Author's Note: I don't know as much as I would like about the early days at Shieikan, but I tried to be relatively true to history. Kondou did become master after his adopted father's health began to fail, I believe, but all I know about how Nagakura and Harada entered the picture was from the NHK drama...which I'm addicted to, but doesn't really suit Hakuouki's portrayals of the characters (especially Harada). Anyway, if they came up with Rasestu, I'm free to tweak history a bit more, right?

Shieikan Kenjutsu Dojo.

Kondou Isami, Master.

Okita Souji, Assistant Instructor.

Which was odd, because shouldn't the samurai have the higher rank over the farmer?

He'd been there awhile, heard the rumors. He knew, and had to see it for himself. Not to challenge, but...

A tall young man with piercing green eyes was whaling away at another, with sleek black hair and violet eyes, the dance vicious and almost friendly, to the rhythm of wooden blades cracking. This much he could tell. And the strong-looking man that stood between them, judging the match with just the slightest bit of exasperation, he looked like a man of both the sword and the plow. Where did he belong, really?

That must be Kondou.

So he stood awkwardly (more awkwardly than he was accustomed to, but life was awkward at this point) at the door, wrapped in his dark yukata with a spear across his shoulder and a katana at his side.

He could have sworn Kondou looked past the furious duel of Okita and Hijikata the medicine seller, and gave him a small smile.

One of the other battles on the side was more short-winded, the young one with the long ponytail struck on the shoulder. The victor was obviously a prodigious swordsman.

He also had a mile-long grin and startling blue eyes that immediately picked out the stranger.

"Nagakura Shinpachi," introduced the odd, dreadfully informal, superbly muscled man (who had obviously drawn a real sword before). Harada Sanosuke jerked his head forward in a curt bow, his wound that hadn't quite healed yet twinging uncomfortably.

"Are you any good with a sword?"

Are you a challenger?

"Not particularly," Harada replied easily, truthfully, to the questions both explicit and implicit, comfortable with at least that particular shortcoming as the smooth haft of his spear was a pleasant weight in his bandaged hand.

"C'mon, one match. You can't be as bad as Heisuke."

"HEY!"

The young man with the long hair had apparently heard that comment from across the hall and over the din of Hijikata's battle. Nagakura ignored this, though there was a twinkle in his eyes, like a naughty child.

"So, what d'you say? One match?"

"Nah," the spearman shrugged nonchalantly, though it felt like that huge turtle that carried the world in all the Chinese stories he'd been told as a kid was sitting on his shoulders.

"Why not?" Nagakura was actually pouting, now looking the part of a spoiled child who hadn't bothered to grow up.

The epic war in the middle of the dojo had concluded with Okita gleefully making inflammatory comments to the cursing medicine peddler; Kondou with his wise golden eyes laughing along without heat. But they somehow found the tall, red-haired stranger, and there was just that look in them that the heads of the Iyo clan had so conspicuously lacked.

And Harada grinned at the pushy, annoying, high-ranking samurai who saw fit to hang out in a poor dojo run by a farmer, frequented by a bad-tempered medicine peddler, filled with the oddest characters he'd had the (mis)fortune to come across...

"Yeah..." he breathed, "Why the hell not?"