Disclaimer: PMK belongs to Nanae Chrno/Blade Comics, etc. 

Like Sand

1. The Brother

            Tatsunosuke, as much as he would like to, cannot remember everything.  Of course, there are some things he will never forget – like the fire and the heat and the scarlet blood, but there are also some things he wishes dearly to remember, but does not.  He has thought about writing them down, storing them in secret spaces between paper and pen, but thinks that something precious about memories is lost in that process, so he does nothing. 

            He remembers the child who used to follow behind him, but forgets it the week after Tetsu learns to lead the way.  He remembers the baby who would not step out of the refuge of the shadows in the closet, and watches it disappear in the light as Tetsu learns how to fight, not to hide.  He will never forget how much he wants to protect his brother from the world, but feels his heart constrict every time Tetsu rushes blindly into something that might break that small body, harboring a fragile heart.   

            Tetsunosuke looks misplaced in blue, wedged between broad-shouldered, tall-standing men.  In blue, in white, and in deep brick red, there is something that is startlingly old about that tiny figure.  It makes the days blend into a mass of sweat and metal and death; Tatsunosuke has trouble picking out his brother's face.  Tetsunosuke walks a fine balance between being himself and being a soldier that his elder brother will never begin to fathom. 

            It is a precarious situation.  On one hand, Tatsunosuke wants nothing more than to keep his brother safe beside him so that no matter how hard the thunder crashes or how terribly the rain falls it will be harmless.  On the other hand, he cannot hold on.  Tetsunosuke is suddenly turning sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and he cannot keep up with it.  He hasn't even blinked. 

            Tetsunosuke runs through the door, bent over as he pants open-mouthed for breath.  Tatsunosuke doesn't even have to think about it anymore; the reaction is instinctual.  Almost instantly, he rushes to his feet, knocks over an ink well, and pushes his brother to the ground just as an irate and very unhappy-looking Hijikata-san barges in above their heads.  The next half an hour is spent creating a human barrier between the fukuchou and his page, trying to assuage the irritation and failing miserably. 

            When Hijikata-san is gone, Tetsunosuke shoots him a thankful grin and makes an offhand comment about how Tatsu-nii should get out more; doesn't he get bored spending the whole day inside?  Tatsunosuke does not look down to meet his brother's eyes anymore, and he smiles.  He motions a hand to the scattered papers and the stained floor and says, "Maybe tomorrow, Tetsu.  Go by yourself.  I have work to do today."  That is not what he would have said years or months or maybe even days ago, but now, it seems just about right. 

            Tetsunosuke understands and has somehow always understood.  Tatsunosuke is grateful one of them does.  "Don't work so hard, Tatsu-nii."  Tatsunosuke watches his form become a silhouette, watches it swallowed by the sunlight.  The memories slip between his fingers like a fine, silvery dust, falling to the floor more quietly than silence, and he can only watch. 

2. The Shadow

            When it is much too late for anyone to be having lunch, but much too early for anyone to be searching for dinner, Susumu drops down to where his feet can touch the ground, and goes to the compound kitchen.  The knives still hang above the chopping board, the fans still rest beside the cooling, blackened stove.  The room is made of stone, wood and iron and it smells of cooked rice and uncooked meat. 

            Here, in this musty, shady place, where the dim light filters through the single window and the dust is constantly roaming in the air, where he can hear the echoes of battle cries from the dojo and the light chirping of birds in the spring, where everything is so simple and plain, he cannot help but smile.  The mouth turns upward, but the eyes are dark, even as they are bright with tears.  Chichiue and Hahaue had both been dark-eyed; it is no wonder that their eyes are as black as coal as well.

            Slowly and with painstaking care, he takes a step and then another, circling the tiny kitchen like a baby learning the world for the first time.  His fingers, calloused and long, skim over the edges of pots and pans and ladles.  He touches everything like he touches a sliver of glass – lightly as if he is afraid it will break, lingering as if he is afraid it will disappear, and carefully as if he is afraid it will cut him.  He feels the imperfection of it all – the knives are dented, the wooden counters chipped.   

            It is comforting, this odd ritual, and he does not know why.  Sometimes, however, he closes his eyes with his hands spread flat against the wall and hears her voice as she hums, hears her footsteps as she walks, and the sound of fabric as she moves.  Today, he is so completely lost that he does not realize the other's presence behind him until he has his back fully turned.  He opens his eyes with a snap.  "What are you doing here?" 

