Toro Nagashi

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by nekojita

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The story is set after episode 23 of the Peacemaker Kurogane anime, which means minor spoilers ahead.

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Toro nagashi Ė (lanterns on the water) A ceremony during the Bon (Obon) festival (held around mid July/August) where small paper lanterns containing lit candles are set adrift on the river or sea. It is a memorial for the dead, and helps guide ancestral spirits back to the spirit world after a day of hell being opened.

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Hijikata motioned for Ichimura to set the tray down on the table and returned to going through his letters. He shuffled through the stack, creating some sort of order in which to respond to them later, before reaching for the scroll heíd set aside a few minutes ago. "Ichimura, deliver this message to Kondou-san." He looked up at his page as he held out the scroll, expecting to see the boy ready to leave his quarters but instead found him staring across the room. "Ichimura," he repeated, his voice a low growl.

Ichimura jumped at his name and flushed, red creeping up his face, onto round cheeks, one of which bore a white bandage. "Yes, Fukucho?"

Hijikata suppressed a sigh of annoyance and waved the hand holding the scroll. "I have a message that needs to be delivered to Kondou-san." He paused, and then added, for emphasis, "Now."

The boy jumped again, and bowed hastily before accepting the scroll. "Iíll deliver it right now, sir!" But still he lingered in the room, his eyes focused on the shadowed corner by the tokonoma. "HowÖ how is he, sir?"

Hijikata resisted the urge to look back at the still figure sleeping on a futon in the corner. "Heís fine." When it seemed that Ichimura was waiting for more of an answer, he crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "The letterÖ?"

"Ah! Yes, Fukucho! Iíll get it to Kondou-san right away!" Ichimura bowed again before scrambling for the door, his red, unruly hair flopping about his face and covering the bandage as he all but ran out of the room. Hijikata pursed his lips as he wondered if the boy had grown a little. Ichimuraís body appeared a little more gangly than before, his head now reaching closer to the top of the sliding door. Then Hijikata closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he heard the sound of bodies impacting, of surprised cries and muttered oaths followed by profuse apologies. One day the boy would learn to look where the hell he was going. Good thing that he wasnít carrying anything important, or worse, breakable - just a short note to tell Kondou that they would discuss the matter of new recruits in the morning.

A not quite stifled outburst of bubbling laughter alerted him to the fact that his patient was now awake. Deciding heíd finish the letters later, Hijikata rose, picked up the tray filled with tea and rice cakes, and walked over to the corner. He stopped when he reached the edge of the futon.

Souji, still curled up on the bed, looked up at him and smiled. He felt a flutter in his chest at the cheerful expression, at the way those wide, violet eyes shone with mirth and happiness. Soujiís face still looked a little pale, but there wasnít any trace of pain or sickness to mar its loveliness - at least until he tried to sit up.

"Wait." Hijikata quickly settled on his knees and set the tray aside before helping Souji into a sitting position. "You know you should be more careful," he admonished once his lover was upright, his hands unable to stop fussing with Soujiís long, silky hair or the soft, worn black yukata Souji was wearing - an old one of his. "I wonít let you ruin all my hard work by pushing too hard."

"Theyíre just sore ribs, Hijikata-san," Souji said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "Iím fine."

"No, youíre not," he snapped as he settled one of the kakebuton around Soujiís shoulders. "Leave it," he ordered when his young lover tried to brush the quilt aside. "You know you must take it easy until the bones mend or youíll seriously hurt yourself." He glared at Souji for a moment before sliding the tray closer. He picked up off the floor the book of poetry that Souji had been writing in before he fell asleep, and felt his lips thin as he noticed the drawings of piglets and flowers that now graced the pages amid the fine calligraphy. The brush and ink tray rested on the edge of the futon, in danger of spilling onto the tatami and bedding. "Try not to wreck my quarters, Soujiro."

Slowly, Souji sat up as straight as he could and folded his hands in his lap. "Youíre the one who insisted that I recover here," he pointed out in an irritatingly cheerful voice. "I can always go back to my quarters if you like."

Hijikata paused in pouring the tea to glare at the fool. "No, you wonít. If Ichimura doesnít kill you with all his fussing and wailing, Heisuke, Shinpachi and Sanosuke, trying to prove that they know the best way to help you heal. Youíll stay here and get some rest." If he hadnít insisted that his lover recuperate here, Souji would never have got any rest from the constant stream of well-wishers.

He poured two cups of tea and then handed one to Souji. "Drink this."

