A Test of Skill

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May, 1864

Little by little, Hijikata had started to allow the girls to do more to help around as the months passed and it became evident that they weren't spies of any kind and could be trusted not to run away. Sumiko had  fallen into place as the group's emergency medic, but she usually spent her time helping Chizuru with a few domestic chores. Today, they were doing some of the wash in a big tub beside the well, while Saito practiced his swing in the courtyard, and Okita lounged on the porch, watching. Sumiko glanced up at the clear, blue sky for a moment as she listened to the singing cicadas. It was warm, beautiful summer day.

"Got something you want to say," Saito asked, causing her to look back down and see that Chizuru had been staring at him.

"Uh, well!" Chizuru said, dropping the wet kimono she had been working on back into the bucket, as she stood up. "I thought maybe we could get around to looking for my father..."

"Not possible," Saito replied bluntly, turning away as he raised his sword again. "There are many out there who would do us harm. We don't have enough men to provide you with protection as well."

"Oh. I see..." Chizuru said, looking down.

"Chizuru..." Sumiko said.

"You could always come with us as we go out on rounds, though," Okita suggested.

"Really!?" Chizuru asked excitedly, immediately perking up. "Then, please, may I come with you?"

"But, doing the rounds is life or death. Screw up and one of our own dies. At the very least, unless you can vouch for your own safety, we can't take you with us," Okita said.

"I'm prepared to defend myself!" Chizuru said determinedly. "I've been to a dojo to learn the short sword."

"And I've learned some kendo from my father," Sumiko said.

"In that case..." Saito said, pausing after his last swing. "Allow me to test you."

Chizuru was first up. Sumiko sat on the porch next to Okita to watch while she waited her turn.

"There's no need to hold back. Attack me however you like," Saito instructed Chizuru calmly once they were in position.

"B-But..." Chizuru said hesitantly.

"Is that short sword at your hip simply an ornament?" Saito asked.

"That's not it at all!" Chizuru protested. "Saito-san, if stabbed by a blade, you would die," she said seriously, concerned for his safety.

"Pfft! Hahaha!" Okita burst out laughing, while Sumiko smiled wryly and sweat-dropped. She was pretty sure the one who should be more concerned about their own safety wasn't Saito. "Telling Hajime-kun to his face you might kill him is friggin' awesome. You rock!" he said, slapping his leg.

"It's nothing to laugh about, is it!?" Chizuru asked indignantly.

"But if you show us what you can do, we'd be more inclined to let you go outdoors," Okita said.

"If you don't wish to use the blade, strike with the back of the sword," Saito told her. Chizuru looked from him to her short sword and drew it  with a determined and serious expression on her face. She flipped it around, readjusting her grip so that she was holding the blade reversed,  as he had suggested.

"If you please," she said, indicating she  was ready to start. Chizuru took a breath and charged. "Yaaah!" she shouted as she raised her sword, bringing it down to attack.

SWISH. CLANG!

Chizuru furrowed her brow as she turned on her heel to launch a follow up attack just as she had been trained to do in the dojo, but immediately froze when she realized the Saito's blade was already pressed lightly to her neck. Her eyes widened in shock as she stared up at the calm and collected samurai. Saito lowered his sword and slid it back into its sheath. Sumiko let out a low whistle of appreciation.

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