Spring Moon

Holidays '03 Giftfic: luckykitty

The first thing Hijikata saw when he entered the room was Tetsunosuke kneeling on the tatami, head bowed and motionless. A familiar dagger was cupped lengthwise in his hands. Hijikata paused, noting the sharpening implements, the long sword and the short.

Behind the sliding screens rain drummed dully on the wooden veranda.

"What are you doing?"

"The tarnish won't come off," Tetsu said. There was something terrible and childlike in his voice. Hijikata knelt beside him and took the dagger from the boy's fingers, holding it up to the diffuse light. The metal had not darkened so much as it had dulled, greying evenly to the point that no highlight could be seen. Hijikata thought that perhaps the day was too overcast; yet there was no denying that the substance of the blade had changed. When it first had been pressed into his hands, not so long ago, it had been bright enough to cast ripples of light around itself, like water ruffled by a breeze.

"Leave it," he said. "It is still keen; that is all that matters. Finish your work."

It was late in the spring, nearly summer, of a year that had too many names. For weeks no messenger had passed the blockades.

That evening Tetsunosuke brought tea, scalding and weak. Hijikata did not reproach him. When the boy was about to retire with the tray he said, "Stay on the north side of the veranda for tonight. It'll keep you out of the way of the comings and goings."

Tetsu nodded. A short time later he dragged his blanket and mat to a spot outside, near the screen doors leading to Hijikata's room (which still cast a pool of yellow light on the drying wood), and settled with his back against the wall. The solidity was the last remnant of his need for enclosure, but Tetsu had no desire for the slumbering companionship of men he barely knew. One of them would have nightmares, even if he did not.

War had taught him to will himself to rest. The thought of Saya helped, sometimes. There was something calming in her eyes, even when sketched roughly by his imagination.

(Tetsu did not delude himself that he was where he was in order to protect her. He did what he must to remain true; that was the banner that now united him to the others, when the old ones no longer flew.)

His sleep that night was fitful. In the morning he would remember dreaming of Suzu, not as he had last seen him but far younger: frowning, impatient, achingly open. They were standing side by side on a bridge in the Capital, gazing down together at the slowly moving water of the canal. Petals of long-faded cherry blossom floated past, spinning in the shallow whorls created by the bridge's supports, submerging and resurfacing. He thought Suzu spoke, and even that he answered, but the words themselves eluded him. Their unseized import filled him with dread. He struggled to ask again, and awoke.

The moon was hanging low above the roof of the inner courtyard, bright and drenched with rain-mist, like a mirror that had been left outside to collect dew. Its immensity swallowed up the sky. Tetsu gazed at it, and his heartbeat – at first frantic – began to slow. It seemed to him that the moon drank the unreasoning fear from his thoughts until only quiet remained. His blanket had slid off during his sleep. He felt no chill, however; the night was exceptionally warm for the season, as warm as blood.

(Later on this is how Tetsu will ascertain that he was still dreaming: it was impossible that he should see the moon at all, at this time and from this direction, late in the spring.)

The pool of yellow light beside him wavered, suddenly, as if someone had passed beside and blocked the flame; then it dimmed as if burning low. Tetsu received the impression that more than one person was moving around inside. "A messenger, finally," he thought. In normal circumstances he would have jumped to his feet, but in the dream he remained still and curled on his side, barely turning his head to listen. Shadows moved across the light, and were gone. Once again he could not catch the words; only a low murmur that may have been speech, but could just as well have been the wind, or the distant sound of the sea. The night air was stifling with moisture, and they were far inland. Once or twice he thought he could hear Hijikata's voice.

"It's someone I know," he said to himself. "Who is he speaking to?" But he could not stand to go and see. An aching sadness came over him then, and he screwed his eyes shut, burying his face in his arms. The afterimage of the moon swam before his inward gaze.

As dreamless sleep took him he had the barest impression of laughter, light and easy as a child's. More carefree than it had been for a long time; less laboured, perhaps, than he had ever heard it.

Tetsu woke late, contrary to his habit. When he went to rouse Hijikata he found the Vice-Captain already up and seated before his writing table, seemingly sunk in an unseeing brown study. Tetsu would have suspected him of not having been to bed at all, but the futon was rumpled, and Hijikata had not dressed. He'd taken the binding out of his hair, and it flowed freely down his back, a slash of ink-black against the white fabric of his yukata.

Folded neatly beside him was the set of foreign clothing all of them now owned. Tetsu's were hidden away, unworn, at the bottom of his pack. He stopped just inside the door, staring down at the tatami. At moments like this he never had the courage to approach Hijikata. He hated the distance between them, because it left him to himself, and reminded him of one who could bridge the gulf as easily as breathing. Gone, now.

Strange, the binding threads one did not notice until they were severed.

"Vice-Captain," he said.

"There you are," Hijikata said. He shifted, laying a hand on the desk, and Tetsu noticed with a dull shock that he was holding yesterday's dagger. Its blade seemed to drain the light from the room. "Round up the men. A message has come."

"From Edo?"

Hijikata looked up, his eyes suddenly blazing.

Tetsu trembled, pressing his lips tightly shut. Why did I ask that? He thought to himself.


Hijikata looked away, finally. "No," he said. "We've received our orders at last. The army goes north. We will defend our ships against these foreign weapons of theirs: these barking guns." He lifted the dagger.


It was fast, and Tetsu did not expect it. Hijikata bowed his head, took hold of his long hair and sliced through it with one swift motion, just above the nape. The severed length fell coiled, dark and soundless, around his feet.

Tetsu made a wordless exclamation, then clapped his hands over his mouth, horrified. There was a silence.

"It's lighter like this," Hijikata said, very low. "Good." Tetsu knelt, head lowered, and waited until he was sure his voice would be steady.

"What should I do?"

"Gather the men," Hijikata said. "Attend me when you are ready. After that... you know your duties."

As I do mine.

The scent of rain crept into the room.

Tetsu thought of ships, and of the sea.

β€” Montreal, December 2003