            "Watching you," Tetsunosuke replies simply, unashamed.  "Watching you watch her." 

            Susumu says nothing, eyes lowering to inspect the stack of identical bowls before him.  They are pale blue in color, badly made and probably cheap.  Outside, it has grown quiet and the warm wind blows in from the west, through the open doorway.  He picks up a knife and balances it gingerly in his hands, testing its weight and its feel.  She held these like she held kunai – expertly, easily, better than him.  When Tetsunosuke does not leave, Susumu turns around.

            "Are you hungry?" he asks.  The boy is surprised, but nods.

            While Susumu works, he hears his friend babble constantly about trivial, mundane things to replace the silence.  The spell of the lonely kitchen is broken.  Things are different now, the shinobi knows, and the ritual needs to stop.  The coming of summer and the ranting behind him are evidence of that.  Still, change takes time.  When he is ready, it will happen.  For now, it is difficult to forget when he sees her every time he looks in the mirror, raven hair falling behind his shoulders like the cascading night.

3. The Duo

            Sanosuke stands in the doorway and his voice is brash and loud.  It makes the room shake with its thunder, rings in Shinpachi's ears like a gong, but even with this strength it fails to reach its destination.  Nevertheless, the tenth captain is not the sort to give up.  He will try, and fail, and try again.  When he gives it up, it will be much later, voice hoarse and shoulders trembling, something wonderful and alive inside of him gone. 

            The light filters through the thin screen and Sanosuke casts a tall and dark and shaking silhouette behind him.  It falls on Shinpachi's head.  The second captain's face is darkened, eyes closed and jaw set, whether from shadow or something less tangible it is hard to tell.  He watches the other holler at the door fruitlessly, watches the large, bulky fist wave wildly in the air.  There is no one on the other side.  Heisuke had closed the door behind him.

            Shinpachi straightens.  Staring at the broad back of the man before him, he waits until Sanosuke loses his breath before he speaks.  "I think I'm going to have a nap," he declares offhandedly, using idle hands to pull a wrinkle out of his clothes, "Are you done yet?"

            As the world broke, they used to watch the pieces fall around their feet in a mix of glass and ashes and salty water that could've been tears but weren't.  They never thought it would touch them.  Yet today, they walk in three separate directions.  When the roads converge, it will be on a cold, lifeless night, and the taste of blood will fill their mouths.  This is the law that governs their lives. 

            Sanosuke turns around, sees that Shinpachi's face is blank and empty and smiling, wants to ask if that is all he is going to say?  If that is all he is going to do – lie on his back like a turtle?  If he feels that too, that writhing pain dulling more quickly than it should be, in his chest?  But Sanosuke lacks eloquence, so as he steps aside to let the other pass, he answers, "No."

            Shinpachi looks up at his remaining friend's face, and feels his smile waver.  He laughs, a little louder than usual, a little longer than usual and pokes the other in the arm.  "Don't burst a vein up there, you big oaf." 

            Sano catches Shinpachi's fingers in his paw of a hand, and says nothing.  For a few seconds, neither of them move, but then the second captain begins to tug in an attempt to free himself.  He is released almost immediately.  "What will we do now?" he asks, earnestly, honestly, and with a face so open it is raw.  The answer is simple; the answer is plain.  They will live and move on, regardless of whoever is left behind.

            Shinpachi walks past him without a second glance.  He closes the door behind him.  At the end of five uneven steps, he hears Sanosuke yelling again and stops.  Turning his head and shielding his eyes, he sees the blue and cloudless sky.  The breeze is gentle, and the day is quiet.  Outside, it is a beautiful day – one of the prettiest days of the year, in fact – and all he can think of is how much he hopes for rain. 

4. The Unbreakable

           Souji loves to spend the day sitting near the garden, legs dangling in the air as he cradles Saizou protectively in his arms.  His pet snorts quietly and often, burrowing deeper into the soft crook of his arm and he smiles with amusement.  He feels lazy, so he falls on his back, hair tangling messily under him.  Saizou is surprised by the sudden action and makes that surprise known, pushing at Souji's cheek with his blunt snout and an inquiring, "Buki?"

            His master laughs, a bright and clear and crystalline sound, raising one hand to run it fleetingly across the pig's head.  "It's so boring today," he says to no one in particular, watching as the clouds are blown eastward.  "Hijikata-san's in a meeting, Tetsu-kun is too busy at the dojo, and everyone else seems to have something to do except me."  He fails to mention certain others, using the broad generalization instead, because some have left, some have gone, and some are dead. 

