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An Unearned Gift

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Chapter 1 - First Impressions

Monday, October 29th

"You do know staring and eating aren't the same thing right?" Chizuru looked up from the toast she'd been unintentionally contemplating to find Sen, her childhood friend and now roommate, frowning at her. "Seriously, you have to eat something. First impressions are always the most important and you can't be your best on an empty stomach."

She looked back down at the toast and immediately felt her stomach twist. Nope, breakfast definitely wasn't going to happen this morning. She sighed and pushed away from the breakfast bar. "Sorry Sen, I really can't. I'll just have some tea."

Sen grinned as she leaned on the bar and sipped on her coffee, watching as Chizuru began filling a travel mug with hot water. "All right, all right. I don't know what you're so nervous about anyway. The first day is always the most fun!"

Chizuru couldn't stop a small snort from escaping. Yeah, fun. She really had no idea how Sen could be so relaxed. It was her first day as well, and at one of the largest legal firms in the city no less, but Sen didn't look worried at all. She, on the other hand, had tossed and turned most of the night and had finally given up on getting any more sleep a whole hour before her alarm had been supposed to go off. She glanced again at the clock on the wall. She was still early, but she couldn't stand just sitting here any more. Maybe the nerves would go away if she actually started doing something productive.

Tightening the lid on her tea, she gathered her things before turning back to Sen. "Do I look okay?"

Sen rolled her eyes, "For the thousandth time, yes. Now quit worrying and just enjoy the new experience."

Taking a deep breath she nodded, "Right…"

Just as she opened the door, Sen leaned around the corner, her eyes sparkling. "Don't forget, first one back starts dinner!"

Chizuru couldn't help a smile as she tossed back, "Then you'd better hope I make it back first."

She hadn't been driving for more than a minute, when she heard her phone start to ring. Trying to keep her eyes on the road, she clumsily felt around her purse.

"Where are you?" She was starting to worry she might miss the call entirely, when she finally got a hold of her phone and checked the screen. Kodo? What was her uncle doing calling her right now? Had something happened? She quickly hit accept and put the phone to her ear.

"Hello?"

"Oh, Chizuru. I was starting to worry you weren't going to pick up."

She pulled back slightly and hit the speaker button before setting the phone down in her lap. "Sorry, I had some trouble digging my phone out of my purse. Did something happen?"

"No, no. Nothing like that. I just wanted to hear how you were settling in."

"Um, well Sen and I are settling in fine. We just got the last of the boxes unpacked last night and I'm on my way to work right now."

"I'm glad to hear it. But Chizuru… Are you sure this is what's best for you?"

She tipped her head back against the headrest and suppressed a sigh. Were they really going to go through this again?

"You should be using your degree to get a real job, not this investigative consultant nonsense. There are plenty of opportunities to use your skills back home."

"Uncle…" she tried to get his attention, but he seemed oblivious.

"And, of course, you would have my full support if you wanted to go back to school and get a different degree. Maybe a medical degree? I'm sure I could get you into my alma mater…"

As his voice trailed off slightly, she hurriedly took the chance to stop his monologue. "No Uncle, I'm not going to go back to school. I really am happy with my criminal justice degree. Besides I can't leave Sen. You know things are more expensive here. She needs a roommate to afford the apartment and this is a much safer option than trying to find a stranger to room with."

She heard him sigh on the other end. "But you could be doing so much more than investigative consulting. I know you worked with our local department during college, but shouldn't you be looking to move beyond that?"

She couldn't help but frown slightly at his last comment. "I can't just back out of this job. Chief Inoue went out of his way to recommend me to Chief Kondou. How would that look if I just dropped everything and came home? I mean, Chief Kondou hired me without even an interview, solely on Inoue's recommendation."

"I'm sure Rintaro would understand your situation."

She didn't answer. She'd worked hard to prove herself useful while she'd worked with Inoue Rintaro's department and she couldn't just throw that all away.

Kodo sighed again, and she could almost see him, eyes closed as he rubbed his forehead. "I hope you can understand that I'm just worried about you. A large city like that isn't safe."

"I know, but that's exactly why Sen needs me here. We'll be fine if we're together."

When he didn't respond, she continued. "How about this? If in a few months things aren't working out and Sen can either make it on her own or find a good roommate, then I'll come back home and find a more respectable career."

There was another long pause, but that was as far as she was willing to bend on this.

"That is… acceptable."

She let out a small sigh of relief. "Thank you. I love you uncle."

"Me too, Chizuru. Goodbye."

She heard the click as the line went dead, and she tossed her phone somewhat frustratedly back into the depths of her purse. Why did their conversations always have to go this way? Ever since she'd graduated, no, ever since she'd chosen her degree, he'd tried to get her to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. He couldn't seem to understand that while she had a good head for medicine and even enjoyed it, it wasn't what she needed to be doing.

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she almost missed the turn for the police headquarters. Trying to shove her conversation with Kodo to the back of her mind, she made her way through the parking lot to the visitor parking.

"Come on, Chizuru. You have to focus" she told herself sternly as she tugged nervously at the hem of her shirt and gathered her things. Taking a deep breath, she made her way into the building and to the receptionists desk.

The young officer behind the desk smiled at her. "Is there something I can help you with, Miss?"

She could feel her earlier nerves starting to resurface. "Um, yes. I'm Yukimura Chizuru and I have an appointment with Chief Kondou."

He clicked through several things on the computer in front of him. "All right, looks like you're good to go. He left a note saying that you could just head on up. Here is a visitor pass, please keep it on at all times, and here is a card that will let you access the elevator."

He handed her a badge and what looked like a hotel keycard. "Chief Kondou's office is on the third floor. Once you exit the elevator, turn left and head straight. You won't be able to miss it."

Clipping the badge to her shirt, she nodded. "Okay, thank you."

That's kind of weird… They were just going to let her wander freely through police headquarters? She somewhat hesitantly approached the elevators and scanned the card, but relaxed when the little light flashed green and the doors opened. This didn't seem too hard. She hit the button for the third floor.

Nothing happened. She hit it again, but it stubbornly remained unlit. Why wouldn't…? Oh... She noticed another card reader located just above the buttons. She scanned the card and this time the button lit up when she pushed it. The doors closed and she could feel the elevator start to rise. She was glad when she reached the third floor and could step out into the hall. Hopefully she wouldn't run into any more problems.

"Okay, left and then straight." She mumbled to herself.

Double checking that she had the right direction, she turned and headed down a wide hallway. On one side, the wall was almost entirely glass and had expansive views of the city, while the other seemed to be broken into several large rooms. She noticed people in them, but didn't pause to try and figure out what they were doing. One room she passed did catch her attention for a brief moment. She was pleasantly surprised to find that they had what appeared to be a full kitchen instead of the usual kitchenette.

Finally she came to a door marked 'Chief of Police: Kondou Isami'. Could this really be his office? Chief Inoue always kept what felt like a fleet of secretaries between him and everyone else. It had been a good day if you only had to explain yourself three times before finally getting in to see him. Well, I won't know unless I try. She took one more steadying breath before knocking on the door and almost immediately heard a voice telling her to come in.

She opened the door to find an older looking man sitting behind a desk. "Ah, you must be Miss Yukimura. I've heard nothing but good things from my cousin about you." He smiled kindly and offered her his hand.

As she hesitantly took it, she couldn't help but ask, "...Your cousin?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Inoue Genzaburo and Rintaro is my cousin." He motioned toward a door at the opposite end of the room. "Isami is expecting you, so you can head right in."

"Um, thank you."

Okay, so maybe Kondou had one secretary… or at least an assistant. Thankfully unlike Chief Inoue's secretaries, Inoue seemed more like a helpful father/grandfather figure.

She gave herself a mental shake at the thought as she approached the door to Kondou's office. At least in her head, she was going to have to start calling them by their first names if she was going to keep anything straight.

She opened the door to find a man who appeared to be in his early thirties sitting behind a large desk. He immediately stood and smiled as he made his way toward her. Chizuru was surprised by the overwhelming sense of cheerful exuberance that seemed to radiate from him. She'd expected someone more along the lines of a stern disciplinarian, like Rintaro had been.

He extended a hand to her, "You must be Yukimura Chizuru. I am so glad we finally get to meet. I've heard nothing but great things about you."

With a jolt, she realized he was waiting for her to say something. Real smooth, Chizuru. Quickly she took his proffered hand, unable to hold back a smile. "Thank you, I'm honored to be here and hope I can be an asset to your department."

"From what Rintaro told me of what you were able to do for him, I have no doubt you will be a great help to us." He gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk, "Would you like to sit down?"

"Thank you." She sat in the chair he'd indicated, but was surprised when instead of returning behind his desk, he sat in the other chair beside her, turning it slightly to face her. Some of her confusion must have shown on her face, because his smile slipped slightly.

"Oops, sorry. Toshi is always telling me I need to have more consideration for my position." He moved to get up from the chair, obviously to go sit behind his desk.

"Oh, no! Please, it's not a problem!" He halted and looked at her somewhat quizzically as she blurted the first thing that popped into her head. "Please, I don't mind. In fact it makes you seem more approachable."

His smile beamed back to full brightness as he sat back down in the chair. "That's what I keep telling Toshi. I want my people to be able to come to me for anything," He laughed, "But I guess he wouldn't be Toshi if he wasn't worried about something."

Chizuru had no idea who he was talking about, but his laugh was infectious and she couldn't help a small giggle. He was nothing like she'd expected, but she could easily tell that this was a man she could respect and trust. Someone who didn't let the power of his position get in the way of his care for others.

"Anyway, I'm not sure how much you've heard about what you'd be doing here, but basically we've got a detective team that has been flooded with cases. They've managed to solve most of them, but with the vast number, they could use a second opinion on some of them." He leaned back slightly, his face pensive. "Don't get me wrong, they're my best team, but these cases just seem to be missing one or two key details. And from what I've heard from Rintaro, you are the best when it comes to finding missing details."

She couldn't help the blush that spread across her cheeks. "I don't know about being the best, but I can promise that I will give this my all."

His eyes lit up as he stood. "Wonderful! There will of course be some paperwork for you to fill out, but for now we can start with introducing you to the team!"

She gathered her things, and together they made their way back down the hallway, finally stopping in front of one of the large openings. Down the center of the room were six desks pushed together in two lines of three. The wall space on either side of the opening was filled with filing cabinets and shelves. Against one wall was a couch, but the majority of the wall space was devoted to whiteboards, most of which had photos and notes from different cases. She could also see a door at the back to what she assumed was an office.

While her mind registered all these details, what truly had her attention was the five pairs of eyes that had locked onto her as soon as she had walked through behind Kondou.

A man with spiky brown hair, ice blue eyes, and looking to be in his mid twenties whistled and grinned at her. "Hey, who's the cute girl? You finally get a real secretary, Kondou?"

What?

Almost immediately the red haired man next to him, who had gold eyes and looked to be about the same age, hit him over the back of the head. "Idiot, that's no way to speak about a lady."

"See Shin! This is why women don't like you!"

The man apparently called Shin turned to glare at a… well… young man, if she was being generous, with expressive teal eyes and tousled light brown hair. "Aw shut up Heisuke. You're just jealous that women always fall for my gorgeous muscles!"

A man who seemed only a few years older than her with sharp green eyes and auburn hair, grinned and leaned back in his chair. "Well they certainly don't like you for your brain."

"Oi, not true! My brain is just as fabulous as my muscles. You all are just too dumb to realize my genius!"

Chizuru could only stare at them, her mouth half open and what she was sure was a shocked expression plastered on her face. She felt like she should be upset that he'd assumed she was a secretary, but in a weird way it seemed that the others, especially the red haired man, had already taken care of that for her.

The man next to the one with green eyes was the only one not to have spoken. Like the guy called Heisuke, he looked around her age, but where Heisuke seemed like a boy, he seemed far more mature. His dark blue eyes and expression remained completely neutral as he watched their banter. Well, what she could see of his expression behind his heavy indigo bangs anyway.

His gaze met hers and he gave her a small nod. "Miss Yukimura."

Wait, how did he know my name? Apparently everyone else had the same thought because they all turned to him in surprise.

The man with green eyes raised an eyebrow at him. "You know her Hajime?"

Hajime gave a slight shake of his head. "No, I have never met Miss Yukimura before today."

The man with red hair frowned at him. "If you've never met her, then how do you know her name?"

While Hajime's expression didn't change, something in his tone gave her the impression that he thought it should have been obvious. "The Commander mentioned that the consultant from Chief Inoue's department would be arriving today, and the only consultant working in his department was Miss Yukimura."

The man called Shin turned back to her, his eyes wide and voice rising. "Wait! You're the consultant?!"

Before she could respond, the door at the back of the room slammed open and a loud voice caused all of them, except Hajime, to jump.

"What the hell is going on out here?"

A man stood in the doorway, arms folded and violet eyes narrowed dangerously. He seemed maybe a few years younger than Kondou, but definitely older than any of the other men. She was glad she was on the other side of the room from him. As it was, she still had to fight the urge to flee from the room. What had she gotten herself into?

Kondou laughed awkwardly and rubbed the back of his head. "Ah Toshi, there you are. I wanted to introduce Miss Yukimura here to the team, but we seem to have gotten sidetracked slightly."

His violet eyes focused on her and she felt herself wilt slightly under the weight of his stare before he returned his gaze to Kondou.

"This is her? She's awfully young. Are you sure she's capable?"

Ok, that ticked her off a little bit. He did realize she was right there, right? Sure she was young, short, and honestly lacked most womanly curves, but she wasn't a child. And capable? From the way he'd asked, it had sounded like he was asking if she was literate or something. She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Kondou spoke.

"Of course she's capable Toshi! Rintaro told me himself that she's the reason they were able to bring down that drug cartel they'd been trying to root out for years."

She felt her cheeks warm as all eyes focused back on her, some obviously reevaluating, while others just seemed surprised. She noticed that one pair in particular had hardened to sharp green daggers and she felt a small shiver run down her spine. The man Kondou called Toshi snorted lightly. "And you just took his word on that?"

Before Kondou could say anything, she took a hesitant step forward. "I-It's true! I was able to analyze the locations of all they drug related incidents that they had connected to the cartel and used that information to find the epicenter of their distribution. That epicenter led to the discovery of their main lab and drug stores, as well as the arrests of nearly all of the cartel's high ranking members and most of their distributors." She took a deep breath and fought to meet his hard gaze. "Please, I may be young, but I do have a degree in criminal justice and I am capable. If you give me a chance, I will prove I can be useful to you and your team."

For a long moment his violet eyes bored into hers and it took all she had to not look away and stand her ground.

Finally, he gave a sharp nod. "Fine."

Chizuru felt most of the tension leave her shoulders and she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Kondou, on the other hand, appeared completely oblivious to the tension that had just filled the room and grinned brightly.

"Great! Oh, right. I never actually introduced anyone." He quickly listed off a string of names, gesturing to each man as he went. She could only hope that she would be able to keep them all straight.

The young man with the teal eyes was Toudou Heisuke. Next to him, the man they'd called Shin was Nagakura Shinpachi, and the redhead next to him was Harada Sanosuke. Across from Harada was the impassive Saito Hajime, and next to him was the sharp eyed Okita Souji. Finally the commander of the team, whom Kondou had called Toshi, was Hijikata Toshizo.

Kondou clapped a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be right back with the paperwork you'll need to fill out."

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 - Not So Bad… Maybe

Monday, October 29th

Before she could say anything that might keep Kondou from leaving her alone, he was gone. She fidgeted and glanced nervously around the room, not meeting any of their eyes. The silence was almost like a physical weight pressing down on her shoulders, making it hard to breath. Finally she couldn't take it anymore.

She cleared her throat quietly and gave a small bow. "Um, I'm Yukimura Chizuru. It's an honor to meet you and hope I will be able to aid you in your investigations."

Heisuke grinned at her. "Glad to meet you Chizuru. You can just call me Heisuke, everyone else does and I think we're about the same age anyway."

She gave him a slightly hesitant smile and nodded. "Ok, Heisuke then."

Harada leaned back in his chair, his eyes and smile warm as he jerked his thumb at Nagakura. "Hope you'll forgive this idiot over here. He never did learn when to keep his mouth shut. I have to admit, it will be nice to have a woman's touch around here."

Nagakura shot a hurt look at Harada. "Hey, how was I supposed to know she was the consultant? Hijikata's been telling Kondou to get a secretary for years!"

Hijikata sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "That's enough. Shinpachi, go get the cases we set aside."

Nagakura grumbled slightly, but got up and left the room. Hijikata gestured to the only free desk in the room. "While you're here, that will be your desk. Ask anyone if you need something, but distractions will not be tolerated and do not go beyond the scope of the cases we provide to you. Understood?"

"Yes sir." She gave him as firm a nod as she could.

Without another word, Hijikata turned away and re-entered his office. This seemed to be a signal to the others, because they all returned to what they had been doing before she and Kondou had interrupted. She looked with some trepidation at the desk she'd been assigned, before she moved to place her bags next to it. Of course the empty desk had to be next to the one person who seemed to instantly dislike her. She didn't know when it had happened, but at some point during the whole encounter, Okita's eyes had shifted from ambivalence with a hint of curiosity, to outright hostility. She had no idea what the cause had been, but she had no intention of asking right now. Thankfully Kondou chose that moment to return, a rather thick stack of papers in his hand. He held them out to her.

"Just give these to Toshi when you've finished and he'll make sure they get to Gen." His gaze softened slightly "I know they can be an unruly bunch, but they really are a good group."

She took the stack and nodded her understanding. As soon as he left the room, she sat down at the desk, shooting a quick glance at Okita. Thankfully he was studiously ignoring her. Hopefully it would stay that way. Chizuru dug a pen out of her purse and looked at the first sheet. This is going to take a while…

She'd been right, it had taken a while. It was now a couple hours past noon and she was only just signing the last sheet. Flexing her stiff fingers, she stood and made her way towards Hijikata's office with the papers in hand. The door was open and a quick peek inside showed Hijikata sitting at his desk, his back to her. Timidly she knocked on the doorframe.

At the sound, Hijikata glanced back at her, but almost immediately returned his attention to the papers on his desk.

He gestured to an already cluttered shelf to his left. "You can put them over there."

Stepping toward the shelf, she gingerly placed the papers on the least precarious stack she could find. Taking another look at the office, she realized that there were stacks of papers on nearly every surface. The stacks themselves were neat and orderly, but some were tall enough that she worried walking by them too fast would be enough to blow them over.

"Was there something else?"

His voice yanked her out of her thoughts and she whirled to face him. She could feel a small blush spreading across her cheeks at the fact that he'd caught her examining his office.

"Um no…" She was just about to turn away and dart back to her desk, when she suddenly remembered. "Wait! Yes there is."

He looked at her, eyes narrowing slightly. "Well, what is it? I don't have all day."

"Right," she chewed on her lip slightly. "Um, I'd like your permission to use my personal computer when I'm working on the cases. It's really more of a work computer, since that's all I use it for, but I have an application on there that helps me organize and view the case data."

He gave her an evaluating look as he leaned forward and steepled his fingers. "That's not really standard procedure… but I'm assuming it's what you used while you were at Rintaro's department?"

She nodded. "Yes. I've wiped it of the cases I worked there, and I'll wipe it again once I've finished the cases here. It's also completely secure. It requires a password and fingerprint to access it, and it wipes automatically after three failed attempts."

He frowned slightly. "And what if someone just takes the hard drive and reads it directly?"

She shook her head. "That wouldn't work. All the data is automatically encrypted before it's stored, so all they'd get is gibberish."

Hijikata thought for a moment before giving her a small nod. "Very well. But Heisuke will oversee the wiping of the computer when you've finished the cases."

"Thank you." She gave a slight bow before leaving his office and heading to her desk.

"There you are!" She hadn't even made it to her desk before Nagakura walked through the doorway, a large box in his hands.

He grinned at her. "Took me forever to find this. Some idiot had it sent back to storage."

From his desk, Heisuke snorted as he said, "Are you sure it wasn't you in the first place Shin?"

Nagakura dropped the box down on her desk and she was surprised by the loud thump it made. It hadn't looked that heavy when he was carrying it…

"Oi, care to repeat that shrimp?"

Leaving them to what she was quickly realizing was their normal banter, she opened the box. It was crammed with so many cases, she couldn't help but wonder how it wasn't bursting the seams. This was only a small portion of the cases they had? No wonder they needed help. Leaving the cases for a moment, Chizuru sat down and pulled out her laptop.

Once it's started up and she'd logged in, she clicked over to the available wifi. The building had both secured and guest wifi. She could use the guest, but if they had a central VM system, then she would need the secured…

Glancing up, she noticed that Heisuke and Nagakura were still trading insults, something about a night from a couple years ago from what she could gather. How did their argument end up there? Shaking off the thought, she noticed Harada was just sitting back, clearly enjoying watching their verbal tennis match. He seemed to be the best person to ask at the moment. Okita had been studiously ignoring for the past couple hours, and to be honest, Saito's stern demeanor intimidated her.

"Um, Harada?"

He glanced away from the two arguing next to him and gave her a warm smile. "Yeah? What's up?"

"Do you guys have a VM here?"

He gave her a confused look. "A what?"

"Um, you know, Virtual Machine? …A central system you can log into remotely? I just want to make sure I can access any forms I may need from my laptop..."

He still looked lost, but she wasn't sure how else to explain it. Thankfully Heisuke took that opportunity to turn toward her, his eyes and smile bright and almost puppyish.

"I can give you the username and password for that. You're also going to need the password for the secure wifi, right?"

"You know what she's talking about?"

Heisuke gave Harada a weird look. "You log on to one every day. How do you not know what a VM is?"

Apparently Nagakura realized he'd lost his opponent, because he took that moment to butt in. "What's a VM?"

Heisuke smacked his palm to his forehead as he sighed exasperatedly. "Geeze you guys are old. It's the thing you log on to on the computer. You know, the central system that gives us all access to the same set of applications and documents?"

"Hey now, Shinpachi may be old, but I'm not!" Harada's expression looked affronted, but she thought she could detect a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Nagakura immediately turned toward him, his eyebrows drawn together sharply. "Oi, Sano! I thought you were my friend!?"

Heisuke sighed and shook his head. "When it comes to technology, you're both dinosaurs." He quickly scribbled down the username and passwords she'd need on a post-it note and handed it to her. "Here you go. You can use my username and password for the VM until HR gets you one of your own."

She barely got her thanks out before Nagakura had Heisuke in a headlock.

"All right, all right! If you're done flirting with the new girl, let's get out of here. We should have had lunch hours ago and my stomach's cryin'!"

Heisuke struggled to escape Nagakura's grip, his face going red. "I wasn't flirting! It's called being nice, something you wouldn't know anything about."

Harada shook his head as he grinned at the pair of them. "Shin, let him go so we can get out of here already." He turned to look at her. "You wanna come? The place we're going isn't far."

She'd like to say it was tempting, but really it wasn't. If this was what they were like in the office, she didn't know if she could handle them out of it.

She shook her head, giving him an apologetic smile. "Thank you, but I'm fine. I brought lunch and I want to get a look at some of these cases.

Harada shrugged. "Suit yourself. The offer always stands."

She smiled and gave them a small wave as they left.

With the noise of their banter gone, Chizuru realized she was completely alone in the room. Apparently at some point Okita and Saito had disappeared, and Hijikata had shut the door to his office. She let out a sigh and stared at the box of files on her desk. This was nothing like what she had expected, but she had to at least give it some time before she decided whether she liked it or not. They were a crazy and eclectic group, that was for sure, but on the whole they seemed like good people.

She traced a finger down one of the folders and mumbled to herself, "Well, most of them anyway…"

Shaking herself out of her thoughts, she glanced at a few of the cases in the box. Whoever had put them in there obviously hadn't bothered with any kind of order. They weren't grouped by type, date, name, or any other system she could possibly think of. Unfortunately that left her with only one option. She was going to have to do it herself.

Going to her bag, she dug around for a few seconds before her fingers found the pack of multicolored page markers she'd thrown in earlier that morning. Almost as an after thought, she snagged a bag of carrots from her lunch. There was no way her desk would have the space she needed, but a quick glance around the room found her the perfect spot. One of the back corners had plenty of free floor space under the whiteboards and would hopefully keep her out of the team's way.

It wasn't that she was OCD or anything, her bottomless pit of a purse was proof of that, but she liked things to be in their proper place. It made them easier to find later and she much preferred doing little bits here and there to one giant cleanup when things got unbearable.

She wrapped her arms around the box and made to lift it. No sooner had its full weight settled into her arms, then she had to take several stumbling steps to remain upright. Just how many cases were in here? Those muscles Nagakura had bragged about must amount to something, because he'd made carrying it look easy. To be honest, she wouldn't have been surprised to find several bars of lead at the bottom.

Somehow she managed to make it over to the corner and set the box down without dropping it. She sat down next to the box and idly munched on a carrot as she reached in and grabbed the first five or so files that came to hand. They definitely weren't in any specific order. In this batch alone she had a burglary from two weeks ago, the disappearance of a woman a year previously, and a scattering of other crimes in between. Well, she had to start somewhere.

An hour into it and Chizuru had half a dozen piles of different heights surrounding her and the box was half empty. She chewed on her lip thoughtfully. Which pile did this case belong in? Technically it was both a burglary and an assault…

"What, exactly, are you doing?"

Her eyes flew up from the file in her hands and found herself trapped by a cold green gaze. She felt herself freeze and her mouth open and close a few times as she tried to figure out how to get her voice to work.

Okita raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

Somehow, though she had no idea how, she managed to get her body to cooperate enough to speak. "O-Oh, um sorry… The cases were all out of order and I tend to think better when I can lay things out. I hope that's okay…"

He snorted slightly as he turned away, waving a hand dismissively. "Whatever. Just make sure you stay out of my way."

"O-Okay…" she wasn't sure he even heard her, because without another glance her way, he sat down at his desk and began typing.

Trying to push Okita to the back of her mind, she focused back on the case in her hand. Assault or burglary? Assault was the more serious crime, so she set it on the stack of other assault cases.

It didn't take her long to forget Okita was even in the room as she continued to work her way through the cases. At some point, her butt and back hadn't been able to take sitting on the hard floor any longer, and she'd succumbed to to the temptation to steal a pillow from the couch and the rest of her lunch from her desk. She'd just started to apply colored page markers to each of the files and sort the stacks by date, when a group of loud voices caught her attention.

Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke walked into the room, laughing uproariously at some story Harada was telling. Had they been at lunch this whole time?

Heisuke glanced around the room and his eyes lit up when he saw her. "Hey Chizuru! …What are you doing over there on the floor?"

She couldn't help but smile back at him. "Oh, hi Heisuke. I'm just organizing the files since they were all out of order."

"Well you certainly look more comfortable now." Harada gave her a grin she couldn't quite decipher.

Comfortable? Chizuru glanced down and suddenly realized how she must look sitting on one of their pillows, sandwich in one hand, post-its in the other, surrounded by cases, and to her horror, her hair tugged up in a messy bun she couldn't remember doing.

She felt a blush creep across her cheeks, but before she could say anything, Harada raised his hands in a placating gesture and quickly continued. "Just sayin' it's nice to see you settling in. You were so jumpy earlier I thought we might've scared you off."

She felt her blush deepen and had to fight the urge to bury her face in her hands. Had she really looked ready to bolt earlier? She was definitely going to have a talk with Sen on her definition of fun. In no way did anything that had happened to her today qualify as fun.

Realizing she hadn't actually answered him yet, she managed what she hoped was a sincere smile. "Oh… um, thank you?"

Heisuke snorted. "Can you really blame her? Hijikata's scary as hell even when he's not in his oni mood."

Nagakura grinned and looked pointedly behind Heisuke. "Hey Hijikata."

It took a second for Heisuke to process that comment, but Chizuru could tell exactly when it clicked. Almost in slow motion, she saw his eyes widen and his face pale as he whirled around… to find nobody behind him.

Nagakura burst into laughter as Heisuke turned back, his fists clenched and eyes narrowed in a glare. "Bastard! That wasn't funny!"

Heisuke looked ready to lunge at the still laughing Nagakura and Chizuru couldn't suppress a laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole situation. Almost instantly, all eyes in the room focused on her and she clapped her hands over her mouth.

Harada gave her a wink. "That's what I've been waiting for. You're definitely cuter when you laugh."

Heisuke's expression immediately shifted from surprise back to glare as he frowned at Harada. "Seriously dude? Can't you go two seconds without flirting?"

"It's not flirting if it's the truth." Harada said as he leaned casually against the wall, thumbs hooked into the pockets of his pants.

"How about you all shut up before I decide to kill someone?"

Chizuru jumped slightly. She had forgotten Okita was even in the room until he'd spoken.

Nagakura frowned and looked slightly confused at a glowering Okita. "Hey man, what's got your tail in a knot?"

"You mean besides a loud trio of idiots and a waste of space?"

Waste of…? Oh…

Heisuke let out a surprised exclamation of "Souji!" and Harada's expression darkened as he said "That was uncalled for."

Okita only smirked slightly as he pushed away from his desk and stood. "Whatever. I'm out for the day anyway." Without another word, he brushed passed the group and was gone.

Nagakura sighed and rubbed the back of his head as he turned back to her. "Sorry about that Chizuru. He's normally not this bad."

Heisuke gave her a slightly strained smile. "Yeah, just ignore him."

"It's all right." She gave what she hoped was a convincing smile as she shrugged.

As soon as their attention shifted to their work, she let the smile drop and stared at the case in her hand without really seeing it. His words echoed in her head. Was that really what she was to him? A waste of space? A waste of time? She fought to push down the hurt as she gently ran her thumb over the smooth paper of the folder in her hands. Was he always like this? Maybe something else was bothering him… With a rough shake of her head, she succeeded in pushing down her hurt and took a deep breath. It didn't matter what he thought of her. In fact, it didn't matter what any of them thought of her. She had agreed to take on this job and she would see it through to the end.

Thankfully another hour's work was all it took to get the cases organized and back in the box. She glanced at the clock and realized that at this rate Sen would beat her home. Hopefully she could get there before she did too much…

She had packed up her bag and was just about to leave the room when she heard someone call out from behind her.

"You leaving for the day, Chizuru?"

She turned back to find Heisuke and the other two looking at her. She nodded. "Yeah, I need to get back before my roommate ruins dinner."

Heisuke laughed and smiled brightly at her. "Alright, see you tomorrow!"

She couldn't resist a smile as she gave them a small wave. Maybe, overall, this wouldn't be so bad.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 - Learning The Ropes

Tuesday, October 30th

"Morning, Chizu...ru."

Chizuru looked up from her laptop to find a rather tousled looking Heisuke trying to smile and stifle another yawn at the same time. It wasn't working too well and the yawn won out.

"Good morning Heisuke."

At the end of the row, Nagakura immediately perked up. "Finally! Took you long enough runt."

"Hey, if you want it sooner, then you can get it yourself next time." Heisuke said as he deposited two drink carriers and a bag of what she assumed to be pastries on the desk.

As everyone reached for their drinks, he glanced over at her, his eyes brightening slightly. "Hey, if you want anything in the morning, just let me know." He ruffled the hair at the back of his head as he gestured to everyone behind him. "I'm already getting everything for this lot anyway."

"Oh, thank you," She pointed to the travel mug on her desk, "but I'm good."

"What're you working on?" He made his way around the desks until he stood behind her chair and peered at her screen. "Whoa! What's that?"

"This?" She said gesturing to the web of interconnected nodes on her screen. "It's a program I use to help me organize the case data."

She glanced back at Heisuke to see his eyes wide and sparkling. His exclamation must have drawn the attention of Harada and Nagakura, because before she knew it, she found herself surrounded.

"What's what?" Nagakura said as he leaned heavily on Heisuke, pointedly ignoring younger man's yelp of protest as he nearly knocked him over.

"Um, well, Heisuke was curious about the program I'm using. Basically it takes the data from a case and creates a multidimensional graph which lets me see inconsistencies or missing information."

Nagakura grinned as he said, "So you don't have to do anything? It just like solves the case for you? Ow! Sano, what was that for?"

Harada shot his friend an exasperated look before he turned to her, "I'm sure this idiot didn't mean to imply that you're not doing any work."

She shrugged as she said, "It's okay. It does seem that way at first glance, but at its core all it is a 3D representation of the case with some simple analyzing tools." That got her some puzzled looks, so she tried again. "I guess you could say it's more like a compass than a map. It just points you in the right direction." She pulled up two of the nodes she'd just entered. "See these two nodes? The guy said he was at this first location at 3:30pm, and this connection shows that he went to this second location at 5:30pm. The node color tells me this was corroborated by witnesses, so he was definitely there."

A few clicks, and she rotated the graph so it was now superimposed on a map of the area. She pointed to the two nodes again. "The problem is that he said he took two hours to get there, but the color of the line says there is a problem, it shows normal traffic for that time should have had him there in a half hour. I've already done some research and there wasn't any construction or accidents that would have caused a back up, so what was he doing for that missing hour and a half?"

"Wow, that is so cool!" Heisuke seemed enthralled by the graph on her screen. Even Harada and Nagakura seemed to be examining it more seriously. "Where'd you get it?"

"Actually, my roommate in college was a computer science major and she got tired of me turning our room into a web of string and post-it notes every time I had a sample case to solve. I'm a pretty visual thinker, so it helps me to see the connections between people, places, and things." She felt her cheeks warm slightly at the memory. "One time it got so bad that we couldn't get the door open and my roommate said she would do the same thing on the computer if it would keep me from turning our room into a serial killer's lair.

Her eyes traced over the web of familiarly glowing lines and nodes. "Anyway, we decided to make it our senior project, so I came up with the design and interface, while she did the actual coding."

She glanced back at Heisuke, who looked so desperate to try it, his fingers were nearly twitching. "I can give you a copy to play with if you want?"

"Really?! Yes please!"

Before she could say anything more, Saito appeared from Hijikata's office and made his way over to them. "There's been an incident at 3rd and Seneca. The Commander wants the three of you to look into it."

"Sure, no problem." Harada said as the three men moved to gather their things. "See you later Chizuru."

Heisuke nodded and glanced back over his shoulder."Yeah, we should be back soon. Dibs on driving!"

He lunged for the keys lying on the desk, but Nagakura was faster, snatching them up and dangling them tauntingly just out of the shorter man's reach. "Only if you can get them, shorty."

"Not a chance." With a smirk, Harada easily snagged the keys out of Nagakura's hand as he walked by, "I'd rather get there alive and that won't happen with either of you driving."

"Hey! Not fair!"

"Come on Sano, you always drive!"

Chizuru fought a smile as she watched the trio leave, their bickering still audible long after they were out of sight. Well, she wasn't going to make any progress just sitting there. She turned her attention back to the computer and case file in front of her. She'd managed to find one inconsistency so far, but she would need to see the whole picture before jumping to any conclusions.

A half hour more and she frowned as she rotated the completed case web. Even with all the information from the case, there was only one connection showing a clear inconsistency and it didn't even have anything to do with the main suspect. In fact, it was the same one she'd pointed out to Harada and the others. She idly tapped a finger on the desk as her mind wandered.

Her next step should be to look for missing bits of information, nodes that should be connected, but weren't, but she already knew where the key piece was from reading the case file. The man with the most motive had not purchased the materials found at the scene and he had an alibi…

A few clicks and she brought forward the nodes for the rope, pulley, and harnesses that had been found at the scene. Everything had looked to be in new condition and were pretty generic. Easily something that could be purchased at a local hardware store. It would have narrowed things down if it had been climbing grade, but even so, the team had already checked all the nearby hardware stores for those purchases. None of them had panned out.

In a way, she found it kind of nice to be dealing with a mostly completed case. On her old team she'd been creating webs as cases developed. While it had helped direct the case, it also meant lots of requesting and sifting through data. With this case, they'd already taken care of most of it already. They'd already looked into all of the probable scenarios, so all she had left was the improbable.

Like what if the person who provided the alibi was actually the person who bought the materials…? she frowned at the screen as she pulled up the inconsistent connection. An hour and a half. The team had done some basic digging into this guy, but he hadn't been the focus of their investigation. Flipping to the map view, she typed in a 35 minute radius. He had to get there and back, and this would give him 15 minutes to purchase the materials. A search of hardware stores in that radius gave her four options that the team hadn't already checked.

Now all she had to do was submit a subpoena for information… Chizuru felt herself deflate slightly. She was sure she could locate the proper files on their VM, but who on earth did she send them to? Other than the team, Kondou, Gen, and the guy at the front desk, she hadn't actually met anyone yet… Well, she could cross that bridge when she came to it.

She started up the VM, quickly double checking Heisuke's log-in before she entered it. Chizuru had to fight to keep from giggling when she got a look at his desktop. It seemed fairly standard at first glance, but tucked in a corner, away from all of his other applications, were several console emulators and games. Not that his exuberance over her app hadn't already pegged him as a geek at heart, but it was like he actually trying to hide it. And not doing a very good job of it…

Pulling up the file explorer, she quickly worked her way to the folder where the information request forms were located. A drag and drop was all that was required to copy the files onto her desktop. She was just about to close the VM when she suddenly remembered her promise to Heisuke. Another drag and drop and the application icon appeared on his desktop. She hoped he would enjoy playing around with it, but she'd found previously that mechanics which seemed completely natural to her, resulted in a near vertical learning curve for everyone else.

The forms ended up being pretty simple to fill out, but she still had the same problem as before. Who did she send these to? She shot a quick glance around the room. Great… Of course the only people here were Saito and Okita. Neither seemed like an appealing option, but between the two, Saito was definitely preferable to Okita. Taking a deep breath, she hesitantly pushed away from her desk and made her way over to where Saito was sitting.

"Yes?" She stared at him in confusion, not entirely sure he'd actually spoken. He hadn't turned to look at her and she hadn't even asked him a question yet…

When she didn't respond, he turned away from his computer and settled a rather ambivalent gaze on her. "What do you need?"

She gave herself a mental shake and cleared her throat. "Um, I need more information for one of the cases and I was wondering who to send the forms to."

His brows furrowed slightly. "Which case is this for?"

"The burglary from three months ago, where the climbing gear used to enter the apartment was left at the scene."

Saito gave a small nod. "I remember. We couldn't connect the purchase of the materials to our main suspect."

"Right, but I think he was telling the truth. I don't think he purchased them."

"Really?" She turned to find Okita staring at her, eyes hard and annoyance plain on his face. "That's all you've managed to come up with? We already knew that."

Chizuru couldn't help the frown that tugged at her lips. "I know, but I think I might have an idea of who did. That's why I need more information."

"Who?"

At Saito's question, she turned away from Okita and took a breath before meeting his stoic gaze as steadily as she could.

"I believe it was the friend who supplied his alibi. The only discrepancy in the data has to do with him. He had a missing hour and a half in his statement, which puts him in range of three or so hardware stores that weren't checked originally. I wanted to look at their sales for that day, as well as look at the financial records of the friend."

Saito's gaze drifted away from her as he considered her reasoning. After a few moments, his eyes snapped back to hers. "I agree, that seems highly plausible. Send me the forms and I will forward them to the appropriate people."

"Thank you very much." She couldn't help a smile as she gave a short nod, absurdly feeling slightly like a student being praised by a teacher.

Before she could turn away, he spoke again. "In the future, be sure to send your requests through one of us. It will ensure you receive the fastest response possible."

She nodded again. "Okay, I will."

It was only when she was sitting at her desk that the implications of his last statement hit her. Why would their response time be any faster than hers? In Rintaro's department it had been a first come, first served system. Did they have some kind of priority for their requests? Or was it because she wasn't really a part of the department? She'd run into that before. Some officers didn't like people they deemed civilians interfering in police work and had hindered her every chance they got. Usually she'd been able to find ways around people like that, so maybe they were just saving her the trouble of figuring out who to avoid?

Well, the reason really didn't matter. What mattered was that she got the information she needed. Hijikata had been quite clear that he didn't want her going beyond the scope of her cases.

Once she'd sent the completed forms to Saito, she considered her options of what to do next since her current case was stalled. She was just contemplating starting a new case, when she was startled by a quiet growl from her stomach. Chizuru felt her cheeks warm and quickly glanced over at Okita. Thankfully it didn't seem like he'd heard anything. Lunch first, then she would start on another case.

Chizuru grabbed her lunch as she headed toward the kitchen she'd seen the day before. Hopefully they would have a microwave. She'd packed the leftovers from last night's dinner, and while they would be fine cold, they would be far better warm.

To her surprise, she found the kitchen to be fully equipped, if rarely used. It seem to have all the basic appliances, but the only things that showed any form of wear were the microwave and fridge. She was tempted to take a quick look through the cupboards to see what else they might have, but another rumble from her stomach reminded her that she should probably save that little bit of exploration for another time.

"You don't belong here."

Chizuru jumped at the voice behind her, dropping the container she'd just opened onto the counter. She whirled around to find Okita casually leaning against the doorframe, lips pulled up into a slight smirk and eyes narrowed dangerously. How long had he…?

"W-What?"

Almost lazily, Okita pushed off the the doorframe and moved toward her.

"I said, you don't belong here."

Chizuru frowned in confusion, "I… I'm sorry?"

What did he mean? That she didn't belong here in the kitchen? Or here as in the department? It wasn't until she felt the sharp edge of the counter dig into her back, that she realized she'd been backing away from him. He stopped inches away, his height adding to the feeling that he was looming over her. It was almost like she could feel the waves of irritation flowing off him.

His smirk pulled up at the corner, "What? You think we want you here? The last thing we need is someone like you coming in and messing with our investigations. Or is it that you think we can't solve them without your astounding powers of deduction?"

Every cell in her body was telling her to bolt from the room, but his gaze kept her pinned in place. "N-No, I don't think that at all…"

Finally, unable to take the disdain in his gaze any longer, she found a very interesting spot on the wall to focus her attention on. She took a deep breath, feeling some of her courage return now that she wasn't looking directly at him.

"I've looked at all the cases and they seem to be fairly minor. That's…" She fought to hold her voice steady as she forced herself to look him in the eye. "That's why it's even more important that I take these cases on. For every hour I spend on them, that's an hour you and everyone else can spend on the more serious ones. It's not a matter of being wanted or needed, it's the right thing to do."

He didn't move, but something she couldn't identify flashed in his eyes. She'd expected anger, or at least the same irritation she'd noticed whenever he looked at her before, but this was different. It almost reminded her of confusion or surprise, but as quickly as it was there, it was gone. He uncrossed his arms and placed them against the counter on either side of her, effectively caging her in place as he leaned forward.

His breath brushed her ear as he murmured, "Just remember, mess this up and I'll kill you."

She shuddered as fear coiled in her stomach and her heart raced out of control. He gave her a final smirk before pulling away and leaving the kitchen. As soon as she was sure he was gone, she let her knees give out and sank to the floor, her back against the cabinets. What the hell had she done to deserve that? Annoyingly, she felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes and she pressed the heels of her hands against them. I can't let him get to me… I won't…

She wasn't sure how long she sat there before she was able to get her breathing and heart rate back under control, but eventually she managed to pull herself to her feet. If she'd had any doubts about how he felt about her, they were long gone. She still had no idea why he disliked her so much, but it was quite clear that he wanted her gone.

Oddly enough, while he'd accomplished his goal of scaring her half out of her wits and making her want nothing more than to leave and never come back, he'd also forced her to solidify her purpose in being there. As much as she might want to leave, she couldn't. She'd made commitments to Sen and to Kondou, and she'd meant what she'd said to Okita. It didn't matter if they wanted her there. If she could allow them to focus on their job by taking on these cases, then it was the right thing to do. Besides not everyone seemed to feel the way he did. Heisuke and Harada, and even Nagakura in his own awkward way, had been nothing but kind and welcoming to her. Maybe given time Okita would come around… She couldn't help a small snort at the thought. Yeah right.

Rather morosely Chizuru turned back to her lunch, all previous feelings of hunger gone. She knew she should eat something, even if she wasn't hungry, but just the thought had her stomach churning slightly. Well, if she wasn't going to eat, then she might as well do something useful and get started on another case. She snapped the lid back on the container she'd dropped earlier, thankful at least that nothing had spilled.

Pausing just outside the team's room, she took one more steadying breath. She had nothing to worry about… I hope. She was pretty sure Okita would go back to ignoring her like he'd been before, since the only times he'd bothered to confront her were when she was alone. But there was always a chance she could be wrong. As she turned the corner and made her way toward her desk, she forced herself not to look at Okita. Once she'd sat down and had her computer waking up, she snuck a quick glance at him… and let out a silent breath in relief. He was ignoring her completely. With her computer now awake, she reached into the box, fishing out a random case.

She hadn't been working on it for more than a couple hours, when a trio of familiar voices began echoing down the hallway. Sure enough, Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke soon entered the room, Heisuke carrying what appeared to be a box containing evidence they'd gathered at the scene.

Both Okita and Saito looked up from whatever they'd been working on, and Okita frowned as he said, "So it's another one of ours then?"

Nagakura nodded, not pausing in writing up case details on one of the free whiteboards. "Unfortunately, yeah."

"Wonderful." Okita sighed sarcastically as he ran a rather frustrated hand through his hair.

Saito didn't say anything, but there was something about the set of his mouth and the slight furrowing of his brow that said he felt the same.

Another one of theirs?

Now that she thought about it, they did have quite a few cases open at once. Of the numerous whiteboards that edged the room, only a few were empty, and that was in addition to the cases she had in her box. Just how many open cases were they working at once? None of the ones she had were old enough to really be considered cold. Couldn't another of the other detective teams take some of these on? Kondou had said they were the best, but that didn't really explain why were they so overloaded.

As tempting as it was to ask these questions and the numerous others they kept presenting her with, she had a feeling they wouldn't be appreciated, so she focused her attention back on the case in front of her. She was surprised when a couple hours later a notification popped up telling her she had an email. Her surprise only grew when she saw that it was from Saito and it contained the information she'd requested. Apparently he hadn't been kidding about the fast response time. Previously she'd had to wait at least a day to get responses and that was if she was lucky. Their requests must jump the queue, because that kind of response time was almost unheard of.

After saving the files to her computer, Chizuru glanced at the time and was surprised to find that if she didn't leave soon, Sen would get back before her. None of the others showed any signs of leaving, but then again, they didn't seem to keep normal work hours from what she'd seen. As she began to pack up her things, Harada glanced away from the whiteboard where he was currently using magnets to place photos of the scene they had been at earlier.

"You leaving?"

She nodded and smiled, "Yeah, my roommate is well meaning, but she can't cook to save her life."

The mention of food seemed to grab Nagakura's attention, because he quickly turned toward her, an almost desperate look in his eyes. "You can cook? Are you any good?!"

"Um… Yes. Or at least I like to think so..." Chizuru could feel herself blush as a look of adoration spread across Nagakura's face.

"Really?! You have to bring us something sometime!"

Heisuke nodded vigorously in agreement. "Yeah! I'm sure it would be amazing!"

Harada rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as if hoping to find a supplementary source of patience. "No she doesn't. Besides, it's not her job to keep that bottomless pit you call a stomach filled."

"Oi! I need all the food I can get to maintain these fabulous muscles."

He started flexing and Chizuru had to fight to not giggle at his dramatics. "How about I promise to think about it, okay?"

Nagakura paused, rather comically mid flex and turned back to her, his expression hopeful. "Really?"

She nodded and he and Heisuke gave each other an enthusiastic high five. "Yes! I can't wait!"

Harada only sighed and shook his head at their antics. "Idiot, that wasn't a yes." He turned back to her with a grin. "Drive safe."

Chizuru nodded and gave them a small wave as she left the room.

The drive home was uneventful and she was grateful to find their apartment empty. Setting down her bags, she quickly began pulling out the recipes and ingredients she'd planned to use for dinner that night. As Chizuru worked, she could feel the tension and stress from earlier slowly seep away as she focused on the myriad of simple tasks involved in the recipes. She loved cooking. There was just something about its mix of orderly steps and creativity that always kept her coming back for more. That, and it made her happy to see people enjoying the food she cooked. The only problem tonight was that her lack of lunch was causing her stomach to complain rather loudly as the warm scents of cooking food filled the apartment. She was nearly done with dinner when she heard a key in the door.

"Hey Sen." She called when she heard the door close.

As Sen entered the kitchen she dropped her bags and leaned on the breakfast bar, her chin resting on her hands. "Hey. Mmmm, that smells amazing."

"Well it's almost done, so if you want to get plates and drinks out."

Sen immediately perked up, "Sure. Hey, you know what I realized earlier? This will be the first Halloween in years that we haven't done anything. We were so busy moving that I completely forgot until Kosuzu texted and asked if we planned on doing something."

"Yeah, you're right…" She'd completely forgotten about Halloween. Every year, as far back as she could remember, Kosuzu had hosted a costume party. More often than not, she and Sen had gone in matching theme costumes. This would be the first year they wouldn't be going. "I guess four hours didn't seem so bad on paper, but now…"

Sen nodded. "I know what you mean. But we'll just have to have a scary movie night here instead! Oh, so tell me… how was your second day?"

"Um, it was fine."

Something in her voice must have given it away, because Sen stopped what she was doing and looked at her with furrowed brows. "What happened?"

Chizuru focused her attention rather intently on the pan in front of her. "Nothing happened. I made progress on some cases and that was about it."

She heard a sigh from behind her. "You know you're really bad at lying, right? Something happened."

Absently, she chewed at her lower lip as she removed the pan from the stove and turned off the burner. It wasn't that she didn't want to tell her what had happened, she just knew how Sen would react. She would want her to file an official complaint and make a big deal out of it, to make sure it didn't happen again, but she really didn't want to make those kinds of waves. In fact, she was pretty sure making a big deal out of it would only exacerbate the problem.

"Come on, how long have we known each other? You can tell me anything."

She knew it was a losing battle to try and dodge the topic. "It's nothing much, really. One of the guys on the team, Okita, doesn't like that I've taken on some of their cases. Nothing major really happened, he's just not very nice. Everyone else is okay though."

Sen frowned, her expression suddenly serious. "You should report him. I mean, that Kondou guy wants you there, right? So he has no business making things difficult for you."

Chizuru shook her head "I know that, but I don't want to make problems for them. Besides, he spent the rest of the time ignoring me."

"Hm, well if that's the way you want it…" Sen still didn't look happy, but she let it go. Almost like flipping a switch, she leaned forward eagerly as they sat down at their small table and started to eat. "So! Tell me about the rest of them. Are they hot? I bet they are!"

Chizuru nearly choked on the bite she'd just taken. "What?!"

"Are. They. Hot."

She felt her cheeks flush as Sen wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, "Ohhh, so they are hot?"

"U-Um, I guess so…?"

To be honest she hadn't really considered whether they were good looking or not. Between the unfamiliar workplace, their eccentric personalities, her cases, and her issues with Okita, she really hadn't had the time or the inclination. Now that she'd paused to consider it though, she realized they were all exceptionally good looking… even the ones with less than desirable personalities. Heisuke definitely had a boyish charm about him and the rest could have easily passed for professional models. Chizuru felt her face warm further as she remembered a detail that hadn't been all that important when Okita had been scaring her half out of her mind. He, and the rest of them, were also very… fit. Nagakura definitely tended toward the bulkier side, but from what she could tell, the others were clearly not lacking in the muscle department.

Thankfully, her answer seemed to have been enough for Sen, because while she'd been lost in her rather embarrassing musings, Sen had moved on to a very detailed account of all of the hot guys that apparently worked at her firm.

"Oh, and you wouldn't believe his eyes! I swear I nearly melted on the spot and all he did was glance at me."

The rest of dinner went smoothly as Sen continued to tick through a seemingly endless list of guys she'd either seen or talked to. Chizuru made sure to nod at all the right spots, all the while trying to wrangle her thoughts into some sort of order. She refused to consider how good looking or not her coworkers were. The last thing she needed was something else to worry about and distract her at work.

Absently, she began stacking the empty dishes, but Sen almost immediately pulled them away from her with a wink. "Not a chance! You cooked, I clean. It's only fair."

"But…"

"No buts. If you want to do dishes that badly, then I can cook next time."

Chizuru couldn't help but laugh as she pointed out, "I hope you mean order out, right?"

Sen childishly stuck her tongue out as she stood and moved toward the sink, "You can't tell the difference once it's on a plate."

"Uh huh, sure you can't." She gave Sen a playful nudge as she grabbed a mug from the shelf and filled it with hot water. "You want something?"

Sen shook her head as she started in on the dishes, "Nah, I'm good."

After snagging a teabag from the container on the counter, She grabbed her laptop and made her way to the living room area opposite the kitchen. A quirk both she and Sen shared was a love of blankets, particularly warm fuzzy ones. She wasted no time in wrapping herself up from head to toe in her favorite as she settled on the couch, her tea steeping on the side table behind her. Not that the room was cold, but she still felt somewhat reluctant to unbundle herself enough to open her laptop. Her curiosity won out though; she wanted to see what the subpoenas had come up with. Hopefully they would have the information she needed to close the case.

While she waited for the files to open, Chizuru idly sipped at her tea, savoring the warmth of the mug in her hands. Once they had, she set down her tea and started with combing through the records of each of the hardware stores. After all, she was pretty sure he wouldn't have used a credit card to make the purchases. Most criminals nowadays were smarter than that. The first store records she searched through showed purchases of two of the three items, but unfortunately the third was still missing.

She couldn't help but be thankful that the window of time limited his purchases to one store. He wouldn't have had time to stop at more than one of the hardware stores before making it to his final destination. It would have been a nightmare to try and calculate the possible combinations of drive time and purchases between multiple stores. Absently, she reached for her tea as she read through the records. It was then that she realized that the kitchen was dark and at some point Sen had finished the dishes and gone to bed. She hoped Sen hadn't said something to her and she'd missed it… It wouldn't have been the first time. If she really focused on something, it tended to be at the exclusion of all else. Well, she'd just have to ask in the morning and be sure to apologize if she had.

The second store was a bust as well. None of the materials had been purchased that day and she started to worry that she wouldn't find anything. Maybe she should have expanded her drive radius?

Quickly she scrolled down to her estimated time window at the third store and inhaled sharply. There it was. Four lines down was a cash purchase of all three items. She would need security footage to confirm it, but it was at least convincing circumstantial evidence. Now she just had to tackle the fact that the main suspect had an alibi. If she could prove that the friend who had purchased the materials was not where he said he was, then it would prove their alibi to be a lie.

Flipping over to the credit card statements she'd received, she scanned through until she found the day of the burglary. Everything was just as he'd described until she hit a $30 charge at 11:47pm. She frowned at that. His alibi said the two had spent the afternoon and evening together, and they'd ended up drinking so much that the main suspect had stayed the night. If that was the case, then what was he doing at a gas station half an hour before the burglary? There was no address listed with the charge, so she did a search of gas stations around his apartment. Low and behold, the only station with a matching brand was also 25 minutes from the crime scene, putting them right in the window for when the break-in had occurred. It would take video footage to prove it conclusively, but even without it, the evidence proved they'd lied about where they were.

She took another sip of her tea and looked down at the mug in surprise. When had her tea gone cold? A glance at the clock at the bottom of her screen made her groan. When had it gotten so late? She was going to have to save writing her report until tomorrow if she was going to get any sleep.

As she turned off the lights and made her way toward her room, she couldn't help a smile and maybe just a bit of a bounce in her step. She'd done it. She'd solved the first of the cases they'd given her. They wouldn't all be as relatively simple to solve as this one, but she was by no means out of her depth. She could do this.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 - A Second Chance

Friday, November 16th

Chizuru couldn't believe how fast two weeks had gone by, but it hadn't taken long for her life to fall into a steady routine. In the morning she and Sen had breakfast before heading their separate ways. Once at the department, she worked on one of the several cases she had open, depending on what information she was waiting for. Finally, she left and more often than not, beat Sen home and started dinner. She could also thankfully say she was getting used to the team and working at the department. By the end of her first week, she'd had her own ID card and VM account so she didn't have to borrow Heisuke's or stop at the front desk each morning. She'd actually been able to work her way through a number of the cases she'd been assigned. Most only required minimal additional information or an examination of the graph inconsistencies.

As for the guys, she'd started to get a handle on each of their personalities as well. Heisuke was like a bouncing ball of sunlight most of the time, but he had his moments of deep thought or profound insights… when he wasn't sticking his foot in his mouth. Harada turned out to be true to her initial impression of him. He was always kind and something like what she thought a big brother might be like. As they'd worked on cases around her, she'd noticed that he tended to have the best insight into what motivated people. Her initial impression of Nagakura had been that he was all muscle and no brain, but that had soon been debunked. She'd been surprised to find he was well versed in politics and acted more along the lines of big-brother's-best-friend, though like Heisuke, he had a tendency to speak before he thought things through. Together the three of them made what they informally called the Baka Trio, or the-source-of-any-and-all-disturbances.

Saito was still something of a black box, since he didn't tend to say much, but she'd noticed that when he did speak, it was never without reason and was always insightful. It wasn't that he didn't care, in fact, she was pretty sure it was the opposite, but his natural reticence seemed to keep him at a slight distance from the others. It had only been recently that she'd started to be able to decipher the micro expressions that would give hints to what he was thinking. While Kondou was definitely the heart of the group, it was clear that it was Hijikata who kept it running smoothly. Though this was often accompanied by large amounts of yelling and swearing. Really, she knew it wasn't entirely his fault. The Baka Trio didn't seem to have an 'indoor' setting when it came to their antics and the final member of the team seemed to take every chance he got to poke, prod, and otherwise antagonize him. After the first few days, Okita seemed to relax a bit, or at least he hadn't cornered her like he'd done previously. Instead he'd started ignoring her completely, his eyes sliding right past her as if she didn't exist. He was a relentless tease to the other members of the team, especially Hijikata, but there was always a barbed sharpness to it. With the sole exception of Hijikata, everyone seemed to be able to take it in stride. She'd even seen Okita manage to pull Saito out of his shell on occasion.

Oddly enough, she'd also found herself subtly tidying both the workroom and the kitchen. She hadn't meant to, but it was a hard habit to kick since she'd done most of the cleaning when she lived with Kodo and had continued to do so since moving in with Sen. Besides, she'd heard Hijikata complain several times about their lack of tidiness. It wasn't like she was touching their cases or desks, just small things left in random places or knocked out of place by whatever friendly brawl Heisuke and Nagakura happened to have that day. No one had commented on it yet, so she figured they were fine with it.

Rather reluctantly, Chizuru forced herself to focus on the medical report she was struggling to decipher. Seriously, did this guy speak only Latin? Even having spent years around her uncle and being fairly familiar with medical terminology, 90% of the document made zero sense. She was almost tempted to stick the thing in google translate just to see what would come up. Technically, she should call the doctor and have him walk her through his report, but if this was how he wrote a report he knew would be used by people not in the medical field, she had little hope for his verbal explanation being any better. Plus, over the years of meeting Kodo's associates, she'd found that those doctors with god complexes tended to use more elaborate medical terms just because they could.

She sighed and set the report down. She was going to need someone to explain this to her if she was to make any progress on the case, but who could she talk to? It wasn't like she could simply go to a hospital and walk up to a random doctor. Her uncle was an option, but he was a general practitioner and from what the other case notes implied, she was supposedly looking at a report that described stab wounds. He was good at putting things in simple terms, but this wasn't exactly his area of expertise.

Wait, that case from a couple days ago… Somewhat hurriedly, she shuffled through the cases she'd completed earlier in the week. There it was. She couldn't believe she hadn't thought of this sooner.

She opened up the folder, flipping to the autopsy of the dog that had been found dead in it's owner's house. The owner had claimed it was proof that someone had been attempting to poison him, and surprisingly he'd been right. While she didn't know a whole lot about human anatomy, she knew even less about dogs. With her lack of knowledge, the report could have been a nightmare to understand, but it had been surprisingly well worded, with little ambiguity. Besides that, what had made the report catch her attention was that it hadn't been a vet who had done the autopsy, but a general medical examiner.

She scanned down to the bottom of the report. Just like she'd thought, it was an ME and even better, he apparently worked for the department. It made sense when she thought about it. This city was much larger than the one she'd come from, so their police department could afford to keep more things in-house. That apparently included a full lab and morgue in their central building. She made a note to pay him a visit and refiled the case. She could come back to the medical report later, so she turned her attention to entering the rest of the data from the case.

Given the case was already over a year old, she knew she should run a check to see if there were any new reports or incidents in their database. It didn't take long for the results to appear on her screen. Missing? She stared at the single line in confusion. Her assault victim was a missing person? She idly tapped her finger against the desk as she scanned through the linked report. This definitely added a twist she hadn't expected.

According to her assault case, Laura Hale was a 35 year old woman, with a husband and no children. She'd been at home while her husband, George, had been out with friends. George had returned home late that night to find his wife nearly dead on their kitchen floor. If the amount of blood in the photos were anything to go by, It'd been a miracle she'd even made it to the hospital, let alone lived through surgery. For her to have disappeared four months after the attack was suspicious to say the least.

Chizuru felt her suspicion grow even stronger when she read who had filed the missing person report in the first place. Laura's mother. Laura had a husband, so why was it her mother who noticed she was missing and concerned enough to file a report? Not that she wanted to jump to conclusions, but this and the fact that she'd apparently moved out less than three weeks after she was released from the hospital did not put her husband in a good light. He'd had an alibi for the first attack and the team hadn't been able to find a motive strong enough for her husband to want her dead, but she couldn't help a gut feeling that he had something to do with both events.

Laura's mother was too far away to visit, so she made a note to call her later, but the husband was a local. She wanted to talk to him face to face.

Chizuru chewed her lip as she looked over her growing list. The phone call shouldn't be a problem, but the other two put her in a difficult position. Wandering down to the morgue and interviewing a suspect were a far cry from submitting requests for information and she didn't think Hijikata was the type to appreciate the saying 'better to ask forgiveness than permission.'

"Well, better to get it over with sooner rather than later…" she muttered as she grabbed her list and made her way toward Hijikata's office.

While she had somewhat gotten used to Hijikata's brusque manner, she had yet to learn how most of the guys were able to let his attitude roll right off them. Unfortunately this meant she often resorted to simply blurting out her requests as fast as possible, and half the time she forgot something had had to go back again. She'd eventually taken to writing down a list of whatever she wanted to ask, just so she could be sure to get it over with all at once.

In a way, she was lucky. While Hijikata had been a bad mood all morning, he also happened to be the only other person here at the moment. Harada and Nagakura had left that morning to talk to a witness and the other three had also disappeared about a half hour ago. She thought she'd heard Heisuke mention something about training… Either way, if she ended up making a fool of herself, at least there was no one around to witness it.

Hesitantly, she knocked on the door and almost immediately heard a rather irritated sounding call for her to enter. She opened the door and stepped in, careful not to disturb any of the stacks of paper littered around the room.

Hijikata turned from whatever he'd been working on and folded his arms, "Well? What do you want?"

Now that she'd gotten a clear look at him, she couldn't help but notice that he seemed tired. He had light purple bruising under his eyes and he'd obviously been running his hand through his hair, since a few pieces were sticking up in odd directions. When was the last time he got a full night's sleep? He was always the first to arrive each morning and, she presumed, the last to leave at night, since whenever she'd been here he'd either been in his office or at some political function with Kondou. In fact, she'd never seen him not working.

"Um, I need to speak to some people about one of the cases, but I wanted to check with you first to make sure it would be all right."

Hijikata's eyebrows furrowed as he said, "Who were you thinking of?"

"Well, the first person I'd like to talk to is Dr. Sanan, your ME. I've got a medical report that I could really use his opinion on." Almost absently, she started ticking off each of the people on her fingers as she continued, "I also wanted to talk to the mother of the victim from the burglary gone wrong case from about a year ago, but she's not local, so I was simply planning on calling her. The last person is the victim's husband. He's a local resident, so I was hoping to speak to him in person."

"Sanan shouldn't be a problem and you're free to call whoever you need to, but I don't have time to babysit you and neither do any of the others."

She opened her mouth, ready to tell him that she was perfectly capable of going by herself, but he cut her off before she could.

"I don't care how you've done it previously. My team, my rules, and that means you don't go out into the field without an escort. Am I clear?"

Not really left with any other option, she could only nod. It wasn't like she didn't understand where he was coming from. As far as he was concerned, she was an unknown factor, a liability. Unfortunately, just because she understood it, didn't mean she had to like it.

Seeming satisfied that she wasn't about to go and do something stupid, some of the hard edge left his expression as he asked, "Is that it?"

She nodded again and turned to leave. She had almost reached the door when she heard a short resigned sigh behind her.

"If you come up with a list of questions and if someone happens to be in that area, I'll have them stop by."

She turned back, not entirely sure he'd actually said what she thought he'd said, "Really? Um… but what if their answers give me more questions?"

Hijikata returned his attention to the papers on his desk, "Then you better have those written down too, because I won't be sending anyone back."

"Right, thank you!"

She couldn't help a smile as she hurriedly made her way back to his desk. It wasn't exactly what she'd hoped for, but it was certainly more than she'd expected given how the conversation had started. Maybe most of his attitude was due to stress and lack of sleep…?

Now the question was where did she start? She could go talk to Sanan, call the mother, or write up her questions for the husband. Her first instinct was to work on the latter two, but realistically she knew she should be trying to understand the information she already had before she went around collecting more.

Sanan it was then… She brought up the department directory on her laptop and scanned through the list until she found his name. His office was listed as adjacent to the morgue, but unlike almost every other listing there was no phone number. Huh? No phone number? She stared dumbly at the page for a few seconds, as if hoping a number would magically appear. How on earth did they not have a way to contact their medical examiner?

Chizuru rubbed at her forehead. Nothing could be simple here, could it. The idiosyncrasies of this department would never cease to confound her. Their chief was more happy-go-lucky than stern disciplinarian. Their best detective team was a ragtag group with some majorly conflicting personalities. And now their ME had no way to contact him… But for all that, she had to admit she'd never seen a leader more respected or a team that functioned as efficiently as theirs did…

Guess she didn't have a choice. She'd just have to go down and talk to him in person. She grabbed the medical report, along with a pad of paper and a pen. Call her old school, but no amount of technology could replace her pen and a pad of paper. Especially since her pad never autocorrected her short hand.

She double checked that she had everything she might need, before taking one final look at the map in the directory and heading to the elevator.

"Ow, okay, okay, I yield."

Souji couldn't help a snicker as Saito released his lock on Heisuke's arm, letting the younger man up from where he'd had him pinned on the mat. Heisuke shot him a look as he rubbed his shoulder. Souji only smirked in response.

Heisuke rolled his eyes, but before things could escalate further, Saito spoke. "Where do you think you went wrong?"

Heisuke sighed before getting to his feet and running his hand rather frustratedly through his bangs. "I dropped my guard on my right side… again."

Saito nodded as he got himself in a loose ready position, "If you leave openings like that, even an average opponent will be able to take advantage of them. Try to keep your right arm up this time"

"I know, I know."

Souji couldn't resist such an easy opening. "Really? Because I thought part of knowing was not repeating…"

Heisuke turned back toward him and scowled, his fists on his hips. "Then why don't I take a break and you can take a turn against Hajime? Why'd you even come down here anyway?"

Souji quirked an eyebrow as he leaned back on his elbows, the smirk still tugging at his lips. "Because I was bored. Besides I'm not the one who needs the practice."

Heisuke made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat as he muttered "Whatever," and turned back to Saito.

He couldn't help a chuckle at Heisuke's obvious irritation when Saito had his face pressed into the mat again in a matter of seconds. He was always a fun one to poke at. Not as fun as Hijikata, but definitely better than Saito, who, except for the rare occasion, was like trying to get a reaction out of a rock.

It wasn't that Heisuke was bad at hand-to-hand fighting per se, but usually he faced off against Shinpachi and their matches tended to degenerate into the two of them wrestling on the floor. While Shinpachi and Sano could get away with that style of fighting, Heisuke was so small that unless his opponent was twelve, he didn't really stand a chance. Thus the lessons with Saito, who was arguably the best hand-to-hand fighter in the department besides himself. Anyway, this was way more entertaining than the report waiting for him on his desk. They'd caught the guy and they had the evidence, so why did they have to fill out pages and pages of useless paperwork? Plus he'd had no desire to be stuck with only her for company.

Almost as if he had been reading his mind, Heisuke sat up and stretched his arms over his head. "So what do you guys think of Chizuru?"

He fought a frown and instead raised an eyebrow suggestively. "Why? You worried someone else has a crush on her?"

Heisuke's eyes went wide and his cheeks flushed as he sputtered "N-No! I mean, she's nice and cute and all, but I was just wondering what you guys thought of her. And I don't have a crush on her!"

"Hm~, well if you say so…"

"I do say so!"

He opened his mouth, ready to deliver another jab, when Saito cut him off. "Souji, I believe Heisuke. Besides it's inefficient for team members to form those kinds of attachments."

He gave Saito a slightly disbelieving look as he said, "Fine, fine. Whatever you say Hajime."

Heisuke looked over at Saito. "So? What do you think of her?"

Saito thought for a moment before he answered, "I have found Yukimura to be a very dedicated and efficient worker who has good instincts for solving cases. She has proven herself to be an asset to our team."

He gave a derisive snort and Saito looked over at him, one eyebrow raised questioningly. "You disagree?"

"She works hard, I'll give her that, but she's also sticking her nose in where it doesn't belong."

Heisuke frowned at him in confusion. "But doesn't Kondou want her helping us with these cases?"

He rolled his eyes as he retorted, "The cases aren't the problem, it's everything else she messes with. She hasn't touched our desks or the whiteboards yet, but she seems to think everything else is fair game. She even went through and organized the kitchen."

Heisuke blinked in surprise. "Wait, that was her?" He glanced at Saito as he said, "I thought Hajime'd just gotten tired of the mess."

Saito folded his arms as he shook his head. "No, it wasn't me." His eyes narrowed slightly as he turned his attention to Souji. "But she only started doing it after the Commander yelled at Nagakura and ordered everyone to do a better job of keeping things clean. Are you sure you're not letting your personal feelings color your judgement?"

He grinned laconically back at Saito, the slight twitch in his fingers the only outward sign of his growing irritation. "I have no idea what you could possibly mean Hajime."

"I mean, she has nothing to do with Chief Inoue other than the fact that she worked for a short time at his department."

Neither said anything as they continued to stare at each other, his sharp green gaze battling against Saito's calm blue. Heisuke glanced between the two of them, clearly lost as to what they were talking about, but not quite brave enough to risk asking. Finally Saito let out a short sigh and looked away.

"Maybe you should judge her on her own merits, not your sister's."

Souji flinched as if he'd been slapped before he quickly forced his expression back to a neutral mask. Heisuke gave him a curious look, as he hesitantly asked, "Wait, isn't your sister…?"

Thankfully for Heisuke, a glare was all it took for him to trail off and drop the question, because right now he was about two seconds from decking him.

Yes, his oldest sister, Mitsu, was married to Inoue Rintaro. The discovery in itself had not been a pleasant experience. Not only had he accidentally come face to face with the sister who had abandoned him to the foster care system years before, but he'd also found out that she'd been happily married for several years. He'd never forgiven her for walking out on him all those years ago, and by extension, had no love for her husband either.

Absently, he noted that the other two had resumed their practice and Heisuke was once again pinned to the mat by Saito. If he forced himself to really consider his reaction to her, he had to admit, even if only to himself, that yes, a large portion of his dislike of her stemmed from her connection his sister. And despite what he'd told Heisuke, part of it was that she was working on their cases. She seemed to be all anyone could talk about. Especially Kondou, who seemed to take every chance he could to say just how lucky they were to have her and what a good job she was doing. But even discounting all that, he still didn't trust her.

She didn't make any sense. If she had a college degree at her age, then what was she doing wasting her time with them as a consultant? Plus she really didn't fit the type for their field. Sure, he'd noticed a flash of backbone when he'd confronted her, but other than that, she was rather pathetic and seemed like a pushover. He didn't have the patience to deal with people like that. She had solved quite a few of the cases she'd been given to look at, but they'd also already done most of the work for her.

A tingling at the base of his neck pulled him abruptly out of his thoughts. Someone was watching them. Casually, he stretched and shifted his position slightly so he could glance at the entrance to the room. Sure enough, a familiar pair of brown eyes were peeking around the corner. Instantly he felt a rush of dislike and aggravation at the intrusion, but he forced it down. He may not trust her, but Saito had been right about one thing. He had to judge her on her own merits and thus far he hadn't really done that. He would give her a chance to show him what she was made of, if only a small one. He couldn't help the mischievous grin that spread across his features. Besides, it could be fun, or at least very entertaining.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 - Not What It Sounds Like

Friday, November 16th

The doors to the elevator opened, and Chizuru got her first look at the basement level of the building. Unlike the floor she'd just come from, there were no windows and the hallway looked the same in either direction. She tried to summon to mind the map she'd looked at earlier. The morgue was… to the left? Yes, left. I hope…

As she made her way down the hall, she couldn't help but notice that it all looked the same. There was no art on the beige walls and the lights were all identical and evenly spaced. Nothing differentiated the hallway she was walking down from any of the others that branched off, making the floor feel like one giant labyrinth.

Finally, after several wrong turns and dead ends, Chizuru found the set of double doors labeled 'Morgue'. She bit her lip as she hesitantly peeked through the small windows. If Dr. Sannan was in the middle of an autopsy, she had no desire to interrupt him. To her relief, each of the metal tables was empty. In fact, the whole room seemed empty.

Taking a final deep breath, she pushed open one of the doors and slipped inside, making sure to close it gently behind her. She'd never actually been in a morgue before, since her worked mainly relegated her to a desk, but oddly enough, it felt like she'd just walked onto a set of a TV crime drama. She shivered at the slight chill in the air. There was no signs of anyone else, so she stepped further into the room, hoping to find the office that she'd seen in the directory.

"Is there something I can do for you?"

"Ah!" Chizuru's heart nearly stopped and she couldn't restrain a muffled scream as she whirled around. There behind her was a man wearing a white lab coat, who appeared to be about the same age as Kondou. He had shoulder length brown hair and glasses, but while his smile was kind and seemed sincere, there was just something about him that seemed a little… off.

She put a hand to her chest as she tried to get her breathing back under control. How did he do that!? She would have sworn up and down that she'd been alone in the room and she hadn't heard the door open behind her. Well, either way, hopefully this was the man she was looking for.

"Um, Dr. Sannan…?

"Yes, that's me." She caught a brief glimmer of amusement in his eyes. "I'm sorry for startling you, by the way."

She gave a slightly shaky laugh. "That's okay. Actually, if you have the time, I have a medical report I was hoping you could help me understand."

He tilted his head slightly as he looked her up and down once more. "Ah, you must be Yukimura, Hijikata's new consultant. Wouldn't your best bet be to contact the doctor who wrote the report?"

"Oh, sorry. Yes, I'm Yukimura Chizuru…" She glanced down at the papers in her hands. "As for the report, I thought about calling him, but I ran across your notes on another case, and I noticed that you had a way of explaining complex medical information that was easy to understand. I was hoping you could do the same with this."

"May I see the report?"

She handed it to him and as his eyes traveled down the page, his smile gained a sardonic edge. Finally, he looked up at her and cleared his throat slightly. "I, ah, can see why you were reluctant to contact him. Why don't we take a seat in my office and I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you Dr. Sannan. For a while I was afraid I was going to be doomed to holding a phone conversation purely in Latin."

That got a chuckle out of him as he ushered her into the office at the back of the room. "Just Sannan, please. I only use my title when I'm trying to intimidate people."

Unlike Hijikata's office, Sannan's was neat and orderly. It was clear that every item had its place and every place held the item it was supposed to. She was surprised to notice that he did indeed have a phone on the corner of his desk. He must have noticed her observation, because as he sat down behind his desk and she took a chair opposite, his smile pulled up at the corner slightly.

"Ah, I see you've discovered that I do indeed have a phone."

She couldn't help the flush that crossed her cheeks and said, "I did notice that there wasn't any contact information in the directory…"

He shot a look of mild irritation at the device. "Yes, I've found that the fewer people who have my contact information, the more work I can get done. Thankfully Kondou agrees, so there are only a few people who can contact me directly. Most send requests through the front desk." He leaned back slightly in his chair. "You're actually the first in a long while to risk coming down here."

That kind of system seemed weird to her, but apparently it worked well enough for them. Sanan glanced down at the report on the desk between them. "So what do you want to know about the report?"

"Um, well first I'd like to know the nature and location of her injuries."

He nodded. "According to the doctor, she received two stab wounds to the chest in the upper left quadrant and a blow to the base of her skull, along with some bruising on her knees and hip."

As she wrote down his explanation, she asked the next question on her mental list. "In Harada's interview with the victim, she stated that she had no memory of the actual attack. She could remember cooking dinner, but the time between then and waking up in the hospital were a complete blank. Is there any way to determine the number of assailants or the order of her injuries?"

Sanan glanced over the report again, his expression pensive. "Well, I can't give you any information on the number of assailants, but I can give you what I believe to be the order the injuries occurred in."

"Really?" She glanced up hopefully, having assumed that there wouldn't be much he could tell her in that regard.

Sannan nodded as he leaned forward and laced his fingers. "Yes, but I must qualify that this is merely my opinion based on the evidence, not actual fact." She nodded her understanding and gestured for him to continue. "Based on the report, I believed the first blow was to the back of her head. This would have left her dizzy, or at least disoriented, and would explain the lack of injuries on her hands and forearms. When attacked from the front, most people will make an attempt to stop or block a blade. Also, whoever stabbed her didn't have a very good idea of what they were doing. Both injuries were in the vicinity of her heart, but missed all the major arteries."

He glanced down at the report again. "Did the team recover the weapon the assailant used?"

"No, they assumed the assailant took it with him…"

"Hm, well, based on the wounds, I can tell you that it was a smooth, one-sided blade, and the bruising at the entrance from the handle and the overall depth indicate it was about five inches long. Something very close to a kitchen knife, if I had to hazard a guess."

Chizuru nodded as she wrote down his guess. "That would make sense. Her husband found her in the kitchen…" she frowned as a thought occurred to her. "But the assumption was that this was a burglary gone wrong… if the assailant was surprised by her presence, then why would he bother to change weapons? He'd clearly already hit her once, why not just keep hitting her?"

Sanan nodded slowly. "That does suggest something more premeditated… typically people in a panicked state react instinctively. She probably wouldn't have been unconscious, only extremely dizzy, so stopping an attack to find a different weapon suggest either a very cold blooded thief or whomever it was came with the intention of attacking the victim."

Chizuru chewed absently on her lip, her mind whirling with the sudden turn the case had taken. This put a whole new spin on Laura's later disappearance. Before they could have been two separate incidents, but if she was right, her disappearance meant that whoever had been after her the first time had most likely managed to complete the job.

"Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"

Chizuru pulled herself out of her thoughts and smiled at Sannan. "No, I think that's it for the moment. Thank you for taking the to time to do this. It's been helpful and I really appreciate it."

Sannan handed her the report as she stood. "Oh, it's not a problem. Please feel free to come down anytime you have questions. You are decidedly less troublesome than the people I normally deal with. I think Hijikata and the rest of the team are lucky to have you working with them."

After thanking Sannan once more, she left his office and made her way back out to the hallway. As the doors to the morgue closed behind her, she realized she had a problem. Which way had she come from? She wasn't great with directions at the best of times, but it most certainly wasn't helped by the fact that both directions looked exactly the same.

She could go back in and ask Sannan which direction the elevator was, but just the thought of that conversation had her blushing with embarrassment. What was the worst that could happen if she just picked a direction? She had a 50/50 shot and at worst she'd have to backtrack. Maybe they both eventually led back to the elevator… Decision made, she turned left and started down the hallway.

I should have just asked… What could possibly happen from picking the wrong direction? Apparently she could get completely turned around and be lost in the basement forever. She stood in her fourth intersection, but since it looked exactly like all the others, for all she knew she could be back in the second and not even know it.

She gave a huff of frustration and frowned at each of the four hallways. There had to be a way to get herself out of this. Chizuru looked again down the hallway to her right. Now that her own footsteps weren't echoing, she could hear the faint sound of voices and the occasional soft thump. Well, anyone was better than no one. She would suffer through the embarrassment of admitting she was lost if it meant she could find the elevator and get out of there.

The voices got louder the further she went down the hallway, until finally she came to a wide opening that looked like it led to some kind of gym area. Hesitant to just walk into the room, she crept as quietly as she could to the edge and peeked around the corner.

No… no, no, no… Nevermind, staying lost was just fine with her. There was no way she was going in there and asking anything.

The edge of the high ceilinged room was lined with all manner of workout equipment and she could see doors to what she assumed to be the locker rooms. Taking up most of the space was what looked like a padded sparring area, approximately fifteen feet to a side. In the center of that area was the reason she was absolutely not going to go in.

Now she knew what Heisuke had meant by training. He and Saito stood in the center of the mats, walking through what appeared to be some kind of martial arts move while Okita lounged a short distance to the side. What made it infinitely worse was that all of them were wearing basketball shorts and rather tight fitting t-shirts.

Well, at least now she knew she'd been right two weeks ago. Sure, none of them were especially bulky, but as Saito spun around, locking Heisuke's arm behind his back, she could clearly make out defined muscles on both of them as Heisuke struggled against the hold.

She gave herself a mental slap. Now is not the time to be noticing that! She had to slip away before they noticed her. She'd just follow the right wall until she found the elevator. Wasn't that what they told you to do if you were lost in a maze? It didn't matter if it took her all day-

"Chizuru~" She froze at the singsong voice. Dang it… "Didn't anyone ever tell you that it's rude to spy on people?"

Well, there was nothing for it now, running would only make things worse. She came out from behind the corner and made her way toward them, trying and failing to keep her face from flaming like a tomato. She stopped at the edge of the mats.

Heisuke's forehead furrowed in confusion. "Hey, Chizuru. What are you doing down here?"

"Um, I came to talk to Sannan about a medical report, but got turned around leaving the morgue…"

Okita's smirk widened as he leaned back on his hands. "So in other words, you're lost."

She looked at him in surprise, realizing suddenly that this was the second time he'd spoken to her in less than a minute. It was almost like there was a different person sitting in front of her. While his gaze was still guarded, the hostility and irritation were gone. In fact, his whole attitude seemed more relaxed. There was still a sharp edge to his teasing tone, but no more than she'd noticed when he tormented any of the others.

"N-No… I wasn't lost…" He raised one eyebrow disbelievingly and she fidgeted with the hem of her shirt for a moment before she caved. "Okay, yes I got lost trying to find the elevator. But seriously, every hallway looks the same down here!"

"Really~? That's your excuse? Normal people have trouble finding the place they're looking for, not finding their way back."

She sighed, realizing he wasn't about to let this go. "Um, well… I've never been very good with left and right, or even directions in general. It's just… never been instinctive for me."

"Look to your left."

"Huh?" Without thinking, she glanced to her left and immediately Okita burst into laughter. What was he…? Oh… She felt like smacking herself in the forehead. She'd just looked to her right… Thank goodness her blush seemed to have reached its limit, because if her face got any hotter, she was sure she'd be able to fry an egg on it. Okita managed to get most of his laughter under control when Saito shot him a mildly annoyed look.

"The Commander has asked me to evaluate your self-defense skills, but it was not urgent enough to interrupt your work. Since you are already here, I would like to do so now. If you are agreeable, that is."

She shrugged, slightly thrown by the abrupt change of topic. "Um, sure, but there's not really much to tell. I've fired a gun once at a range and I took a basic self-defence course in college about a year ago, but that's it."

Saito's expression didn't change as he said, "Regardless, I would still like to assess your abilities."

Chizuru stared blankly at him for a second before glancing down at her clothes. Dress slacks, a blouse, and flats… Not exactly ideal clothes to be practicing self-defense in.

"But I'm not dressed for that, and I don't have a change of clothes here…"

Okita snorted and shook his head. "What? You think someone's going to wait for you to change before they attack you?"

"Well, no…" her voice trailed off rather lamely as she stared at him.

He let her sit there awkwardly for a few seconds before he smirked and stood up. "Don't worry, we keep spares in the locker rooms."

"But…"

She glanced at Heisuke, hoping for some kind of help. Unfortunately, she was disappointed as he grinned and gave her a thumbs up. "Come on, I want to see what you can do."

She sighed and nodded. "All right, but don't expect much." She turned her attention back to Okita. "Where are the spares kept?"

He waved a hand dismissively as he turned and started walking toward the locker rooms. "Don't worry about that, I'll show you."

She tried to tell him that it wasn't necessary, that she could find them on her own, but the words couldn't seem to make it out of her mouth as she hurried to catch up with him. By the time she made it into the women's locker room, Okita was already riffling through a cabinet. As soon as the door closed behind her, he tossed a shirt and pair of shorts to her.

"Um, thanks…"

She stood there awkwardly for a second, waiting for him to leave, but instead, he leaned back against the small counter, smirk still tugging at his lips. Why wasn't he leaving? She had the clothes, so why was he still standing there grinning at her like there was some big secret that only he knew. She tried again.

"Thank you, I'm good now…"

Still he didn't move and Chizuru started to feel the blush creep back up her cheeks. The silence lasted so long, that she jumped when he finally broke it.

"Well, are you going to get changed?"

She stared at him aghast. "Not while you're here I'm not."

His smirk widened "Aw, why not? I don't mind."

"I don't care if you mind. I mind!"

"But what if you need help?"

"I won't! Now get out!"

"But-"

"Out!"

He laughed as he pushed off the counter and moved toward the door. "All right, all right. But you'd better hurry."

Chizuru waited for the door to close fully behind him before she darted into one of the showers and drew the curtain. As quickly as she could, she stripped out of her slacks and blouse, leaving her camisole on to save time, and put on the shorts and shirt he'd given her. She was pretty sure he wouldn't come back in, but there was no way she was taking that chance.

Fully clothed once again, she could breath easier. The shorts and shirt he'd picked weren't a bad fit. The shirt was a bit loose, but she prefered that to too tight. Some hunting found her a package of hair ties under the mirror and she quickly dragged her hair into a ponytail, wincing as her fingers caught and snagged. Well, at least now she was somewhat presentable, though she wished she could do something about her cheeks, which were still tinged red. As she made her way resolutely toward the door, she couldn't help the passing thought that maybe she'd been better off when Okita was ignoring her after all.

No sooner had she stepped foot into the room, than Okita's eyes focused on her, looking her up and down in a way that made her feel like a particularly interesting experiment he couldn't wait to poke and prod at. She was definitely reconsidering the benefits of her previous unfriendly standing with him. Heisuke turned away from Saito and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Saito knocked his legs out from under him.

"Dude, not fair! I wasn't ready!"

"Don't get distracted then."

The younger man sat up and ran a hand through his bangs as he muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like 'cheating bastard'.

Saito glanced down at him. "Did you say something, Heisuke?"

"Ah, no! Nothing! Good luck Chizuru." Almost faster than she believed possible, Heisuke got up and darted to the edge of the mats.

Saito waived her forward and she hesitantly approached, the mats slightly springy under her bare feet.

"What did your class cover?"

"Um, it was one quarter for a P.E. credit and we covered basic soft spots, as well as recommendations for different situations." She thought back, trying to recall if there was anything else. "Really my professor was more of the school 'Don't put yourself in that situation' and 'It's best to scream', so we actually covered more on what not to do…"

Okita snorted off to her left. "What's the point of taking a class if it's not going to teach you anything useful?"

Okay, now he was starting to get on her nerves just a bit, and she couldn't quite keep the irritation out of her voice as she said, "Well it was either that or 'Intro to Golf', so which do you think would be more useful?"

Okita opened his mouth to reply, his eyes glinting as they narrowed, but Saito neatly cut him off. "That's fine. Why don't you start with trying to attack me and we'll go from there."

That startled her and she found herself staring at him dumbly. Attack him? Just like that? With no provocation? She had no idea how she would even go about doing that. By nature she was not a violent person. In fact, she couldn't ever recall being in any kind of physical altercation with another person. Sure, she'd had plenty of altercations with inanimate objects, but those were more due to her clumsiness than any form of ill intent… But to actually attempt to hit someone? It wasn't that she was a pacifist or anything like that. She would fight back if someone was legitimately attacking her, but it just felt wrong to start throwing punches.

"I think the little kitty's scared."

Okita's taunting voice brought her train of thought crashing down around her and she snapped at him without thinking.

"No! I… I just don't know how to go about attacking someone. It was a self-defense class, not a 'learn how to attack random people class'! I mean, what if I do something wrong and I accidently hurt him?"

If her earlier issues with direction had made Okita laugh, this nearly had him bent double and fighting for breath. She knew she'd said something pretty stupid, because even Heisuke was fighting back a laugh.

Saito's lips twitched upward slightly. "Don't worry, I can assure you that you won't hurt me."

Even with his reassurance, she couldn't make herself move. He was just standing there…

After several seconds of this Okita finally got his breathing back under control and was able to stand up. "Hey Hajime, I've got an idea." Still grinning, but with a more serious gleam in his eye, he moved until he stood next to Saito. "She can face me."

