Senescence

October 18, 1914

There is a chill in the breeze that nips him from behind. It brushes the thick, lined sleeves of his kimono, and for a moment, they flutter. His long fingers ache; he clasps them together and they respond with familiar stiffness.

Saitou bows his head.

He listens to the priest's voice; the chant of the sutra, rising and dipping. The words have blended into a long, seamless intonation. He finds it soothing, this melodic, rhythmic prayer. It blankets the spaces between his thoughts; a temporary filler.

This consolation surprises him, for he has never been a religious man.

The wind returns, buffeting thick crowns above. Leaves are plucked by the current; shreds of auburn and flame, they swirl and eddy. Some tumble at his feet, fragile remnants of a season past. They scurry across the temple stones, scattering between mourners.

The turn of seasons is always this way; slow at first, but then the trees change colour, and almost overnight, they are stripped bare.

In the same way, she left him.

It started deep in the night. He would wake and find her side of the futon cold. Guided by the dim light of a solitary lantern, he would trace her to the kitchen where she sat, cradling a steaming cup of tea. Even with her features half masked by shadow, she could not hide it from him.

She was as familiar to him as the calluses of his own leathered palms. He understood what it meant when she was silent like this. The set of her mouth, the slight widening of her eyes; etchings of pain.

As sleeplessness became more frequent, the episodes longer, he noticed parts of her that had never been revealed. At first, they appeared as small prominences, becoming sculpted as the full cheeks and rounded curves of good health melted from her.

He could not bear to see her so gaunt. He took her to the doctor, who told them what they already knew.

Consumption, he called it, using the Western term. He gave her a powder to take, for the pain. It would help her sleep, he said.

In later days, that was all she did.

He lifts his eyes; stares ahead. A tall man stands in front of him, head bowed. The stark white kimono hangs loose from gaunt shoulders. His soft, rounded posture marks him as a learned man.

From him, his eldest son has inherited height, nothing more. Tsutomu's gentle manner, his love of books, his large, dark eyes; these are echoes of his mother. His hands are those of a scholar; supple and smooth.

None of Saitou's three sons are warriors.

They see their father, but cannot read him. They see a thin face, carved with lines, but they do not interpret them; do not see the thousands of sleepless nights, stab wounds suffered in silent agony and swift, promised death, delivered. They do not realise what lies underneath his clothes, on bare back and chest; a constellation of scars.

To them, he is an old man with pain in his walk and a deep, hacking cough. He drinks too much sake; smokes cigarettes all the time.

They do not know the name Saitou Hajime.

When Tokio became ill, they started to visit more often. Tsutomu and his wife, Midori, brought packages of food and other small comforts. Sometimes, their children would accompany them. The three sons had come to an agreement; they would see their parents on separate days. His second son, Tsuyoshi, would sit by his mother's bedside for the entire evening, praying. Tatsuo, the youngest, came only a few times, but he would stay the night, sharing a bottle of sake with his father. Their conversation would be pleasant, but Saitou could not become interested in the things Tatsuo spoke of. Meiji had come and gone, leaving in its wake a tumult of motor cars, electricity, a new awareness of England and America, advances in Western medicine; the influence of gai-jin. This was no longer his world.

They would inquire after his health, asking about the pain in his hips, his hearing, even his eyesight for God's sake. His cough sounded worse; had he seen a doctor? Were he and Tokio still coping, did they need more assistance? Tsutomu offered to pay for a maid; Saitou refused.

He cannot stand their pity. Today has been the worst; grief for their mother is mingled with sorrow for their father. They are kind people, too well-mannered to catch the meaning in his hard, penetrating eyes.

He needs time alone, to mourn his wife.

He never thought he would outlive her.

Locked together, his hands are saved from trembling. The cold does not leave his fingers and he clenches them tighter. The priest's cadence continues to rise and fall, but its calming effect has been lost.

Tokio, who truly knew him, is gone, and there is no-one else.

The chanting stops, and brittle leaves crunch underfoot as the mourners walk forward, to pay their last respects.

He steps back, allowing them this moment. Symbolic gestures mean little to him; he has spent the greater part of his life with her. He reaches inside his kimono and finds a crushed packet of cigarettes. They do not notice as he slips through the temple gates.

The tremor is there; it begins in the palm of his hand and transmits to the tip of the match. It takes him three attempts to strike and light it. The flame flickers; he cups his hand around, guiding it. The cigarette is a welcome presence between his yellow, stained fingers. He takes a long, deep draw.

And becomes aware of another, watching him.

Saitou knows this man. There was a time when his waking dreams were flooded with visions of him, elusive, his swift kills conjured from darkness. Unmistakable patterns of spray; impossible, spirit-touched ability. Saitou would have seen him buried, the war turned in an instant.

It is insignificant now.

They have seen the passing of two emperors, and countless lives. In the space of less than fifty years, the country has transformed into something not possible since the days of Hideyoshi; a well-oiled machine. It is a cruel trick of the gods that they have lived this long, with what they have done.

His grudge, like so many of the names he has been known by, is a forgotten memory, not worthy of mention. Himura figured out this truth long before he did.

His old enemy steps forward, emerging from the shade. Crimson leaves part around his feet, and Saitou recalls a vivid tail of hair; a flash in the night. Now it is cut short; a pale, faded sunset. His gaze is tempered, the madness long extinguished.

Himura's back is straight but his walk is slow and measured, betraying stiff joints. That is the cost of divine speed.

Saitou exhales, and the thin tendril of smoke is caught by the wind. He opens his mouth to speak, but there is nothing to say. All he needs to know has been written in violet; Himura's eyes offer no sympathy.

"My condolences, Saitou-san." What he gives is so much more; knowledge of what the passing of a loved one means.

And men like themselves, who have thrust so many into the next world, find it difficult to weep.

Himura, who knows him better than any of his sons, understands this.

"It will not be long until I follow her." Saitou flicks his cigarette, scattering embers into the breeze. He receives a small nod in reply. The man who has refused to kill is silent; he waits as Saitou finishes his cigarette.

"Then may you find happiness in your next life."

Saitou drops the smouldering butt, crushing it under his zori as Himura walks away.

He stares down the path until the small, pale haired figure disappears into a tall stand of oak. Then he turns, heading back towards the temple entrance. By now, they must be wondering where he is.

He looks down and sees his hands, thin and pale, marked by the sword and years of smoking.

They have stopped trembling.


Author's note: Okay, okay, this is not entirely historically accurate. There are a few inconsistencies that do not match up with the real Saitou Hajime's life. Tokio actually outlived her husband, and their third son, Tatsuo, was adopted by her maternal family, so they would not have had much to do with him. So I guess I've taken a few liberties, as always.

I don't really know where the idea for this story came from; I guess I was just trying to imagine what Saitou would be like as an old guy. For some reason I kept thinking of Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino, who is getting on in years, but is still a badass. I was also kinda toying with the idea of him and Kenshin living through Meiji (real-life Saitou did anyway; he died in 1915). Anyway, this is new territory for me, so hope this thing comes across all right.