A Fun New Game

It was Thursday, and business as usual for the Shinsengumi. And that meant long hours pouring over books and records for poor Tatsunosuke.

Tatsu yawned. He had a headache and was having trouble focusing on the long lines of number in front of him. Climbing to his feet, he decided to go and splash some water on his face.

While he was at the well, he heard roaring laughter behind him, and turned to see Captains Harada, Nagakura, and Toudou heading towards him. All three were laughing hysterically, which made Tatsu vaguely suspicious.

"You mean, like this!" Shinpachi screeched, and slapped Heisuke on the ass. Right there in front of Tatsu's very eyes! Harada laughed so hard he nearly fell over.

"Shinpachiiiii!" the tall man howled. Tatsu, meanwhile, was staring at them in shock, his mouth hanging open. "Do it again, Shinpa- Shinpachi!" Harada roared.

"Like THIS?" Shinpachi repeated, slapping Captain Harada's ass.

"No! No! Like This!" Heisuke exclaimed, slapping Shinpachi, right across his short little rear end.

"Uuuuuu!" Shinpachi said, and all three of them burst into new fits of hysteria. Tatsu felt like he might throw up from the feeling of dread in his stomach. Silently, he tried to slink back to the office. "Look! Look!" Shinpachi said urgently. "It's Tatsukun!" Tatsu froze, horrified.

"TATSU!" Sanosuke howled. Suddenly the young bookkeeper found himself surrounded by the three deliriously laughing Shinsengumi captains.

"Tell him the story!" Shinpachi cried.

"UWAH HAH HAAAaaaa…. Ok, so there was- ha- HAH! There was- that girl- she said- GAAAaa ha haha she said, she said--" Harada attempted to explain, before nearly choking on his laughter.

"She- she--" Heisuke tried to continue, whimpering from the pain of restraining his laughter. "And then- and then- THEN- Shinpachi! Nyaaa ha HAAA!"

"Like this!" Sanosuke roared, and slapped Tatsu across the ass.

Tatsu had only screamed like that once before, which was when a naked lunatic had jumped out of a window right in front of him and called him by name.

A door slid back and Souji appeared, round-eyed and curious. "Ara? What's the commotion?" he asked, stepping out into the yard.

"Oh! Souji! You gotta hear this story!" Heisuke laughed.

"I'm sure I do," Captain Okita said, joining the circle around the terrorized Tatsunosuke.

"Ok- so we were drinking sake," Shinpachi began.

"Quite believable," Souji commented, smiling happily.

"With this girl," Heisuke continued.

"And she slapped me on the ass!" Harada announced loudly, and the trio of troublemakers erupted into laughter again. Souji looked mildly puzzled.

"Like- Like- " Shinpachi said between shrieks of laughter, raising his hand. "Like this!" And he slapped Souji on the ass.

Souji blinked a few times, blushing handsomely. "I see," he said, and the three of them laughed. Souji turned and slapped Heisuke's ass. "Like that?" he asked.

"No no no! Like THIS!" Heisuke squealed, smacking Shinpachi on the ass again.

Souji chuckled, his eyes closing into cheerful semi-circles. "Now I get it," he said, and when he opened his eyes, he focused his bright, happy gaze on Tatsu's petrified face.

Tatsu had never seen anything that scared him more those round, violet eyes with all their apparent innocence. "P- please, Okitasan," he managed to plead, but a second later Souji had reached around behind him and slapped his ass. Tatsu looked like he'd been turned to stone. Souji laughed and clapped his hands. Sano threw his head back and laughed with all his might, and then leaned forward and smacked Shinpachi's ass so hard that the little redhead fell over.

Tatsu, meanwhile, had never felt so abused. Tears ran like rivers down his face. The Shinsengumi captains continued to laugh.

"You bastard, that hurt!" Shinpachi declared, springing to his feet and slapping Sanosuke's ass as hard as he could.

"OW!" yowled Sanosuke, rubbing his bum with his hand.

Suddenly another door was wrenched open. Everyone froze.

"What the hell is going on?" Hijikata growled. "Why are you being so goddamn LOUD?" No one answered him. Shinpachi, Sano, and Heisuke grinned stupidly at him, eyes wide. Hijikata glared at the three of them in turn, and then focused on Tatsu. "Tatsunosuke, you look sober. Explain this!"

Tatsu swallowed nervously. "Well you see, sir, they were playing a sort of a game."

"A game," Hijikata repeated incredulously. "What kind of game!"

"yaaa!" Tatsu cried out in fear. His shoulders shook. "I don't know, sir!" he exclaimed, falling to his knees. "They've just been la- laughing and sl- slapping each other on the ass, sir!"

Hijikata's steely eyes flared with rage. He clenched his fists.

"Slapping each other on the ass!" Hijikata roared. "What kind of behavior is that for Shinsengumi captains to-"

Unnoticed, Souji had distanced himself from Tatsu and the troublemakers, and was now on the porch a few steps away from Hijikata. Stealthily, Souji was inching, panther-like, step by careful step, towards the vice commander.

