Author's First Note: I apologize in advance for any misuse or misinterpretation of Japanese words (it'd be embarrassing). Also for any misunderstanding of Japanese customs. Also, this fic can pass as historical fiction, I think. Standard disclaimers apply.
"Ch, look, it's one of them."
"The nerve of them, just marching through here and thinking they're better than the rest of us!"
"Oh, but they're very powerful."
"Powerful my behind! They're terrorizing the place!"
"They're killing anyone who can't identify themselves immediately."
"Humph. And they call themselves police!"
"Hush, he's nearing."
The commoners rushed to the sides of the street to clear the path for a young man dressed in a distinctive blue and white uniform haori, carrying two swords.
Okita Souji sauntered down the dusty road, glancing wearily at the silent villagers. He could feel their glares on his back, their fear surround him like thick fog.
He sighed. He wished that the some other members of the Shinsengumi wouldn't be so arrogant as to wreak havoc on this poor village. Now he would be shunned, feared, and hated just because he was a Miburo, again.
That was the nickname people gave to Shinsengumi members. Miburo, short for the Wolves of Mibu. Mibu was the city where the Shinsengumi originated. They were skilled, masterless swordsman, or roshis. These roshis were gathered by Kondou Isami to protect the Tokugawa Shoganate in times of war.
Rebels have decided that the Japanese government should be a democratic one, causing major disturbances, and now Japan was waging war against itself, in the year of 1864.
Okita was a child prodigy, mastering the Kenjutsu sword style at the young age of about fifteen, and teaching it himself at eighteen. He was now the nineteen-year-old Captain of the First Squad of the Shinsengumi-- the Ichibantai Kumichou, and one of the best swordsman, if not the best. Quite an achievement.
Okita stopped by a small river rippling calmly. This was a good spot for a picnic, but for the fact that he hadn't brought any food. Surveying the scenery, he sat down under a tree and proceeded to doze off on his break. No killing, no ordering, no bloodstains on his shirt, and no endless clinking of metal swords in his ears. Just the soft sound of the trickling river and breaths of fresh air.
Okita opened one eye. So much for a quiet, much-needed nap.
"Okita-san! Look what I have!"
"Hikaru?" Hikaru was a little boy Okita had befriended during his time at this village. Okita was often seen playing with children on his spare time--to make up for his childhood lost training at a dojo, some said.
"Okita-san, look!" Hikaru held out a carefully woven ball of string. "Isn't it cool?"
Okita looked at the perfect sphere and smiled. "Yes, it is impressive."
"Catch!" laughed Hikaru, throwing the ball to Okita. He watched to see if he would catch it.
Okita did, and threw it back. He didn't need the nap, not when he could have fun and escape from his own deep, shadowed thoughts.
Time passed rapidly, and soon Okita had to excuse himself to return to the inn where he was staying. Kondou had asked him to meet with other Shinsengumi members in the main room to discuss strategy.
"Okita Souji," muttered Kondou in exaggerated anger like a father reprimanding an unteachable child when Okita bustled into the faintly lighted room.
"I was, err, distracted," explained Okita sheepishly.
"Well, let's begin, finally," grunted Kondou.
Okita picked to sit near Saitou Hajime, the Captain of the Third Squad of the Shinsengumi. "Good evening, Hajime-san."
"Hmn. You would know, wouldn't you—being outside—and late."
Kondou cleared his throat. "Well, I've gotten information that the Ishin Shishis will be setting fire to every place in Kyoto in an attempt to overthrow the government and free their comrades from prison."
He paused when some murmurs went around the room.
"We will surprise attack them at--"
A single cough interrupted the would-be-important plan.
Tense and jumpy, everyone turned to the source of the poorly timed cough—the Captain of the First Squad, Okita Souji.
Two more coughs echoed around the room while Okita mumbled an excuse and exited, his last view being Kondou's questioning expression.
Okita's nimble feet thumped on the simple matted ground as he rushed outside to the cool air and the chirping of cicadas. The chorus was joined by the painful bass of someone hacking.
The plain cough worsened, becoming more violent and insistent. Anyone who happened to be walking near where Okita was would find themselves listening to the disturbing and hollow sound of uncontrolled retching.
Okita slowly lowered his eyes to look at the hand that had been covering his mouth.
It was a thick hue of bright red, glistening slightly by the blinking lantern.
