The Seduction of Tatsunosuke

"Ohayou, Tatsukun."

"GYAH!"

Okita grinned and tipped his head to one side.

"O-Okitasan!" Tatsu gasped. "Why do you insist on scaring me like that?"

"Oh, I don't know… isn't it good to get your heart rate up once in a while?" Okita asked innocently. "Actually…." He covered his mouth with his hand and laughed a little. "…I just like seeing your overreaction. You're always so dramatic!"

Tatsu, who was sweating and breathing rapidly, suddenly crumpled over, his arms wrapped around his middle. "I'm glad I can provide amusement for you, but… it really makes my stomach hurt!" he panted.

"Mmm," Okita nodded, his brow furrowing slightly. "Does any kind of stress give you a stomachache, Tatsukun?"

"Mostly just… dread," Tatsu admitted, swallowing.

"Dread? Oh come on, is my sneaking up behind you on a sunny day like this really so… dreadful?"

"I… I'm sorry, Okitasan. I guess I'm just weak."

"No, that's not the problem," Okita said, smiling kindly.

"It's…. not?"

"Nope!" Okita spun around and put his hands on his hips, surveying the yard. Spying Captain Toudou, he waved. "Hey, Heisukekuuun!" he called cheerfully. Heisuke turned around and waved back. "Will you come over here for a minute?"

"Sure!" Heisuke said, strolling over. "Hello, Tatsunosukekun," he said as he approached. Tatsu bobbed his head sheepishly in greeting.

"I've got a question for you," Okita said playfully. "In all honesty, what do you think of Tetsukun's faithful elder brother here?"

"Hmmm," Heisuke said, blushing suddenly as his face assumed a thoughtful expression. "What do I think of him… in what respect, exactly?"

"What do you think about when you see him carrying stacks of books around, or when you spot him hunched over his desk, dutifully working away, or when you observe how he worries about Tetsu and gets so flustered—what do you think about when you look at him right now, holding his stomach in obvious misery?"

"Well," Heisuke said carefully, blushing even further. "I think he's adorable!"

"w-what!" Tatsu gasped, turning white and instantly aging about a hundred years.

"Some people would think he's uptight and annoying- a bit of a prude, even- but not me." He shook his head and beamed at Souji. "I think his state of terrified innocence is absolutely irresistible! He's got a nice face, a nice body, and the impeccable morals are like icing on the cake!"

Okita laughed happily and clapped his hands together in front of his chest. "That's exactly what I think of him, too!" he exclaimed.

"w…why…why are you saying this to me!" Tatsu practically shrieked.

"Don't you get it, Tatsukun?" Okita asked, his voice and expression suddenly sultry. "Your problem… is that our attraction to you makes you uncomfortable."

"Your- attraction- to…" suddenly Tatsu gave up and passed out. Okita and Toudou both winced as Tatsu crashed to the ground in a heap.

"Poor guy," Heisuke observed. "That was rather mean of you, don't you think?"

"He's going to be miserable here if we don't fix his problem," Okita said, shrugging.

"What do you have in mind?" Toudou asked. Souji smiled mischievously.

Tatsu awoke a few minutes later, blinking up at a somewhat unfamiliar ceiling. Then he realized there was an odd weight on his chest. He looked down to see what it was, and found himself gazing into two round, absorbing violet eyes.

Okita smiled at him and reached up to press a finger to his lips. "Shh," the Shinsengumi captain said. "Please don't scream, Tatsukun."

Tatsu instantly started to sweat. "Where am I?" he whispered.

"My room," Okita replied cheerfully. He sat up and looked down at Tatsu fondly. "You seemed like you wanted to, ah, take a little nap. I figured this would be a quiet place."

"But… why was your head on my chest?"

"It looked comfortable." Okita smiled. "And that way, I could hear your heartbeat."

"My… heartbeat."

"Yes."

Completely freaked out, Tatsu tried to sit up, but Okita put his hands on Tatsu's shoulders and pushed him back down. "Tetsu's out with Ayunee for the day," he said softly. "And Kondosan, Hijikatasan, and Yamanamisan are all out as well."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Tatsu asked suspiciously.

"It means you can relax for a while," Okita said, smiling.

"No thanks, I'd rather get back to work."

"I insist," Okita half growled, his eyes turning almost scarily dark and compelling. Tatsu gulped. "Relax. You have nothing to be afraid of. I'm not going to hurt you."

"What ARE you going to do to me, exactly?" Tatsu whined, horrified. Okita giggled.

"First, I'm going to get comfortable beside you, like this," he said softly, snuggling down next to Tatsu on the futon. "And now I'm going to figure out how to get you to be comfortable beside me."

"Okitasan, I-I-I think you ought to know, I'm not, uh, I'm not, well, I'm not gay."

"That's alright," Okita said soothingly. "You can close your eyes and think of me as a girl if you want to."

"This is crazy! You're out of your mind!" Tatsu hissed.

"Maybe a little," Okita said happily. "But like I said, you don't have to worry- I'm not going to hurt you, understand?"

"No! I don't understand at all!"

"Calm down…" Okita said, and began to gently massage Tatsu's shoulder.

After a while, Tatsu had to admit that the massage felt pretty good. "Let me rub your back now," Okita instructed softly, and obediently Tatsu rolled over onto his stomach. Okita sat beside him and rubbed his back for a long time, until Tatsu was practically dozing. "There," the Shinsengumi captain said at last, and rested his palms against Tatsu's shoulder blades. Tatsu made no move to get up or escape. Okita smiled. "You're finally relaxed! That wasn't so terrible, was it?"

"Huh?" Tatsu asked, raising his head. Then he seemed to remember where he was, and suddenly grew tense. Okita simply smiled.

"You can go now," Okita said gently. "But I want you to come back tonight."

