A/N: This is chapter 1 of a multi-chapter fic. Takes place after the Ikedaya raid, so spoilers apply for those who haven't seen that part of the manga or anime. This fic is based on the SIPM manga and PMK anime only, since I don't have access to the PMK manga. I will tryto be historically accurate where possible, but if Nanae can play around with timelines, then so can I. CC much appreciated.

Disclaimer: Peacemaker Kurogane is the work of Nanae Chrono. No money is being made off this fanfic.

Autumn Days, Chapter 1

"So, Toshi, what do you think?" asked Kondou, gesturing toward the training ground full of sparring men before them.

Hijikata, sitting cross-legged beside Kondou on the wooden platform, blew out a small cloud of gray smoke and said, "Hmpf."

"I take it you're not impressed," said Kondou, relaxed and smiling. He'd been used to it for a long time and he didn't expect his vice-commander's mood to improve anytime soon, especially not now, when Souji wasn't here to lighten the mood.

"This is the highest number of applicants we've ever had, though," he continued, in no way discouraged. "And it looks like the number will keep increasing as the word spreads about how we handled the raid on the Ikedaya."

"Aa," said Hijikata noncommittally.

Kondou cast him a questioning look, but seeing that Hijikata didn't intend to provide more than a one-syllable response, he shook his head instead and leaned back with a slightly amused smile on his face. The mid-morning sun felt good on his arms and back, and there were at least thirty sweating and grunting men, ranging in age from late teens to early thirties, sparring against each other with bamboo swords in the training area while some of the unit captains mingled with them, supervising and evaluating the matches. Kondou spotted Nagakura having a lively session with an applicant who was even shorter than him, and looking amused to no end because of it. Saitou, as always, was drifting like a ghost around the sparring pairs, neatly sidestepping anyone who stumbled into his path. Toudou, not yet fully recovered from his head wound from the Ikedaya, watched from the sidelines and looked like he was going to chew his nails off if he didn't a chance to get into the action soon. All of this made Kondou smile in a self-satisfied way.

"Isn't it grand, Toshi?" Kondou said, tucking his hands into his sleeves. "All of these passionate and dedicated young swordsmen fighting for a chance to join us?"

Hijikata snorted around his pipe.

"Dedication and controlled passion, we could use. It's hot-headed, glory-seeking idiots like these that we can do without," he said, wincing as one of the applicants right in front of him chose that moment to make a lunge with particularly bad form. At least the other candidate had the sense to use an opening when he saw one, as proven when he promptly whacked his stumbling opponent across the back with his shinai.

Kondou gave a hearty laugh, watching the antics and the disgusted look on Hijikata's face.

"What about that one?" asked Kondou, indicating a fairly well-built young man in his early twenties with narrow eyes, a smooth, angular face, and slicked-back hair trading swings with a wily-looking older man. Hijikata eyed the younger one with passing interest, noting the decent swing and the steady footwork. Indeed, both men looked like they knew something about swordsmanship, but the younger man's daring—or perhaps it was cockiness, Hijikata couldn't tell yet—gave him the edge.

"His form suggests that he might not be completely useless," Hijikata conceded, "but someone may need to deflate his ego a bit," he said, giving his final verdict before turning back to gaze at nowhere in particular.

That was probably the best he was going to get out of Hijikata today, and it wasn't even noon yet. Such a distant and uninviting mood was a bit much, even for him. Kondou sighed.

"Toshi, if you're so worried about him, why don't you just go to him?" he said.

He didn't need to say the name because they both knew there was only one person he could be talking about.

Hijikata frowned.

"I have better things to do than sit watch over a person who is just sleeping anyways," he grumbled, although the way he refused to meet Kondou's knowing gaze said something different. "Besides," he added, "it is my duty to oversee recruitment and I am needed here. I can't leave this to you alone because then you'll take anyone who walks through the front gate and can point a sword in the right direction."

Kondou laughed. "Do they need anything else?"

Hijikata chose not to dignify that with an answer, and took a drag on his pipe instead.

Kondou's expression softened as he regarded Hijikata carefully, and he laid a hand on his vice-commander's arm.

"Really, Toshi, if you want to head back to the sleeping quarters just for a bit and make sure he's okay, I promise I won't hire any, ah, what did you call them? Hot-headed, glory-seeking idiots? I promise I won't hire any while you're gone," said Kondou gently with a small twinkle in his eye.

Hijikata looked at Kondou as if he didn't know whether he should be relieved and grateful or irritated and wary. After a moment's consideration, he decided to take the middle route.

"Fine," he said, getting to his feet, "but have Nagakura spar with the younger one from earlier and let Toudou take one of the slower ones. He looks like he's going to pass out from the effort of keeping himself on the sidelines, and a light workout should settle him."

"Hai hai, Hijikata-fukuchou," replied Kondou, smiling easily at the other man's glare. He gave his long-time friend a gentle shove and said, "Don't worry about us here, just go take care of what's yours."

Hijikata grudgingly let the comment go as he stepped down from the raised platform. He took a few steps and then stopped, mumbling a quick, "Thank you," over his shoulder before heading back towards the main compound.

Next chapter: A new character is introduced, and maybe we'll actually get to see Okita.