"What?!" Heisuke glanced nervously between her and Okita. "I don't think that's such a good idea Souji. You don't really know how to hold back…"

Okita rolled his eyes dismissively. "Sure, I don't hold back in actual fights, but there's no way this is going to be anything close to that. I mean, just look at her."

Ouch… She knew she wasn't any kind of martial arts genius, but did he have to put it that way? Not only was his incessant poking and prodding beginning to get on her nerves, she was starting to feel genuinely insulted. How on earth did the others live with this? No wonder Hijikata's temper was so short… Saito looked at Okita for a moment before he gave a short nod and moved to sit by Heisuke. She couldn't help but feel that every step he took was another nail in her coffin.

Okita took a step toward her and she immediately snapped her attention back to him. As he continued to move toward her, she felt some of the same nerves from the last time he'd approached her like this resurface, but she forced herself to hold her ground this time. He stopped half a foot from her, his arms loose at his sides and a smug smirk plastered on his face.

"See, just a kitty with no claws."

That was the last straw. Before she even realized what she was doing, she'd formed a fist with her right hand and swung at his face. Just as quickly, she felt his hand catch her wrist and the next thing she knew, she was on her stomach with her arms pinned and his knee pressing lightly on her back.

She waited for the shock of pain from being thrown to the ground, but surprisingly the only thing she felt was slightly dizzy from the speed at which he'd tossed her around. Even the wrist he'd grabbed didn't hurt…

Okita released her as he said tauntingly, "What? Is that all you've got?"

She couldn't remember ever being as frustrated with someone as she currently was with Okita. She'd dealt with his horrible attitude the first couple of days with good grace and even given him space when he'd chosen to ignore her. She'd played by his rules for two weeks and this was what she got? Since he'd first caught her at the doorway he'd done nothing but tease her and force her into all manner of awkward situations, playing with her like a cat would a toy. The others may put up with it, but she was done dealing with his erratic and immature behavior.

As he turned away, she lunged forward, trying to hit the back of his knees. She knew she had no hope of actually winning, and despite her first attempt to punch him, she really didn't want to actually hurt him. She just wanted to wipe the smirk off his face and her best bet to do that would be to knock him off his feet. Not that she had much chance of that either considering how quickly he danced out of her reach, leaving her sprawled awkwardly on the floor.

"Hm~, well that was a little better…"

She got to her feet, brushing the hairs that had come loose from her ponytail out of her face. He had every advantage, he was taller, faster, stronger, and above all, more experienced… but maybe she had one thing he didn't. She didn't want to win, at least not the way he would be expecting. If she could get him to grab her again, that just might give her the opportunity to use her weight to throw him off balance. At worst she would end up on the floor again. Which actually hadn't hurt in the slightest, so no loss there.

She inched closer to him, fists raised like she intended to try and punch him. He let her approach and when she was within reach, she swung clumsily at him. This time though, he didn't grab her. Instead she could only watch helplessly as he leaned back slightly, causing her to miss. As she stumbled off balance, he slid effortlessly to the side and she felt his fingers catch the collar of her shirt. Before she could even attempt to try and break his grip, she felt her feet leave the floor.

Thankfully the shirt had a deep enough v, so there wasn't any pressure on her neck, but there also wasn't anything she could do. She squirmed, trying to grab his hand or find some sort of purchase, but nothing was within reach.

"Give up yet?"

No, she did not give up. She refused to let him win. There had to be some… Oh!

As quickly as she could, she raised both her arms over her head. Gravity did the rest and she slid out of her shirt and landed on her butt on the floor. She ignored the pain of what was probably going to be a massive bruise and lunged again at his knees. This time she was successful and she caught a brief glimpse of his startled expression as he tumbled forward onto his face. Not wanting to give him the chance to get up, she scrambled up his body and planted herself firmly on his back, a triumphant grin stretching across her face.

She was so caught up in her elation at actually having knocked Okita off his feet that it took her a second to realize why he hadn't thrown her off yet. He was laughing. Once she realized that, she suddenly remembered that she also had an audience… An audience that had just seen her take her shirt off. Technically she was still fully dressed thanks to her camisole, but still… She looked over to see Saito with eyebrows raised in surprise and Heisuke's jaw nearly on the floor.

Okita shook his head once before resting his forehead on folded arms. "Oh man, I was not expecting that." He glanced back at her. "You do realize you can get off me now, right? Unless, of course, you don't want to… It's not like I've ever minded having a girl on top of me."

" What ?!" Her voice jumped several octaves as she practically leapt off him, her face flushing. "I didn't… I mean… I'm sorry!"

He sat up. "It's fine. But seriously," He held up the shirt he still had in his hand, "tell me that wasn't something they taught you in that class, because I'd have a word with the instructor if I were you. It's usually a good idea to avoid taking your clothes off during a fight."

She felt her face burn even brighter as she muttered "I know that…" The only reason she'd even considered it was because she'd had the camisole on underneath.

He tossed her the shirt before standing and turning to face Saito. "Definitely unconventional, but not bad overall. What do you think?"

Saito nodded slowly. "It's clear she's never received any kind of formal training, but she does show a fair amount of coordination and, ah… inventiveness." He turned to her. "If you would like, I can work with you like I do Heisuke."

"Really? ...Um, are you sure Hijikata would be alright with that?"

Heisuke nodded enthusiastically. "Of course he would. I mean, everyone on the team has to at least know the basics and you're one of us now."

She glanced at Saito for confirmation and he nodded. "I will ask the Commander, but I believe it will be fine."

Chizuru was surprised by the excitement she could feel building in her. "In that case, I'd love to." After all, how often was she going to get the chance to have what would essentially be free private self-defense lessons with someone as obviously skilled as Saito?

The clock on the wall caught her attention and she jumped. "Is that really the time?"

Heisuke checked his phone. "Yeah, that's the time. Why?"

"I need to head back upstairs and work on the questions you'll need for a witness, especially since what I learned from Sanan has changed the direction of the case."

"Wait a second." Okita frowned as he folded his arms. "I thought the whole point of you being here was that we didn't have to work on those cases."

Heisuke's brows furrowed as he shot a look at Okita. "You didn't have to say it like that Souji… But he's got a point. Wouldn't you have a better handle on the case than any of us at this point?"

She sighed. "Maybe, but when I asked Hijikata about going to speak with a suspect, he said I couldn't go without an escort and that no one had the time at the moment. So instead, he said I could come up with a list of questions and he'd have someone stop by the next time they were in the area. I mean, I'd rather see the guy's reactions first hand, but I understand where he's coming from."

"The Commander is correct. Having an unknown variable in the field is a risk."

She nodded in agreement with Saito before turning and heading to the locker room. As her mind played back what had happened, she couldn't help feeling like she had whiplash. She thought she'd been starting to understand Okita, or at least how to work around his attitude, but now she felt like she was right back at square one. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. While she'd let him get under her skin, she could admit now that this Okita was better than the one she'd been working with the past two weeks. Even his harsher comments had seemed more like a barbed sense of humor or a blunt statement of fact, than a cruel intention to hurt.

She looked in the mirror and groaned. How on earth was she going to fix her hair?

Souji sighed and leaned back against one of the pieces of equipment that edged the room. When Heisuke had insisted they wait for Chizuru, he hadn't thought she'd take this long. They'd been changed and ready to head back upstairs for several minutes now. Finally, the door opened and Chizuru stepped out.

Now he knew what had taken her so long. She'd clearly been struggling to put her hair back in some semblance of order and she'd done a fairly good job. Unfortunately, it was still obvious that something had happened to mess up her neat and tidy hair from earlier. He was tempted to tease her about it, but even he had to admit that he'd probably pushed her far enough for one day.

Chizuru jumped slightly when she noticed all of them waiting for her. "I hope you're not stopping because of me…"

Heisuke shook his head as he fell in step beside her and they all started to head toward the elevator. "Nah, we were nearly done when you first showed up anyway."

While the two of them walked ahead, he easily fell into step next to Saito, neither man interested in breaking the companionable silence between them. Instead, his thoughts turned inward as his body automatically followed along. He'd never actually admit it, but Saito had been right. He hadn't really given Chizuru a chance and he'd had no intention of doing so. But right now, he was glad he did.

At first, he'd written her off as the quiet demure type who would do anything to avoid making waves and most of what he'd seen had confirmed that. He'd gotten his first inkling that might not be the entire story when he'd cornered her in the kitchen. Not his best moment, but she'd genuinely surprised him when she'd stood up to him despite the fear he could read clearly in her eyes. That was another thing about her that intrigued him. She wore her emotions and thoughts so close to the surface that they were written plain as day in her eyes and across her face. While Heisuke was loud with his feelings and thoughts, hers just seemed to be an intrinsic part of her features. Yet, even with that, she'd still managed to surprise him.

He'd wanted to find out what she was made of, so as soon as he'd noticed her, he'd started pushing and prodding, watching to see what kind of reactions he would get. And sure, he'd gotten the blushing, stuttering reactions he'd been expecting, but then he'd pushed a little further and that iron-will he'd gotten a peek at two weeks ago had resurfaced. He wasn't sure if it could really be called a temper, since it was more like a kitten fluffing up its fur to try and look intimidating, but it certainly made her determined. She never did what he expected her to when pushed and he couldn't help but find it intriguing… or at least fun to play with. He knew every string to pull to get a reaction out of the guys, but it was going to be fun learning what strings to pull for Chizuru.

Harada and Nagakura must have returned while they were downstairs, because he'd only just stepped through the doorway when he heard Harada say, "Hey Chizuru… Did something happen while we were gone?"

As much as he told himself he was going to lay off… He couldn't resist. This was just too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

"Chizuru decided that she wanted to strip before climbing on top of me."

Their reactions were better than he could have hoped for. Sano and Shinpachi looked startled, while Chizuru yelped and flushed to her ears, her eyes wide with horror and embarrassment. "N-No I didn't!"

"Oh~?" He raised an eyebrow at her, deliberately keeping his voice bland but mildly curious. "So you didn't take of your clothes before pinning me to the ground?"

"No…! I mean… technically yes, but it was only my shirt!"

He couldn't have walked her into that better if he'd tried. This was entirely too much fun. Unfortunately for Chizuru, Shinpachi chose that exact moment to find his voice.

"No way! You were on top of him without a shirt?! Why do I always miss the good stuff?!"

Chizuru was flushed to her neck and clearly way out of her depth. Harada looked like he was about ready to hit Shinpachi, and he was probably next on the list, but Heisuke jumped to her defense first. Or tried to at least…

"Hey, it's wasn't her fault! Souji was the one who did it!"

At their shocked, almost owlish, expressions, he couldn't hold back his laughter anymore.

"Well it wasn't like I meant to… Things just kinda got carried away."

There was a muffled thump as Chizuru dropped her head to her desk, obviously having realized that she'd only made the situation worse and Heisuke wasn't likely to be of any real help.

Apparently Saito had felt this had gone on long enough, because he shot him a hard look as he said. "That is not what happened Souji. At no point was Yukimura inappropriately dressed."

"Aw, you're no fun Hajime."

Heisuke, probably trying to make up for his earlier blunder, put in. "Yeah! Chizuru was actually pretty cool. She managed to knock Souji off his feet."

Shinpachi glanced at Heisuke in disbelief. "No way. How'd she manage that?"

"Well you see, Souji had her by the back of her collar and then, bam! Next thing we know, he's holding an empty shirt and Chizuru's thrown herself at the back of his knees and knocked him to the floor!"

Harada winked at Chizuru. "Nice going. Not every day we get to see him dropped down a peg or two."

Shinpachi nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, but I totally want to come watch next time!"

"There won't be a next time."

And here came the killer of all things fun. All eyes turned to look at Hijikata, who stood glowering in the doorway to his office.

Souji couldn't resist a small jab. "Aw, why not? It was fun."

Hijikata ignored him and turned to Saito. "What the hell Saito. I thought I told you to test her."

"I am sorry Commander. I attempted to evaluate her, but was unsuccessful."

"Unsuccessful?! What could possibly have happened that you had to throw Souji at her? I expect this sort of thing from Heisuke or Shinpachi, but you? You're lucky you got her back in one piece!"

"Hey, I resent that. I played nice and everything."

Hijikata shot a glare at him. "Souji, shut up and stay out of this."

"Um, it really wasn't Saito's fault…" Everyone turned to look at Chizuru, whose face was bright red as she stared down at her knotted fingers. "He tried to test me, but… Um… He asked me to try and hit him and I wouldn't do it…"

Heisuke nodded vigorously. "Yeah, so Souji ended up teasing her until she tried to punch him."

"Way to throw me under the bus." he muttered as he shot a glare at Heisuke.

Hijikata pinched the bridge of his nose as he let out a sharp sigh and he couldn't help but derive a small amount of satisfaction from the 'why me?' expression plastered all over his face.

"Commander, I would like to ask your permission to work with Yukimura on her self-defense skills."

Souji swore he could almost see the vein pulsing above Hijikata's right eye. "Fine, but I better not hear about any more incidents like this, or so help me, I will load whoever it is down with so much paperwork they won't see the light of day for a month!" Having apparently said his piece, Hijikata stormed back into his office and shut the door.

He couldn't help but grin as Saito turned to a still flustered Chizuru. "We will begin on Monday."

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 - A Change of Pace

Saturday, November 17th

"Hey Chizuru, where…" Chizuru looked up from the drawer she was currently digging through to find a confused Sen standing in her doorway. "Um, what are you doing? It looks like a bomb went off in here."

"Huh?" She looked around her room, suddenly realizing that yes, it did indeed look like a bomb had gone off. Her bed was strewn with clothes and the same went for her floor and even her dresser. Since she'd woken up that morning, she'd been frantically hunting down every piece of non-work attire she owned. The problem was most of it consisted of sweatpants, t-shirts and pajamas, her go to for days when she didn't have to go outside. None of which would work for Monday.

"I'm trying to find my workout clothes, but I think I left most of it back home…"

That was one of the things she'd disliked about moving. The house she'd shared with her uncle had been fairly large for just the two of them and more space had inevitably led to more stuff. That meant when it had come time to downsize, she'd had to make decisions about what to leave behind. She'd never been one to actively workout, so apparently her brain had translated that into not needing any of her workout clothes. Not that she'd actually had much to begin with.

Sen frowned in confusion. "Why do you need workout clothes? I never pegged you as the type to join a gym. You do realize most people wait until New Years to start making these kinds of resolutions."

She shook her head as she gave up on the drawer and sat on the edge of her bed. "No, it's not that. Apparently it's department policy for everyone to have some level of self-defense training. So starting Monday I'm going to be working with Saito."

"Wait! Is he one of your hot coworkers?"

"Um, yeah-"

Before she could finish, Sen had darted forward and dragged her off the bed and out the door of her room.

"We're going shopping. If you're going to be getting up close and personal with them, then I refuse to let you go looking anything less than your best!

"Up close and what?!" She tugged futilely on her hand and only just managed to snag her purse as Sen dragged her through the living room. "I don't… It's not like that!" But Sen wasn't listening.

"Ooh, I know just the place to go. We are going to get you the works and come Monday, those guys won't know what hit them! I bet they won't be able to keep their hands off you."

" What?! " Her voice jumped several octaves as her face flushed. Yes, she would be working on self-defense, but that was clearly not what Sen had meant. She loved Sen like a sister, but when it came to guys and clothes, they weren't even in the same book, let alone on the same page. Thankfully Sen was almost all bark and no bite, so that helped her keep from completely freaking out, sort of. Sen might talk about the guys she saw and would go as far as to flirt, but she was actually pretty picky in the ones she actually dated. Chizuru could only remember a handful over all the years she'd known her, and none of those had gotten very serious. All too soon, they were out of the apartment and driving toward the mall.

It always kind of scared her, what Sen could do when she got into her shopping mode. She was like a force of nature, something you just had to go along with because in the end, resistance was completely and utterly futile. Like right now, as Sen expertly weaved through the crowded mall, dodging around moms with strollers and chatting groups of teens, towing her along behind. She seemed to have a sixth sense about where openings would appear, squeezing them through spaces Chizuru would never have dared attempt.

At one particularly narrow opening, she tightened her grip on Sen's hand, afraid she would get cut off. Sen may thrive off this kind of hustle and bustle, but she most certainly did not. Her issues with direction and unfamiliarity with the place meant that even if she could find the store she was looking for, once she left, she would have no clue which direction she'd originally come from. The crowds were no help either. She was never one to push or shove, so more often than not, she would either find herself stuck in a flow of people, unable to get out, or stuck on the sidelines, unable to merge in. All in all, the mall was far from her favorite place, especially on the weekends.

With one final jerk, Sen pulled her out of the flow of people and into one of the stores. Almost instantly, her senses were assaulted by loud music and an oppressive amount of perfume. As she fought down a cough, she caught sight of the clothes.

"I-I thought we were going to look for workout clothes!"

Sen shot her a mischievous grin. "We are, and this is the best place to get it."

She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks as she looked at the displays scattered around the store. "Sen, this is a lingerie store!"

"So? They have the best active wear section. Just trust me."

She chewed indecisively on her lip for a moment be for nodding. "All right…" That seemed to be all Sen was waiting for, because before she knew it, they were weaving through the racks toward a back corner. Not that their active section made her feel any more comfortable. Most of it consisted of tight crop-tops and booty shorts, and she'd rather die than show up in those.

"Ok, the first thing you're going to need is a couple good sports bras. Hmm..." Sen looked her up and down, her eyes narrowed in a way that made Chizuru want to cross her arms to cover her chest. "You're a lot smaller than me, so you can get away with less support…" Sen shot her a wink as she sifted through the racks. "Don't worry, you're actually lucky since it gives you way more options."

Lucky? In what way was she lucky? While Sen was all curves, she could have passed for a pre-teen boy if she really tried. It wasn't that she didn't have curves. She did. They were just smaller. Sen always complained that guys would never look her in the eyes when they spoke to her, but she'd take that over some old lady telling her off for trying to 'sneak' into the girls bathroom. Sen hadn't let that embarrassing incident go for months.

A few seconds more and Sen had several options dangling from her hands. "These should fit you. So? What do you think?"

"Um… do they have to be so brightly colored? I mean, no one is going to see them right…?"

"Yes they do, it'll make you feel pretty. Besides, you don't know that someone won't see them."

With a resigned sigh, she took the three least brightly colored ones from Sen. "All right… What next?"

Apparently shirts were next on Sen's list and thankfully they walked right past the crop tops. There was no way she was getting her into one of those. They stopped in front of a display of racerbacks and Sen immediately started pulling down options.

"Hmm, these would go best with your skintone and hair, and they'll match the bras you chose. Do you like any of them?"

"Yeah, they're cute… but again with the bright colors?"

Sen nodded firmly. "Yes, we are trying to design a wardrobe from scratch and that means coordinating pieces. Your bottoms can be neutral so that you can showcase your personality up top." She thought for a moment. "I would suggest going with Capri leggings. For what you're planning, they'll probably be more comfortable than shorts. Plus they'll make your figure look great!"

Feeling slightly mollified by the promise of at least something being neutral, she selected several of the shirts and added them to the growing pile of clothes in her arms. Thankfully Sen kept her promise and they avoided the brightly patterned leggings in favor of the far more neutral solid black and grey options. Her arms now full, Sen led her to the changing rooms, nearly bouncing with excitement.

"Don't forget, you have to show me every outfit!" she said with a bubbly grin as she closed the door behind her.

Chizuru leaned against the wall and let out a breath, already feeling tired. She had no idea how Sen could spend the whole day doing this. With some trepidation, she undressed and put on the first outfit Sen had laid out. She took one more calming breath before turning to look in the mirror.

Hmm, it's actually not too bad… Really it was way better than not bad. The green of the sports bra peeked out at her shoulders from under the blue large floral print shirt, highlighting its blue-green accents. The black leggings hit just above her knee and hugged her now visible curves up to where they met the tight fitting shirt. None of it was so tight that it was uncomfortable or difficult to move in, but it was certainly more form fitting than anything else she owned.

"Are you ready yet?"

"Um, yeah. Hold on a sec." She called as she tugged once more at the hem of the shirt before opening the door.

Sen clapped her hands together enthusiastically, her eyes bright. "Ooh, I love that color on you. It's a perfect fit."

She fidgeted slightly, not used to being the focus of so much attention. "Are you sure it's not too tight?"

"Absolutely not!" Sen shook her head adamantly as she looked her over. "It's perfect just the way it is. I don't know why you insist on hiding your shape all the time."

Chizuru was pretty sure it wasn't a matter of deliberately hiding her curves… It was just that most clothes tended to be loose on her petite frame.

Sen's face suddenly grew concerned and she bit her lip. "Unless you don't like it… Really, I'll understand if you don't and I don't want to make you uncomfortable. It's just you look so cute in this outfit…"

She hurried to reassure Sen. "No, no, I do like it. It's comfortable and the colors are cute." Her mind flashed back to the previous day and she felt her cheeks flush lightly. "Actually it's probably better that it's tight…"

"Oh yeah, thats right. I guess loose clothing would be a bad idea for what you'll be working on."

More than you know… While she knew a similar situation would be unlikely to happen, no effort was too small if it would prevent her from suffering through that kind of humiliation again.

"You should try on the red one next!" Sen said as she deftly spun her around and gave her a nudge toward the stall. What followed was a half hour ordeal of trying on each of the seven or so outfits Sen had created. Only once each and every combination had been tried did Sen let her get redressed into her own clothes.

"Let's see, your total came to $187.32. Looks like you've found some really cute items today."

Chizuru felt lightheaded as the lady behind the counter looked at them expectantly. How had that spiraled up so fast? It wasn't that she couldn't afford it. She could, but this wasn't what she'd been expecting to spend her free money on…

Before she could reach for her own wallet, Sen whipped her credit card out with practiced ease and handed it to the woman. "Thanks. You guys always have the best stuff."

"Sen! I can't let you do that, it's too much!"

Sen shook her head as she took her card back and slid it back into her purse. "Nonsense, this one's on me."

"But-"

"Nope. If it makes you feel better, you can make it up to me later. But I'm the one who dragged you here, so it's only fair that I foot the bill."

She let out a resigned sigh and the woman smiled at them. "Aw, you two are so sweet. It's not everyday you see friends as close as you two seem to be."

Sen thanked the woman while Chizuru grabbed the bags and they made their way out through the crowds to the car. As they were driving back home, chatting away about nothing in particular, she noticed one of her favorite grocery stores up ahead. She still felt wound up from the stress of being in the mall and a challenging dinner seemed like just the thing to help her unwind. And it would at least go a little way toward repaying Sen.

"Hey, would you mind if we stopped to pick up some things for dinner?"

"Not at all. What did you have in mind?" Sen said as she turned on her blinker and pulled into the parking lot.

"Nothing in particular. I was actually going to ask you what you wanted tonight. You paid for the clothes, so name whatever you want and I'll give it a shot."

Sen mulled that over as she parked in a spot in the front row. "Hmm… Oh, I know! What about that thing you made awhile back for your uncle? I think it was pork wrapped around some kind of filling… The leftovers I had when I stayed over were really good. Ooh, and you know what sounds amazing right now? Those little mini-cheesecakes you made with the raspberries on top! I would give my right arm for one of those."

Chizuru couldn't restrain a giggle at Sen's obvious excitement. "You got it."

As soon as they stepped through the automatic doors, she could already feel some of the tension leaving her. Where the mall was crowded, loud, and confusing, grocery stores were spacious and uncrowded, with everything organized in neat rows. Sure, she knew the stores at the mall were organized, but that didn't mean she could find what she was looking for. She never really paid attention to designers, and most stores apparently thought that was the best way to organize their products. For her it just meant she had to track down five possible locations for a shirt.

There was no question that while the mall may have been Sen's realm, this was hers. Sen followed dutifully after her as she made her way through the aisles, picking out what she would need for that night. Most people found grocery shopping to be a chore, and the same was true for her when it came to premade things like cereal or snacks, but what was not a chore was finding the ingredients for whatever she was planning to cook. She relished the chance to pick the best and freshest from what was available, already seeing in her head exactly how she would prepare it.

At one point, while she was internally debating over the merits of whole versus baby carrots for what she had planned, Sen slipped away. She hadn't been gone long, before she returned with a half-bottle of her favorite wine and Chizuru's own prefered drink, a six pack of Mike's hard lemonade.

"I couldn't resist. I mean, this counts as a special night, right?"

It wasn't that they drank a lot. In fact, that six pack would probably last her close to a year. Sen drank more than she did, but even then it was a fairly infrequent occurrence. She couldn't help but smile at Sen's excited expression. "Sure. You checked all the bottles, right?"

"Yeah. Someone had swapped out a couple of them, but I just swapped them back."

For the most part, she couldn't stand the taste of alcohol. She'd tried beer and the wine Sen preferred, but they'd both been too bitter for her. She'd also tried the sweeter mixed drinks, but they'd been mixed so heavily that she couldn't get over the bite of the hard liquor. If she was going to drink, she'd found her best bet was a hard lemonade, though only the fruity flavors, since the original was way too sour for her. That was why she always made sure to check every bottle in the container. People had a habit of swapping out bottles to make a mixed selection. Now with both of them loaded down with the ingredients she'd need and the drinks, they made their way to the checkout.

"I'm going to need to see some ID miss." Chizuru handed the clerk her driver's licence and he made a point of looking it over carefully, probably hoping to catch her trying to buy alcohol underage or with a fake ID. "Alright… I guess this checks out. Your total is $113.06"

Now it was Sen's turn to choke in surprise as she turned to her. "What on earth did you get?"

"Well, between the fresh vanilla for the cheesecake and the pork tenderloin, that's about half of it there." She couldn't resist winking at Sen as she said, "But don't worry, I dragged you in here, so I've got this one."

Once they made it back to their apartment, Chizuru immediately set about preparing dinner. She started on the cheesecakes, since they would need to chill in the refrigerator before they could be eaten. As the room filled with the smells and sounds of cooking food, they chatted about all the little things their busy lives hadn't let them catch up on. Sen idly sipped at her wine and stole occasional tastes of the food, while she sipped on her own diluted half hard lemonade, half fruit juice concoction. She still had a couple hours left before she would finish, and she didn't want her low tolerance to affect her attention. There were too many ways to get burned, cut, or otherwise injured while cooking. Plus even the best recipe could turn out awful if she didn't focus.

Idly, she realized that they hadn't done anything like this since they'd moved… In fact it had probably been far longer since they'd just spent the whole day doing nothing but hanging out and talking. First it had been getting ready to move, and then the move itself. Even having settled into their apartment, Sen had been kept busy with her legal work and she'd been caught up in her cases and crazy workplace dynamic. Despite the fact that shopping wasn't her favorite thing, it had been nice just to get out and forget everything else going on in her life. When she pointed this out, Sen had frowned before remarking that she couldn't believe it had been that long.

"Mmm, that smells amazing." Sen said as Chizuru pulled their main dish out of the oven. "How long until we can eat it?"

She frowned slightly as she clipped the string tying the rolled tenderloin shut. "Well we have to let it rest for a minute or two so the juices can reabsorb into the meat, but after that, everything should be done." She let out a relieved sigh when the roll stayed in one piece. "Why don't you pick something to watch and we can do dinner and a movie."

"Sure," Sen said before she tossed back the last of her first glass and headed over to the cabinet where they kept their movies. "Hmm, I'm up for something kind of brainless… How about a romantic comedy? Ooh, I know! We haven't seen 'The Proposal' in forever."

She glanced over her shoulder at the familiar case Sen was holding up. "Sounds good to me. I'll dish this up if you get it started."

Soon both of them were settled on the couch and munching away at what had probably become the fanciest TV dinner ever. About three quarters of the way through the movie, a light snoring noise made her glance over at Sen. She was completely passed out, head resting on the arm of the couch, and her empty plate tilting dangerously toward the floor. Careful not to jostle her too much, Chizuru got up and took the plate out of Sen's limp hands, before tucking a blanket around her. She couldn't help but giggle as Sen shifted and mumbled unintelligibly. She seemed pretty comfortable at the moment, so Chizuru didn't see the need to wake her. Guess we'll have to save dessert for tomorrow…

As she put away the leftovers and started on the dishes, she didn't worry too much about the noise she was making. Sen was already a pretty heavy sleeper and the fact that she'd had nearly two glasses of wine would probably mean she'd be sleeping like the dead until morning.

She was half way through the dishes, when it suddenly hit her. When had she last called her uncle…? Maybe it was getting the chance to reconnect with Sen that had made her realize that she hadn't heard from Kodo since her first day at the department. She felt bad about that. Even when she'd stayed on campus at the local university, she'd made sure to call at least once a week and visit on the weekends. She glanced at the clock. It wasn't too late, and Kodo often kept odd hours working on his own small bits of research. Wiping her hands on a nearby dish towel, she picked up her phone and pulled up his number from her contacts. As it rang, she put it on speaker and set it by the sink so she could continue doing the dishes.

"Hello?"

"Hi Uncle."

"Oh, Chizuru. It's wonderful to finally hear from you. Is everything all right?"

She picked up another pan and began scrubbing at it. "Yeah, everything's fine. I just realized that I hadn't called you in a while and wanted to catch up."

"I'm glad. How is your work going? I haven't run into Rintaro lately, so I haven't heard anything new."

"It's going really great. I've already managed to close up a couple of their cases." She rinsed and set down the pan before picking up a bowl.

"I'm glad to hear it, but I still wish you were closer to home. I worry about you getting involved in these cases and talking to dangerous people."

She closed her eyes and sighed, not anxious to rehash the same territory again, but at least this time she had some things that might put him at ease. "Well, you don't have to worry about that. My job is strictly a desk job. My boss, Hijikata, says he doesn't want an additional risk in the field, so I'm not actually allowed to go talk to suspects. Plus, apparently it's department policy for everyone to have some level of self defense training, so I'm going to be starting that on Monday."

"Hmm, that's good, but it won't stop me from worrying about you. It's my job after all."

She smiled softly at the dish in her hands, glad that he cared. "I know, but they really are a great group of guys." Well, besides Okita's bipolar behavior and Hijikata's intimidating demeanor… Thankfully he didn't seem to catch on to her like Sen had, so she quickly continued. "So how are you? You sound a little tired. I hope you're not overworking yourself." It was true, she could detect a hint of the strain that usually entered his voice when he pushed himself too hard. She could always tell, even if it was just over the phone.

He chuckled lightly. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. It was Ellen's weekly visit today and she had a whole slew of self-diagnosed diseases she wanted me to check for. You know how she is."

Yeah, Chizuru did know how she was… Ellen, or Ms. Thompson as she knew her, was a sweet old lady who had lived down their street. Unfortunately once she'd found out Kodo was a doctor, she'd made a point to show up at least once a week with a bevy of illnesses and ailments she'd self-diagnosed based on her research online. Kodo told her again and again that she was fine, even healthier than average for her age, but that hadn't stopped her from coming back. Besides she was just so kind that it was impossible to say no to her.

She caught the sound of a muffled yawn from Kodo. "Well, I'll let you get some sleep Uncle. Goodnight."

"All right, goodnight Chizuru."

She heard the soft click of him hanging up before her screen went dark. As she finished up the last of the dishes and drained the sink, she couldn't help but feel that despite how it had started, this had turned into one of the best days she'd had in a long while.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 - An Unexpected Turn

Monday, November 19th

He'd been working on this report for an hour already and the end was still nowhere in sight. If there was one thing Souji hated about being a detective, it was the paperwork. Give him the rush of running down a suspect, or the satisfaction of seeing through an alibi during questioning, hell, he'd even take hours of boring surveillance. At least then there was the chance of something happening, but this was just the same series of monotonous forms he'd filled out thousands of times before. The other teams didn't seem to have anywhere near the amount of paperwork they did. Hijikata probably just took some kind of perverse joy from loading them down with as many useless sheets of paper as possible.

He was more than thankful for the distraction when, next to him, Saito stood and called over to Heisuke.

Heisuke's head popped up from behind his computer. "Huh? Oh, right." He stretched his arms over his head before getting up. "You comin' Chizuru?"

"What?" Chizuru looked up from the report she'd been reading, the end of her pen still in her mouth. "Yes, I'm coming." She put down her pen and picked up the small bag he'd noticed her bring in this morning.

This was the perfect opportunity to put off doing his report and he wasn't about to let it go to waste. He stood, but before he could even take a step, Saito said without turning around, "Souji, I believe you still have a report to finish."

One of these days he was going to have to put the time in to figure out how to get around the eyes Saito seemed to have on the back of his head. He waved dismissively as Heisuke and Chizuru turned back to look at him curiously. "Yeah, but I can work on that anytime. More importantly, how do you plan on working with two students at once? Heisuke needs to go against an actual person, and Chizuru needs to learn the basics. Last I checked, you can't do both at the same time."

He knew he'd won, logical arguments always worked with Saito, but there was a moment's pause before Saito let out a quiet, resigned sigh and headed for the elevator. As he followed, he couldn't help but grin as he called back to the frozen forms behind him. "Well, are you two coming or not?"

Chizuru gave a squeak that sounded something like a yes, while Heisuke just settled for a groan of dismay.

Once they reached the basement, they made their way through the hallways. It was with some amusement that he covertly watched Chizuru, who was focused so intently on which route they were taking that he was pretty sure she didn't realize she was also quietly muttering the directions to herself.

It didn't take him long to change, and Heisuke and Saito weren't far behind him. He bounced a couple of times in place, sighing in relief as he stretched and shook out the tension that had been building in his neck and shoulders. At the sound of a door closing behind him, he turned to find Chizuru finishing tying up her hair in a high ponytail. He wasn't exactly sure what he'd been expecting, but it most certainly had not been what she was actually wearing. Her normal work attire had always been so conservative, that he guessed he'd just been expecting more of the same. Instead she was wearing a tight fitting peach and pale pink shirt with black leggings that hugged curves he hadn't realized she'd had. Her petite figure and large round eyes had always made her seem young, even childish, but her outfit would quickly disabuse anyone of that notion.

Her eyes met his and he realized he'd been caught staring, or as he prefered to put it, observing. Staring always seemed to imply some sort of attraction and that was definitely not the case. It wasn't that he had a type or anything like that, it was more that he'd never really bothered with the whole dating thing in the first place. Flirting? Fine, it could be entertaining and it was great for getting a reaction out of people, but anything more than that and it wasn't worth the trouble. The last thing he needed was a woman clinging to him and making demands on his time. He pulled one corner of his mouth up into a smirk and, predictably, Chizuru flushed before looking away.

Saito cleared his throat, getting everyone's attention. "Heisuke, you will spar with Souji, be sure to focus on guarding your right side. I will start instructing Yukimura in the basics."

"What?!" Heisuke's head whipped quickly between him and Saito, his expression almost panicked. "No way am I sparring with Souji! Don't you remember what happened last time?!"

Souji certainly did, and he couldn't help but grin at the memory. Heisuke caught sight of it and edged away so that Saito was between them. As if that would help. "Come on Hajime, please don't make me…"

Saito's eyes narrowed, and he was obviously about to tell Heisuke that yes, he had to, but Souji beat him to it. "That's alright, I can teach Chizuru the basics while you work with Heisuke. Besides, I don't think Heisuke will let me within five feet of him after what happened."

"You're damn right about that!"

Saito ignored Heisuke and looked at him carefully for a long moment, probably evaluating the chance he wasn't going to behave, before he nodded. "That is agreeable."

Souji turned to Chizuru, who had thus far been watching the scene unfold with growing trepidation. "Alright, looks like you're stuck with me today."

Without waiting to see if she was following, he headed over to the shelves behind the punching bags at the edge of the room. A second or two of hunting, and he found what he assumed to be the smallest pair of gloves they had and set of black hand wraps. He turned around, and seeing that she'd followed him, tossed her the gloves. "Give these a try, but I'm pretty sure they're going to be too big."

"Okay…" She shot a glance back at Heisuke and Saito, who were facing off in the center of the mats. "Um, what happened…?"

"Oh, that?" he couldn't restrain a snicker as he glanced at Heisuke. "Let's just say his hair used to be a whole lot longer. You wouldn't believe the knots it could get into… I keep trying to tell him I did him a favor, but all he does is whine about how traumatizing it was."

Chizuru clearly did not know how to take that, because she blinked at him owlishly before squeaking out a small "I-I see…"

She focused on tugging the gloves on, and while they weren't huge on her, they were definitely too big. He sighed. "You just had to be small… Alright, take those off. Looks like you're going to be using wraps." He held up the two rolls of fabric and she stared at them, obviously puzzled. He grinned, "I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you've never put on hand wraps before, right?"

She shook her head. "What are they for?"

"Exactly what they sound like. Here, hold out your hands." When she did, he began expertly wrapping each hand from wrist to knuckle with the black fabric. "They support your wrists and protect your knuckles from whatever you're punching. The gloves would've done the same thing, but been a whole lot easier to put on."

As soon as he was done, she flexed her fingers experimentally. "Oh, Okay. So… what now?"

He gave her his best serious expression as he said, "Now you're going to sit down and meditate for the next two hours about the purpose of your training." Her eyes widened in startled confusion and he couldn't restrain a snort of amusement. "I'm kidding. Though Hajime just might make you do it if you're not careful. "

Chizuru's cheeks flushed lightly as he turned and walked over to one of the punching bags. "The first thing we have to do is make sure you're going to hurt the other guy and not yourself. Has anyone ever actually taught you how to throw a punch?"

When she shook her head no, he couldn't help but quip, "They really didn't teach you anything in that class did they?" Chizuru frowned and opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, he cut her off with a wave of his hand. "And yes I remember, it was that or golf. Your instincts didn't seem too bad last week, so just start by trying to punch the bag and we'll go from there."

He moved to hold the bag, but Chizuru just stood there, arms at her sides, her gaze darting between it and him. "Some time today would be nice…"

"Right, sorry…" Her cheeks flamed a brighter red and she bit her lip as she took a clumsy swing. Quickly, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, stopping her before her fist could connect. "Okay, bad idea…" He shook his head. "There were so many things wrong with that, I'm not even really sure where to start."

Despite her flushed face, he could tell she was starting to get frustrated. Letting go of her wrist, he unclenched her fist and reformed it. "First of all, never tuck your thumb into your hand, not unless you want to break it. Second," He moved around her, tapping and nudging until she was in a proper stance, "this is how you should be standing. Your hands should be in front of your face, your joints loose, and knees slightly bent. Don't ever lock them." He gave a final check of her stance. "Good. Let's start with a jab. Basically do what you did before, but make sure to rotate your hand so the back of it is up."

She nodded. "Right…"

He held the bag again and was glad to see that while Chizuru was hesitating, she was taking that time to internalize what he'd said. She shifted slightly, familiarizing herself with the stance and finding her balance. Finally, she took a breath and hit the bag. He gave her a nod. "Better, but try to keep yourself looser and your weight more centered."

It didn't take Chizuru long to master the jab, and from there she moved fairly quickly through both hooks and uppercuts. Teaching her wasn't actually all that bad. Normally he didn't have much patience for teaching, mainly because he couldn't stand whiners or people who didn't listen. Why should he bother if they didn't? Chizuru didn't complain once, she simply made the corrections he told her to. She wasn't a natural by any means. Her motions were awkward and uncoordinated at first, but her level of focus meant that she was a fairly quick study. It took her a couple of attempts to feel out each correction, but once she had it, it tended to stick. Her main problem was that she lacked tension in her movements. Not the tightness that locked muscles and joints, but the tension that added force to blows. Sure she was hitting the bag, but if it was a person, they would hardly feel a thing.

Chizuru paused to wipe the sweat that had formed on her forehead, her breathing heavy, and he let go of the bag. "All right, get some water and then we're going to start on some basic combinations." She nodded before walking over to her water bottle and basically collapsing beside it. Leaving her to her recovery, he made his way to the set of shelves where he'd gotten the gloves, and grabbed a round pad for his hand. Just telling her she needed tension probably wasn't going to be enough. Most people had to learn by feel, which meant he was going to have to push her a bit. Besides, it would also be more fun… for him anyway.

He gave her about thirty seconds more before he walked back toward her. "Time's up." When she wasn't standing by the time he got to her, he gave her a light cuff over the head with the pad as he walked past.

"Souji."

At the sharp call, he looked over to find Saito frowning at him, his arms folded and Heisuke peeking curiously around him. Guess I should have expected that… Behind him he heard Chizuru scrambling to her feet.

He shrugged nonchalantly. "What? I'm not going to wait all day for her to decide to get up."

"I believe the Commander made himself clear about proper behavior." From the look Saito was giving him, he knew the unspoken threat was that if he didn't behave he'd be hearing about it later from Hijikata. One of those lectures was never high on his list of favorite things to do.

"Yeah, yeah." He waived off Saito and turned to find Chizuru standing a couple paces away, clearly waiting for him, and from her stiff posture, clearly getting irritated. "Besides, I think she does better when she's mad."

She frowned at him. "I'm not mad."

"Uh huh, sure you're not."

At his teasing grin, she huffed and brushed her bangs out of her face. "I'm not!"

This was almost too easy. Maybe it was that no one had ever pushed her buttons this way before, because any of the guys except Hijikata would've shut down, knowing it was the only way to get him to stop.

"Hmm~, if you say so..." He walked over until there was only a few feet between them. "I'm going to call out a series and your job is to do it in the exact order I say. Screw up and you start over. Got it?"

She nodded and got herself into a passable stance, her forehead furrowed in concentration. After making some minor corrections he called out the first series. No sooner had her second hit landed on the pad, then he said, "What, you call that hitting? I've seen little kids hit harder." Just like he'd planned, she lost her concentration and immediately messed up the pattern.

He grinned impishly at her. "Aw, looks like you've got to start over now." Chizuru's lips pressed tight together as she shot a completely ineffective glare at him. "Come on, I'm wait-"

The punch that landed on the pad would've sent it into his face if he hadn't pulled his head to the side in time. What the hell? How could someone so small hit that hard? He was more prepared for her second punch and was able to absorb the impact. It wasn't anywhere near the kind of force Saito or Shinpachi could deliver, but still… With time she might be able to give Heisuke a run for his money. The thought of Heisuke's reaction if he ever heard that had him mentally filing it away as potential ammunition.

Once she'd found a rhythm and he was fairly sure he wouldn't throw her off again, he started giving corrections on her form. He could see the newly acquired tension in her stance, so he'd at least managed to achieve his goal. After another ten minutes or so, he called for her to stop, confident the corrections he'd given her were going to stick. No sooner had he given the word, than Chizuru promptly sat down and flopped onto her back, clearly exhausted. He got her water and set it down by her sprawled form, he wasn't completely heartless after all, and she managed to sit up and take several large gulps between breaths.

"Not bad… but we're adding dodging tomorrow."

He tried and failed to fight a laugh as she promptly groaned and fell over on her back again.


Ow… Chizuru stopped mid-shift as what felt like every muscle in her body protested the movement. Everything, from her neck, to her fingers, and even down to her toes ached, and not in a good way. Sen and Kosuzu sometimes liked to run and they'd mentioned how the best workouts left you with a satisfying ache. This was nothing like that. In fact, she'd love nothing more than to lay her head down on her desk, or even better, curl up on their couch and just sleep for an hour or two. And this was only the first day… What did I get myself into?

She hadn't expected it to be easy, but she also hadn't expected Okita to push her that hard. Out of the roughly half hour they'd worked, he'd probably given her all of a minute to rest. To be honest, she hadn't been expecting to work with Okita at all.

She'd been surprised when he'd joined them, but hadn't thought much of it beyond that. The worry had started when Heisuke had panicked at the idea of going against him, but that had been more worry for him, rather than herself. After all, Saito had said he'd work with her. Only when she'd realized that she would, in fact, be working with Okita, had she started to really feel nervous. While his changed mood seemed to have lasted, she still felt like she was on the deck of a ship. It may have been steady at the moment, but she never knew when the next wave would come and knock her off balance.

Her fears had turned out to be mostly unfounded. Sure, she'd let him get under her skin again with his teasing, but when she thought back it also felt like he'd been pushing her to do more, goading her into improving. While it wasn't a method she particularly enjoyed, it had certainly proven effective. He'd also been surprisingly patient when it came to her initial uncoordinated movements and unbalanced posture. His corrections had been immediate and blunt, but he also hadn't been angry when she'd needed time to adjust. He's also good with his hands…

Her cheeks flushed at the errant thought. She hadn't meant it like that… She just couldn't help but notice how deft and easy his movements were when he'd been wrapping her hands. She could have spent hours trying and her efforts would have still paled in comparison to what he'd managed to do in under a minute. The wraps had certainly done their job. Her knuckles had only the slightest tinge of pink, despite how hard she'd been hitting, and they'd been tight enough to support her wrists without pinching or cutting off her circulation. All of which was a minor miracle in her mind.

Overall, he really was a good teacher… even if his methods were a little twisted. She couldn't help but wonder again, what it was exactly that had changed his attitude toward her.

She was abruptly pulled out of her thoughts when her laptop screen suddenly went black. She stared at it in confusion for a moment before it hit her. She'd sat there lost in thought so long that her laptop had gone to sleep. Hoping no one had noticed her lapse, she quickly logged back in and tried again to focus on the questions she'd been writting before her thoughts had run away from her.

It had been fairly easy to come up with the initial questions she wanted to ask, but the follow up questions were a whole other story. This was her one chance to catch the husband unaware. If he did have something to do with his wife's attack and later disappearance, then she didn't want to give him the time to prep his answers. She knew she could call him in to the station, or even just have the conversation over the phone, but one would give him time to prepare and the other the opportunity to hang up on her if he didn't like her questions.

No, her best bet to get the most honest reactions was to have someone stop by, and if it couldn't be her, then she trusted any of the guys to notice if something was off. She'd been around them long enough to know they were excellent at their jobs. The main problem was that with the turn the case had taken, she was the only one up to date on it. She could give them a summary, but realistically, there were too many details. Thus her problems with the follow up questions. According to Hijikata, she wasn't going to get a second shot at this, or at least not for a while, so she had to make it count.

The only way she could think to come up with relevant rebuttal questions was to anticipate possible answers to her initial questions and then ask what questions she would have asked based on that. She shifted, this time ignoring her protesting muscles, and rested her chin on her hand. Just looking at the mess of questions and possible answers was giving her a headache. She needed information, but if she handed this document over to whoever Hijikata sent, she'd probably get laughed out the door. In fact she'd probably get more information from sending them in blind, rather than having to deal with this convoluted mess of a document. On the other hand, if she just sent her initial questions, even if they asked follow up ones, they might only be getting information she already knew.

She rubbed frustratedly at her aching temples and decided that she would deal with paring down the questions later. If she fought with it any more right now, she'd probably just end up scrapping the whole thing and starting over. As tempting as that was, she knew she'd regret it later. She still had to call Laura Hale's mother, so hopefully that would give her the time to come back to the questions with a fresh view. The missing persons report gave her a name, Paige Garcia, and a phone number, but not much else. She jotted down the number on her pad.

Chizuru reached for the phone sitting on the corner of her desk, but hesitated, her hand hovering over the receiver. She should probably find somewhere else to call from… This was already going to be a delicate conversation and the team was anything but quiet. With her luck Heisuke and Nagakura would pick that exact moment to start arguing over something, and of course that would probably end up causing one of Hijikata's thundering lectures on proper office behavior… Definitely best to find somewhere else.

A noise from the doorway caught her attention. It was Harada and Nagakura heading out, probably for something case related.

"Um, Harada?"

Harada paused and looked back at her. "Yeah? What's up?"

"I was just wondering if there was somewhere I could make a call from? I have to talk to the mother of a victim, and well…"

He glanced quickly at Nagakura before he nodded understandingly. "Don't worry, I get it. Hijikata just uses his office, but when we have to, Saito and I usually use the conference rooms past the elevator. Just close the shades and no one should bother you."

Beside him, Nagakura leaned against the doorframe his expression petulant. "Yeah, you three never let any of the rest of us handle those calls."

"And you haven't figured out why yet?" She glanced behind her to find Okita leaning back in his chair, his hands linked behind his head and smirking at Nagakura. "I doubt either of you could handle a crying woman. Heisuke doesn't know what to do with women, period, and you'd probably end up flirting. It's no wonder they don't let you near the phone."

"Oi, I would not!"

"Hey!" Heisuke's head popped up from behind his computer, shooting a glare which Okita ignored.

Harada only shook his head and sighed. "Yeah, and you'd accuse them of masterminding the whole thing."

Okita laughed as he said, "Well of course. The closest person always has the greatest opportunity."

As Nagakura and Heisuke both began to loudly voice their denials of Okita's accusations, she grabbed her pad and pen, and squeaked a speedy "Thank you, I'm going to make that call now." as she darted past Harada and Nagakura, and down the hall.

Once she'd made it to the series of conference rooms, she jumped in to the first one she saw and closed the door behind her. The lights automatically flickered on above her and she let out a sigh of relief. There was never a dull moment with this group that was for sure. For that matter, how had a conversation that started with asking where she could make a call, end with Okita laughing about accusing a person of hurting someone they were close to? The whole thing had just felt off.

Slowly she could feel the silence of the room relax and refocus her. She hadn't realized it while in the team room, but the absence of the rustle of papers, the click of keys, and the myriad of other inevitable noises produced by six people in a single space, was refreshing. It wasn't that the noise irritated her per se, but she'd spent a good deal of time alone when she'd lived with her uncle thanks to his long hours. For some people, like Sen, silence was something to be avoided at all cost, but for her, it was an old friend she didn't mind spending some time with. Since she'd moved, she could probably count on one hand the number of times she'd been alone for longer than an hour or so.

She closed the blinds before sitting down in one of the four cushy chairs that surrounded a small table. In the center of the table was a conference phone. She double checked the number before hitting the call button, just to be sure she had it right.

After the third ring, a female voice answered. "Hello?"

"Hi, Ms. Garcia?"

"Yes, this is she."

She took a deep breath. This is it… "I'm Yukimura Chizuru, a consultant with the police department, and I've been looking into your daughter's attack and later disappearance. I was hoping I might be able to ask you a few questions."

"Oh… Yes, I guess that's alright." Chizuru could hear the depressed tone in the woman's voice and realized, she'd probably been hoping to hear some kind of news, not more questions.

"Thank you, and for what it's worth… please let me know if there's anything you want to know and I'll do my best to get you answers."

There was a short pause. "Do… do you have any idea who might have done this? The last thing I heard was that the case had stalled and you didn't have any suspects."

"Yes. Some new evidence has come to light, and it has pointed us to a possible suspect. I hope you can understand that I can't reveal who it is, but I promise that the case is moving forward."

She heard a soft sigh that sounded like a mix of relief and disappointment. "I understand. Thank you for telling me that much at least. So, you had some questions for me?"

"Yes, but first I want to confirm a few things. About three weeks after your daughter was attacked, she moved out of the house she shared with her husband and moved in with you?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Can you tell me why?"

"Well, she said it was because the house was making her anxious. She couldn't remember the attack itself, but just being in the room made her tense and start to panic. She said she was hoping some time away would give her time to get over those feelings. I think her and George were even planning on renovating the kitchen. You know, so it would at least look different."

"Okay," she quickly scribbled down the new information about the renovation. "Can you speak to your daughter's mental state in the days before she disappeared?"

"She seemed to have something on her mind, but I just figured it was her dealing with the emotional trauma of the attack. I didn't really want to push the subject, I mean, she's an adult and would talk to me when she was ready." There was another pause, "...Thinking back now, there was one conversation that didn't make a whole lot of sense. It was something about a friend of hers whose boyfriend was involved in something illegal, like a gang, and whether she should turn him in. I said her friend should, but the weird thing is I know a lot of her friends or their mothers, and as far as I know, none of them were dating anyone at the time. It could just have been someone I didn't know about, but it still felt… odd."

"All right. I think you've given me enough to go on for the moment. Please feel free to call me anytime at this number," she listed off her personal cell, "and I'll do what I can to keep you updated on our investigation. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me."

"It's not a problem dear. Let me know if you have any more questions for me."

"I will. Goodbye Ms. Garcia."

"Goodbye."

After the soft click of the ended call, silence again filled the room as she looked over her notes. She didn't know what it was, but something about this case was giving her a funny feeling. Something about it just felt off, like she was looking into a fog, but couldn't see more than hazy outlines. And this wasn't the first case to do this to her either, most of them had given her a similar feeling. Maybe it was Garcia's reference to a gang, but too many of these cases had people involved who shouldn't have been. A lot of them fell under personal motivation for the main suspect, but the motivation of the others always seemed slightly out of focus.

She shook her head and stood. She was probably overthinking this. As she reentered the team room and made her way to her desk, the soft noises of the others pulled her thoughts out of the circles they'd been running in. Maybe the lack of silence in my life is a good thing… especially if it kept her worrying to a minimum. Sen always told her she'd worry herself into grey hair if she wasn't careful.

After she'd entered the information she'd just learned into her graph, she opened up the questions that had been the source of her earlier frustration. Taking a break from it had definitely been a good idea. She had a few new questions she wanted to ask, but she could now see areas where she could slim down and better methods of organization. It still took a while, but eventually she felt it was as good as it was going to get. It was still long, at three pages, but the organization was such that it should be easy to follow and use.

She'd just sent it off to Hijikata, when she noticed the time. How had she not realized it'd gotten so late? Sen was probably already home and wondering where she was. As she hastily gathered her stuff, she dialed Sen and tuck the phone against her shoulder.

"Hey, where are you? I just got back and you're not here."

"Sorry, I got caught up working on some questions for a suspect. I'm leaving now, but why don't you order out for us. Your choice, since it's my fault."

"Hmm, how does that Chinese place down the street sound?"

She could already feel her mouth watering slightly. They'd discovered the place last week and since then it had turned into one of their favorites.

"Perfect. I'll be there in twenty minutes or so."

Sen giggled, "Better hurry. I'm so starved there might not be much left."

"Hey, not-" she started, but Sen, still giggling, hung up on her. "-fair…"

She sighed good naturedly as she stuffed her phone in her pocket. She knew her portion of dinner wasn't in any real danger, but even the thought that it might be had her quickening her pace. She was hungry too after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 - The Meaning of Snafu

Tuesday, December 4th

Chizuru huffed tiredly and brushed her bangs out of her face as she once again picked herself up off the floor. In the two weeks since she'd started working with Okita on self defense, he'd moved her from basic punches and dodging, and onto close range holds. Which, incidentally, was the reason she was having to pick herself up off the floor for what felt like the millionth time. Currently they had a running deal. If she could manage to pin him for two seconds, using any means necessary, they would move on to another topic. She hadn't seen the incentive in that at first, but after five days of nothing but getting pinned to the floor, she was more than beginning to see the appeal.

Her second day of training had started similarly to her first, except this time Saito had been determined that Heisuke should work with Okita, while he would take over her training like he'd told Hijikata he would. Heisuke, on the other hand, had flat out refused, saying he liked his hair the way it was, thank you very much, and he didn't want to end up as a walking bruise. What had followed was several tense seconds of Saito staring hard at a fidgeting, but steadfast Heisuke.

To everyone's surprise, including her own, she'd broken the stalemate by saying she was fine with having Okita teach her. Honestly, their first session hadn't been bad and she thought she'd learned quite a bit. Heisuke had looked at her like she was crazy, but Saito had simply given her a measured look before nodding his consent. Okita, of course, had smirked and tossed suggestive insinuations at her until she'd looked like a tomato. He hadn't stopped until she'd flat out told him the she actually thought he was a good teacher and that was why she was willing to work with him.

That was another thing she'd noticed about his teasing. About fifty percent of the time, all it took was for her to blurt out her honest thoughts and he'd give her a funny look and lay off. Of course, the rest of the time she just ended up adding fuel to the fire.

As she finally made it to her feet, Okita shook his head. "You need to apply more force on the right if you're going to keep your opponent from escaping. As soon as they're able to twist, you've lost them."

"But how do I do that? I can't grip any harder and I'm too short to get any kind of leverage…"

Heisuke ducked under Saito's arm and called over, "Hey. Why don't you try on me? I'm closer to your height than he is."

Okita snorted. "Sorry to burst your bubble, but that would only work if most people were like you. Unfortunately the only people that shrimpy are geeky high schoolers."

"I'll show you shrimpy!"

She hastily took a step back as Heisuke made a flying leap at Okita, pulling him off balance and sending the two of them rolling across the floor. It wasn't even two full rolls, before Okita had the upper hand and had Heisuke's face pressed into the mat. Not that it was really fair of her, but she realized as she watched Okita gloat over Heisuke that this was probably her best chance to make good on their deal. At this point she'd do just about anything to have him stop playing with her like a cat with a spider.

Hoping it would work, she leapt forward and grabbed his shoulders, using her momentum to pull him off of Heisuke. For a split second she thought she might actually have him, but he twisted and easily broke her grip. She tried to backpedal and put distance between them, but he swept her feet out from under her and pinned her wrists to the mat. She was stuck.

After a second, he let her up. "Much better. Now that you're willing to fight dirty, we can move on to the real stuff you need to learn."

"Huh?" She looked at him in confusion.

He gave a short laugh as he stretched his arms over his head. "What? You thought you could ever manage to get someone in a lock? You may be strong for a girl your size, but even against someone like Heisuke, you wouldn't stand a chance. You don't have the luxury of playing fair."

"Then all that time…?"

"Yup, you got it. We could have moved on days ago if you'd just listened to the 'any means necessary' part. If you want to win, you have to be willing to go to any length."

"You could have just told me that!"

He raised a disbelieving eyebrow at her. "Would you have done it?"

She fidgeted for a second, before she finally mumbled, "No, probably not…"

And it was true. She still wasn't comfortable with the whole fighting thing and to add cheating on top of that… Well, it just went against the grain of how she'd been raised. Once again his methods, while frustrating, got her to push her boundaries.

Off to the side, she noticed Saito nod. "Souji is right. The best thing for someone your size to do is avoid direct contact and keep your opponent at a distance."

"That's why I'm altering our deal." Okita grinned as he stood and she felt her stomach sink. "Once you can escape each of the holds you've learned, we can move on to something else."

She stared at him dumbly for a second, her brain trying and failing to come to terms with the eternity that was probably going to take. Then something occurred to her.

"Anything goes?"

His smirk was more than answer enough, but he said, "Now you're getting the picture."

An hour later, and back at her desk, Chizuru popped half a ibuprofen and chased it down with some water. Her uncle would probably have frowned at her for doing it, but it wasn't like she was taking it every day, only on the hard ones, and today definitely counted. The muscle pain never lasted long, but while it was there she felt and moved like she was eighty. The small dose of ibuprofen simply took the edge off and made it so she could actually be functional during the rest of the day. Besides, she'd been needing it less and less. The last time she'd taken any had been almost a week prior.

Once her computer was up and running, she flipped over to her email, but sighed in disappointment when she didn't see anything new. It wasn't like they emailed much anyway. They were all in the same room, so the only emails tended to be documents, which were few and far between since her work didn't overlap with theirs, or her own requests for information that she forwarded through them. The problem wasn't that she was waiting on a subpoena. The problem was that she'd yet to hear anything back about the questions she'd sent to Hijikata. She hadn't heard any of the guys discussing them either, so she could probably assume he hadn't assigned it to anyone. It was like they'd dropped off the face of the earth.

She couldn't think of any reason for it to take this long… Unless Hijikata's inbox was as bad as his office. In which case her email had probably been buried so deep he'd forgotten about it.

In the month she'd been at the department, she'd managed to work her way through about eighty percent of the cases they'd given her. Most had only needed a fresh set of eyes or to dig a little deeper. A few of the cases she'd had to close for lack of definite evidence, but the majority had been handed over the the District Attorney's office and were headed to trial.

It wasn't like she was a miracle worker, they'd done most of the leg work on those cases, but a for a few, like Laura Hale's, she needed to talk to people in person. She needed to get a feel for how they reacted to her questions, which wasn't something she could judge appropriately over the phone or at the station. She'd seen it several times while working with Rintaro's department. People were more likely to let information slip when they felt they had the home court advantage.

She knew Hijikata was busy… he was always busy with something and she hated disturbing or distracting him, but she wanted to move forward on this case. She wanted to bring some hope, or at least closure, to Laura's mother. She bit her lip and brushed at a nonexistent piece of dust on her keyboard.

If she was honest with herself, not wanting to disturb Hijikata wasn't her only reason for not talking to him sooner about it. She wanted to solve the cases they'd given her, she really did, but… at the same time she didn't. They'd only hired her for these cases, so as soon as she'd finished the last one, her contract would be up. They could hire her again, but there was also a chance they wouldn't, and when she really considered walking out the door and never coming back, she realized that she didn't want that.

Anywhere she could imagine working seemed incredibly dull after this. Sure, she'd had a rough start and even now hadn't entirely figured out how to navigate their personality minefield, but she'd also learned a lot from them. She'd miss Heisuke's bright smile and his noisy tussles with Nagakura. She'd miss Harada's encouragement and the way he always made sure she had what she needed. She'd miss being able to talk with and bounce ideas off of both Saito and Sanan, who never interrupted and always had keen insights. As much as Hijikata intimidated her, she'd also come to see just how much he cared and was invested in those he was responsible for. And then there was Kondou, who was just as likely to drop by with a new joke as he was for a serious conversation. She'd probably even miss Okita… despite the way they'd started off and the nightmare of a tease he could be, she'd also learned more from him than any of the others and he'd been more patient with her than she would have ever expected.

No, she didn't want to leave… but that also wasn't an excuse to not do her job to the best of her ability. Whether she really wanted to or not, she had to talk to Hijikata about those questions.

With a silent sigh, she pushed away from her desk and headed toward Hijikata's office. The door was shut, but that wasn't all that uncommon, since more often than not, there was some sort of disturbance in the main room that he'd probably rather ignore. She tapped on the door, but there was no response. Had he left and she just hadn't noticed? She tried again, knocking slightly louder, but again she heard nothing. Well, if he was out, then she'd just have to watch for him and hope he would return soon.

As she returned to her desk, Harada glanced up from a stack of paperwork. "You looking for Hijikata? He and Saito left for a meeting, but I think they should be back soon."

"Oh, okay. Thanks."

Of course no sooner had she sat down and pulled up another one of her cases, than Hijikata and Saito walked through the doorway and Nagakura yelled from his desk.

"Hey, Hijikata! Chizuru's lookin' for you!"

She felt her cheeks warm as everyone turned to look at her. "Um… I was just wondering if anything has come from the questions I sent you. It's been two weeks, so…"

Her voice trailed off lamely as his eyebrows drew together and he folded his arms.

"No. I haven't gotten to it yet. If you want answers, then go get them yourself. I can't do everything around here."

She frowned in confusion as she hesitantly pointed out, "But you said I wasn't allowed out in the field…"

Instead of answering her, Hijikata shifted his attention to Okita, who was leaning lazily back in his chair, watching the scene unfold. "Since you don't seem to be doing anything Souji, you can babysit her.

"Hm~?" Okita's expression didn't change, but the tone of his drawl made it perfectly clear what he thought of that idea. "Since you just got here, I don't think you're in any position to say whether or not I'm doing something. Besides, you're the one who said she couldn't go out, so shouldn't you be the one to watch her?

She noticed Hijikata's jaw clench and a vein above his eye begin to pulse. Okita must have noticed it too, because his lips pulled into a faint smirk.

"No, it's not my job. Your job is to do what I say and I'm telling you to go with Yukimura to question a suspect."

"Sorry, but I'm a little busy doing work right now. Maybe you could get Saito to do it?"

Damn it, Souji! I need Saito here, so you're going to get off your ass and take Yukimura wherever the hell she needs to go! Or so help me-"

"Fine, fine, no need to get so excited." Okita waived his hand dismissively, his smirk now transformed into a full blown cat-like grin as he stood and headed for the doorway. "You should watch that temper of yours. You're going to end up giving yourself high blood pressure."

Okita may have been immune to Hijikata's growing fury, but she felt like a rabbit caught in a trap, too scared to move an inch for fear of drawing attention to herself. He was halfway out the door when Okita called over his shoulder, "You coming Chizuru? Because if you're not with me by the time I get to the car, I'm leaving you here."

As he disappeared around the corner, she ignored Hijikata's frustrated yell of "Souji, don't you dare!" and frantically rushed to snatch up her phone, purse, and pad of paper. She darted around the two men with a hurried "Thank you! Sorry!" as she ran for the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, she managed to slide through, nearly colliding with the back wall.

"Darn, and here I was thinking I was going to get the afternoon off."

She ignored Okita's grin and leaned her head back against the wall, her eyes closed as she caught her breath. Well, that wasn't how I hoped it would go… but she was getting what she wanted and Chizuru couldn't help a small smile at the thought that the whole thing tasted, maybe just a bit, like freedom.

When the house came into sight, Okita pulled the black Dodge Charger to the curb and she managed to unclench her fingers from the death grip they'd had on the edge of her seat. Slowly the feeling began to return to her numb fingertips as she tried to subtly flex them. It wasn't that Okita was a bad driver… it was more that he blatantly ignored any and all speed limits and, in her opinion, took corners far too fast. As he turned off the car, he looked over at her.

"So this is the place… You sure the guy's here?"

She took a closer look at the house, just to be sure. "Yes, he's home. His shift ended at three and he usually only goes drinking on the weekends. Plus that's his car parked off to the side of the garage."

"Hmm… Never really took you for the stalking type. Is that why you bother with this consulting stuff?"

She looked over at him, shocked, and felt her cheeks flush. "N-No! I'm not stalking him! I've just spent more time on this case than any of the others."

"Relax, I'm joking." He sighed and opened his door to get out. "Come on, let's get this over with."

"Okay…" She took one more deep breath, glad he hadn't pushed the question further, before she followed him out of the car.

By the time she caught up to Okita, he was already waiting for her on the small front porch. She glanced between him and the door, suddenly feeling nervous now that she was actually faced with going through with it. She'd done this before, but never with such high stakes.

Okita leaned back against one of the posts, a small grin returning to his features. "Hey, don't look at me. I'm just here to babysit. You're the one who wanted to talk to the guy, so you're on your own."

Obviously she wasn't going to be getting any help from that corner. Forcing down her nerves, she crossed the short distance to the door and gave a firm knock. They waited, and she was just considering knocking again when they heard footsteps heading toward them. It opened only part way, revealing a man in a black t-shirt and sweatpants, with medium length salt-and-pepper hair and a thickset build. He looked the two of them over, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, and when he spoke, his tone was brusque.

"Well? What do you want?"

She cleared her throat lightly and forced herself to ignore his hostile attitude. "I'm Yukimura Chizuru and I'm a consultant with the police department. I was hoping to be able to ask you some questions about your wife's disappearance."

"Why would you want to do that? I already talked to you guys about that when it first happened and I told you everything I knew. Why don't you go dig through those records you're supposed to keep and find your answers there." He shifted slightly, his eyes darting back into the house. "Besides, I don't have time now. I'm in the middle of making dinner."

In spite of her growing misgivings about the man, she managed to summon a reassuring smile,"It's only a few questions, so I promise it won't take long. Some new evidence came to light and has changed the direction of our investigation."

His gaze shifted off of her and to Okita, who was still leaning casually against the porch column. "And who the hell are you?"

"Detective Okita Souji."

Despite his rather casual stance, she couldn't help but notice that his face was set in the hard, neutral mask she remembered from when he was ignoring her. There wasn't a trace of his normal humor in his features and she'd forgotten just how distant and sharp his eyes could be.

Apparently Hale wasn't too keen on Okita's expression either, because he quickly looked away and shifted his attention back to her. "Fine, but this had better be fast."

He turned away from them, leaving the door open behind him. She glanced back at Okita, but he only raised an eyebrow at her and waved for her to follow Hale as he pushed off the post. Steeling herself, she made her way through the open door, at least somewhat comforted by the sound of Okita's footsteps right behind her.


He was going to have to find some way to get back at Hijikata, because this was not how he'd wanted to spend his afternoon. If he'd only been working on one of those god-awful forms, he wouldn't have minded as much, but he'd actually been working on one of their open cases. So now, instead of hunting down a possible lead, he was being forced to play a babysitting chauffeur.

At least that's what he'd thought before he'd gotten a look at the guy. Okita wouldn't go as far as to say he remembered Hale, but the guy at least looked familiar. Which was saying something, considering how swamped they'd been with cases at that point. The thing that had his attention right now though, was the weird feeling Hale was giving him. From the second he'd opened the door, everything, from his brusque demeanor to the way his fingers kept fidgeting on the door told him that something wasn't right. Especially since the fidgeting hadn't started until after Chizuru had told him that she was connected to the police.

He could tell Chizuru noticed notice something was off too. She was doing an okay job of covering up her unease as they entered the house and she began asking questions, but after nearly a month of working with her on her self-defense, even her small tells spoke volumes. The most obvious were the set of her shoulders and the way she kept shifting slightly. Taken together, he could tell she was suspicious and determined to get to the bottom of whatever this was, but also that Hale's standoffish attitude was scaring her a bit.

From Chizuru's questioning and what little he remembered about the case, he was able to piece together most of the story. Or at least enough to feel fairly confident about where she was leading the conversation. He was curious to see if his guess would be right and if she'd manage to pull it off.

As Chizuru continued to ask Hale questions, he turned his attention to the living room they were seated in, the two of them sitting on the sofa, while Hale sat in an armchair. Between them was a heavily built coffee table which looked to be made of a solid hardwood of some kind. The room itself was sparsely decorated and had no sign of a woman's touch anywhere. If he hadn't known Hale had a wife, he would have assumed he lived alone. In fact, everything seemed fairly new… This wasn't a new house, but there were no scuff marks or chips in the paint on the walls, none of the furniture had discernible wear marks from hands or bodies, and the area rug didn't have any apparent paths worn into it. All of which should have been present if they'd been there since before his wife's disappearance.

His attention shifted back to the conversation as Chizuru brought up the very things he'd noticed.

"I heard that you'd planned on renovating your kitchen to make things easier for Laura after her attack. Can you tell me why you decided to renovate this room instead?"

Immediately Hale started to fidget and Okita could see a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. "Well… You see, I'd already paid the deposit for the work before Laura disappeared, and when she wasn't found… Well I had to use the money for something, so I had them do this room instead."

Chizuru nodded, her lips pursed as she wrote on her pad. "I see, that makes sense. After all you knew Laura wasn't coming back, right?"

She'd delivered the question so innocently that it took Okita a second to register exactly what she'd said. Well that's gutsy… She may have been right and all the clues may have pointed in that direction, but he knew without a body and hard evidence, it was all circumstantial until Hale admitted it. His eyes flicked to Hale, who was quite a bit slower to pick up on the question.

"Yea- I mean no! Of course I didn't, I don't , know that!"

Chizuru's eyes narrowed and her jaw set into that intense look she sometimes got when they were practicing. "I think Laura is dead, and while you may not have been the one to attack her or finish the job, you know who did and why."

Hale's face twisted with anger, and maybe a bit of fear, as he stabbed a finger at Chizuru. "You're crazy! You don't have the right to accuse me of that; I have an alibi! And I think it's damn well time you left my house!"

Abruptly Hale shot up from his chair muttering something about leaving food on the stove. Alarm bells began going off in the back of Okita's head and he turned to Chizuru, who was looking at him, her eyes wide and apologetic. She opened her mouth, probably to apologize, but before she could say anything, he heard a very familiar click.

Without thinking, he lunged forward, grabbing Chizuru and throwing them both to the floor in front of the couch. No sooner had they hit, than a sharp rapport thundered against his ears and a bullet ripped into the back of the couch right where Chizuru had been sitting. Damnit…

It looked like his boring afternoon just got a whole lot more exciting, and in this case, he really wasn't happy about it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 - Specter of the Past

Tuesday, December 4th

The back of her head throbbed with a dull ache and there was a ringing in her ears. What just happened…? With her mind feeling like it was moving through molasses, Chizuru realized both the pain and ringing were probably from her head hitting the floor when Okita had tackled her off the couch. She tried to piece it together, but the whole thing had happened so fast. One second she'd been about to apologize for ruining their chances of learning anything, the next, she'd found herself slammed into the floor with Okita on top of her.

Abruptly, her mind was dragged back to full speed as another bang echoed through the room and she flinched as a bullet tore a hole in the couch cushion just above Okita's head.

"Damnit, stay down and don't move." He hissed as he quickly shifted off her and shoved his shoulder against the underside of the coffee table next to them.

The thick wood thudded heavily against the floor as it landed on its side, it's top forming a barricade between them and what she now realized was a gun wielding Hale. No sooner had Okita ducked back behind their makeshift shield and yanked her after him, then she felt and heard as three rounds slammed into the tabletop in quick succession. She almost couldn't believe that the wood had been thick enough, but nothing seemed to have made it through to their side.

She braced herself for another bang, but instead heard a metallic click. This time it was her face that almost met the floor as Okita quickly shoved her off him and leapt over the table. She barely caught herself on her hands, her nose inches from impacting the floor. As quickly as she could, she shuffled back until she was pressed against the table and curled herself into as small a target as possible. With her knees nearly to her forehead and her arms wrapped protectively around her head, she tried to control her rapid breathing and galloping heart.

Somewhere in the back of her mind she realized that the click she'd heard must have been the sound of an empty clip, but the majority of her attention was focused on the new sounds coming from the other end of the room. She couldn't help but flinch at each sound of a fist connecting, or a crash of a body hitting furniture and walls. Her mind ran wild with all kinds of awful injuries as she fervently prayed she wouldn't hear the sound of the gun going off again. After what felt like an eternity, though realistically she knew it was probably only a few seconds, there was a final thump and groan, followed by the ratcheting sound of handcuffs.

"Hey Chizuru, you can come out now."

It took a second for Okita's call to register, but once it did, she shakily uncurled herself and peeked over the edge of the table. She let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and felt her heart rate slow. Okita looked fine, if a little tousled. Hale, on the other hand, definitely looked worse for wear as he lay bruised and handcuffed on the floor. The room on that side was a mess of overturned furniture and dented walls. It wasn't clear who had caused what, but judging by his bruised state, she figured most of it had to have been Hale…

Okita ran a hand through his hair as he sighed and stood. "Hijikata is going to have our hides over this…"

Leaving Hale on the floor, he walked over and picked up the gun lying a few feet away. Deftly, he ejected the clip and cleared the chamber, making sure it was actually empty. As he replaced the clip, he shot a small grin at her. "Guess we should be grateful this guy's an idiot. I mean, who loads a nine round clip with only five bullets?"

She wasn't sure how to respond to that… or even if she was supposed to. They'd just been shot at and nearly killed and he was amused by Hale's lack of intelligence in not fully loading his gun?

"Hello? Earth to Chizuru. You there?"

"Huh?" She shook her head, a hand at her temple, trying to clear her muddled thoughts. "Y-Yeah… I'm fine…"

He cocked his head slightly, eyes scrutinizing her more seriously. "You alright? Figured you'd rather have a sore head than a trip to the hospital."

"Oh, no… It's just… I'm not… I'll be okay."

She knew she wasn't making much sense and Okita's raised eyebrow only confirmed that, but she was still having problems wrapping her head around what had just happened. Though, apparently what she'd said had been enough, because he pocketed the gun and pulled Hale up off the floor.

"Come on, grab your notes and let's get out of here. The sooner Hijikata can start lecturing, the sooner we can get it over with."

She nodded and made to get up, but with her shaking legs, it took her two tries before she managed to regain her feet. When she had her notes in hand, Okita smirked and ruffled her hair, causing her to blush.

"Good girl. You're doing fine."

While the car ride back hadn't been long, it had been quiet enough for her to regather herself. At least that's what she'd thought before coming face to face with a furious Hijikata. No sooner had they stepped through the doorway, then Hijikata had swept out of his office, ordered Nagakura to take Hale down to interrogation, and immediately began laying into them.

"What the hell happened?! You were gone for all of what? An hour?"

For his part, Okita seemed completely unfazed as he briefly, if sarcastically, sketched out what happened. She just wished she could melt into the floor, but since that wasn't an option, she tried her best to look as contrite as possible. As soon as it was clear that Okita had finished, Hijikata turned and jabbed a finger at her.

"I hope you got what you needed, because this will be the last time you leave that desk. Am I clear?" He seemed satisfied with her vigorous nodding, because he turned his attention back to Okita, his finger still jabbing aggressively. "And you! I can't believe you let this get so far out of control. Did you really have to beat the crap out of him? Didn't you even think for one second about how we're going to have to explain that? His lawyer is going to be screaming bloody murder about police violence!"

Okita's lips thinned as he folded his arms and leaned back against a desk. "Would you have preferred I shot him? I thought a live suspect was more useful than a dead one. Less paperwork too."

"I don't care about the paperwork! When Kondou and the media come asking questions about this, you can be sure it's going to be your name front and center. You're going to take responsibility when this comes back to bite us in the ass."

When the two men started a silent glaring contest, she couldn't take it any more. She knew she was the real source of this mess, not Okita.

"Um, if it's anyone's fault it's mine. I… I shouldn't have accused him of knowing what happened to his wife." She stared down at her shoes, her fingers twisting in front of her. "If I hadn't done that, he wouldn't have gone for the gun in the first place. The only reason we made it out alive was because Okita reacted so quickly."

She risked a glance up and found both of them staring at her. She couldn't read the expression in Okita's eyes, but Hijikata looked slightly confused.

"You accused him and that's why he went for the gun?"

Now it was her turn to be confused. "Um, yes?"

Hadn't Okita already explained what happened? Now that she thought back though, she realized he'd only said that Hale had gotten angry before going for his gun, not why. While Hijikata was considering this, Okita put in his own two cents.

"Actually, I think it's a good thing she got that kind of a reaction out of him." Hijikata looked ready to start shouting again, but Okita cut him off. "Thanks to her we've got him on some pretty serious charges. Not only did he assault a civilian, her, but also an officer, me. I'm also pretty sure we've got him on possession of an illegal weapon too. She might not be any help in a fight, but I don't think Chizuru would have let us walk in there without at least mentioning he was a registered gun owner."

He glanced over at her and she nodded. "No, he wasn't registered."

"See? We've got some pretty big things hanging over his head that he won't be able to talk his way out of. If anything, his actions were basically a confession."

Hijikata sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine, I'll let this go for now. Saito, you're with me. I want to talk to this guy."

Saito nodded and the two of them left the room. Once they were out of sight, she made her way over to her desk and slumped into her chair, feeling physically drained and emotionally overstrung. Instead of sitting at his desk, Okita also headed for the door.

Heisuke called after him, "Hey, where're you going?"

"Hm? Hijikata's nagging voice gave me a headache and I'm going to find something to take the edge off."

Now that she looked more closely at him, she couldn't help but feel that something was slightly off. Maybe it was his color? Before she could pin it down, he was out the doorway and out of sight. She tried to find the energy to open one of her cases, but all she managed to do was stare at her computer's login screen, her thoughts endlessly turning over and over if there was something she could have done differently.

Just as Nagakura reentered the room, Heisuke called out, "Hey, you guys remember that email I sent last week to Rintaro's department?"

Nagakura looped an arm around Heisuke's neck and messed up his hair. "You mean the one asking if they had any similar cases? Why wouldn't I remember? I'm not senile."

Heisuke managed to free his head and muttered under his breath, "Then why'd you have to ask first…"

Harada frowned as he leaned back in his chair. "They sure took their time getting back to us. Did they find anything?"

"Yeah, but they probably had to do some serious digging to get it. It's from nine years ago."

Nagakura whistled as he leaned over Heisuke's shoulder to look at his screen. "That's interesting… Doesn't that put it right around… You know…"

She knew she shouldn't be involving herself in their cases and thus far she'd managed to keep most of her attention on attempting to enter her password, but with her curiosity now well and truly piqued, she gave up all attempts to seem uninterested.

Heisuke nodded, his eyes scanning across his screen. "Yeah… It looks like it's a triple homicide. A couple and their son were killed and the house was torched."

Her chest suddenly felt tight and her stomach began to churn with dread. She clenched her fingers on the edge of her desk, fighting not to be sick. No… Please not that, not today… But she knew it couldn't be anything else.

Harada frowned and leaned in as well. "When exactly did it happen?"

"May 12th…" Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she should shut up and stop answering his question, but the words refused any attempt she made to stop them, her voice sounding detached even to her own ears. "At 10:23pm 911 received a call about a house fire and by 10:40 fire and aid crews were on the scene, but they found that the structure had been fully engulfed. By 11:30 the fire was extinguished and Investigators found three bodies in what had been the family room. The two adults were identified as the owners of the house and the third was presumed to be their son. Their daughter was found hiding in the back yard. Evidence showed all three had been executed before an accelerant was used to start the fire…"

There was a pause before Heisuke asked, "…Did you work this case while you were with their department?"

She shook her head, her gaze glued to her desk. She didn't need to see their faces to guess what their expressions would be.

"No… at least not officially. I was able to get someone to copy the case notes for me..."

She could hear the confusion in Nagakura's voice as he said, "That's a pretty big risk for someone to take…"

She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but just as the words had refused to stop earlier, now she couldn't seem to get them to start. It was Harada's sigh that finally tore her eyes from her desk and up to their confused and concerned faces. Or at least two out of the three were confused. From the compassion and understanding in Harada's expression, she knew he'd figured it out.

"It was you, wasn't it. The daughter you mentioned?"

Chizuru could feel the first telltale pricks in the back of her throat and the corners of her eyes, but she forced it down; cutting her emotions off before they could rope out of control. She was normally better than this, but she also wasn't normally ambushed right after being shot at and lectured. When she felt she had a handle on herself and her emotions, she nodded.

"Yes… a few years after it happened, I was able to get a retiring detective to copy the files for me. Apparently he'd met my father once or twice and said he owed him a favor. Since then I've done what I can to work on it, but I've never gotten any further than they did…"

"Hmm… So that's why you dodged my question earlier," She looked over to see a frowning Okita leaning against the doorway. "Well, at least we don't have to go far to track down the witness."

The guys all looked at him like they couldn't believe how insensitive he was being, but in this case, she didn't mind all that much. She was getting used to the blunt way he said things and could tell he wasn't trying to be cruel. Besides, she hated the awkward period that always followed this revelation. There was just no good way for anyone to respond to that kind of thing. She'd heard things like 'I'm sorry' or 'That's awful' for years, but really it was just better if people moved on. Nothing they said would change it. The only thing it ever changed was how they looked at and treated her. Still… now that she'd started down this path, there was one more thing she had to clear up and it wasn't going to be fun.

"I'm afraid I won't be much help in that regard. I'm not a witness."

Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke all looked confused by her statement, but Okita simply raised one eyebrow questioningly. "So you weren't there?"

"No, I was there… But I don't remember it…" She took a breath, knowing this last part was what most people didn't believe. "There's actually a lot I don't remember. I've been able to build bits and pieces over the years, but most of my life before that night is a complete blank. The doctors called it dissociative amnesia…"

Maybe it was the stress of everything that had happened that day, but she could feel the tears from earlier start to form at the corners of her eyes. She pressed her fingertips hard against them. She did not want to cry in front of them. "It's stupid, but I've managed to remember my best friend from fourth grade, my teachers, even the kid three seats down who would incessantly tap his pencil on the desk. What I can't remember is that night and almost anything to do with my family. All the memories I do have are in the third person, so I'm pretty sure they're not even mine to begin with and are just what people have told me I should remember."

She tried not to think about her memory loss often, since it made her feel like she was floating alone in the middle of an ocean with nothing but a few pieces of driftwood to cling to. It'd gotten better over the years as she'd built new memories with Kodo, Sen, and others. Sure, bits and pieces had come back, but they'd never been the ones she really wanted. All those pieces ever did was more clearly define the empty spaces she couldn't fill.

Chizuru pulled her hands away from her eyes, all risk of tears gone, as something that should have been blindingly obvious occurred to her. Why did they get my family's case? Nagakura had said they'd been asking about similar cases, but the ones she'd seen them working were all minor compared to a triple murder and arson. She'd seen everything from thefts and drugs, to extortion and assaults in the cases she'd worked, and while hers were certainly lighter than theirs, there hadn't been anything anywhere near that level.

"There's something bigger going on here isn't there." As she felt out her theory, she watched their expressions. Heisuke almost instantly looked nervous, while Harada and Nagakura both stiffened slightly. Okita's expression and posture didn't change but something about him seemed more guarded.

"A lot of the cases I've looked at have felt off. There's been too many people with not enough motive… And Nagakura said you were asking around for similar cases, but nothing I've seen thus far has been remotely similar to that… The only way I can see any of this fitting together is if this is some kind of organized crime."

Okita was the first to break the silence with a light chuckle. "Well it took you long enough. I thought you'd have figured it out weeks ago."

Nagakura shot a hard look at Okita as he folded his arms. "She wasn't supposed to figure it out at all."

She glanced between them before hesitantly asking, "Who are you after?"

"It's called the Syndic- Ow! Sano! What was that for?" Heisuke scowled and rubbed at the back of his head. For his part, Harada gave Heisuke a look that clearly said if he tried to say more, he'd get another hit over the head.

"For running your mouth when you're not supposed to." He turned to her, his expression firm. "It's for your own safety that we didn't, and aren't, going to tell you. The less you know, the better. If you get involved in this, it could make you a target."

Involved? That was stupid. She was already involved whether they wanted her to be or not. If the fact that she'd been working on their cases for over a month wasn't enough, then that her family was mixed up in this somehow sealed the deal, at least in her mind.

She frowned as she said, "You got that case because someone thinks it's tied to whatever group you're looking into, right? Well, I've spent the last five years digging up everything I can find out about it. I've talked to family friends, my parents work associates, even the first responders to the scene. I basically have it memorized by this point. If none of that put me on their radar, then the fact that a good number of their people are probably going to end up in jail for crimes they thought they'd gotten away with probably will."

Harada was clearly not happy with her reasoning, but it seemed to make sense to Nagakura, because he glanced at Harada before saying, "She's got a point there Sano… Even if she really didn't know anything, they wouldn't believe her. They couldn't afford to…"

Harada shook his head. "That just proves my point. She needs to get out before they can tie it back to her. On record all those cases are ours. It's our names on all the subpoenas and as far as the paper trail goes she hasn't touched a single case. The only people who know any different are us, Kondou, Gen, and Sanan. Everyone else thinks she's a secretary."

She stared at them in shock, not believing what she'd just heard. If it was true, then everything about her time there had been misrepresented. Before she could even formulate the beginnings of a response to that bit of news, the conversation swept on without her, courtesy of Okita.

"Nope. That guy Hijikata's interrogating knows too."

"What? How did that happen?"

Okita snorted before he said sarcastically, "Well I don't know how it works for you Sano, but most people don't let you willingly into their house without some sort of introduction. Would you let someone in if they said they wanted to ask you questions about your wife's mysterious disappearance and didn't mention they were a cop?"

Before Harada could respond, she jumped in, her shock having faded enough for her to find her voice. "That's why my requests were filtered through you? You were altering them to make it look like I didn't exist?"

Really that was the smallest of her issues with the mess this conversation had become, but it was a start. They'd lied to her. There wasn't any other way to put it. She didn't care about getting the credit, or the fact that no one knew what her real job was. What she did care about was that she'd thought they'd trusted her, at least to an extent. Everything they'd ever said or implied about being on the team… No, instead they'd used her like she was something they could have complete their cases and then throw away with no sign that she'd ever been there. Sure it made her mad and frustrated, but more than anything, it hurt.

It may have been for her safety, but they'd never asked her . They'd just decided what was best without giving her a choice in the matter. If they'd told her that her work would be kept secret and she should only focus on solving her cases because getting involved could be dangerous, then she could have come to her own decision. She probably would have even agreed with them, but what she couldn't stand was that they hadn't believed her capable of coming to that conclusion on her own. In the back of her mind, she knew she was overreacting, but her whole day had been one giant emotional rollercoaster and she was done getting thrown around by curves and drops she couldn't see coming.

Heisuke hurried to try and reassure her. "No… well, yes, but it wasn't the only reason. Our requests do have a higher priority…"

She gave him a hard look, and he at least had the decency to look ashamed as his excuse died on his lips.

Nagakura sighed and shook his head. "Look, I get it. I would want credit for my work too, but this isn't the kind of thing you want to get messed up in."

"This isn't about getting credit. I don't even care if everyone else thinks I'm a secretary. What I want is to be able to decide. Or at the very least tell me the restrictions and why they're needed so I can be aware of them." She sighed and dropped her head into her hands, her frustration having been mostly expended. "Hale's not the only one who knows... His mother-in-law also does."

Her statement left the room silent for several seconds as they processed the scope of the problem they now faced. For one person to know was bad enough, but at least they had him in custody… but two? There was no telling how far knowledge of her could have spread.

Heisuke coughed awkwardly, "Well, if things are already this bad, why don't we just tell her? I mean, it's not like it could hurt, right?"

Harada shook his head. "Yes it could. Besides, it's not our decision. We can't do anything about this until Hijikata gets back. He'll have to decide what to do about it."

"Since when is he the one in charge?" Okita frowned from off to the side, where he'd been observing their rapidly disintegrating conversation. "Last I checked, Kondou was still the chief. Don't you think he should be the one to decide what to do?" Without waiting for an answer, he pushed off the wall he'd been leaning against and headed out the doorway, tossing back over his shoulder, "Make sure you don't start without us."

