The small chamber was awash with the coppery tang of blood and the atmosphere was thick with fear. The recent escape of a rasetsu into the room Chizuru was sleeping in had everyone on edge. Everyone stood around the body of their dispatched comrade, wondering what had finally caused him to go mad enough to break free of his confines and chase down Chizuru. Thinking of her, Hijikata was aware that she was standing beside him and was injured. He looked towards her and noticed the slight tremor emanating from her body, her left hand grasping her right bicep. It was clear to him that she was attempting to maintain control of her emotions, and he had to admit that she was doing a pretty good job despite the circumstances.
“What happened?” Heisuke asked as he sheathed his sword.
“I apologize. This is all my fault,” the smooth voice of Sannan-san floated into the room.
Everyone turned to acknowledge Sannan standing in the doorway. Sannan entered as he took stock of the scene before him, disappointment clear in his facial features. His dark eyes landed on Chizuru, and concern replaced his disappointment.
“Yukimura, you’re hurt,” he stated as he reached out to touch her arm.
“I’m all right!” Chizuru protested.
His fingers came in contact with her blood-soaked yukata, and as he pulled his hand away, Hijikata sensed a tensing of the man’s body. His hand immediately flew to the hilt of his katana, ready to draw just in case the situation took a turn for the worse. Sure enough, Sannan’s eyes turned bright red as he let out a feral howl. Hijikata took a step to his left, placing himself between Chizuru and rasetsu Sannan.
“Blood…” Sannan hissed in between little growls.
“Stay back, Chizuru,” Hijikata growled, drawing his katana.
Hijikata desperately hoped he wouldn’t have to use his sword against one of his closest friends, but he knew everyone in the room would be in danger if he wasn’t prudent in his decision making. He watched with mild disgust as Sannan tasted the blood on his hand, giggling with childish delight as he did so. The rasetsu's reddened eyes turned toward Chizuru once more, which made Hijikata tighten his grip on the hilt of his sword.
“Shit,” he muttered.
Hijikata took a step back to stand beside Chizuru before using his body to push her to the right. He heard her yelp as he ordered her to move away, but he didn’t pay attention to her reaction. He was more concerned with Sannan’s movements, and as he felt Chizuru move away, he used his body to block her from the rasetsu’s view. Sannan took a step toward Hijikata, but then stopped short with another howl. His hands went to his head as he fell to his knees. Hijikata kept his sword up, but he delayed any further action until he could see what was happening. When Sannan looked up once more, his red eyes had cleared, and he looked confused.
“What…?” Sannan looked around the room, and it appeared he understood what had happened. “I see. I lost control, but why?”
Sannan’s musings were interrupted by the arrival of the last person anyone wanted to see there - Itō. Hijikata sheathed his sword before he was tempted to use it against the prattling man. While Kondō distracted Itō, Hijikata turned his attention to his captains. Saitō was already leaning over the body of the dead rasetsu to strip him of his light blue haori. Nagakura and Harada were starting a pile of wood pieces and anything else that was broken. Heisuke looked as if he wanted to approach Chizuru but was unsure if he would be lectured. Which reminded Hijikata…
He turned to gaze upon Chizuru. Her eyes were wide with terror, her left hand covering the wound she had received to her right arm. He felt sympathy towards her, and he wanted to provide her with some comfort even though his first duty was to gather all the information he could about the situation and then make sure it didn’t happen again.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly, hoping Chizuru would note kindness in his tone rather than his usual gruffness.
It appeared she did, for she started before looking up at him. “Y-yes.”
“It’s clear you can’t stay here tonight. You can sleep in my quarters until we have this cleaned.” He reached out to her arm to check the damage done. “Yamazaki can tend-“
Chizuru took a quick step back from his reach, which surprised Hijikata. He noticed everyone was watching the exchange as Chizuru bowed to him. “I can look after this myself!”
With that, Chizuru exited the room as quickly as she could. Everyone stood shocked, wondering how Hijikata would react to Chizuru’s disrespectful inflection. Hijikata wasn’t sure how to respond. Sure, a part of him was angered by her attitude, but then he also understood where it was coming from. She was scared and injured - and most people would lash out as she did in that state. She also never wanted to be a burden, which Hijikata appreciated and found annoying at the same time. He wished she would allow them to take care of her when she needed it. Hijikata closed his eyes and sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Get the rest of this cleaned up. I know Kondō has Itō under control for the moment. Sannan, we need to talk.”
Sannan rose from the floor and approached Hijikata. The vice commander noticed the fine sheen of sweat on his friend’s face and the sheer misery in his features. What had happened had been a due to a severe lapse in Sannan’s duty, and the man was fully aware of such. The two made their way down the engawa toward an empty room where they could talk in peace. Normally, Hijikata would take Sannan to his own room, but he was sure Chizuru had no wish to see Sannan right now. When they had settled on the tatami in a room slightly covered in dust, Sannan released a breath he had been holding.
