Even Kondou-sensei, who had encouraged him from the first day and admonished the men when they mocked his size, is shocked at the rate and extent of his progress: he is soon instructing men twice his age in the finer points of swordplay. The only one who is unfazed by the prodigy, and takes every opportunity (fewer and further between as the years pass) to spar with and correct him, is Hijikata, who is eventually also the one to persuade Kondou-san to take him with them to Kyoto.
He is eighteen, and grown men willingly submit to his command, confident of his reputation and their loyalty. He never disappoints anyone save himself, though it is only afterwards, when he regains control - he does not regret his acts in the service, but there are no limits to what the demon within him would do once unfettered. Their latest recruit is a constant reminder of what he might have been, and he takes pains to ensure that Tetsu will not become like him.
There have been changes in their purpose and leadership, but he remains the same, ever-cheerful and kind when not on duty, and the Captain of the First Unit of the Shinsengumi when otherwise. The children laugh at play, cajoling him to join them; the look on Hijikata's face when he rubs noses with the kitten handed to him by the youngest girl is priceless.
Occasionally he thinks that what comfort he draws from Hijikata is undeserved; it is easy to convince him otherwise in the nights when two are warmer than one would be, and Hijikata's expression is different in the light of the full moon.
Events move far too swiftly for their liking, and the enemies of the Tokugawa are all around, though their spies are not so well-concealed that they can remain undetected for long: the trail ends at Ikedaya. The result is one-sided, but the Shinsengumi have the advantage of surprise, and only one man proves particularly troublesome, though it would have gone easier for all of them if he had joined the others in their flight.
Yoshida has not rendered him helpless; that he is lying on the floor gasping and covered in his own blood is due to the disease stalking him for months, which has finally taken hold in the stifling summer night, eerily still except for the moans of the injured and dying.
Tetsu's actions are surprising and gratifying, and he realises that Tetsu will never be like him. Hijikata holds the medicinal tea to his lips: it is the only reason he is able to keep half down without vomiting, or worse, and Hijikata has to silence him when he tries to remonstrate against their drinking from the same cup.
He had not expected to see his twenty-seventh year, but then his life has taken more surprising turns, and he is grateful for more things than would have been suspected, though dying alone by inches in a hospital is not among them. But he sees his reflection in the bitter decoction that is wordlessly set before him every morning, and reminds himself that they would not have wished to remember him this way.
The days lengthen with the coming of spring into weeks, which contrive to become months, and still he lingers on. Occasionally someone passing through the area remembers his name and requests an interview with the master swordsman, but he is always too ill to receive visitors. Once, he thinks that someone he knew of old has come to see him, but it is only the name that is familiar, and the disappointment would be too much if he had not been used to heavier blows.
He has heard stories about terminally ill people receiving an extension of their mortal life in exchange for their souls in an infernal pact - some believe that the demon can be summoned by killing a black cat, but now, the only blood he can spill is his own, when the relentless paroxysms take him without warning, and the oblivion at the end of a haemorrhage is merely a temporary relief.
When he wakes with a start from a fever dream, the luminous yellow eyes in the night are the only visible part of the creature at his door. They stare at each other silently until the pale morning light delineates the shadowy darkness of the feline. He half-rises painfully, hand moving unconsciously to his side to grasp at nothing, and sinks back exhausted and gasping.
Souji's eyes gradually close as he watches it pad gracefully away from him, disappearing into the misty dawn: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine -
(While it is true that Okita Souji started training with Kondou Isami at the age of nine, and was widely acknowledged to be a master swordsman by the age of 18, he did not formally lead a Shinsengumi unit until about 20. It is known that he died on May 30 1868, but the sources do not agree on his year of birth. Some record his year of birth as 1844, others 1842, and I have elected to go with the latter for the sake of symmetry.)