The Blooming Hepatica

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But the Sendai Domain's allegiance with the Imperial Army remained unchanged. Only Hoshi Juntaro and his western-style unit joined them. A few days thereafter, the former Bakufu army met up with them, filling the soldiers with renewed bolster.

Chizuru and Sumiko were making onigiri for the troops when Hijikata stopped in the open doorway of the kitchen. Sumiko had her back to the door while she cooked the rice at the stove. Chizuru was so focused on shaping the rice balls that she had yet to notice his presence. The atmosphere was quiet and calm. For a moment, he just stood there, watching them, enjoying the peace of the moment. Seeing the two girls working together again reminded him of happier days, before everything had gone to hell.

"Oh, hello," Sumiko said when she turned around, a little surprised to see him there.

"Hijikata-san!" Chizuru said, lighting up when she looked up and saw him. But Sumiko furrowed her brow slightly when she saw the expression on his face as he crossed the room to stand directly in front of her friend.

"Chizuru," Hijikata said.

"Hai!" Chizuru said, still smiling.

"I want you to stay here," he told her seriously. Sumiko frowned while Chizuru gasped, taken aback.

"By herself?" Sumiko asked dubiously.

"No, not by herself. You'll be staying with her," Hijikata said firmly. "Get away from all this fighting."

"No way!" Sumiko refused flatly, deeply troubled by this turn of events.  How was she supposed to keep an eye on him if he sent them away?

"I will not allow you to accompany us to Ezo," Hijikata stated sternly as the crease in his brow deepened. This matter was not up for debate.

"W-Why not?" Chizuru asked, upset.

"Don't let us bind you down more than we already have," he said solemnly.

"We're here because we want to be!" Sumiko said earnestly. She still had to save him!

"No!" Hijikata snapped harshly, startling them. He hadn't meant to scare them. He had lost enough people already. He couldn't stand the thought of them... He just wanted to protect the girls. "No," he repeated more gently. "Go search for your own future... and live." He would never forgive himself if anything happened to Chizuru. The girls would be fine so long as they had each other.

"No... Hijikata-san!" Chizuru cried, hurrying after him as he turned and left.

"Wait! Hijikata-san!" Sumiko yelled, right on Chizuru's heels as they followed him out.

"That's an order from the Commander of the Shinsengumi," Hijikata said firmly without turning back to look at them, using a tone of such finality that the two girls were forced to realize that there was nothing they could say or do to change his mind. Sumiko placed a hand on Chizuru's shoulder as they watched him walk away, and held her close as her own thoughts began to wander. Now what were they supposed to do?

October 1868

Hijikata and the others set sail for Ezo. A harsh wind was blowing as Sumiko and Chizuru stood together in the cold to watch the ship sail away from the harbor until it disappeared into the distance.

Once again on their own, the two girls took solace in the each other's company. They mourned the deaths of those they had lost, and Sumiko did her best to comfort Chizuru in Hijikata's absence. Over the course of the month they finally had a chance to stop and take some time to catch up. They each took turns filling the other in on what had happened on their side during their period of separation. The news of Sumiko's engagement to Kazama shocked Chizuru greatly, but she had the grace to be happy for her friend, despite the complex relationship Kazama had with Hijikata, and Sumiko did her best to reassure Chizuru that she wouldn't let any serious harm come to him. They decided to stay in Sendai for a time, since that was where they had buried Koudou, and they didn't have much money of their own left. To keep busy and earn some income, Sumiko began making house calls in the area, while Chizuru spent most of her time caring for the graves of Koudou, Heisuke, and San'nan. But they never stopped listening for news of the war and were always on alert for any information about Hijikata and the others.

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