"Tonight?" Tatsu asked, puzzled and wary.

"Yes," Souji beamed at him. "You're going to sleep in here for a while."

"Sleep… in your room?"

Souji nodded.

"With you!"

"Well, you won't be sleeping 'with' me in the sense that you're obviously referring to, but, you will be sleeping near me, yes."

"But… but…"

"Stop panicking, it will be alright!" Okita assured him. "I'll stick to the same rules as just now. I won't do anything to you that a girl wouldn't do."

"Meaning……?"

Souji blushed. "Will you please just not worry about it, Tatsukun? If you'd like, we can talk about it tonight."

Souji stalked down the hall late that night, his hands clasped behind his back. As quietly as possible, he slid back the door to Hijikata's room.

"Hrrrm," grumbled the dark lump in the middle of the floor.

"In bed already, Hijikatasan?"

"Obviously," grunted the vice commander.

"Well… did you have a nice meeting today?"

"What do you want, Souji?"

"oh, you know, just to talk to you for a minute."

"Go away. I'm tired." But he pulled the covers down and gazed up at Souji. Okita sighed and sat neatly on his heels beside the vice commander, smiling at him apologetically with his hands on his knees.

"What do you think of Tatsunosukekun?"

"Who cares?" grunted Hijikata.

"Why, I do, of course."

"Hn. He annoys me. But at least he has enough sense to stay out of my way, mostly, and he does his share of work. Unlike that brat."

"Well, I thought you ought to know, I've adopted Tatsunosuke as a sort of a project."

"A project."

"Yes. I've asked him to sleep in my room tonight."

Wordlessly, Hijikata reached out and grabbed Souji's wrist. But after a second or two, he let it go. "That's… ugh. Do what you like," he grunted disgustedly, rolling over and pulling up the covers. Souji smiled and placed a hand on Hijikata's shoulder.

"Goodnight, Hijikatasan."

"whatever."

Smiling, Souji made his way back to his own room, where Tatsu was waiting, kneeling formally in the middle of the room as if he were about to slice open his belly.

"Goodness, you're shaking," Souji observed. "If you were going to kill yourself right here, are you sure you could die honorably, being that nervous?"

"Okitasan," Tatsu said gravely, his voice trembling. "You are my superior officer. I… I've heard that sometimes long ago it was acceptable for a warrior to take a boy to… to have a sort of relationship with… and…. Even though I'm only a few years younger than you, and full grown, I was thinking, if you've selected me to be that sort of a 'boy' for you, I… I respectfully request permission to… to…"

"But Tatsukun, who would look after Tetsukun if you died?"

Tatsu's chin quivered and his eyes filled with tears, which quickly flooded down his cheeks. "I don't know!" he bawled. "But- but- oh, god help me, there's only so much I can take! Even though of course Tetsu's more important to me than my pride or honor… oh, Tetsu- Father- Mom…. Forgive me!"

Okita laughed. "Tatsukun, please. Calm down, and relax! You don't have to kill yourself. Don't you remember what I told you earlier? I'm not going to 'use' you! I just want you to be able to enjoy being in the Shinsengumi without feeling like you constantly have to watch your back. Or your behind, understand?"

"But Okitasan! When Captain Toudou tells me I'm 'adorable', and it completely creeps me out, how do you expect me to react? I can't just change how I feel about stuff like that!"

"Sure you can!" Souji said, beaming. "You just have to get used to it a little. Once you discover that there's really no harm in our affection for you, you won't feel 'creeped out' anymore."

"But I'm STRAIGHT!" Tatsu wailed, clenching his hands into fists. "No offense, but I don't want to 'discover' your 'affection' for me!"

"But you would like affection from a girl?"

"Huh?"

"You're saying if a girl told you that you were adorable, you wouldn't be creeped out? If she asked you to sleep in her room, you wouldn't mind?"

"Well, no, of course, I mean, that is…"

"I can tell from the look on your face that you'd be just as horrified if a girl approached you, or maybe even MORE horrified. Admit it, by becoming a 'parent' for Tetsu, you've avoided sexuality all together. Probably even before your parents died, you avoided it, because of the bad influence it would have been on your brother. But you're both grown up now, Tatsukun. Your little brother practically has a girlfriend. Have you ever had a girlfriend?"

Tatsu shook his head, his eyes burning with conviction. "Of course not!" he declared. "I would have never done something like-"

"It's not wrong to get to know someone, or to be attracted to them. It's not wrong… to fall in love." Souji smiled angelically and Tatsu gulped nervously.

"I… I know that," he admitted. "But, I just haven't had the opportunity…"

"I know, you've been too busy caring for a traumatized child. But now that you're here, don't you think you can share the responsibility for Tetsu's care, and, well, maybe take care of yourself a little bit too?"

Tatsu thought about that for a minute, blinking his cautious brown eyes. Then his cheeks reddened, and he glanced up at Okita, ashamed. "You… I've just been so worried about Tetsu that I never realized that there was somebody who was worried about me."

Okita smiled and nodded. "You do a truly admirable job of hiding it, most of the time, but now and then it shows through… you've suffered, Tatsunosukekun. You've suffered, and even though you've gone on with your life, you haven't really healed."

Tatsu laughed suddenly, bitterly, catching Souji off guard. He frowned as he saw Tatsu's shoulders quiver under the white fabric of the yukata. "I'm sorry, Okitasan," Tatsu mumbled. "I appreciate your concern for me, but, well, I don't think that learning to accept affection from a bunch of guys is going to help me much with that."

Silently, Okita knelt behind Tatsu, and then leaned forward and hugged him. Tatsu's eyes widened, and Okita's expression seemed vaguely sad. "You might be surprised," the Shinsengumi captain muttered, the side of his face pressed against Tatsu's back. "Now… come here and lie down."

