It was the middle of the night. "Hijikatasan?" Souji whispered, opening the door to the vice commander's room.
"Ugh," Hijikata groaned, waking up and rolling over under his blanket. "What the hell do you want?"
"To sleep with you," Souji said cheerfully.
"Get out," Hijikata growled.
"Get OUT," Hijikata repeated. There was a deadly edge to his tone. Souji pouted cutely. His big round eyes shone with disappointment. He took a hesitant step forward.
"Souji, I swear to god- leave me the hell alone."
Well, that settled it. With a small, frustrated sigh, Souji retreated. "Goodnight," he muttered dejectedly from the door.
"Not anymore it's not, thanks to you," Hijikata snarled from the darkness inside. Frowning, Souji closed the door against the vice commander's bad attitude, and looked out into the shadowy courtyard. It was just about the loneliest night imaginable. Cool but not cold, and no moon. A single cicada chirped, sounding terribly lonesome. Souji knew there was no way he'd ever get to sleep by himself on a night like this. If Hijikata didn't want his company, then he would just have to find someone who did.
Silently he crept down the hall to the commander's room and slid back the door. The occupant must have been in a deep sleep, for he didn't stir. Peering into the darkness, Souji recognized the careworn face of Kondou Isami. Smiling gently, Souji invited himself into the older man's bed, curling up beside him for all the world like a happy cat.
Grunting, the commander finally stirred. "What's this?" he muttered groggily. "Spies? Assassins?"
Souji giggled. "You'd be long dead if any of them could get this close to you so easily," he murmured.
"Oh, Souji," Kondou said, both surprised and embarrassed.
"Mm," Souji confirmed, rubbing his cheek against Kondou's chest. "I'm lonely. Will you keep me company, Kondousan?"
"Souji," Kondou said disapprovingly, clasping the younger man's shoulder. "You know…"
"What's wrong?" Souji pouted.
Kondou sighed wearily and smoothed Souji's hair away from his face, tucking his long bangs behind his ear. Souji smiled hopefully at the fond gesture, but Kondou closed his eyes sadly. "I regret it," he muttered.
"The Shinsengumi?" Souji asked breathlessly.
"No. I regret what has happened to you. I haven't been… what I should have been for you. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Kondousan."
The young man's smile cut the old warrior worse than any weapon could have. He sat up stiffly, while Souji stared at him with enormously puzzled, innocent eyes.
"The lines are blurred in your mind," Kondou said, his voice heavy. "Don't you realize it, Souji? Don't you hate us for how we warped you? You were just a child when all this began. A child who should have played with toys, not with men and death. But you were brilliant with the sword, an unheard of prodigy, and so the line was crossed- play and killing. Killing as easy and natural as child's play."
"I think I know what line was crossed next," Souji reflected. "I was there for all of this, you know. And in fact, the next part of the story was completely my choice." He smiled ruefully. "I guess that makes me quite a horrible person, doesn't it? How I chose to justify my game of killing."
"Souji, on some level, you're still a child. You're 21 years old but in your eyes I still see that innocent child…" he gazed at Souji for a moment and then looked down in shame. "… and I see the reflection of the man who used that child."
"You weren't the only one," Souji said with a soft smile.
"That doesn't make me regret it any less. And I'm sorry, but you'll have to find someone else to keep you company tonight."
Souji nodded and stood gracefully. "I'll respect your decision, Kondousan," he said. "But… it does make me a little sad."
Kondou noticed the tears in those round violet eyes. "I just want what's best for you, Souji," he said, his tone grim. "I hope you can understand."
"Yes sir," Souji said, and made his way to the door. "Goodnight, Kondousan."
"Goodnight, Souji," came the weary reply.
Souji closed the door and rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his yukata. He was 21 years old, he reminded himself. He shouldn't be acting like such a baby. Most of the time he slept alone anyway… why couldn't he just settle for that tonight? He thought about going back to his own room, but concluded that it would be too depressing. Surely there was someone in the Shinsengumi who wouldn't mind his company tonight. Suddenly Souji thought of someone and set off silently down the hall. He rounded the corner and stopped in front of the room. He hesitated for a few seconds, and then with a tiny sigh, he let himself in.
"It's a little unnerving, isn't it?" he asked in nearly a whisper. "…Not knowing which of us really would kill the other in a fight."
