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Kuon (Eternity)

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幾人の 涙は石にそそぐとも その名は世々に 朽じとぞ思う
Ikutari no namida wa ishi ni sosogu tomo sono na wa yoyo ni kuji to zo omou

"No matter how many people wash the stones with their tears, these names will never vanish from the world."

- Matsudaira Katamori
(9th daimyo of Aizu han)

 

*****

Act I.

Wood planks sticking out of the grass-covered earth were lined before him like crippled warriors barely hanging on to their remaining strength. The names engraved on every piece burned through his cornea, bestirring the virulent pain he had long buried deep in his heart.

Beyond the graves and past the curved expanse of the hill sat old structures marked with fifteen-year-old war scars – scars that were poorly hidden behind masks of meticulous renovation. Remnants of the past lingered on the scenery framed by the soft blue sky.

With his eyes closed, his mind traveled back to what once occurred in that place, memories so vivid that he could almost hear the cries of the wounded, the incessant clanging of swords, the unsettling silence of death. Anguished voices echoed in his ears, screaming his name. Sadakichi! Sadakichi! Sadakichi! And his eyes snapped open.

His legs wobbled and everything around him started spinning and spinning and—

The strong arm coiled around his waist served as a steady foundation, stilling him, holding him in place. Warm breath caressed the back of his neck as Saito Hajime whispered, "Hey. Are you feeling well?" This man, who had always been the stable facet in his unstable world, was the sole reason why he found the sane will to set foot on this cold, hard ground.

"Yes." Sadakichi blinked against the sun's rays, noticing for the first time the sakura petals spiraling down to the ground. "Yes, I'm fine."

Hajime continued to watch him with worried eyes, like he could crumble any moment. "I shouldn't have urged you to come here."

"I wanted to come. I had to." Words laced with honesty, true in all aspects. Though his heart was still weighed with remorse and regret, Sadakichi believed it was time to face the ghosts that had been haunting him for the past fifteen years. The same ghosts he had inadvertently left behind since the soles of his jika-tabi last touched the soil of Iimoriyama.

 

***

 

They were overtly outnumbered, cornered, the consequences of having underestimated the enemy hovered above them like a persistent shinigami. Escape was their top priority.

Cruel fate had forced them to break into two groups. It was under Gisaburo's orders that they move forth through the tunnel in hopes to remain imperceptible from leviathans' eyes, dark walls closing in like hungry monsters baring its fangs while imminent death were at their heels.

Fear clawed in his chest and the only thing that was keeping him from losing his mind was the fact Teijirou was right by his side.

Shigetarou was yelling something that sounded unintelligible in Sadakichi's ears. All his sense of hearing could process was the deafening explosion that reverberated from the distance.

The sound of a thousand footsteps thundered within the hollow passageway, too many that Sadakichi wasn't sure if it was a reflection of their hearts beating in fear or if it was a blatant warning that there were enemies in pursuit or waiting ahead with a trap.

They were warriors, Gisaburo reminded. "We are samurai entrusted to protect Aizu and our Lord," he added, his eyes burning with valor, though the hand he had wrapped around his sword's handle visibly trembled.

His words rang true, nonetheless, and it was those words that fueled Sadakichi's will to move forward, to raise his sword against the enemies, to live, to live to live.

It was on the slopes of Iimoriyama where they all stood to watch the bright orange flames dance over Aizu and around the castle, where they were rooted to witness the black smoke engulfing Tsurugajo. It was that dreadful sight that seized their will to fight. Their will to live vanished into the fog that crept along the hill.

The thought of the enemies having taken over the castle left them with one option.

Seppuku.

Their honor code flashed before them as vivid as the morning sun – the sun they knew they would never get to see again.

The blade of his sword glistened in greeting as Sadakichi raised his weapon, ready to plunge it into his gut. The blood of his friends – his Byakkotai comrades – already tainted the ground he knelt on. They were waiting for him, their voices ringing in his head. Sadakichi! Sadakichi! Sadakichi! So he pushed his sword into his body and the world faded around him.

 

***

 

The blade – sharp and cold and lethal – had done nothing but leave a ghostly touch in his flesh though the lingering memory it housed had left a permanent wound in his soul.

Why? His thoughts spiraled uncontrollably. Why me? Why me? Why me?

It was a question he'd asked no one in particular, maybe he'd directed it to himself, but he had found no answer. For years, he kept asking, searching for the so-called 'purpose' for being the sole survivor from his unit. For reasons why he had, not by choice, betrayed his friends.

Until Saito Hajime showed up at his door fourteen years after the war ended.

Hajime didn't carry the answer with him, but it was through his straightforward nature that Sadakichi found the strength to revisit the past, the Aizu war, that dreadful, dreadful Battle of Tonoguchihara. It was through Hajime's tactless approach that Sadakichi had opened his eyes to a new understanding. It was through Hajime's sake-induced complicated and twisted personality that Sadakichi found the answer. He survived to tell their tale.

Now a year had passed and Hajime had been a constant figure in his asymmetric way of living. The blue among his dull gray and brown. The light – though dim and flickering – in his dark, dark world. The key to the door that led to a secret place where he could leave the past behind.

But.

There was no escape, wasn't there? He was too naïve to think there was. He had learned to forgive himself for his failure to the samurai bushido honor code. But that forgiveness was merely a forged notion so that he could break out of his fragile cage.

How could there be an escape from his convoluted history when he now stood where his friends' bones littered the ground?

No scream tore through him, no cry of agony clawing at his throat. Instead, a single tear rolled down his cheek as he stared at the graves in soundless lamentation.

I thought you were over this? He could hear Teijirou in his head, could always hear Teijirou, always lecturing, reminding him that he was alive, that he should keep on living.

Act II.

A string of scented smoke billowed from the incense burning in the corner of the room. The mixed aroma of wood and frankincense permeated the small space. The dim light from the wall lamp cast shadows that crawled over the walls like phantoms of the old Aizu clan.

Hajime lowered his tea cup on the table. His roiling gut craved for sake but present company might require his less inebriated existence so he settled for bancha.

Iinuma Sadakichi seemed at peace in his sleep, chest rising and falling with every breath. His yukata – dark gray and a complete contrast against the pristine white sheets of the futon – was slightly parted, showing off his porcelain-like collarbone. There were lines at the corners of his eyes that made him seem he had aged thirty years instead of fifteen.

Three hours had passed since Sadakichi had slipped into slumber. The visit to the graveyard must have drained what was left of his strength – physical, emotional and mental. Hajime had meant to rouse him for supper, but decided against it and let the boy rest.

When had he crossed the line and started caring?

Friendship was something Hajime never considered he would seek after the Boshin war. He traveled a lot, trying to rebuild a life he never had. Socialization was at the bottom of his to-do list. Then came the letter – a humble request for him to visit an old acquaintance.

This young man – once a boy – wasn't the type to leave a strong impact, if he were to be honest. A teenage samurai among 300, barely able to hold a stick without trembling, nothing quite like the genius swordsman his friend, Ito Teijirou, once was.

