The God of Wishes
He was coughing again. Somehow, Chizuru could always tell. She'd wake up in the middle of the night and quietly make her way to Okita's room. Sometimes he'd be awake and try to shoo her away. Other times, he'd be passed out again, tossing, turning, writhing—always in pain.
Tuberculosis was cruel. That was Chizuru's thought as she knelt down near Okita's head. She used a damp cloth to gently wipe away the sweat on his forehead. She'd run her fingers through his hair or hold his hand—things she'd never dare to do if he were awake—until he calmed down and his sleep became more peaceful.
Then, she'd watch over him. Sometimes for hours. Okita had always been a point of fascination for Chizuru, ever since the Shinsengumi first found her that night in the back alleys of Kyoto. When his cold words cut her to the bone, when he put his life on the line to protect her, when everything he said and did contradicted each other…
Somehow, this cruel, sadistic swordsman had wormed his way into her heart and carved out a place there. Without even meaning to. She was no fool—she knew he didn't care for her that way. But love in its purest form was selfless. Chizuru didn't need affirmation or even for him to return her affections. As long as he was happy and healthy.
But those two things were few and far between these days.
The sun rose high into the sky by the time Okita regained consciousness. He felt Chizuru's presence before he opened his eyes and saw her. He lazily draped his arm over his eyes to shield them from the light of day.
"Chizuru-chan," he said, keeping his voice teasing. "Why is it every time I wake up, you're here watching over me?" He heard her breath catch in her throat and could envision her guilty expression, like a child getting in trouble with their parents. "You can't think I'm so weak I have to have you taking care of me all night now, do you?"
"Um, well no…"
"Or is it you just love me so much, you can't stand to be apart from me at night?" That comment was worth him lowering his arm so he could watch her face turn bright red. It was such a rapid change that it made him laugh every time.
"N-no!" she protested. "That's not it, Okita-san!"
Okita rose up in his futon, still snickering at Chizuru's expense. His green eyes landed on the wash cloth in her hands and the bowl of clean water at her side. She really had been taking care of him all night. He caught sight of the bags under her eyes, and he frowned in disapproval.
"I never asked you to do any of that for me," he said. His jovial mood was gone, replaced by the sour attitude he got when people fussed over his health. "I don't need you taking care of me."
Chizuru grew tense at his change in tone. She lowered her gaze submissively and said, "I know… You've always been so strong, Okita-san."
His fingers twitched at his sides. Before Chizuru, Kondou was the only one who never showed him pity but instead looked in awe at his strength. And now, there was her. Guilt gnawed at him from the insides. But still… if she stayed… if she stayed with him and took care of him like she did, she'd never find her father. She'd never leave the Shinsengumi. She'd never be a normal girl and live her life the way she was meant to.
Okita was not as cruel as he pretended to be. Sure, Hijikata was a little better at it, but Okita could really be a demon when he needed to be. He opened his mouth, and he cut into Chizuru like a thousand knives.
"How many times am I going to have to tell you to go away before you get it through that thick skull of yours? I don't want you here. I don't need you or anyone taking care of me. You think by feeding me and watching over me I'm going to magically recover from this? This disease is going to kill me. There's nothing you can do that will ever change that!"
Chizuru recoiled as if she'd been slapped. For an instant, Okita felt like a true monster. And maybe he was. But he'd hardened his resolve. This was for her own good. He forced his face into an expression of pure coldness, one that made her draw back in fear at the sight of it. "I don't want anything to do with you. Leave me alone, and never come back in here."
She sat there, staring at him in horror for a few seconds that felt like several minutes. Okita almost lost his nerve. Luckily, she scrambled to her feet, bowed to him, and ran out the door before he could say another word.
Killing people never made him feel half the monster that he felt like when he made Chizuru cry.
"That was very cruel, Souji."
Okita narrowed his eyes at the sound of Harada's voice. Of all people to eavesdrop on that, Harada was probably the worst choice. The Tenth Division captain stepped in front of Okita's door with his arms folded across his chest. His amber eyes were locked in the direction Chizuru had just run off in, but the disapproval on his face was clear.
"I know what you're doing," Harada said, sending his far-too-perceptive stare toward Okita. "But you didn't have to be so mean to her to do it."
