AN: Sorry for such a long wait, everyone! I just want to state that this has nothing to do with 'Yukijurou'. This is a new story which I'm currently trying out, so please read and tell me what you think of it!
"Let's run away today, Yuki-chan." A six year-old girl whispered to her doll, a roughly made poppet that had never left her side ever since her mother had made it for her.
She hugged the doll to her tightly, then cast a last glance at the sleeping children. They were all not much older than she was, and yet she felt so much more alienated. A neighbour had dropped her off here less than a week ago, and she hated it. She wanted her parents.
"But your parents are dead," they would always tell her softly. "If you are a good girl, your new parents will come, and they will love you, too."
But she only wanted her old parents.
She would go back, she decided. Her parents would be back if she went back to their house. Even though there would be nothing left but charred remains where their house stood, she knew that they would find her there.
With that thought in mind, she quietly slipped past the open shoji door and out. Nirumi-sensei would be deep in sleep by now, and so would not be checking on them. By tomorrow, she would be long gone.
"Home," she sighed quietly to Yuki-chan as she crept out of the large doors that had been left ajar. Once outside, she paused for a moment. Where should she go next?
In all her calculations and planning, there was one thing missing. Where was her home? Which way should she go?
The night seemed so much darker and colder outside, and it suddenly seemed like she was the only one in the entire world. Frightened, she wandered along, taking meandering turns that seemed to lead to darker and darker places. Clutching Yuki-chan tightly, she felt tears prick at her eyes. She was lost.
She was never going to go home.
"Kaa-chan…" Where was Mother? She wanted her mother.
Sinking down to the ground, she squeezed Yuki-chan and sobbed. She was lost in a dark, dark place and no one wanted her anymore. Was this where naughty children went? Nirumi-sensei had said so.
"I'll never be naughty again," she cried into her doll. "I promise I'll be good. Let me go home…I won't be naughty again…"
"Hello," a quiet voice broke the silence. "You must be hungry."
The little girl instinctively cowered against the wall. The person was wreathed in shadow, and the fact that she couldn't see him clearly scared her even more. He must be one of the monsters here! "No! G-go away! I'm not a bad person!"
"Here." A rice ball suddenly entered her line of vision, and she slapped it away immediately, squeezing her eyes shut.
"Go away! I just want to go home…"
"Where's your home?" The figure squatted, and Jarenna finally caught a look at his face. He was young and friendly, and not much older than her. She stared at him in surprise.
"You're not a monster."
He laughed, eyes twinkling. "I'm not a monster. I'm a boy! See?"
She hesitated and looked around, forgetting her tears. "I thought only monsters stayed here…are you lost, too?"
"I…I stay here."
"Here? But it's so dark…"
"It's dark everywhere, silly! It's nighttime!" He sat down next to her, rice ball already forgotten. "Are you lost?"
"I…I want to go home."
"I'll help you, then. Where do you live?"
"I don't know…"
"Eh? How can you not know? Where did you come from?"
"OI, damn brat. What the hell are you still doing out here?" Came another voice, much deeper and a touch more sneering. There was the flick of a match, and the sudden glare of a lantern. It was now that she realized that she was not in an evil place, but in the backyard of someone's house.
She watched the vein in the boy's head throb visibly as he stood up.
"My name is Soujirou!"
The lantern came nearer, and the little girl screamed, scaring the both of them. This one was a monster! A real monster!
"Oi," the monster grunted. "You brought your little girlfriend here for a grope or something, wuss?"
"MONSTER!" she screamed, throwing her doll at him with all her might. The doll promptly smacked him hard in the face as she tried to scuttle away.
"Why, you—" the monster growled, and the lantern came closer. She squeezed her eyes shut, knowing that she was about to die. Ohh, why did she have to pick tonight to run away? She felt herself being lifted up, and when she opened her eyes, she was staring down into the monster's face. It looked like a man.
She screamed again and kicked out, trying to get free. Was it going to eat her? "I'll be good!" She bawled. "Don't eat me, don't eat me!"
"She even wibbles like you, brat." The monster grunted. Then he frowned. "Aren't you the new kid in that orphanage?"
"What's going on, Toshi?" A sleepy voice queried. Another big man came out, and a terrified She renewed her desperate bid to get free.
"I found the wuss and this little girl in your backyard, Kat-chan." He replied with a smirk.
"Eh? A girl?"