Without a word, Saitou pulled back the covers and scooted to one side of the futon. Souji smiled brightly and settled into the offered space.
"Why thank you, Saitousan," he said cheerfully. "I knew it was a good idea to come over here."
Saitou, lying on his back, glanced sideways at Souji out of the corners of his perpetually half-closed eyes. "You're lonely," he muttered, in his usual bored-sounding tone of voice.
"A little, yes," Souji admitted.
"The brightest of all of us, yet also the darkest," Saitou muttered, as if talking to himself. "How lonely… and how …tragic."
"Oh please, Saitousan, let's not talk about sad things tonight."
"then… what will we talk about?"
Souji rolled his eyes briefly. "Well… aren't you least bit surprised to see me here next to you?"
Saitou glanced at him again, and then blinked and gazed straight up at the ceiling, looking bored. "Nope," he answered. Souji had to fight back a laugh.
"Have you ever been surprised, Saitousan?"
"Well, I'm surprised that you're willing to let me sleep with you," Souji told him. "Most people, I can understand their feelings. But not yours. So I'll just ask: do you like me?"
Saitou's expression remained apathetic. "You may spend the night here if you wish," he replied quietly. "It won't bother me."
"That doesn't answer my question, Saitousan. I want to know if you like me."
"You're asking if I'm attracted to you," Saitou muttered, sounding bored. "The answer is no. But you're on my level when it comes to swordsmanship, and I am 'attracted' to that."
"Really?" Souji asked, his eyes round and playful. "Wow. So I have to ask- would you sleep with anybody so long as they were 'on your level' with swordsmanship?"
Saitou sighed. "No," he answered. "And I'm not going to sleep with you either, not in the way you're implying. That isn't what you want, anyway."
Souji's eyes narrowed slightly. "It isn't?" he asked, his voice cool and vaguely enticing. Saitou glanced at him indifferently.
"You only want to be comforted, because you're lonely," Saitou told him. Souji smiled weakly.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he admitted, and for some reason his expression turned sad. He rolled over so he was facing the door. A moment later, Saitou rolled over as well, and then he reached out and wrapped an arm around Souji, drawing him close and hugging him against his chest.
"Saitousan?" Souji asked in a half-whisper, his eyes wide.
"In this world, it's important to hold on to what you can, while you can. For the moment, I'll hold on to you, since no one seems to be doing it," Saitou explained in a quiet monotone.
"Ah…thank you," Souji said, feeling genuinely honored and only a little confused. "It's just… I didn't think you cared for me that much."
"You're tolerable," Saitou told him. "And in truth I feel a little sorry for you."
"Because I'm so 'tragic'?" Souji asked jokingly. "What, am I going to die young?"
"Yes," Saitou said, a little sadly.
"Oh come on, Saitousan! That's no reason to feel sorry for me! Look at the life I live! When all you do is run around killing people, dying young is practically guaranteed."
"It's ok to be afraid of it," Saitou said. "It's natural."
"What kind of talk is that for a Shinsengumi captain?" Souji asked jokingly, but his heart was beating a little faster than necessary. "Although… there is one thing I worry about," he confessed. "When I die… will Hijikatasan be all right?"
Saitou sighed and closed his eyes. "We should never worry about the past or future," he muttered. "The future will always be there, just as the past is. What we do today, in this hour, in this minute, is what matters."
"Yes, but… can't you tell me anything? Will my death be… lonely?"
"All deaths are a little lonely, Souji," Saitou said, but his tone had changed a bit. "I'll tell you this: when you die, you won't have long to wait before Hijikata follows you."
"That's not exactly comforting," Souji said uneasily. "In fact, this subject is completely depressing."
"A lot of people feel that way," Saitou remarked neutrally.
"What, that death is a depressing subject? No, I'm pretty sure all people feel that way, except maybe you," Souji said. Saitou sighed heavily.
"I guess that's just what happens when you hear the voices of the dead," he said.
Souji couldn't help it. He actually shivered. "Wow, Saitousan. Are you trying to creep me out?"
"No," Saitou replied. Souji shivered again.
"Well, I'd like to see what it'd be like if you were," Souji muttered.