Looking truly condemned, Tatsu obeyed. Souji's eyes scrunched closed when he caught a glimpse of Tatsu's face. "My goodness, you look positively doomed."

Tatsu's mouth formed a squiggly frown and he pressed a hand to his stomach. "This is going to kill me!" he muttered.

"Don't be silly! Roll over and I'll rub your back again."

Slowly, the massage worked its magic, loosening tense muscles and soothing Tatsu's worries in the process. It really was impossible to think paranoid-sexual thoughts when it felt so good to have Souji's hands on his shoulders and back. Once again, he was practically asleep when Okita's hands finally came to rest.

"Mmm- thank you, Okitasan," Tatsu mumbled.

"You're welcome," Souji said softly, and slid under the covers next to Tatsu. Instantly, Tatsu felt his heart rate jump, and a couple drops of sweat appeared on his face. "It's alright," Souji said. "Roll onto your side." Gulping nervously, Tatsu obeyed, and got goosebumps as Souji curled up against his back, wrapping an arm around Tatsu's waist and tucking his knees neatly behind Tatsu's knees. Souji sighed. "Your back is nice and warm, Tatsukun. I'll be asleep soon, but don't try to escape."

"uh… okay…" Tatsu said awkwardly. He felt Okita's head tip forward to rest against his back. He remembered sharing a bed with Tetsu when they were kids… if he thought of it like that, it wasn't so bad. But it wasn't his brother snuggled up with him in bed, and he wasn't just a kid, either. It was the Captain of the first squad of the Shinsengumi, the genius swordsman Okita Souji, who was also apparently as gay as a mayflower. He was girly, sure enough, but not a girl. Still, he had said earlier to think of him as a girl… Tatsu felt his flesh start to crawl at the thought of having a real live girl curled up against his back, a girl with long black hair and gentle, smiling eyes, and, and… and… breasts, plump, wonderful, bouncy little breasts, and gently curving hips he could put his hands on, and soft, smooth thighs and, oh god, even delicate narrow ankles and round toes that he could pull the socks right off of, and she'd laugh when he'd hold her skinny little ankle in one hand and…

Tatsu opened his eyes and thought he was dreaming. There she was, gazing back at him, an amused little smile on her face, her face that looked so familiar, and something was wrong… something was out of place… he frowned, confused, not sure of where he was. And then he blinked, and remembered, and the world came into focus. "OKngdznnnm!" he shouted, as Okita smothered Tatsu's exclamation with his hand.

"Shhh!" The Shinsengumi captain pleaded. "It's still pretty early. You'll wake Kondousan- he's just next door, you know." He smiled brightly. "But anyway, good morning! As you can see, you rolled over in the middle of the night and to my surprise, you weren't afraid to hug me- you've been holding me like this for hours! I woke up again a few minutes ago and I must say, you're adorable when you're dreaming- you frown and make sad, worried faces!"

"I do?" Tatsu said, aghast. With a pained expression he lifted his arm away from Okita and rolled onto his back. He let out a deep sigh. Okita laughed softly and also rolled onto his back, stretching his arms in the air and then clasping his hands behind his head.

"So you slept alright?" Okita asked.

"Yes, thank you. You?" Tatsu asked politely.

"Oh, I was very comfortable. You're tall, but you're not as bulky as Hij-" he caught himself and laughed, shaking his head. Tatsu, meanwhile, realized that Souji had just compared sleeping with him to sleeping with the vice commander, and felt suddenly ill.

"Uh… can I… go… now?" he asked hesitantly, an icy pain spreading through his guts.

"All right," Souji said cheerfully. "But you've got to come back tonight, okay?"

"Tonight," Tatsu repeated dejectedly.

"Come on, Tatsu-kun. What's wrong? That wasn't so bad, was it? What were you dreaming about, anyway?"

"A girl," Tatsu admitted, flushing scarlet.

"Any girl in particular?"

"No… just a… a pretty girl."

Souji smiled brightly and nodded. "Well, I guess I'll see you later."

That night in the barracks, Tatsu waited, plagued by a stomachache, until he thought that everyone in the room was asleep. Then he sat up.

"Tatsuniii?" came the sleepy, childish, dreaded voice from the closet. Tatsu winced.

"What is it, Tetsu?" The closet door slid back, revealing the younger Ichimura brother curled up under his blanket, blinking at Tatsu with wide, innocent eyes.

"What are you doing?" Tetsu asked, yawning.

"Nothing. Sorry for waking you. Go back to sleep."

"Are you going somewhere?"

"Just for a minute. Don't worry about it. It's nothing."

Tetsu blinked at him. Tatsu was sweating. He was horrible at lying, especially about something that made him so uncomfortable. "Hey, Tatsunii… I noticed you weren't here when I woke up this morning."

"Is that so?"

"I was up pretty early."

"Obviously I was up earlier."

Tetsu frowned and sat up suddenly, throwing aside his blanket. "Where are you going?" he demanded in an angry whisper.

"Shh!" Tatsu pleaded. "I'm just going down the hall!"

"How come?"

"Really, Tetsu, it's no big deal…"

"Bullshit!" Tetsu hissed. "I KNEW it! You're on a mission, aren't you?"

"huh?" Tatsu blinked in surprise and his younger brother folded his arms defensively across his chest.

"I just knew it! Hijikatasan is gonna let YOU be a watcher like Susumu, isn't he? Dammit, that's the job I wanted! Why'd he have to go and pick YOU?"

"Tetsu, calm down! What are you talking about?"

"I heard Captain Nagakura and Captain Harada laughing about it today. They said that Captain Toudou said you were getting some kinda special training or something!"

"Uh… you know, I wish you wouldn't listen to those guys so much," Tatsu muttered.