"Yeah. I was just about to bring her back, and spend a little time with Nirumi…"
"You horny bastard, you."
"Don't eat me! I wanna go hooommme…"
"All right! Jeez! Don't wake up the entire neighbourhood already!" the monster snapped, and suddenly she was flung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
"Be careful with her, Toshi!"
"Why did Kat-chan's mother have to be so mean…" Soujirou was huddled amongst the long grass—his only solace. The Bad Egg and Kat-chan's mother hated to see him crying, so he had to do it somewhere else.
With a dirt-smudged hand, he clumsily wiped away his tears, only to have them start again. No one wanted him, anyway. The Bad Egg called him 'Souji' and a lot of other bad names, and Kat-chan's mother was always yelling at him and making him do things. There had never been a smile to spare for him.
Suddenly, the long grass shifted, and a familiar face peered down at him. "Hey…why are you crying? Are you hurt?"
He stared at her, wide-eyed. "Ehhh…? You're that girl from yesterday!"
She stared back at him for a long moment, then recognition dawned on her face. "You're the big brother from yesterday."
He was flattered. "No one ever called me Big Brother before." Soujirou had always been the baby of the family, and had never had someone younger than him to look after.
The little girl squinted at him, then said, "Boys don't cry."
He scowled as she dug around in her plain yukata. Was she going to make fun of him, too? "You don't need to tell me that, too! I—"
"Here." A plain sweet was held out to him.
"Nirumi-sensei always gives me sweets when I'm sad. She says that eating it will make me feel better, because sweet things chase sad things away."
Tentatively, he reached out and took the sweet from her. He'd rarely gotten candy, and had been longing for it ever since his sister brought him to the dojo and left him there. "Th-thank you."
He took it and popped it into his mouth, but almost choked as the little girl suddenly took his hand, her small fingers winding tightly through his. "Wh-wha—"
"Sensei always does this," she told him matter-of-factly, not letting go of his hand. "And it always makes me feel good. It will make you feel better, too. Sensei says that people who cry are lonely, and they need people to love them so they can be brave. So don't cry, I'll love you, so you can be brave, too."
"Are you going to run away again?"
She jumped in fright. That voice, she recognized that voice… Spinning around, she saw the handsome, girlish-looking boy she'd seen earlier. Her new friend!
"I'm going to find Yuki-chan," she told him. "And then I'm going to run away."
"Yuki-chan?" he frowned, then held up her doll. "Is this Yuki-chan?"
Grinning broadly, she grabbed her doll from him and hugged it. "Yuki-chan! You found her!"
"I wanted to give it back to you this morning, but—"
The breath was knocked out of his lungs as she hugged him tightly. "Thank you!"
Following that, she tucked Yuki-chan securely into the folds of her kimono and prepared to set off, this time in an opposite direction.
"Wh—where are you going?"
"Home." She stopped and frowned at him. "Why don't you run away too? There are so many monsters in your house. Won't they eat you up? Let's run away together, then we can go to my home! My Mother and Father are very nice, you'll see!"
He was confused. "Isn't this your home?"
"No! Nirumi-sensei says that my new parents are coming to get me tomorrow, but I don't want to go! I want to go back to my old home!"
Maybe it would be good, he could run away with her and see if her home was nice. His family didn't want him, Kat-chan's mother and that bad egg Hijikata-san always made him cry. Maybe her home would be better.
"I'll come with you!"
She beamed at him. He was a good person; Mother and Father would be happy when they saw him. "Really?"
"Yes, but wait for me for a little while, just a little while!" He needed to pack his things and get a little food, then they were all ready to go.
Her face fell. Was he going to leave her too? "Where are you going?"
"I need to get my things. Wait for me, I'll come with you, I promise!"
She looked uncertain. He took off the red string he'd always worn and slipped it onto her wrist. "Here, a promise!" He had to make it fast before anyone found out what he was going to do. "Don't leave without me, okay? I'll be back soon!"
With a broad grin, The little girl hugged her doll to her and nodded. They were going to run away together! She didn't even know his name, but it seemed like she had known him forever. Mother and Father would be happy to see him, and then he could be her Big Brother and then they could all be happy together!
And so she waited.
She waited until the sun rose and Nirumi-sensei found her outside.
And waited until she was all cleaned up and dressed in her least dirty clothes.
She was still waiting when her new parents came to take her away.