Souji accepted the drink but held it cupped between his hands, long fingers curled around the burnished clay. "Hijikata-san." He waited until he had Hijikataís attention before continuing. "Iím fine." The pout was gone, replaced with steel. He sat there, a faint hint of blush to his cheeks, his eyes bright and only lightly clouded by the pain that had hazed them this week. "I should get up and do something."

Hijikata set his cup aside and crossed his arms over his chest. "Youíre not getting out of bed just yet." Soujiís angry visage faded before his eyes, and in its place, Hijikata saw Souji as heíd looked that night at the Ikeda-ya teahouse. So pale, gasping for air and covered with blood. Each breath had been agonizingly laborious for him, for them both. Hijikata hadnít been able to rest at all that night as he remained by his loverís side while Souji had slept, with the help of drugs. Heíd sat nearby, anxiously awaiting each shallow inhalation and exhalation, the occasional whimper of pain. He still lay awake for a couple of hours each night, waiting to hear if his loverís breathing had become labored, dreading the sound of a wet, wracking cough.

"But Shinpachi and Heisuke stopped by yesterday to see me, and-"

"Shinpachi wonít be able to return to active duty for several more days, and Heisuke is just out of his bed and still seeing double of everything. They werenít as badly hurt as you were." Why the hell did he have to have such an argumentive lover? Souji might appear to be all sweetness and easygoing nature, but in reality he was ten times as thickheaded as a boar. "Neither of them fell sick, either. Iím not letting you out of here until the bones have mended back together."

"Theyíre just sore, not cracked." Souji pouted for a moment, the expression fading into irritation as he realized that Hijikata wasnít going to fall for that now. Not over something this serious. It was fine when he let his lover wheedle a trip to the candy store or a bottle of plum sake out of him that way; he wasnít going to give in now and let the stubborn fool hurt himself even worse.

"What about my duties as captain of the first squadron?" Souji asked as he sipped his tea, obviously deciding to try a new tactic. "We lost a few good men during the fight." His expressive face grew sad. "And several were injured. We didnít kill all the rebels so we need to get back to full strength as soon as possible."

It was a good try, Hijikata thought as he stretched out on the floor beside Souji. He swallowed some tea and glanced longingly at his pipe resting beside the stack of letters. "No, but Aizuís men are helping us track down the ones remaining in Kyoto. Things have calmed down for now, and I expect them to remain that way for a few more weeks, at least. By then youíll be healed and weíll have new recruits." His thoughtful look turned into a scowl. "That is, youíll be healed unless you try and push things."

Soujiís brows furrowed as he scowled in return, a sure sign that he knew himself to be stymied for the time being. Heíd be quiet for a few hours, maybe even the rest of the night, until he could come up with a better plan. Hijikata knew his lover very well.

"It doesnít seem right," Souji muttered as he sipped his tea. "We were the ones to face the rebels but Aizu-sanís men are strutting around Kyoto as if it was them. Theyíll go away in a few weeks after soaking up the glory and weíll be left to deal with the rebels when they regroup." There was a bitterness to his voice that Hijikata was saddened to hear, but underneath it was a hint of eagerness, of bloodthirstiness, and a cold gleam in Soujiís eyes that made him shiver.

The Imperialists would indeed regroup, and the Shinsengumi, with Souji at the fore, would fight them. It was inevitable. It was a time of change; the odors of blood, metal and smoke seemed to tinge the air, leaving an acrid taste to Hijikataís mouth each time he breathed. Because of the path heíd chosen and his past actions, the man he loved would face those changes head on. This was not a time of peace. That would come afterward, when their side either won or lost. Somehow, he had the feeling that neither he nor Souji would live to see it. Maybe that was a good thing; he didnít know how his lover would fare without an outlet for the demon that dwelled inside him.

He was jolted from his dark thoughts by the sound of violent coughing. He turned anxiously to Souji as a tea cup rolled across the floor, feeling wet material beneath his hands as he quickly scrambled to his loverís side. "Souji!" He tried to steady the slender man, to provide some help, but all he could do was hold him, feeling utterly helpless as the coughing continued.

Soujiís face was red and tight with pain, his eyes closed. After a last hack or two, the hand covering his mouth fell limply to the ground and he relaxed into Hijikataís arms and wheezed in pain.

Almost too terrified to look, Hijikata gently grasped the pale hand and pried the calloused fingers apart, all the while praying that there wouldnít be any blood. *Please.* It took him a few seconds to realize that there was none, causing him to sag in relief.