"-it's an embarrassment to this organization, and what's more, to bushido, if you can't control yourselves-" Hijikata's voice rumbled with hatred as he continued his furious lecture "-not even worthy of the honor of killing yourselves! You clowns are the most immature, insufferable--"

The sharp SMACK! of Souji's hand against Hijikata's ass echoed across the yard like a gunshot. It was followed by a moment of silence. Then the pipe fell out of Hijikata's mouth and clattered on the floor. Hijikata, fists still clenched, slowly turned around.

Souji beamed at him. "Isn't it a fun game, Hijikatasan?" he asked innocently, and then, laughing, he fled.

Sano, Heisuke, and Shinpachi, whose eyes and mouths had never been open quite so wide, suddenly looked at each other and then took advantage of Hijikata's momentary speechlessness and bolted.

Tatsu was left alone in the yard with the stunned vice commander. Slowly, Hijikata reached down to retrieve his pipe. Tatsu was sweating.

"Nani ga Shinsengumi?" Hijikata muttered disgustedly. "Tell me, Tatsunosuke, do you understand them?"

"No sir, not a bit," Tatsu replied.

"I let them get away with too much," Hijikata growled. "I keep hoping that they'll develop some sense of self-restraint, but, at this rate, they'll disgrace us all. It's got to be stopped."

"Sir? Surely you're not thinking of firing them?" Tatsu asked.

"Unfortunately, that's not an option. I need them all, especially Souji. But they must be punished. Not just for this, but for all their wild behavior- I've got to insist on discipline around here. I'll punish them all. Especially Souji."

Hijikata stalked off as if he had been talking to himself. Grimacing, Tatsu crept away as well.

Later that night, Captains Saitou and Harada were standing at the gate, both in their full uniforms, on guard duty. Saitou glanced over at Sano, and then suddenly reached out and smacked him on the ass.

"What the hell?" Sano said, glaring at Saitou indignantly.

Saitou's bored expression didn't change. "I heard it's a new game the men are playing," he said in a dreary monotone.

"Seriously?" Sano asked. "Man, that got around quick."

Saitou sighed. "Hijikata will put an end to it soon."

"Yeah, he outlaws just about everything fun, doesn't he? Like that underwear game."

Saitou glanced sideways at Harada. "I blame you for getting that one shut down," he muttered.

"What? How was it my fault?" Sano protested.

"That time a few weeks ago, when Shinpachi challenged you, and you weren't wearing underwear…" Saitou said.

"Huh? Oh yeah, that time. I just couldn't find any that morning!"

"But someone reported to Hijikatasan that you were flashing the entire dojo. Of course, he was furious, and since I was a witness I was forced to explain what had happened. So I explained the game to him and tried to convince him that it was harmless fun…"

flashback!

"SOOOUJIIII!" rumbled the vice commander, standing up. Saitou looked disinterestedly at the door as Captain Okita opened it.

"Yes, Hijikatasan?" Souji asked brightly.

"Get in here!" growled Hijikata.

"Hello, Saitousan," Souji said pleasantly, nodding to the room's only other occupant. "Goodness, Hijikatasan, you look upset. What's the matter?"

"Harada Sanosuke isn't wearing underwear today," Saitou explained, sounding bored.

Souji burst into laughter.

"Shut up," Hijikata snarled. "It's not funny!"

"Ahem," Souji said, attempting to be serious. "Well. May I ask how we all came to this horrific realization?"

"The underwear game," Saitou sighed.

"The underwear game?" Souji asked, his eyes wide.

"The goddamn underwear game!" Hijikata shouted.

"Apparently, Captain Nagakura was strolling around in a yukata this morning and Captain Harada made some comment about the fact that for once Nagakura wasn't wearing pants. That started the argument which turned into a challenge of the underwear game," Saitou explained.

"I see," Souji said. "And that's what caused this whole crisis?" he tried hard to choke down a giggle. "But… can't we just tell Haradasan to please put on some underwear?"

"That's not the POINT!" Hijikata fumed. "The point is that THIS is the Shinsengumi, the deadliest police unit in history, the defenders of the Shogunate, authorized by LAW to keep revolutionary activists at bay in the capitol, authorized to KILL- and with all our power and responsibility, with our reputation as merciless killers, what are we doing?"

Souji blinked. "ah… looking at each other's underwear?" he guessed, his mouth twitching. Giving up, he collapsed to the floor, rocked by peals of happy laughter. Saitou couldn't help himself either- he cracked a lopsided grin and actually chuckled.

"IT'S NOT FUNNY!" Hijikata shouted at them both. "Souji, you're the captain of the first squad! How many times have I told you, it's up to you to set a good example! You knew that this … this… activity was going on, and you didn't try to stop it?"

"Why would I try to stop it, Hijikatasan? It's a really fun game!"

"How long has it been going on?" Hijikata asked, aghast.

"Oh, I don't know," Souji said lazily. "Probably for three or four years now."

"What? Who started it?"

"Um…"

"UGH! Never mind," the vice commander growled.

"I'm sorry we left you out of it all this time," Souji said in mock penitence. "Would you like me to teach you how to play?"