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 - The Bearer of Bad News

Tuesday, December 4th

A heavy silence pervaded the room while they waited for the others to return. For her part, Chizuru felt drained and she struggled to pull her emotions back into some semblance of order. She knew she would be in for a fight if she was going to get what she wanted out of this and crying wouldn't help the situation. If she'd had to hazard a guess as to why Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke didn't say anything, she'd probably have said it was because they were still coming to terms with the massive amount of information she'd dumped on them. Of all the times people had found out about her past, this had certainly been the worst.

She'd expected Okita and Kondou to be the first ones back, but to her surprise, it was Hijikata who stepped quickly through the doorway, Saito close on his heels. Hijikata hadn't even taken a full step into the room before he started calling out orders.

"Heisuke, I want floor plans for a warehouse in the south end. Saito will give you the address. Harada, Nagakura, I want you to take a look at the surrounding neighborhood. Souji… Where did Souji go?"

"Uh… Boss, we've got a problem."

Hijikata stopped mid-stride and frowned at Nagakura, his expression a mix of confusion and aggravation. "What do you mean by problem? What the hell happened now?"

Nagakura opened his mouth to respond, but was beat out by a rather petulant sounding voice from the doorway. "Hey, I thought I said not to start without us."

Okita walked through, followed closely by Kondou and Gen.

"Will someone just tell me what's going on here? And why are you here Kondou?" Hijikata was clearly frustrated at this second interruption, but the fact that it was Kondou seemed to moderate his reaction slightly.

Kondou rubbed the back of his head as he laughed awkwardly. "To be honest, I'm not really sure. Souji just said I needed to make a decision about something."

"Huh?"

Nagakura awkwardly cleared his throat, getting everyone's attention. "She figured it out."

Chizuru was pretty sure he could have been a little more direct and Hijikata apparently agreed. " Who figured what out?"

"Little slow today aren't we? There's only one 'she' here." Okita grinned as he folded his arms and continued, "Chizuru figured out that we're working to bring down the Syndicate and that you've been lying to her the whole time."

"What?! Who told her?" Hijikata said, his glare shifting from person to person.

Nagakura immediately pointed to Heisuke, "He started it."

"What?! No I didn't!" Heisuke waived his hands frantically in front of him, as if hoping that would fend off whatever kind of lecture he was likely in for. "All I did was mention a homicide case we got! How was I supposed to know the victims were her family?! ...Oops."

Yeah, oops… Instantly everyone's attention was firmly fixed on her.

Hijikata was the first to break the silence, his gaze measured and most of his earlier irritation gone. "Is that true?"

She sighed and nodded. "Yes, it's true, but it's not Heisuke's fault that I found out. The cases I've been working have felt off for a while now. It wasn't until Nagakura mentioned they were looking for connected cases that I realized why. The final piece was that the only way what happened to my family could be connected to the cases I've been working was if it was some kind of mob or mafia. Nothing else has that kind of variety."

While Hijikata sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, Kondou looked genuinely upset. "Oh, Yukimura… I had no idea. I'm so sorry…"

She fidgeted and looked down at her hands. she was grateful, since his sincerity meant that he cared about her, but it still made her feel uncomfortable. "It's all right. Not many people know since it isn't something that's linked to my official record and I don't tend to bring it up."

Kondou still looked upset, but to his left Gen nodded understandingly. "That makes sense, though I'm sorry it had to come out this way."

"Yes, well…" she took a breath before she straightened her shoulders and forced her gaze up off her hands. "Now that I have a better understanding of what's going on, I want to help."

Hijikata immediately gave her a hard look. "Absolutely not. This is too dangerous for you to be involved any further."

She gestured at her computer as she said, "But my software is basically designed to sniff out organized crime! Finding connections is what it does best."

"Fine, then give it to Heisuke and he can use it."

Heisuke glanced nervously between them. "Uh… I tried. I couldn't make heads or tails of the graph I made and the user interface is really wonky…"

She looked at Hijikata hopefully, but he shook his head. "The answer's still no. I'm not going to get a civilian tangled up in this."

That was her opening. If she could just convince him that she was already too deeply involved, then he would have to let her stay. Right? This was the best chance she'd ever had to find out why her parents had been murdered and she was going to fight to keep it from slipping through her fingers.

Oddly enough, Harada beat her to it. "That's the problem, she made a pretty airtight case earlier that she is involved. A bunch of people are probably going to end up in jail thanks to her work on those cases, and as of right now we know that two people know she's involved with them. The secret is out, whether we like it or not."

"Yeah," Nagakura nodded as he said, "Apparently she's also been looking into her family's case pretty extensively over the past couple of years, and it's looking like that might have been a Syndicate hit."

Hijikata still didn't look convinced and she couldn't keep quiet any longer, though she tried to keep the desperate tone out of her voice. "Please, all I want is to help and maybe find out what happened to my family. I know it might be dangerous, but this is something I have to do."

"Hmm, I don't know. Seems like a pretty big risk to me." She turned to find Okita looking at her, his arms folded and gaze calculating. "I doubt the Syndicate would go so far out of their way for just anyone. If your parents were involved with them, how do we know you aren't now? You were the only one to survive and you can't remember what happened? Sounds awfully convenient to me."

She blinked at him, dumbfounded. She'd had a wide variety of responses from people when they discovered what happened to her family, but suspicion was a new one and it was surprising how much it hurt. Did he really think she was working for this Syndicate as some kind of undercover operative? That she would betray them? She couldn't even tell a halfway decent lie, let alone pull off a massive deception like that.

"Souji, Yukimura has never given us any signs of not being trustworthy. She's proven herself to be dedicated and effective. I mean, look what she was able to do in a month!" Unfortunately, other than Kondou, no one else reacted to Okita's statement, which told her the thought had at least crossed their minds. "Toshi, why not let her help if she wants to? I know it's dangerous, but she seems to have almost as much invested as we do, if not more."

Beside him, Gen nodded, his expression contemplative. "I think Isami has a point there Toshi." He glanced at her, "Am I right in assuming you will continue to look into that case regardless?" She nodded. "Then if you don't let her in, it's no different than sending her out blind."

Hijikata seemed to have realized that he'd lost, because he sighed resignedly before turning to her. "Fine, you can stay. But nothing else is going to change. You're still off the record and you are not going out to talk to any more people. If you need information, the others can get it. Do I make myself clear?"

She nodded, and Kondou grinned brightly. "Well, I'm glad we got that resolved. I've got a conference call in a bit, so I'll leave the details to you Toshi."

With that, Kondou and Gen left the room, leaving an awkward silence in their wake. Saito, who thus far had contented himself with quietly watching the discussion unfold, took the opportunity to bring it back to what Hijikata had been trying to accomplish before it had been derailed.

"Commander, the raid."

"Yes, right. Thank you Saito."

What followed was a quick explanation and a series of orders that sent people scrambling in all directions. Apparently Hale had caved fairly quickly in interrogation, but not about his wife. Instead, he'd revealed that a shipment of narcotics was being picked up from the warehouse where he worked later that night. In addition to his regular job, he and several others at the warehouse worked to hide the drugs that were stored there until they could be distributed to the dealers.

While he hadn't admitted it, this new information was enough to cement in her mind that Hale had known and probably set up what happened to his wife. She'd probably found out about her husband's illegal activities and the Syndicate had ordered him to get rid of her.

Within minutes Heisuke had the plan of the building up on the screen and they began discussing entry points and probable locations. She knew she wasn't going to be of any help there, so she resigned herself to sitting at her desk and watching. While she sat, her mind turned over the the major thing that was still troubling her. Could she trust them? They'd deliberately, and thus far without much remorse, lied to her. In their minds it had been a necessary precaution to keep her and them safe, but how could she trust that they wouldn't do it again?

On the flip side, how could she prove to them that she was trustworthy? She knew she had nothing to do with the Syndicate nor had any other secret motive for working with them, but she had no evidence. Okita had been right. Given her recent discovery of the Syndicate, her whole story was thrust into a new and very suspicious light.

She was pulled out of her thoughts as the men quickly dispersed to their separate tasks. They only had about six hours before the pickup would occur and they still had a lot to do.

Before Hijikata could leave the room, she hurriedly asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You can sit there and not cause trouble." With that, he left the room, leaving her as the one motionless island in a sea of activity.

On some level she'd expected his response, but she still didn't like hearing it. She was able to sit there for all of a minute, before she couldn't take the inactivity any longer. There had to be something she could do to help, even if it wasn't with the raid…

It didn't take her long to realize that since the cases were all, at least loosely, connected, the best use of her time would probably be to consolidate all of the cases she'd entered into a single graph. She knew her program could handle it since she'd had nearly that many cases entered when she'd been working on the drug ring back home. Hopefully it would give her a better idea of the scope of the organization.

Once she started to load the files, she quickly realized that there was a key difference between then and now. While the individual load time for a case wasn't bad, doing them all at once was going to be slow at best. The loading bar, which normally only appeared for a brief moment when loading her larger cases, was creeping up at a painfully slow rate. To make matters worse, it didn't display an estimated finish time, so she had no idea how long it would actually take. Do I really have that much data? With a sigh, she settled down to wait, her chin resting on her arms as her fingers absently tapped at the desk.

With an hour until the raid, the guys were long gone and she was left alone with her thoughts and worries, still waiting for the loading bar to creep across the final few pixels. She couldn't help but nervously glance at the clock, praying everything would go as planned and no one would get hurt. The time she'd had to think had made her realize a few things. While they had lied to her, it wasn't as bad as she'd first assumed. Thinking back, no one had actively tried to mislead her. They'd just simply not told her everything and she hadn't pushed the boundaries. In fact, she was surprised they'd let her talk to the people she had, but it had probably been a calculated risk on Hijikata's part. He'd probably assumed the faster they could get her done and out, the less chance she'd be discovered.

She sighed with relief when her screen flashed and a massive web filled the window. Still worried about the raid, the first thing she did was to switch to a topological view and focus in on the address of the warehouse. There was a red node and a line extending from the warehouse itself, and when she hovered over it, she confirmed her guess that it was Hale, but he seemed to be the only direct connection. She zoomed out until she could get a better grasp of all the lines and nodes that ran nearby. What surprised her was the overwhelming sea of blue in the surrounding neighborhoods… and not just the ones immediately adjacent either. The circle of blue dots and lines faded the farther out it got, but she could easily tell where it stopped and other blue circles started. The warehouse wasn't in the center, but it was well within it's boundaries.

Nodes that were red designated cases that were assaults or murders, yellow were thefts and extortion, but blue… blue was drug related and she'd seen this pattern before. Back home, the drug ring she'd helped hunt down had shown this exact structure, but theirs had been nearly a third the size of this one. She began to feel the first flutterings of dread and panic. If they were supplying enough narcotics to support a ring of this size, then she doubted the shipment, and the security that entailed, would be even moderately sized. She'd watched the team make their plan and they hadn't accounted for anything approaching this scale. There was a chance this could be only one distribution center out of many, but with their lives on the line, she couldn't take that chance.

A couple weeks ago, Heisuke had given her the cellphone numbers of each of the team members, telling her that it was better to have them than not, just in case she ever needed to get ahold of them. She was pretty sure most of them didn't know she had their numbers, though she wouldn't put it past a couple to have found out. Right now she was more than thankful that she had them. She saw that she'd missed several texts from Sen, but quickly scrolled down to Heisuke's number and hit the call button.

"Hi! This is Heisuke-"

Immediately she yanked the phone away from her ear, nearly deafened by the volume of what was clearly Heisuke's leave-a-message recording. She looked down at her phone in confusion, still able to clearly hear his voice despite the distance. What the…? She should have at least gotten a dial tone… right?

Ending the call, she scrolled to Harada's number and tried again. Unfortunately she got the same result, though thankfully without being deafened. As quickly as she could, she worked her way through the rest of them. Nothing. Why aren't any of them picking up? ... Actually, it sounded more like her calls weren't getting through at all, since she wasn't even getting a single ring.

She bit her lip and glanced between her phone and the computer screen. They were all excellent at their jobs… even if the situation turned out to be more dangerous than they anticipated, they could handle it… right? But what if they couldn't? What if this information made the difference between someone getting hurt and everyone making it back safe?

She couldn't bear it if something happened and there was anything she could have done to prevent it. Flipping over to her camera, she quickly snapped a picture of the computer screen before she grabbed her purse and took off for the stairs at a run. She didn't have much time.


Souji flicked his head to the side in annoyance as the breeze blew several strands of his hair into his eyes. The night was calm and quiet, but the dark alley in which they were standing had the unfortunate effect of funneling what little wind there was. He shifted his position, folding his arms and leaning back against the cold brick wall, which thankfully brought him at least partially out of the wind. The cold had never bothered him, but the wind's effect on his hair was distracting and now was not a time for distractions.

Chizuru was another distraction he didn't need right then either, but that didn't stop his thoughts from touching back again and again on what he'd learned about her past and its implications. He'd admit that he'd let her in to a degree, but It wasn't like he'd trusted her all that much. Now though… Now she had too many questions floating around her for his liking. For the Syndicate to have bothered with her family in the first place was suspicious enough, but the fact that she'd survived and they'd left her alone all those years was not reassuring in the least. The Syndicate rarely, if ever, left loose ends.

Which begged the question, was she a plant? Her past seemed tailor made to slide her into their good graces. She had a skill that was useful to them, she had a motivational sob story which fit perfectly with their goals… If it wasn't for the fact that he was pretty sure the girl couldn't tell a decent lie to save her life, he would have had no problem believing she was a mole. He was usually pretty darn good at reading people. Sure, Saito could be hard to decipher sometimes, but Chizuru wasn't even a challenge for him, since almost every thought was plainly visible in her expression and posture. Of course she could also just be that good, because in the end there wasn't much of a difference between the truth and a good lie, but he doubted it. Where Heisuke erred on the side of being too trusting, being suspicious just came naturally to him. Yet despite his suspicion, it just didn't ring true with what he knew of her.

He shifted slightly, trying to get an oddly shaped brick to stop digging into his shoulder, and glanced further down the alley, toward where Saito and Hijikata appeared to be going over some detail of the raid. He could hear the low murmur of their voices over the common his ear, but it was too indistinct to make out anything more than the occasional word. He could also hear the Baka trio, but like the others, their voices settled into a dim hum he could easily ignore. The alleyway they were in opened up toward the front of the warehouse where Hale worked. Since they were unsure which direction the people would be coming from, Heisuke, Shinpachi, and Sano were located in a similar alley a distance from the back of the building.

With the discomfort in his shoulder gone, he glanced up and caught sight of the few stars bright enough to penetrate the city's light pollution as they twinkled dimly in the black sky. Was it better not to remember? Did it hurt less? He snorted at the idiocy of his thoughts. This was ridiculous. He needed to get his head in the game, not wonder about what-ifs that didn't matter. Sure he'd lost his parents to a car crash when he was seven, but he was over it. Shit happened and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It was stupid and a waste of time to even consider whether having the happy memories, dim though they were, tempered the pain of loss and betrayal.

He stiffened at the sounds of a scuffle in his ear, but almost immediately he relaxed again when he heard quiet laughter accompanying it.

" Will you idiots knock it off. " Hijikata hissed and the noise from the Baka trio immediately broke off.

" Sorry Boss…"

" He started it."

" I don't care-"

Souji immediately stopped listening to the conversation when he heard a second, and far more troubling noise. Footsteps. He could hear the unmistakable sound of running footsteps. They were distant, but clearly getting closer on the street at the end of the alley opposite from the warehouse. Had someone noticed them? The area was almost entirely made up of industrial buildings and this late at night they hadn't seen a single car or pedestrian go by. He glanced back at Hijikata and Saito, who had apparently also heard the noise. At Hijikata's nod, he began to move quietly to the end of the alleyway.

Just as the footsteps reached the opening, they began to slow. Taking the opportunity, he lunged out, grabbing the figure and pinning them tightly against the wall. He blinked in surprise when the person in his hands let out an all too familiar squeak. What the hell is she doing here? If her squeak hadn't given it away, the feel of her against him would have in an instant. There was no denying that this person was none other than Chizuru. She struggled for a split second, but almost instantly relaxed and craned her neck around as far as his hold would allow.

"You have to let me talk to Hijikata! Please, it's important!"

He frowned at her, but didn't loosen his hold. "How did you find us?"

"You made your plan right in front of me! Please, I need to talk to Hijikata right now. If I'm right, this is going to be bigger than you think."

" What's going on over there?"

" Who found us?"

" Did I just hear Chizuru…?"

"Will all of you just shut up for a minute." He snapped.

Thankfully the voices of the others died out, but Chizuru winced and hung her head dejectedly. He let out a sharp sigh of frustration. "Not you."

Her showing up here was suspicious, but it was also clear that she was worried and desperate, and she wasn't faking it. When he let her go and took a step back, she blinked at him in surprise, one hand rubbing at her shoulder.

"What part of 'don't leave your desk' was too hard for you to understand?"

Chizuru flinched, her eyes focusing just beyond his shoulder. He glanced back to see a thin lipped Hijikata striding toward them, his expression dark. Saito followed close behind. A movement at the corner of his eye drew his attention back again, to find that Chizuru had unconsciously shifted slightly closer to him. If this were any other situation he would have teased the hell out of her for it, but even he knew that now wasn't the time.

"Um, w-while you were planning, I was compiling all the cases I'd entered into a single graph. It didn't finish loading until after you left. But," He could see her fingers trembling slightly as she took out her phone and brought up a picture. "I was worried and when I entered the warehouse's location, this is what appeared."

They all leaned closer, and he stared in confusion at the multicolored, but predominantly blue map, their current location highlighted and near the heart of the main blue circle.

Beside him, Saito nodded. "I see. How does the scale of this compare to the one you worked previously?"

"It's about three times as big."

Hijikata glanced between the two of them, clearly just as lost as he was. "Either of you two care to share just what it is we're supposed to be looking at?"

Saito cleared his throat slightly before he said, "I believe the blue are cases of the same type, specifically narcotics, and the radius would indicate the scope of the distribution." He glanced at Chizuru for confirmation and she nodded.

"Yes. The last drug ring I worked had this same pattern, only it was a third the size. If they really are supplying such a wide area, then their shipment and it's security could be larger than you originally thought."

Souji glanced at Saito. "...You read the case report didn't you."

"Of course. The explanations of her work were quite detailed."

He sighed with mock exasperation as he rolled his eyes. "Of course you did."

Hijikata's earlier anger seemed somewhat tempered, but he was still frowning at a fidgeting Chizuru. "Alright, fine. I get why you wanted to tell us this, but it still doesn't explain why you're here . A phone call would have worked just as well, and yes, I know Heisuke gave you all our numbers, so spill."

"But I did try to call! It was the first thing I tried. I only decided to leave when I couldn't get ahold of anyone. Everything went straight to voicemail and I couldn't think of anything else to do." Souji noticed a light blush stain her cheeks as she bit her lip. "I… I would have been here sooner, but I didn't want to give anything away, so I parked a couple blocks back, and well…"

As her voice trailed off, he couldn't resist a snicker. "You got turned around didn't you."

She nodded, her blush darkening.

" Hey, is anyone going to bother telling us what's going on over there? Kinda hard to understand half a conversation."

Hijikata sighed. "No changes to the plan, just a heads up that there might be more security than we anticipated. Saito, take Chizuru to the car and get her a comm." The last bit caused Chizuru's head to tip to the side slightly in confusion and Hijikata frowned at her. "And no, you won't be doing anything. I can't have you wandering back to wherever the hell you parked, so you're going to sit in that car and not move, or so help me I will arrest you for obstruction of justice. The only reason you're even getting a comm is so that if something happens we can contact you. Got it?"

Chizuru bit her lip and nodded vigorously before she hurried after Saito as he headed toward their car parked a short distance down the alley. Once he judged them to be out of earshot, Souji flipped the mute switch and turned to Hijikata, who did the same. Harada could keep things quiet, but Heisuke and Shinpachi were hopeless.

"Am I the only one who finds it suspicious that she was able to find us?"

Hijikata closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his temple before he answered. "No, but she could have not warned us at all. If she's really on their side, she could have settled for trying and failing to get through, but now she's given us the opportunity to call for backup."

"Oh, I don't think she is. I just think it's suspicious."

"Then why did you ask?!"

He couldn't help but grin at Hijikata's growing exasperation. "Because I was curious. So are you going to have someone check up on her story?"

"Of course. Saito will be starting on that as soon as we get back. Or were you just curious about that too?"

"Maybe."

Hijikata pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered, "I swear you will be the death of me."

"As if I would be that lucky."

By the car, Saito gestured to get their attention and tapped his ear as he headed back toward them, Chizuru no longer in tow. They both flipped the switches on their comms and Hijikata said, "Go ahead."

" Hey Boss, we've got movement back here. Looks like six black SUVs, all with tinted windows… Oh, and apparently they're loaded with dudes with guns."

" Geeze, you weren't kidding about the extra security… We're gonna call for backup, right?"

Heisuke's question hung in the air for a moment while Hijikata thought. "How many men do you see?"

It was Harada who answered. " I count eighteen, not including the drivers and whoever they've left in the cars. Most of them are armed, but not all."

"Hmph… Don't really have a choice then. I'll get a hold of Kondou and have him put out the call. I don't want to take the chance that they're listening in on the radio."

" Well you'd better hurry. Someone just let the lot of them in the back door."

Beside him, Hijikata brought out his phone, but frowned at the screen. "Damn. Does anyone have service?"

He quickly checked his own phone, but saw the little symbol in the upper corner telling him he had zero bars. They should have realized it sooner, considering Chizuru had already said she couldn't get ahold of them. There was a chorus of no's from the others.

" Yes, I do."

Instantly all three of them turned to stare at the car. Hijikata's eyebrows pulled down sharply as he asked, "You have service?"

" Um, yes… Can I get out of the car?"

He couldn't restrain a quiet huff of laughter. If anyone else had asked that, Souji would have called it sarcasm, but coming from her it was clearly an honest question. Which actually made it all the more humorous.

"Yes, you can get out of the car."

With Hijikata's go ahead, the back passenger door opened and Chizuru slipped out and jogged over to them. She unlocked and held out her phone to Hijikata. TAlong a peek over Hijikata's shoulder, he was able to get a look at her screen. She did indeed have service, but that wasn't the only difference between her phone and theirs.

"I think we need to switch providers."

Hijikata ignored him and quickly entered Kondou's number. Once Kondou answered, he quickly explained the situation and where they needed the backup.

"Fine, fifteen minutes will have to do, but tell them to hurry." After ending the call Hijikata handed the phone back to Chizuru. "I want any passwords removed and it turned on silent with the vibration off. Alright, looks like the soonest anyone can get here is fifteen minutes, so we're on our own until then. We can't afford to wait that long and risk them getting away, so we're going in like we planned."

As Chizuru handed Hijikata her phone and darted back to the car, Souji could start to feel the rush of adrenalin he always got right before a raid. He lived for the thrill of moments like this.

"Alright, move in."

At Hijikata's quiet order, he drew his weapon and easily fell in formation with the two other men as they moved stealthily towards the warehouse.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 - Breaking the Rules

Tuesday, December 4th

The car was completely silent as Chizuru sat curled up in the middle of the back seat, her chin resting on her knees. She had no way of telling how long she'd been there, since Hijikata had her phone and she didn't have the keys to the car. Not that she would have risked starting it anyway. The only breaks in the stillness came from the rasp of the leather seats when she shifted and the occasional muttered calls and updates she could hear in her ear. The latter of which only served to increase her anxiety. There were six of them. Six against eighteen… Maybe if she'd gotten there sooner, they could have waited for the backup.

She'd known she couldn't drive right up to the warehouse, so three or four blocks away she'd ditched her car and started in on foot. They'd planned to have people at the front and back, but she'd had no idea where they'd actually be, so she'd approached in a zigzag pattern, hoping to stumble across them. Unfortunately that had the unintended consequence of getting her completely turned around, map or no. As she'd run in what felt like circles down dark deserted streets lined with warehouses, her worry and fear had shot up, every rustle or unusual shadow making her jump. Of course that fear had paled in comparison to the sheer terror she'd experienced when she felt someone grab her and yank her into a dark alleyway.

She still didn't know why she hadn't fought harder, because it hadn't been conscious thought that had relaxed her tense muscles and eased her initial terror. The fact that she'd almost instantly recognized that it was Okita bothered her a bit, but she had been working with him everyday for the past couple weeks… though he'd never twisted quite that far in practice. The relief had probably just been from finally finding them.

She nearly jumped a mile and felt her chest constrict painfully when the sound of a gunshot shattered the silence. Instantly her ear was filled with overlapping status reports and conversations between the two teams. Taking out the comm, she quickly flipped the mute switch Saito had shown her earlier and stuck it back in. The last thing she wanted to do was make a noise and distract them.

" Two doors on your left."

" Nothing here."

" All cle-"

She felt her heart nearly stop as one of their voices abruptly cut out.

" Heisuke?! Dude, you alright?"

" Don't worry he's fine. I think… Some idiot snuck up behind us and brained him with a pipe. His breathing is fine, but he's out cold and there's a lot of blood…"

Harada's reassurance eased the tension in her chest slightly, but unfortunately her relief didn't last long. She flinched as another round of gunshots filled the air, but froze when she heard an audible groan from one of the men.

" Souji? Was that you?"

" Heh, I'm fine."

" What happened?"

" Oh, nothing much. One of them just got me in the arm. Of course we couldn't have run into a group that was completely inept."

" Pull back and we'll meet up with you."

There was a snort. " Easier said than done. Kinda pinned down at the moment."

That was it, she couldn't take this helpless waiting anymore. To hell with Hijikata's threats and the consequences be damned. She may not have been to medical school, but thanks to her uncle, she at least had some basic emergency training. Crawling toward the door, she pushed it open and stumbled out into the cold night air. She ran to the trunk and hurriedly popped the lid, praying what she needed would actually be there, not that it would stop her if it wasn't. A rush of relief swept through her when she caught sight of the red emergency aid kit tucked away in a corner. She grabbed it and was two steps away from the car when the trunk's other contents registered. Hurriedly, she darted back, set down the aid kit, and picked up the spare bulletproof vest that had caught her eye. It was clearly too big for her, but it was better than nothing. She didn't recognize the name printed on the back, but whoever Ibuki was, she hoped he wouldn't mind too much if she borrowed it.

The vest was loose, even after she strapped it on as tight as it would go, and it settled heavily on her shoulders. It was going to force her to move slower, but she figured the extra protection more than made up for it. She grabbed the aid kit from the ground and ran for the door Okita and the others had entered through. It was probably safer to go where they'd already cleared, rather than poking around random entrances. She peeked around the doorframe to find a dingy, dimly lit hallway extending in a straight line, with doors and other smaller hallways branching off of it. The area was quiet and no one was in sight. As she worked her way carefully through the hallway, keeping close to the wall, she kept one ear tuned to the chatter over the comm and the other for any noises near her.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she peeked around a corner to find a familiar figure standing at the other end. Keeping her voice as low as she could and still have herself be heard, she called "Nagakura, behind you."

He spun around, his gun half raised, but when he saw it was her, she heard him swear under his breath through the comm. After a quick scan of the area, he hurried over, the frown on his face telling her he was not at all pleased to see her.

"What are you-"

She quickly gestured for him to be quiet. He looked confused, but thankfully he got the message and stopped talking before he could say anything that would give her away. She wanted to keep Hijikata from finding out she'd left the car for as long as possible. If she was going to get in trouble anyway, then she might as well do something useful before she got caught and scolded. She could only hope he wouldn't follow through on his threat to arrest her…

"I know I'm not supposed to be here, but I've had first aid training. The sooner Heisuke gets help the better off he'll be. Please, I'm willing to take the risk…"

He looked at her for a long moment, clearly debating between getting her out of a dangerous situation and getting Heisuke the medical help he needed.

He ran a hand through his hair and sighed, "Damn, you're as bad as Okita when it comes to orders…"

" Who's as bad as me?"

She bit her lip as Nagakura blinked in surprise, clearly having forgotten for a moment that everyone else could hear him. "These guys. I mean, what part of 'don't resist' do they think means 'please shoot me'?"

" Hm~, I think it might have something to do with going to jail, but that's just me."

" Cut the idle chatter."

" Well you're no fun."

With the attention successfully diverted, Nagakura sighed and gave her a small grin before he pointed down the hallway he'd come from. "Left, right, straight, right."

She repeated it to herself to make sure she had it, before she took off down the hall. As she jogged, she could hear Nagakura over the comm as she rounded the first corner.

" Friend headed your way Sano. Please don't shoot them."

" Got it."

Thankfully the instructions were simple enough, though she probably should have taken the last corner a bit more slowly. She rounded the corner and immediately slid to a stop and raised her hands, having found herself face to face with the barrel of a gun. Almost just as fast as he'd raised it, Harada lowered his gun and swore. Ignoring him for the moment, she went directly to Heisuke, who was unconscious on the floor. His face was pale in the dim light when compared to the dark red of the blood that matted the hair at the back of his head. She briefly noticed a man she didn't recognize several feet away and handcuffed to a pipe that ran from floor to ceiling.

"Shit, what were you thinking?" Harada started, but Nagakura immediately jumped on the comm, " Can you keep it down Sano, trying to focus here." Apparently Harada got the message, because he continued in a much lower voice that didn't carry past a mumble over the comm. "This is no place for a woman."

She didn't stop what she was doing as she answered, "The sooner Heisuke gets treatment, the more likely he's going to have a smooth recovery. I couldn't just sit there knowing I could help."

Harada sighed and scanned the hallway. "I still don't like it… But thanks."

She gave a quick nod as she opened the kit and took out a square pad of gauze. After dousing it in the provided antiseptic, she gently began to wipe away as much of the blood as she could from around his injury. Hopefully he wouldn't wake up for this part, because she was pretty sure this was an alcohol based antiseptic… Thankfully with a good deal of the blood gone, she could see that the cut itself wasn't too bad and that most of the bleeding had already stopped. She knew head wounds tended to bleed a lot, and there wasn't any indication she could see of major damage, so hopefully he'd make it out of this with only a concussion. After she took some more gauze and wrapped his head to provide some compression and hopefully stop the rest of the bleeding, she popped and shook an instant ice pack.

With Heisuke now out of immediate danger, she started registering the conversation going on over the comm.

" Souji, give us your location and we'll make our way toward you."

" I'm in the south-east corner."

Harada looked down the hall in the opposite direction she'd come from. "That's close to me, but I can't leave Heisuke…"

"Here take this." She held out the ice pack and Harada knelt down beside her and took it. "I've managed to stop the bleeding, but I'm pretty sure he's going to end up with a concussion. The ice pack will help with the swelling, but don't leave it on for longer than ten minutes at a time."

"Alright, but… Hey, get back here!"

She managed to duck under the arm he swiped at her as she grabbed the aid kit and took off down the hallway. She felt bad for taking advantage of the fact that he couldn't leave Heisuke to chase after her, but she knew if given a choice, he wouldn't have let her leave.


The three of them moved smoothly down the main hallway, efficiently clearing each room and side passage they came across. Ahead and slightly to Souji's right, Hijikata took point, covering the area directly in front of them and a bit to the sides. He and Saito each angled slightly out to cover their sides and also keep an eye out behind them. Their formation was easy and familiar, each of them moving and reacting to one another almost without conscious thought. They paused for a moment when they encountered a T in the hallway, and with a small nod, he broke off to the left, while Hijikata and Saito went right.

Their team dynamic was unusual compared to most. As a whole they didn't really section off well into pairs. Nagakura and Harada were an easy one, and he and Saito tended to operate like two halves of a whole, but the problem was Heisuke and Hijikata. Depending on the situation Heisuke could either be on the ground with them or doing whatever computer thing he did from the station or somewhere nearby. The same went for Hijikata and coordinating, though he was always grumpier when he was 'stuck doing nothing'. Overall they'd just found it more efficient to group by threes, and just have one person peel off if they had to. It wasn't as safe, but they were no strangers to risk. Typically either Sano or Shinpachi would stick with Heisuke, while he was always the one who broke off from Saito and Hijikata.

He would have preferred to have Saito at his back and kick Hijikata's butt out into the cold, but it wasn't for nothing that he had a reputation for bending the rules to breaking point. Those two just didn't get that sometimes rules needed to be broken to get the job done… or at least be drastically reinterpreted. Basically, the less those two saw, the fewer lectures he had to sit through.

He could hear the occasional updates of the others as he carefully cleared each room he came to. As of yet, they hadn't encountered anyone. Saito's quick call was the only warning he got before the first shots of the night went off.

" Two doors on your left."

" Nothing here."

" All cle-"

He paused for a moment as Heisuke's voice abruptly cut out.

" Heisuke?! Dude, you alright?"

" Don't worry he's fine. I think… Some idiot snuck up behind us and brained him with a pipe. His breathing is fine, but he's out cold and there's a lot of blood…" As Sano reassured Nagakura, he began moving again. It wasn't like he could do anything for Heisuke anyway.

He heard as Nagakura stumbled upon someone, but apparently he was able to subdue him without resorting to shooting. As he continued to clear rooms, he couldn't believe he still hadn't seen anyone. sixteen people and he'd really picked the only empty hall? How boring was that? Finally, he entered a room and instantly felt a tingling at the base of his neck. The room was mostly empty, except for several pallets of what looked like some kind of construction material. It's only other feature was an ajar door in one of the far walls.

Carefully, he crept toward the door, making sure to stay off to the side and out of direct line of sight. He was only about halfway there when he felt and heard someone behind him. Just as he spun to face whoever it was, he heard the door he'd been approaching burst fully open. He braced himself for the collision, and let the person from behind the door knock him off his feet. It was a good thing he had, because the shots of the first man missed and slammed into the wall. The guy who'd tackled him clearly didn't have much formal training, because it was fairly easy to get in a kick which sent him flying across the room toward his partner.

He was on his feet in a flash, but it wasn't fast enough. He caught a brief glimpse of a gun being raised before he threw himself to the side. At nearly the same time he heard the shot, he felt something tear into his right arm. His lunge managed to get him behind the pallets and out of their line of sight, but he couldn't hold back a groan of pain when he instinctively put out his right hand to catch himself. A couple more shots hit the pallet, but nothing made it through.

" Souji? Was that you?"

He looked down at his arm to see his sleeve already soaked with blood. It hurt like hell, but it didn't feel like the bullet had hit bone. Ignoring the pain, he popped up and fired off two rounds blindly before ducking back down, hoping to keep his opponents at a distance. Okay, really, really bad idea. He had to lean his shoulder against the pallet for support as his vision greyed at the edges from the pain of the recoil.

"Heh, I'm fine."

" What happened?"

"Oh, nothing much. One of them just got me in the arm. Of course we couldn't have run into a group that was completely inept."

Technically he was a fair shot with his left, but he didn't have a way to brace it… That, and while his cover may have been bullet proof, it was horrible for return fire, since he had to basically reveal his whole upper half to get a decent shot off. Not exactly an ideal situation. Okay, it was actually an awful situation, but he wasn't about to tell anyone else that.

" Pull back and we'll meet up with you."

Two more shots went off. One hit the pallet, while the other took a chunk out of the wall in front of him. He snorted. If they could see his situation, they would have realized just how dumb that sounded from his end. "Easier said than done. Kinda pinned down at the moment."

Their exchange of sporadic fire continued with neither side making any real headway. They would have to cross an open space to get to him, and he'd hear it if they made a move. Conversely, they had just enough cover that he was never able to line up a shot on either of them, as both were tucked away behind the doorway he'd originally come through. He ejected his empty clip and quickly loaded his second, and unfortunately last clip. When he got back, he was seriously going to reconsider his belief that carrying three clips was overkill.

" Damn, you're as bad as Okita when it comes to orders…"

That caught his attention. "Who's as bad as me?"

There was a slight pause before Shinpachi answered. " These guys. I mean, what part of 'don't resist' do they think means 'please shoot me'?"

He frowned at that. It wasn't unusual for Shinpachi to joke, even in situations like this, but something about it felt off. "Hm~, I think it might have something to do with going to jail, but that's just me."

" Cut the idle chatter."

"Well you're no fun."

Hijikata didn't respond to that and there was another lull in the conversation before he heard, " Left, right, straight, right."

What kind of gibberish was that? No, it wasn't gibberish, he suddenly realized, it was directions. Who is Shinpachi giving directions to?

" Friend headed your way Sano. Please don't shoot them."

" Got it."

A friend? They didn't have any friends here… at least not someone Shinpachi couldn't just call by name.

" Shit, what were you thinking?"

" Can you keep it down Sano, trying to focus here."

Just what was going on? There was clearly something up that he didn't know about and he was surprised Hijikata hadn't picked up on it yet… but then again it wasn't like he had much else to do at the moment. It couldn't be… No, she wouldn't… would she?

" Souji, give us your location and we'll make our way toward you."

He shoved that train of thought to the side and mentally reviewed the route he'd taken. "I'm in the south-east corner."

" That's close to me, but I can't leave Heisuke…"

" Hey, get back here!"

Even though he sighed in exasperation as he leaned his head back against the pallet, he couldn't help a small smirk. Yup, she did.


I really didn't think this through…

To be honest, she wasn't sure why she'd taken off in the first place. Initially, she'd tried following the sound of gunfire, but with all of the hard surfaces, the sound kept getting distorted and bounced around. Again, not all that smart of an idea, but it was all she had to go on at the moment. She thought she was still headed in the right direction, but she didn't know for sure. Carefully, she edged to each doorway and peeked in to make sure it was empty before she moved past it. The last thing she needed was for someone she didn't know to spot her… Though she didn't think Hijikata would be much better. At this point, she wasn't even sure she could find her way back to Harada. This definitely counted as one of the stupider, if not the stupidest, thing she'd done in her life.

She jumped back and pressed herself against the wall, her heart racing, when another volley of shots went off in what sounded like the room right beside her. It took several seconds, but she was finally able to get her muscles to unclench enough to creep toward the doorway. She froze when she caught sight of the room's interior.

The door was thrown back against the wall, giving her a clear view into the room. In the adjacent wall to her right was a wide opening and she could see two men keeping close to it's edges. She inched closer and was able to see a row of pallets in the center of the room stacked high with some kind of material and behind them crouched Okita. Instantly she noticed the dark red that had stained his sleeve and had left droplets scattered across the floor. She knew that bleeding had to be stopped, and the sooner the better. Unfortunately she couldn't see a way to get to him. Technically the distance between her and the pallets wasn't far, but it was completely open to two men with guns and even she knew it was suicidal to attempt that.

There had to be something she could do. She pulled back, squeezing her eyes shut and covering her ears as another short burst deafened her. When she opened her eyes, she noticed several chunks of concrete lying at her feet. She blinked at them for a couple seconds, a plan slowly forming in her head. The walls were concrete, so she was pretty sure nothing was going to get through them and just as she would have to cross an open space to get to Okita, the two men pinning him down would be unable to get to her without walking right into Okita's line of fire. As long as she was careful, she was pretty sure she could do almost anything and they wouldn't be able to stop her. Maybe if she was able to distract them, it would give Okita a chance to do something…

She picked up one of the larger chunks, but dropped it with a hiss when one of her fingers caught on a sharp piece of metal imbedded in it. The pain made her eyes water, but she forced herself to examine the cut to make sure there was nothing in it. She knew from experience that she had to act fast if there was, because this time her uncle wouldn't be around to get it out later. Even as she made sure the wound was clean, she could see and feel the edges begin to stitch themselves together, the pain fading as her skin healed without the slightest trace of injury. She flexed her hand when the last twinge had faded, just to be sure she hadn't missed anything.

She knew people often dreamed of being able to heal quickly but she'd found that it came with it's own set of problems. One time she'd tripped in a parking lot and gotten gravel imbedded in her knee. Most people would have been able to just wash the gravel out, but because the shallow wounds had closed over almost instantly, Kodo had basically had to perform surgery when they'd gotten home.

After wiping away the blood on the hem of her shirt, she carefully reached for another piece of concrete and weighed it in her hand. Not too bad… She was pretty sure it was light enough for her to be able to throw. It was her ability to actually hit anything that she was worried about. If there was a level zero for throwing ability, she was it, but she didn't really need to hit anyone to accomplish her goal. If I could just distract them for a few seconds…

She bit her lip as she edged back to the opening, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. Taking one more steadying breath she quickly stepped out and threw the piece of concrete as hard as she could at one of the men. Almost as soon as it left her hand, she new her aim was off. What she didn't expect was the solid thunk of the concrete as it collided with the head of the man she wasn't aiming for. She could only stare in utter disbelief as he dropped to the ground, limp and clearly unconscious.

That pause nearly cost her. The plan had been to duck safely back behind the wall, but her hesitation had given the second man the time he needed to step out an track toward her. She flinched as the sound of the shot thundered against her ears, but instead of a flash of pain, she watched as the man crumpled to the floor.

"Not bad, but next time don't stand out in the open like an idiot."

She looked over at Okita to find him standing, his gun in his left hand. When she caught sight of the gun, the full weight of what happened hit her. Her legs started to shake and she grabbed desperately at the wall for support.

"Y-You… you just… Is he…?"

Okita gave her a measured look before he said, "Yes he's dead. Or would you rather it'd been you?"

"N-No…"

He tilted his head slightly and grinned. "Well then I think you owe me a thank you. This is the second time today after all."

She blinked at him in confusion, her horror dimmed somewhat by the distraction. "What…?"

"I don't know about you, but I was taught it was polite to thank someone when they do something nice for you."

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she pressed her forehead into the cool concrete. It was several seconds before she felt strong enough to release the wall.

"Sorry… Thank you for saving me."

"See, now was that so hard? Come on, let's go meet up with the others before Hijikata gives himself an aneurysm."

He tried to walk past her, but she grabbed his good arm and blocked his path. "Wait a second! We need to stop that bleeding before you pass out."

"It's fine."

She pointed sharply at his blood-soaked sleeve. "That is not fine!"

Without letting go of his arm, she picked up the aid kit from where she'd left it on the ground and pulled him over to the pallets. "Geeze, has anyone ever told you you're awfully pushy."

She felt her cheeks flush as she opened the medical kit and started to pull out the gauze and antiseptic. "No…"

" Souji, who the hell are you talking to?"

At Hijikata's question, she flinched and quickly glanced at Okita to see a Cheshire grin spread across his features. "Hmm~, never thought I'd say this, but Ryunosuke is actually pretty cute."

" What the…? I thought Heisuke was the one who got hit in the head."

"He did. Are you having problems with your memory now? You should probably get that checked out…"

" Souji!"

"Ooh~, someone's touchy tonight. Funny thing is, Ryunosuke's also quite a bit shorter than I remember and the black hair is definitely an improvement over that weird blue."

There was a short pause before, " GOD DAMNIT, YUKIMURA! WHY CAN'T YOU EVER STAY WHERE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO!"

She felt the blood drain from her face as she continued to listen to Hijikata yell. Deftly, Okita plucked the comm out of her ear and flipped the mute switch before putting it back in. When Hijikata paused for breath, Okita's eyes shone with mischief as he all but drawled, "Well, Chizuru? Don't you have anything to say for yourself? You seem to be in a lot of trouble after all."

It took her a couple seconds to find her voice, but finally she managed a small "S-Sorry…"

" SORRY?! SORRY DOESN'T EVEN BEGIN TO COVER IT! YOU ARE-"

Hijikata was cut off mid-rant when Okita again pulled the comm out of her ear and it was quickly followed by his own. She gaped at him in shock, her gaze flicking between him and the comms he'd just pocketed.

"Eh, don't worry about him. He won't even figure out we're not listening for several minutes anyway." He waved a hand dismissively, as if he hadn't just made her an accomplice in evading Hijikata's lecture.

"B-But…"

He raised an eyebrow at her. "I thought you wanted to keep me from bleeding out or something like that."

She blinked, suddenly remembering the gauze she still had in her hand. "Right, sorry…"

Carefully, she rolled up his sleeve, until she could see the deep gash in his upper arm. She winced when she saw the full extent of the damage, but it probably could have been worse.

She doused the gauze in antiseptic, but hesitated. "Um… Sorry, but this is probably going to really hurt…"

Okita gave a small shrug. "I've had worse."

Carefully she dabbed at the wound, trying to clean the area as best she could. Other than a small initial hiss and slight jerk, he gave no other sign that what she was doing hurt. It wasn't until she started to bandage his arm that he spoke.

"You know, I'm actually surprised. Most girls would've run screaming for the hills by now."

She thought for a moment before she gave a small shrug. "I guess I wanted to at first… I mean, when…" She forced herself not to glance at the crumpled forms in the doorway. "But you were right. I… I may not like it, but you had to make a decision and I trust your judgement, so… thank you."

"Hmm…"

Carefully she tied off the bandage and began to repack the aid kit. He didn't say anything more and she couldn't quite decipher the look he gave her. She wasn't sure exactly what it was, but something she'd said seemed to have not been what he'd expected.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 - Unwanted Attention

Tuesday, December 4th

"I told you I don't need to go to the hospital. It's not even bleeding any more."

Chizuru glanced up from where she'd been staring at the ground to see Okita glaring at a paramedic who was trying to get him, futily in her opinion, onto a stretcher.

"You need to have that arm looked at by a doctor. It's probably going to require stitches if you want it to heal properly."

He shook his head, deftly stepping out of the paramedic's reach. "Not gonna happen. If it's only stitches, then I'll have Sanan do it. I am not going to the hospital."

A few feet away, lying on his own stretcher, Heisuke groaned and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "Souji just shut up and get on the stretcher already. My head hurts bad enough without your whining making it worse."

"Yeah? Make me."

Heisuke shot a glare at Okita and tried to sit up, but was easily forced back down by the paramedic next to him. She glanced over to where Hijikata stood several feet away, talking to Saito, Harada, and Nagakura, along with several other officers. Behind the group were the six large piles of high quality narcotics that Nagakura had stumbled across. She had no idea what the street value of the lot was, but she could guess that it would have been worth quite a bit.

It hadn't been long after she'd finished bandaging Okita's arm that she'd forced him to give her back her comm and they'd tuned in just in time to hear Nagakura announce that he'd found their target. Saito and Hijikata had then worked with Nagakura to secure the evidence until reinforcements had finally arrived a short time later. All told, they'd arrested thirteen of the original eighteen who'd entered the warehouse. Two of the remaining five had unfortunately been killed in the crossfire, including the one Okita had taken down. The person she'd managed to knock out had already been sent to the hospital with a police escort, though she'd been relieved to hear he should make a full recovery. The final two managed to escape, along with four of the six SUVs and their drivers. Other than Okita and Heisuke, none of the other team members had been injured. The raid wasn't a failure, but it really couldn't be called a soaring success either.

Hijikata apparently heard Okita's last comment, because he broke off from the group and headed toward the injured pair.

"Souji, don't make me call Kondou." Okita opened his mouth to argue, but Hijikata cut him off. "And don't think I won't if you're not on your way to the hospital within the next minute."

There was a short pause during which the two men glared at each other, until finally, "Fine, but I'm not getting on the stretcher. I'm perfectly capable of walking on my own."

The final look Okita shot at Hijikata promised some form of retribution, but he did allow himself to be guided into the ambulance. Once both Okita and Heisuke were on their way to the hospital, she watched as Hijikata sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Unfortunately, the moment she'd been dreading occurred when he turned and started walking toward her.

Once the reinforcements had arrived, the first thing he'd done was to send her, Okita, and Harada, who'd been helping a now semi-conscious Heisuke, outside. He'd specifically told her to wait by the car and since then she hadn't dared move from her perch leaning back against the hood. She risked a glance up at his face, but almost instantly returned her attention to the ground just in front of her shoes when she spotted his narrowed eyes and thin lips. She was in big trouble and she knew it… but she still couldn't bring herself to regret what she'd done.

He stopped a pace away, but before he could say anything, someone else jogged up to them. She looked up to see a paramedic from one of the remaining ambulances.

"Excuse me, but I just wanted to do a final check to make sure no one else was injured before we headed out."

Hijikata shook his head as he said, "As far as I know, everyone else is fine." He glanced at her and she shook her head. "I'm fine."

The paramedic looked between them. "Out of curiosity, who did the first aid for those two?"

"Um, that would be me…" she said as she raised her hand slightly,

The paramedic smiled at her as he said, "Well, you did an excellent job. I got a look at that Heisuke kid and you probably cut is recovery time in half just by getting that ice on as soon as you did. Your team is lucky to have someone with your skill around."

As the paramedic walked away, Hijikata rubbed his forehead and she heard him mutter, "Well that really took the wind out of my rant…" He gave her a long measured look before he said, "Fine, you said you wanted in and you obviously meant it, but I have some conditions." She held her breath and nodded, not really believing what she was hearing. "First, we may not be able to keep your involvement a secret, but I want to limit your exposure, so the paperwork will still be done in our names. As long as you check first, you can speak to whoever you need to in order to do your job. Second, I'm officially assigning you as the third member of Saito's group in the field. Third, you will begin working on tactics training with Saito, as well as more advanced emergency aid training with Sanan. Fourth, we're going to get you a vest that actually fits, but don't expect to get any use out of it, and fifth, you will follow orders from now on. Any more of these shenanigans, and you're done. Deal?"

She didn't even hesitate before she nodded. "Deal."

"Good." He sighed and his expression softened slightly. "It's late. You should head home and get some rest… and you should probably let whoever this is know you're okay. I don't have time to bother with a false missing persons report."

"Huh?" he held out her phone to her and when she checked it, she felt her stomach drop. I am so dead…

her screen was filled with notifications of missed calls, message recordings, and a slew of texts that grew steadily more worried and desperate the further down she scrolled. She blinked when she saw the most recent text.

' CHIZURU, IF YOU DON'T RESPOND IN THE NEXT HOUR, I'M CALLING THE POLICE!'

A quick glance at the time told her she still had about a half hour before Sen's deadline expired, but she wouldn't put it past her to jump the gun and call anyway. She snapped off a quick text saying that she was sorry and would explain when she got back shortly.

"If you're headed home, I'll walk you to your car." She looked up to find that Harada and Nagakura had wandered over at some point. Harada gave her a warm smile as he continued, "This isn't exactly the best neighborhood to be walking around alone in."

"Thank you, it should be this…" she trailed off and spun in a slow circle, trying desperately to find anything that would give her a hint as to where exactly she'd left her car. "Umm…"

She felt her cheeks burn as Nagakura tried and failed to suppress his laughter and Hijikata smacked a palm to his forehead. Harada was a bit better, but she could tell even he was fighting a grin. Thankfully, she was saved from further embarrassment by Saito's timely appearance.

"Yukimura, officers have located your car three blocks east of here."

Nagakura frowned in confusion at Saito. "Dude, how do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Know everything before we need it. It's kinda scary."

Saito looked at him for a moment, his head tipped slightly to the side. "I did not realize there was something inherently frightening about paying attention and being prepared."

Harada tapped her on the shoulder and nodded in the direction Saito had indicated when he'd first arrived. Taking his cue, she gave a final nod to Hijikata before she followed after him.

Behind her she heard Nagakura suddenly exclaim, "Oi! Are you trying to say I don't pay attention?!"

"That was not what I said."

She glanced back and though Saito's expression remained neutral, the small gleam in his eye gave her the impression that what he'd actually meant was more along the lines of 'You said it, not me.' From the small smirk on Hijikata's face, she was pretty sure he got the same message. As she and Harada continued toward her car, she could still hear Nagakura shouting behind them.

When she opened the door to the apartment, she found all the lights off except for the few lamps they had in the combined living room and kitchen area. Carefully, she closed and locked the door behind her. She was exhausted from the long day, but part of her wanted to run right back out the door and demand to help deal with the crime scene she'd just left. Right now even dealing with Hijikata seemed like a better option than what she knew she was going to get from Sen.

"I know you're there Chizuru."

She winced at Sen's tone and hesitantly made her way down the short hall. When she rounded the corner, she found Sen sitting in a chair at the bar, her arms folded and face pulled into an unusually stern expression. To be honest, Chizuru couldn't help but think that Sen looked like an angry parent about to scold their rebellious teenager for staying out too late. Before she could even put down her stuff, Sen started in on what sounded like a well rehearsed rant.

"Do you realize how late it is? I come home to find you're not here with no explanation and when I try to get ahold of you, you don't answer my texts or my calls. Didn't you think about how worried I'd be? You could've been dead on the side of the road for all I'd known! And then you finally respond and all I get is a text…" Suddenly Sen's eyes filled with tears and she flew off the chair, almost knocking Chizuru to the floor with the force of her hug. "God, I was so scared something had happened… I-I don't know what I'd do if…"

Chizuru tried to focus on comforting her sniffling friend, but the lack of oxygen made it more than a little difficult. It felt like Sen was actually trying to break her ribs. Still, she couldn't help but feel that a little discomfort was a small price to pay if it helped alleviate some of the worry she'd unintentionally caused her.

She rubbed Sen's back as she half-wheezed, "Sorry, things were just so crazy that I forgot to let you know what was going on… I promise I'll do a better job of telling you if I'm going to be late."

"You'd better." Sen gave her one more squeeze before she stepped back and wiped her eyes. "Wow, you look exhausted. What happened?"

"Um, well…" Where do I even begin? The incident with Hale would have been enough of a story to explain her exhaustion, but that, as it turned out, had been the most insignificant thing to happen to her that day. "Can we sit down? It's a long story…"

It was almost an hour later that she came to the end of her tale thanks to Sen's numerous interruptions and need for details. Both of them sat curled up on the couch and wrapped in blankets, while nursing mugs of hot chocolate.

"You are such an idiot. What were you thinking, running in there?" Sen shook her head, her expression leaning toward exasperation, "I mean, what if you'd gotten hurt and they'd seen?"

Chizuru bit her lip as she prodded a slowly disintegrating marshmallow with her spoon. "I know, but I couldn't just sit there. Besides, no one saw anything."

Sen frowned at her. "Wait, you did get hurt?"

"Um, sort of…" When Sen's eyes widened in alarm, she hurried to reassure her. "It's fine, no one was nearby. I mean, Okita was in the room on the other side of the wall, but I don't think he can see through concrete… and it was just a small cut on my thumb."

"Hmm, I guess that's okay…" Sen paused mid sip, "Wait, isn't that Okita guy the one who was giving you a hard time when you first got there?"

"Um, yeah, but he's a lot better now."

Sen snorted and shook her head, "You make it sound like he's getting over a cold or something…" Sen's eyes suddenly lit with a mischievous light and she grinned. "Wait, you don't think he… you know."

"Huh?" No, she didn't know, but Sen was clearly giving her a look that said she should.

"Well you did say he saved you twice today and he's the one you've been training with, so…" Sen left the sentence hanging, as if waiting for her to fill in the blank.

Chizuru blinked in confusion. "So… What?"

"Ugh, you can really be dense about these things sometimes. He seems to be spending a lot of time with you, so… You don't think he likes you, do you?"

"Well, I don't think he hates me anymore…" She trailed off as Sen rolled her eyes. It took a second longer, but when it clicked, her cheeks and ears flamed with heat. "Wait! You mean that like? N-No, of course he doesn't! The only reason he's teaching me is because Heisuke won't work with him, and he only went with me to interview Hale because Hijikata told him to. Besides, I'm pretty sure he lives to tease and torment me!"

Sen grinned knowingly as she drawled, "Oh he does, does he?"

"No!" She started to wave her hands frantically in denial, but almost ended up spilling her hot chocolate all over the blanket. "I mean, he does that to everyone… I think he just likes getting reactions out of people. Hijikata usually gets it worse than any of the rest of us."

Sen's grin sharpened as she got up from the couch and stretched. "Good, because he hasn't anywhere near earned my approval yet. Come on, we should probably head to bed. I don't know about you, but I've got to go to work tomorrow."

Chizuru nodded, internally sighing in relief that Sen hadn't been serious… or at least too serious. She probably hadn't been kidding about the approval part. Right now though, the only thing she could think of was how good it would feel to collapse into bed and sleep.


"Yo, you got a problem."

Kazama sighed before he shot a glare at the person who had just unceremoniously barged in to his office. Of course he was the one with the problem. "What is it now, Shiranui? This had better be important, because I believe I said I wished not to be disturbed."

"Oh, I'd say it is." Shiranui leaned casually back against the wall, his thumbs hooked through his belt loops. "Just got a call from one of my guys. Thought you might like to know that $60,000 shipment to the south end ain't gonna make it."

That got his attention. His eyes snapped up from the stack of papers in front of him as he growled, "What do you mean 'isn't going to make it'? I thought I told you to handle that issue with the port."

Shiranui waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, I dealt with that ages ago. That was so easy it was boring. You know that group of detectives that's been sniffing round the edges for the last year or so?

Kazama narrowed his eyes, starting to get an uncomfortable feeling that he knew where this was going. "Yes… Your point being?"

"Well, they somehow got wind of our pickup, cause right now they've got the shipment and most of the guys I sent to get it."

He felt his temper start to flare to the surface, but he managed to keep it in check… barely. "So you expect me to believe that those mongrels have gone from 'sniffing around the edges' to destabilizing our largest distributor, what? Overnight ?"

To his growing irritation, Shiranui grinned and shrugged unconcernedly. "Hey, don't look at me. You just pay me to manage this shit. Not my job to keep an eye on those guys and you don't pay me enough to worry about them and the regular cops."

Kazama's fingernails dug into the arms of his chair, but before he could reprimand Shiranui for his insolence, Amagiri spoke up from where he sat on the other side of the desk. "I had received reports indicating an increase in arrests, but none were significant enough to pose a serious risk."

"Yeah, heard that too, but my guys said these were things they thought they'd gotten away with. Might not've been anyone important, but some of 'em are years after the fact."

He glared at his two subordinates as he growled, "And why is this the first I'm hearing of this?"

Shiranui simply shrugged again, but Amagiri inclined his head. "My apologies Lord Kazama, it did not seem significant enough at the time to bother you with."

"Oh? And how about now ?" The sarcasm in his tone didn't entirely cover his underlying rage.

"It was a miscalculation on my part. It will not happen again."

He snorted and leaned back in his chair, at least somewhat satisfied that they would do a better job of keeping him in the loop. "It had better not. Shiranui-"

"Don't bother," The man in question frowned and folded his arms as he cut Kazama off. "My plate's full with this mess and I ain't your servant. Go find someone else to play private investigator."

He shot Shiranui a glare before turning his attention to Amagiri. Shiranui may be disrespectful, lazy, and an all around pain in the ass to deal with, but there was no denying he was good at managing that half of their operations. As he should be considering how much I pay him.

Amagiri shook his head. "I am sorry, but next week's business merger requires our full attention."

What was the point of having subordinates if they didn't do anything useful? It wasn't like he could do it all himself. "Fine. Since you both seem to be too busy to handle this, someone call that Nagumo brat in here. I'm sure he's slinking around somewhere close by."

As Amagiri nodded and made to leave, Shiranui wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Why do you keep that kid round here anyway? I wouldn't trust him any more than a poisonous snake… Actually, I think I'd trust the snake more."

He didn't bother to curb the acerbic tone of his voice as he snapped, "Well I wouldn't have to if someone didn't have a full plate. As it is, he's a known threat and he's manageable, both of which are preferable to doing nothing or leaving it to human incompetency."

Shiranui snorted and shook his head. "One of these days you're gonna have to get off that high horse of yours and get with the times. This thing won't last forever and you're not gonna have anything to fall back on when it comes crumbling down."

"Oh? And you will?"

Shiranui brushed off his glare with apparent ease as he smirked and said, "Well, I'll certainly have more than you. Not all humans are as awful as you seem to think."

"Hmph."

As far as he was concerned humans had no redeeming qualities and Shiranui was a fool for thinking otherwise. They were dishonorable, greedy, manipulative, power hungry lowlifes who would sell their own mothers if it made them a profit. In the back of his mind he could hear the snide remark Shiranui would've made about the pot calling the kettle black, but he knew the difference. He only did what his honor demanded of him. His duty was to protect the oni under his care, and he knew the only way to ensure their safety was to keep them as far away from humans and their corrupt, manipulative governments as possible. Distance no longer worked since humans had spread into even the most remote regions, but just because they existed within human society, did not mean they had to participate in it. He detested the honorless criminal world in which the oni were forced to exist, but it did serve to keep them away from government manipulation and oversight. Thankfully he was saved from more of Shiranui's annoying nagging by the arrival of Amagiri and Nagumo.

Nagumo bowed mockingly, a sly smile pulling at his lips. "What can someone like me possibly do for the great Lord Kazama?"

Shiranui was right. The boy was a snake, but better to have a snake he could see, than one he couldn't. Unfortunately, as much as he might loathe Nagumo, he needed him… for now.

"It seems a detective team has recently made an unfortunate amount of progress in impeding our work. I want you to find out why."

"Oh? And what could they possibly have done that has made them worthy of your attention?"

Kazama narrowed his eyes, bringing the full force of his glare to bear on the brown-eyed youth. "That is irrelevant. All I want you to do is find out what has changed. Under no circumstances are you to interfere or meddle with them."

"Of course," Still smirking, Nagumo gave another mockingly deep bow before he turned to leave. "I wouldn't dream of it."

Once Nagumo was out of the room, Shiranui pushed himself off the wall and headed for the door with a wave. "Well I'm off. Have fun dealing with the kid and those detectives."

He didn't deign to acknowledge Shiranui, but he saw Amagiri give the man a small nod before he turned back to the reports they'd been going through before they were interrupted. He knew he should return to finalizing the details for the reorganization of the company they were planning on purchasing, but Shiranui's news had spoiled his mood, and thus any desire he had to deal with the utterly boring task. Kazama stood and walked over to the wall of windows that looked out over the downtown cityscape and the water glittering in the moonlight behind it.

"You may go Amagiri. We will deal with this later."

In the reflection in the window, he watched as Amagiri gave a short bow and left the office. Maybe once this was over, he would have to see that Nagumo was removed sooner rather than later…

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 - Coffee, Christmas, and a Creep: Part 1

Wednesday, December 5th

"Here, let me get that for you."

Chizuru sighed in relief as the officer from the front desk scanned his ID card and pushed the button for her floor. Getting from her car and into the building had been bad enough, but it was only when she'd been faced with the horror that was the elevator, that she'd started to panic. Between her bag, purse, lunch, and the added burden of a drink carrier and a bag of doughnuts, she didn't even have a free finger, let alone the hand needed to swipe her card. She'd just been lucky someone had noticed her staring helplessly at the elevator and been nice enough to help. She thanked the officer and he gave her a smile as the doors closed and the elevator began to rise. Chizuru leaned back against the wall of the elevator and let out a sigh of relief. Almost there…

She'd woken up that morning to find a text from Heisuke sitting on her phone, letting her know that he and Okita were fine, but that Hijikata had banned them from coming in to the office for a week until they'd recovered. It was a relief to hear that they were alright, but with Heisuke stuck at home, she'd quickly realized the guys would probably forget that he was the one who got their coffee every morning. The last thing she wanted was to deal with was a coffee deprived team. She felt bad for bothering him so early in the morning, but he'd been quick to respond. When she'd asked for everyone's orders, he'd initially been reluctant, telling her that she didn't need to do that and they'd be fine. It wasn't until she'd pointed out the dangers of a caffeine deprived Hijikata that he'd finally relented.

As she walked down the hallway, she was so focused on watching her footing and making sure the drinks didn't spill, that she almost ran into the large figure standing in the doorway of their room. With a rather embarrassing squeak, Chizuru stumbled as she tried to avoid the person she now was Harada.

"Whoa, you okay?" Obviously taken by surprise, he still managed to steady her with a hand on her shoulder and she felt her cheeks flush slightly as she nodded.

"I'm fine. Sorry about that, I should pay more attention to where I'm going."

He grinned and gave her a wink. "Not a problem. I'm curious though, what's with all the coffee?"

"Oh, um… Heisuke let me know that he wouldn't be coming in, so I figured I might as well pick up what he normally gets for you guys." She held up the bag in her other hand, "I got the doughnuts too."

Apparently the near collision had grabbed the whole room's attention, because at the mention of coffee, Nagakura suddenly appeared next to them. "What? No way!" His eyes lit up as he grabbed the cup with his name on it along with the bag. "You're the best! I was worried I was gonna get stuck with that awful stuff in the kitchen."

"That would have been fine, but this is very much appreciated." Saito said as he calmly picked up his own drink as well as Hijikata's before moving past them out of the room.

Harada frowned at his friend as he took his own drink and made a grab for the bag as Nagakura pulled out a second doughnut. "Hey, those aren't all for you."

She couldn't help a smile as she watched them, glad that her plan hadn't backfired in some way. She'd been half afraid Saito would be his usual efficient self and they'd both end up bringing drinks.

"What, none for me?"

And just like that, her previous relief shriveled into a shocked horror as she realized her plan had indeed backfired, and in a far worse way than she'd originally feared. She blinked in disbelief at the person occupying what should have been an empty desk. "O-Okita?! W-What are you doing here?"

How had she not noticed him before? He was supposed to be resting at home, not sitting there with his arm in a sling… and he most certainly wasn't supposed to be grinning like he'd just discovered a new source of entertainment. "Well I do work here you know. It's not like I show up just for fun."

"But, Heisuke said…" She tried to explain, but Okita didn't let her finish.

His grin shifted into a wounded expression and he sighed heavily. "Really Chizuru, I can't believe you forgot me, and after all we've been through together too… I'm hurt. It's not very nice to leave people out, you know."

His expression was actually pretty convincing, but it might have worked better if he hadn't just been grinning two seconds before. Unfortunately that knowledge still didn't stop the twinge of guilt she felt for not getting him anything. "Sorry… I'll go back out and get it."

She turned to leave, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. She glanced back to find it was Harada, who'd apparently managed to take the bag of doughnuts back, minus the two extra Nagakura had stolen. "Hey now, hold on a sec. You don't have to go back out just to get him coffee. You couldn't have known he'd be here since the stubborn idiot is supposed to be resting at home." He shot a frown at Okita. "And Souji, quit teasing her. She was nice enough to think of doing this and it's not her fault she didn't account for the fact that you always do the opposite of what Hijikata says."

Okita dropped his hurt expression, switching it out for a peeved frown as he tried and failed to fold his arms like he usually did around the sling. "So everyone gets coffee except me? Some friends you all are."

Saito apparently didn't have much sympathy for Okita either, because as he returned to his desk he said, "You are perfectly capable of making your own coffee in the kitchen. There is no need for Yukimura to spend her time going back out just for you."

"Ouch, you to Hajime?"

"Um, I can make it if you want…" She still felt guilty for not getting him anything, and this seemed like as good a way as any to make it up to him. "I should have checked who was here before I went and got everything."

Harada shook his head, but didn't say anything as Okita sighed melodramatically, a small grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Alright, fine. I guess my usual is out of the question, so just make sure it's sweet. I hate bitter things."

She nodded, glad that there was something she could do to try and fix the situation she'd gotten herself into, and Harada let her go as she set down her stuff hurried toward the kitchen.

Finding their coffee maker and the coffee was easy. She was actually surprised to find that they had a French press similar to the one Sen liked to use. Honestly, she preferred tea to coffee, but Sen was a coffeeholic. Over the years of hanging out and their frequent sleepovers, she'd learned a thing or two about making the stuff. For instance, she knew that a French press was actually the best way to keep the coffee from being bitter, especially if she kept the brew time short. She even recognized the brand of coffee as one Sen avoided like the plague because of how bitter it was. Thankfully they had a dedicated hot water tap in the sink, so she didn't have to bother with boiling the water.

Leaving the coffee grounds to steep, she pulled up Heisuke's text with everyone's orders. Apparently Okita's usual was a drip with milk, vanilla, and extra sugar. Really she should have figured he'd have a sweet tooth, since she'd noticed awhile back that he kept a stash of candy in his desk. Part of her couldn't help but wonder why he bothered with coffee if he didn't like bitter things, but he didn't exactly seem like an energy drink kind of person.

It wasn't hard to find the sugar, since they were nice enough to have left the sugar bowl right next to where they stored the French press. She still had some time before she had to worry about the coffee, so she decided to dig around a bit and see what she could find. Hopefully she'd be able to get it closer to what he normally drank because she wasn't sure the sugar would be enough to cut the bitterness. The first couple times she'd tried making coffee for Sen had been disasters, but once she'd figured out that it wasn't all that different from cooking, she'd managed to do pretty well. She grinned when she found a carton of milk in the fridge, but just as she was reaching for it, she caught sight of the expiration date. Seriously…?! Who left milk in the fridge a whole month after it expired? She shuddered as she quickly retracted her hand and closed the door. There was no way she was touching that.

She took a deep breath before turning her attention to the cupboards with a new sense of trepidation. If there's a bug in there… No amount of dignity would keep her from running from the room if she came across one of those. Mice and rats, fine, they could at least pass for cute, but there was nothing cute about anything that had more than four legs. Thankfully most of the cupboards were empty, the shelves bare and dusty, except for a few items she didn't think even a cockroach would want to eat. Plenty of dishes, silverware, and cooking equipment, but not much in the way of food or spices. On one shelf, she found a small bottle of vanilla extract, along with several other spices. On a whim, she grabbed the mostly empty container of nutmeg next to it. In another cupboard she managed to find a can of sweetened condensed milk tucked away behind a box of dried biscuit mix of all things.

Realizing she'd probably let the coffee brew long enough, she set her ingredients down on the counter and carefully pressed the grounds down to the bottom of the glass. That done, she grabbed one of the larger mugs from where she'd noticed them in her ingredient search, and after filling it most of the way, she mixed in two heaping spoonful's of sugar. The condensed milk would be a little sweeter than what he was used to, but she didn't think that would be a bad thing in this case. At least she didn't have to worry about the vanilla and nutmeg going bad, unlike the milk.

Maybe it was the chef in her, but she couldn't resist adding a sprinkle of nutmeg as the finishing touch. She knew it was a risk, since it wasn't part of his usual, but it would enhance the sweetness and flavor of the vanilla. Using a spoon, she mixed it up and sampled a small taste. She winced slightly at the unmistakable coffee flavor that nothing could ever really cover up, but it wasn't bitter at all. The vanilla with the nutmeg reminded her of a warm cake fresh from the oven. That was probably as good as she was going to get, and hopefully Okita would like it. If he didn't, well then at least she had enough coffee left in the press to make him something different. Careful not to spill, she kept one eye on the mug and one on where she was going. She didn't think she'd be lucky enough to survive two collisions in one day.

"Um, here you go. Sorry… I'll be sure to remember to get yours tomorrow."

She bit her lip anxiously as she set the coffee down next to Okita and he eyed it with a measure of trepidation and he sighed resignedly. "Hm, well I suppose it's better than nothing."

As she moved the short distance to her own desk, she couldn't help but glance back and watch nervously as Okita took a sip. She began to panic slightly when he pulled the mug away from his mouth and looked down at its contents in confusion. Did he not like it? Maybe it was the nutmeg… I really shouldn't have added the nutmeg...

On the other side of the desks, Nagakura grinned and waived his cup tauntingly in the air as he called, "Hey Souji, you jealous?"

Okita looked at the mug for a split second longer, before his lips pulled up at the corner into a smirk of smug satisfaction. "Nope."

"Huh?" Nagakura was clearly thrown by Okita's response, because his head was cocked to the side and his arm still hung awkwardly in the air. "But that stuff's awful."

"Must only be when you make it, cause Chizuru's tastes pretty good."

Just who was taunting who here? She was pretty sure Okita had just flipped the tables on Nagakura… and did that mean he actually liked what she'd made? She let out a breath of relief as her muscled unfroze themselves and she was able to sit at her desk.

"What!? I don't believe you." She jumped in surprise when Nagakura quickly turned to her, his gaze imploring as he asked "Hey Chizuru, can you make me some too?"

Before she could recover enough to do more than stare dumbly at him, Harada frowned as he deftly leaned over and hit Nagakura over the back of the head. "Idiot. You don't need more coffee when you haven't even finished the first one she got you. She's not our personal barista."

Nagakura frowned as he rubbed his head. "Oh come on Sano, I didn't say she was. But if it's good enough that Souji is willing to drink it, then that stuff's gotta be amazing.

She felt her cheeks flush as Okita took a long taunting drink, his smirk, if anything, even more smug than it had been a second ago. "I guess you'll just have to hope she forgets your drink next time. I know I am."

"That's not…" Harada sighed and shook his head, "You know what, I give up. You lot are hopeless."

Nagakura's slightly mopey expression instantly brightened into hopeful disbelief as he looked at his friend. "So does that mean you're not gonna hit me anymore? Cause that would be great."

Unfortunately Harada almost immediately squashed that hope when he grinned and said, "Oh no, I'm still gonna hit you. I'm just not gonna waste my time telling you what you did wrong."

Nagakura looked ready to complain, but before he could, Hijikata walked in followed by three people she didn't recognize. The first man was short, maybe around Heisuke's height, with close cut black hair. His sharp amethyst eyes focused on her for a moment, before they shifted to someone behind her and he gave a formal nod. "Detective Saito, it's good to see you."

She glanced back in time to see Saito give an equally formal nod. "It's good to see you as well Yamazaki."

"Hey, I'm here too you know." The way Okita was smirking gave her the impression that the two of them didn't get along very well. Yamazaki and Saito seemed to have a mutual respect, but Okita's expression was reminiscent of the one he usually had right before he did something to torment Hijikata.

Yamazaki's lips thinned slightly at Okita's tone, but he kept his voice civil as he said, "Detective Okita."

Across the room, Nagakura had brightened when he saw the second person following Hijikata. This man was much larger than Yamazaki and he easily could have been intimidating, but she thought his eyes and expression seemed kind.

"Hey Shimada, how's it goin'? I haven't seen you round here in ages."

Shimada laughed as he rubbed the back of his head "I guess it has been a while."

Hijikata cleared his throat, getting everyone's attention. "Alright, first thing we need to clear up thanks to the events of last night is that Yukimura is now officially part of this team. Saito, for the time being I'm assigning her to your subgroup, but her work is going to stay off the record." He turned to her as he gestured to Yamazaki and Shimada. "This is Yamazaki Susumu and Shimada Kai. You won't see them here often since they do most of our intelligence gathering and undercover work."

A fake sounding cough from the back of the group drew her attention to the final man who had entered the room. While Shimada and Yamazaki both gave off the same general feeling as the rest of the team, this man was different. As she looked at him, his eyes locked with hers for a brief moment and she forced herself to look away as a cold feeling settled in her stomach. She didn't want to misjudge him right off the bat, but every instinct she had was telling her to keep as far away from him as possible. It didn't make sense to her though, considering he looked clean-cut and professional, if a bit effeminate. Both his black hair and suit were neat and perfectly arranged, almost as if he were ready at any moment for a photo-op or TV interview. Maybe it was his smile… The smile on his face initially seemed kind, but it just didn't ring true to her like Shimada's had. It wasn't a smile from happiness or humor, instead it seemed like a well practiced pose for a camera with no real warmth or life behind it.

The man gave another fake cough and Hijikata's face pinched like he'd just tasted something exceedingly sour as he waived in the man's general direction. "And this is Itou Kashitarou. He's an aid from the Governor's office who Kondou has asked to liaison with us. Its his job to cut the red tape and get us any access and information we need."

If possible, Itou's fake smile beamed even brighter as he took a step forward and said, "It's a pleasure-"

Without even looking at the man behind him, Hijikata continued speaking, raising his voice to drown out Itou. " Saito, Harada, and Shinpachi will be working with Itou on our open cases. Souji, I know it's pointless to tell you to leave, but you're not going into the field. You, and Heisuke when he gets back, will be working with Yukimura to do whatever it is her program thing does with our closed cases."

When she glanced at the rest of the team, she realized none of them looked happy with the new orders. Both Harada and Nagakura were eyeing Itou with varying levels of veiled distaste and while Saito didn't look unhappy per se, there was certainly a cool edge to his demeanor that hadn't been there when he'd greeted Yamazaki. Okita, on the other hand, was ignoring Itou in favor of glaring at Hijikata, probably for restricting him to the office for the duration of his recovery. For her part, she was just thankful she wouldn't be working with Itou. She felt guilty for judging him before she really got to know him, but even Okita at his worst hadn't given her feelings like this. Sen had given her countless lectures over the years about 'a woman's intuition', but she hadn't quite known what she'd meant until now.

Itou gaze lingered on her again before he cleared his throat to gain Hijikata's attention. "Are you sure my skills and connections wouldn't be of more use here Hijikata? I really don't think the nature of your ah… fieldwork suits my particular skill set."

Despite Itou's civil tone, she could still detect the slight undercurrent of distaste in his voice. Hijikata frowned and looked like he was just barely keeping his irritation reigned in as he retorted, "Your connections are useless if you're here and the bureaucrats in our way are out there . I don't care if what you see upsets your delicate constitution, it does us no good if you're not around to wave those flashy credentials you seem so keen on showing off when and where we need it."

Itou blinked, clearly not used to people pushing back against him in the brusque and uncompromising way Hijikata currently was, but he recovered quickly enough. The only sign she could see of his irritation was a slight strain in what she now realized was his politician's smile.

"Very well, but surely I won't be out all the time, so while I'm here I will need someplace to work." He scanned the room briefly, before his eyes settled on Heisuke's empty desk. "Ah, that will do nicely."

Harada and Nagakura both looked ready to jump to their feet in defense of Heisuke's desk, but Hijikata deftly blocked Itou's path. "I believe one of the private conference rooms down the hall would serve you much better. Saito, would you please show Itou to the conference rooms and let him choose which he would like to use while he's here."

Saito nodded and calmly stood. "Very well Commander. If you will follow me."

Once the two men left the room, Chizuru felt herself relax somewhat and the cold queasy feeling faded from her stomach. Harada leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. "Well this is gonna be interesting…"

Nagakura frowned at Harada and shook his head. "Interesting isn't the word for it. What the hell is Kondou thinking bringing that guy on board?"

As much as she didn't want to, she couldn't help but wonder the same thing. They all looked at Hijikata who sighed and rubbed his forehead before he said, "As much as I hate to admit it, he does have connections we can use. Sorry, but you'll just have to deal with him for the time being." Nagakura still didn't look happy, but he didn't push the subject any further. "On a slightly better note, Kondou also wanted me to remind everyone that Tour Day is coming up, so cleaning and decorating starts Monday."

She had no idea what Hijikata was talking about, but everyone else in the room seemed to brighten at the announcement. Nagakura in particular seemed excited, since he proceeded to pump his fist in the air as he said, "Yes! I can't wait! Have you decided who's doing what yet?"

Hijikata shook his head before he headed for his office, "No, but I'll let you know next week."

"Oh yeah, that's coming up isn't it?" Harada stretched as he got up from his desk. "Come on Shin, we should grab Itou on our way out. As much as I want to, we can't just shove him off on Saito all the time."

Nagakura groaned and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'sure we can', but he dutifully followed Harada out of the room. She turned to Okita, her head tipped to the side curiously. "Tour Day?"

"Hm, guess you wouldn't know about that yet."

She waited for him to continue, but he just grinned at her and took another sip of coffee. Finally she couldn't take it anymore. "And…?"

"Oh, you actually want me to explain? You should have said so in the first place."

She tried to work up a glare, but it was hard to do when his eyes were sparkling with a playful mischievousness and nearly all the sarcastic edge had left his expression. Actually, she was having a hard time not gawking stupidly at the change.

Whatever her expression had turned out like, Okita must have found it amusing, because he chuckled before he explained, "Kondou teaches kendo at the local rec center in his spare time. Most of the parents in the area have to work full-time, so when winter break rolls around, a lot of the kids end up there all day. Anyway, to give the staff a break, Kondou opens the station to the kids for a day. It's parent permission of course, but a lot of the kids have taken his classes at one time or another, so most parents are fine with it. The older kids get broken into small groups and get the full tour. Everything from how to safely handle a gun, to the labs and evidence storage. Basically it either gets them interested in a career or scares them off from doing anything illegal."

Wow… Not even in her wildest dreams would she have expected them to do anything like this. "What about the younger kids?"

He shrugged slightly, "Oh, they get to spend the day running around on this floor, playing games and doing crafts. Personally, I think they get the better end of the deal. Unfortunately we tend to show up in their neighborhoods a lot, so Kondou figures it's better to make us look like the good guys, rather than the gangs who run the streets. Plus I think he likes that it gives him an excuse to decorate the place for Christmas."

"Wow…" This time she couldn't stop the thought from slipping out. "I mean, I knew Kondou was kind, but for him to do all that… He really is a great man."

If anything, Okita's expression softened even further as he nodded. "Yeah, he is."

Unfortunately that openness didn't last long, because after a second, he blinked and she could tell when his guard snapped back in place. Though maybe not all of it…

He gestured at her computer as he asked, "So how many cases can that program of yours handle?"

She decided it was better not to push her luck for one day, and let him change the subject. "Um, I'm not really sure… it handled the first batch you gave me just fine. Why?"

"Oh, Cause there's a lot more where that came from."

She looked uncertainly between him and her computer. "How much more?"

Okita didn't say anything, just grinned and headed for the doorway, leaving her to scramble to catch up. "Wait, how much more?!"

Monday, December 10th

It turned out Okita hadn't been kidding when he'd told her Kondou liked to decorate for Christmas. Each detective team had four large tubs of decorations, as well as a full sized Christmas tree, and were responsible for decorating their room and the section of hall just outside it. Some of the teams even had themes. The team two rooms down had done up their area in a 'Christmas in July' theme, complete with a painted beach scene on their section of windows. Unfortunately she was out of luck when it came to the guys. It turned out they had no sense of theme whatsoever and their room was simply a conglomeration of personal preferences.

Out of all of them, Hijikata was the only one not decorating, other than Itou, who thankfully hadn't shown up. Instead, he was recording and packing up all of the case information they'd had on the whiteboards, so that it could be moved temporarily to the conference rooms down the hall. She'd been confused by that at first, until she realized that they couldn't exactly leave their cases up while they had a bunch of kids running around. She glanced over at Saito to see him standing on a stepladder hanging one of a seemingly endless number of plastic snowflakes from the ceiling. Already half the ceiling was covered and he'd edged the room in fairly realistic light-up plastic icicles. The overall effect was actually quite pretty, since the lights in the ceiling caused the facets to sparkle as the snowflakes turned slowly. Okita had ended up roping her into helping him decorate the large Christmas tree they'd managed to squeeze into a corner. Not that she'd really fought all that hard on that front. She was too short to be of any help to Saito and she wouldn't have gone near the baka trio with a ten-foot pole right then.

No sooner had they gotten the tubs, then the three mischief makers had snatched up the window paints and ran for the hallway. Having Heisuke back was nice, but he also brought their eccentric brand of crazy to a whole other level. It hadn't been five minutes before the first tussle had broken out and Nagakura had come out of it with a painted red nose, courtesy of Harada, to match the reindeer antlers Heisuke had shoved on his head. From the looks she'd snuck out the doorway between hanging ornaments, she thought Harada and Nagakura weren't half bad when it came to painting. Their candy and gingerbread winter wonderland scene actually looked pretty good. Unfortunately Heisuke was flat out awful at painting and every time he moved on to something else, either Harada or Nagakura would go back and do their best to fix up Heisuke's blobs of color.

She was fighting down a giggle as Harada shook his head as he vainly tried to fix what she thought might have been Heisuke's attempt at a peppermint, when she felt a poke to the back of her head.

"Hey, the tree's not going to decorate itself you know. Even with one arm, I'm going to end up finishing before you're even halfway."

She turned around to find Okita standing with his arms somewhat awkwardly folded due to the sling and lips pulled up in a smirk. What he'd said was probably true, since his half of the tree did look almost done, while hers was still pretty sparse. Of course he didn't take into account the fact that the bottom of the tree was considerably wider than the top, so technically he'd had less area to cover.

"Sorry." she felt her cheeks flush at being caught slacking, as she hurried to hang the ornament in her hand on the tree.

It was a calico cat curled up asleep in a basket, surrounded by wrapped presents. As she reached into the box for another ornament, she wondered again why so many of them were cat themed. Cats wearing Santa hats, cats riding sleds, even a cat climbing a precariously leaning Christmas tree. They had some neat police themed ones, as well as some beautiful cut glass snowflakes she thought might have been Saito's contribution, but why on earth did they have so many cats?

Some time after Okita had finished his half of the tree and, with only minimal jabs about her being slow, had started helping her decorate the bottom, there was a burst of frantic yelling from the hallway. She glanced at Okita, but he just shrugged and went back to hanging ornaments. The noise continued for a minute or two before she blinked in disbelief, a forgotten ornament dangling from her fingers, as Heisuke rolled and wiggled his way through the doorway. He'd been wrapped from head to toe in thick red ribbon with a large bow tied on top of his head.

"Guys, come on! Get me out of this!"

Nagakura and Harada stumbled in after him, both laughing so hard they could barely stand as Heisuke managed to inchworm a couple more feet.

"Dude, this isn't funny! I can't move!"

Despite the fact that she was also fighting back a laugh, she hurried over to help Heisuke untangle himself from the ribbon. She'd taken all of two steps toward him, when Hijikata burst out of his office, probably to find out what all the yelling was about. Unfortunately the act of opening his door dumped a previously unnoticed box of powdered gold glitter on top of him.

Hijikata slid to a stop as the wave of gold blinded him, before he shook his head and yelled, "SOUJI!"

The gold glitter had completely coated every inch of him, sticking like glue to his hair, skin, and clothes. Hijikata opened his mouth to yell again, but the powder still hanging in the air caused him to break into a sneezing fit instead. Next to her, Okita was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. She had no idea when or how he'd managed to set that up, but it really couldn't have been anyone else.

After almost twenty minutes she'd finally had to settle for just cutting the ribbon off of Heisuke, since she couldn't find a way to untie Harada and Nagakura's knots and they'd refused to help. The bow had actually been the worst part of the whole ordeal, because whoever had tied it had worked poor Heisuke's hair in so well that she'd had no choice but to cut a small chunk of it at the back in order to get it off. It hadn't been much, but the whole event had sent Harada and Nagakura into stitches all over again as Heisuke had wailed at the loss. While she'd been working on Heisuke, Hijikata had been chasing Okita around the floor, yelling obscenities and sneezing while Okita danced just out of reach. Of course things devolved even further when Kondou wandered over and innocently asked Hijikata why he was covered in glitter, and Hijikata had started in on what became a ten minute rant on Okita's antics and his lack of discipline.

All in all, she was more than ready to go home and start dinner. It would have been a lie to say the day hadn't been fun, but at least the apartment would be quieter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 - Coffee, Christmas, and a Creep: Part 2

Friday, December 14th

Chizuru brushed her bangs out of her face as she took the last batch of gingerbread men out of the oven to cool. It was getting near lunch time and since she'd been baking most of the morning, the station's previously unused kitchen was now filled with the cheerful smells of cookies and had ingredients and bowls lovingly spread across its counter tops. Outside the room she could hear the sounds of laughing and playing children, and every once in a while she would catch one or two of them peeking anxiously around the corner. Usually they ran as soon as she caught them spying, but she couldn't help but find their curiosity adorable.

When she'd first offered to bake treats for the kids, Kondou had jumped on the idea, freeing her from any other assignments for the day and giving her free use of the kitchen. That morning, she'd needed several of the guys help in order to bring up all of the ingredients she'd bought for the occasion. Technically she could have baked everything the day before, but she always thought cookies tasted better when they were fresh. All she had left to do before lunch was delivered was decorate the gingerbread men after they cooled. She already had the frosting bagged and set aside.

The logistics of the whole event had seemed complicated at first, but when put into action, it was actually fairly simple. Two detective teams had to remain on call, just in case something came up, but everyone else was split into one of two jobs. The most coveted job was working with the older kids, and Hijikata, Saito, and Nagakura had all ended up in that group. The rest were responsible for watching the younger kids and making sure they didn't, as Hijikata had put it, destroy the place. When Heisuke had found out he would be working with the younger kids, he'd loudly voiced his complaint that he'd worked with the little kids last year and that it wasn't fair. Of course Nagakura had proceeded to trap him in a headlock while teasing that no one any older would take him seriously. Thankfully Hijikata had stepped in before their tussle could turn into a full on wrestling match. The peace didn't last long, because no sooner had Nagakura released Heisuke, then Okita had commented on what a 'sparkling' example of leadership Hijikata was. Kondou hadn't understood why Hijikata had nearly flown off the handle at the seemingly innocuous comment, but she thought it probably had something to do with the fact that even after four days, she could still see the remnants of gold glitter stuck in his hair.

She was pulled from her thoughts when a desperate voice called out from the doorway.

"Chizuruuu! You gotta help me! I can't take it any more! No, I said get off me! Leave me alone!"

"Huh?" She turned around to find Heisuke stumbling into the kitchen as he tried to shake off a girl of about five, who had latched herself onto his leg. If she was honest, it looked like he'd just walked in from a war zone… or at least a warzone where markers and glitter were the main form of ammunition. The same glitter that had been in Hijikata's hair was all over Heisuke, but instead of gold, he was covered in splotches of bright pink and neon blue, and he had marker scribbled all over his face.

Heisuke tried to pull the girl off but she wouldn't budge. "C'mon, pleeease let go!"

"No! My Heiski!"