Okita scowled. He laid back down in his futon and turned his back away from Harada. "I don't know what you're talking about, Sano-san."
Despite the pain that Okita's harsh words had caused her, Chizuru knew that he was right. She could stay by his side sunrise to sunset, and it wouldn't make a difference toward his health. Tuberculosis was killing him, and nothing she did seemed to change that.
But still… Chizuru remembered a legend. There was a God of Wishes who lived in wells named Tanukishiro. If you paid him an offering, he would come to you and hear your wish. Then, a deal could be made.
The God of Wishes did not come to just anyone, however. Some people left hundreds of ryo in wells only to never meet the God of Wishes. Others dropped random, loose change and were visited that night. Whether or not any of that was true, Chizuru was desperate and willing to believe anything that might save Okita.
And so, she scrounged up all the money she had saved since coming to Kyoto two years ago. It was everything she had. On the night of the full moon, not a cloud in the sky, she approached the well in Nishi Hongwanji Temple and poured every single coin she possessed into the water below.
Chizuru clapped her hands together and bowed her head in prayer. "Please," she whispered. "Please come to me and hear my wish. Please hear me out."
She stayed that way for exactly forty-four minutes before she saw a ripple in the well water. Chizuru jumped in fright and stumbled backward. She landed roughly on her backside.
And then, up jumped a small, furry creature. It was a white raccoon. He landed on the edge of the well and, despite having come from inside a well, he was completely dry.
"What a desperate plea from a little girl."
His voice was gravelly and male, but his mouth did not move. Still, Chizuru knew it had come from the raccoon. He stared at her without expression.
Though frightened, Chizuru pulled herself up and sat down on her knees in front of the well. "Are you the God of Wishes?" she asked.
"I am," said the white raccoon god. "And I've come to hear your desire."
Chizuru bent down into a bow, her forehead just above the dirt, with her hands in front of her touching the ground. "Please," she begged. "Please cure Okita-san's tuberculosis."
"He is dying," Tanukishiro said. "You ask much. Do you not wish for anything for yourself?"
It sounded like the god was going to refuse her. Her eyes stung with tears. Chizuru lifted her head and looked up at the white raccoon with desperation. "There is nothing I want more than his health! Please, please save him!"
"Does he know you are doing this for him?"
She lowered her gaze. "No."
"Little girl," said Tanukishiro. "You live your life in silence. You must learn to speak anew."
Chizuru furrowed her brow, daring to look up again into the golden eyes of the white raccoon. "I don't understand…"
"I will test your resolve," said the disembodied voice of the white raccoon god. "You must remain silent for one full year. Do so, and Okita Souji will be cured. But the moment you utter a single sound, his illness will return, and Death will claim him. If you keep your word, come to me in one year's time, and our deal will be complete. Do you understand?"
She opened her mouth to respond in giddy affirmative, but Chizuru stopped quickly. What if the year had already begun? She snapped her mouth shut and nodded meekly to the raccoon.
The small creature's mouth twisted into a fanged smile. "The deal is made."
Okita awoke feeling better than he had in months. He could still feel lingering traces of his illness, but for once, he could take a breath of air and not feel the burning pain in his throat and lungs. Fatigue didn't hang over him like clouds. He pulled himself out of his futon and slid open the door to the outside.
The breath of summer air was rejuvenating. Okita looked down at his hands in awe. He felt strength in his fingers. He felt hungry, he felt awake, he felt alive.
He glanced back at the corner of his room where his swords were propped up against the wall. His clothes were folded neatly nearby.
Once he was dressed and armed, Okita left his room and went straight for the dojo. He could hear some of the men getting in an early practice, and he anxiously hurried his pace so he could join them. He opened the double doors with a dramatic flair and said, "Look at you assholes getting in some practice without me. I see how it is."
Inside, Heisuke and Nagakura were going at it with their swords while Harada stood nearby as referee. They all froze at Okita's voice, though, and turned to face him with shock and concern.
"Souji!" said Harada. "You should be resting."
"I've had enough resting to last me a lifetime," Okita said. He walked over to the wall and picked up one of the wooden practice swords. He gave it an experimental swing before he pointed it in their direction. "One of you, come at me."
Heisuke made a loud noise of protest. "We can't do that! You're sick!"
