A/N. I dedicate this story to Anneli, my psychoanalyst.
(out of the dark)
Flesh wounds bleed, and they may seem painful... But as time goes by, the pain eventually disappears. And if you use medicine, the wounds will even heal faster. But the tricky wounds are the ones in your heart. Those are difficult to heal. A wound of the heart is different from a flesh wound. Unlike a flesh wound, there are no ointments to heal it, and there are times when they never heal. But there is one thing that can heal a wound of the heart. It is a troublesome medicine and you can only receive it from another person. The thing that can heal a wound of the heart is...Love.
- Masashi Kishimoto, NARUTO
He couldn't see a thing.
He was in the dark, and there was no light. He should be horrified. Among all those fears filling him since he could remember there was one he admitted: that he would lose light in his only eye. Whenever he allowed himself to feel it, fright would seize his throat, paralyse him, made him frantically think of something else and try to stop the scream - the yell inside him - and to retain his senses... Now that he couldn't see anything but darkness, he accepted it calmly. In his life, there was hardly anything worth to be looked at. Even light abandoned him, and, in fact, it was quite fair.
There was still another possibility, much more tempting: he had ended in the emptiness and there was nothing beyond it. Of course, it had to be Hell; he'd never believed he could be saved. So, he was no longer alive, he was dead, he had died at the end of the world, in the foreign land... All right, it was good. Besides... no Hell could be worse from what he had experienced in his life.
He burst out laughing.
All of the sudden, the emptiness became alive and filled with sound. Whispers, cries, frantic moves. He could even... hear the words? Japanese. The language of his mother he knew as well as the language of his father. It seemed he had got to Japanese Hell... Maybe he should check his enthusiasm? If he remembered right, Japanese Hell wasn't a pleasant place.
He couldn't stop laughing - but it wasn't a real laugh; he could hear only a rasp coming out of his throat. His chest pained, and his breath turned into desperate rattle.
"Doctor, that gaijin regained consciousness..."
Someone touched his hand. "Can you hear me?" he heard, this time in Dutch. "Squeeze my hand or nod, if you can hear me."
Impossible. He could barely feel his body, and even less could he control it. He tried to speak, but only a moan left his lips.
"He doesn't look conscious to me. He lost a lot of blood. Maybe it's delirium...?"
"But he really..."
"The lungs and the heart are all right. Call me if anything changes. Have some potassium bromide in reserve. We should still have some left, right? Ah, I have to check our supplies today. Well, I have a moment now..."
The touch on his right hand diminished. He was going to be left alone, no... He didn't want to be alone. The first emotion since he had come around. He didn't want to be alone. Shift, hand! He focused all his will on that one move. His body was interfering with his will... but was that anything new? He must have lifted his arm a bit, for suddenly a pain pierced his shoulder - so severe he thought he would pass out again. His fingers just barely brushed against the fabric.
"Doctor, he moved!"
"So did he. Hey, you can hear me, can't you?" A strong hand closed over his own one. He calmed. "It seems you can't speak," the voice was heard closer. "Try to squeeze my fingers, you have once succeeded."
He tried. For a moment, he was under the impression he was grasping the whole world in his hand. A precious feeling. He felt like laughing again, now out of relief. "Then... it's... not Hell?" he whispered, putting all his effort in each word.
"You may be disappointed," came the reply after a moment of silence, "but we are in Japan. In Hakodate."
Hakodate. The place he had died.
"Although this place can appear Hell to you as well, I suppose. Ah, it's not time for philosophy. Where the pain is the worst?" came another wise words.
He had no idea. The pain in his shoulder had already eased; the rest of his body was dumb. He tried to move his head, and then he knew. He couldn't stop the moan when pain almost split his skull in two. He welcomed it as an old friend. If you feel pain, it means you're alive, right? Not that it was a happy thing in and of itself...
"I'm not going to examine you now, there's no such need. It would be best if you sleep now. In the first place, you have to rest a lot. You'll get another dose of morphine, it will help you fall sleep. I'm not giving you much, it wouldn't be wise after such head injury, so you will have to bear with the pain from time to time."
"No problem," he whispered. He had long since learned to live with it.
He felt a pin prick in his arm, and the world started to recede. He wanted to object, he wanted to stay, not vanish in that lonely emptiness... But exhaustion took the best of him.
He woke up upon the warm sensation on his face. He spent a moment, trying to figure out this feeling, and then he remembered about the sun. He must have been lying in the sunlight - which seemed absurd since he was surrounded by darkness. He couldn't recollect the last time he had seen the sun. He had seen... Actually, when could he see? What he had been seeing? What...
He clenched his fists, crumpling the rough fabric of the sheet in his fingers. Suddenly, he though he didn't want to remember. He didn't need. He didn't need at all. Maybe later, not now. Now... Now he could focus on the moment. And try to return to the body that still felt like someone else's - except for the moments of pain, when he was more than aware of it.
Yesterday - or so it seemed to him - he had been so tired he'd fallen asleep after exchanging just a few words with... a doctor. He tried to recall that talk. He hadn't learned anything new. He was in Hakodate, and he wasn't all right, but he didn't need a doctor to tell him that, ha ha... Right, he planned to get accustomed to his body again and remind it about being its owner, for apparently he had neglected it quite seriously. As for the head, it would be best to leave it alone, for the time being - he could still remember the splitting headache, and besides the doctor had mentioned about some injury. Then, it was wise to start from... the legs. He wanted to move them, but after some failed attempts he realized he had no reference point. He could as well be in vain. He wouldn't get far - how could he find a way around the problem...?
The sun. The sun was out there. Judging from the warm on his face, to his right. It meant a window must have been there, to the right. Behind him was probably a wall; the hospital beds were usually arranged like this. Then, a window and the sun to the right, and a wall behind him. He had to remember it. He wasn't that sure of the rest of the room; he probably wasn't lying in the single room, it had been far too loud for it yesterday when he had waked up, so he supposed there were more beds here. But today it was so quiet here... Well, he wouldn't figure this riddle now. A window, a wall, and a bed. He was lying on the bed, he was sure of it. The bed was a key. He wasn't floating in the vain, only lying on the bed. There was a mattress and a sheet below him. His legs were on the other end of the bed. Only five feet and seven inches farther, more or less. It was a good thing he wasn't a giant; he wouldn't have fitted in the Japanese bed, and they would have a problem with him...
Then, feet and toes. Surely he had them. Well, come one, first the left one. When he managed to move it, it was a victory. And, by the way, he found out he had a calf, too; an extra point for him. The numbing was no longer so bothering; his skin could really feel - he realised his big toe was brushing against the cover. He was over the hump now. The right foot - also functioning. He moved both of them, simultaneously and by turns. So far no pain, only pleasant tension radiating upwards, to the knees. So, he had knees, too. Of course, why should he not have them? He tightened muscles of the thighs - it worked. He wouldn't overdo it if he pulled up his knees, would he? His legs seemed perfectly well: he could feel them as well as move them. It was like climbing Fuji-san. Well, perhaps not Fuji-san at once... He would settle for Aso. There would be time for Fuji, too.
For a moment, he was lying with his knees up, relishing the feeling of the sheet under his feet. He shifted his legs a few times, making sure they were healthy, and then he straightened them again. He started to wonder how to get to the belly, when it remembered itself: he was hungry. It could be that such a slight effort evoked his hunger. Well, sooner or later, someone would surely bring him something to eat. For now, he could go on with the exercises. He didn't know when his strength would run out, so he should use the opportunity. There was no point in engaging the torso - after all, he couldn't move it - and only tightened some abdomen muscles a few times. The belly too seemed okay. But, well, if he had received a stomach wound, he wouldn't have been lying here, only in the mortuary. And, instead of darkness, he would have really be looking at Hell.
Hand. The left one, of course; there was something off with the right one, so he decided to leave it for later. After his experiences with the legs, moving fingers was a child's play. Ah, but he had moved them already before. He shifted the arm and felt a chill when the hand moved over the edge of the bed, got out of the cover and hung in the air. For the first time, he became aware of the gravitation. Good, he would try to oppose it. Immediately, it appeared that horizontal or supported moves was a simpler thing - but he didn't intend to give up, and finally he managed to lift his arm. For a moment, he kept it up, feeling its quiver, and then he let if fall down on the cover. He was breathing fast, as if he had just climbed a hill. His blood was thumping in his head, evoking another headache, but he didn't care. It would probably go away soon.
He wasn't going to abandon the left hand yet. He had to know... He waited until his breath turned even again and his head stopped pounding, and lifted his arm again - but not much, only to reach his face. His fingers were trembling, not only due to the fatigue, when he touched his nose. He hesitated and then, feeling cowardly, moved them to the right. The old scar crossing his eyelid, an old friend. He never looked at it - just like now he wasn't - trying to forget it, but he had always been aware of it. On the other hand, maybe it was easier to remember it instead of all those scars he couldn't see? His hand trembled, and he forced himself to focus. He moved his fingers onto his forehead until they felt the dressing and dried blood. The wound didn't seem deep, it was more like a scratch, he didn't even feel it. The muscle of his arm twitched in a warning, so he had to hurry. There was no point in lingering. He was a big boy; he had coped with many things, and he would cope with this, too. Still, he held his breath and couldn't stop his hand from quivering when moving it onto the left eye.
The relief was so great he felt like crying. His hand fell onto his chest that moved up and down along with his deep breaths. There was nothing wrong with his left eye. No wound, no scar. Now that his fears disappeared, he had more strength to examine it again. Nothing. No swelling; the skin was completely smooth. Nothing indicated it was damaged. He could even open it. Yes, he could feel the eyelashes under his fingers. Everything was all right. He hadn't lost it.
Only after a while he realized that, if the eye is all right yet he still couldn't see a thing, the matter could be much more serious. How could it be: to have a healthy eye and be blind? What did it mean? He had to... ask the doctor. The doctor would surely know. He seemed... he seemed to be knowledgeable. He would surely know. He would surely... help him.
He took some deep breaths. There was only the right hand left. Only right hand, and he would rest. It was his last task for this day. He wouldn't have to do anything else. He tempted himself, tried to convinced himself, but the fear was stronger. He hadn't forgotten that pain, evoked yesterday by a slight move only. In fact... he didn't have to do it today He could do it tomorrow. Tomorrow was better, no doubt. Tomorrow...
"Aaaah!" the scream left his throat unawares.
"What is it?!" an anxious woman's voice penetrated his suddenly disturbed consciousness. "I'll call the doctor."
The pain was excruciating. It spread in his chest, reaching his neck and abdomen and coming closer to his heart, but its centre was well defined under his clavicle. It was such a pain as if someone had pierced him with a sword.
Someone had pierced him with a sword.
One more cry, much softer, escaped his mouth. Shock. A recollection. A picture making the pain stay. A samurai with an expressionless face. Akizuki Yōjirō. The man even younger and a head shorter than he. Piercing him with his sword. The bullets cannot hurt him, they never could.
Another scream stuck in his throat, turning into rasp moan of frustration.
"Prepare morphine," a strong voice defined the dark world again. Ah. The window, the wall, and the bed. The sun. They were there. And he was there too. Here. A warm hand touched his forehead. "Now, calm down. The pain will ease in no time, although you will still suffer from it later. Where's the injection? Thank you."
"No... Don't want... I don't want," he objected. "It's... fine." He was breathing fast. When he wasn't moving, the pain wasn't so bad. He could barely feel it. "I don't want to sleep," he whispered. "It's all right. I'll manage." He had to convince him. He didn't want to sleep again. He wanted to... "Eat."
The silence followed, and then something like a stifled chuckle was to be heard. "All right, then. If you want to eat, it means you're not that bad," there was still a laugh in the doctor's voice. "Nurse, in that case bring some porridge."
The pain was but a memory; his heart and breathing were calming. He could master himself, he had everything under control now - at least, what he could have. He would know he should leave the right arm alone. It was a good thing he tried it.
"I suppose you moved you arm in sleep?" the question merged in one with a scraping sound. Apparently, the doctor pulled up a chair for himself. "I didn't immobilize it, but maybe I should have..."
"No," he whispered and licked his lips. "I was checking how it is."
"Wait, have some water. Here, don't choke."
He felt a cold glass over his lips and then a wonderful taste of water. Strange, he hadn't realized he had been so thirsty. He would gladly drink the whole flask... and doctor did allow him until there was no more.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"Will you tell me what you were checking?"
"If I can move."
"You're fast. When they brought you here, you looked three quarters dead, and now you're moving already?" the man was smiling again. "Not that I'm not happy. We really feared for your life, but you must be tougher than you look. But, forgive me," he added as if he suddenly remembered something. "I'm Takamatsu Ryōun. I manage this hospital. Do you remember that we're in Hakodate?"
"Can you remember how you got here?"
He hesitated. He remembered... something. Nevertheless, he vaguely felt he didn't want to remember many other things. His heart started to pound again. "I..." he started and paused, swallowing.