Hijikata gave Souji his deadliest glare. "No. I. Would. Not," the vice commander hissed.

"Come on, Hijikatasan! You'd be really good at it!"

Saitou's shoulders were now shaking from laughter. Hijikata looked like he wanted to throw something, like possibly the captain of the first squad, through the wall.

"I am going to EXECUTE the next person who plays that atrocious game," the vice commander growled, his fists trembling in rage. "Do you both hear me? Spread the word to the men. This matter is closed."

"Wow," Sano said, as Saitou finished the story. "He was really pissed about that, wasn't he?"

"Yes," Saitou said.

"Man. Well, I guess I can see how it was my fault that it got outlawed. I'm sorry about that."

"This new game isn't quite as much fun," Saitou remarked.

"Well, that's cause you didn't do it right," Sano said. "It's supposed to be a real deliberate smack, but really girly too. Like this."

Sanosuke slapped Saitou across the ass.

"Ha ha ha!" bellowed a warm, rich voice behind them. The captains turned to see their commander heading towards the gate, wearing his best set of clothes. "Keeping each other awake on guard duty, are you? That's the spirit!"

"Kondousan," Saitou said.

"Commander!" Sano exclaimed. They both bowed.

"I'll be gone for the next few days- it was all rather last-minute, but I'm sure Toshi will keep everything under control. Keep up your hard work!"

"Thank you, sir," Saitou said.

Once the commander was out of sight, Sano turned to Saitou with a grave look on his face. "…Did he just say that Hijikata's going to be in charge for a few days?" Sano asked fearfully.

"Yes," Saitou told him.

"Why, god? Why?" Sano howled dramatically.

"…and I'll tell you why," Hijikata said smugly, stalking down the line of Shinsengumi captains, who were all kneeling formally in a row in the dojo. The members of their respective squads were lined up behind them, everyone wearing their full uniform. "There has been a conspicuous decrease in discipline around here," Hijikata continued, "and we're going to reverse the trend. This Shinsengumi is made of warriors, not hooligans. We're going to eradicate the buffoonery plaguing our ranks, and return our focus to honor, character, and discipline. That is why." He stared out over the room, his gaze hawk-like. "I will now take your questions," he grumbled.

Silence. Total silence.

"You're not leaving until I get at least five questions," Hijikata said smugly.

Sighing, Souji looked up at him.

Hijikata nodded to him. "Okitakun." he acknowledged.

"Vice commander, I have a question about the inspection. Are you going to be doing all the inspecting by yourself?"

"I will personally inspect the uniform and appearance of each troop, but for the room inspections, I will have an assistant. Next question."

This time Sanosuke looked up.

"Haradakun."

"Sir, will the assistant inspector's room be inspected too?"

"No."

"In that case, sir, I would like to volunteer to be the assistant inspector."

Hijikata's eye twitched. "The position has been filled," he snarled. "I've already chosen Yamazakikun. Next question."

Shinpachi looked up. "Vice commander. Will we be, uh, supervised during the meditation training, or will it be sort of an at-your-own-pace kind of thing?"

Hijikata glared down at him. "You're asking if you can get away with just going to sleep during the meditation training. The answer is NO! Every single one of you is going to FOCUS on the reason you're here. During the meditation training, you're all going to be introspective. You're going to solemnly reflect on the weighty issues of duty, honor, and country. Any breach of protocol, such as falling asleep during that time will be regarded as a serious offense and you will be punished accordingly! Next question!"

Saitou looked up. "Vice commander. During the combat assault exercise, in order to make it seem more realistic, there should be some troops laying on the ground simulating casualties. I'd like to volunteer my squad to be those troops."

Hijikata stared at him, completely dumbfounded. Then he clenched his fists so violently that they started to make little crunching sounds. "What you are asking," Hijikata hissed through clenched teeth, "Is permission for your squad to take a nap on the ground during the combat assault exercise! NO! Every single man is going to participate to the full extent of his physical ability. Once your men have exercised to the point of dehydrated exhaustion, then they may 'simulate casualties'." His eyes ignited. "It's obvious that you're all just looking for ways to get out everything. It's appalling! The sheer laziness oozing from the lot of you is making me sick! And for that, this weekend's activities will begin with the inspection of the ranks tomorrow at 0530!"

"In the morning?" gasped Sanosuke.

"In the morning," Hijikata confirmed. "So I suggest you all start preparing now. Any troop who fails the inspection will be punished by a month of confinement to headquarters… as will the captain of his squad! You're dismissed!"

The rest of Friday passed in a frenzy of cleaning. Tetsu and Tatsu, although they weren't attached to a squad, still slept in the barracks and were therefore responsible for their share of cleaning.

By midnight, Tetsunosuke was already exhausted. He was hauling a pile of clean, folded blankets down the hall when a tall, dark shadow intercepted him.

"Tetsunosuke," whispered a gravely voice from the darkness.

"Gyah!" Tetsu said, dropping the blankets and leaping backwards. "S.. Saitousan?"

The tall figure stepped forward into the light.

"Haradasan?" Tetsu asked, even more confused. "You scared me! What's going on?"

