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25 Things Hijikata Will Remember

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1.

Souji's first night with the Shinsengumi, it rains like the clouds are crying.

Hijikata remembers seeing Kondou's precocious new recruit sitting on the exterior walkway of the house, legs swinging in the water, hands opened, small and white and already-calloused, catching the raindrops as they fell streaming from the sky in ribbons.

"Hijikata-san!" Souji said then. "Look!"

And he had.

 

2.

The fourth week the boy is with the Shinsengumi, Kondou pulls him aside, and asks if Hijikata would like a page. The suggestion is heavy that Hijikata is to take him, whether or not he is satisfied with one of the serving-women bringing his tea; and sighing, he agrees, remembering only the way that the boy is prone to wandering off after butterflies.

"Why exactly am I procuring a page?" Hijikata asks, tersely and searching around for his pipe.

Kondou, exhaustively destroying yet another sheet of rice paper, says mildly, "He's very pretty, you know." He grins. "Most of the men find him delightful."

Hijikata makes a dismissive noise. Later that night, when Souji wanders in, ten minutes too-slow for just a cup of tea, Hijikata watches him set down the cup with graceful, thin fingers, and sees the purple-blue bruises on Souji's wrist, wonders how far they go up the arm, and to where they trail down.

He drinks his lukewarm tea slowly, and Souji peers around himself like he's never going to be in the room again. Hijikata indulges this until he sees Souji's eyes fall on his paper and inks, widening like this is a whole new kind of sunrise.

"Do you write?" Souji asks first, and then pausing, corrects himself: "What do you write?"

Hijikata stares. "Things," he says suddenly, and adds, "important things."

The boy looks awed. "I never learned to write," he admits. Later, Souji collects the teacup and sets out Hijikata's bedding and says his good evenings, and goes off to sleep wherever elfin children presumably dream.

The next day, Hijikata teaches Souji the kanji for "butterfly."

 

3.

By late April, the air is sultry-hot with humidity, heavy and beading on Hijikata's brow and neck.

One day, Souji wanders in on time, with cool tea -- a trick Hijikata does not know how he managed, but finds himself inordinately fond of the boy for having devised -- with a dark flush across his cheeks and a glassy look in his eyes.

Hijikata sends him away, and Souji goes without complaint, without even asking if he can play with the brushes and inks that are on Hijikata's desk, and is silent and missing for the rest of the evening.

At nightfall, Hijikata stalks through the compound infuriated and thirsty, only to find that no one has seen the smiling, fairy boy anywhere since he went to bring Hijikata his breakfast. Most everybody else drew their own conclusions; Hijikata makes lists in his head: who to put on night patrol for a month, who to clean the compound in the rain, who to make practice with Souji -- when he finds the boy.

In the end, it's one of the tiny, stifling back rooms near the kitchens.

Souji is huddled underneath his futon, trembling lightly, flushed-dark and sweating, making soft, horrible sounds.

Hijikata doesn't think, just curses under his breath, and throws the sheets off the boy, only to find thin, white arms and legs trembling and in damp sheets. Thin white arms and legs that feel thinner and more delicate that Hijikata can imagine as he pulls Souji into his arms, cradles his hot head against his shoulder and rushes them through the kitchens, shouting for someone to boil water and fetch fever-herbs and for people to get out of his way.

The serving women are buzzing in his room when he makes his way there, pouring out a washbasin of steaming-hot water and spreading out a futon, making nothing at all of his concern, only cooing over Souji's fever-red face. When Hijikata lays him down on the cool sheets the boy starts to cry, making soft, snuffling noises into the sheets, weak fingers reaching out for something, and they catch on the fabric of Hijikata's yukata.

They stay there, all through the night, long after Hijikata has sent away the well-meaning women to tend to his page on his own, watching Souji cry softly in his sick-dream.

Hijikata wakes up with his neck hurting, and Souji blinking at him, eyes red-rimmed from crying, pale and stark against his white face.

"Hijikata-san?" he asks, and his fingers tighten on Hijikata's clothes.

Hijikata swallows a breath of relief, and searches around for his pipe again, feeling tremulous.

"Hijikata-san?" Souji asks again.

"Don't ever do that again," Hijikata instructs finally. He does not pry Souji's fingers away. "If you feel unwell, tell me immediately."

Souji, eyes heavy again from the effort of being awake, murmurs as he drifts away, "Hijikata-san…my clothes…I smell like you all over."