However, some divine providence had stepped in and Hajime felt there was an invisible rope that tied them together. He was a warrior who was tasked to aid the Daimyo of Aizu han, to protect Aizu and its people. Yet somehow he found himself often traipsing along the Byakkotai camp, eyes set on a certain boy.

 

***

 

Dark ominous clouds loomed over Aizu. Hajime felt a shift in the air as he walked through the gates of the Nisshinkan with Hijikata Toshizou.

Something heavy sat in the atmosphere, despite the gleeful commotion that greeted them when they walked into the dojo. A cacophony of cheers rose from a group of young boys – very young boys who all looked to be around 16 to 17 of age. If this was the new unit of samurai that the Daimyo intended to dispatch, then Hajime could conclude that Lord Matsudaira Katamori had truly lost his sanity.

Toshizou was the one who approached the boys. His ever intimidating aura already had a visible effect on the children. Their backs were stiff as the wooden swords in their hands, young eyes wavering with what Hajime clearly saw as fear.

There was one boy whose eyes held courage instead, whose demeanor demonstrated confidence. Ito Teijirou did make an impression that Toshizou would later admit he respected.

Once Toshizou had given his speech – laconic and always straight to the point – he approached one of the boys to ask if he understood what had been said. And Hajime would be lying if he claimed this boy hadn't completely stolen his attention.

Their paths, narrow as it may be, had been paved to cross, though Hajime tried to convince himself that the boy wasn't the reason he had wandered back to the Nisshinkan later that day. If he were to take these boys – these Byakkotai – under his wing once they were in the battlefield, it was only right for him to be curious on how well these young samurai could use their swords.

The boy was there, with Ito Teijirou, dueling with their bokken, wood clanking against wood – the difference with the sound of metal against metal was by a mile.

Once they were done and Teijirou left, Hajime made his presence known. The boy held a stance, wary and suspicious, his eyes never leaving Hajime.

It was amusing to the point that Hajime barked, "Name?" sternly to rile up the boy even more.

However, the boy held his ground, studying him with childlike curious eyes. "Iinuma Sadakichi," was the curt response that Hajime was certain the blame for the boy's discourtesy was on him.

"You have a terrible technique." Hajime eyed the piece of wood still clasped in the boy's hand. "You have a habit of holding the weapon too high. That leaves your lower half unguarded. That would be the first thing the enemy would notice and would know where to strike."

There was a small hint of frown, a barely noticeable crease between Iinuma's eyebrows and Hajime half expected him to retaliate, to challenge him on a duel. But the boy suddenly bent forward, eyes on the ground.

"Will you teach me the proper way to fight, Saito-san?"

It was a request so earnest that it coiled around Hajime's heart, one that was difficult to decline. And it was only when he said, "Very well," that the boy finally raised his head.

Hajime never considered himself a good teacher. He was an obedient student, a reliable leader, but never a good teacher. Yet Iinuma followed his instructions religiously. It was at the end of their impromptu lesson that he had noticed, up close, Iinuma looked a lot younger than the others.

It was impulsive curiosity that pushed him to ask, "How old are you?"

Iinuma's shoulders visibly stiffened but he was quick to hide his initial reaction.

"I am sixteen." Whatever expression he wore was lost to Hajime because the boy had lowered half his body, saying, "Arigatou gozaimasu, Saito-san," before dashing out with incredible speed.

 

***

 

The fine line between past and present blurs for a moment, creating a panoramic tableau in his mind. He was hauled back to reality when light and fleeting knock released him from the spell he was under. The rhythmic tapping had no hint of urgency so there was no reason for him to jump startled, but Hajime was lost in thought that such reaction was evoked.

It was one of the maidens at the inn. She had brought them their meals as Hajime had instructed. Similar to the ghosts of the warriors loitering along the streets of Aizu, she was quick to disappear behind the door before Hajime could express his gratitude. The analogy coaxed a derisive sound to escape through his nose.

Rousing Sadakichi had always been the easy part. The man still had samurai blood running through his veins that he was so alert, even when asleep. So when Hajime laid a hand on Sadakichi's shoulder, the young man jerked awake, eyes unfocused but wide open.

"It's late. We haven't had dinner. You must be hungry."

Sadakichi gazed up at him, irises dark as the night sky littered with glittering stars. His lips that bore the color of sunset took shape of the quarter moon, arched up in a tiny smile that sent warmth spreading inside Hajime, enough to ease the cold tension crawling under his skin.

"Why did you not wake me up earlier?"

"It seemed like you were having a good dream." At least that was what Hajime wished, that Sadakichi was dreaming of rainbows and flower fields and mini waterfalls and not of fire and blood and black smoke and graveyards.

"I was." The radiance that glinted on Sadakichi's face proved that Hajime hadn't made a false assumption.

Outside their window, darkness veiled over Aizuwakamatsu, crickets sang their endless song and trees danced with the spring wind.

"We travel back to Sendai tomorrow morning, right?" Hajime watched Sadakichi refill his tea cup, every movement fluid.

Sadakichi didn't meet his gaze when he said, "I'd like to visit the graveyard once more to pay respect before we leave," his eyes focused on his own cup while he filled it with the steaming greenish amber-colored concoction.

Such endeavor wouldn't be ideal to a healing soul because it would be like pouring acid on a fresh wound. Definitely not a healthy idea, but Hajime agreed nonetheless.

It was in silence that they ate, the ambiance relaxing despite the fact they still both carried the weight of the past on their shoulders.

Act III.

The sky opalesced to a mixed hue of red and orange that reminded him of a burning town, the same burning town that edged its way back into his dreams. Warm air crept through his open window, chasing away the cool temperature that milled about in his small home. Summer was just around the corner.

Hajime had already returned to Tokyo. Vestiges of his shadow filled the empty spaces that used to hold his presence. He had stayed longer this time, the longest ever, using the vacation he'd been granted from work.

It wasn't just his home that felt empty and void of Hajime's warmth. His heart ached from his absence and how he wished Hajime wouldn't have to leave. But Sadakichi knew he wasn't the center of the man's life. The thought shouldn't even cross his mind.

He held no power to stop the changing of the seasons. Summer was upon him and had draped its stifling cape over Sendai. It was during the week when the heat was horridly unbearable that his mother came to visit.

"I see that Saito-san had left some of his things." Her words bordered more on intellectual observation than suspicious curiosity.

"He always stays a few days whenever he visits so he thought it wise to leave some of his belongings." It was an unspoken agreement. Sadakichi found no qualms when Hajime started acting like his house was his second home.

"What an honorable man. You are lucky to have him as a friend." His mother's cheeks were as pink as the flower in her hair, a lovely smile painted on her lips. "I remember how you spoke so highly of him in your letters."

The remark held a blunt insinuation, eliciting a foreign feeling that brought heat to Sadakichi's face. Books might have defined their connection as friendship. But he was still clouded with uncertainty in that area. How he felt about the former Shinsengumi captain was a question left hovering above his head.

 

***

 

His sword was no longer a gleaming metallic silver but tainted with different shades of red. Men that wore a different color than the white they donned swarmed around them, too many that regardless of how fast Sadakichi swung his weapon, the chance of returning home unscathed or alive remained a blur.