"Tetsu," Sano whispered desperately. "Do you think you could do me a big favor, little man?" He held out a sizable stack of books and papers. "Just… hold on to these for me until after the inspection, ok? Just hide 'em in a safe place for me, will ya?"

"huh? What are they? Why don't you hide them yourself?"

"Hijikata's gonna rip my room apart- and it would be too obvious if I tried to hide them somewhere else. I know he'd find them. But you're small and clever like Shinpachi so I figure you can get away with it."

"What? Why don't you just ask Shinpachi then?"

Tears ran like rivers down Sano's scruffy face. "If I gave them to Shinpachi I'd never get them back!" he sobbed. "You're the only one I can trust. Hijikata will never suspect you of having these, so you'll be safe."

Tetsu was curious now, so he allowed the tall man to deposit the stack of books in his arms. But no sooner had the contraband exchanged hands than Sano froze, a terrified expression on his face.. Tetsu felt an ominous presence behind him that gave him goosebumps. "Oh no- don't tell me-" Tetsu said in a tiny, strangled voice. "Vice commander?" he turned around and found himself face to face with someone who, under the circumstances, was even scarier than the vice commander: Tatsunosuke. The elder Ichimura seemed to be ablaze with righteous flames.

"Haradasan," Tatsu rasped, his voice deadly. "What, may I ask, are you trying to do to my brother? Are you trying to involve him in some sort of subversive activity?"

"Uhh…" Sano said nervously, starting to sweat.

"Tetsunosuke." Tatsu said icily. "May I please see what Haradasan has given you?"

"Umm…" Tetsu said, his mouth forming a squiggly line.

Tatsu lifted a book from the top of the stack and opened it.

He stared at it solemnly for half a minute.

Sano grinned guiltily.

"GAAH!" Tatsu shrieked, blood pouring from his nose. He dropped the book as if it were on fire and then knocked the rest of the stack out of Tetsu's hands, simultaneously grabbing his brother and spinning him around, clapping a hand over his eyes.

"Tatsunii!" Tetsu cried, both alarmed and annoyed.

"How DARE you!" Tatsu spat, angry tears streaming down his face. He wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve. "How dare you expose my brother to this trash?"

"What trash?" Tetsu asked, trying to peel his brother's hand away from his eyes. "Tatsunii, let me go!"

"He's still only fifteen years old!" Tatsu screamed. "His young mind is impressionable! Impressionable! To expose an innocent child to this filth, to this caliber of degrading, corruptive material, how do you expect him to grow up to be a man of virtue? How do you expect him to find a wife of good character someday, with this sort of thing seared, branded, burned into his mind? It's criminal! These pictures, these words, in his young mind they'll be indelible, indelible, even to the core of his SOUL!"

"Eh?" Tetsu asked, utterly clueless. "Wife?"

"Ehyaah… saa…I don't know…" Sano said uncomfortably. "I really wasn't trying to, uh, to do anything 'indelible', you see… I just wanted him to hide this stuff for me, for the inspection." The tall man smiled apologetically, one hand stuck awkwardly behind his head.

"MY BROTHER WILL NOT IN ANY WAY, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, PARTICIPATE IN OR BE EXPOSED TO THE PROLIFIRATION, USE, OR CONCEALMENT OF, NOR WILL HE DEVELOP ANY AFFILIATION WITH, THIS FILTHY COLLECTION OF PORNOGRAPHY!"

With that, Tatsu tucked his younger brother under his arm and stomped off down the hall, ignoring Tetsu's whining protests.

"shit," Sano grumbled.

It was nearly morning. Most everyone had been up all night cleaning. "Okita! You in there?" the shadow outside the door whispered urgently.

"Yes," Souji replied, opening the door. His eyes widened in concern. "Goodness, Haradasan, you're sweating. What's wrong?"

Sano, carrying a large stack of books and papers, hurried into the room. "Close the door!" He whispered harshly. Souji promptly obeyed.

"Fwaaah," Sano exclaimed in relief, his shoulders hunching forward. "You gotta help me, man. You're my last hope!"

The inspection commenced. Hijikata stalked down the assembled rows of troops, searching for discrepancies. He found nothing wrong with the first squad, and the entire second squad passed the inspection as well. Hijikata grunted, satisfied, and moved on. Third squad, fourth… all the way to the tenth.

"… Captain Harada," Hijikata said, narrowing his eyes at one of the few men in the Shinsengumi that he had to physically look up at.

"Sir!" Sanosuke said, snapping to attention.

Hijikata studied his face. "Did you shave this morning?" he asked gruffly.

"Yes sir!" Sano replied.

"You missed a spot," the vice commander growled.

"Yes sir!" Sano repeated.

"Hmn," Hijikata sneered, looking over Sano's uniform. Suddenly his eyes narrowed, target acquired. "Haradakun. Where are your socks?"

"My socks, sir?" a note of fear crept into his voice. "Uhh…. I don't know, sir."

"I'll give you a hint. They're NOT on your feet."

"I couldn't find any this morning, sir. But, uh, I am wearing underwear, sir."

