A/N: Many thanks to fallingwisteria for the really really helpful comments, and kudos to onlyheavenknows for being the first reviewer~! :)

Hope that you'll enjoy this chapter! :D

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"Hayashi-san."

When she did not turn around, Chizuru called out to her a second time and waited for the girl to respond.

But Mio continued walking as if she had not heard her.

Chizuru turned to look over to Harada, and he shrugged. Obviously it was not a matter of Chizuru's voice being too soft.

When the third call failed to get the girl's attention, Chizuru caught up with Mio and pulled lightly on the sleeve of her kimono.

Upon feeling a slight tug on her clothes Mio moved reflexively, snatching her arm away in an instant.

Sea-green eyes flashed as they took on a deadly glint, years of honed skills and inbred instincts dictating Mio's movements when among enemy ranks. Her body tensed and muscles coiled, all senses on the alert as she readied for a fight.

Her fingers had started to close around a sharp metal hairpin hidden under a fold of her kimono when she noticed that the girl who was dressed like a boy was looking at her with a worried expression.

"Are you alright, Hayashi-san? I called you several times, but you did not reply."

Mio stared at her rather dumbly. "You called me? But I only heard you calling someone named Haya-"

Shit!

Mio bit her own tongue and clamped her mouth shut before she completed the sentence.

A spike of fear shot through her as she chanced a look around.

Did they catch on to her?

Was someone going to lop her head off when she fail to escape the army just because she was armed with only a stupid hairpin? (Though it was sharp enough to take out a few people's eye, that she was sure of.)

Instead of the envisioned platoon of Shinsengumi soldiers rushing to kill her after someone called on her bluff, she was faced with Chizuru and Harada waiting patiently for her to finish her sentence, none the wiser that Mio had almost blew her own cover and signed her own death wish.

Mio mentally cursed Araki.

For around eleven years of her life, she have been dutifully responding to the name of 'Araki Mio', having taken up her benefactor's surname. Conditioning herself to respond to another family name required time. Time that Mio did not have, not with Araki constantly breathing down her neck and asking her to set off on her mission as soon as possible.

"Maybe she is still in shock." Mio heard Harada tell Chizuru, and she heaved a sigh of relief, letting out the breath she did not know she was holding.

That was close. Too close.

"I'm sorry," Mio said, arranging a rather crestfallen expression on her face. "It is just that, so much have happened today..."

She let her voice waver before trailing off and predictably, Chizuru rubbed her back in circular motions, small hands trying to sooth her. "Don't worry, we'll work things out. When we get back to the compound, I'll make you a cup of tea before you sleep."

Harada gave her an encouraging smile. "You'll feel better. Chizuru make the best tea around here."

Mio gave a small nod, felt her lips form a smile with practiced ease, and with that, the three of them picked up their pace to catch up with the soldiers.

As they continued their way towards the Shinsengumi headquarters, Chizuru and Harada made small talk about the weather in the recent days.

Only then did Mio let her fingers unclench from around the metal hairpin.

~.*~.*~.*~.*~.*~.*~.*~.*~

When they arrived, Mio was instantly escorted to a room by one of the Shinsengumi captains on the vice-commander's order.

The captain assigned to her beckoned, and obediently, she followed his retreating back through the dark.

Mio was led through corridors, a number of which she had somewhat familiarized herself with from afar, what with after a few days of rather rushed and haphazard information scouting for her mission.

Still, she let her eyes roam around, silently taking mental notes of where some doors led and where the shortest paths to the exits were probably located, her mind already working out a sketchy mental map of the Shinsengumi's headquarters.

The compound was relatively small compared to the sprawling estate the Araki clan owned, but from what she had seen during her scouting, it looked homey with a lavish backyard that housed a large sakura tree in mid-blossom.

But now, rather than homey, it felt suffocating.

A small place caging her in, with potential predators round every corner with every step and turn she took.

If the Shinsengumi did not kill her first, perhaps her own paranoia will, Mio thought sullenly.

As the door of the room she just entered slid close, a soft thud with an unpleasant air of finality to it, the dark and overcast expression she wore was one that Mio did not have to act out.

Her 'escort' moved across the room as she settled herself down in a corner, and there was a slight rustle before a match was ignited and a candle lit, and he rested himself by the door, eyes seemingly looking at nothing in particular.

And for the first time, Mio got a good look at the first Shinsengumi captain she had seen that night.

For what was about to happen, Mio had a very very good reason.

Because, from what Mio had gathered under the guise of Umeha, the Shinsengumi were a rather notorious bunch, and there were numerous inflated -and rather creative- rumors of the captains, mostly centered about their heartlessness and cruelty to the commoners and everyone alike.

