Chapter 7: uri-futatsu

… and as it turned out, Hotaru didn't have to wait long to find out about the girl at all, because the very next morning, there she was serving breakfast to the men!

Hotaru was peering through a crack in the door in the adjacent room. She rubbed her sleepy eyes and stared at the girl in wonder. All the men were gawking at her, too- she was beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair, a daintily-pouting mouth and somber, ink-black eyes. Hotaru overheard as the beautiful girl introduced herself as Tomoe.

Hotaru caught her breath. There was Himura! Oh…the adorable red-haired boy looked like he was annoyed about something. Hotaru wondered briefly what it was, but then her attention was drawn back to Tomoe, who was passing out bowls of rice ever-so-gracefully. Hotaru's cheeks turned as pink as her kimono, and her eyes shimmered in awe and immediate idolization. The solemn-looking girl was just so poised, so collected… Hotaru was certain that Tomoe would never spill sake on anybody, not in a million years. Tomoe would probably never trip over her own feet, or fall down the stairs- Tomoe would probably never tip over the tofu buckets, or burn the fish, or lose the very important note from So-and-so, or forget whether the man with the reinforcements was coming from Tosa or Satsuma…

Hotaru sighed. Tomoe seemed so perfect… And yet... those had been Tomoe's clothes, splattered with blood… what had Tomoe done to get her clothes so dirty? Hotaru concluded that Tomoe must be a very high-level kunoichi, who completed a dangerous, deadly assignment last night. But… who had been the target? Someone important… someone dangerous… someone that even a perfect, cold-blooded ninja-assassin like Tomoe would've had trouble killing.

Young love-struck girls are not known for their cool use of logic or common sense, and suddenly Hotaru remembered the other adorable swordsman that she was currently infatuated with… could it be that Tomoe had been sent to kill Okita-sama?

Later that morning, Hotaru finally managed to confront the graceful, somber-eyed girl as she was sweeping the kitchen. "Um… anooo… eh- excuse me…" Hotaru mumbled timidly. Tomoe turned and looked down at her.

"Yes?" Tomoe asked, her voice even softer than Hotaru's.

"Um… I'm Hotaru… and, ah, I was wondering if… did you happen to… to 'meet' Captain Okita of the Shinsengumi?"

All things considered, it was a ridiculous question. But it just so happened that Tomoe had met that particular individual, and had been subsequently assured by the Yaminobu that absolutely no one connected to the Choshu Ishin-shishi knew anything about her accidental overnight visit to the Shinsengumi. And so, although she kept her face completely expressionless, Tomoe was a little unnerved by Hotaru's question. She searched Hotaru's eyes, her grip on the broom handle tightening just a bit.

"Shinsengumi, was it?" Tomoe asked softly after an awkward moment. "Why do you ask?"

"Well… I saw the blood on your kimono from last night, and I… well… you're a spy, aren't you?"

Now Tomoe was very unnerved. How on earth had this timid little nobody of girl managed to figure out that Tomoe was a spy? Tomoe wasn't sure what to say. If her face had had any color to begin with, it probably would have drained away at that moment. She blinked a few times. "A… spy?" Tomoe repeated, her tone deadly soft.

"Oh!" Hotaru seemed embarrassed. "Well, I know that 'spy' is not really the right word… maybe you're more of an 'infiltrator' or a secret agent or something? You know, someone who goes undercover on very important assignments? I was training to be a kunoichi myself, but, ah, I wasn't very good at it." She blushed and smiled at Tomoe.

Tomoe narrowed her eyes in a vaguely threatening way. Was this girl trying to say that she knew Tomoe's secret? If that was the case… Hotaru would have to be dealt with very quickly. "It's very …open of you to talk about such things with me here," Tomoe said evenly.

Hotaru's eyes widened, and she clapped her hands over her mouth "Ah, I'm really sorry!" she exclaimed. "I guess Katsura-sensei or Miyabe-sensei --whichever one is your boss-- wouldn't want you talking about your targets. But… please… can you at least tell me that you weren't sent to assassinate Captain Okita?"