Hijikata fixed him with a disgusted glare. "Congratulations. You've failed the inspection," he hissed.

"What! For socks?" Sano exclaimed.

"Excuse me, vice commander," said one of the rank-and-file in Sano's squadron. "I have extra socks that Captain Harada can borrow, sir."

Hijikata's eye twitched. "The time for sharing socks was before the inspection, not during it. You fail as well," he announced. "For having extra socks, and not finding out ahead of time that your captain needed to borrow them!"

"Y-Yes sir," the troop said, dumbfounded.

"That's not fair!" Sanosuke bellowed. Hijikata glared at him. "…sir," Sano added, sweating.

"Captain Harada, it's obvious that you didn't take my instructions seriously. You didn't prepare for this inspection. I imagine your room will fail too. Yamazakikun."

"Vice commander?" Susumu muttered, appearing at Hijikata's side as if he'd always been there.

"Let's start the room inspections with the tenth squad and work our way down to the first. I'd like to get all the guaranteed failures out of the way."

"Yes sir." Susumu inclined his head in a little bow. Sano stuck his chin in the air, scowling.

Hijikata opened the door and peered into Sano's room as if scanning for rats. Then he sniffed the air. He waited a moment, closed his eyes, and sniffed again. "Yamazakikun. Do you smell that?" he grumbled.

Susumu stuck his head in the door beside Hijikata and sniffed. Then he blinked a few times. "I smell… soap," the spy admitted in a soft, surprised voice.

"Hmf." Hijikata stepped into the room. He examined the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the closet, the folded futon. With each passing second, his frown intensified. "Where are the stains?" he muttered. "Where are the scraps? Where are the heaps of trash, the unwashed clothes, the empty bottles?" It was impossible to discern from his tone whether he was incredulous or simply pissed off. At last he shut his eyes and clenched his fists. "Haradakun!" he hollered.

"Yes sir?" Sano said nervously a moment later, reporting in at the door.

"grrr… your room… passes," Hijikata conceded, pushing past Sano into the hallway.

"YAHOOO!" Sano roared, a wild smile on his face.

"It's some kind of …miracle," Hijikata grunted, stomping to the next room.

The vice commander and his assistant inspector made their way through the rooms of all the Shinsengumi captains, until only one room remained.

Hijikata heaved a satisfied sigh. "Yamazakikun," he said. "Please inspect Captain Okita's room. The men should be at meditation training by now and I want to make sure none of them are slacking off."

"Yes sir," Yamazaki said.

At first glance, everything was in order in the captain of the first squad's room. But Hijikata had instructed Yamazaki to root out every possible discrepancy, down to the obscurest detail. Not a single inch of anything was to be overlooked or taken at face value. There was a stack of neatly-folded towels in the closet. Yamazaki noticed that some of them had very faint traces of bloodstains on them. The same was true for the neatly-folded sheets, but since everything had obviously been washed as thoroughly as possible, it wouldn't count as a violation of standards. But Yamazaki noticed something on the floor that made him frown- dust. The entire room was dust-free except for that one spot. Yamazaki studied the dust and concluded that it must have fallen from the ceiling. Of course. The trapdoor in the ceiling that led to the little attic. Susumu frowned, uncertain if the crawlspace in the ceiling was in fact an inspectable part of Captain Okita's room.

Hesitantly he jumped up and pushed aside the ceiling panel.

He was rewarded by an avalanche of books and papers that came tumbling down around his head. Susumu blinked, his expression indifferent. For no particular reason, he picked up one of the pieces of paper and turned it over.

He stared at it for a very long time.

"Vice commander," Susumu said, approaching his master. Hijikata's broad shoulders were hunched forward- never a good sign.

"What?" Hijikata snarled.

"I finished the room inspections," Yamazaki said quietly.

"Good. At least that went well," Hijikata said. "And I suppose the uniform inspection wasn't as bad as I anticipated. But I just caught sixteen people sleeping after I specifically warned them not to -- and they're whining about staying up all night to clean- to clean! Imagine how useless they'd be if they had to stay up all night fighting for their lives! Grmf."

"Sir, I, uh, I found something." Susumu's ashen face actually turned a little pink.

"Found something?" Hijikata repeated, eyeing the boy's color suspiciously. "What do you mean?"

"I think you better see it for yourself, sir. It's in Captain Okita's room." Susumu led the way.

In the middle of the room was a jumble of papers and books- and a puddle of blood on the tatami.

"That blood-" Hijikata exclaimed, his eyes growing wide. "What is…"

"It's my blood, sir," Susumu explained. "I'll clean it up right away."

"Were you in a fight? Was there an enemy infiltrator right here in this room?" Hijikata asked, looking around. "That would explain this awful mess."

"Um, no sir. All these books fell out of the ceiling, and, well, I wasn't expecting it, so, they… made my nose bleed."

"What the hell is he doing storing books in the ceiling?" Hijikata growled. "These ceiling panels aren't that strong- with this many books, that's practically a deathtrap. He should know better." He gave the fringe of the pile a disdainful nudge with his foot. "What kind of books are these, anyway?" he asked.

