I will hold you forever,
through swords and spears and shattered bronze.
I will never let you go
to make up for the one time I did.
He knows he's taking the steps down the path too quickly. Too carelessly. Too everything.
However, he doesn't care.
He was too late.
This couldn't even be atonement. Not even when his knee buckles and he pitches forward and almost smashes his forehead into unforgiving stone. Not when his neck wound bleeds again or when his palms sting from bracing himself. A hundred falls don't make up for this.
Hijikata is well-acquainted with failure. He knows grief very well. However, being robbed of his final chances to say goodbye? That's cruel. That's so fucking cruel of life, making him so helpless to stop these things. Things people did for him. Kondou surrendered so that he wouldn't use up more of his life. Meanwhile, Souji used up the last of his life protecting him. How can he repay that? Is there even a point in repaying those that couldn't see your efforts?
Chizuru kneels next to him. Dully, he looks at her, expecting something. Anything. Maybe for her to scold at him about going too fast.
She simply reaches for his hands. "You have gravel in them," she says, a trace of tears still in her voice. "We should remove it."
With tired eyes he watches as she cleans out his palms. It's not like they'll hurt for long, thanks to rasetsu healing. But it still stings, all the little pebbles and dirt. She pauses to wipe her face, but her hands are steady. When she is finished, she lingers a little longer before letting go.
He should say thank you. Say something. Instead he rises from his fallen position and continues the walk back. Pink and white is in the corner of his vision; she keeps up with him well enough, saying nothing.
They're dead, and they won't be the first. He ought to have expected it. He ought be prepared. But Kondou, then Souji? In that order, and so soon? It's not that he's playing favourites—he's known them the longest. He knew Kondou before they both had fame, when they could sit next to river and talk for yours. He's played with Souji before (more like chased him because he woke up to find ink on his face or his things hidden) and endured the dumb inconsequential jokes and pranks.
The other, killed in action.
At least Souji hadn't gone quietly. That, he knows would've been worse. Watching him fade every day would have been crueller. But it didn't soften the blow.
They're finally at the end of the stairs and he leans against a wall as he breathes. He wonders what would happen if he stood directly in the sun today for hours and let it burn, let it hurt. Would it eventually kill him? Pain laces his sides and chest, burning worse than the sun. It's in contrast to the cold morning air that reminds him he didn't even bother with an outer kimono.
If he had been in time to help…what use would he actually have been? He's pretty sure people had been out to kill him, and Souji, somehow knowing, had stepped in.
"… fighting like a god, protecting this town…"
He needs no verification that action was for him. Souji, who wouldn't forgive him for what he did, died for him.
Something clutches at his lungs and chest, forcing him to bend over. And pain, the fickle thing that it is, seizes up and he feels himself falling again, this time towards unconsciousness. The last thing he hears is Chizuru calling his name.
Everything hurt, but it's nothing new. Hijikata opens his eyes and blinks at the dryness, and then swallows because his throat is dry as well. The ceiling is a familiar one, because he's stared at it for probably a week or so. How is he back? He doubts Chizuru had the ability to carry him.
His eyes swivel to his right; there she is, peering down at him as she wrings out a cloth. A smile, and then it edges into a concerned look.
"How did you get me back?" He rubs the side of his head.
"A man passing by helped out."
"I see." Some small amount of luck. Out of habit, he checks for his katana, and finds it returned onto the rack with his wakizashi. "How long was…I asleep." He coughs, throat unhappy with his speaking. It's dark, and the lights are already lit.
A hand presses to his back to help him sit up, and then she hands him a cup. "Most of the day. It's night."
Night. That means he can get up. He sips the hot tea, and wonders how she can still have it at the right temperature. Maybe she has a sixth instinct for these things.
But appreciation only lasts for so long when he thinks on just how he ended up like this. Kondou. Souji. Mostly Souji.
He sighs. "I need to go back up there," he says, looking somewhere across the room. "I have to…"
Souji's sword. He can't leave it there. It would be kicked aside and it would rust.
Chizuru touches his shoulder. "If it's…it's about Okita-san…" Her voice halts on his name. "While you were carried back, I went up there again, and I…" She points to a bundle he hadn't noticed before. "I hope that's all right."
He stares at the wrapped cloth until he remembers he ought to reply. "That's all right." He doesn't even know if he'll bury it, or send it to Souji's sister. Which of those two was less painful of a choice? "Thank you."
"It was no problem." She takes the cup back from him. "Would you like something to eat?"
"Are you sure? I can prepare something quickly."
"No, I'm not hungry."
"You have to at least eat something with your medicine."