Three days later, when his page is back to being infuriating and a revoltingly quick study, Hijikata has him put in a small room he has been using for storage off to the side of his own chambers. Souji treats this like the world's most extravagant present, and clings to Hijikata's arm, smiling and sweet like a girl for his large, expressive eyes.

"I'm ten today," Souji informs him that day, playing with the writing desk that had appeared beside his things, another miracle, running his fingers along the edges. "And I still smell like you," he adds.

Hijikata snorts from the doorway. "So what?" he asks.

Souji just looks at him for a long time.

 

4.

Hijikata knows better than to take his page through the streets, there are too many distractions there: stalls of fruits and candies, mochi in a thousand different colors and fortune tellers smiling and waving at the perpetually moving boy who dashes from storefront to storefront, exclaiming and known by all. Signs in bright colors with calligraphy which Souji has taken to reading awkwardly out loud, each one a triumph, tugging on Hijikata's sleeve for confirmation.

"No," he says, and looks for his pipe.

Souji forms his mouth into a heartbroken 'o,' as if he didn't know Hijikata would forbid it the moment he walked into the room. No amount of cool tea can change that.

"But I promise to behave," Souji says pleadingly, the disappointment moving to his eyes now. "I'll stay with you the entire time!" he promises brightly.

That, Hijikata reflects, is part of the problem, considering the way that the women in town giggle at them from behind their fingers, and give Souji candy, as if he is not incorrigible enough on his own. Twelve is old enough to stop acting like a child, Hijikata thinks; twelve is also young enough that everybody's assumptions about Hijikata-san's page are still valid gossip.

Hijikata shifts the papers on his desk, but to no avail. "Souji," he barks, "I said no."

The boy pouts, and flops to his knees in the room, lacquered tea-tray tray clutched in his lap as he pouts at Hijikata.

"Hijikata-san is no fun," Souji complains, like this is the most horrible thing in the world.

The boy's taste for dramatics is starting to wear on Hijikata's nerves; he still can't find his pipe.

Hijikata finally looks up from his search to see Souji wavering between glaring and pleading. His hands are tight in his lap.

"Please, Hijikata-san?" Souji tries again.

Hijikata stares at Souji's earnest face for a moment before he scowls. "Fine." Pause. "Give me back my pipe."

Souji is already on his feet, dusting off his pink knees and smiling brightly.

"It's folded up into your futon," Souji says, and rushes out of the room, shouting his good news to all the serving women and all the men.

Hijikata lays on his back and blows smoke rings at the ceiling until what feels like half the Shinsengumi hauls him out of his room and onto the Kyoto city streets later that night. Souji, as promised, clings to his arm the entire time, and Hijikata decides keeping candy in the boy's mouth is the only way to marginalize the shouting.

By the time they return to the compound, the men are wearier than after a fight, and Souji falls asleep, leaning against a wall in Hijikata's room, waiting for him to finish his evening tea.

Souji sleeps there that night while Hijikata lays motionless, frozen, and disquieted on the other side of the room.

 

5.

Souji's thirteenth birthday coincides with Ayumu's arrival at the new Kyoto compound, and contrary to the solemn, quiet girl that Hijikata remembers first meeting in fleeting glimpses, she and Souji carry on as if they're the same age. She -- like everybody else in the compound -- spoils him horribly, and they are seen in the kitchens together for hours, giggling and wasting time. And when dinnertime rolls around and they pile plates and plates of colorful food on everybody's trays, all the men toast to Souji, who is so red and pleased Hijikata is anticipating his imminent explosion.

"And Ayumu says she has a little brother, too!" Souji says, mouth moving far faster than his white fingers as they clear away Hijikata's evening tea. "She says that he's a few years smaller than I am, and that he's got black, black hair -- "

"Of course it's black," Hijikata interrupts. "Don't be stupid."

" -- That sticks straight up, like sticks or a fence!" Souji finishes, breathless and rosy-cheeked.

Hijikata rubs his forehead, feeling the curling beginnings of a headache.

There's a brief pause before he hears Souji crawling across the tatami mats, feels the boy's lissome body lean up against his back.

"Hijikata-san? Are you all right?"

And like a miracle, Souji is quiet now, as gentle and sweet as he looks instead of how he normally acts. Hijikata sighs, and drops his hand to his lap, leaning his head back to crack his neck, muttering, "Fine."

"Liar," Souji accuses, like this is the worst of the things Hijikata has told him. He puts his small hands on Hijikata's shoulders and starts to knead inexpertly, saying, "Kondou-san taught me this could help. Is this helping, Hijikata-san? Am I pinching too much?"