"Oh, no, we don't need to talk about it now," the doctor assured him. "Here is your porridge. Nurse, please. We don't want to move you, so you have to eat lying, the nurse will assist you. Carefully, it may be hot. I'm going to see the next room, and then I'll be back."
A spoon containing well known meal touched his lips, so he opened his mouth and received the food. He had never been an admirer of porridge, but now it seemed most wonderful thing under the sun. He swallowed it down hastily, never caring about the temperature. At the very most, he would burn his tongue, but it was nothing compared to his injuries. Right, he had to ask the doctor... He got anxious. Was the doctor really coming back soon? He must have had many patients...
However, once his meal was over and he thanked the nurse, the familiar voice was to be heard in the room, "You have an appetite, that's good." The doctor sat down by his bed again. "If you were unconscious for longer, we would have a problem. I believe one day we will be able to nourish unconscious people too, but we're still half-way there..."
"How long... have I been here?"
"Today is the third day. They brought you here a day after Goryōkaku had fallen. I suppose it's when you got those injuries...?" the doctor apparently waited for some answer.
He kept silent. He had no idea what had happened to him. And what had happened anyway. Goryōkaku had fallen? That meant Enomoto had been defeated? He felt dizzy. "Who is governing the country now?" he asked before he thought about it.
The doctor laughed. "It's the most crucial thing, isn't it? Emperor Mutsuhito. The Republic of Ezo was brought to its end... As a supporter of Bakufu, I'm not in a comfortable situation now, but I still hope to be pardoned," judging from the tone he was speaking in, he didn't seem to care about it too much. "I have more important things to bother myself with," he explained. "The war is finally over, but we are going to deal with its results for a longer while. I suppose many participant will never leave this hospital..." He mused. "But it doesn't concern you," his voice got energetic again. "Do you think you're ready to tell me about yourself?"
"My name is Kanna Sakyōnosuke. I am... I was... I worked for Consul-General Parkes."
"You're English?" there was a genuine astonishment to the doctor's voice.
He answered after a while, "My father is English. My mother is Japanese."
"Then, you're both English and Japanese!" the doctor commented smoothly although apparently caught his hesitation. "It's great! Kanna-san, is it so? And here I thought you were Dutch, probably your hair misled me. Apart from this... What is British Empire doing in Ezo?" he asked almost casually. "As far as I'm concerned, they remained neutral in that conflict. Even if they recognized the Republic, they did nothing to support it..."
He didn't say anything. He could ask himself the same question. In reality, the Empire was never neutral and instead always sought the opportunity to expand its influence. Officially, the Empire had recognized the Republic, but unofficially Parkes had been supporting the New Government of Japan, and to such extend he had given him a special task to assassinate Enomoto. The task had not succeeded, it hadn't succeeded at all, but the realization of it didn't bother him. There was something wrong with Enomoto... something very wrong... but he didn't feel like thinking of it now.
"All right, you don't have to say anything," the doctor's voice interrupted his musing, and now there was a slight disappointment to it. "I regret it, but the times we live in don't let people trust each other. Though... I hope it can be possible in this place, at least."
"Doctor, what's wrong with me?" he asked the one question he could no longer delay.
He waited a moment for the answer. "You were wounded in your right shoulder. One stab through, probably with a katana. It's a miracle you haven't bled to death. We managed to evacuate hemothorax. Fortunately, the blade evaded all vital organs. The wound is healing well, but you are not allowed to use your right arm for now. Are you right- or left-handed?"
"Oh, then there's not a problem. While we're at it..." The chair squeaked; the doctor must have got up. "I can examine you now."
"I'm able to move my legs and arms," he anticipated.
A hand on his cover stopped. "Do you? And if you had your spine injured, what then?"
"Then I wouldn't have been able to move them."
The doctor burst out laughing. In spite of himself, Kanna felt the corner of his lips twitched.
"Right, you mentioned something about checking," the doctor's voice was warm. "You don't dawdle, that's for sure. And you're tough. You're probably fancying you're going to get up, leave here and go home in a few days?"
The man couldn't possibly mean anything wrong, but for some reason the word 'home' pained him. He swallowed. Maybe he was going to get up and go... but where? "Not really," he murmured, suddenly feeling tired. "I can't see."
"That's what I though," the doctor didn't seem surprised.
"Everything is fine with my left eye, right? Why can't I see? I lost the right one in childhood, it was an accident. One moment and it was that, but the left is okay, isn't it? Then why..." He stopped. He had been calm just a second ago, and now he felt he was going hysterics, which couldn't help anything. Yet he couldn't control his fear. Yesterday, when he had waked up, it seemed all the same to him, but now... Now that he felt how it was to be alive again, he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in darkness...!
"You're correct," the man replied after a while. "Your eye is fine, it reacts to light and all. It means that the problem is in you head," he added, and for some reason it sounded a bit philosophical.
"In my head? Like, I've gone mad, and that's why I can't see?" was the first thing that occurred to him.
"My God, no!" the doctor laughed again. "Not even psychiatrists thought of it yet. Have you ever heard that the injuries in the back of the head can cause the problems with vision, blindness at worse?"
He gulped. Yes, he had heard about it. Did it mean...? At worse...? "Yes," he whispered.
"I don't know how it happened, but you must have hit your occiput very hard. I can't tell whether the bone is broken or not, for you have a pretty big hematoma in there. It looks as if you were thrown against the wall. Maybe you were caught in an explosion, we had a lot of them, and no-one really know what caused them..."
He wasn't listening. The life was really unfair. So vision was at danger from both front and back? He had always tried to protect his only eye, and now it appeared it had been all for nothing. That when he had been looking ahead, the enemy had sneaked from behind, inflicting the most severe harm... Sure, he had been unconscious, he couldn't help it, he should be happy he was still alive... But the feeling of defeat was too strong. He hadn't been able to protect even himself.
"...until hematoma is gone, there's no other way. It's possible that we're dealing with a transient state, caused by cerebral edema. Once it's healed, you may as well be able to see again. As you've said, there's nothing wrong with the eye itself."
He blinked. "What did you say, doctor?" he whispered.
"That everything may be all right, so we can't lose our hope. Besides, you're recovering quickly, and that's a reason to be optimistic. Only two days ago we were at a loss as to whom we should notify had the worst happened, and today, just see: you can move and talk to me. Kanna-san, are you really human?" the doctor asked with some new respect.
"I... I'm no-one special," he muttered.
"Forgive me, but I think you're wrong. I'm sure you have a lot of interesting things to tell. But now I have to go. I'll see you in the evening, Kanna-san. I'm happy you're feeling better, but resting is most essential now. Try to sleep as much as you can, and you will recover soon. If you need anything, just call. The nurses are nearby, although everyone is busy."
"Doctor, I... Thank you."
"Now... You will thank me when you really go home. Ah, right. Whom can we notify that you're here?"
He swallowed. "No-one," he whispered and wasn't even sure it could be heard.
He felt a light grip on his right hand, then heard steps and was alone again.
So there was hope that he would be able to see again. It was wonderful - and he wanted to believe it - but he couldn't really be happy about it. The doctor's words of home had disturbed his calm, all that... fighting spirit he'd been feeling since regaining consciousness. He would recover, maybe he would even see again - but what then? Where would he go? He had no home he could return to. He had no-one to return to. For how long had it been like this? For ever?
The doctor could say he was a citizen of two countries - he was, de facto the first person appreciating it - but himself he felt alien in both of them. In Japan, when he had been brought up, people would always make him understand he didn't belong here, while England would acknowledge him only when it suited her. When he could not be use to her, he could as well not exist at all. Like now. Of course, what else could he expect? Such were the rules of the world, and, to tell the truth, he abided by them himself. Since he had failed Her Majesty Queen, he had no right to seek her favour; he realized it perfectly. Only that now he had no strength to fight for it again. He had always tried to make someone acknowledge him... No, make someone see him... yet he could never get it. No matter how well he behaved and took care of the tasks given to him, and even if he was the best... he always disappointed others.
Now that he had suffered a total defeat - and who cared that Enomoto was not a normal man who could be killed? - he found no words of comfort. Her Majesty didn't look upon the losers. She shouldn't. He couldn't. She was a queen, and she always aimed up. If one wished to serve her, they had to perfect themselves - not slide down. And he was too tired to go up. Too tired...
He waked up in the warmth again, which meant he had slept a whole day and night. It didn't matter, except for that he was awfully hungry and his bladder needed to be emptied. He got porridge again and some tea, and he was helped to take care of his bodily needs, as discreetly as possible - although, to tell the truth, as he was in the darkness, it didn't bother him at all. Besides... Maybe it was just him, but he felt better. His head was no longer pounding, and his body seemed lighter. No, it wasn't like this; not 'lighter' like in 'not feel', only that it was easier to move his limbs. Today, much more than yesterday, his body seemed to belong to him, not someone else with just his mind inside. He exercised a bit - moving his legs and left arm - and it wasn't that difficult as the previous day. His back was sore from constant lying flat - if he was correct, it was already the fourth day in bed - but he didn't dare to make any changes to his position without consulting it with the doctor.
As he managed to think about it, the merry voice was to be heard, "Good morning! What language do we speak today, Mr Kanna?"
"Japanese," he answered in English too. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
"In the countryside, do like the rest. You have some point," the doctor agreed, sitting down by his bed. "But, Kanna-san, you really speak perfect Japanese. To tell the truth, you speak like a native Japanese, though you look like a model European..."
"I spent first years of my life here," he confessed reluctantly. "Japanese was my first language..."
"Who would have thought? Then, where are you from? That is, if you want to talk about it..."
He hesitated. He did - and he did not at the same time. Someone asked him, was interested, was showing him some respect he didn't really understand but enjoyed it... On the other hand... These were not pleasant times, and he never reminisced them.
"My mother... was a courtesan in Yoshiwara," he said quietly and was glad there was no reaction he had subconsciously awaited. "My father was a British Royal Navy vice admiral," he went on. "My... parents... were not married. Mother never told me how they'd met, but it's not so difficult to imagine it," he said bitterly. "As well as what had happened next."
"Forgive me that I interrupt you, but it's a miracle you've come to this world in the first place," the doctor pointed out. "As far as I know, the courtesans rarely have any chance to bear a child, not mention to bring them up. You have been really lucky."
"Lucky?" he repeated in disbelief. He had never considered himself to be lucky. Quite the contrary, for most of his childhood he had believed it to be better had he never been born. Too often he had been reminded he was a child of a prostitute.
"You are alive," the doctor replied as if it explained everything. "But, forgive me, I didn't mean to pass judgement. I don't know your story..."
"My father had the grace to send us some money," he said provocatively. The doctor wanted to hear his story? Here it was. And once he started, he couldn't really stop. "But my mother returned to Yoshiwara. I grew up in the skirts of Edo, with her distant relatives," who treated me like a waste of space. "I could barely see her. One day, some English potentate got interested in her when visiting Japan on business. He bought her contract and took her to London, though he wasn't that happy when she demanded that he took me along. It was ten years ago. That's when I saw her for the last time..."
"She disappeared. He took her somewhere. She never came back. She probably... didn't want to come back," he whispered. She had left him. She had always been leaving him.
"Inhuman," the doctor said quietly. "Forgive me, I say what I think. And you stayed in London? All alone?"
"That man arranged a place in a residential school for me, so I had a roof over my head," he replied in an impassive voice. "I spent a few years there. Later, I was employed by Parkes, who needed people with a knowledge of Japan on his mission."
"How old are you, Kanna-san?"
The silent fell between them.
"It must have been hard," he heard after a while.
He felt like shrugging. His life had always been like that, and, in fact, he had managed to get accustomed to it. Complaining and self-pity wouldn't do him any good. He had to be tough, otherwise he had no chance. And he had to do everything in order to prove people he wasn't a waste. He had to move on and look ahead – for, had he stopped and looked back, his past would have crushed him. No matter how hard it was.
So the doctor hadn't said anything new, yet... something in his voice made Kanna hesitate before he put him off with a snort or something equally dismissive. Only after a while he realized that the doctor wasn't speaking with... pity, only compassion. He was astonished. For the first time in his life, he understood the difference... and felt at a loss as to how respond. He had always brushed his own feelings aside as unimportant - for they were unimportant, no-one ever cared... But now that someone else could look at his life and show him compassion... It was as if he could see himself through different eyes. As if he could see that little boy who had always been left alone.
It was not unimportant. It was not insignificant. But he didn't know how he should relate to it, and thus he kept silent.
"Then, maybe it's time that I examine you?" the doctor's voice broke into his thoughts. "I suppose you're sick to death of lying down. Our main goal is to mobilize you, so it would be good if you spent the next days imagining the day you get out of bed. We aim for it, okay? We start from lifting your head. It will be a good chance to change your bandage, too. Nurse, please, send Daigorō here and then bring me a new dressing."
