Warning: Spoilers for the manga, volumes 1-3

Masks and Faces

Saizo always wears the same expression: fury, annoyance, burning spite, his cheeks growing red and his little snout bobbing in and out with irritation.

Okita loves his little pet, loves this comical look, but he is surprised that it knows not how to show any other emotion. After all, Okita himself has mastered the art. He knows how to paint on features more expertly than a Kabuki actor, and he swaps them faster than an excited child in a summer festival. He switches faces when he switches feelings, or when the situation calls for it (you won't catch him looking dreamy at a meeting, no matter how far his thoughts are actually flying), slapping them on repeatedly until the charades are done for the day and he can lie down on his futon, bury his head in his pillow and stop.

In battle, his eyes grow sharp and slitted. He narrows them to define the details more: to see the telltale twitch of wrist that means the enemy plans to strike; to catch the scuffle of heel that indicates a dodge. He frowns, too, but it isn't one of agitation or sadness. It helps him to concentrate, and he doesn't shout much anyway, attack titles or cries or numbers, like some others do to strengthen the blow. He prefers to work coldly. The more he fashions his face to seem uncaring, the less he feels, not even when the foe's blood is running down from his brow to his cheeks in a horrific parody of tears.

When Okita is sad, he does not cry, but he can't bring himself to do much else either. He does not arrange his hair or change out of his sleepwear, and the farthest he can go is his desk, where his puts his head down and thinks. Reflects. Saizo squeals at him to move. Tetsu comes in, reluctantly, and sets some tea down on his desk. Okita pretends that he is sleeping. He lets his face do whatever it wants to. He imagines that it looks like a stone idol (not that anyone would wish to offers prayers to a god of death). Eventually he finds the strength to stand, taking hope in the thought of a better future and for the best. There are a few echoes still lurking in his head. He ignores them by putting on a different face.

A perky one – the one he wears when there are children around, when cooing to Saizo, when laughing at Hijikata for all his grumpy tendencies. This one's fairly easy to pull – a light grin andraised eyebrows, to match an easily waving hand. Sometimes he closes his eyes to punctuate his happiness. He has not forgotten how to tell a good joke or a ghost story, or how to enjoy candy, and whenever these childhood pleasures occur he finds this expression surfacing like a reflex from some younger, alien Soji.

"Stop smiling," Hijikata grumbled once. "You look like a girl that way."

When he gets weird comments like that, or when he feels he has to say something but isn't sure how to deliver it without being too serious, he decides to try acting sly. He's not quite sure how he does it, and it's not always the same – sometimes he's smiling, sometimes he's just starting to pout. Sometimes his mouth plays no part at all. But his eyes always take on a secretive, mischievous quality. He uses this when he tells Sannan that he thinks he is even more right, he uses this when he tells the doctor that he must have a difficult job. He uses this when he denies ever coughing, but when Hijikata's face turns from poker to hurting, he suddenly wishes that he didn't have to lie. He uses this when Tetsu bugs him about that book he is reading. These poems are top secret information. The boy stares. "Your face looks creepy, Okita."

He knows a lot more. He puffs his lips out, imitating a blowfish, when he's trying to contain laughter (or piss the vice-commander off, haha). He has a business face when being introduced to new members, or when sitting through meetings, complacent enough for drinking tea and sharing insight when needed. He has a gossipy face. He discovered that he has an angry face, that time when Yamanami ran away without adequate reason. He can do exasperation – he used it a lot when he was younger, screwing up during training, but now he just uses it on himself, sighing deeply,upset with his own frailty. He has also worn fear – when that little girl's eyes flickered up at him and seemed to comprehend, it was all he could do to excuse himself, since his body had suddenly gone deathly cold (and he knew it wasn't from the illness).

He is not sure about pain. It is different from sadness and different from anger. But it probably doesn't matter, because half his face is covered by a hand anyway. The other half is shaded by his bangs because he's either kneeling or crouching, leaning into himself. It's probably areflexive attempt to stifle the sound. His brows are knitted together, his eyes are closed tight and he is coughing, trying not to, coughing some more.

Hijikata, like Saizo, always wears the same expression: varying degrees of menace. But he probably knows all about different faces, although he doesn't use them. He can read Okita like a piece of open parchment. Whether it's the author or the medic in him, Okita isn't sure.

Okita likes to tease, either with the perky grin or the blowfish face.

"Soji, I don't appreciate you attempting to brush my hair."

"Yeah, right. You love it."

His lower lip curls. "What gave you that idea?"

"Because it's me." And he laughs, and everything about it is false. Except for the affection.

If he could make a mask, carve a face in wood, he'd do it with a blunt sword. A murderous face, or the creepy ghost-geisha of Noh would probably be more fitting, but he'd like it to wear a smile. A gentle, genuine smile, to remember him by once he's gone. But he reminds himself that even wood will rot eventually - andit's his battle face that is worth more to the Shinsengumi, after all. He considers these things while hiding in his room when he has neither mission nor training to rip apart his dying lungs, wearing pain underneath bravery underneath nonchalance, broken only by the coughing.

Saizo tugs at the edges of his robe. When Okita turns to smile at him, the pig almost looks sad.

A/N: Just for fun, Soji wears a blowfish face in chapter 6 (page 26 in the ADV manga). There's another funny face I couldn't put a name to (hamster-face?) in chapter 15 (page 153). :D I apologize for the terrible title (it was the only passable, relevant one I could come up with). As always, I'd greatly appreciate comments and reviews of any kind.