Tomoe blinked again, and realized that the young brown-haired girl didn't have a clue after all. At this point, most people would have probably smiled in relief. But Tomoe did nothing of the sort. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, Hotaruchan," Tomoe said softly. "I'm not a spy or a secret agent at all. About the blood on my kimono… last night, I simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I witnessed a murder. That's all there is to it."

Meanwhile, back at Shinsengumi headquarters, a commander, a vice-commander, a captain, and a kansatsu were having an important strategic meeting behind closed doors.

"But Toshi… you really think Katsura doesn't know that we've intercepted this message?" Commander Kondou asked skeptically.

Hijikata nodded. "There's no way Yoshida will go to Katsura directly," he said, skillfully speaking without taking the pipe out of his mouth. "And Katsura will have only the word of that pathetic messenger-boy to go by, so he won't suspect a thing."

"Yamazakikun, what do you think?" Kondou asked, turning to the sullen ninja, who seemed determined to stay in a hunched-over bowing position for the entire conversation.

Susumu looked up. "Sir. I think Hijikatasan is right," he stated simply.

Kondou shook his head and sighed. "It still seems too good to be true. Yamagata Aritomo and Takasugi Shinsaku, coming to discuss their 'Kiheitai' with Yoshida Toshimaro… three of Yoshida Shoin's most dangerous students, together in one place at the same time, this very afternoon?"

"Actually, Kondousan," Souji spoke up, "Yoshida-sensei won't be there… since he'll never get the message telling him about it. So there will be only two of them." He smiled cheerfully.

"It will be a quick strike, and it will be devastating to Choshu," Hijikata said firmly.

"Hmm." Commander Kondou thought about it for another minute, and then smiled broadly. "All right!" he decided. "Let's go for it, exactly as you've proposed: A one-man operation, for surprise and simplicity's sake." He looked deliberately at Souji, and his eyes shone with affectionate confidence. "I bet our genius swordsman is eager for a good match, anyway," he said fondly. Souji blinked at him with round, innocent eyes. "I know you haven't exactly been challenged lately," Kondou continued. "But, Souji, if you're really going to do this all by yourself, well… I don't think you can take either of them lightly. You'll have to stay focused."

Souji looked down at his hands, which rested limply on his thighs. For a moment it seemed like the old days-- Kondou providing last minute coaching and encouragement before a kendo match at the Shieikan… how Souji loved and admired Kondou then, the same as now… Souji looked back up and returned Kondou's confident smile. Then he spoke in a cheerful, gentle voice. "Kondousan, you haven't changed."

"eh?" Kondou said, feigning puzzlement. But the quivering light in the commander's eye proved that he understood what Souji meant.

Souji narrowed his eyes, his smile still in place. "Don't worry. You can just leave this to me," he said in an impossibly soft voice.

And so, a few hours later, Souji made his way through the streets of Kyoto, patrolling as nonchalantly as possible towards the place where the revolutionists were supposed to meet. If he took his time and made no attempt to conceal his presence, no one would suspect that he was actually on the hunt. If anyone thought it was odd for a Miburo to be wandering about alone, they made no comment. But a few people who were still loyal to the Tokugawa did stop and say hello to him, and thanked him for his hard work-- which raised Souji's spirits considerably. It wasn't too long ago that everyone in Kyoto had hated the Shinsengumi. Souji knew they still weren't exactly popular with the locals, but, it seemed they were making a little progress, at least.

Before long Souji reached the street he was looking for. There was still another hour before Yamagata and Takasugi were supposed to arrive.

Suddenly something caught Souji's attention- the blaze of a familiar aura, an incredible concentration of sword-ki… and the unmistakable flash of a long red ponytail, half-concealed beneath a wide rush hat. Souji smiled as he caught sight of the boy slipping out of view behind the stand of a melon vender.

"Hello!" Souji called cheerfully, also stepping behind the stand. Battousai's hand was already on his sword. He didn't look up at Souji as the Shinsengumi captain approached.