"I'll just take it now. No food." He doesn't think he can stomach anything right now. His head still hurts, his heart still hurts, his body hurts. He just wants to sleep and not think. He just wants to better so he can be out there instead of lying in bed. So he takes the packet full of bitter medicine and downs it quickly with the tea. The taste makes him gag but he forces it down, like the grief that seems to want to rush upwards to choke him.
"Don't drink so fast." Chizuru pats him on the back as she grabs for his hand, the one holding the cup. "I only just rebandaged everything; if you move too much you'll strain them."
"Do I look like I care if I do?"
"Wrong." He pulls away from her and sets the cup down so hard that she winces at the loud bang it makes. "I don't care. Do you know what I want right now?"
"If you're thinking about fighting—"
"And if I am?"
"You can't right now, Hijikata-san."
He suddenly laughs; fire licks up his ribs and neck but he still laughs anyway. "That's right, I can't. I'm not healing fast enough. Kondou-san is dead. Souji's dead. Probably I'll be the next to die, and then what will happen to the Shinsengumi? Everything's gone to shit and I can't stop any of it from happening. Souji wasn't even supposed to out there. He's supposed…supposed to be Edo."
But dying in Edo and dying here, what difference is it?
"He hated me." Another laugh, this one feeling hollower than the first. "And yet he did this. Why? Was it for Kondou-san? For me? For what? Did he not want to live anymore because Kondou-san is gone or did he know that he was going to die soon?"
"I don't think he hated you, Hijikata-san."
His head snaps up. "What makes you say that?"
Chizuru inches a little closer. "Before he left, he said you were the only one who can lead the Shinsengumi. He also said a lot of other things, like how he would never forgive you. But he never said he hated you." Her hands fold on her lap. "And he told me to look after you. If he hated you, would he have said that?"
"He told you that?" Really? It doesn't sound like Souji. But Chizuru is not a liar, and he doubt she would make something up, even for the sake of reassurance. "I thought he'd call me good for nothing. You didn't hear the whole conversation we had."
"He…he did call you a lot of things. But after all of that Okita-san still told me to look after you."
Hijikata turns away.
Him and Souji, theirs had always been a difficult relationship. Which he does understand, a little. Souji probably thought he usurped his place next to Kondou, and always resented him for that. But it's been years; surely Souji's outgrown that. After carrying out the assassination of Serizawa, there hadn't been all that many complaints from Souji. Thing mostly went smoothly.
…maybe he didn't really know Souji as well as he thought.
And now it's too late.
If he were at full strength, he'd march out right now and tell Saitou he's taking over the front lines, never mind what the others thought. He'd fight and fight until he stood alone in a bloodied field, because that sort of loneliness is easier to better than this, losing people that were like his brothers.
He didn't grieve when his father died, nor weep for his eldest sister. He barely remembers his mother passing; he probably only cried a week before she became a memory.
This is different.
He watched Souji grow up. Like a younger brother or cousin. One that kicked at his heels and stole his haiku and made jokes at his expense, but he didn't think Souji would die before him.
One sacrifice after another, for the Shinsengumi, for him…was this the fate of those who dreamed? It's not a dream anymore—its reality, and reality is a mocker. Yes, he got what he wanted, but this is the price he'll pay.
"I shouldn't have let him leave."
"Leave on his own. Maybe I should have told Saitou to keep him there. He'd put up a fight, but Saitou would deal with him." Like how it's always been.
Except maybe it would've angered him more. But maybe then he would've lived longer instead of defending this place. And maybe Hijikata himself would've been dead.
Was that any better? All the possibilities go through his mind, none of them ending well. "Damn it," he suddenly grinds out between his teeth. "If Kondou-san hadn't…"
It's over. He can't bring back the dead.
He curls his hands in his fists, and curses these injuries that keep him here. He can't fight, he can barely stand. But he doesn't want to sleep. He doesn't want to talk—
What does he want, then?
She looks at him, head tilted to one side. She sits on her heels, her hands still in her lap, but if he asked for something, those hands would be instantly ready to move. Oddly enough, he thinks of Saitou.
Nevertheless, despite how upright she is, he can see the tiredness in her eyes, the pallor of skin from no sleep.
"I don't need anything right now," he tells her, flatly. "You can go rest." This room is suffocating him. He knows she won't let him leave, so he'll wait until she's asleep before he goes out to clear his head.
Chizuru merely clasps her hands. "I would like to stay."
"I am telling you to leave. I'll be fine."
Her mouth parts and her shoulders stiffen, but otherwise, she stays in place.
"What, do you want me to make that an order?"
"Then why are you still here?"
She shakes her head. "Because…" her eyes search his. "I want to stay by your side."
What's so great about his side? He drags people into death and wars. People are killed because of him. His side means blood and horrors and nothing happy. Tainted glory that tasted like iron and bile and ash.