"Agh! Chizuru, help! This monster won't leave me alone!"

The girl frowned, her lip pouting as she clenched his leg tighter. "No! My Heiski!"

With a frown just as petulant as the girl's, Heisuke put his hands on his hips and retorted, "No! Not your Heiski!"

Finally she couldn't fight the laughter that bubbled up from her chest and forced her to lean breathlessly against the counter as Heisuke unconsciously resorted to arguing in the girl's child-speak.

He shot an exasperated frown at her as he said, "Oh, come on, not you too. I already tried getting help from Sano."

Or at least, she was pretty sure the look he was giving her was supposed to be exasperated, but with the marker all over his face, she just couldn't take him seriously. She wiped her eyes a final time and managed to get her breathing mostly under control before she said, "Sorry, I couldn't help it." Still fighting not to giggle she walked over and knelt down in front of the child. "Hi, my name's Chizuru. What's yours?"

The girl grinned brightly, showing off a missing tooth. "Hi Chizu, my name is Anna."

"It's nice to meet you Anna." Chizuru gestured at the trays of cookies behind her. "Listen, I need Heisuke's help for a bit, so you're going to need to let him go if you want cookies later."

The girl thought that over for a bit before she asked, "What kinda cookie?"

"Well, I've got gingerbread men, sugar cookies, and even some chocolate chip, but you've got to let Heisuke go if you want to have one later."

Again Anna thought that over before she nodded and slowly unwrapped herself from Heisuke's leg. "Okay, I wanna chocolate chip."

Internally Chizuru gave a sigh of relief. If bribery hadn't worked, she wasn't sure how she would have persuaded Anna to let go. Quick as a flash, Heisuke darted away, putting her between him and Anna's clingy arms. The girl's hands twitched slightly and Chizuru pressed her advantage before Anna could decide she wanted Heisuke more than she wanted a cookie. "I promise you can have one with lunch, now why don't you go play until lunch is ready?"

Anna nodded seriously before she turned and skipped out the door. Behind her, she heard Heisuke sigh in relief. "Thanks. I don't know how much more of those monsters I can take. It's awful out there."

She couldn't help a giggle as she wet a paper towel in the sink and began dabbing at the marker on his face. "Really? I thought she was cute." It wasn't until Heisuke's cheeks flushed and he looked away that she realized just how close she was to him. Instantly her cheeks flamed with embarrassment and she quickly stepped back and held out the paper towel to him. "Sorry… If you want a break, you can decorate the gingerbread men for me and I'll take your place out there."

The blush was still visible on his cheeks, but he grinned brightly as he said, "Really?! You're a lifesaver."

"All right, the gingerbread men still need to cool for a minute or two," she pointed to the bags of frosting on the counter, "but the frosting is over there. Just cut one of the corners a tiny bit to use it."

Heisuke nodded, still scrubbing at the marker on his face, and she turned and headed out of the kitchen.

If she'd been hoping for the type of war zone Heisuke had made it out to be, she would have been sorely disappointed. Sure, it was loud and there were some kids running around, but most everything seemed pretty well in hand. She looked into their room to see Harada sitting on the floor with a bunch of what looked like 2nd and 3rd graders, all of them happily coloring while they chatted. Overall this didn't seem too bad to her, but she could understand why some of the men didn't like getting stuck working with the younger kids. Nagakura might have been fine, but she wasn't sure how well Hijikata and Saito would have handled this many little kids running around. Probably better that they're working with the older kids… especially Hijikata. She had no desire to see how things would have played out if it had been Hijikata's leg Anna had latched onto, instead of Heisuke's. Working with the older kids was certainly a much better fit for their personalities anyway.

The only person she hadn't seen yet was Okita. She'd initially been surprised when he'd been selected as part of the group working with the younger kids, but then again, she really couldn't see him handling an irritable teenager all that well. Hijikata and Saito might be able to deal with that kind of attitude, but Okita would probably just lock the kid in a closet and leave them to think things over for an hour or two. If he even remembered they were there…

She was stopped short by the sound of a familiar laugh from the room just ahead of her. At least, the laugh was mostly familiar… it sounded far too lighthearted to be who she thought it was, but who else could it be? Careful to keep her steps quiet, she walked to the doorway and looked into the room. She froze, completely dumbstruck by the scene playing itself out in front of her.

Just like their room, this one also had six desks lined up in pairs down the center, which left a wide walkway around the edge. Distantly she realized they'd done up their room in rich reds and golds, but that wasn't what held her attention. Darting around the small circuit, Okita laughed again as he kept one step ahead of a group of kids, all of them clambering and trying to grab him. Apparently none of the kids had thought of going the other way and boxing him in, because they followed after him like a group of ducklings. He had a small boy on his shoulders who squealed and giggled every time he took a corner, his hands knotted in Okita's hair. She almost couldn't believe it was the same person. Just like a week ago, he seemed… softer? Well, at least less sharp. His eyes still had that mischievous light, but they were free of the sarcasm and cynicism she normally saw, and his smile was genuine, without a trace of its usual smirk. It made him look younger, almost as if he were no older than the kids around him. It wasn't just his eyes and expression either, everything about him seemed more relaxed and… happy?

After rounding another corner, Okita slowed just enough that the fastest of the kids was able to grab and cling to one of his legs, effectively dragging him to a stop. She had to fight a giggle, when within seconds, he was nearly knocked over by the wave of children, each of them calling for their turn.

"Got you Souji!"

"My turn, my turn."

"No, I caught him. It's my turn."

"Alright, alright. Hold on." Okita laughed as he tried to put the child on his shoulders down, but frowned when the boy refused to let go of his hair. "Ouch. Hey, no pulling."

"But I wanna go again."

Okita rolled his eyes and said sarcastically, "And what? You think pulling my hair is going to help?"

"No…" Reluctantly the boy released Okita's hair and allowed himself to be deposited on the ground.

As Okita made to stand, his eyes met hers and she froze, her face flaming with heat at being caught staring. He didn't move from where he knelt among the kids, but the smile instantly dropped from his face and his expression became cautious. If it hadn't been Okita, she might have said it was even a little nervous.

The moment was broken when the young boy who'd been on Okita's shoulders tugged on his sleeve and loudly whispered, "Souji, who's that? And why is she so red?"

Almost as if it had never left, Okita's grin was back in place, but it wasn't the same as before. Once again, it was more smirk than actual smile, and a part of her couldn't help but wish the other one would come back. "Oh~? That's Chizuru. Don't worry, she turns that color a lot."

She clapped her hands to her cheeks to hide the evidence as she said, "I-I do not!" Of course, the heat she could feel spreading up to her ears put the lie to her words and one of the kids was quick to point that out.

"Do to! You're even redder now!"

"Souji's right!"

She wavered, not entirely sure how to deal with the situation, as several other kids nodded and voiced opinions along the line of 'Souji's always right'. The man in question was clearly fighting not to laugh, which wasn't helping matters any. Before she could formulate some kind of logical, non-childish retort, which didn't involve her sticking her tongue out at him, someone called out to her from down the hall. She turned to see Kondou walking toward her, trailed by his own retinue of children.

"Ah, Yukimura! Have you seen-" As soon as Kondou spotted Okita, he gave her a pat on the shoulder and moved past her into the room. "Oh, there you are Souji. I just wanted to stop by and see how things were going up here."

Okita grinned and she realized with a start that it was the same smile he'd had before he'd noticed her. "Don't worry, we're having loads of fun."

Around him a bunch of the kids nodded, with one even piping up to say, "Yeah, Souji's the best!"

Kondou laughed at that, his eyes bright as he beamed at Okita. "That's great. I know I can always count on you when it comes to kids."

To her surprise, Kondou leaned over and casually ruffled Okita's hair, and beside looking slightly embarrassed he didn't seem especially bothered by it. She was pretty sure Hijikata or anyone else would have lost a hand if they'd tried that, but apparently Kondou was different. In fact, the longer she watched them, the more she realized just how different it was. There was clearly more history between them than she knew. If she had to hazard a guess, she would have said it was reminiscent of the way she'd seen Sen and her father interact… or maybe something like brothers? Not that she really had a model for that, since none of her close friends had siblings. Kodo might have only been her uncle, but he'd always treated her like a daughter and with her memories the way they were, well, he was the only father figure she'd known. Still, she'd never had the type of relationship Sen shared with her father, or that Okita seemed to share with Kondou. She didn't blame Kodo for that, he just wasn't someone who tended to be physically affectionate, but a tiny part of her did wish it could've been different.

Carefully and with surprising ease, Kondou unlatched a girl, who she suddenly recognized as Anna, from his leg before he headed for the doorway. "Well, I'll leave you all to your fun. I'm going to go check on some of the tour groups. Apparently one of the kids in Toshi's group was giving him trouble."

Okita's expression was mixed as Kondou smiled brightly and left the room. She'd noticed a flash of a smirk when Kondou had mentioned that Hijikata was having trouble, but it was also clear he would have liked him to stay longer. In the lull left by Kondou's absence, their eyes met again and she chewed on her lip nervously as Okita gave her a wary look.

She was desperately searching for something, or really anything, to say, when she was startled by a loud crash from what sounded like the kitchen. With the moment broken, she turned away and hurried to the kitchen as fast as she could without actually running. When she reached the doorway, she slid to a stop, trying to take in the disaster Heisuke had somehow managed to create in only a few minutes. The bowls that had been next to the bags of frosting were scattered across the floor, their paths marked by streaks of flour. On top of that, Heisuke had somehow caused the bag of red frosting to explode, spraying him and a number of the cabinets with the sticky substance. In the epicenter stood Heisuke, clearly at a loss as to how to deal with any of it. Thankfully, at least as far as she could tell, the cookies were all safe. She heard a snicker behind her, and realized that Okita had followed, along with a number of the children.

Before Chizuru could stop her, Anna darted past the two of them and latched herself back on to Heisuke's leg. "Heski's red as Chizu! Can I have my cookie now?"

Anna's collision was enough to jolt Heisuke out of his dazed state and behind her, Okita's snicker turned into a full on laugh as he said, "Looks like you've finally got yourself a girlfriend, Heisuke."

Unfortunately for Heisuke, Anna ran in completely the wrong direction with that comment. "Heski my girlfriend!"

"Wha-?! NO! Souji you idiot, now look what you did!"

"Oh~? I think you'd make a cute girlfriend." Okita's cheshire grin widened and a bunch of the kids who'd followed him nodded in agreement.

"Dude! Not helping!"

As Heisuke vainly tried to remove Anna, she couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for him. Okita probably wasn't going to let him forget it anytime soon…

Tuesday, January 1st

"Why me? This totally isn't fair."

Okita sighed and fought down the urge to throw something at Heisuke. It had been almost a month since he and Heisuke had been injured, and in that whole time Hijikata hadn't let either of them away from their desks. If either of them so much as made a move toward the elevator he'd appear with a glare and a string of threats. Normally that wouldn't have fazed him, but when the threats had involved Kondou, he'd had no choice but to back down. The last thing he wanted to do was make Kondou worry about him and damn it if Hijikata didn't know that.

Besides being frustrating, the lack of activity was giving him far too much time to think. Within a couple of days of the warehouse raid, Saito had come back with his report confirming Chizuru's story. Not that he'd really thought it would be otherwise. As crazy as it sounded, it had been pretty obvious she was telling the truth. Unfortunately not everything could be wrapped up so easily, since he still hadn't figured out how he felt about their encounter on Tour Day. His first reaction had been that she'd been sticking her nose where it didn't belong again, but at the same time she hadn't started asking nosy questions either… She'd just seemed to accept it without question and he wasn't quite sure how to deal with that.

Thankfully, he'd discovered an excellent source of distraction from his boredom in teasing Chizuru. Her over the top reactions easily kept him entertained and kept his thoughts from running in useless circles. She had this irrepressible innocent streak and bright outlook that most people lost quickly in their line of work, and it made her reactions all the more interesting. The most entertaining were the times she'd push back or snap off a response without thinking and then rush to apologize. It still made him grin when he remembered just how shocked she'd been when he'd shown her the storeroom they used to keep the cases related to the Syndicate.

Of course entering those cases into her program had been just as boring and monotonous as he'd feared it would be. Unlike him, Chizuru actually got a break from the awful task when she went to do whatever she did with Sannan or Hajime. He'd spent hours doing nothing but filling out form after form and it was severely testing his patience. Once again Chizuru had proved herself to be the perfect distraction, if not in a way he'd initially anticipated. When he wasn't teasing her, which admittedly wasn't often, she'd started asking him questions. She'd been hesitant at first, but with growing confidence, she'd asked him questions about the cases she was entering. Not about the details of the cases themselves, but about the people. Did he remember them? What were they like? When he'd finally straight up asked her why she was so curious, she'd said it was because she wanted to understand. She may think what they'd done was wrong, but she still wanted to try and understand why they'd done it. It was just weird, the way she didn't seem to judge people. And what did it say about the fact that she hadn't asked him any questions about Kondou or the kids? He was used to keeping people at arm's length, and the way she kept unintentionally working around his barriers made him uneasy.

Another pitiful moan from Heisuke snapped him out of his thoughts and this time he didn't bother holding back his flash of irritation. With aim that had gotten considerably better since he'd been forced to do most everything with his left hand, he flicked his pencil and nailed Heisuke in the forehead with the eraser.

"Ow! You jerk, what was that for?"

He smirked as Heisuke rubbed at the red spot forming on his forehead. "To get you to quit whining and shut up."

Maybe it had to do with his concussion, but Heisuke would go from being his normal, hyperactive self, to whining and moaning about headaches and the amount of paperwork Shinpachi and Harada forced on him. Their argument was that since they had to deal with Itou all the time, the least Heisuke could do was do their paperwork for them.

"Oh yeah?" Heisuke picked up a pen of his own and chucked it at him, missing by a mile.

Chizuru squeaked and ducked as the pen flew by her head. "Um, I don't think-"

"Now really, is this any way to behave in an office? You're scaring poor Chizuru."

He frowned at the sound of the pompous voice from the doorway, and beside him, he noticed Chizuru tense. Okay, so it wasn't completely true that she didn't judge. There was one exception that he'd found, but he was pretty sure she'd gotten it right. Whenever Itou was around, she always tensed and turned into a stuttering mess. Sure, Hijikata could intimidate her when he was in one of his oni moods, and his teasing could fluster her, but he could tell Itou genuinely freaked her out. That had surprised him at first, considering she'd handled running into a warehouse full of armed men pretty well, but then he'd noticed just how much Itou was watching her. While Heisuke also paid a lot of attention to Chizuru, and he was pretty sure the kid was also developing a crush, she remained completely oblivious, or at least unbothered by it. Clearly she'd noticed Itou's attention and didn't like it. Since he'd shown up, Itou had continuously tried to insert himself into their work and whenever Hijikata wasn't around, he usually managed to find a 'liason' reason for being at the station instead of out in the field. He had no love of politicians and Itou seemed to be about as slimy as they came.

"I hope they aren't bothering you dear."

Chizuru, who had been studiously looking at a paper she clearly wasn't reading, jumped when Itou sat on the edge of her desk. The sharp movement caused her to get a papercut, and she hissed and shoved her finger in her mouth.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Here, let me see it."

As Itou leaned closer, she hastily slid her chair away and mumbled around her finger, "N-No, it's fine. I can deal with it."

Without looking at any of them, she grabbed her purse and darted out of the room. All with her finger still stuck in her mouth. That's weird...

"Hmm, awfully flighty isn't she… One does have to wonder how she ended up here."

Itou left the statement hanging in the air and of course Heisuke had to answer. He could only hope the idiot wouldn't say anything about her family being connected to their work. He didn't know what Itou would do with the information, but it probably wouldn't be anything good.

"Chizuru? Oh, she's got this really cool program that helps organize our cases." He gave an awkward laugh and rubbed the back of his head. "The problem is she's the only one good at using it. Without her we'd be screwed."

Okita couldn't resist rolling his eyes. Oh yes, let's just tell the slimy, power hungry politician just how useful Chizuru is. Good job Heisuke…

"Hmm." Itou processed that for a second before glancing in the direction Chizuru had gone. "Well I think she'd make a lovely assistant in the Governor's office. I wonder if she could be persuaded to leave..."

Okay, that was as much of Itou as he was willing to put up with in a day. He glared at Heisuke to hopefully get him to shut up and was just about to tell Itou exactly what he could do with his questions and ideas, when a tickle at the back of his throat caused him to start to cough. Itou raised an eyebrow at him and Heisuke asked, "You all right Souji?"

It only lasted a second and he shot a hard look at Itou as he said, "Yeah, fine. Must have been something in the air."

"Oh dear, it appears I've overstayed my welcome." Itou gave his signature fake smile as he pushed off Chizuru's desk and headed for the doorway.

Not that he ever wanted to ask Hijikata for anything, but he'd already tried bringing Itou up to Kondou and had been told to give him a chance. The guy was a world-class flatterer around Kondou and had him completely bewitched. Maybe Hijikata could do something useful for once and convince Kondou to get rid of him… On second thought, he wasn't anywhere near that desperate yet.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 - A Woman's Touch

Thursday, January 10th

Hijikata had been true to his word. The time Chizuru used to spend working with Okita, she now spent divided between Saito and Sanan.

She found her time working with Sanan to be… interesting. That wasn't to say it wasn't going well. She'd always had a knack for anything medical, which was why Kodo had always pushed her to go to medical school, but Sanan's methods were certainly unusual. The first day she'd shown up, he'd dragged her right into an autopsy he'd been performing. Not that he'd expected her to do anything, but he seemed intent on giving her a firm foundation in human anatomy before he even broached the subject of first aid. While she did find anatomy and Sanan's process for determining cause of death interesting, being around a dead body still left her feeling queasy and jumpy for hours afterwards. She was almost grateful for Okita's teasing, since it helped distract her from any morbid musings.

Only once Sanan had felt she had a firm enough grasp of anatomy, had he moved her on to skills more advanced than basic bandaging and icing. Everything from stitching, to bone setting, and even some drug and poison responses seemed to be fair game for him. Sanan also supplemented standard trauma care with any preventative measures that could have saved whatever person had the misfortune of ending up on the table that day. Slowly, she found herself acquiring an ever broadening set of general medical advice.

In the midst of all the instruction, she'd also managed learned more about his past. Apparently before he'd been a medical examiner, Sanan had been an ER surgeon at the most prestigious hospital in the city. When she asked why he'd given it up, he'd smiled sadly and said it was because he didn't like losing patients. The hospital's reputation ensured they got the most difficult and often times hopeless cases.

"There's always the nagging question of if I'd done this or not done that… would they have lived? Most of the time the answer was no, but still…" He'd shrugged slightly, the distant memories in his eyes dissipating with the motion, "I've found this to be an excellent compromise. I get to do good and bring closure to families, and I don't have to worry about losing my patients."

When she'd happened to mention that revelation to Okita, he'd rolled his eyes and stifled a laugh as he said, "Well of course he's not going to lose his patients. They're dead. It's not like they can annoy him by talking back, like the rest of us can."

Unfortunately her work with Saito hadn't started off quite as well. Fighting hand to hand was one thing, but handling a gun was something else entirely. Even having taken the precaution of ensuring they would be the only people in the shooting gallery, she'd still been a jittery mess. She couldn't help but flinch every time the gun went off and the recoil stung her hands. She wasn't an amazing shot, but at least she was able to hit the paper, even if she missed the silhouette. The real problem had surfaced when Saito had unloaded the gun and told her to point it at him. She couldn't do it. Even thinking back on the experience made her break out in a cold sweat and start to hyperventilate.

Calmly and with a good deal of understanding, Saito had told her "There is no purpose in continuing this training if you are not prepared to use it. A hesitation is only an opening for your opponent to turn your weapon against you."

She'd worried at that point that he wouldn't teach her anything, but he'd quickly clarified that he would be instructing her in something that would be less likely to be lethal if turned against her. Even if she had been proficient with a gun, it wasn't like they had been going to provide her with one. It was just one of the basic skills Hijikata had requested she learn and improve. When Sauto had handed her a black metal cylinder about ten inches long, she'd been confused. He'd had his own cylinder in his hand, and with an elegant flick of his wrist, it extended and locked at about three feet in length. Looking more closely at her own baton, she noticed a button she'd missed upon her first inspection. By depressing the button, she was able to snap it to its full length, though far less gracefully than Saito had.

Apparently another of the numerous weird quirks of their team was that they'd all studied kenjutsu growing up and were exceptionally skilled at it. Thanks to Kondou's own background in the art, he'd insisted they maintain their skill and even gone as far as to order them the modified baton she currently held. They didn't have cause to use them often, but Saito had said they'd proven useful in situations where carrying a gun wasn't an option and it gave them greater range than the traditional model. Saito had pointed out that the main benefit of teaching her to use the baton was that it would increase her range, keeping her opponents at a distance and preventing them from using a height or weight advantage against her.

While she liked the sound of that, since Okita had thoroughly proven just how easy he found it to pin her to the floor, what made her happiest was that it was far less likely to cause severe or permanent damage to her opponent. If Okita had succeeded in drumming one thing into her, it was that her best bet was to avoid a fight and escape, and in her mind, that shouldn't require her to use deadly force.

At first she was clumsy, her movements unbalanced and wild, but Saito was nothing if not a patient teacher. Where Okita expected her to pick things up on the fly with little instruction, Saito was careful to walk her slowly through each movement, again and again, until she felt her arms were going to drop off. She was making decent progress considering she was essentially getting private lessons several times a week, but it was exhausting.

If she was honest, it was a relief to be able to just sit at her desk and fill out form after form, even if it meant she was subjected to Okita's teasing. The work didn't require a huge amount of mental strain, unlike her studies with Sanan, which sometimes felt like a final exam without the benefit of a quarter of prep. Training with Saito didn't leave her mentally exhausted, but the chance to rest her weary limbs was certainly welcome.

Really though, Okita's teasing wasn't that bad… She still couldn't stop herself from reacting to his taunts and insinuations, but unlike the ones he threw at Heisuke, the ones directed at her were never barbed and he always stopped just shy of pushing her as far as he had the day she'd ended up tackling him to the floor. In fact, those few times she'd managed to whip out a snarky response through her inevitable blushing, his laughter had sounded almost completely genuine. She wasn't sure why she treasured those moments so much, but every time she touched back on them, they left her with a warm happy feeling. Plus, if he was teasing her, then he wouldn't be teasing Heisuke. She knew both of them were frustrated with the restrictions Hijikata had placed on them, but it was a pain to try and prevent their petty squabbles. A bit of teasing was well worth not having to defuse an argument every fifteen minutes, and it saved Hijikata a lecture.

She'd been surprised when Okita had shown her just how many cases they'd managed to link to the Syndicate. It wasn't what she would consider a massive amount, but it certainly was more than she'd been expecting. She had no idea what the actual limits of her program were, and she'd been afraid it wouldn't be able to handle that many. She may have helped design it, but in reality she had no clue of its inner workings. As they'd entered the cases into the system, she'd run occasional queries just to make sure they hadn't broken it. To her surprise, it handled the cases just fine. Certainly it was a bit slow, but nothing that would be completely unwieldy. Between the three of them, they'd managed to enter nearly three quarters of the cases. To ensure she had enough storage on her computer, she'd made sure to transfer all of her personal files and research onto a separate drive she kept at home.

Chizuru was in the middle of entering the locations mentioned in a witness statement when her phone vibrated in her purse. She glanced down, waiting to see if it would go off again, but it remained silent. That probably meant it was a text from Sen. If it had been a call, it would have most likely been her uncle, since he was always averse to texting. Part of her wanted to finish what she was doing before getting back to Sen, but since that night Sen had expected her to respond promptly to any and all texts. She waited a moment longer before letting out a resigned sigh and digging her phone out of her purse.

"Have a work dinner tonight. Probably won't be back until late. Sorry… ~.~"

She snapped off a quick reply, telling Sen that it was fine and she'd see her later that night, and leaned back in her chair. Now what was she supposed to do? Normally she'd be leaving in a half hour or so to start dinner, but going back to an empty apartment didn't sound all that appealing. She blinked at the the thought. Since when did she care about whether she was alone or not? Kodo had often worked through dinner, leaving her alone, but right now the idea of eating alone didn't sit well with her. Well, I'll deal with that later. Since she didn't have to hurry back to cook, she could at least finish the case she was working on and decide what to do then.

She was just finishing off the last entry for the case, when sigh from the other side of the room caught her attention. Across the way, Nagakura had leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head as he looked at Harada. "Hey man, I'm gettin' hungry. What're we gonna do about dinner?"

"What're you looking at me for? It's not my job to feed your lazy ass."

Heisuke piped up from Harada's other side, "How about pizza?"

Nagakura shook his head, "Nah, we had pizza yesterday. I was thinkin' burgers and fries…"

Next to her, Okita snorted and added his own two cents. "And we had that the day before. We haven't had Chinese in a while."

Chizuru watched the debate over what to have for dinner unfold with growing disbelief. Was this normal for them? How on earth were they all so fit if they were eating like this? If she ate that way, not only would it probably make her sick, she'd blow up like a balloon within a week. Her short stature did not lend itself to a high calorie intake.

"That's not very healthy…" She hadn't meant for that thought to slip out, and she felt her cheeks flame as they all turned to look at her with some measure of surprise.

Heisuke was the first to break the silence with the obvious question. "What are you still doing here?" He must have realized how that sounded, because almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he tried to back peddle. "Um, ah… I mean… Aren't you usually gone by now?"

Before she could figure out how to answer the awkward question, Harada stepped in and smoothly moved the conversation past Heisuke's unintentional speedbump. "Yeah, I know, but none of us can really cook all that well. I mean, Saito's pretty good… if all you like eating is tofu."

Saito didn't bother to look up from his computer screen as he said, "Tofu is very healthy and essential to maintaining one's peak performance and a balanced life."

Okita snorted and shook his head as if it was an old debate among the group. "Sure, sure, Hajime. If you say so."

"Um, I could make something tonight if you wanted…" The idea had actually been bouncing around the back of her head since she'd baked the cookies a couple weeks ago, but she'd never actually thought she'd have the opportunity. They'd been doing so much for her, what with the extra instruction she was getting, that it had seemed like a good way to show her appreciation.

Okita raised an eyebrow at her offer. "Oh? I was under the impression your roommate couldn't live without your cooking."

Without really thinking about what she was doing, she rolled her eyes and gave him an exasperated sigh. "Sen is perfectly capable of cooking for herself. Besides she has a work dinner tonight, so I'm off the hook."

Okita shrugged as he chuckled at her response, "Well if that's the case, I'm willing to give you a shot."

Across from her Heisuke nodded enthusiastically, "Yes, please!"

Nagakura seemed on board as well, but apparently Harada still had some reservations. "Don't get me wrong, I'm sure whatever you made would be amazing, but it doesn't really seem fair to ask you to do all that work for us. At least let us help."

She shook her head, "It's not a problem. Whatever I make is probably going to be pretty simple since I'm sure you'd prefer to eat sooner rather than later." Harada still looked ready to insist, so she hurriedly continued, "Consider it me showing my appreciation for all the extra stuff you guys have done for me."

Nagakura nudged Harada's shoulder with his elbow. "C'mon Sano, just let her do it. I'm hungry."

Finally Harada nodded. "Alright, guess I can't really argue with that."

She smiled, her mind beginning to race with the things she could cook on short notice… Until it screeched to a sudden stop as she realized she was missing some vital information. She looked around the group, "Um, does anyone have any allergies I should know about? Or things they don't like?"

Heisuke grinned and shook his head as he said, "Nah, no allergies and trust me, we'll eat almost anything."

At the end of the row, Saito gave a quiet cough. "I believe it would be best to avoid using green onions."

She nodded, mentally editing her list of potential dishes. "I can do that. Do you not like them?"

"No, I like them just fine."

Now she was confused… He liked them, but didn't want her to use them? "Um…"

Next to her Okita sighed and shot a rueful look at Saito. "It's me that doesn't like green onions. Actually, I pretty much hate them."

She still felt confused as to why it had to be Saito who told her that Okita didn't like green onions, but that didn't stop her from giggling just the tiniest bit. "Well why didn't you just tell me that?"

He glanced away and muttered something under his breath that sounded like it could've been 'didn't want to be a bother', but he was quick to have his trademark smirk back in place. "So how long are you going to make us wait?"

She glanced at the time before she said, "Give me just over an hour and I'll have everything ready."

Understandably she got a few weird looks, when instead of heading for the kitchen, she sat back down at her desk and pulled out her phone. Nagakura in particular was looking a little worried. "Um, what're you doing?"

"Hmm?" Chizuru glanced up briefly from the app she'd been scrolling through, "I'm ordering ingredients. Normally I'd prefer to get them myself, but there isn't time. I've used this site before, and they have good quality, and their rush orders are guaranteed to be delivered in under half an hour."

Her answer seemed to put them at ease, because they all returned to working and chatting as she continued picking out the large amount of ingredients she was going to need. She almost had second thoughts when she saw the total. Naturally, cooking for that many people spur of the moment was going to be expensive, but after a brief internal debate she decided that seeing them happy would be well worth dipping into her personal spending money. She really didn't tend to have limits when it came to people she viewed as friends, and they certainly fell into that category. Most months she didn't even spend all of her personal allowance anyway, and it ended up going into her savings. Besides, they could stand to eat something healthy for once.

With the food ordered, all she had left to do was make sure the kitchen was organized. Feeling excited about the challenge of making dinner for them all, she left her phone on her desk and headed to the kitchen. She'd already left delivery instructions in the order notes and she didn't want the extra distraction.

"Geeze Chizuru, how much food did you get?" Carefully Heisuke set the two large bags he was carrying on the counter, and they were quickly joined by the two Saito had brought.

"Well, you didn't have any staples here, so I figured I might as well stock the pantry while I was at it." Anxious to get started, she began pulling out items and carefully examining them before placing them on the counter. It took her a second to realize Heisuke and Saito were still in the room, and when she did, she instantly felt bad for ignoring them. "Oh, sorry. Thank you for bringing all this up."

Saito gave her a small smile as he inclined his head. "It's not a problem and there is no need for an apology. Are you sure you would not like help preparing dinner?"

"I'm sure." She gave what she hoped was her brightest smile. After all, she didn't want him to think she didn't appreciate the offer. "You've all done so much and this is something I want to do."

Saito seemed to understand, because he nodded before leaving the kitchen. Heisuke on the other hand lingered a bit longer, seeming hesitant to leave. He ruffled the hair at the back of his head as he asked, "You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Now shoo. I need to get started if you want to eat any time soon." She made a shooing motion and Heisuke laughed as he finally left.

Now that she was alone, she took a deep breath and looked at the ingredients in front of her, a smile pulling at her lips. Now it was a race against the clock. Just how fast could she prepare a dinner for six people who would probably eat like ten?

Carefully she took the final dish off the stove and transferred it to a bowl waiting in the buffet line she'd already set up. The meal wasn't anything extravagant, but it was certainly well rounded. She'd decided to go with ham, since she was limited on actual cook time, but that hadn't stopped her from making a brown sugar glaze to go with it. To that, she'd added a salad with a selection of dressings, a mixed selection of fresh steamed vegetables, and a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes. All without a green onion, or any other onion for that matter, in sight. She would have preferred to make the mashed potatoes from scratch, but boxed wasn't too bad and it was a whole lot faster.

Her hand paused as she reached for the plates in one of the upper cabinets. She'd assumed that she'd just be cooking for the team, so seven people including her, but were Kondou and Gen still here? If they were, it wouldn't really impact the serving sizes, since she'd made enough to ensure they had leftovers for at least a day or two, but it would dictate the amount of plates and silverware she would need. Maybe one of the guys would know if they were here. Even if Kondou and Gen were too busy to eat with everyone, she could at least bring plates to them. What she didn't want to do was go knocking on their door and interrupt something important. She'd noticed that other than Hijikata, Kondou seemed to be the second busiest person. He was always meeting with this politician, or that councilman, or on a conference call with local business owners.

Leaving the plates where they were, she quickly made her way to the room and peeked in. They were all laughing and joking as they made mild headway on whatever they were working on. Okita was the first to notice her and he raised an eyebrow at her questioningly.

Of course that drew everyone else's attention and Nagakura was quick to ask, "Is it ready? I'm starving!"

"Um, no. Not yet." Nagakura's face fell and she felt bad for lying, but she was pretty sure at least he and Heisuke would storm the kitchen if she came right out and told them it was done. "Okita, can you help me with something for a second?" If anyone was going to know if Kondou was here, it would be Okita.

He seemed surprised that she'd asked him, but nodded and got up from his desk as he said, "Sure."

If Okita had looked surprised, Heisuke and Nagakura looked closer to dumbfounded, with Heisuke in particular looking the more worried of the two as he called, "Don't let him near the seasoning Chizuru! Not even your food will be edible if he gets his hands on it."

Okita rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored Heisuke as he moved past her into the hallway. Once they were out of earshot of the others, he stopped and leaned against the wall as he looked down at her. Out of habit, he tried to fold his arms, but the sling got in the way and he gave a small huff of annoyance before he settled his gaze on her appraisingly. "So, you going to tell me what this is really about? Because I'm pretty sure you don't need any help with the cooking." A grin tugged at one corner of his mouth as he added, "Unless, of course, there's a top shelf you can't reach."

Her first reaction was to say that she could reach the top shelf just fine, thank you very much, but in actuality she always avoided putting anything up there, specifically so she wouldn't have to climb on the counter to get it later… and that was a landmine best avoided because she had no doubt Okita would have a field day with it.

"Actually, everything is ready, but I was hoping you could tell me if Kondou and Inoue were still here." She realized she was twisting her fingers together out of habit, and quickly pressed her palms against her thighs. "I figured if anyone was going to know it would be you, and I didn't want to accidentally interrupt something important…"

Okita shrugged slightly as he said, "I think he and Gen are still here. I can go check if you want."

"Would you? If they're too busy, let them know I can make up plates and bring it to them."

"Sure." Okita started down the hallway, but paused and looked back. "What about Hijikata? He's awfully busy too."

She didn't quite trust the all too innocent expression on Okita's face, but she wasn't sure what he was getting at. "Um, well he's right there, and unless he's on a conference call or something like that, I'm pretty sure he can get his own food…"

Okita didn't say anything, but his grin was certainly brighter as he made his way down the hall.

What did I say? She stood there for a moment, but eventually shook her head, not willing to devote any more time to trying to understand what was going on in Okita's head. Instead she headed back to the kitchen and began pulling out the appropriate amount of plates and silverware. If Okita thought Kondou and Gen were still here, then they probably were. The question was would she have to make their plates before she let the others at the food.

She was just setting out the last of the silverware when Okita entered the kitchen, closely followed by Kondou and Inoue. Kondou chuckled when he saw the buffet she'd laid out across the counter top. "When Souji told me you'd made dinner and wanted to know if I wanted it brought to me, I almost didn't believe him. This looks lovely Yukimura. We're certainly lucky to have someone like you around."

"I have to agree with Isami, but hope they didn't pressure you into this." While Gen's smile was kind, she was pretty sure the look in his eyes meant the guys would be seriously in for it if she said they had.

She was quick to shake her head, "Don't worry, they didn't. I wanted to do this. Everything's ready, so you can go ahead and get started."

Thankfully Gen seemed satisfied with that, because either their conversation had been loud enough to draw everyone's attention, or they were just too hungry to wait any longer. Nagakura was the first to peek his head around the corner and he grinned excitedly as he asked, "So if everyone's standin' here, does that mean the food's ready?"

Before she could answer, Heisuke wedged his way past Nagakura's large frame. "Oi, runt! No cutting!" Nagakura said as he made a grab for Heisuke's collar.

Heisuke grinned as he ducked under Nagakura's hand. "Not cutting if there's no line."

Unfortunately he didn't make it more than a few steps before his headlong dash was checked by Okita's elbow. "And who said you could go first?"

While Heisuke and Okita glared at each other, Kondou and Gen had already begun filling their plates, seemingly unperturbed by the scuffle behind them. Apparently that was all Okita had been waiting for, because as soon as Kondou had his plate in hand, Okita slipped into the impromptu line closely followed by a muttering Heisuke and eager Nagakura. Harada and Saito were far calmer as they politely thanked her and picked up their plates. She was just about to grab her own plate, when she realized with a start that Hijikata still hadn't shown up.

With everyone focused on the food, no one questioned her as she slipped out of the kitchen and made her way back to the room. It was oddly quiet without any of the men there and for some reason she felt the need to keep her own steps soft as she walked over to Hijikata's closed door. Hesitantly she tapped at the door. When she didn't hear anything after several seconds, she knocked a little louder and called, "Hijikata? Dinner is ready…"

Still nothing happened. Not seeing any other option, she carefully turned the handle and opened the door enough to peek her head inside. "Hijikata, dinner-"

She never got to finish her sentence, because no sooner had she spoken, than Hijikata jumped, knocking over a stack of papers on his desk and scattering them across the room.

She felt her stomach drop as Hijikata remained motionless for a second before he turned to face her, his eyes narrowed dangerously. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to knock? Whatever the hell you want had better be important."

Despite her best efforts, her voice came out sounding higher and more rushed than usual. "Um, I just wanted to let you know that dinner is ready," Amidst her trepidation, she felt a spark of indignation at his assumption. She had knocked, and more than once. It wasn't her fault he kept his office the way he did. "And I did knock."

He blinked, obviously surprised by her last remark, and she took the opportunity to escape before he could launch into one of his lectures.

Something of her experience must have shown on her face, because when she met Heisuke at the doorway he asked, "What's wrong? Something happen?"

"Um…" Without really meaning to, she glanced back at Hijikata's door and Heisuke followed her gaze.

He grinned knowingly as he said, "Let me guess. Hijikata didn't hear you knock and when you opened the door, he knocked over one of his stacks of papers."

Now it was her turn to stare dumbly in surprise and Heisuke laughed, "Don't worry, I do that all the time. He keeps saying he's gonna get it organized, but he never does."

"Care to repeat that Heisuke?"

They both whirled around to find Hijikata standing a few feet behind them with his arms folded and an expression that said they'd better give the correct answer.

Heisuke laughter was now decidedly nervous as he edged slightly behind her. "Ah haha… Repeat what exactly?"

"Good choice."

Heisuke let out a sigh of relief as Hijikata moved past them and turned toward the kitchen. "Whew, that was close…"

"I'd say. What'd you do to get his feathers in a knot?" Okita stood grinning in the doorway, closely followed by everyone else, including Kondou and Gen.

Heisuke rolled his eyes and went to sit at his desk. "Hey, it wasn't me this time. He knocked over a bunch of his papers when Chizuru tried to call him for dinner."

That caused a universal chuckle among the group as they either made their way to their desks, or in Kondou and Gen's case, to the couch. She was just about to leave and get her own food, when Saito handed her a second plate she hadn't noticed him holding earlier. "I hope you do not mind. When I noticed you had left to notify the Commander, I took the liberty of getting your dinner as well."

She couldn't help the smile that spread across her face as she took the plate from him. "Not at all. Thank you very much." Saito didn't say anything, but she did notice that he blushed slightly as he nodded and turned toward his desk.

As she sat at her own desk, she couldn't help but notice that while the other's plates were rather sloppily laid out, Saito had taken the time to neatly, and rather artfully in her opinion, arrange both of their plates' contents. In fact, she was surprised to realize that he'd even managed to get the portions right. Not too much, and not too little.

Harada sighed and shook his head as he continued the previous thread of conversation, "One of these days he'd going to have to get his office straightened out. It's ridiculous how many stacks of papers he has lying around."

On the couch, Gen nodded as he looked around the room. "I'm sure he will eventually. Speaking of cleaning and organization… I don't think I've ever seen this room as neat and orderly as it is now."

Nagakura grinned as he tried to speak around a mouthful of food. "Donf ook a uf. Ifs awl izuru."

Harada frowned disapprovingly at his friend, "Oi, what are you, some kind of barbarian? No one could understand that and how many times do I have to tell you not to talk with your mouth full?"

Nagakura seemed completely unrepentant as he swallowed the huge mouthful and said, "I said, don't look at us, it's all Chizuru. Damn, your cooking is good Chizuru. You sure you can't cook for us every night?"

As Harada launched into his now well rehearsed 'no she can't' speech, Kondou turned to her, looking somewhat concerned. "Have you really been keeping things organized in here?"

She shrugged slightly as she swallowed the bite she'd just taken. "Um, yeah, but I don't mind. I actually enjoy organizing, so it's not a problem. It's usually only little things anyway."

Next to her, Okita chuckled as he shot a taunting look at Hijikata, who had just walked in the room. "Hey, why not have Chizuru take a look at your office. Maybe she can get it organized for you."

"It's fine just the way it is. I don't need someone messing with my system." Hijikata grumbled as he sat down on the couch next to Kondou.

Across from her Heisuke snorted as he muttered under his breath, "What system…"

Okita may have meant the suggestion as a taunt, but Kondou actually seemed to be taking it seriously, since he said pensively, "Hmm, you know that's not a bad idea Toshi… We can trust Yukimura with any information she happens to come across and we're going to be gone most of the day tomorrow for that town hall meeting. The timing really couldn't be more perfect. If you're willing of course, Yukimura."

She didn't have a problem with it, especially since it would probably decrease Hijikata's stress level and make the team run more smoothly. Hijikata, on the other hand, still didn't seem keen on the idea. "She should be focusing on the cases not cleaning my office."

"Oh? So you admit it needs cleaning? You know admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery." Okita's expression and voice may have sounded blasé, but the sparkled in his green eyes told her just how much he was enjoying this whole conversation.

Hijikata shot a glare at Okita as his voice rose in volume. "I don't have a problem! You're the one who's recovering here!"

Gen nodded sagely from his seat, as he put a hand on Hijikata's shoulder. "Now Toshi, I think you should really consider this. What do you say Yukimura? Would you be willing to help?"

"Um…" She looked around at everyone's faces, hoping for some hint as to the right answer. Honestly she wouldn't mind the challenge and if it would help the team… but the look Hijikata was giving her clearly said 'Don't you dare'.

In the end it was Kondou's hopeful expression that made the decision for her. "I wouldn't mind… Like I said, I enjoy organizing things," She glanced at Hijikata, "and you said you already had a system in place, so maybe I can just file away the things you've already completed, but haven't had time to sort."

Thankfully Hijikata seemed somewhat mollified by her phrasing and Kondou was nearly beaming as he said, "Perfect, then it's settled!"

The rest of dinner passed quickly, filled with laughter and without anything more disruptive than their usual friendly banter until she made the mistake of reaching for Okita's empty plate and stacking it on top of hers.

Instantly Harada was on her, "Hey, not a chance. We may have let you cook, but there's no way you're doing the cleaning too. We may not be great cooks, but all of us can wash dishes and clean up the kitchen."

He shot looks at Nagakura and Heisuke, who somewhat reluctantly got up and began collecting plates. The ones in front of her abruptly disappeared as Okita stole them back and stood. She bit absently at the corner of her mouth as she asked, "Are you sure?"

Okita gave her a smirk as he said, "Keep asking and you'll make us think you believe we're incompetent."

Saito nodded firmly as if the issue was already closed for discussion. "It's only fair that we repay you for the work you've done for us tonight."

In under a minute everyone but Harada had left the room and she was left high and dry, with nothing to do. He gave her a warm smile as he said, "It's getting pretty late. We can handle the clean up, so if you're ready to go, I can walk you to your car."

Realizing she wasn't going to be able to finagle her way into helping, she nodded and began packing her things. He was right that it was getting pretty late. At this rate, Sen just might beat her home.

When they reached her car, Harada held out an envelope to her and she looked at it for a moment, confused, before she asked, "What's that?"

"Why don't you open it and find out."

Hesitantly she took the rather thick envelope and untucked the flap. When she saw exactly what was making it so thick, she shook her head and tried to give it back to him. "I-I can't accept that. It's way too much!"

Unfortunately for her, Harada refused to take it back. "What kind of gentlemen would we be if we let a lady pay for our dinner?"

"But…" She scrambled to come up with some reason she couldn't take the rather large sum of cash he'd given her, "It didn't cost me nearly this much!"

Yes, that will work. It was a flat out lie of course, but Harada didn't need to know that.

Harada grinned and shook his head. "Not gonna pull that one on me. I know exactly how much it cost you." She open her mouth to argue, but he didn't give her the chance, "Souji got a look at the receipt on your phone while you were cooking, so don't bother lying. You're not much good at it anyway."

She felt her face flame at being caught, but it took a second for the rest of what he'd said to register. "Wait… Okita knows my password?!"

Harada shrugged, "I don't think there's a password on the team that he doesn't know. He's more observant than you'd think."

Realizing she wasn't about to win this argument, she decided just to accept their gift. "Um… Well, alright… Thank you."

He smiled as she got in her car and as she drove away, she couldn't help her own smile that stretched across her face. It was amazing to finally feel like she was fitting in and she'd truly had a good time just hanging out with them. If this night had shown her one thing with perfect clarity, it was that the all cared about her as more than just a colleague or someone they were grudgingly allowing to help them in their work.

Chizuru had only just managed to put away her stuff and change into her pajamas when Sen arrived from her work dinner. "Hey, so how did the dinner go?"

Rather dramatically, Sen flopped down on the couch and sighed as she kicked off her shoes. "Good. The guy I was meeting with was actually Kosuzu's boyfriend. I think you've met him once…"

Chizuru thought back, "Um, blue hair and slightly grumpy attitude, right?"

"Bingo. Anyway, he's a tech wiz and I needed his advice on a situation we've run across, so I thought food would be the best way to butter him up." Sen giggled slightly, "Boy was I right. That guy can really eat. Oh, and sorry for leaving you alone for dinner."

Chizuru shrugged as she moved Sen's legs and sat on the arm out the couch. "I only just got back myself. I ended up cooking dinner for the team at the station." She couldn't help a smile a the memory, "It was actually a lot of fun…"

Sen wiggled her eyebrows as she said, "Oh really… Any one special standing out?"

Chizuru felt her cheeks flush, "What?! No, nothing like that. They're just friends."

"For now!"

Chizuru snatched up the pillow next to her and chucked it at Sen's smirking face.


Kaoru watched as the young woman said goodbye to the tall red-head his source had identified as Harada Sanosuke, got in her car, and drove away. He had hoped his source would be wrong, but after seeing her there could be no doubt. There was no mistaking that face and simply looking at the beatific expression that lit up her face as she drove away was enough to make his blood boil.

How dare she look that way…

What right did she have to look so blissfully happy after what had happened to their family? To him? Screw Kazama and his orders, this was personal now. Already, the part of his mind that wasn't focused on his newly resurgent hate and bitterness was turning, planning just how he'd achieve his goal.

When his life had gone to hell all those years ago, he'd done his best to protect Chizuru, first by pretending to be devoted to Kazama's family and the Syndicate, then when Kazama had taken over for his late father and it became clear that he had no knowledge of who Chizuru was, he'd told him she was Kodo's illegitimate daughter. Kazama had bought the lie and Shiranui and Amagiri, the only people who knew differently, had never contradicted him.

Over the years of mistreatment he'd received, he'd managed to comfort himself with the idea that at least his sister wasn't suffering as badly as he was, but he hadn't counted on the fact that she wouldn't be suffering at all. Her face, which was identical to his own, had been unmarked by any of the invisible scars he saw when he looked in the mirror. They were twins and yet she was nothing like him. They were supposed to share in everything equally, both able to understand the each other on a level outsiders never could, but she'd clearly abandoned him to suffering while enjoying her own happy life.

How dare she smile like that… Why should I be the only one to suffer?

He felt his mouth pull into a twisted imitation of her smile as the pieces of his plan began to fall into place.

If I can't feel what you do, dearest sister, then at the very least I can ensure you won't feel it either.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 - A Night on the Town: Part 1

Friday, January 11th

When Okita had jokingly suggested that maybe Chizuru could organize Hijikata's office, he hadn't anticipated just how well the idea would catch on. First thing that morning, Gen had shown up with a smile that everyone knew meant trouble and asked for assistance in organizing one of the back storage rooms. Well, it may have been phrased as a question, but the look in his eye had told them that someone would be helping whether they liked it or not… it was just a matter of who would draw the short straw.

Nagakura and Harada had been the first to jump to their feet and make a dash for the door, calling back something about checking out a crime scene. Saito's exit had certainly been more dignified, but no less obvious, since his excuse was that he had a meeting with Itou. While Okita knew that Saito did indeed have a meeting with Itou, he also knew it wasn't for a couple hours. He'd barely managed to worm his way out of helping by using his arm as an excuse. Really, his arm was almost entirely healed, but he wasn't about to let Gen know that. Sanan had removed his stitches at the beginning of the week, but had told him to keep using the sling until he said otherwise. Generally, he didn't tend to take doctors too seriously, but Sanan was different. He listened to the guy, if only because he had no desire to discover what would happen if Sanan found out he hadn't, and Sanan always managed to find out everything.

Which left Heisuke as the only one not injured or working on something out of the office. When Gen had finally managed to drag him off, Heisuke had looked like someone facing hours of torture. Which, honestly, he probably was. Not long after the two of them had left, Chizuru had arrived and he couldn't help a snort of amusement at her weighed down state as he asked, "What's with all the extra stuff?"

It wasn't unusual for her to show up with two or even three bags, depending on what she was doing that day, but today she'd added a fourth that was by far the largest he'd seen yet, and it looked to be filled to the brim.

Chizuru sighed in relief as she set down everything on her desk with a rather loud thunk and dropped into her chair, "I wasn't sure what I'd need to organize Hijikata's office… So I kind of brought everything I had."

He raised an eyebrow at the sound the bag had made. What does she have in there? Bars of lead? "You do realize it's a office, Chizuru, not a war zone."

She shrugged slightly as she turned away to put her keys in her purse. "I know that, but it's better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it, right?"

"Sure," he said, as he reached over and snagged a package of bright pink labels that had been sticking out of the top of the bag, "But please tell me you're planning on color coding his whole office in varying shades of pink."

"No!" She lunged for the labels, her cheeks flushed and lips pulled into a frown that was more cute than intimidating, but he kept the package just out of her reach as she leaned over him, "It was the only color I had on hand!" She made another grab for the labels, nearly losing her balance and falling on top of him in the process. "Come on Okita! Give them back!" He waited a split second longer and she looked like she was just about ready to give up, before he moved a bit slower than before and let her snatch them from his hand.

For once he thought Hijikata's timing couldn't have been more perfect, because no sooner had Chizuru clutched the labels protectively to her chest, then Hijikata chose to walk out of his office. Okita didn't think he'd ever seen Chizuru move as fast as she did to hide the incriminating pink behind her back.

"What's going on out here?" Hijikata's eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked between Chizuru's red cheeks and Okita's own deliberately innocent expression, and Okita had to fight just a little bit harder than normal to keep his lips from pulling into a grin when Chizuru answered "Nothing!" At the exact same time he said, "What do you think is going on?"

Hijikata sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, clearly having realized he probably shouldn't have bothered asking. "Nevermind, I don't want to know."

Okita almost lost his composure completely, when Chizuru flushed even brighter at the implication of the statement as Hijikata glanced down at his watch and started heading for the doorway, "I've got to leave, but I've left a written explanation of what everything is and where it goes. If you come across anything not on the list, leave it where it is and I'll deal with it when I get back."

"Right." Chizuru gave a firm nod, but as soon as Hijikata was out of sight, her shoulders slumped and she shot him a rueful look.

"What?" With Hijikata gone, he didn't bother hiding his impish grin, but Chizuru only rolled her eyes as she picked up the bag that had been the source of the pink labels and headed toward Hijikata's office.

He sat there for a second before deciding he was curious to see exactly what state Hijikata had left his office in. Getting up from his own desk, he followed her, his long strides easily making up for her head start, but when she stopped suddenly in the doorway, he barely managed to keep from running into her. He couldn't see her face, but he'd guess she was probably trying to come to terms with the size of the task she'd undertaken.

Chizuru's small "oh…" told him his assumption had been correct. What she probably didn't realize was that it was obvious to him that Hijikata had already made a first pass. Despite the numerous stacks of paper that still littered every surface, it was far more orderly than it normally was when he went hunting for his ammunition.

Maybe he'd even get lucky and she would find Hijikata's current hiding spot for his poetry. Much to his frustration, it had been a couple months since Hijikata had moved the book and he had yet to locate it. Given how long it had been since he'd last read it, there was probably a new haiku or two for him to memorize. Not because he thought they were any good, but because nothing was more sure to fluster and irritate Hijikata than his own awful prose thrown around when he least expected it.

Chizuru jumped and looked back up at him when she realized he'd followed her, and he couldn't help grinning at her surprised expression as he said, "Well, have fun. Be sure to yell if you get squished by a mountain of paper and I'll think about rescuing you."

As he left her looking like she was sorely tempted to stick her tongue out at him, he couldn't help but wonder what exactly it was about her reactions that always kept him coming back for more. Sure she was easy to tease and he enjoyed watching the flush spread from her cheeks, to her ears, and down her neck as she steadily grew more flustered, but maybe it was also that her reactions were always changing. What used to just make her blush and look away now could get him a witty quip or, on the rare occasion, something that might have even been approaching sass. He'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy finding out exactly what kind of response he'd get. She was also a lot like Heisuke in that she seemed to have a perpetually bright attitude, but where Heisuke could easily get annoying, Chizuru was just nice to be around. She was restful in a way Heisuke certainly wasn't.

The sight of the cases on his desk wiped what he suddenly realized was a rather foolish grin off his face. Oh joy, more forms… With a measure of his former good mood gone, he sighed as he sat back down at his desk and picked up the next case he had to enter.

When Okita heard a muffled thump followed by a squeak about an hour later, he was grateful for the distraction. During the interim, he'd been able to hear the faint shuffling of papers and the occasional drawer opening in and closing. Now though, there was nothing but silence coming from Hijikata's office, and he couldn't help but grin as he waited. He'd give it five minutes. If Chizuru hadn't asked for help by then, he'd check to make sure she hadn't actually been buried alive by an avalanche of paper, but until then… he'd wait and see just how long it took her to ask for help.

It was well within the two minute mark when he finally heard a rather resigned sounding, "Okita… I need help."

He'd been planning to take his time getting to her, but his curiosity to see exactly what kind of situation she'd gotten herself into won out. When he looked into Hijikata's office, the sight that met him was better than he could have hoped for. The source of the thump he'd heard was clearly the leather journal lying by Chizuru's feet, and to his delight, it was Hijikata's missing haiku book. What took the cake though, was Chizuru herself. She stood on tiptoe pressed against a bookshelf, her arms above her head, and fingertips barely reaching bottom most of the two boxes she'd obviously been trying to get off the top shelf. The whole reason she was stuck, was because the upper of the stacked boxes had shifted further than the bottom and was now tilting precariously right over her head.

Chizuru's head whipped toward him at the sound of his quiet chuckle, the movement causing the top box to wobble dangerously. She let out another squeak as she tensed and her eyes scrunched shut.

"You stuck?"

She opened one eye wide enough to give him a 'you have got to be kidding me' look, before she sighed and rested her forehead against the shelf in front of her. "Yes, I'm stuck."

"Hmm… well I guess I can help you with that."

His height allowed him to easily reach the boxes, and after removing his arm from its sling, he pushed the top one back in place before carefully lifting both and setting them on the ground. Chizuru gave him a grateful smile as she sighed in relief and rubbed some life back into her arms. While the boxes hadn't been all that heavy, their weight had been enough to send an unexpected jolt of pain up his arm.

Chizuru must have noticed something of it on his face, because almost instantly she became concerned. "Are you okay? You didn't hurt your arm, did you?"

"I'm fine." He tried to reassure her, but the look she shot at him clearly said she didn't believe him.

"No, I saw that. Here, let me take a look."

She reached for his arm, but he quickly brushed away her hands and stepped back, putting several feet between them. He felt bad for the flash of hurt and confusion in her eyes as her hands slowly dropped to her side, but it wasn't like he'd meant to. His instinctive dislike of people fussing over him had taken over before he'd fully realized what he was doing.

"I said I was fine." He internally echoed Chizuru's small wince once the words had left his mouth. That had sounded sharp, even to his own ears.

Without giving Chizuru the chance to speak, he turned and left the office before he said anything else he'd regret. He knew his reaction was out of line, but he couldn't help it. He hated when people worried over him. Worry and pity were something you got when you were useless and her worry over his arm only served to remind him of just how useless he was right then. He knew the work he was doing was important, but any idiot could enter the case information. The only reason he was stuck doing it was because there was nothing else for him to do. Really, he was all of one step from being a burden, and the only thing he hated more than being useless, was feeling like a burden.

Even as he sat back down at his desk, a small voice was nagging at him to go back and apologize, or at least try to make up for reacting the way he had, but the rest of him was telling him just to drop it and move on like he normally did. He honestly couldn't even remember the last time he'd apologized for something he'd done and he wasn't about to start now.

Okita ran a hand through his hair as he sighed in exasperation. It left him feeling weird in a way he didn't like, but he resolutely told the voice in the back of his head to shut up as he focused his attention on the case in front of him.


Chizuru let out a sigh of satisfaction as she looked at the now neat and tidy office. It was amazing how open the space was when it wasn't filled with stacks of paper. Behind her and near the door were the two large boxes she'd filled with old paperwork that had been in his filing cabinets. It hadn't taken her long to figure out why there had been so many stacks of paper in the first place. Despite what everyone else had intimated, Hijikata did have a system, and it seemed to be a pretty effective one. The problem was his filing cabinets had been full to bursting, so her first step had been to remove nearly all of the old forms from the cabinets and replace them with the ones causing the mess.

Hijikata's notes had been both detailed and helpful in getting everything put in it's correct place, and she hadn't run into any real problems. The only thing she'd come across that hadn't been on his list, had been a small journal with handwritten haiku in it. Upon realizing it was probably personal, she'd promptly tossed it back up on top of the shelves where it had fallen from. Really, she probably could have had the whole thing done sooner, but she'd caught herself staring unproductively off into space more than she'd care to admit ever since she'd needed Okita to rescue her.

She just didn't understand what had happened. One second he'd been teasing her like he always was, the next he'd abruptly brushed off her concern and left. Was it because she'd been worried about his arm? Chizuru's fingers tightened into fists as she shot a frustrated look at a set of completely innocent baskets sitting on a shelf. What was it with him? Why wouldn't he just talk to her? Instead, he'd just left, walking away without a word of explanation.

This time the sigh that left her mouth was decidedly more depressed in nature as she idly reached to straighten one of the baskets that was already perfectly straight. She knew that wasn't entirely fair of her. Obviously there was something going on that she didn't know about, and while his reaction could certainly have been better, it wasn't her place to expect him to explain it. She might consider him a friend, but that didn't entitle her to know personal information he didn't want to share.

And yet… And yet she wanted to know. She wanted to know why he pulled away and kept so much of himself behind a wall. She hadn't noticed it at first, but the more glimpses she saw behind the mask he worked so hard to keep in place, the more she wanted to see. He wasn't the person he pretended to be, at least not fully, and even though she was reluctant to admit it even to herself, she wanted to see more of that smile she'd only really gotten glimpses of.

"Wow! You really are a wonder worker, Yukimura. I don't think I've ever seen it this neat. What do you think, Toshi?"

Chizuru jumped as she was yanked out of her thoughts by Kondou's voice behind her. She turned to find Kondou standing in the doorway, grinning and clearly impressed. Next to him, Hijikata was giving her work a critical once over, but even he seemed mildly impressed with what she'd be able to accomplish.

Almost grudgingly he muttered, "It looks good, but I'll probably have to relearn where everything is…"

"Um, you shouldn't have to. I basically left your system the way it was." Hijikata's gaze focused in on her in surprise as she continued, "It really is a good system, so all I really did was clear out anything older than a year and put them in those boxes, there." She gestured to the boxes sitting on the floor. "Now there's plenty of room in the filing cabinets. Other than that, I tidied and sorted a few things, but it wasn't much…"

Apparently her explanation had been enough to set Hijikata at ease, because as several new faces appeared over his shoulder, he cleared his throat and seemed to be eyeing her work with a new level of appreciation.

Nagakura whistled appreciatively as he said, "Wow, good job Chizuru. Hey! I think this deserves a celebration!"

Behind him, Heisuke laughed and shook his head. "You think anything is an excuse to drink, Shin."

"And? What's wrong with that? That's what Friday nights are for!"

Kondou beamed as he clapped Nagakura on the shoulder and they all moved back out to the main room. "That sounds like a marvelous idea! You all have certainly earned a break from the work you've been doing."

Nagakura, Heisuke, and Harada all perked up at Kondou's endorsement, but Hijikata frown and folded arms said he wasn't convinced. "It's only four in the afternoon and there's still work that needs to get done. We can't afford to waste time like that."

"It's not wasted time if you spend it with friends, Toshi. Everyone needs a break now and then, and they'll work better for it." Kondou rubbed the back of his head as his expression softened, "Besides, I'm going to be taking the afternoon off as well. My little Tamako has a school play tonight and I promised Tsune I'd take them out to a nice dinner afterward."

While Hijikata seemed to mull that over, Chizuru was lost in her own thoughts. She hadn't realized Kondou had a wife and daughter, but once she considered it, she realized that it was a perfect fit for what she already knew of him. With his kind and generous personality, she could easily see him being a great dad. She also hadn't missed the soft smile that had shown for a split second on Okita's face at the mention of Tamako. Just how was he connected to Kondou and his family? She could see clear as day that there was a connection, but she wasn't about to ask about it now.

Hijikata gave a tsk of mild annoyance as he unfolded his arms, but she could see a hint of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Alright, fine. I guess we can all have the afternoon off."

"Yes! This is going to be awesome!" Nagakura pumped his fist in the air before throwing an arm over Harada's shoulders. "First round of drinks tonight are on Sano!"

"What?!" Harada's eyes widened in surprise, "No they're not! You can't just shove that on people because you don't want to pay. You're on your own this time."

As Nagakura's face fell, Heisuke turned to her, his eyes hopeful. "You're coming, right Chizuru?"

Her first instinct was to back out like she always did for out of office socializing, but this time she hesitated. She'd really enjoyed having dinner with them the previous night, and going out for drinks or whatever they usually did couldn't be all that different. She just wouldn't order any alcohol.

"Sure. Where are we going?"

"Oh, you'll love it." By this point, Heisuke was nearly bouncing with excitement. "We always go to this great place down on fourth since the owner likes us and gives us deals on drinks and stuff."

"Really?"

Harada nodded as he extracted himself from under Nagakura's arm. "Yeah, about a year ago we suspected someone was laundering money through his business, but unlike most people, he gave us access to everything without even batting an eye. He didn't have a clue it was happening and it turned out the accountant had been skimming off the top. He was grateful when we got it all sorted out." Harada glanced at his phone, "How does six o'clock sound?"

Everyone nodded their agreement, until Kondou said brightly, "Of course Itou, I assume you'll be going too? You've worked just as hard as everyone else after all." There was a moment's pause before Chizuru abruptly felt most of the excitement leave the room.

Itou had been quietly standing just beyond the edge of the group, which was probably why she hadn't noticed him earlier. He glanced at her before he gave his standard charming, yet lifeless, smile as he said, "Thank you, I believe I will. I'm sure it will be a wonderful evening."

While everyone's mood was quick to recover, she wasn't quite as fast. Spending time with the guys was one thing, but she'd rather avoid spending time with Itou if she could help it.

Heisuke must have noticed something of her feelings on her face, because he nudged her gently with his elbow as he said, "Hey, I promise it will be fun. I'll text you the address?"

Chizuru took a deep breath before she smiled and nodded. Yes, it would be fun. Itou was just one out of seven, and it wasn't like any of the others really enjoyed his company. If they weren't going to let the presence of one person ruin the night for them, then neither would she.

It was two hours later that Chizuru found herself hunkered down in the driver's seat of her car as she glanced again at the address Heisuke had sent her. Yes, she was at the right place… It just didn't look anything like what she'd been expecting. When she thought of going out for drinks, her first thought was of a traditional bar, but the building she'd parked near looked far more like some kind of hip club with its lack of windows and the line of people outside.

If she'd been smart, she would have looked the place up beforehand, but she'd spent the time between leaving the station and running out the door of her apartment dealing with the first real outfit crisis she'd had in years. It shouldn't have been hard to pick out what to wear, but she'd had no clue how casual they were expecting. Normally Sen was around to help her with this kind of thing, but when she'd told Sen her plans, Sen had said to have fun and that she'd probably just stay late and catch up on some work.

It hadn't seemed like a big enough problem to warrant bothering her, so Chizuru had decided just to work through it on her own. Which meant she'd finally settled on the dark-wash skinny jeans and pink shirt with a gold filigree design that she'd picked out in the first place, leaving just enough time to throw on some minimal makeup before running out the door. She was just glad she'd taken the time to eat before deciding what to wear.

Her phone vibrated in her hand, and she saw that it was a text from Heisuke asking where she was. Chizuru glanced up and saw the group of them standing near the door. As she grabbed her purse and got out of the car, she took one more calming breath and tugged absently on the hem of her shirt before heading toward them at a fast clip.

As she scanned the group, she realized she was the last one there. Itou stood toward the back, looking rather over dressed compared to everyone else with his slacks and dress shirt. The others were far more casual in jeans and t-shirts, and she was relieved to find that her clothes fit right in. It was interesting seeing them in something other than their typical work attire. Somehow both Hijikata and Saito managed to still look slightly professional, but mostly they looked like a group of friends ready to hang out for the evening.

A very good looking group of friends…

It struck her again just how unusually good looking each of them was, and she wasn't the only one noticing. The whole group was getting looks from the women in line waiting to get into the club. She couldn't help but notice that Okita in particular was wearing a dark red shirt that made his green eyes brighter and brought out a faint auburn tint in his hair. Of course, she wasn't happy to see that he'd also neglected to wear his sling, but presumably that meant he hadn't re-injured his arm earlier by lifting those boxes. Their eyes met for a second, and she thought she caught a hint of guilt in his eyes before his usual smirk was back in place, causing her to flush and look away.

"Hey Chizuru," Heisuke grinned and waved when he noticed her heading toward them. "I was starting to worry you'd bailed on us."

She'd only just come to a stop next to them, when Nagakura turned toward the entrance to the club, grinning excitedly. "Come on, we're not gonna stand out here all night are we? Let's get this party started!"

Obviously they hadn't been kidding about the owner liking them, because the large bouncer at the door only nodded as they made their way through the doors, effectively jumping a line that stretched most of the way down the block.

Chizuru was hit by what felt like a wall of noise as they stepped into the dark interior. She could feel the backbeat to the pop song they were playing thrum through her body and her ears were buffeted by the mix of music and chatter. The whole place was crowded, from the dance floor with its kaleidoscope of lights to the more traditional bar area, and all of it was rather overwhelming. She froze for a moment as her eyes and ears adjusted, causing her to fall behind the group. Heisuke stopped at her elbow as everyone else continued toward the bar.

She and Sen had gone out a few times over the years, but never to places like this. In fact, she'd never been anywhere even remotely like it. Once she'd moved in with her uncle, he'd pulled her out of the local school, instead opting for homeschooling and a string of private tutors. Sen was one of the few who had stuck with her after she'd left school, and Kosuzu had been another. Thanks to the tutors, she'd been taking community college classes before she even graduated from high school, and once she left for university, she'd spent most of her spare time studying and working on her family's case, instead of hanging out with her classmates. This was one of the few times she wished Kodo had been a little less protective and that she'd bothered to spend more time doing normal college things, because right now she was completely out of her depth.

She watched as Harada and Nagakura aimed one end of the bar, a boisterous group of people already gathering around them. They were followed at a more sedate pace by Hijikata and Saito, who were conversing in low tones as they headed toward an emptier section in the middle. At some point while she'd been standing rather dumbly in place, both Okita and Itou had wandered off, because right then it was only her and Heisuke.

As one song ended, and another equally loud one took it's place, Heisuke grinned excitedly. "Man, I love this song. Hey, come on!"

Before she realized what was happening, Heisuke had ahold of her hand and was towing her toward the crowded dance floor. When she finally got what was going on, her cheeks flushed and she pulled against his hold. "Wait, what are we doing?"

"Dancing of course. What else?" When he noticed her expression and their clasped hands, he stopped and quickly let go. " I mean, only if you want to."

She bit her lip as she glanced between Heisuke and the throng of people behind him. It wasn't that she didn't want to, because part of her was excited by the beat of the music and just wanted to have fun, but another part was also saying she'd probably make a fool of herself. She could dance… sort of, but nothing like what a number of the women out there were doing. Just looking at them was enough to make her blush even brighter, let alone the thought of attempting anything like that. Though thankfully they appeared to be in the minority. Most of the crowd just seemed to be enjoying the music and that reassured her enough to smile as she said, "No, I want to."

"Great!" With his infectious smile back in place, he grabbed her hand again and pulled her the final few feet into the mass of dancing people.

Heisuke was certainly no slouch when it came to dancing and she almost couldn't believe the moves he was able to pull off without any apparent effort. Her own movements felt awkward and clunky by comparison, but Heisuke's antics were enough to distract her from her embarrassment. Somehow he was able to both pull of the most ridiculous moves and still make them look good. For those few minutes, she was able to forget about everything and just have fun.

Two songs later they finally managed to work their way back to the edge of the dance floor, both of them slightly winded and definitely thirsty. When they made it to the bar, Heisuke waved to get the bartender's attention. "Hey, Leon!"

The middle aged man nodded to let Heisuke know he'd heard, but continued talking to a young couple as he prepared their drinks. After handing the drinks over, the man made his way over to them, smiling brightly. "Long time no see Heisuke. Who's that with you?"

"Oh, this is Chizuru, she's been helping us with our cases." Heisuke glanced at her as he said, "Leon's the owner Sano mentioned."

She blinked, surprised that the owner of such a large establishment would bother tending the bar, but she quickly remembered her manners and held out her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Leon laughed and smiled kindly as he shook it. "Well aren't you sweet. It's nice to meet you too. Any friend of theirs is a friend of mine." He winked at her as he continued, "You picked a right good group young lady. Just let me know if you ever need anything and I'll see what I can do about it."

Leon reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle of beer as he said, "I'll spot the first round in honor of the little lady. I assume you want your usual Heisuke?"

Heisuke nodded and took the beer with a thanks as Leon turned to her. "And what'll you have?"

She hesitated a moment, "Um… Can I have a Coke?"

She felt embarrassed for not ordering a real drink, but Leon didn't seem to mind. "Oh, sweet and smart. Not that you've got anything to worry about with this lot, but I've learned over the years that you can tell a lot about a person from what they order at a bar." He deftly popped the cap off a glass bottle of Coke and handed it to her. "For instance, I knew what these guys were the moment they stepped up to order when they were scoping out the place."

She glanced at Heisuke and he laughed rather sheepishly. "He did. We decided to check the place out quietly before making official requests and all that stuff, and we weren't here for more than a minute before he was asking what we were investigating and if there was anything he could do to help."

Leon shrugged, "Well it wasn't a purely altruistic motive. Having you lot around means I have to worry less about trouble breaking out." A woman further down the bar called out to get his attention and the older man gave them one last smile as he said, "Hope you enjoy your evening," before moving away.

By the time she was on her second Coke, which she had insisted on paying for this time, Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke were all starting to show the first signs of intoxication that Sanan had taught her to look for. As the trio and the group around them had grown more boisterous, she'd moved to the slightly quieter area near Hijikata and Saito. It was interesting to see the difference, because while both groups had been drinking since they'd gotten there, Hijikata and Saito showed none of the symptoms the others were showing. From the scent, she could tell they were drinking some kind of clear spirit, but while she was sure Saito's lack of symptoms was due to pure tolerance, the wink Leon had given her when he'd handed Hijikata his drink, made her suspect he either had a beyond believable tolerance for alcohol… or he'd secretly switched to water after the first round. They were nice enough to include her in their conversation, but mainly she was content just to listen and people watch.

She had yet to see Itou since they'd entered the club, but she finally managed to spot Okita further down the bar in the opposite direction of the Baka trio. His back was to her and there was a woman talking animatedly to him, her hands fluttering as she leaned in closer. From what Chizuru could see, the woman was certainly beautiful. She had a rather voluptuous hourglass figure that was highlighted by the short strapless dress she wore, and her stiletto heels made her already long legs seem to stretch forever. Her eyeshadow was done in smoky grays, and her long hair had obviously been curled and styled.

Chizuru sighed as she focused her attention on the bottle in her hands, her thumb running over the cool surface. The two of them looked good standing together, and she couldn't figure out why the thought bothered her so much. She didn't have a problem with all the women gathered around Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke, but right then she couldn't help but pick out every difference between that woman and herself… and it wasn't encouraging in the least. Maybe the caffeine was getting to her, or the loud music and general noise was messing with her head. Either way, what she really wanted right then was a few moments of peace and quiet, and maybe just a little distance.

A quick look around found her the sign for the restrooms. Saito and Hijikata weren't paying attention, so she didn't bother with an excuse or explanation as she hopped off her barstool and made her way through the crowd. The hallway she went down was dim and had a sharp right turn before the doors to the restrooms came into sight. It extended farther, but she figured it led to an office or two and probably an emergency exit.

Just like she'd hoped, the restroom was quiet. She could still hear the beat of the music through the walls, but it was muted, and her ears and head were thankful for the change. Carefully she set down her drink and wet a paper towel, the tension in her shoulders releasing somewhat as she dabbed at her neck and the spot just behind her ears. Now that she was away from all the overwhelming stimulation, she was able to think more clearly.

Why had she reacted that way? It hadn't just been in her head. She'd actually felt a slight tightening in her chest and her stomach had been twisting itself in knots. To be honest it still was. As she remembered the scene, she couldn't help but wonder what Okita's reaction had been. She could see the woman easily, but with his back to her, she had no idea what he'd been thinking. Was he frowning? Smirking? Or maybe even smiling? She knew the last was highly unlikely, but it still…

Chizuru glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Short, straight dark hair pulled up in a ponytail, large eyes with almost no makeup, and clothes that, while cute, were nothing like what most of the women out there were wearing.

She shook her head and looked away. Sen would probably have been chewing her out right then for thinking that way if she was there, but she didn't understand much of anything she was feeling at the moment. Why was she getting so worked up over who Okita chose to talk to and whether or not he was enjoying himself? He was just a friend.

Maybe it was that first thought of Sen that triggered it, but right then she could almost hear Sen's snort in her head as she said, Oh, sure he is.

Chizuru frowned as she thought back at her imaginary Sen, He is a friend.

Most people don't worry about a friend talking to another woman.

That thought stopped her short. Was that why she was so out of sorts? Did she have a… a crush on Okita? No… At least she didn't think so. She didn't have that swooping sensation, or any of the other mushy-fluttery feelings that were supposed to go along with it. He teased her and frustrated her to no end… but he also made her laugh and those moments when his mask had slipped, he'd been kind.

Well whatever this was, she'd get over it, even if she had to force herself to. He was a co-worker and friend, but nothing more. Feeling a bit more stabilized, she picked up her drink and headed back out into the hallway. She wasn't sure how long she'd been standing there thinking, but she didn't want any of the others to start worrying about where she'd gone.

The door had only just closed behind her when she felt cold fingers close around her wrist and she was jerked sharply backward. Her drink slipped from her fingers and dimly she heard the glass shatter as it hit the floor, but nearly all her senses were focused on the person who now had an arm around her waist and a hand over her mouth before she could even think to scream. A thick, cloying scent hit her nose with every breath and made her feel like she was suffocating. She twisted and squirmed, trying to find an opening to escape, but her attacker's grip only tightened.

"Quit struggling. You're making this harder than it needs to be."

The owner of the familiar voice clearly intended to try and calm her, but instead it had the opposite effect. She panicked. Without thinking, she slammed an elbow back, catching the person hard in the stomach. The hand over her mouth fell away as they bent forward and the grip on her waist loosened slightly, but not enough for her to break free. When she felt the sharp rush of warm breath stir her hair, she reacted purely on instinct and threw her head back. With a weird clarity, she both felt and heard the sharp crack as her head collided with her attacker's nose.

With that last blow, she was able to pull out of the person's grasp and blindly run down the hall, her only thought to get as far away as possible. Unfortunately she didn't make it more than a few steps before she felt a hand snag her purse strap. Without a second thought, she let it fall from her shoulder, but the damage had been done. Instead of running straight down the hallway, her redirected momentum caused her to glance off the wall, knocking the breath out of her. Winded and stunned, she managed to stumble forward several more steps before she felt arms lock around her again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 - A Night on the Town: Part 2

Friday, January 11th

Okita had noticed the woman watching him almost as soon as they'd entered the club. Normally it was a fairly simple process. They'd approach, he'd tell them in no uncertain terms that he wasn't interested, and they'd leave him alone. This particular woman was either too determined, too drunk, or too dumb to get the message. Probably all three… He was sure she'd said her name at some point, but he hadn't bothered to remember it, and from the way she was leaning toward him as she blabbered on about who knew what, it was obvious what she wanted. Not that he hadn't dallied in that once or twice, but he'd never found it to be worth the trouble.

As the woman leaned close again, her overdone eyes wide and her dress leaving nothing to the imagination, he barely managed to shift in time to prevent her from pressing herself against him. What was with them and always wanting to touch him? There were a few exceptions, but as a general rule, he wasn't keen on people touching him, ever, and especially random strangers. Thankfully Leon chose that moment to appear with some kind of glowing blue beverage in a fancy glass, because he was pretty sure the woman would not have been very happy with the next words that would have come out of his mouth had she not been distracted.

Leon pushed the glass toward the woman and gestured at a man sitting alone in a booth several feet away. "Compliments of the gentleman over there. Seemed pretty keen to get to know you better."

The woman's face brightened as she grabbed the glass and stumbled away, her unsteady steps probably due to both the alcohol and the ridiculous heels she was wearing.

The older man grinned at him as he leaned against the bar. "A little thank you wouldn't hurt. Unless of course, you want to pay for that lady's drink, because the gentleman over there certainly didn't."

Okita couldn't help a small snort of amusement. Of course Leon had pulled that kind of stunt. "Thanks."

"See? Was that so hard?" Leon pushed off the counter and made to move away. "And you're welcome."

Finally free of the woman, Okita looked around the club. Hijikata and Saito were sitting right where they'd been all night… except hadn't Chizuru also been there the last time he'd glanced over? He was almost certain she had. Not that he was keeping tabs on her or anything, but it had been beyond obvious when they'd first walked in that this was a completely new experience for her. Thanks to Leon, this place was probably the safest club in the city, but that didn't mean not knowing the basic rules couldn't get her in trouble. Maybe she was dancing with Heisuke again? No, he could see Heisuke joking around with Sano and Shinpachi, the lot of them clearly beyond tipsy, and still there was no sign of Chizuru. He didn't think she'd be brave enough to wander away from any of them…

When he caught sight of a familiar head of black hair working it's way through the crowd and toward the drunk trio, he felt a small wave of relief, but something still nagged at him. Something about her was off. Her hair was down, instead of up in a ponytail, and he'd thought her shirt had some gold detailing on it… but it was always possible she'd simply redone her hair at some point and he could have remembered her clothes wrong. The longer he watched her though, the more he realized it wasn't just her clothes and hair that were off. Her posture was all wrong and so were her mannerisms as she seemed to flirt Sano and the others. Sano, Shinpachi, and Heisuke didn't seemed to notice, but they were also drunk.

It wasn't until the person turned slightly and he got a look at their profile, that he knew without a doubt that, however much they might look like her, the person most certainly not Chizuru.

Leaving his own drink sitting on the bar, he hurried over to Hijikata and Saito. "Where did Chizuru go?"

Both of them looked up, slightly surprised at his tone, but without wasting time on questions did a quick scan of the room.

Hijikata noticed the same person he had, and gestured in her direction. "She's over with Heisuke and the others."

"That's not her."

Hijikata didn't seem convinced, because he frowned as he said, "You sure? It looks like her to me."

Okita shook his head. "It's not her. The clothes are different and her posture is off."

"Well I didn't make it a point to memorize what she was wearing," Hijikata shrugged as he took a sip of his ' sake ', "and maybe she'd acting different because you're not around to terrorize her, or it could simply be that she decided to have a drink."

Oktia gave an exasperated sigh as he snapped, "Does that really sound like Chizuru?" He hadn't wanted to bring this up, but Hijikata wasn't giving him much choice. "Fine, you want proof? Take a look at her chest. Chizuru's may not be flat, but she's certainly smaller than that."

"How the hell would you know that?"

The look Hijikata shot at him was the expected mix of shock and sharp disapproval, but he glared right back as he said, "Funny, for a while there you actually had me believing you were intelligent. I'm the one who was working with her on self-defense! It's not like it was deliberate!"

Saito, who had until this point been carefully observing both the conversation and the Chizuru-imposter, suddenly spoke up. "Souji is right. Yukimura is smaller than that."

Their impromptu glaring contest interrupted, both he and Hijikata turned to stare at Saito in stupefied surprise, and Saito's cheeks colored slightly from the looks they were giving him.

Hijikata was the first to break the silence. "Saito, if anyone else had said that, I would be seriously concerned."

Okita snorted as he began to move away. "What we need to be concerned about is the fact that we have a Chizuru look-a-like talking to a drunk trio of idiots who don't realize it's not her. I'll look for Chizuru, you two find out who that girl is."

Saito and Hijikata were quick to nod as they abandoned their drinks and he turned to carefully scan the dance floor. Chizuru was short, but from his raised vantage point, he had a hard time thinking he'd miss her, and she clearly wasn't in the bar area… So where was she? He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Of course nothing could ever be simple where Chizuru was concerned. The only place left he could think of was the back area, since he was almost a hundred percent sure she wouldn't willingly leave without telling them.

As he wove through the crowd, eliciting angry mutters and calls as he pushed past people, he couldn't stop thinking about how this whole thing made no sense. If someone was trying to get information out of them while their guard was down, fine, but by pretending to be Chizuru? Very few people knew enough about her to know that she would have the trust and access to get critical information and it didn't make any sense for her to be involved. If she was, she could just get the information herself without setting off a thousand red flags. Something was going on here, and he didn't like being left in the dark.

As he entered the short section of hallway before the turn that led to the offices and storage, he could hear the sounds of something under the thrum of the music that didn't belong. Picking up his pace, he turned the corner and was almost bowled over by the very person he'd been looking for. On instinct he caught Chizuru as she stumbled, but she instantly began fighting against his hold. From the way her wide, panicked eyes looked at him, he could tell that she didn't recognize him. One of her arms tensed and he readied himself to dodge, or at least block, what ever punch she was about to throw at him.

To his surprise however, she threw herself against him and buried her face against his chest as her whole body trembled, her breathing coming in short erratic gasps. Still trying to catch up with the swift turn of events, he mechanically rubbed her back and her breathing began to calm. It was then that he noticed the way a small section of hair near the top of her ponytail shone differently in the dim light, the strands clinging together almost as if they were slightly damp.

A groan and a clatter from further down the hallway caused him to look up and he saw Itou standing several feet away, leaning against the wall for support and Chizuru's purse at his feet. One arm was wrapped protectively around his middle, while his other hand tried vainly to staunch the flow of blood from his clearly broken nose. It was only a second before the dots connected in Okita's mind, and Itou was just lucky that Chizuru was still holding on to him as tightly as she was. If she hadn't been, he was pretty sure he would have happily broken each and every bone in Itou's hands without a second of remorse. Short of that, he couldn't help a flash of pride at what she'd managed to accomplish on her own. She hadn't just broken Itou's nose, she'd flattened it.

Itou's voice was thick and distorted with pain as he said, "S-She followed me here and attacked me! I didn't do anything!"

Okita's eyes narrowed in loathing at the pathetically obvious lie, and his arms unconsciously tightened fractionally around Chizuru as he drawled, "Oh really."

She must have hit Itou pretty hard if that was the best his slippery mind could come up with, because the idea was just ridiculous when applied to Chizuru. Okita was seriously reconsidering his decision not to give Itou at least an arm to match his nose, when he heard familiar footsteps approaching from behind him. His guess was confirmed when Hijikata and Saito appeared from around the corner.

"You found her?" Hijikata asked.

"Yeah." He nodded, and Saito and Hijikata's eyes hardened as their gazes flicked between the still trembling Chizuru and Itou's battered face. "According to Itou, she attacked him out of nowhere. Sounds just like something she'd do, doesn't it."

With three men now glaring daggers at him, Itou must have finally realized just how much trouble he was in, because he took several steps back, his eyes darting nervously between them. "I-If you touch me, I'll have you all brought up on charges!" he gestured vaguely at his nose, "Who do you think they'll believe if I say Okita did this? If it wasn't for Kondou, his record would have had him fired years ago."

Okita only raised an eyebrow as Hijikata and Saito each began advancing on Itou. Him being in trouble was nothing new and that kind of threat wasn't about to stop Hijikata and Saito from arresting Itou. If it had been him, he probably would have indulged himself just a bit to prove a point, but those two were sticklers for following the rules.

Itou, however, seemed to warm to his threat as he continued more confidently, "In fact, if you so much as lay a finger on me I will use my friends to see that Kondou is removed from his job and he will never hold another office again."

That pulled them all up short. Threatening to get him in trouble was one thing, but Okita had little doubt that someone with Itou's political connections couldn't follow through on that threat. The Chief of Police wasn't elected by the people like a sheriff was… Kondou's position was entirely dependent on the mayor and city council, and based on Hijikata's thin lips and clenched fists, he knew Itou had backed them into a corner. They were all off duty, so it wasn't like any of them had handcuffs on them, and Itou would create a political fiasco if they tried to detain him until other officers arrived. If it was just his neck on the line, Okita wouldn't have minded taking the risk, but there was no way he would ever do anything that might endanger Kondou's position. Itou seemed to have realized he'd won for the moment, because he was quick to turn and disappear down the hallway.

Letting Itou go left a bitter taste in Okita's mouth and out of habit he shot an irritated look at Hijikata. "You're really just going to let him go?"

Hijikata glared right back as he snapped, "If you have a pair of cuffs on you, then by all means, I'll arrest the bastard right now." Unfortunately, there wasn't anything he could say to that and after a moment's silence Hijikata said, "I thought so."

Chizuru hadn't moved or loosened her hold during the short standoff, but her breathing had evened out and she'd stopped shaking for the most part. Hijikata raised an eyebrow as he glanced down at her, but Okita chose to ignore it, instead asking, "You find the girl?"

Saito shook his head, "She caught sight of us and disappeared into the crowd."

"We did get a good look at her face though." Hijikata's expression darkened as he said, "The eerie thing is, she looked exactly like Chizuru."


At first Chizuru fought against the constraining grip that kept her from tumbling to the floor, her only thought to escape, but something about the arms wrapped around her made her pause.

Warm… Safe… She was safe…

The split second it took for the thought to register felt like an eternity, but as soon as it did, the wave of relief that crashed over her was so strong her whole body started to shake and her breath came in short, erratic gasps. Acting purely on emotion, Chizuru latched on to the source of the warmth that wrapped around her, afraid it, and the safety it represented, would disappear. She shut out everything except the feeling of the hand that moved soothingly across her back and the soft fabric against her cheek that smelled faintly of cinnamon, cloves, and just a touch of citrus. The warmth and the clean, slightly spicy, scent were enough drive back the memory of Itou's cold hands and flowery cologne. Slowly, she got her breathing under control and her limbs stopped trembling. Unfortunately the more she let herself be lulled by the reassuring sensations, the more reality insisted on poking holes in her contentment.

Arms…? hands…? Wait a second… scent ? Who…?

The final straw was when she caught the sound of her name and she realized that, yes, she was indeed holding on to someone , and she had a mortifying suspicion of who it might be. Tensing slightly, she reluctantly opened one eye.

Thankfully the first two people she spotted didn't seem to be paying any attention to her right then. Hijikata and Saito were clearly discussing something serious based on their expressions, but that wasn't her main concern at the moment. Her main concern was that the person she'd basically thrown herself at had noticed her tense and had shifted slightly in response.

When she finally worked up the nerve to glance up, her suspicion was confirmed, because a pair of green eyes met her own. For a split second she froze, heat flooding her face, before she quickly stumbled back several paces and blurted out a rushed apology. "Sorry! I didn't… uh, I mean… Sorry!"

Okita's arms easily fell away as she pulled back, and though she shivered slightly at the sudden loss of warmth, she was none the less grateful for the distance. Saito and Hijikata broke off their conversation to look at her, and Okita frowned slightly as he looked her over. "You alright? There's blood in your hair."

She put a hand to the back of her head and shuddered at the trace amount of wet stickiness that met her fingers, but nothing hurt, so she said, "Um, yes. I'm fine."

Clearly Hijikata had fallen back on investigative habit, because he asked the standard, "Can you tell us what happened here?"

Dropping her hand back to her side, she answered, "Well, I was just leaving the bathroom, when I felt someone grab me. I-I didn't realize it was Itou until he spoke."

Hijikata interrupted with a frown, his forehead furrowing, "What did he say?"

