Mukashi no Koibito
10 : Of Past and Present
In the darkened room, Megumi lay quietly with Sanosuke. The sounds of the night were harsh; the crickets seemed to be calling louder than ever, and a wayward breeze threatened the wind chimes, making them sing in frenzy. Yet she was only aware of him, his presence and his even breathing. She threaded her fingers through his hair and let them rest there, and with his head lying against her chest it seemed as if she were clutching him to her in a gesture of possessiveness.
He shifted a little, and his beard grazed her bare skin. She was now familiar with the roughness, for it was always there, even when he was gentle. This gentleness was not one borne of fumbling inexperience, as might have been some years ago. He was gentle with deliberateness, because he wanted to please her.
After so long, he was still taken with her. When he was younger, she had rejected his affection, because she had thought of him as foolish and incited by irrational passion. He had saved her, and his head had been filled by romantic delusions of being bound to her because of the fact. That she possessed beauty spurred on such thought. Few men were invulnerable to her bold charm, the kind that they coveted but did not want in their wives. Even the good Kenshin had surreptitiously looked at her with admiration more than once, even though her flirting perplexed him. He had married the innocent Kaoru in the end.
There had been things she was forced to do that in her lowest moments she felt as if soul and body were sullied beyond redemption. Perhaps this was why Kenshin did not want her. He was as stained as she was, only by choice, and so he sought purity. If that logic was reversed, then it explained why the straightforward Sanosuke chose her. There was much allure in the contrary.
Sounds coming from the next room interrupted her musings. They were deliberate sounds, at first of feet shuffling, then a chest opening with a loud creak and the rustle of clothing being rummaged through. Something fell onto the tatami with a dull thud. She smiled, then laughed. Sanosuke chuckled too, a low sound in his throat that she could feel against her. She thought he had been asleep.
"Yahiko is trying to tell us something," he said softly.
"He's not very good at being subtle, even when he's being subtle."
"The boy has given us too much time already."
"It's not enough."
Against her, she felt his breathing pause for a moment. Then he shifted so that he was propped up on one elbow beside her, and she could see his face. In the weak light of the solitary lantern, she was once again surprised by how much older he looked. She was by now familiar with the intricacies of his face, for she had studied it daily with an almost scholarly interest since his return. She knew about the faint lines at the corner of his eyes, his strong but now slightly crooked nose - he said it had taken one too many hits, his once lively mouth, which had acquired an unconsciously solemn pout. Yet despite this knowledge, in her mind was forever embedded the memory of the eager, artless youth he had been years ago.
He was rough-hewn and reckless and a notorious fighter, a person who was deemed a different class from her. Yet these things mattered little when of himself he would give freely, if only she would let him. In Aizu, in moments of loneliness, she had slowly come to understand that the many standards she had used to judge him were but petty reasoning, the kind of thing that made life difficult. She had forced herself to be indifferent for too long, and in vengeance her suppressed feelings had broken free and stabbed her with ferocity during moments of solitude. She had longed for him as he must have longed for her.
In the next room, the cover of the chest slammed shut, as if Yahiko had let it fall down unceremoniously. Then came the sounds of him pacing up and down.
"How long more do you think before he comes in to wake us?" she whispered.
"The boy is mature enough to know his responsibilities," said Sanosuke. "The only reason why he hasn't yet is because he doesn't want to walk in on two naked people in the same futon."
He was grinning as he said, "I'll bet he hasn't seen anyone naked except himself!"
He laughed at the jibe, and she laughed with him, her laughter a delicate companion to his coarse one. The pacing in the next room stopped. Yahiko must have heard them. She imagined him pressing his head against the thin wall, desperately hoping to hear sounds of activity, that they were awake and getting dressed. His task not completed as yet, he had to be anxious to prove himself worthy to the men he admired. Though more a young man than a boy, Yahiko resembled the child Sanosuke, so eager to be thought of as capable by his Taichou.
She pressed her palm flat against Sanosuke's chest and pushed at him lightly, urging him to get up. From her vantage point on the futon, she watched him as he dressed. Scars marred the smooth brown skin of his torso, permanent marks of his tumultuous life. Some had been there since she had known him, like the prominent cicatrix on his right shoulder. Others were new, of which she had a first glimpse of just months before. He said he would always remember how he got every one, even the ones that could not be seen. There was one in his heart made by her.
He called out to her as he finished dressing. She stood up reluctantly and made a move towards the drawers where her clothes were kept, but he took it upon himself to fetch them for her. Carefully he unfolded the juban and helped her into it, his hands lingering against her body. He was not so much trying to help her dress as he was attempting, in some abstract way, of leaving his imprint on her. He pressed his rough warm palms against her breasts and her belly and her hips with the kind of careful precision more befitting of a physician. She let him, even though she knew they were wasting time. Just hours before they had loved each other to exhaustion, but she knew, as well as he did, how impossible it was to satisfy two people who carried in their hearts the anticipation of separation.
Finally, he struggled with tying the slip together, and she giggled at his effort, so that he nipped her at the base of her throat. He took her kimono off from the wooden rack.
"You spoil me, Sano."
"But not enough," he muttered.