Katsutarou was a gifted swordsman, much like Teijirou. His expression hadn't faltered, still framed with the confidence and audacity he was known for. He was the sliver of light that pierced through the caliginous shroud they were encased in.

"Sadakichi!" Katsutarou yelled in warning, his voice echoed like bells that knelled from the temple.

Time slowed. Sadakichi could see the sword close to his neck. There was little chance to avoid it. The noise of the battlefield became dull susurrus and all he could hear was the harsh laughter of the shinigami behind him, around him, above him. If only he could bid farewell to those he cared about. He thought of his mother. Of Teijirou. Of the Byakkotai. Of Saito Hajime.

A movement like lightning flashed through the corner of his eye. Sadakichi didn't feel the cold steel touch his skin. Instead, he felt warm hope radiating behind him.

"Go! Get out of here! Both of you." Hajime wielded his sword, swift as the wind, graceful as a panther.

Like death was persistently pursuing him, an enemy sprang from out of nowhere and the glint of steel was all Sadakichi saw before a curtain of black swept past.

Saito became his shield, sable haori fluttering behind him as he sliced through the enemies. "Go!" he hollered. "I am ordering you to retreat."

It was later that he learned Saito had been wounded but it wasn't because he felt obligated that he went to see him at the Shinsengumi camp. Apologies poured out of his mouth upon seeing the blood-soaked bandages around the man's bare torso.

"It wasn’t your fault." Raw honesty shone on Saito's eyes. Though still feeling guilty, Sadakichi was grateful that the man didn't resent him.

"Would you like me to get you some tea?" Guilty or not, Sadakichi was still indebted to the Shinsengumi captain. Saito did, after all, save his and Katsutarou's life.

"I would prefer sake."

The inequitable reality that Saito was a man much older than him created a crack on his distorted teenage fantasy that he and the Shinsengumi captain could plant a seed that would eventually grow into vines of friendship.

"Saito-san. I'm foh—sixteen years old. I doubt anyone would give me a bottle of sake, even if it would be meant for you."

The smile that touched Hajime's face wasn't quite like the usual condescending smirk he often carried around. "Then I'll have tea."

The small pond that had always been still and unmoving in the depths of his heart stirred awake and soon turned into a maelstrom, invoking strange emotions that possessed him to utter, "You look handsome when you smile."

Laughter rumbled out of Saito – soft and guileless. "Now, now, Iinuma-kun. You have just made me feel special."

 

***

 

Something was burning, the pungent smell forcing him to surface from the deep ends of his reverie. Before panic could set in, he heard his name in his mother's stern voice.

"Sadakichi! The rice!"

The smoke rising from the pot and the small flames flickering on the stove morphed into an inferno of dark fumes and burning buildings.

"Sadakichi!" His mother's call was nothing but a muffled buzz, a low whirring in his head for a few drifting seconds until he felt a pair of strong but soft hands on his shoulders, shaking him. "You are hopeless child," she said in a way that made Sadakichi feel he was fourteen once again.

"I'm sorry, Hahaue." He bent forward, eyes pinned on the floor while shame pierced through his bones. Why did these images sneak up on him at a time like this?

His mother regarded him with tangible concern. "You seem far away. Where were you?"

It wasn't a stab in his momentary psychosis but more like reaching out, worming her way into his warped reality. The answer couldn't leave his mouth, however, so he wove a lie close enough to the truth. "I was thinking of my friends, of Teijirou, of Gisaburo-san. I wonder what it would be like if they were still alive."

Her voice was as soft as the cotton fabric of her yukata when she spoke next. "They're in a good place now, son, and I'm certain they are watching over you, Ito-kun especially."

"I know."

Though hardly a sentimental man himself, Hajime had offered the exact same words. How he wished he was here. Always.

Sadakichi could only embrace the fact that the constant yearning for the man was a clear testimony that he truly missed Hajime.

Act IV.

Warm tones of yellow and orange emblazoned the streets of Sendai. The few sakura trees that stood beside the torii at the foot of the hill all stood bare, dark brown branches swaying languidly with the wind. Hajime marched forward with eagerness in his gait, pebbles scrunching beneath his boots.

A flock of birds flew above him and descended on a row of bamboo trees ahead. The sun was close to sinking behind the mountains, pale orange rays creating an igneous illusion over the forest.

Hajime turned to a narrower lane where he could now see Sadakichi watering the plants he kept in that tiny space he called his garden. It was one of those weekends when he didn't have to work. One of the reasons why Hajime had chosen to return at this particular day.

Sadakichi's face lit up as soon as he caught sight of him, his lips turning up to a full radiant smile that sent warmth spreading in Hajime's chest.

"Saito-san!" The previous task had been abandoned in favor of greeting him with a courteous bow.

"I've only been gone six months and we're back to last name and honorifics?" Hajime meant that as a jest but it still elicited a horrified expression from Sadakichi, which he found extremely amusing.

"I apologize, Hajime-san. I guess old habits are hard to break. Well, come inside." Sadakichi's house, regardless on how congested it was for two people, now felt more like a home away from home.

"I was only kidding, Sadakichi-kun. Here." Hajime offered the plastic bag in his hand. "I bought some nashi from a farm I chanced upon on the way here. I also brought mikan from my own backyard."

That was the most Hajime had ever said anything about his house in Tokyo. Sadakichi never asked about anything. This odd connection they shared had merely blossomed from the obligatory visit that started it all, back when Hajime was requested to grace Sadakichi with humble companionship and help the boy – young man now – lift his head out of the deathly pit that was his past. Why Hajime kept coming back was beyond him.

"I'm going to make some tarts from the nashi." The kitchen looked less dull and nondescript with Sadakichi occupying it.

Hajime watched him pour half the content of the bag into a bowl then held it under running water. Judging from how the kitchen looked barley touched, he assumed Sadakichi hadn't had any decent meal for the day so he offered to prepare dinner.

"Oh, almost forgot. I brought you a gift." He dug into his travel bag to fish out the box containing a set of calligraphy tools. The look of elation that sparked over Sadakichi's face induced a twinge in his chest. There was something rewarding in seeing Sadakichi's jovial reaction that Hajime always aimed to please the young man. When had he started feeling this way?

 

***

 

No obstacle ever stood in Hajime's way whenever he wanted to be in the line of duty. But there seemed to be an endless row of hurdles he had to go through at that moment to convince his commander that he was in sound condition to return to the battlefield. Toshizou was uncharacteristically wary – warier than ever.

"I can't afford to lose what's left of the Shinsegumi," was his candid explanation.

Hajime wondered if bad news might have reached him. He chose not to toss any questions in the air. If it was anything significant that would require his awareness, then Toshizou would've told him already. "I am fine, if that's what you're worried about."

One corner of Toshizou's mouth twitched. "You've always been an excellent swordsman, Saito. I just can't fathom how you could be so careless and use your body as a shield to protect that boy."

If that came in a form of query, Hajime wouldn't have an honest answer prepared. There was only one logical explanation he could fabricate. "I acted out on impulse. The enemy was about to strike the boy."

