Author's note: I actually wrote this before I wrote "The Seduction of Tatsunosuke", but I never thought I'd actually type it up. It's rated M because I wouldn't want my little sister reading the second part. This first part, however, is 'M' for Mostly Mild…

Souji in Shimabara

PART 1

It was a sunny, peaceful late afternoon at Shinsengumi headquarters. Okita Souji was stretched out on the floor in his room, reading a book, when suddenly Hijikata came stomping down the hall. The angry vice-commander stormed past the open door to Souji's room without even a glace.

"Hijikatasan!" Souji called out brightly, putting down his book. Hijikata was three or four stomps past the door already, but he stopped in his tracks. Souji could tell from the silhouette on the paper wall that Hijikata's shoulders were hunched, which was further proof of his mood.

"What?" the vice-commander snarled, his voice carrying easily through the wall.

"Will you come here for a minute please?" Souji asked sweetly.

Three very reluctant-sounding footsteps later, Hijikata stood in Souji's doorway. Souji gazed up at him from the floor, blinking innocently. "Goodness, Hijikatasan," Souji said, managing not to giggle. "You look angry."

"Toshi!" exclaimed Kondou's voice down the hall. "There you are!"

Frowning sternly, Hijikata looked over his shoulder, and soon the commander joined him in Souji's doorway.

"Toshi, it's almost time!" Kondou said urgently. "And you're still in that old yukata-Why aren't you dressed yet?"

"Because I don't want to go," Hijikata growled. Kondou laughed and clapped a rough, wide hand on Hijikata's shoulder.

"You're so stubborn!" Kondou criticized fondly.

"Hello, Kondousan," Souji said, smiling.

Kondou looked down at him. "Oh! Hi Souji," Kondou said warmly. "Well! It seems I'm in a difficult situation. A bunch of higher-ups from Aizu are in town and throwing a big party. They invited me and both the vice-commanders as well. Unfortunately, this is all last-minute and there's no time to call Sannan away from his woman—and Toshi here is in a bad mood and says he doesn't want to go! What will the Aizu people think if the Shinsengumi commander isn't supported by either of his vice-commanders?"

Souji looked up at Hijikata with a smile. "Hijikatasan," he said, "Obviously, you've got to go to this party!"

"It'll just be a waste of my time," Hijikata growled.

"Supporting Kondousan will be a waste of your time?" Souji asked carefully, eyes round. For a moment no one spoke.

"kch!" Hijikata said at last, gritting his teeth. With a filthy, murderous glare in Souji's direction, he turned and stomped back towards his room. "I'll be ready soon," he grumbled.

"Thanks," Kondou said to Souji, after Hijikata had gone.

"No problem!" Souji replied brightly, picking up his book again.

"Really I don't know what I'd do with him if you weren't around," the commander commented, shaking his head. Souji merely smiled.


Perhaps an hour later, Sano and Shinpachi were strolling across the yard, looking aggravated. Sano had his fingers laced behind his head and a threatening scowl on his face. Shinpachi gazed straight ahead unhappily, his arms folded inside his haori.

"rrgh… Damn that Heisuke!" Sano exclaimed at last. "Leaving us stranded again! On our first free evening in weeks!"

"You can't really blame him though," Shinpachi said, pouting like a lonely kitten. "If Yamanamisan invited you to that high-class teahouse, you would've gone too."

"Well, sure, since it'd be the one chance of my life to do something like that," Sano said defensively. "But Heisuke goes to those fancy places all the time! We had plans, and he ditched us. Damn it!"

"Calm down," Shinpachi said. "There's supposed to be three of us, right? All we have to do is find somebody to take his place. The girls won't know the difference; they've never met Heisuke before anyway."

"Yeah, but who can we ask?"

Shinpachi frowned and thought about it for a minute. "Well… how about Tatsunosuke?"

They paused for a minute to imagine Tatsu's reaction to their invitation: "AAUGH! Nooo! I beseech you, in the name of decency, not to solicit my involvement in your immoral escapades at establishments of ill-repute!"…

Swallowing, Sano gave Shinpachi a skeptical look. "Uh… I don't think Tatsu would appreciate it."