"Very well," Saitou said, and instantly the temperature in the room dropped about twenty degrees, and every surface was illuminated by a faint greenish glow.
"ah-" Souji said, startled. Instinctively he tried to hunker down closer to Saitou, but the warm body beside him had transformed into something cold and clammy and rigid. "What!" Souji exclaimed, jumping to his feet. He no longer recognized his surroundings- it was like something from a nightmare, with shadowy dismembered figures circling him, greenish smoke oozing in slow motion from the stumps of their severed limbs and necks. Shivering violently, Souji looked around desperately for a sword. And then he heard the voices whispering his name. "Stop it!" Souji said, his voice quavering. Instantly the smoky figures were gone, the greenish glow extinguished, the eerie voices silenced, and Saitou was gazing up at him from the futon, looking completely bored but definitely alive.
Souji stared at him in shock.
"You asked for it." Saitou reminded him, and yawned.
"I'm sorry, Saitousan," Souji said, practically panting. "I don't think I want to sleep next to you anymore, knowing that you can change yourself into a corpse."
"Well, that part was just an illusion."
"You mean… some parts of it were NOT an illusion?"
"Yes," Saitou said neutrally. Souji shuddered
"I can't stay here," he said, defeated.
"Suit yourself," Saitou muttered, shrugging and pulling the blanket back around himself. "If you change your mind, well, you're always welcome as far as I'm concerned."
"Yes, thank you. The next time I need help thinking gloomy, creepy thoughts about death, or if I just want to be utterly terrified, I'll stop by," Souji said, not entirely sarcastic.
Saitou smiled almost cheerfully, obviously pleased with himself. "Goodnight, Souji," he muttered as Souji closed the door.
Out in the hall once again, Souji felt lonelier than ever. He thought of his old friends from the Shieikan: Nagakura, Harada, and Toudou. Which of them should he go to? All three of them used to share a room together, until Hijikata decided to enforce order and discipline. Souji smiled, remembering the pandemonium of the ensuing argument. But eventually, of course, Hijikata won and the troublemakers settled down into separate rooms. Souji knew that Toudou Heisuke liked him because he was cute. Heisuke was pretty cute himself, and Souji was willing to bet that Heisuke wouldn't be opposed to his company. And then there was Nagakura Shinpachi, who was also 'cute', and easily mistaken for being thirteen. Being nearly up there with Saitou and Souji when it came to fighting, the short little redhead was a bit unnerving. He made Souji a little uncomfortable sometimes, probably because he was just so… short. Souji couldn't explain it, but he didn't like the idea of cuddling up with Shinpachi for the night. The little guy could be almost as creepy as Saitou.
Inevitably Souji considered the possibility of spending the night with Harada Sanosuke. He wasn't completely sure of how Sano would react, and thinking about it made him intensely curious. Would Sano accept him or throw him out? Souji decided that he had to find out. If Sanosuke rejected him, well, he could always go to Heisuke's room.
Souji slid open the door and stepped into Captain Harada's room, which smelled vaguely of dirty socks. His foot bumped into an empty sake bottle, causing it to roll a short ways across the tatami. There were quite a few of those bottles laying around, and the large blanket-covered lump in the middle of the room was snoring peacefully.
Smiling happily, Souji knelt and then crawled under the blanket. A sleepy "mmm?" greeted him, although the snoring continued uninterrupted. The person next to Souji moved, and he caught scent of perfume- whoever was under the blanket smelled way too good to be Sanosuke. "Who are you?" muttered a girl's voice a split second after Souji came to the critical realization that Sano already had company for the evening.
"Aa-" Souji said, at a loss.
"god, did that bastard really sneak another girl in here? He told me I was the only one!"
"Oh," Souji said, gathering his wits. "I'm just a friend of his, really."
"Wait- you- you're a guy?"
"Yes," Souji admitted, blushing.
"What!" the girl exclaimed, sitting up.
"Shh!" Souji implored, also sitting.
"Disgusting!" the girl said, gathering her clothes. "And to think, I would've married him, given the chance! Sano-stupid son-of-a-bitch!" She stood angrily and marched over to the door. In another second, she was gone.
Souji blinked a few times. "Hmmng?" rumbled a voice behind him. "You awake, honey?" Suddenly a strong arm reached out and encircled Souji's waist, and Souji felt himself being drawn back under the blankets.