A conniving smirk spread across Toshizou's face as if he knew a secret that Hajime didn't. "Do you care so much for that boy that you were willing to risk your life?"

The words were like bricks smacked against his head that had Hajime cowering internally and hiding behind a thick wall of self denial. "He's just a boy. Like the three hundred or so others that was forced to fight for Aizu. He's no one special."

Toshizou studied him with a skeptical look. Then he sighed and gathered the papers on his desk. "Very well, if you are in perfect health as you say you are, you may regroup with your men. I'll inform Katamori-sama of your condition and will have orders for you to go back to the battlefield in two hours."

The floor soars up close to his face when Hajime bends forth. "Thank you. I'll take my leave."

Distinct earthy scent mixed with heady moisture in the air greeted him as soon as he stepped out of the tent. A discernible sign that rain was upon them. Before he could inhale the intoxicating petrichor, he caught sight of Sadakichi through the corner of his eye. Hajime knew for an instant that the boy had been standing outside the tent long enough to hear his conversation with Toshizou. The tears that welled up in the boy's eyes were apparent indication.

"Iinuma-kun," was all he managed to utter before the boy turned on his heel and fled.

Hajime juggled his options and was tempted to follow Sadakichi but then decided against it. He had a job to do. Besides, the boy was a samurai. He shouldn't let emotions rule him over.

His mind was clear of any worries when he charged towards the borders where enemies started crawling through. For Aizu, for Katamori-sama, he brought down one man after the other with everything he got.

About five hours passed and he had just returned from the battlefront smelling like blood and gunpowder and mud when the sudden urge to seek out Sadakichi slammed into him. That was how he ended up at the Byakkotai camp after he had cleaned up to look less of a madman who had just been out slicing guts and throats.

Ito Teijirou was the one who met him with prim and proper behavior, explaining that Sadakichi was meditating with the others and that he and Wasuke was tasked to keep watch.

"Would you by any chance know if something had happened?" he asked, meeting Hajime's eyes with a calculating gaze. "He'd gone to the Shinsengumi camp earlier because he wanted to see if you've recovered fully. When he came back, he looked gravely upset."

Guilt was quick to knock on his doors, stretching its tentacles around his heart, but Hajime managed to shove any feeling of remorse down the deep pit of his conscience and spat out a lie, saying, "I wouldn't know."

A smile graced Teijirou's lips and the softened expression made him look like an innocent child that he really was rather than a gifted swordsman everyone saw him to be. "He really looks up to you. That Sadakichi."

Hajime wasn't sure how to process that information so an impassive and terse nod was the only reaction he could provide. In a swift change of tide, he said, "You boys are doing a good job. You've proven to be great warriors," and with a firm tap on Teijirou's shoulder, he added, "Keep up the good work. Good night."

 

***

 

Fireflies danced outside the window in their nightly ritual. His eyes affixed on the yellow green dots scintillating against the mantle of black. Cool draft crept through the house, wrapping its icy limbs around his body.

The serene atmosphere Sendai offered was one of the things Hajime loved about this place. He enjoyed the quiet repose and present company.

Sadakichi was softly humming while he tidied up at the kitchen, the pleasant sound lulling Hajime, easing him into a state of torpor until he was floating through that special place between consciousness and sleep.

"Ah! Hajime-san."

His name rolled off the man's tongue with unconcealed affection, voice so gentle that it didn't disturb his passive musing. His lips curved up as he shifted to face Sadakichi and bestow him the undivided attention he deserved.

"I have a bottle of sake with your name on it." Sadakich was already rummaging through the cabinet then soon emerged with that cylindrical container of happiness.

"Ah, a perfect company for after-dinner conversation." Hajime was all too eager to grab the ochoko from Sadakichi, leaving the tokkuri under his host's care.

The first gulp burned his throat. His viscera hadn't been touched by the magical infusion for months because of his job. The soothing effect of sake and Sadakichi combined bubbled up inside him. "You make my life perfect, Sadakichi-kun."

The remark shot out of his mouth before Hajime could analyze its meaning and he couldn't blame Sadakichi for staring at him with wide eyes and cheeks tinted with a pretty shade of crimson.

Then an endearing smile bloomed on Sadakichi's lips. "I can say the same thing about you, Hajime-san." The honesty that laced his words caused a disconcerting twinge in Hajime's chest.

Silence inflated in harmony with the tranquil ambiance that had him vacillating between drowning himself in that sinful beverage or to consume it in moderation so he could keep a clear head.

Sadakichi's tuneful laughter invaded his senses and when he said, "Easy, Hajime-san. You're drinking as if you hadn't had sake for a year," Hajime was slapped with an appalling realization that he was close to being intoxicated.

"It's getting colder. I'll go close the windows." The moment Sadakichi sprang on his feet, he toppled over and was heading face first to the floor.

The speed of Hajime's arms hadn't changed over the years. He was quick to catch the younger man, who turned in his embrace only to stop when his face was inches close to his.

Their breaths mingled, hearts beating in synchrony. The thought of closing the distance, of brushing his lips against Sadakichi's skipped around his head. Hajime convinced himself it was the sake talking, whispering to him, so once he had helped Sadakichi back on his feet, he bid him goodnight and went straight to the corner where his futon was waiting.

Act V.

Dawn tiptoed over the horizon but its subtle approach was witnessed with open eyes. Sadakichi hardly slept a wink. His face burned at the thought of the night before, how Hajime's proximity had literally stolen his breath. The shameful part of it all was his body's lascivious reaction.

The feeling was so foreign he couldn't identify it. It was something he hadn't felt before. His puberty was spent with him learning the samurai's way of life and his early adulthood was cocooned in contrite. Though he hadn't gone through such a sensual phenomenon, he was certain that this was something he had to feel for a woman, not for a man like Saito Hajime, not for a man he regarded with high respect, a man who was ten years his senior.

As soon as the first light pierced through the window, he forced himself out of his futon so he could get breakfast started.

Hajime was facing the wall, his back on Sadakichi. His shoulders rose and fell in a steady cadence that suggested he was still in an unruffled rest. But the absence of the crisp sound of his snores made Sadakichi doubt that was the case.

With the windows slightly parted, the soft rays of the morning sun painted his humble abode in gentle strokes of lemon yellow and saffron. The pot filled with water and sencha leaves and jasmine blossoms was soon emitting a sweet aroma that filled the entire space.

Stealth as a warrior, Hajime had snuck up behind him nearly thirty minutes later. Sadakichi was beating eggs, his mind soaring above the clouds that he didn't sense Hajime approach until the man spoke and asked, "Do you have to work today?" which startled Sadakichi in the process.

Looking at Hajime was somehow abashing so Sadakichi kept his eyes on the bowl. "No. Did you have anything in mind?"

"I heard there is a festivity – a festival – in the next town. Would you like to go and check it out?"

To Sadakichi, it was a harmless invitation and it might just be the distraction he needed to rid him of these unwanted and unnecessary thoughts.

"Okay. What time do we leave?"

"Late in the afternoon."

Hajime was solacing to be around as usual. Not even the discomfiting incident had changed that. However, they did spend the rest of the day exchanging awkward smiles and perfunctory conversation.