Okita took shallow breaths of strangely frosty summer air, calming the sudden attack on his lungs. Stupid, stupid Okita, he silently cursed himself, you were just about found out at the meeting. And at such a crucial moment, too.
He remembered when he came to know. Know about this sickening disease he had contracted. He had had suspicions, and had gone to see a doctor dressed as a normal, rice-selling patron. The tired doctor sadly counted the rest of his years on one hand. Once, just once.
This illness was terrible. The incurable one, the signed and sealed death sentence. The one that made its victim suffer by hacking up pieces of his own lungs until he dropped dead.
Tuberculosis. They called it Kekkaku. The name itself paints a vivid picture of the victim coughing. Ke. Kka. Ku.
Okita went quietly to carefully wash the evidence off his hands, and then slipped back into the meeting, which fortunately had not concluded yet. Kondou would fill in the rest later. He'd probably ask about the coughing too, to which Okita would casually reply complaining of a cold.
Before long, the conference was over with, and every Miburo returned to his bed and quickly fell asleep with confidence on a definite ambush could bring. All but Okita.
He lied awake, pondering. "You think too much," Saitou would say to him sometimes. It was true. It is better to not feel or think too much when your primary goal in these times was to kill. Morals were not what you wanted to dwell on constantly.
However, this wasn't what Okita was thinking deeply of now. It was Kekkaku. He forced himself to think of a dream he had once, one where there was no mayhem everywhere he looked. The stream was once again a clear blue, and flowers could bloom without being trampled a thousand times by the marching footsteps of unwavering men. Determined, he pushed away unpleasant thoughts from his head.
June 5, 1864. Final preparations were complete, and the sun was almost setting. Strong winds blew mercilessly, setting the stage for a successful case of uncontrollable fires. The Shinsengumi marched out.
Not a word was said as the Miburos walked to the designated spot for the surprise. Before long, they were there, so close they could hear the whispered talking. And, they waited. When the signal was given, all Miburos rushed in, letting out war cries and surprising every Shishi.
Okita fought as the wind roared in his ears, accompanied by the screams of dying men. He had almost forgotten how terrible those screams were—filled with anguish and hopelessness. Trying to ignore the sounds, he concentrated on bringing his opponents down.
His famous, most deadly attack was the three-piece-strike, or the Sandanzuki. It was three strikes with the sword delivered with great speed, modified from a technique developed by Hijikata Toshizo, the vice commander of the Shinsengumi.
Okita wielded his sword so expertly he went through masses of enemies at a fairly fast pace, pushing his body's limit.
Strike to the neck, right shoulder and left shoulder. His opponent dropped. A spatter of blood landed on his shoulder. Quickly he moved away from an oncoming sword and struck his attacker in the heart.
It was getting windier.
Neck, right shoulder, left. Another one went down. Okita looked at the ground... the streets were beginning to look like red rivers, like so many times before.
The cold was exhausting.
Step back, turn, slash.
How much time had gone by? He didn't know. All he concentrated on was fighting, forgetting everything else.
Forward, defend, stab, pull back.
Strike to the neck.
An icy gust raged across the battle, chilling Okita where the blood had landed.
Strike to the right shoulder.
What a vicious fight...
Okita stopped, he was breathing heavily. He staggered back, coughing. He couldn't stop. Scarlet spurted out of his mouth, and he threw up more and more blood. A shocking amount of his own redness was puddling on the ground, adding to the river that flowed in the path.
Hacking violently, Okita fell back in dizziness, his vision blurring. He could see Saitou stepping up from behind to help him. Unable to do anything, he closed his eyes watching a spiral of darkness.
"What happened to him, Kondou?"
"I just found him next to a pool of blood. No wound was found on him, I believe he had fainted."
"Just fainted? Was he sick?"
Kondou looked at Hijikata solemnly. "He's been sick. The doctor... he said that Okita has had Kekkaku for some time now."
"Kekkaku? Not Okita."
"He said he hasn't very long to live."
Hijikata and Kondou sat, trying to sort the pattern of events. Though they were both about ten years Okita's senior, the three were like brothers. Still, it was a time of war... and nothing much could be done.
"Will he wake soon?"
Okita awoke with a sharp jolt in his chest. I am... where? Wait. The battle, and the Shishis. But then, I... oh no. They must know. I must be either in a hospital or my room. Or something. They know. That's not good.
He got up slowly and decided to explore this new place he was put in. It wasn't a hospital and was certainly not his room. It could be a new inn they were staying at.
