One hand rests on plain paper of the shoji panels. The other reaches forward… and stops in mid-air. He can smell the familiar whiff of burning tobacco, even if he cannot see it. Faint putridity is a comfort to cling to, as the wick of the candle grows shorter. How many times has he done this? Wanting to advance through that last bit of distance, yet fearing to do so, because- What a despicable weakness.
Susumu-san and his teacher knows, but that can't be helped. Enough. How many more people do you want to burden with your selfishness, Okita Sōji?
As usual, the noiseless murmur of reasoning wins, and causes this captain of the first unit in the Shinsengumi to recover in time-
'…Sōji? Is that you? Did you cough?'
There are a multitude of choices. He could run in and collapse, allowing the dam of secrets to finally break, or he could run away, or he could always pretend he was never there. However, they are cowardly possibilities not granted any time to solidify in his considerations. There is a code he cannot forget, not when it is ingrained by two men he respects more than anything in this world: Kondō-san and one other, whom he has promised never again to show his tears to.
'Hijikata-san, still awake? I'm going for a walk because I've got too much energy on this wonderful night, so don't let me distract you from your work!'
Then he is walking past as quickly and smoothly as possible, before it becomes apparent to anyone how merry teasing does not match a rare expression on his face.
Just as a certain vice-commander looks out, the other man has vanished around the corner. Frowning and removing the pipe from his mouth, the older man sighs. One of these days, Sōji will be cornered and questioned as to what is going on. If possible, that one has become even more amiable and cheerful than usual, so much so that the others are immediately happy in his presence.
But Hijikata Toshizō is not. As Vice-Commander, he has seen so many masks and worked at perfecting one for himself, hence he knows: The stronger the disguise, the greater the motivation… and it is never due to pleasant inspiration.
'Okita Sōji, should you be out here? You haven't recovered from your cold and with this chill, maybe you should stay inside?'
'Shinpachi-san, there's no fun in that! Besides, Saizō will get irritable if he stares at four walls all day.'
'Woah, you really inspire loyalty in that pig! He'll never be pork chops but your trusty vice-captain, what with such protection-'
Laughing at Sano's comments, while Tetsunosuke is eager to interrupt with an account of his recent exploits, the little gathering of familiar people standing around the fire in this courtyard to roast sweet potatoes is a sight the Commander will never be tired of.
Yamazaki Susumu is interacting on a somewhat friendlier basis with people, as Ayumu would have wanted. Lately however, the ex-spy's attention seems to be focused on Okita Sōji, even when he appears not to be looking at the man in white. Why? And if it is possible, does Sōji dislike the ex-spy? An indefinable undercurrent crackles between the two, a brewing storm withholding indefinable elements, which he cannot comprehend. Judging by the irritated expression on Toshi's face, his commanding colleague has picked up on it too.
In fact, the tension is difficult to miss with frequent examples, such as-
'When you finally retire back inside, don't forget.'
Despite a cool tone, the content of the message hints of concern. However, it only earns the aloof speaker a quick glance and for a moment, is there something almost ugly in subtly tilted eyes- No, he must be imagining it. Is he, Kondō Isami, worrying too much over nothing?
'The sweetness of these potatoes will not make me forget. In fact-'
There is a short pause.
'I am thirsty. Would you all kindly excuse me?'
Turning around, the slender youth leaves the group. Saizō looks around, squeaks once, and trots off after his master.
Looking at the back of a retreating figure, Kondō is about to ask Toshi something, when he sees the way his comrade is almost glaring at the Shinsengumi's medical practitioner for emergencies. So quiet is the vice-commander's certainty, everyone else does not hear it. 'Medicines for a cold that does not abate? Or is it for a cough no longer remaining infrequent and only in my imagination?'
Now Yamazaki Susumu is the one asking to be excused, feeling oneself no longer being the only crack in the dam. An unexplained burden is lightened, but what rushes in to take its place is almost as unbearable.
It's a beautiful night, so peacefully placid as to allow the twinkling cheeriness of every star to be clearly defined. Halting in the backyard of their headquarters, leaning against the well everyone uses for gathering water to wash their face, he-
One hand clamped over the mouth, an invalid-in-denial is attempting not to give in to his shame but with time, shame has strengthened beyond his control. The hollow rattle is a reminder from his lungs with each cough, and increasingly heavy pain in his chest is unavoidable, as the intensity of each barely-restrained episode increases. This throaty burden is overwhelmingly relieved by a moment of rust-rich saltiness in his phlegm sticking to his teeth and tongue, for it signals an end… until the next cycle. And when a certain new pattern breaks, his secret can no longer be hidden.