"Hmm… you're probably right about that," Shinpachi agreed.

"Hey, how 'bout Hajime?" Sano suggested.

"You idiot," Shinpachi said, shaking his head. "That guy is the worst thing you can bring to a party. He'd probably creep everyone out- and if he got drunk, he'd probably kill somebody!"

"Geez!" Sano said, exasperated. "Isn't there anybody else around this dump?"

"Hello!" Souji said, stepping down from the porch and waving to them both.

Sano and Shinpachi stared at the captain of the first squad as if they'd never seen anything quite so unsuspectedly promising. "Hmmm," they muttered in unison, and broad grins cracked across their faces as they exchanged a conspiratorial glance. "That might work!"

"Hey, Souji!" Shinpachi called out brightly. "Do you have plans for this evening?"

"Nope!" Souji replied. "Kondousan and Hijikatasan just went out to a--"

"Exactly!" Sano interrupted. "Which is why, for once, Hijikata isn't here to stop you!"

"To stop me from what?" Souji asked, tipping his head to one side and studying the inseparable companions. The two of them began talking very rapidly.

"We're taking you with us to a party!" Shinpachi informed him eagerly.

"A party we've been looking forward to for a long time," Sano added.

"And which we've already paid for!" Shinpachi emphasized.

"And Heisuke, that piece of shit, backed out on us--" Sano grumbled.

"Which is why we need a third guy," Shinpachi explained. "The thing is, we booked three girls, and if only two of us show up, one of those young ladies is going to feel horribly slighted, causing quite an embarrassment--"

"So put your pants on!" Sano roared, slapping Souji's shoulder with his huge hand.

"eh," Souji huffed awkwardly, rocked by the blow. He blinked a few times, looking back and forth between Sano and Shinpachi and their mischievous, bright-eyed grins. "Ah… Sanosan, Shinpatsuan… you're inviting me to Shimabara?"

"Haw haw haw!" Sano laughed. "Shimabara? Shinpachi, he thinks we're taking him to Shimabara!"

"Shimabara?" Shinpachi echoed, laughing like a hyena. "No, no way, man! We're not taking you to Shimabara."

"Oh," Souji said, surprised. "Well, then, where…"

"Sanbongi!" Sano said with relish.

Souji's eyes narrowed. "The… the Sanbongi pleasure quarter." He said in a low voice.

"Exactly!" Shinpachi exclaimed. "What? It's not Shimabara, after all. It's clear across town."

"But-" Souji said, blinking again. "Essentially it's the same kind of place as Shimabara… and you know I never go to those kinds of places. I don't-"

"Aw, come on, Souji," Sano encouraged. "Give it a try! You might enjoy yourself!"

"You'd be doing both of us a favor," Shinpachi reminded him. "And you'd be setting a good example for the troops, and especially for the new recruits!"

Souji grimaced. "Just how is going to Sanbongi with the two of you going to 'set a good example'?"

"Because it's part of the culture!" Shinpachi exclaimed. "You're a Shinsengumi Captain! You're supposed to go out and party with the rest of us—if you hold back, it looks like a criticism of the commander!"

"And the vice-commander," Sano added helpfully.

"You don't think it's wrong for us to let loose and party once in a while, do you?" Shinpachi asked, pouting.

"Well, no…" Souji said reluctantly.

"Good! Then you're coming with us!" Shinpachi declared.

"YES!" Sano shouted, hefting a victorious fist into the air. "This is going to be AWESOME!"

Souji sighed and hung his head.


Later that evening, Souji found himself sitting quietly between Sano and Shinpachi, wearing his best black-and-white striped hakama and a cobalt haori, his hair tied up neatly in a ponytail.

"Helloooo!" called a happy voice as the door to the small square room slid open. The three men looked up expectantly as the three women appeared and bowed to them daintily. Souji found himself staring at them, half out of amusement and half out of curiosity. They were all beautiful, to the point of being veritably identical, except for the colors of their costumes.

"Why, if it isn't Sanosukesan!" cried the girl dressed in spring green and lavender. Her eyes sparkled with delight. "You bastard, when are you going to marry me?"