He felt dizzy - both due to the sudden change of the subject and the situation in general. The doctor's words interrupted his reverie, and now he had to focus on the present.
"Daigorō helps with the patients," the doctor explained. "Most of them are soldiers. The nurses would have quickly collapsed if they had to tend to everyone themselves. Daigorō, help me to lift Mr Kanna."
"Yea," came the short reply. Daigorō didn't seem talkative, but apparently he wasn't here for that.
"Kanna-san, are you ready?"
He didn't know, but it didn't matter. The only way led ahead. "Yes," he said quietly.
"In that case, we start. First we lift the shoulders. Daigorō, it's your task. I'll be holding the head. Nurse, you will slide a bigger pillow. Yes, that's the one. Kanna-san, you do nothing. On the count of three. One, two, three.
He was so preoccupied, he didn't manage to notice something had happened. His back and neck objected as first; they had got used to the horizontal position he had spent four last days in, and now they didn't welcome the deviation well. Then, his head started to pound, but the pain wasn't as overwhelming as before.
"Are you all right?" the doctor's voice broke through the thumping.
"Yes," he whispered, hoping for the invisible world to stop spinning. "I feel dizzy."
"It's normal," the doctor assured him. "It's going to recede soon. Apart from it, how do you feel?"
"I thought it would be worse," he answered truthfully.
"Try to move your head to the side, slowly," the doctor instructed.
He obeyed the order - or, rather, he started but had to stop immediately. The pain returned at once.
"It means that for now we leave your head alone," the doctor commented his hiss. "But you should try again soon. I'm sure the pain will ease off. It's good that changing position doesn't cause any greater discomfort. You will not have to lay flat all the time, and this is a good news, isn't it?"
"Now I'm going to change your dressing and examine the wound." He heard the fabric being cut next to his ear. "Tell me at once if anything is off. Daigorō, once more. Nurse, now you're going to hold his head, so we have to change places."
A strong arm slid under his shoulder blades once more and lifted him easily. At the same time, the female hands clasped his temples and firmly held his head in mid-air. The fabric fell down, tickling his right ear.
"Of course, the dressing is stuck due to dried blood and hair," came from behind. "I told you it was a nasty sight. Kanna-san, am I allowed to deprive you some of your beautiful gold hair?"
"I don't think they are that beautiful at the moment," he muttered with irony, trying to hide his embarrassment. "Please, cut as much as you need. They will grow out."
"I wonder whether I should use the scissors or a scalpel," the doctor went on jokingly, but then the well-known noise was to be heard, and suddenly Kanna felt as if something fell off his head. It wasn't an unpleasant impression.
"I feel lighter," he said cautiously.
"Maybe I should have become a barber instead," the doctor commented.
"I think they were the first to perform surgery in Europe..."
The doctor laughed. "Then, I didn't miss my vocation. Good, we have the dressing out of your hair. Or, rather, you have, and literally, on top of it. I can't see any bleeding, which means your wound is healing. I didn't even need to suture. But it looked more like a injury to a bigger area than a single cut, that's the problem. Now I'm going to torment you a bit, Kanna-san. Tell me what you feel."
"Nothing so far."
"Because I haven't started yet. Now, it may hurt."
It did, but not terribly. He could feel the doctor's finger gently touching the back of his head. He tried to imagine how it looked, but the only thing he could think of was a bloody steak before frying. He supposed the area was covered with dried blood and swelling. If only that, he should pull through.
"As if someone were compressing my wound."
"It's obvious, that's what I'm doing. Nothing more?!
"Hmm. Then, am I correct that you feel the pain only in your skin?"
"Then, I'll try to press a bit harder. How is it? Still nothing?"
"Very good. There's no fracture. It seems you were really lucky."
"Let me remind you I still can't see."
"Yes, I know. Don't worry, we will tend to it later. Since you have regained consciousness, we know that your brain is healing. We can't do nothing about it, we just have to wait," the doctor decided. "I know I repeat myself, but you were truly lucky, Kanna-san... Okay, we have ascertained that the bone was not broken, the tissues are regenerating, and there's no trace of infection. I'm putting a new dressing now. I thought I should disinfect the wound with carbolic acid, but I see there's no need for it. Apparently, the alcohol disinfection I performed on you at the beginning worked. Everything is still very soft and swollen, so any bigger toilette will have to wait. If four days of laying down didn't cause infection, it is unlikely that it would happen now, especially that you're going to have your head higher and your skin will be able to breathe. It's ready. You may lay him down. Thank you, nurse, Daigorō."
The new position was pleasant, especially when his body had got used to it. Before, he had been lying flat, and now at an angle of, say, forty degrees. In the meantime, the sun had moved towards the south, and he could no longer feel its warmth on his face.
"You look better," the doctor said all of the sudden.
"It was quite an exercise," he replied. "So if I got red, that's the reason."
"Apparently," the man didn't disagree. "It's a pity that we had to cut your hair... But, as you said, they will grow out. And besides, en face one really can't tell. If you don't say anything and Yoshiko-san doesn't spill the beans, the nurses wouldn't complain."
"They came here to look at you when you were unconscious," the doctor explained, obviously amused. "They still don't have many occasion to look at Europeans, although it's going to change soon, I suppose... In any case, you are nice to look at, so I'm not surprised. But I personally prefer you conscious."
"Doctor..." Again, he didn't know how to react.
"Kanna-san, I bet you have broken many hearts already," the doctor added with honesty untypical of Japanese. "The list of your assets grows longer as we speak: you're bilingual, which proves your intellect; you're both-handed, which proves your skills; and you're good-looking, too. Really, you should value yourself more."
He remained silent. On the one hand, such compliments were a nice thing to hear, but on the other... he welcomed them indifferently. He didn't remember the last time he had been told something pleasant and could believe it.
"Thank you, Doctor," he said evasively. "I feel better. I'm glad I could change the position."
"Then, keep recovering. And remember: positive thinking is essential."
After doctor's leaving, he decided he would think a bit, although not necessarily positively. Despite the favourable outcome of the examination of his head and doctor's words one could describe only as nice, he couldn't shake off the feeling of dejection. Maybe it was due to the talk of his past. For the most of the time, he tried not to ponder on it, precisely because he knew the very memory was painful. Although he tried to distance himself from those memories and pretended they belonged to someone else, it still hurt. Sometimes it hurt so much he didn't really notice it. Anyway, could it help anything if he tormented himself like that? It could be why he did all his best to avoid ruminating upon the events of his childhood. Besides... Could he become even more pathetic? He was a man, not a kid. A man should be tough and strong. Should not have such problems. Should not feel this way. It didn't befit a man.
The doctor said his head was healing well and there was still a chance that he regained his sight, but he couldn't really rejoice. Firstly, he feared to believe it and be disappointed later. It was better to be safe than sorry. The doctor called him lucky, but himself he wasn't that sure whether it was a good thing that he survived. What could life really offer him? He was an outcast. Japan had never accepted him, and England had renounced him. Now that Parkes had dismissed him, he didn't even know what was his situation. He was penniless, bedridden, unable to do anything. If his involvement in the conflict were revealed, he would be in trouble. Although... The victor was always right. He had been given the mission to assassinate Enomoto, so maybe the new government would look at him favourably? But it didn't change the fact that if he didn't recover, no-one would look at him at all, for he would be completely useless. The thought he would have to spend the rest of his life on the mercy of others made him wish even more that he were dead.
To tell the truth, he had no memory of the last few days, probably also thanks to the head injury. The last he could remember was the talk with Parkes, but it was so degrading he was better off not remembering it at all. 'I'm truly disappointed,' Parkes had said, not realizing how deep that stab was. Or maybe he had? Kanna wasn't sure whether he'd wanted to please Parkes in particular but... he'd wanted to be useful. He'd wanted to earn his stripes. He'd wanted to do something for England, for Her Majesty. He couldn't not do anything...! And Parkes had called him an opportunist - as if he had been seeing him as a person who seeks only their own benefits, a flag that oriented itself with the wind. And then the man had thrown him away, saying, 'Do what you like.' He had not been brought to justice. He had not been given any orders. He had not been seen as one of them to care about him in any way. Her Majesty had looked at him sternly, and then she had ceased looking at him. The very recollection made him get in a cold sweat. No, he definitely preferred to forget it.
What had happened after that? How come he had been in Ezo now? What for had he come here? It was a strange thing he could remember his clash with Akizuki, since everything else was very blurry - but why had he ever fought with him, in the first place? Well, it could be conclusion of their previous duel in Yokohama... and apparently he had lost. Now, he was lying here, with a wound in his shoulder, unable to move his arm... Maybe he would even lose the power in it? No, he could shift it. In any case, his situation was bad in every aspect. The doctor urged him to be optimistic, but... in reality he was under the impression he didn't want to live. That he... didn't deserve to live? He really should remember what had happened. If he did, he could probably figure it out. However, whenever he tried to use his brain in order to do so, he was under the impression he didn't want it. His heart started to pound, his breath got shorter... Pathetic. At this rate, he would soon fear himself. He really had to focus on something, otherwise he'd go mad.
Darkness. It was strange but he'd thought he would fear it much more. Sure, being blind didn't help his mood much, but... He accepted it with no feelings. Before, if one had told him to imagine himself completely blind, unable to do a thing and on the mercy of others taking care of him, washing him, feeding him and looking at him, he would have probably decided it was the worst that could happen to him. But now, apparently, he had 'adjusted' to it. He was amazed by the fact he didn't really feel any embarrassment. He knew he was lying in the bed, that the window was on his right and that someone visited him from time to time - everything else escaped his grasp. When alone, he would turn off. The darkness surrounded him and isolated him, and for the first time in his life it calmed him, almost made him feel safe - which was paradoxical in and of itself. He didn't know about other patients in his room, he could barely hear them - only sometimes the blanket of darkness would be pierced by some moan or rush of the personnel, but for the most of the time he was oblivious to any activities. It was peculiar: one would think that a person who lost their sight would twice as much use their other senses in order to figure out their situation. In his case, it was probably just like with children who believed no-one could see them when they closed their eyes, and that made him feel indifferent comfortably with the fact that other people tended to him. They weren't really there. He could not see their faces, he didn't know them, he could not look them in the eye - so it didn't embarrass him that they touched and fed him. So, the darkness had its advantages. And one could grow accustomed to it, too...
He woke up when it was light. He blinked a few times, wondering about what had changed, until he realized that the darkness had disappeared. His heart started to beat harder, he tried to calm it but couldn't overcome his excitement. He still could see nothing but was no longer alone in the dark. The black all around him had become a bit lighter. Could it mean he... started to see light?
"Nurse!" he called, and when she answered, he asked her to notify the doctor.
Takamatsu-sensei appeared soon, although for Kanna it seemed like an eternity. He feared that the sensation would vanish, that it was but a momentary improvement or even an illusion. He wanted to share the news and be assured he was not imagining it. Ludicrous. How could anyone confirm his sensations? he asked himself.
"Good morning!" the man greeted him happily in English.
"It is indeed," he replied and realized how much tense he was. "Doctor, I think my sight is getting better," he said right away.
"Kanna-san, I'm very happy to hear it," the doctor didn't seem as surprised as he could. "I suppose you still don't see much?"
"I can't see a thing," he corrected, "It's just become light. Lighter. It's not that today is a sunny day and before it wasn't?" he got anxious. Maybe his supposed improvement could be explained by degree of cloudiness? He hadn't thought of it earlier.
"Don't worry. Today is as sunny as it has been for the previous few days," the doctor assured him, "so it's a real improvement."
He breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't even realized he had been catching his breath.
"How are you feeling?" the doctor inquired. "Do you still have a headache?"
"To tell the truth... I don't."
"Then try to move it sideways. Slowly. First to the right."
He complied with the order, very, very slowly - and he did it! Only yesterday such an exercise had been completely unfeasible, his head protesting against the slightest attempt to move it, and only lying supine was in the question - while now he was able to turn it! He was still under the impression of some girdle squeezing his skull, but he probably had got used to it already and didn't pay attention. Moving no longer caused the feeling as if his head was falling to pieces. 'It's going to be a good day,' he decided with an optimism untypical of him. But why should he worry? It seemed he was really getting better!
When he was doing the same to the opposite direction, his right shoulder reminded of itself, but the pain wasn't so strong that he had to stop. It gave him some satisfaction.
"It looks great," the doctor commented.
"Does it mean I can change my position?" he asked, using the opportunity. "I don't want to complain, but lying on my back..."
"I know, I know. It's very uncomfortable," the doctor's voice was sympathetic. "I think we can try it, but I'd rather not have you start alone. Let's do it this way: first you'll eat your breakfast, and then the nurse and Daigorō will help you roll over. To your left side, of course, for you have to spare the right one."
"I understand. Thank you."
"I'll visit you later to change your dressings and see how your shoulder is healing. I think it's doing well, for the wound was clean. Now I have to go."