"Souji? Are you all right?" he asked, releasing the hand so he could brush back the strands of black hair clinging to his loverís face. "Do you want some more medicine?" When he started to release Souji, his lover clutched his arm and shook his head.

"MaybeÖ maybe youíre right about the ribs," Souji wheezed, an annoyed look on his flushed face. "ThatÖ hurt."

"Hmph." That was the first time Souji admitted that his ribs were anything but Ďa little tenderí. Still, he didnít savor the victory. "Howís your chest? Do you feel any stabbing pain?" he asked with concern. Soujiís pulse was calming beneath his fingers, unlike his own, and the flush was fading. He wanted to fetch his medicine chest and grind up some painkiller to add to the remaining tea but Souji wouldnít release the hold he had on the sleeve of his kimono.

"Itís going." Souji opened his eyes and smiled, a little weakly but still a lovely sight to behold. "Itís not fair. All I did was take a sip of tea right before I was going to say something about the oddest expression on your face, and then I started choking." He gingerly rubbed his bandaged ribs but stopped after a moment. "After everything thatís happened, to think that I was nearly done in by tea." He started to laugh but stopped immediately, wincing as his hand once again pressed lightly against his chest.

"Donít move too much just yet," Hijikata warned. He reached out with one hand to pick up his cup of tea off of the tatami floor. "Make sure it goes down the right way this time."

Souji accepted the half-filled cup with a wry smile, his expression becoming serious as he stared at him. "Hijikata-sanÖ Iíll be fine."

No, he wouldnít be. The panic of today would be repeated with growing frequency in the future, and sooner or later the blood would appear again. Sooner or later, heíd lose Souji. Hijikata held his lover close and buried his face in silky hair. If only he could hold back that terrible fate by denying it. So far, despite his best efforts, nothing else seemed to be working.

He remained like that until there was a sharp tug on his own hair. He looked down to see Souji, a thick lock in his fist, tugging it again. "Iíll be fine. Donít behave like Sano has this past week or Iíll crawl to Kondou-sanís quarters for a little peace and quiet," Souji teased.

He knew that his lover wouldnít let him obsess about this, at least not in his presence. Souji knew very well what was going on, yet it never seemed to bother him. While Hijikata couldnít be that carefree, he could at least take a hint. If not, then Souji would do something completely improbable just to distract him. That thought made him shudder in horror. "I havenít once sat on you to keep you in bed, no matter how tempted Iíve been," he said, recalling the gossip heíd heard the other day.

Souji laughed, a shallow, breathless sound that still managed somehow to express his amusement, and clapped his hands. "Donít think I havenít noticed the thought crossing your mind from time to time! Heisuke-kun said heíd have been out of bed days ago if it wasnít for Sanoís Ďattentionsí." Soujiís head lolled back onto Hijikataís shoulder as long fingers trailed down his chest, sliding beneath the black yukata to pull the damp material away from pale skin. "I think I prefer playing doctor with you, even if you wonít run out to buy any candy for me." His eyes became huge and watery, with shimmering tears threatening to spill down his lovely face at any second.

Mostly immune to this tactic, Hijikata lightly rapped his knuckles against his loverís forehead. "Idiot. I know the second I leave to purchase it for you, youíll be out of bed. You can fetch it yourself when youíre feeling well." He frowned when he realized that the tea must have soaked Soujiís robe, and that the bedding was wet as well. "You didnít burn yourself, did you?"

"No, Hijikata-san," Souji said, his tone singsong. "How terrible you are." He pulled away and hid part of his face behind the sleeve of the yukata. "Forcing me to remain in bed day after day, denying me any sweets and now making me drink cold tea." The smile he tried to hide was all too evident in his laughing voice. "Will no one brave the great demon Fukucho and save me?"

Souji was indeed on the mend. Forcing himself not to smile at the return, in force, of his loverís teasing nature, Hijikata merely grunted instead and stood up. "Get out of that wet clothing before you get sick." He turned to fetch a new yukata and kakebuton, followed by the thought that he *had* foolishly hoped that Souji would remain quiet and tired for a little longer. Now that he was feeling better, Souji would probably be determined to make up for all the missed mischief the past few days. He felt a headache coming onÖ.

He grabbed the first thing he found, a colorful yukata. He remembered the last time heíd worn the outfit. It had been their first Bon festival in Kyoto, the weather so hot and humid and made even more unbearable by all the fires scattered about to attract the returning spirits, yet people had still been dancing and celebrating. Souji had pulled him away from the crowd and led him to a quiet part of the river. There, his younger lover had set a lantern floating downstream and they watched until it disappeared from sight. Then Souji had led him to his quarters where they spent the night rejoicing in the fact that they were still alive and youngÖ.

