A/N: A Saitou/Hijikata drabble, written in response to an f-list appreciation prompt. Okita and Hijikata remain two of my favorite Hakuouki characters ever, but wow, Saitou makes it hard not to love him just as much. He's so sweet and quiet. And deadly. I fall in love with his character a little more every day.

Hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: Hakuouki, the game, and the anime all belong to their respective creators; I just take them out for writing funtimes.

Pursuit is an art.

After years of practice, Saitou Hajime knows all the secrets of it. With swift, silent steps he avoids the brittle twigs and dead dry leaves that cover the ground; he sets forth only when the winter wind that whips branches back and forth covers the faint sounds of his passing and allows him to move soundlessly along the perimeter of the forest.

Where are you going, Toshi?

Though his entire body is alive to every small variable in this barren wintry world—the shifting of the wind, the darkening of the sky—he keeps his blue gaze fixed on the tall, slim figure moving some distance ahead of him and detaches himself from any other immediate concern. Instinctively, his hand lingers near his sword, but the gesture is little more than habit; today is not a day for fighting.

What's on your mind?

The vice-commander of the Shinsengumi proves almost impossible to track; whether by accident or design he slips in and out of trees, emerging from and disappearing into shadows as if he really were an oni, and if Saitou were anyone else he'd have given up this pursuit long ago. Twice Hijikata nearly eludes him and once he has to double back into a thicket of trees to avoid being seen; his legs ache with the weariness of a journey longer than he anticipated. Still, he doesn't slow, doesn't even think of stopping.

I promised I would follow you no matter what.

And this silent pursuit of Hijikata Toshizou is perhaps a too-liberal interpretation of the vow he's made, but Saitou Hajime prides himself on his integrity and he's pledged himself to the Shinsengumi and to this man in particular. To follow the vice-commander wherever he goes—unasked, unsought, unseen—seems to him entirely appropriate, even sensible.

He thinks, maybe, that the others would tease him for such devotion.

Certainly there are other ways to spend his time. All the rest of the Shinsengumi have a list of near-insurmountable tasks to hand, and following the vice-commander on the rare occasions he permits himself leisure should not be one of them. Even so…

I will not let you fall.

The heaviness of obligation weighs them all down, steals the merriment from their shared conversations and dulls future hopes, and no man shoulders more of that burden than their infamous oni-fukutaichou; Saitou observes wordlessly the tension that tightens those slim shoulders, the distracted worry that clouds amethyst eyes, the long sleepless nights spent on paperwork and plans.

You're always fighting battles for us, even without a sword in your hand.

Ahead of him, Hijikata halts near a sakura tree, spidery and thin without blossoms. His unyielding features soften with reflection as he tilts his head back to gaze at the naked branches. The tension drains from his body as he relaxes; the biting wind toys with his long raven hair and frees it from its careful binding.

Saitou permits himself a faint smile. Good. Even warriors require meditation and moments of restoration, and Hijikata more than most; those closest to the vice-commander's heart know how hard he pushes himself for the sake of their cause. You deserve this rest. I will guard your peace.

A faint sound disturbs the barren stillness and Saitou's contemplation; his mood darkens with the narrowing of his blue eyes. His gaze sweeps the small clearing and the woods beyond as his hand moves quickly to his sword. Hesitation is not in his nature and he will not suffer the quiet to be disturbed. Whoever you are, I—

A small rabbit hops innocently out of the nearby underbrush.

The creature pauses in a small patch of sunlight that filters through the clouds, foraging through winter's debris and nibbling contentedly at grass. Saitou's hand on his sword relaxes and his gaze softens as he observes the small animal—all quivering muscles and long velvety ears—going about its business oblivious to his presence. He finds the sight oddly comforting. Wars and politics might come and go, but some things will never change and—


He stiffens; the rabbit freezes at the sound of Hijikata's stern, commanding voice and then explodes away with a launch of its powerful hind legs into the undergrowth. Saitou clears his throat and turns, gracefully, to meet the vice-commander's arched brow and inquisitive violet eyes. He finds he doesn't know what to say, and settles for saying nothing at all. Hijikata frowns. "What's wrong? Is there a message?"