"Sanosukesan," Souji said, finding himself snuggled against Captain Harada's bare chest.
"You're such a sugar-pie," Sano mumbled, and Souji could smell alcohol on his breath. Before he could reply, he realized that Sano was trying to kiss him. Sano's chin, which was rarely (if ever) well-shaven, tickled and scratched his neck. Souji tried to fidget out of the way.
"Sa- Sanosan," he whispered. "It's me. It's Okita."
"I know it's you, O-whoever. Damn, I'm gonna marry you someday."
"I doubt that," Souji commented, wincing happily as Sano kissed his collarbone with surprising grace and coordination.
"There are a lot nicer things you could do with that pretty mouth than be sarcastical," Sano growled seductively.
Souji had to laugh. "Why, Sanosukesan, who knew you were so clever?" Sano reached down with one of his long arms and pushed the yukata away from Souji's knee. He then grabbed that knee, and then slowly drew his fingertips up the outside of Souji's thigh. Souji drew an excited breath. "I'm impressed," he whispered, as Sano kissed the underside of his chin. "I'm almost jealous of the girls!"
"What girls?" Sano asked, his hand now firmly holding Souji's hip. Souji had already figured out that Sanosuke was completely naked. "You're my only girl," Sano said huskily.
"No, I'm not. I'm Okita. Okita Souji," Souji said.
"Ho ho," Sano said, his thumb lightly drawing circles on Souji's skin. "In that case, honey, I'm a hell of a Hijikata."
Souji laughed out loud, but the noise was quickly suppressed by Sano's mouth. "Mmgh!" Souji protested after a minute, as Sano tried to climb on top of him. "Wait!" he gasped, as Sano finally let him speak. "I'm afraid you still don't understand."
"Huh?" Sano grunted, sounding genuinely confused.
"Haven't you woken up enough yet?" Souji asked. "I'm not your girl. I'm not even a girl at all. Don't you recognize me?"
"What the hell?" Sano asked loudly, pinning both of Souji's shoulders to the futon.
"Shh!" Souji hushed, his eyebrows forming a katakana 'ha' (did they even HAVE katakana back then?) in concern.
"What the hell?" Sano repeated, gnashing his teeth. "You're a guy? What happened to O-whoever? I was just- she was just here!" Sano took a deep, angry breath. Then he took a good, steady look at the person he was holding down on the bed.
Then two things happened simultaneously. Sano screamed "OKITA!" at the top of his lungs, and Souji, anticipating that reaction, escaped from Sano's hold, knocked the larger man over backwards, and covered Sano's mouth with both hands.
"Well," Souji said at length, when Sano had been halfway suffocated into horrified silence. "…Are you okay, Sanosukesan?"
"God I hope I'm dreaming," Sano whispered fiercely, shutting his eyes tightly. He opened them again and Souji was surprised to see big tears rolling down his scruffy cheeks. "I'm not dreaming. Oh, god. Hey, Souji, I know you're the best man for the job but, could you do me a favor, and let Shinpachi do it instead? I promise he won't botch it. It'd mean a lot to me, you know?"
"Shinpachi? What are you talking about? What 'job'?" Souji asked.
"You know, slicing my head off. I wouldn't mind if it was you, of course, that'd be fine, but, well, sentimentally, Shinpachi's my best friend."
"Sanosuke… why would Shinpachi or I slice your head off?"
"Because Hijikata'll order you to!"
"Goodness, you must be drunk. Hijikata doesn't want you dead."
"The hell he doesn't! After I fucked his boy!"
"Shh!" Souji said desperately, his eyes narrowing. "First of all, I'm not his 'boy'. Secondly, he's never going to find out about any of this unless you tell him. And furthermore, you only kissed me," Souji whispered. "That's not so bad, is it?"
"Oh my god," Sano swore. "This is AWFUL!"
"Shhh! What! What's awful?"
"Souji, I'll be honest with you man, you're driving me crazy. I can't take it when somebody sits on me like that-- Get off me and get out of here!"
"What?" Souji was startled by the threat of violence in Sano's voice.
"I mean it! I don't want to do anything to you but I don't think I've ever been this turned on in my life! You better get off of me!"
