A/N: This is my first Saiyuki fic (and, ironically, doesn't really have all that much to do with Saiyuki...). Considering the bunny pile, you can expect more in the (near) future.
The names Kenren and Tenpou are used throughout this fic for the sake of clarity.
Some people remember their past lives. Most don't. Those who do usually remember only small fragments and pieces, insubstantial and constantly shifting.
However, when one's past life was the length of a god's, certain things are impossible to escape. Even though they tried to peel away every memory I have; even though they did their best to scour my soul clean. I look in your eyes, and I know you. I know you know me.
When he woke up, the first thing he was aware of was how much his head hurt. Then, gradually, he noticed other things. The chirping of crickets. The smell and feel of straw, which made him sneeze. A chuckle.
Kenren opened his eyes. He was lying on the straw-covered floor or a barn, being watched by a man leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Kenren vaguely recalled being chased around by some villagers with pitchforks--something about going after the wrong girl. Damn.
"They're gone," the man said casually, reading Kenren's facial expression. "I misdirected them."
"Oh. Hey, thanks." Kenren noticed that his head was bandaged. "A lot."
"I have a question for you."
"Yeah?" Kenren asked, with a feeling of trepidation. This was going to be about the girl.
The man leaned forward, his gaze suddenly and curiously intent. "Do I know you?"
Kenren paused. The man's tone was one of genuine confusion. Kenren took a good long look at him, seeking recognition, and was suddenly seized by the eerie feeling that he had been the subject of this intent regard before.
He shook it off. "Don't think so," he said. "But hey, maybe in another life."
The man's expression did not change. "Maybe."
It's like looking at an impressionist's painting of moonlight and flowers and mist, and the painting is under water that ripples and flows over it, adding to the distortion. Almost indecipherable, and yet I see it; yet I pause to look closer. I know I've compared you to such a painting at least one, somewhere, in some other lifetime. I don't recall your response. Robbed is not how I feel. Lost is a better word.
"Hey. How about you pick on someone your own... oh."
The children had scattered, grateful for the older teen's interruption. Five of them, and none of them so grateful to flee as the ringleader who had been about to deliver a punch to the scrawny ten year old with his back to the wall. Or so Kenren had thought. But now he saw that that same ten year old was holding a knife, and looking at Kenren with a resentful expression.
"Uh... sorry about that. Thought they were terrorizing you." He looked at the knife again, and at the boy's lack of visible fear. "Guess I had that backwards."
The boy readjusted his glasses. "More a matter of mutual terrorization, I think." Kenren spared a moment to gape at his vocabulary. "But it was a decent gesture nonetheless. So I should thank you."
Kenren looked at the kid for a minute. What kind of ten year old spoke that way? Or had five other, older kids ganging up on him, or had to arm himself with a knife?
It might have been better to walk away. But Kenren looked at those eyes, and instead said, "Want me to teach you how to fight for real?"
The boy smiled.
It's like I can't see. I can hear, I can touch, I can sense the world I'm moving through, but I can't see it. I must set my course based on the echoes in my ears. Based on the tingling in my fingertips that lets me know all the things that are just out of reach. And so I stumble, bumping along, crashing into things and dusting the bits and pieces of them off me. I don't stop. I can still hear echoes, still feel the tingling in my fingertips. I have to keep walking.
This mode of transport has always, eventually, led me to you.
The man was asleep at his desk when Kenren came in. That in and of itself wasn't too unusual; lots of people took naps at their desks. But when Kenren impatiently jostled him awake, his new supervisor looked up at him and immediately, without hesitation, began to speak from somewhere in the middle of a conversation as though he expected Kenren to know exactly what he was talking about. The odd thing was, Kenren sort of did.
Which was weird enough for Kenren to interrupt him and point out that all he wanted was for Tenpou to sign some papers.
"Oh, yes," Tenpou said vaguely. "I do have to sign those, don't I? Um...hold on... pen..."
He began rummaging through his drawers, looking thoroughly disoriented by the need for something as basic as a pen. Kenren watched him with a bemused expression and a very strong sense of deja vu. This is all very familiar somehow...
Bu familiar or not, he knew (as the man found a green crayon and proceeded to sign the papers with it) that a crazy supervisor might be just the thing to take the edge off this crazy job.