Kondou saw him and hurried over. "Okita. You're awake?"
"Well, did you think I was sleepwalking?"
Taken aback at Okita's light humor at this grave moment, Kondou chose his words slowly. "Okita... do you know... you have Kekkaku?"
Okita considered a sarcastic reply, but thought better of it. He looked straight into Kondou's eyes.
"Why did you not tell anyone?"
"And boost my men's spirits? I'm sure they'd love to know that their captain is going to die soon."
"So you didn't tell anyone with the fear that the news would decrease their morale?" repeated Kondou.
Kondou took a deep breath. Being the commander, with no one else to look up to, was never easy. Decisions had to be made, and no one would like you no matter what you chose.
"That was a good idea, Okita. We'll keep this a secret. I-"
He was interrupted by Hijikata, who was just walking over.
"No, I'm sleepwalking."
In spite of his strict manner, Hijikata felt somewhat relieved. Okita was still his cheerful self.
"What's going on?"
"Kondou answered the vague question. "Hijikata. Don't tell anyone about Okita's, erm, condition."
"So their morale wouldn't do down," added Okita pointedly.
"Of course. Critical times of war. Of course. Anyone who happens to tell," Hijikata said aloud, "will be cut down."
Okita managed a grim smile. "...will find themselves shorter, by about a head."
Kondou nodded, "Alright then. I'll have to go explain to the rest of them, and tell them some plans I have. Did you know we became heroes overnight? Everyone loves us now. Hijikata, you're coming?"
They left, leaving Okita to ponder, again. So they know. So I'll die... and there is not a single thing I can do about it.
Okita shook his head sadly, and then took a deep breath. No use feeling self-pity, not when lives were at stake.
He looked out the window. The sky was dimming, and he heard an owl hooting nearby. The rooms were empty, leaving Okita with time by himself to ponder, to think his shadowed thoughts.
Okita's usual optimism had deserted him now that someone else knows about his crippling illness. He moved stealthily to his temporary room and almost slammed the screen—very unlike him.
He had had it. How could he, the Captain of the First Squad of the Shinsengumi, one of the original members, who could cut down countless men with a mere sword, be defeated by some... disease? How?
Tears welled up in his eyes from frustration. There was nothing he could do. Nothing! He would just end up dead early, young, and forgotten among other rotting corpses. No heroic death, no giving his life for a cause he believed in. He would die choking and in pain.
He had lost.
Coughing, with his tears muddling with his blood, Okita slumped down into despair.
Somehow, Okita had fallen asleep, but he was woken by his sickness, again. Sighing, he gave up trying to sleep and decided to go outside. There wasn't anything that he could do to stop Tuberculosis from killing him, so he wouldn't try. Stepping outside into the cooling air, he was immediately washed over with a peculiarly warm glow from the pale but luminous moon. He gazed at its beauty that he had never noticed before, for his time was always spent training and fighting.
He couldn't stop himself from dying, but that didn't mean he would die now. He shouldn't waste his life away even more worrying.
They said joy was in peace, or maybe getting what you wanted, or even finding love... but you could be happy even when you have nothing. Joy was a state of mind, something you chose.
And Okita chose to be happy.
The next day, the Shinsengumi went out to patrol the streets, as they had often done, but for the first time, they were not greeted with glares of hatred. Whispers still followed them like their shadows, but the hatred in the air had lifted.
Okita was feeling ever like his normal, cheery self again—after a period of misery. He smiled at a staring restaurant owner, and watched with a queer look on his face as the old man scurried back, hastily sweeping the floor with mock concentration.
Then, Saitou jerked his head towards a dark and dirty alleyway.
"I smell blood," he stated clearly.
A hitokiri—an assassin nearby?
Okita grinned. "Aw, I think you've just been killing too much, Saitou-san."
Saitou looked at who might be called his friend. His laugh was creating a more lighthearted atmosphere in these gloomy times of bloodshed.
"Remember who you are talking to the next time you open your mouth to speak," he remarked slowly, with sternness. Truth be told, he didn't mind that much.
Okita knew that, and he smiled.
This was joy.
Author's Second Note: Thanks for reading--a review would be nice! Oh, and parts of the story were inspired by "What the Day Demands", by Meriko (a story that also provided me with more insight on Japanese daily life back then, as well as an overall awesome read), and "Footsteps", by Akal-Saris. I'm so depressed that TFME is gone.