that way, but I think you are right. The part I liked least about Seisouhen is when Kenshin -allowed- Kaoru to contract his disease. No, I do not think that would happen in a zillion years.

stovetop00: Hahaha. Glad you liked Kamatari's mispronounciation. :D

fujifunmum: Hm. Okita probably did tell him eventually. I was actually going to lengthen out the chapter with some scenes of what tragedies hit Okita and Saitou before they headed home, and then make them arrive back on Tanabata. Oh well, maybe I will clean it up in edit. Thanks again for your review!

Veleda: Yeah. I had to give Anji a happy ending. That bizarre little flashback wasn't planned at all, but I like how it turned out. :D

vegetachanlover: MY GOODNESS, it must have taken you a half hour to write that review! It is so LONG! Well, I tried to write Anji as this sort of quiet monk, very concerned for what he had done in the past, but not a fool looking to be trampled on, either. In a way, Anji reminds me a -lot- of Kenshin. He just wants to be a simple sort of guy and get on with his life. I might have to write a story now with the major RK characters all being forced to babysit. Shishio-sama, Shishio-sama, I'm hungrrrrrry, lets play! Anyway, Harada Sanosuke was the captain of the 10th troop of Shinsengumi. He's actually in an earlier flashback, briefly, when OKita and Saitou discover Shishio is the new assassin in town. I think one reason that Okita and Jikiri work so well together is because Okita has the innocence that Jikiri missed out on. Being with him is definitely like being given a second chance at childhood, even when she is older. Anyway, Sundial will be the next story I work on finishing. There's a plot breakdown that I am working on fixing which...actually...has to do with the sundial itself. But I digress. Thanks again for reviewing!

lone_wolf_236: Well, I hope I didn't delve -too- much into the "S-event" for your tastes. In the manga, it says that Saitou actually transferred to another district, and the Himuras never see him again. In this story, he and Tokio just end up going in a different direction and not associating much with the Kenshingumi in later life. I've gotten -two- really cute fanart drawings of Jikiri so far. Well, one isn't so much -cute- as it is frightening. Thanks for saying all those words...even if you are running out of them. :D

Kaia Harker: You skipped class? OH NO!!! Wow. Eight hours, hm? That's longer than it took me to read the 3rd Harry Potter book. Which is not to say that you are a slow reader, but that I need to remember not to put ever -damn- thing into the stories I write. So much babble and babble and babble. Anyway, I hope you do enter the FanArt contest. I look forward to your entry!!!!

darktenshi: Well, no actual reunion scene, but I hope you like the last chapter, nonetheless. :D Well, I wish I had a friend like Okita who would come find me in the middle of nowhere and slap me silly when I am being an idiot. Teehee.

The Narrator: Pookie! Hahahaha. I'm inferring that this means "girlfriend"? Yeah, I don't even think -Tokio- could get away with punching Saitou -hard- twice. Not that she could probably do it to any degree of success, but only Okita... Those monks are so damn -clever- with their insight, eh? I'm surprised that chapter didn't have more "Damn monks" being muttered by Saitou. Sapporo beer, eh? I will have to try that sometime!