Souji smiled warmly, not the least bit offended by the boy's hostility. "It's been a while!" he said. "Let me see… it's already been more than two weeks since you, ahem, escaped. I'm glad you're still alive and well!"

"Don't talk to me," Battousai muttered. "We're enemies."

"Oh, come on, Himurakun!" Souji said, laughing. "There's actually something I really wanted to tell you about!"

Himura glared at him coldly, and then looked away.

Souji frowned, and then glanced around- good- there was no one in sight. With a sigh, he shrugged his light turquoise-blue haori off his shoulders, took his arms out of the sleeves, and quickly scrunched the distinctive uniform up into a ball, wrapping the white haori-himo cord around it. Then with a big smile he hid the blue-and-white bundle behind his back. "There!" he exclaimed. "Now will you talk to me?"

Before Himura could reply, a slender girl carrying a basket of vegetables stepped out of the shop that was adjacent to the melon stand.

Tomoe froze. Standing in front of her was the very Shinsengumi captain that Hotaruchan had been asking about earlier that day- what was he doing here? Tomoe had never expected to run into someone from the Shinsengumi again, especially not with Battousai as her escort-- and Souji certainly looked surprised to see her, too. Tomoe could feel Battousai's eyes on her, but she remained staring at Souji. Before the young captain could speak, however, Tomoe brought her lower eyelids up just a fraction of an inch, and gave Souji a look, accompanied by the tiniest shake of her head.

Souji was pretty good at reading people, and he got Tomoe's message: don't you dare reveal that you know me. He swallowed and collected his wits. "Oh," he said. "Hello, miss. You startled me."

"My apologies, sir," Tomoe said softly, nodding her head to Souji and then stepping over to where Battousai stood. "Is he a friend of yours, Himurasan?" Tomoe asked, her voice completely neutral.

"Is she a friend of yours, Himurakun?" Souji echoed cheerfully, not missing a beat.

"None of your business," Himura replied.

Souji laughed quietly, leaning back and resting one wrist over the hilt of his sword. "It sure is nice to see you again. What are you doing out here, anyway?"

"We're shopping," Tomoe said matter-of-factly, before Battousai could repeat that it was none of Souji's business.

"That sounds like fun!" Souji started to say, but he was interrupted.

"IYAA! Okita-samaaa !" the high-pitched shriek was one of horror rather than delight. Hotaru threw herself out of the shop, her basket full of groceries falling to the ground forgotten. Her irrational teenaged mind leapt to all kinds of dreadful conclusions and her huge brown eyes trembled. The young swordsmen facing off in front of her were the two most adorable boys in Kyoto, and probably in the whole world-- and just because they happened to be on opposite sides of some silly political issue, here they were preparing to slaughter each other in the street! "Don't do it !" Hotaru pleaded desperately.

Battousai, whose nerves were already frayed from the task of escorting Tomoe and Hotaru on shopping errands around town all day, took half a step forward and drew his sword. Souji's expression clouded instantly.

"Calm down," Souji said softly, looking back and forth between the red-haired boy and the brown-haired girl as if trying to decide which of them was more of a threat.

"Don't do it!" Hotaru repeated. "Okita-sama, please… don't fight him!"

"I'm not here to fight him, Hotarusan," Souji told her, frowning a little.

"B-b-but you brought your swords," Hotaru blubbered, pink-cheeked and terrified. "Y-y-you never carry swords, unless you're… you know… going to fight people and k-k-kill them and stuff!"

Souji sighed. "Hotarusan. Come here," he said gently, and Hotaru gasped. Entranced, she obeyed, pulling her fists up to her chest as if she were afraid her heart would jump right out through her skin and fly away at any second.

Locking eyes with Himura, Souji brought his bundled-up haori out from behind his back, and handed it to Hotaru, who wrapped her arms around it and blinked in surprise. Then Souji pulled both of his swords from his belt, and laid them almost carelessly across his uniform in the girl's arms. Weaponless now, and smiling kindly, Souji took a step backwards. Himura glared at him for another moment, and then slowly nodded and sheathed his katana.

