She was gone.

To put things more accurately. She had left with that gold-haired bastard, not because she had despised them, the men that had protected her for nigh three years, but because she wished to protect them in return. She had volunteered to be his wife just so that they could live to fight another day.

"Oi, baka! Don't rush into things that you have no business with!" Hijikata scolded her as he put his arms around her, despite the fact that she was holding her kodachi before her, as if to strike down the Oni that stood before them.

"Kazama-san, if it's me you want, it's me you'll have," she pleaded to their supposed enemy. "Please… spare Hijikata-san and the others. Spare the Shinsen-Gumi."

Even Harada could not understand why she was acting so stupidly. "Chizuru, you're staying with us!" he demanded, even as he was fighting Shiranui, an accomplice of Kazama.

There was nothing they could do to steer her away from her resolve. "I can't be a burden to all of you anymore," she told them. "You've done so much to help me… it's the only thing I can do…"

"Very well then," Kazama concluded, and held his hand towards hers. "Come…"

Steeling her nerves, she gently removed herself from Hijikata's arms and walked three steps forwards. "Arigatou," she thanked them loudly, with a deep, formal bow, and turned towards Kazama, reaching for his outstretched hand.

They had a late breakfast that morning. There was no one there in the kitchens to cook for them. It took them a long while before they noticed that she was no longer there.

Souji had heard about the attack, but he did not know about the results. He knew that the Oni had retreated, but he did not know that they had took her with them.

"You let Kazama take Chizuru-chan away?" he exclaimed when he realized that Chizuru was no longer in their headquarters. There was not only rage in his face, but also a mixture of sadness and disappointment.

"Souji, Yukimura-kun agreed to go with them," Kondou explained, knowing full-well that the one that Souji had blamed for all this was Hijikata above all. "By doing so, she has cut our losses in the Rasetsu Corps, as well as…"

"You claim to care for her and yet you let her go?" Souji continued, completely ignoring Kondou. Not only Hijikata's expression soured, but Harada's as well. Shinpachi knew better than to try to reason with Souji when he was in such a mood, but he could see that he was not the only one suffering because Chizuru had left. He knew if Saito and Heisuke were still there… things would have been far worse…

Hijikata left the common room without saying a word. Harada could only sit there and drink his tea while the others ate in silence. How could the atmosphere change into something so different in just one night? "It seems like Yukimura-kun's absence strikes deep into the heart of our top command," Sannan mused. He had never seen such… frustration and anger before, not from one person to another, but rather, from within themselves.

That evening, there was a voice long unheard in the dojo. It was Hijikata, sparring with their men. He told all of them to come at him the moment they were ready, and frankly, they were afraid to charge at him. This man rarely entered the dojo, but his fame as a swordsman had spread far. He was a forced to be reckoned with, and now, now that his wrath knew no bounds, the Oni-Fukuchou of the Shinsen-Gumi was another monster altogether. Two men had fallen onto the floor, one with a broken arm and the other a minor concussion. The rest of them were too scared to even move.

"Hijikata-san, if you go around beating our men up, we'd have to recruit more," Souji said, introducing an interruption to the silent tension building up in the dojo.

"We'll play with you if you want to," Harada added, his amber eyes twinkling. He was holding a training-spear in his hands while Souji held a bokken in his. "Just as long as you promise not to take it out on the men. They're too easy for our Oni-Fukuchou."

Hijikata straightened up. "Well then, what are you waiting for?" he asked the two of them, accepting their challenge.

The fight started, and the men were astounded. "Two against one? Hijikata-san is crazy!" one exclaimed.

It seemed as if the three-way duel lasted an eternity, until it caught the attention of Yamazaki and Kondou. "Kondou-san, we must do something!" Yamazaki said to Kondou, who instead told him to stay put.

"They're not fighting each other," Kondou told him, and everyone who could hear him. "They're fighting together."

At that clarification, dozens of pairs of eyes focused onto Hijikata, Souji and Harada once more. They were exploiting each other's weaknesses, the fact that Harada's spear was useless in close combat, that Hijikata left himself far too open despite his speed and that Souji attacked in short, powerful bursts that limited the breadth of his attacks, and augmented them with each other's strengths. Hijikata would cover Harada and Souji whenever he moved because he was fast enough, Harada would use his range to defend the others while Souji acted as a front-liner. They were reading one another, understanding each other and hence, learning how best to attack as one unit…

It was a sight that no one had seen before, one that no one expected, and when finally, all three of them fell flat onto the dojo floor, spent and exhausted. "When we get her back, the two of you will back off," Hijikata growled at them between tired pants.

"Hijikata-san, I believe that she has the freedom to choose," Harada admonished him lightly.

"She will choose me," Souji stressed. "The two of you will just have to cry at our wedding."

It was strange that the three of them were entering a conversation like this to begin with. But it only served to prove one more point, that this was just another way they were bonded to one another, because the person that they wanted to protect above all was that particular girl with honey-colored eyes and always a ready smile.

"May be the best man win then," Hijikata grunted, getting up slowly, flicking his hair away from his face. "She'll be back with us even before she knows it."

"Do you even need to say that, Hijikata-san? I'll kill everyone who gets in our way."

"The two of you just try to keep up with me, I"ll make sure to leave you some space to catch up."

"Go to hell, Sanosuke."

HAN: Hello there! This was originally supposed to be a short in my Hakuouki shorts, but I decided to change it into a fic of it's own at the end. I like to think that our dear boys in the Shinsen-Gumi are aware of how much they care for Chizuru as a whole, they just didn't want to reveal too much of how they're feeling because they don't want their brothers in arms and the leading lady to feel... conflicted. If only polyandry existed in feudal Japan, hah hah! I do hope you enjoy this little piece!

I have also expanded the title from only "The Quest" to "The Quest: 薄樱鬼追迹录 Hakuouki Tsuisekiroku. I've come to this title because I'm actually bilingual in English and Chinese and I can basically piece together words in Japanese due to years of watching anime so... I used Google Translate to tweak the title and got this. It's a pointless addition but... heh heh, I like it this way.