Hijikata grunts, eyes shutting slowly. "It'd help more if you were quiet."

"Quiet," Souji whispers. "Very quiet."

His hands don't stop, and Hijikata lets the subject drop, feeling Souji's fingers through the cloth on his shoulders. It's hard to think that the foolish boy has been fluttering around the Shinsengumi compound for four years now, that it's been three since Hijikata accidentally started teaching Souji how to read and write.

He doesn't remember when he started to doze, or how he could have fallen asleep. But when Hijikata wakes up, it's with his head in Souji's small lap, and pink morning light creeping outward from the apex of the horizon. Hijikata pushes himself up on two hands, disoriented, and looks down again to see Souji, pink-faced and smiling slightly, propped up against a wall sleeping and blissfully still.

Hijikata drapes a light blanket over the boy--who kicks it fitfully away immediately--and drapes it over Souji again, tucking it around him at the shoulders.

That night, when Souji comes to bring him his evening tea, Hijikata sends him away--violently. Souji never does anything unless properly compelled, and Hijikata shoved the boy of the room and shut the shogi door with a snap.

The serving women who bring him his breakfast the next morning glare horribly, and make unsubtle references to how Souji was crying in the kitchen earlier.

Hijikata smokes until his eyes water from it and ignores them all.

 

6.

"This is unacceptable," Kondou says, frowning darkly.

Hijikata has his back to his superior, and doesn't respond.

"You've seen the boy -- he's listless. He spent all day in the kitchens with Ayumu-san yesterday."

"That," Hijikata interrupts, "is hardly unusual. He's usually seen wasting his time there."

Kondou makes a huffing sound that means Hijikata is wearing on his last nerve. "Toshi."

His tone of voice makes Hijikata think about walking past the dojo earlier that day, at the humbled mass of men huddled together in one corner and Kondou's arms shaking as he sparred with Souji, who was a mass of furious reflexes.

Some days, between Souji's perpetually-smiling face and soft, awkward hands, Hijikata nearly forgets that he is honing a blade, that Souji is flawless and fine--that he's deadly. It makes him furious, frustrated, wordless, to see Souji pad into his room when the light is still gray and watery blinking sleepy-dark eyes and murmur about getting a pet when Hijikata has seen him with blood on his face, a blade in his hands.

There is a long silence, and when Kondou finally says, "It's too late to regret it, Toshi" Hijikata is rubbing his left temple, feeling a slow ache spreading from his fingertips to his head, all along his arms and legs.

Kondou may be right, but Hijikata still senses it, like the fine blade of a knife along his skin.

Hijikata thinks of Sannen's face, the pleading shadows of his mouth, saying, "No, he's too young" and the way Souji's small hand fit into his own, simple skin on skin before Hijikata felt the slick of blood on their palms.

It's never been about just taking a little boy in, Hijikata knows.

That night, sniffling and red-eyed already, Souji comes, ashen-faced. He shuffles outside of Hijikata's door for a few long moments before setting a tray of tea on the tatami mats just inside of the opened doorway.

Souji is halfway down the walkway when Hijikata says, "You're just going to leave it there?"

Apparently, the tea was never the point, because Hijikata has barely finished saying the words when he finds himself in a tangle of arms. Souji's tearful face is pressed into the curve of Hijikata's neck, and he's saying horrible things, about how Hijikata is a terrible person, and how could he do that? Souji missed him, worried about him, and didn't Hijikata smoke too much? Did he take care of himself? If Hijikata wasn't nicer, Souji sobbed, Ayumu said she would poison Hijikata's food, and Souji didn't want Hijikata to die.

Hijikata thinks that he is hearing Souji's heart breaking, and it makes him curl his arms around the boy, stroking Souji's hair, breathe deeply, feel himself uncoil.

Souji cries until he falls asleep, curled up in Hijikata's lap, fingers going lax in Hijikata's hair.

Long after, Hijikata just watches the early gleam of morning on the curves of Souji's face, and when Souji's slashes flutter, Hijikata kisses them, because he can't bear to do otherwise.

 

7.

Souji's fourteenth birthday is much quieter. He's given a blade and a first kill all in one day. By the time the Shinsengumi members are able to shuffle their youngest recruit back into the compound, pour water over his head and bloody hands, Souji's eyes are inky and old, and Hijikata doesn't know where his page has gone, or if he'll come back.

 

8.