His hands clenched in the soft material as he wondered which Bon festival would find him standing by the river alone, lighting a candle for Souji. Would it be next yearís or the year after that - or even worse, this yearís? The thought weakened him, threatened to send him crashing down onto his shaking knees and steal the breath from him. He didnít want to be the one left alive on that festival night, hoping and praying that his loveís soul would find its way home, helpless to keep it here in this world any longer in hopes of easing his own soul-deep lonelinessÖ.

"Hijikata-san?"

He forced his legs to steady and turned to face Souji, his face pulling into a scowl to hide his distress. He almost dropped the yukata when he found Souji reclining quite naked on top of the damp bedding.

The concern on Soujiís face shifted into amusement tinged with wickedness. "You did say to take off the wet clothes, didnít you? I was quite soaked." He tried to sit up and winced in pain. He settled for how far heíd gotten, his upper body supported by his toned arms.

Soujiís slender body was still marred with bruises and cuts from the fight, the white of the bandages livid against green and yellow mottled flesh. Yet the marks were fading and soon would be gone, save for the pale pink tracings of new scars. Soujiís beauty was unspoiled and, even temporarily tarnished as it was now, still managed to take Hijikataís breath away.

Then his common sense returned. "Do you want to catch a cold on top of everything else?" he yelled, furious. There were times when he was convinced that his lover was a trial inflicted upon him for the sins of a past life. Why else would he have fallen in love with a man who utterly exasperated him - and that was when Souji wasnít even trying to drive him crazy.

He shook out the yukata and knelt beside Souji, then wrapped the garment around the manís shoulders. "If you promise to behave, you can sit out on the veranda for a few minutes while this mess is cleaned up. Step one foot off of it, though, and itíll be fifty spankings." He could just see his lover deciding to go play a game with the local children or off on a walk with Ichimura while his back was turned.

Souji resisted his efforts to put on the yukata. "Yes, youíre so terribly mean. Keeping me hostage here and only touching me to tend to my wounds." His pout returned with all the intensity he could muster. "No wonder the men call you a demon. Next thing I know, youíll leave me here to go off to the pleasure quarter with Yamazaki-san."

"Fool." Unwilling to continue the struggle and risk hurting his lover, he gave up on the yukata and sat back on his heels. "I thought you wanted to get out of bed. Thatís not going to happen if youíre naked as the day you were born," he pointed out with annoyance, pushed off balance by Soujiís and his own fluctuating moods.

Smiling like the cat that just found a full pail of cream, Souji lounged back onto the futon. He closed his eyes and rubbed a sleeve of the dark blue yukata draped around him across his cheek. "Hmmm, itís been a long time since youíve worn this. I can still remember that night." He opened his eyes and stared at Hijikata, his face growing flushed and his eyes bright. "Do you? Do you still remember what happened after we paid our respects to our ancestors?" His voice shed the teasing singsong quality to take on a huskier texture, one that caused goose-bumps to rise along Hijikataís arms and his body to shiver with pleasure.

"Yes, I do." Unable to resist, not with Souji stretched out before him, that wonderful body barely covered by the blue fabric decorated with white and black lightening bolts, he found himself leaning forward. "I remember it was so hot our skin stuck together but we didnít care." He ran his hand through shining strands of blackness, provoking a low moan from his lover. "Your hair was much shorter then." He brushed it back to reveal a healing cut on Soujiís left shoulder and abruptly pulled away as if his hand had been scalded.

However, Souji grabbed his hand before it moved more than a few centimeters. "Donít. Please, stay here." His expressive eyes added to the plea in his voice. "It feels like itís been forever since you touched me."

"Youíre still hurt," he managed to groan after a few seconds, his throat gone dry with barely repressed desire. "As much as I want to touch you, I wonít hurt you. Thereíll be time later when youíre well." He tried to pull his hand free but Souji, injured or not, was still strong and very determined.

"Itís funny," Souji said, his voice still husky, his eyes still locked on Hijikataís. "During the fight, I wasnít aware of the pain or the risks I took. All I could see was the enemy, all I wanted to do was to fight them. It wasnít until I couldnít fight any more that I realized how much I was hurt." As he spoke, his fingers tightened around Hijikataís hand Ė fingers that were long and calloused, possessing a frightening strength.

