— Emery Allen
He doesn't know how long he holds her.
Long enough that they both sink to their knees and she's in his lap again. She cries, stops, and cries some more. He won't tell her she can't. Besides, it isn't as if he's actually dry-eyed himself. He thinks about Kondou-san and his heart goes places he doesn't want it to go. She shudders; whether from tears or the night chill, he can't tell, but it distracts him from his thoughts to curl his frame more tightly against hers.
Chizuru finally falls asleep, fisted hands slipping from his clothes and her head lying on his shoulder. Souji waits a little longer before he arranges her in a neat heap, rummaging through his stuff and finding a blanket. Her head he pillows with his jacket, and then he rises to build a fire.
Next comes the harder part.
He doesn't have a shovel. But he finds a strong branch and starts digging. It might take him until daybreak, it might take him even longer. Nevertheless, he wants to at least have holes ready, when she wakes up. So she can say her farewells. He's considered burying them before she woke up; yet that seemed rude.
It's not like he had a chance to say his goodbyes.
She deserves that.
So he'll will his coughs at bay for as long as possible as he carries out this task. Honestly, he has no great love for Nagumo Kaoru, but a brother is a brother.
Souji manages to keep Hijikata out of his mind for a few hours by concentrating on how wood scrapes against dirt and grass, and the crickets and the other sounds of the night. Every so often, he'll turn to look at her, sleeping underneath the shelter of a tree, the edge of her face lit by firelight. Even in sleep, she looks troubled.
Things did happen rather quickly. Actually, quick didn't even cover it. His own weariness is starting to catch up to him, his muscles sore and hands beginning to ache, but he doggedly keeps on. As the killer of her brother, even for all the right reasons, he ought to do this. The last penance, the last debt. It will make up for those he cannot bury, those he cannot follow anymore.
Sweat drips into his vision. Or is it tears? He bites his own lip and stabs the branch a little too hard; it snaps and he nearly loses his balance. He curses, softly.
The branch breaking had been louder than he'd expected. "You can go back to sleep," he calls out as he continues digging.
"But…what are you doing?" She sits up, the blanket sliding off her shoulders; her vision must've been blocked by the fire, because her eyes now widen. "Oh…" Her throat works, and something glimmers in her eyes, but she still gets up to her feet.
"I was hoping to finish before you got up. But," he holds up the broken piece of branch, "that didn't work. Sorry I woke you."
"That's all right." She smoothes her clothes and pushes her bangs out of her face. "I'll help."
No, he wants to say. Instead, he says, "Are you sure? I don't have any proper tools for…this. You might get blisters on your hands."
"What about your hands?"
"They're fine." He holds one out. "See?" Calluses from years of swordwork cover his palm and fingers. It's only his stamina that is lacking.
"But you must be tired."
"Not really." He's had worse days. "I'm halfway done, I think."
Odd how it's easier to talk about something if you didn't directly refer to it. But only just. He watches her gaze wander to the two bodies that are a little distance off. When she looks at him, he's struck by the look in her eyes. It's a resolved look, the one that always got to him. You don't deny someone's resolve; it would be a betrayal of yourself and your own resolve.
"I want to help."
"I'll find some more branches." Stretching his arms, he kicks at the ground as he searches, wondering if it'd be really terrible if he breaks them directly off a tree…
But eventually he locates two branches that are hopefully sturdier than his previous one, and they begin digging. He admits he doesn't feel like himself. There's been a disconnection, a start and stop; he wouldn't call himself changed, but more like something's been drawn out of him. Something different. He just can't place his finger on it, so he mulls it over as they shovel away.
When it is done and over with, it's a cloudy, hazy dawn. Two mounds are before them, and he nearly rubs his eyes, but his hands are covered in dirt and blood. Chizuru looks no better; she lost the string she binds her hair with; there are smudges on her face, hands, and clothes, and the shadows underneath her eyes are dark.
However, he calls her name, she looks at him with a faint smile pushing at her lips. It's quite familiar, if not a little tired and numb. They're probably both a little too worn for feeling much.