Breakfast was even more tasty than yesterday, although someone else could complain about having porridge everyday. He was glad he was getting food in the first place. The war had just ended, the stores were probably running down; it was a miracle that the hospital was functioning. He couldn't quite imagine the government allocate valuable funds on it. Takamatsu-sensei must have had the power of persuasion (and so he had) or been on good terms with the authorities... But, wait, the man had mentioned about having supported Bakufu. It was disconcerting. For now, it seemed that the victorious side had a lot on its plate, but once the situation got clearer, they might start inquire about people's political affiliations, and then no power of persuasion would help. Kanna couldn't see the doctor lie in order to evade a responsibility. What would happen to this hospital if the director were gone? What would happen to the patients? To him?
He had to postpone that contemplation until later, for his breakfast was over and Daigorō arrived, as well as the great moment in which the world was to be turned upside down. Or, in his case, squarely. He was slightly concerned about his injured shoulder, but everything went well. The nurse was securing his arm when Daigorō helped him roll over.
What a magnificent change it was! He had almost physical sensation that his back was able to finally breathe. After all, lying supine days and nights could not possibly do it good, could it? And when his toilette was performed, too - the nurse washed his back with warm water - for the first time, he started to timidly hope he would really recover. He didn't wish for more.
Soon, the doctor appeared, and Kanna remembered his earlier doubts and worries.
"I hope there will be someone in the new government wise enough to understand that treating the patients is top priority," Takamatsu answered quite lightly. "I don't intend to deny it that my loyalties lay with Bakufu, even though I never considered it perfect and infallible, just as I never considered the nationalists evil. In the first place, I hope that Japan will become a country where people feel good and where everyone has equal rights. Like in Europe," he added, cutting the bandage on his chest.
"In Europe people have equal rights?" Kanna asked, astonished. "That's not what I think."
"I may have expressed it wrong," the doctor agreed, removing the final layer of the dressing. It had got stuck to the wound and required to be moistened in order to be separated from the skin. It hardly caused any pain. "You're right, I sounded like an utopist while I'm not a one. But look at the medicine and the culture in treatment. In this respect, Japan is way behind," he explained. "In Europe, there are hospitals where also the poor are being treated without a fee. The government finances their treatment, and the mighty provide for it too," he said, examining the skin around the wound. "I find it most wonderful. I dream of something like that here, in Japan," he added and then settled down to the other wound, on the back.
"It sounds as if you had been in Europe, Doctor...?"
"I was in Paris only last year, I came back not so long ago," he heard from behind. "I spent a year and a half there, and it was a striking experience. During such a short stay, I dare say I learned more than during all those years in Japan, and I'm speaking not only of medicine..."
"Why did you return, then?" he asked, hoping he wasn't too intrusive.
"Patriotic obligation," came the short reply. "I owed Bakufu for being given a chance to study in Europe. Upon hearing that the country faced a civil war, I felt remorseful. I couldn't just selfishly think of myself when my countrymen suffered and those supporting me were in trouble."
"That's something a samurai would say," Kanna stated quietly without thinking, and then he realized he was impolite.
The doctor, however, didn't seem offended. "And that's what I told them: that I should be a samurai before a doctor, and as one I couldn't abandon my master," he said with a smile. "Nurse, I need help with a dressing!"
Kanna remained silent. Patriotic obligation. It sounded good, even if it involved sacrifice, in doctor's case - but what if one had no homeland? If one had no country to serve to? It was not something one could find just like this. 'Staring today, I'll be serving England' - Parkes probably had believed it was what he had decided upon realizing it to be the most convenient to him.
"Doctor, yesterday... You said it's a good thing that I am both Japanese and English. But it's not like that," he confessed bitterly. "If you are both, then in fact you are none. You have no place you can call your own."
This time Takamatsu didn't reply at once and only kept bandaging his shoulder, assisted by the nurse. "In that case, there's no other way but find such a place," he finally answered. "You can't live your life suspended in the vacuum."
"What if I don't find?"
"Kanna-san, I believe it is prepared for everyone. It's just that you have yet to discover it," there was calm and conviction in the doctor's voice. "You are still very young, you have all life ahead."
All life, indeed. But he didn't feel like arguing, especially that he didn't know what arguments he could advance for proving he was right. He didn't even know whether he was right. Maybe it was just immature complaining and defiance.
"One day we're going to speak in English," the doctor changed the subject, and it seemed he was amused again. Did that man ever become upset? "It will be a chance for me to brush up my language skills. I hope I remember more than 'good morning'."
"You told me to be happy about being bilingual, but how many tongues do you speak yourself, Doctor? Probably twice as much..." he decided to seize the opportunity for shaking off the despondency that was waiting for him already. "Dutch and French, too...?"
"But mind it, young man, that when I was your age, I spoke only Japanese, never have travelled beyond the border of my prefecture and believed I would become a village headman like my father. You, on the other hand, at the age of just eighteen, have seen half of the world already," the doctor didn't let himself to be led by nose when unwrapping the bandage on his head at the same time.
"You are exaggerating."
"I think you could make a career in politics. Being just a translator would be a waste, anyone can do it... Maybe administration? If you have good handwriting, that is," the doctor speculated, examining the wound of his occiput.
"Absolutely awful. I can't remember the last time I had pen in my hand."
"Hmm, by the way, you have yet to tell me what exactly were you doing when working for Consul Parkes..."
Silence fell between them, ringing with the doctor's words that sounded strangely as a question. He didn't want to answer, but... Takamatsu openly told him about himself, even though he was a strange man, so did he really had a reason to keep his things a secret? Especially that the doctor appeared a person one could trust.
"I was a bodyguard," he muttered reluctantly, hoping it would do.
"A waste of talent," the doctor commented. Apparently, he preferred intellectual skills over physical.
For some reason, it hurt, although Takamatsu probably hadn't meant harm. If anything, Kanna was proud of his shooting skills, the only talent he had. But then, he suddenly realized, he failed to kill Enomoto, so he had probably thought too much of himself...
Oh no, he shouldn't think about it. It had to be a good day, after all.
"Doctor, am I going to see normally again?" he asked, trying to focus on the positive.
"I can't tell for sure, but it seems we're moving towards it," the doctor replied from behind him, and then Kanna felt the familiar sensation of his skin being examined. "I think we'll be wiser in a few days. For now, I have more good news: your head is healing in an excellent manner, and I expect the pace to quicken now that you can change your position. It's a good think the wound will ventilate."
"What about the other one?"
"No problems as well. The skin around the stitches is clean, and the regional circulation works well."
"That's how we treat such wounds: we stitch it," the doctor explained. "Well, skin is the smallest problem, it's the first to heal. The internal organs is what really concerns me. I told you that you have a lung and muscles injured. It would take a longer while until they heal, but you are still young. I suppose they will heal without any difficulty, but I can't promise you a full recovery of arm function at this point. However, since you are both-handed, it should not drastically lower the quality of your life, even if you develop a slight paresis, right?"
'Right, except that my efficiency as a shooter would drop by half," Kanna thought with irony. But he wasn't going to worry about it now, for regaining his sight was a top priority. If he remained blind, he would have to forget about shooting altogether.
Takamatsu put a new dressing on his head, and it seemed he was done for today. He appeared content. "Kanna-san, I must say that I am amazed by your vitality. You were unconscious for two days, with a stab wound of your chest and head injury, and then you woke up and now are recovering at lightning speed. I didn't expect it."
"I'm sure you know your stuff, Doctor, but I still feel pretty bad. I don't see, can barely move and require care like a small child. I really do not feel like 'recovering at lightning speed'," he felt obliged to mention. Or he just wanted to be defiant.
"Do not worry about requiring care so much. That's what we're here for. No, Kanna-san, I'm speaking from experience. I think you have a big motivation to live. I have seen people who died from much lighter injuries. And I cannot be not impressed by the fact how you are bearing with the situation. One could think you're not in pain at all, although such wounds as yours must hurt like hell."
"I... rarely feel pain," he replied quietly, preferring to refer to the latter issue than the former. Motivation to live? He could find none. Quite the contrary, he was unable to shake off the feeling he couldn't really explain: that he should have not survived.
"Apparently, you have a high threshold of pain."
"Every person has a threshold of pain," Takamatsu replied. "Low means that one easily feel pain. High means the contrary. Someone else in your condition would need morphine for another week, while you probably noticed that I haven't given you any since the day before yesterday. Ah, now I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow, today I'm going to be busy. Do you have any questions?"
He did, just one. It occurred to him all of the sudden, but he decided to use the opportunity. "There are other patients in this room, right? I can barely hear anyone..."
"There are three more beds, all occupied. To tell the truth, we put here the most ill here. The ones that may not wake up again," the doctor answered impassively.
"You used such a good room for dying ones?" he was surprised, and not with the fact he had been put here.
"Why do you think it's good?" now Takamatsu was surprised, too.
"The sun. It's filled with the sunlight."
The doctor didn't respond, as if he didn't know what to say.
"I'm positive we soon will be able to move you to another room," he said finally.
"There's no need. I took liking to my place by the window," Kanna replied.
He didn't want to admit that after having spent three days in the dark this place made him feel safe.
He spent half of the day lying on his left side and in the evening tried to roll over his back again, in which he succeeded without help. He just needed to hold his right arm close to the chest; he could move the rest of his body without any problems. He didn't believe he could become permanently disabled. He couldn't even imagine it. He was eighteen years old and, except for being blind in one eye, had never had any ailments. In fact, he didn't even considered that one-sided blindness a problem, once he had got accustomed to it. He didn't even notice it. Maybe doctor was right when speaking of that will to live? Why should he give up? He was young, he would surely recover, and he would be in a good shape again, sooner or later. He wasn't the most keen person in the world, but he could at least shoot. There was always job for a shooter. If he could not serve his country - well, he would have to say goodbye to his ideals and be happy that he could earn his bread. Or rice, given he decided to stay in Japan. He still didn't know. In any case, the world was open before him. Maybe he should really start looking for his place? He would surely find it in the vast British Empire...
The next morning brought another change: he started to distinguish the outlines and the moves of people They were nothing more than the dark shapes against the lighter background, but undoubtedly he could see them. He felt like shouting with joy. It seemed that the doctor was right and his sight was really returning. Every day meant a progress, which must have stood for something. His head didn't bother him any more, except for the wound of the occiput; he could already distinguish between the headache, from inside, and the pain of the skull made by the wound. As far as he knew, he shouldn't worry about the latter. Everyone knew that damaged skin caused pain; much worse was the pain of what one couldn't see. Then, if that pain was lesser, it just had to mean recovery.
Taking advantage of his even better condition, he decided to do some exercise: bending and straightening his legs and left arm, as well as some other strange motions he could do recumbent, like wriggling and arching. He felt strength coming back. Really, his previous gloom had been out of place. The doctor had ordered him to think positively - and today he felt it was absolutely possible. He could, for instance, imagine what he would do once he got out of the bed and was able to walk again. In fact, just imagining it was pleasant. First he would sit up, then he would rise, and then he would be able to even go outside and enjoy the summer that was soon to start.
"Daigorō-san," he spoke after breakfast, when the porter helped him with the morning toilette. They were alone; the nurse had left so that he felt more comfortable, and the doctor wouldn't visit him yet. "Can I ask you a favour?" he said quietly.
"What?" asked the big shadow looming over him.
"I'd like you to fetch my clothes."
"The ones I was wearing when they brought me here. As you can see, I have none now. They couldn't be thrown away, could they?" he grew anxious at the thought that suddenly occurred to him. "I bet you know where to find them."
Daigorō was tending to his back in silence. "The patients' clothes are stored in the warehouse in the yard," he finally replied in a low voice. "But sometimes they go to the laundry."
To the laundry? That would complicate his plans. He had to count on his luck. According to the doctor, he was lucky, so maybe it was high time to actually believe in it... "Daigorō-san. I'd like you to look for my clothes there. In fact, I need only my coat. It's a grey, Western-style coat. I'm sure you will have no problems finding it. If you could bring it here... I'd be very glad."
"But why?" the man asked outright.
He hesitated. He didn't want to lie to that simple man, who reminded him of Bishop and was tending to him. "It may help me recover my lost memories," he answered with something that wasn't that far from the truth. "Takamatsu-sensei told me that I must have hit my head very hard and that's why I can't remember all the things." It was a fact. "I have no recollection of the last days. I don't even know why I am in hospital," he added, doing his best to persuade Daigorō to help him. "It's very important to me. Daigorō-san, you too wouldn't feel good if you couldn't remember things, would you? I'm sure my coat would help me to recover my memories. I need your help."
Daigorō kept washing him without a word. "I'll have a break in the afternoon. Then I can go and look for it," he said.
Kanna breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you. I'll tell Takamatsu-sensei that you helped me. I'm sure he would be happy with it," he replied clumsily, remorseful about his insincerity.
