A Gathering of Oni

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Sen and Kimigiku, who had discarded her elegant geisha kimono for the garb of a female ninja, were carefully making their way back home using a path on the outskirts of the city. The woods around them were golden in the light of the setting sun.

"!" Kimigiku gasped when she sensed a possible threat ahead, furrowing her brow, as she stopped abruptly and held out an arm to signal for the princess to stop, too.

"Nn," Sen furrowed her brow, wondering who the intruder was, when Amagiri Kyuuju stepped out from behind one of the trees by the village gate. "Amagiri!?"

"I apologize for intruding without permission," the red-haired oni said politely.

"This road leads to Yase. What are you doing here?" Kimigiku asked.

"I just wanted to see it for once," Kazama said as he stepped out through village gate, smirking. "The place where you court-ingratiating people have been fending for yourselves while living on our opposite side."

"Kazama? Shouldn't you have returned to Satsuma?" Sen asked.

"Given the large number of patrols in the streets, something must have happened in the imperial palace, right?" Amagiri asked.

"Emperor Koumei's wife has become a widow," Kazama said.

"!" Sen gasped. How did he...!?

"Was I right?" he asked, smirking to have had his suspicions confirmed so easily.

Nagumo Kaoru, who had been eavesdropping nearby, also smirked as he turned and quietly slipped away. He was leaping from branch to branch as he raced back through the tree tops.

SWISH.

"!" Kaoru said, quickly using the wrapped up katana he was carrying to thwart the stick someone had sent hurtling towards him. Kaoru's brow was furrowed as he landed on his feet on the ground below.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" Kazama inquired as he stepped into view to face the cross-dressing oni. That so-called 'disguise' didn't fool him for one minute.

"Simply to visit the imperial city," Kaoru replied calmly in a feminine voice as he straightened up.

"An oni who listens to outside conversations like a rat. A good hobby, is it not?" Kazama said mockingly as he narrowed his eyes slightly. Kaoru simply stared at him for a moment before turning to walk away.

"He was probably authorized by Tosa to pry into the movements in Kyoto," Amagiri said as he stepped forth to block him. "I heard you were here, but this is my first time meeting you," the tall redhead said, bowing politely.

"Me, too," Kaoru said, inclining his head slightly to the older oni before glancing back at Kazama. "You've survived to this day by groveling at Satsuma's feet, haven't you? And Anyway, it seems I'm not the only one who eavesdropped on you," he added, glancing up at the tree above, where another oni was perched.

"Sorry, I happened to hear, too!" Shiranui called down at them.

"Shiranui Kyo," Amagiri said as they watched the gun-slinging oni hop down from the tree to join them.

"I had heard that there was movement in the capital, but I didn't expect to find someone like this," Shiranui remarked. "So, who are you?" he asked Kaoru.

"Forgive my late introduction. I am of Tosa," Kaoru said politely, bowing, as he greeted Shiranui. "My name is Nagumo Kaoru."

"Heh? Nagumo sent such a little guy to do this work?" Shiranui asked, eyeing the boy in the pink kimono. That costume certainly was thorough. The kid was even wearing makeup.

"Better call him a 'little girl'," Kazama said with the hint of a smirk. "You want to disguise yourself, don't you?" he asked Kaoru.

"My, my. Satsuma and Choshu are getting along so well even at a time like this," Kaoru commented. Kazama furrowed his brow slightly while Shiranui whistled in appreciation. "Incidentally, it seems the ruler of the Kazama clan has an interest within the Shinsengumi?" Kaoru asked, glancing up at Kazama.

"What of it?" Kazama asked.

"I'm telling you to keep your hands off Yukimura Chizuru, or else..." Kaoru said as he unwrapped the hilt of his sword, revealing that it was the katana that went with Chizuru's kodachi.

"!?" Amagiri and Shiranui gasped in surprise.

"Hmph," Kazama said calmly. He wasn't surprised, given Nagumo Kaoru's striking resemblance to Chizuru. The two of them must be siblings, though from the tone of his voice, it didn't sound as if brotherly love was Kaoru's motivation for warning him off. "Maybe you want to kill her?" Kazama asked.

"I, I have my own ideas and convictions," Kaoru said, allowing his voice to deepen, as he placed a hand over the hilt of his sword. "And I'll stop anyone who gets in my way, even you."

"What can you do except hide in the shadows?" Kazama asked. "You, a little hypocrite with nothing but lies, have no right to tell me what to do." Kaoru gritted his teeth in anger as he drew his sword and slashed at Kazama, but the other oni dodged all of his attacks without even batting an eyelash before swiftly disappearing in a whirl of leaves. Kaoru turned and saw that Kazama was now standing calmly several feet short of a yard behind him. Shiranui's brow was slightly furrowed as he and Amagiri watched the pointless confrontation. Amagiri sighed.

"Are you running away?" Kaoru demanded challengingly, irritated when Kazama started to walk away with his back turned to him, as if he didn't see him as the slightest bit of a threat. Kazama paused. "Running to the Satsuma clan for refuge must be something you people are really proud of," Kaoru taunted. There was a dark and dangerous gleam in Kazama Chikage's crimson eyes as he slowly turned around to face him again.

"Bastard, you must really want to die," Kazama stated lowly, fixing the younger oni with a severe glare, as he prepared to draw his own blade.

"!" Kaoru said, taking a step back, after seeing the fierce look in his eye. Shiranui sighed. Really, this was starting to get out of hand. They all knew a fight between two pureblood oni was just a waste of time anyway.

"Oi, oi," Shiranui said as he walked over to Kaoru. "Let's finish this in a better way, huh?" he suggested, placing a hand on his shoulder. Kaoru's eyes met his own with a hateful glare, and Shiranui had only a split second to dodge as the younger oni pivoted to turn his blade on him. If Shiranui had been a human, he would have been cleaved in half at the waist, but as an oni, he was too fast for that. Shiranui  jumped up and flipped out of the way, landing well outside the reach of  Kaoru's blade, as he raised his gun and aimed it at his would-be attacker. Kaoru furrowed his brow as the three other oni stood together, glaring sternly at him with disapproval.

"Hmph. Guess the fun is over, then," Kaoru wisely conceded as he sheathed his sword, finally backing down now that he had managed to make them all his enemy. "But take my advice, and don't put a finger on Chizuru," he said, glaring at Kazama. "I won't show any mercy if you do," he added, disappearing with a  gust of wind.

"Shall we follow him?" Amagiri asked Kazama.

"No matter, let him go," Kazama replied calmly. The fact that Nagumo Kaoru seriously thought he stood a chance against him seemed to have amused him somewhat. 'In any case, that brat will have to get through that Komainu first...' he thought with a trace of a smile.

"Well, it's time for me to leave, too," Shiranui said, lowering his gun. "See you later he told his fellow oni with a wave before making himself scarce.

"Amagiri, watch her closely," Kazama ordered. "There will be a calamity sweeping through everything at the beginning of spring. When the confrontation begins, the future of this country will stagger. Our family should stay together. We need to be prepared to protect the whole clan from disaster."

"Understood," Amagiri replied dutifully.

"The snow will probably melt soon," Kazama remarked as he stared off into the distance at the mountains cloaked in white. "But until the last moment, the marks stay on it." He wondered if it had snowed so early back in their home in the West as well. 'With the changing situation between oni and humans, what will you do, Yukimura Chizuru... and Miyagawa Sumiko?'

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