Smoke and Mirrors
If the boy had to pick what about you he liked the most, he wouldn't be able to answer. A hand would touch his sword, apologetic. Right hand to left hip. It is the only gesture he knows when he is that uncertain; it is the only language he was raised on, in a world which could be divided by the blade. He speaks in this fashion whenever he shows up at your door, eyes downcast and face set in an eternal smile.
But you know that tongue. You spoke it once long ago.
The last time you shared motions so instinctive was with another who looked just like he does, and so you answer in kind without thinking twice.
Fingers match the act. Right hand, left hip. What meets your palm is not the reassuring attentiveness of a katana, but instead the leather of your police belt.
Your sword is carried backwards these days, in the slung-reversal sheath. His has changed as well. The weapon at the boy's side is a saya now, metal masquerading as a walking stick, but the boy thinks that is appropriate for what he is doing with his concealed life. A blade on the inside, a piece of wood otherwise. Unable to specify which is which.
Not for himself, and especially not for you.
If the boy had to pick which of your traits he preferred the most, he might choose them all. A creature of liking; that's everything about the boy, eighteen years of it turned into nineteen, into twenty-two before he found you smoking in the snows of Hokkaido. He had gone north. You had, too, and when you left to return to the police stations, the boy did the same.
Six years to go on his self-imposed quest and no closer to the answer. Only hungrier. Thread-worn. He can work as a serving-man just fine in the restaurants and trail-stops, never flagging as he hauls the buckets out for floor washing, but sometimes a customer's voice is too loud or he is jostled in the wrong way and then the boy finds himself on the road again. Sometimes a waiter touches him on the shoulder when he isn't expecting it. Sometimes there are sudden movements.
Then the boy leaves the same night.
It's easier that way.
He came to you for reasons that he can't explain. You didn't ask him, either. One look at that idle face in the Hokkaido winter-forests and you simply lit another cigarette, shook out the match before you dropped it in the snowdrifts. You were long-familiar with the patience of an expression waiting for orders, just as you knew what manner of instruction the boy sought.
So you didn't give it.
Do what you want.That's the only thing you say when he shows up on your doorstep, sometimes sneezing from the rain.
There's another youth staying with you at times. Eiji. The first child remembers him dimly, stays out of his way when he's there. This second-boy was from a village that only marks itself in memory as smelling of hot water and pig-fat. The latter came from Senkaku's need to keep his punch-daggers coated; the first boy remembers the second because the way the other's angry face trembled at the door when everyone met that once, him and you and a few others.
I know him, the boy says, a whisper of a sword drawn in the dark. He looks like his family. I remember them.
You play the skeptic, which is needless because you drew the resemblance in the same way. Family ties. Their bodies swayed in the air like dancers in slow-Noh motion. That's how you recognized the parents--through knowledge of their eldest son, and you identified the rest of the bloodline with the regular ease of target marking.
The boy pulls up his knees to his chest while he sits and watches you pen out the recommendation letter to the training academy in petition for Eiji's enrollment.
The first boy thinks the second will be just as unhappy if he knew how many times certain conversations have been overheard. Maybe Eiji will be displeased for other reasons. There are questions of blame and guilt and collaboration unresolved, and as you have no reason to care about them presently, you also see no reason to stir the past.
An orphan, Eiji has become. So you keep him. Send him off to school. He says he'll be a policeman, just like his brother. Just like you, and you do not reply when he says that, only reach for your lighter.
The word comes whispered from the outer walkway, where the first boy huddles with your gloves clutched in his hands, white rabbits kept in a cage of his fingers. The fabric is stained at the knuckles from tobacco. When the boy finds them left stray upon a desk as he slips through your home, he lifts them to his nose and breathes the scent in.
It always takes hours for you to coax him to let them go.
Your smoke is not like Shishio's. Both fire, but his was gunpowder, and yours is paper-death.
At times Eiji exchanges himself for a person the boy knows better. Chou. You work with the sword-collector and he follows you out to lunch. Always impinges. Always asks you to pick up the tab. Loud and crass and noisy.
But you keep Chou on as your aide despite how his manners always infuriate your sense of decorum.