But Daigorō seemed pleased; apparently, being praised by the doctor was a nice prospect. He took a basin and left briskly, or so it seemed to Kanna.
The doctor came only for a second; he was very busy. 'Excellent!' he commended Kanna's pace of improvement and well-being and added, 'Get well!' before he left, still in good mood. The possibility to use foreign languages obviously pleased him. Then he came again. "I delight in your being here, Kanna-san. It is refreshing. Of course, I'd rather see you healthy, but I delight in it anyway," he said with a shocking honesty and disappeared again, this time for good.
Kanna was bewildered. It took him a moment to understand such a reaction. He couldn't remember the last time he had been told something like that. He couldn't remember any time he had been told something like that. 'I delight in your being here.' No-one ever delighted in his being there. For his mother, he had been a problem. His relatives had made him understand they had not delighted in it; quite the contrary, they would gladly get rid of him. Other children had considered him an alien and hadn't wanted to hang with him. The man who had taken him and his mother to London, in the first opportunity, had found him a place somewhere else so that he hadn't had to look at him. In the residential school, everyone had been coldly polite and treated him with the English reserve. They had tolerated him, and that was the best term. Parkes too had tolerated him, and once he had stopped, he had sent him off, saying, 'I'm truly disappointed.'
Yet here, in the hospital in the Northern Japan, a man whom he didn't really know and who didn't really know him suddenly told him he delighted in his being here. He couldn't quite figure it out. After all, he hadn't done anything to deserve it. Ah, but it could be as well just a matter of time. He couldn't expect he would be treated this way for longer. He had always disappointed people, so he would probably disappoint the doctor too. The thought made his throat clench, and suddenly it seemed to him he couldn't breathe. His shoulder ached as he tried to catch his breath, but then the feeling subsided.
In fact, there was a short time when he'd belonged somewhere. It was when Parkes had ordered them to assassinate Enomoto. Them - him and the four soldiers. He hadn't known them, but all of them had been bound by a common goal, and that was why they'd accepted him so quickly. Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Queen. Giant Bishop whom no-one could match. Knight, faster than anyone and very dangerous. Rook and Queen, invincible as a duet. They had been a team just for a while, yet they had quickly got in sync. They'd known they could count on one another. They'd trusted their own skills - he had trusted them, and they had trusted him. When they mission had failed, Parkes had sent the squad back to England... Kanna hoped their next mission would be feasible. Though he hardly knew them, he wished them luck. They were professionals. They deserved a better commander, all four of them.
But, wait... Rook was already dead. He frowned, trying to remember. Yes, Rook had died, killed by Enomoto's troops. He had never come back. They had turned tails, fighting for their lives, leaving the comrade behind... He pressed his eyelids shut in an attempt to evoke the right image before his eyes. Queen... Queen had been in grief. Rook was... Yes, Rook had been her brother. She'd said they had always been together. She'd said that... once he'd been gone... she could feel only pain. Something had happened then. He had to remember, it was something important. They'd been alone, Queen and he. On the deck of a ship, under the night skies. Two people, abandoned and lonely, embracing only memories. She... and he... They'd spent the night together. Yes. They'd seek for comfort and found it, too, in each other's arms. How strange, he had never experienced anything like that before... He couldn't remember much, but... It was something good. For short, for one night, maybe just for one hour he was able to forget. In her arms. He wished... he wished they could do it again...
The next day... Ah! The squad had never returned to England. They'd decided to try once again, to fulfil their task and eliminate Enomoto, only for themselves, in respect to themselves... and to Rook, who'd died and whom they'd failed. They had got to Ezo. That's why he was here in the first place! He racked his brain in an attempt to catch those fragmented memories and join in one. They'd managed to get to the fort when Enomoto had dwelt. They'd found a perfect place to attack him when he'd been almost alone. They shouldn't have had any problems yet... What had happened? They still could not kill him. He was not human! He was a demon, like one Japanese believed in so easily. A real demon whom arms could not harm. No bullets, no blades. He had been standing there, laughing at them, looking down on them... and they'd been unable to do anything to him! Knight and Bishop had died, their strength and swiftness of no value. Queen... What had happened to Queen? If he could, he would press his both hands to his temples in order to control his thoughts, threads, impressions... In order to remember... though he didn't want it, for it was going to be horrible... Queen... He remembered her, tears in her eyes, terror-stricken... when she had been left alone, without her brother, without her comrades... in front of that monster whom no-one could kill... Queen...
She was dead, too. Suddenly he was absolutely sure of it, he knew that crystal clear. She had run away. She had been running away. Crying, away from that madness. It'd been not her place... but... now she was dead. Was it Enomoto who'd killed her? He'd been laughing at her as she couldn't do a thing to him... She'd wanted to run away...! But... she hadn't managed... because...
A scream burst from his throat, a yell he couldn't stop. The wound in his chest ached warningly, but he didn't care. He was there again, in the dark dungeon under the fort of Goryōkaku, where his comrades were dying one by one. And Queen...
...whom he'd killed with his own hands, shooting her in the back. It couldn't be true, yet it was. He had shot the only person that had ever showed him some affection. Why? Why?! But no, it didn't matter, there could be no reason to explain why he'd done it. He had seen her, lying in the pool of blood, her arms stretched out, an astonished expression on her face, surprised... although just the previous night she'd been with him, touching him, so warm, alive, being there with him and for him...
"...na-san! Kanna-san!" some voice was trying to penetrate his mind. But there was no-one in the world, everyone was dead, he'd killed them all... He could only scream, cover his face with his hands, run away, hide, murderer, murderer...
"Kanna-san! Your wound will reopen. You must settle down, now, now," the voice was calm and decisive. He could no longer scream; his throat was clenched. He thought he would suffocate, but then the sob escaped him, shaking him all over.
Someone's hand moved his right arm away from his face and put it down under the cover. He was still weeping, although he didn't realize the tears rolling down his cheeks until they were wiped up.
"Kanna-san, what happened? You've suddenly started screaming..."
He tried to force back a moan, pressing his lips tight, but in vain. He swallowed a few times and choked. He was aching all over: his right shoulder, chest, throat, head... A hand touched his forehead, making him lay his head back on the pillow. On the pillow. The bed. The window. A dark figure against the window. He wasn't in Goryōkaku. He was in the hospital. All that... All that had already happened. Earlier. Before. It had happened. It was no longer happening.
He could breathe again. Later... he would think about it later. Not now. It wouldn't run away. Now... he had to control himself. He tried to calm down his breath, inhaling deeply and keeping the air inside for a moment. He was not a child. He had to put himself together. Without hysterics. He was in the hospital, there were other patients here, he couldn't make scenes. He shouldn't upset the personnel more he already had.
"I'm sorry..." he rasped and swallowed again.
A hand moved a glass of water against his lips, and he drank a bit, grateful.
"Kanna-san, what happened?" Takamatsu-sensei patiently repeated his question. "Did you have a bad dream? It's all right, you're safe here."
How he wished it were just a bad dream...! Maybe... if he tried enough, he could believe it... But he had no right. Until the very last day of his life, he had to remember he was... a murderer. Until last...
"I... remembered something..." he spoke quietly. "What had happened before I got here."
"War ruins everyone. I suppose it wasn't easy on you either," came the sympathizing answer. "But it is over. We have peace now, and no-one would have to experience such things again."
He kept silent. He knew well his deeds couldn't be explained by the war. He had not killed an enemy but a friend and ally, a comrade. He felt his lips start tremble again and pressed them together with all his might. Crying wouldn't help.
"Don't think about it now," the doctor advised him. "I know, it's easier said than done. But try to calm down. You are safe here. The most important thing is your health and recovery, you should focus on that. And if you'd like to talk about it, I'll be willing to hear you out."
Talk... No, he didn't believe he could ever reveal it to another person, especially Takamatsu... Especially after the doctor had just admitted that he enjoyed his being here - which he didn't believe himself, yet it was a nice thing to hear. He didn't want to be told again, 'I'm disappointed,' yet it was all he could really expect.
"But you know what, Kanna-san? Don't get me wrong, but I feel relieved, a bit," the doctor went on. "Until now you seemed... how can I put it... As if you tried to prove that you're strong and tough. That you can deal with anything. As if you had no feelings. It was almost unnatural. But you are a man just like others, and you have emotions, too. I'm very happy of it."
He still didn't reply. Apparently, contrary to himself, Takamatsu considered it as an advantaged. It was hard to understand. For his part, he was already ashamed of such a display, he already regretted it and intended to hide behind the mask and pose of indifference... But the doctor thought he shouldn't. It was complicated, and his head was still aching. He wished he could fall asleep and didn't have to think, but he suspected he wouldn't manage. However...
"May I have that injection?"
After a moment of silence, the doctor replied, "I think I can order you a small dose. I suppose you're arm is in pain," he added as if judging his decision, but Kanna was under the impression they both knew it was not about the pain.
When the doctor was giving him the medicine, he asked quietly, "Earlier... have I... waked up other patients?"
"If you had, you would become my personal hero. I'm afraid, Kanna-san, most of them will never wake up," the doctor replied in a sad voice.
The sleep came very soon.
The next morning didn't bring any changes. His seeing still amounted to telling dark from light as well as the movements. Maybe he shouldn't hope for more - but he couldn't care less. He felt bad. He felt as if he had been beaten up and left alone to die. He had no strength. He supposed that more than before he resembled the other patients lying in his room: silent and lifeless. He should have died. He should have been dead. He didn't deserve any treatment; he didn't deserve the effort those people invested in his recovery. He was a murderer; he was the worst. There was no place for him among people.
Of course, he had been killing before. His pistols, as much as he loved them, were a weapon to kill people. But until now he had only been killing enemies. He had been killing those he had been instructed to kill. He had been carrying out his orders. He had never bother himself with the thought there was a man on the other side of the barrel, too. He hadn't been there to think. Then, he was a multiple murderer, yet it didn't burden him as much as that particular crime. Why ever had he killed her? She had never given him any reason; quite the contrary, she had taken care of him, had stayed with him. She had shared her warmth with him. He didn't know whether he had ever loved her, but it was of no importance. That moment he had loved her for certain. Then how could it be that he taken her life instead of enjoying her warmth? The very thought made him cry again. He was lying on his bed, silent, staring at his own darkness, swallowing down the tears. He could remember, or so it seemed, her smooth skin by his own, her soft body, her arms and legs twisting around him, her breath. He could remember her lips, whispering to him, and himself replying her, the heat of their bed and the waves lapping against the sides of the ship. He could remember falling asleep - that one time - and feeling secure...
He had taken everything from her. No atonement could make up for it. Such was the utmost truth, and there was nothing beyond it.
"I brought your coat," Daigorō's low voice broke into his thoughts. "I came yesterday, but you were sleeping."
He moved his blind eyes towards the man, filled with a surge of a desperate hope. He had forgotten the favour he had asked the hospital porter. The man put the garment on the bed.
"Thank you," Kanna uttered. "I will mention about your help to Takamatsu-sensei. Really, I'm very grateful."
"Yea," Daigorō replied. He stood for a while by his bed and soon left, upon seeing nothing happened. He would be back in the time of washing.
His hand shaking, he reached for the coat, feeling the thick yet soft fabric with his fingers. Yes, it was his coat, beyond doubt. He had procured it for himself before coming to Japan, tailor-made, with all inner pockets done on his special request. A shooter always needed a quick access to his weapon... which normally came in numbers. Now most of the pockets were empty, both Remingtons must have been lost in the fight, as well as one of his derringers. The other, however... His fingers trembling, he was looking for that pocket, begging Heaven for mercy. He hardly ever used it but always carried with him. Just in case. It was a right thing: to use the last bullet the way he intended.
It was there! He gripped the cold metal and felt calm engulfing him, the one he hadn't felt during his stay in hospital. The pistol gave him sense of confidence. Of control. He was no longer defenceless, at the mercy of others. He drove away the thought he was pathetic if he could feel confident only holding arms. After all, it'd always been like this.
The pistol still in the pocket, he moved his fingers along its barrel... and suddenly new memories flooded his mind. He shuddered. Fights, a lot of fights by Goryōkaku. Advancing Government Army, cannonade, cries, smoke, exploding ground, clatter of swords and reports of firearms... It was not only Akizuki, who had accepted his bullet to be able to strike a final blow. It was also... Hijikata Toshizō. Why? What for? He didn't know why he'd been fighting against him. With Akizuki... With Akizuki, it was like settling old scores, finishing their first duel - but Hijikata? Had he shot him only because the man was there? He could not remember. It was all senseless. As if he had been possessed by some demon... bringing out the worst in him. But he couldn't throw blame on demons, for it was him pulling the trigger. Every single time. The list of his sins grew longer... He'd better not remember anything new.
He listened to the silence filling the room. He couldn't hear breathing of the other patients. Maybe they no longer breathed. The nurses were apparently busy somewhere else. Takamatsu wasn't near either. The birdsong came from outside. Today was a beautiful day again. A good day for dying.