"Well, sir, it appears to be, um, for the most part... pictures of naked women."

There was a moment of absolute silence. Out in the yard, the entire Shinsengumi was kneeling formally, meditating, listening to the absolute silence. Not a single leaf was fluttering in the breeze. Across town, for the first time in a long time, Sakamoto Ryoma wasn't singing or laughing or misusing English words. The world was eerily, utterly, absolutely silent.

"SOOO O U U U J J I I I I !"

"Was that an earthquake?" Shinpachi asked, blinking.

"I don't know," Souji said, his eyes wide. "It sounded kind of like-"

"GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE NOW!"

"-the vice commander," Souji finished. He smiled at Shinpachi. "I'll go see what he wants."

"You mean, besides your ass?" Shinpachi asked. "If I were you, man, I'd start running now."

Hijikata stood hulking in the doorway of Souji's room, a crumpled piece of paper threatening to combust in his smoldering fist.

"You called, Hijikatasan?" Souji asked with a cheerful smile.

Hijikata unfurled the crumpled paper in Souji's face. "What is this?" he demanded.

Souji blinked and tilted his head slightly to one side. "It's a drawing," he said, his face turning red. "It's a drawing of a… a part of a girl."

"And? What is it for?"

Souji blinked several times, his mouth hanging open slightly. "Um…" he said, looking up at Hijikata and lowering his eyebrows a bit. "I'm sure you'd know better than me, Hijikatasan, but I guess it's for… having babies."

Hijikata looked like he'd been hit in the face with a brick wall. He turned the picture around, stared at it for half a second, and then threw it to the ground so forcefully that it practically left a crater. Souji suppressed a giggle.

"Not that, I mean the paper! What is the paper for? What is all of it for?" he turned aside and gestured dramatically into the room. Souji peered around him curiously, and nodded in wide-eyed understanding at the sight of the large pile of books and papers on the floor. "What… why… Souji…" Hijikata seethed. "What on earth are you doing with all this pornography?"

"Um… well, I was hiding it in the ce- in the ceiling!" Souji said, laughing.

"I know that already!" Hijikata exploded. "But you don't actually… you don't really… I mean, do you look at it?" Hijikata asked, aghast.

Souji narrowed his eyes and grinned mischievously. "Why Hijikatasan," he said playfully. "You seem horrified. It's not against the rules to look at it, is it?"

"No, of course not! But you…"

"But I what?" Souji asked innocently. "Come on, Hijikatasan. This stuff's not that bad."

"Ugh! At any rate, to have all this stored in your room… that's… that's against the rules," Hijikata declared.

"Oh?"

"Yes, it's… it's an inappropriate collection! There are strict regulations for personal items, items of memorabilia, and collections. You can't just use your bedroom as a storehouse for whatever filthy items you happen to collect. It's unprofessional."

Souji sighed. "I guess I fail the room inspection?"

"Incontestably," Hijikata growled, unable to dissolve the disgusted expression on his face. He shook his head and shoulders, as if swept by a sudden chill. "Ugh," he said again, looking at Souji mistrustfully.

"What?" Souji asked, frowning now.

"I just can't believe it," Hijikata said, shaking his head again. "After all these years, I thought… I just can't believe you like this stuff."

Souji looked almost sad now. "I thought you knew me better than that, Hijikatasan," he said, sounding disappointed. "Anyway, I promise I'll get rid of this 'inappropriate collection' as soon as possible, but right now I think it's time for the combat assault exercise. If you'll excuse me, I have to go 'participate to the full extent of my physical ability'." His voice was cool, almost threatening.

"Just don't kill anybody," Hijikata said. "It's only an exercise."

Inevitably, the exercise ended up as a contest between the best fighters in the Shinsengumi, meaning the ten captains and the five kenjutsu instructors who weren't captains. They were all exhausted at that point from defeating eight or ten other men, but they continued to fight savagely until at last there were only three men standing.

To no one's surprise, they were the three kenjutsu instructors who were also captains: of the first, second, and third squads. They stood about ten feet apart from each other at the invisible points of an equilateral triangle. Souji and Shinpachi were breathing heavily. Saitou looked as calm and bored as ever, but there was sweat on his perpetually sleepy-looking face.

"So…" Shinpachi panted. "Are we gonna finish this, or do you think the exercise has served its point?"

"And what point was that?" Saitou asked.

"To punish us for playing a game," Souji said.

"Huh?" Shinpachi asked.

"Don't you remember? You and Sano and Heisuke started that slapping game..."

"And you slapped Hijikata!" Shinpachi remembered, his eyes wide.

"So this whole day of 'warrior' training… was punishment for that," Saitou concluded in a low voice.

"Man, that's so unfair!" Shinpachi groaned.

"Souji." Saitou lowered his wooden sword. "Maybe you should have a word with Hijikatasan."

Souji sighed and lowered his weapon as well. "Yes, I should," he said.

Hijikata was alone in his room, smoking his pipe while contemplatively recording the results of the day's activities. Under the heading of Punishment: Confinement to Headquarters for One Month, he enthusiastically wrote Harada Sanosuke. Then he stared at the page for a minute, scowling, and reluctantly added beneath that Okita Souji.