Okita's green eyes flashed with annoyance. "I'm fine. Better than I've felt in months. If you're too cowardly to come at me one at a time, then I'll take all three of you at once."
"Are you joking, Souji?" Nagakura said, frowning. "You wanna die or something?"
Talking clearly wasn't getting him anywhere, so Okita labeled conversation as pointless and charged for the closest opponent. It just so happened to be Heisuke. The Eighth Captain quickly raised his bokken to instinctively block the attack, but Okita continued his assault, pushing Heisuke back until he was knocked off his feet and onto his back on the floor.
Okita held his sword back at eye level, now pointed at Nagakura, with his left hand extended toward the tip of the wooden blade. Heisuke hadn't tried fighting back, but knocking him down like that was still exhilarating.
Nagakura's eyes widened, and he took a step back. "Whoa, hang on, Souji, I don't—"
When Okita dove for him, Nagakura used his bokken to deflect the blow. With Okita on such a fast, powerful offensive, it was all Nagakura could do to simply keep up with him and block. He hadn't seen Okita fight like this since the Ikedaya.
Before he knew it, Nagakura was grinning widely. Okita's scowl was replaced by a smirk, and the two fell into a sparring match that had them both covered in sweat. It was just like old times, and for his part, Nagakura completely forgot about Okita's illness.
They'd have kept going if Hijikata hadn't chosen that exact time to enter the dojo. The Oni Vice-Commander looked momentarily stunned by the sight of Nagakura and Okita sparring, but his face quickly shifted into one of rage. "What do you two think you're doing? Souji, didn't I tell you I didn't want to see you pick up a sword until you went a day without coughing up a lung?"
Okita lowered his arm so his sword pointed toward the ground. He wiped sweat from his forehead and glowered at Hijikata for ruining his fun. "I have gone all day without coughing, Hijikata-san."
Hijikata wasn't buying it. "If you think I'll believe—"
"Wait!" said Nagakura a little breathlessly. "It's true, Hijikata-san. Souji and I have been practicing a while! He seems fine!"
"Impossible," Hijikata said as he furrowed his brow in disbelief.
Harada shook his head and approached the group in the center of the dojo. "I would've said the same thing, but look at him. Souji, how's your breathing?"
Okita took a deep breath and exhaled slowly to prove his point. "I feel fine."
"It's a miracle," Heisuke said with wide eyes.
It was clear Hijikata wasn't fully convinced. His jaw was set, and he was watching Okita with a calm air, his face deep in thought. "If you truly are feeling better, then that's good news. But I still want you to take it easy for now in case you have a relapse. If you're still feeling this good by the end of the week, you can resume your duties as Captain of the First Division."
They were words Okita never thought he'd hear. Heisuke let out a whoop of joy, and Nagakura pulled Okita to him to lock him in a headlock while he ruffled his hair proudly. Okita was in too much of a happy daze to pull away from him.
"Chizuru-chan will be beside herself with relief," Harada commented idly. He had a small smile on his face, as if he were privy to information the rest of the world missed out on.
"That's right!" Heisuke said excitedly. "I'll go tell her!"
Harada grabbed the back of Heisuke's collar before the young captain could run off. "Heisuke," he said. "Don't you think we should tell Kondou-san first? Souji can tell Chizuru-chan himself after."
Okita pulled himself free of Nagakura's grasp and put on a face of bland indifference. "Heisuke can tell her. I'm going to go find Kondou-san."
It goes without saying that Kondou Isami was thrilled. After that, the news of Okita's recover spread through the Shinsengumi like wildfire. Everyone in the First Division was eager to welcome back their captain, even if he was still technically out of commission for the rest of the week under the Vice-Commander's orders. They threw their fists into the air and cheered, and for the first time in forever, Okita felt like his old self again.
It was one of the longest nights Nishi Hongwanji Temple had ever seen. Since Hijikata refused to allow Okita to leave Headquarters (just in case), a night at Shimabara was out of the question. That being said, it didn't stop the entire First Division and majority of the captains from bringing the party to him instead. Food and drinks were plentiful, and to Hijikata's surprise (and relief), Okita did not cough once.