"Why didn't you come back?" she mumbled to herself as her new father picked her up carefully and carried her. After waiting for the entire night, she was too sleepy to be upset. Her new father's shoulder was warm and comfortable, and she was falling asleep.
Her grip on Yuki-chan weakened, and soon the doll slipped from her grasp, falling to the ground.
Soujirou panted as he ran towards the orphanage. Kat-chan's mother had caught him taking food, and all hell had broken loose. He'd been banned from going out, and it was only now that he'd managed to sneak out. Would the girl still be there? Would she be angry? He really wanted to go with her. Kat-chan was a nice person, but the girl was a nice person too, and he wanted to see what her home was like.
'Please still be there!' he thought as he sprinted, adding more speed into it. He was sorry he'd taken so long and that she had to wait.
Running up the dust path, he skirted past a man and a woman. The man was carrying his child, who was asleep on his shoulder.
It was at this moment in time that the boy named Okita Soujirou had missed the girl who would later be known as Yukijurou Jarenna by a hairsbreadth.
And yet, the years would go by, maturing the both of them. This particular interlude would not be forgotten by either one, however. How could they, when they've each got a piece of the other?
Considering the looming threat of revolution, and the emergence of fierce new peacekeeping troops patrolling the streets nowadays, the place was still bustling with activity, and children still ran and played together.
Jarenna licked her fingers fleetingly upon finishing the sweetcake Yanagi had purchased on a whim earlier. The two ladies strolled the streets lackadaisically, chatting about the latest fashions and what powder they should buy while a dazed Kimiko followed behind.
She was still stunned at the cold-blooded murder of that little boy. Being relatively new, she'd only gone out of a few missions, and had never seen Jarenna kill children before. She wasn't sure if she wanted to.
That's not the way it's supposed to be,she thought, fighting back a chill. Aren't we supposed to follow some kind of code? Shouldn't we just let kids live?
Kimiko loved children. To her, they could do no wrong, and did not deserve death. Most of the clients they had deserved it one way or another, but the boy did not.
And yet the two of them looked at him as if he deserved it. Even the cool, composed Yanagi had—
"Come on, Kimiko!" Jarenna called cheerfully. "You've got to hurry, or Old Man Matsu's going to be all out of his finest silks!"
"They've got a nice shade of pink that will suit you perfectly," Yanagi mused thoughtfully as they stopped and waited for her to catch up with them. "It'll bring out the color in your cheeks."
Kimiko didn't know how to respond to that. She was saved from it, though, when their servant's young son ran up to them, obviously out of breath.
He's not a lot older than the child we killed today,she thought absently.
"What is it?" Yanagi asked quietly, not wanting to make a scene. Already a couple of people were shooting them curious looks at the urgency that the boy had displayed. Kimiko thought that it was pretty much unneeded. None of the servants in the estate knew what they really did, or who they really were, after all. What was the boy going to say that would be classified as confidential?
"Your-your mother needs you," he panted, wiping the sweat of his brow. Obviously, he'd run all the way here, a decidedly impressive feat.
He was about to say something more when a voice bellowed. "Move it! Move it! MOVE, DAMMIT!"
Yanagi idly pulled him out of the way of a little redhead that barreled past, clutching the Shinsengumi recruitment notice. The boy charged like a raging bull, knocking people out of his way and leaving a trail of smoke behind. Within seconds he was gone.
"Wow." Jarenna remarked, distracted. "I didn't know someone so small can run so fast."
"OIIIII, TEEEETSUUUU!" A much larger person sprinted past them, significantly slower than the first runner. He obviously had better lungs, though, because they could hear him babbling as he ran.
"I wonder what the kid's going to do with the sign," Jarenna wondered aloud, obviously interested. The Shinsengumi had been in town for awhile now, and they'd established quite a reputation. None of the girls really cared about them, but ever since their appearance, the crime rate had dropped quite drastically. There were more deaths, of course, but at least one could walk safely in the streets now without getting robbed.
"He might be hitting people with it." Yanagi shrugged, completely unperturbed. She turned to the boy, who was trying to get their attention. "Did she say what it was about?"
"Uhm…she said that she wanted white plum blossoms."
Yanagi stiffened, and the three girls exchanged identical looks. They landed a big one this time.
"Well then," Jarenna piped up cheerfully. "Let's go and see if we can get some for Mother, shall we?" The bigger the danger, the larger the payout. The larger the payout, the happier Jarenna was. The question was, who were they going to kill this time? It was definitely someone relatively important, but who?
