Past Twenty
Spoilers for PMK manga up to volume 3. For the Okita I know.

When Okita first met Hijikata, he thought the man was made of metal. Hijikata wore his yukata close to his body; he was thin and supple as a lightning bolt, black-sheathed in fabric that almost entirely hid any stains. His words were sharp. His gestures were sharper, as if he could cut the air with his fingers and spill its innards, as efficient as a butcher with a fish.

Most importantly, Hijikata smelled of choji oil all the time, as if he were soaked in it: clove, and pipesmoke and blood.

When he was younger, and Hijikata was younger too, the vice-commander never knew what to do. Okita didn't play the same games as other children; his face could turn from smiling to serious as easily as light shifting through a paper window. Pinwheels went discarded. Strings were ignored. Hijikata would order Okita to go outside, but every time the boy complied, Hijikata would slide open the door to find his page curled next to it in a snug little ball, waiting.

Okita liked to be constantly underfoot. He'd sneak into Hijikata's room and bury himself deep in the futons, waiting for the man to get ready for sleep. In the evenings, he would sit attentively in a corner until Hijikata finished smoking and coughing at the reports. His hands stayed folded in his lap; some nights he would fall asleep like that, head tilted gently to the side, lungs steadily breathing.

"You don't act," Hijikata ventured one afternoon, "like much of a kid."

Okita turned those wide, hungry, pleasant eyes up to him in return. "Do you not like me?"

The first time that Okita picked up a Shinsengumi katana, it belonged to Hijikata. The vice-commander watched very carefully as Okita stumbled backwards underneath its weight, struggling to bring the weapon's point into the air. The length of the sword was almost as big as the boy himself; his fists bunched up on the handle and the blade wavered drunkenly, swaying from side to side until even Hijikata got nervous and stepped back.

The boy was exiled to the practice yard after that, given whip-twigs to play with in hopes that the exertion would exhaust him to sleep. When Hijikata stepped out to observe him several hours later, Okita had already moved onto heavier branches, picking through the debris near the kitchens that were used for cooking fires.

After sticks came shinai. Then bokken. Then metal.

Once Okita was able to grip a wakizashi firmly enough to parry one of Hijikata's thrusts, the vice-commander called him to sit down after practice. He dug out one of the less musty tatami cushions for the occasion, cleaning off his writing desk so that he could pour Okita a cup of sake and push it out towards him. The boy made a face as he drank, coughing up halfway through and dribbling it all over his yukata.

"Not sweet," he choked out. "It's horrible."

"It's what adults drink, Soujiro," was Hijikata's ponderous reply.

"Then I'm not much of one either."

As Okita grew older, he never lost the habit of thinking of Hijikata as a weapon. Years slipped by, drowning in the summer-swollen rivers that would spit out corpses in the morning, bobbing as they were nibbled by fish. Okita became taller. Hijikata remained sleek. Like a sword, and Okita would bite his lip to keep from touching him like one: with reverence, with affection, wary of the tones and temper that could cut before a person was ready to parry. Hijikata pretended not to care when Okita would slip and run his fingers along the edgelines of the vice commander's yukata. Because -- unlike a sword -- Hijikata was always warm to the touch, and Okita could crawl up beside him and just be quiet for a little while, all while the man muttered furiously about rumors and pages and sometimes demons. Sometimes.

They never stopped playing.

"Your throat is hurting," Hijikata says, and Okita nods. The vice-commander mixes the tea. They both pretend it's for flavor when Hijikata adds in the freshly-diced roots recommended by the doctor, herbs that smell of bitterness and death every time Okita finishes a cup.

Hijikata says your throat is hurting because it's easier than saying you looked dizzy walking across the courtyard. Or even, there was blood on your sleeve last night, did you fall down, did you cough again.

If no one says it out loud, they can pretend it didn't happen. If the problem doesn't show, the problem does not exist. So.

Souji Okita is past twenty. He can tell he is getting older because it takes longer for scars to fade from his skin, not because the seasons cycle in and out like a battered rowboat on a tide. Small nicks that should have vanished refuse to go away. Bruises last for a week. They won't mend themselves. They don't want to anymore.

Twenty is an impossible number to consider on good days. It's ludicrous on the rest. Okita never expected to live so long, and when compared to the other captains, he is still a babe. But he is older on the inside than his calendar years, and his body knows it. It's starting to wear down. It'll kill him soon enough, when he's not fast enough to parry a sword in an inevitable Shinsengumi brawl, but that's not what concerns him.

Okita just doesn't want his death to hurt anyone when it comes.