“I deeply apologize for my indiscretion. I’m not sure how he escaped, and I will investigate the matter once I return to the rasetsu residence.”
“Not only is Yukimura injured, but now Itō knows our secret. This was a dangerous lapse in judgment, Sannan,” Hijikata stated, his tone harsh.
Sannan bowed low. “I will accept any punishment you and Kondō-san find appropriate for my actions.”
Hijikata stared down at the back of Sannan’s head, his irritation draining away. Sannan was a friend and was usually so meticulous in his duties, which made this series of events so unusual. He wasn’t sure how Sannan had allowed this to happen, but he also knew Sannan would take the necessary steps to prevent another breach like this. At the same time, he knew that Sannan was suffering more than he let on ever since he had decided to drink the Ochimizu. Nothing he or Kondō could mete out as punishment would even come close to the agony Sannan experienced daily. Hijikata was fully aware of the bloodlust and how hard Sannan fought against the urge to drink blood. He could only imagine just how painful that experience would be.
“Just…make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hijikata finally stated, fatigue evident in his voice.
Sannan looked up, momentarily surprised by Hijikata’s statement but then he smiled in relief as he sat up once more. “I will be sure to do so.”
Hijikata rose from his seated position. “Some good has come out of this - Itō will be leaving sooner. I just wish we hadn’t exposed the Bakufu’s secret in order for him to do so.”
“I have a feeling that he already knew and was looking for a time to walk in at the wrong moment,” Sannan replied as he also stood. “I don’t know how he could’ve known, but I have my suspicions. I will be looking into it further as I conduct my investigation of tonight’s failure.”
Hijikata nodded. “Very well. I have some things I need to do in order to prepare for Itō’s imminent departure.”
“Don’t work too hard,” Sannan said with a smirk.
“Shut up. The one you should be worrying about is you.”
With that, Hijikata stalked out of the room and towards his own. If he was truthful with himself, he would admit that he wanted to nothing more than to sleep; however, he knew this wasn't going to happen. Not only did he have some political maneuvering to finish before Itō took his leave, but he was now sharing his room with Chizuru for the evening. As much as he wanted to enjoy the thought of having Chizuru near, he knew that his room was now going to be the center of attention among his captains, especially Sōji, Heisuke, Shinpachi, and Sanosuke. It was a rather scandalous thing to have a woman stay in his room overnight without some sort of chaperone, and while his only intention was to give her a safe place to sleep while he worked, he knew it would be easy to have his motivations misconstrued.
Turning the corner toward his room, Hijikata caught sight of Yamazaki. He motioned for the shinobi to approach.
“Fukuchō,” Yamazaki greeted.
“How is Kondō doing?”
“He is attempting to speak rationally to an irrational man,” Yamazaki reported. “He will be busy awhile.”
Hijikata hummed in thought. “I figured as much.” A sigh. “Yamazaki?”
“I need you to keep watch by my room. I don’t need prying eyes slinking around me tonight.”
As soon as those words left his mouth, Hijikata realized just how suggestive they sounded, especially since everyone knew Chizuru was in his room. He peered down at Yamazaki, who was struggling to keep his facial features neutral. Shit. He hoped that Yamazaki knew him better than that.
“I understand, fukuchō.”
Hijikata breathed out in relief. He knew he could rely on Yamazaki to know what he meant. “Thank you.”
When he came to his room, Hijikata threw the shoji open, the frame snapping loudly against the wall. Chizuru gasped and started, her eyes wide in fear. Hijikata realized that he had frightened her with the sudden entrance and clamorous noise, and he stood in the doorway for a moment to give her time to calm herself. He watched her breathing slow and her eyes soften, which indicated to him that she was over her initial fright, and he stepped inside the room, sliding the shoji gently shut behind him. He noticed right away that Chizuru had changed into a clean yukata and had seated herself informally on a cushion. He sighed and made his way to the corner where he kept his futon, quilts, and pillow neatly folded. He took hold of the pile and brought the items to Chizuru. He then began to set-up his futon.
“You’ve had an eventful evening. You should sleep,” Hijikata stated in a tone that brokered no argument.
Chizuru looked scandalized. “Where will you sleep?” She was met with silence. “You need rest as well, Hijikata-san.”
He glared at her, pausing in his task. “The one you should be worried about is yourself.”