"Hijikata Toshizou?" Yanagi almost spilled her tea. The man was well-known for his womanizing ways, and even more well-known for being the merciless Vice-chief of the Shinsengumi. He was the most bloodthirsty wolf of the entire pack, and they want to kill him? The more important thing was, they had never been involved with politics before, and had an unspoken rule not to interfere when it came to the samurai, and—
Hatsue calmly pushed a few sheets of paper towards them, ignoring Yanagi's look of incredulity. "Yes. We just had a client early today. He gave us these drawings and clear instructions. The rewards will be substantial."
"But Omitsu and her clan are going to kill Hijikata tonight, and I thought we never int—"
Hatsue's lip curled in distaste. "They're lambs to the slaughter. Do you think Hijikata Toshizou can be slain by them?" She snorted. "Like I always said, never send a woman to do a man's job. What every man needs is seduction through and through." She locked eyes with them and emphasized each word clearly. "And at the moment of death, he should never see it coming, no matter who or how smart he is." She took a sip of her own tea and smiled, looking very much like the proverbial cat that had caught the canary. "That is why the client came to us. He knows what men want. And we are the best ones to give it to them."
"These are not just men, Hatsue-san. These are samurai. The very people we should not mess with—"
"And why not?" Came the cool reply.
Jarenna reached for the sheet of paper that was handed to her. Kimiko saw her eyes darken, but to her surprise, the other woman said nothing. In fact, there was no reaction from her at all, a far cry from what Yanagi was behaving like now.
Yanagi was extremely distressed, and was about to launch into a speech on the backlashes that it would have in the underworld. It would ruin business when their clients knew that they'd picked up something like this, and moreover, it was utter suicide. They were killers, but they were no swordsmen. The samurai could easily slit their throats in an instant. It was true that they had stealth and other shady skills on their side, but samurai are not unintelligent. Especially the ones they were dealing with now. From split-second reaction Yanagi had caught from Jarenna, she knew that it was the same thing she was thinking.
"Hatsue-san," Jarenna cut in before Yanagi could say anything. She was frowning at the sketch in front of her, obviously unimpressed with what she got. "I don't seduce females."
Yanagi stared at her in disbelief.
"I can assure you, Jarenna, he's very much male. He's Okita Souji, the first captain of the Shinsengumi."
"The tensai swordsman?" She asked incredulously, ignoring Yanagi's expression. She held up the sheet of paper and squinted at it. "Did the client get the wrong person or something? Because he doesn't seem to be able to hurt a fly. And quite frankly I still think 'he' is a woman."
"You thought wrong. He's Okita Souji, believe it or not."
Jarenna peered over Yanagi's shoulder and pointed petulantly to the sketch of Hijikata. "How come I can't have this one? He looks like he's going to be kinky."
"Because it's not all about sex," the older woman replied, shaking her head. "If I put you with Hijikata, he'll know that you're a spy of some kind. At the very best, he's just going to use you for sex and then find someone else to toy with. We need someone who can keep him wanting." In the art of seduction, the chase mattered. Every man's greatest excitement lay in the chase and in the anticipation.
"Wanting or not, Hatsue-san," Yanagi argued. "Hijikata Toshizou and Okita Souji are samurai."
"I've never killed samurai before." Jarenna mused idly.
"Exactly. If what you say about Omitsu and her clan is true, we can't aff—"
"I've never slept with one either, though—"
"Jarenna, shut up." Yanagi snapped, having had quite enough of her. She turned to her mistress and her mentor. "Hatsue-san, listen to me. This might be one mission where we might not get out alive. These men are not to be trifled with. And we have never interfered with the businesses of the warring factions. Why start now? We will be hunted by that faction if things go wrong. Why destroy the neutrality that we are famous for?"
The older woman's eyes turned flinty. "You will not question my actions, Tsukino Yanagi. I have given my orders."
At those words, Yanagi bowed, conceding defeat. She could never disobey Hatsue-san. Her loyalty to the woman had forbidden her to. Her forehead touching the tatami mat in obeisance, she spoke. "Forgive my trespass, Hatsue-san. It will not happen again."
It would be done, then. No matter what she thought, orders were meant to be followed. And she would do so, even if it meant her death. There was nothing else for her, after all.