The sun had eased its way over the mountains by the time they were getting ready to leave.

Sadakichi had chosen to wear a kimono splashed in bright hues of blue and green, the one his mother had brought him last year for his birthday. Hajime had always looked handsome in black.

Completely forgetting himself, Sadakichi reached out to help Hajime with his obi. Once tied and in place, he ran his hands flat over Hajime's shoulder blades, using his palm to rid of the wrinkles, belatedly realizing he was too close.

 

***

 

The water was as soft as silk blanket against his skin, neither warm nor cold, just enough to soothe his tired bones. Sadakichi kept his eyes closed while he basked in the comfort of the bath. His friends' banter was nothing but annoying buzz in his ears.

Only when there was a particularly sharp movement beside him did he open his eyes. Katsutarou had launched from his side to grab Shigetarou who was taunting him, saying he thought Shintaro could beat him in a duel.

Like a bird helplessly flapping its wings, Shigetarou struggled to keep Katsutarou off him. "Why don't we go to the dojo now and see?" His teeth were in full display when he flaunted Katsutaro a mocking grin then he tilted his head to glance Shintaro's way. "How 'bout it, Shintaro?"

"I don't mind." Shintaro waded through the still water with no sign of hesitation.

The three of them left the bath, leaving dissonant echoes at their wake. Gisaburo called out after them, reminding them not to hurt themselves since they might be sent out on a mission soon.

Sadakichi thought he was about to gain the repose he much desired and was about to close his eyes again when he caught sight of Saito Hajime approaching. He was shaken out of his stupor when Hajime dropped the towel wrapped around his waist to reveal his naked form. The man didn't even have the decency to wear a fundoshi! His world stopped turning when Hajime stepped into the water and settled right beside him.

"Saito-san." Gisaburo's voice rang in his ears like an echo from a thousand miles. "It's nice to see you're able to relax at the moment."

The Shinsengumi captain had his head resting against the rock, eyes closed. "I thought I'd take advantage now that the enemy had decided to pull back and cease their attacks." The heat from Hajime's body caressed Sadakichi in ways that pushed him to full-blown discomfort. "But they are probably regrouping as we speak, so we'd best be on alert."

"Right, I understand." The rest of Gisaburo's words faded in white noise against Sadakichi's resonant heartbeat. Sadakichi's face burned at the thought of Hajime's proximity. Breathing had become onerous.

"I uh… I'm tired. I think I'll go rest now." Sadakichi practically vomited the words in his haste to leave the water. Having Hajime too close wasn't good for his health.

Teijirou's excuse of needing to retire for the day fluttered after him. His friend had caught up at the path leading to the changing area when they ran into Hijikata Toshizou. Still in a daze, Sadakichi almost forgot to lower his head before the man until Tejirou kicked him on his calf.

Wordless seconds waltz around them in a phantom-like grace. Sadackichi was trapped in cataleptic state, his hands working on their own while he changed into his yukata. It was Teijirou who pierced through his bubble. "Hey Sadakichi. Just out of curiosity. Do you like Saito-san? I mean in a special way?"

It was the way Teijirou had enunciated it – thick with connotation – more than the words itself that Sadakichi bolted out of pensiveness. Horrified, Sadakichi stammered, "W-wha--what made y-you ask?"

A shadow of mischief hazed over Teijirou's face, his mouth turning up to an impish simper. "Your face turned all red when Saito-san dropped his towel and I thought you were going to explode right then."

There was a loud crack of thunder and lightning within Sadakichi's world as the realization that his reactions to Saito Hajime had taken shape perceptible enough for Teijiro, and perhaps everyone else to witness. He nearly drowned in a landslide of embarrassment when Gisaburo and Wasuke came in, both of them reiterating what Teijirou had said.

"Saito-san wasn't certainly the reason why my face was red." The lack of acerbity that Sadakichi aimed for as he spat out a string of denial bounced back to him in a mocking imitation of his own voice.

"Tell me, Sadakichi," Teijirou slung an arm over his shoulder, the corners of his mouth still turned up in that wicked leer. "Was your heart beating fast when you saw Saito-san? Did your skin feel like they're burning when he sat close to you?"

"That's exactly how I feel when I'm around Kanae," Gisaburo supplied, face lit up like a ray of sunshine that Sadakichi doubted he was even aware that he wasn't helping Sadakichi in his case.

"You guys are out of your minds. Saito-san is a man. Why would I…?" Any coherent reasoning escaped him in a sea of froth that all Sadakichi could do was gape at his friends with his mouth open.

"Well, you're too soft sometimes. Maybe you have a heart of a woman?" Wasuke was as tactless as he had always been and though it seemed like an honest observation, the subtext of his remark raked through Sadakichi's pride.

There was a dissonance in his head, a reprise of his friends' words muttered in a provoking manner that had Sadakichi screaming, "Shut up!" before darting out of the room, wanting to put as much distance between him and the others.

 

***

 

The crowd seemed to multiply the further they went and Sadakich was starting to feel like the air was growing thinner and it was getting harder to breathe. Hajime was his security blanket, staying close to the man made him feel safer.

A stolen glance at Hajime alerted him of the concern etched on the older man's face. "Are you okay?"

There was no way he would give in to the weakness creeping through his psyche. "Yes, I am." Though blurted with confidence, Hajime could probably tell it was a lie. The man watched him as if he was going to crumble any moment so Sadakichi avoided his gaze.

An image of someone in his past appeared in the distance, beyond the sea of people that blurred around the edges of his vision. Teijirou was watching him with a peaceful expression. One blink and he was gone, replaced with a man offering to take photographs to anyone who went past him.

The gust of warm wind that blew from the eastside guided his eyes towards two figures who he first thought were Wasuke and Katsutarou chasing each other. But it turned out to be someone else.

"Why don't we find some place where we could rest?" Hajime's hand felt cold against his forearm but he was tangible and real that Sadakichi didn't mind, even as the man practically dragged him to a set of wooden chairs near the pond.

His legs stilled at the sight that greeted him – Gisaburo and Kanae walking hand in hand – but then a brilliant light flared before his eyes and when the luminosity evanesced, all he saw was his and Hajime's reflection on the pond's water.

"I beg your pardon." The man he saw earlier with a camera raised his hand to call their attention and his gaze was focused more on Sadakichi as he spoke. "I couldn't resist taking your photograph. You wore such a mystifying expression that I had to capture it. If you would like to have a copy, I'll be glad to send it to you."

"No, thank you." Sadakichi could feel the headache coming and his head pulsated when a loud gong resonated from the top of a flight of stairs. For a moment, he thought he'd heard explosion and gunshots and screaming.

Memories came flooding in, and Sadakichi felt like he was back in Tonoguchihara with the enemies closing in and he had to escape so he ran, ignoring the frantic voice calling out his name. He ran as fast as he could.

Act VI.

Paper lanterns in red and white swept past him on his hurried trek out of the busy streets. It was near the bridge stretching over a stream that he found Sadakichi curled in on himself, visibly shaking like an abused animal.

