The Calm Before the Storm

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November, 1867

Chizuru and Sumiko were sweeping the leaves away out in front of the entrance to the Fudodo Village headquarters, the place where the Shinsengumi had moved after the big confrontation with the oni a couple months ago.

"Chizuru. Sumiko. You gotten used to it here yet?" Sano asked when he and his men returned from patrol.

"Hai," Chizuru said, smiling. "It really is a wonderful headquarters, isn't it?"

"Yeah. It's a bit smaller, but that just means there's less to clean," Sumiko added with a slight smirk. They didn't need as much space anyway with Itou's group gone.

"Well, the monks at the Nishi Hongwanji Temple got this mansion for us," Sano said, smilingly wryly. "I bet they're glad to be rid of us. Having us around made things more noisy."

"We were even attacked by the oni there..." Chizuru said.

"Heh. A group of oni attacking a temple... It sounds so surreal, like something out of an old legend," Sumiko said, shaking her head. "Where's Abe no Seimei when you need him?"

"Yeah," Sano agreed. That was one thing they hadn't tried yet. "But thanks to all that, we got this sweet mansion. Guess we should be grateful to those oni." The two girls smiled wryly as a cold wind blew. Sumiko shivered when it hit the back of her neck and tucked her hands into her sleeves, while Chizuru exhaled on hers, trying to warm them with her breath.

"Cold?" Sano asked. "Would you like me warm your hands?" he asked, holding his own out to them.

"N-No. I can handle this amount of cold on my own," Chizuru said. Sumiko smiled wryly, knowing she was just shy about holding a guy's hand. That was pretty forward for back in the day, after all, though she was pretty sure Sano hadn't meant it that way.

"Sano," Shinpachi said, alerting them to his presence. They could hear the smirk in his voice. "What're you makin' a move on them in place like this for?" he teased.

"Stupid! Don't equate me to you!" Sano retorted, rounding on him. "What I feel is pure affection."

"What're you callin' 'pure' affection?" Shinpachi asked tauntingly with a stupid grin on his face. "You know what you are? A big sourpuss! You should be more like me, go right in for the kill!"

The two girls smiled wryly and laughed at their antics, but then a more solemn expression came over them when they thought of what Heisuke might have said if he were still there.

'Until recently, Heisuke-kun would've been out here with us, too, huh?' Sumiko thought as she looked up at the grey and overcast late autumn sky. Her expression mirrored the somber mood of the sky above. 'It will be happening soon, won't it...?'

The Kodai-ji Temple,
Headquarters of the Guardians of the Imperial Tomb

"They're restoring Imperial rule? Damn those sneaky Bakufu bastards!" Shinohara exclaimed, banging his fist against the table he was seated at across from Itou. Neither of the two men were aware that Saitou, who was in the hall just outside the room they were in, had stopped to listen in on their conversation.

"With this, Satsuma and Choshu are no longer charged with overthrowing the government, yes?" Itou said.

"Was this Sakamoto's doing? Who's side is he on!? He's a naïve nationalist that wants to change the country without spilling any blood!" Shinohara said hotly.

"A sword that's too clean can prove dangerous, can't it?" Itou said thoughtfully. "As with Sakamoto and the Shinsengumi."

Saito had left and was on his way to pay a visit to a shrine, when he passed a man dressed in worn and ragged clothes who was sitting on the side of the road with a beggar's cup. Saito paused and reached into the sleeve of his kimono. He removed a couple of yen wrapped in a twisted sheet of paper and dropped it in the cup before continuing on his way.

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