He measures time by wounds. It used to be that he'd heal from a scrape in two days. Now it's six. There's one welt high up on his arm -- more of a bruise than a cut, really, and the skin's healed up entirely, but it's still sore. Okita rubs it absently while he patters along the walkways of the temple, mulling on the subject of infection. Fine on the outside. Damaged within.

The unit captain acts too young for what he does, some people say, too impossibly child-like to lift a weapon and understand the consequences. But Okita has learned much more than a sword over the years. His feet are praiseworthy not for the delicacy of their steps, but for how neatly Okita can make them twist when he needs an unexpected kick. His hands know how to massage muscles wired from tension, and they also know how to strike them numb.

Above all, Okita's mind shuts off when he touches a weapon, so that the jabber of mortality becomes silent. In that hush, actions become instantaneous. All threats move from potential to serious. There is no quarter given.

As long as he can manage that, he won't be useless yet.

That's what Okita tells himself, when Hijikata is turning a pipe over with slow fingers and giving it a hard rap to knock the ash out. It's what makes these moments of weakness okay, because when the vice-commander needs to, he can still depend on his unit captain.

When Okita has gone silent in the evening and leans his head against Hijikata's shoulder, the vice-commander says nothing aloud. Okita isn't strong. He wishes he were, so he could keep his distance from Hijikata and not borrow the warmth of the other man. Hijikata takes loss too personally. It rips him apart inside, and it will hurt when his captain finally can't keep up. It will hurt badly.

Okita knows this. He knows this, and he tries not to.

It's strange that it took him twenty years to learn how to relax. When he was younger, life was all about mastering his sword. Now he's finished that. The only things left are the skills he ignored in his youth, and Okita realizes he loves them, loves to laugh and tease and throw things for Saizo to fetch. Loves to cause mischief for Hijikata; loves to devour sweet snacks and laugh without remorse. He digs out his old name out from the closet, remembering Soujirou instead of the Shinsengumi demon, and wears it as simply as his favorite light cotton yukata in spring.

In contrast to his younger age, Okita likes to sleep these days. When he closes his eyes and tucks himself under the warm futons, he can feel the small aches in his flesh start to unwind. His muscles relax. His body craves this restoration; with his eyes closed, Okita can pretend that he'll feel wonderful in the morning, in perfect health and every inch of himself strong and new.

Sleep is satisfying. That's why he makes himself get up so early. He'd sleep all the time if he could, but that'd be lazy of him, and besides -- it would make people worry. They're not supposed to notice anything's wrong. Hijikata can tell, but Hijikata has a million other things on his mind and Okita can slide the fact of his infirmity away from the vice-commander if he's quick about it, as deftly as he would rearrange a tatami cushion beneath his knees. Tuck it under something else, promise Hijikata that everything's fine, and the man can't help but become distracted by the myriad of storms battering down his door.

Okita prefers fading away. He won't fight the death that's creeping into his room like mist on an autumn morning, because it's coming softly, just for him. It knocks like the most deferential of geisha. His mouth is lined with mucus-sugar from its kisses. Sometimes when Okita lets his muscles relax, letting the air seep out of his lungs, his exhalations taste sweet. But not like candy. Like chemicals, or coughing, or miso soup vomit. Like memories of the sake Hijikata gave him so long ago, turned sugary only through nostalgia.

Cold air hurts. It slices deep inside his body, raking his throat and chest and heart and blood -- but plays in it during wintertime, and relishes each tight clenching of his lungs. The pain reminds him that he's alive, because he can't get away from it even when he tries, and so Okita figures he just has to accept it as part of daily life. The temple air feels like a killing word; his lungs are sticky and hateful, but none of that really matters, not like the way Shinpachi's eyes have started to glaze during the noontime meal, Sanosuke's stilted laugh on the practice mats. Hijikata's trebled addiction to his pipe.

Late at night, Okita pushes his face against Hijikata's shoulder and mouths the vice-commander's name. Hijikata mumbles something unformed, touching Okita's hair, and sleep comes a little easier.

The Shinsengumi are Okita's family, but his family is tearing itself apart in a slow rot that he wishes he could deny. Ayumu died. Yamanami was lost. War has intruded upon the inner world of the squadron, as cruel and unforgiving as gangrene, and this of all things causes Okita to worry most: the way his friends are withering, and there's nothing that can be done. It makes him wonder sometimes if this is how they will meet their end. Exhaustion. Despair. And Okita present to see it all, but unable to fight, too weak to stop them or to do anything save cough.

He is afraid of dying. But sometimes, Okita thinks he is afraid of living more.

They keep playing games together, he and Hijikata. He pretends that it doesn't hurt. That the swords aren't heavy, that he isn't sick again, worn out from a short jog down the road. That he's still as strong as his youth.

And in return, Hijikata pretends that Okita is immortal.