My God, how long it's been since I thought her name to myself. Seeing it now, written down here, it brings me pain. Deep, old pain.
She was mine. Body, heart, mind, and soul. Never had I possessed anyone so completely, nor had anyone so completely possessed me. It was her lesson to me, one that I carried next to my heart the many years I had to live without her, that I could not take of her without giving half of myself in return. And it was a feeling of completeness unlike any I had ever known.
Not a night passes that I don't think of her. My mind has grown a bit softer as I get on with my years. It's hard for me to admit that, but it's as plain as the fact that the hand that clutches the pen is wrinkled and shot through with arthritis, that my eyesight is dim enough that I have to almost press my nose to the paper, and that my voice shakes with age as I bother Yahiko for more ink.
Yahiko… He's old now too. His hair long since turned the color of snow, his eyes dark and tired over bangs he never finds the time or inclination to cut. He still teaches the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu here at the dojo. I'm not certain whether it's odd or perfectly fitting that he is the one who passes on Jou-chan's legacy instead of Kaoru's own son. Maybe Kenji didn't have the head for teaching. Or maybe it just, as I said, seemed more "fitting" that Yahiko be the one. He seems...to have more pride in it.
I never really got the chance to know Kenji very well. I regret that. I also missed most of Yahiko's best years, out spending the days of our youth seeing what I could of the world. I regret that much more sharply. He'd turned into quite a fine young man, and a brilliant swordsman. I wish I could have seen him in his prime.
I wish for a great many things, but in the end I know things will continue regardless of me just as they always have.
This small dojo has meant so much to us. Its doors opened wide and offering a home to ones who might have otherwise never known what a home could really be. Even as I wandered from Japan, the Kamiya dojo remained the place, somewhere back in my thoughts where I didn't have to embarrass myself by dwelling on it, where if I went back there, they would take me in, anytime. Because it was "home." Because there were people who cared for me there.
Though now it's only Yahiko who'll miss me when I go.
He knows. I can see it in his eyes when he looks at me sometimes. There will be moments when he opens his mouth as though to speak, then close it again, unable to make the words come.
Maybe something like, "Did you come home to die, Sano?"
And I guess the answer would be yes.
Winter's ending, and I'm thinking I might fade away some time in the spring. I've been living with ghosts the past two years since I've been back. Sleeping in Kenshin's old room. Sometimes it's almost like I can expect to walk outside and see him with his sleeves tied back, hanging out the wash to dry, or chopping logs or carrying in groceries or any of those other chores he spent most of his day doing.
Sometimes I get a sense of our Jou-chan as well, dwelling strongly between these walls.
I miss them.
Nostalgia's a funny thing… It's what made me decide to take up this pen, and fill these pages. That, and maybe another reason I can't really explain.
I never told anyone about Shino. I doubt anyone would have believed me anyway. It was…impossible. What happened was something that couldn't have really happened. I've spent my life since that point desperately hoping that it hadn't been just a really long, elaborate dream, something my mind forced me to believe when I was so desolate and lonely. Then sometimes I hoped that it was, because the loss of it was for a while more than I could bear. Easier to believe that it wasn't real. That I had just gone mad long ago, and getting old now is just an excuse for it.
But I can't believe that, not really.
She was real. I felt her, knew her. I breathed her, drank her. She smelled of sandalwood and spring wind. Purple lightning. I kissed the scars on her face, trying to heal the pain there. She was real. That place, the backwards mirror of my home, it was real too. I don't know how it was, but it was.
My fear…is that woman will be forgotten once I am gone.
When I finish this narrative and put it away, someone will find it when they go through my things after they put me in the ground. Yahiko most likely. Even he might think these are the foolish dreams of a crazy old man.
But he, and anyone else reading this will know Shino's name. Whether they believe she existed or not doesn't matter. In some form, she'd be remembered.
And that thought alone brings me comfort.