"See? Crisis averted!" Souji said brightly.

"What is it you want to tell me so badly, anyway?" Himura muttered.

"It's just that… I really admire your boss!" Souji said.

"huh?" Himura asked.

"Well, you see, I had the honor of meeting Katsurasan about a week ago. He wanted to thank me personally for helping someone that he feels responsible for." Souji smiled as the little Ishin-shishi digested those words. "I thought it was really amazing that Katsurasan took the time to do that," Souji continued. "Choshu sure is lucky to have him for a leader."

"Uh… thanks," Himura said, a little awkwardly. "The Shinsengumi certainly isn't lacking in good leadership, either."

"You think so?" Souji beamed. "Well. Commander Kondou and both the vice commanders are old friends of mine, so I know they try their best." Souji blinked and looked back and forth at both of the girls, and then settled his friendly gaze on the red-haired hitokiri. "Anyway, Himurakun, what have you been up to lately?" There might have been a tiny bit of mischief in his tone.

The boy frowned. "That's what I should be asking you," he grumbled. "Isn't the Shinsengumi supposed to be looking for Sakamoto Ryouma? Maybe you and your friends should get off your lazy Edo asses and catch him already."

Souji laughed aloud. "Why, it sounds like you might not be too fond of Ryoumasan. Has he tried to recruit you for his Navy yet?"

"Yes," Himura admitted, scowling.

"Me too!" Souji laughed. "He certainly is an interesting person."

"I think he's crazy," the redhead muttered.

"Yes, but aren't we all?" Souji asked lightly.

Hotaru had met Sakamoto too, and shyly she spoke up and joined the conversation. Somehow, the Shinsengumi captain, the Imperialist hitokiri, and the failed kunoichi managed to chat like normal carefree young people for a few minutes while Tomoe stood silently off the side, still holding her grocery basket full of vegetables. At last Hotaru noticed that Tomoe seemed to be excluded, and took the initiative to introduce her by name to the Shinsengumi captain.

Souji welcomed the information. Even though Tomoe had been an incidental roommate of his only two nights ago, Souji hadn't learned her name. And if she was upset now that he knew it, she didn't show it. But once she was introduced, and had bowed politely to Souji, her only contribution to the conversation was:

"Himurasan. I think we should be getting back."

To Souji's disappointment, both Himura and Hotaru agreed with her. Blushing, Hotaru handed back Souji's uniform and swords, and Souji crouched down to help Hotaru gather the things that had spilled out of her basket earlier.

As the two girls and their frowning red-haired escort made their way around the melon stand and back out into the street, Hotaru happened to look over at the rows of melons on display-- and she giggled.

"What's so funny?" Himura demanded, sounding partially annoyed.

"Urifutatsu !" Hotaru giggled.

"What?" Himura asked.

Hotaru blushed. "You know the saying, urifutatsu? I was just thinking how that exactly describes you and Okita-sama. You really are 'as alike as two melons'!"

Souji's smile faded as he watched the three of them disappear down the street. He hadn't forgotten that Tomoe was in cahoots with the Yaminobu, and was actually Hotaru and Himura's enemy. But that wasn't what bothered him. Friends and enemies were one thing… it was easy to understand those relationships and the joys and grief associated with them. But seeing Tomoe standing silently beside the boy like that… Souji sensed there was something else going on, something far more ominous. It was kind of like… a shadow.

Souji shook his head, wondering if maybe he'd been hanging out with Hajimesan a little too much. Clearing his mind, he refocused on his mission. Soon, his targets would arrive.

Author's notes:

1. feel free to complain/flame about the far-fetchedness of just about everything in this chapter! it was written way too fast.

2. 'uri futatsu' (literally 'two melons') is the same idea as 'two peas in a pod'

3. in the next and final chapter, Souji meets Takasugi! (cough) I wonder if those two will have anything to talk about? (cough)

4. sorry it's not as humorous as "halfway to saving the world", but I've actually been scheming all along to end on a more somber note. Just so you've been warned…