Souji is beautiful in the dojo. And where Hijikata has seen recruits with perfect form, he has never seen anybody as flawless as Souji, whose swordwork skirts the edges of propriety, never quite following all of the rules, moving in too many cursive strokes instead of straight lines. But when Souji fights, he looks like a butterfly, dancing just out of range or fluttering at the edges of your vision. Hijikata is always torn between berating the boy for flagrantly ignoring convention or praising him for excelling it.

But more than that, Hijikata has seen Souji kill, and it's poetry. Everybody who has seen it has commented on it, speaking in low, reverent tones about the clean lines and graceful limbs that make death silent, speedy, and nearly sensual.

Hijikata has commanded men who come back from a battle hard as rock between their legs--he's never been one himself, but he understands what the attraction might be. These men return with an altogether different reason to reach rough hands to each other now, to grope and rub and fuck desperately, watching blood flash across their vision: it's Souji, who has made murder an art like painting or music or love.

 

9.

In October, when the moon is hanging round and heavy in the sky, Souji brings Hijikata his tea and is told he's no longer a page. Hijikata says gruffly that there's no need for that anymore.

"We won't see one another anymore," Souji says softly, kneeling beside Hijikata, making no move to leave.

"Don't be stupid," Hijikata grunts. "We'll still spar."

And somehow Hijikata never managed to realize how mercurial Souji's eyes were until that moment, and finds himself with a lapful of young, trembling boy. Souji has tumbled them over, thrown his negligible weight and pressed Hijikata to the ground, and now he's leaning over Hijikata's chest, hair like a cascade around them.

"Souji," Hijikata says, and he sounds wretched, weak. He waited too long, he thinks frantically, he's ruined everything. He won't be able to stop it now, and there's a small, traitorous thought that perhaps he shouldn't, that if there's such beauty to be had, then maybe Hijikata should simply take it, wrap his thick hands around its neck and squeeze until it's his, undeniably his.

"You're different when it's light outside," Souji murmurs.

Souji's mouth is open and pink and luscious, and he can't tear his eyes away from it, not when it presses tentative kisses to his chest, down the line of his stomach--not when Souji's overeager hands fumble with the tie of his kimono.

"Souji," Hijikata says, and it's a warning.

"You never did this with me before," Souji says, staring up at Hijikata, fine, dark hair against his smooth cheeks. "All the men joked about it. They even took off my clothes once to check if I was bruised--" Hijikata makes a noise of incoherent rage at that "--but they never found anything, and you never touched me."

Souji is looking at Hijikata like there are answers to all the questions Hijikata forgot that he'd have to answer some day. All Souji will find is fear and cowardice, because Hijikata is enough of a man to admit when he's not acting like one. His token protest dissolves when Souji's hand slides up his thigh.

Souji's fourteen and unbearably beautiful, smooth and sleek and slender, one long, continuous curve. He smiles too much and giggles like a child and likes to be touched, lets Ayumu brush his lengthening hair and once, Hijikata saw traces of rouge on Souji's mouth, and forced Souji to confess to letting the girls in the kitchen make him up. There's something androgynous and dangerous about him, something a little too earthly about his beauty. Souji is living, and real, and in hand's reach--it's not merely his sword which is deadly, not just what Hijikata has taught him through the years, it's all the things that Hijikata cannot bear to change.

"Will you let me now?" Souji asks.

Hijikata is about to shout "Idiot!" when Souji's small hand curls around Hijikata's cock, fingers strong and calloused and the pressure exquisite, and the curse dies in a huff on his lips. Souji smiles at that, mysterious and all-knowing, and for one long, broken moment, Hijikata wants to find who did this to the boy, who taught him all of these tricks, and flay them skin from flesh.

 

10.

"This will happen on my terms," Hijikata instructs.

It's been three months since the first time Souji slid his hand up Hijikata's thigh, and no matter what Hijikata does or doesn't say, Souji is no longer convinced that hands and mouths are enough. And Hijikata, despite his best efforts, has never been able to deny Souji anything, anything at all, and this time as all the times before, he bends to Souji's wishes, his imploring hands, his seeking eyes.

Souji has never looked smaller and thinner than washed in the blue light of the moon at that moment. Hijikata has the fleeting panic that he doesn't know how he's going to explain that he's snapped Souji in half because the boy wanted to have sex; he can't even imagine how to go about broaching the subject.

"No fun," Souji murmurs reproachfully, but he's still smiling, licking his lips.

So Hijikata discards the last of his poorly-feigned calm and shoves Souji down to the futon, and thinks that maybe they're both a little wild.