"Maybe tonight, with enough sake in me," Sano replied, grinning madly. "Now… just what's your name again?"

"Chieko," she replied, not the least bit offended. "And this is Yume…" She indicated the girl to her left, who was wearing a patterned kimono of blue and gold, and then she turned and indicated the girl to her right, whose kimono was several shades of pink. "And this is Kiku."

"You're all absolutely lovely!" Shinpachi screeched, beaming.

"Why, I remember you, too," Chieko said fondly. "Shinpach-han, isn't it?" the other two girls giggled a little. By letting their honeyed voices drawl the usual 'san' into a 'han', they could get away with addressing the short little redhead as 'Shinpat-chan'. But if he noticed, he didn't seem to mind.

"Correct!" Shinpachi said.

"And is this the infamously seductive Captain Toudou?" Yume asked, fluttering her eyes at Souji, who blushed in response.

"Not at all!" Shinpachi said enthusiastically. "This is the infamous Captain of the First Squad, Okita Souji-sama!"

"Really?" the girls shrieked excitedly, and a frantic high-pitched babble broke out between them: "why, I heard he was a child prodigy- the deadliest swordsman of the whole Shinsengumi- look how round and innocent his eyes are!- how old are you, honey?- he can't be a minute over 20, bless his heart- I heard he killed a hundred people- I've never heard of him coming to Sanbongi before- perhaps he has a special girl reserved elsewhere? I hear that's what his commander does- oh, yes, Kondousan keeps several girls in a private house, that's what I heard!- isn't one of them pregnant, too?"

"Ladies!" Shinpachi interrupted. "Please, restrain yourselves! It just so happens that tonight is genius swordsman Souji-kun's very first visit to the illustrious, resplendent district of Sanbongi. So please show him a good time, but be careful not to overwhelm him- he's actually quite delicate."

"Aaa, soouu?" the girls chorused, blinking butterfly-wing eyelashes at him. Souji's face had gone bright red by now, and he resolved to regain his composure. If he could only think of something to say, he was sure he'd be fine.

"I- I hadn't heard about Kondousan having another child," he said at last.

"Well!" Chieko said. "Shame on us, for spreading rumors!" the other two laughed, and the sound was pleasant. Souji smiled, and felt himself starting to relax. Cheerfully he held up his sake dish as Kiku poured for him.

"You know, that's something I respect about Kondousan," Sano said, almost thoughtfully.

"What, that he has kids all over Kyoto?" Shinpachi asked, smirking, as Yume raised an eyebrow at him and poured him a drink.

"Well, sure, there's that," Sano said, sipping rather than guzzling his alcohol for once. "But I was just thinking about the fact that Kondou actually takes care of his women. You know… he cares about 'em. He's got a big ol' heart to match that big ol' face of his." Sano grinned and the girls laughed.

"I don't personally know commander Kondou," Yume said. "But I've heard he's the heart of the Shinsengumi." She smiled flirtatiously as Shinpachi poured her sake.

"The heart of the Shinsengumi?" Souji said, his eyes lighting up. "Yes, I think that's true. And then Yamanamisan, because he's so smart, well, he must be the brain."

"He is way too smart, knowing all that math and history and useless stuff," Shinpachi said. "But the brain of the Shinsengumi? I don't know about that. I mean, it's no secret that Hijikata is more 'in charge'..."

"That's because…" -Sano paused for dramatic effect- "Hijikata is the balls! Wuah huah huah! Balls always win over brain, anyway!"

Shinpachi groaned as the girls laughed merrily. "I see it didn't take you very long to get around to talking about balls," Shinpachi muttered. "I thought with Souji present, you might be able to hold off until you were at least moderately sloshed."

"But if Hijikatasan is the balls of the Shinsengumi, what does that make you, Sano-sweetie?" Chieko asked teasingly.

"The guts!" Souji supplied, smiling. "Sano-san is most definitely the guts, or just the muscle in general." He chuckled.

"And I guess the rest of us are just the arms and hands and stuff," Shinpachi added. "Souji, you can be the right hand, and I'll be the left, how's that?"