"Sadakichi-kun."

This was the scenario he least expected to encounter. It was clearly a fool's hope that the visit to Iimoriyama, to the graveyard last spring would have helped the young man get over his friends' death and deal with the guilt that had held him prisoner for so long.

The waters Sadakichi threaded on were still and placid before Hajime left for Tokyo. What triggered his anxiety, what pushed Sadakichi off the steady current into a rougher course was a puzzle for him to ponder.

"Come on. Let's take you home." Hajime helped the young man on his feet and, as if he was carrying a fragile porcelain doll, led him back to his town.

When they arrived at Sadakichi's dwelling, Hajime encouraged him to take a bath so he could not only wash off the dirt on his face but also the negative energy that had clung to him.

"Will you be all right? Do you need help?" It wasn't his intention to treat the young man like a child he once was but Sadakichi did look frail at the moment.

A vigorous shake of the head was the immediate response he was given and a speck of panicked embarrassment shimmered on the surface of Sadakichi's eyes. "I'll be alright. I… I can handle myself."

"Call me if you need anything." Hajime's gaze never left the younger man until Sadakichi slid the door close.

Minutes marched off like worn down soldiers and Hajime chose to spend it preparing tea so he would not be stifled with worry. It took five minutes for the water to boil, the same amount of time when he heard the wretched bawling from the bath area. Alarmed, Hajime burst into the enclosed space to find the naked young man on the floor, hugging his knees close to his chest while rocking in place.

Without second thought, Hajime wrapped his arms around Sadakichi, not minding the water seeping into his yukata. "Hey, take it easy. Everything will be okay. I'm here. I'm here," he whispered like a mantra until he felt the young man relax.

Sadakichi clung on him and buried his face on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said, sobbing in between.

"It's okay. Here let me help you." Hajime took the washcloth from the floor, lathered it with soap and started scrubbing Sadakichi's back and shoulders. It wasn't anything sensual or perverted, the gesture was enwrapped with considerate compassion, until Sadakichi graced him with a tender gaze and his lips parted as if in silent invitation.

Hajime could blame it on some mystical enchantment later but any rational thought left him in an instant and he allowed instinct to take lead so he leaned closer and pressed his lips against Sadakichi's. It wasn't as pliant as a woman's but soft nonetheless and he tasted like sencha and sweet dango that Hajime couldn't seem to get enough of.

 

***

 

Hajime knew allowing the boys to have their first taste of sake was a big mistake, but Toshizou painted the prospect with interesting mix of colors that created a fascinating picture in his head at the time. Besides, Toshizou seemed to know what he was doing.

Now the boys were a mess, most of them crawling on the floor and crying over their friend's passing. Sadakichi had fled in grief. Half an hour had already gone by but he hadn't returned and Hajime was edging on borderline worry.

Keeping a professional wall between them had been quite a challenge because Hajime often found himself drawn to the boy. Sadakichi seemed to possess a talent of stirring him into a verge of unrest, like he was at the moment. Hajime had discarded apathetic patience and let tumultuous concern drive him to search for the missing boy. Enemies were starting to infiltrate all sides of Aizu and now they've lost one of the boys in the shichu squad. He wasn't going to sit around and risk losing another.

They were at war, that he was aware. Losing people was the inevitable consequence of this tragic chronicle. He'd lost too many men to count and he'd been forced to swallow the sour truth that he would never reunite with the few close friends he'd had in his entire life. Wasn't he right to tell the boys they shouldn't be wasting time mourning the dead? Maybe it was a heartless remark, enough to poke a sensitive spot on Sadakichi.

Hajime had practically forgotten the little detail that these were young boys and this was the first time they tasted the bitter reality of war. Losing one of their friends had been a blow they undoubtedly never predicted.

The search for Sadakichi didn't take long. His nagging intuition had led him to the river where he found Sadakichi crying in silence. Without a word, he joined the boy along the bank and listened to Sadakichi's incessant mumbling. "We shouldn't have left him, we should've stayed with him. Teijirou and I. But Wasuke pushed us away, told us to run, that he'd hold off the enemies."

It was only on few occasions that Hajime had to sit down and listen to someone brew self-loathing and he was uncertain if there was an existing rule that he should or should not offer words of solace. Using his own judgment, he deemed it was called for in this situation so he said, "You know what? I think Ishida-kun was a hero, a dignified samurai who sacrificed himself so that you and Teijirou could run to safety. And you should be proud of him."

He was met with tearful eyes and Sadakichi's lips quivered as a child-like whining of, "But he's dead. He's dead because of me," spilled out of his mouth.

The poisonous essence of guilt started rearing its ugly head. "Iinuma-kun. One thing you shouldn't do is blame yourself." Hajime held the boy at arms length, holding his gaze, his big hands clasping those tiny shoulders. "We are at war and every single warrior here knows that their lives are at stake." Kicking down the metaphoric wall between them, Hajime held Sadakichi in his arms and pressed the boy's head against his chest. "That doesn't mean you can't mourn for your friend. So go ahead. Cry until you run out of tears, weep until you're ready to regain your strength so you can continue fighting for the cause that Ishida-kun died protecting."

The thin veil of vulnerability was lifted. The earth-shattering wail that tore from Sadakichi's lungs ripped through the eerie stillness of the forest and startled flocks of birds out of their somnolence, squawking as they took flight, their wings flapping in discordant rhythm.

It was at that moment that Hajime detested the war, cursed the insolent arrogance of those in power who chose to keep their stubborn heads above rival clans who didn't share their views in expense of the people who served them. As a result of their superciliousness, children were then forced to step into adults' shoes to protect their lords and their country.

Hajime knew the Byakkotai weren't exactly children, that 16 or 17 was close enough age to adulthood but having Sadakichi in his arms made him seem younger than any of the other Byakkotai. His earlier curiosity resurfaced. Once Sadakichi had calmed down, Hajime asked, "Iinuma-kun, how old did you say you were?"

The boy muttered the same response he gave Hajime weeks ago. He was sixteen and that was enough to satisfy Hajime's inquisitive side. He released Sadakichi and peered into his soulful eyes, only to be sucked into the depths of innocence now tainted with blood and death.

There was also a ripple of uncertainty within those dark pools that Hajime caught sight of before Sadakichi cleared his throat. "Actually, Saito-san. I…" The boy's gaze wavered. "I am only fourteen. I had to lie about my age so that I could enlist in the Nisshinkan for training."

Too young. But at this age, to wear the Aizu samurai coat of arms, to grip a sword in his hand, to wield his weapon in the name of the daimyo and his country made Hajime see Iinuma Sadakichi in a new light.

 

***

 

Maidens in their charcoal-colored raiments pranced over Sendai, spreading cinders across the sky and tossing blue gems to sparkle against the ashen layers that stretched over the city.

Hajime ignored the usual sentiments that unfurled past dusk in favor of the soothing liquid he poured down his throat. Sharing a flask of sake with Sadakichi seemed to have become a customary nighttime practice.

There was a disquieting tension vibrating between them, inviting a rather uncomfortable silence.