The heavy feeling inside her rose suddenly, until it seemed that she would choke. She remembered the first time she felt it, just a week ago, when the two of them sitting on the steps of the house had caught sight of Yahiko. It certainly was a surprise to see the boy. There had been nothing in Kaoru's letters over the months about an impending visit, even though the news that Sanosuke was with her in Aizu had provoked unconcealed curiosity to no end. That day had been the first time Sanosuke saw Yahiko in years, yet he had not come forward to greet his friend with enthusiasm. He had remained on the steps, waiting for the boy to approach. There was something odd in the way Yahiko had his hands balled tightly into fists, his eyes looking straight ahead but not at them. The weight had settled in her heart for the first time that day.
Sanosuke was as awkward with tying her obi as he was with handling the silk kimono, even though she could see from the furrow of his brow that he was concentrating on the task now. Yet when he was finally done, he regarded her with nothing less than possessive pride. He smoothed her hair, which had become tousled after lying with him.
"Will you do this again?"
"Never for another."
He took her hand tightly in his. It was time to go. Before he could reach for the shoji and slide it open, she tugged at his hand impulsively to hold him back.
"Stay with me."
"Come with me."
Even now, they were at odds with each other. She smiled, and he smiled. He just had to be so impetuously righteous; to make such an utter fool of the corrupt Tani that the minister wanted him arrested still. Yahiko had been sent by Kenshin to warn Sanosuke that his picture was everywhere on the streets of Tokyo. If the police could know of his return, then they could just as easily trace his path to Aizu.
She would not go with him. She had worked so hard to establish the Takani reputation once more, that abandoning the clinic would mean abandoning her reason for living. Her work had suffered because of him. The town had not been blind to the goings-on of the past months, and talk was rife about Takani-sensei and her secret lover. A few patients had stopped coming, while some came only to catch a glimpse of the rumored man. All this she could ignore, for there were those who remained loyal. Yet if she should leave with Sanosuke, the legacy of the Takani family would be of its last daughter having eloped with a wanted man. The work of her father and forefathers would be forgotten.
Outside, Yahiko was dressed and waiting. He was to escort Sanosuke far away, to the Shikoku or Kyushu regions perhaps. Anywhere but here, and he would be safe. The boy watched the two of them carefully as they entered the living room. His eyes traveled down to where their hands were linked, and he looked away. He clutched at the string that held his sakabatou over his shoulder, twisting it with uncertain fingers.
"I'll make sure Sano stays safe, I swear it."
Letting go of Sanosuke's hand, she walked over to where Yahiko was standing. She put her hands on his shoulders. Though brash and somewhat rude, Yahiko was kind. It was hard on him to see them separate, because he wanted to believe in their happy ending. Of youthful idealism he had plenty, just like the Sanosuke of years ago. He had grown up with Kenshin's ideals, but in character resembled Sanosuke more than anyone else. She was glad he chose Tsubame. Someday he would marry the girl, and she would bear him children.
"I might go see the world again," said Sanosuke. "Maybe I'll take you along Yahiko!"
Surprise crossed the boy's solemn features for a moment, then a brief smile. He nodded. In silence he slipped out the door, leaving Sanosuke and her. In the sudden quiet of the house, she realized how she missed their time alone. What lovers did, they had indulged in freely within this sanctuary.
"Megumi, one day..."
She leaned into the familiar hardness of his body, and he held her to him. She believed him. He would come here to look for her time and again, though they would never belong to each other. One so restless like him was meant for a wanderer's life; he had decided that the day he left his family to join the Sekihoutai. She was bounded to Aizu, the place of her birth. Sanosuke kissed her once more, a rueful kiss of parting, and then he was gone, into the arms of autumn's night.
Outside, the night sky was vast and infinite, stretching far beyond what the frame of the window allowed the eye to see. The same sky that watched over her life many, many years ago. Megumi wondered how much more there was to know, how much more that she had not been privileged to discover. Perhaps knowledge was not a privilege, but a pity. There was no sleep to be had tonight.
Behind her, she heard the rustle of sheets, the comforting sound of Sanosuke as he slept. She smiled at the sky. When she felt warm hands clasp at her waist, she turned around in surprise. So he had awoken. He did that sometimes, when she was not by his side. It was not very long ago when he had returned to her, and he still lapsed into the odd bout of missing her. He of course, would argue otherwise; she had wanted him back just as desperately.
"Why won't you sleep?"
The words were said quietly into her hair, as he rested his head at the curve where her neck joined her shoulder. His breath warming her skin made the moment more corporeal than the memory of what had transpired between them, and she was grateful for it. She leaned into him, as she had done before. Only now she had him, maybe. Fate was a capricious entity, as cruel as it was kind.
"Tell me," said Sanosuke, his voice sad.
So she did.
This fic was written on impulse. I thought it would be brilliant if Sanosuke and Megumi met in present times, so in a haze of inspiration I fleshed out their first meeting. I never really thought of what would happen after that encounter, and so the story only developed as I wrote each chapter. There is unevenness to some chapters because of this, though it was an interesting way to write.
Looking back, the idea is as irrational as ideas come. Reincarnation isn't supposed to happen, and even if it did, it doesn't happen the way it happens here. This fic is unabashed romance, but not without cynicism.
I thank all my reviewers. You make me a happy girl.