There is nothing awkward about Souji's first time except perhaps Hijikata himself. He's a little terrified by the difference in their relative sizes, but he's never been able to deny Souji anything anyway, and somehow, there is shuffling and a futon, and Souji's face tight and beautiful in concentration.

 

11.

Souji makes a half-broken sound in his throat when he comes. His lashes flutter and he throws his head back, long, smooth neck naked and pale, dark hair sweeping Hijikata's thighs.

 

12.

Souji stays in Hijikata's bed for the entirety of the next day.

This is slightly less terrible than it would be otherwise as Hijikata is there as well. He promises himself that he will practice until his fingers go numb, but for the moment, he's palming the smooth curves of Souji's body, pads of his thumbs rolling over the lengths of Souji's legs, over the expanse of his white skin, and his hands have better things to stroke over than the edges of an undisguised sword.

 

13.

Despite recent developments, Souji still spends too much time playing with Ayumu and the neighborhood children, though he's taken to telling them his name is Soujirou so that they don't run crying from him back to the waiting arms of their mothers.

Hijikata's a little amazed by the transformation Souji undergoes. He sees the boy they recruited less and less, and sometimes even when they are far away from the gleam of the dojo floors, Hijikata sees the knife edge of Okita Souji. For all that Hijikata has said about Souji's inability to embrace his adulthood in the past, he's suddenly proved wrong. The transition makes his head hurt, makes him look twice before he finds Souji, flushed from sleep and warm in Hijikata's bed, hair fanning out on the kimonos tossed in disarray around them.

"Who are you looking for?" Souji asks one day, a sheen of sweat on his pretty face, still in his practice clothes.

Hijikata makes a dismissive noise when he realizes the answer is "You."

 

14.

Hijikata knows these things:

He did not love Soujirou, not the little boy he found and took to the Shinsengumi, not the way that perhaps, Soujirou loved him.

He did not love Souji, not the child that is nearly a man despite all of his girlish prettiness, not the way that Souji loved him, dangerously and wildly enough to venture into Hijikata's bed.

 

15.

Hijikata is growing, he thinks, to care deeply for Okita Souji, for all of his deadly edges, for his deceptive softness, for his whims and wiles. This is possibly the most foolish decision he has made since he first took Souji's hand, many years ago. He does not find it at all surprising that his worst choices all relate to one single point of origin.

 

16.

What perhaps astounds him more than the fact that he has fallen under Souji's spell, is that he has never questioned Souji's own feelings. In many ways, Souji's heart is the opposite of his sword, which is slick, smooth, and sensual; in many ways, Soujirou still lives, buried in the matter of Souji's chest, tied up in knots of flesh, and Hijikata can see it in the soft curves of Souji's smile, the warm imperfection of his eyes, the faltering, hesitating gasps he hears deep in the wilds of night.

 

17.

On Souji's sixteenth birthday, he has sex with one of the Shinsengumi's newer recruits.

Hijikata is not supposed to know, so he pretends not to, even though the recruit's pathetic attempts to recapture Souji's very desirable attentions are so glaringly obvious that half the Shinsengumi feels compelled to remind him that Souji made his bed and has slept in it since fourteen. In their private moments together, Souji makes no move to appear either repentant or to reconsider his choices at the age of fourteen.

There is a rumor, however, that he told Ayumu, "Hijikata-san doesn't change, does he?"

A far, far more illicit rumor has her reply as, "Perhaps you're not looking closely enough."

 

18.

Hijikata discovers how long Souji's hair really is one day, running it through his hands like black silk. Outside the opened screen doors, rain is pouring like a cascade. He spends the entire day watching Souji watch him, palming the warm, living curve of Souji's skull with his calloused hand.

 

19.

Souji likes Tetsunosuke for his own reasons, all of which are beyond Hijikata's limited reasoning. Souji thinks the Shinsengumi's most ridiculous recruit is funny, with his hair that sticks up and terrible personality and inability to think anything through before rushing head-first into danger or total humiliation. Hijikata wants nothing more than to gag the boy, but when he expresses this sentiment to Souji, Souji's eyes sparkle and he says, "That's terribly perverse, Hijikata-san. Why, when I was your page…" and Hijikata is forced to cut him off with a kiss.

 

20.