"So what's the deal?" Tetsu demanded.

Tatsu sighed. "Look, I was afraid of this. The truth is… I'm just going to be sleeping somewhere else."

"Where?" Tetsu asked suspiciously. "Like on the roof or in a tree or something?"

"In one of the private rooms."

"Oh yeah? How come? Who gave you permission?"

"Captain Okita. He…said I should be able to relax a little more."

"…oh," Tetsu said, satisfied. He smiled at his brother. "Well, I guess he noticed how hard you work! Okitasan cares about everybody, even you."

"Um, yes, I suppose that's true," Tatsu said hastily.

"Well… g'night, Tatsunii." Tetsu laid back down and rolled over, pulling his blanket up over his shoulder. For a second Tatsu looked like he might cry.

"Oyasumi, Tetsu," he whispered, and crept from the room.

At the door to Okita's room, the dejected Tatsu was greeted with an enthusiastic "Aa! Tatsukun!" and a hug. Blushing, he looked down at the smiling Okita. Those deep violet eyes could see straight through him. "Hmm… you look like you're feeling guilty about something," Okita observed. "Come over here and lie down." With his shoulders slumped forward miserably, Tatsu obeyed. "Now," Okita sighed, lying down beside him and stretching out. "Tell me what's wrong."

"With respect, Okitasan, this is wrong!"

"This?"

"To be sleeping in your room like this!"

"No it isn't, Tatsu. I wish you'd get that out of your head. This arrangement between the two of us isn't wrong."

"Well, it doesn't seem that way to me, and so when Tetsu asked me where I was going just now-"

"I see," Souji said softly. "You didn't tell him. So that's what you're feeling guilty about."

"Well… yes!" Tatsu admitted.

"Would you like me to talk to him?"

An awkward silence followed. Souji found Tatsu's hand under the blanket. Interlocking his fingers with Tatsu's, Souji sighed. "I can tell that you rather do everything in your power to shield Tetsu from my influence."

"It's not just you," Tatsu muttered.

"I know. You want to protect him from everyone. But it shouldn't be that way- you should trust us. And that's why you're here."

"To- to learn to trust you."

Souji nodded, smiling. "You know, Tatsunosukekun, I think maybe it would help if you brought Tetsu along tomorrow night."

"eh? Brought him along… to where?"

"To here."

"To here?" Tatsunosuke couldn't keep the panic out of his voice. "You mean... to your bed?"

Souji laughed. "Calm down! You know I'm not trying to get Tetsu into bed with me. That's ridiculous. But maybe if he was here, you could think of me as a brother rather than a threat."

"I thought I was supposed to think of you as a girl."

"Yes, well, frankly, that will only work if you're comfortable around girls."

"Frankly, Okitasan, whatever you're trying to do to me, I would rather that you not involve my brother."

Souji sighed. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean to put you on the defensive. I really never would do anything to harm Tetsu, you know that, don't you?"

"I know you're fond of him," Tatsu said darkly.

"And?" Souji asked patiently, sensing that Tatsu was holding something back. "Come on, Tatsu, you can talk to me about it."

Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, Tatsu frowned anxiously. "And then there's Hijikatasan," he said in a rush.

"What about Hijikatasan?" Souji asked softly.

"You made my brother his page. You put him into that position!" Tatsu's voice trembled and Souji frowned, confused.

"Why does that bother you?"

"Because… because… it's like you want him… to take your place!"

Souji's eyes widened in surprise. "What?" he whispered.

"Forgive me, Okitasan. I don't mean any disrespect to you or to the vice commander but… that's just the feeling I get. I just can't erase the feeling that you gave Tetsu to the vice commander… that you want Tetsu to be by Hijikata's side… almost like a… like a replacement for you."

Souji's eyes narrowed sadly. "That's very insightful, Tatsukun. But I swear to you, that wasn't my intention."

"Of course not," Tatsu said hurriedly, embarrassed. "It was foolish of me to think that way. Completely ridiculous. I'm sorry."

"No, it's ok," Souji said softly.

"Hijikatasan!" Souji called out cheerfully. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"

The vice commander turned around, projecting a torrent of gloomy storm clouds in Souji's direction. Souji winced. "Goodness, Hijikatasan, you look like hell!"

"Grmn." Hijikata grunted.

"What was that?" Souji asked.

"I haven't been sleeping well lately," Hijikata muttered sourly.

"Well, it is lovely weather for a nap, don't you think?" Souji blinked at Hijikata happily. Hijikata's scowl darkened, if that was even possible.

"Hn," he growled, and spun away, his massive shoulders hunched forward. He made his way to his room and wrenched open the door. The fearsome vice commander disappeared into the room and threw the door shut with a sharp smack. Souji chuckled and headed down the hall the way Hijikata had gone. Outside the vice commander's room he stopped and knocked softly on the door.

"Hijikatasaaaan?" he called playfully.

"What! Damn it, what do you want?" came a growled reply.

"May I come in?" there was no answer so Souji opened the door. Hijikata was sitting cross-legged on his futon, his elbows on his knees and his head propped against the back of his right hand. "Ara?" Souji said. "You look like you have a headache. Maybe it would help if I rubbed your shoulders?"

Hijikata actually trembled as Souji touched him. Instantly Souji's demeanor became deadly and metallic. "What's wrong?" he asked coldly, folding his hands in his lap. Hijikata pressed the palms of his hands against his temples.

"You know better than I do," Hijikata muttered.

"Tell me."

"Consumption. You've got the god-damn consumption and you're going to die from it."

Souji blinked and his pupils shrank, but then he quickly closed his eyes and smiled. "Oh," he said brightly. "Is that all?"

"Stop that bullshit," Hijikata hissed.