He took the pistol out of the pocket and put it to his temple. He wasn't afraid. He knew what he had to do. It was easier this way. He pulled the hammer back. He hoped he would not get into Japanese Hell. Slowly, he squeezed the trigger, his hand almost stable...
The realization filled him with despair, but... he couldn't do it here. Not in the hospital, where people lives were being saved. It should be all the same to him, but he still had some decency to understand he could not do it to Takamatsu. He was an egoist, had always been, had always thought only of himself, but this one time he couldn't, not really. In this place, he had been taken care of, he had been given help without asking, and he had been supported to fight for his life. He would be the greatest wretch in the world had he paid for the good in such way. In this room where no-one ever waked up... Maybe they would keep away from it, maybe no-one would ever come here again, to this sad dead garden... No, if he wanted to die, he had to do it somewhere else - when he got up and left here on his own legs, walked away, decided for himself again and never give anyone trouble.
He put the pistol under the pillow. It was close at hand, and it reassured him. He would manage. Somehow, he would manage. Now he had to focus on his recovery... so that he could kill himself. What a paradox.
"How are you feeling today?" Takamatsu asked him upon visiting him at noon. "You look composed, that's good... On the other hand, I don't want you to pose a sculpture again."
"You don't need to worry," he replied. "I think about my recovery."
"I like it!" the doctor appeared pleased. "And that coat?"
"I asked Daigorō-san to fetch it for me. I'm sure I'll... feel better with it around."
"I see. Familiar things may comfort us in difficult moments," the man agreed.
"Yes, I think so..."
"Speaking of your recovery, Kanna-san... Do you suppose you can sit without support?"
"I can try," he replied, levering himself up by his left elbow. His abdominal muscles were still in good shape, and he managed to sit up indeed.
"That's great," the doctor was glad. "I expect you to move more and more from now on, and I want to immobilise your arm for the time being. I'm afraid that otherwise you would forget about it, which wouldn't do good to the shoulder injury. That way it will heal sooner," he explained.
"I understand. It's a good idea," Kanna agreed. "And... could I get a gown?"
"Of course. I'll ask the nurse to find you one and help you put it on. But, my, it seems you're going to walk soon."
"I'm going to walk soon."
"Truly praiseworthy. As I said, you're young, you're recovering quickly, so it's possible that you will get up very soon indeed," the doctor speculated. "But don't hurry," he warned. "Haste won't help you but can harm instead."
"I have nothing to hurry to," Kanna answered so quietly no-one could hear him.
The next day he was allowed to put his feet on the floor and sit for a moment on the edge of the bed. Having his arm immobilized was a good idea indeed - he didn't need to think about it and be careful not to move it. He hardly had any headache. His sight was getting better - at slow pace, but definitely better nonetheless: he could distinguish more details. He could already see the window and the walls, and even the shapes lying on the other beds. The faces were still blurry, but he had no doubt he would see them clearly sooner or later. One day he waked up and was astonished to see the blue sky outside the window. The sensation was so perfect it momentarily banished the feeling of despondency, accompanying him for many days now. For a second, he even forgot about the pistol under his pillow, waiting until he would reach for it again.
It had been a week since his awakening. Takamatsu would visit him every day. He would praise his recovery and talk about the situation in the country and the moods in Hakodate, as well as the upcoming June and strawberry season. Kanna wouldn't speak much, mostly listening and ignoring the attempts to direct the subject on himself. Fortunately, Takamatsu seemed too busy so that he could spend more than just a few minutes by his bed and pump him for his secrets.
Yet, even those few minutes were like a torture to him. On the one hand, he awaited those visits impatiently; on the other hand, he feared them. It was almost funny that such a short time, a very little part of the whole day, would cause such violent feelings in him. Takamatsu treated him so well. Oh, undoubtedly he treated all his patients this way, but it didn't matter. He was pleased, optimistic and always so very supporting. He raised spirits, reassured and comforted, always pointing at the bright sides and advised hope. He was a person accepting life and himself, who welcomed the challenges of a new day with courage. A dreamer, an idealist and a visionary, yet having both feet on the ground and grappling with reality. It was an obvious thing that Takamatsu Ryōun would become someone important in the future, for he was gifted with the ability to fulfil his goals despite everything. Spending time with him was a unique experience because, for some reasons, he could enthuse and inspire others. He was like a sun whose warmth was wanted by everyone, and gave that warmth to everyone without exception.
But for Kanna those short conversations were a torment, too. He didn't deserve them. He didn't deserve the light Takamatsu radiated on him. He was a liar and a murderer, and only damnation awaited him. How many times he wanted to confess his faults, his sins! How many times he had to check himself and press his lips tight not to give in to the urge - desire - to disburden himself! Sometimes he even believed... was almost sure the doctor would understand him. Forgive him. Give him a hand and help him up.
Maybe that was what he feared most. Maybe that was what frightened him most - not that he would be rejected, looked at with disgust and told that he disappointed again. After all, it was all truth, and he didn't deserve more than that. That was why he couldn't bear the grace. His place was in the darkness, not in the sunlight. He was afraid that, had he been shown mercy and absolution... he would believe that everything was all right, leave the past behind, leave his evil deeds behind, forget them and live on, as if nothing had happened. It would be the most evil thing to do, and he didn't want to be more evil he already was. He wanted to retain the last of the self-respect.
In this respect, he apparently was pure Japanese.
The previous day he had been able to walk a bit for the first time. He had been allowed to get up from the bed before, but that time, assisted by the nurses and Daigorō, he'd actually performed a short walk to the next room and back. It'd been a magnificent thing to be able to use his legs again. The nurses had been clasping their hands, and Takamatsu had announced that Kanna had most likely broken the bad spell upon the room - since two other patients lying there had regained consciousness in the meantime.
The hospital was filled with familiar silence. It was already past breakfast time and morning routines, the nurses were helping the doctor with the appointments of the patients from the town, and the other rooms were quiet. The patient from the bed next to his had came around yet spent most of the time in the restless sleep. Kanna still couldn't see perfectly, but it seemed to him that the face of that man was haggard and weary. He wondered about his own appearance; he bet he didn't look much better himself. Usually, the personal hygiene was important to him - he had been taught it in Japan - and thus it filled him with discomfort that he hadn't bathed in two weeks now. But he was too weak for that and had to settle for lavation that was possible in the bed. His hair asked for a proper washing, too, but he couldn't count on it until his wound was healed. It would be a good thing to cut it, too; he still couldn't imagine his hairstyle after the doctor's operation.
And then he remembered he would die in a few days, so he really shouldn't bother himself with as insignificant things as appearance.
It took him a while to realize there was some commotion in the hospital. He heard some screams, patter of many feet, raised voices of the patients. What could have happened? If it was an acute admission in question, everything would proceed in calm...
He could hear the nurses, the shreds of conversation, "A man... A patient... Sensei was examining him... Threats... Called the police... be here in time..."
Kanna felt his heart plunge into his stomach. For a moment, he couldn't figure it out - as if he suddenly found himself in a strange place where nothing could reach him - until he tried to gather his thoughts. Someone was threatening Takamatsu? Someone in this hospital tried to hurt the best of all people? The police... Before they came, it could be too late already. The situation seemed serious, otherwise the nurses wouldn't be so frightened. Takamatsu was capable of dealing with many problems, but he was a doctor, not a warrior. What if... what if...
He didn't follow that thought and ordered himself to calm down. All of the sudden, he knew what to do. For the first time in many days, spent in the haze of dejection and defeatism, he felt strong. He had a goal... a sensible goal he could focus on - something that didn't concern himself. With derringer hidden in his juban, supporting himself against the walls, he headed towards the source of uproar - as fast as his dizziness and body, disaccustomed to moving, allowed him. Faster, faster... Some patients had got out of their beds, the personnel was alarmed, all looking in one direction, over one another's shoulder. Kanna wasn't a giant, yet he was taller than an average Japanese. His breathing was quick - of effort or agitation, or both - his heart was pounding in his chest like hammer, his legs were weak, but he didn't really notice it, moving on. He couldn't let... He had to... He couldn't imagine...
"Traitor!" came from the room that opened door of he could already see. "You're keeping enemies here...! Helping them...! You're saving the murderers so that they could kill our allies...! You are the enemy of the country!" the voice was ringing with anger, hate, and despair. It was a voice of a man who is but a step from a precipice.
"The war is over," Takamatsu replied calmly. "You should put your sword down and use your hands to build that country together with others..."
"Don't tell me what to do, traitor! There will be no peace until the likes of you bear responsibility! I will deliver justice, in the name of Japan!"
Kanna pushed through the crowd in the corridor, almost tripped up and stumble onto the door frame. The attacker was coming at doctor, but that move distracted him. He stopped and lowered his weapon. The next moment he let go of his katana, screaming and holding his injured hand. The echo of the shot was hardly heard in the noise that filled the place - or was it the hum of blood that deafened all sounds? Kanna slid down the door frame, suddenly absolutely sure he would faint. Everything had happened so quickly, he hadn't had time to think, to consider the situation - he'd just shot. The image of Takamatsu against the wall, the tip of the sword getting closer to his neck... He couldn't let it happened. He couldn't lose him.
"Kanna-san, Kanna-san! Can you hear me?"
He raised his head, though it seemed an impossible effort, and opened his eyes. Takamatsu was leaning over him, his face serious, his gaze anxious, concerned. Kanna realized he could finally see him clearly. The relief filling him was so soothing. Takamatsu was alive. Was safe. Was all right.
"Kanna-san, are you smiling?"
He didn't know. But he knew he hadn't been feeling so good in a long time. The sense of guilt was gone, for a moment, as was the awareness of his sins, that load in his chest - everything eating him and making him walk in the darkness. He knew it soon would be back... but now he was just happy. He was so happy he could laugh and cry at the same time.
For a moment, Takamatsu was looking him in the eye, then he got up and turned to the would-be avenger, who was crying and weeping, and cursing - but it was hard to understand him; Daigorō was holding him firmly. Katana had been removed from his range, but he seemed to have lost all his fighting spirit anyway. The blood was dripping on the floor from his injured hand. The nurse was passing a bandage already. The man, an impoverished samurai, tried to wrench free, but Takamatsu was unyielding. Assisted by the nurse, he applied a dressing and turned the culprit over to the police that had just made an entry, belated as it was. The captain drew up a report along with the witness list and left with the offender and his sword. The blood was then mopped, and the patients were put to their beds. There was but a memory of the event left.
Takamatsu placed him down on the examination table and sat down on the stool himself. "You saved my life, Kanna-san. Thank you. I see you're sight has fully returned. It was one in a million shot."
"It wasn't. I aimed at his knee."
Takamatsu gave him an intent look... and then burst out laughing. Kanna thought he could spend the eternity just looking at his face. It was a perfectly average Japanese face, but it radiated such warmth and emanated such vigour that it was hard to keep one's eyes off it. Takamatsu was laughing and couldn't stop, and despite everything Kanna felt like doing so, too. His lips twitched... He couldn't hold back emotions welling up in him. He covered his face with one hand, and sob shook his body. He didn't know why he was crying, probably from the shock. Something was breaking in him. He couldn't gather his thought, he was unable to think at all - he was just a bundle of feelings and sensations.
A comforting hand rested on his left shoulder. "It's all right, Kanna-san. Everything is all right now. It's over," the doctor soothed him. "I'm repeating myself, but I'm really happy you're here."
He lifted his head and had a look. The image was blurry. Impatiently, he wiped tears. He had spent enough time in the darkness, and now he wanted to see clearly. "I don't deserve it, Doctor. I'm a murderer," he said, looking the man in the eye.
Takamatsu blinked, but his expression didn't change. He was still regarding him calmly... with unshakeable faith in humanity and in the good, even though he constantly ran into evil. He was waiting for more.
"I killed people," Kanna confessed and was surprised how easy it was. Once he had decided he would have no secrets, and he really couldn't with Takamatsu, and when he had accepted it... he was able to actually say it. "I'm not a soldier, I didn't have orders... yet I killed people. And, though you can't believe me, I can't tell... why," he added in a softer voice. "However, it doesn't change the facts. I did what I did. I will suffer my punishment."
Takamatsu didn't averted his eyes; he seemed to absorb his every word. The room was filled with silence, but the noises flooded from outside: the sound of children playing in the hospital yard and flutter of sheets being hung out. The day was continuing; the world was moving forward. A shadow of a swallow brushed against the window, and then its chirp was to be heard.
"Kanna-san," Takamatsu spoke once he decided that Kanna was finished. "Do you remember what I told you the other day? That war ruins everyone."
"I'm not a soldier," he repeated. "I had no orders..."