Souji nodded and smiled with his eyes closed in happy semi-circles, feeling the warmth of the sake seeping through him. Souji had a rather tentative relationship with alcohol. He didn't need sake the way Serizawa had needed it, and it didn't affect him the way it affected Saitou or some of the others. Souji suspected that Hijikata and too much sake probably made a dangerous combination, but Hijikata was always careful not to get overly drunk in Souji's presence, and only got mad when Souji pointed that out. Before the Ichimura brothers joined the Shinsengumi, Souji had gotten drunk once in a while (to the immense amusement of pretty much everyone except Hijikata…). But ever since Kondou had inadvertently accused Souji of being drunk that morning in the dojo, the day he'd met Tetsu, Souji had avoided alcohol. It had hurt his feelings a little that what he considered to be his 'authentic' playfulness was mistaken for intoxication- and besides that, after that day, he had Tetsu looking up to him-- and Souji didn't want to be a bad role model.

But tonight, Tetsu wasn't around, and Souji decided that there wouldn't be any harm in getting a little drunk. And so, he welcomed the taste and the warmth of the sake, and he let the graceful girl in the pink kimono fill his cup over and over. The three friends from the Shieikan and the three beautiful girls drank and talked and laughed and teased each other, and instead of the awkwardness and debauchery Souji had expected, the 'party' was actually very relaxing and entertaining as well. Not a single laugh was forced or feigned.

The girls really did look alike, but Souji found that he was able to distinguish their personalities fairly easily. Chieko, the one wearing green, had more confidence and more intelligence than the other two, but was also more cynical. She was also sincerely attracted to Sanosuke. Yume, in the blue and gold kimono, was probably the youngest of the three, and might have been the prettiest, by a very narrow margin. She seemed both inexperienced and ambitious and was eager to prove herself, but was also nervous about overstepping her boundaries. Consequently, she never stole the spotlight, and stopped herself from making at least half of the clever comments that came to her mind—and she was focusing her attention on the least-intimidating of the three men: Shinpachi.

It was obvious that Kiku, in the pink kimono, was meant to be Souji's girl for the evening. That pleased him, since her personality was the most difficult to define of the three, and therefore, the most interesting. She was extremely attentive, charming, and she participated fluently in the conversations- but she was definitely the least talkative of the three, and the most graceful.


After perhaps two hours of talking, drinking, and flirting, there came a knock at the door, and a young girl nervously bowed to them all. "E-excuse me, sisters," she said politely. "B-but you are surely wasting too much of these fine customers' time."

Chieko sighed. "Thank you, Harukochan," she said, and once the door was shut again, she said flippantly, "That would be the proprietress's way of telling us that we better hurry it up if we're to do more than chat this evening." She smiled, and Souji was relieved to see that the expression wasn't just routine. Chieko turned to Sano and placed one slender white hand on his thigh. "How about it, Sano-sama?" she drawled. "You in the mood?"

"Hell yeah!" Sano exclaimed unabashedly. "Let's go for it, babe! Holy shit, this is the best night of my life!"

Chieko laughed. "But you said that last time, sweetie. Surely you can only have one 'best night of your life', so, which is it? Tonight, or last time?"

"Uh…" for a moment this seemed like far too complex a question for Sanosuke in his present state of mind. But after looking rather cross-eyed for several minutes with the effort of thinking it over, he said, "well, obviously, it would be whichever one you liked best," Sano told her. "So… you tell me. Which night… was better for you?"

She laughed aloud, and dragged him to his feet. "Just for that sentiment, my answer is, tonight. Tonight is the best night of your life, Captain Harada. This way." She steered him out into the hall.

"God Damn!" Sano blubbered excitedly. "I think I'm gonna cry!"

"oh, I can almost garuntee that," Chieko said mischievously, her eyes alight.

Shinpachi grinned and toasted Sano's good fortune. As if on cue, Yume took charge of the conversation and stepped up the flirtation with Shinpachi, until finally she leaned over and muttered seductively to Souji that she hoped he would be satisfied with his first Sanbongi experience, and then with a meaningful glance at Kiku, she took Shinpachi by the hand and off they went singing and laughing down the hall, leaving Souji and Kiku alone in the room.