She closed her eyes for a moment as she thought back. "Um, I'm pretty sure it was something about me making it harder than it needed to be and to stop fighting him. I guess I kind of panicked after that, because the rest is a bit of a blur." She tried to remember if there were any important details she was missing, but it was hard to think about what had happened without all of her emotions rushing back to the surface. "I-I couldn't get away at first, and I think I m-might have broken his nose, but…"

Her voice trailed off and her hands started to shake slightly as the feeling of helplessness hit her again, but before it could overwhelm her, Okita gave a bark of laughter. "Oh you did way more than break it. I think you managed to permanently ruin that feminine face of his."

Even Hijikata's lip twitched at that, and it was enough of a distraction for her to get her emotions back under control. However, Saito's serious expression didn't even budge as he said, "I believe it is hardly coincidental that a girl who looks exactly like Yukimura tried to talk to Sano and the others at the same time Itou prevented her from returning to the bar."

"What do you mean?" She glanced confusedly between the three men. "What girl?"

Hijikata's lips thinned slightly as he shifted his gaze from Saito to her. "Exactly what he said. While Okita was looking for you, we were trying to track down a woman that was basically your twin, but we lost her in the crowd."

This time the wave of emotion hit her like a punch to the stomach, and she swayed on her feet, her head spinning. Unfortunately, instead of being a rush of relief, it was made of nothing but confusion, disbelief, and just a bit of dread. Okita put a hand on her shoulder as she nearly fell over, and she used the sensation to anchor herself. It wasn't possible. She'd seen the reports and photos. It had to be some kind of mistake. They couldn't have meant it literally.

"What is it?" Hijikata asked.

"Y-You said the person you saw was a woman, right?" Her imagination was just running away with her. It had to be.

"Yes… Why?"

She took a deep breath, feeling slightly reassured by Hijikata's answer. "My brother, Kaoru, and I were identical twins."

There was a brief pause as they digested the new information, before Saito said carefully, "I thought identical twins could only be the same gender."

"That's true." She gave a small shrug , "Technically we were half-identical twins, but we basically looked identical. My uncle has some photos and it's almost impossible to tell the two of us apart. But you said the person you saw was a woman, so…" Her voice trailed off as the three men exchanged guarded looks. "It's not possible. He's dead."

"And how sure are you of that?" Okita's expression had lost its previous humor as he stood with folded arms. "Because random people don't look that similar for no reason. I almost couldn't tell the difference."

"I-I saw the reports… the photos…"

"DNA?"

A chill settled in her stomach at Okita's blunt question, and as much as she didn't want to, she was forced to shake her head. "No… They never bothered with it. I mean, who else could it have been?"

"Well, not your brother would be my first guess."

Next to Okita, Hijikata nodded slowly. "I may not like it, but given what we've seen, that does seem like the most probable answer to this whole puzzle.

As the three men continued discussing Itou, Kaoru, and possible Syndicate connections, she was lost in her own mental flurry of questions.

Alive? Kaoru was possibly alive? She didn't know what to do with that or how she should feel. Part of her was excited and relieved at possibly having discovered that a member of her family was alive, but at the same time she was scared by the circumstances of the discovery. Who had he become in the nine years they'd been separated? For that matter, what had he been like before then? Why hadn't he tried to contact her or Kodo? Was he now involved with the Syndicate? All of it was a jumbled mess in her already emotionally overtaxed mind.

Chizuru was pulled out of her thoughts when she heard Hijikata say, "I want you and Okita to take her home and then go to the office while I head back and start working on getting Itou into custody. She's too distracted to be driving."

It took her a second, but she belatedly realized that Hijikata had called her name at least twice without response, and she rushed to say, "No, I'm fine. Really."

"Don't give me that crap. You were so lost in your head you didn't hear a word we just said."

While Hijikata's expression and tone were sharp, it was tempered by the understanding she could see in his eyes. She knew he had a valid point, but she also didn't want to be a burden. "I can-"

He cut her off before she could say more. "No, I don't think you can. If you can tell me the last thing Saito said, then I'll let you drive yourself."

He had her there, and they both knew it. She had no idea what Saito had said, so she only sighed and nodded her consent.

Seeming satisfied with her answer, Hijikata turned again to Saito and Okita. "I'll let the others know what's going on, and that I expect them to be in the office and fully functioning come tomorrow morning."

As Hijikata walked back out into the club, Saito picked up her purse from where it had fallen and handed it back to her. "Shall we go?"

Once they made it through the crowds and back out onto the street, the chill night air did wonders for clearing her head. Maybe she would be able to convince them that she really was okay to drive. After all, unlike them, she hadn't had anything to drink that night.

She had just turned to ask, when she found Okita dangling her keys in front of her, that mischievous light back in his eyes. "Don't even think about it."

When had he…? He must have stolen them while they were in the club, but she didn't have time to ask, because he'd already started heading toward her car. She gave a quiet huff of annoyance as she hurried to catch up with him and Saito headed in the opposite direction. Presumably toward the car he and Okita had arrived in.

The ride back was quiet, but not uncomfortable as she divided her time between watching the buildings race by out the window and glancing back to make sure Saito was keeping up with them. Once again Okita refused to keep to the speed limit as they drove down the nearly deserted roads, but every time she checked the sideview mirror Saito was still keeping pace, matching Okita precisely turn for turn.

All too soon, she had thanked them, said goodbye, and found herself alone in the dark apartment. Well, not completely alone. Sen's stuff was in the living room, so Chizuru knew she was there, but she must have already gone to bed. After tiptoeing around as she got ready for bed and finally curling up under her blankets, she tried to close her eyes and sleep, but it just wouldn't come. Everytime she felt herself start to drift off, unseen hands would reach out for her and her eyes would fly open in a panic, needing to reassure herself that there really was no one there. Rationally she knew she was safe, but apparently there was no convincing her subconscious of that.

After the fourth time this happened, she sat up, wrapping her arms around her legs as she rested her chin on her knees. This wasn't getting her anywhere. With a sigh, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and grabbed her pillow before heading out of her room. She hesitated for a moment outside Sen's door before resolutely nudging it open and tiptoeing over to her friend's bed. She knew Sen wouldn't mind. They'd shared a bed often enough during sleepovers growing up. Afterall, why bother with sleeping bags on the floor when the bed was infinitely more comfortable?

Sen shifted and mumbled quietly, but didn't wake as Chizuru climbed in next to her. She knew she'd have to explain everything to Sen in the morning, but really, she'd have had to do that anyway since Hijikata wanted them all to come in on a Saturday. As her head settled on her pillow, she let out a soft sigh and her eyelids immediately became heavy. Even with Sen's presence so close, she still felt the first fluttering of panic, and without meaning to, her hand stretched out until her fingers found Sen's hand. Thankfully the feeling faded as she laced her fingers with those of her best friend and she was finally able to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 - Tests and Thefts

Saturday, January 12th

Kazama's eyes narrowed as he read the letter Amagiri had handed him upon entering his office. "They dare to counter my offer?"

"Yes," Amagiri paused a moment before he said, "Their board of directors believe the company is worth more than the eight million you offered."

"Of course it is, but there's no benefit to me if I pay that." Tactfully, Amagiri remained silent as Kazama stood from his desk and walked over to the floor to ceiling window that overlooked the bustling downtown district. For several seconds, he watched the hundreds of dots moving on the streets below. All those pitifully greedy humans scrambling about to get ahead, so desperate for more money, more power, more everything, that they'd sacrifice any amount of personal honor. "Fine. Have some of our people pay them a visit and see if they can't convince them to see things our way."

Amagiri nodded, but before he could move to leave, a knock sounded at the office door. Kazama felt a flash of irritation as he whirled away from the view out the window. It was bad enough the board of directors of that pathetic excuse for a company dared to disagree with his more than generous offer, but to have his own employees so blatantly disregard his order not to be disturbed? …Then again, there were very few people who would dare to do so, even if they had good reason.

He gave a short nod and Amagiri called, "You may enter."

The person who walked through the door gave an all too familiar mocking bow as he said. "My apologies for disturbing you Lord Kazama. I hope I'm not interrupting anything too important, but I thought you would wish to be updated on the detective team that has caused you so much trouble."

Kazama's lip curled in distaste as Nagumo smiled innocently. The brat had probably deliberately waited until he could interrupt something important. "And?"

"It seems they've brought on a consultant. A girl with a one of a kind computer program, specially designed to find patterns and connections between cases."

Off to his left, Amagiri frowned. "If what you say is true, it seems this is a bigger threat than we anticipated. Kazama, I would recommend taking immediate steps to prevent them from uncovering any more of our network."

"Yes, I know that, but the question is how," Kazama growled as he began pacing. Amagiri was right, this was something that put them at far greater risk than they'd anticipated. An organization of their size couldn't help but leave patterns, and the more cases they were able to connect, the greater the chance they would discover the link between his illegal dealings and his professional, public front.

"I can handle that." Both men turned to look suspiciously at Nagumo as he continued, "I already have a contact on the team who can get the laptop she uses. If they lose the program, she's useless to them."

Kazama gave Nagumo a hard look. He didn't like how forthcoming the boy was being, since normally he simply did what he was told and no more. What was his game? But if Nagumo already had a contact… then he wouldn't have to take the risk of it being tied to him. For now he'd play along and see what Nagumo did. "Fine, but whatever you do had better not attract any more attention."

"Of course." Nagumo gave one last smile as he turned and, rather irritatingly, left without being dismissed.

Once the door had shut behind the boy, Kazama glanced absently down at the letter still in his hand. As he turned to Amagiri, his fingers tightened, crumpling the paper. "See that Shiranui sends someone to handle the board members. I will not pay a cent over eight million, though they are certainly free to offer me a better price if they so wish."

Amagiri gave a short bow as he said, "I will see to it."


Chizuru arrived at the office the next morning to find everyone had beaten her there, but it wasn't all that surprising given the slow start to her day.

Just like she'd thought, Sen had been more than a little confused to find Chizuru in her bed that morning. She'd hoped to get away with just a brief explanation, but once Sen got the gist of what had happened, she'd demanded a detailed, minute by minute, explanation of the whole night. It hadn't been fun reliving the event over breakfast, but talking about it had ended up being rather therapeutic for her. Sen's concern and understanding were a balm that, along with some distance, helped her view things in a less emotionally charged light. She was even able to muster a laugh when Sen went on a mini rant about how she would ruin his political career.

Only after Sen had assured herself that Chizuru was handling the emotional repercussions of what Itou had done as well could be expected, had she latched on to the other tidbit Chizuru had accidentally let slip during her recitation of the previous night's events.

"Ignoring the fact that you should have told someone where you were going… You hesitated and did that fidgety thing you do, when you said you had to go to the bathroom. What aren't you telling me?"

Chizuru had winced slightly. She'd hoped Sen hadn't noticed that, because what she'd said had technically been true. She'd had to go the bathroom to get out of the main room of the club and get some space… but apparently Sen had seen right through her attempted misdirection.

"I… uh… It's nothing really." Chizuru had felt her cheeks flushing and she'd rushed to cover them.

"Doesn't look like nothing to me. How bad can it be?"

"It's not bad… Just embarrassing." She'd taken a breath before mumbling into her hands, "I… I thought for a moment I might… maybe… havefeelingsforOkita."

Admittedly the last bit had hardly been what could be called intelligible, but Sen didn't seem to have a problem understanding her, since her lips had pulled up into a grin as she'd said, "Oh really…"

Rather frantically, Chizuru had waived her hands. "It's nothing! I really don't even know what I'm feeling. I'm sure I'll get over it."

"Uh huh, sure you will. Well let me know when you've figured it out, because I'd love to hear about it." Just the thought of Sen's wink as she'd said that had Chizuru's cheeks warming all over again.

"Good, now that we're all here, we can begin." Hijikata's voice pulled her out of her thoughts as she hastily put down her stuff and sat at her desk. "I think by now you all know what happened last night. As of right now, Itou has dropped off the radar and we're working under the assumption that the woman was actually Yukimura's twin brother. We don't know if any of this is linked to the Syndicate yet, but it's looking probable."

"Really?" Nagakura broke in, his expression slightly confused. "How'd you figure that?"

"It seems no one officially identified Yukimura's brother's body, and if it wasn't him, then he had to have been somewhere." Saito said matter-of-factly, "If it was ordered by the Syndicate, then it's logical that he would have ended up with them."

Next to her Okita snorted, one side of his mouth quirking up in a smirk. "Besides, the two were so similar you didn't even realize you weren't talking to Chizuru."

"Speaking of which, you three actually talked to her… er, him. Are there any details you can remember?" Hijikata asked.

Heisuke and Nagakura rather sheepishly shook their heads, but Harada's expression was thoughtful as he said, "I don't think he knows Chizuru personally. His flirting was kinda heavy handed and the personality wasn't right." He sighed and glanced at her, "I knew something was off, but I just put it down to the alcohol. I mean, the guy had a cocktail in his hand and since he looked like you, I assumed it was you."

Nagakura grinned as he shot a look at Heisuke "Hey shrimp, you realize this means you were flirting with a guy right?"

Heisuke's face immediately flushed and he scowled as he shot back, "I was not! Besides he was flirting just as much with you and I didn't see you noticing it was a guy!"

"Shut it you two. You can debate who was flirting with whom later." Hijikata glared at the pair for a second longer before turning to look at her, "Where are we at with entering the cases into your program?"

"We've got nearly all of it." She checked the box on the floor by her desk, "This was the last box, and it looks like there are only two cases left. I've also been running some test queries on what we have so far, and it's not too slow. I mean, it's not fast, but it's not awful either."

"Good." Hijikata turned his attention back to the group, "Souji, Heisuke, you're officially back on duty, but I want Sanan to do a final check before you end up doing anything stupid. He's expecting you in a few minutes."

She glanced at Okita, half expecting him to make some sort of sarcastic retort, but from the way his eyes lit up with excitement, apparently the prospect of getting away from his desk was incentive enough to let Hijikata's comment go.

"If Sanan gives the okay, then Heisuke, you're back on the current cases and trying to track down Itou with Harada and Nagakura. Souji, I want you working with Saito on running down any leads Yukimura turns up. I'll be handling damage control with Kondou. Any questions?"

There was a chorus of no's as everyone went off in different directions. She noticed Hijikata head for Kondou's office, while most everyone else, except Saito, headed toward the elevator. Okita's quick exit put him at the head of the group and she heard Nagakura call, "Hey Heisuke, be sure you make it quick. We're going to wait at the car."

Leaning over in her chair, she pulled out the final two cases and offered one to Saito. He gave her the barest hint of a smile as he took it and together they set to work. With any luck she could find their first lead by that afternoon.

Chizuru bit her lip as she glanced up at the clock. She was almost done with her case and Saito seemed to be close as well, but in all that time, Okita had yet to come back. It was going on almost two hours now. What could be taking so long? With a silent sigh, she turned back to her screen, trying to focus on extracting the locations from a witness report.

It was only a short time later when she jumped and gave a small squeak of surprise as someone tugged on her ponytail. She turned to find Okita grinning impishly and her first reaction was to shoot her usual disapproving frown at him, but she paused, her head tipping to the side as she examined his expression more closely. Something about his smirk seemed just the slightest bit… forced and apparently she wasn't the only one to think so. Contrary to his usual taciturn nature, Saito asked, "I assume Sanan said you could return?"

"Of course, and the last thing I want to do after getting a clean bill of health is sit at a desk."

She glanced at Saito, trying to gauge whether or not he believed Okita. Apparently he did, because there was the barest hint of a smile as he asked, "What did you have in mind?"

Almost like it had never been there, the something that had been off, disappeared from Okita's face as he shrugged nonchalantly, "Well, we haven't sparred in ages and I'm curious to find out just how much Chizuru has managed to learn from you."

"That sounds reasonable. Yukimura has done exceptionally well these past weeks."

Okita's smirk grew a fraction as he glanced at her. "Ohh~? Sounds like fun."

She looked frantically between the two men. "Um, shouldn't we finish these cases first?"

Her idea of fun did not include facing off against Okita when he was clearly biting at the bit to do something exciting. Not that anything her meager skill could offer could be called exciting. More likely than not, he'd find it boring, which meant he'd inevitably find some way to at least make it entertaining… for him anyway.

Thankfully Saito gave a short nod, "Yes. Souji, you will have to wait until we have finished."

Okita rolled his eyes and leaned back against the wall, clearly unwilling to sit down even to wait. "Fine, but make it quick."

Quick and efficient as always, Saito finished entering his case within a few minutes. She took a bit longer, but there was only so much stalling she could do with Okita shifting impatiently behind her. Eventually she relented to the inevitable and loaded her and Saito's completed cases into the database.

No sooner had she closed the lid of her laptop, than Okita pushed off the wall and started walking for the door, calling over his shoulder, "Now that you're done stalling, let's go."

Chizuru felt her cheeks warm at having been caught, and she and Saito shared a brief glance before they both followed after Okita. Admittedly, her a fair bit more resignedly than Saito. She lagged slightly behind the pair as she stepped out into the hallway and a movement at the far end caught her attention, but when she turned to look, there was no one there. Kondou's office was down that way, and so were the back stairs. Maybe she'd just seen someone walking into the kitchen…? Dismissing it, she hurried to catch up with Saito and Okita.

It was a good thing she'd started keeping a spare set of workout clothes at the office just in case, because she hadn't anticipated doing anything more than sitting at her desk today. Chizuru let out a soft sigh as she pulled her ponytail tight and tugged at the hem of her shirt, mentally preparing herself before she pushed open the door and walked out into the gym.

As the door swung closed behind her, she froze, her breath catching as she stared at the two motionless figures in the center of the room. Okita stood with his baton held in a loose ready stance, and several feet from him, Saito also stood in a relaxed stance with his baton held loosely at his right hip. With their serious expressions a stark contrast to their lax body language, Chizuru didn't dare move, afraid she would shatter the almost palpable tension in the room if she did.

As if on some unspoken signal, she caught the briefest of grins from each of them before Okita launched himself at Saito, his baton arcing in a startlingly fast downward strike. If Okita had been fast, she almost didn't even see Saito move. One moment he seemed to be wide open, the next, there was a resounding crash of metal striking metal as Saito deftly caught the blow. There was the briefest of contests of strength before the two broke apart.

This time Saito was the first to move. Darting close, the tip of his baton missed Okita's body by the smallest of margins as he repeatedly lunged forward. Okita had been forced back nearly to the edge of the mats, when his baton flashed out, knocking Saito's thrust to the side. In almost an exact reversal, Okita drove Saito back with a series of rapid thrusts she couldn't follow, but Saito somehow managed to dodge or deflect.

Once they reached the center again, Okita broke off his attack and the two eyed each other carefully. It didn't last long, and within a second they were trading blows in a dance that seemed equal parts chaos and an unbelievable level of choreography. As the minutes stretched on, one or the other would slip slightly and she would wince at the sound of metal striking skin, but neither seemed to care. In fact, Chizuru didn't think she'd ever seen either as happy or seemingly alive as they were in that moment. Despite the sweat that beaded on their foreheads and their heavy breathing, there was clearly an underlying joy to their fight that drove them to keep going.

There was also the small, highly embarrassing matter of the way her eyes kept unintentionally straying and picking out details that were not doing her resolution from the previous night any good. What's wrong with you? Pull yourself together! This is not appropriate. She'd already caught herself staring at the way the muscles in his shoulders and back moved as he traded blows with Saito and her internal reprimands weren't doing much good… Stop it! Think about something else!

She'd had no idea either of them was this good. That was safe, right? Though the term 'good' hardly seemed to fit, since they were clearly far more than simply proficient. As much as Chizuru wasn't a fan of violence, she had to admit there was a beauty to their deadly grace. Saito was all focus and precision, each of his movements sure and never moving an inch beyond where he apparently intended to place them. Okita was just a precise and fluid with his own movements, but there was something more to it as well. Both the confident smirk and the light that lit up his eyes in a way she hadn't seen before showed a fierce, unquenchable thrill. Clearly this was something he loved and knew he excelled at.

After a time that felt far longer than it probably was, they finally they broke apart, each lowering their batons. As far as she could tell, neither had been the decisive victor.

Okita shot a glance at her as he gave a slightly out of breath laugh. "You can pick your jaw up off the floor now."

With a flush of embarrassment, she realized that she had indeed been staring with her mouth open and quickly snapped it shut. "T-That was amazing…"

"Well, there's no better teacher than Kondou," Okita's smirk turned slightly rueful as as he rubbed at a bruise already forming on his forearm. "Damn, you certainly weren't pulling any punches, Hajime."

Saito's lips twitched up in a small smile as he calmly walked over to where two water bottles were sitting on the floor and tossed one to Okita. "Did you expect me to?"

"No," Okita twisted off the cap and took several deep deep draughts of water before he turned to her with a grin. "Your turn."

"Wait, what?!" If she'd been nervous about the whole situation before, watching the two of them go at it for the last several minutes certainly hadn't made it any better. She looked at Saito for some kind of help, but he just held out the handle of his baton to her. Realistically she knew that if Saito was offering it to her, then either he thought she could handle whatever Okita was likely to dish out, or he trusted Okita not to get out of hand. Unfortunately that knowledge didn't keep the gesture from feeling like he was throwing her to the wolves

"Uh, shouldn't you rest or… or… something?" Anything? She was really dredging the bottom of the barrel here.

Okita's grin pulled up at the corner as his eyes narrowed playfully. "Why? You planning on being an actual challenge?"

Without meaning to, her own eyes narrowed as she let out an irritated huff, his taunting tone overriding her previous worries. Call it a well conditioned response from all the metaphorical corners he'd backed her into, but she'd heard that tone often enough to know that no amount of excuses or distractions would get her out of whatever he had in mind. A new stiffness in her spine, she all but marched over to Saito and took the baton he held out to her.

Unfortunately once she was face to face with Okita, her baton held firmly in a ready stance, the nerves returned to the pit of her stomach and she bit at her lip. What on earth am I thinking? Determined not to have any of her previous embarrassing thoughts show on her face, she kept her gaze focused on his face. She could still see the residual thrill from his bout with Saito in his eyes, but it was also clear that he was taking the whole thing seriously, which wasn't exactly the best combination as far as she was concerned. She felt bad for the person who ever had to face him in earnest…

"Any day now would be nice."

She blinked in surprise at the offhanded comment. Well if he wasn't going to make the first move, then she didn't really have a choice. Chizuru closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on centering herself like Saito had taught her. She was fairly sure Okita wouldn't take advantage of the situation and whack her over the head while she wasn't looking. When she opened her eyes, she found that not only had Okita not moved, the taunting edge had left his expression. Oh boy…

As fast as she could without losing her form, Chizuru stepped forward into the most basic strike Saito had taught her. From what she'd seen earlier, she knew he could have easily dodged it, but instead he caught it on his own baton in an almost lazy motion. Okita paused for the briefest moment before pushing back with just enough force to send her stumbling back a step.

"Not bad, but don't put so much weight behind it."

She gave a small nod before stepping into her next attack, this time committing less of her weight to the blow. He caught it just as easily as the first, but when he pushed back, her backward movement was more of a controlled step than her previous stumble.

"Better."

They continued like this for several minutes. Her running through everything Saito had taught her, even the things she hadn't fully mastered yet, while Okita did little more than block and repel her, throwing out the occasional comment or correction.

It caught her completely flat footed when, after pushing her back again, he smirked and launched into his own attack. Chizuru couldn't help a yelp of surprise as she brought her own baton up to block without thinking and a jolt ran from her hands to her shoulders. When he started into a second attack, some of her surprise had faded and she realized that he was actually moving rather slowly. Even so, she was still only barely able to remember the proper response in time.

With the scant amount of attention she was able to divert from blocking Okita, she noticed that he didn't seem any more tired than when they'd started. She, on the other hand, wasn't holding up quite as well. They'd been at it for several minutes now and her mouth and throat were dry and her fingers could barely muster the strength to grip her baton. At the same time though, she didn't want to be the one to back down or ask for a reprieve. It felt too much like giving up.

After one particular blow, her fingers finally lost their grip and her knees buckled as the baton fell from her hands. Instinctively she reached for the nearest thing to try and catch herself, which just so happened to be Okita's arm. She saw his eyes widen as she pulled him off balance and they both tumbled to the floor in a mess of limbs. By all rights, from the way she'd pulled him over, Okita should have landed on top of her, so she was surprised to hear a winded "oof" from what should have been a silent floor. With a start, Chizuru realized that he'd somehow managed to maneuver them so that instead of hitting cold hard mats, she'd landed on his much warmer and marginally softer chest.

Okita raised one eyebrow as he looked up at her, a mischievous grin pulling at his lips, "You just can't seem to keep off of me can you."

"No! It's not like that! I… uh… sorry!" She was sure her cheeks were a brilliant shade of red as she stuttered and clumsily tried to get off of him. Her movements were made even more uncoordinated as she tried desperately not to think about his chest under her hands and the faint trace of cinnamon in the air.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding," he laughed as he deftly he lifted her off and deposited her on the floor next to him. "You take things way too seriously."

Off to the side, Saito cleared his throat quietly. "That was very well done Yukimura, but I believe we have spent enough time here. The commander will wish to see at least preliminary results by this afternoon."

"Yeah, yeah. Heaven forbid that we disappoint him," Okita smirked as he stood and offered her a hand. "Looks like it's time for you to start earning your keep."

"Right," her cheeks still felt bright red, but she nodded as she took his hand and he pulled her to her feet.

Saito didn't hand out praise like that often and she couldn't help but feel a happy excitement start to push her embarrassment to the periphery. Now was a chance for her to show some results from all the work and time they'd invested in entering the cases.

After changing back into their regular clothes, the three of them made their way back upstairs. As they approached the room, she could hear Harada, Nagakura, and Heisuke's voices from inside, so clearly they'd returned from wherever they'd been. It wasn't until Chizuru was actually seated in her chair and staring at an empty desk that she realized something was wrong.

Where was her laptop? She was sure she'd left it right there… She even remembered closing the lid. Feeling more confused than worried, she leaned over and checked her bag, digging through each pocket.

No, it wasn't there. Now her search became slightly more frantic as she opened the drawers of her desk. Maybe Hijikata or one of the other had seen it lying out and simply put it out of sight for safe keeping? Unfortunately it wasn't there either. How had it just disappeared? She stared at the top of her desk, as if thinking hard enough about the device would make it suddenly appear.

"You alright?"

It took her a second to realize that the question had been directed at her, and she looked up to find Okita frowning at her.

From across the way, Heisuke's head popped up, his expression worried, "Yeah, you're looking a little pale."

"Um… Did… did someone move my laptop?"

Heisuke's head tipped slightly to the side as he said, "Not that I know of. Why?"

"Well, I thought I left it right here… No, I know I left it right here," She gestured helplessly at the empty space in front of her, "But it's gone."

Their conversation had caught the attention of the others and Harada put in, "We only got back a few minutes ago and I don't think Hijikata would have moved it."

Okita glanced over at Saito, "What time did we head down to the gym?"

"We left here at 12:38."

Nagakura leaned back in his chair as he folded his arms, "Like Sano said, we only got back a few minutes ago, so that's like, what? A half hour gap? Besides, only people with the right ID can get up here."

Heisuke shook his head, "Yeah, but that's still quite a few people Shin."

As they continued to debate probable suspects and realistic opportunity, Chizuru focused on trying to control her breathing. All that work. All the hours that had gone into entering the cases were gone, wasted, and all because she'd been stupid enough to leave her laptop out in the open. It didn't matter who had taken it, the damage had already been done.

As if things weren't awful enough, Hijikata chose that moment to walk into the room from the direction of Kondou's office. Instantly he picked up on everyone's serious expressions and the tense atmosphere of the room. "What's going on?"

Everyone glanced at her, but she couldn't answer, instead mutely pressing her hands against her mouth. It was all she could do to keep from either throwing up or bursting into tears. How could she possibly explain to Hijikata what she'd allowed to happen?

Okita looked at her for a long moment before he said, "Chizuru's laptop is missing. She left it on her desk before we went down to the gym and sometime in the half hour before the others got back it disappeared."

"So everything is gone?"

Mutely she nodded, refusing to look at any of them for fear of finding accusation in their eyes. Next to her Okita shrugged, "Not exactly. I've still got all my stuff. Heisuke?"

Heisuke nodded. "I saved copies of my stuff locally too."

"So we have what? About three quarters of the data?" Hijikata asked.

The tension in the room lessened as everyone let out silent sighs of relief and Okita nodded, "Yeah, I'd say about that."

But Chizuru knew that having the data wouldn't do them any good. "T-There's still a problem." She lowered her hands and twisted her slightly trembling fingers together in her lap. "I… That was the only copy I had of the program. I-I always meant to make a backup, but I never actually got around to it. There's nothing I can do with the data even if we have it."

She winced as she heard Hijikata curse under his breath, but after a moment of tense silence, Heisuke spoke up, his face brightening. "Wait… No it isn't! I still have that copy you gave me when you first got here. Remember?"

"What copy?" Hijikata asked, his expression serious.

Her head shot up and she looked at Heisuke with wide eyes. Yeah, what copy?

"She gave me a copy to play with a couple months ago. I never really did anything with it, but it wasn't taking up much space, so I kinda just left it there."

Chizuru didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry with relief. Things certainly weren't good, but they also weren't as bad as they could have been.

Hijikata's shoulders relaxed slightly, but the tension didn't leave his face. "That's all well and good, but we still need to find out what happened to the laptop. It still contains highly sensitive data."

"They won't be able to use it." She said as she shook her head, thankful she'd at least she'd managed to do one thing right. "The password is too long to crack before the computer will wipe itself and even if they try to read the hard drive directly, it's still encrypted. They'd need a supercomputer to figure out the decryption key in anything under a decade."

Nagakura frowned, "So the information is safe, but that still doesn't explain who would take it in the first place. We were the only ones who knew about it and it wasn't any of us, so who?"

"I've been thinking about that." Okita looked over at Heisuke. "You wouldn't happen to remember that time Itou was in here and Chizuru got that paper cut?"

Chizuru tensed, her gaze flicking to Okita.

Heisuke thought for a moment before he hesitantly said, "Yeah… Why?"

She had thought she'd gotten away with hiding the fact that her 'paper cut' had disappeared almost as soon as she'd gotten it, but maybe she'd been wrong. The logical part of her brain told her it wouldn't really make sense for him to bring it up now, but that didn't stop her from worrying nonetheless.

She relaxed when Okita said instead, "I didn't think much of it at the time, but Itou was asking some pretty nosy questions and you mentioned the program and that she was the only one who could use it."

Saito's eyebrows lowered sharply as he said in a measured tone, "That is interesting, since he also asked me where he could purchase the program to distribute to other departments. I was unaware of Heisuke's copy, so I told him Yukimura had the only one and that he would have to speak to her about it."

"Am I the only one finding it weird, just how often that guy's name keeps creeping up?" Harada said, his forehead furrowing.

"No, you're not," Hijikata turned look at Heisuke, "Bring up the building's security footage for the past hour. Specifically the back and side entrances."

Before Hijikata had even finished speaking, Heisuke's fingers were flying across his keyboard. Harada and Nagakura scooted their chairs closer, craning their heads to look at Heisuke's screen as Hijikata moved to stand behind them. Part of her wanted to get up and see what the footage would show, but she didn't think a fifth set of eyes would make that much of a difference. Apparently Saito and Okita had similar thoughts, because they also waited at their desks.

The minutes of silence seemed to pass slowly as she waited for some kind of verdict, her gaze flicking from face to face. All of a sudden, Hijikata pointed to a spot on Heisuke's screen as he said, "Stop there."

Heisuke tapped a key, presumably pausing the video, and Nagakura whistled, "That's Itou all right."

"Damn, we never deactivated his ID," Hijikata cursed under his breath before he said more loudly, "Heisuke, kick him out of the system. I don't care what you have to hack, he doesn't get back in this building unless it's in handcuffs."

"Got it." Heisuke reached for his keyboard, but paused before looking over at her. "I'll trade you. I can kick him out just as easily from your desktop and that way you can get started."

"Oh, right," she was surprised her legs were working as well as they were when she got up and traded places with Heisuke. "Um, Okita? I'm going to need your copies of the data."

Okita frowned as he said, "There's too much to email. Anyone got a flash drive?"

"Uh, I think so."

Nagakura shifted back to his desk and pulled open a drawer, but Heisuke shook his head, his eyes never leaving the screen as he continued to type. "You can bury it and another copy of your program somewhere in the VM's shared storage and lock it with a password. Just do something basic for now. I think I've got an equation-based password generator somewhere that we can used to create more secure ones later."

Despite the tension of the situation, she couldn't help but be fascinated by the change in Heisuke. Normally he came off as rather immature and the newbie of the team, but this more than anything showed why he was such a valued team member. Clearly he was in his element.

With a slight shake of her head, she focused on navigating her way to the shared data and set to work making a file system so complicated, no one would ever find the data by hand without knowing the route.

Giving up on his search for a flash drive, Nagakura his leaned elbows on his desk. "You know, there's one thing I still don't get. Why'd he do it? Itou doesn't seem like the type to be willing to get his hands dirty for no reason. Seems more like a manipulator to me."

Next to him, Harada shrugged, "Maybe someone had some kind of leverage on him. Doesn't take much to ruin a politician's career. Personally, my money's on the Syndicate. They've blackmailed politicians before and Chizuru's work did lead to quite a few arrests."

Hijikata shifted and folded his arms before he said, "Heisuke, let me know when you've kicked Itou out of the system. Saito, I want you to work on the warrants for searching Itou's residence." The two men nodded and he gave everyone in the room a hard look, emphasizing his next point, "From now on you all need to be more careful when you're out. If the Syndicate is doing this because they noticed the increase in arrests, then we're just lucky they went after the laptop. I'm going to get Kondou to make some calls. Knowing politicians, Itou won't have a friend in the city to rely on. Hopeful we can catch him running back to whoever put pressure on him to do this."

Having said his piece, Hijikata turned and walked back the way he'd come, presumably to start on those phone calls he'd mentioned.

In just a few minutes, Heisuke had not only kicked Itou out of every law enforcement related system, but he'd also hacked into and placed flags in a number of government systems as well. Within twenty, she had created the file system, setup the basic password protection, and had Okita copy in all his files while she moved Heisuke's. There weren't as many files as there could have been, but it was still a large data set. Highlighting the first batch of files, she queued them to load into her program.

When she'd initially loaded the data on her laptop, the underlying data structure had been created incrementally. Now that she was trying to do it in large chunks, the loading bar crept across her screen at what felt like an agonizingly show pace. With nothing to do but wait, Chizuru sighed and sunk lower in Heisuke's chair as her thoughts questioned again and again if she could have done things differently. Was there something she could have done that would have prevented Itou from getting a hold of her laptop? Mostly though, she felt guilty for setting the team back so far.

She jumped slightly when she felt a hand rest on her head, and she glanced over to see Harada smiling at her kindly.

"Don't worry about it. You didn't do anything wrong." She opened her mouth to argue, but Harada continued, "If anything it's our fault for not kicking him out of the system when this whole thing started."

Chizuru knew that wasn't completely true, but she let herself be reassured as she nodded and gave a small attempt at a smilie. He was right that there wasn't any use crying over spilt milk. She would just have to do her best with what she had and hope it would be enough.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 - Never Too Cold For Ice Cream

Thursday, January 17th

From across the row of desks, Souji heard a short, rather exhausted sounding sigh. All week Chizuru had been running herself ragged, trying to both load what he and Heisuke had accidentally managed to save, while at the same time, doing her best to recreate as many of the cases she'd lost as possible. Harada and Heisuke had offered to help her multiple times, but she'd brushed them off in that kind way of hers, saying it was a one-person job and she didn't want to take them away from their work.

When Chizuru sighed again, rubbing absently at her temple while her forehead furrowed in a surprisingly accurate imitation of Hijikata, Heisuke asked, "Hey, why don't you take a break?"

It took a second for her to realize someone had spoken and she blinked before reluctantly pulling her eyes away from the screen, "Hm? Sorry, did you say something Heisuke?"

"I said you should take a break. I don't think I've seen you move all day." Heisuke frowned, his head tipping to the side. "Have you even had lunch yet?"

Souji watched as Chizuru bit her lip and her eyes briefly darted back to the screen, half of her attention still clearly back on her work. "Um… No, but I'm not hungry yet."

"You sure? Sano, Shin, and I were gonna get some lunch in a bit. You should come with us!"

She gave a tired smile as she shook her head, "Thank you, Heisuke, but no. I'll probably get something a little later."

"Well, all right… If you're sure," Heisuke said, but Chizuru had already stopped listening and was tapping away at her keyboard again, her forehead furrowed in concentration.

Heisuke's shoulders slumped slightly, while across the way Shinpachi pulled his hand from a bag of chips sitting on his desk. "Speaking of lunch, I'm hungry."

"You've been snacking all morning. How can you possibly be hungry?" Sano asked.

"That?" Shinpachi snorted as he stood, "That's nothing. It takes more than a few chips to keep these muscles in pristine condition."

He started flexing as Harada rolled his eyes, "You've had two whole bags already."

The trio's gazes subtly flicked to Chizuru, but she was so lost in her work, it was like she was on another planet. Normally their familiar banter would have gotten a smile out of her at the very least, but ever since Itou had disappeared with her laptop, Chizuru been nearly as serious as Saito or Hijikata, and of each of those two was quite enough in Souji's opinion. The few times he'd tried to tease her, she'd hardly spared him a fraction of her attention before returning to her work. She didn't even startle like she used to and her lack of response was… annoying.

The change in seating was also something he found annoying. As much as he hadn't wanted to, he'd gotten used to having her sit next to him. Much like Hajime, she was rarely ever what he would call a nuisance. Unfortunately, she'd continued to commandeer Heisuke's desk, which meant Heisuke had ended up taking hers. It was far from an ideal situation. Not only was Heisuke nowhere near as fun to tease, but his hyperactive personality meant he was a whole lot more irritating. There were times Souji been all of two seconds from throttling him, consequences be damned. Additionally, with the Baka trio now split between both sides, their antics rarely ever remained confined to their unofficial half of the room. A little chaos never hurt, but not when he was the one getting sucked into it.

After it was clear that Chizuru hadn't registered their rather obvious attempt to lighten her mood, Nagakura said, "Well, I'm hungry now, so let's get outta here before the demon catches on."

Sano nodded as he and Heisuke stood, the trio making their way out of the room. At the doorway, Heisuke paused and looked back at Chizuru, looking like he was going to try once more to get her to come with them, but instead he sighed and followed after his friends.

The room was quiet except for the rustle of paper and the muted tapping of keys, and Souji took the opportunity to take a good look at Chizuru. She really did look tired and more than a little stressed. Not that he really cared, because it was entirely her fault for refusing help all week. Her lips were red where she'd been absently chewing on them and her forehead seemed to be permanently creased. When she rubbed tiredly at her eyes with her fingertips, he made a snap decision. Admittedly it was a selfish one, but he told himself it wasn't entirely selfish… and it promised to be entertaining.

"Chizuru~" he called, but she didn't even glance at him as she said absently, "Hold on."

Souji let out a huff of disbelief as he folded his arms, his fingers tapping out a miffed staccato rhythm. Had she seriously just told him to hold on ? "Funny. For a moment there you almost sounded like Hijikata. You might want to try sounding more arrogant if you want to make it convincing."

She looked up at him in surprise, "Huh?"

Well at least he had her attention now. "Hijikata. You know, the bossy worry-wart with a stick up his ass?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Souji saw Hajime's lips thin slightly at the description, but apparently he didn't find it worthy of comment.

When Chizuru merely stared at him blankly, it was Souji's turn to sigh. Could no one take a joke around here? "Never mind. I need your help with something."

Unlike Heisuke's offer, this seemed to tempt her a bit more and her concerned gaze actually stayed focused on him as she asked, "What is it?"

"You'll see," He said, unable to keep from grinning just a bit as he got up.

At least he could still count on her weird compulsion to help people. If there was one thing she always was, it was helpful to a fault. Well, that and unbelievably trusting. Saito gave him a measured look, before apparently deciding it wasn't any of his concern. As Souji started toward the doorway, she made to follow him, but hesitated and glanced back at her computer and the folders that littered the desk.

"But… the cases…"

"Really? So you don't want to help me?" He quirked an eyebrow at her as her cheeks flushed for what he could honestly say was probably the first time that week.

Souji knew he had her, so he didn't bother waiting for an answer. He hadn't taken more than two steps down the hallway before he heard the patter of her feet catching up with him. She was just too predictable. Chizuru slowed as they reached the elevator, but he kept walking past the series of conference rooms and through the door that led to the back stairs.

"Um… Okita?"

The confusion was clear in Chizuru's tone, but Souji didn't answer, instead heading down the stairs. After all, he wasn't about to give her the opportunity to escape and ruin his fun. When they reached the first floor and he stepped outside into the back parking lot, Chizuru had apparently had enough.

"Okita, where are we going?"

"You'll see~"

When he didn't hear Chizuru following after him, Souji turned to find her stopped with one hand on the door, her face set into that stubborn expression he knew all too well. It was clear she intended to go no further without some kind of explanation.

"Why are we out here? I need to be working on the cases…"

Instead of answering her question, he answered with his own, making sure to throw a hint of disappointment into his tone. "Are you saying helping me is a waste of your time?"

Chizuru's eyes widened and she hurriedly stepped forward, letting go of the door. "No! Of course not! But…" he had to fight a grin as she bit her lip indecisively. "Can you at least tell me where we're going?"

"It would ruin the surprise, and where's the fun in that?"

That clearly wasn't enough of an explanation for her, because she turned back to go inside... but found herself face to face with a locked door. He could tell she was mentally hitting herself in the head for letting it go in the first place, but when she just stood there for several seconds, he couldn't keep the fiendish smirk off his lips.

Souji pulled out his ID card as he said tauntingly. "Oh? Don't tell me you forgot yours."

Chizuru turned around rather sheepishly as her eyes locked enviously onto the card he held between his fingers. "I-I can always walk around."

"You could," He nodded as he pocketed the card again and folded his arms, "or you could just trust me."

Chizuru thought that over for a second before her lips pulled up in a small smile and she nodded, "All right, I guess I can do that."

"Good, now come on. The sooner we get there, the sooner you can get back to your oh so important cases."

This time when she caught up, she walked next to him instead of trailing just behind. Neither of them spoke, but the silence wasn't uncomfortable. The destination he had in mind wasn't too far and they'd only gone a couple blocks before the shop came into sight.

A small bell above the door chimed as they walked inside the cool, well lit interior. The air had a toasted, sugary scent that was strong enough that it almost seemed to coat his tongue, and with it came a flood of memories. When Kondou had first discovered his love of sweets, he'd insisted on coming here, to an old fashioned ice cream parlour. Except the place wasn't just decorated to look like it had stepped out of time, it was old and they still did everything by hand.

Over the years, the number of times he'd been here with Kondou had blurred together in Souji's memory, but nothing could make him forget the first time. He still hadn't fully trusted Kondou and had been dubious when the man had told him to order whatever he wanted. What had started as just a small cone, had turned into a sunday the size of his head by the time the overenthusiastic Kondou and shop owner, Henry, were done. That kind of guileless generosity without a single threat of good behavior had gone a long way toward convincing his cynical nine year-old self that just maybe Kondou could be trusted to be different than other adults. Souji grinned as he thought, Well, maybe the cynical part hasn't really changed…

"Souji! I haven't seen you in here in ages. I think you've grown a bit." The old man with white hair to match the cheerful creases around his eyes and mouth smiled as he walked out of the back room. "I don't see Isami with you. How is he?"

Souji shrugged, "He's doing well, just busy."

"Yes, well he does have quite the responsibility now." Henry's expression became nostalgic as he said, "Seems like only yesterday he was nothing more than your average officer dragging around a rather grumpy kid." Souji shifted uncomfortably, but thankfully Henry found his own distraction that would keep him from wandering down memory lane. "But I'm getting ahead of myself, you must tell me who this lovely lady with you is. Is she your girlfriend?"

Souji normally would have been vehemently opposed to that particular assumption, but he let it pass this time, mostly because he was having far too much fun watching Chizuru fidget in extreme embarrassment next to him.

"Oh, no! It's not like that." Her hands fluttered in front of her as her cheeks flared a brilliant red. "W-We just work together."

"Really? That's too bad." Henry's face fell slightly, before his smile returned, "Well, it's not everyday Souji brings someone here, so I hope you'll forgive this old man's assumptions and tell me who I have the honor of addressing."

Chizuru's blush grew brighter as she ducked her head, "Um, my name's Chizuru. It's nice to meet you."

"It's nice to meet you as well." Henry's gaze flicked back to him with a knowing look that went a long way toward killing Souji's enjoyment of the situation. "And what can I help you with today?"

Of course, Chizuru fixed that in an instant, when she started and looked at him with a rather amusing befuddled expression, "That's right, you said you needed my help with something… What are we doing here?"

And now was when his fun would really begin. "Isn't it obvious? You're going to help me pick what flavor of ice cream I want."

"What?!"

Souji laughed as her expression shifted in a matter of seconds from confusion, to shock, and then to a kind of dumbfounded dismay, as if she were already envisioning the numerous ways it could go horribly wrong.

"You should really get your hearing checked. I said I want you to help me pick what ice cream flavor to get." He loved how just watching her face was like seeing the wheels turn inside her head. Each and every thought flickering through her eyes and expression as she tried desperately to find a way out of the predicament he'd created. This was the Chizuru who had been absent all week.

"B-But… It's the middle of winter!" Chizuru seemed to gain confidence as she latched on to her perceived escape route, "It's too cold for ice cream."

Henry chose that moment to add his own two cents to their discussion, "It's never too cold for ice cream."

Souji leaned back against one of the tables and nodded as if that settled the matter, "Exactly. So are you going to help me or not?"

Now thoroughly flustered and left with the choice of either backing out on her agreement to help, or attempting what she probably saw as crossing a literal minefield, Chizuru's shoulders sagged and she glanced at the rows of trays filled with ice cream, "But I don't even know what you like…"

"Eh, I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Chizuru hesitantly approached the case, glancing back at him a couple times, as if hoping he'd let her off the hook and just tell her what he wanted. There was a zero chance of that though. This was the most fun he'd had all week and he wasn't about to cut it short.

Henry smiled indulgently at Chizuru as she finally found herself in front of what must have been close to twenty different flavors. Souji watched as her mouth open and close mutely a couple times before she shot another pleading look back at him, but he just smirked and waved her on.

Henry cleared his throat. "I think you'll find that the cookies and cream is quite good."

"Oh… Oh!" Chizuru grabbed onto the lifeline Henry had tossed her like she was drowning. " Um, can I have that then? And uh…"

"Would you like that on our chocolate dipped cone?"

"Yes, please."

Souji snickered as Chizuru picked up on the game and continued to follow Henry's not so subtle hints.

So the request might not have been the nicest, but he hadn't made it impossible either. Pushing off the table on which he was leaning, Souji walked up and took the cone. "See, I told you it'd be easy."

He took a deliberately exaggerated lick and Chizuru's lips pulled into what was probably supposed to be a disapproving frown, but since it lacked any real censure, it was more amusing than anything else.

"And what would you like?"

It took Chizuru a second to realize Henry had meant her and she rushed to say, "Oh, no. I'm fine, thank you."

"Come now, not even something small?"

Souji watched as Chizuru's eyes unconsciously drifted to a tray of pale pink ice cream dotted with bits of strawberries, it's top decorated with fresh slices of the fruit. The glance only lasted a split second before she shook her head. Apparently Henry saw it too, because without a word, he carved out a generous scoop, making sure to catch several of the fresh strawberry slices, and put it into a cup.

"Oh, no! I couldn't." Chizuru hastily took a step back, "I don't have my purse with me."

"Don't worry about that." Henry's smile had a mischievous glint as he set the cup of ice cream on the counter. "Souji will take care of it. Won't you Souji?"

Souji paused mid-bite to shoot a glare at the old man. "You're certainly free with other people's money."

Of course he got the glare right back, plus a reprimanding finger to boot. Henry may have been old, but he had never stood for any of Souji's attitude, and he clearly wasn't about start now. "And here I thought Isami had raised you better than this. You don't get away with dragging a girl into my shop and making her pay." almost as an afterthought he added, "And don't you go denying it. That's exactly what you did and you know it."

Souji sighed and reached for his wallet as Chizuru hesitantly took the cup of ice with a quiet "Thank you." At her first bite, her eyes lit up in delight, but instead of making her eat faster, she seemed to take her time, savoring each small spoonful.

As they left, Henry called after them, "And bring Isami with you next time or you'll be getting no ice cream from me."

Souji waved to show he'd heard and the two of them set off back toward the station. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chizuru look at him and open her mouth, as if she was about to ask him a question, but instead she looked away and took a bite of her ice cream.

"What is it?"

A light blush appeared as she quickly glanced at him before focusing her attention on poking at a strawberry slice with her spoon. "It's nothing."

"Hm~, doesn't seem like nothing to me." He shot a smirk at her. "Come on, spill."

"Well…" She frowned, still staring at her ice cream. He was about to prod her again, when she looked up and her eyes met his. "That man, he… well, he really seemed to care about you. I was just wondering how you knew him."

Souji looked away and focused on taking a bite off of the cone in his hand, more than a little surprise at her question. He really had no idea how she did it. How could she be so oblivious and naive one minute, and then pull out observations and questions that seemed to see right through him. It was… unnerving to say the least.

When he didn't answer right away, Chizuru hurried to say, "I'm sorry if that's too personal. Forget I asked."

"No, you're fine." He didn't like talking with anyone about his past, but this little bit probably wouldn't hurt…

He let the silence stretch a bit longer before he shrugged and said, "I've been going there with Kondou since I was a kid. During the summer, we'd go at least once a week, but since he was named Chief a few years back, we've both been too busy to stop by more than a couple times."

Of course a certain uptight someone hadn't helped matters any by encouraging Kondou to attend any and every political event or conference that ever existed… He knew it was part of Kondou's job to be the face of the department, and no one deserved the recognition more than he did… But Souji couldn't help feeling just a bit left behind. That kind of thing was completely out of his depth.

"Are you related to Kondou?"

And right there was where he was drawing the line. His first instinct was to tell Chizuru to keep her nose out of other people's business if she didn't want to lose it, but he forced the reaction back and instead teased, "You should be more careful Chizuru," He wiped at a nonexistent bit of ice cream near her mouth with his thumb, "Guys don't like girls who are messy eaters."

"Eh?!" Her face flamed at his touch and he couldn't help but snicker as she ducked out of his reach, furiously scrubbing at her face. With Chizuru now thoroughly embarrassed, she thankfully abandoned her question in favor of focusing her attention on her treat and the occasional surreptitious rub at her face.

They were halfway back to the station when Souji decided that Chizuru may have been right about the middle of January being a bit cold for ice cream. The benefit was that there was no mushy, melty mess to deal with and while he wasn't a fan of the cold, neither did the chill breeze brushing past especially bother him. Chizuru, on the other hand, clearly had no such tolerance, since she shivered every time the breeze touched them. It also probably didn't help that she hadn't brought her jacket… Though that was more his fault than hers since he hadn't told her he'd be dragging her outside.

When she tried to suppress another shiver, he sighed and shoved his ice cream into her hand. "Hold this."

"Huh?" Chizuru blinked in surprise at her suddenly full hands and before she could recover, he'd already taken off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders.

Taking back his ice cream, he continued down the street. When he didn't hear her move, he turned to find her rooted to the spot in shock, her eyes wide as she tentatively touched it, almost as if trying to confirm it was actually there.

"Hey, keep staring at it like that and I'm going to be insulted."

"Sorry!" She hurriedly took the few steps to catch up with him, "But… aren't you cold?"

He found it amusing that despite the implication that she'd give the jacket back if he said yes, the fingers of her free hand seemed to be curled tightly enough around the edge that it'd be a serious battle to get them to release it.

"I'm fine. The cold's never really bothered me anyway."

"Oh, well… thank you."

Souji grinned and glanced down at her as they started walking again, "You can thank me by remembering your coat next time."

He half expected her to fall silent, but instead Chizuru took him by surprise when she muttered around her spoon, "Maybe next time you can tell me where we're going."

Even as he laughed, Souji couldn't help but wonder with some measure of discomfort why he'd said next time. There was no 'next time' as far as he was concerned, and even weirder, Chizuru hadn't batted an eye at the comment.

Pushing the thought away to deal with later, he said teasingly, "Ah, but if I'd done that, then you wouldn't have come."

They both knew he was right and she had clearly used up her supply of witty responses, so instead she busied herself with taking another bite of her ice cream. Again silence fell between them and this time it lasted the final few blocks to the station.

When he had scanned his card and opened the door to the back stairs they'd left by, Chizuru said, "Um, Okita? I… I wanted to thank you."

He paused and glanced down at her, confused as to why she was thanking him. "What for?"

"For making me take a break. I really appreciate it… I'm sorry if I've been out of sorts all week."

Souji rolled his eyes as he stepped through the doorway, holding the door just long enough for Chizuru to follow after him before it shut. "Let's get one thing straight, this wasn't for you. I just wanted ice cream and you happen to be convenient for keeping Hijikata off my back."

"Oh…"Chizuru seemed to ponder that as they began climbing the stairs, until finally she looked at him with that unaccountably bright smile of hers, "Well, thank you anyway. I feel much better now."

As they approached their alcove, Souji could hear voices travelling down the hall.

"What? You just let them wander off?"

"They are both adults. If they choose to leave, it's their own business."

"Yeah, but-"

"Oi, Heisuke. Cool it will ya? You're starting to nag like Hijikata.

"Nah, he's just jealous."

"I am not!"

He glanced down at Chizuru with a smirk pulling at his lips. "Seems we've been missed."

She glanced guiltily at the half-finished cup of ice cream in her hands. "I hope we don't get in trouble…"

"If leaving for a bit was all it took, then those idiots would never not be in trouble. Besides, it's not like Hijikata has a right to complain. He's gone even more than they ever are."

"Care to repeat that Souji?"

Souji turned around calmly to find a glowering Hijikata standing behind them… Chizuru, not so much. From the way she jumped and her eyes went wide with fear, you'd have thought Hijikata was something straight out of her nightmares. Which in all honesty, he probably was.

Souji smiled as he said with feigned brightness, "Hijikata, what a surprise. Do you work here too?"

"You know damn well that I do. Now where were you and Yukimura?"

"Hm, you really are trying hard aren't you."

Hijikata seemed thrown and more than a little suspicious at the non-sequitur, "What?"

"Well I didn't think Shinpachi was serious when he said you were a demon."

"What are you talking about?" Hijikata said, his eyebrows drawing together.

Souji let a bit of sarcasm creep into his innocent tone, "Oh, you know, speak of a demon and he shall appear?"

As if things could get any better, Chizuru cleared her throat and said in a rather small voice, "Um… I believe the saying is 'speak of the devil' not a demon."

He glanced down at her, shrugging nonchalantly as the vein in Hijikata's forehead began to throb, "I know. I just figured he wouldn't appreciate being called the devil."

And that was the comment that set off the bomb, "Oh, but calling me a demon isn't offensive? As a matter of fact, how would you feel if I ran around calling you the devil or a demon? Heaven knows you've been enough of a pain in the neck over the years." Unfortunately the explosion didn't last long, because after several deep breaths, Hijikata seemed to get ahold of himself. "You know what, never mind. Just make sure you manage to get some of your work done today or there'll be hell to pay."

Having said his piece, Hijikata stalked off down the hallway. The commotion seemed to have drawn the attention of everyone else, because three heads were peeking around the corner.

"Hey, where'd you guys go?" Heisuke asked, "We got back and no one knew where you went… Is that ice cream?"

"Oh, ah…" Chizuru fidgeted, her head ducking somewhat guiltily, "Well, Okita said he needed my help…"

"Help with what?"

Souji grinned as he strolled past the trio, popping the last bit of cone into his mouth. "She was helping me pick what flavor of ice cream I wanted."

"Huh?!" Heisuke and Shinpachi said in unison, and Heisuke frowned as he followed him into the room.

"Souji, you can't just go around taking advantage of her like that for your own entertainment."

"It's not like I kidnapped her. She can choose where she goes and when." Souji grinned as he took a jab at what he was pretty sure was bothering Heisuke. "Or could it be you're just jealous she didn't go with you?"

"No! I just don't want you taking advantage of her." Heisuke's voice dropped to an grumble as he folded his arms and pink dusted his cheeks, "We all know she's to nice to say no."

So that was it, huh. With an air of nonchalance, Souji called over to Chizuru, who had sat down at Heisuke's commandeered desk. "You planning on keeping my jacket?"

Chizuru instantly flushed down to her neck as she hastily took off the garment and held it out to him. "Sorry! Thank you for letting me borrow it."

As he'd predicted, Heisuke's forehead furrowed, and Souji couldn't resist quipping, "Sure you don't want to rethink that answer?"

"You're a jerk, you know that?"

It was only as Heisuke moved toward his borrowed desk, that Souji noticed Sano watching the exchange with a contemplative expression. He only broke off when Shinpachi came up and threw and arm around his shoulders. "Hey man, how about we hit that new place on 5th tonight? It can be your treat."

"You do realize it's been 'my treat' for the last three nights? How about you tell me when it's gonna be your turn to foot the bill."

"I told you, when I get some money. I'll even pay you back plus interest." Shinpachi grinned as he said, "You can think of it like an investment!"

The room returned to its normal atmosphere as Sano threw off his friend's arm. "Yeah right. Investing in you is like throwing money down a bottomless hole."

Souji's lips twitched up at one corner when he heard a quiet giggle from the other side of the desks. Definitely normal.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 - Barely Legal

Friday, January 18th

Chizuru sighed in relief as the loading bar crawled across the final few pixels and the 'upload completed' dialogue box disappeared. That was it. The last of the cases had been loaded into the database and she could finally get to work. What they'd done incrementally over six weeks had taken her nearly a week of constant work to reload. With nothing to do but watch a loading bar creep across Heisuke's screen, she'd started recreating some of the cases she'd lost, but that had come with its own set of challenges. Duplicate data would skew the results and she'd had to be careful to double check that the case hadn't already been entered.

Having everything done was certainly a weight off her shoulders, but ever since Okita had tricked her into getting ice cream with him the other day, she'd found that the majority of the stress she'd been feeling had already left. It had been nice to get out and just forget about everything, even if that distraction was her own embarrassment. Chizuru couldn't help but feel that he hadn't been entirely honest with her about his reason for dragging her off. He certainly hadn't need her help in fending off Hijikata like he'd said and she still didn't understand why Okita seemed to take so much joy from tormenting the man.

Okita had also been just about right when he'd estimated how much data they'd been able to salvage. Between what he and Heisuke had saved and the few cases she'd managed to re-enter, they had about three quarters, if not a bit more. Even with the missing cases, it was still the largest database she'd ever worked with. She wasn't sure if all the extra data would disguise any possible patterns or make them clearer. Chizuru felt a mix of nerves and excitement as she finally clicked the small 'launch model' button in the upper corner.

With surprising speed, a massive web of glowing lines filled her screen. Wow. She'd known Heisuke had a nicer desktop than any of the others, what with his dual screens and ergonomic keyboard, but until now, she'd never considered her own laptop to be slow. Feeling a measure of awe, she rotated and maneuvered her way through the model without the slightest hint of an awkward pause or jump, each line appearing crisp and clear.

Chizuru flipped the model over to a geographic view, so the web overlaid a map of the city. Well, at the very least she could confirm that the syndicate operated in every single section of the city. There wasn't a neighborhood that didn't have at least one node in it and the lines crisscrossing the city were so thick in places she couldn't even make out the underlying streets. She was starting to worry that maybe they really did have too much data…

Without any clear patterns or unusual empty spots appearing on the map, Chizuru pulled up the query builder, biting absently at her lip as she considered her options. After a short pause, she pulled up a basic count of the number of cases.

Result:

Cases - 168

Each of which would have its associated evidence logs, witness statements, final reports, and a slew of notes. No wonder the web had been so dense. Moving one step down, she grouped each of the cases by the neighborhood in which the crime had occurred.

Result:

Magnolia - 37

Queen Anne Heights - 32

Port District - 28

University District - 26

Financial District - 17

Madison Park - 13

Wedgwood - 6

Ravenna - 3

Madrona - 2

Delridge - 1

Laurelhurst - 1

Holly Beach - 1

Orillia - 1

The colors on the map shifted, now highlighting by neighborhood, instead of case type. Unfortunately that wasn't much better than the original scheme. All the results told her was that the crimes were most prevalent in the rougher neighborhoods and the centers of commerce. She sat back in her chair and stared at the list. She knew from asking Okita about the cases as they'd originally entered them, that Magnolia and Queen Anne were known for their gang activities. She'd also heard that the local university had seen several scandals with misplaced funds and suspicious donations over the past couple years, and she knew first hand the kind of things that went on in the warehouses around the port. None of this was new information, so the real question was where did she go from there?

Chizuru sighed, feeling slightly disappointed with the results, even if, rationally, she knew it would most likely take time. Maybe if she broke it down even further…?

This time instead of jumping down a single level and grouping them by street, she selected the finest grain possible, a count of unique addresses. Normally this was one of the more useless filters she had at her disposal, and she'd only ever used it once or twice, since most places rarely even had five incidents. Most criminals were smart enough to take the hint and moved their illegal activities somewhere else well before then.

Result:

198 Spring St - 34

415 Boren Ave - 5

1736 Belmont Ave - 3

815 3rd Ave N - 1

119 W Roy St - 1

More...

Chizuru stared in disbelief at the result. If she'd had a drink, she probably would have choked on it. As it was, she very nearly choked on the air. How could there possibly be 34 mentions of a single address? It had to be some kind of mistake. Clicking on the link, she brought up the list of references and was baffled to see that not only were the majority of them from different cases, but they weren't even labeled as key locations. Most of them were categorized as interrogation notes or unrelated witness testimony. This was the type of incidental information that got picked up during the course of the investigation, but wasn't of any real use in solving the crime. What on earth is this place? Highlighting one of the entries, she brought the location up on the map.

A little pin appeared on the screen, overlaying the web of multicolored lines. The building was located at the outer edge of what could be considered downtown and was only a few blocks from the waterfront. The waterfront itself was dotted with the blue nodes of narcotics cases, which faded into the yellow of theft and embezzlement cases scattered across the downtown businesses. Whatever this place was, it existed right where the yellow faded into blue, right on the fringe of both the high-end city center and the criminal underworld.

With her curiosity now well and truly piqued, Chizuru copied the address into her web browser and examined the first few links that appeared. The first one caught her attention almost instantly. The Midnight Orchid? The description was brief and vague, mentioning only good music, great drinks, and excellent dancing. Maybe it was some kind of club? Quickly she perused the next couple links, but they seemed to be blogs and reviews, so she scrolled back up and clicked on the first result.

The webpage that greeted her was clean cut and well designed, highlighting photos of a contemporary, if slightly industrial, bar with high ceilings and exposed beams and ductwork. On each of the tables scattered around the room, she could see a single dark purple orchid with a trio of candles and there seemed to be some kind of stage with a catwalk and a couple of silver poles…

Poles...?

Chizuru stared at the screen as the wheels in her mind turned. There had to be some other explanation than the one her mind had leapt to… They were structural, right? Okay, they clearly weren't structural. Decorative? Unlikely…

Um…

She could feel her cheeks starting to warm as she discarded one ridiculous explanation after another. With only one reasonable explanation left, she hesitantly clicked on the 'Entertainers' link.

It was better than she'd feared it would be, but there was certainly no doubt about it now. Judging by the elegant, yet quite revealing, evening dresses and dance costumes the women were wearing, and their rather provocative smiles, The Midnight Orchid was clearly a gentleman's club. To her it seemed to be a step above average, since the site wasn't flaunting what it was clearly offering, but it also wasn't like she had any real experience go on.

She had just started to scroll down through the list of photos when a voice murmured right in her ear, "Really, Chizuru. At work? I never took you for that kind of girl."

Chizuru was sure she felt her heart stop as she jumped and only barely kept from letting out a yelp of surprise. She whirled around to find Okita grinning, obviously beyond pleased with her over the top reaction. "That's not exactly workplace appropriate you know."

Her initial reaction had been purely due to the surprise of someone so drastically invading her personal space, but as her brain caught up with what he'd said, her face flushed in mortification. She frantically waved her hands in denial and somehow managed to keep her voice low. The last thing she needed was any of the others catching on to their conversation.

"No! I uh… It's not what it looks like! I'm not… I mean, I would never!"

"Oh~? Cause that's not what it looks like from here."

She was sure her mouth was gaping like a fish gasping for air as she tried to get her short circuiting brain to come up with a decent response. When nothing was immediately forthcoming, Okita's grin twitched up at the corner as he spun her chair back to face her computer and she felt him lean on the back of it.

"Relax, will you. I know that." There was a brief pause before he added with a chuckle, "Your reactions are just too fun to pass up."

She let out an irritated huff as she tried to focus on the screen in front of her, determined to ignore him as punishment for his teasing. If reactions were what he was after, then she wouldn't give him the satisfaction. Okita seemed to read her thoughts, because he tugged on her ponytail.

"Oh come on. Care to tell me what this is and why you're looking it up?"

"No, not particularly."

"Hmm…" All of a sudden, his voice was back in her ear, "You sure?"

Chizuru leaned sharply away, her cheeks flaming again as she glared at him over her shoulder. Apparently her glare was far from effective, because Okita didn't look the least bit repentant.

"Yes, I'm sure!"

"All right, if I stop teasing you, will you tell me?"

Personally, Chizuru didn't think that was possible for him, but it seemed like the best deal she was going to get. It didn't look like he was going to leave this alone anyway.

She let out a small resigned sigh before turning back to the screen. "Fine. Now that all the data has finally been loaded, I started going through it and this place popped up. This one address has 34 references, which is really unusual, so I decided to find out what was there."

"And? What's this mysterious place?"

"It's called The Midnight Orchid… I'm pretty sure it's a… um…" her voice dropped to a mumble as she said, "gentlemens club."

"Hm~, thought so."

Wait… he'd already guessed? So he'd only wanted to get her to say it!

Chizuru twisted around to look back up at him, her voice coming out a bit more petulant than she intended. "Okita! You said you wouldn't tease me."

His grin widened as he shrugged nonchalantly, "I didn't. You didn't answer the other half of my question." Well, that was technically true… but before she could come up with a retort, he frowned slightly and his gaze shifted back to the screen, "Hm, you think I would have remembered if we'd had that many cases involving a strip club. Places like that tend to try and keep their noses clean since we aren't exactly good for business."

"That's just it, it doesn't have any direct cases." Distracted from her search for a comeback, Chizuru flipped back over to the list of all the places the Midnight Orchid had been mentioned. "See? They're all in the case notes as incidental data. As far as I know, none of you have ever been there."

"Eh, can't really promise you that."

Chizuru's hand froze on her mouse. "O-Oh…?"

She felt another tug on her ponytail, "Hey, don't you go lumping me in with Shinpachi. He's the one who goes to overrated places like that."

No one had been paying any attention to their conversation thus far, but at the sound of his name, Nagakura's head popped up. "Who's lumped in with me?"

"Oh don't worry, you're in a class all your own."

"Thanks man!" Nagakura said brightly, but after a seconds pause his grin slipped, "I think…"

Across the way, Heisuke snorted, "Now there's something you don't do very often. Careful grandpa, you might strain those few brain cells you have left."

"Oi, you watch your mouth brat. Or do I need to come over there and teach you a lesson in respect?"

Chizuru let out a shaky laugh at Heisuke's and Nagakura's escalating argument, as the slight pressure in her chest she hadn't realized was there eased. She did her best to ignore Okita leaning on her chair, as she began flipping through the information associated with each of the mentions. After only a few, Okita leaned further forward, his hand nudging hers off the mouse. She quickly jerked her hand back, her cheeks flaring back up to full brightness.

If he noticed her reaction, he didn't tease her about it, instead he started clicking through the list at a far faster pace than she'd been going. She glanced back to see that his previous good humor had left his features, leaving in it's place a cool calculation as his narrowed eyes skimmed the pages.

From what she was able to pick up, most of it seemed to be interrogation notes where the guilty party was giving up information on their superiors in exchange for a chance at leniency. She didn't recognize any of the names, but clearly Okita did.

"Damn, how did we miss this?" He muttered under his breath as he clicked through the final result and released the mouse.

"You… you know who these people are?"

Okita let out a short, rather irritated sigh, but she knew his anger wasn't directed at her. "Yeah. They're the ones we've been trying to pin stuff on from the get go. We've known they're involved for a while, but they're pretty well insulated."

"Oh…" Now she understood why he was so upset.

The people mentioned in the notes must be the highest they'd been able to track the Syndicate hierarchy. Unfortunately it seemed they'd been unable to trace any real crimes back to them thus far, and now they'd discovered that they'd been sitting on possibly critical information for who knew how long without even knowing it.

One side of Okita's mouth pulled up and as he glanced down at her, she noticed that a good deal of the coldness had left his eyes. "Not a bad job. It's too much of a coincidence for all of them to be showing up in one spot like this. Every group has their favorite places, and it seems you've stumbled on one of theirs." He looked over at Saito, "Hey Hajime, where's Hijikata?"

"I believe he is in his office."

"Better get him. I think Chizuru's found our first lead."

Saito nodded as he stood and crossed the short distance to Hijikata's closed door. Next to her, Harada and Nagakura each leaned closer, trying to get a look at her screen, while Heisuke asked, "You really found something?"

She opened her mouth to respond, but at that moment, Hijikata appeared from his office following Saito and she figured it would be best to wait and go through the whole thing once.

"Well, what is it?" Hijikata asked, his expression serious as he came to a stop behind her chair.

She glanced at Okita to see if he wanted to explain, but he shrugged, so she said, "Once I got everything loaded, I started doing some basic searches in the data. By accident I stumbled across an address that had an unusual number of mentions and when I looked it up, I found out that it was a gentlemen's club called the Midnight Orchid-"

Chizuru was interrupted when Nagakura suddenly said, "Oh, I've heard of-" but at a glare from Hijikata, he abruptly broke off into a cough, "Uh, I mean… never heard of it."

She caught Harada rolling his eyes as she took a deep breath. "Anyway, that's about all I did. Okita and I were going through the places where it was mentioned in the cases, and he recognized some of the names."

She glanced at Okita again and he picked up the thread of the story. "Basically we've had a bunch of the upper level members of the Syndicate hanging out in a public place right under our nose this whole time."

Hijikata's eyebrows drew down sharply. "How the hell did we miss that?"

"Um," Everyone's attention swivelled back to her. "It's really not surprising that this was missed. I mean, 34 mentions is a lot for a single address, but that's still only 34 out of the thousands of places recorded and most of those seemed to be passing remarks."

She was glad to see that her explanation appeared to ease Hijikata's irritation slightly, but he still didn't look happy. Not that she could really blame him for that, but part of her had hoped that someone would have at least been happy with what she'd managed to find. Okita had seemed glad that she'd found it, but she still felt like she was causing more problems for them than she was actually solving.

Okita picked up where he'd left off, "I got a look at some of the reports and it doesn't sound like they're going there for business."

"So what you're saying is this is a chance to get at them while they're guard is down and maybe overhear something?" Harada asked as he raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair.

Okita snorted, "I don't think they'd be dumb enough to be that loose lipped even if we bugged the place and could get anything over whatever obnoxiously loud music they probably play to prevent things like that."

"Then why don't we just ask the women?" Nagakura gestured at the still open window with the pictures of the Midnight Orchid's employees. "I mean, come on, they have to have heard something if those guys have really been visiting the place often. We can just get them to give us the lowdown on all their customers."

"Really Shin? That's your brilliant idea?" Harada was normally so laid back, that Chizuru was surprised to see he actually seemed angry with his best friend. "You can't just mess with their livelihoods like that. I'll admit they probably know quite a bit, but it'll be more than their jobs on the line if anyone finds out they talked to us. If anything happened to them because of that, it'd be our fault."

Nagakura rubbed the back of his neck, looking slightly ashamed. "Sorry, you're right… But who else is in a position to know what's going on in there?"

There was a long pause before, "What if it's not a someone we need to talk to, but a something ?"

Everyone turned rather owlish expressions at Heisuke and Hijikata was the first to break the silence. "What do you mean, 'something'?"

"I mean there's something that follows them everywhere and knows a lot of information they wouldn't want getting out. If we could talk to that, who knows how much it could tell us." Rather abruptly, Heisuke switched tracks, "Hey Shin, can I see your phone?"

"Uh, sure…" Nagakura uneasily handed the device over to him and with a few taps, Heisuke had unlocked the phone and was grinning at the screen.

"Hey! How do you know my password?! You better not be messing with any of my stuff!"

Harada let out a bark of laughter, "It's 1234 you dumby. Chizuru could probably break in." He glanced over at her, "No offense."

She smiled briefly to let him know it was fine, but most of her attention was focused on what Heisuke had said. Chizuru thought she knew what Heisuke was getting at now, and it seemed most of the others did as well.

"See," Heisuke said, "Everything is on our phones; numbers, texts, emails, locations, and what are they going to do it? Throw it in the river because it 'talked'?"

That got at least a grin from all of them, but Okita pointed out the flaw in the plan, "Sure that solves one problem, but you can't seriously think they're just going to hand them over."

"No, but phones do a lot of communicating without ever telling us." Heisuke shrugged, "You don't enter the password for our wifi everyday, but I bet your phone is connected to it just like Shin's is. There isn't a place in the city that doesn't offer wifi, and if they go there often, then their phones probably do the same. If it's unsecured, then that's even better on our end."

Hijikata frowned, "That still doesn't explain how you're getting all this data off their phones."

"Uh… Well that's where it gets a bit tricky…" Heisuke looked like he was expecting to get hit over the head as he said, "You remember the StingRay Kondou said he wanted to get several months back? The thing that acts as a hotspot and grabs data from whatever connects to it?"

"Yes, I remember." From the tone of Hijikata's voice, it clear he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Well, I think I can do something similar. If we give the device the same password and signature as The Orchid, then all of their phones would connect without them even knowing."

Saito frowned, "That's running a very fine line Heisuke… I believe you already know falsely identifying a digital service is a federal offense even with a legal device like."

"Um, yeah… but it's not like anyone needs to know, right?" Heisuke laughed awkwardly, "I mean as long as we don't use the data as evidence in court, then what's the problem?"

"What's the problem, he says," Harada rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand, "Oh, I don't know, how does ten years in prison sound? Because that's exactly what we'd get."

Heisuke paled slightly and Nagakura turned to look at Harada, clearly more than a little alarmed, "Ten years! In a federal prison?! That's more than a little problem dude. No. Thank. you."

"I think we could do it."

" WHAT?! " The three men stared at Hijikata, their expressions horrified. Personally, she felt queasy at just the thought of breaking a law, let alone one with such a serious penalty. Even Saito's eyes had widened in surprise at Hijikata's rather confident statement.

The one outlier was Okita, who laughed as he said, "I wouldn't count on your poetry skills winning you any points, they suck."

"Not prison you imbeciles." Hijikata looked at the ceiling, as if praying for patience. "Kondou knows a judge who owes him a few favors, so I think I can get us a warrant. It probably won't hold up in court, so we couldn't officially use anything we find, but it would keep our asses out of jail. Heisuke, I'll talk to Kondou about getting one of these StingRays. Until then-"

Heisuke cleared his throat nervously, "I uh… might have already ordered one…"

"You what?!"

"Yeah, it seemed like it would be useful and when I mentioned it to Kondou a couple weeks ago, he thought it was a good idea, so…" Heisuke let his voice trail off as Hijikata's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"How much did it cost?"

"Kondou approved it!"

"Not what I asked. How much?"

When Heisuke hung his head and muttered something unintelligible, Hijikata sighed, "Fine, when it gets here-"

"It's already here."

"Heisuke…" Chizuru was fairly sure she could see a vein throbbing in Hijikata's forehead. "We are going to have a long talk about this later. Understood?" Heisuke kept his gaze focused on his desk as he nodded. "I want Yamazaki and Shimada to scope out the place tonight, which will give Heisuke time to figure out how that device is going to work. Consider your weekend plans cancelled. I want to act on this quickly, but there's too much at stake here for us to risk running into it blind."

Nagakura and Heisuke both groaned, but they were quickly silenced by a glare from Hijikata. Harada didn't look all that happy with losing his weekend either, but like Okita and Saito he kept silent on the matter. Honestly, the latter two didn't seem all that put out by the situation. She didn't have anything she would need to cancel, so it wouldn't really be a problem for her. Sen's work at her law firm had kept her just as busy as Chizuru, so they hadn't made any plans other than to simply crash and relax at home. Still… This was the second Saturday in a row that she'd had to give up, and she was starting to worry that it was becoming a trend.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 - Playing Dress Up

Saturday, January 19th

Chizuru idly sipped at her tea as she skimmed over the data on the screen in front of her. It was now eleven in the morning on a Saturday and everyone was already there with the exception of Okita. Hijikata had groused over his tardiness, but she'd simply decided to use the time to continue trying to discover any other patterns or irregularities. A noise by the door caught her attention and she glanced up just in time to see Okita walk through, seemingly unfazed and with a coffee in his hand.

"There you are," Hijikata folded his arms and his eyebrows drew together sharply as he said, "Glad you could join us. Care to explain what was so important?"

Okita rolled his eyes as he dropped into his seat across from her, since she was still commandeering Heisuke's desk. "It's a thing called sleeping. You should try it sometime. It might make you a little less grumpy."

For a split second, Hijikata looked like he wanted to throw the nearest object that wasn't tied down, but the moment passed and she was relieved when he settled for pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a long, exasperated sigh.

"Well, now that we're all here," He turned to the two men seated on the couch that she'd met once before. "Yamazaki, Shimada, what did you find out last night?"

His expression serious, Yamazaki promptly responded in clear, measured voice, "We began our investigation with the exterior of the building. Two sides face the street, with the main entrance being off 2nd avenue. The third side adjoins a valet parking area, and the fourth, a narrow alley. There are side entrances on both the back and valet sides, but only the back appears to remain unlocked, presumably so employees are able to smoke while on their break."

Shimada picked up the explanation, "The interior is dim, but not dark, with the exception of the stage. It's also pretty noisy and we didn't see any convenient places to put bugs near the tables, even if they could pick up anything. We noticed two hallways, and believe they lead to the doors we saw outside, but we were unable to confirm it. We did find that there were enough non-regulars among the clientele that we were able to avoid drawing attention."

"Did you see any of the suspected Syndicate members?" Saito asked.

Yamazaki nodded, "Yes, we saw two, each with their associates, and possibly one or two others we were unable to confirm without drawing attention to ourselves."

"That's fine, at least we have confirmation that they're there." Hijikata nodded before turning to a rather tired looking Heisuke. "It took a few favors, but I was able to get the warrant. It won't last longer than a week and I don't think I'll be able to get him to renew it, so I hope you've made some progress."

"I-" Heisuke yawned and ran a hand through his already tousled hair. "Sorry, I got the device working with my computer early this morning. We're going to need two things for this to work. First, we need their wifi certificate and password, but we can pick that up when we get there. Second, someone is going to need to change the Orchid's wifi so only we can get on. Once the device connects to that, I can control and monitor it from my computer. There's still some problems though-" Heisuke stifled another yawn as he held up a small cylinder about an inch in diameter and maybe a three inches long. "It takes about thirty to forty seconds to get everything off a device, and the hotspot range is still only about five feet."

Nagakura whistled as he folded his arms, "That's a long time to be hovering around someone, You sure you can't get it any shorter?"

"If you want to take a look at it, then go ahead, but I was up until four working on this thing and I don't think it's going to get much better than that."

Harada glanced around the room before he said, "I know I can't be the only one thinking this, but we're going to stick out like sore thumbs if any of us start hovering around tables for anything longer than a couple seconds."

There was a long pause as everyone thought that over and Chizuru considered what they could do to keep from standing out. Really, she didn't think there was anything they could do. Heisuke needed to be with his computer. Harada's bright red hair and Nagakura's overly defined form were sure to draw too much attention. Okita certainly blended in more, even with his height, but his personality and general aura would be setting off any number of alarm bells if he got within ten feet of someone even vaguely suspicious. He didn't exactly do subtle, and for that matter, neither did Hijikata. Saito was a possibility in her opinion, even with his unusual hair color, he had a unique ability to blend into the background of almost any situation. Yamazaki and Shimada were quiet enough, but that still didn't solve the problem of drawing attention if they hovered near someone's table. An unknown man hovering awkwardly near a table would draw anyone's attention, let alone a naturally suspicious Syndicate member.

A man…? Chizuru blinked and straightened slightly at the stray thought. Was that the answer?

"Um… What if I did it?"

There was a moment of shocked silence, before Nagakura said, "You?" at the same time Heisuke snapped out of his sleepy haze and all but shouted, "Uh uh, no way!"

"Now hold on a second," Harada said slowly as he looked at her appraisingly. "She might be on to something there."

Under the scrutiny of all their gazes, she tried to look more confident with her proposal than she felt. Honestly the more she thought about it, the more the idea of being in close proximity to such dangerous people scared her. It also didn't take into account the type of environment she'd be in, but Chizuru really didn't see another option. Out of all of them she was the plainest in terms of looks.

"Think about it for a moment, Heisuke." Harada said, "Men don't tend to notice women in places like that, at least not in the way they'd notice us. It's their job to mingle, and I hate to say it, but they're more like decorations than anything else. Pretty to look at, but not a threat."

Harada's attempt at a calming tone apparently did nothing to reassure Heisuke, because his face flushed with anger as he gestured wildly, "What the hell is wrong with you guys?! So you're all for sending her in with a bunch of perverted criminals?!"

"No we are not," Saito said firmly, "But we recognise the validity of her proposal. At the moment, it seems to be the best option we have."

Hijikata sighed, ignoring Heisuke's mutters and grumbling, and gave her a hard look that she did her best to meet squarely, "I can't say I like this option either, but if you're determined…"

"I am." Thankfully her voice came out clear and strong as she nodded. She'd been afraid some of her nerves might have shown through.

"Then I can't think of a good enough reason for you not to do it. You're certainly more suited to being unnoticed than any of us."

"Well I can." Okita drawled into the silence following Hijikata's statement. She looked over to find him leaning back in his chair, arms folded and his eyes surprisingly critical as he looked at her. "I don't think she can do it."

Chizuru felt some of her hastily constructed resolve slip away under Okita's blunt gaze.

"You realize what those women are there for right? What their job is?"

"Y-Yes, I do."

"Really," He raise one eyebrow, but there wasn't any of his usual teasing attitude in the gesture. "And how far are you willing to go for this ruse? Once you're in there, you can't go figuring out there's a line you can't cross."

"I… I…"

Part of her wanted to respond that she would be fine, that she could handle it… She just wanted to help, but with a sinking feeling in her chest, she knew he was also completely right. She had zero experience in this area and the thought of what could be asked to do did worry her. Still, Hijikata and Saito had both agreed that she was the best option they had. She didn't want to hobble the investigation because she was too afraid to do more that sit on the sidelines… but she also didn't want to be the cause for the whole thing falling apart either.

"Souji," Saito shot a hard look at Okita, his tone reprimanding and Hijikata frowned as he said, "She wouldn't be in there alone. Whoever was with her would be responsible for getting her out of any problematic situations."

Okita snorted, "Fine, but it doesn't solve the problem that I don't think she could look the part." His eyes lost some of their edge as he turned back to her. "Sorry, but you're not exactly exotic dancer material. We'd be better off sticking Yamazaki in a dress. I'm pretty sure he'd dress in drag and do the hula if Hijikata told him to."

Harada and Nagakura choked as they tried not to laugh, presumably at the thought of Yamazaki dancing in a grass skirt and lei. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yamazaki's hands clench into fists, but it only lasted a second before he took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed his fingers. He made no similar attempt to temper the dagger-like glare he was shooting at Okita.

Heisuke leaped to his feet, nodding enthusiastically, "Exactly! Yamazaki can-" but the glare Yamazaki leveled at Heisuke was enough to cause him to break off into an awkward, "Uh, I mean… Nevermind…"

Well, there wasn't anything she could do about her ability to play the part except do her best, but she realized there was something she could do about looking the part.

Chizuru straightened her spine and met Okita's gaze squarely as she said as confidently as she could, "I know it's out of my comfort zone, but I believe I can do this. I also know someone who can fix the, um… the whole looking like a-a dancer thing. There's no one better than her when it comes to fashion."

Hijikata turned to look at her speculatively, "And who would that be? I'd rather not involve any more people than we have to."

"Well, she's my roommate, but we grew up together. There's no one I trust more and I promise she can make me look the part." Chizuru bit at her lip anxiously as Hijikata thought over her proposal.

Eventually he gave a short nod. "Fine, you can find out if she's willing to help, but I want to talk to her before we decide anything."

"Thank you."

Pulling out her phone, she dialed Sen's number and waited while the dial tone rang in her ear. Finally, " Hey Chizuru, what's up?"

"Hey Sen. Um, hold on a second, I'm going to put you on speaker phone."

" Oh, all right."

Chizuru tapped the button and set her phone on the desk in front of her. "Can you hear me?"

" Loud and clear. Now what's this all about?"

"Well," She noticed some of the guys, and Hijikata in particular, wince slightly at Sen's bubbly tone. "I need some help. You remember Halloween last year?"

" Mhm, of course, but why?"

Chizuru took a breath before she quickly rushed out, "I need something similar to what you wanted, just minus the wings."

" Ooh! Wait… Why do you need that? Those guys had better not be pressuring you into something inappropriate."

Almost instantly there was a chorus of "What?!", "No!", and "Of course not!"s, with the sole exception of Heisuke who blurted a rather loud "YES!"

During the slightly awkward pause that followed, Heisuke flushed as several of the others shot exasperated looks at him. The tension was broken, when Okita asked, "What was Halloween last year?"

Chizuru felt her stomach drop. She could only pray Sen would keep the explanation short…

"Well, I wanted to go as fairies, but Chizuru was too embarrassed, so we went as french maids instead! I mean it was a good choice, but oh, this is going to be so much fun! It's not every day I get to dress Chizuru up."

Well it was certainly short… She should probably have prayed for vague instead.

As Sen continued to ramble on, almost every gaze in the room was trained on her with varying degrees of surprise and she couldn't help the blush that spread across her cheeks. Okita was clearly fighting not to laugh as he said quietly, "Fairies and french maids, huh? You certainly have a weird taste in friends."

" Hey, I heard that! Hmph…You must be Okita."

He blinked in surprise at having been called out, but quickly recovered himself and raised a teasing eyebrow at her as if to say ' talking about me, were you?' Chizuru could feel her blush spreading to her ears as she frantically shook her head in denial.

" So, this is great and all, but you haven't told me what this is for. I can't do it right if I don't know the details."

Glad for the redirection, Chizuru quickly said, "Right, details," A quick look at Hijikata confirmed that he was okay with her explaining what they needed. "We need to get some information from some people without them knowing. Right now I'm the least likely to be noticed, but I need some help looking the part. The place is a gentlemen's club called the Midnight Orchid and um… I would need to look like one of their… uh, entertainers. Do you think it's possible?"

" Hold on a sec. Midnight Orchid, right?"

"Yeah…"

There was a brief silence, broken only by the sound of typing. Eventually they heard a delighted laugh from the phone.

" Oh, I could do this in my sleep. Don't you guys worry about a thing. You won't even recognize her when I'm through. Give me three hours to get everything I need and then I'll be right over."

Hijikata frowned at the phone, "Now wait a second-" But Sen had already hung up, presumably to get a head start on her shopping spree. He stared at the silent device for a moment longer, before he sighed and looked at her. "This had better not be more trouble than it's worth."

While she was still trying to figure out how to respond to that, Heisuke started grumbling under his breath again, before he abruptly pushed away from his desk and said, "I still think this is a bad idea, but apparently I'm the only one who seems to think that. I'm going to catch up on some sleep." With his hands shoved in his pockets, he left the room.

"Wait, Heisuke!" she called, and was about to follow him, but she felt a restraining hand on her shoulder.

When Chizuru turned, she found Harada looking at her kindly, "Let him be for now. He'll come round eventually."

"Oh… all right." She felt guilty for making Heisuke so upset, but she didn't see what she could have done differently. He was normally so bright and happy, that it felt like a complete one-eighty for him react this way.

With a sigh, Chizuru settled back into her seat. There wasn't much else to do but wait for Sen to show up and work her magic.


Souji was surprised when, at three hours on the dot, Hijikata got a call from reception that there was a girl loaded down with shopping bags asking for Chizuru. Whoever this 'Sen' was, he could hear her coming long before she actually burst through the doorway. The sound of dozens of paper shopping bags rustling had echoed like a cardboard freight train headed down the hallway.

As Sen stepped into the room, Chizuru was quick to leap to her feet, her smile as bright as he'd ever seen it as she rushed to hug her friend. "Thank you so much for doing this Sen. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Sen gave the same bubbly laugh he'd heard over the phone as she set down the numerous bags in her arms, "It's not a problem. Besides, this is going to be so much fun!"

The two of them made an interesting and surprisingly well balanced pair. He would have assumed that someone with Sen's over the top personality would have steamrolled right over Chizuru, even with her stubborn streak, but she seemed to pull Chizuru out of her shell, including her in her exuberance. The way she seemed relax and laugh more freely was a side he hadn't seen from her before.