He does not have to look, to know who is offering help in covering up. Taking the white cloth, hurriedly dabbing away damning evidence is as simultaneous as a rush of gratitude… and loathing.
The silence is now anything but restful. It has become a battleground cluttered with invisible warriors and unearthed ghosts pressing down a blanket of noiselessness, whereby the first side to choke on their defence of proud endurance wins.
It is a fight Yamazaki Susumu gladly loses. 'How long do you intend to carry on like this, Okita-san?'
The trainee doctor knows, but does not understand the motive. He seeks to satisfy this view through the eyes of his greatest irritation, by asking the patient who commands necessary silence. His patient may not answer.
'Why ask, when you should already know?'
Now it is the interrogator's turn to shut up. He wants absolution to endure –for becoming an accomplice to this deceit– especially for the time when truth becomes inescapable… to everyone. However, he's not about to admit it. He's never been good with confessions.
There is a faint rustle of leaves, as a languorous wind whistles through the branches. Refreshing coolness toys with loose strands of softness, carefree and not as cold as pale skin or solemn faces beneath the moonlight. With careful listening, one can almost hear the sleeping piglets snuffling against their mother in the pen. Do they dream and if so, what would those be like?
The mind wanders to such whimsical questions in these moments, as both sides wait… for an answer.
'Watch it, Shinpachi! You nearly shaved the bottom of my belt with your sword!'
'That means you should pay attention in a situation like this, instead of trying to decide which angle is best for ogling Hotaru-san!'
As Heisuke attempts to repay his friend (by using a bamboo sword) with a clout to the head, Tetsu is trying to convince Saitō Hajime to spar with him again. The third-unit captain's response is to talk about soba or vague shadows with unstable eyes, thus annoying and scaring him at the same time. No matter how much this Ichimura Tetsunosuke has grown, full-blown maturity and courage is still a difficult goal.
'Che, you are infectious! That reminds me; Okita-san is so much like you these days.'
Having the full attention of such droopy eyes is always unnerving, causing blabber and leakages more than one intended to. Not that his listener minds, which he does not know.
'Er, uh, I didn't mean that as- Well, he's sort of different and similar at the same time. I found brown sugar candy thrown away, which Hotaru-chan got for him. And he likes to go off so much by himself… but that reminds me, I am going to buy food supplies with Tatsu-nii, so, uh-'
Allowing the boy to run off, the man closes both eyes, trying to stem unrestrained ghostly voices which plague him at unexpected moments. If Okita-dono is not careful, that captain will be dealing with the consequences sooner than expected. Not that it can be helped, with such a caring nature, and a fiercely-limited lifespan. Trying to protect others and prolong oneself, yet ensure there is still minimal enjoyment, so the more taxing limitations on maintaining balance does not tip…
Some things must be sacrificed, for the sake of normality and appearances, to remain convincing. But in the end, will it matter? Does it matter?
It is a question Saitō Hajime find himself asking increasingly, about life and death and anything he ponders, day by day. The knowledge of past, present and future gained from the spiritual realm constantly hammers at his consciousness and gives no peace. There is nothing he can do, to change fate or destiny. End result-
The cracks in his own fortitude are due to a totally different issue from his comrades, whom he needs to betray, to try and heal himself.
After all, the only devil Okita Sōji must face is death. Knowing there might be a loss of sanity to experience… the prospect of helplessness during such a process is far more frightening. Sometimes, he is unsure if the voices are truly the deceased, or his own losing grip with reality.
Has anything ever mattered?
Something appears to be moving, at the corner of his eye. Turning his head slightly, Yamazaki Susumu can see cards being scattered across the grass by the wind. Ah, he remembers the previous day, whereby the Ichimura brothers were attempting to build a house of cards on one of the stone benches.
'Those cards are lucky.'
Black eyes flicker back towards the man in white. If it were not for the medical training, Susumu might not have noticed, but when his experienced teacher pointed out certain things… he realises how the little things are starting to add up, to become noticeably serious.
The captain's pale skin has always been the envy of Kyoto and Edo women but now, whiteness has seemingly thinned until it is almost translucent, allowing a fragile network of veins to become starkly vivid against snowy smoothness. There is too much lean contour to cheeks blushing so enticingly, and that countenance… without the usual joviality…
Delicately fringed eyes are pools of dangerous darkness, a faint smidgen of deepening malaise underlying each eye.
The sudden indefinable change around this man is so palpable and disturbing, the ex-spy finds himself stepping back. And he finds himself looking into twin shadows being neither a demon nor a god, but-
'Susumu-san, have you ever seen the wash of waves upon sand?'
