Saitou is in the garden. Leaning in the shadow of the wall behind which all the other members of the Shinsengumi are laughing and drinking the night away, he would be easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. You peek at him from the other end of the walkway. He is pulling on his hair as he glares at the moon in silence. The night air makes you feel alert, yet still within a dream, as if anything could happen. The heady heat from the room of the party slips away from you, but that does not detract from the warmth of your quiet gaze.
You want to know the truth from him: why he stalked away from his comrades just now. But most of all you want to be there for him.
“Saitou-sama?” you ask, quiet enough so that if he chose not to hear you, it wouldn’t be strange for you to leave him be.
But with his profile to you, his head tilts. He is listening.
“Are you all right?”
What Souji-kun, Kondo-sama, and Serizawa-sama had blurted out over drinks, celebrating your completion of their new uniforms ran through your mind over and over: Saitou! Won’t you miss her now that she won’t be coming over to take your measurements? The wrathful Saitou was about to unleash darkness itself upon them. “Saitou-sama,” you said, kneeling beside him. You were probably blushing. “You don’t have to mind them, it’s just the alcohol.”
But his scowl deepened and he slammed the table shouting at his comrades, “Don’t you dare speak of her that way!”
What was a rowdy party froze into a silent theater with all eyes on Saitou and you. His eyes caught yours for a moment. He seemed like he was about to argue more, but all that he mumbled to you was, “Sorry.” He departed the room without a word. It didn’t take long for you to quietly excuse yourself and follow him.
“Saitou-sama? Is something wrong?” you ask the man in the garden.
Saitou says nothing. You think he might not ever say anything, that you might stare at nothing but the stillness of his broad shoulders until you give up. But his low voice finally gives you something of his thoughts.
“They demeaned you as a professional. And…they were so low as to associate someone like you with someone like me.”
What did he mean by that? “You don’t have to be angry for my sake. And why would I mind ‘associating’ with you?” you say. This is the man who walked you home at night. Who stood beside you in the kitchen of the headquarters cutting vegetables and fish. Who had a ghost of a smile you never wanted to miss when it appeared. Yes, there was a time when you feared him, when you never wanted to be near him. What he had done to you as a falsely accused captive of the Shinsengumi could never be forgiven. But you also couldn’t remember that very well now. What you could remember were his miserable apologies, and how he always stepped far away from you when you flinched. How your mutual association through Souji-kun and the others necessitated your being together and your eventual reconciliation. How he would try and fail to make a joke. How Hijikata-sama confided in you that Saitou seemed to have changed. And…
“Don’t you still hate me?” he asked, as if he couldn’t imagine any other possibility.
“I don’t hate you. I hate what you did. But I never hated you.”
“Then…” he said with a wry smile, “you’re a very kind woman.”
…how you kept his opinion of you neatly folded and tucked away in your heart.
You look to the man who first showed you such respect. His face is turned away from you in the shadows. The tense line of his shoulders hasn’t slackened.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else bothering you?” you continue. You’re used to his silences by now. They invite you to speak when you’re ready. “I get the feeling that you’ve been a bit distant lately. But tell me if that’s not true.”
His shoulders tense more. That’s not what you want.
“...I don’t deserve to feel this way.” That’s all he says. But it’s something, and that’s a lot.
“Why wouldn’t you deserve to feel what way?” you ask, feeling encouraged. You shuffle down the walkway to be closer to him.
“I don’t deserve to—” At last he looks at you. “—to…” The silence in which he tangles through his hair and his thoughts is profound, but you wait, as quiet as the moon. “I shouldn’t...be fond of you.”
You feel it too. You’re fond of him.
“After what I did, I could never…” He glares knives into the garden stones. “You can tie me up and hit me, kick me, yell at me, anything. You can ask me to disappear from your sight. I’d do anything if it made you feel better. And that is why I don’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as you.” It’s more words than he’s ever said to you at once. And it is not the first time since those dark days in captivity that he has tried to apologize.
He sees you looking at him. You’re leaning out from the walkway slightly above where he stands in the garden, only the distance of another person away. He realizes this and steps back to allow you more space.
“Why would I want to hurt you?” you say, disappointed. “That wouldn’t make me happy.”
“Then what would?” he says. It comes out rough, but he shrinks back in apology.
You hesitate. “Would you really be all right with ‘anything?’”
“Yes,” he says immediately. His frown speaks of guilt, but he seems almost breathless. Like you’ve given him more hope of redemption than he feels he deserves.