Have you ever been someplace from your childhood, and known you'd been there before? Or read a story that felt too familiar to be new? That is seeing you. That is certain patterns of behavior, certain habits, certain likes and dislikes. Particular arguments and their associated apologies, particular resentments and affections. You are too familiar a story to be new.
It wasn't necessarily difficult to find each other. Growing up in nearby towns, finding jobs together, attending schools or wars together. Once, it was as simple as two men walking down the same rainy road, only one of them carrying an umbrella. When the rain came Tenpou caught up to Kenren and wordlessly offered to share it with him.
They shared it in silence for a long time. A very long time, because shortly after noticing each other they had each become so intrigued that they had determined to abandon their own destination and keep walking long enough to see where the other was headed. When, hours later, they finally realized what had happened, they had a good laugh and then began talking easily, like friends who've known each other all their lives but been separated for a long time. Like suddenly there wasn't enough time to say all they wanted to.
I could never forget. I could never remember.
Most people don't know there's a middle ground that exists between these two, but I have sweltered in it, pinned there without the ability to move either forward or backward, neither this life nor the last, chasing something that would dissolve in my hands if I could catch it. Is this the true punishment? Unable to remember and unwilling, never willing, to release the small scrap of memory that I do have? Death I will accept. But anonymity--never.
Perhaps it was because of the complacence with which they left each other the time before. The growing sense that the pattern had been figured out, that some things were to be expected. Perhaps they were starting to take each other for granted.
Whatever it was, in this life they did not find each other until it was almost too late. By then they were both jaded, bitter and lonely and unaware that something was missing. But they did meet at last, on the same side of a bloody battlefield, and spent an exhilarating ten days fighting back to back and an exalted ten nights staying up till dawn before they were cornered, and died happier than they had lived.
Distance has more than one dimension. Distance is standing here watching the blossoms fall, feeling that something unknown has been taken from me. Distance is watching the sun rise and knowing you don't see it, you are too far away from me. Distance is seeing you across the room and realizing I don't know your name. Distance is a coldness at my side at night, an empty space at my back in battle. Distance is searching hundreds of faces and not finding something I don't even know I'm looking for. Distance is a memory so faded and blurred that I no longer know what it is I feel distant from.
They faced execution calmly, labeled as heretics in a land that didn't tolerate them. A teacher, from a university that would be quite glad to get rid of him, and a student who hadn't been willing to let him take the fall alone. It had been many years since they'd found each other.
Tenpou thought to offer some apology for having taught Kenren the ideas that were going to kill him, but he knew Kenren would vehemently deny that anyone but himself was responsible for his actions. He thought to express gratitude for Kenren's company, but he knew the answer would be the same.
So it was Kenren who spoke first. "Hey," he said suddenly, turning to Tenpou. His eyes were clear of fear. "I'll find you. When this is over," he added, gesturing towards the executioner. "I'll come and find you."
"No," Tenpou replied, firmly. "You won't. I'll find you first."
And if the vows felt a little too concrete, larger than life, neither knew it was because they were a word-for-word echo of vows spoken centuries ago, before the last time they had been executed side by side.
This disorientation never ends. In some ways, your arrival only makes it worse. It's always there, like living in a house of mirrors, seeing your image and mine reflected back a hundred different times, a hundred minor variations, splintering and coming back together and splintering again. I do not even know where I am standing, much less where you are. I can meet your eyes in the mirror, but when I reach for your hand, I touch glass.
Once again, death almost outsmarted them. But this time they were quicker. This time Tenpou almost made it to Kenren's door before collapsing, and Kenren heard him without knowing he'd heard him, and went looking for him without knowing he was looking.
And when Tenpou saw him, he thought it was a figment of his too-weary brain that made him think You again, and smile so knowingly, so mockingly at the face that hovered above him. Thought it was nearness to death that made him see the beginning of recognition in that face before his vision went dim.
Yet when he woke, the recognition and the man that inspired it were both still there.
Here and gone and here again. Maybe I will start to remember you. Maybe I will start to forget. Maybe I will never understand who you are now, because I can't forget who you were then. Maybe it would be better if I could forget. But when I meet your eyes, I know it will never happen. I have died rather than forget. I'll do it again. It's selfish, but it's the only certainty I have. That when I look into your eyes, you will know me.
Don't look away.