Sadakichi was the one to bring them out of the rigid element they were confined in. There was no hint of discomfiture when he spoke though his eyes were fixed on the table that separated them while he asked, "Why did you kiss me, Hajime-san?"

Hajime didn't have a spontaneous fib prepared so open honesty was his only option. "I did what I felt like doing."

The resolute assertiveness reflected on Sadakichi's eyes when he asked, "Was that the only time you felt like doing it? Or would you consider doing it again?" smashed down the layers of walls left standing around Hajime.

It might have been merely a hypothetical question. Or it could have been a request, a provocation. If Sadakichi was testing the waters, so was Hajime. "I'd like to do it again." Without looking too eager, he shifted enough to lean over the table, locking gazes with the young man. "If you wouldn't mind."

Sadakichi unleashed yet another surprise when he was bold enough to meet Hajime halfway, their lips brushing tentatively at first before they pressed harder, their mouths sliding in a sultry manner. That wasn't the only kiss they shared that night. Later they slept in one futon with Sadakich safely tucked in Hajime's arms.

Act VII.

Little things became more noticeable as the mask Hajime often wore was lifted and Sadakichi paid closer attention. The few strands of gray hair close to his temple, the wrinkles that permanently reside under his eyes, the two moles on his back just beneath his right shoulder, the uncouth habit of grinding his teeth when in deep sleep were all fond knowledge that Sadakich tucked in his brain and his heart.

It had been almost a week since Hajime had arrived. The former Shinsengumi captain had claimed he was granted another lengthy vacation and had wanted to spend it with him although Sadakichi could tell those were nothing but white lies.

It had been almost a week since Hajime first kissed him and they had shared a lot of ardent kisses since, despite his conscience screaming how wrong this was. Two men to engage in such a passionate act was unheard of and it could very well be an ignominy punishable by beheading if they were to follow the laws he had believed as a samurai but Sadakichi couldn't bring himself to care at the time. With Hajime beside him, the nightmares that kept revisiting him since he had set foot in Iimoriyama last spring had receded. The shackles that bound him to the past were undone. Ironically, there was a comforting feeling that he was free.

The rope that bound their souls together had morphed into a steel chain. And once the sanctioned awareness that this was against everything he had been taught dispersed like thin smoke, Sadakichi became more receptive, allowing Hajime to touch him on his most private parts.

When he was alone, he'd inflict necessary punishment on himself for enjoying what Hajime's wandering hands had done. A firm smack on the back of his head or a slap across his face would be his act of self-reproach, only to let Hajime's mouth be where his hands had been afterwards.

It was in the middle of the second week of Hajime's visit and close to the end of autumn when the older man broke the dejecting news that he had to return to Tokyo, that he'd received an urgent mail and he was needed back at his post. Sadakichi was seized with underlying fear that he might not return, even though Hajime had assured him with feverish kisses, had promised that he would be back before the snow started to fall.

 

***

 

Katsutarou had been known to exaggerate but the sheer and untainted panic that outlined his countenance at that moment implied that he spoke the truth. There was still a slim chance that this was nothing but a bad case of misinterpretation.

"It's true. It was Katamori-sama's orders and Hijikata-san had agreed. Tanomo-sama was there to witness it." The Shinsengumi was retreating, according to Katsutarou. Hijikata had been given orders to withdraw his forces and move to Sendai. "They leave hours before dawn."

While the others might have been washed over with fear of losing support from the Wolves of Mibu, of deeming it impossible to defeat the enemy without the help of the Shinsengumi, Sadakichi was struck with a different trepidation altogether.

Afraid that Hajime would be leaving, he rushed to the Shinsengumi camp, ignoring Teijirou's warning that he might be crossing a certain line he shouldn't. Hajime was in the process of bidding Hijikata goodnight when Sadakichi reached the site.

Not giving mind to the admonishing words that the voice inside his head was screaming, Sadakichi confronted Hajime. "Is it true?" he asked, disregarding the trace of vexation that was imprinted on the man's face. "Is it true that you're leaving?"

The sharp rumbling sound that vibrated through his throat came as a surprise and all Sadakichi could do was gape in confusion. Hajime had never laughed in pure mirth, or at least Sadakichi had never heard him beyond those soft chuckles or brisk sardonic bark of laughter.

The large hand that landed on the top of his head was warm and heavy as Hajime ruffled his hair. "You should have seen the look on your face, Iinuma-kun. You need not worry though. I am only escorting Hijikata-san and his troops to Sendai but would return in haste. I decided to stay and aid in protecting Aizu."

Relief swelled within Sadakichi, as if the boulder that had been unceremoniously dumped on his chest had been lifted. "I… I was afraid you'd leave without saying goodbye."

Hajime bent a little until they were at eye level, reminding Sadakichi that not only was the man taller, but he was an adult much older than he was. "I would only say goodbye if I had no plans of returning, Iinuma-kun." He invited Sadakichi for a walk, explaining that he had time to spare before they had to make preparations for their long hike to Sendai.

The streets were void of battle noises. It was quiet as a grave, which was more foreboding – the calm before a storm, the lull before a tsunami hit them at the least expected moment. No words were exchanged while they marched farther from the Shinsengumi headquarters. Only when they reached the outskirts of Fukura did Sadakichi decided to speak his mind.

"Saito-san. Do you think we would win this war?"

Cool, calm and collected as he had always been, Hajime said, "The outcome would be far beyond anyone's prediction, Iinuma-kun. The important thing is that no one gives up, that every warrior would fight with their heads held high until the end."

They came across the mighty wolves garbed in Shinsengumi's blue haori who lowered their heads before their captain before marching down to the opposite direction. Hajime was truly a man worthy or respect, crowned with a dignity that Sadakichi hoped he could possess.

The lights from the lantern hanging outside the houses they passed burned brightly, creating illusions of the city's inhabitants still loitering along the paved empty road.

"It's getting late, Iinuma-kun. Shall I walk you back to your camp?" It was a gentlemanly gesture and the humble manner it was offered didn't make Sadakichi feel that Hajime was treating him like a child. But Sadakichi had his pride in tact.

"There's no need, Saito-san. It's only a few blocks away. I will be fine on my own." Besides, Sadakichi could sense Teijirou and the others trailing behind, so he was positive he wasn't entirely alone.

 

***

 

Winter came and the snow fell in stark white ice crystals but Hajime hadn't returned. Sadakichi was beginning to worry.

The nightmares have returned and not only did he dream of blood-smeared white garments, of burning buildings and crumbling castle, of fallen swords and decaying corpses. This time he also dreamt of Hajime, of his sword falling from his hand, of the mountain of carnage that surrounded him, of gunfire and explosions.

The letters he had sent him had remained unanswered until Sadakichi laid his pen down and decided to leave everything to fate. It was a painful wait.

When his body trembled in the cold, when he breathed fog and slept on frozen sheets, he yearned for the warmth that Hajime often offered. When he'd walked along the snow-covered streets, leaving a line of footprints in his wake, he wished there was another set of boot marks imprinted on the white surface along with his.

On days when he didn't have to work, he'd sat by his window in hopes to see a tall figure strutting down the narrow street. From dusk 'til dawn, he waited under thick layers of blankets, but Hajime never came.