You shuffle closer to the edge of the walkway and wave your hand for him to come closer. He takes one step. Not close enough. You beckon him until he’s standing before you. Slowly you reach for his wrists and hold them before you. His gaze is wide and warning when your smaller hands touch him. The air has made your fingers cold, and his rapidly beating pulse warms you. You look at him. In the dreamy night where anything could happen, you are a spirit of sweetness and mercy and mischief. He is motionless, daring you to act.
One hand on his wrists, your other hand tugs at the string that decorates your obi. Your fingers are dexterous and it comes loose in a moment. Saitou is about to protest, but you press a finger to your lips, tilting your head to the party inside. He watches you loop the green cord around his wrists and tie it off in a bow. His confusion hasn’t lessened, but the brow he raises at you is more playful now.
“There, now I’ve tied you up, just like you said I could,” you say with a perfectly innocent smile.
You pat the bow on his wrists. Then from where you are standing on the walkway, you lay your head on his shoulder. The way his shoulders stiffen beneath you makes you wonder if the blood is rushing through him the way it is you. Maybe it is the time of night or the bit of sake that compels you to be so bold, but you feel that now is the time for truth.
You speak softly. “Thank you for being the one to carry my uniforms, to listen to me, and to walk me home at night. I’ve seen you and I know you are kind.”
He shakes his head. “You make me want things I shouldn’t.”
A low grunt of exasperation escapes him. “I want to kiss you.”
He looks at you confused, the sound from his throat a question.
His eyes are wide and he is still.
“Are you sure?”
You lift your head, nodding vigorously.
He pauses, standing quietly below you. With his hands tied, he is like your prisoner, begging for your attention. The light of the party diffuses faintly through the papered doors and onto his jaw. Moonlight frames him from behind. His gaze lowers to your lips. Even his lashes are long. He lifts his arms, still tied, for you to duck between them and tilts his head. When the tip of his tongue swipes across his lips, yours does the same without thinking. Then he pushes against you and lets you push back until you break, gasping for air. You feel like you could float away. Your weight presses against his shoulders to keep you steady.
“I’m sorry,” he says immediately.
“No, don’t say—” You’re too busy embracing the back of his neck and kissing him again to continue. His nose presses into your cheek. His mouth moves slower, deeper into yours.
“There’s…something else I want,” he murmurs against you. He makes it sound like he is pathetic for saying so.
“What is it?” you ask, reassuring him with another kiss. Your hands card through his beautiful, beautiful hair.
He moves away, frowns, and swallows. He looks at his tied wrists, his fingers tracing the back of your hair. “They were right. I do want to keep seeing you after today. Even though your work with us is done.”
The brush of his fingers makes you shiver slightly. You lean into him from above with your sweetest smile. “That’s easy. I want that too!”
“Why?” he says with a wry grin as if you hadn’t just been kissing like there wasn’t a crowd of people next door.
“Why?” you repeat.
“Am I not a scoundrel?”
Now you’re both giggling at how absurd you are. You’ve never heard him laugh. Everything feels so good. You lean down even closer, in a fog of feelings you need him to know. This will be the first time you tell him this truth. “Yes, you are, and I’m fond of you too.”
“Oh.” He looks so happy. So shy. Maybe you love him. You’ve got to kiss him again. Slowly, softly, you press your lips to his smile.
“If you like me, will you untie me?” He smirks. That’s new.
Immediately, you slip out from under his arms and pull the bow loose, retying the string around your obi and praying no one notices a difference. You sit on the edge of the walkway and he lets you rub and kiss the red marks around his wrists. Marks that are yours. Marks that will heal.
He stands slightly above you. First you had never seen him laugh or smirk, but now you get to see him blush. His smile is crooked and darling.
“Will you visit me after work tomorrow?” you ask. “I’ll make you tea.”
You don’t know the word for the look he gives you. But his gaze is full of you. “I would never think of refusing.”
You crane your neck up and he bends down. Your lips can’t give each other’s up. You meet again and again. The touch of his freed hands on your jaw, arms, waist, is supremely careful. You’re sure it’s because he doesn’t dare hurt you. You press his hands harder against you.
You feel the length of his tongue for the first time, his body, hear the noises from your throat that make him kiss you harder.
When you’re catching your breath, he speaks, still a bit unsure. “I’ll meet you tomorrow before my patrols.” His smile is small and warm and makes you giddy.
One more kiss.
“I’ll be waiting.”