"That water Koudou mentioned. Do you have any possible ideas where it might be?"
Her eyelids lower as she thinks. "I think I might. I remember playing by a spring. It should be this way…"
Sure enough, only some paces away, there is the spring, a quiet bubbling thing that has a nice sheen to it. He sticks his hands in, sucking in his breath as iciness stabs his nerves. He scrubs as fast as he can, watching as Chizuru yelps a little at the cold, hurriedly washing her face and hands the way squirrels do.
He smiles a little at the thought.
Perplexed, she looks at him.
"It's cold, isn't it?"
"It's not so bad. It wakes me up." She splashes her face again, breathing loudly through her mouth. As she wipes her face with her sleeve, she looks at him.
"You've got a lot of…blood on your face."
"Oh." He reaches up, but when he blinks, she's in front of him.
"Let me." Chizuru soaks a sleeve in the water, squeezes it out, and reaches up to dab his face. The fabric brushes over his left temple, swipes his cheek, and rubs over the side of his nose.
"—you've done that a lot of times, haven't you?" Just how many times, he wonders, during the time he was recovering from the silver bullets. "Are you making it a habit?"
"Well, I—" She finishes with his forehead and leans back, blushing a lightly. "I don't mind doing it for you, Okita-san."
He tilts his head at her. "Really?"
"Yes. Then and now, and whenever you need me to." She washes her sleeve again, her gaze still meeting his.
"Heh. You keep doing things for me."
She thinks for a moment. "Well, what if I like doing things for you?"
Damn. "You have to at least give me a chance to return the favour, right? I owe you a lot, from way back up to now." He runs his fingers through his hair and finally sits down, so that they're actually eye-to-eye and she doesn't have to crane her neck. "You'll let me, right? Do things for you."
"Hai." She smiles a little wider this time, head tilted to one side.
He suddenly wants a way to capture that smile, stop time, keep it the foremost of his mind. It's not too hard for him to suddenly tug her so that she's in his arms again, because he's found that she fits nicely in his arms, all warmth and love and no malice. It doesn't matter that her hair is tangled, or if they're both covered in dirt, and there's still blood on him. They've both lost so much, but they've gained each other.
"I'm going to keep making it up to you as long as I can," he whispers against the curve of her ear. "Is that all right?"
He knows he is being repetitive, but he wants to hear it. Over and over until he can stop questioning it and simply believe in the truth that she has offered him from the start.
"Yes, it's all right." Her hands find his sides before they slide up, touching his shoulder blades. "I won't say no to it." Her voice cracks and she squashes her nose into his shoulder.
"Good." It's odd how he, usually so quick with his responses and comebacks, can't piece together all the thoughts in his head when it comes to Chizuru. Yes, he knows how to make her blush and fidget and sometimes stun her, but when he wants to tell her that he loves so many things about her, he can't seem to. It just all seemed too inadequate, too little, too unqualified.
It's definitely easier for him to hold her as the rest of the world wakes up and goes about its business. His time is short, but he least he can have a eternity when he cups her face, looks into the depths of her eyes, and shares the same breath she takes when they kiss.
It scares him, but only enough that his heart races and something tightens inside him, and he forces it away. This is Chizuru—she won't hurt him, won't betray, won't lie to him. Her presence will always remain a sort of strength. She's allowed to be near him, touch him, and stay with him. And his shortened life? It just means he has to give it all to her, now. Not the future. He'll make the most of it, he'll try—no, he'll do it. He promises—
His vision is spotted with flashes of light when he finally pulls away. His eyes are wet, he's shaking, but so is she. Still, she adjusts his shirt, and tells him they should go back so that he can put his jacket back on.
"Your hands are cold," she tells him. "I don't want you to get sick."
"Ah—sorry." He curls his fingers in apology. "Mm, we'll go back."
His heart slows down as they walk side-by-side, fingers laced together. Her lips are more red than pink, and he wants to trace them, to feel them burn as hotly as his.
But for right now, this is enough.