"It's not bullshit, Hijikatasan," Souji corrected him gently.

"I don't… understand..." The vice commander's normally strong voice faded to a whisper. Souji nodded to himself, his eyes closed, and then tenderly placed his hands on Hijikata's shoulders.

"Well… I'm not going to die just yet," Souji said softly. "And it doesn't do any good to worry about it. And… you know… we both probably should have died several times already."

"I don't care," Hijikata grunted, and then laid down on his side heavily like an old, tired horse. Souji sighed and laid down facing him. Neither of them spoke for a while. "You know…" Hijikata said at last. "I've heard that…. That the disease makes people crave attention. Makes them anxious for… for excitement."

"You mean like romance." Souji said quietly.

"Yes."

"Oh. Well… I've heard that too, actually. But, that's not why--"

"Wait a minute. Let me say this. I don't care what you do. You just… I want you to be happy."

Souji blinked and felt hot tears on his cheeks. "What?" he whispered.

"I mean it. Whatever you need… tell me. Whatever you need from me… you just let me know."

"Hi…hijikata…" Souji whispered, unable to speak due to the choked tears in his throat.

The vice commander pulled Souji to his chest and hugged him.

"Souji- I-"

"I know…"

"Anyway…" Souji said, when he was sure that Hijikata was awake and in a decent mood. "I want to tell you about my 'project'."

"Must you?" Hijikata asked grumpily. "Really, I don't think I want to know."

"Well I want to tell you about it. It's not what you think."

"Right," Hijikata grunted sarcastically.

"I'm serious! These past few nights I've been sleeping with Tatsunosuke-"

"Souji, I don't need to know this."

"Yes you do! By sleeping 'with', I actually just mean sleeping 'near'. Nothing's going on- he doesn't even like me 'that way'."

"Grr…neither did I, once upon a time."

Souji laughed happily. "Anyway I'm only trying to get him to change his attitude a little… you know, he's practically afraid of everybody, and he was completely terrified of me. So… I'm trying to show him that he can trust me. Hopefully then he'll be more cheerful."

Hijikata sighed. "You're trying to change his attitude? Cheer him up? Doesn't that sound vaguely familiar?"

"Hey, hey, with you it was completely different!"

"Different how?"

"I was just a kid!"

"Will you PLEASE stop reminding me about that!"

Souji laughed again. "Sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure there's no hope for Toudousan or any of the others around here- Tatsukun's the exclusive property of his future wife, whoever she is. I wonder if any of his kids will have red hair? He'll be an excellent father, don't you think?"

Hijikata's expression faltered and he turned away.

"Hijikatasan?"

"I wonder…. Are we ever going to have children, Souji?"

Souji laughed. "No, I'm afraid we're not."

"Shut up," Hijikata growled. "You know what I mean. Kondo has a few kids. I wouldn't mind marrying a girl so that someday I'd have kids that would be able to look up to me. What about you?"

"Well… you know I like children. I really wouldn't mind raising a family. But…"

"You'll never get that chance."

"Nope."

"Why are you so damn cheerful?"

Souji only smiled.

Tatsu reported to Souji's room that night as usual but found that the Shinsengumi captain was already in bed rather than sitting up waiting for him. "Okitasan?" he asked cautiously, approaching the futon. The figure under the blankets stirred and coughed a few times.

Grimacing, Tatsu knelt down on the bed and pulled back the covers just enough to let himself get underneath them. He laid on his back for a few minutes, staring blankly up at the ceiling, and then rolled over to get more comfortable. Automatically, he reached out his arm and wrapped it around the slender body beside him. Okita settled back against Tatsu's chest and heard him sigh faintly. Okita smiled warmly. "Tatsukun," he whispered.

"Huh?" came the sleepy reply.

"You put your arm around me," Okita said.

"yeah?" Tatsu said, and yawned. "I guess so."

"Doing that doesn't bother you?"

"No," Tatsu replied simply. "It's just… comfortable. Oyasumi nasai." Souji laughed quietly to himself, but the laugh turned into a cough and he grew still, trying not to think about the future but unable to escape the dark dread, the knowledge of his doom. Eventually Tatsu sensed that something wasn't right. "Uh? Ah…. Okitasan? Are you ok?"

"Yes." Okita replied quietly. He felt Tatsu reposition his arm and smiled. "…Tatsukun?" Souji asked breathlessly.

"…yes?" came the hushed reply. Souji rolled over to face Tatsu, and saw the sleepy brown eyes blink at him in mild concern.

"I only have a little more to teach you," the Shinsengumi captain whispered, and placed one hand lightly on Tatsu's shoulder.

"uh…" Tatsu said, tensing up.

"Just relax," Souji muttered.

"You're not… you're not going to…"

"No, I'm not going to change the rules. I'm not going to hurt you."

"um… ok…" Tatsu said. Souji reached up and ran his fingers around the edge of Tatsu's ear, and then traced the line of his jaw. Tatsu blushed furiously and began to sweat.

"Just close your eyes and don't worry about it," Okita instructed softly.

"mmg… that… that tickles, Okitasan."

Okita smothered his laughter against Tatsu's chest. "That's another thing," he said cheerfully. "Some people prefer formalities all the time, but, in this setting, you really don't have to call me 'Okitasan'."

"But then…" Tatsu said cautiously. "What do you want me to-"

"I thought you'd never ask!" Souji beamed at him. "I want you to put your hand here--" he took Tatsu's hand and placed it over his ear- "and I want you to run your fingers around to the back of my head." He guided Tatsu's hand through the motion. "And from here, too," Souji added, moving Tatsu's hand to the base of his skull and then upwards. He smiled and sighed. "That feels good," he breathed.

"I get it," Tatsu said, sounding a little embarrassed. "You're like a cat."

"What?" Souji sounded startled.