Early the next morning, when most of the men were passed out drunk in the mess hall, Chizuru started tip-toeing around them and picking up empty sake bottles. The sun was just starting to rise, and judging by the snores of the men, she had plenty of time before she needed to start breakfast.
"Working hard, Chizuru-chan?"
She jumped at the sound of his voice, but she didn't drop the ceramic flasks she was holding. Chizuru turned around toward Okita and smiled and nodded to him.
Okita was leaning against the open doorway with his arms folded across his chest. With Chizuru's lack of a full response, his playful smirk disappeared and was replaced with a small frown. Teasing her was one of his favorite pass-times. He was still too excited and pleased to sleep, so when he saw that she was awake, it seemed like a great opportunity to make up for lost time.
But… she was quiet. She still smiled at him in that bright, stupid way of hers, but she didn't say a word. No ohayo, no Okita-san, no nothing. Was she… perhaps still upset about what he'd said to her yesterday? Even he had to admit that it was harsh, but… she was always able to brush his cruel comments aside before.
"Kid," he said, drawing her attention back to him. "Are you okay?"
Her eyes widened, as if she couldn't believe he was even asking her. Chizuru quickly smiled at him and nodded, making some gesture with her hands that looked placating. Then, she went back to cleaning.
Okita's frown deepened. Was she giving him the silent treatment? She certainly didn't seem hostile. But why wasn't she speaking? He decided to go with a different approach, since scaring her would probably be a step in the wrong direction. Instead, Okita strolled over to her and leaned down so his face was obnoxiously close to hers. He grinned at her blush and spoke in a teasing tone. "Why aren't you speaking to me, Chizuru-chan? You're going to hurt my feelings."
Immediately, her brow creased with worry. She set down the tokkuri flasks and waved her hands in front of her body rapidly, to assure him that she didn't mean to offend. Chizuru tapped her throat with one of her hands, her mouth open to mime that she could not speak.
Okita's brow furrowed, and he tilted his head to the side slightly. "You lost your voice?"
Chizuru nodded, clearly relieved that he understood.
Okita chuckled and tried not to let his relief show. He smirked at her and patted her on the head. "Poor kid. You're supposed to be celebrating my miraculous recovery, and yet here you are cleaning up after us with no voice. Aren't you happy that I'm feeling better, Chizuru-chan?"
Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to protest, but she stopped herself from making a sound. She dipped down in an apologetic bow to Okita.
He sighed and pulled her back up so she was standing up straight. "It's fine. I was messing with you. Keep taking my jokes seriously, and I'll have to kill you for not laughing."
Chizuru beamed at him. It was that innocent smile of hers that always managed to twist Okita's insides into knots. She was far too genuine.
"Run along now and start breakfast," he told her. "These assholes can clean up after themselves." Chizuru looked ready to protest, but Okita hushed her. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around toward the door. "Go on—make yourself useful, Chizuru-chan."
She nodded and scurried out of the mess hall.
Despite being well on his way to recovery, Okita wasn't quite up to par with his old strength. He had to exercise, work out, and train daily to regain what he'd lost while bedridden. Hijikata expressed disapproval at him pushing his body so hard after making it through tuberculosis, but Okita ignored him. Now that he was feeling better, he wanted to resume his duties in the Shinsengumi as soon as possible.
His troop was supportive. Okita's skill with a katana was legendary, and now that he was back in action, their awe and admiration for him only seemed to grow. It provided a great source of motivation for him—he wanted to prove them right.
The best motivation, however, was always Kondou. Okita's feelings toward Kondou varied between older brother to father figure, but there was no doubt that the Commander was the most important person in Okita's life. If Okita could continue being Kondou's sword, his life was complete.
"I'm so glad to see you're feeling better, Souji," Kondou told him. "You really had me worried there for a while."
"You don't have to worry about me, Kondou-san," Okita replied. There was a certain gentle tone to his voice that he only ever used when he was alone with Kondou. "I'm just glad I can fight for you again."
A sad sort of smile came into Kondou's face. "I am, too, but are you sure this is what you want?"
Okita looked at his leader with confusion. "What do you mean? I want to protect you."
"I know, but your recovery has me thinking," Kondou admitted. "Now that your illness is gone, it's like you've been given a second chance at life. I realize now that up to this point, you've been living your life for me. But I wonder if the time has come for you to start living for you."