"Ahem," said an all-too-familiar voice outside his door. Frowning as usual, Hijikata closed the book and put down his pen.

"What?" the vice commander grunted. Souji opened the door and stepped into the room.

"Hijikatasan, you've gone off the deep end this time," Souji announced, sitting neatly beside Hijikata on the floor.

"Whose porn collection was that?" Hijikata asked gruffly.

"Goodness, is that still bothering you? You know those books and things weren't mine."

Hijikata didn't answer.

Souji sighed. "I'm sorry I snuck up behind you and slapped you in front of Sano and the others."

Hijikata was obviously not in a talkative mood. Souji folded his hands in his lap and looked up at the wall. "I did it because sometimes, I get a little tired of playing your games," Souji said matter-of-factly.

"My games?"

Souji turned his head and looked the vice commander squarely in the eye. "Yes, your games."

"Souji, what are you talking about? You were WAY out of line the other day. You humiliated me in front of my subordinates! The Shinsengumi isn't a game! Leadership isn't a game! You can't overstep boundaries like that- you've got to respect rank!"

"Hold on, Hijikatasan. Before you lecture about the immutable boundaries of rank, let's remember that you weren't born a samurai."

"Get out," Hijikata ordered.

"No. I'm staying."

"I'm not going to have you calling me a hypocrite."

"I'm actually calling you a snob."

"A snob," Hijikata sneered. "Is that supposed to intimidate me?"

"You think the world revolves around you, Hijikatasan. You know what you'll be remembered for in history books? Your ridiculous sense of self-importance. You think you can control everyone and everything. It's worse than conceit, Hijikatasan."

"I don't give a damn about what I'm remembered for in history books," Hijikata declared.

"Regardless… what you put us through this weekend was too much. You overreacted. I wounded your elaborate pride and you overreacted, and the whole corps had to pay for it. You went on a power trip, and it's difficult to respect that, no matter what your rank or position."

"What was I supposed to do, Souji? Ignore your gross violation of discipline? Don't you see how critical it is that we enforce standards? You may think I made up all those rules for my own amusement, but that isn't the case. We need rules, Souji. When a captain makes a commander look like an idiot, do you want me to pretend like I don't care?"

"No, Hijikatasan. I appreciate your efforts to maintain order. But what I don't appreciate is how you punished every last man for the misbehavior of just a couple of captains. Here's my suggestion, Hijikatasan. Have you ever heard of 'let the punishment fit the crime'?"

Hijikata gave Souji a cold stare. "…And in this particular case?" the vice commander asked in a steely voice.

Souji couldn't keep the smile from surfacing on his face. "Well, you could take the ones who started it –and please remember that Tatsunosuke was an innocent bystander- and you could, you know… let the punishment fit the crime."

"I see." Hijikata stood, his eyes narrowed. "You think you're so clever, don't you?"

"Hmm?" Souji blinked at him innocently.

"I know what you're thinking. You think it would be the funniest thing in the world to see me spanking full-grown men as if they were children. That's what you're thinking, but next time, you'll think twice! Stop smirking!"

Instantly Souji obeyed, noticing the evil gleam in the vice commander's eyes. "…Hijikatasan?" he asked cautiously.

"Thank you, Souji: I'll make use of your suggestion. First thing tomorrow, I want you and the three of them in the dojo. Everyone else can have a day off, as a reward for their hard work today. Does that sound fair to you?"

"I- I suppose." Souji frowned, not sure of why he suddenly felt a bit apprehensive.

In the morning, the four captains met in the dojo. Sano gave a mighty yawn. "Man, it's early." Heisuke and Shinpachi mumbled their agreement.

"Hijikata gonna give us another lecture on duty and honor and such-and-such?" Shinpachi asked.

"Um," Souji said nervously. "I'm not sure."

"By the way, Souji, thanks for talking to him yesterday. It was great of him to give all the troops a day off."

"Y-yeah," Souji stuttered. Shinpachi blinked at him.

And then the door was practically torn off its hinges. They turned to look. In the doorway stood a hulking black shadow. A cold gust of wind swept the spacious room, rattling the racks of wooden training swords along the walls, and the four captains gulped in unison. Hijikata was wearing a short-sleeved black training gi and a black hakama, but what their eyes immediately locked onto was the weapon carried over the vice commander's broad shoulder.

It would best be described as a bat. Longer and thicker than a cricket bat, at the moment it couldn't have looked scarier- not even if it had had spikes on it.

"Games," Hijikata said, taking a menacing step forward. "Are good for morale." He took another step forward, and the four captains instinctively took a step closer together. Shinpachi grabbed Heisuke's hand in terror. "We need good morale. But we also need good discipline." With that, Hijikata swung the big stick off of his shoulder and smashed it into the palm of his hand. The four captains jumped at the echoing sound of the smack.

Sanosuke made a noise that might have been an "Eeeep!" Being as big as he was, the captain of the tenth squad was having a hard time trying to hide behind Souji.