"A cat. A cat likes it when you scratch behind its ear and the back of its neck, right? This is the same."

"Oh- yes. I suppose you're right." For a while he fell silent, enjoying the feeling of Tatsu's fingers combing through his hair. "Thank you," he muttered at last, and gently Tatsu took his hand away. Souji stared at him in a pensive, almost wistful way. "You know," he muttered, snuggling up closer to Tatsu. "I'm glad that you aren't afraid of me anymore. But I have a secret to tell you."

"A secret? A Shinsengumi secret?" Tatsu asked, concerned.

"A Souji secret. Please don't tell Tetsu. The thing is… I'm dying…there's no cure."

"You mean… some kind of disease?" Tatsu asked worriedly.

"Yes," Souji admitted. Then he smiled happily as Tatsu hugged him protectively. It was the exact reaction that Souji had hoped for.

"That's awful!" Tatsu exclaimed. He hugged Souji with as much care and concern as he would have hugged his little brother. "Is there anything…"

"Only what you're doing now," Souji said softly.

"eh?" Tatsu blinked.

"Just… love me a little," Souji muttered. Ordinarily, Tatsu's expression would have displayed humiliation, shame or anxiety at such a request. This time, however, Tatsu's warm brown eyes filled with tears. Tatsu pulled Souji in even closer, and wrapped his hand around the back of Souji's neck. Souji looked up at Tatsu gratefully. Tatsu's eyes quivered with determination- the same kind of determination he displayed when it came to raising Tetsu. Suddenly he leaned in and kissed Souji's forehead.

"That's not asking for much," Tatsu whispered. Souji smiled and settled comfortably into Tatsu's embrace, resting his head against the taller boy's chest. Tatsu held him close until long after Souji fell asleep. The 'secret' made Tatsu see the Shinsengumi captain in a whole new light. Okita was just like Tetsu, only inside out. To Tatsunosuke's groggy brain it almost made sense. Tetsu was a frightened crybaby on the outside but was discovering an internal strength. Okita, on the other hand, had undeniable external strength, but on the inside… perhaps he was a frightened child, a terrified child, marked by death. What had that awful man called Tetsu? Tainted. Polluted.

Souji coughed softly in his sleep.

Infected.

Tatsu felt his shoulders tremble with grief. It wasn't fair. Fate… was cruel.

Tatsu awoke the next morning to find Souji gazing intently into his eyes. While this situation brought an immediate blush to Tatsu's face, it no longer terrified him.

"You're awake!" Souji said, smiling brightly. "I'm glad. And you'll be glad, too. I've decided that I'm setting you free today. You don't have to sleep in my room anymore."

"I don't?" Tatsu asked, confused.

"Nope! Well, actually it depends."

"Depends on what?" Tatsu asked suspiciously.

"On what you've learned by all of this, of course!"

Tatsu's flustered expression faded, replaced by one of deep melancholy and reflection.

"Well?" Souji prompted.

"The truth is," Tatsu replied quietly, "I've learned a lot from this. I think maybe now I can stop being so paranoid… but most importantly, I've learned what kind of person you are. You're the least selfish person I've ever met. All you do… is care about others. You know what they need, and you help them find it. I really… I really admire you, Okitasan."

Souji laughed. "Thanks, Tatsu!" he said. "But you know, that really wasn't the point. I was trying to help you relax and just be able to get close to somebody besides Tetsukun."

"Of course!" Tatsu said, embarrassed. "Of course, I learned all that, too."

"In that case," Souji said, his voice velvety, "It's time for a test. You're going out this evening with Captains Nagakura, Harada, Toudou, and myself."

"Going out?" Tatsu asked, vaguely suspicious. "In what sense, 'going out'?"

"It's a dinner party, with drinks and entertainment to follow," Souji said. "If you've really learned what I tried to teach you over the past few nights, you'll have fun."

"Uh… okay…."

The party of five handsome young men made quite a sight at the Yamaginu teahouse that evening. They'd only had enough money for three geigi to entertain them, but every maid and kitchen girl in the place found some excuse to drop by and flirt with them. Heisuke and Shinpachi got drunk fairly quickly and then the proprietress of the teahouse intervened to put a stop to a drinking contest between Sano and Tatsu, which looked like it wasn't going to have a definite winner for a very, very long time. Even Souji had a little alcohol, just enough to make his cheeks pink. Everyone was having a great time. The girls sang, and then Souji gave in to peer pressure and imitated a song or two, earning wild applause. He dragged Shinpachi to his feet and the two sang a chorus or two of an old drinking song- Sano and Heisuke joined in, with all the girls, on the second verse. Vaguely Tatsu realized that the lyrics were dirty, but he realized that it didn't bother him to hear it. He laughed and clapped and spilled sake on himself, which a cooing kitchen girl immediately mopped up for him.

Tatsu's cognitive abilities were perhaps not at their sharpest at that moment, but it seemed to him like the girl patting his chest with a towel was also fluttering her eyelashes at him most appealingly. It was as if she was trying to convey some secret message. Tatsu turned tomato-red.

"Hey hey hey!" Shinpachi screeched, shutting down the song. "Look at Tatsukun!"

"HOOO!" Sano and Heisuke chorused, grinning like rabid hyenas.

"Tatsu!" Sano toasted, raising a bottle of sake. "Go for it, man, I think she likes you!"

"um, I'm sorry, uh, excuse me," Tatsu stuttered, tripping over his words as he tried to scoot away from the girl, who leaned in towards him in mock curiosity.

"My goodness, but he's so shy!" one of the girls exclaimed. Suddenly everyone in the room turned their attention to Tatsu.

"Take a number, ladies!" Shinpachi proclaimed. "Tonight is Tatsukun's very first visit to this sort of establishment!"