A frightful chill traveled down Okita's spine. "Kondou-san… you are the reason I exist in this world. I'm meant to be your sword. There's nothing else I want to live for."
He was afraid, Kondou realized. His favored little Souji, despite being an adult on the outside, was still that small child on the inside that was all but abandoned in front of his dojo back in Edo. Kondou reached out and touched his hand to Okita's shoulder with a gentle smile on his face. "Of course. Forget I said anything, Souji. I just want to make sure you're happy."
Okita immediately relaxed and smiled at Kondou. "As long as I'm helping you achieve your goals, I'm happy."
It would take time, Kondou realized, and a few gentle nudges here and there, but eventually, he hoped Okita would strive toward one or two goals of his own.
When he expressed these concerns to Hijikata, the Vice-Commander seemed less than enthusiastic. "You spoiled him too much since he was a kid," he told Kondou. "Now he's dependent on you and your approval. You can't expect him to change that overnight."
Kondou looked down with a sad smile. "I know, Toshi; I just want what's best for him. Souji is a man now, and a high-ranking Captain of the Shinsengumi. He's of samurai birth. Doesn't he want anything for himself? A home? A family?"
Hijikata pressed his lips together in a thin line while he collected his thoughts. After a moment, he sighed and placed his hands on his knees while he looked toward Kondou. "I don't think he's thought about settling down once all his life. The one thing Souji and I agree on is our dedication to the Shinsengumi and to you, Kondou-san."
Kondou's smile turned a little more sly. "I'd be happy to see you settle down with a wife, too, Toshi."
An amused sound came from Hijikata's throat. "I am far too busy to even bother with such things."
The Commander disagreed—if Hijikata wanted to, he could make time. But he wasn't about to push the matter, either. In all the years they'd known each other, it had never worked before. "And Souji?"
"Souji may not be as busy, but he's even less interested," Hijikata informed him. "You should be content that Chizuru fusses over him like she does. That's as close as you're going to get to finding a wife for Souji."
As if Hijikata had just said the magic words, Kondou's back straightened, and his eyes widened. "Of course," he said. "Yukimura-kun."
"I just need to find Souji a nice girl like Yukimura-kun!" Kondou said enthusiastically. "Then I can rest easy knowing he has a secure future."
Hijikata stared at Kondou for a long time before he smiled and sighed. "My friend, you are hopeless."
Despite Hijikata's advice, Kondou took it upon himself to start looking for a suitable wife for Okita. When he told him this, Okita was less than enthusiastic.
"Why do I need a wife? I've done fine by myself so far."
"Souji," Kondou said. His tone spoke of disapproval, but his indulging smile said otherwise. "Every man needs a wife to take care of the house and kids while he is away. I would be lost without Tsune to take care of little Tama-chan back in Edo."
"I don't have kids or a house," Okita pointed out. "So getting a wife would be pointless."
Kondou waved his hand in dismissal. "Those things come later. When Mitsu-san left you in my care, I knew the day would come when I would have to set you up with a nice girl to become your wife. Now, I realize that it is traditionally the father's duty, but I hope you don't mind me taking over in that regard…"
Okita's face bore a pinched expression, torn between seeking Kondou's approval and desperately not wanting a wife. "I'll do whatever you want, Kondou-san, but do I have to get married?"
Kondou furrowed his brow. "I didn't expect you to be so against it, Souji. Is there someone else?"
"Of course not!"
It was one of those rare, once-in-a-blue-moon moments where Okita blushed, though it was from embarrassment, not from love. Naturally, Kondou interpreted it the other way. Completely disregarding Okita's words, Kondou's face lit up with excitement. "There is, isn't there? Tell me who she is! I can pull some strings and set you up with her!"
At that moment, Inoue Genzaborou's voice came from outside the door. "Excuse me! I've brought Chizuru-chan here with some tea."
"Perfect timing, Gen-san!" said Kondou. "Come in, Yukimura-kun."
The fusuma door slid open, and Chizuru picked up the tray of tea off the floor. She moved inside the room and set it back down before sliding the door closed. While she served tea to Okita and Kondou, the Commander continued his conversation as if Chizuru wasn't there.
"Well?" he pressed. "If you won't give me her name, at least tell me what she's like!"