This gentleness, the sudden lapse in one's guard; what is Okita Sōji referring to?
'I thought the memories were gone forever, when I took up the sword. I have always enjoyed watching the occurrence as a child, while listening to a language I could not understand. With each sweep, there is compelling strength and tenderness pulling one towards the unfathomable. If you are caught and do not fight, the tide pulls you under and eventually takes you away to the unknown. Struggle, but you can never be totally free. Again and again, each caress following the one before only causes the mired to sink deeper. And-'
There is an odd smile on an almost-colourless face. Extent of revealed weariness… makes Susumu aware of an awakening emotion called sympathy. He is reminded of a lone candle, whose guttering flame flickers in heedless wind.
'I am tired. So… tired.'
A light sweat has broken out all over the watcher's body. Although he's not that much younger than this captain, the difference in depth-of-knowledge about the scars of life –a cursed blessing gifted in blood and sacrifice– between them is finally apparent.
Wide sleeves, reminiscent of the wings of a crane, reach out toward the stunned boy. This person no longer resembles a human. A darkly bejewelled gaze is shrouded in despair, but the rest of his being is cloaked in- What?
'I have heard the whisper. More frequently than ever, and for the first time, I understand their song. In a lover's embrace again, and finally awaiting eternal slumber beneath the waves… do you see? They are saying…'
No, he does not see. Or rather, he does. That weak smile has suddenly become mesmerising strength. His patient is uplifted in this moment, transcending the flesh to become suspended in immortal spirit, and the reason preserving a mortally sick man is-
Walking back to his room, Sōji falters mid-step. There is a steady light; who could it be? Readying himself just in case, he pushes aside the sliding door, and locks gazes with unblinking calmness.
'Hijikata-san, you're still awake? Shouldn't the elderly, such as yourself, get more rest?'
Seeing imperious dark eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets from his teasing brings on the impulse to laugh. Unfortunately, it turns into a cough halfway. Turning around on the pretext of going to get something to drink, his escape is halted by a firm hand clasping the elbow while being told there is lukewarm tea next to the blankets.
Grudgingly allowing himself to be guided onto the sleeping pallet, one arm encircles his shoulders, as the cup is lifted to his lips. Thankfully, there is no blood yet but there are handkerchiefs beneath the blankets, for when the time comes. Not that he dares to reach for them, when this one is around.
'If you get any lighter, I could use you as training-weights when going for a run.'
'Hijikata-san, I am fine. There's no need to treat me like a baby.'
'Hn. You spilled some tea.'
A thumb touches his mouth, gently wiping excess moisture off the lower lip. Contact lingers. They are staring at one another, before a flustered youth breaks the awkwardness by hastily grabbing white cotton to clean the smidgen of tea off his vice-commander's finger.
You must not touch. Even now, your life is at risk in this space. How do I warn you, without weighing you down? Even though Hajime knew, he was still willing to- But I have sworn to protect everyone.
There is humbling concern in that word, and it only heightens the younger man's sense of isolation and frustration. Why couldn't the enemy be lethally swift, which would be far more merciful than a disease which ravages his lungs and feasts on painfully-withheld emotion? Yearning is being drowned by the gibbering voice of reason. Even as his comrade comes closer, rough fingertips grazing his chin, and lips so close, he can almost taste familiar pleading sweetness-
Old or young, once it manifests with such tenacity, there is no cure. Chances of deadliness spreading is-No-NO!
Closing eyelids fly open. A savage shove nearly sends Hijikata Toshizō sprawling, except his grip on thin wrists are sturdy enough to aid immediate recovery in balance. Dragging the younger man forward and leaning closer, there is no mistake. Having slaughtered countless opponents, the smell of fear is almost tangible. An unknown secret is slowly devouring one he cherishes more than anything in this world. And the unvoiced burden is accelerating unknown deterioration.
The heart-breaking expression on a normally stern visage might just prove to be the fatal break in the defenses of a terrified captain.
'Sōji, why can't I kiss you?'
Panting, Yamazaki Susumu does not stop running until he reaches the safety of his own room. Pulling the doors shut, he staggers over to a wall and leans against it. Okita Sōji is frightening. For a moment, a little brother had seen his older sister within haunting honesty. That man has chosen to condemn himself, demonstrating to Susumu this is something he intends to endure and end… alone.
Can he do it, though? When there are others so willing to-
Remembering an incident, which he should not have stumbled across…
It happened not long ago, during a festival and after a successful mission in Gion. Even when celebrating outside, the members are always strongly advised to adhere to moderation in drinking. Whether they listen and return on time is another matter. Basically, the headquarters are almost empty, when a weary shinobi returns. Unlike the others, he intends to turn in early.