"Is that a fact? Why, Shinpachisama, you're corrupting them one by one, aren't you? As I recall, it was Soujisama's very first visit to a teahouse just two weeks ago," the girl said, shaking her head at Shinpachi.

"Yes, that's right, and as you can see, he couldn't resist coming back for more!"

"I really enjoyed myself," Souji said, smiling and nodding happily. The women in the room cooed their approval. "And I hope Tatsukun will too!" he caught Tatsu's eye and gave him an approving, encouraging glance, which seemed to Tatsu identical to the glance the serving girl had given him just moments earlier.

Once again, Tatsu's face flushed bright red, and he started to sweat. Everyone was looking at him- did they expect him to say something? He felt like a regular victim of the inquisition. Usually so good with words, Tatsu's brain couldn't put together a single coherent sentence.

"My goodness!" laughed one of the girls. "He looks practically scared to death!"

"I'm not!" Tatsu protested as they all laughed. "It's just- it's just- I don't know what to do with all you girls!"

"WUAH HUAH HAH," Sano laughed. "That's easy, Tatsu- you do whatever you like with 'em!"

"Really!" "Honestly!" "Ara maaa!" "Mataku neeee!" the women exclaimed, but none of them made any pretense of resistance as Sano hugged one with his left arm and another with his right.

"B-but-but I don't even know what I like to do with them!" Tatsu blubbered in a rush. "I've never done anything before!"

This was obviously the wrong thing to say to dissuade the fascination of the crowd at that point. The girls peered in closer. Tatsu felt like they might start sniffing him like dogs sniffing a carcass.

"Reeeeeally? A cute boy like youuuu? Why, that's unbelievable!" chorused the girls.

"You've never slept with anyone?" piped up the kitchen girl, blinking large, shining eyes at the terrified Tatsunosuke

"N-not with a girl!" Tatsu confessed, shaking his head rapidly.

"Ah! Have you had a little boyfriend, perhaps? How sweet!"

"N-n-no, nothing like that! It was just Okitasan!"

Souji coughed in his tea, and not from his illness.

"EH?" the other three captains exclaimed in unison. Shinpachi recovered first.

"Whoa, wait just a minute!" the shortest captain said, holding up his hands. "What was that about Okitasan?"

"AUGH!" Sano said, spilling sake on the tatami. "Let's pretend we never heard it!"

"Heisuke you bastard, I thought you were lying!" Shinpachi said, turning on his friend.

"Why would you think I was lying?" Heisuke demanded, taking offense.

"I thought it was one of your weird fantasies! Souji seducing Tatsunosuke is exactly the sort of thing you'd make up, and don't try to deny it!"

Heisuke rolled his eyes. "Please! So I made up that one story about Susumu and Tetsu. But it was a one-time thing, I swear! I haven't started a single dirty rumor since then!"

"So YOU were the one?" Tatsu tried to stand up but was too unsteady from the alcohol. "That story was sickening! My brother and Yamazakisan are both only fifteen!"

"Yes, isn't it romantic?" Heisuke sighed dramatically. "So young! So not-so-innocent!"

"You're a pervert!" Tatsu accused.

Everyone laughed at him.

"So so so," Sano said as the laughter died down. "I'm confused. What did Souji have to do with anything?"

"Moron! He's been sleeping with Tatsunosuke!" Shinpachi summarized.

"WHAAAT!" Sano screamed, clutching his head as if it were about to explode.

"Okay, okay, I'll explain," Souji said in a loud voice. "The truth is, Tatsu and I have been cuddle-buddies for a couple nights, but that's all."

"Aaw!" cooed the girls, giggling and blushing and exchanging glances.

"Cuddle… buddies?" Shinpachi repeated incredulously. "Now THAT definitely sounds like something Heisuke made up."

"Actually I didn't, but, I LOVE the sound of it!" Heisuke exclaimed. "Shinpachi, let's be cuddle-buddies, what do you say? Pleeeease?"

All the girls laughed delightedly. "Now just a minute, Souji," Sano said in a gruff voice, putting a hand on his hip as if preparing to give a lecture. "I thought I taught you about cuddling other guys."

Shinpachi cackled with glee. "Woooo! Another scandalous revelation!"

"Uh… iyaa… what I meant was, I explained to him about cuddling guys. I told him he just can't get away with that."

"Seriously?" Shinpachi asked. "Sano, you're an idiot!"

"It's Souji! He can get away with anything!" Heisuke added.

"Okitasan is wonderful!" Tatsu blurted out drunkenly. Everyone turned to stare at him again. "You guys just don't appreciate him!" Tatsu was building up momentum now, throwing coal on those internal fires of righteousness. "He didn't 'get away' with anything because he wasn't trying to do something wrong. He was trying to help me! And I'm really glad he did!" Shakily Tatsu got to his feet and stumbled over to Okita. He sat down beside him and wrapped his arms around the smiling captain in a sloppy hug.

"Wow, this is getting weird," Shinpachi commented, reaching for another drink.

"Hey Tatsu, that's not your little brother!" Heisuke called, as Tatsu buried his face against Souji's chest.

Tatsu was holding on to Okita like drowning man clutching a life raft. "I know that!" he replied.

"Somebody get the boy another drink!" said Sano. "He needs some more alcohol to loosen him up!"

Rivers of tears ran down Tatsu's cheeks. "That was the problem!" he declared. "That's what I didn't understand! Why do I have to 'loosen up'? Why does everybody want me to 'relax'? Why can't I just go on being as paranoid and uptight and anxious as I've always been?"

"Uh…." Shinpachi and Sano chorused. "Eh…."