His words were sharp if only because Hijikata was annoyed that she was concerned about him when she was the one who had been hurt. He placed the pillow on top of the futon before unfolding the quilts and spreading them over the futon. He snuck a covert glance at Chizuru and was surprised to see determination in her features. Yes, there was a slight discomfort radiating from her, but he attributed it to the attack rather than his words. She was not going to back down, and he sighed, giving in to her concern.
“I have some paperwork to finish. If you are asleep by the time I finish, I will sleep elsewhere.”
“I don’t want to deprive you of your own bed,” Chizuru replied in earnest.
“Tch,” Hijikata vocalized with a hint of fondness. “It’s not as if I haven’t slept in other places. Sitting up against the wall can be just as comfortable.”
He saw the look she shot him - it said that she didn’t believe him for an instant. Hijikata decided to ignore her and gestured to the futon. She understood his meaning and crawled beneath the quilts. She settled herself, breathing a sigh of relief. Happy to have won this battle, Hijikata went to his desk and prepared to spend a few hours pouring over reports and fretting over the events of the evening.
What bothered Hijikata the most about the evening was that the escaped rasetsu had only stopped in Chizuru’s room. The creature had passed several other rooms before hers. He had believed that once rasetsu had descended into unbridled madness, the creature wasn’t choosy of its victims - as long as it could drink blood, the creature would attack. This former man had proved that his suppositions were wrong.
The other point worth considering was why? Why would the creature target her? Another moment of note was Sannan’s quick recovery from the blood lust occurred short after he had tasted Chizuru’s blood. It didn’t make sense, and that bothered the vice commander to no end.
Well, he thought to himself. There is an explanation that I’m not sure I’m ready to accept. And that was Kazama’s claim that Chizuru was Oni. He wasn’t sure why that would matter in this case, but the fact probably was worth considering now. Still, he felt he didn’t have enough information regarding the whole situation, and he would only drive himself crazy attempting to figure it all out. Instead, he turned his attention to the written reports piled on his desk. He pulled one down in front of him and fidgeted on his cushion to make himself more comfortable.
Hijikata went through half of the pile of papers on his desk before he remembered that he was sharing the room with someone else. He had been so absorbed in his work that everything else had just slipped away until it was just him, paper, and words. He looked over his shoulder to see Chizuru fast asleep. His intent had been to just check in with her and return to his work right away, but he found he couldn’t pull himself away. Sleeping, she looked so relaxed and peaceful.
Chizuru’s chest rose and fell at a comforting rhythm that brought Hijikata a small measure of calm to his work. He hadn't realized just how much tension he had been carrying in his whole body as he read through the reports while his thoughts occasionally strayed back to the attack on Chizuru. He wondered at how she was able to have such an effect on him even when she was sleeping. He smiled fondly at her before turning back to his desk. He really could have spent more time watching her and enjoying the serenity that seemed to just emanate from her very being.
The content feeling led Hijikata down a path of thoughts that surrounded his sentiments toward the young woman lying on his futon, and he immediately put his head in his hands in a shoddy attempt to stop himself from thinking any further on the subject. He knew he was growing attached to her, which was something he really thought was a bad idea. His chosen path in life was not one he meant to share with a woman, nor did he think it right of him to ask one to do so. It was dangerous, and tonight’s events just further solidified those beliefs in Hijikata’s mind.
He cared for her, and he wanted to protect her. He knew that he would do what he could to keep her safe while she shared a roof with the Shinsengumi, but he hoped that, one day, he could ensure her complete safety by leaving her in the care of her family (Kōdō perhaps?), who would take her far away from the capitol. Deep down, he would miss her steadfast presence, but he knew it would be better for her in the long run, no matter how much it might hurt him.
A gasp sounded from behind him, and Hijikata spun around to see Chizuru wide awake on the futon. Her eyes were glassy, and he heard a quiet sniffle emit from her, indicating that she was crying. In the time she had been with the Shinsengumi, Hijikata had never seen her cry, and it made his stomach clench uncomfortably. He wasn’t sure what to do, but when a sob escaped from her lips, he jumped to action. He leapt off of his cushion and went to the side of the futon, kneeling beside her. She remained lying, her eyes unseeing and tears streaming down her face. He didn’t want to startle her with a touch, so he decided to try to draw her out of herself with verbal prompts.
“Chizuru,” he murmured. He waited a beat for a response. When he didn’t get one, he tried again, though a little louder. “Chizuru.”
Her eyes roved up to his face, and she blinked as if she was having difficulty seeing who was in front of her. A few more tears rolled down her cheeks before she slowly sat up. “Hi-Hijikata-san,” she whispered.
“Are you all right?” he asked, taking in her tousled hair, reddened cheeks, and rumpled yukata. She definitely didn’t look okay.