"Certain games…" Hijikata was still talking in a cold, measured voice, making his way towards the cowering cluster of captains. "…interfere with discipline."

"We're sorry!" Heisuke cried, his eyes wide. "We're really, really, sorry!" his voice threatened to crack.

"Being sorry won't save you from proper punishment," Hijikata growled. "punishment… that will fit the crime. Now. All of you, undress."

"WHAAAAAAAT?"

"In commemoration of your 'underwear game', you may leave your underwear on. Assuming you're wearing any, Haradakun." Hijikata's voice was deadly.

"Is he… is he serious?" Shinpachi whispered to Souji, dumbfounded.

"NOW," Hijikata roared. Gulping, the four captains rushed to obey. Very soon they were all holding their yukatas over their arms- Souji, Shinpachi, and Heisuke all looking skinny and pale, and Sano looking barbaric and battle-scarred. They blinked at each other uncomfortably- not because they were standing around in their underwear, but because they were all dreading whatever was going to happen next.

"Who's first?" Hijikata grunted.

"I'll take it, guys," Sano announced, stepping forward. His voice shook with emotion. "It- it's mostly my fault anyway! I know I'm the one to blame. God, I'm sorry for getting you all into this mess! It's unforgivable! Vice commander, feel free to beat me to death, sir!"

"I'm second-most to blame," Shinpachi confessed. "After… after you kill Sano, send me after him!"

"And then me!" Heisuke declared, tears running freely down his face.

"So that's settled. Turn around," Hijikata demanded. Stoically the four captains turned their backs, their shoulders hunched and trembling.

Hijikata took up a good athletic stance, and raised the heavy weapon into the air, gripping it with both hands. He lifted the bat up over his shoulder, tilted it this way and that to find the perfect angle, and was just about to swing for a full-force collision with Sano's backside when—

"Hello!" called a warm, cheery voice from the doorway. Hijikata froze. "Toshi! There you are!"

Kondou stepped into the training hall. The four captains awaiting their punishment looked over their shoulders at the commander. Hijikata lowered the bat. "Oh. Kondousan," he said absently. "Did- did you have a nice trip?"

"Yes, thank you!" Kondou said brightly. "I trust you kept things under control in my absence? Or is the place deserted today because you made up some new rules and then executed everybody for breaking them? Ha Ha Ha!"

"K- Kondousan," Hijikata repeated, aghast.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Toshi. You know I'm just kidding. Tetsunosukekun told me you had a big inspection and then rewarded the men by giving them a day off! I think it's wonderful."

The kindhearted commander grinned and then looked more closely at the occupants of the room. "Now then!" he said, taking the bat out of Hijikata's hands. "What on earth are you doing with this heavy thing and these four young men in their underwear?" he blinked a few times and then smiled broadly. "Is it some kind of new game?"

They all gaped at him.

"Yes," Hijikata said abruptly. "It's a game, a game I always lose!" With that, he spun on his heel and stomped out, dark storm clouds brewing in the air above his head. The four captains exchanged glances, and then gave a simultaneous sigh of relief.

"Did I miss something?" Kondou asked.

"Nothing worth mentioning, sir," Shinpachi said sheepishly, picking up his yukata.

Once Sano, Heisuke, and Shinpachi had gone, Souji sat down next to Kondou on the porch. The two of them gazed out at the sky for a moment.

"You know… I can fool everybody except you," Kondou remarked, glancing sideways at the graceful genius swordsman.

Souji smiled calmly at him. "Thanks for stepping in to save us, Kondousan."

"Oh, it was no problem! Tetsu told me what happened and, well, I'm glad I got here in time. I'm sure he didn't really want to punish you all like that. Eventually he'll come to his senses, and thank me for stopping him."

"You're probably right," Souji said.

Kondou smiled at him knowingly. "Something bothering you, Souji?"

Souji sighed and looked out at the sky again. "This whole fiasco was my fault. I feel… I feel bad for the trouble I've caused everyone, and especially for the humiliation I've caused Hijikatasan…"

"Don't be too hard on yourself, Souji. They all forgive you, even Toshi. You do far more good than harm around here. If you cause a little trouble now and then, well, that's nothing to be ashamed of. And as for Toshi, frankly, we both know a little humility would be good for him." The commander stared off into space thoughtfully. "Although… for some people, you know… the most excruciating, painful thing of all is a wound to their pride."

Souji's eyes grew round. "Do you think I've really hurt him, then?"

"oh, probably." Kondou said, nodding. Then he turned to Souji with a kind smile. "But I'm sure he'll heal, if you'll help him."

"Of course I'll try, but…sometimes… I just don't know if I'm enough..."

"Don't worry about it, Souji," Kondou said fondly. He reached out and dropped his hand comfortably onto Souji's shoulder. "Daijoubu da yo! Kimi dakara, dekirun da."

With that, the commander got up, leaving Souji alone to wonder at his words. It was the same thing that Souji himself had said to Tetsu when the boy had expressed doubts over being Hijikata's page. Was it a coincidence? …No.

Souji felt his confidence return, and smiled to prove it.

And then he went looking for vice commander Hijikata.

IT'S OVER!