"Even then, I wasnít afraid of the pain, or of dying. All I wanted was to see you again. I knew that if something happened to me, you would foolishly twist it somehow so it became all your fault. I didnít want that to happen. I wonít be another burden of guilt to you, Hijikata-san, no more than I already am."

"Souji, hush," he choked, not comfortable hearing certain things said aloud. Not liking it that Souji thought himself to be a failure in his eyes.

"No." Soujiís other hand lifted and brushed back the long hair that was falling onto Hijikataís face. "No. Iíve listened to you this past week, and now itís my turn to speak." Soujiís cool fingers caressed his chin, teased along the stubbled skin right beneath his bottom lip.

"How much longer do we have?" he asked, his voice tinged with sad finality. "How many more battles before weíre paid back for all the death weíve dealt? They come closer and closer together now, and I canít pretend to not know what this means. We both know our time is running out." Soujiís hand fell to brush against his chest before lying curled on the futon. "I donít want to waste any of it."

Hijikata felt as he did on that hot summer day, looking at all the fires lit for the dead, all the lanterns sailing down the river. He knew then that one day, in the near future, the flames would be lit for him and those he cherished, and it would be all his fault. Heíd left the promise of a long life behind to deal death, but his worst offense was that heíd allowed Souji to follow in his footsteps.

He wanted so much to say he was sorry, to apologize for turning Souji into a killer, for not following his familyís path of medicine and possibly possessing the knowledge to cure his lover. The words, as always, caught in his throat before he could utter a single sound and all he could do was hide his face against Soujiís shoulder as he clung to his lover.

Souji soothed him with voice and hands, always the touchstone he could lean against when he felt weak and hopeless. Why his lover didnít hate him for all heíd done, or even blame him, was beyond him but as long as Souji was there, he wouldnít let him go.

"Itís all right, Hijikata-san." Light caresses ran down his neck and shoulder, along his back and up his spine. "Everythingís fine." Calloused fingers tangled in his hair and tugged his head up toward a pair of waiting lips. Souji was always a delightful study in contrasts: sword-roughened, nimble hands and soft lips, velvet skin over hard muscles, long, silky hair and delicious musk underneath the hint of a sweet scent. Dazed by passion, he tumbled forward, eager to feel every centimeter of his lover.

Soujiís muffled cry of pain brought Hijikata back to his senses immediately. "We canít do this," he growled as he stopped, frustrated and annoyed with himself for being so thoughtless. His passion was feeding off his fear and clamoring for him to enjoy his lover for as long as he still had him.

He tried to pull away, but once again Soujiís clinging hands refused to let him go. "Yes, we can," Souji snapped, rare anger in his voice. "You just caught me off guard." Somehow, he managed to pull Hijikata back down, forcing him to straddle his lover or risk putting pressure on the cracked ribs.

"Stop being so foolish, Souji. You can wait a few more days." He tried to pull away again but two strong arms and a long leg wrapped themselves around him tenaciously. Each time he breathed in, it was air heavy with Soujiís intoxicating scent. His body flared with desire, reminding him that it had been several long, stress-filled days since heíd enjoyed his lover.

"Weíve waited long enough." Souji tightened his embrace, pulling him even closer to that lovely, nude body. "Please, Toshi-san."

His name being uttered in such a pleading voice, Soujiís expression filled with need and Soujiís naked body clinging to hisÖ. He shuddered and braced most of his weight off of his lover and leaned down for a kiss. Later heíd curse himself for lack of control, but right nowÖ right now all he could think of was watching a lantern float toward darkness and remembering that heíd denied Souji anything he wanted this much.

Soujiís mouth parted before his, as sweet as the candy his lover craved. Braced on knees and elbows, he leaned down for more; more of those soft lips, more of Soujiís dizzying taste. Soujiís hands clenched in his hair, pulling gently on the long strands for a few seconds before falling to his shoulders to then pull frantically at his clothes. He groaned when his obi was stripped from him, his robes falling open, leaving him exposed. More than anything, he wanted to grind against Souji, to prove to his lover how eager he was for him, to feel just how much Souji wanted him.

He broke off the kiss, slightly out of breath and almost out of his mind with want. Souji always did this to him; always reduced him to an unthinking body of need and desire - which was something he couldnít afford to be right now. When Souji moaned as he pulled away, he lightly ran his fingers over his loverís pouty lips. "Hush."