She shook her head, confirming Hijikata’s quick assessment. “I dreamt of the rasetsu coming after me…and I-I couldn’t stop it…” she dissolved into more tears.
“You’re safe here,” Hijikata said firmly. “I won’t let anything harm you.” He then mentally berated himself for his last statement because it wasn’t entirely true. She had already been hurt under his watch, and he hadn’t been there to stop it. He didn’t blame her for feeling the way she was.
Without a second thought, Hijikata leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her trembling form, pulling her close to his chest. Chizuru squeaked in surprise. “I know I didn’t stop that bastard from cutting you, but I swear…I won’t let it happen again.”
He didn’t know what had possessed him to reach out to her, but in the moment, it seemed like the right thing to do. Now that she was in his arms, Hijikata wasn’t sure where to go from there. He couldn’t push her away because he was the one that initiated the contact - propriety be damned. He also admitted that he was enjoying being a comfort to her, and he wanted to keep holding her even if it was going to take him further down the road he knew he shouldn’t be going.
Instead of quieting her tears, it seemed that Hijikata’s embrace opened up the floodgates. She let out another sob and clung tightly to his kimono. Before he fully realized what was happening, she had pushed him back enough that he had to sit on the floor cross-legged in order to allow her to climb into his lap to prevent them both from ending up sprawled on the tatami. Her head came to rest on his shoulder. The uncontrolled tears were enough to set Hijikata on edge because he had no idea how to handle a woman who was inconsolable like this - especially one who normally didn’t let her emotions show in such a way. He decided the best course of action was to continue to hold her without speaking.
After a few minutes, Chizuru’s tears calmed. The only evidence of her outburst was his damp kimono and her intermittent sniffles. He pulled her away from his shoulder, their eyes meeting. He could see discomfort in her eyes, and as well as lingering melancholy and fear. His heart softened and he drew her close once more.
“Stay as long as you want. You have nothing to fear.”
She adjusted herself so that she was sitting sideways in his lap, her shoulder leaning against his chest and her legs stretched out over his right thigh. Her left hand still held onto the hem of his kimono. He could tell she wouldn’t question this like she normally would have. “Thank you.”
Her cheek came to rest against his shoulder, and he adjusted his arms so that her back was supported by his left arm. His hands linked at her side, settling at her waist. A companionable silence descended between the two of them. It allowed Hijikata to think about the situation he currently found himself in. He tried to be rational about it - that he was just letting her know she was safe and nothing more, but the warmth exuding from her body was comforting to him, and the scent of ume - his favorite flower - wafted from her hair. He noticed how she fit ever so perfectly in his arms and no matter how much he tried to distance himself emotionally, he couldn’t help but be drawn in by her softness and innate strength.
He was falling for her - he knew it. It was the wrong thing to do; it wasn’t fair to her for he could never be the lover for her that she deserved, but he didn’t have the strength to deny her at this moment - not when she needed him. To protect was his weakness and always would be, and no matter what, he was going to keep this young woman in his arms safe. Hijikata peered down at her and noticed that her eyes had closed, her hand had loosened its hold on his kimono, and her breathing had evened out. Everything about her at this moment was so inviting, and Hijikata suddenly felt tired. He let his chin rest on top her head, and his eyes fluttered closed.
Hijikata came to when his left shoulder came in contact with the tatami. His looked down to see Chizuru still cradled in his arms and oblivious to the fact that they were now lying on the floor wrapped up in each other. Shit, Hijikata thought. He wasn’t sure how he was going to disentangle himself without waking her up. A part of him supposed they could just stay on the floor, but he knew it wouldn’t be comfortable, and when Chizuru awoke, he was sure she would be aware enough to be mortified to have slept so close to him. Coming to a decision, Hijikata carefully slipped his arms out from under her and left her temporarily on the tatami while he pulled down the quilts on the futon. He then gathered her up in his arms and placed her gently on the futon and covering her with the quilts. He stood for a moment, watching her sleep.
With a tired exhale, Hijikata went to the lantern posted beside his desk and snuffed out the flame. He then retrieved his katana, for if he was going to sleep upright like he did in the field, he knew he would only be able to sleep with his sword with him. He went to the wall beside the shoji leading outdoors and sat with his back against it. He lifted his right leg up, bent at the knee, and the left leg lay out straight before him. The sheathed blade rested against his right leg and the hilt leaned against his shoulder.
“Yamazaki?” he called out loud enough to be heard through the shoji.
“You may go.”
With that, Hijikata adjusted his body until he was comfortable. Before he closed his eyes, he took one more look at the sleeping young woman in his bed, wishing he could be there instead. Yet, he knew this decision was for the best. In the morning, this would be forgotten and they would move on.
And he could continue to deny his blossoming love for the young lady from Edo.