Souji laughed quietly, got up off of Sano's stomach, and sat down beside him instead. "How about a compromise?" he asked with a happy smile. "I'll stay off you, as long as I don't have to leave."
"Uh…" Sano said, gathering his blanket around himself in embarrassment, "Yeah… give me a minute, will you?"
Souji had a good idea of what Sano needed a minute to do, and realized that his interference wouldn't be welcome, so he looked away and sat patiently at the edge of the bed until Sano was able to talk to him again.
"Damn it, Souji," Sano panted about a minute later, rolling onto his back. "I think the alcohol's wearing off… But, why are you here, anyway?" his gruff voice betrayed his complete confusion. "And where'd Oyuki go, or whoever that was? That wasn't you, was it? There's no way that was you. I mean, you're a guy. God, she was hot. I've gotta marry her someday. Or did I dream that? What the hell."
"Calm down and I'll explain. I was lonely, so I went looking for some company. I didn't realize that you had 'company' already, so, when I got to your room, I accidentally woke up your future wife, who didn't give me a chance to explain myself before she stomped out in a huff. Then you woke up and pulled me down next to you without realizing that it was me."
"Oh, man, I'm sorry about that," Sano said.
"Don't be- it was kind of fun," Souji replied. "You'd never tried to seduce me before. You were actually doing an excellent job, to tell the truth."
"Really?" Sano asked awkwardly.
"Yes. I can't believe that anyone could refuse you, with those tactics."
"Oh, they never do, until they meet me when I'm sober." He grinned. "Which is why I try to stay drunk as much as possible."
Souji nodded. "It all makes sense now," he said dryly.
"So…" Sano said uncomfortably. "You came creeping over to my room to cheat on Hijikata? What's up with that?"
Souji rolled his eyes. "I wasn't going to 'cheat' on Hijikata. It's not like that."
"The hell it's not!"
"Shh! Anyway, I was only looking for some company. Just somebody to be close to, somebody to cuddle up with."
"Good lord, you really ARE gay. Souji, you can't just 'cuddle up' with somebody unless you're like, six years old, or, a cat, or maybe that koinukun, although he really shouldn't, since he IS fifteen already. But he does have orange hair, like some cats."
"And Nagakurasan," Souji pointed out.
Sano coughed. "I think I caught that ugly runt 'cuddled up' with Heisuke once or twice, now that you mention it. Next time you see him, tell him he's a queer! BWA HA HAA- oh, sorry. You had to have been there, man. I guess it's kind of a private joke. Grh-hurmn."
He coughed again, and looked up sheepishly. "Well," he continued. "I'm tired. It's like the middle of the night. Anyway, you should get some sleep too."
"Thank you, I will," Souji said cheerfully, laying down next to Sano.
"Uh…" Sano grumbled, and Souji had to laugh at his distressed expression.
"Come on, relax! I won't bite."
"Maybe not, but there's plenty of things worse and better than biting," Sano said suspiciously. Souji gave him an innocent smile.
"Well, I promise I won't do any of those things either," he said. "Here, why don't we sleep back-to-back? Will that make you more comfortable?"
"I'd be 'more comfortable' if you were sleeping in your own room," Sano admitted, "Or if Hijikata was in Hokkaido or somewhere."
Souji laughed again. "Aa, Sanosukesan. You are exactly who I need to be close to tonight," he whispered cheerfully.
"I don't get it," Sano yawned, rolling onto his side. Souji leaned against his broad back, immediately feeling the reassuring warmth of the taller man's body through his yukata. "Why me? Why tonight? What the hell?"
Souji gave a happy sigh. "Well," he began softly, "I think it's because you're just so honest. You're a good person. The best of all of us, probably. Even if you're drunk, or loud, or a slob, something about you inspires trust. You're like the perfect best friend."
"Thanks," mumbled Sanosuke. "Tell Shinpachi, would you? Maybe he'll up my salary."
Souji giggled, delighted. "And you make me laugh," he added. "Sano, I've figured you out. You're a clueless optimist with a kind-hearted violent streak," Souji concluded. He smiled into the darkness, enjoying the warmth of the tall man's back. "You're either completely disgusting, or completely loveable."
"Actually at the moment, I'm completely going to sleep," Sano informed him.
"Okay." Souji said, closing his eyes. "Goodnight, Sanosuke."