He sat back on his heels and shed his clothes. Souji lay sprawled beneath him, light purple eyes now dark with desire, pale face flushed once more but not with pain or illness. Oh, no. Sometimes the only way he could live with how terribly far heíd fallen for the young man was by knowing that Souji wanted him just as much.

Leaning over his lover once more, he seized Soujiís hands and slowly positioned them on either side of Soujiís head, the surprisingly thin wrists held trapped in his grip. "Stay still. If you move too much and hurt yourself, Iíll stop."

Souji raised his head and brushed their lips together. "Iíll be good."

"Thatíll be a fir-" He was stopped by an ardent kiss, one that had him groaning into Soujiís mouth as a slick, hot tongue teased his. The kiss continued for several minutes, until he felt Soujiís breathing quicken, felt the wrapped chest beneath him start to heave.

Pulling away again, he stopped any complaints on his loverís part by kissing his way down a narrow chin and along an arched neck. Souji moaned in appreciation, his hips rocking upward but, other than that, he remained still.

Hijikata nipped gently at the prominent collarbones, his lips curving into a smile at how huskily Souji moaned out his name. His tongue laved the hollow of Soujiís throat, the silky skin tasting faintly of tea and herbs from the medicinal salve. He used his mouth to tease the pink nipple before him, sucking it hard and leaving it with a nip to pay attention to the other one, alternating back and forth until Souji groaned with frustrated need.

He adored how ticklish his lover could be, and always spent time wringing gasps and giggles from Souji when they made leisurely love but the bandages prevented that pleasure today. He released Soujiís hands so he could brace himself over Soujiís middle, placed a lingering kiss on the exposed, taut lower belly before him and then trailed his lips farther down.

Soujiís cock was hard and slick, straining upward as if to reach him. He spared a lick to the tip, drinking in the way Souji stuttered his name and spread his legs. His hands settled on his loverís hips to keep them from jerking upward, more for Soujiís comfort than his own.

"Hi-hijikata-sa-anÖ," Souji gasped, his damp hands resting on top of Hijikataís, fingers clutching at his wrists. He looked up at his lover, saw Souji lying with his neck arched, eyes closed and strands of hair clinging to his flushed face. Souji was always so beautiful when lost in passion.

He stared for a moment before concentrating on the task before him. He wanted to give his lover pleasure, to give him release without causing any pain. As much as he loved the feel of Souji hot and hard in his mouth, loved Soujiís scent soaking into his senses and taste on his tongue, this couldnít last very long. If it did, theyíd both lose themselves in pleasure and heíd do something heíd truly regret.

Pushing his own desire aside, he set about inflaming Soujiís. He sucked hard on his loverís flesh before taking it as far down his throat as he could. Pushing past the urge to gag, he buried his face in Soujiís crotch, curly hair tickling his nose as Souji tried in vain to thrust his hips upward. His hands firmly holding Soujiís hips prevented that.

He swallowed and hummed, throat muscles moving around Soujiís hot cock. He almost managed a chuckle when his lover gasped his name again, the word almost unintelligible. Soujiís hands in his clenched tightly, their flesh pressed into each otherís as he swallowed Souji whole.

There was a cut off cry as Soujiís head tossed back and hair went flying about, sticking to the slight sweat that covered them both. He pulled away, letting all of his loverís flesh but the very tip slip from his mouth so he could better appreciate the sight before him. That wrung a sob from Souji and something that sounded very much like Ďpleaseí. It was repeated again when he licked his way down the twitching shaft and took a moment to suck the tight, hot balls into his mouth.

Souji tried to buck his hips at that but he was stronger, his hands grasping tight enough on his loverís hips to leave bruises. Soujiís fingers tightened around his wrists, a constant pressure that grew the more he drove the man closer to the edge. Intent on giving his lover the pleasure heíd sought so stubbornly, he bent forward to take him all in again, all the way down to the root.

The trembling beneath him warned him of what was to come. Swallowing a few more times, he pulled back just enough to catch Soujiís release on his tongue, the salty come burning down his throat as he swallowed again. Souji shuddered and moaned, his hands clenching twice more before going limp in Hijikataís.

He let Soujiís cock slip from his mouth and wiped his mouth as he rose to his knees. His lover was a limp bundle on the futon, knees splayed akimbo and head turned to the side. An utterly beautiful sight that stirred something deep within him; a few lines of inspired poetry whispered inside his head but he pushed them aside until there came a time when he had brush and paper on hand. He stretched out beside his lover and ignored the needs that clamored for him to bury himself as deeply as possible in the body beside him.