"There's no girl," Okita said with a pained expression. It was bad enough that Kondou was even having this conversation, but did he have to have it with Chizuru right there?
Kondou's smile didn't waver. He took a sip from his tea and then lowered the cup. "Come on, Souji—I've known you since you were little. Tell me her name, and I can set you up with her!"
Okita's eyes flickered over to Chizuru by mistake, but Kondou caught the gesture. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Kondou completely missed the intent. "Ah, Yukimura-kun, can you think of any nice girls around your age that would make a good wife for Souji? I feel… someone younger than him, with spirit, who will take care of him and not put up with his attitude. What do you think?"
"K-Kondou-san—" Okita protested.
Chizuru's face brightened to a marvelous shade of red. Her wide eyes locked onto Kondou's. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She quickly ducked her head.
Okita's previous embarrassment was forgotten in the wake of the distraction. "Kondou-san, Chizuru-chan has lost her voice, remember?"
Fatherly concern spread over Kondou's face. "Oh, that's right. Still, Yukimura-kun? It has been a couple of days now. Can you not utter even a little sound?"
Chizuru looked up at him with an apologetic smile and shook her head.
Kondou returned her smile with one of his more gentler expressions. "Of course. I'm sorry to have forgotten, Yukimura-kun. Here we are celebrating Souji's recovery, and you've come down with something yourself. Do you need to rest?"
Chizuru quickly raised her hands and waved them in front of her in her usual don't worry gesture. She smiled in a reassuring way.
"Very well," Kondou acquiesced. "Just take care of yourself and get well soon."
Chizuru nodded happily.
Okita watched their interaction with unguarded amusement. He never could get over how pure and optimistic Chizuru was. It was one of his favorite qualities about her, not that he'd ever tell her that. He realized that his stare had lingered a moment too long, so he schooled his features back into his usual attitude and took a slow, steady sip of tea.
"You're always in such good spirits, Yukimura-kun," Kondou commented happily. "Even when you're ill, you still have a smile on your face. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say you brighten the atmosphere around this place. Thank you."
Chizuru looked completely humbled by the praise. She bowed to Kondou and smiled and nodded several times, trying to mime her gratitude to him with her gestures. Kondou understood and brushed it aside with his easy-going laughter.
"Now if I could just find a girl like you to set up with Souji…"
"Not gonna happen, Kondou-san," Okita replied with a smirk. He stood up and carried his katana at his side. "There's no other girl like Chizuru-chan." As he walked past her, he reached down and ruffled her hair before continuing on his way and excusing himself from the room.
The random affection left Chizuru red-faced and overjoyed. Despite Okita's cold words to her before, now that he was feeling better, he was returning to his old self again. It made her very happy to see him smiling again like he used to.
Walking in on Kondou talking about setting Okita up with some girl left a churning feeling in her gut. But Okita had brushed it all aside and said there was no other girl like Chizuru. Her heart raced. If only he knew what those words meant to her. …If only they meant something to him, too.
Kondou chuckled and scratched the back of his head in an awkward fashion. "I guess he has a point. You're a special girl, Yukimura-kun."
Chizuru bowed and smiled in gratitude.
The First Month
Hijikata Toshizo was skeptical and suspicious by nature. Though he didn't think twice about Chizuru's mysterious illness which took away her ability to speak at first, after a week went by and she still showed no signs of talking, he began to question it.
Before making any of these suspicions apparent to others, he first started watching her. She went about her usual chores, smiling as if nothing had changed. She wasn't fatigued, feverish or even coughing. If it weren't for the fact that she wasn't speaking or even humming as she worked, Hijikata would think that there was nothing wrong with her.
So then… perhaps it wasn't that she couldn't speak, but that she chose not to? But why would she make such a choice? Perhaps something had happened or changed with her. Whatever it was, he wanted to get to the bottom of it before anything worse came of it.
She jumped and ceased her washing of the laundry to turn around and face him. When their eyes met, she smiled and bowed.
Hijikata did not return the gesture. "Why aren't you speaking anymore?"
Chizuru straightened her back, her face a little worried. She raised her hand to tap her throat, but Hijikata would have none of it.
"Don't bother with that 'lost your voice' excuse," he said. "You're not sick. Why won't you speak?"