Satisfied, she turned to the last, silent young woman, Kimiko. "You are still new, Kimiko, and this operation is far too delicate for you. You will, instead, act as surveillance. Observe them, and learn."
Kimiko's fists clenched involuntarily. She was supposed to sit this one out? "Ma'am, I can—"
"You will do well not to argue." She calmly reached for the teapot and gestured to their teacups, dismissing Kimiko. It was evident that the meeting was over. "Some more tea, perhaps?"
"Jarenna-san?" Kimiko asked hesitantly. She had spent the past couple of hours pondering over the meeting, and had wanted to ask Jarenna if she could talk to Hatsue-san, and request for a more active post for her. Of course, it meant getting the courage to actually ask. She very much preferred the company of Yanagi to Jarenna, but it seemed like the latter had more influence over Hatsue-san, and was more likely to listen to her.
Only now, it seemed like Yukijurou Jarenna was more interested in the art of flower arrangement than in anything at all. She flitted around the marble table that had been situated right in the middle of the gardens, picking flowers, trimming them, and inspecting them thoroughly.
"Hmm?" Came the absent reply as she leaned back slightly, seeing if the peonies complemented the newly bloomed chrysanthemums.
Taking the plunge, Kimiko ventured. "Um…would it be all right if you could…talk to Hatsue-san on my behalf, and help me ask her if she could give me a more…active role—"
Kimiko flinched at the immediate reply. The other woman didn't even have a change of expression, and she briefly wondered if she was talking to the flowers or something.
"Yes, I'm talking to you, Kimiko-san." There was amusement in her voice, which strangely grated on her nerves. Was she a mind-reader, now?
"Your expressions are written so clearly on your face," Jarenna continued, plucking out a peony stalk and trimming down some of it to make it look better. "The answer is no."
"But—why?" she argued, having gotten over the surprise. "I've been in the field for well over seven months now, and I've learned the ropes of the business, and I've finished missions by myself, haven't I? Surely I'm qualified to at least participate in this?"
"Those were errands."
"The 'missions'. They were errands." Jarenna's attention was fixated on the pond—well, more specifically, the newly-bloomed lotuses that were in it. "You're not ready for this."
Kimiko was insulted. "Not ready?" She had done everything they had told her to do. She'd practiced, and had shown a lot of promise, which was why she had been chosen. And now they told her that she wasn't ready? "Not ready in what way? I've been honing my skills in the—"
She blinked, confused. "I'm sorry?"
"Who have you tested your skills against?" Jarenna asked idly, rearranging the flowers in a brand new direction. The last one made the whole thing look uncoordinated and messy.
Kimiko frowned. They'd always trained alone, she knew that! There were only three of them, and each had their training and practice away from each other. Hatsue-san had specifically requested for it, so as to lessen their knowledge of each other's strengths and weaknesses. It was a clear disadvantage especially when it came to fights, but they were not samurai, and therefore fights were few and far between. If it ever came down to a fight, it would not be with samurai, which would give them the adequate edge over them. Moreover, being killers, each of them were in danger of being killed themselves. If anything went wrong, one would not hesitate to kill the other upon orders.
Secrets, even among the three killers, were imperative.
She took the flowers out of the plain vase once more and gently lay them on the table. "You'll be useless."
She bristled at the blunt remark. How would she know? She hadn't even seen what she could do! "You don't have the ri—"
"Do you believe that I can slit your throat where you stand?"
The sudden question caught her off guard, and she recoiled instinctively. Jarenna did not even look up from her flowers, and yet her tone...it was so casual, and yet she could sense the hidden steel. This woman was not joking around. "I…"
Jarenna looked up this time, waiting for her to finish. Kimiko took a deep breath. Was this another of her tests to see if she was worthy? "I don't believe that."
The other woman stared at her for a long moment, her dark eyes unreadable. For an instant, Kimiko wondered if she was going to attack her.
But all Jarenna said was, "I'll see you at the training centre in half an hour."
She stared. Were they going to fight? But that was forbidden! Sparring with each other was not allowed, Hatsue-san had expressly said so! "Jarenna-san, Hatsue-san said it was forbidden for us to fight each other. I mean—"
She laughed lightly. "You shouldn't think so highly of yourself, Kimiko-san. Do you think you'll know any of my secrets after just one session?" Looking thoroughly amused, she waved a peony at her. "Don't worry, I won't kill you."