With idle curiosity, he kept an eye on them as Sen pulled Chizuru off to the side and utterly failed at whispering to her, "Oh my god. What do you mean you 'guess' they're hot? They're so hot they make professional models look ugly. You're so lucky! How could you have been working here all this time and not mentioned this?!"

Ah, so he'd been right. She had been talking about them to her friend. A blush stained Chizuru's cheeks as she stammered some presumably noncommittal answer he couldn't hear. Souji managed to fight the impulse to tease her for a solid five seconds, but he wasn't about to let such a perfect opportunity go to waste.

Getting up, he waited until he was right in Chizuru's blindspot before he said, "Aww, you don't think I'm good looking? My feelings are hurt."

Instantly, she jumped and whirled around, her blush spreading down her neck and even up to her ears as she stammered, "No! I mean, yes! Wait, no, uh… Maybe…?"

And that right there was his problem with this whole plan. Though he really shouldn't have, he'd been surprised by her earlier flash of determination when she told him she could handle it, but that still didn't change the fact that she was just too innocent and naive. Forget telling a decent lie, the girl couldn't take the vaguest of insinuations without blushing like crazy. A fun rection to get from her, sure, but no woman working at that kind of establishment would react that way. Chizuru just wasn't naturally the type of person that could put on an act like that. Plus one slip up and she could not only put herself in danger, but also expose the whole operation.

And yet… he couldn't hold back a smirk at her flustered response. "You realize you make that way too easy."

While Chizuru's blush deepened and her mouth formed into a small pout, behind her back, Sen's sharp gaze flicked between them. Oh? Don't like that, huh? It seemed beneath that bubbly personality and supposedly shallow interests was someone who was not only protective of Chizuru, but also far more observant than she first appeared. He flashed a smirk at Sen and was rewarded for his efforts when she frowned and her eyebrows drew together.

Their low-key evaluation of each other was interrupted when Chizuru suddenly jumped and said, "Oh, sorry, I'm being rude. Sen, this is Okita."

"So I gathered." Sen said, her stern expression not lightening in the slightest.

Chizuru was looking puzzled at Sen's expression when a he heard Hijikata clear his throat behind them.

"I believe Yukimura said you could assist us." All three of them turned to look at Hijikata, who stood several feet away with his arms folded. "Everything is in place except whoever we decide to send in undercover. As Souji pointed out, Chizuru is our best option if she can look the part. Of course, one of us could step in, but it wouldn't be ideal."

"This is dangerous, isn't it." It was a statement, not a question and Souji was surprised when Sen's gaze and demeanor didn't give an inch when she met Hijikata's eyes squarely.

Hijikata shrugged. "Yes and no. There's always a risk to these kinds of operations, but we've prepared for them and she won't be in there on her own."

Sen glanced at Chizuru, who looked back at her pleadingly, "Please? I want to help. I'm sure I'll be fine."

Sen let out a quiet sigh before she turned her attention back to them. "All right, but you lot had better take care of her." He was surprised when gaze focused on him for a split-second longer than any of the others.

What was that about?

Souji didn't like not having all the information, especially when Sen kept subtly singling him out. He didn't think the others had picked up on it yet, but if she kept it up they would, and he didn't want to deal with whatever grief they'd give him over it.

With the decision made and her warning delivered, Sen's expression brightened back to her earlier carefree smile. "Come on, Chizuru. Ooh, I can't wait to get started. Give me a couple hours and I'll have her all done up." She made to scoop up the shopping bags, but paused and instead started digging around in her purse. "I almost forgot! Here, you'll need these."

Sen set down a bundle of receipts on the desk and Hijikata stared at the rolls of white paper, his forehead furrowing in confusion.

"For what?"

"For reimbursing me of course." Sen said as she scooped up the bags with one hand and looped her other arm through Chizuru's. "You didn't expect me to do this for free, did you? This stuff wasn't exactly cheap."

With another laugh, she pulled Chizuru out the doorway after her before Hijikata could find his voice. For her part, Chizuru's wide eyes and overwhelmed expression made her look like a deer caught in the headlights as she was dragged away.

Souji couldn't help but grin as Hijikata's face morphed into the exasperated, frustrated, 'my life is a living hell' expression he usually reserved just for him, and stormed off down the hallway after the pair. "Now hold on! No one said anything about that!"

He could hear Sen giggle again as the rustle of the bags picked up its pace, then faded as they presumably reached the safety of the woman's room. His guess was proven correct not two seconds later when he heard Chizuru's panicked yelp, "Hijikata, you can't be in here! This is the girl's room!"

Hajime shot him a less than pleased look as he snickered, picturing the scene in all of its embarrassing glory. He wasn't the only one though, Sano and Shinpachi both had grins on their faces as they exchanged looks.

His cheeks still tinged red, Hijikata stormed back through the room, grabbed the receipts off the desk and promptly shut himself away in his office.

Okay, so maybe Chizuru's friend wasn't all that bad bad. Anyone who could get that kind of reaction out of Hijikata was at least tolerable in his book. He noticed that Sen had left one of the bags behind. He took a quick peek at the contents, but it seemed to be only a couple of large, elaborate hair clips. He figured that if the needed it, they would come back for it, so he left it alone.

Across the way, Shinpachi sighed, "So I guess we should start planning then. I"ll go drag Heisuke awake… If he was even able to sleep through that racket."

"That would be advisable," Hajime said as he nodded in agreement and gestured for Yamazaki and Shimada to join them. Souji may think Yamazaki was an overly devoted ass-kisser with no sense of humor, but he also knew their first hand knowledge would be crucial in making sure things ran smoothly. Or at least as smoothly as their operations ever did, considering their not so great track record.

As Shinpachi got up, Sano ran a hand through his hair, "I just hope the he's over his earlier issues. I get where he's coming from, and in a way he's right…" Sano paused and looked over at him, one eyebrow raised curiously. "Come to think of it, you were pretty against it earlier too."

Souji snorted as he tried to lean casually back in his chair. "And? I just don't want her screwing this up for us."

Sano looked at him a moment longer before he said, "If you say so."

Souji frowned, wanting to know what, exactly, Sano meant by that comment, but Shinpachi and Heisuke chose that moment to return, and he figured it was better just to let it go. Besides, having Yamazaki in the room was basically like having a listening device linked straight to Hijikata. Hajime would keep most things to himself, unless he deemed it important enough, but Yamazaki was more like a one-way radio permanently set to the Hijikata channel.

It took twenty minutes for Hijikata to finally emerge from his office, now minus the receipts and with his usual reserved expression back in place and they had most of their plan sorted out by the time they heard two sets of heels clicking down the hallway.

Sen stopped dramatically in the doorway, her grin more than a little smug, "All done. You're lucky, it's not every day I manage to impress myself." She looked to her left, "Come on, Chizuru."

From the way Sen's lips pulled into a pout, Souji could easily picture Chizuru's frantic nonverbal refusal to move.

"Don't be silly, you look amazing. Now get out here."

Apparently Chizuru still refused to move, because Sen darted out of sight and there was an all too familiar panicked squeak as Chizuru was forcibly propelled out of hiding.

Except the person who now stood fidgeting next to Sen looked absolutely nothing like Chizuru.

Sure, her hair was the same color and if she lost the black heels, she'd be the right height, but that was about it. Her hair was up in tight curls and the heavy makeup served to sharpen her cheekbones and eyes, making her look more mature. He could tell she was uncomfortable in the low cut, strapless dress from the way she kept tugging at the hem, trying in vain to get it to be longer. Something was still off though… and it wasn't her hair or her clothes. It hit him when Chizuru ducked her head like she always did when she found herself at the center of attention. She wasn't blushing. Every single tell she was giving off told him she should have been red as a tomato from ears to neck, but nothing showed through the makeup Sen had apparently applied to hide it. Well that was one problem solved, and she looked like she'd fit right in, but it just… wasn't her

Where on earth had that thought come from? Unfortunately before he could figure it out, he was distracted by the other's reactions to Chizuru's appearance. Or more specifically, Shinpachi's.

"Dude, no way! This is too weird." He turned to Sano, "Did you know she was this hot?"

Sano stared in disbelief at his friend before hitting him soundly over the head.

"Ow! What was that for?!" But Sano ignored Shinpachi, instead turning to Chizuru and offering her an apologetic smile, said, "I'd apologize for his idiocy, but at this point I'm starting to think there's really no hope for him."

Chizuru managed to squeak out a rather strangled sounding "T-That's all right," as Sen shot a death glare at a puzzled Shinpachi.

"What? What'd I say?"

Hajime's faint blush and dogged refusal to look at Chizuru would have been amusing and an excellent opportunity to tease the one normally unflappable person in their little group… if it wasn't for the person next to him. The sight of Heisuke, struck dumb with his eyes wide and mouth hanging open wide enough that Souji was amazed the kid wasn't drooling, was enough to sour any good mood he'd previously had with surprising speed. It was in the midst of that flash of irritation that he flicked a nearby pen at Heisuke, nailing him in the back of the head and jolting him out of his dazed state. Souji gave his best barbed, sarcastic smirk as Heisuke glanced at him briefly and his cheeks flared a brilliant shade of red.

Next to him, Hijikata cleared his throat to get everyone's attention before he said, "Well, it looks like you should be able to blend in without too much trouble. Is that good enough for you, Souji? Or is there something else you'd like to complain about."

He didn't know why he was so irrationally irritated at the moment, and frankly, he didn't really care. Without thinking, he said the first sarcastic comment that came to mind. "Oh no, this clearly fixes everything. How could anything possibly go wrong now?"

From Chizuru's wince, and the glares Sen and Harada sent his way, he figured he probably could have said that better, but if they thought dressing her up was the key issue, then they were delusional.

Hijikata folded his arms as his eyebrows drew together sharply."Fine then, since you're so worried, you can be one of the people to keep an eye on her. Saito, I want you in there as well."

Souji rolled his eyes as Hajime nodded seriously. Why was he always getting stuck with the babysitting duty?

"Shinpachi, Harada, you'll be outside with me just in case," Hijikata continued, "and Heisuke, is it better for you to be here or there?"

"Well, I'll get a better connection here… someone there just needs to alter the wifi so only our device can get on. Hold on a sec," Heisuke rummaged around in his desk door a few seconds before popping up with a small flash drive. "Just plug this into the router and it should switch if over. When we're done, whoever it is can remove it and everything should go back to normal."

"I can do that," Yamazaki's said, "I believe I know the most likely place for it to be.

Hijikata nodded. "Good, just be sure you aren't spotted."

Shinpachi suddenly let out a bark of laughter, attracting everyone's attention. "Guys, I think we've got a problem." He picked up the cylindrical device from Heisuke's desk and held it up. "Where exactly were you planning on putting this?"

Almost in slow motion they stared at the device for a long moment, before they all turned, with rather owlish expressions, to look at Chizuru. Under the weight of so many stares, Chizuru's eyes widened and she took a step back, wrapping her arms protectively around herself as she said, "D-Don't look at me like that!"

"Hmm," Harada frowned, "That is a problem… I'm going to assume the dress doesn't have pockets?"

Sen rolled her eyes. "What do you think?"

"Hey, it was just a question.

It was then that Souji remembered the shopping bag he'd noticed earlier. He ignored Sen as she started in on a lecture that sound vaguely like it was about how only a man would assume women's clothing had pockets and why did he think women carried purses? Instead, he went over to the bag and flipped through the three or so options Sen had brought, finally settling on a large, intricately wrought silver clip. After grabbing the device from an overwhelmed Shinpachi, he walked over to Chizuru.

"W-What are you doing?" She eyed the cylinder in his hand warily as she shifted away.

"Just hold still." With deft fingers, he easily gathered her curls, leaving a few to frame her face, and twisted them around and up so that they hid the device at the back of her head. Carefully, Souji slid the clip in, making sure it and the device wouldn't come loose. He took a step back to admire his work, "Hm, not bad."

Chizuru ducked her head in embarrassment as her fingers carefully felt the edges of the clip. "O-Oh… um, thank you."

"Hey! What are you doing. I spent hours on…" Sen's voice trailed off as she got a look at Chizuru. "Wow. Never mind."

Souji couldn't resist smirking as he said, "See? Problem solved."

"All right." Hijikata said, getting everyone's attention. "Yamazaki will handle the wifi and Heisuke will be here monitoring the device. Saito I want you to scout the place first, there's no use doing this if none of the big fish are there. Once he gives the all clear, Yukimura and Souji will slip in the back. Shinpachi, Harada, and myself will be nearby as backup just in case. If that's everything-"

"What about me?"

Hijikata frowned at Sen. "What about you?"

"Well, I'm not about to just sit at home twiddling my thumbs." Sen said as she folded her arms stubbornly.

"You're not about to come with us either."

The two glared at each other for a long moment before Hijikata finally sighed and said, "Fine. You can stay here with Heisuke, but that is all I'm allowing."

"Great." Sen grinned as she promptly sat in the nearest chair and rolled right up next to Heisuke. "So what are we doing? Are we hacking a government agency? Can I push the buttons?"

Heisuke, looking more than a little cornered, edged his chair away. "Uh… sure, I guess."

As Sen continued to pepper a more and more panicked looking Heisuke, Hijikata pinched the bridge of his nose with an exasperated sigh. "Why can't anything ever be simple…"

Souji looked over at Chizuru. He still had his doubts about the plan, specifically Chizuru's ability to play the part, but at this point, he could only hope she'd prove him wrong.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 - An Unforeseen Situation: Part 1

Saturday, January 19th

Night coming early in winter wasn't a surprise, but the black sky and harsh city lights made it feel far later than the eight o'clock it actually was. The only real illumination came from the streetlamps overhead as Souji drove through the busy downtown traffic, but it was more than enough to wash out everything with an orange tint. Only half of his attention was actually on navigating through the Saturday night rush of cars and pedestrians seeking to have a good time, the rest was on the person next to him.

Hajime had left about a half hour before them and had confirmed that several people of interest were there that night, along with a number of their associates. That was their cue to leave, which was why Chizuru was now sitting nervously in the passenger seat next to him and this time her nerves weren't due to his driving. Well, mostly not due to his driving anyway. He still caught her flinching occasionally when he easily slid the Charger into openings most people would have considered tight at best.

Mostly though, she kept worrying at her lip as she stared out the window, her fingers alternately twisting together or picking at the hem of her dress. Thus far the drive had been silent, and he wasn't sure if it was because there really was nothing to say, or because they both knew anything they said would have an audience.

Well, it wasn't completely silent… Despite not having her own comm, he and presumably everyone else could hear Sen chatting away faintly in the background. How Chizuru lived with someone like that, he had no idea. It had only been about fifteen minutes and he already wanted to toss the device in his ear out the window. Finally he couldn't take it anymore.

"I hate to sound like Hijikata, but Heisuke, can you shut her up?"

It was then that he realized Heisuke must have had them on speaker, because instead of hearing Heisuke's voice, what he got was the sound of someone blowing a raspberry. What was she, five? Thankfully either Heisuke took them off speaker or he switched it to mute, because the chatter disappeared.

His voice in the silence of the car seemed to jolt Chizuru out of her contemplation, because her fingers finally stilled as she shot him an apologetic look. He shrugged to let her know it wasn't her fault her friend was a chatterbox and she seemed to understand because her gaze drifted back out the window.

Finally he pulled the car into the back alley they'd chosen a block from the back of the Orchid. It was dark and a bit of a tight fit, but it would serve to keep people from noticing the car. With the others in the area as backup, they shouldn't need to make a quick getaway.

Getting out of the car was definitely a squeeze, but he managed it without too much trouble. Chizuru was a bit slower than him, but her smaller size meant she had an easier time making her way to the back of the car. A fast getaway was definitely out of the question, but they hadn't chosen this alleyway for that. They'd chosen it because, thanks to the older buildings, their own alley connected to the one behind the Orchid, meaning they could hopefully sneak in the backdoor Yamazaki had mentioned without anyone noticing.

"How are things looking in there Hajime?"

There was a soft crackle as Hajime took his comm off mute, followed by the sound of music in the background.

"Good. They are all still here and there are enough people that you shouldn't be noticed."

"Right. We'll be there in a minute or two."

Abruptly the muffled music in his ear died, and he knew Hajime had switch his mute back on. He glanced down at Chizuru. "You ready?"

She nodded, her lips pressed together nervously, but her eyes were determined.

Unfortunately old alleyways in winter came with frigid, dank air and uneven paving that was littered with broken glass and other refuse. Chizuru hadn't taken more than two steps from the back of the car, before she yelped as her toe caught on one of those bumps and she only barely managed to grab his arm before falling to the ground.

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "You do realize this is only going to work if you can walk in those, right?"

She frowned at him as she straightened, "I can walk in them."

Chizuru let go of his arm and tried to take another step, but when she wobbled unsteadily, he sighed and looped her arm through his, stabilizing her as they started toward the Orchid. "Uh huh, sure you can."

He smirked as her ankle wobbled again and her fingers tightened on his arm as she muttered, "All right, so they maybe they're a little hard."

A minute more and they reached the intersection of the alley behind the Orchid. A quick glance around the corner showed an empty alley, slightly better lit and definitely cleaner than their own. The cigarette buttes littering the ground were proof of Yamazaki's suspicion that it was likely a favorite spot of the employees and the door would be unlocked. Presumably Yamazaki had already slipped in this way, but who knew with him. He might very well have decided the ventilation system was the most efficient entrance. The part they had to be quick about was crossing the distance to the door. Once inside it would be far easier to avoid suspicion, but they'd get a lot of awkward questions if someone saw them trying to sneak in.

Taking the chance, Souji stepped quickly out from their hiding spot, practically dragging Chizuru along with him as she tried to keep her feet under her. Once at the door, he carefully opened it and gestured to Chizuru to go ahead of him. He followed when she slipped by, letting the door quietly click shut behind them.

The hallway they found themselves in wasn't particularly narrow, but it was certainly dim and thankfully a good deal warmer than outside. While Chizuru let out a breath of relief at the warmth and rubbed her arms, ahead Souji could hear the music he'd briefly heard over Hajime's comm, though far louder. Chizuru glanced back at him and when he nodded in the direction of the music, she started carefully down the hall. Now that they were on flat ground, she didn't seem to have a problem walking in the heels, so he let her lead.

They had almost reached the first of what should have been two corners before the main room, when Souji caught the sound of voices coming toward them. He was about to warn Chizuru when he suddenly realized that the music had hidden just how close they were and he probably had mere seconds before they were spotted.

Grabbing Chizuru's shoulders, he pulled her toward him and pressed her lightly against the wall, covering her body with his own. Putting his lips near her ear he whispered, "Just until they pass."

Hopefully it would be enough to keep whoever was coming from asking questions or looking too closely at who they were.

To her credit, she didn't panic or bother with useless questions. Instead, after freezing for a brief moment, she relaxed and gave a small nod of understanding. He could feel her pulse racing under his palm where it rested against her neck as they both waited with bated breath. The few seconds it took for the group to round the corner seemed to drag on forever. Being so close to her, the scent of hairspray and makeup was foreign and almost overwhelming, but underneath it he could still recognize a faint trace of lavender. He assumed it was her regular shampoo or conditioner, because he'd noticed it a couple of times. For some reason the familiarity of that minor detail felt disproportionately important.

He was distracted from the thought, when the three men finally appeared, laughing and joking drunkenly. One of them wolf-whistled, causing Chizuru to instinctively stiffen and pull back from him. With his free hand, Souji found her wrist and applied the slightest bit of pressure in warning as he closed the distance she'd created. The last thing they needed was some idiot trying to play the hero. She seemed to get the message, because he could feel the tension in her shoulders and neck dissipate with a shiver as her forehead came to rest against his collarbone.

Another few tense seconds passed before Souji heard the voices fade and the door click shut behind them. He stepped away from Chizuru and she leaned back against the wall, her eyes closed as she gathered herself from their close call. When her eyes finally did open, they flicked to him for the briefest moment, before instantly focusing on the ground in embarrassment. If it weren't for the makeup, he was sure she would have looked like a tomato.

Souji felt his mouth twitch up at the corner. Some things just never changed. "Come on, we don't have all night."

Chizuru took a deep breath before she nodded, that spark of resolve returning to her eyes, and they continued down the hall. They paused when they reached the final corner that would open up to the main room of the club and as Chizuru snuck a peek around it, he said, "We're in position."

"Got it." Heisuke voice came in his ear, "Just give me a few more seconds… Okay Yamazaki, go ahead and switch the wifi."

"Done"

Ah, so Yamazaki had made it in.

"And… Yes! I can't believe that worked."

"What do you mean you 'can't believe' it worked?!" Hijikata growled, breaking the backup team's silence.

"Uh… I mean, of course it worked! Why wouldn't it? Ow! what was that for?"

Souji couldn't hear what Sen was saying, but if her earlier warning about watching out for Chizuru was anything to go by, Heisuke was probably getting the full lecture.

"Ah haha, anyway," Heisuke continued somewhat nervously, "You're all set over there. Remember that it takes about thirty to forty seconds for it to grab everything and you have to be within five feet. I'll be monitoring it from here and will let you know when you're good to move."

Souji waited a second for Chizuru's confirmation, but when no confirmation was forthcoming, he glanced down at her. When he saw that her forehead was furrowed again and she was anxiously chewing on her lip, her eyes unfocused, he answered for her, "Got it."

His voice seem to pull her out of her thoughts, because Chizuru glanced up at him, her eyes wide and tinged with an anxious fear. She couldn't do this. He'd known she wasn't cut out for it from the start and he should have been more adamant about keeping her back at her desk where she belonged.

Reaching up to his ear, he felt for the small switch and flipped his comm over to mute, gesturing for Chizuru to do the same. When she had, he said, "Give me the device."

Her eyes widened in surprise, her hand flying up to touch the base of the silver clip. "What? Why?"

"Because it's clear you can't do this. Give it to me and you can go sit with Hajime. He'll make sure no one bothers you. I can take over."

He reached out toward the clip in her hair and Chizuru took a hasty step back. "No."

he frowned, annoyed that of all times, she chose now to be stubborn. "No?"

"I'm less likely to be noticed. It makes more sense for me to do it."

Souji shook his head as he sighed, "Look, it's fine to admit you can't, just give-"

"No," Surprisingly, her shoulders stiffened as her chin came up in defiance. The flicker of determination he'd thought had died, had somehow flared to become a steel wall that showed no signs of budging. "I can do this. I know I can. Just… Just trust me… please?"

He was prepared to argue that she plainly couldn't, but the mention of trust along with the desperation in her final plea, pulled him up short. When was the last time someone had asked him to trust them? It went without saying that he trusted Kondou without reservation. He trusted Saito, and to only a slightly lesser extent everyone else, to have his back when he needed it in the field. He'd even grudgingly admit to trusting Hijikata… even if he'd rather eat dirt than tell him that to his face. But all of it had been implicit, never asked for and never questioned. Yet here she was asking him to trust her.

Could he? Could he trust her to do this right, when she was clearly not cut out for it? She had trusted him without hesitation more than once and in cases with far more at stake than a little information. Without really knowing why, he found himself nodding and Chizuru's face instantly lit up with a brilliant smile. It was like he'd given her some kind of precious gift… but had he really? Her shoulders relaxed and she had a new air of confidence as took a deep breath and walked out into the club. He waited a moment, feeling slightly confused by the turn of events, before following her out.

Souji had to admit Sen had actually done a pretty good job with her makeover. Chizuru blended right in with the women mingling among that night's customers, the heels she was wearing even giving her hips an uncharacteristic sway as she walked. He watched her as she hesitated a moment before walking over and picking up a drink tray someone had abandoned at the edge of the room. He felt his mouth pull into a small smile. Atta girl. Hopefully that would keep her from getting any requests he knew for a fact she wouldn't be able to follow through on. Keeping one eye on her as she headed among the tables near the stage, where most of the people were seated, he made his own way toward the bar. At Heisuke's call that he had a connection, she stopped and started pretending to take orders. At least, he hoped she was pretending…

As for himself, he ordered a beer as he sat at the bar. He wouldn't be drinking it, but it gave him an excuse to observe the room. Off in another corner, he spotted Hajime seated at a small table with his own untouched drink. He was occasionally watching Chizuru as well, but most of his attention was on the room at large, monitoring the big picture.

He and Hajime had decided before they'd left that he'd handle getting Chizuru out of any difficult situations. Hajime was observant and excellent at blending in, but there was no way he could pull off anything like what had happen in the hallway. His answer would have probably been to leave a closet full of unconscious bodies somewhere. Not exactly the subtle Hijikata had wanted. It wasn't a part he was keen to play either and by all rights it should have gone to Sano. The man was practically made for this, but in addition to his whining that it wouldn't be fair, Shinpachi had made the valid point that Sano would've been surrounded in under a minute. As it was, Souji still had to give one woman a look that told her not to bother approaching, but after that the others seemed content to leave him alone.

As Souji watched, Chizuru and Heisuke fell into an easy pattern as she worked her way across the room, smiling here, stopping to chat there, and always avoiding the tables where there were real entertainers were already present. All of it seemed fairly natural, except that she only moved on when Heisuke gave the all clear.

Part of him wished he could give the same glare he'd given the woman who'd tried to approach him, to some of them men interacting with Chizuru. A good number of them just seemed happy to have the attention of a beautiful woman, but others looked her over like she was a piece of meat, their gazes lingering and their words clearly making her more than simply uncomfortable. It wasn't until his fingers started to ache, that he realized just how tightly he was holding the bottle in his hand

Deliberately relaxing them, he looked away and instead focused on an empty table several feet away. What the hell was wrong with him? Things like that shouldn't be getting under his skin and neither should Heisuke earlier. Where had his masterful detachment gone? It was part of the job she'd signed up for, so it was no big deal… except it wasn't. He knew his teasing often made her feel uncomfortable, but he was always mindful of her boundaries. Sure, he tested them, but he could tell the way they were making her feel was entirely different and he didn't like it.

If he was honest, that wasn't the only thing bothering him and he didn't like the implications of that either. Seeing her out there, dressed like that, was like seeing an entirely different person. The Chizuru he knew dressed flatteringly, but conservatively. She flushed at the littlest things, never flirted or tried to ingratiate herself to others, and always gave everything she was to people she considered friends. A stupid choice on her part, but he found it fascinating nonetheless. Where he tended to keep everything behind a carefully constructed facade, she was just so open, especially her eyes. His Chizuru had eyes that weren't ever weighed down by excessive makeup and instead were veritable windows into her thoughts and feelings, especially when they got that spark than never conceded an inch.

The last thought pulled him up short. His Chizuru? When the hell had he let that happen? At what point had he started paying that much attention to her? Had started caring that much? He didn't want this. Not in the slightest. Few and far between were the people he'd ever actively cared about and he did not want to include her on that very short list. She wasn't safe. The more you cared for someone, the greater power and control they had, and that wasn't something he ever handed over lightly. In fact, there had only been two people other than his parents that he'd trusted that way. One had been Kondou, but only after a massive effort on his part. The other… the other…

Souji cut off the thought and turned his attention back to the main area of the club. Now was not the time to be thinking about this. He had a job to do. He had to keep an eye on… Chizuru?

Souji wanted to curse, but that would have brought some awkward questions from the people sitting nearby. His gaze swept across the room, looking for the telltale black hair and short stature. Where had she gone? She'd been talking to a man Heisuke had signaled, but the guy hadn't seemed to be pushing beyond the typical level of flirting… Speaking of which, he couldn't see the man either. Damnit.

"Whoa! Don't move Chizuru! I think I just got a laptop to connect. This is going to take more than a few seconds…"

He froze as Heisuke's words registered. Laptop? No one should have a laptop out there. This was a gentlemen's club. No one came here to stare at a computer screen. Souji felt his stomach twist as he stood and scanned the room again. She was nowhere in sight.

Quickly, he reached up and unmuted his comm, trying to keep his voice low enough to avoid alerting those nearby. "Chizuru, where are you?"

He waited a moment, but only silence met his ears.

"Hey Hajime, do you see Chizuru?"

"No. What happened?"

"I don't know-"

He was cut off when Hijikata asked with that irritatingly judgemental 'what have you screwed up now' tone of his. "What do you mean 'do you see her'? What happened?"

"Shut up." He knew he'd hear it later, but Souji didn't want to deal with Hijikata right then, and anyway, what he really needed was a clear comm channel. "Chizuru, answer me. Where are you?"

Again, nothing but silence. This time he did curse out loud.


Chizuru wanted to curse as Heisuke called out that he had a connection. A very uncharacteristic response for her, but really, of all times it had to be now… Quickly she plastered what she hoped was a convincing smile on her face as she turned to the man who she had noticed watching her from a distance for a while now.

Some of the men here weren't actually too bad. The best were the ones who ignored her as she gathered empty glasses off their table or simply tossed their orders at her. Others seemed to only want a listening ear and while that didn't stop them from looking her over, the short time she spent talking to them wasn't all that unpleasant. It was the ones who looked her over like she was an object they were debating on purchasing that scared her and their crude words and innuendos made her thankful she had grabbed a serving tray. The presence of that small platter held a surprising amount of power to keep them from reaching out and grabbing her like Chizuru had noticed happen to some of the other women. Still, even with her security platter in place, she was careful to keep out of arm's reach. She had no doubts that she'd panic and blow her cover if one of them actually got a hold of her.

The man she was now facing was different from all of those. She'd noticed him early on, but it was the way he watched her that set her nerves on edge. It was like he somehow knew she didn't belong. For a while, she thought she'd lost him… but then Heisuke had said he had a new connection and she'd turned around to find herself face to face with the man. Until Heisuke said she could move, she was stuck.

Part of it was probably her own fault. She'd gotten complacent with their pattern over the last hour or so and her mind had begun to wander… and of course, it wandered to the one place it had been going far too often recently… Okita. Sure his sarcastic remark about her disguise had hurt, but what had hurt more was the clear lack of trust it showed he had in her. She wasn't blind. Chizuru knew the others had their doubts about her abilities as well - she even had her own doubts - but unlike him, they were giving her a chance. Heisuke had voiced his problems with the plan, but they all seemed to stem from his worry about her safety. Okita just seemed to want to keep her from screwing things up for them. She had wanted to ask him about it in the car, but the words kept dying on the tip of her tongue. Why couldn't he just trust her? Was it really so hard?

And then when she'd had a moment of doubt, his first response had been to try and sideline her entirely. Telling her to go sit with Saito as if she was some useless child needing to be babysat. That had been the straw that broke the camel's back, forcing out her, admittedly desperate, plea, but the results had been… surprising. From the way his eyes had widened, she'd have thought she'd slapped him for his usual front to falter like that. While she wasn't sure the exact extent of what his nod meant, it didn't stop the rush of relief that he was going to give her a chance. It made her even more determined not to mess this up.

There was also no way for her to discount the lingering effects of their… moment… in the hallway. The simple fact that he had been so close, almost out of nowhere, had been enough to make her brain short circuit for a few seconds. Her thoughts shoved to the side to make way for the flood of sensations, like the feeling of his fingers trailing down the inside of her forearm to find her wrist. Of course, Chizuru had managed to get ahold of herself, but she was also mortified to realize the sense of loss she'd felt when he'd pulled back.

"I haven't seen you around here before."

Chizuru hurriedly pulled her head out of the clouds. "Oh, um, I'm new."

The man smirked at her, but unlike Okita's smirk, this one held none of his underlying warmth or humor. "I can tell."

Chizuru wanted to smack herself in the forehead. Really? Could she be any more idiotic? Get your mind off of Okita and onto your job!

"I-Is there something I can get you?"

"No, not really… I was hoping I could tempt you into taking a small break instead," The man smiled as he held up two cocktail glasses, "I don't think I've seen you sit down once tonight."

Chizuru bit at her lip. She didn't want to take the drink he was offering, but at the same time, she didn't know how much longer Heisuke needed her to be there. Her own sense of time was completely messed up by that point. She felt like she'd been there for ages, when realistically she knew it had probably only been seconds.

Seeming to sense her hesitation, he said cajolingly, "Isn't your job is to keep your customers happy? And I will not be happy until you have shared a drink with me."

Well, she couldn't really argue with that… Hesitantly she took the proffered drink and the man smiled as he took a sip of his own. "There's nothing like a little alcohol to take the edge off life. Wouldn't you agree?"

Chizuru nodded cordially, her fingers tightening on the cool stem of the glass. How much longer was Heisuke going to take?

"You're not drinking…" The man's gaze flicked down to her glass before returning to her eyes. "Don't tell me I picked the wrong drink. I'd hate to think I've lost my touch so badly as to not be able to guess a simple thing like that."

"O-Oh no, it's not that." She rushed to reassure him, privately thinking that if he was really that good, he would have brought her a water instead of whatever hard liqueur and neon dye concoction this was.

His eyes hardened slightly, "Then why aren't you drinking?"

Now left with no other way to avoid suspicion, Chizuru hesitantly brought the glass to her lips, the harsh scent of the alcohol burning her nose and making her stomach twist. She knew she wasn't going to be able to get away with a small or fake sip, but the mouthful she did take was larger than she'd intended. The unbelievably bitter taste made her want to spit it out, but she somehow managed to choke it down, the liquid burning a line down her throat and to her stomach.

She was sure some of her distaste must have shown on her face, but the man apparently chose to ignore it, because his eyes lost their hard glint and he started telling her some story about a friend of his. Honestly she wasn't really listening, instead focusing on waiting for Heisuke's call to move and trying not to be sick at the occasional sip of her, now much loathed, drink.

Finally Chizuru heard the blessed words, "Sorry, lost the connection and had to restart, you're good to move," and she put down her drink next to the empty glasses on her tray.

"Thank you for the drink," She tried to put some regret into her tone as she said, "but I really should return to my job now."

The man smiled somewhat ironically as he said, "Well, if you must." But he didn't stop her as she started to walk away.

She had already covered most of the tables near the stage, so it was probably time to start working her way along the booths at the sides of the room… but first she was going to have to empty her tray of the used glasses she'd collected and whatever that horrible cocktail was. She had no idea why people liked drinking stuff like that.

A quick glance around the room found her the stack of used trays and a tub for the glasses. Halfway there, she started to feel a touch lightheaded, but she blew it off as a reaction to getting out of a stressful situation. By the time she'd reached her destination, Chizuru's head was starting to spin and she only barely managed to set her tray on top of the others without dropping it. Leaning against the wall, she rested her head against the cool metal of an exposed beam. What was wrong with her? Maybe it was just the stress of the day hitting her all at once… It had to be nearing ten o'clock by now anyway. She stayed that way, the chill of the metal feeling wonderful on her forehead, before she realized she was wasting time. Well, whatever it was, Chizuru wasn't about to let herself give in to it. She couldn't screw this up; they were depending on her.

With new determination, Chizuru pushed herself off the wall, but she didn't make it very far. Within a few steps, her legs wobbled like they had outside on the uneven pavement and she barely managed to steady herself on the back of an empty chair. It felt like her legs had turned to jello. What was going on?

"Whoa, careful there. Are you all right?"

She felt an arm wrap around her waist, pulling her against someone. It was the same man as before. Had he followed her? This was wrong, very wrong, but the room seemed to spin and she couldn't get her tongue to form the words she needed to tell him to let her go. She'd rather be lying on the dirty floor then have him holding her like this.

"Here, I know somewhere you can lay down for a bit."

The drink… It had to have been the drink. She knew better than to accept drinks from strangers, and yet she'd gone and done it anyway. This was more than her just being tired or a serious lightweight, there had to have been something else in it. Something that seemed to be detaching her consciousness from reality and control of her body. Chizuru felt a fluttering of panic as the man guided her toward a hallway different from the on she and Okita had first come though, but she could also feel the effects of the drug pulling at her mind, making it hard to keep her head up and eyes open.

She wasn't sure how far they went down the hallway, before he stopped and opened a door. The light from inside was blindingly bright and she squinted against the glare until she was able to make out the few furnishings her mind slowly pieced together as belonging to an office.

Somewhat belatedly, she realized the man holding her had started talking to someone. Despite the sense of detachment that kept soothingly telling her not to care, some part of her knew this was important, so she struggled to make her sluggish mind follow their words.

"Got her like you asked. You were right, she's not much of a drinker."

"Wait, who is that? Why is she here?"

Chizuru managed to lift her head just enough to make out two people. One was tall, with black hair, and a bandaged nose to match the severe bruising under both eyes. The other was short, also with black hair, but something about his face made her distinctly uncomfortable.

"I'm surprised you don't recognize her, Itou. You did work with her after all."

"You can't mean…"

The other man gave a grating, almost manic, laugh. "Yes, it's her. Amazing what some clothes and makeup will do, isn't it?"

Itou? Itou was here? She felt a hand grab her face, tilting her chin up until she was looking into a familiar set of brown eyes. So familiar, but at the same time, the look in them was completely alien.

"Y-You're crazy. Do know what they'll do when they find out?"

"Oh, I know exactly what they'll do. They're nothing but strings on a fiddle." The hand released her head and she didn't have the strength to keep it from sagging back down. "Throw her over there, then you can go."

"Right."

The man clearly had little care for her comfort as he unceremoniously dumped her on a soft, cushy surface, causing the clip in her hair to dig into the back of her head. Despite the shock of pain and completely against her will, her eyes began to drift shut, listening to the drug that was telling her body to sleep. Everything was fine. She should just sleep-

"Whoa! Don't move Chizuru! I think I just got a laptop to connect. This is going to take more than a few seconds…"

She frowned, or tried to anyway, but nothing about her body felt real. Where was that loud voice coming from? Why wouldn't it just leave her alone. It sounded familiar, but did it really matter? Probably not…

"Chizuru, where are you? Hey Hajime, do you see Chizuru?"

Her limbs felt so heavy. Drifting… drifting was nice.

"No. What happened?"

"I don't know-"

"What do you mean 'do you see her'? What happened?"

It was lovely not to care, to float free of her body. She was so tired…

"Shut up. Chizuru, answer me. Where are you?"

She felt a rush of adrenaline combat the effect of the drug in her system, bringing her back to herself slightly. The tone of that voice was sharp, but it was also clearly worried. Her foggy brain refused to bring forth a name, or even a picture, but Chizuru somehow knew without a doubt that voice never worried. The fact that it was worried was just innately… wrong… and it was somehow her fault that it was.

With the boost from the adrenaline, she managed to move her numb hands to the edge of what she now realized was a couch and was able to roll her body until she was draped halfway over the edge. But even then, it wasn't enough. The small strain sent her head reeling, almost to the point of either blacking out or throwing up. She wasn't quite sure which.

"Ah ah ah. We can't have that now."

In a move that simultaneously left her stunned and completely disoriented, she felt her body pushed back onto the couch. It was all she could do to keep the blackness at bay, because to pass out right then seemed like a really, really bad idea…

"Look at you. Such a pathetic little thing." Chizuru felt the fingers return to her face, their touch cold and clinical. "I know you can hear me, so tell me, how does it feel to be completely helpless? To be entirely at another's mercy? Come on, tell me."

Not even the haze she was in could entirely mute the faint wave of fear that swept through her, but Chizuru's body was now well and truly beyond her control. The owner of the voice must have sensed it though, because he laughed before shifting to whisper in her ear, "Oh, this is just a taste of what I have in store for you. Our game has only just begun, dearest sister. Hm? What's this?" She felt the same cool fingers removed the comm from her other ear. "You won't be needing that. Now, if you'll excuse me for a moment. I should be back shortly. Itou, keep an eye on her for me until I get back."

She heard the sound of fading footsteps, followed by the click of the door. For a long moment the room was silent, then Itou began pacing, grumbling under his breath words she couldn't make out. Time seemed to lose all meaning as she lay there, her mind feeling like it was running through molasses, while her body felt like a distant thing she didn't own or control. On a certain level the experience was terrifying, but at the same time everything she felt was muted, like she was wading through an ocean of cotton. It was almost pleasant to lay there and let her mind wander, to feel her worries slipping away.

A sharp crack resounded through the room and she heard loud voices, but they seemed so far away from her peaceful disassociation from reality that she didn't really care what was going on. Maybe sleep wasn't such a bad idea after all. She could just let go…

Chizuru was confused when a sensation pressed through the fog, pulling her unwillingly back toward consciousness. Why couldn't they just leave her alone? She finally realized the sensation was in fact a warm hand carefully removing the painful clip and cradling the back of her head. It wasn't the same cold fingers from before and with that realization also came the understanding that someone was talking to her, trying to get her to respond. She wanted to, she really did, but nothing seemed to work. Finally Chizuru gave one monumental push of effort and managed to open her eyes enough to find a worried green pair looking back at her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 - An Unforeseen Situation: Part 2

Saturday, January 19th

It was clear to Souji that Chizuru was no longer in the main room as he abandoned his untouched drink at the bar. Why couldn't things ever go smoothly where Chizuru was involved? It was like she was some kind of magnet for trouble.

But no, that wasn't fair. It wasn't her that had screwed up like he'd originally feared, it was him. He was the one who had taken his eyes off of her. Regardless of if she'd somehow given herself away, he should have noticed and been able to head the situation off. Instead he'd sat there distracted by things that never should have been bothering him in the first place. He'd had one job and he had failed at it.

There were three exits from the large room. One was the main entrance, but he doubted the bouncer would have let her out that way. Besides, theoretically the backup team should have had a line of sight on the front and would have seen her. That left the hallway they'd originally come through, and the other one Yamazaki and Shimada had mentioned.

From where he was standing, he was currently closer to the latter. As he started toward the dim opening, he said, "Hajime, check the hallway to the back alley. Let me know if you find her."

"Got it."

From the corner of his eye, he saw Hajime get up from his seat and start moving at a fast but discreet clip toward the other end of the room. He'd noticed one or two doors on their way in, but if Chizuru was anywhere down that hallway, he knew Hajime would find her.

He tried the handle of the first door he came to and found it unlocked. The interior was dark and empty of people, but there was enough ambient light to make out the furnishings of a private room. The next couple doors all had the same and it wasn't until he was near the end of the hallway that he spotted one with a faint line of light slipping under the wood. Just beyond it was the door that should lead outside to the valet parking lot. Taking more care than he had with the others, he quietly tested the handle and unsurprisingly found it locked. Of course, it could have just been a coincidence, but Souji didn't believe in coincidences like this.

The proper thing to do would have been to let everyone know and wait for backup… and even better, someone who was actually armed, considering who he'd seen running around the place that night, but he didn't have the time or the patience for that. Besides, with the exception of Hajime, he always worked better alone.

Throwing caution to the wind, he shoved his shoulder hard into the door, easily snapping the flimsy lock. Souji took in the room at a glance, identifying what was probably Heisuke's laptop sitting on a heavy wood desk and other accessories that told him this room was an office. What held his attention though were the two people at the other end of the small room.

The sight of Chizuru was a greater relief than he wanted to admit, but he was concerned by her lack of response at his noisy entrance. She hadn't so much as twitched at the loud noise and her form was completely limp on the couch. The other person, a man, had whirled around as soon as the lock had broken. If his features had not identified him as none other that Itou, then the heavy bruising Chizuru had left him with would have.

Souji let a dangerous grin creep across his features as he reached up and flipped his comm over to mute. "Hmm, seems like I now owe you for quite a bit more than just those threats you made against Kondou."

"W-What?" Itou began to back away, his eyes wide as they flickered back to Chizuru. "No, that was just a misunderstanding! This isn't what it looks like! I didn't… I can explain!"

In the process of backing away, Itou's hand twitched toward his pocket and that was all the license Souji needed. He was in the clear now that Itou had made the first threatening move.

"Save it for someone who cares."

Faster than Itou could react, he crossed the distance between them and his fist landed with satisfying precision directly on Itou's already broken nose. Let them try and reconstruct that now. Itou let out a cry of pain, but Souji didn't give him the chance to recover. It was almost insultingly easy to sweep his leg out, knocking Itou off his feet and flat onto his back. Itou gasped and coughed as the breath was driven from his lungs before curling up into a whimpering ball on the floor. Pathetic.

Fairly sure Itou wouldn't be getting up anytime soon, Souji quickly went over and knelt next to Chizuru. If it wasn't for her slightly labored breathing and the fact that she hadn't moved once during a rather loud fight, he would have assumed she was merely sleeping.

"Chizuru? Can you hear me?"

The clip in her hair was forcing her head to lie at an awkward angle, so he carefully removed it, his fingers slipping through her now loose curls to hold the back of her head as he felt for a pulse at her wrist. It felt normal as far as he could tell.

"Hey, I need you to open your eyes. Come on." It took a couple tense seconds, but he let out a breath of relief when her eyes slowly inched their way open. "That's it. Can you tell me what happened?"

She looked back at him, confusion plain in her eyes and in the way her forehead furrowed slightly. The extent to which her pupils had dilated and her sluggish response were more than good indicators that someone had given her something, but how to deal with it was far beyond what he knew how to handle.

"What's going on in there? Has someone found her yet?"

The sound of Hijikata's voice made him realize his comm was still on mute. Flipping it over, he said, "Yeah, I found her, and Itou too. Heisuke, I need you to find out if Sanan's there. If he is, get him up there and on the line now."

"What? Why?"

Harada broke in, "Heisuke, quite asking questions and go."

"Right, right. Sorry."

"Why do you need Sanan?" Hijikata asked.

"Well, I'd be happy to hear if you know any other qualified doctors we can contact on short notice. Someone slipped Chizuru something and she's barely conscious."

"Shit."

Souji let out a humorless laugh. "Yeah, that about sums up the situation. We're in an office, fifth door on the left. It'll be the only one open with the light on, Hajime. Yamazaki, there's a man with light hair and a thin face. I think he's wearing a dark blue shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows and black pants. I need you to find him. He's the last one I saw her with."

As Yamazaki and Hajime both gave calls of confirmation, Chizuru's eyes started to drift shut again, but they flickered back open when he squeezed her hand. Whatever haze she was in, words didn't seem to be getting through to her all that well and he didn't want her passing out or falling asleep on him before he had a chance to talk to Sanan. Souji couldn't help but notice just how cold her fingers felt in his.

Heisuke came back on, sounding out of breath. "He's not here and I don't have his personal number."

"Fine, I do."

"What? How do you have that? He never gives that out."

Souji ignored Heisuke's question as he pulled up Sanan's number and hit dial. While he was waiting for Sanan to pick up, he heard Hajime arrive and give a quiet sigh. Souji glanced over his shoulder and Hajime gave him a look that, despite it's stoic neutrality, clearly said he was highly unimpressed with the state Itou was in.

Even with the seriousness of the situation, Souji felt a grin pull at the corner of his mouth. "What? I thought he was going for a gun."

"I didn't say anything." Hajime said diplomatically as he pulled out a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket and stepped toward the still prone Itou. I really need to remember to start carrying those…

"Oh come on Souji. You didn't do it again did you?" Shinpachi groaned, "Man, do you even remember how many hours of lecture on protocol we had to sit through last time."

"I don't know what you're talking about-" He was interrupted when Sanan finally answered his phone.

"Okita, I believe I made it quite clear this number was for emergencies only. Now, having said that, what seems to be the problem? Are your-"

"No," Souji quickly cut Sanan off. Normally not the wisest thing to do, but he didn't have time right then. "Someone's drugged Chizuru. She's confused and barely conscious, her pupils are dilated, and her breathing seems to be a bit fast."

Sanan instantly switched into his medical professional mode, "Heart rate?"

"Seems normal to me, but her fingers are cold."

"Okay… How did this happen?"

"I'm not really sure," Souji hesitated a moment before saying, "We're undercover at a club and she was out of my sight for no more than five minutes, maybe seven or eight at the most, but definitely less than ten." He could almost feel the look he knew Saito was shooting at him.

"Hmm, there aren't many things which work that fast… The first thing I'd check for is needle marks. The faster something hits the bloodstream, the quicker it takes effect. Easy places to reach would be arms, neck and upper back. You won't be able to miss them if they're there."

Souji quickly scanned Chizuru's arms and neck, before lifting her slightly to check her upper back. In a way the strapless dress was a blessing, since anything else would have made his job a whole lot harder. Out of curiosity, he took a closer look at her hands and forearms. Everyone picked up scars and blemishes throughout their life, he had quite a few of his own, but she didn't have a single one that he could see. It was odd… But then again, she wasn't the type to pull stupid stunts either.

"No, nothing."

"All right then, it's most likely something she ingested. The list of ingestible drugs with both the effects you're describing and a fast reaction time is fairly short." Sanan paused for a moment, "I would guess she had a drink laced with Ketamine. It's the most common and readily available. The main problem is it's very easy to overdose, especially for someone her size, but as long as she's not showing signs of seizures, vomiting, or high heart rate, she should be able to just sleep it off over the next couple hours or so."

"So she's going to be fine?" The words slipped out before he could stop them. He felt stupid for asking for confirmation, but he needed to hear it.

"Yes, I believe so. Any symptoms of an overdose should have manifested by now, but I would still like to see her as soon as possible since her reaction seems to have been fairly strong. I will meet you in my lab in, say… fifteen minutes?"

"We'll be there." As he hung up the phone and slipped it back in his pocket, he glanced back at Hajime. "You got this here?"

Hajime nodded and tossed over the spare set of keys to the car he'd taken earlier that evening. "Unfortunately, I am unaware as to where exactly the valet parked my car, but I assume it is closer than yours."

He nodded as he caught them, "Thanks." It would certainly be easier to slip out the side door just down the hall, than try and walk through an entire club with Chizuru the way she was.

Shrugging out of his light jacket, he draped it over her before scooping her up. As he did, it hit him again just how light she was, her petite frame fitting easily into his arms. The fact that she was short and had a moderately fine boned frame was obvious enough, but it had never occurred to him just how much of her presence came from the sheer force of her personality. It wasn't like her friend's, who was more like someone had stuffed a hurricane in a bottle. Instead, it was a quiet and steady strength that permeated both her gentle optimism and stubborn determination… and it was currently missing from the girl in his arms.

Souji shoved the train of thought from his head as he stepped quickly out of the room and crossed the short distance to the door leading outside. The important thing right then was to get Chizuru to Sanan. Besides none of this changed the fact that he didn't want this… and yet no matter how much he told himself that, his own feelings refused to change. Souji was sure part of it was guilt over letting this happen to her, but he hadn't been worried about losing the information they'd worked to gather, or worried about the ramifications for the team and Kondou if something happened to Chizuru… no, he'd purely been worried about her. If he was honest with himself, he was still worried about her and probably would be until she woke up enough to give him that ingenuous smile of hers.

As he pushed the door open, a cold rush of air washed over them, causing Chizuru to shiver and turn her head further into his shoulder. He glanced down to find that her breathing had thankfully evened out in to something much closer to that of someone in a deep sleep. It was unnerving just how easy it was to let himself get close to her. He hadn't been looking for it, certainly didn't want it, and there were no shortage of reasons for why this was a bad idea… but at the same time, he didn't want to push her away either. It probably would have been easy to do. The right words with the right tone and body language and he could ensure she'd never speak to him again. It wouldn't have been the first time, but the thought of the hurt that would cross her features wasn't one he was comfortable with.

There was no two ways about it, this was going to be more than just a little problem… and he wasn't sure how to handle it.


The fact that Okita had referred to him by name without adding some kind of insult or snide comment told Yamazaki just how serious the situation was. He did his best to get along with the man, but Okita often made it… difficult, to say the least.

He'd arrived at the Orchid around the same time Saito had, though his method of entry had been a bit more unconventional. Where Saito merely had to get past the bouncer at the front entrance without rousing suspicion, He'd found himself faced with three employees taking what had to have been the longest smoke break in history. The two men and one woman had taken only occasional pulls on their cigarettes as they'd chatted.

Patience hadn't been the issue, that he had developed in abundance thanks to his work. The problem had been that he only had so much time to find the modem, get himself in a position where he could easily access it without being noticed, and make sure he could figure out where to put the flash drive. Yamazaki had trusted that the thing would do what Toudou had said… mostly. What he hadn't trusted was Toudou's explanation of what he was supposed to do with it. The explanation had consisted of piecemeal descriptions of no less than six different modems and the reassurance that if it wasn't any of those, he'd be happy to walk him through it once he got there. The possibility of finding out such critical information so late in the mission was not how he prefered to work.

Almost when he thought it would be too late, the trio finally tossed away their cigarettes and he'd been able to follow them quietly inside. He'd been lucky that the first room he'd tried had held the utilities for the building, the modem he'd been looking for displayed prominently on a shelf. Even better it was one of the models Toudou had described to him, so he had no problem locating the port he needed. The problem had been finding a place to hide and wait for his orders. Nothing at floor level would do, since there hadn't been a place large enough for him that would also keep him out of view of anyone entering the room. The only option left to him had been the cramped space between the top of a set of shelves and the ceiling. It had been more than a tight fit, but it's location behind the open door meant someone would have to come all the way in, turn around, and then look up before they would have spotted him. As it was, no one had come in, so he'd spent most of his time twisted out of shape in a tiny space for no reason.

With such an easy start as that, it was no wonder he now found himself looking for a man with only the barest of descriptions. Clothing was helpful, as was the hair color and general facial description, but it would have been nice to get the conventional things like approximate height and weight. Though he had no desire to break into the active dialogue he could hear in his ear to ask for that information. They clearly had bigger problems, so he'd just have to make due.

Staying in the shadows at the edge of the room, Yamazaki scanned the area carefully, examining each and every patron at a table before moving on to the next. His diligence paid off when a man in a booth across the way leaned forward, revealing the best match he'd seen yet for Okita's description. Height was always hard to tell while someone was seated, but he'd guess the man to be about 5'10" and maybe 140lbs. He had the light hair and thin face, and the dark shirt seemed to have a blue tint. Unfortunately he was also seated with one of the high ranking men he knew to be one Saito had picked out when he'd arrived.

Before they'd left, Hijikata had emphasized the need for subtlety, and even if most of that was moot by this point, he was going to do his best to see that the Commander's wishes were followed. What he had in mind was risky, but it was better than simply walking up and telling the man he was under arrest. Hopefully his plan would also flush out just how much the man knew about what was going on.

Putting on an air of someone just phoning in to their job, he approached the table, keeping his attention focused on the suspect in the blue shirt.

"I was told to tell you that Itou requires your assistance."

The bigwig next to the man frowned, "Just who does that good fer nothin' politician think he is? Ordering my men around left and right-"

"It's all right boss, I'll take care it." The man shrugged, "It's probably something to do with that girl anyway."

One of the men on the other side of the table let out a bark of laughter. "Hey, why don't you just take care of him while you're at it."

"I'd love to, but even you know better than to mess with that kid." He snorted as he slid out of the booth, "Not if you want to live anyway."

Yamazaki made sure to keep his expression bored and neutral as he watched the conversation. So this was the man he was looking for, but who was this kid they were talking about?

As they both made their way across the room toward the hallway, their path took them near the bar, the end of which was dark and deserted of people. It was when they reached that area that things started to go south. Yamazaki froze when he heard the click of a switch blade extending behind him.

"All right, who are you? I haven't seen you before." Instead of answering Yamazaki started to slowly turn, but apparently his now confirmed suspect wasn't going to have any of it. "Hold it right there. You're not moving until you answer my question and you'd better hope I like your answer."

As soon as he felt a faint pressure in the center of his back, Yamazaki knew he was dealing with an amature. Not only had he told him the exact location of the weapon 'holding him hostage', he now had a good guess as to just how far behind him the man was. It was a rookie mistake and it was going to cost him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Yamazaki saw an abandoned serving tray with an empty glass sitting half over the edge of the bar. Taking the chance, he lunged to the side, slamming his hand down hard on the overhanging portion of the tray.

The force of his blow launched both the tray and the drink into the air. The glass hit first, sending out a wave of crystalline shards as it shattered on the floor. The tray spun in a graceful, almost lazy, arc through the air, making it seem perhaps a bit more intentional than it actually was, when it's edge hit the man hard in the side of the head. Yamazaki turned, prepared to use the distraction to grab the wrist of the hand holding the knife and disable his opponent, but he found with some surprise that it wasn't necessary. The man had dropped to one knee, groaning as he held his aching head.

With a dawning realization, Yamazaki glanced around the room to find that the cacophony of the tray and shattered glass had most of the patrons looking at him more than a little oddly. He let out an exasperated sigh. So much for subtle…

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 - Coming To

Sunday, January 20th

Chizuru shifted and rolled over with a muffled groan. What was wrong with her bed? The mattress suddenly felt far too hard and the pillow under her cheek was scratchy. Had she fallen asleep on the couch? It wouldn't have been the first time that had happened. She tried to open her eyes, but even the faint amount of light that slipped through sent a jolt of pain through her head. Was she sick? Maybe she'd picked up the flu... Her stomach certainly felt like it anyway.

Since her alarm wasn't telling her to get up, she could only assume it hadn't gone off yet. Hopefully she would have time to just lay there before deciding whether or not to call in sick. Keeping her eyes closed, Chizuru leaned further over, her hand clumsily reaching for where her phone should have been charging on top of her bedside table. Dimly it occurred to her that if she was on the couch, her phone could quite possibly be dead, which would explain the lack of an alarm.

Before she could move very far, she felt a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.

"Careful. Unless of course, you want to make a closer acquaintance with the floor."

Was that… Okita? What was going on? This was all wrong. She pried one eye open just enough to see that her ears hadn't, in fact, been lying. A slightly blurry Okita was no more than a foot or so away from her.

What was he doing in her room?

…Or at least, that was what she tried to ask. Chizuru was less sure if that was what actually came out, considering her mouth and throat felt like a desert. She scrunched her eyes shut again as a shift in the lighting caused another spike of pain just behind her eyes.

"Hmm, I guess I'll take that as a thank you." She heard Okita move away briefly and then come back, the light mercifully dimming as he did so. "You're lucky Sanan let you sleep it off up here. He originally wanted to keep you under observation down in the morgue."

She hesitantly opened her eyes and was relieved to find that it no longer hurt her head any worse than the general headache she already had. Now that she could finally get a good look at her room, she was glad her first question had been unintelligible. This was clearly not her room. It took a second for her to place it, but she suddenly recognized one of the small conference rooms she'd worked out of before. The reason the light had dimmed was because Okita had shifted the shades on the door to block most the sunlight streaming in from the wall of windows across the way. None of this was making any sense.

"What?" Her voice came out raspy, but at least it was intelligible this time.

"I said, I figured you'd rather not wake up on a cold, metal autopsy table. A little gratitude would be nice." He raised one eyebrow as his lips pulled into a slight smirk. "Or would you rather I take you back down there?"

She didn't think he was serious… but even so, she wasn't about to take that chance. Levering herself up on one arm, she managed to sit up despite her protesting muscles as she said, "No, no. I'm-"

But she never got any further, because no sooner had she sat up, than her head had started to spin in a way her stomach was far from thrilled about. With a low moan, Chizuru buried her head in her hands, her palms pressed against her eyes as she tried to fight back the wave of nausea.

Okita let out a tired sounding sigh and mumbled something that Chizuru thought sounded like, "Sorry…"

If she wasn't in the midst of trying to get a handle on her stomach, she would have felt more than the faint spark of surprise and confusion at his apology. Even that didn't last long though, because her thoughts were thrown off track by the feeling of gentle fingers massaging the top of her neck at the base of her head. "Sanan said it would probably feel like a bad hangover for a while."

Chizuru froze for a split second at the foreign feeling, but almost instantly she felt the tension drain from her muscles and she let out a soft sigh of relief. Whatever he was doing felt wonderful. Not only did it help distract her from her rolling stomach, but it was also working wonders on her headache.

Without lifting her head, Chizuru mumbled into her hands, "If this is what a hangover feels like, I am never getting drunk."

She felt a pang of disappointment as he gave a quiet chuckle and the soothing feeling of his fingers disappeared. "If you think you can sit up, Sanan left some ibuprofen here that should help."

Slowly this time, Chizuru lifted her head and found that as long as she didn't move too fast, she could manage to keep her stomach in check. When she looked over at Okita, his expression made her pause. The edge that usually characterized his features was almost entirely gone and in its place was something much closer to a weary regret. Whatever was going on here, he looked exhausted.

Okita didn't quite meet her eye as he handed her the small pill and a glass of water. She wanted to ask what was going on, but right then the water was what she wanted most. Unless she had caught something serious like the flu, her body would probably take care of the headache by itself soon enough, but her unusual healing had never extend to the effects of things like dehydration and stress.

The water did wonders for her mouth and throat, its cooling sensation spreading through her chest and going a long way toward settling her stomach. Right then, nothing could have compared to the clean, fresh taste of plain water.

Sooner than she would have liked, Chizuru found herself staring at the bottom of an empty glass. Almost absently, she ran her fingers over the smooth surface as she said, "Thank you,"

Chizuru glanced up to find that Okita's lips were pressed into a thin line, his gaze focused just off of her as he took the glass from her hands and set it on the conference table behind him. This wasn't like him at all… She hesitated a moment, before finally working up the nerve to ask, "Are you all right?"

That seemed to catch Okita off guard, because his eyes met hers in surprise before he let out a short sigh and the corner of his mouth twitched up slightly as he ran a hand through his hair. "Of course that would be the first thing you'd ask."

"Huh?"

He hesitated, his eyes darting away briefly before meeting hers again. "How much do you remember from last night?"

How much did she… what?

She felt a faint nervous fluttering start to well up, but she forced it down in favor of carefully walking through the events of, what Okita was telling her, was now the previous day.

Right, she'd gone in on a Saturday because of the operation they'd had planned. She remembered Sen dressing her up and arriving at the Orchid… Chizuru frowned as the memories started to get fuzzy. She'd been talking to people, pretending to take orders, and then… and then…

Nothing. She couldn't remember.

The panic felt like a physical blow as her breathing accelerated into broken gasps and she felt the blood drain from her face. It had been years since she'd felt this kind of panic, but in that time, the feeling hadn't changed. She couldn't remember. Why couldn't she remember? How much had she lost this time?

Chizuru fought to dredge up some kind of detail, any kind of thought or impression, but it remained stubbornly blank no matter what she did. From what seemed like a great distance, she heard someone talking to her, but the voice didn't fully register until she felt a light touch on her shoulder. Without thinking, Chizuru latched onto that feeling, her hands flying up to grab hold of something warm, solid, and real.

"Chizuru?" Okita asked, his confusion at her sudden turn evident in his expression.

"I… I…" Fighting to get her breathing back into some semblance of control, she managed to choke out, "I can't remember… I can't… I-I can't…"

"Then tell me the last thing you do remember."

Chizuru squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, "I don't… I c-can't-"

"Yes, you can," She felt his fingers on her chin, and her eyes flew open as he carefully forced her to look at him. "Tell me the last thing you remember."

His expression, while not unkind, was serious and demanded an answer from her. In a way, his demand for her to not give in did more to steady her than any number of useless platitudes. It wasn't okay, but there was something she could do.

It might have been his proximity, but without thinking, she said the first thing that came into her head. "T-The hallway. I remember the hallway."

"All right, which hallway?" Okita said carefully, his eyes never leaving hers. "What happened?"

"The first one, when you… um," Chizuru felt her cheeks warm at the memory, as her panic started to be overtaken by embarrassment, "I mean, we… well… you know." He couldn't seriously have forgotten? Could he?

She saw a glimmer of amusement flash in his eyes, but thankfully he didn't comment beyond a slightly raised eyebrow as he said, "And then?"

Chizuru took a breath to steady herself as she carefully began to pull the pieces together. Now that her panic had subsided, she found she was able to recall more. Additionally, focusing on Okita also helped keep her from panicking over the fragments she couldn't recall. His eyes really were a nice shade of green… She quickly buried the thought as she started talking through what she did remember.

"I was pretending to take orders… and then Heisuke said he had a connection… When I turned around there was a man." She frowned, "I don't really remember what he looked like, but he offered me a drink… I-I didn't want to take it, but Heisuke hadn't said I could move, so I think I had a couple sips…" Chizuru wrinkled her nose at the memory of the taste, "It was really bitter." That one detail she definitely remembered.

Okita's eyes hardened and his lips thinned at the mention of the drink, but he didn't say anything as she continued hesitantly, "I'm not really sure what happened next, but there was something to do with another hallway and a room… There were people…" Her eyes widened as another piece came flooding back, "Itou! Itou was there with someone!"

Across from her, Okita snorted, his features softening. "Don't worry, we got him. I'm sure Hijikata is having the time of his life with him right now, but you said he was with someone?"

Chizuru closed her eyes as she fought to remember what she could about that second person. "Yes… he was short, with dark hair, and he seemed young. I think he was familiar, but I'm not sure."

There were some other things, but Chizuru chose to keep them to herself… She was already embarrassed to have overreacted so badly in front of him and the last thing she wanted, was to seem to be jumping at shadows. Besides, they weren't things she could pin down or describe. The first was just a vague feeling of fear and that, whoever the other person was, they were dangerous, but that was obvious enough. The second was equally vague, but she could faintly recall the sensation of something warm and comfortable, and the feeling that even if she didn't remember everything, she'd been safe. It was somehow tied to the color green… but considering the eye color of the person across from her, Chizuru wasn't about to mention or think too hard on that particular tidbit.

She opened her eyes when she heard Okita give a short sigh. Chizuru tried to suppress a shiver as his thumb fleetingly traced a line across her cheek before his hand fell away from her face.

"You know, all you had to do was ask if you wanted to hold my hand," He deliberately glanced down, and she suddenly realized that she'd been holding his other hand in a near death grip for the past minute or so.

With an alacrity that surprised even herself, she let go and stuffed her own hands in her lap. "Sorry! I mean… um… How long was I asleep," she asked, deciding it was better just to change the topic, despite the warmth she could feel radiating from her cheeks.

Okita's grin told her he knew exactly what she was doing, but apparently he decided to humor her anyway. He shrugged as he said, "About six hours, but Sanan thought you'd be out for at least another couple."

Chizuru winced. Six hours. She'd wasted six hours of their time because of her stupidity, and that didn't even take into account how badly she'd possibly messed things up for them. Staring down dejectedly at her hands in her lap, she said, "I know it won't make up for it, but I'm sorry for messing this up for everyone… You were right, I was in over my head."

"Oh I'd say you messed things up." Chizuru felt her heart drop at the confirmation of her fears and she bit her lip as she waited to hear the damage. "Now instead of just getting information like we wanted, we're stuck with the information and Itou. Having him back here isn't exactly a picnic."

Wait, was that… sarcasm?

A quick glance was all it took to confirm her suspicions and Chizuru's previous feelings of self-recrimination were overridden by her irritation at Okita's callous teasing.

She frowned as she said, "Okita! I was being serious."

He didn't seem the least bit repentant, and possibly seemed even a little smug, as he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, "Well are you done with your little pity party? Despite what you may think, we can manage to get things done on our own, you know."

Chizuru opened her mouth to tell him that wasn't any kind of excuse, but she hesitated when she got the first inkling of what he was hinting at. Even if it was rather rudely. She'd been apologizing without knowing what, if anything, had gone wrong and if it was even her fault. Instead of continuing to try and hold on to her anger, she chose to give a small, still slightly irritated, nod.

"Good," He switched to a lighter, yet still teasing tone, as he pointed a finger at her. "Though next time you disappear on me like that, I'm going to tie you to your chair and not let you up. Got it?"

She wasn't quite sure how seriously to take the ridiculous threat, but even so, Chizuru couldn't help but giggle at the thought of the resulting chaos if the others ever found her in such a situation… For some reason she kept picturing the giant red ribbon Heisuke had gotten tangled in, and that just made it even more laughable.

Okita's smile softened at her laughter and he shook his head. "You're impossible." He raised his hand and for a split second, she thought he was going to tuck a strand of her rather disheveled hair behind her ear. So she was caught completely by surprise, when his hand abruptly changed direction mid-motion and instead proceeds to ruffle her hair into even more of a rat's nest.

"Hey!" She tried to bat his hand away, and her petulant frown only served to increase his amusement.

The moment was broken when they both heard the sound of the door opening and Sen stepped into the room. Chizuru looked in confusion between the two as they both froze and all the previous humor seemed to drain from the room. Sen's lips thinned as her narrowed eyes glanced between the two of them, while Okita's shoulders stiffened and she could see the lines of tension in his jaw.

What was going on with them?

The distance was back in Okita's expression as he said shortly, "I'll let Sanan know you're up."

Without another word, Okita stood and stiffly moved past Sen and out the door, not looking at Sen once. Chizuru couldn't help wishing he wouldn't leave.

Once Okita was gone, Sen smiled brightly, though it seemed a trifle forced, as she sat down in the spot he'd only just vacated. She set down a small day bag Chizuru hadn't noticed earlier, but recognized as one she usually kept in her closet.

"How are you feeling?" Sen gestured to the bag at her feet, "I wanted to be here when you woke up, but I thought you might want a change of clothes, so I stopped by the apartment and picked out a couple outfits for you."

Chizuru looked a the bag with a newfound appreciation. Up until then, she'd had other things on her mind, but the dress she was in was far from comfortable and her fingers were now itching get into something familiar and decent.

For the moment though, she let it be, choosing instead to ask with a measure of suspicion, "A couple?"

"Well of course! You need options after all." There was a short pause before Sen's smile finally slipped and she said, "You really had me scared, you know. I was going crazy, because Heisuke wouldn't tell me anything and I couldn't hear what was happening. All I knew was that something had gone wrong." Sen took a deep breath, "Look, I already know what you're going to say, but… Are you sure you don't want to find a safer job? If we just cut back a little, I can cover the rent while you look for something."

Chizuru didn't even have to think twice about her answer as she shook her head. "I can't do that. Really, it was just a small mistake on my part, and it's not like anything bad happened," she reasoned. "Besides, for the first time, I really feel useful, like I'm making a difference. And this is somehow tied up with my family… I can't just leave that alone now that I've finally started to make progress."

Sen nodded hesitantly, "I know… and I get it… I just worry that they aren't good enough to protect you. Look what happened this time."

Now Chizuru understood some of the tension she'd seen between Sen and Okita. Sen wasn't one to keep quiet about her feelings and opinions. No doubt, the entire team had gotten an earful on this topic and she knew from experience that Okita wasn't someone who took even implied criticism from outsiders well.

"I know, but I'm fine." Sen didn't seem to believe her, so she repeated, "Really, I'm fine, and I don't blame them for what happened. From what I remember, I think I was the one who made a rookie mistake."

Sen sighed and shook her head, "All right, I won't bother you about it then." Her smile suddenly came back full force as she said brightly, "So, do you want to wear? I brought you pink, green and turquoise shirts and black leggings."

"Anything is better than this dress, so you pick." Chizuru said as she shifted to swing her legs over the edge of the couch, ignoring her complaining muscles. That couch certainly wasn't a feather bed.

"Hmm," Sen started digging through the bag, "let's go with pink then. It's your color." She held up a pale pink shirt.

Chizuru stared in confusion at the garment. "Um… are you sure that's mine? I don't recognize it…"

Sen blinked and took a closer look at the shirt. "Oh, right. I picked it up yesterday when I went shopping."

"Sen!"

"What?" Sen said innocently, "Don't tell me you don't like it, because I know you do."

She took the shirt with a faux exasperated sigh, "All right, yes, I like it. I just hope you didn't make them pay for it like you did everything else."

Sen's only answer was a rather devious looking smile. Chizuru could only guess what else had made it onto those recipts she'd given to Hijikata.

A few minutes later, Chizuru sat down on the couch again with a sigh of relief. It felt wonderful to be in normal clothes and she'd even managed to get her hair into a rather decent looking bun. The dress she'd been wearing was currently draped over the back of one of the chairs at the conference table. If it didn't technically belong to the department now, she would have happily donated the dress. There was too much tied up in it for her to willingly keep it without good reason.

Both she and Sen turned at the sound of a short rap on the door, but before either could do much else, it opened and Sanan stepped through.

"Ah, I see Okita was right, though I will admit I'm surprised that you're up so soon."

"R-Really?" Chizuru asked nervously. Okita had said something similar and she was starting to worry that her healing abilities had just broken some unwritten law of medicine.

Sanan nodded, a small smile touching his calm, professional demeanor. "There's no need to worry. Whatever was in your system is long gone, but I would have preferred you get more sleep." He gave a slight shrug, "But if your body is telling you that it's had enough, then we should listen to it."

As she let out a sigh of relief, Sanan turned to Sen, his smile gaining a slight edge. "Now I'm afraid you'll have to excuse us Miss. Suzuka. I'm sure in your line of work, you know all about doctor-patient privileges."

Sen looked ready to argue that statement, probably on the basis that Chizuru wasn't technically his patient, but when she sent Sen a reassuring smile, Sen reluctantly nodded, before making her way out of the room.

Once the door had closed, the edge left Sanan's smile as he took Sen's chair and rolled it closer. "That's better. Now, let's see how you're doing."

He covered the basics she was familiar with from her uncle. He checked her pulse, her breathing, asked her about aches and pains and nodded understandingly when she mentioned the nausea, slight muscle fatigue, and her headache, which by this point had mostly faded.

"There isn't anything I can give you for the nausea right now, but I always find a good cup of tea goes a long way toward fixing most things. Finally, if you could open your mouth for me and say 'ah'.

The request confused her, but she did as he asked. Sanan's fingers were cool as they clinically probed the soft area just below her jaw.

When he indicated she could close her mouth, she hesitantly asked, "What was that for?"

"Oh, just for fun. You'd be surprised what people will do simply because a doctor says to." Sanan gave a light laugh at her disbelieving expression. "Well, the good news is you are perfectly healthy. Okita told me you confirmed the drug was in a drink. Do you remember how much you had?"

"I did?" She didn't remember ever saying that.

He nodded, "You said the drink was bitter. The flavor of alcohol isn't always pleasant, but it's rarely described as bitter, especially in a mixed drink. Ketimine, on the other hand, is known for its bitter flavor."

"Oh," She had told Okita the drink was bitter, she just hadn't known why. "Um, I don't remember exactly, but I don't believe it was much… maybe a quarter of a glass?"

"Hmm," Sanan leaned back thoughtfully in the chair. "If that is the case, then you should be thankful you didn't drink more. There's no way to know for sure, but if I'm correct, then if you had finished it, the amount of ketamine in the drink likely would have sent you into cardiac arrest." He eyed her seriously as he said, "I don't wish to scare you, but I want you to know just how serious this could have been. I hope you have learned your lesson about accepting drinks from strangers."

Chizuru gave her best obedient nod. She had certainly learned her lesson, but why did Sen have to leave for this?

She got her first hint as to why, when instead of getting up to leave, Sanan said, "There is one more thing I'd like to talk to you about, if you are willing."

She froze, her hands tensing where they rested in her lap. Where was he going with this? Had Okita told him of her overreaction to her lack of memory? She didn't want any of the others thinking of her as weak or fragile. It was a small slip, nothing more.

When she didn't answer, he continued. "While it seems any major issues were avoided, I want you to know that feelings of fear, anxiety, and other, shall we say, less savory emotions are completely normal. Psychology is not my specialty, however I am not unaware of the consequences of traumatic events." He offered her a reassuring smile, "You seem to be handling this surprisingly well, but I must stress that they shouldn't be bottled up. If you ever need to talk, my office will always be open to you and I think you would find Hijikata to be a surprisingly good listener as well."

Chizuru smiled, relieved that apparently Okita hadn't mentioned it, because Sanan would have more than likely addressed the matter directly. "Thank you. I will if I ever need to, but really, I feel fine."

"Very well," Sanan said as he stood. "I'm giving you permission to get up and either work or go home as you choose, but either way, be sure to take it easy."

She nodded as she stood as well. When she followed him out of the conference room, she found Sen waiting just outside, a mug in her hands.

Sen held it out to her with a knowing smile, "I figured you'd want this. Sorry in advance if it's not very good. I wasn't sure how long to let it steep…"

Chizuru hesitantly took a sip of the hot drink. It was slightly bitter from over steeping, but it was still palatable. Besides, it was the thought that counted and Sanan had been right, tea was exactly what she needed to get herself back on her feet. "Thanks," she said appreciatively, "It's perfect and just what I need."

Sen laughed, "I sincerely doubt that. We both know I can't make tea."

"Okay, but it is just what I needed. Is everyone still here working?" Chizuru asked, glancing down the hall toward the team's alcove.

"Yes… So you're planning on staying here then? Shouldn't you come home and rest?"

Chizuru shook her head, "I feel fine, and sitting at my desk isn't exactly strenuous. If everyone else is here working, then I want to help."

"All right then," Sen said with a bright smile as she headed for the elevator. "I'd better see you home for dinner. I'm ordering Chinese."

Chizuru watched Sen disappear behind the closing elevator doors, before heading toward the team's alcove. For just a moment, she paused and took in the busy atmosphere of the room, watching as each of the men went about a variety of tasks. She didn't quite understand it, but she couldn't picture herself anywhere else. The thought of working with any other group of people just felt… lacking.

Of course, Saito was the first to notice her, but as he was talking on the phone, he merely gave her a nod of welcome before returning his attention to the person on the other end. Her eyes next found Okita giving her a rather long look. She felt her cheeks flush for no apparent reason, and they got even redder when the corner of his mouth pulled up slightly and his gaze shifted back to his computer screen. Pull yourself together. It was Heisuke's loud voice which jolted her back to reality.

"Chizuru! You're up! Are you all right? Shouldn't you be resting?"

Apparently those were questions she was going to have to keep answering for a while…

"Oi, oi, Heisuke." Harada said, putting a hand on Heisuke's shoulder, "Calm down a bit. I'm sure she wouldn't be here if Sanan didn't give her the all clear."

Chizuru tried to give her most sincere smile as she moved to sit down at her desk, "I'm fine, really. It wasn't that big of a deal."

Across the way, Nagakura grinned as he said, "Yeah, Heisuke. Why don't you listen to the lady for once. If she says she's fine, then she is."

"That's rich coming from you, flabby! When's the last time you listened to anyone?"

"Oi! You take that back! I work hard to keep these babies in pristine condition!"

Harada rolled his eyes before turning his attention back to her, "Glad you're doing better. You gave us all a pretty big scare."

"Sorry," Chizuru said as she ducked her head slightly, "I'll try not to do it again." She hesitated a moment before asking, "Have you found anything?"

"Gah, get off me Old Man," Heisuke wormed his way out of Nagakura's chokehold. "We got tons of stuff from the phones and even that laptop you found. I've been trying to sort through it, but I've barely scraped the surface. Oh, and we got Itou too!"

Nagakura snorted, "He didn't even last five minutes with The Demon before he started singin' like a canary with a head cold."

A canary with a… what? She had heard the first part of the idiom before, but… what did he mean by head cold?

Her expression must have shown her confusion, because Saito, now off his call, said, "Unfortunately, Itou's nose was broken during his arrest. He has yet to regain the ability to speak normally."

Okita's quiet snicker next to her left Chizuru in little doubt as to who had been the cause of that. She wanted to feel bad for Itou, she really did, but with all the trouble he'd caused her and the team, she was having some difficulty mustering up her usual levels of sympathy. Not that she thought he necessarily deserved it… It was complicated.

Chizuru turned to Okita as a troubling thought occurred to her, "Wait, won't you get in trouble for that?"

"Eh, maybe," he shrugged, his grin getting wider, "but he moved first. Not my fault he picked a fight he couldn't win."

Heisuke suddenly perked up. "Oh yeah! When Itou caved, he also told us where your laptop was." He reached into one of the drawers of his desk and pulled out the familiar device. As he handed it over to her, he continued, "Shin went and got it earlier. Sorry, but Itou must have tried his hand at breaking in, because it's completely wiped."

Chizuru sighed in relief as she ran her fingers over the lid, tracing the few nicks and scratches it had acquired since she'd bought it. Losing everything on it wasn't that big of a deal. She'd already backed up all her personal research when she started working with the department and her program was now safe in the their servers. Her biggest worry had been someone stealing case information from her, but if it had wiped, then that most likely meant Itou hadn't gotten anything from it.

She was about to thank Heisuke, when Hijikata strode into the room, orders flying from his lips before he'd even crossed the threshold.

"Saito, Souji, I want the two of you to rundown anything Heisuke picks up from that data. Shinpachi, I want a BOLO out on a Nagumo Kaoru. According to Itou, he's his contact and handler. Check the footage we got from the club. Once you've finished that, start with Harada on our regular cases. I want to see progress by tonight."

Nagakura's face morphed into a look that seemed halfway between horrified and angry. "But it's Sunday! Sano and I were gonna-"

"I don't care what you were going to do," Hijikata cut him off, "We don't have the luxury of time anymore. This is a race, pure and- What the hell are you doing here?"

Chizuru froze as Hijikata's gaze locked on to her in surprise, but she quickly managed to regather herself. "Sanan said I could work as long as I didn't push myself. I feel fine and I want to help. I can work with Heisuke to start sifting through the data." She said, picking the most reasonable of Hijikata's orders to tag herself onto. Just saying she wanted to help without a definite purpose would probably get her sent home.

Hijikata frowned, clearly not happy with her answer. "If you're up, then you are going home and resting. We can handle things just fine on our own until tomorrow."

His words and tone left little room for argument and Chizuru was at a loss as to what to do next. Her first instinct was to reiterate her 'I feel fine' argument, but she didn't think it would get her very far…

"And here we all were calling you a demon. You sound more like a mother hen to me, Hijikata."

The nonchalant, yet still slightly taunting voice from behind her caught Chizuru completely off guard. When she turned to look, she found Okita leaning back in his chair, his hands tucked behind his head and an excellent imitation of a disinterested expression on his face.

"What?" Hijikata's attention immediately moved off of her and onto Okita, his expression pinching like he'd just tasted something exceptionally sour.

Okita shrugged, "She says she's fine and she's had more sleep than any of us. What's wrong with letting her help? Heisuke was just saying he had too much work."

Across the way, Heisuke's eyes widened in a way that clearly said he wanted to keep as far away as possible from what was quickly becoming a dangerous conversation. "Wha-?! No I didn't!"

"That's not the point, Souji, and you know it." Hijikata sighed and rubbed his forehead, "I don't care if Sanan cleared her, she needs rest, not more work."

"Oh? I think she would know better than you how she feels," Okita tipped his head to the side as a mischievous light broke through his feigned disinterest. "And I'm sure Sanan would love to know what you think of his professional medical opinion."

"You wouldn't dare."

Okita didn't say anything, instead letting his cat-like grin speak for him.

Hijikata glared at Okita for a long moment, before he gave a sharp sigh that sounded suspiciously like 'bastard'.

"Fine. Do what you want." He said, before walking to his office, his shoulders stiff.

Chizuru simply sat there for a moment, dumbfounded at the turn events had taken. Did… did that mean she could stay and help? Had Okita really gotten Hijikata to change his mind? Albeit with a threat, but still…

she glanced over at Okita, only to have her pulse shoot through the roof in not an entirely unpleasant way when she found him smirking at her. She was in trouble.

"Hmm, I think you owe me now, Chizuru."

"O-Owe you?"

He nodded, warming to the idea, "You'd be on your way home now if it wasn't for me. I think you owe me something in return."

Oh how she wished he was kidding… but she always returned a favor when she could. She would just have to trust that his request wouldn't be too ridiculous.

She bit her lip for a moment before she said, "All right… What would you like?"

"Anything?" He asked, the same mischievous light from moments before, back in his eyes.

Why could nothing ever be simple where Okita was concerned? She nodded cautiously, "Anything."

"Hmm," Okita tipped his head back thoughtfully as he watched her out of the corner of his eye, "Guess I'll have to think about it then. Wouldn't want to waste it."

This was so much worse. She was definitely in trouble.

Their conversation was interrupted when Nagakura suddenly said, "Oi, Souji, Saito, come take a look at this. Tell me if this is who I think it is."

Okita frowned as he stood and moved around the desks to see Nagakura's monitor. He was closely followed by Saito, who said calmly as he stood, "Shinpachi, I cannot tell you who you think it is, since I do not know who you think it is. However, I am willing to provide an opinion who I think it is, if that is what you wish."

"What?" Nagakura asked, looking confused. Chizuru could understand the sentiment. This was one of those few times when Saito's attempts at clarification really only muddied the waters.

Okita let out a short, rather humorless laugh when he was able to see whatever it was on Nagakura's screen. "Well if it isn't our little crossdresser."

Saito nodded in agreement with Okita, "It would seem that his presence was more than coincidental this time."

"Who? Lemme see," Heisuke asked as he lean over, practically ending up in Harada's lap as he tried to get a look.

"It would seem Yukimura Kaoru is masquerading as Nagumo Kaoru, and is in fact working with the Syndicate."

Chizuru's breath caught in her throat at Saito's answer. That other person… the one she'd felt was dangerous… had it been her brother? It would explain the feeling of familiarity. His face was near identical to her own. Had Kaoru had something to do with what had happened to her? She didn't understand. Why would he do something like that? Even if she hadn't known he was alive, they were still family… right?

Before her worries could run away with her, Okita caught her eye, and while he didn't say anything, she could understand the silent question he was asking. Was she all right? Was she okay?

Normally that kind of look would make her feel weak. Like she was something fragile that needed to be watched and babied, but Okita hadn't made her feel that way earlier, and he didn't now. His look was one of observation, not expectation. His curiosity about her reaction to the news made all the difference in changing the feeling from one of being handled, to handling herself. Chizuru released the breath she'd been holding. She wasn't fine, not entirely, but it was a reminder that she couldn't worry over things she couldn't control. The best thing for her to do was to focus on how she could be useful, and that meant getting her hands on the data they'd collected.

With a goal now firmly in mind, she felt lighter and more at ease than she'd been almost all morning. As if a small weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Something of her feelings must have shown on her face, because Okita's attention returned to Nagakura and Saito, almost as if he'd never glanced her way in the first place. She turned to Heisuke, ready to ask where he'd put the data they'd gathered, but instead she couldn't help an amused smile at the scene playing itself out in front of her.

"Ow! What was that for Sano?"

Harada frowned at a sulking Heisuke, who was now back in his own seat and rubbing his head. "Well, don't go crawlin' over me. Be like a normal person and get up and walk around next time."

"Hey, Heisuke?" Chizuru asked, trying to hide her amusement. She didn't think he would appreciate it.

Heisuke grumbled under his breath about grumpy old men for a moment more, his hand running through his hair, before he said, "Yeah?"

"Can I start looking at the data too?"

"Oh, sure. It's in the same folder as all the other stuff."

She nodded her understanding as she pulled her desktop keyboard toward her. Her laptop would take far too long to set up and while her own desktop was in no way comparable to what Heisuke had, she was glad to be back in her own spot. She would admit only to herself that a part of why she preferred it was currently walking back to his own desk.

Of course, said reason caught her watching him just a bit too long and the look he sent her way had her hurriedly staring back at her screen. She tried and failed to keep the blush off her cheeks and a ridiculous feeling smile off her lips.

After an hour or so, Chizuru was starting to get a handle on what exactly they'd collected. Heisuke, the hidden genius that he was, had thought ahead and any data that came with labels from the phone's internal storage was automatically turned into a file format her program could read. There was still lots of miscellaneous data they had to sort through manually, but they'd bother with it if they had to.

Chizuru paused, her hands hovering over the keyboard, as an unexpected sound drifted down the hall. It sounded like a child's voice, but there was hardly any adults in the building on the weekend, let alone children.

Apparently everyone else heard it as well, because Harada grinned as he said, "Hey Souji, sounds like your biggest fan is here."

Nagakura and Heisuke both laughed and even Saito's lips twitched slightly, betraying his amusement. Okita rolled his eyes in response to the mild teasing, but from what she could tell, he wasn't actually bothered by it. It made her curious as to just who this 'biggest fan' was.

Her first clue came when a familiar male voice accompanied the child's and her guess was proven right when Kondou rounded the corner, a girl of perhaps five or six on his hip. It was then that Chizuru recalled that Kondou had mentioned before that he had a daughter. While the little girl had clearly gained several key features from her mother, there could be no doubt that Kondou was her father. Chizuru could easily see that she had her father's eyes and his same infectious smile.

"Morning Kondou," Nagakura called, "What're you doing here?"

"Toshi only just told me what happened, so I came by to see how Yukimura was doing." He turned to her, his expression concerned, "I'm glad to see that you're up, how are you feeling?"

"I feel fine. Really it wasn't that big of a deal."

Her reassurance seemed to ease Kondou's worries and his easy smile returned. "Good, I'm glad to hear it."

"Kondou?" Hijikata came to his office door and gave a mildly exasperated sigh as he folded his arms and leaned against the frame. "I thought I told you I had things covered here, you didn't have to come for this."

"Of course I did. It's my duty to see that my people are all doing well. Besides, Tama doesn't mind coming into work with her dad," He glanced down at his daughter. "Do you?"

The girl in question wasn't even listening. Almost as soon as Kondou had walked through the doorway, she had started leaning away and squirming; doing everything in her power to try and get free of her father's arms and to the floor.

At the sound of Kondou's question, she stopped her escape attempts and frowned determinedly up at him. "Souji."

Tamako's demand sent a quiet chuckle through the room. Clearly they had seen this debate play out before.

Kondou shook his head. "Not this time Tama. I told you this would be a quick visit and Souji is very busy."