Passing by one of the side gardens, Susumu hears the shrill ring of combat, and pauses in trepidation. Who has infiltrated their base, and what is the purpose? Weighing the options of how best to spy without being discovered while formulating a reactionary plan, he eventually slips up onto the roof, and quiet footsteps warily tread across sometimes-loose tiles. Finally choosing the most suitable spot, he looks down.
Jet-black curiosity is rewarded with the sight of light and shadow weaving a myriad web of glinting deadliness, of swordsmanship speaking a hidden language known only to its users. The utter absorption with which the two stalk each other is arresting. Darting in to stab, leaping out to manoeuvre around, blocking every fatal attack with more precision than the notes of a nightingale, graceful sweep of soft material illuminated by the scarred moon- Interrupted by coughing causing one of them to falter.
Violently deflecting the next thrust, the afflicted man half-runs, half-staggers past the corner around to the nearest wall and rests his forehead against the surface, left hand stretched out and braced against gritty support. A bowed back is animated by short jerks from the increasing strength of his affliction. His opponent is quick to follow, and… And… Stops. Both have not sheathed their weapons, bloodlust no longer permeating the air. The two are rarely seen together, yet one who seems to be sleepwalking (even when awake) and the other who constantly brims with gaiety always seem to balance each other.
It is the third-unit captain who approaches, switching hold from left to right, allowing his blade to meet razor-sharp equal with a gentle clink. The other free hand slowly reaches forward and to the side… to close over fingers digging into an unyielding surface.
What are they waiting for?
Yamazaki Susumu is mesmerised by this picture: unknown tension suffusing the air and somehow emphasised by how rigidly the two do not touch (except for hand, blade and randomly billowing cloth), two pairs of closed eyes, how breathing has become a painful exercise in synchronisation, and the forced emptiness in expression… such restraint seems inhumanly agonising and makes him want to tell them to do something, except he doesn't know what he would tell them to do.
It is impossible to tell who moves first, nut-brown beads winding about pliant fingers until they are entangled. That complicated knot eventually shifts inwards to rest against a white kimono, slightly left of the centre from the chest. Sparse words are even more puzzling to the watcher.
Coughing having subsided, dry lips are stiff from exertion but are still able to chastise.
'The moon is a lone entity and should not bear any heart.'
Such a statement could be a warning and a plea, and only results in countering huskiness being anything but monotonous or light, almost like the chrysalis of a caterpillar splitting open to expose-
'The moon will always bear the scar of being embraced by constant darkness.'
Lack of conviction has been answered by gentle rasping certainty, yet remains no less frustrating to their audience. There is much beneath the surface he cannot understand, as if grasping at straws to thatch a roof with too many gaps.
Closed lids fly open to reveal purple eyes, and parted lips whisper three syllables of a name without any suffixes. Crossed swords are no longer steady beneath the night sky, trembling as if vibrating in unison, but remain soundless. And Okita Sōji closes his eyes while retreating backwards from the wall… as Saitō Hajime steps forward to meet him. Their entwined hands-
Luminous peace leans against quiet night, marred radiance shining down upon lesser mortals. It is impossible to determine the boundaries between black and white, as the borders appear to waver and melt into each other.
The moon will always bear the scar of its surrounding darkness. So apt for these two... why?
'I shouldn't… I'm sorry…'
The light is first to recede. With a vicious twist as he jerks away, pitter-patter of broken unity rolls across cracked flagstones. The divide reappears, leaving a lone soul standing in the company of shadows, as the other flees.
Eyes gleam like black flames devouring the stars, revealing a pyre of ash in abandoned solitude. Thin lips have become an unyielding line of twisted beauty, the painfully simple smile of ruin being a fitting grimace. Channelled resignation of such… thwarted intention has never burnt more brightly than this very moment. One arm stays outstretched in the direction of his focus, empty fingers curved as if still holding a lax fist. Scattered prayers are useless. Ruefulness goes unheard.
'You always do that.'
Susumu cannot bear to spy any further. The poetry of this instance has left him strangely drained. He has just realised what he is seeing between two masters of the blades, and accepts the cold water of shock, but he cannot bring himself to believe- When did they start to have feelings for each other? How deep and confusing does everything go? This patient is truly determined not to be a weakness to anyone. A swift death when necessary, and necessary distance in the meantime. From a doctor's viewpoint, that is wise rationale meriting praise. Yet somehow, it seems wrong. Alone.
Alone. Tetsu, you proved that the concept is not healthy. For the sake of my sister…for Ayu-nee, let me thank your kindness, by passing on the gift you shared with me.