Kiku blushed and smiled at him seductively. Souji smiled back, his cheeks glowing pink from the alcohol. "You're good at that," Souji said.

"At what, Souji-sama?" the girl asked shyly.

"At hiding your true feelings," Souji replied evenly.

"eh?" the girl asked, but quickly recovered. "I was just daydreaming a little," she murmured.

"About what?"

"Would you really make me say it?" she asked in a breathless, sultry whisper, dropping her eyelashes and reaching out her hand to touch Souji's face. "I'm dreaming of you," she said, running her fingers up his cheek to brush lightly at his long bangs. "You have such a lovely face."

"Thank you," Souji said. "You're quite lovely yourself."

"oh, don't be such a boring liar," she teased. "I was hoping you'd talk dirty to me, at least a little." She pouted and Souji saw through her at last. "I mean, surely with a face like yours, you've seduced a hundred girls before."

"Nope," Souji said, smiling calmly. "Not even one. Not on purpose, anyway," he amended, remembering the few girls who, for inexplicable reasons, had fallen for him from time to time.

Kiku blinked at him. Was he being serious? What was…

"I only came here tonight because my friends needed a third person," Souji admitted.

"oh," Kiku said, taken aback by his honesty.

"But I did enjoy myself," Souji added, in case her feelings would be hurt. "I can see why they keep coming back, for fun and for relaxation."

"But… you hardly even got drunk," Kiku said worriedly.

"Watching those two get drunk, and just laughing with you all was good enough for me," Souji said, beaming as he studied her expression. "Is something bothering you, Okiku?" he asked softly.

"Are you actually saying… that you no longer desire my company this evening?" Kiku asked, her voice just a little rushed with disbelief.

"Well, if you'll get in trouble or anything, for, ah, being finished early, then, you could just stay and talk to me for a while," Souji said, with a vaguely apologetic smile.

The girl shook her head, confused. "You… you realize that I'm here to do anything you want, right?"

"Yes," Souji said with a definitive nod. "I realize that. But all I want… is for you to be honest with yourself. You don't really want to sleep with me."

"But- of course I do!" she insisted, aghast. "You're my customer! You're… you're even somebody famous, and even attractive, at that!"

Souji hummed a laugh, keeping his mouth tightly shut. "Do you have a boyfriend, Okiku?"

Kiku blushed, and saw there was no point in lying to the Shinsengumi captain. "Yes…" she answered at last.

"Well, I know you're not supposed to, but, instead of messing around with me, why don't you go spend tonight with him?"

Her dark eyes filled with tears. "It's cruel of you to joke about that," she said quietly. "He can't pay me. He… he's poor," she hissed, as the tears began to fall, "and I h…have to earn m-money."

Immediately Souji reached into the pocket of his haori and pulled out his wallet, and before the girl knew what was happening, he was pouring coins into her hand. "There!" he said brightly.

"Wh-what?" she gasped. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I want you to take the night off!"

She held the money out, away from herself, and shook her head. "You don't understand. I have obligations. A contract. I have another engagement tonight. You're my only, um, one-on-one customer for the evening, but after this, I have to go serve drinks at another party."

"Really?" Souji asked, his mind latching onto something. "Just serve drinks? Not sleep with anyone? You're sure?"

"aa…" she blinked, confused. "Yes, I'm sure that's the arrangement. I'm just going to pour drinks. My manager would go on a rampage if anyone took more from me than what was originally paid for… but… why do you ask?"

"Because," Souji said, reaching up with both hands to undo his ponytail. "I have an idea…"


"I'm afraid there's not enough to time to do your hair properly," Kiku said worriedly. She was wearing only a thin white yukata now, and Souji's striped hakama and cobalt jacket were nowhere to be seen.

"Will it be a problem?" Souji asked solemnly. The girl shook her head.