One of the regular geikos at Shimabara had told Mio -in a rather conspiratorial whisper- that the Shinsengumi captains ate newborns for breakfast.

("Alive!" The geiko exclaimed, her eyes wide with fear and what must have been an unhealthy portion exaggeration. The make up she wore only served to make her expression all the more grotesque, and Mio had to fight to contain her laughter.)

Someone else mentioned that Hijikata Toshizo -the famous (or rather, infamous) vice-commander of Shinsengumi- bathed his hair in virgin's blood on the night of every full moon.

("How do you think a monstrous demon like him manage to get such nice hair," a pompous and well-rounded woman had asked her obnoxiously.)

Going by other rumors she heard, every room in the Shinsengumi compound was supposed to be adorned with the skulls of people that they had killed, and those that did not manage to get a place on the wall -there was an excess of skulls, she was assured- was used to brew soup.

("These are all facts, my dear, we don't deal with petty rumors around here. The Shinsengumi are nasty business. Stay away from them," they would tell Mio before proceeding to scare their children into helping with the housework. "Or the Shinsengumi will steal you away in the dead of the night!")

It was at that moment that Mio decided that it was probably useless to rely on the public's information. Especially not with the twisted and skewed image majority of the commoners had of the Shinsengumi.

So, Mio had moved on to the next phase: scouting the place and people out by herself.

But the compound was well guarded, the guards so ridiculously on time that, for once, Mio wished they would just let loose a little. Which was a stark contrast to what she had coldly warned the Araki clan's soldiers, the threat of incurring Araki's wrath hovering above their heads should they even miss their routine by a second.

Hence, even with her skills and expertise in stealth missions, she had only managed a few precious and rather blurry glimpse of the compound.

Her other plan to evaluate them up close was thwarted too, when she realized that with everybody scrambling to get out of the Shinsengumi's way when they are patrolling the streets, she would raise suspicion if she does not do the same, and that was not something she could compromise on.

So, the only information she had on them are rather combat related and courtesy of Yataro.

Hijikata Toshizo uses a sword, Okita Souji utilizes a katana and operates under the style of Tennen Risshin, Harada Sanosuke favors a spear...

Well, she had known that Saito was the captain who had asked her to step out from within the shadows, and she had already identified him from the start.

After all, he was the only one among the captains who wore his katana on the right, a small tidbit Yataro had told her.

However, all through the time from when they had met till when Hijikata -his identity made obvious as people waited to follow his commands- asked Saito to bring her to the room, there was minimal if any light at all. So Mio could not identify with his features, having never seen him before.

Now, as Mio took in the sight of the person before her, she found herself incapable of cognitive and intellectual faculties, a small part of her mind left to vaguely wonder why the rumors never did mention the ethereal beauty of the man in front of her.

Safe to say that for all that she have known and gathered about Shinsengumi, nothing was able to prepare her for the visual impact -with all the force of a direct punch to her gut- when she saw Saito Hajime.

He was...

"Beautiful..." Her voice was hardly above a whisper.

In the light of the candle, Mio was able to notice that he wore a black kimono suited for combat, accompanied with a simple white sash and scarf, under the trademark blue and white haori he have yet to shed. But underneath, she knew, was a lethal and dangerous body, all lithe and coiled muscle making him a lean fighting machine, as she had witnessed first-hand in the shadows during the fight at Ikedaya Inn.

His hair was indigo, tied in a loose side-ponytail and draped over his right shoulder, the color so dark, holding echos of moonless nights and vivid passion. His long fringe hid part of the right side of his face, framing the sharp angles, and Mio had to curl her fingers to stop herself from reaching out to run her fingers through them.

But what really enraptured her were his eyes.

His eyes were of such pure, undiluted deep ocean blue it was as if a heavenly artist crushed sapphire into his paints and then colored in the irises with the finest brush.

"Did you say something?" He spoke, and Mio felt the low and rich baritone voice like velvet, soft and smooth against her skin.

It took her awhile to register that Saito had spoken to her.

"Huh- Whu- I mean, yes?" Mio spluttered, eyes darting down to her own hands resting on her thighs, her cheeks coloring as the possibility that he had caught her staring dawned on her. She stole a glance up and felt a slight relief as he simply looked on at her questioningly.

"I asked, if you had said something. I did not quite seem to catch what you said a moment ago."

"I- It's nothing."

And that was the end of the conversation, as he turned, looking at the flickering flame of the candle, while Mio's eyes appreciated the way the dancing shadows accentuated his features.

He was beautiful, yes, but his was a beauty of a warrior.

Which just happens to be the kind of guys that make her weak in her knees.

Too bad he was on the opposing side.


The first official interaction between Mio and Saito! So, how was it?

Reviews are love~! :D