It doesn't occur to Saitou to lie. "Nothing's wrong," he reassures calmly. "There's no message." I should have known there's no following you without getting caught.

The furrow in Hijikata's brow eases and he regards his subordinate thoughtfully, then turns his gaze back to the sakura tree without chastisement or further questions. For a long time now he has trusted Saitou's silences, trusted Saitou's presence, and the promise of such mutual regard is not the least of the reasons they fight side by side.

"This tree," Hijikata remarks wryly in the shared silence, "it's going to outlive all of us. Do you suppose we'll see it bloom next spring?"

And Saitou, because he knows that silences and nuances almost always speak more than words, hears the unspoken question: do you think we'll live that long?

He pauses.

The swordsman knows the proper answer. He knows that in a warrior's life there is no room for such a privilege as the fear of death. But when sadness darkens the amethyst eyes that meet his own he understands, suddenly, the true burden of leadership: the wariness of unnecessary sacrifice, the anxiety that accompanies responsibility for the lives of your subordinates.

Hijikata Toshizou fears the loss of those under his command more than he will ever fear a brutal death on the battlefield.

Saitou turns his gaze, too, to the tree. I'm not good with words. Unnecessary talking clouds both the heart and the air, and normally he prefers to let his silences speak for him. Still, after a moment of contemplation he replies carefully, thoughtfully: "Perhaps. And if we do not, it will be because we have protected those who watch in our stead."

I cannot take the burden, but I will gladly share it with you. And I will fight beside you to preserve everything that matters.

The vice-commander makes a quiet sound of approval and places a warm hand on Saitou's slim shoulder. The touch is startling; Saitou glances up into violet eyes warm with good humor, wry self-awareness, and gratitude.

Hijikata smiles.

And that's the reward for all Saitou's years of quiet service: the briefest of glimpses beneath a stern and dutiful exterior to the heart of a man boyish and stubborn, loyal to a fault and easily frustrated, charming and irritable by turns. The sight warms the swordsman through and through, renders the chill of the day irrelevant and leaves him deeply satisfied. Suddenly, the desolate gray sky doesn't seem half so oppressive. Perhaps one day we will return when the tree is in bloom. Until then, I will follow wherever you lead; I will protect you with my life.

A dead leaf, twirling in the biting wind, catches in the vice-commander's raven hair; without thinking Saitou reaches out to brush it away, pauses fascinated instead at the feel of silken strands twined around his fingers. Captive to sudden enchantment, he strokes the softness between his finger and thumb. Beautiful.

Hijikata's eyes widen.

Saitou starts and then snatches his hand away as though he's been burned. A blush suffuses his pale cheeks. You idiot. What are you doing? "I—sorry," he manages awkwardly. "I'm…very sorry." What were you possibly thinking? You have no right to touch him—or anyone—and furthermore at this time of all times and—

His frantic thoughts collapse in on themselves when he realizes that Hijikata is almost smiling, his features soft with affection; the vice-commander reaches out and, with careful and deliberate intent, loosens the white binding that wraps Saitou's dark hair. Indigo silk tumbles free, spills over the white silk of his scarf, and the swordsman flushes at the sudden exposure. He can't remember the last time anyone saw him this way, so suddenly undone, and the shockingly delicate brush of sword-calloused fingers against his hair steals his breath and his composure entirely.

Please don't stop.

But times of rest and reflection are brief; after a moment Hijikata's hand falls, though the gentleness doesn't leave his gaze. Saitou stands startled, lips parted, willing his blush away and trying to collect his scattered thoughts.

"Next time," Hijikata announces as he turns away, "don't follow me here."

The words hurt more than they should and sunder whatever progress Saitou has made towards self-control; he blinks, and then bows his head in acquiescence. Loyalty and devotion mute the protest on his lips. Of course Hijikata Toshizou doesn't need to be followed around. He needs his privacy, needs his time to think and plan, and even if he does feel strained, surely he can bear it. I didn't intend to offend your pride. I only wanted to—

"You should just come with me, instead," Hijikata continues, and with those words the world is right again. Saitou pauses, startled, and misses a step, then bows his head again and hurries to catch up to the swordsman already some distance ahead. His smile, though faint, is genuine.

This is why I would die for you. Even when my job is to follow, you allow me to walk at your side.