In the dumbfounded silence that followed, Tatsu continued his tirade. "Okitasan cares about everybody! Even me! Okitasan is the only person who ever cared about me, and I… and I care about him too! And so, if he wants to cuddle with me, that's ok! He can do… he can do whatever he wants to me and that's just fine, understand?"

Everyone's eyes grew very wide.

"Well!" Shinpachi said, as Heisuke gave a low whistle. Shinpachi laced his fingers behind his head and looked at Souji in utter amazement.

"Souji, what on earth did you do to him?" Heisuke asked.

Souji looked completely bewildered.

"Good grief, Souji, I think you went a little too far, man," Sano rumbled disapprovingly.

Heisuke pointed at Tatsu accusingly. "He's completely in love with you!"

"That's… I really don't think so," Souji said, turning to Tatsu with round eyes. "Tatsukun? You're not in love with me, are you?"

Tatsu turned his head and found himself nose-to-nose with Souji, who blinked at him innocently. Blushing, Tatsu released his death grip on the captain of the first squad, and looked around at all the people in the room, who were all looking back at him.

"I… I just…" Tatsu stuttered, and then hung his head, defeated. "Yes."

Everyone blinked in unison. Souji looked completely stunned.

"This is probably… not good," Shinpachi judged.

"What a delicious nightmare of a situation!" Heisuke cried. "Ah, the intrigue, the romance, the rampant and violent desires of young, beautif--"

"Saaa!" Sano interrupted, before Heisuke got around to swooning from excitement. "There's only one thing to do: Let's all get so trashed that we can't remember anything about it!"

Shinpachi's eyes flashed brightly at Sano's enthusiastic proposal. "Yeah! And if we get Tatsu wasted, we can shut him up in a room with one of these lovely ladies, and solve the problem that way!"

"Right!" Sano agreed. "He won't know what hit him!" the tall man laughed uproariously. "His first girl- after that, he won't wanna look twice at ol' Okita. Let's get back to that drinking contest, Tatsu!"

The following night, Okita was in bed reading a book when he heard a soft voice outside his door.

"Okitasan?"

Okita sighed. "Come in," he called, and smiled as Tatsunosuke slunk into the room. Okita sat up and studied Tatsu knowingly. "You wanted to talk to me?" he prompted, when the taller boy didn't meet his eyes.

"I came to apologize," Tatsu said at last, looking at the floor.

"For what?" Souji asked.

"For what I said at the teahouse last night," Tatsu answered. "I was drunk."

"That's ok, Tatsukun. I know you didn't mean it."

Tatsu looked up, blushing. "I meant some of it," he said hurriedly. "But I'm… I really don't think I'm in love with you."

"Ah." Souji's eyebrows lowered slightly. "So I have to ask: did their brilliant plan of locking you up with that girl actually work?"

"Oh," Tatsu said, embarrassed all over again. "No, it didn't. I was much too drunk at that point- I passed out on the floor just as soon as they got me in there. But I remember she was pretty, and I remember thinking that someday, I really would like to find a girl to… to love."

Souji smiled happily. "I thought so," he said. "And I think that someday you will have no problem doing exactly that."

"But until then, you know," Tatsu said, "I think… I really won't let everyone here stress me out. I mean, if Toudousan thinks I'm 'adorable', or the three of them want to tell me dirty jokes or tease me about stuff, there's really no harm in any of that. They're all my… my friends, after all. They have good intentions, generally."

Souji laughed. "Exactly!" he beamed. "And as for me and you? Friends?"

"Yes, of course we're friends, and it's an honor…" Tatsu nodded his head. He looked up carefully, meeting Souji's deep violet gaze.

"…Just friends?" Souji asked pointedly. There was a single heartbeat's worth of tension in the air-

And then suddenly Tatsu's expression softened. He looked at Souji with a peaceful light in his eyes. For once he wasn't blushing or acting uncomfortable. "Actually," he said, smiling, "I hope we can be a little more than that."

"More than friends," Souji said, sounding a little lost.

"Yeah. We could be like… brothers." Tatsu's eyes closed into happy semi-circles.

Souji blinked, letting the thought sink in. Then he gave Tatsu a bright, heartfelt smile. "I'd like that," he said. "Thank you, Tatsunii."

"You're welcome." Tatsu gave an abbreviated bow and excused himself. As soon as he was outside the door, Okita burst into laughter. Tatsu heard this through the door, of course, and was mildly puzzled. What was so funny? Had he missed something? He'd been completely serious about regarding Okita as a brother.

Shaking his head, he made his way back to the barracks and settled himself onto his futon. He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Sleeping next to Okita really hadn't been so bad, he realized. But waking up to those incredibly disarming eyes- that was the uncomfortable part. And then hearing that soft voice say his name: Tatsuku- wait a minute- Tatsu's pupils shrank to pinpoints and he felt like he'd been turned to stone. No way…was he imagining it, or had it really happened? When he'd just left Okita's room, had the captain actually called him… actually called him… Tatsu… nii?

"oh god, my stomach!" Tatsu rolled over in agony, tears of pain welling up in his eyes. It had to have been a joke, right? Right. Okita was older than him, after all. It had to be a joke… but if Okita kept it up and started calling him that in public, he was sure his life was over! Because then the three troublemakers would probably call him that too, and Hijikata would hate him, and he'd have to kill himself, and leave Tetsu all alone in this den of maniacal savage perverted murderers…

"GYAAH!"

Souji heard Tatsu's scream and sighed. Saizou scratched at the door and Souji let him in, reaching down to scoop the pig into his arms. "I guess we're back to square one with Tatsu," Souji muttered to the animal, which glowered at him in apparent annoyance. "Oh well." The pig gave an irritated squeal. "You know, for all the care I've shown you, your personality doesn't seem to have improved much either," Souji remarked. Then he smiled.

"Bukiii!" cursed the pig.

IT'S OVER!