The snow had melted and the leaves was starting to grow back on the trees when Hajime finally returned. "I apologize for not keeping my promise," he'd said and explained that his work had kept him tied up all winter.

Then he offered him a packet of Mikan seeds. "We can plant it in your little garden."

Sadakichi wondered if Hajime would be around to see it grow from a sapling to a full grown tree, if he would be around to see it bear fruits. Regardless, he accepted the gift with a promise to nurture it with love and care.

Hajime's visit was short this time, but it was enough to make up for the months he wasn't around.

Act VIII.

The world changed along with the seasons and Japan had flourished beyond abandoned traditions and forgotten cultures. Tokyo had been hosts to many of the refined modernization and Hajime had stood witness at the sidelines.

Sendai, on the other hand, still kept its preserved inheritance of the old ways despite of having been touched by innovative cultivations. To Hajime, it remained a second home.

As days and weeks and months rolled by, his heart felt heavier when leaving Sadakichi after every visit, even more difficult than leaving his own home.

However, he had been entrusted with important duties that his job required him to be in Tokyo more often than not. The bitter consequence of having less opportunity to visit Sendai had started to create a crack on the odd relationship he had with the former Byakkotai member.

Hajime was haunted with tremendous worries. He knew the nightmares had returned, even if Sadakichi tried to hide it beneath exuberant smiles and mellifluous laughter. The telltale sound of silent weeping beyond closed doors was enough proof that Hajime's suspicions were accurate.

It was during the summer, when he had woken up to disturbing moans and he saw Sadakichi writhing on his futon, sweat glistening on his exposed skin, that Hajime felt a part of his soul break. He cradled Sadakichi in his arms all night and was greeted with a blissful expression the next morning as if nothing had happened.

Cold blood rushed through his veins at the thought that this young man whom he had learned to care for deeply was slowly slipping through his fingers. He was at a complete loss. For once, Hajime knew not what to do.

 

***

 

The air reeked of smoke tainted with the repulsive odor of rage and death. Enemies had poured in on all borders like plagues of locusts swarming into the city. They were cornered, left with no other choice but to retreat back to Aizu.

What Hajime had hoped would provide them a safe ground, a temporary shelter was now enveloped in prevalent chaos. The entire town was besieged in anarchic tempest. Flames engulfed the houses around the castle, streets were littered with wounded samurai and civilians, screams of women and endless weeping of children reverberated in the air.

In spite of all these horrifying scenarios, the castle still stood proud and unrelenting even though the façade had been defiled by the mayhem.

Talks of women and children and old people, of wives and daughters and young sons and mothers of samurai bathing in their own blood with crimson-tainted knives lying beside them reached Hajime's ears. The ugly reality of war had surfaced. Aizu was about to fall.

Demons had bared its fangs, shadowed by malevolence that delivered bad news right at Tsurugajo's doorstep. It was those ill-fated tidings that prompted him to ask, "The Byakkotai, where are they?" and he was informed that all units were dispatched at the central perimeters. The shichu, in particular, had been sent to hold off the enemies crawling through the village of Tonoguchihara. There was no doubt in his mind it was the unit where Sadakichi had been enlisted.

The deities weren't too kind to the Aizu clan, completely abandoning them and left to suffer under these dire situations. But the Aizu samurai hadn't faltered, were too stubborn to give up, keeping a tight grip on their will to live up to the true warrior spirit.

It was this unwavering determination that inspired Hajime to continue fighting, to raise his sword and defend the castle, despite the unmistakable premonition that this would not end in Aizu's favor, despite the blatant fact that it was a hopeless crusade. Hajime could now see it, clearer than he ever did. These warriors were engaged in despondent battle not to prove bravery or exhibit their swordsmanship skills, but rather to preserve everything they believed in, to guard their honor and dignity with sheer willingness to die for their country and their Lord.

When he returned to the castle to check the situation, he saw a few members of the Byakkotai. It was then he learned the shichu unit had broken into two groups on their way back to the castle. Apparently, Sadakichi was left with the missing group. The sudden urge to flee and find them surged through him and he was about to leave when another samurai came rushing inside with bad news.

Nineteen members of the second shichu unit were found dead at the slopes of Iimoriyama, signs that they have gone through the ritual suicide, seppuku, were discernible. Hajime fell on his knees, his whole body going numb while he listened to the man read off the names of the Byakkotai members who had perished. Shinoda Gisaburo, Ito Teijirou, Ibuka Shigetarou, Ikegami Shintaro, Nishikawa Katsutarou were among them.

"There was one survivor," the man added. "He was still alive when a farmer's wife found him. The boy wasn't able to cut too deep but the wound was still severe."

Hope dawned on Hajime and he sprang back on his feet, grabbed the man by his arms and asked, "Name? What is the boy's name?"

The man stared at him with wide, quivering eyes. "Iinuma Sadakichi." The boy had apparently been brought to the healers, he'd been told, and all Hajime could do was hope for his recovery.

At nightfall, he went to see Sadakichi, who was barely conscious when he got there and he kept mumbling why they'd let him live, that he was supposed to die with them, that he'd made a vow he would. Hajime told him he was alive for a reason, for a purpose.

Aizu was still at war with Matsudaira Katamori barely hanging onto his stubborn determination not to surrender. This only meant that Hajime was still needed at the battlefront. With heavy hesitation, he told Sadakichi that he needed to return to the castle but he promised he would come back to see him again as soon as he could.

It was a promise he hadn't been able to keep and that was the last time he saw Iinuma Sadakichi until their fated reunion fourteen years later.

 

***

 

The wheel of time couldn't be stopped and it spun on its endless journey through rough, unpaved roads and rocky hills. It continued to add tattered pages on history books and relentlessly painted the country with ever-changing colors – from green to orange to white.

Another winter came and Hajime was finally blessed with the much needed extended vacation. He traveled to Sendai without second thought, ignoring the whispered rumors about a mistress that waited for him in that city.

It was during this visit that he witnessed the subtle changes in Sadakichi. The black cloud that shrouded him had completely dissipated. His eyes held a promising radiance and his face shone with peaceful confidence and contentment.

Sadakichi was healing. Whether it was on his own or with Hajime's help was unclear. But it was to Hajime's relief that the young man had a brighter outlook in life. What Hajime dreaded was the time might come when Sadakichi wouldn't need him anymore, when Sadakichi would learn to solely rely on himself rather than seeking inspiration from him.

It was a selfish notion. Hajime knew that he wouldn't be able to be by Sadakichi's side forever. He was well aware that someday, they would have to go their separate ways where their paths would no longer cross and the likelihood of them reuniting would be nothing but a distorted fantasy.

For now, Hajime would embrace the opportunity to be here for Sadakichi, because he cared for the young man more than he'd like to admit.

They were still connected: Two souls once lost in the aftermath of bloodshed, souls that had suffered from wounded pride, had plucked on the scars left by the miseries of war, had washed off the blood from the graves of the fallen with their tears, had climbed out of the dark caves of the past and had learned to move forward, to live on.




Owari
(The End)

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