He shoves the blankets aside, and without thinking too much about it, he yanks her by the front of her kimono. He's only done this once before, when drunk and disorientated. Now, he's very sober and very aware, but it seems like either she was too stupid or too stubborn to leave.
"Are you staying for this?" He gestures at his bandages. "For that?" He points to Souji's sword, still wrapped. "If you want money to leave, I can give that to you. I'll even send someone to take you wherever you want. I don't—"
I don't need you, he almost says.
Except he can't say that without full certainty. Heavens above know that her blood keeps him from tearing himself apart.
"I want to stay," she says without raising her voice. "Because my place is here."
She's not stupid, or stubborn. It would be unfair to call her any of that. At this point, she's nearly a part of the Shinsengumi. She knows secrets, the men, the ideals. She's eaten with them, been in the same battles, tended their wounds.
Slowly, he releases her. How easily fabric crumbled underneath his hands, even though he isn't at his full strength. "I'm not asking you to stay."
Something in her face cracks, but she holds. "I still would like to. Please. Unless I've done something wrong, and you want me to leave…"
"No, you did fine." Why is he so quick to reply? "Never mind."
He rakes his fingers through his bangs. He's not even really angry or annoyed. But he's agitated. Tense. Like he's caged and he needs to tear something out. Like a fight. It swirls with the ache inside his chest and grows with each waiting second. If he stops, it'll all fall out. He wants to punch something, yell at someone—
But not her. Chizuru won't fight him. It's not that she gives in, it's that she'll say something that made more sense than all his reasonings and he's left without an argument. That's not what he wants.
He turns away. "At least, leave me alone for now." Until he can figure out what he's feeling. Until this passes. Until—
"Hijikata-san," she whispers, small hands clenching the cloth of his yukata tightly. Tugging at it, dragging him tightly against her. His entire body stiffens at her bold action, so she realises the material, instead stretching out her arms to encircle his back. "It's all right to mourn. For them."
With one hand, he could break away. Shove her away from him. Yet he sits, transfixed, with her frame pressed to his back. Not unlike the time right after Kondou surrendered.
How many times can he do this?
How many times is she going to see him like this?
She's not even holding him tightly so…why can't he move away?
It's all right.
He closes his eyes as the heaviness he kept at bay sinks into him, forcibly. He feels himself slide but she somehow manages to catch him, follow him down, and pillow his head with her shoulder even as he grits his teeth and grips her arm.
It fucking hurts.
He admits it. He knows it. The pain is there and all too fresh and like his wounds, they hurt him within and without. He signed up for seeing how far he could go, not for heartbreak…not this.
Not like this.
His throat works but he can't say anything. Can't find the words. So here he is, making an unsightly mess of himself as something in him shakes and he still fights it, even now. But soft fingers stroking the side of his face undoes him more than angry words or a bloody fight and he closes his eyes all the tighter as he crumbles and relaxes against her.
Only a little, though.
Even when he is alone, he tends to shutter his emotions, simply because if he started to let go of them, he would never stop. And he's not ready to do such. Not yet. Not around anyone else. He is still the leader. He has to hold it together. If he doesn't do it while he is alone, then what sort of state would he be if he were around others?
Still, she's warm and solid, saying nothing but meaning everything. And so he breathes until his restraints return and he can open his eyes without fear of tears falling out of them. Grief still eats at his heart, but he no longer wants her to leave. He sits up, slowly, so that her arms slide down and he can hold her hands. They're smaller than his, fitting into his palms. He's surprised they're not perfectly smooth, but despite the slight roughness, they're soft.
As Hijikata studies her, she looks back at him. He notices how her bangs hang down to just touch the collar of her kimono, the line of her neck—all the feminine parts of her that he knew since the day he found her hiding in an alley even though from far away, she still passes easily as a boy.
"How long will you stay here?"
That's not the answer he wants, but he doesn't dislike it. His fingers touch her chin. She doesn't bow her head—she remembers what he told her that one night—if she thinks she's right, then there wasn't a need to bow her head.
She lifts her chin a little higher.
It's not that he can't help himself, or that he really wants to do it—he just does it. Kisses her. It's hardly passionate, more like their lips touched and then he backs up. Her cheekbones are pinker than usual, but she still looks up at him.
How far is she willing to go for him?
Chizuru tucks her hands into his sides, a press of fingers that he can feel even through all his bandages. He reads the rigidness in her shoulders, the careful swallows, and the quick intakes of air.
His lips tingle.
What are they doing? He should order her to leave. Her face should not be this familiar, nor her movements. He should not know how her skin feels. Bloodlust made him familiar. It's not there now, but there is something else that draws him to her, something that has a name he can't name yet. When she touches his hand, he realises he's been gripping her arm, probably too tightly.