She was clearly hesitating, and it made Hijikata's eyes narrow. She must've sensed his thinning patience, for she bowed in apology again. When she straightened her back, she touched her throat and shook her head.
"You won't tell me," he inferred.
Chizuru's shoulders slumped, and her gaze fell to the ground.
Hijikata sighed. "I'll let this go for now. I expect you to explain yourself in time."
Hijikata wasn't the only one bothered by Chizuru's sudden silence. It irked Okita as well, but any time he mentioned it, she just smiled and made her apologetic gestures. He didn't have ample opportunities to pester her about it, though. As the reinstated Captain of the First Division, he spent most of his time with his men, training his body, and patrolling Kyoto.
Luckily for Chizuru, most of the others were at least sympathetic to her struggles. Harada Sanosuke, the Tenth Captain, always treated her nicely, and now that she'd lost her voice, he was even more inclined to help her than before.
"Here, Chizuru-chan," Harada said with a gentle smile. He offered her a rolled up scroll and a portable brush. "I had some leftover money from my wages and got this for you. I'm sure it's hard not being able to speak to anyone."
Chizuru accepted the gifts with the brightest, happiest smile he'd seen on her since Okita's recovery. She bowed gratefully to him several times.
Harada laughed and brushed it aside, making it clear that it was no big deal to him. "Now if you need to say something, you can write it."
The first thing she wrote was for him: Thank you very much, Harada-san.
Harada's gift certainly made her life easier. Rather than miming everything or trying to communicate with gestures and body language alone, Chizuru was now able to write notes if what she had to get across was too complicated to act out.
Heisuke worried about her more than ever, even with her notepad. "It must be something serious! It's been over a week and she still doesn't have her voice!"
"She's getting by alright though," Nagakura pointed out. Truthfully, he didn't think much about Chizuru's voice or lack thereof.
"I can't believe you guys aren't more concerned about this," said Heisuke. "What if we never hear Chizuru-chan's voice again?"
"That would be upsetting," Harada agreed. "But until we know the cause, it's best not to stress her out too much."
For an entire month, Yukimura Chizuru did not utter a single sound. Some of the men in the Shinsengumi began to think she had gone mute. The captains all had varying opinions.
Nagakura took it in stride. "If she doesn't want to talk, then why force her?"
Heisuke worried about her feelings toward the men. "I just don't want her to be mad at us or something…"
Harada worried about Chizuru herself. "It isn't normal for a girl to stop speaking. Something must be wrong, but she can't tell us."
Saito rarely offered his opinion, only giving it when asked. "It is none of our business if she chooses not to speak. We must respect her privacy."
Hijikata didn't share his opinion with the others. He knew something wasn't right with Chizuru, something that wasn't medically related. But he didn't like the idea of forcing the information out of her, either. Still, it had been a month, and he had no intention of standing around waiting for her to open up about it much longer. It was affecting his men, which affected the Shinsengumi, which made it his problem—at least, that was his logic.
Okita hated it.
"Chizuru-chan," said Okita. She looked up and smiled, clearly happy to see him. That brightened his mood a little. He beckoned her over with his hand. "Why don't you come for a walk with me?"
Chizuru hesitated and looked down at the broom in her hands. She was in the middle of her chores. Hijikata probably wouldn't like it if she wandered off. Her gaze drifted back up to Okita, and she put on her best apology face.
Okita folded his arms over his chest and didn't look remotely deterred. "Don't give me that look," he said. "Hijikata-san can get over himself. I haven't spent time with you in a while, so I'm going to fix that."
She couldn't hide the confusion from her face. Okita actually… wanted to spend time with her? Her heart quickened, and she once again looked down at the broomstick. She pressed her lips together in a thin line. It was always so hard to tell where she stood with Okita, but… there was no doubt that she was immensely fond of him. If he wanted to spend time with her, then nothing would make her happier.
"Come on, Chizuru-chan," Okita said again. "Unless you want me to leave you behind."
Chizuru made up her mind. She set down the broom against the wall and hurried over to where Okita was standing. She gave him a bright, happy smile that he returned with an amused little grin of his own.
Okita reached over and patted her head. "That's better. I'm heading into town for a little bit to pick up some dango. Come with me."