Unfortunately Tamako seemed unswayed by this logic.

"I want to color with Souji."

Kondou seemed torn between giving his daughter what she wanted and sticking to what he'd already told her. Chizuru was surprised when the two people who had been at odds only an hour before were the ones to break the father-daughter stalemate.

Next to her, Okita shrugged, his expression almost edging toward indulgent, "I don't mind, Kondou. She's not a bother."

"Please Daddy? Souji says it's okay," Tamako looked hopefully between Okita and her dad, but still Kondou hesitated.

Over in his place leaning against the doorway to his office, Hijikata gave an exasperated sigh that was in direct opposition to the small smile on his face. "Well, as long as you're here, Kondou, we might as well try and work out some details for the lunch with the city council members in three weeks."

"All right, Tama." Kondou relented as he set her down, "You can go color with Souji while I talk to your Uncle Toshi."

No sooner had her feet touched the ground, than Tamako was running toward Okita. When she reached him, he scooped her up and easily deposited her in his lap, causing the girl to giggle happily. Leaning over, Tamako reached over and pulled open one of the drawers in Okita's desk. Apparently it wasn't her first time doing this, because her small hands soon came away with a pad of paper and several crayons. She studiously set about drawing while Okita continued typing around her.

Kondou and Hijikata began discussing policies and budgets as they headed into Hijikata's office and everyone went back to their own work.

As soon as the pair were out of sight, Okita gave up all pretenses of working and instead started drawing right along with her. It was similar to how he'd been earlier when she'd woken up, but this time his normal edge was completely gone. For her part, Chizuru was having a hard time focusing on her work. She kept stealing longer and longer glances at the pair next to her. It was more than clear that, like Kondou, Tamako held a special place in his heart. For someone who could be so prickly when he wanted to be, Okita could also be incredibly kind.

Finally, she gave up and just watched as Tamako drew a stick figure rendition of her 'Uncle Toshi'. Okita promptly added whiskers and a pair of cat ears to the drawing, causing the girl to giggle and add a tail as well. The two went back and forth, elaborating on each other's drawings and laughing as they expanded them into funny stories. Some of them bordered on downright Looneytoons levels of ridiculousness, such as one where Hijikata got stuck in a tree.

By the time Kondou left Hijikata's office, the page was full of doodles. Among the normal flowers, stars and other random things, were quite a few bewhiskered, cat-eared Hijikata's. One of them even had him chasing after a mouse.

"All right, Tamako, it's time to go. Mommy should be home from her brunch with her friends by now."

Chizuru expected Tamako to put up an argument, but the girl simply smiled and nodded, apparently eager to see her mother. Carefully she wrote her name on the bottom of the page and Okita signed his own name next to hers before he tore the page off the pad.

Paper in hand, Tamako excitedly hopped down off of Okita's lap and ran up to her father. "Look what we drew!"

"Oh, that's beautiful! You are such an artist," Kondou pointed to one of the doodles, "and who is this?"

The girl practically beamed at her father's praise as she said proudly, "Uncle Toshi of course."

Kondou nodded sagely, "Of course it is. What do you think Toshi? Isn't she getting good?"

At the mention of his name, Hijikata looked over Kondou's shoulder at the drawing. Almost instantly his smile became strained and Chizuru thought she could see a muscle in his forehead twitch as he nodded. "Wonderful."

Tamako grabbed her father's hand and began pulling him toward the hallway, "Come on Daddy, I want to show Mommy my drawing. Bye Souji!"

Okita waved goodbye to the girl, completely ignoring the terrifying look Hijikata was shooting his way. Apparently Hijikata knew exactly who was to blame for those doodles. Chizuru smiled as she turned her attention back to her computer. Even in his best moments, Okita was still Okita. Not that, Chizuru thought to herself, she'd really want it any other way.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25 - Hell of a Right Hook

Saturday, January 26th

Chizuru sighed as she poked her fork at the untouched cinnamon roll in front of her. It had been a week and yet she hadn't uncovered anything new. She'd tried so many ways of looking at the data that she'd lost count, but still, nothing formed a conclusive pattern. It was frustrating to say the least. Both Okita and Saito had returned to working on active cases simply because she and Heisuke had no leads for them. It was starting to look like their effort in getting the data had been wasted.

Maybe if she cross referenced the call logs to 911 calls within a certain window, she could link orders to specific crimes…

"Hey, earth to Chizuru?"

But that wouldn't work… what would she use for a window? A related call could be anywhere from ongoing to days or weeks after the fact…

"Hello? I'm pretty sure I've read a law somewhere about abusing food instead of eating it."

Chizuru blinked in confusion as she felt a finger poke her in the forehead. The ambient noise of the food court they were sitting in came back into focus.

"What?"

Across from her, Sen sighed good naturedly as she pointed to the cinnamon roll. "If you're not going to eat it, I will. What you're doing is just cruel."

Chizuru took another look at the dessert and realized that not only had she failed to even take a bite, the abused pastry was riddled with holes from her fork. Setting down the utensil before she did any more damage, she pushed it toward Sen. "Sorry, guess I'm just not that hungry."

Sen shook her head as she tore off a piece and popped it in her mouth. "No," she said around the mouthful of bread, "Distracted is what you are. You're thinking about work again, aren't you."

"Yeah…" Chizuru rested her chin on her hand as Sen tore off another piece, "It's frustrating. Nothing I do seems to work and I just feel so… so… useless, I guess."

"But you're the one who found that warehouse, right? And they wouldn't have even gotten into that club if it wasn't for you."

She shrugged, her fingers moving absently to start tearing little pieces off the napkin in front of her, "Sure, but I'm also the idiot who drank a drugged drink and I just can't find anything in the data. It's been a week, Sen. A week and I've made no progress at all."

Sen frowned at her, waving a particularly gooey piece of cinnamon roll dangerously close to her nose. "All right, you stop this right now. You're working on bringing down a criminal organization. That isn't going to happen overnight you know. Those kinds of cases can take years. Do you even know how long they've been at it before you got there?"

"Well… no, but-"

"Then give it some time. I know you and you always find an answer," Sen pushed away the partially eaten cinnamon roll and stole the torn napkin from Chizuru's fingers to wipe away the sugary residue on her own. "Now, we are here to have a girls' day out and go shopping, and we won't do that sitting here. No more work today. Deal?"

Sen grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet with a bubbly smile. Even with the worries still weighing on her mind, Chizuru could feel a matching smile pulling at her own lips. Today was a day for them to hang out and have fun. Work could wait. Before she could even finish nodding, Sen started dragging her off toward their first stop, already chatting away about the things she wanted to try on.

They had moved on to their third store of the day, and by this point, Chizuru was starting to enjoy herself. With the cold and damp January winds still in full force, she figured a new sweater or two wouldn't be amiss. She had been lucky enough to find a rack of particularly comfy looking sweaters, their knit soft and plush under her fingers. She glanced over at Sen to find her looking over a table of shirts several feet away. Chizuru jumped when she felt her phone start to vibrate in her purse.

A quick look at the screen was all it took for her to let out a tired sigh. It was Kodo. With a heavy heart, Chizuru hit the reject button. She felt bad for doing it, but now wasn't a good time for the conversation he would inevitably want to have.

Somehow news of what had happened at the Orchid had traveled from Kondou to Rintaro, and from there word had gotten to her uncle. The multi hour phone conversation that had ensued had been far from pleasant for her. His demands for her to return had only become more forceful now that he had 'proof' of the dangers of her work. Rarely had she ever heard him as frustrated and worried as he had sounded then. He'd said repeatedly that he would line up a job at the hospital for her, but when she'd asked exactly what she'd do, he'd only said that they'd figure it out when she came home. As much as Kodo wanted her to be, she was no doctor and what kind of work did that leave her?

She didn't want to leave. Her work was here. Her team was here. Sen was here. Regardless of the fact that it had only been a few months since she'd moved, her home was here. It just hurt that she couldn't find the words to make her uncle understand.

Flashes of red and blue fabric made Chizuru suddenly realized that Sen had been trying to get her attention for a while now. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Well, I was trying to ask if you if the red or blue looked better, but I think I'll pass on both," She laid the shirts back down on the table before giving Chizuru a teasing look as she walked over, "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were distracted by a guy. All you're missing is the dorky grin, because you've got the rest down pat." Sen paused for a moment, her teasing expression becoming pensive. "Those guys were all really worried about you, you know. Especially that Okita. I think the only time he wasn't in that room was when your boss, Hiji-what's-his-name, was chewing him out over what happened."

Chizuru froze, her heartbeat suddenly picking up its pace. "R-Really?"

Had Okita really been that worried about her? She had thought he'd just happened to be there, but… had he actually been waiting for her to wake up? That thought made a warm feeling start to flutter in her chest.

Sen's eyes narrowed as she looked her over more closely. "No way… I know he's good looking, but I don't think I've ever seen you interested like this in a guy before."

"No! I'm not-"

"Oh, yes you are," Sen pointed at her. "You just got that hopeful, sappy expression all over your face."

She had? Chizuru clapped her hands to her cheeks in embarrassment as she shook her head. "It's not like that…"

"So you don't like him then?" Sen asked, her gaze daring her to lie.

Chizuru tried to reiterate her denial, but she couldn't seem to get the words out. Lying had never been her strong suit and Sen knew it. Forget the lessons in self defense, maybe what she really needed was someone to teach her how to tell a decent lie.

The problem was, she knew deep down that he was becoming far more than even a friend and she didn't know how to even begin to approach that. She was sure, like any girl, she'd had her share of crushes growing up, but after she lost her family, it hadn't been a priority. Things like dating had been easy to push to some imaginary point in the future and now she was regretting it. How did she judge her feelings without a benchmark?

There was no denying he was good looking, but so were plenty of other people and she'd never felt this way about any of them. Though most people weren't as… well… toned as he was and they certainly didn't have his eyes. Beyond that, she simply found herself paying more attention to him than any of the others. She cared what he thought and despite the front he put up, she thought that deep down, he really was incredibly kind. Mostly she saw it when he interacted with Kondou and Tamako, but she'd also gotten glimpses in all of the little things he'd done for her. He had always looked out for her, and even with his penchant for teasing, she trusted him. But what did she do with all of that? What did it mean?

Sen seemed to sense her inner turmoil, because the seriousness in her expression faded into a gentle teasing as she winked and said, "Aren't you the lucky duck. You know it's not everyday a girl gets a guy who looks like that interested in her." Sen paused a moment before adding under her breath, "Even if his attitude leaves something to be desired…"

"What?" She stared in disbelief at Sen, her cheeks flushing red, "No he isn't… I mean, why would he be interested in me?"

Sen frowned as she folded her arms. "Oh come on, he's interested. Guys don't go sitting for six hours with any old unconscious person for no reason, especially guys like him. And you can't go selling yourself short like that. You're someone any guy would be lucky to have. If you ask me, the real question is why you would like someone like him . You have to admit he's something of an ass."

Despite herself, Chizuru couldn't help but laugh and Sen's confused, disbelieving expression only made it worse.

When she finally got herself back under control, she said a little breathlessly, "I guess I can't really deny that…" And she couldn't. She'd been on the receiving end of his bad attitude more than once. "But… I don't know. There's more to him than that and he makes me feel safe." She let out a sigh, "That sounds dumb now that I say it, but every time something has happened, he's been there…" She shrugged, unable to clearly vocalize why she found herself so drawn to Okita.

"Boy do you have it bad," Sen grinned at her as she took her hand and began to pull her out of the store. "Come on, we're going to find you an outfit that will knock him off his feet. I may not see it, but if you do, then I guess I'll just have to trust you." Sen shot a mischievous glance back over her shoulder as they entered the flow of people making their way through the mall. "And while we're at it, you can tell me all about that handsome redhead you work with."

They didn't have to go far to reach the store Sen had apparently been looking for, but before they could duck inside, Chizuru felt an unfamiliar restraining hand on her shoulder. The force behind the hold jerked her to a stop, pulling Sen's hand from her own. Chizuru felt a flare of panic well up in her chest, the memory of similar unfamiliar touches leading to less than happy situations.

Without thinking, she whirled toward whoever it was who had grabbed her, her hand automatically closing into a fist. Chizuru didn't realize she'd actually thrown a punch until she felt her fist connect solidly with the side of her attacker's face, knocking him to the ground. Shocked gasps came from the crowd as a man knelt, holding his head and letting out a string of curses. For her part, Chizuru clutched her hand, her eyes tearing from the pain of actually punching someone. It was nothing like the cushioned bags she was used to and her hands were completely unprotected. She was sure the pain would be gone in a matter of seconds, but shouldn't Okita and Saito have at least warned her that it would hurt?

Now that her panic had subsided, Chizuru got a better look at who had grabbed her. She felt the blood drain from her face as the man stood, still cradling the side of his head. This was bad. Very very bad.

Souji wanted to curse as the harsh sound of his phone ringing pulled him rudely from a deep sleep. It was a Saturday and he'd be damned if he was up before noon. For a split second, he thought about ignoring it, but was just irritated enough that he wanted to give whoever was disturbing him a piece of his mind. If Hijikata had spur of the moment decided he wanted everyone in, he was going to tell him exactly what he could do with that idea. Most everyone who knew him, knew about his Saturday habit and the dangers of disturbing it.

He ran a hand through his hair as he reached for his phone, trying to wake up enough to read the text on the screen. The name of the person would determine just what kind of response they'd get. He believed in personalized insults after all.

The name that came into focus brought him up short, all thoughts of suitable insults screeching to a halt. What was Chizuru doing calling him? To his knowledge, she had never attempted to contact him. In the back of his mind he made a mental note to change the contact name from 'New Girl' to her actual name. He'd forgotten he'd done that and admittedly, it had been one of his more childish decisions.

Still, the sight of it brought up a whole well of feelings he'd been deliberately ignoring. Above all, he hated the feeling of guilt that continued to dog him and he most certainly hadn't needed that purple-eyed bastard's lecture in the immediate aftermath. His own recriminations over what had happened had been quite enough, thank you very much.

That still didn't answer the question of why she was calling him. Maybe someone had finally told her what a screwup he'd been and she was calling to blame him for what happened? He would if he was her. He'd intentionally avoided the topic when she'd woken up. Though it hadn't been all that hard to do, what with the scare she'd given him. She had always had this iron will that he couldn't help but admire, even if it was annoying when he had to face it. So to see her looking like she had… If he was honest with himself, he never wanted to see that panicked, helpless look on her face again.

Well, if she was going to tell him what a failure he was, he might as well get it over with.

With a sigh, he closed his eyes and dropped his head back onto his pillow as he pressed the phone to his ear. "Whatever this is, it had better be good."

He winced when the words came out sounding harsher than he meant. Probably thanks to the uneasy nerves he could feel rolling around in his stomach.

"Thank goodness you answered! I need your help. I tried to talk to them, but they wouldn't listen!"

What the…? Souji pulled the phone away and looked at the screen in confusion as he sat up. No, it was definitely Chizuru's number, but whoever the panicked woman was on the other end, she definitely wasn't Chizuru.

He ignored the irritated meow from next to him as he asked, "Who is this? Where's Chizuru?"

"Sen! It's Sen. Chizuru's friend? And that's the problem. I don't know where she is! Your idiot lackeys carted her off to god knows where and wouldn't tell me anything!"

"All right, all right. Slow down. I'm not following you." Souji rubbed his face as he glanced at the clock on his bedside table. It had to be far too early for him to be dealing with this. He had to look again just to be sure when he realized it said it was already one in the afternoon.

He heard Sen take a deep breath, before she said more calmly, "We were out shopping and all of a sudden Chizuru was pulled away from me. The next thing I know, she's thrown a punch and a police officer is on the ground. She only threw one, but I've never seen her act like that before."

Souji frowned. Sen was right, that wasn't like Chizuru. Not at all… He still had a hard enough time getting her to throw a decent punch at him when he told her to. For her to lash out hard enough to knock someone to the ground… Even if it was surprising and slightly impressive, the officer must have done something to freak her out pretty badly.

"When I tried to talk to him and his witless wonder of a partner, they just kept saying she was wanted for questioning and that she was under arrest for assaulting an officer. They wouldn't even tell me where they were taking her! I was just lucky she dropped her purse and that I was able to get it before they noticed."

Well, at least now things were starting to come together. Even if he was a hundred percent sure Chizuru wasn't the one at fault here, hitting a police officer hard enough to knock him to the ground was certainly more than enough to get her arrested. The only thing he didn't understand was why they would mention questioning. Unless…

Souji sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Damn it, it had to be that BOLO. There was no other reason for them to single her out. Why, oh why, couldn't things ever be simple?

"Where were you when this happened?"

"The mall downtown."

Well, at least that wasn't on a boundary between stations. If those officers had just been doing regular rounds, then he knew exactly which station they would have returned to.

"Okay, go home and I'll take care of getting her out."

"Thank you," There was a short pause before Sen said, "Maybe you're not so bad after all." and then the line went dead.

Souji stared in confusion at the phone in his hand. What had she meant by that?

Well, whatever she meant, his relaxing Saturday was now gone. Flicking through his contacts, he selected Hajime's number, and after turning on the speakerphone, tossed it into the center of the bed. If he was right, Saito would be in the office. The workaholic didn't know the meaning of weekend.

As it rang, he stretched, trying to work out an ache he could feel in his joints. The movement further disturbed his bedmate, who let out another irritated meow. When he turned to look, he found the black-furred feline glaring at him. Probably because in the process of sitting up, he'd ruined the warm tent of blankets the cat had been curled up in.

"Well it's not like I wanted to get up either," he told it.

He reached over, running his fingers over its head and scratching along it's jaw, just where he knew the feline liked it. Closing it's eyes, the cat pushed further into his hand, a purr rumbling through it's entire body. The moment didn't last though. In what Souji assumed was punishment for his earlier disturbance, in a flash, the cat had it's paws wrapped around his hand and had begun gnawing on his wrist. There wasn't any real force behind the bite so he let the feline continue to enjoy his 'catch'. He grinned as he twitched his fingers, causing the cat to hold tighter and bring it's back paws up to press against his palm.

"Yes Souji?"

The sound of Hajime's voice over the speaker caused the cat to stop chewing on him, it's ears perking up as it looked toward the phone.

"We've got a small problem. If anyone calls saying they caught Nagumo, don't believe it."

Hajime hesitated a moment before he said, "Very well, but why?"

The cat let go of his hand before padding across the comforter to sit by the phone and stare intently at the screen.

"I just got a call from that friend of Chizuru's. Apparently some officers detained Chizuru for questioning, so I'm going to go get her out."

He heard Hajime give a quiet sigh and he understood the sentiment. "I will see that all appropriate parties are updated to the situation."

"Thanks" As if sensing that Hajime was about to hang up, the cat meowed and began pawing at the screen. "Oh, and Toshizo misses you Hajime. He doesn't think you visit him enough."

Souji's grin widened as Toshizo meowed in agreement. Besides himself, the cat had become particularly attached to Hajime. It might have bothered him that the cat seemed to have multiple favorites, but since it had yet to show any inclination toward it's namesake, Souji was willing to overlook it.

"Ah… I will endeavor to visit you more, sir. I trust you are well?"

Toshizo began purring again and rubbed his face against the edge of the phone.

"I am very glad to hear it. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go."

At the sound of Hajime hanging up, Toshizo lost interest in the phone and instead turned his attention back to Souji. The demand in his pale turquoise eyes was easy to read. If Souji was going to insist on waking him up, then he wanted food. Now.

Tamako had been the one to find Toshizo and heaven only knew where she'd come across the mangy furball. She'd wanted to keep him, but Tsune was allergic to cats and there was also the small matter of Toshizo's temper. With a select few he was fine, including Tamako and Kondou, but anyone else was liable to end an interaction with a scratch or two at the very least. He was rather notorious among the staff at the vet. With that disposition, Toshizo's prospects would have been far from good in a shelter and it hadn't taken much begging on Tamako's part for Souji to agree to take the him in. Toshizo liked him just fine and he rarely had people over. Besides, the faces Hijikata made every time the cat was brought up were just too entertaining.

Apparently he was taking too long, because Toshizo let out a particularly irritated sounding meow.

"All right, All right." Souji stretched again before dragging himself out of bed to get dressed. That ache just wouldn't go away.

Seeming satisfied with his progress, the cat hopped off the bed and padded toward the kitchen to await it's meal.

A half an hour later and Souji found himself in front of the downtown station. He could have been there a little sooner, but despite all the sleep he'd gotten, he still felt exhausted. Coffee had been a necessary detour. Besides, it wasn't like Chizuru was going anywhere.

Before they'd gotten the new building slightly outside the downtown area, everyone had been crammed into this building. It had been a relief for everyone when the administration and most of the detective teams had been moved out. Unfortunately it also meant he couldn't just walk in and pull Chizuru out. He'd have to go through 'proper channels' and that was going to be a pain.

The lobby was busy with officers and civilians alike, all intent on their own tasks. This left the receptionist's desk without a line, but that was an unnecessary delay he wasn't in the mood for. He didn't need to be given the runaround or told to wait. Unless they'd drastically reorganized the place since he'd left, he knew where the person he needed to talk to was most likely to be. Lucky for him an elevator chose that moment to arrive. Along with a couple others, he stepped in and hit the button for the second floor.

The doors opened and Souji stepped out into a surprisingly busy work area, given it was a Saturday. Not all of the detective teams had been moved to the new building and he could see at least two areas for currently absent teams. The majority of the people in the room seemed to be regular officers and a fair number of them were looking at him curiously.

Ignoring them, Souji crossed the room to the door marked 'Captain' and walked in without so much as knocking. He could feel a mild headache coming on and he wasn't in the mood to be polite.

A heavy set man with thinning hair sat behind the large desk at the back of the room, reading what looked to be some kind of report. He looked up sharply when Souji entered the room.

"Who the devil are you? Didn't anyone ever teach you any manners?"

"Detective Okita Souji. I'm here because you have the wrong suspect in custody."

"Oh, that was fast. I only just sent the notification. You wouldn't believe the story this one's managed to come up with," the man smiled amicably as he leaned forward and held out his hand, "Police Captain Edmund."

Deliberately ignoring the gesture, Souji folded his arms. "I don't think you heard me. She's not who we're looking for."

The smile slipped slightly from Edmund's face as he slowly lowered his hand. "I don't think you're in any position to be jumping to that conclusion. You haven't even seen her yet. Heck, we don't even know for sure who she is yet. She doesn't have any ID on her and she's spinning some wild tale about a twin brother and being an investigative consultant for one of our detective teams," he chuckled, "Can you believe it?"

"Actually I can." he said dryly, "If you'd bothered to do even a basic check, you'd have seen that she is working with my team."

Edmund's voice gained a slight edge as he said, "That was the first thing we did. Her name checks out, but the rest is a pile of lies. The only thing in the system is some secretary by the same name with no photo. Never even been assigned to anything. She's a dead ringer for that photo and even has a partially matching name."

Souji wanted to hit himself in the forehead… or at the very least hit Hijikata for being such an overprotective motherhen. Chizuru had become such an integral part of their team, he'd forgotten the lies they'd initially used to hide her presence. Sure, they'd practically dropped it since, but she also hadn't done anything that would require her to reach outside their team. As far as the department was concerned, she didn't exist. They're oh-so-smart decision had just come back to bite them in the ass.

Instead, he let his irritation at the tangled mess this had become sharpen his sarcasm to a razor edge, "Maybe you can't read, but it was for a man, not a woman."

"It also said the suspect could be disguised as a woman. Maybe it's not just the name you lot messed up." Edmund said pointedly.

Souji made a mental note to flay Shinpachi when he got the chance for putting that note in the BOLO. Technically it had been a smart detail to put in, given how good Nagumo's disguise had been… but it also meant a good portion of this mess was now officially Shinpachi's fault.

"We didn't and I don't have time to deal with this. She's not who we're looking for, so you're going to tell me where she is so I can take her and leave."

"Now listen here son." Edmund's eyes narrowed as he stood, presumably in what he thought was a threatening manner. "I've tried to be reasonable despite your rude behavior, but even if she isn't who you're looking for, she violently attacked one of my men. I don't care what her relationship is to you or your investigation is, like hell am I going to just release her."

Souji could feel his temper rising and his hands involuntarily tightened into fists."First of all, I'm not your son, and second, she's what? Five foot and a hundred pounds? How bad could it have been?"

"Oi! Rick!" Edmund called out the door, "Get in here a minute will you."

When 'Rick' finally showed up at the door, Souji couldn't help it. Despite his earlier irritation, he laughed. The man had the start of what looked to be a serious black eye, and he was holding a pack of ice to the side of his head. The fact that Chizuru had done it was both incongruous and impressive. Of course, neither of the men took his laughter very well.

Edmund gestured sharply at him, "Rick, why don't you tell our oh-so-important detective what happened."

Souji watched closely as the man's eyes flicked nervously between him and his boss. He lowered the icepack and cleared his throat before saying, "Well, Isaac and I were doing our normal rounds through the mall when we saw someone matching the BOLO, but when we approached, she attacked me."

Souji narrowed his eyes into a glare as he stared down the officer. He might not be the brightest when it came to politics and negotiation like Hijikata, but he sure as hell knew when things didn't add up. "That's funny, because I heard it a little differently." Technically Sen hadn't given him much to go on, but he had a few guesses as to what had happened and he wanted to see if he was right. "I heard that you didn't announce yourself before grabbing her and that she only threw a single punch." The officer flinched slightly as his gaze flicked again between him and Edmund. "Well? Am I right?"

Edmund frowned as well, a hint of doubt entering his eyes. "Is he right?"

"I… I didn't want to give her the chance to run. It's easy to lose people in there…"

Souji couldn't help a derisive snort as he said, "Some random man grabs her from behind? I'd hope she'd hit first and ask questions later." He let a smirk creep across his features as he looked deliberately at the officer, "Besides, what kind of cop are you that you can't dodge a punch from a girl? She's practically harmless."

Souji's smirk widened in response to the anger that flared in the man's eyes, daring him to try something.

Apparently Edmund wasn't about to have a fight break out in his office, because he said quickly, "That's enough. Rick, you can go."

The officer hesitated a moment, but eventually nodded and left, his shoulders stiff.

Edmund turned his attention back to Souji. "Even if that is what happened, that's for the courts to decide. It doesn't change the fact that she hit an on-duty officer. She's staying right where she is."

He knew the man was just being stubborn because of how rude he'd been, but that was it. He'd reached his limit for dealing with human idiocy for one day.

He didn't even bother to restrain the sarcasm in his voice as he said, "You know what? I've changed my mind. The fact that she can hit that hard definitely makes her a suspect. I'll be taking her off your hands so we can question her."

"You're not pulling that one on me. You just said you were looking for a man."

"Well you never know," Souji said scathingly, "The only time I've seen him, he was cross-dressing as a pretty convincing woman. Besides, your talented officer was so sure he had the right person."

Edmund leaned his hands on his desk threateningly, his face turning an interesting shade of red. "I don't have to answer to a whelp like you. Talk to the Chief of Police, because that's the only way you're getting her out of here."

Souji let a dangerous smile creep across his features. "Done."

He kept his eyes locked on the now fidgeting Edmund as he slowly took out his phone and tapped Kondou's number. Normally he would avoid dragging Kondou into something like this, but the man really hadn't given him any other choice. He put it on speaker as he set it on the desk between them.

As the ringing echoed through the room, he watched with growing delight as Edmund's arrogant front began to crack.

"Hello?"

At the sound of Kondou's voice, Edmund visibly paled and began gesturing for him to hang up.

"Hi Kondou."

"Oh! Souji, it's good to hear from you. What's up?"

Edmund's gestures became more frantic. Clearly the man was afraid of what he would say about the situation. Souji let him suffer for a moment more, savoring every minute of his panic.

"Hmm, nothing much. Just wanted to see how you were doing today."

"That's kind of you. I'm doing great. Actually, I've been meaning to ask you when you'll come by for dinner one of these nights. We all miss having you here, especially Tama."

By this point, Edmund was back in his chair, his legs clearly too weak to support his weight.

"I'll let you know soon. I've actually got to go."

"All right Souji. Goodbye."

"Bye."

After he hung up and pocketed his phone, he couldn't keep the smugness out of his voice as he asked, "Well?"

The way the man's mouth pinched looked like he'd just bit into a lemon, but eventually he said, "Fine, she's yours. Door at the end of the hallway to your right."

Souji couldn't help a smirk as he turned to leave, tossing over his shoulder, "Yes, she is."

The looks that followed him this time were decidedly more wary now, but again he ignored them. He had one goal and that was to get Chizuru out of there just as soon as possible. That confrontation had done little to help his growing headache.

When he reached the door, he paused to take a breath. None of this was Chizuru's fault and she'd probably assume he was mad at her. Just as his fingers closed on the handle, his eye caught the adjacent door and he paused again. On a hunch, he changed direction and opened the other door.

His suspicions were proven correct when he saw that the standard observation room, with it's recording equipment and one-way mirror, wasn't empty. A woman leaned idly back against the window as she scrolled through something on her phone. Stepping into the room, he easily flipped off the video and audio recording devices.

"Hey! You can't do that."

"Watch me."

The woman took a step toward him, her expression surprised and a little angry, but she stopped when he glared at her. Her eyes darted between him, the equipment, and the door, before deciding it wasn't worth the fight. She darted past him and down the hall. It was a good choice on her part.

With the room now empty and the devices turned off, he turned back to the hall. Just before he closed the door behind him, he flipped the interior lock on the handle. Let them waste their time trying to dig up the key next time they needed the room.

Now satisfied that there wouldn't be any nosy observers, he quickly returned to the original door.

The sight that greeted him on the other side was certainly an interesting one. Chizuru was so lost in her own thoughts that she'd completely missed the sound of the door opening, and to his amusement, she continued pacing, completely oblivious to his presence. Even better, she was also keeping up a running dialogue with herself.

"What was I thinking? Sen must be worried sick." Chizuru paused and bit her lip as she shook her head, "I can't believe I did that… but he surprised me. How was I supposed to know he was a police officer? Either way, I hope he's all right… "

He was tempted to just let her go on until she noticed him, but as amusing as it was, it would probably take longer than he was willing to wait. He let the door shut behind him and it's loud snap finally got her attention.

Chizuru's shoulders stiffened as her head whipped toward him, a slightly worried, yet still defiant expression on her face. The look was erased almost immediately by a wave of relief and recognition. She took a half-step toward him, her hands rising slightly from her side, before she abruptly stopped and a trace of confusion entered her eyes.

The faintly familiar gesture caught him off guard. Had she been about to… to hug him? The thought left him feeling slightly stunned. No one had done that in years. Of course he usually didn't like people invading his personal space, but more than that, his attitude and reputation tended to keep everyone at a distance. Yet, her first reaction upon seeing him was completely the opposite… and he didn't feel the normal rush of aversion to the idea either…

Still not entirely sure how he felt about it, but curious to see what she'd do, he opened his arms slightly.

Just as quickly as it had appeared, the confusion left her eyes and she crossed the short distance between them. Her arms wrapped around him as she hid her face in his chest. The feeling was foreign, but not entirely bad either… the warmth and pressure was even sort of comforting. Hesitantly, he brought his own arms around her, finding that her petite frame fit rather well against his. Almost without his volition, one of his hands rubbed a slow trail up and down her back.

Chizuru let out a small sigh as she leaned more of her weight against him. "Thank you."

He almost missed her quiet mumble, muffled as it was by his shirt, but when he realized what she'd said, he couldn't help a huff of amusement. "I haven't done anything yet."

Instead of speaking, she simply shook her head.

When her arms finally loosened their hold, he let his own fall away and she carefully stepped back.

"Sorry about that…" Chizuru's cheeks started to tinge pink and her gaze couldn't seem to stay on him, darting away every time it landed on him for more than a few seconds.

He didn't think he'd ever tire of just how easily flustered she was. Still, as much as he didn't want to admit it, her stepping away had left a cool emptiness that wasn't just physical. The feeling she'd put into her embrace had a surprisingly addictive quality to it. Unwilling to show just how much her actions had thrown him, he fell back on his usual teasing manner.

He shrugged as he folded his arms and let a trace of a smirk pull at his lips. "I hear you've been something of a naughty girl today."

The pink on her cheeks turned into a brilliant red that crept up to her ears as she pursed her lips. Her eyes said she was probably ready to debate his use of the word 'naughty', but he continued, "Well, I would tell you to look before you hit someone, but with the amount of trouble you seem to attract…" He shook his head, letting his smirk be replaced by a more genuine smile as he reached over and ruffled her hair, "Gotta admit I'm impressed. That must have been one hell of a punch."

Chizuru ducked away from his hand, and despite her blush, he could see the smile that lit up her face and reached all the way to her eyes. "Um… thank you… I think?" Her smile suddenly tilted into a slight frown as she held up her hand. "But you could have at least mentioned that it would hurt."

"It's not supposed to if you do it right. At least not much anyway," He made a show of taking her hand and looking it over carefully, watching as she became more and more flustered by his actions. Finally he couldn't resist quipping with a wicked grin, "Or were you just trying to get me to hold your hand again?"

It was almost comical how fast her eyes widened and she yanked her hand back. "N-No! Of course not."

"Oh? that's too bad." The ping of disappointment he threw in hit just the right note, and Chizuru immediately looked like she regretted her hasty denial. He could see her thoughts racing a mile a minute behind her eyes as she tried to find a way out of the corner he'd trapped her in.

She was just too easy to tease, but he didn't let her sit for long on the conundrum. He turned to leave as he said, "We should probably get you home," he quirked an eyebrow back at her, "Unless you'd rather be a jailbird that is."

Chizuru seemed slightly thrown by the abrupt change of topic, but despite her nonplussed state, she managed to shake her head and follow after him.

"Um… Okita?"

Souji paused with his hand on the door handle. When he glanced back, he was caught off guard by the troubled cast to her features. "I… I'm sorry for causing so many problems for everyone. I know I keep messing things up…"

He frowned slightly as he looked at her more carefully, "What do you mean by that? Sure, it probably would have been better if you hadn't punched the guy, but Shinpachi's the one who screwed up here."

"Even so…" She fidgeted slightly, her fingers twisting themselves together. "I know things turned out okay at the Orchid, but I still messed everything up by accepting that drink."

Had that really been bothering her this whole time? Admittedly she'd been somewhat quiet all week, but he'd been too wrapped up in wrangling his own feeling and emotions back into place to give it more than a passing notice.

Everything in Souji was telling him to just give her some banal reassurance, but he couldn't seem to summon his usual detached indifference. Apparently his original reassurance of 'all's well that ends well' wasn't going to cut it with her… Which left him with the one thing he'd deliberately avoided.

He turned away and let out a sigh as his fingers tightened on the door handle. "That wasn't your fault."

"What?"

Souji could hear the confusion in her voice, but he didn't turn to look. "It never should have gotten to that point. It wasn't your job to handle it."

"Oh…"

He could tell she understood what he was getting at. He was the one who had messed things up by failing her. He was the reason things had fallen apart that night. She shouldn't have had to bear any guilt for what had happened.

Souji waited for her accusations, or at the very least her disappointment in him, but she stayed silent. In a way her silence was almost worse. His hand was starting to ache where the angular edges of the handle dug in to his fingers, but he remained frozen in place. What was she thinking? A look would have answered his question in an instant, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

After several tense moments of silence, he heard Chizuru step closer to him and he only barely kept himself from jumping when he felt her hand tentatively touch his arm.

"But it was you who rescued me, right? Made sure I was safe? I don't think I ever properly thanked you for that… so, thank you."

That last broke through his rigid state and he finally looked down at her. The emotion in her eyes said it all. Her words weren't trite or just for show. She meant every last thing she'd said, and that included not blaming him for what had happened and for not telling her sooner. He didn't understand how someone could be like that.

Still unsure how to process what she'd just said, he forced himself to open the door. Thankfully the grin he gave her came far more naturally. "I told your friend I'd have you home by tonight, so what do you say we get out of here?"

A soft smile lit up her features as she nodded and followed after him.

It wasn't until they were partway down the hall that she suddenly stopped. "Wait… I can just… leave?"

"Well, now you can." He shrugged, "I may have had to crack a few eggs to do it, but overall I think it went pretty well."

Chizuru's eyes widened as she started walking again, "What!"

"Relax. It's not like I did anything drastic." That seemed to mollify her, but she still looked slightly worried about what he might or might not have done to secure her release.

When they reached the point where the hall opened into the main area, he instantly saw Edmund standing outside his office and glaring in their direction. The man didn't say anything, but the threat in his eyes was clear enough. If Souji ever showed his face there again, there was going to be trouble. Well he was fine with a little trouble. It's what kept life interesting.

Chizuru caught the look as well and she shifted closer to him, almost until she was touching his side. When he glanced down at her, he could see that she was worrying at her bottom lip. For good measure, he shot one more glare at the heavyset man before turning toward the elevator. As he did so, he put an arm around Chizuru's shoulders and instantly felt her relax.

Only once they were in the elevator did she glance up at him, a faintly mischievous light in her eyes. "Nothing drastic huh?"

He sighed and rolled his eyes, but all that earned him was a giggle. There was no denying she was certainly something else…

Kodo bowed his head as he let out an exhausted sigh, the phone clenched tight in his hands. Once again his call had gone to voicemail, but this time he didn't bother leaving a message. He needed to talk to her, not prattle into thin air.

Admittedly he hadn't handled his first conversation with her very well… or the messages he'd left since for that matter, but that place just wasn't safe. She didn't realize the danger she was in. It was bad enough her work seemed to be putting her directly into harm's way, but when she'd mentioned that she was finally making progress on her family's case as one of her reasons for needing to stay. Well… frankly he'd become completely unreasonable.

He'd purposely never encouraged her work, constantly pushing for her to choose another direction in life. Anything that would keep her from digging into her past. Call him a bad parent for it, but he'd had his reasons. If she dug too far, he could end up losing her forever.

Kodo reluctantly loosened his hold on the phone as he closed his eyes. Of course, hadn't he essentially lost her already?

To add salt to the wound, it hadn't even been Chizuru who had told him. He only had a casual acquaintance with Chief Inoue, so it had been a shock when he'd dropped a polite inquiry about how she was 'recovering'. She'd said nothing to him about it. Not one word. Chizuru had always been able to talk to him about her thoughts and feelings, but ever since she'd moved out… a distance had grown between them that was more than just a matter of physical location. Never before had she been so willfully disobedient of his wishes.

A knock at the door pulled him out of his thoughts. He hadn't been expecting anyone…

Slowly, he made his way to the front door and opened it. When he saw who was standing on his front porch, he froze.

"Good afternoon Uncle. May I come in?"

"K-Kaoru?" Kodo stared in disbelief at the perfectly composed young man before him. His face was so similar to Chizuru's that it couldn't possibly be anyone else.

Eventually he regathered his wits enough to realize the danger of the situation and reached out to pull him inside. "What are you doing here?"

Kaoru ignored him as he straightened his shirt and walked into the living room. Kodo hesitated a moment before closing the door - being sure to lock it - and followed after.

He watched as Kaoru sat easily in one of the armchairs, his eyes casually scanning the room. Not quite sure what else to do, he took a seat on the couch across from him. Whatever was going on wasn't good.

"What are you doing here Kaoru? You're putting us all in danger with this stunt."

"I'll answer your question when you answer mine." Kaoru's eyes sharpened, "Why didn't you hand my sister over to Kazama? You were supposed to when she reached 18. That was a long time ago Uncle."

His lips thinned as he stared at Kaoru. "How did you know about that?"

Kaoru shook his head with a small smile. "I said I'd answer your questions after you answer mine."

Kodo let out a sigh. "I had hoped they'd forgotten about her. When I heard through the Suzukas that Kazama had died… especially so soon after everything had happened… well, I had hoped that we'd been forgotten in the chaos, and when no one came to check on us…" He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, feeling the relative peace he'd managed to create around himself and Chizuru start to crack. "She's like a daughter to me. I couldn't just hand her over to be married off, but if you're here…"

Kaoru shook his head. "They don't know. At least Chikage doesn't. I'm not so sure about Amagiri and Shiranui, but I think they'll keep their mouths shut on the topic."

Kodo felt some of his hope return. If that was the case, then maybe things weren't as bad as he'd thought. "All right, I've answered your questions, now answer mine. Why are you here, and how did you know of my agreement with Kazama?"

"Oh, I've done my share of digging and I've had plenty of time in which to do it." Kodo thought he could detect a hint of bitterness in the young man's voice, but just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. "As to why I'm here… I'm here for Chizuru of course. To protect her."

"She's not here…" Saying the words out loud reinforced his feeling that she was slipping away from him.

"I know that, but I need your help if I'm going to keep her safe." Kaoru leaned forward, a faint light burning in his eyes. "Chikage is not his father. He thinks he is, but despite his ruthlessness and devotion to his father's plan for the Oni, he still lets his emotions get the better of him. The leadership is weak and ripe for change. With her pure blood and family history, Chizuru is the perfect person to bring about this change. They would follow her if given the chance. She could lead us all into a new era of peace and prosperity. No longer existing in the shadows of the criminal underworld. With Chikage gone we would all be free and she'd be safe from a marriage we both know would be more like to a prison."

Nothing like like Kaoru was describing had ever even occurred to him, and on the surface, it was ridiculous… but Kodo could see it. There wasn't a person who knew Chizuru that didn't come to love her. She would need some guidance of course, but he and Kaoru could provide that. The oni deserved more than the fear and oppression Chikage's father had created. Most of all, she would be safe. Without Chikage in the picture, everything he'd ever kept from her could be brought into the light. He could live without the shadow of his worry for her always hanging over his head.

A thought suddenly occurred to him, dimming the picture Kaoru had painted. "I hope you haven't approached Chizuru with any of this. She doesn't know you're alive." he let out a tired sigh, the weight of his years feeling heavier than they had any right to. "I am sorry for it, but I couldn't have stopped her from searching for you if she'd known."

"That's part of why I'm here. I don't know if she's mentioned the group of men she works with," Kaoru paused slightly as if looking for an answer and Kodo nodded carefully. Of course Chizuru had mentioned her coworkers and that they were wonderful people and he'd believed her... but what if she was wrong? She was young and naive after all…

"They've captured and twisted her mind." Kaoru continued, his expression becoming troubled, "She doesn't think for herself anymore. Anything they tell her to do, she does, even if it puts her in harm's way. Why do you think she was drugged and nearly kidnapped? They sent her into that club with no thought to her safety. They're the reason she's refusing to come home. They keep her around simply because her program and skills are useful to them. As soon as she's no longer useful, they'll drop her like so much trash."

In a horrifying way, everything Kaoru was saying made sense. Chizuru hadn't been herself since she'd left. He'd always felt that Sen was something of a bad influence, but Chizuru had few enough friends growing up that he couldn't deny her. When he'd given his reluctant permission for her to move, he'd assumed she'd be back within the month, that she'd be unable to handle life on her own. Instead, their phone conversations had grown shorter and less frequent, and when he did talk to her, it was like she was a different person. Were these men the cause of her change? It certainly seemed possible… likely even.

Kodo felt an anger start to build in him. Chizuru always assumed the best in people. For others to take advantage of that… to misuse her for their selfish gain.

An almost desperate edge entered Kaoru's voice as he said, "If I'm going to make sure my sister is safe, then I need the help of someone Chizuru trusts. I need to know… What would you do to keep Chizuru safe?"

"Anything." Kodo's response was instantaneous. He didn't have to think twice about it. He would do anything to give Chizuru the peaceful, happy life she deserved. If that happened to help the rest of the oni as well, then so much the better.

Kaoru nodded seriously as he stood. "I have to return before I'm missed. I'll contact you when I have the first step in place."

Chapter Text

Chapter 26 - Secrets and Lies

Monday, January 28th

As the elevator opened on her floor, Chizuru couldn't help wishing that, just maybe, she could someday have a weekend that didn't feel like one work week blending right into the next. Since their plans for Saturday had been ruined, Sen had demanded that they do an at home movie day to make up for it. She had meant to go grocery shopping and stock up for the week, but Sen would have none of it. Ostensibly it was so nothing could interrupt them, and while she knew Sen was just worried about her, it still felt like being placed under house arrest. Sen's movie choices hadn't helped either. Of course almost every single one of them had some kind of romantic plot.

More often that she would have liked, Chizuru had found herself accidentally sucked into a daydream remembrance of what Okita's arms had felt like around her instead of the movie in front of her. He'd been so incredibly warm and she'd once again noticed the slightly spicy scent of cinnamon and cloves. She was sure Sen would have laughed at her for that description, but she couldn't help it. Thanks to all her cooking, those were the easiest for her to identify...

Chizuru shook her head to clear the thought before her burning cheeks became any warmer. She was still embarrassed to have thrown herself at him like that, but he hadn't seemed to mind… In fact, she might have even felt him relax when his hand had begun it's wonderfully comforting trail up and down her back.

No, focus! You can't run around all day like a lovestruck fool.

Shaking her head again, she quickened her pace toward the kitchenette. Ever since she had made dinner that one night, she knew from his subtle hints that Heisuke had been eager for her to cook again. She didn't think she would tackle anything quite as large as dinner for a while, but a quick lunch couldn't hurt. While she had been under house arrest and to distract herself from thoughts of Okita, she had planned out what she would need, doing the actual shopping on her way in that morning.

In a way, it could also be a thank you to Okita for getting her out.

When she had heard the sound of the door behind her, she had been fully prepared to face even more questions. What she hadn't been prepared for was the overwhelming feeling of relief at seeing Okita standing there with his casual smirk and amusement sparkling in his eyes. That amusement, more than anything else, had told her everything would be all right. She also had a sneaking suspicion that Sen had called him on purpose…

Chizuru frowned slightly and her hands slowed in putting the few groceries away as another, more troubling thought occurred to her. It had only been a day, but Kodo had yet to try and call her again. She regretted not taking his call when she had the chance, but she was also still too nervous to step back into their ongoing debate. She definitely would call him… just not yet.

When Chizuru left the kitchenette and walked into the team room, her eyes instantly went to the empty desk next to her own. It seemed Okita wasn't in yet, but that wasn't unusual. He did tend to push the limit of what could be considered "on time."

Heisuke was the first to greet her, his expression alight with curiosity as he asked, "Morning! What was that you were carrying?"

"Lunch," she somewhat worriedly watched their reactions as continued, "if you all want it that is. It's chilly outside, so I figured tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches might be good."

As Heisuke leaned forward excitedly, Chizuru couldn't help but return his bright smile. "What do you mean 'if we want it'?! I can't wait!"

Harada gave her his own slightly wry grin as he said, "I don't think there's much that can compare to your cooking, but I heard you had something of an interesting weekend."

"Um, I guess you could say that…?" She said as she bit her lip slightly.

Heisuke looked in confusion between them as she sat down at her desk. "Wait, what happened?"

She opened her mouth to try and explain, but the words seem to stick in her throat. Her actions had been so unlike her that she didn't know where to start.

As if sensing her dilemma, Saito cleared his threat before saying, "Yukimura was mistaken for her brother by an officer. There was an… altercation… when they attempted to bring her in for questioning. Thankfully they have decided to drop the charges."

"I didn't mean to hit him," She mumbled as she ducked her head in embarrassment, though she was relieved to hear they weren't going to be pressing charges against her. "He startled me."

Nagakura let out a bark of laughter. "Remind me not to startle you then," after a moment, he shook his head, his expression becoming slightly more serious, "So… what? Did Hijikata have to go in and bash a few heads together?"

Her eyes instinctively flickered to the desk next to her as she said, "Um… no. Okita was the one who came to get me."

She thought she caught the faintest hint of a grin from Harada as Heisuke frowned and grumbled under his breath, "Why didn't you call me? I could've gone to get you too."

"Hey Heisuke, what matters is that everything turned out all right in the end…" Harada's expression became slightly more pensive. "Though I am still curious how he did it."

"Nah, I get it now," Nagakura said as he waved a hand dismissively, "They're not pressing charges 'cause they're all dead. Right Saito?"

"No. Captain Edmund and his men are very much alive."

Nagakura's hand froze rather comically mid-wave as his eyes widened. "Please tell me you did not just say 'Edmund'..."

As Saito gave an affirmative nod, Heisuke, apparently over his early grumbling, leaned over to look at Nagakura. "You know him?"

"Not personally… but the word is he's got serious political ambitions. Wants to get into Internal Affairs and make his move from there," he shook his head, "Damn, I hope Souji didn't just land us on his bad side… we'd be easy pickings with our track record."

"Hm~, well I wouldn't hope too hard then."

Chizuru felt her heart skip a beat as her head whipped toward the hallway. Sure enough, Okita stood leaning against the edge of the opening with a rather devious looking grin. "He didn't exactly look pleased when we left."

Nagakura let out a groan, "Just tell me you didn't hit anyone this time."

"Of course not," Okita said as he pushed off the wall, "I called Kondou and asked him how he was doing."

There was a moment of dumbstruck silence as they all processed what Okita had just said. He'd done… what?

Heisuke and Harada were the first to recover, both of whom looked at each other before bursting out laughing. For once Saito wasn't the only disapproving face in the bunch, because Nagakura was staring at his friend's like he didn't even know them. "Guys, come on. This isn't a laughing matter!"

Nagakura started in on what sounded like some kind of complex explanation of who knew who and why it was important, but frankly she wasn't listening. Of all the things Okita could have done to get her out, using Kondou to pull rank wasn't as bad as she'd feared.

That wasn't what was worrying her… What was worrying her was the very faint pinkish red color she could see across Okita's nose and cheekbones.

She was pretty sure Okita wasn't blushing… She wasn't even sure he could blush. Maybe he had been drinking? But that didn't seem like him either… and first thing in the morning? No.

A sunburn was the next thing that came to mind, but that also seemed ridiculous considering it was the middle of winter.

As he moved to sit at his desk, she could now see that it was more than just a light flush. Where it was pink, his skin looked dry and irritated, as if he'd been rubbing at it. No one else seemed to have noticed, or if they had, hadn't found it worth commenting on, but it still worried her. It wasn't any kind of symptom she'd ever heard of and Sanan had never mentioned it in all the hours of training he'd given her… Plus he had seemed perfectly fine when she'd last seen him.

Her first instinct was to ask him if he was all right, but the memory of how he'd reacted when she had mentioned her worry over his arm several weeks ago stilled the words on the tip of her tongue. He hadn't been happy with her concern then and she doubted he would be happy about it now. Reluctantly she decided to wait and just keep an eye on him. If it looked like anything else was out of sorts, then she would ask.

Decision made, Chizuru quickly turned her attention to her screen and logging in. The last thing she needed was for Okita to catch her staring at him.

She jumped when she felt a tug on her ponytail. Realizing she had probably been caught, she determinedly kept her gaze focused ahead.

"What? No 'Good morning Okita' or 'Thank you Okita'?" The teasing tone in his voice grew more pronounced as she felt him lean closer. "I think I've at least earned that."

She glanced at him, confirming her suspicion that he was indeed enjoying this. Her cheeks warmed as she muttered, "Good morning. Thank you."

From the corner of her eye, she could see his grin widen at his success in getting a reaction out of her. "See? Was that so hard?"

From the other side of Okita, Saito cleared his throat. "Heisuke, Yukimura. If possible, I would like to move our normal practice session forward, preferably to now. Yamazaki has requested that I meet with him during our regular time."

"Oh aren't you special," Okita rolled his eyes as he continued with a sarcastic edge, "How come he never asks to meet with me?"

"That would be unnecessarily inefficient."

His riposte delivered, Saito ignored Okita's frown and waited patiently for an answer.

"That sounds fine to me…" She glanced at Heisuke, who shrugged and nodded.

Saito nodded as he stood. "Thank you."

She followed his example, grabbing her small bag gym bag as she stood and started heading in the direction of the elevator. Heisuke was close behind, but she thought she saw a slight hesitation in Saito's step when Okita stood as well. The two shared a split second look before Saito continued on as if nothing had happened.

Chizuru thought that moment over as the group made their way down to the gym and she broke off from them to change. Clearly Saito had noticed something as well, but the fact that he hadn't said anything reinforced her initial decision that waiting and watching was the correct action. After all, he had known Okita for far longer than she had. To all outward appearances, he seemed fine… with the exception of the mystery pink of course. Her biggest worry was that he was simply hiding other symptoms behind his excellent acting skills. She was still lost in thought on the matter as she changed and exited the locker room.

The sound of Saito clearing his throat pulled her out of her thoughts and when he had her attention, he said, "Yukimura, I would like to work on your technique today. I have noticed that since you have been working with Souji it has started to slip."

She felt her cheeks flush, but the fact that most of Saito's censure seemed directed at Okita eased her embarrassment somewhat.

Okita shrugged, seemingly unperturbed. "It's not like she's doing this for fun. So long as she hits the person, what does it matter if her form is a little off?"

"Souji, one cannot skip the fundamentals if one wishes to succeed."

"Fine, fine." Souji's grin widened as he turned to Heisuke. "Ready to get flattened?"

An excited spark lit in Heisuke's eyes as he strutted toward the middle of the room and called back, "As if! I'm not going to lose today!"

Over the course of a half hour, Saito had her slowly walk through each form she had been taught for both hand-to-hand and her baton. As they went, he would offer corrections and have her repeat the form until he was satisfied. With all the corrections he was giving her, apparently her form had slipped quite a bit. Of course there was another possible reason as well.

"Yukimura, focus."

Chizuru blinked, not having realized that, yet again, she had become distracted by the pair sparing in the center of the room.

"Sorry…" she said as she quickly righted her stance.

When they had first started, she had discreetly shifted her position so that she could keep one eye on Okita. If Saito had noticed, he hadn't commented on it, but it did mean that he kept having to remind her to focus on the task at hand. She felt bad for not giving him her full attention, but she couldn't help it. Okita was really starting to worry her.

She had seen what he was capable of when he had sparred against Saito… and what she was currently watching wasn't it. The two men had been at it for a while now and both were covered in sweat, but that was where the similarities ended. Where Heisuke's face was flush, Okita's face was as pale as she had ever seen it, with the exception of the now more pronounced dark pink color across his nose and cheeks. His jaw was tense and there also seemed to be a slightly desperate edge to his movements, as if each took a force of will to complete.

Of course she knew her worrying nature could simply be blowing things out of proportion, but there was no mistaking that his breathing sounded off. Both of the men's breathing was labored, but Okita's sounded sharp, almost like he was deliberately waiting as long as possible before being forced to take the next.

Heisuke confirmed her suspicion when he frowned and lowered his baton slightly as he asked, "Are you feeling all r- OW! "

His question was abruptly cut off as Okita took advantage of the gap and smacked Heisuke over the side of the head.

"I'm fine."

"Geez, all right, all right…!" Heisuke said, rubbing the side of his head as he jumped out of the way of another jab.

"Yukimura, we are done for the day. You may go and change."

It took her a second to realize that Saito had spoken. When she looked over at him, she found him also watching the pair with his lips pressed into a thin line.

"Right… Thank you."

Saito gave a small nod to show he heard as he started toward Okita and Heisuke.

She knew a dismissal when she heard one and after shooting one more glance at a frowning Okita, she reluctantly headed for the changing room.

Chizuru took her time changing. Part of her dallying was due to not wanting to walk back out into a situation Saito had clearly wanted her removed from, but part of it was her own anxious thoughts.

Was Okita all right? What was Saito saying to him? Would he even listen?

Chizuru shook her head to clear the questions as she finally pulled on the shirt she had been staring at for the past couple minutes.

With nothing left to do, she hesitantly approached the door. She couldn't hear any voices coming from the other side, so after taking a deep breath, she carefully pushed it open.

Her shoulders sagged in relief when a quick sweep of her gaze revealed the room to be empty. Surely everyone had left by now. Though she was a bit surprised that someone hadn't waited for her…

Letting the door close softly behind her, Chizuru turned to leave, her mind already turning over the work she needed to get done.

She had only just started to move, when both her thoughts and her feet were brought to a sharp halt by the muffled sound of coughing coming from behind her.

Spinning around, Chizuru's eyes locked onto the door to the men's locker room as she strained to listen. The coughing had quieted almost as soon as it started. Maybe she was simply overreacting, but it hadn't sounded like your typical run-of-the-mill cough.

She didn't have to wait long for the coughing to start again, this time sounding even deeper and harsher. Chizuru hesitated briefly as the thought occurred to her that it was not appropriate for her to be going into the men's locker room, but she quickly shoved it to the side as she stepped toward the door and pushed it open. There was only one person who could be the source of those coughs and her worry for him easily outstriped any potential embarassment.

The sight that met her on the other side of the door made her chest tighten as she quickly dropped her bag and hurried toward where Okita knelt on the floor. Another bout of deep, wrenching coughs shook his frame as he leaned against the lockers, his eyes squeezed shut as he tried to smother them with his hand.

"Okita!"

His eyes flew open at the sound of her voice and he tried to shrug off the hand she placed on his back as she knelt next to him. Unable to dislodge her, he attempted to glare, but another cough forced his eyes closed as he strained to control his breathing.

Okita's voice was raspy when he finally managed to say, "Go away. I'm fine. It's just a little cough."

"This is not a little cough!" Her voice sounded panicky even to her own ears.

Ignoring the warning in his eyes, she pressed her hand to his sweat dampened forehead and confirmed that he did indeed have a fever. The smallest flash of red caught her attention as lowered his hand from his mouth and a wave of fear swept through her as she reached for his wrist.

"Okita, is that-!"

Chizuru didn't get to finish her frantic question, nor did she manage to grab his wrist and confirm her suspicion. Instead, she felt his other hand force hers to the side, knocking her off balance and onto her rear end. As she watched Okita with wide-eyed surprise, she saw the same surprise at his actions flicker across his own face before it was replaced with a distrustful glare.

"I said go away. It's none of your business." He seemed to be trying to put as much venom into his words as his hoarse voice could manage, but it failed to inspire in her any of the fear he had obviously intended. He was simply throwing up another of the walls he was so good at building and this time she wasn't going to stand for it.

Chizuru narrowed her eyes determinedly as she said, "No. I don't care if you think it's none of my business. I'm not about to leave you like this."

She met his gaze squarely, refusing to give in. Everything from his pale face, to the fact that he hadn't just gotten up and left her sitting there, told her that he was far more than simply unwell. For his own good, she wasn't going to move until she got some answers.

After what felt like an eternity, Okita's shoulder's finally sagged as he looked away and muttered, "Fine… there's some ibuprofen and a prescription in my bag. Side pocket."

"Thank you."

He didn't acknowledge her words as she stood and moved toward his bag sitting on the bench in the center of the room. Chizuru glanced back briefly at a shuffling sound to see him shift so that he was sitting with one knee propped up and his back and head resting against the lockers. He coughed once or twice, but the worst of whatever this was seemed to be past for the moment.

She found the bottles easily enough, but as her hand closed around his mostly empty water bottle—he couldn't very well take them dry—her eyes caught the words on the orange prescription bottle.

Lupus…?

Chizuru froze, her gaze locked dumbly on that one short word. A swirl of emotions she didn't understand rose up inside her.

He had… Lupus?

"Hey. Unless you're intentionally trying to kill me, I'd like those meds."

Okita's voice jerked her back into motion as she mechanically picked up the water bottle and returned to his side, her thoughts caught in a whirlwind.

Chizuru handed him the items he'd asked for, before carefully sitting down next to him. Okita deliberately kept his gaze focused in front of him as he took two of the ibuprofen and one of the prescription and downed them with the rest of his water.

There was a moment of heavy silence before she hesitantly asked, "How long…?"

Okita sighed and tipped his head back, resting it against the lockers behind him as he looked at the ceiling. "For sure? About a month."

"Do… Do the others know?"

"Other than Sanan, no," his eyes snapped back to hers as he said with and edge to his voice, "and it's going to stay that way."

Chizuru contemplated that for a moment, before slowly getting up. Okita didn't say anything, but she could feel his gaze boring into her back as she walked to the sink and dampened a paper towel. Returning to her original spot, she carefully reached for his wrist again, ignoring his intense scrutiny. This time he didn't fight her as she gently pulled his hand toward her and turned his palm up.

She let out a small breath of relief. The red she had seen was hardly anything at all. It was still worrisome, but not to the point that she felt she should be dragging him to the ER. Though if his explanation wasn't to her liking, there wasn't going to be anything that could stop her from doing exactly that.

His fingers twitched slightly when she first touched the cold paper towel to his palm, but other than that he remained motionless as he silently watched her remove the few tiny specks of blood.

Chizuru let the silence linger for a few more moments before she said quietly, "I won't say anything if that's what you want… but you shouldn't be pushing yourself so hard," she looked up and met his now wary and slightly puzzled gaze, "and I hope you'll let me do what I can to help…"

Okita slowly removed his hand from her grip and she let her own settle into her lap as she bit her lip. She wasn't sure how he'd take her answer and rather forward admission. His eyes flickered briefly to his palm, before returning to her as he asked, "Why would you do that?" When she tipped her head to the side in confused, he clarified, "Keep quiet, I mean."

Chizuru didn't say anything right away, instead choosing gather her thoughts. Honestly she was still trying to wrap her head around the whole thing and she wanted to get it right the first time. She didn't think she would be likely to get a second chance. Thankfully Okita seemed content to wait for an answer.

Finally she took a careful breath before saying, "Because you asked me to."

From the slight furrow in his forehead and the way his eyes searched her face and hands for any sign that she was lying, she could tell he was skeptical of her answer, but it really was that simple. Her voice came out much smaller as she added quietly, "You asked me a while ago to trust you… and I know that this wasn't what you had in mind, but I do trust you. If that's what you want, then I'll do it."

His eyes snapped back to hers, as if daring her to lie. Chizuru did her best to hold his gaze without wavering, even though she could feel a blush building in her cheeks. She didn't know how else to prove to him she was serious.

Apparently she succeeded, because a good deal of the intensity radiating from him seemed to fade as his lips pulled into a smirk. "You know, most people run the other direction when they find out someone has a disease. Aren't you afraid you'll catch it?"

He said it lightly, almost teasingly, but Chizuru thought she could feel the weight underlying his question. He wanted to know why she was still there. She would have liked to think she would have done the same for anyone, but there was more to it than that. He was special to her in a way she didn't quite have a handle on yet. She knew what her feelings were well enough, but what did that make him to her? And what if Sen was right about how he felt about her? He had certainly opened up to her more, but his teasing always left her feeling unsure of just where they stood.

Chizuru suddenly realized she had been quiet for just a bit too long. "Um, no?"

Okita snorted in amusement at her questioning tone before he raised an eyebrow and said, "No?"

"Well, um..." Chizuru scrambled to gather her thoughts as heat flooded her cheeks. "I mean, it's an autoimmune disease, right? So it shouldn't be contagious, but other than that I don't know much about it…"

"Right, I forgot you're a doctor's kid." She couldn't help but frown at the term 'kid', but that only seemed to increase Okita's amusement. "The way Sanan explained it, my immune system has decided to be royally pissed off all the time and apparently beating up my lungs is the ideal way to deal with it."

Chizuru had to bite back a smile at his explanation. Not that there was really anything funny about this, but somehow she couldn't quite picture the highly intellectual Sanan using that particular phrasing.

Okita must have caught something of her grin, because his smirk slipped into a far more honest, if slightly uncomfortable, smile of his own as he shrugged and said, "Don't worry about the blood. Sannan said a little wouldn't be uncommon during a flare. As long as I keep my immune system under control, it should be fine."

Even if she didn't like it, Chizuru felt some relief at knowing more of what was going on. As Sanan himself had told her, more information was never a bad thing. Of course, Okita could be lying, but his explanation also made a certain amount of sense. She had spent more time than most around the medical field. The irritation from any inflammation would explain the coughing and if the walls of the blood vessels were weakened, then it only seemed reasonable that some might break under the strain of coughing. Like he said, the danger would be if his immune system got too far out of hand…

"Is there…?" She let the question hang unfinished, but he seemed to understand what she was asking.

Okita glanced at his empty water bottle as he tried to cover a cough by clearing his throat. Thankfully it didn't seem to set off another bout of the horrible coughing from before. He cleared his throat again before his smile gained a bitter edge. "No. Lucky me, I ended up with one of the few things modern medicine can't cure."

Chizuru had expected as much. From what she knew, most autoimmune diseases were incurable, but still… she had hoped. To cover her disappointment, she reached over and picked up his water bottle.

"I'll get you some more water," she eyed him seriously as she stood, "You stay here."

Okita snorted as he rested his head back against the lockers and looked up at her. Even if his complexion still wasn't great, the mischievous gleam was back in his eyes as he said, "Hm… maybe~"

Chizuru rolled her eyes, but figured he would probably do as she had asked. She first went to where she had haphazardly dropped her bag and moved it onto the bench next to Okita's. As she left, she couldn't help one last glance back, just to be sure he hadn't moved. Okita had closed his eyes and his expression seemed almost peaceful as he took slow measured breaths. The sight was so distracting that she let out a squeak as she accidently smacked into the door.

Okita's chuckle chased after her as she hurriedly pushed her way out of the locker room with her hands pressed to her burning cheeks. There was a water fountain tucked away in the corner, but an idea occurred to her and she turned instead in the direction of the elevator.

It was clear to her that Okita need to be home resting, but as stubborn as he was, she knew that he'd be unlikely to go willingly. Hijikata or Kondou could probably force him, but she had as much as promised not to say anything. That meant it was up to her to figure out some way of getting him home without raising suspicion. A tall order by any standard, but she thought she might have a way to do it.

She spent the entirety of the elevator ride back to their floor fanning her face as she rehearsed what she was going to say. The slightly crazy plan she had in mind wouldn't work if she looked like a tomato.

No one paid her any mind as she walked into the room, but as soon as she started packing her bag, Heisuke asked, "Are you leaving?"

"Um, yes." she glanced up at him as she continued to put away the few things she had taken out that morning. This would be the first real test… "I just thought of a lead I wanted to check out and Okita said he would take me. I-It's a ways away, so he wanted me to get both of our things just in case it's takes us longer than we think."

Chizuru wanted to hit herself over the head for dropping so much information all at once. Over explaining was a dead giveaway that you were trying to hide something. Thankfully Heisuke didn't seem to pick up on it.

"So, I'm guessing no lunch then?" A touch of disappointment entered his voice, but he seemed to be doing his best to cover it.

She let out a breath as she closed her eyes. How could she have forgotten about that? She had been so worried about Okita that she had completely forgotten that she had told everyone that she was making lunch.

"I'm sorry Heisuke. I completely forgot…"

"That's okay. Can I come?" he asked, his excitement returning, "I'm dying to get out of here and do something interesting."

She tried to keep her expression neutral, but she could still feel her eyes widen slightly in panic. "I-It's not really anything concrete… It'll probably turn out to be nothing."

Heisuke shrugged, still grinning. "So? I bet it's still more fun than sitting here and going through this data."

Shoot. Now what was she supposed to do? Before she could find another argument to try and dissuade him, Saito cleared his throat quietly before saying, "If Yukimura is not here, then it is even more important that you remain."

"Yeah, Heisuke!" Nagakura said as he leaned around Harada to poke Heisuke in the side of the head, "If you want to get out, find your own lead."

"Ow! You bastard, can't you see that's a bruise?!"

"What? That little thing? Man up."

Harada ignored the squabbling pair hemming him in as he smiled and said, "Good luck. I hope you find something."

"Um… thanks." She felt guilty for misleading everyone, even if she was grateful that thus far, it was working.

Chizuru turned toward Okita's desk, trying to remember just what it was he had brought in that morning, but Saito had already beaten her to it. He held out Okita's holstered sidearm, as well as his badge, keys, and a few other odds and ends. As she took them and carefully put them in her purse, she nodded her thanks. Something in his eyes as he returned her nod made her feel like he knew exactly what she was trying to do for Okita and was grateful for it.

She could feel the blush starting to rise in her cheeks again, so she hurriedly turned and left the room. She was so distracted that she almost forgot to get the water she had told Okita she was getting. Instead of simply filling the bottle, she doubled back to the kitchenette to grab two bottles from the fridge.

The trip back the gym didn't take her long at all and no sooner had she opened the door, than Okita's voice greeted her.

"Where'd you go to get the water? A spring in the mountains?"

His teasing tone was laced with curiosity and maybe just the slightest bit of suspicion as his eyes drifted to the bag on her shoulder. For her part, she was just happy to see that he had actually done as she asked and hadn't moved.

She held up the pair of chilled water bottle in her hand as she set her stuff down and moved to sit next to him.

"I thought you might prefer cold water over tap."

As she handed him the first of the water bottles and got a closer look at him, Chizuru felt a surge of relief. He still didn't look well, but he didn't seem to be having any problems breathing and some healthy color was starting to return to his face. She hoped that meant his fever was coming down.

Okita hummed an agreement as he easily broke the seal. As she watched, he downed nearly half the bottle before closing his eyes and letting out a slow breath.

Maybe it was because his attention wasn't focused on her, but before she quite realized what she was doing, Chizuru found herself reaching up to press a hand to his forehead. Despite feeling slightly warm, she felt reassured that his fever had indeed gone down.

Before she could pull her hand away, he cracked one eye open to look over at her as he said, "Really, Chizuru?"

He didn't truly seem irritated by her actions, so she tossed back, "Yes, really. I just wanted to make sure your fever had gone down."

Okita rolled his eyes and shook his head, dislodging her hand. "And has it?"

"Um… I think so."

"Good," He finished off the water bottle and stood, offering her a hand, "We should probably head back before Mother-Hen-Hijikata decides to organize a search party."

She reached up to take it, feeling his warm, calloused palm under her fingers as she said, "R-Right."

Technically she was fairly sure no one was going to be looking for them, but she also wasn't quite sure how to broach that particular topic yet.

Her thoughts were derailed when, as she stood, Okita tugged just a bit too hard on her hand, pulling her off balance. Before she could even fully stumble into him, he stepped closer, his other hand catching hold of her arm to stabilize her. In that impossibly brief moment, she felt his breath on her ear as he whispered, "Thank you."

Chizuru froze, not even registering as Okita stepped away to pick up his bag as she tried to figure out what had just happened. She knew what she had heard, but at the same time she almost didn't believe it. It wasn't necessarily that he had thanked her, it was how he had said it. If anything she had expected some off handed remark or teasing comment, but those two small words had seemed to carry far more sincerity than he normally allowed himself to show.

"Are you coming?" Okita's voice jolted her out of her stupor and she suddenly realized that he was smirking at her from beside the door with his bag already over his shoulder. "Or would you rather someone find us alone in the men's locker room?"

That got her moving and she all but scrambled for her bags as Okita held the door open for her. She felt her cheeks warm and she couldn't quite meet his eyes as she slipped past him. It would be a disaster if anyone did find them, because she had no doubt Okita wouldn't be able to resist spinning some wild—and most likely embarrassing—tale.

She shot a quick glance at Okita as they walked down the hall toward the elevator. Even then… Even if he did end up doing that, she didn't think she would set the record straight. The secret he'd given her already weighed on her mind in a way that made it impossible for her to consider revealing it. More than just her own principles, the thought of breaking his trust, as semi-unintended as it had been, wasn't something she wanted to consider.

Only once they were in the elevator did Chizuru realize that she couldn't put off telling Okita about her plan for him to go home and rest. She still had no idea of how he would take it…

As Okita hit the button for the third floor, she reached over and pressed the button for the first, earning her a curious look.

She bit her lip before saying, "I'm taking you home."

"Oh you are, are you?" His lips twitched up just the slightest bit. "Don't you think you're moving a little fast?"

"What?!" Chizuru felt heat rush to her cheeks and her voice jumped an octave. She had been expecting a fight, not an innuendo. "N-No! I'm taking you to your place. Not mine."

The slight twitch turned into a full blown devious grin as he leaned toward her and said, "Even better."

Gods this man was going to be the death of her.

Thankfully the elevator door chose that moment to open and she took the opportunity to grab his arm and all but drag him out onto the first floor. More accurately, he was letting her drag him, but at this point he wasn't resisting and she was going to take what she could get.

Only once they were outside did Okita stop letting her tow him along.

"So do I get to hear the whole story or not? And what about the rest of my stuff?"

"Um, I have it…" she bit absently at her lip again as she turned to face him.

Only then did she realize that he didn't have a coat. Hers was over her arm and while it wasn't technically freezing, the wind made it feel like it was. She wanted to chide him for not taking better care of himself in the middle of winter, but right then didn't really seem like an ideal time. She would just have to make her explanation fast and get him somewhere warm as soon as he would let her.

She couldn't quite hold his gaze as she said, "I know you're going to disagree… but you do need to rest, and so I… I told everyone that I'd thought of a lead I wanted to check out and that you said you would take me… and that we probably wouldn't be back for the rest of the day."

He seemed slightly taken aback by her confession, though she wasn't sure if it was because she had practically backed him into a corner, or because she had lied to everyone to do it. The mystery was quickly solved when, after a moment of struggling to repress it, he bent nearly double laughing.

"Hey!" she said, feeling justifiably indignant as she swatted at his arm.

Instead of her blow connecting, she found her wrist trapped in his slightly too warm hand as he grinned up at her. "Sorry, just trying to picture you pulling that off." He chuckled again, though the tail end morphed into something akin to a cough. She felt her worry spike, but he waved her off as he said, "Hard to imagine little-miss-honest telling such a tall tale."

She let out a huff of annoyance, but that only served to broaden his grin.

"Well someone didn't leave me much of a choice."

"Hmm, good point."

Without letting go of her wrist, he turned and started, presumably, in the direction of his car, until she dug in her heels and he glanced back at her curiously.

She shook her head. "Uh-uh, I'm driving."

Despite how much of his usual personality had come back, Chizuru could see the weariness pulling at him. He had clearly overdone it with sparring against Heisuke and his hand where it held her wrist was still far too warm for her liking given he was standing out in the cold without a coat. There was also the matter of his agreeableness. With the way he acting, it was hard to imagine that just an hour or so ago, she had been afraid he would be mad at her for trying to fuss over him.

Again, she expected some form of resistance, but once again she was surprised when he merely shrugged. It made her wonder if the prescription he'd taken had any side effects. Still, she wasn't going to waste the opportunity.

She offered him the second water bottle, which he took, before heading in the direction of her car.


End Note:

Okay, I'm sure some of you are curious as to why Souji doesn't have tuberculosis… Ignoring the fact that historically Okita did die from TB, I don't think the illness itself was necessarily the crux of problem for Souji in Hakuoki. As I see it, the problem for Souji's character was that it was incurable . If he had been told that a month, or even a couple months, of rest would cure him, he would have done it. He wouldn't have been happy about it and he probably would've sucked at following the doctor's orders, but if it meant he could keep fighting for Kondou long term, he would have done it. The problem is, TB was a death sentence. There was no hope of recovery, just possibly extending his life if he left the Shinsengumi. For Souji, a little extra time wasn't worth abandoning his life's purpose.

So, why avoid TB? The first reason for the change is that TB is curable with today's medicine. Yes, there are antibiotic resistant strains, but by in large, it's a well understood infection. The second reason is that it's highly contagious, if only through direct fluid contact. If Sanan had found out Souji had TB, he would have had him in a hospital in two second flat, no matter what kind of fuss Souji put up. That leads into the third reason I chose to avoid TB, which is that Souji would have been stuck in the hospital for weeks of treatment. That's time this story doesn't have, since I'm using other means of development.

Why Lupus? As an autoimmune disease, lupus has no cure, thus it still leaves Souji with the problem that it's not something he can beat, just manage. It's also impossible for him to give it to anyone else, thus no need for anyone to cart him off to the hospital. (Kind of a downer when you realize that in addition to Souji having the shortest of the guys life expectancies, he also would probably end up giving Chizuru TB…) Interestingly, it can manifest similar symptoms to TB. Besides the more universal symptoms of fever, aches and pains, and fatigue during a flare, if the immune system focuses its attack on the lungs, coughing and bleeding can occur. Of course it has its own unique symptoms as well, such as the butterfly rash Chizuru first noticed. The rash can vary in severity from person to person, (including none at all) but I'm choosing to keep it light/non-existent for the sake of being easier to hide/dismiss. Finally, it's unlikely to be fatal. 90% of people who suffer from lupus will have a completely normal lifespan, so if I'm going to have control over what he has, then he's going to live a nice, long, happy life dang it!

*ahem* Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Feel free to let me know what you think of this, as I'd be happy to hear everyone's thoughts on this particular alternative.

Chapter Text

Chapter 27 - A Change in the Wind

Monday, January 28th

The drive to Okita's apartment was fairly short, though it could have been shorter if he hadn't directed her through several pointless loops and backtracks. Again she worried briefly if the medication was manifesting a side effect, but his mischievous grin as he sipped at his water made it clear he was doing it on purpose.

He didn't question her as she followed him inside the building and up the stairs. Technically she could have just left it at dropping him off, but she wanted to see for herself that he was settled and resting. In fact, she had noticed a market just up the block and it was getting close to lunch…

When they reached what she presumed was his door, he turned to look at her, one eyebrow raised inquiringly. Chizuru shifted uncertainly, her gaze bouncing between him and the door.

Finally he said, "When you said you had my stuff, I assumed that meant you had my keys."

"Oh, right!" Hurriedly, she dug around in her purse. Her fingers froze when they brushed up against the rough canvas of the holstered gun. She had completely forgotten she had it. Carefully she pulled it out and handed it to him, before digging out his keys and other items.

His forehead furrowed slightly as he indicated the weapon. "How did you get this? That drawer was locked."

"Saito gave it to me…" She bit her lip, worried she had done something wrong by taking it. "Should he not have?"

Okita shrugged as he unlocked the door. "No, it's fine. I should've known he'd get involved."

He looked at her for a moment before he gestured her inside. Once she had stepped past him, she couldn't keep the words in any longer and they came out in a rush.

"I swear I didn't tell him or the others anything!"

Okita rolled his eyes as he moved past her into the room. "I know that. Hajime may not say a whole lot, but he's not blind."

"Then…?"

"I'm sure he has his suspicions, accurate suspicions if I know him, but he doesn't know anything. There's a difference."

"Oh…" She wasn't quite sure she saw the difference, but apparently there was one.

Okita deposited his stuff off to the side before leaning against the back of his couch with arms folded as he watched her. They both lapsed into silence. She wasn't sure what he was looking for and it was making her fidget. Instead of meeting his piercing eyes, she took the opportunity to take a quick look around the room. A lot like the apartment she shared with Sen, Okita's had the same open concept of the kitchen flowing into the main living space, though it was smaller and lacked an island and bar. Across the room, she spotted a narrow hall, which she presumed led to the bathroom and his bedroom. Everything seemed neat and tidy, but it lacked a certain sense of… personality?

The mild tension was broken by a meow as a black cat padded out from the direction of the bedroom and up to Okita. Even from where she was, Chizuru could hear the feline purring as it rubbed up against his leg.

"I didn't know you had a cat." The obvious statement slipped out before she could stop it, but even so, it was still better than the earlier silence.

Okita nodded as he bent over and scratched the cat's head. "His name's Toshizo."

"Oh, that's an unusual-" her voice cut off as a horrible realization dawned on her. He hadn't… "Is… Isn't that Hijikata's…?"

"Yup," he said, grinning impishly, "Though sadly I can't take credit for it. Tamako named him that because of his black fur." His head tilted thoughtfully, "Well, technically she named him Toshi, but the Phony-Oni threw a tantrum until we changed it."

At the sound of her voice, the cat… no, Toshizo… Just the thought of the cat's name made her feel like Hijikata would somehow know and she'd suffer his ire for it. Toshizo stepped away from Okita before sitting down halfway between them, his gaze fixed on her with an almost uncanny level of intelligence as his tail swished across the floor.

Not quite sure what else to do, Chizuru knelt down and held out her hand. Toshizo made no move to approach her, but she hastily pulled her hand back when Okita said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you. Not unless you want to lose a finger." She looked up at him, alarmed, but he just shrugged. "He's just picky about who he likes. He's nice enough if you don't touch him."

"Right," As she stood, Okita smothered a yawn, reminding her of why she was there in the first place. She gave her best I'm-serious-about-this look as she said, "You need to rest and get some sleep. I'll make you some lunch before I go and you can have it when you wake up."

"I'm not tired." His response was automatic and almost instantly proven to be a lie by another yawn.

She didn't even bother with words, instead merely raising an eyebrow pointedly.

"Fine, I don't want to."

Okita's stance hadn't really changed. He still leaned against the couch with his arms folded, but from the way his shoulders set and his expression became petulant, she knew this was the pushback she had been expecting.

"I know you don't want to, but it doesn't have to be long. Even an hour would be better than nothing." She hesitated before adding, "Please?"

Okita rolled his eyes as he gave a drawn out sigh. "You're not going to let this go are you."

"No, I'm not."

He looked at her for a long moment before letting out a huff and staring off to the side. "All right, fine, but I'm not hungry, so don't bother with lunch."

Okita turned and walked away from her, almost as if he was expecting her to show herself out. For a split second she considered doing as he said, but her succession of small victories thus far had strengthened her resolve.

Before he could leave the room, she said, "Then I'd like to make you something before I leave so you don't have to worry about dinner. At the very least as a thank you for Saturday…"

His steps hesitated slightly, but didn't stop as said dismissively, "Do as you like."

That seemed like the closest thing to approval she was going to get, so as Okita disappeared down the narrow hallway, she turned toward the door, her mind already beginning to create the list of items she would need.

It was instantly clear to her that Okita rarely cooked, but someone—she strongly suspected Kondou—had made sure he at least had the basic tools. He was also lucky to have such a well stocked market nearby. It wasn't large, but it did have a good selection and she had been able to find most of what she needed.

After setting the ingredients she had purchased on the counter, Chizuru decided to take a quick peek and check on Okita. As she tiptoed down the short hallway, she tried to tell herself it was purely worry and not curiosity that was egging her on. She waited a moment, listening intently for any sound, but the room was silent. The bedroom door was already partially open, so it took only the tiniest of nudges for her to make the gap wide enough. She held her breath as she slowly leaned in.

Her breath released in a small, relieved puff and a soft smile pulled at her lips when she saw his tall frame laid out asleep on top of the comforter. Even the normally distinct angles of his face seemed softer with his relaxed and peaceful expression. His breathing was slow and even, one arm rising and falling slightly where it rested across his stomach. Well, almost comfortably. His other arm looked less comfortable, trapped awkwardly under Toshizo's chin where the cat lay on the pillows near his head. Toshizo must have sensed her presence, because his pale turquoise eyes locked onto her as his head came up and his ears flicked forward.

Chizuru froze as the cat's movements disturbed Okita enough that he shifted, his expression pinching slightly as his hand moved until it brushed against Toshizo. She worried that she might have woken him and prepared to dart away, but he relaxed as soon as his fingers found the cat's fur.

She wanted to find him a blanket, but decided that she would probably just end up actually waking him. He seemed to be something of a light sleeper. Besides, the way Toshizo was watching her was making her feel slightly uncomfortable. It was all too similar to the way she used to catch Okita watching her with that evaluating gaze.

Shaking her head, Chizuru pulled back and tiptoed down the hall to begin her work on lunch. She had managed to find nearly all the ingredients for chicken noodle soup, minus the onions of course. The one thing she couldn't find was chicken stock or bouillon. She could make it herself since they'd had bone-in chicken, but it would take longer.

After setting the water for the broth to boil with some herbs and seasoning, she started on chopping the vegetables. The motions were easy and familiar, and left her mind free to wander. She wondered briefly how everyone else was doing back at the office. Hopefully she hadn't disappointed Heisuke too badly… Mostly though, her thoughts kept circling back to Okita. He was always so strong, so full of life, so to find him in such a state hadn't just been been startling, it had been down right scary. Clearly Okita's first priority wasn't his health and even if there wasn't a cure, she could do her best to see that he stayed healthy. She just wanted to see him with that spark back in his eyes.

Chizuru was in the middle of searing the chicken when a movement caught the corner of her eye. Sure enough, she turned around to find Toshizo watching her again. This time from the edge of the tiles delineating the kitchen from the living room. Turning back to the pan, she cut off a small piece at the edge, before moving the majority into the now boiling water to finish cooking and flavor the soup. The small piece she had left in the pan didn't take long to cook through and Chizuru pulled it out, bouncing it in her hand to cool it. Okita's earlier warning echoed in her head, but even so, she knelt down and offered the chicken to the cat.

Toshizo looked at it long enough that she thought he wasn't going to take it, but eventually he slowly came closer. He sniffed the chicken before carefully taking it from her palm and darting a short distance away to eat it.

His treat devoured, Toshizo jumped up to sit on the back of the couch to watch her.

There wasn't much left to do until the broth had absorbed the flavor of the chicken and reduced, so she turned her attention to the room around her. Like she had noticed earlier, the room was oddly devoid of personality. There wasn't any art on the walls and they were painted a neutral gray that was so light it could have passed for white under a bright light. Even the furniture, while not sterile, didn't feel especially cozy either. The only thing that seemed to have anything personal about it was a bookcase set between two windows.

Chizuru couldn't help but feel like she was snooping as she walked over to examine the items on the shelves. Of course, the fact that Toshizo was still watching her from his perch on the couch didn't help matters either.

The things that instantly caught her attention were the photos. There weren't many, but they were telling nonetheless. One seemed to be from a kendo competition, where an early-teens Okita stood grinning next to proud-looking Kondou with a medal around his neck and Kondou's arm around his shoulder. The one next to it was similar, if only in pose. Kondou, in full dress uniform and looking over the moon, stood next to the Okita she knew, similarly dressed in full uniform. She could only assume it was from his graduation from the Law Enforcement Academy. It was far from his usual dress and her cheeks warmed as she realized just how good he looked in the uniform. Sen would have called him drool worthy. Chizuru shook her head to clear the thought as she noticed one last photo tucked away in the back. This Okita was young, not more than ten or eleven, but she instantly recognized where it was taken. It was the ice cream parlor he had taken her to. She risked a glance around the room, but seeing only Toshizo, she carefully picked up the photo, her fingers tracing smooth wood of the frame. A young Okita held an ice cream cone in his hand that he had received from Henry and the photo had been snapped just as he was turning away. It was clear he thought no one could see it, but even in profile, she could make out the honest, carefree smile pulling at his lips and the happy light in his eyes. If she could, she would work to see that expression everyday. She didn't know what had made Okita so cynical or have such thick armor, but it was clear to her that something of the child in the photo was still in him.

Carefully, she replaced the photo before glancing over the books sitting neatly on the lower shelves. Most seemed to be practical, dealing with weapon maintenance, tactics, and other odd topics. All showed very little signs of having been read; their spines un-creased. The three exceptions quickly caught her eye. They were old books bound with well worn fabric. When she carefully pulled one out, it's pages were tinted yellow and it's edges were uneven, showing where each set of pages had been folded and sewn together before being glued into the whole.

Chizuru glanced back at the clock on the stove. The chicken would take a while, so she still had some time before they would be ready to pull out. Besides, she was curious what kind of book would warrant such frequent reading by Okita.

She carefully opened the book to the first page as she curled up on the couch, her head resting comfortably on a pillow. On the opposite side from Toshizo, of course. Just because he had accepted the chicken without going after her, didn't mean she was going to completely ignore Okita's warning about losing a finger.

Souji woke up slowly, his body feeling heavy and sore. He wanted to simply roll over and go back to sleep, but the morning's events slowly began to trickle back in, pushing sleep farther and farther away.

All right, so maybe he had overdone it in his bout against Heisuke. He had felt the warning signs, but of course his dumb ass had refused to give in. He wouldn't be restricted by an illness he couldn't cure. No, he would master it. He would show it that he wasn't going to just roll over and give in.

Except his own immune system didn't seem to care one whit what he thought. All his stubbornness had gotten him was a sucker punch to the gut… or lungs in this case. Souji let out a groan as he ran a hand over his face. Even just laying in bed, he could feel the headache throbbing dully behind his eyes and his chest ached from coughing. Yeah, he'd been stupid and he'd probably hear it from Sannan if the man found out he'd been avoiding taking his medication.

He knew they were there to help; that they were crucial for keeping stuff like this from happening, but he still hated them. They left him feeling fuzzy headed and off balance with the way they messed with his emotions. He didn't like anyone controlling him and he especially disliked being manipulated by a bunch of chemicals. Sannan had told him he just had to take them until he deemed him stable enough to go without. The thing was, it had been a month and Sannan had yet to give him the all clear. So he'd stopped taking them. He had felt fine for the first few days… and then he'd ignored the warning signs and was now paying the price. Not only was his body aching with the symptoms of the flare, but he could feel the fuzziness of the medication draped over his brain like a gossamer layer of cotton.

Maybe some water would help… Feeling around, he found the half empty water bottle on the bedside table. The cool water did help; soothing his throat and clearing his head.

Unfortunately it also reminded him of who had gotten it for him.

Of all the people who could have walked in on him, it had to have been Chizuru. The girl who had no real reason to keep his secret and couldn't tell a decent lie to boot. Sure, he could tell she was probably more than a bit interested in him, but that was no indicator of loyalty or trust… Only, she had kept his secret… and lied to cover for him. Obviously Saito had known what she was doing and the others could probably figure it out if they bothered to think, but for her to have tried so hard for him… he wasn't used to it. He wasn't used to people trusting his decisions. Despite his best efforts, he never quite lived up to who Kondou thought he was and Hijikata always tried to question and control his every choice.