Souji stirred as he stroked back the hair falling onto his loverís face. He was graced with shining eyes filled with love and a tender smile - Soujiís emotions were always open for him to see. It was a wonderful relief after the last several days of pain and fever, a sight heíd waited anxiously for during the long nights filled with worry and fear.

"Thank you," Souji breathed, and then he started to move. There was a hiss of pain as he shifted onto his side so they faced each other.

"Be careful," Hijikata said, worried that his lover was pushing too far, too fast. When he tried to sit up to help Souji, he found himself jerked back down onto the futon.

"Itís your turn." The wickedness was back in Soujiís eyes and voice, along with a hint of steel. His right hand ran down Hijikataís side, grazing his hip before settling on his erection.

Hijikata quickly grabbed his loverís wrist to stop him, unsure if he would be able to hold himself back if Souji pushed too far. "Donít worry about that. Iíll take care of it."

"No, I will," Souji snorted, fingers flexing around his cock, coaxing a needy groan from him. "I know we canít do much, but this should still be possible." When he didnít release Soujiís wrist, never mind how good those fingers made him feel, his lover sighed in disappointment. "Please, Hijikata-san."

It was so incredibly hard to resist his lover, especially when he pleaded like that. Torn between need and concern, Hijikataís passion won out when Souji moved those wonderful fingers along his cock. He let go of Soujiís wrist, no longer willing to fight over the matter. "Just this, Souji. Donít ge-" The rest of the words were lost as the maddening grip tightened around his balls.

Smiling in victory, Souji somehow managed to carefully scoot closer until they were lying face to face, never releasing his hold on him. As that clever hand continued to stroke and tease and squeeze, he stared into his loverís eyes, breathed the same air as he panted scant centimeters from Soujiís mouth. He managed to drape one arm over Soujiís waist, to pull him even closer and delight in his armful of wickedness and mischief.

Souji never broke eye contact with him, not even when he tilted his head so their lips brushed against each otherís every time Hijikata moaned in bliss. Their legs tangled together, skin sliding against slick skin as they sought all the contact they could.

He lost himself in pleasure, in Soujiís lovely eyes and the emotions shining there. The building pleasure centered in his groin with each artful touch until all his fears and forebodings fell before the sweet bliss. There was an intensity to it tonight, a sharp edge that made it all the stronger, and as much as he wanted to remain here, entwined with Souji and their feelings naked to each other, it soon became too much. He came hard, as if it were his loverís body wrapped around him and not just his hand. Soujiís name burst past his lips in a strangled yell as he emptied himself in frenzied spasms of ecstasy.

When the whiteness of pleasure receded and he found himself in control, more or less, of his body again, he rolled onto his back and tried to recall how to breathe properly. His body still twitched occasionally from remembered bliss and he felt utterly relaxed and content. He planned to enjoy the moment for as long as it lasted.

Souji curled up at his side, propped up on one arm as he stared down at him, that feline smile back on his lips. As he watched, his lover started to lick his hand clean, long swipes of pink tongue until all the come was gone. "Hmmm, itíll do until you go out to get me my candy."

He grunted and glared at Souji, not sure if heíd just been insulted or, even worse, called Ďsweetí. "How are your ribs?"

"Just fine." Task all done, Souji leaned down until his head rested on Hijikataís chest. "We should have done this days ago."

"When you were sick and every movement you made hurt like hell?" Hijikata grunted again and lightly smacked his loverís ass. "Idiot."

Souji laughed softly and made himself more comfortable. "Thatís how I want us to go," he mumbled, sounding a little sleepy and rather pleased with himself.

"What was that?" He wasnít sure heíd heard that properly. He settled his arm around Soujiís waist, mindful of the healing ribs. In a minute heíd have to go fetch their robes and dry bedding before Souji caught a chill, but right now this contact felt too good not to indulge.

"I said, Ďthatís how I want us to goí."

Now absolutely certain he hadnít heard that sentence properly, he raised his head and squinted at his lover. "You want us to Ďgo like thatí? What does that mean?"

Souji lifted his head and smiled at him, looking so young and lovely it felt as if they were years and kilometers away from Kyoto. "I think it would be great if we died like we were just now, together and consumed with pleasure." He hummed softly for a few seconds and then laughed again. "The look on your faceÖ."

He could just imagine how he looked at the moment. Where the hell did his lover get these crazy ideas? "You want us to die after sex?" The very idea affronted his sense of honor. Where was the dignity in that?