"No… the party you're going to has already been going on for some time. The men there will be drunk. They won't care about your hairstyle- but at least let me do something for you with this ribbon…" Carefully the girl brushed back all the long bangs which framed Souji's face, added to them a few of the longer locks from just behind his ears, and tied them back behind his head with a silky pink ribbon for a half-up, half-down hairstyle that left only the evenly-trimmed bangs hanging over the left side of his forehead. She tied the ribbon into a beautiful looping bow and sat back on her heels to analyze her work.

She smiled. "This is so crazy, it just might work!" she said happily. "Without those long bangs covering your ears, you look like a whole different person. Turn your head a bit."

Souji complied.

"Hmm," Kiku said. "Your jaw and chin really aren't all that masculine. As for your neck, well… it's actually quite elegant. Just remember to keep your spine straight, and your chin tucked down just slightly- and just in case any of the men are looking at your lovely throat, try to avoid swallowing. If you have to swallow, cover your mouth daintily with your hand, and that should hide your adam's apple too. Understand?"

"Yes," Souji said, nodding, brows furrowing slightly. He'd never given half a thought to the notch in his throat before- surely that was something only women noticed. Souji had been accused of being girly for pretty much his whole life, but he'd never been doing it on purpose, not really. But now he was actually trespassing into the world of cross-dressing, which promised to be more difficult to master than he would have guessed.

"Stand up and walk around a bit," Kiku instructed. "Small steps. Look at the floor, only at the floor. Good! Now sit down. Perfect. Never sit or stand sloppily."

"Never sit or stand sloppily," Souji repeated solemnly.

Kiku giggled. "This is fun," she confided. "Ten years of training compressed into less than an hour. But you'll be fine. You're just barely tall and gawky enough to avoid being stunning as a girl. Your shoulders are fairly square… that would be the only thing to give you away. Can you roll your shoulders forward, while still keeping your back straight?" Souji slumped his shoulders forward as far as he could without compromising his posture. "Better," Kiku commented. "If that gets too uncomfortable, you should be fine as long as you keep your head inclined forward. Don't look anyone square in the eyes. If you have to look at someone, be sure you're looking through your eyelashes, understand? Think shy and sly."

"Shy and sly," Souji repeated dutifully.

"I really don't think anyone would imagine for one second that you're a man," Kiku concluded. "Now… you remember what I told you about your role at the party?"

"Of course," Souji assured her. "I'm to pour drinks, offer snacks, make cute, clever comments when appropriate, and keep your kimono clean." He beamed at her.

"Right," she said. "Conversation is all I'm being paid for. If you give them anything else, it will ruin my reputation!"

"Don't worry," Souji said, laughing.

"There are other girls who will be there to sleep with them," Kiku cautioned. "Distinguish yourself from them by remaining reserved and a little… aloof. Just… try not to brush up against them, and don't give them any meaningful smiles or glances. You're only there to be a pretty maid, basically… but when they talk to you, be pleasant. Don't flirt with them, but… oh, how to explain it?"

"Be amusing and sociable, but maintain my distance," Souji summarized.

"Yes, exactly!" Kiku said.


Suddenly there was a soft knock on the door. "Kikuchan?" called a quiet voice. "Are you finished in there?"

"Yes," Kiku replied. "You can come in." The door opened and Yume and Chieko came in and sat down. Souji kept his shoulders slumped and his eyes on the floor.

"Oh, who's your friend?" Yume asked, nodding towards the tall, shy-seeming girl in the pink kimono.

"This is Kiyuchan," Kiku said quickly. "From the Ogakiya in the Nijou district.. We were friends from before, and she needed to borrow a kimono, so…"

"It's so nice of you to give her yours," Yume said. "She's got pretty skin. That color looks good on her."

Souji nodded his head in a little bow. "Thank you," he said in the softest, girliest voice he could manage-- which he knew was pretty darn girly.

Kiku smiled brightly, which didn't escape Chieko's notice. "You're in a good mood, Kikuchan," she said. "What happened to your Miburo? Both Harada and Nagakura are sleeping like babies."

"Oh, he wasn't that drunk, so, he went home," Kiku said.

"I take it he wasn't too horrible for you?" Chieko asked carefully.

"He seemed like a kind person. Cute, too," Yume commented.

"He was very kind," Kiku exclaimed.