"It doesn't matter," the man interrupted him. "War brings out the worst in people. Those who have been loving fathers and sons set off to take lives. Others try to make money on the war. Others give into the madness and commit crimes they haven't even imagined they could ever do. War is a violence of humanity. That man who attacked me... He was carrying a good luck charm. Someone had made it for him, putting much love in their work. It is likely that there's his family out there, waiting for his return, although for him the war is not over yet. He tried to kill me, believing in his justice, but you know what, Kanna-san? I didn't fear him, I pitied him. I don't even know which side he was on. I can only hope there will be no others like him. That we will have a real peace in this country and no-one else will have to suffer like him."
Only now Takamatsu looked agitated. He was no longer smiling. A friend of people, he could not watch a senseless suffering calmly. Whenever possible, he tried to relieve it, but there were things he could do nothing about. He didn't care about himself; he was more concerned about the man taken by the police, the man who had tried to killed him.
"You say it all... but you... The war didn't change you. It didn't ruin you," Kanna replied hesitantly. "You admit them... us... treat us, help us, never caring about yourself. You are able to smile. You have faith. You advance. When others fall into darkness... you climb up... and you try to... draw others along..." he whispered.
"It sounds like I'm some saint," Takamatsu retorted, wincing. "You would like to know how many times I felt like going to the Emperor and scold him, order him to end this stupid war, and if he didn't listen, using some stronger arguments. Or how many times I felt like giving Enomoto a good shake and telling him to seek reconciliation, not get into new battles with the Government Army and let more people die. There was no single day that I didn't curse those idiots on either side, who preferred to plan the campaigns instead of joining forces and together build the country. But cursing was pointless anyway, for I had enough things to do here. No, Kanna-san. I'm just like others."
Kanna kept silent. He didn't know how he should react. For all Takamatsu was saying, in Kanna's eyes, he was exceptional, sitting in front of him, full of life and vigour, in tune with the world, with that country and that city. He seemed all that Kanna had never been and would never be. A complete person.
He bowed his head. The shadow was creeping back. It was nothing strange; the light always created shadows. Yet, he felt lighter at heart than before. He was still resolved to accept his punishment, but now he could think of it calmly, not with despair.
"Kanna-san," the resolute voice of the man reached him. "I'm not a judge, and I don't intend to be. I'm sure you had your reasons. I can see you're tormented by your conscience. You want to be punished, and I can understand it. If you wish to tell me about it, I'll listen you out. You may trust me. Whatever you say, it won't leave this room." He paused and then went on, "I am your doctor. And as such I want to tell you that you should have never grabbed a gun."
Kanna blinked at the sudden change of the subject, and raised is head, frowning. "Why?" he asked surprised.
"A person need both eyes to properly determine the distance," Takamatsu explained. "One would say that a gun in the hands of monocular person is more dangerous than a healthy shooter."
"I lost my eye in my childhood... I got used to seeing with just one. Actually, I can't tell the difference now. I have no problems with taking aim..."
"Then, you're really a shooter," Takamatsu concluded, and Kanna realized he'd taken the bait.
"Yes," he whispered.
"A good one?"
Kanna hesitated, torn by conflicting emotions. He had always considered himself a good shooter, but the last experiences with Enomoto made him doubt his skills. In the end, he said nothing, only bowed his head again.
"I suppose so," Takamatsu answered his own question. "You said you were working for Consul Parkes. I'm positive a man of his position wouldn't hire someone average. Well, if your sight is back and you claim you have no problems with aiming, you will sure be doing it again... For a man with your skills, there will be always a job," he added dryly. "By the way, I can examine your head. Sit here," he ordered, getting up and showing him the stool.
Kanna obeyed, and soon Takamatsu was unwrapping the bandage. The office was filled with silence again. Kanna tried to gather his thoughts. One of them nagged him.
"I... Tell me... How it is? You do everything to save lives, while I... I take it. Do you... Don't you feel... disgusted... angered with... someone like me?" he asked quietly, difficult as it was.
The familiar fingers palpated the skin of his skull, never stopping, never wavering, causing no pain. "One might say there must be balance of nature," Takamatsu replied after a while. "Besides... I think there's no black and white. We can be sceptic, even reluctant, about some things when we don't know them, never have experienced them... But when we actually face them... we may find that our ideals are just ideals, and reality goes by its own rules. Kanna Sakyōnosuke is Kanna Sakyōnosuke, a man, a person, not just a murderer. One deed doesn't define who you are."
Kanna's fingers clutched at the white fabric of juban. He pressed his lips and eyelids shut. His heart was pounding again, as if it was going to break out of his chest.
"And today... Do not forget, Kanna-san. Today you saved my life," came from behind his head.
Now he let the tears flow.
Takamatsu decided there was no need to bandage his head again. His wound ceased looking like minced meat, and skin was regenerating, as were the tissues beneath. Kanna was given the permission to wash his head, which he intended to do the next day, for today he was too exhausted. Takamatsu saw him to the bed and promised they would talk tomorrow. Casually, he mentioned that using the gun in hospital was strictly prohibited - and that was the only comment to Kanna's sliding the derringer back under the pillow.
Kanna became a hero - of the personnel and the patients. The nurses didn't save applause on him, someone brought him flowers, someone else gave him manju and a few apples, and there was even a Dutch chocolate among the gifts. Yet another person attempted to smuggle a bottle of sake for him, but that particular present was intercepted by the nurses and had to wait for his full recovery. Everyone wanted to show their gratitude, and it was only now that he realized he hadn't been alone in his admiration for Takamatsu Ryōun. It seemed that everybody loved the doctor of the hospital in Hakodate. He had... acted instinctively, hadn't planned it and definitely hadn't expected any praises, especially that it was with distrust he had always accepted the praises. His shooting skills had been long complimented, but now, for the first time, he could actually trust that the compliments were genuine. He would have never believed that one missed shot - he had really been aiming at the knee! - could fill him with more... joy than hundreds accurate to one centimetre.
He didn't notice the day passing. He wanted to spend it on reflection, but the positive commotion he was the object of didn't give him a single moment of peace. Every now and then, someone would approach his bed, ask the questions, tell the stories, share the experience - and it wasn't as tiring as he would expect. In the evening, he fell asleep quickly and saw no nightmares.
The next day, a bath was prepared for him. He was ordered to spend at least half an hour in it. He didn't plan to protest. Sitting in the tub, he wondered whether it was all right to feel such a bliss. If he let himself, he would yield to temptation and forget all his worries and concerns.. His body, already experiencing contractures after lying for a long time, could relax in the hot water. Submerged up to his neck, he enjoyed the bath to the full. Some places started to prickle, some others ceased ailing. When he sat straight, he could spot the wound under his right clavicle, just over the water. The stitch made of a silk thread was barely visible against his pale skin, and the wound itself was so small it was hard to believe the destruction inside. In fact, Takamatsu told that Kanna had been lucky. If the blow had been struck higher and penetrated the clavicle or even slid over it, it would have probably resulted in damaging of... what was its name... the brachial plexus, and then Kanna would have likely lost both muscle function and feeling in his right arm. And if the cut had been done more to the centre, it would have damaged his heart or some important arteries and Kanna would have died in a few minutes... He wondered whether Akizuki had consciously refrained himself from delivering the lethal blow or was it only an accident, but reflecting it was pointless, for he was never to know it. He supposed Akizuki didn't know it himself.
With help of the nurse, his hair was washed and his body was dried and clad in a fresh yukata. Takamatsu immobilized his arm again… and then asked an unknown man inside. The stranger introduced himself as a barber, which made Kanna speechless.
"Yokokawa-san would handle your hair much better than I did," Takamatsu explained; he seemed in a very good mood again. "I'm sure it will raise your spirit."
"It's an honour to me," the barber spoke with unction. "I've heard about your valour, Kanna-san. You risked your life to protect Takamatsu-sensei from the bandit. The whole town is talking about you..."
Kanna blinked, trying to pull his thoughts together. The whole town? About him? And... risked his life? That wasn't true in the slightest. "I didn't..." he started and stopped. What should he say?
"You're so humble! There's no need for it. It was a heroic deed. I can't tell what we could do without Takamatsu-sensei. His presence here is a real blessing for Hakodate," the hairdresser rhapsodised over the event, but then he added in a sober voice, "Please, let me express my gratitude, if only in such a modest way."
Kanna regarded him, embarrassed, and then nodded. He had no idea how he should react, so he preferred to remain silent and go with the flow. Yokokawa beamed and started to take his accessories out of the bag. Kanna shifted his gaze to Takamatsu, standing by the door with his arms folded and smiling.
"Kanna-san had a head injury, but the wound is healing up well. The skin is firm already, so you may do your job, Yokokawa-san. Of course, you have to be careful..."
"There's no need to tell me that, Sensei."
"Forgive me. It was my habit, to tell people to take care."
"I see," the barber didn't seem offended and instead took to brushing out his client's damp hair.
Kanna was sitting on the stool and subjecting himself to those manipulations. The touch of the comb on his occiput made a strange impression but didn't cause any pain as the barber was operating gently indeed.
"You have truly beautiful hair, Kanna-san," Yokokawa spoke once he'd got rid of all tangles. "I believe they must be very glossy in the sunlight. Are there many people looking like you in Europe?," he asked politely.
"More than in Japan, that's for sure," Kanna replied quietly. "In Europe, people's appearance is more varied. You may meet both people with very dark hair and people with very fair hair. The same applies to the eyes."
"Fascinating! What kind of hairstyles is popular in your country?" the barber didn't stop in his curiosity.
"Women part their hair in the middle... and often do it in tresses," Kanna answered in a softer voice.
"Ah, tresses! That's something wonderful," Yokokawa seemed enthralled. "But I believe today we're cutting short?" he asked with humour. Apparently, his initial timidness was gone once he had set to work.
Kanna nodded. The haircut was all the same to him, but he wanted to look like a man, for he finally felt like one. The bath hade made him seem like a new person. He hadn't expected it... yet it was real and he enjoyed it. In fact, he'd been feeling relieved since the previous day already, and improving the level of his hygiene could only help.
In the meantime, the barber was doing his job. The scissors were clattering all over his head, the strands of hair were falling down on the floor and yukata, and the sensation of lightness was getting stronger. It didn't take long until Yokokawa announced he'd finished. He put the scissors back into his bag and handed him a mirror instead.
Kanna took it with his left hand, his fingers trembling slightly, and looked. An emaciated face without a smile looked back at him. For a moment, he couldn't recognize it.
"Now, Kanna-san. You look no more than fifteen years old," came from Takamatsu.
Kanna raised his gaze on him and was struck by the thought that the doctor looked pretty young himself. He remembered his confusion upon seeing him for the first time. During those few days he'd known him only as a voice and touch, he'd created an image of much older person, while in reality Takamatsu Ryōun seemed to be in late twenties. The question was whether he should believe his eyes or quite the contrary...
He returned the mirror to the barber and thanked. Then he cautiously moved one hand over his occiput, feeling bristling hair under his fingers.
"They grow quite nicely in the back," Yokokawa said, "and soon the wound will no longer be visible. It looks pretty good already," he added humbly.
"Your face seems more round this way," Takamatsu supplied, smiling again. "I told you are nice to look at."
Kanna stared at him again and then regarded the barber. "I wish I could pay you for it..."
The man lifted his hands in a gesture of objection. "Please. I told you I wanted to express my gratitude. Also, you always will be given a haircut for free in my place. Please, do not insist."
"It's too much. I couldn't..." Kanna started and then stopped short upon realizing he had actually believed he had some future, if only for a split second.
Takamatsu cleared his throat. "Thank you, Yokokawa-san," he turned to the barber. "Would you like to stay for tea? Kanna-san, you're invited too."
"I cannot decline you, Sensei," Yokokawa consented, closing his bag.
"In that case, let's go."
They sat on the terrace at the back of the hospital. The weather was great: sunny and warm, with a breeze from the sea. It took Kanna a while to realize he was outside again. He breathed deeply, taking the air smelling of flowers into his lungs. He could hear the sounds of the town coming from afar: tootling carts, playing children, and talking adults. A bird was singing in the branches of a nearby sakura. The sky was blue and wide, without a single cloud. The feeling of peace was so absolute it was hard to believe that the war was over - and it'd ended right here, round the corner, in Hakodate.
A kitchen maid served tea and left right away when Kanna thanked her. He didn't notice she blushed. He still was at a loss as to why Takamatsu had asked him here. Or, maybe, he didn't need any reason? Maybe he just wanted to drink tea in his company? He blew on the hot drink and cautiously took a sip of it.
"Kanna-san, I was sure your eyes were grey all along. But now, in the sunlight, they are definitely blue," the doctor's voice broke his reflection.
Kanna gave him a look over his mug and said nothing. He knew his appearance was still exotic in this land, but he couldn't understand why Takamatsu insisted on commenting it every now and then, especially that, contrary to his countrymen, he had visited Europe and could look at gaijin as much as he'd wanted.
"Tricks of the light. You can't always trust your eyes," Yokokawa supplied.