            Everything smells like fresh grass.  The air is thick and almost fluid.  Souji closes his eyes and lets himself bask in the warming sun.  Saizou sits by his head, brows furrowed almost comically, watching his master in a state of such peace, unmoving and undisturbed.  It is beautiful, yet almost frightening.  The pig begins to squeal and nip at his master's shoulder until finally, there is a reaction.  Souji giggles and swats him away, but his eyes are open now, wide and clear and alive.

            "It's a nice day, isn't it?" he murmurs, quietly.  His voice is forlorn and drifting, too soft to be carried by the wind.   A gust picks up and pushes his bangs up against the side of his face.  He gives a great, heaving sigh, as if to add momentum to the wind.  It ends in a handful of giggles, then laughter, then finally in a hacking cough.  His whole body shakes, its movements jerking and violent.  Inside, it burns.  Outside, Saizou watches on with helpless, drooping eyes. 

            When it is over, he relaxes like a wire loosening after being pulled too taut.  He wipes the corner of his lips with the back of his wrist and remembers how to breathe.  His mouth tastes like iron; it is disgusting, and he hasn't eaten a thing.  His limbs feel heavy and weighed down with the afternoon heat.  The heat is a little bit stifling; he is forced to roll up his long white sleeves to his elbows. 

            And the day drags on.

            Souji begins to hum and simple and catchy children's song, doing it mindlessly and like a chore.  These days, many of the things he does are done like that – without thinking, without consideration.  His actions seem like chores and they pass his consciousness in a blur of faces and voices.  He becomes increasingly unaware of many things, only remembering what it is to laugh, to love, to fight, and to die. 

5. The Page

            He no longer sleeps in the closet, for now his arms and legs are much too long and gangly.  His body has begun to catch up with his age, and he thinks it's about time.  Nevertheless, he has yet to grow into these spindly limbs, still needing to learn how to walk in them without tripping and how to pour tea without having his elbow knock over a stack of empty cups.  It is much more difficult than it should be, and he curses under his breath as the crash of glass resounds in his ears.

            "ICHIMURA!"  And he curses again, rushing to clean up the mess and cutting his fingers in his haste.  The blood is red, and he looks down at it with childish fascination.             

            His uniform lies close to his bed, and his swords even closer.  In the middle of the night, when he cannot fall asleep even though his body aches with weariness, he slips his hand out from under the blanket, runs the pads of his fingers down the rough sheaths and hears his heart quiet.  There is something he resents about the fact that when he is sleeping, he is vulnerable.  There is something he abhors about being vulnerable in general. 

            There is blood on the floor now and blood on the glass.  Even though the room is dry and clean, he sees blood on the walls and blood in the sky.  Against his pale skin marred with even paler scars, it looks like war paint.  There is something profound about this, he thinks, but before he can put his finger on it, Hijikata-san yells for his tea again.

            He straightens too quickly, forgetting to look above him.  His head hits the kitchen counter with a dull thud that does not echo.  He stumbles backwards.  His ankle hits a wooden stool and he goes sprawling backwards, introducing the floor to his rather reluctant back.  His head swims and he swears he can see little pink pigs dancing in his vision, but he still has the wits about him to curse the world so vehemently it could curdle milk.

            Blinking, he looks up and finds that he can see out the window.  It is a rainy day, he observes.  Then, he remembers that there is glass on the floor and tea turning cold in the evening air.  By the time Hijikata-san gets his tea, it is lukewarm and a tad bit too bitter.  Tetsunosuke is duly scolded for this before he is sent back on his way.  As he slides the door shut, he feels his right hand sting and shifts the tray to his left.  There are thin cuts running across his forefingers. 

            And maybe because the walk back to the kitchen is a fairly long one; and maybe it is because of the pain; and maybe because he feels like it, he sets the tray on the floor, reaches out and lets the rain wash out the small wound.  The water is biting cold as it seeps into his flesh but for a long, long time, he does not withdraw.  Only when the storm stops does he let it fall back to his side.  His arm is cold and numb and aching.

            As Tetsunosuke turns to pick up the tray, he watches the cold tea ripple in the half-emptied cup and feels himself growing out of his innocence.  It is a cold bitter day.