Dango was a delicious-sounding prospect. Chizuru happily walked at Okita's side. The two of them passed under the gates of the temple and headed into town. While they walked past various stores and vendors, Okita brought up something that had been on his mind.
"Kondou-san seems down lately," he said as they walked side by side. Chizuru looked up at him, her eyes asking him to continue. "He's been talking about Edo and the dojo. His family."
Chizuru's face became sympathetic. She knew that Kondou had a wife and daughter back in Edo. The little girl was around four, she believed. She'd probably only seen her father a handful of times. How lonely it must be for the two of them back home…
"I asked him if he wanted to take time off to visit them, but he said he can't leave Kyoto," Okita said. He folded his arms in front of him and slipped his hands into the sleeves of his blue haori. "I don't see why he doesn't leave everything to Hijikata-san and do something nice for himself."
Chizuru looked thoughtful as she debated a few reasons. Knowing Kondou-san, he was probably putting the needs of the Shinsengumi above his personal needs. It was just the kind of man he was.
She reached into her pocket and took out the notebook Harada had given her. Okita watched as she wrote out the kanji for 'Responsibility.'
Okita frowned as he accepted the note from her. "So you still aren't speaking, huh?" It was rhetorical and required no response, so he shifted his green eyes down to the note. "Responsibility. It's Kondou-san's responsibility to stay in Kyoto?"
Chizuru looked at him with a frown. He was deliberately misinterpreting her.
At her unwavering stare, Okita sighed and said, "Yes, I know. Kondou-san is the leader of the Shinsengumi. He feels duty and honor-bound to stay with the troops. It just goes to show how amazing Kondou-san is, that he'll sacrifice so much."
Chizuru beamed at Okita and nodded happily.
Okita chuckled as he pocketed the note Chizuru had written him. He reached over and ruffled her hair, which made her squirm, much to his entertainment. Harada was always messing up her hair, but now that he'd tried it himself a few times, Okita found he liked her little reactions enough to keep doing it. "Come on, Chizuru-chan. Let's get that dango."
They walked side-by-side, and Chizuru felt truly at peace. She was content just to be near him, but to be able to call it pleasant company was wonderful. She couldn't stop smiling. Okita noticed her giddy expression every now and then and made teasing comments, and she responded with embarrassed gestures. It was fun, something she sorely missed.
"Chizuru-chan," Okita said as the two of them headed down the main street. "You aren't actually sick, are you?"
Chizuru cringed and bit her lower lip while she tried to figure out what to say and how to mime it. She made a few unintelligible gestures, but Okita knew what she was doing.
"Don't lie," he said. "You don't have any symptoms besides your voice. But you were able to talk just fine before. So what changed? Why did you suddenly decide not to speak anymore?"
Chizuru drew back from Okita a little. Her face was touched with worry. She looked up into his green eyes like a frightened child, and Okita hated the way that look made him feel.
"Do you… are you mad at us?" He couldn't bring himself to ask her if she hated him. The question died halfway out of his mouth. He wouldn't be able to handle it if she said she did, or worse, she hesitated.
Chizuru's fear vanished, but her worry increased tenfold. She stepped toward him and put her hand on his arm while rapidly shaking her head in earnest. Never.
She didn't seem to be lying, but her response still wasn't enough to quell Okita's self-deprecating fears. "Then… is it me?"
The look on Chizuru's face said she was horrified that Okita would even suggest such a thing. She raised her hands to hold the sides of his face and looked up at him, completely sincere. Her brow was pinched in worry, and she shook her head, mouthing Okita-san, Okita-san, Okita-san!
It was the most forward she'd ever been with him, and it caught Okita a little off-guard. But if she wasn't using her voice, her body language and gestures had to be increased in order to get her meaning and eventual point across. She looked so genuine, so honest—if she insisted that it wasn't personal against him, then Okita wanted to believe her.
He wanted to, but…
Okita raised his hands and gently took hold of her wrists. He pulled her arms down so she wasn't touching him and then turned away from her. This was affecting him… far too much. It was on his mind too often. And it seemed, no matter what he said, Chizuru wasn't going to change her mind and start speaking again.
"Come on, Chizuru-chan," he said. He was losing his warmth. "Let's get that dango."
Chizuru followed him… for as long as Okita would allow her to do so.