He has thought about it before—kissing her, that is. What, everyone has had those thoughts. You think about kissing the people in your life, whether they had soft lips, or if they would slap you for it. So yes, in his mind, he has kissed her before. He had imagined she would pull away, tremble, maybe even cry. Experience tells him he's not a bad kisser, but reactions are always hard to gauge.
However, she does none of the things that he expects. The only quiver is in her eyelashes, maybe in her fingers, but she has not cringed or shed tears. She only looks up at him, lips parted and cheeks as pink as her kimono.
Sometimes, you can actually hear the pause that a mind will make, before it clicks back into place and moves again. It feels like minutes, but it is probably only seconds. Seconds before she shifts herself against him—not tightly, probably because of his injuries, but firmly so that it's not just her supporting his weight. While it's not cold in this room, the warmth that he's often glimpsed from her fleeting touches is now directly against him, permeating him. Sensations rush into his head; this is a good chance to forget, to not think about losses. She's offering herself up, isn't she?
And what if it goes the wrong way? Sensibility crowds back into his mind.
"I'm not myself right now," he says, by means of an explanation. "And probably not thinking this all the way through."
Chizuru takes a deep breath, so deep it feels like he's being breathed in. "I am thinking very clearly," she replies, "and…I said I would stay forever."
Can you really say that with all certainty?
The palms of his hands press against her face, his thumbs nearly digging into cheekbones as he looks into her eyes. It's the lack of fear and the evidence of anticipation in her returned gaze that does it.
He kisses her again, the contact of lips nearly painful as teeth digs into skin until she opens her mouth, throat working and audibly exhaling, while her hands clutch at his back and his fingers work in her hair until it tumbles around her shoulders. This is only the second time he has seen her with her hair down. The first time was that night a rasetsu made it into her room and all of them had barged in, and Sannan had been there, and so had Itou…
…not much of a good memory, that night. Still, he remembers thinking how with her hair up, it at least keeps up the boyish appearance she had to retain. With it down, however, she is a different person.
A person that is currently in his arms.
Unlike him who is mostly rigidness and constraint, she's soft. Soft lips, soft skin, soft hands. He would call her pliable if not for her nature, which is sometimes as unyielding as his is. He didn't think he could pull her away from him now, even as they did have to move to shed layers of clothing.
But, what is he doing? Are they touching because he wants it or needs it? Why is she answering this? Why is she letting him lay his hands on her, aligning their bodies and letting him see so much her?
It's tiring to think why.
Hijikata kisses her again and tries not to think anymore. Not when she pauses to touch the side of his face. Not when her fingers splay across his back and hold fast. It's hardly that he's done this before, but it was not the same.
She's familiar, like a presence he's come to expect when he lifts his head at her call of his name. In and out of his room, at his side, at his back…
And now, in his bed as he gasps out and grips her shoulder so tightly it might've left bruises, if not for the fact she is a demon. Her knees bury into his hips, their bones painful he can imagine them snapping. Her quiet moan against his ear causes him to kiss the side of her neck, close to where she's allowed him to take her blood.
Only she can make his name still sound this respectful under these circumstances when his senses are overwhelmed and he feels like a mess and seconds away from crashing after everything he has felt.
She doesn't move away. Rather, her hand seeks for his and finds it, their palms glued together after she coaxes his hand to open from the dead grip on her shoulder. Her weight against him doesn't irritate his wounds, and when he concentrates on how she is here, he can breathe.
Here is one life that he hasn't snuffed out from war or bloodshed or sacrifice.
A remnant, a reminder.
"Chizuru." His voice is raspy.
"Yes?" Hers is hoarse.
"You're not part of the Shinsengumi like us." He tilts his head, bangs falling everywhere. "Don't ever sacrifice yourself. I won't allow it. I'll come back from the grave to yell at you." He feels her shiver, and pulls her closer. "That's an order."
Because he needs one person to promise him this. One person who he can give this duty to. As he stares at her, he knows he isn't exactly daunting with his tousled hair and bleary eyes. But she has to understand this.
Chizuru strokes his cheek, hushed and solemn. Emotions break across her face but she finally nods. "I won't sacrifice myself."
He finally relaxes. "Good."
She won't end up like Inoue. Kondou. Souji.
Then, what would she end up as?
The light dies out; they don't bother to replace it. She doesn't move much, expect to pull the blankets over them and check his bandages one last time before she falls asleep, and he follows suit because he can't seem to do anything else.
Ramifications actually hit when he wakes up in the middle of the night, disorientated at the body next to time until he remembers. They had done without ceremony and without prior discussion. He knows enough about women that he's been careful in the past, but a few hours ago…
Hijikata presses his hand to his face.
She might not ever have sacrifice her life, but she has sacrificed something valued more than life. And he had been the one to take it from her.
The question of what she is to him still remains, and he admits he is afraid of the answer.