"Uh huh." Souji nodded his head as he stroked his hand down Hijikataís chest. "Or, better yet, during sex." A wicked gleam entered his bright eyes, a matching smile curled his moist lips as he leaned down until they could feel each otherís breath again, an intimacy that brought back the rush of bliss from a few minutes ago. "Just imagine, reaching the height of ecstasy together, and that being our final moment in this world."

He thought about it and scowled at his crazed lover. "Itís too improper. Weíre soldiers, the only acceptable death is in battle."

His lover made a rude noise at the statement. "Hijikata-san, you sound like some old story."

"And you sound like youíre out of your mind." He felt Soujiís forehead to see if he had a fever.

"Stop that, I feel fine." Souji caught his hand and gave it a lick before another soft sound of amusement slipped past his lips. "No, my idea is much better."

"Itís pure nonsense. Is that how you really want to be found and remembered?" He tried to scowl some sense into his lover but, as always, Souji ignored him.

"Oh, yes!" Souji tried to stifle another laugh but failed. "Canít you just imagine the look on the face of whoever it is who finds us the next morning?!"

He could - and didnít like it at all. "That would most likely be your precious Tetsu-kun, you know." Just great, his page would raise a ruckus certain to attract the whole compoundís attention, and the boyís overprotective brother would hound their ghosts for the rest of eternity for daring to defile the poor boy in such a manner.

Souji laughed again, the sound almost as strong and bright as normal. "It would be quite an education for him. Heíd get over the shock, eventually. No, I would love to see Kondou-san and Yamazaki-sanís faces when they found out." There was another laugh. "It would be very funny."

Funny wasnít the word. He stared across the room, looking out the partially opened window to realize that it was now late evening. He could see the gleam of fireflies dancing in the darkening air, heralds of the short summer nights. Unfortunately, the tranquil picture couldnít drive out the horror that Souji had planted in his mind. No, it was not funny at all. "Once they got over their shock, theyíd never stop talking about it." His jaw clenched as he imagined his friends sitting together and sharing a bottle of sake, laughing uproariously as they joked about his undignified exit from this world.

"Hmmm, theyíd have some fun preparing us for the funeral, Iím certain," Souji pointed out, making him close his eyes as another unbecoming vision assaulted him. "And the funeral itselfÖ the Shinsengumi would talk about it for years to come!"

"Thatís exactly what Iím afraid of," he said. As he watched, a firefly landed on the windowsill, glowed for a few seconds and returned to the air. Having had enough of Soujiís ridiculous wish, he smacked him lightly once more. "Enough of this nonsense!" he growled.

"But I havenít even gotten to the part about Sano, Shinpachi and Heisuke at our- ow!" This time the smack wasnít so light, which thankfully caused Souji to stop talking and pout instead. "You donít have to be so mean to me. Iím not feeling well, you know."

"This from a man who spent the entire day telling me that he felt fine." He shook his head in exasperation as the pout intensified. "Whatís going to happen is that youíll drive me stark, raving mad."

"Ö probably." Souji carefully settled back on his chest. When his lover spoke next, his voice was much more subdued. "Is it really so bad, imagining us dying together, and happy? Isnít it better thanÖ."

Watching the fireflies, his sight hazed as the glowing insects turned into beacons of light sliding down a black river. "No, itís not so bad," he said quietly, wishing with all his heart that, undignified or not, fate would give him and his lover such a peaceful, happy death. Soujiís ridiculous fantasy suddenly seemed very desirable.

Conscious of his loverís injuries, he pulled Souji closer and tilted his chin up. "Can we settle for dying in our sleep when weíre both old men?"

Soujiís mouth hovered near his, a wistful smile upon it. "I guess so. Even though youíll be utterly insane by then and probably drooling." Before he could respond to that, Souji closed the distance between them.

He drank in the kiss, the love and desire that were evident in the caress. This year or the next or twenty more down the road, the time would come for their lanterns to be sent down the river. If he had to light Soujiís, he at least wanted as many good memories as possible to try to stave off the pain and loss awaiting him. Even if, as he suspected, it wouldnít be long before his flame followed his loverís.

That would be then. Pushing the dark thoughts from his mind, he settled on the now, on the feel of Souji, mostly healed indeed, in his arms. That was all he could be sure of. They were long past the point where the future held any promise for them Ė other than that of fragile flames floating down a dark river. Yet, doomed as they were, he couldnít feel truly regretful while Souji was in his arms. He knew the time would come when he lit a candle on that dreaded night. Until then, he would hold on to his lover and keep the darkness at bay as best he could.

*******

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