"Oh, Kiku, you're blushing!" Yume teased. "You must have had some fun. Come on, tell us about it!"

Kiku glanced sideways at Souji, who was sitting there serenely in her pink kimono, struggling to suppress his smile… "um…" Kiku stuttered.

"Come on, just say it!" Yume encouraged, giggling.

"Well- um- it's just that, you'll never believe it." Kiku stammered weakly.

"Heh," Chieko said, folding her arms. "It was supposedly his 'first time', so I'll believe anything."

"Well, first of all, he talked to me," Kiku admitted.

Chieko groaned. "How annoying! I hate the talkers who think they're being all eloquent and poetic."

"No wonder you favor Harada," Yume commented, smirking. "He's not smart enough to attempt anything like that."

"Exactly," Chieko said. "Harada's honest. You can trust him."

"The same goes for Okita!" Kiku insisted.

"How boring!" Yume said, rolling her eyes. "Come on, how was he in bed? Did he actually bother trying to make love to you, or was it straight to his own business and over with?"

"Um… straight to business, I suppose, but he, ah, he was really persuasive, and very gentle," Kiku said, embarrassed.

Yume laughed out loud. "Kiku, you're too cute! But that's not a very interesting story. Just wait til I tell you about Nagakura! It was crazy! To start with, he wanted to-"

"uh, Sorry, Yumechan, but Kiyuchan is running late, and I promised to walk her as far as the bridge, so we better get going," Kiku said hurriedly, cutting off the excited younger girl. She grabbed Souji by the hand -her eyes flashing briefly with concern as she did so- and dragged him from the room.

She didn't let go of his hand until they were out in the street. Once he made sure that the coast was clear, Souji burst into laughter.

"Persuasive, am I?" Souji asked, his eyes twinkling.

"Well, you convinced me to dress you up in my kimono, didn't you?"

Souji laughed again. "This is going to be fun!" he exclaimed.

"There's something we overlooked," Kiku said worriedly. "Your hands. You haven't got girly hands. They aren't huge or hairy or anything, thank goodness, but try to keep them in your sleeves if you can, ok?"

"Ok," Souji said. "Now. Where do I go?"

"The Kitsuya house, in Shimabara. It's almost time for you to be on your way. Do you have any last questions?" Kiku asked.

"Um… who is the party for?" Souji asked.

"Oh, that's not important. Some lord of Aizu, I think."

"WHAT?"

"Yes, that's who it is. Some samurai from Aizu who happen to be visiting Nijoujo. I know Shimabara's kind of a far walk from here…"

Souji wasn't listening to her. Instead, he was trying not to die from a heart attack. He felt something akin to panic take hold of him. What on earth was he doing, dressed up like a girl and going to pour sake in Shimabara? He must have been ridiculously drunk, when this had seemed like a good idea. There was no way he could go through with it, not if Kondousan and Hijikatasan were going to be there. Even if they weren't there, with Souji's calloused hands, his square shoulders, the notch in his throat, his tendency to look people directly in the eye— he would never get away with this! He had made a huge mistake. Somehow, he was going to have to explain to Okiku…

But before he could figure out exactly what to say to her, he realized that the girl had wrapped her arms around him, and was hugging him. Dumbfounded, he looked down at her.

"…thank you," she was saying. "This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. My beloved Saburosan will be so glad to see me. He's been ill lately, but I just know, if I can be there beside him for just a little while to hold his hand tonight, and tell him how much I love him, it will bring him so much happiness… Maybe even enough to heal him! I'll just sit beside him until the sunrise… and I will tell him that truly, there are a few kind people in this horrible world. So thank you, with all my heart!"

He felt like he was going to faint. She released him from the hug and stepped back, smiling through her tears.

"Well, good luck," she said tenderly, turning away--

And she left him standing there in the street.


Another Author's Note: beware of part 2… it takes a rather sharp turn in the Hijikata x Okita direction—but, since I'm the one writing it, there will be no lemon. NO LEMON! Which, backwards, is "no melon." Sadness… I love melon! Lately, the world's all about melons with me. And yes, I have lost my mind.