Hijikata thinks sometimes that the steady rhythm that he and Souji have learned is like a marriage. It's a stupid thought, and one day, Souji will marry; perhaps, even he will marry, but for the duration, he has Souji, who is more beautiful than any woman Hijikata has ever met, and who curls against him warm and breathing and laughing into Hijikata's neck. They wake up together and most nights, sleep against one another, angles and lines fitting together as if they were formed for one another--or had worn at one another's edges until they seemed as if they were. Souji tells him not to smoke so much and plays with his inks and paper and leaves him notes on scraps, which he hides along with Hijikata's pipe.

They are like old friends, familiar and undemanding and silent.

And though no one would ever believe it if they heard, Souji and Hijikata laugh together while making love, playful and slow and sweet.

 

21.

The first time Souji coughs, it's Tuesday.

Hijikata knows this because his brush is stroking out a broad line in the Chinese character for the day on a letter he is sending somebody who is not as important as Souji.

Ironically--the character is "fire."

 

22.

It's a few weeks later that Souji makes a trip out to an herbalist's shop.

He comes back ravenous and infuriated and they fuck but don't kiss. Souji grinds him into the tatami mats beneath them, leaves the two of them bruised and aching and exhausted. And Souji rages, inconsolable and angry until he collapses, gasping and coughing.

It takes hours of undignified coaxing and comforting before Souji finally tells Hijikata what's happened, and when he does Hijikata freezes, every muscle tensing to steel. His arms lock around Souji so tightly he knows that it must hurt--but that's the reason he is so important to Hijikata, Souji's the only person Hijikata knows who is strong enough to withstand him.

"I don't want to go," Souji mourns, suddenly small again, the little boy Hijikata remembers being fond of, caring for. Only Souji grew into the man that Hijikata loves, sharpened into an exquisite blade which hums in Hijikata's hands. "What will happen then?"

Hijikata will go on, he has a larger purpose than himself, but that is destiny and not choice. Souji is the only home Hijikata has ever known--where will he live, if Souji's not there to with him? These are not things he will ever burden Souji with knowing, but things he will clutch to his chest and cradle when there is little else left.

"You're not dead yet," Hijikata says, and Souji seems to understand.

Souji beats the living hell out of half the Shinsengumi the next day during practices, but at the end of the day, with his knuckles ripped up and a cut on the side of his cheek, Souji is smiling again.

"You're not actually supposed to kill our guys," Hijikata points out.

"Death is a relative thing, Hijikata-san," Souji says brightly. "It can make you remarkably alive, if you choose to let it."

 

23.

Hijikata doesn't remember anything from Ikeda-ya except that he shouldn't be so happy, not when Souji has blood on his mouth and blood on his palms and lies with a smile on his face.

 

24.

The hospital in Edo is atrocious. Hijikata is too mature a man to demand that Souji be taken elsewhere. The war is moving and he is losing and he cannot hope to provide what Souji needs any longer--not that, Hijikata reflects now, that he was ever able to do so at all.

But Souji still smiles in between struggling to breathe, even if the expression is strained to the point of breaking now. It makes Hijikata stroke Souji's hair, which is still beautiful, still gleaming and soft and glorious.

"You've always liked it," Souji croaks from the bed. At least he is beside a window. If he wasn't, Hijikata may have been forced to unsheathe his katana and cut one out of the wall for him.

"Hm?"

"My hair," Souji murmurs. "You always touch it--when nobody can see, you always touch it."

Hijikata would tell Souji that he is being stupid, but there isn't time for that anymore, so he just runs his fingers through the glossy black of his lovely hair and murmurs something in agreement.

"I like it, too," Souji rasps, and the smile on his face softens into reality for just a moment. Eyes that are starting to become a little glassy sparkle, and Souji rubs his cheek against the inside of Hijikata's wrist. "When you run your fingers through it."

Hijikata sits with Souji, as long as he can, and finally tears himself from Souji's bedside long after midnight, when it is too dark in the room to really see anything but Souji's white face, hanging in the darkness like a waning moon.

Hijikata and Souji do not and were not meant to share fate, but they had destinies parallel, and maybe the in-between space in which they lived was already more than they were ever supposed to have.

He does not remember when Souji died, but instead the last images Hijikata saw of him, pale and bony in a hospital bed in Edo. Souji's hands, which had always been rough from holding the handle of a katana were smooth and white--and there was some justice in that, that all Hijikata had done was finally worn away by time.

 

25.

Hijikata knows that it's over far before it actually is, for his is a practical heart, for all its past flights of fancy. But that waits for him on the other end of that gunshot is uncertain, and even as he waits for it, listens to the haunting, lingering echo of a pistol, he thinks he can feel Souji's hair already, thick and glossy, knotted in his fingers, and he is at peace.