He'd worried when she escaped from the locker room, claiming she was going to get water. Of course he knew better. He'd seen the hope in her eyes flicker and dim when he had said there was no cure. Despite her shocking proclamation of her trust in him, he had fully expected an irate Hijikata to be the next person through the door. He still wasn't sure how he would have handled that if it had happened… other than not well at all. He knew what Hijikata would tell Kondou to do. They'd push him out; force him home to rest and he just couldn't live like that. He couldn't become a burden. Someone they always watched out of the corner of their eyes.

Only… it hadn't been Hijikata. Sure, it had been plain to see Chizuru was keeping something from him, but he also hadn't seen any signs of guilt and given her previous proclamation, she would have felt insanely guilty for ratting him out. What he hadn't expected, was for her to try and concoct a lie for him purely on her own initiative.

Speaking of which, where was she? Had she left? He had as much as told her to leave, but she was just so damn stubborn he couldn't be sure.

Souji shoved aside the protests of his muscles as he slowly sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Gods he hated this. He hated feeling weak and useless. A quick glance at the clock told him he'd managed about an hours' sleep and that was going to have to be enough, because he wasn't about to sit around any longer.

The first thing that drew his attention upon leaving his bedroom was the pot boiling on the stove. He didn't see Chizuru anywhere, so he moved to turn off the heat until he could figure out what was going on. If the bowls of chopped vegetables and unopened package of pasta were anything to go by, then she hadn't finished whatever it was she was making. Even so, just the smell of the chicken and spices made his stomach grumble, reminding him that he had rather stupidly skipped breakfast that morning. Another thing to add to the list of recent bad life choices.

Still, where was Chizuru? And for that matter, where was his cat? Toshizo had gone to sleep next to him, but like Chizuru, the feline was currently AWOL.

Souji pinched the bridge of his nose as he let out a short sigh. Normally he loved a good mystery, but now was not one of those times.

He was distracted from his thoughts by a rustling sound originating from his couch. Low and behold, there were his two missing persons.

Chizuru lay curled on her side, a book barely hanging from her fingers and Toshizo asleep in the bend of her knees. Moving around the couch, he carefully took the book to keep it from falling to the ground and waking her. He didn't know why she had selected this book, but maybe he shouldn't have been surprised. The book was familiar, an old friend, even if he had never read it.

He had never read any of the volumes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms , but Kondou had read them aloud to him more than once. Even before he had come to admire and care for Kondou, the man had read sections of it to him almost every night. No one had ever done something like that for him, and on those nights Souji had shut the door, locking the world out of his room, Kondou had sat outside, reading in a voice that carried through the wood. It was part of why Souji couldn't read it. To do so would inevitably taint the memories he had of Kondou reading so late into the night Souji couldn't keep his eyes open.

With great care, he put the book back on the shelf next to it's partners and he couldn't resist trailing his fingers one last time down the spine of the book.

When Kondou had given them to him, he explained how his father had read them to him and eventually passed them on, and now he was doing the same. Souji couldn't see himself ever settling down and having a family. He wouldn't exactly make a great father. Still, he hadn't been able to say no, not when Kondou was calling him his son and entrusting him with something as precious as a family tradition.

With a sigh he turned away from the book, his eyes once again settling on Chizuru.

For a while, he found himself simply watching her sleep. Even asleep, her face would occasionally twitch toward different expressions as she dreamed. It wasn't fair for her to be taking care of him like this, but the fact that she had warmed a place in his heart that, more often than not, he tried to ignore. She made it so easy for him to care about her it was almost scary.

Once Sannan had finally figured out his diagnosis, he had said managing physical and emotional stress would be a major part of preventing a flare. Looking down at Chizuru, Souji was slowly coming to terms with just how badly he'd mismanaged his emotions in the past week. Clearly ignoring them was not a good method.

He had found himself coming to care for her and trust her more than he felt was safe, and it was that deeply unsettled feeling which he had been unable to deal with. It had probably had more than a passing effect on his immune system.

Now though… now something had changed. Maybe it was how she had responded without any pity to the news of his illness. Maybe it was how she had accepted his decision to not tell anyone. Or maybe it was that not only had she kept his secret, but gone as far as to lie for him; something far beyond her normal behavior.

Whatever it was that had caused the change, he no longer felt the same anxiety and tension when he looked at her. Instead it was replaced by a kind of… strong affection. It was more than simply fondness, but he backpedaled from calling it anything stronger. The feeling was still unnerving, but not in a bad way. Heck, even his cat seemed to like her, and that in itself would have made him stop and take notice.

Toshizo opened his eyes to look up at him, his chin resting on Chizuru's leg. The cat stretched lazily, almost tauntingly truth be told, before letting out a sigh and seeming to go back to sleep.

Well this just wouldn't do. If he was awake, then they should be as well. He grinned as an idea occurred to him. This was going to be fun.

Careful to keep silent, he stepped over to Chizuru's sleeping form and leaned closer. When his lips hovered just above her ear, he said lowly, "Chi-zu-ru."

When she stirred, he moved back expectantly, but to his disappointment she didn't wake up. He was just about to lean closer to try again when Chizuru shifted, this time his name falling from her lips in a breathy mumble.

Souji couldn't have stopped the smirk stretching across his face if he had wanted too. This was just too fun.

"Chizuru, time to wake up~"

This time her nose scrunched and Chizuru made a little unhappy noise as her eyes slowly blinked open. It was all rather cute… until her eyes flew open and she moved faster than he could react.

"Ow!"

Souji rubbed at his now doubly aching forehead as Chizuru held her own head in her hands. Within moments her head shot up, eyes wide with panic.

"Oh no, the soup!"

She scrambled off the couch, dislodging an exceedingly miffed Toshizo in the process.

Before she could dart to the kitchen, he stopped her with an arm around her waist as he said, "Hey, it's okay. I turned it off."

Chizuru sighed in relief as she relaxed, before suddenly tensing up again. It was only then that he realized just how close they were. In stopping her headlong dash, he had inadvertently pulled her back against him. Obviously that was the source of her discomfort, but the real question was why? Did she dislike being this close to him?

The thought made him want to pull back and throw up the walls he had only just let down. With a modicum of effort, he pushed back the feeling and instead remained motionless, the faintest trace of lavender drifting in the air. It wasn't long before he got his answer.

She was tight as a bowstring, but the red creeping down her neck and her racing pulse told another story. Of course, it could have been because she was holding her breath, but he thought not.

He put his lips close to her ear as he said quietly, "Chizuru, breathe."

The shiver that ran down her spine as her breath released in rush was all the confirmation he needed. No, it definitely wasn't that she disliked it.

Slowly, he removed his arm from around her and stepped back. He didn't want to. He could admit now that simply having her close to him was both comforting and reassuring on so many levels, but clearly it wasn't something she was comfortable with… yet. Plus, with the moment over, he was starting to feel everything catch up with him. The couch was starting to look more and more appealing.

With him no longer holding her, Chizuru escaped to the kitchen, her head ducked. Only once she had assured herself that the soup was indeed fine, did she turn around.

Chizuru couldn't quite meet his gaze as she said, "I-I'll just finish this up and then leave."

Souji would have loved to lay down on the couch right then—knocking heads with her really hadn't done him any favors—but he compromised with sitting on the arm.

"Really? So soon?"

Honestly the thought of being left alone with just Toshizo for company was not all that appealing. Not that he was going to admit it.

"I wouldn't want to bother you…" Chizuru took a deep breath and turned back to the stove. "Give me twenty minutes and I'll have the chicken noodle soup finished."

Finally unable to resist the call of the couch, he flopped back onto the cushy surface. Somehow not looking at Chizuru made it easier to say, "It's not very nice for you to cook and run, you know. I don't think I could finish all that on my own."

"Okay."

Laying there with his eyes closed, Souji could picture from her tone the way her cheeks would flush and she would try to fight the smile pulling at her lips as she answered his unasked question. More than for the sake of his health, he was done fighting with his feelings.

Tuesday, February 19th

There was no doubt in Chizuru's mind that things were different between her and Okita. The week had felt both too long and to short for the changes that had occurred, but the end result was one she was more than happy with. Which honestly surprised her.

It had started small. He would talk to her more, idly chatting about seemingly nothing and everything. It wasn't just small talk either. For every detail she learned of him, he learned one in return through his clever direction of their conversation. More than once Hijikata had grumbled at them to stop talking and get back to work. Then he had started finding excuses to steal her away from her work. Some of the excuses were more dubious than others, but she had gone along because she enjoyed spending time with him. When the others weren't around, he was far more open with her. Not that she blamed him for that. She didn't know the department's policy on relationships and she certainly wasn't about to go and ask. Neither of them spoke about what exactly they were, but for the moment she was content with simply being able to really get to know him.

From the occasional grins Harada would send her way, she thought he might suspect something was up between her and Okita. Saito… well she wasn't sure what to think of the usually stoic man, given his most recent announcement. Mainly she was glad Hijikata, Nagakura, and Heisuke had yet to indicate they'd noticed anything. Hijikata because he was technically her boss, and the Heisuke and Nagakura were hardly what she would call discrete. Keeping whatever it was they had low key was definitely better for everyone.

It was only a few days after Okita's flare, which he had ended up passing off as a cold, that Saito had made an announcement. One which had only contributed to another of the things Okita had started doing. She and Okita had already had more than their fair share of intrusions into the other's personal space, accidental and not. Like the other things, it started small. A tug on her hair here, brush of contact there, and even the occasional tug on her hand.

Then Saito's announcement had come.

Heisuke was done training. He couldn't stop practicing of course, but according to Saito he was proficient enough for a passing grade. A fact Heisuke had loudly proclaimed to Harada and Nagakura, who insisted that no matter how many qualifications he had, he would still be the newbie of the team. What this meant for her was that Saito had formally passed any instruction she had left to Okita… which more often than not left them alone in the gym. She wasn't sure how much more she had left to learn, but Okita had yet to run out of ideas. A number of which were just as dubious as his excuses.

Like his current one…

Chizuru squeaked as the baton was once again yanked from her hands and Okita spun her until she was wrapped in his arms. She didn't even bother trying to fight back. The drill was supposed to teach her how to handle herself if someone managed to take her baton away… but even after several attempts she had yet to do more than squirm helplessly.

He had certainly developed a fondness for keeping her close to him when they were alone. Sometimes it was casual, others times—like now—it was simply that he held her slightly… or more than slightly longer than was strictly necessary. At least she didn't freeze anymore. The fact that his hands had never once strayed inappropriately had gone a long way toward making her comfortable with the shift in their dynamic. It was a bit much the first few times he'd done it, but he always released her the moment she asked. It was reassuring to know and it only made her feel that much more comfortable. Of course that didn't mean she could keep herself from blushing every single time. Which was probably one of the reasons he kept doing it.

"What? Give up already?" Okita's voice was teasing and Chizuru could feel her face warm as his chin came to rest on top of her head. "Or are you just distracted by how handsome I am?"

She made a strangled choking noise that caused Okita to laugh, before she got out a slightly frantic, "No!"

"Aw really? You still don't think I'm good looking?"

Chizuru just knew the disappointment she could hear in his voice wasn't real, but even so, that knowledge didn't stop the slight stirrings of guilt she felt.

"Okay, you might be… a little um… handsome." The last word barely came out above a mumble.

She didn't hear him laugh at her confession, but she could certainly feel the silent vibrations where his chest pressed against her back and it made a spark of defiance light within her.

So she tried to stomp on his foot… and of course instead of the squish of a foot and a pained ow, a jolt ran up her own leg as it hit the bare mats.

Okita snickered above her as he said, "Too slow~"

"You two seem to be having fun."

Chizuru felt Okita's arms tighten fractionally around her as her head whipped toward the source of the voice. To her horror, Harada stood in the doorway, leaning against the wall with his arms folded and a knowing grin on his face.

"Ah! We weren't… um… We were just…"

Her own face now red beyond belief, Chizuru tried to step away from Okita, but his fingers only curled in tighter around her waist as he held her in place.

She glanced up to find him frowning at Harada as he said, "Well we certainly were ." His sarcastic emphasis on the past tense only highlighted his irritation with the situation.

"Hey, don't shoot the messenger," Harada raised his hands placatingly. "The only reason I'm down here is because Heisuke and Shinpachi are whining their heads off about starving to death. Figured I'd better come down here before they did."

Right… the ingredients she had bought the previous week, specifically the tomatoes, were getting close to being unusable. She felt guilty for losing track of time. Both Nagakura and Heisuke had been thrilled when she had rescheduled her "team lunch."

"I'm so sorry. I lost track of time," she said as she tried to step away from Okita, "I'll be right-" but again his arms held firm and she twisted to face him as much as his hold would allow.

Above her, he grumbled petulantly, "It's not like they're actually going to die of hunger…"

"But I did promise them," She could tell Okita wasn't thrilled with her reasoning, so she added, "If you want, you can help me make it."

He brightened at the offer, but behind her, Harada groaned. "Just don't let him near the seasoning. I'm not sure even your food would be edible."

Okita shot a glare at Harada, but she ignored him as she tried to muster what little dignity she could. "Tell them I'll be right up after I change."

Harada nodded, his earlier grin creeping back into place as he turned to leave. Once Chizuru was sure he was gone she let out a sigh as her shoulder sagged. So much for keeping things low key. That had been mortifying. The only benefit of it being Harada was that she was fairly sure he would be discrete.

Behind her, Okita tsked under his breath. "Damn, I didn't even notice him."

"Now who's distracted," she taunted, fighting back a grin.

Rare was the opportunity to tease Okita, and she wasn't going to pass it up.

He hummed a noncommittal response and Chizuru felt butterflies rise up in her stomach as his breath ghosted over her skin. She froze entirely, her breath catching in her throat, when his lips pressed firmly in the space just behind her ear. He lingered for a moment, before slowly trailing his lips down her neck, the foreign sensations sending a shiver up her spine.

After what felt like an eternity, his lips finally left her skin, only for him to all but purr in her ear, "Care to repeat that?"

Damn it. Her thoughts were so thoroughly scattered that it wasn't until Okita laughed that she realized she had said that particular thought aloud.

His question appeared to be rhetorical, because he let her go and nudged her in the direction of the locker rooms. Which was a good thing, since she was only just starting to regain coherent thought and probably couldn't have answered anyway.

"Oh, and if you're going to try stomping on the person's foot, make sure you have a distraction to go along with it. Broadcasting like that makes it easy to dodge."

"What?" She turned to blink owlishly at him, still fighting off the lingering feeling.

Okita smirked, his green eyes sparkling as he leaned forward and put a finger under her chin. His voice dropped back in to the same sensual purr. "Di-strac-tion"

"Oh, right… Okay…"

Okita chucked under his breath as he turned her around and nudged her again in the direction of the locker rooms.

Souji grinned as he watched Chizuru start to pull ingredients from the fridge.

As soon as they had entered the kitchen, it was like she was almost a different person. She gained a new air of confidence and it was clear that this was her realm. He had found over the past week that there wasn't a facet of her he didn't find intriguing, but this change seemed special. It felt like stepping the slightest bit into her world.

She glanced back at him over her shoulder, her cheeks pinking slightly when their eyes met.

He loved all of the little reactions he could pull from her. Admittedly, he had been pushing her boundaries rather fast, but nothing he'd done had seemed to be too much. Some of it was for fun, some was to get back at her — like for teasing him about being distracted enough to miss Harada, who was certainly no Saito or Yamazaki — but a good deal of it was that he simply enjoyed having her as near him as possible. Like he had thought the few times he'd held her previously, the feeling was addicting. It wasn't entirely about him though. Sure, she would blush and stutter, which was fun, but then he'd catch her with the happiest, goofiest, most day-dreamy smile on her face when she thought he couldn't see. Knowing it was him that had put that expression there… well, there wasn't a feeling quite like it.

"Would you mind washing and dicing the tomatoes while I prep the other ingredients?" Chizuru asked as she gestured to the two mesh bags sitting on the counter next to her.

"Sure."

He snagged the bags as he headed for the sink and the plastic mesh broke fairly easily when he worked his fingers in and gave a sharp tug. As he washed and dried the red vegetables, Chizuru took time from her other preparations to place a cutting boards and knife next to him before quickly darting away again. No one was going to convince him tomatoes were anything other than vegetables masquerading as fruit so parents could convince kids to eat them. Cherries, strawberries, and apples were all red fruit. Tomatoes were not.

All too soon they were washed and dried and he hesitantly picked up the knife. Chizuru had asked him to dice the tomatoes… but what exactly did that mean? Of course he knew it involved cubes of some sort. Dicing was definitely different from slicing… but as Harada had mentioned, cooking was not his forte, so beyond that he was lost.

He glanced over at Chizuru, but seeing her frowning the bottle of powder in her hand as she muttered under her breath, he decided not to disturb her. Besides how hard could it possibly be to cut up a few tomatoes?

Apparently very hard. Not only did the knife keep slipping on the smooth skin, but the liquid from the tomatoes themselves only made it worse. Then there was the fact that they were squishy and he had to be careful not to put too much pressure into his cut, but of course he also had to put enough pressure to get through the skin. His results, while far better than what he thought any of the others out sitting on their butts waiting for lunch could do — Hajime excepted — but they were still far below what he expected from his much vaunted dexterity. Personally, he blamed the knife.

Souji sighed as he set down the offending instrument. This wasn't working.

Chizuru paused in her other activities to check his progress. He almost laughed when she ignored the obvious and instead smiled as she said, "Thank you for helping me. Those are looking good."

"Are we looking at the same tomatoes? Because I don't think you're seeing what I'm seeing."

"Well, I mean, they could be a bit more… um… even, but other than that…" He raised an eyebrow at her skeptically and she trailed off before biting at her lip. "All right, almost everything else is set out, so why don't you butter the bread for the grilled cheese sandwiches."

Souji grinned as he stepped away from the board and she took his place. "Now that sounds like a much better idea."

Before she could stop him, he quickly reached back around her and snatched one of the larger pieces he had cut and quickly popped it in his mouth. The flavor that blossomed across his tongue surprised him. Whatever tomatoes Chizuru had picked, the were seriously making him reconsider his stance that they were not a fruit.

Chizuru tried to look scolding as she yelped and swatted at his hand, but the smile she was fighting ruined it entirely.

Buttering the bread was an easy, almost mindless task that left him free to watch Chizuru. Her quick, efficient movements proved that the knife wasn't the problem… or at least all of it. She held the knife as one well acquainted with the tool, the fingers of her other hand never applying too much pressure as it held each tomato in place. Her cuts were efficient and always left perfectly even slices in their wake. More than her hands, he enjoyed watching her face. Physically she was relaxed, but from her expression he could tell she was focused intently on the task at hand.

With one last brush of the butter knife, he coated the final piece of bread that Chizuru had set out. He wasn't all that eager to take on another task, so he simply moved himself to an area where he could be out of her way, but continue to watch her work. It was like watching Hajime maintain his excessively large sword collection. On the surface it was boring, but the longer he watched, the more he could see the passion imbued into seemingly minor tasks. Hajime loved swords and Chizuru loved to cook, though why she did was still a mystery. The closest thing he could think of to that for him would have been sparring. Nothing was more thrilling than testing his strength and skill against a worthy opponent.

It didn't take Chizuru long to have the soup simmering away and she turned her attention to the grilled cheese.

An idea had been bouncing around his head for the past few days. Everything about the unusual, still undefined thing they had, seemed to be all out of order. Neither of them had said anything about it, but it nagged at him regardless. Mostly because it was really his fault. Pushing at her boundaries rarely left a real risk of rejection, but the idea he had been considering would require him to stick his neck out farther than he was used too. Of course everything Kondou, and to a smaller degree Harada, had ever impressed on him was that this was something he probably should have done a while ago. It wasn't fair to her to leave things so undefined. If he wanted to spend more time with her—and he did—then he would just have to trust that she wouldn't say no.

She was just flipping over the last of the sandwiches when he walked up behind her, wrapping an arm around her waist as he settled his chin on her head. It was a measure of how comfortable Chizuru had become around him that she only jumped a bit before subtly leaning back against him. He wasn't even sure she was aware she was doing it. The thought made him smile.

He took one more breath, before saying, "If you're free tomorrow, how about getting dinner?"

He had to lean back and give her some space as Chizuru spun around sharply, her hands pressed to her mouth. If he wasn't so nervous, he would have laughed at the way the forgotten spatula in her hand had nearly smacked him across the face. Instead, his pulse began pick up speed as she stared at him mutely, her eyes wide shock, and he hoped, something more.

Chizuru lowered her hands the tiniest bit as she said in a small voice, "Are.. Are you sure?"

Souji couldn't help it. He laughed. Here he was afraid she would try to politely worm her way out and instead she was questioning whether he really meant it. If anything, it was comforting to know they were on the same wavelength. They both understood he wasn't just asking her as a co-worker or friend.

He closed the small distance between them created by her abrupt turn and moved his hand to cradle the side of her face. The warmth of her skin under his fingers grew as he traced his thumb over the familiar blush appearing on her cheeks and said quietly, "Very."

Chizuru let her hands drop fully, revealing a smile to match the happiness he could see dancing in her brown eyes.

Right then he wanted nothing more than to lean that slightest bit closer and kiss her. True, she had really only said yes to dinner, but with their backward and inside out relationship, it felt like far more. Unintentionally or not, he had let her in farther than he had almost anyone else. It left him feeling like he was floating. A feeling that was both exhilarating and only slightly terrifying.

Before he could close the distance between them, the harsh scent of burnt bread brought him back to awareness of his surroundings. She really did have a way of distracting him. He still wanted to kiss her, but now wasn't the time.

Instead he said, "I think you're forgetting something."

"Hm? What am I-" Her eyes suddenly flew wide as she whirled back around and gasped, "The food!"

Souji stepped back to give her space as Chizuru hurried to scoop the now blackened sandwich out of the pan and onto a plate.

With her forehead pinching as she studied the ruined sandwich, he couldn't help but quip, "Don't worry. Shinpachi and Heisuke are so hungry, they probably won't notice the difference."

Chizuru rolled her eyes, but nevertheless, her forehead smoothed and she couldn't hide the trace of a smile as she flipped it to hide the burned side and pushed the plate to the back of the counter. No doubt she intended to take it herself, but he didn't think it would be too hard to finagle things so Hijikata wound up up with it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 28 - An Unexpected Guest

Tuesday, February 20th

The comforting feeling of a warm embrace surrounded her and Chizuru felt the steady, reassuring rhythm of a heartbeat against her cheek.

Everything about her surroundings felt vague and undefined, but the longer she laid there, the more certain sensations came into focus.

She could feel fingers tracing their way through her hair, sending little thrills of electricity down her spine. The heartbeat was joined by the soothing feeling of a firm chest rising and falling beneath her.

When she heard her name murmured in a questioning tone, she almost tensed at the realization of who it was she was so intimately curled up against, but when his fingers moved from running through her hair to rubbing tender circles at the top of her neck, she let herself relax. Somehow it felt all right to let the moment linger a bit longer before facing reality.

When her name came again, this time the questioning tone more insistent, she felt a muddled confused begin to poke at her. Why was he calling her name?

Before she could muster up the will to move and ask what he wanted, her world was suddenly tossed about and shaken as if by a massive earthquake.

Chizuru's eyes shot open. Her warm fuzzy feelings were ripped away; replaced by the grogginess of early morning and a giddy figure bouncing on the edge of her bed. She huddled deeper under her blankets, feeling both mortified at her dream and slightly disappointed at its loss.

"Sen…? What are you doing," she asked, her tone coming out a tad more petulant than she had intended.

"Having a nice dream were we?" Sen, still dressed in her pajamas, poked at the pillow Chizuru only just realized she had wrapped herself around. "You're getting awfully cuddly with that pillow."

Chizuru felt her cheeks warm as she unwrapped herself from the pillow and scooted over to make more room on the bed.

"So, I was going to wait until tonight to ask, but I just couldn't help myself," Sen said as she took full advantage of the extra space, sitting criss-cross and leaning forward expectantly with her elbows on her knees. "What happened? No, wait, let me guess. He asked you out didn't he?!"

Chizuru rubbed at her eyes and desperately wished for a moment that she could just go back to her dream, but remembering what that entailed made her blush all over again.

Apparently Sen misinterpreted the reason for her blush—even if she was technically correct—because she giggled gleefully and clapped her hands together.

"I knew it! I had my doubts about him, but I'm so happy for you! So? How did he do it?"

"Do what?" Chizuru still felt groggy and knew without even looking that it was well before her alarm was due to go off. It didn't help that she'd had a hard time falling asleep because of her mix of nerves and excitement from the previous afternoon.

Sen's eyes twinkled as she said, "Ask you out, of course! It was written all over your face last night. I wanted to wait for you to bring it up, but I just can't stand it anymore. It's killing me! Did he bring you flowers? Or chocolates? Ugh, just please don't tell me he texted you, or I'm going to smack him upside the head."

Chizuru hesitated when she found herself subconsciously reaching for the pillow during Sen's barrage of questions. After a short deliberation, she gave up and held it close as she sat up. Having something to hold helped push back her embarrassment at the rather intensive line of questioning.

"Um, no… He just kind of asked me… We were making lunch for everyone, and he just sort of asked me if I wanted to get dinner this weekend. It really wasn't anything special. I don't even know when or where yet."

"Mmhm," Sen hummed knowingly. "Well that nothing has you cuddling that pillow like its a lifeline. We'll go out tomorrow and find you the perfect outfit. We're going to make sure he knows exactly how good a thing he's getting."

Much to Chizuru's relief, Sen hopped off her bed and headed for the door, calling back over her shoulder, "Don't forget I've got a work dinner that may run late tonight. I probably won't be home before ten or eleven."

With the room now quiet, Chizuru huddled back under the blankets, crushing the pillow to her as she buried her face in it. She had a date… with Okita. For all the flirting they'd done and time they'd spent together, the idea that they might actually have a chance at something was nerve wracking. She didn't know what to expect, but she desperately wanted it to work between them and not just because they worked together and any fallout would be messy.

She let out a sigh and glanced at the clock on her bedside table. It was too late for her to bother going back to sleep. She would just take the morning slowly and mentally prepare herself to see Okita without acting like an awkward wreck. Nothing had really changed…

Even with the extra time, the morning seemed to fly by as she dawdled over her routine. Her mind was a buzz with nerves, making her distracted. Before she knew it, she was somehow running late.

Tea in hand and digging for her keys, at first she didn't notice the figure leaning against her car. When she did, Chizuru froze. Her keys falling from numb fingers back into her purse.

"K-Kaoru…?"

Leaning casually back against her car was a person whose face was startlingly similar to her own. Given what she knew of him, it couldn't be anyone else. Everything from the shape of his face, to his petite frame were eerily similar to the reflection she saw every time she looked in a mirror. The most drastic difference in that moment was his expression. She had never seen her own face twisted into something so horribly smug and detached.

"Well, hello dearest sister. I'm glad you remember me." His tone turned mocking as he pushed himself off her car. "Or is it just that my face matches yours?"

"What are you doing here, Kaoru?"

The firm sound of her own voice, even if it did hold the barest hint of a tremor, was enough to break her frozen state and return some measure of reason. This situation was far from safe.

As surreptitiously as she could, she reached into her purse. Her fingers feeling for the baton that Hijikata had insisted she start carrying after Itou's attack. Even if he was her brother, she didn't feel any sort of familial attachment to him and especially not from him.

A small part of her had hoped that when she finally saw the brother face to face, she would feel something of the bond they must of shared as children. They were twins…

It hurt to realize that the only thing she felt upon first seeing him was fear and a small amount of anger.

Unfortunately he noticed her fumbling motions and took a step toward her.

"There's no need for that. I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to have a little chat with my darling sister. What's so wrong with that?"

Chizuru wasn't quite sure where her burst of courage came from, but she dropped any pretense of a conversation as she withdrew her baton and let her purse and tea fall to the ground.

She took several steps back, maintaining the distance between them as she said carefully, "I don't know. Maybe the fact that you're a wanted criminal, who, at the very least, stood by and watched as I was drugged and almost kidnapped might have something to do with it."

Apparently Okita and the others had been rubbing off on her…

For the briefest moment, Chizuru thought she saw a flash of hurt in Kaoru's eyes, but just as quickly, it was gone. Instead, it was replaced by an eerie cheerfulness that didn't seem entirely real.

"That's cold of you. Don't you want to hear my side of the story?"

She didn't answer. The way he jumped from mood to mood unsettled her. It made him feel not all together sane.

When she didn't answer, he took another step closer, causing her to step back in response. She wanted to bolt and get as far away from him as possible. In fact, that's probably what Okita and everyone else would have wanted her to do, but right then she was too scared to turn her back to him. Instead, she did the only thing she could and raised her baton into a ready stance as she said, "Please don't come any closer."

This time what looked like real hurt crossed Kaoru's features and it almost made her drop her guard. Was there more to the story than she knew? Had her recollection of events been wrong? But her small doubt wasn't enough to overcome her fear of what he'd do if he got a hold of her. They might be twins, but she didn't know him. She couldn't remember what he was like as a child and she certainly didn't know how their years apart had shaped him.

Kaoru's fingers curled for a brief moment, before he relaxed and let out a sorrowful sigh. "You would really threaten your own brother? Your own twin? Fine. If that's the way you want it." A cruel, almost gleeful gleam appeared in his eyes as he said coldly, "Did you know the night our parents were murdered, those men were there for you?"

The abrupt change in topic left her feeling like a rug had been pulled out from under her feet. Her stance slipped as she battled the confusion and dread welling up inside her.

"W-What?"

"It's true. If you hadn't run like the worthless coward you are, they wouldn't have had to die. I called for you and called for you, but you never came." He took a step toward her, but this time she didn't move back as he continued ruthlessly, "What kind of person abandons their parents to be murdered and their twin to be abducted in their place?"

"Stop…"

She didn't want to hear this.

Kaoru's voice turned scathing as he said, "Oh, but you don't remember any of that do you? You don't have to live with Mother's pleading and screaming or Father's begging in your dreams. You don't have to remember calling out for a sister who never came."

"Please stop…"

Her voice was shaking just as badly as her hands. Kaoru's words felt like knives. He closed the distance between them until he was only a couple feet away.

"No, you just lived in your own blissful existence. Ignorant of the suffering you caused. You don't remember Mother. You don't remember Father. You don't even remember me! You are are nothing but bad luck to everyone around you. A poison that eats away at other's happiness. It's time you felt the misery you spread with every breath you take."

By this point it was all Chizuru could do to stay standing. Her body was shaking so badly the world around her seemed to subtly vibrate and her breaths came in choked gasps. Truths, lies, and her own long buried guilt over her lack of memory swirled within her making her feel like she was drowning in a raging river. How could someone hate so bitterly? What kind of monster was he?

A small voice inside her asked in response; what kind of monster was she ?

"Those detectives you work with seem to care for you quite a bit." Kaoru said, abruptly changing the topic again. "Do you feel the same for them?"

Chizuru's blood ran cold and her shaking stopped. No…

Kaoru's twisted grin returned. "I hope you do, because that will make what happens next all the sweeter. You had better enjoy these last few moments of happiness, dearest sister, because when I'm done there will be nothing left for you but bitter ashes."

"No… please." She didn't care that her voice came out more plea than the demand she had wanted. She could understand Kaoru's grudge against her, but to take that out on others. On people she cared about. Right then she would have done anything he asked of her.

Unfortunately that didn't seem to be Kaoru's intention. He glanced casually at his watch, his smile brightening.

"You've got about five minutes until the first pin topples. Feel free to try and stop it if you want."

She stood frozen as he turned and began to walk away. When he was several feet from her, he paused and glanced back as he said, "But I don't think you can."

Then, in what felt like a flash, he was gone and she was left standing alone in the parking lot.

Precious seconds slipped away from her as she stood motionless, her mind a whirl with everything Kaoru had told her. Finally her brain seemed to kick into gear and she flew toward where she had dropped her purse. With trembling fingers, she fumbled for her phone. Kaoru had said she had five minutes, but what could she possibly do in that time? Had he even been telling the truth? The situation felt hopeless.

It took her three attempts to unlock her phone, both because of her shaking hands and the tears that obscured her vision. After what felt like an eternity Chizuru pressed the ringing phone to her ear and sank to the ground.

Please pick up…


Souji glanced over at his phone as it buzzed loudly against the surface of his desk. He hoped it was Chizuru.

Normally she beat him in to the office, so for her not to be there was slightly unnerving.

Had she changed her mind about them? It didn't seem likely, but the worry nagged at him and had made him fidgety all morning.

Even before the first buzz had finished, he was checking the screen. While it was Chizuru, to his surprise, it wasn't a text, but a call. He quickly answered it.

"Hey-"

Chizuru's panicked voice cut him off. " Okita! Are you all right? Where are you? Where is everyone? Kaoru was just here and-"

"Hey now, slow down," Souji stood and began to pace as he tried to understand what she was saying. The only time he had heard her sound like this was when she'd had her brief panic attack almost a month ago. "I'm fine. Everyone is here except you. What's going on? Are you all right?"

He heard what sounded like Chizuru choking back a sob.

"I'm fine, but Kaoru was just here. H-He said something was going to happen to one of you in the next five minutes-"

"Kaoru?" Souji abruptly stopped pacing, a cold feeling settling in his chest. "Where are you? Is he still there?"

By this point everyone in the room was silently watching him with varying levels of unease. He locked eyes with Hijikata, who stood silently in the doorway to his office.

"No," Souji let out a breath and resumed pacing again as Chizuru continued urgently, " but he said something horrible was going to happen to one of you because I abandoned him and our parents. He said I had five minutes to try and stop it."

Somewhere in the background, he heard a cell phone go off.

From the pitch of Chizuru's voice, he could tell she believed Kaoru's threat. Instinctively, he did a quick scan of the room, but, with the exception of Hijikata, who had ducked back into his office, everyone was there…

What could Kaoru possibly do in under five minutes? Souji doubted he was dumb enough to take on an entire police station.

He knew Chizuru was waiting for him to reassure her, but he wasn't going to lie and say he knew what was going on.

"Everyone is at the station and trying anything here would be suicidal. Look, the important thing is for you to get somewhere safe. You need-"

Souji froze mid-speech when his eye caught Hijikata standing in the doorway to his office again. Hijikata's grim, tight-lipped expression was enough to tell him that something bad had happened. An undefinable fear began to creep through him and Souji unintentionally found himself lowering the phone.

"What happened?"

For what felt like an eternity, Hijikata didn't say anything, then…

"It's Kondou. He was targeted by a sniper while speaking at a breakfast with the city council. He's being rushed to the downtown hospital, but… it doesn't look good."

Dimly, Souji felt the phone slip from his now nerveless fingers as the world around him became a blurred flurry of activity.

Kondou had been…

Hijikata began issuing orders and he thought he saw Saito pick up the phone he had dropped, but none of it mattered. He stood frozen, words that had no business being together echoing through his mind.

Sniper… Hospital… Doesn't look good… Kondou could… could…


Chizuru practically slammed into the automatic doors in her haste to enter the hospital.

A receptionist shot a glare at her, but she ignored it, spinning around until she saw the sign for emergency surgery. Taking off down the hall, she ducked and weaved her way through the muttering visitors and hospital staff.

Those few moments when Okita had stopped talking to her had been more frightening than her confrontation with Kaoru. All she could think was that she had been too late and something had happened.

Saito had become her lifeline, calmly telling her what had happened and where they were going. His firm tone and efficient orders went a long way toward steadying her. Unfortunately, even he couldn't stop the fear and guilt she felt swirling within her.

Kaoru had been right, she hadn't been fast enough or smart enough. She hadn't even thought Kondou would be a target and now there was a very real chance he wouldn't survive. If he died, it would be her fault.

After one final turn, she slid to a stop at the entrance of a spacious waiting room. She had been the furthest away of all of them and because of it, she was the last to arrive.

Her eyes were instantly drawn to the figures of Gen, Hijikata, Okita, and Saito standing in the far corner of the room. Or, at least three out of the four were standing. Okita, by contrast, was pacing a hole in the floor, his jaw clenched and his hands curled into fists at his side. She ached to join them and find out if there had been any news, but she couldn't help feeling she didn't deserve to intrude.

Saito noticed her presence and when she didn't move to join them, he quietly stepped away from the group.

His eyes examined her carefully as he said, "Yukimura, you are well?"

"Um, yes. I'm fine. Has there been any news?" Saito shook his head and Chizuru wasn't sure whether to feel relief at the lack of bad news, or worry at the lack of good. "And the others?"

"They are looking into the scene. If you feel able, Hijikata would like to hear your account of what happened."

She nodded. "Of course."

As Saito turned and walked back to the group, she followed close on his heels.

Despite the strain visible in his features, Gen smiled kindly as he said, "Oh, Yukimura. I'm glad to see that you are all right."

Before she could thank Inoue for his concern, Hijikata interjected.

"What happened?"

She briefly tried to catch Okita's eye, but he didn't so much as glance her direction as he continued pacing. His lack of acknowledgement stung, but Hijikata didn't let her linger over it long.

"Well?"

"Um…" She scrambled to gather her thoughts. "I was running late and as I was walking out to my car I noticed someone leaning against it. He looked so much like me that I figured it had to be Kaoru…"

"And you're sure it was him?" Hijikata clarified.

"Yes. At least he said he was and I could recognize my features in his face…" Her voice trailed off slightly as she remembered the uneasy feeling of watching her own features twist and contort with such cruel expressions.

"What happened next?" Hijikata prompted.

"He… He started telling me about what happened the night our parents were murdered, but when he stepped toward me, I drew my baton and told him to stay away." She bit her lip, recalling his cutting words. "I don't think he liked that, because he started threatening everyone. He said he was going to make me feel the same pain he felt and… and that he was going to do something to one of you. He told me that I had five minutes to try and stop it. Before I knew what happened, he was gone. I-I…" she felt herself start to choke up with guilt. "I wasn't sure what to do. I panicked and called Okita."

Hijikata let out a short, frustrated sigh, before he said brusquely, "You did the right thing. At least now we have a better idea of his motivation. Frankly a personal vendetta is a lot more straightforward than most motivations. Even if he does seem to have access to resources-"

Hijikata abruptly cut himself off as his gaze drifted over her shoulder. Chizuru turned to see a worried woman with a familiar young girl in her arms hurrying toward them. She quickly recognized Tsune and Tamako, Kondou's wife and daughter.

Chizuru hastily shuffled out of the way to give them space, placing herself at the back edge of the group.

Tsune's voice was tight with strain as she said, "Toshi, what happened?"

Her face quickly turned ashen and she gripped Tamako tightly as Hijikata explained what had happened and just how little they knew. Tamako seemed to sense the seriousness of the situation, because she asked hesitantly, "Mama? Where's Papa?"

Tsune's eyes glittered with unshed tears as she said carefully, "Papa is with the doctors right now. They're making him feel better."

Chizuru couldn't bring herself to watch any more and she turned away, feeling guilt eat away at her. As she did so, her eyes caught on Okita, who had stopped pacing. None of the tension had left his frame, but the expression on his face as he looked at Tamako and Tsune was one she couldn't quite decipher. All she knew was that it seemed to contain a deep pain she had never seen from him before.

The moment was broken by the sound of a door opening and everyone turned to see a doctor in scrubs walking toward them.

"I assume you're all here for Kondou Isami?"

Tsune nodded firmly, her eyes now clear of tears. "How is my husband?"

The doctor hesitated a moment before he said, "He's stabilized for the moment, but we're not out of the woods yet. He's lucky. An inch to the left and the surgeon says he wouldn't have made it here. As things stand right now, he's handling the surgery well. I'll be able to tell you more in a few hours."

"Okay," Tsune took a deep breath, seeming to draw from an immense well of inner strength. "Thank you."

The doctor nodded briefly to everyone before turning and heading back through the door.

There was a long moment where much of the tension seemed to drain from the group. Yes there was still a risk, but the doctor was optimistic about Kondou's chances. That moment was broken when Okita's voice cracked through the silence like a whip.

"What the fuck was Kondou doing unprotected?!"

Chizuru whirled toward him in shock. The swearing was unusual enough, but it was the pure venom in his voice that sent her reeling.

"Soujiro!" *

Tsune's indignant cry went ignored by Okita; his entire focus centered on Hijikata.

Hijikata didn't say anything, but Chizuru could see the conflicting emotions battling in his eyes.

Okita took a step forward, the muscles in his arms tensing as if he were about to throw a punch. "How the hell could you let this happen!?"

"Souji," the censor in Gen's voice as he stepped between the two men was obvious. "This isn't Toshi's fault."

Chizuru glanced at Saito, to see if he would step in. Okita always seemed to listen to him, but his expression remained neutral as he carefully watched both parties.

Tsune carefully took a step forward, shifting a wide-eyed Tamako to her other hip as she said sternly, "Souji, I won't have that language around Tama. We both know Toshi isn't to blame here." Her tone softened. "We're all worried for Isami and assigning blame isn't going to help."

Chizuru relaxed as Okita stepped back, his gaze focused somewhat abashedly on the floor. Her heart broke for the pain she had unintentionally caused him. She knew she had only the smallest inkling of just how much Okita cared for Kondou, and the fear, pain, and most recently, relief he had to be feeling.

She thought that would be the end of it, but Okita's head snapped back up and he locked eyes with Hijikata as he said lowly, "If anything happens, I won't forgive you."

Without giving anyone the chance to respond, he spun around and stormed out of the waiting room.

Before she quite realized what she was doing, Chizuru found herself hurrying after him.

She called out to him, but he ignored her, picking up his pace.

When she ran out into the main reception area, she thought she had lost him. Then she caught the briefest glimpse of auburn hair disappearing down a small hallway to her left. Slowing down slightly, she walked to the opening and peered down the corridor. There, halfway down, she could see Okita leaning against a window sill, his head hanging while his hands curled into fists on the metal surface.

He didn't acknowledge her as she walked toward him.

When she was only a few feet away she hesitantly called, "Okita?"

For a long moment, he didn't respond.

When he finally did stand straight and face her, her chest constricted to the point that she couldn't breath.

His green eyes were as sharp as flint and didn't hold even the slightest trace of warmth. The feelings of anger rolling off of him reminded her of her meeting with Kaoru only a few hours before. Everything about him in that moment, from the tense line of his jaw, to the slight tremble in his tightly clenched fists, scared her. It was like the Okita she had come to know and care deeply for had never existed. It distantly reminded her of when had intimidated her on her very first day.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

She stammered for a response, shocked by the cold edge in his voice.

"I-I… I don't know. I thought-"

He cut her off. "You thought what? That you belong here? You don't even care about Kondou."

"No, I-"

"In fact, this whole fucking mess is your fault." His cruel emphasis cut her to the core and she felt tears start to well up in her eyes as he continued, "Kondou was never in any danger until you stuck your nose in where it didn't belong. If you had never gotten involved with us, your psychotic brother wouldn't have nearly killed him!"

Her hands started to shake as Okita turned back to face the window. His voice sounded almost as broken as her fracturing heart when he said lowly, "Just go away."

Chizuru stifled a sob as she slowly backed away from him. Wrapped up in those few words she could hear so much pain… and she had been the cause of it. Turning, she ran down the hall. Behind her she thought she heard the sound of a fist hitting thick-pane glass.

She didn't stop running until she reached her car, infinitely grateful that she hadn't taken her purse off her shoulder. At that moment, she couldn't bear to go back to the waiting room and face everyone. Her fingers fumbled with the keys as she wiped at the tears running down her cheeks.

Okita clearly hated her for what she had done. Because of her Kondou could still die, leaving little Tama to grow up without a father. Time and time again, she had brought trouble to the team's doorstep and this, it seemed, was the final straw.

Chizuru finally managed to get into her car, but even with the keys in the ignition, she couldn't see through her tears well enough to drive.

It took several minutes for her to even gain the semblance of control, hiccuping once or twice as she wiped away the finally few tears. She wasn't done crying, not by a long shot, but right then she wanted nothing more that to get home and make herself forget. To dull and push away her guilt and hurt.

The drive back to the apartment was long, and twice she had to press her hand to her mouth to push down the sobs threatening to break out of her. Only once she was inside and the door was locked behind her did she sink to the floor and let herself give in to the sobs wracking her body.

Chizuru wasn't sure how long she sat there, but eventually her tears ran out. The pain and guilt she was feeling hadn't diminished, but she simply had no more tears left to cry.

Picking herself up off the floor, she made her way into the kitchen, leaving her purse on the couch as she did so. Once she had blown her nose and wiped away the last salty traces of her tears, she reached for several of her well worn friends. Her cookbooks; their pages dog eared and stained from use. Opening each to a random page, she started with the first book in line and began the prep work laid out in the instructions.

She lost herself in the work, at least as much as she was able. She still had to wipe away the occasional tear as she hunted for a particular spice, or in most cases settled for the nearest substitute she could get her hands on. Mostly though, the small tasks kept her mind from reliving the events of the day and when one recipe required a pause, she simply began the next in line.

Cooking was safe. Each recipe, task, and tool was something familiar and a comfort to her. Admittedly, she couldn't smell much through her stuffy nose, but the smooth crunch of her knife cutting through vegetables and the heat dancing across her skin from the flames of the burner more than made up for it.

The hours flew by with little thought on her part until she was out of usable ingredient and every available square inch of the fridge was filled with food.

She let out a slight hiccup as she rubbed at the traces of dried tears that clung to her skin. It was just edging toward dinner time, but she wasn't hungry in the slightest. She felt like a heavy weight was pressing on her shoulders, wrapping around her to squeeze her chest. All she wanted to do was crawl under her blankets and cry herself to sleep, but she couldn't leave the dishes. Sen would know instantly what had happened if she saw them and that wasn't a conversation she was ready to have yet. Everything was too close.

Dishes might not be as good a distraction as cooking, but they would do for now.

Every time her mind began to wander to the events of the day, Chizuru quickly pulled it back, locking the feelings away to deal with later by focusing on each scratch, dent, and chip in whatever dish happened to be in her hands. She focused on the feeling of the slightly too hot water prickling at her skin. Even with that, she had been right, dishes were nowhere near as good a distraction.

She jumped when there was a knock at the door. The knock itself hadn't been all that loud, but the silence of the apartment seemed to magnify it. She glanced confusedly at the clock. It was far too early for Sen to be back, and anyway, Sen wouldn't have knocked. She had her own key.

Hesitantly, Chizuru set down the bowl and dried her hands on the dish towel next to the sink. It wasn't like she had switched off her phone… if the team needed to get ahold of her, they could have just called… Who would…?

Another polite knock drew her toward the door and she stretched up on tiptoe to look through the peep-hole. A bolt of shock went through her when she recognized the distorted figure and she hastily opened the door.

"U-Uncle? What are you doing here?"

Chizuru almost couldn't believe what she was seeing. There stood Kodo, smiling kindly, as if they hadn't had near radio silence for over a month.

"Chizuru, is that any way to greet me? I've come a long way to see you."

"Oh, sorry…"

She hastily opened the door fully to let him pass, biting her lip as she followed him into the main living area.

"You didn't tell me you were coming…"

Kodo didn't answer her right away. He took his time examining the room before he turned to face her. She couldn't help but notice that his expression had gained a hint of that hard edge he got whenever she and Sen had gotten in trouble as children.

"I needed to talk to you, Chizuru, and since you weren't answering my calls…" Kodo let the mild rebuke hang in the air just long enough for Chizuru to feel a wave of shame wash through her.

Yes, things had been busy and they had never quite resolved their difference of opinion over the move and her job, but she should have made the time. He was family, and the only family that didn't have a personal vendetta against her, at that.

"We needed to talk and face to face is better." Kodo took a half step toward her, his tone firm as he said, "You need to come home, Chizuru."

"What?"

She hadn't expected him to jump to that topic so quickly, or so forcefully.

"This city and this job aren't safe for you. Those men you work with won't protect you from what's out there." She could hear a slightly desperate edge to his voice. "Can't you see that they're just using you?"

"But they're not using me." She frowned as she struggled to explain why he was so obviously wrong. "They've protected me and… and more than that, they're my friends."

"Would friends blame you for what happened to Chief Kondou?"

Kodo's words hit her like a slap, dredging up memories of Okita's cold accusations from earlier.

"They-They don't blame me."

She tried to sound confident in her answer. No one had seemed to blame her and Hijikata had even said she couldn't have done anything else… but Okita blamed her. He blamed her for getting involved with them, for bringing Kaoru to their doorstep, and that invited the thought that just maybe, the others did too. The worry tightened its grip, refusing to go away and making the confidence in her answer fall flat.

Maybe they were simply better at hiding their blame. Okita was right. Kaoru would have never bothered them if not for her. Kondou would-

Chizuru's thoughts stopped dead as a frightening suspicion began to take root. A cold, numbing feeling began to steal through her.

"How… How do you know I'm connected to the shooting?"

The team would have never released that kind if information to the media. There was no way Kodo could have known that, except…

Kodo's expression shuttered and his lips pressed into a stern line.

"That doesn't matter. What matters is that you're in danger and you will be leaving with me. Tonight."

Chizuru stared in shock at the man who had cared for her and raised her for as long as she could remember.

"What do you know about Kaoru?"

"Chizuru," Kodo said warningly as he took a step closer. "We can talk about this later. Go pack your things now, so we can leave."

"No."

Her response seemed to startle them both, but she quickly straightened her spine as she said more firmly, "No. I'm not leaving. If I'm the cause of this, then I need to see it through. No matter what the team may think of me or what danger I might be in."

"It seems Kaoru was right. I've always thought Sen was a bad influence on you, and I see your new friends aren't much better. Don't force my hand, Chizuru."

When she remained stubbornly silent, Kodo let out a displeased sigh and he moved to close the distance between them. One of his hands reached out to grab her, while the other reached into the pocket of his coat.

She scrambled backward, nearly tripping over her own feet as she attempted to get to where she had left her purse on the couch. If she could get her phone then maybe she could make it out of the apartment, or at the very least, lock herself in the bathroom and call for help.

Just as her hand found its way inside her purse, she felt Kodo's strong grip on her upper arm, pulling her back. Acting on instinct, she turned and shoved him as hard as she could.

To her surprise, Kodo fairly flew as he stumbled back into the counter, the sharp crack of breaking glass combining with Kodo's cry of pain as he pulled his bleeding hand from his coat pocket. Several pieces of glass pinged across the floor and the rag in his hand began to turn a sodden pink.

Chizuru stared in shock at what she had done. She hadn't meant to push him that hard. Her world turned even more on end when the deep lacerations across the palm of his hand began to slowly stitch themselves together. It was nowhere near as fast as her own healing, but within moments, the blood dripping from his hand had stopped.

"You…"

Noticing her surprise Kodo said coolly, "There is much I haven't told you yet, but there will be time enough for explanations later."

When he again moved toward her, she frantically dug for her phone, her fingers finding both it's smooth rectangular shape and the rough cylinder of her baton within moments. Grabbing both, she darted toward the bathroom. She didn't intend to use the weapon on Kodo if she could help it, but even so, she wasn't about to not have it on hand either.

She only made it a few steps before Kodo's strong arm wrapped around her, pinning one arm to her side and the other across her chest. His impact nearly sent them both tumbling to the ground and slid the couch back several inches. The baton was knocked out of her hand. It hit the floor with a thunk and rolled away. To her relief, the very same grip keeping her arm pinned to her chest, also kept her from losing her phone.

She took a deep breath to try and scream, but it choked off into a ragged cough when the rag she had seen earlier was pressed to her mouth and nose. The sweet smell sent her head spinning. She twisted and turned, her lungs desperate for clean air. Kodo kept the soaked cloth pressed to her face.

Just when she thought she couldn't hold her breath for any longer, Okita's words from the other day surfaced.

Oh, and if you're going to try stomping on the person's foot, make sure you have a distraction to go along with it.

Chizuru could almost see the amused smirk on his face that would have accompanied those teasing words, even if she was pretty sure that was purely a symptom of the vapors.

Putting the words into action, she twisted her head sharply to the side before she picked up her foot and slammed it down as hard as she could.

Kodo grunted in pain and all at once she was free. Collapsing to her hands and knees, Chizuru coughed and sucked in lungfuls of clean air. As her head began to clear, she tried to scramble away, taking a leaf from Sen's book and shoving her phone down into the side of her bra. She couldn't risk dropping it.

She tried to stand, but a bolt of panic shot through her as Kodo's weight knocked into her. His grip was tighter than before as he held her and the rag was again pressed to her face.

"I didn't want to do it this way, but you left me no choice. You will understand later."

Chizuru greatly doubted that. She couldn't think of anything that would make forcefully kidnapping her something she would understand. She couldn't fathom how this could be the same man who had raised her as his own daughter.

This time no matter how much she twisted or turned, she couldn't dislodge Kodo Eventually her own body betrayed her and she was forced to take a breath. Her already dim vision flickered even further as the the cloying vapor coated her tongue and throat.

Her last thought before she slipped into complete blackness was that she hoped Kodo wouldn't find her phone.

Chapter Text

Chapter 29 - Missing

Wednesday, February 21st

To anyone else, the steady beeping of the heart rate monitor would have been soothing, a sign that all was well… but not to him. To Souji, everything about the hospital set his teeth on edge.

The astringent smell of the air irritated his nose and lungs. The room was sterile and unfeeling, as if it were simply waiting for the next person to pass through it. There were wires and monitors everywhere, all of them conveying information he didn't really understand. The doctors and nurses seemed kind, but what did they really care? Kondou was just a name on a chart to them.

He had only been in the room for five minutes and already he wanted to start pacing. Coming here had been a bad idea.

Souji stood, wanting nothing more than to bolt out the door, but he forced himself to remain still. To distract himself, he focused on Kondou's slow, steady breathing.

It had been close to twenty-four hours since the attempt on Kondou's life, and while the surgery had been successful, Kondou had yet to wake up. That was why he had made the detour that morning after a few scant hours of sleep. Tsune and Tama would be coming by later, but he didn't want to interfere with their time with Kondou.

The thought of Tama pulled painful, unwanted memories far too close to the surface. Mitsu dragging him out of bed, her grip near painfully tight and her voice tense. The silent drive to the hospital where both his sisters refused to tell him what was going on. Doctors rushing about under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights. One man finally stopping to ask who they were… and the expression on his face when Mitsu told him.

Yes, coming here had been a bad idea. He couldn't stay, and if he couldn't be there for Kondou, then the next best thing would be making sure the person responsible for this paid for their actions.

As he followed the signs back to where he had parked, the sight of a familiar hallway out of the corner of his eye rooted him in place. He tried and failed to keep his heart rate from spiking and his shoulders instinctively tensed.

Even after all these years, nothing had changed.

The worn wooden bench along one wall was the same one he had silently sat on with Kin, while Mitsu had spoken to the woman behind the door labeled "Social Services". In his mind's eye he could still see Mitsu's quickly retreating back, her hastily spilled explanation meaningless.

It would be eight long years before he would run into Mitsu again, and it had been the last time he had seen Kin. He had refused to go to the funeral.

Souji shook his head, dispersing the memories as he forced himself to move. Life was cruel and no one could change the past. It was best to focus on what he could do in the here and now… and what he could do was get into the office and start figuring how the put Kaoru behind bars for the rest of his—hopefully short— life.

As he stepped outside, a chilled chill breeze, along with the strengthening winter sunlight, helped erase the edgy feeling hospitals always gave him. This whole thing kept bringing his past far closer to the surface than he liked. It was a distraction he didn't need. His grip tightened on his keys. He needed to put all of his effort into ensuring Kaoru paid for his actions.

By the time he arrived at the office, Souji felt more like himself. He was ready to find out where everything stood and what he needed to do. He, Harada, Heisuke, and Shinpachi had gotten what they needed from the scene yesterday. Now he needed to get a handle on the big picture.

"Hey," Heisuke called as he stepped into the office and dropped his bag by his desk. "Hijikata said we're gonna go over everything as soon as he's back and everyone's here."

Souji frowned, wondering what could possibly be more important than tracking down Kondou's attacker.

Shinpachi seemed to read his mind, because he said, "He's with Gen sorting out how to keep this whole place running. Shouldn't be too much longer."

"Either way, we must wait for Yukimura."

Hajime's seemingly innocuous statement sent an unaccustomed bolt of guilt shooting through him. He hadn't noticed until Hajime mentioned it, but Hijikata wasn't the only face missing.

As he sat down at his desk, he tried to quell the feeling that his insides had all been shifted into not quite the right place.

That was right… Chizuru…

He had avoided thinking about a lot of things yesterday by throwing himself into the work at the crime scene, including his outburst at Chizuru. He didn't think Chizuru had ever been late a day in her life, and yet the desk next to his was glaringly empty. He had no doubt that is was because of what he'd said to her.

Souji ran a hand through his hair as he let out a silent sigh of frustration.

God, he was an ass.

It hadn't been Hijikata's fault… and it hadn't been Chizuru's either. But of course that wasn't what he'd told her. No, he'd gone and laid the blame squarely on her shoulders. Throwing the cruelest, most cutting words he could think of at her, simply because she was there. An easy target for his frustrations and fears.

Souji closed his eyes, but an image of Chizuru, her eyes hurt and filling with tears, appeared behind his lids and he forced them open again. His fault.

Being an ass didn't even begin to cover the kind of awful he was.

He had known exactly what he was saying. The feeling of being able to lay the blame at someone's feet. To cling to the "If" that would have kept Kondou safe… It wasn't until he'd seen the tears in her eyes that he realized what he had broken in the process. It hadn't been worth it, not in the slightest and there was no way to call those words back.

He stared down at the back of his right hand. His knuckles were an ugly mishmash of purples and blues and every movement hurt. He didn't think anything was broken. Sannan would probably chew him out later for not letting him look at it, but there was no getting around the fact that no one could lie to Sannan and get away with it. It was a conversation best avoided.

Souji curled his fingers into a fist, feeling like he deserved each sharp stab of pain that zinged up his wrist and down across his fingers.

The fact that Chizuru hadn't shown up this morning was proof enough for him that she wouldn't be coming back. Or if she did, it wouldn't ever be the same. There was no way his words hadn't broken whatever connection they had beyond all hope of repair.

She had been the one person he had really let in since Kondou, and now…

He clenched his hand again as he stared at his black monitor.

Until right then, he hadn't realized just how much she had become a part of the team… and if he was honest, a part of himself. Glancing at her empty desk and realizing what it would mean not to see her smile, hear her laugh, or see a blush steal over her cheeks… The thought made him almost feel sick in a way he had never felt before. Always, it had been the people closest to him, who had abandoned him. His parents… his sisters... Now, he had done exactly the same thing to Chizuru.

Despite everything that had happened to her yesterday morning, she had still found it within herself to reach out to comfort him, and how had he repaid that?

All at once, he couldn't bear to remain sitting at his desk any longer.

His movements were stiff as he stood and made his way to the kitchen. Maybe some water would clear his head and drown out his guilt. It had been years since he had let something get to him like this.

The moment he stepped into the kitchen, Souji felt a weight settle on his shoulders.

In the little world of their office, this had been her space. Her pale pink dishcloth was neatly folded by the sink. An array of mugs were neatly lined up next to the coffee machine. He knew that every drawer and shelf would be neatly organized. The fridge would have an assortment of snacks, along with several water bottles. Every little thing in the room dragged up memories of Chizuru.

His hand hesitated over the door handle of the refrigerator, before he turned away to lean against the counter. He took a deep, almost shaky breath.

He wanted to punch something, but his knuckles were already messed up enough from the last time he had given in to the urge. He wasn't about to attempt it again so soon.

"What happened?"

Shit…

When it came to reading people, Harada could be damn near as sharp as Hajime. The difference was, Hajime waited until you came to him, while Harada…

"Nothing happened." He tried to sound nonchalant as he folded his arms and turned to lean back against the counter. He wasn't exactly sure he succeeded, considering he couldn't even manage to attempt a smirk.

"Doesn't look like nothing to me." Harada moved so that he was leaning against the opposite counter. "Saito mentioned Chizuru and you suddenly acted like you were walking on hot coals. What happened?"

Damn it. He knew Harada wasn't going to let it drop. His nails curled into his upper arm as he reluctantly admitted, "I may have said some stupid things…"

Harada's eyes narrowed and his attention became laser focused.

"How stupid are we talking?"

"Pretty damn stupid…" He let out a breath and looked away. "I said I blamed her for what happened and that if she hadn't shown up here, then Kondou-"

The punch came out of nowhere. One second he was standing and the next h found himself on the floor, blinking flashing spots out of his eyes as he held his throbbing jaw. Carefully he probed the inside of his cheek with his tongue and found the faint taste of blood.

"I'd hit you again, but you seem to be doing a damn good job of beating yourself up on your own."

He glanced up to see that Harada had moved back a pace, though his hands were still tightly fisted.

Somewhat shakily, Souji pulled himself up off the floor, using the counter for support. Damn… He hadn't been hit that hard in a long time.

"Guess I deserved that."

"Damn right you did," Harada said angrily. "Didn't it occur to you that she would already be blaming herself for what happened? Her psychotic brother is targeting us to get at her! Of course she's going to think it's all her fault! You might want to consider thinking about someone other than yourself for once in your life."

Ouch…

"All right, I get it!" He glared at Harada, trying to ignore his growing headache and the sting of the all too accurate accusation. "Are you done? I get it. I was an ass and she won't forgive me for what I said."

To his surprise, Harada's posture subtly relaxed, his frame losing its tension.

"Wrong. She'll forgive you."

Harada's words were so unexpected, they almost didn't feel real to Souji, and his confusion inadvertently slipped out as he asked, "Why would she do that?"

Harada looked at him for a long moment, his gaze seeming to search for something. Souji shifted uncomfortably under the silent scrutiny, but now that the question was out there, he wanted an answer.

Eventually Harada seemed to find what he was looking for, because he folded his arms and leaned back against the counter as he said carefully, "Because that's who she is. I don't think Chizuru knows how to hate… Sure, she'll get angry or irritated, but really, truly hate someone to the point that she wouldn't try to understand their side and forgive their mistakes? Never." The corner of his lip twitched up as he added, "Don't forget, she forgave you for how you treated her when she first got here, and that was before she even got to know you. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but…" Harada's voice dropped to a murmur, though he lost none of his intensity as he said, "You're damn lucky. Not every man finds a woman who can love like that."

Souji stared blankly at the floor, his mind trying and failing to wrap around what Harada was trying to explain to him. He didn't get it. If Chizuru had done to him what he had done to her, he would have never forgiven her. Once people showed you couldn't trust them, the only thing to do was cut them out entirely. It was just better that way…

But she wasn't him… and maybe because of that, he had a chance to fix what he'd done so horribly wrong. A chance he would have never given himself, but maybe… just maybe, Chizuru could find within herself to give him.

Harada let him think that over for a moment, before he prompted, "So… What are you going to do?

"I…" Souji cleared his throat, "I'll call her…"

Harada nodded as he turned to leave. "That's a good first step."

"Thanks…"

Harada paused in the doorway and looked back over his shoulder. "I wouldn't have bothered if it wasn't clear you cared for her as much as she does for you. You're a better man because of her, but," his eyes hardened to glittering gold chips as he said, "If you ever do anything like this to her again, I swear I will make sure she ends up with someone who will treat her like she deserves."

He gave a short nod. If Chizuru did find it in herself to forgive him, he knew he would never let himself lash out at her like that again. He couldn't bear to see that broken look in her eyes and know he was the cause.

With a final nod, Harada left the kitchen.

His phone felt like a bar of lead in his hand. For several seconds he simply stood there, working up the nerve to call Chizuru. Still not really sure what he was going to say, he eventually decided that something had to be better than nothing.

Before he could lose his nerve, he quickly dialed her number and pressed the phone to his ear.

It didn't even ring.

Instead he got Chizuru's familiar, bright voice in his ear saying, "Hi, this is Chizuru. I'm sorry I missed your call but-"

He ended the call, a vaguely uneasy feeling crawling down his spine.

He could understand her rejecting his call or being away from her phone, but there hadn't been even a single ring. It was like her phone was turned off.

That wasn't like her at all. Even with what he'd done, she wouldn't wall them all off by turning off her phone. Like Harada had said, it wasn't in her nature to treat people like that.

He tried again, and when he got the same result, his vague feeling of unease solidified into a feeling not unlike the one he had gotten at the Orchid when he had lost sight of her… Something was wrong.

His pace was quick as made his way back to the others.

"Hey, Hajime-"

"Whoa! Souji, what happened to your face?"

Heisuke's eyes were as wide as saucers and Souji realized the side of his face probably looked as bad as it felt.

"Never mind," he focused his attention on Hajime, "When was the last time you saw Chizuru?"

"The last time I saw Yukimura, she was following you," Hajime said neutrally.

Hajime's tone may not have been accusatory, but the slight narrowing of his eyes was more than enough to tell Souji his real feelings on the matter.

Great… Someone else who knew what an ass he'd been.

"So she didn't return to the waiting room?"

"No… I had assumed she had accompanied you to the crime scene."

Shinpachi frowned in confusion as he looked between them and said, "Uh, she wasn't with us. We thought she'd stayed with you lot at the hospital…"

All at once, four pairs of eyes locked on to him.

Heisuke's hands curled into fists as he stood, his chair flying back. "Souji, what did you do?"

Before he could snap back that it was none of his damn business, Harada put a hand on Heisuke's shoulder.

"Lay off, I already talked to him about it."

"But-"

Heisuke clearly wasn't happy about it—if his continued glaring was anything to go by—but he relented and sat down when Harada squeezed his shoulder.

With things now relatively calm, Harada asked, "You couldn't get a hold of her?"

He shook his head. "No, it went straight to voicemail."

Shinpachi frowned and ran a hand through his hair as he said, "I mean, if she's mad or somethin' she might've turned it off…"

"I don't think she'd do that," Harada said. "She wouldn't wall everyone off like that. I'm with Souji, this isn't sounding right."

"It would seem that you were the last person to see her." Saito said carefully. "Do you know where she might have gone?"

Souji shook his head as he pulled up a number on his phone. "No, but she doesn't exactly know the city like we do, so my guess is she went home. I'll see if I can get a hold of that roommate of hers, Sen."

The normal ringing tone that sounded in his ear only emphasized just how wrong his call to Chizuru had been.

"Hello?"

The voice was distinctly Sen's, even if it did sound groggy. Was she seriously still asleep at this hour?

"Sen, right? This is Okita. Do you know where Chizuru is?"

"Huh? What do you mean? She's not at work?"

"No, she hasn't come in yet and we can't get a hold of her."

"I didn't end up getting home until around one thanks to a business dinner, so I kind of just collapsed into bed. I figured she had already gone to sleep…"

He quelled the urge to start pacing as he said, "Well she's not answering her phone. Could you check and see if she's there?"

"Yeah, give me a sec."

He heard her yawn, followed by the rustling of her moving around the apartment.

"She's not in her room, but let me check the living room. She may have fallen asleep on the couch…"

There was a short pause, before Sen said, "She's not he- wait, her purse is here…" Sen's voice became somewhat anxious. "What's going on? Is there something you're not telling me?"

Souji felt a chill sweep down his spine at Sen's words, but he managed to get out, "We'll be there just as soon as we can. Don't touch anything until we do," before he abruptly hung up. They could fill Sen in once they got to the apartment.

"Well?" Heisuke asked, his expression betraying just how worried he was about Chizuru.

Souji felt a small twinge of jealousy at Heisuke's blatant feelings, but he pushed it aside as he said, "Chizuru is missing."

Immediately the other's expressions hardened and Shinpachi muttered, "When it rains, it pours…"

"I will notify Hijikata," Hajime said as he stood.

Harada nodded. "Thanks, we should have everything together by the time you're back."

As everyone leapt into action, Souji couldn't help the nagging fear that Chizuru's disappearance might be his fault.

When they arrived at the apartment a short time later, they were confronted with a rather irate Sen. No doubt due to they way he'd hung up on her… not that he was going to apologize.

"Finally," Sen said as she let the lot of them into the apartment. "Now, what's going on? Do you know where Chizuru is? Her phone keeps going directly to voicemail."

Souji didn't bother answering as he moved past her. Behind him, he heard Harada say, "No, but we're going to find out."

He was brought to a stop in the middle of the open concept living room and kitchen. More than he had at the office, Souji could feel Chizuru's presence in the room. Yes it was clear that Sen lived there as well, but he could picture Chizuru curled up on the couch, covered in blankets and book in hand. He could picture her talking to herself when she thought no one was listening as she cooked dinner.

"I know this isn't going to be easy," Harada said, pulling Souji out of his thoughts. "But can you tell us if anything is out of place? Anything different from how it normally is?"

"First of all, Chizuru never leaves her purse out," Sen said as she gestured to the the familiar light pink purse sitting neatly at one end of the couch. "She always takes it to her room and hangs it up before going to bed."

Harada nodded. "All right, anything else?"

Sen frowned as she turned in a slow circle, her eyes scanning the room. When they reached the kitchen, she said slowly, "She didn't finish the dishes either, which she usually does after she cooks…" Her voice dropped to a mumble as she moved toward the kitchen. "There's an awful lot of them for her to be doing them by hand… unless-"

Before any of them could remind her not to touch anything, Sen had darted into the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator.

Nagakura whistled as Heisuke said, "That's a lot of food…"

Sen didn't say anything, but Souji could tell from the way her fingers tightened on the handle that this wasn't a good sign.

Sen stuck a finger in one of the dishes and carefully brought it to her mouth to taste. All at once, her expression pinched and she ran to the sink, running the water and rinsing her mouth out.

After she dried her face on a nearby hand towel, Sen turned to face him, her eyes narrowed angrily and her hands curling into fists.

"What did you do?!"

Souji almost took a step back at the rage in her voice, but he forced himself not to move. He didn't know how she had singled him out so quickly, but she wasn't exactly wrong.

When she moved around the counter, Harada blocked her as he asked, "Why do you think he did something?"

Sen let out a frustrated sigh, but she didn't try to push past Harada as she pointed at him and explained,"Because he's the only one I know of who could make her this upset. This isn't the first time she's done this." She took a calming breath. "Look, cooking is one of those things that's therapeutic for Chizuru and the reason she's so good at it is because she's had a lot of practice."

Souji felt a fresh wave of guilt wash over him. He had never bothered to question why Chizuru could cook as well as she did. He was pretty sure none of them had. Sen didn't say it, but he and the others knew what she was referring to. He knew what it was like to lose not just a family member, but an entire family, and he'd seen for himself a small glimpse of the guilt Chizuru carried over their deaths.

"The problem is," Sen continued, "when she gets really upset, she goes into this… this zone, where she tries to cook as much as she can, as fast as she can." She pointed to the fridge, "She just uses whatever she has on hand and that leads to a lot of bad improvising and a lot of really bad food. The only other time I've seen her do this was the anniversary of her family's deaths after our high school graduation. This isn't just a "bad day" kind of thing."

With her explanation apparently finished, Sen returned her focus to him, the rage from moment's before sparking back to life in her eyes.

She tried to push around Harada as her voice rose in volume. "So I want to know what the hell you did to her. If you touched her, so help me god, I'll give you more than that bruise on your face. You'll only wish you were dead by the time I'm through with you!"

"Whoa there," Harada put his hands on Sen's shoulders, stopping her from getting around him and moving his body to block her line of sight as he tried to calm her down. "That was me. I hit him when I found out what happened. I promise he didn't touch her."

Souji turned away to look out the window, clenching his right hand hard enough for arcs of pain to shoot up from his knuckles. Despite coming close to punching Hijikata, even at his worst moment, the thought had never crossed his mind. He'd only punched the window when he realized what he'd done. He hadn't hit her. No, the small, annoyingly sarcastic part of him pointed out, he'd just verbally torn her to shreds, which wasn't any better.

Behind him, he heard Nagakura say, "All right, let's all just calm down a bit. None of this is helping us find Chizuru."

Souji closed his eyes. Part of him wanted to run and escape the situation, but he needed to know what had happened to Chizuru and where she was now. Other than Kondou's continued recovery, nothing else mattered to him at this point. As much as he hated it, Kaoru would have to wait.

The quiet whisper of fabric was the only clue that alerted him to someone moving to stand next to him. Of course, only one person was that quiet.

Souji glanced to the side to find that it was indeed Hajime.

Hajime's gaze didn't waver from the view out the window as he said quietly, "We will find her."

The calm certainly in Hajime's voice felt like a partial key to releasing some of his mounting stress and self-recrimination. There wasn't a team better than them in the city, and like him, the others wouldn't stop until they found Chizuru.

Souji took a slow breath before he turned around. Shinpachi was right. Blaming each other wasn't helping.

He turned to find that Harada had mostly succeeded in calming Sen down. She was still glaring, but at least she had stopped trying to claw her way around Harada.

Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he said, "So what you're saying is, Chizuru probably came straight here after leaving the hospital, had the time to cook all that food, and then get most of the way through washing the dishes, before something happened. You said you didn't get home until, what? One in the morning?"

She nodded stiffly. "Yes. I didn't notice anything, but I was exhausted and figured Chizuru had gone to bed already."

"So that gives us…" Shinpachi trailed off pensively as he thought over the timeline, "about a four to five hour window then?"

"I'll go ask around about cameras." Heisuke said as he began heading back toward the entry. "Maybe someone caught something."

With a nod from Harada, Heisuke slipped out the door and everyone's focus shifted back to the scene at hand.

While the others began talking, Souji's eyes fell on Chizuru's purse again. Everything was so neat. There were no obvious signs of a struggle in the apartment, just unfinished dishes and a purse left in the wrong place.

Could she have left willingly? He dismissed the thought almost as soon as it occurred to him. She wouldn't have left her purse…

Stepping over to the small pink bag, he carefully flipped open the cover. As his eyes skimmed over the objects inside, he couldn't help but feel he was invading something private and personal. This wasn't the first time he'd had to go through someone's things, but it was the first time he couldn't be clinical about it. These weren't some random person's things, they were Chizuru's things.

The first thing he noticed was the lack of a phone. He checked the side pocket just to be sure as he said, "Her phone's not in here."

Still, something about the contents nagged at him. Something wasn't there…

He hadn't realized Saito had moved close enough to look over his shoulder until he said carefully, "Her baton is missing as well."

That was right, she had mentioned drawing it against Kaoru, when she was talking to Hijikata…

He did a quick scan of the room, and not finding what he was looking for, he dropped to one knee on a hunch. The gap under the couch wasn't especially large, but even a quick glance revealed the partially extended, black metal cylinder, almost highlighted by the sunlight from the windows reflecting off the hardwood floor. He fished it out and held it up for the others to see.

A lead weight settled in his chest as he said grimly, "Whatever happened, I don't think she left willingly."

"Yeah," Shinpachi said as he pulled on a pair of gloves and picked something up off the floor, "I'm starting to get that feeling too." He turned to Sen as he held up a piece of brown glass. "You drink beer?"

Sen frowned in confusion. "No, I prefer wine."

"So then it's safe to say this isn't yours." Shinpachi's nose wrinkled. "There's also a weird smell over here, down near the floor. There's definitely bleach, but there's somethin' else mixed in. Smells kinda sickly sweet…"

He trailed off pensively, and Harada turned to Sen.

"I hate to ask this, but do you have somewhere you can stay? I think we've found enough to warrant treating this as a crime-"

He was cut off as Shinpachi snapped his fingers and said, "That's it! Hey Sano, you remember that crazy teacher we had for AP Biology?"

The question was so out of the blue that everyone simply stared at Shinpachi in varying states of confusion until Harada finally said, "Do I… what?"

"Come on, crazy flyaway hair? Made us dissect lots of stuff?"

"You mean way back in high school?"

Shinpachi nodded excitedly. "Yeah!" But when Harada still gave him a blank look, he continued, "Anyway, the guy was rather looney and let us all take a whiff of some chloroform he had on hand—now that I think about it, you gotta wonder why he had it—but like an idiot I took too deep a breath. That stuff sent my head spinning so bad I had to sit down right then or fall over." He gestured to the area near the barstools where he had found the glass. "This smells exactly the same, plus chemicals like that are typically kept in brown bottles. Keeps 'em from going bad."

A grim silence fell over the room and Souji's fingers tightened around the baton in his hand. He wanted to know where Chizuru was, but at the same time he was starting to become afraid of learning any more. The thought of her alone and at someone else's mercy…

A small metallic click made him look over at Saito, who had moved toward the counter and was shining a blue light across legs of the bar stools.

"That's not all they were covering up."

He held the light steady over one of the legs. Where the stool had been a uniform mat black under the regular light, under the blue light, a spattering of darker black specs appeared.

Souji felt his stomach twist and he turned away to glare out the window.

Behind him, he heard Sen say quietly, "Oh my god… is that…?"

There was more talking, more voices, but he tuned them out. He didn't want to hear any more.

His fault.

Chizuru was missing, most likely unwillingly abducted, and now possibly injured, and it was all his damn fault. Yes, the lab would have to confirm it was blood and that it was hers, but that didn't change the fact that if he hadn't driven her away, then she would probably have been safe, working with them all evening, instead of here, alone, and in danger.

"Souji,"

"Don't," He didn't turn to look at Hajime as he said, "I don't want to hear it." His own self-recrimination was already more than enough; he didn't need to hear it from anyone else.

Hajime stood silently next to him for several long seconds before he said quietly, "This is not your fault-"

"How the hell is this not my fucking fault?!" He hissed, turning away from the window to level a venomous glare.

Hajime remained unfazed. "This is no more your fault, then the attempt on Kondou's life was her fault."

Souji froze, feeling like he'd taken another punch from Harada. He forced himself to look back out the window as he said, "You were listening, weren't you…"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hajime shake his head. "No, I was not."

But I know you.

The unsaid statement hung between them. Yes, Hajime knew him better than anyone and could probably have guess what his reaction would be. For a brief moment, Souji considered being angry with him. If Hajime had known what he might say to Chizuru, why hadn't he stopped him?

The answer was obvious enough. In the emotional state he'd been in, it probably wouldn't have done any good.

Hajime let him sit on that for a moment, before he said, "Yukimura is resourceful and smart. We will find her."

Souji gave a short nod as his fingers tightened around the baton. The pain zinging up from his protesting knuckles solidified his resolve to do whatever it took to find Chizuru. From anyone other than Hajime, he would have assumed the words to be a useless platitude, but Saito never minced words. Whatever he said, he meant.

As Saito turned back to the others, Souji closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Chizuru was smart and she was most definitely resourceful. If they didn't find her phone here, then there was a good chance she still had it. No one nowadays would be dumb enough to deliberately take the phone with their captive; they were too traceable. If she had it, then he knew she would be doing her best to help them find her.

Saito was right. They would find her… He just prayed it wouldn't be too late.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 30 - Lost

Wednesday, February 21st

Chizuru groaned as she curled up into a ball under her blankets, still half asleep. Her head was pounding, the pain seeming to throb with each beat of her heart. The movement sent a wave of nausea to running through her, making her feel dizzy and light headed.

Instinctively, she scrambled to the edge of the bed, her hands feeling for the trash bin she kept near by. When her hands fell on empty air, she squinted through sleep-blurred eyes until she saw, if not hers, than a bin on the other side of an unfamiliar nightstand. She yanked it toward her just as acid began to creep up her throat.

It felt like an eternity before her stomach finally stopped heaving… though she was fairly sure it only stopped because there couldn’t possibly be anything left in her stomach.

Taking advantage of the respite, she pulled herself up and collapsed back onto the bed. Her face felt clammy with sweat and her hands shook when she moved to brush her hair off her face. All in all, it felt like the worst flu she’d had in her life.

She was lucid enough to realize that she didn’t know where Kodo had taken her or how they’d gotten there, but in that moment, she didn’t have the energy to deal with anything other than her rolling stomach and throbbing head. She simply focused on lying there and taking deep, calming breaths.

Clearly they’d given her something to keep her unconscious, and she had a strong suspicion of what it was. With the exception of throwing up, the whole thing had an odd feeling of deja vu. The difference was this time there was no Okita offering her painkillers and a gentle smile. There were no dexterous fingers running through her hair, soothing away the ache in her head.

A tear slipped out from her closed eyes, tracing a cold path across her cheek. She bit her lip. No, she had to stop thinking about that. It was done and over and dragging up the way he’d looked at her; the pain she’d caused him so visible in his eyes, only served to keep picking at an open wound.

She had never meant to hurt him, but it didn’t change the fact that she had. She had put the one he loved most in danger. From the beginning they had warned her that staying and continuing to investigate could put her in harm’s way, but she hadn’t even paused to think about the added danger for them. In hindsight, her decision seemed completely and utterly selfish.

For what felt like several minutes, Chizuru let herself simply lay there, bitting harder on her lip whenever a thought or memory threatened to push her over the edge into full blown tears. She didn’t want to wallow in her emotions, but at the same time, she didn’t want to risk another episode of nausea just yet.

Eventually her headache began to fade as her body took care of whatever had been put into her system and she slowly sat up. As she did so, the sudden absence of something poking in her ribs made her realize that, surprisingly, she still had her phone. Chizuru felt a spark of hope flare within her as she pulled it out from where it had been tucked under her bra. She was amazed Kodo had missed it. It was on the smaller side… and would have been covered by her upper arm… perhaps that was why it had gone unnoticed. She may not know where she was, but if she could call one of the team, they could find her position and rescue her.

That hope was dashed as soon as Chizuru turned on the screen.

No Service.

She let out a frustrated sigh as she rubbed at her eyes and ignored the urge to toss the device across the room. Never had those two words been more frustrating. She tucked the phone back into its hiding place. At the very least, she could try to look for service later. Left with little choice, she took a closer look at the room.

It was rustically furnished with a bed, nightstand, and dresser… and it was all completely unfamiliar to her. Carefully she slid to the edge of the bed and swung her legs over. When that didn’t upset her stomach, she stood, her legs only slightly unsteady.

Of the two doors in the room, one was open and beyond it she could see a simple half bath. She chose to ignore it for the moment, in favor of trying the other door. With any luck, it would lead to some form of escape. When she tried to turn the handle, the metal knob didn’t budge. Pushing and pulling yielded the same result. In fact the door had hardly moved.

Chizuru chewed on her lip as she stepped back and examined the door. She could try to use her weight and try to snap the lock, but the door seemed thick and solid and she knew she was a feather-weight. She was also reluctant to start making noise that would alert Kodo or whoever else might be there. The door hinges were another option. The bonus of being locked in a room was that they were on her side. A quick look was all it took to dissuade her from that path. The metal looked old and she doubted she could pull the pins by hand.

That left the one window. It wasn’t exceptionally large, but she could fit through it if she had to.

When she looked outside, it became immediately clear that she was on the second floor of cabin. It was also clear that the cabin was located somewhere in the mountains.  Peaks, thick with trees and topped with snow, rose up around them. Kodo’s car sat on a simple two track dirt driveway, which snaked its way into the trees. None of it looked promising for her chances of escape, but if she could drop out the window—hopefully avoiding serious injury—and make it to a road of some kind…

She worked the lock open and managed to wiggle and shimmy the window up about an inch before it jammed and refused to move any higher. Cold mountain air rushed over her fingers, making her shiver.

This wasn’t working. It looked like she wasn’t getting out of here unless someone let her out.

With some serious effort, she managed to force the window closed again, if only to keep the room from turning into an icebox.

Escape had been her first priority, but with the obvious routes off the table, she decided to examine the bathroom. At the very least, she could wash the awful taste from her mouth.

Just like the bedroom, the bathroom was sparse, but everything seemed to be working. The water was cold and refreshing, and after rinsing her mouth, Chizuru realized just how thirsty she was.

After several handfuls, her head felt clearer and her stomach more settled. A glance in the mirror made her wince. Her hair was a mess, her face seemed a tad too pale, and her eyes were red.

As she used one hand to try and undo some of the tangles in her hair, Chizuru pulled out her phone and wandered around the bedroom, trying to find the barest hint of signal.

“Come on…” she muttered under her breath as she stretched up on her toes.

No matter what she tried, it frustratingly remained on zero bars.

The sound of footsteps just outside the door made her jump. Hurriedly, she stuffed the phone back in it’s hiding spot, before anxiously turning around just as the lock clicked.

With agonizing slowness, the door opened and Kodo stepped calmly into what was starting to feel like makeshift cell.

“Oh, I’m glad to see you’re awake,” Kodo said, his smile kind and just a touch sad as he glanced at the trash bin. “I hope most of the ill effects have worn off by now.  Kaoru erred on the side of caution to ensure we could get you out safely.” He offered the tray of food in his hands. “Even if you don’t feel hungry, you should eat something.”

Chizuru had taken a half-step forward before her actions caught up to her and she froze. Her first instinct was still to trust him. After all, he had cared for and supported her for years, but this was also the same man who had gone as far as to forcefully abduct her to get his way. And “for her safety?” She doubted anything Kaoru did would be for that reason.

She stood rooted to the spot; the conflicting swirl of emotions left her unsure what to do.

Kodo frowned at her hesitation, but didn’t comment on it. Instead he placed the tray on the nightstand and moved to sit on the edge of the bed.

He gestured for her to join him as he said, “I’m sure you have questions.”

Chizuru bit her lip as she weighed her options, her curiosity warring with her recently acquired suspicion. In reality, it wasn’t much of a contest. She slowly walked around and sat gingerly on the bed, keeping a wide berth between herself and Kodo.

She kept her gaze focused on the wood floor as she asked, “Where are we?”

“This was your family’s cabin. I know you don’t remember, but you used to come here as a young child. It’s remote enough that I highly doubt anyone will find us here.”

Chizuru felt a weight settle in her chest at his words. It stung a little to learn of a piece of her childhood that she had lost, but more than that, it was the absolute certainty in Kodo’s voice that no one would find her here. A small part of her feared he might be right.

That left her with the only real question she had, and it was one she almost didn’t want to know the answer to.

Her voice came out small, but she forced herself to look at her uncle as she asked, “...Why?”

It was one word, but for her it contained a thousand questions. Why had he never told her about Kaoru? Why couldn’t he respect her decisions? Why had he felt he need to kidnap her to make things right?

“Chizuru…” Kodo let out a drawn out sigh. “I never wanted things to turn out this way, but circumstances have changed. Your refusal to see the unhealthy and dangerous situation you had placed yourself in was only part of why this was necessary. Things have changed and Kaoru and I both believe it's time for you to rejoin our people.”

Chizuru blinked in confusion at his answer, unsure whether she had heard him correctly. Their people? She could understand his issues with her work, even if they were overblown in her opinion, but where was this “people” thing coming from?

Clearly Kodo had expected her confusion, because he continued, “I should have told you this sooner, but… I didn’t want to cause you any more pain. You had already lost your parents, and to your knowledge, your brother as well. In a way, your amnesia was a blessing.”

She flinched at the comparison, but Kodo shook his head.

“I know how you feel, but it has allowed me to protect you from information would only have ended up hurting you.”

Kodo paused and shifted on the bed, his gaze slipping pensively to the far wall. Chizuru worried he wasn’t going to say anything else on the topic, but eventually he said, “I know who ordered your parents’ deaths.”

Chizuru stopped breathing, her heart hammering in her chest almost loud enough to deafen her. Of all the things he could have said, that was not what she had been expecting.

“I’ve always told you that you were unique in your healing abilities…” Kodo said, changing the topic. “The truth is you are not. There are others like you… myself included. We are not a numerous people, but we have endured by keeping to the shadows. Humanity has known us by many names, but the one you know us as is Oni. Many of humanity’s stories of demons stem from our abilities. We have a power that resides within us, allowing us to heal faster and perform physical feats no human could attempt.”

Chizuru stared at her hands, trying to wrap her head around what Kodo was telling her. He had always told her that her abilities were a medical fluke; something unique to her and unheard of by science. He had ingrained in her that it was something to be kept secret. People were rarely kind to those who were different and her past already made her different enough. It was what her parents would have wanted her to do.

The idea that she had a unique ability didn’t scare her, she had come to terms with that long ago, but the idea that she wasn’t even human? She shuddered, her fingers clenching the bedspread. What else didn’t she know about herself?

What kind of monster was she?

The brief thought from when she had faced Kaoru echoed in her mind, making her feel sick all over again. Kodo didn’t seem to notice her reaction as he continued with his story.

“Unfortunately living in the shadows comes with it’s own challenges. Over the years it became impossible to sequester ourselves from humans. We had to integrate, but there were debates over how. Some thought we should simply intermix with humans and accept that the time of the oni was over. Relations with humans were not unheard of, but their children rarely gained more than a fraction of the gifts of a pure-blood oni. If we followed this route, we would disappear within only a few generations, and to many, the idea was intolerable.”

Kodo pressed his lips into a thin line before he said, “It was these others who won in the end. Even with dwindling numbers, we kept ourselves out of mainstream society and blended in to the only remaining shadows left… the human underworld. One man, Lord Kazama, tipped the balance.” Chizuru felt a shiver run down her spine at the faint light that sparked in Kodo’s eyes. “He was a brilliant speaker, persuasive in all the best and wors