Each strand is so fine, they appear to have been woven from the skill of spiders. And the colour is reminiscent of a storm-darkened evening, illuminated by a wandering ray of moonlight. Running his fingers along downy softness up to the scalp, Hijikata Toshizō cannot help a sudden lump in his throat. So light, yet full of remembered dearness… Of gentle affection, mischievous teasing and destructive bloodlust sleeping in his arms. A lolling head is pillowed against his chest, hand resting on his bicep, breath tickling bare skin.
Weight loss, probably coughing too much and-Why didn't I see it? Or rather, why did you try to hide it? Did you hope or think I wouldn't notice?
Staring at skin finer than lily petals, the conclusion of immediate observation cuts deeply. Its hue is almost ethereal, as if this one is slipping into the dimension where dreams are made, and reality does not exist. A reality he no longer seems to be granted, becoming a dream: To hold, and no more.
A free hand slides beneath the white kimono and rests over assurance marked by an unfamiliar scar. To feel this steady heartbeat brings a fresh wave of sharp relief and pain, like that time after the Ikeda-ya crackdown. Why is he remembering his mother and sister, who died of tuberculosis? The chilling possibility of losing Sōji- He does not dare to think further on it.
For all his questioning, a direct answer has not been received. He decides not to push his companion who has been under his watchful care, from childhood to adulthood. Wide-eyed ignorance blossoming into cool calculation and passionate assurance has always been solely his to cherish. Rather, he decides to concentrate on the present, and appreciate each day as it comes. And with that, a slight adjustment makes for a relaxing position more conducive to slumber.
Shifting slightly against comfortable support, the younger man throws a stealthy glance upwards. His comrade appears to be asleep, but he knows from experience how those closed eyes can be misleading. Attempting to inch to one side only causes the arm around his waist to tighten. Giving up, he resists the urge to pinch an overprotective Hijikata-san on the nose.
Thin fingers rise to cup a chin mildly rough with pre-dawn stubble. The texture is as soothing as playing with little children, hiding infallible strength. Ear pressed to tanned skin, Sōji is buoyed by the sound of vitality resembling confident footsteps across wooden floorboards. This man is too alike when compared to a certain captain, leaving him torn between difficult choices.
The third-unit captain is forbidden fruit, an even gaze watching him without wavering, somewhat intimidating in being so steadfast, almost… devoted. He has never dared to allow himself the possibility of going further with that one, other than deadly duels whereby he must stop and fight to regain himself, unable to quickly suppress more than a moment of weakness. Perhaps the fear of an unrestrained response is the biggest culprit. And if that is the main reason for hesitation, which he cannot be certain of within himself or the other man, Okita Sōji does not trust himself. Their pattern remains unbroken.
The array of thoughts this comparison brings also seems to sting his eyes. But he will not break his promise. Even if it kills him. Besides, as time passes, the longer he endures instead of dying honourably, the more likely he cannot keep such a promise, which will turn bloody.
To those who are resting, there is only one question that persists, even as the world falls into peaceful darkness.
When will I have to let go?
'Careful, Hijikata-san! If you don't keep your guard up, I might turn you into a pincushion!'
The strident clang of clashing steel brings two opponents face to face. As they stare visual daggers at each other, a light shower of rain signals a cooler summer for 1861.
With a sly feint, the next slash forces a vice-commander to shift his centre of gravity further to the left… and a mischievous subordinate seizes the paused opportunity to go in the other direction for the umbrella lying quietly atop a pile of pebbles.
A rapid flash accompanying deflected light nearly takes off the wrist, but it does not stop Sōji from grabbing the bamboo shaft. Only to have it snatched away at the last second by a scowling superior. Opening the contraption, Hijikata Toshizō swings mobile shelter over his head, then turns and sighs, upon seeing the other man's unpleasant expression. Pig-headed mulishness is too familiar.
'You'll catch a cold.'
Raindrops create ripples, spreading, overlapping and dissolving into blurry opaqueness. Tiny rivulets have become little streams dipping into the river.
A fierce tug ensures both are now protected from further downpour. The individual in damp robes shivers, and a sneeze cannot be withheld. A tanned hand grasps fair fingers and wraps them around dry wood, then retains heat by closing around those fingers, to protect the status quo. Beginning twinges of rebellion are met with-
'Stay by my side. Always.'
Trampled grass blades become a slippery mess beneath their feet. Nothing breaks the mood between two warriors. Until the pounding of translucent wetness seems to echo forever, surrounding them like scattering glass beads. The white-robed ronin finally breaks into a smile. One could scrutinise and make countless deductions, yet only guess at a true answer.