Chou was a member of the Juppongatana. He once held a child as hostage. He's killed even more. Even though the boy was told such things are supposed to be bad and so he pretends to understand, he does not know why you work together. Why the police employ him. Why Chou can walk up and down the streets with swords exposed and yet not be persecuted, not be hunted, and look perfectly at ease with the whole business of living in modern times.
The boy takes out the wanted books at times, runs his fingers over the sketch of himself laid in them. He examines the price his life is worth. Alive, for questioning. He is not worth enough to be dead, he discovers.
He doesn't understand why Chou is tolerated by the government, but he is not.
You know when the boy lingers in your home, walking up and down the halls as effortlessly as an invisible wind-demon. You never say anything about it either, ignoring him as resolutely as Shishio used to when the Ishin assassin thought the boy too empty for an order.
Eiji. Chou. Your beautiful wife. The boy studies her too, wondering what she is. Who is her smith? How does she disassemble? Can you take this Tokio apart as you would your katana, unsliding the pin of her obi to clean all her parts with an oilcloth, maintain her in working order?
Does she kill for you? Does she make you stronger?
The boy's voice is a ghost-question whispered at midnight as he watches you, sees how you regard the moon through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Is that why you keep her?
The Battousai is similar. The boy has watched Himura's dojo, finding a convenient perch in a nearby tree unchanged. Himura has an apprentice, a woman he has married, and now a child. Associates cluster around the assassin. He leans on them. Everyone remains alive, strong and weak alike.
Shishio retained companions because he could not do everything by himself, for all that he was monsterously capable on his own. Himura as well. Even you, with your wife and your orphaned student and your sword-collector.
The boy asks if he needs to follow in these footsteps, the path thrice-validated by you all. He walks the roads, pacing between both your houses as he tries to study what the whole of you have in common. He waits for orders.
What is it I should do, Saitou?
You give him no answer, but hold your hand out patiently for your pack of cigarettes.
Then your gloves.
The boy tells you that he asked Himura once about these questions. He wasn't sure if the Battousai was surprised to see him; one hand shifted on that reverse-bladed mystery Himura's carried all this while, instinctively bringing it closer to his waist. Even though Kenshin's sword was backwards, his grip was not.
The boy announces that he likes that hypocrisy in the Battousai. That denial.
The Battousai said there was an apology he still had to make.Brown hair spills on your floor as the boy rolls onto his back, arms spread. That he would spend the rest of his life in penance for what he'd done.
You grunt, a blank sound of indifference.
Does he feel guilty, Saitou?
Whatever you want, Soujirou.
Penance, the boy thinks aloud to you, implies guilt. That is what he can guess while reading Himura. That is what you also believe is happening, as the Battousai is wasting his skills denying everything that he has ever been. You do not like Kenshin's refusal of his own talents. It leaves a taste sour in your mouth when you think about such an infamous adversary choosing to throw everything away.
In order to cover up the bitterness, you light another cigarette.
He said he wants a world where no one has to ever lift a sword again. But I am a sword.Soujirou's legs shift as he refolds them, twisting the ankles automatically in case he will need to spring to his feet in an instant. Do I not fit in the Battousai's world unless I'm not myself?
You reach for a bowl of dinner rice, long-cold from where you'd brought it back to your study to eat during work. The Battousai feels ashamed about being who he is. That's what causes him to judge.
The boy looks at you, uncomprehending, eyes blue and wide and empty as the sky.
Should I feel ashamed for being me?
Room-temperature rice is bland; it reminds you of meals in Kyoto spent in huddled rooms, shoulder to shoulder with the other Shinsengumi while death raged outside.
Whatever you want, Soujirou.
Do I want the Battousai, Saitou?
There is so much left about the world that the boy says he does not understand. Shishio didn't bother to train him in common values. Now forced to play by new rules, the boy finds himself confused. Directions conflict.
You don't ask the boy to kill, but neither do you glare at him for it. Accidents happen. You understand this.
Do I want you, Saitou?
You don't say anything when he leans over, one hand near your leg and the other on the table, and sniffs your mouth after you have just drawn nicotine into your lungs. Sometimes he tastes it off you and tries to figure out what it means, tongue flickering like a cat washing its nose.
Nothing is what you say to him. Nothing is what you expect of him.
The boy likes how he's nothing to you. He isn't able to answer the question if he's asked, this child of the sword with his heart voiceless, but he likes that most of all.