"True," the doctor concurred, putting his mug down. "That's why I regard all those tales of Goryōkaku with scepticism."
"But, Sensei!" the barber bridled. "People who happened to be in entirely different places tell the same things."
"That's the trick. They just echo the gossips," Takamatsu stood pat. "Someone made that story up, and the others believed. As if people had not enough sensation already," he added discontentedly. "I, for instance, have seen nothing. True, there were some unexplained explosions, but talking about black lightning... Can you believe it, Kanna-san? Black lightning! There's no limit to human imagination."
"Yet, those damages haven't arisen from nothing, Sensei," Yokokawa was persistent. "My neighbour swear on her ancestors that a black lightning crossed her yard, destroying the hen house but sparing the piggery."
"Yokokawa-san, by any chance, is your neighbour Mrs Tanaka?" the doctor asked sharply.
"That's her indeed. Why do you ask?"
"She's been telling me the stories of her hen house and piggery for half a year already. I think she has some trauma about it. I'm not sure but remember that her belated husband might have died tragically by falling off the roof of that piggery."
"You may be right, Sensei," the man agreed. "Now that you mention it, I do remember hearing about it earlier."
"Never mind the piggery. Still, we didn't see anything of that kind here..."
"I believe you were very busy, Sensei," Yokokawa said in a conciliatory tone. "Besides, let's leave the lightning alone. Such things can be easily imagined, as does that red sky. But do you believe, Sensei, that floating castle was made up as well?"
Floating castle? Kanna realized he was pricking up his ears.
"Floating castle was made up in the first place," Takamatsu declared in a resolute voice. "I'd rather believe in red sky and black lightning."
"What about that castle?" Kanna asked quietly.
Yokokawa turned to him, glad he'd found a willing listener. "They say that a real castle emerged in place of Goryōkaku. The Government Army got flurried, for the cannonballs couldn't force it," he said animatedly. "They could hear some sinister chanting coming from inside, too. And then the castle ascended!"
A snort came from Takamatsu's direction. Kanna could understand him; the story was absolutely unbelievable. "And what happened after that?" he asked.
"After that... the castle vanished."
"Vanished? Just like that?"
"Well, yes... Only Goryōkaku was left, as we know it," Yokokawa answered, somewhat embarrassed.
"Do you believe it?" Kanna inquired.
"I haven't seen it myself," the barber replied after a moment. "I only say what people say. The castle appeared in Goryōkaku and then disappeared. And everything settled down. And the battle was over. You may say what you want, but I have my opinion. There was something very off about that battle. As if some demons had hand in it."
"In that matter, I agree with you, Yokokawa-san," Takamatsu replied. "Except that those demons inducing wars are named humans. It would be very easy to put the blame on some supernatural forces..."
Kanna bowed his head. Yes, he thought the same. No-one could deny responsibility for their deeds...
"Yet, there is something about all that matter that I don't like myself," the doctor went on.
"Ah, speaking of it. Sensei, I believe you are Admiral Enomoto's acquaintance?" the barber implied.
"We travelled together to Ezo," the doctor affirmed. "I can't say I got to known him; for the most part, he was staying in his cabin."
"And nothing about him struck you?" Yokokawa probed.
"What do you mean?" Takamatsu frowned.
"Any strange behaviour or talking... things like that."
"I don't know what you're driving at, Yokokawa-san," the doctor responded, looking at his interlocutor askance.
Yokokawa cast a glance at Kanna before looking at Takamatsu again. "Soldiers who served in Goryōkaku say that something was very wrong with Enomoto," he confessed, leaning over and lowering his voice. "That he behaved as if he had been... had been... Please, do not laugh at me, Sensei, Kanna-san..."
"As if he had been possessed by a demon, for instance?" Takamatsu suggested directly.
Kanna budged. The barber sat up. "You said it yourself, Sensei," he replied, disappointment mixing with satisfaction in his voice.
"I just heard about it earlier. From quite a... reliable source," the doctor answered reluctantly. "But they said that Oda Nobunaga was a demon, too, yet Akechi Mitsuhide put him to death with one strike. As you see, you cannot give credence to all rumours." He sighed. "Still, I have my reasons to believe that there may be kernel of truth about this case. Indeed, Enomoto-san wasn't himself, although personally he cannot remember anything about it."
"Then, do you believe in the floating castle, too, Sensei? By the way, Oda Nobunaga had a castle as well."
"Every Sengoku daimyō had a castle, Yokokawa-san," Takamatsu pointed out wryly. Obviously, he was annoyed by the fact he had to acknowledge some supernatural forces meddling in people's fate.
"In that case, you were just teasing me, Sensei? That's very impolite of you," the barber said but didn't seem offended.
"I too saw that castle," Kanna spoke and only then realized it.
He blinked and looked at the two of men. Takamatsu didn't seem surprised in the slightest. Yokokawa-san, on his part, was goggling at him.
"You did? Please, tell us about it, Kanna-san!"
"I..." he started but didn't finish. "I... don't remember much," he added clumsily. It was true, partly, but in fact he didn't want to talk about what had just visualized in his mind with a stranger.
"Kanna-san had his head seriously injured. You've seen the wound yourself, Yokokawa-san," Takamatsu threw in. "He can't remember much about those events."
"Ah, right," Yokokawa seemed disappointed. "Did you participate in the battle?" he asked without warning.
"Yokokawa-san, I insist," the doctor said emphatically.
"All right, all right, please forgive me," the man said with remorse.
The bell struck the noon. Yokokawa started up. "I overstayed, Sensei. I'm taking your time. Thank you for tea, I enjoyed our conversation." He turned to Kanna and bowed. "I'm glad I met you, Kanna-san. Thank you once again for what you did. The whole town is in your debt. Please, recover quickly."
"I'll do my best," Kanna whispered.
"That's I who thank you, Yokokawa-san," Takamatsu supplied. "I'm happy you answered my call so quickly."
"For you, Sensei, everything," Yokokawa beamed. "Good bye," he added and walked away at a cracking pace.
Takamatsu drank his cold tea. He stared into his empty mug for a while and then raised his eyes and gave Kanna an intent look. "And? What do you think about it?" he asked, obviously relating to the talk they had just had.
"What did you mean, saying 'a reliable source'?" he replied with another question.
The doctor observed at him in silence, then folded his arms and stared at the sky. "After the battle, a young man paid me a visit," he said impassively. "At first, I thought he was one of the soldiers, but he was being accompanied by a girl who had been a patient here some time earlier. Her friends helped in the hospital for a short period. Accidentally, I overheard their conversation and asked them to tell me about what they'd witnesses. It appeared that those two had come back from Goryōkaku, where some strange events had taken place. In general terms, that young man revealed he had fought a battle with a demon controlling, among others, Admiral Enomoto. Initially, I couldn't believe that story, but that man was dead serious, and the girl, as well as her friends, confirmed it to be true; apparently, they had been involved in it for a longer while. Moreover, the girl disclosed she, too, had been possessed by the demon and doing terrible things unable to control herself. Do you understand why I'm telling you this, Kanna-san?"
Kanna raised his tormented gaze on him. For some reason, he could still look Takamatsu in the eye. Even though he regarded himself worthless, Takamatsu still viewed him as a human, even if his words were dispassionate.
"I'm telling you this because I have a reason to believe that you, too, were possessed by that demon and as such you should not bear the entire responsibility for your deeds. It may be just my wishful thinking though; you have yet to tell me what have really happened to you. Maybe my words stem only from the sympathy I have for you," his voice got softer. "But even if you played no part in it, you should acknowledge that such things happen nonetheless. Both in Japan and Europe the madmen are never convicted of their crimes. And I'm almost sure you were not in full possession of your senses when killing those people. Am I wrong?"
Kanna stared at him, speechless. Tears were flooding into his eyes, and his heart ached. Though the subject of their conversation was so terrible and Takamatsu was so serious it frightened, Kanna couldn't left unnoticed the stubbornness in defending him. He could not left unnoticed the doctor's desire to prove his innocence, to excuse him... To save him. He still didn't know what he had done to deserve it... but then the words spoken a moment ago echoed in his mind, 'sympathy I have for you.' Could it be so simple? Could other people... like others just like that? Without reason and without purpose? Like him?
He nodded, though he no longer remembered the question.
"Then, you were there?"
He nodded again.
"What were you doing there?"
There was no place for hesitation and mystery. It was time to confess everything.
"Parkes charged me with the task to... kill Enomoto," he revealed, his voice breaking. "He knew that Enomoto was under the influence... was possessed. That he wasn't himself and might cause troubles. The British Empire wished for good relations with Japan, acknowledged the New Government... But Enomoto wanted to create his own empire and rule over the whole world. Who knows, maybe he could even success, with that power he had been given." He took a deep breath. "I... We... There were five of us, we made the first attempt on the way to Ezo already, but we failed... And lost one companion. Later... we decided to try once again. We managed to infiltrate Goryōkaku, but... We couldn't kill him. We just couldn't. It was impossible to kill that man," he said in a strangled voice. His breath became quick again, and his heart was pounding in his chest. He clenched his fists.
"Kanna-san, calm down. You're safe," Takamatsu's soothing voice penetrated the feeling of fear squeezing his throat.
He took some deep breaths and soon was able to continue. "All my companions... died," his voice quivered, but he hadn't stopped. "I... survived. I don't remember all things. It was like... a fever. I couldn't think, I wanted only to kill. I killed Hijikata, I fought with Akizuki..."
"Hijikata? Hijikata Toshizō?" Takamatsu interrupted him. Kanna focused his gaze on him. It seemed that the doctor went pale.
He nodded. "I killed him. I killed Hijikata Toshizō, one of the leaders of the Republic," he repeated dully. "And I still don't know why."
He couldn't hold back his tears. His chin trembled, and he quickly pressed his lips together. He remembered a blooming sakura. He remembered that the two of them under it, eyeing one another. Hijikata had been fast, but not fast enough... He bent over, leaning his forehead on his hand. That moment, he felt he would never be able to look anyone in the eye again. Not even Takamatsu.
"I knew Hijikata. He was a real patriot, a man whom one couldn't help but admire," came from the doctor's direction; he too seemed thrown off balance. "Yet you... Ah, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. We knew he had died, his body was found. He seemed happy. He died in the battle, he couldn't wish for better end," Takamatsu spoke quickly, as if trying to convince himself or someone else. "It no longer matters. For the New Government, he was an enemy, he had to die. Whoever killed him is a hero of the New Government. Yes. That's it. It was war. He died at war. Yes."
The doctor took a deep breath and stared at the sky, as if he was paying his last respects. He breathed a sigh again. "And Akizuki? The man who came here after the battle was called Akizuki, if I'm correct. So you duelled with him too? Well, at least in that case, the respect for the rival was stronger than the demons."
Kanna swallowed. "What... do you mean?" he rasped, still cringing with his head down.
"He couldn't kill you. As you couldn't kill him," Takamatsu replied simply and seemed relieved. "His sword missed your vital organs, and your bullet didn't do him a greater harm either. I think it was not an accident. Akizuki is alive and well. He's a tough man, just like you. One would say, diamond cut diamond."
Kanna pressed his lips tight. "But that is... not all," he whispered. "I... killed one more person. She was... one of us. She was my comrade... I killed her in Goryōkaku. I killed her, shooting her in the back. I was sure I had to do it...! I thought I hated her, although the previous day I still..." His teeth chattered, and he had to clench his jaw. All in vain, he knew he was going to lose control over himself. He took a deep breath to be able to utter those last, most difficult words, "I killed her with my own hands, God help me please!"
The sob shook his body. He doubled over, pressing his face to his knees, and wept - over himself and over her, and over the life he'd ruined... He cried with regret nothing could soothe, and with sorrow that seemed to have taken him over. The load in his chest crushed him. He couldn't believe he would be able to raise his head again. He was worse than dust and unworthy to be walked over. He should disappear. He should have died. He should have never waked up again.
A strong hand rested on his shoulder, and he started. He wanted to throw it. He didn't deserve any comfort; he was despicable and loathsome, and he was a murderer. Someone like Takamatsu shouldn't touch him...
Yet he didn't do it. He couldn't push away that hand, the only support he was being given. He stayed in his chair, hunched, and the whole world narrowed down to that touch on his shoulder that lasted and wasn't disappearing. The time lost its meaning; one moment or one hour might have passed.
"Kanna-san, I know it's hard for you," he finally heard over the pounding in his ears. "I'm thinking what I should tell you know. Some part of me is furious with you. Yes, furious. I feel like shaking you or even whacking your silly head and ordering you to stop that hysterics and be a man." The fingers dug into his shoulder; the doctor apparently was restraining himself. "I really do. Some other part of me want to hug you and console like a child. Tell me, Kanna-san, what do you want?"
He sat up; the doctor's words sobered him. On the one hand, he was shocked at such bluntness; on the other hand... He looked at the man. "I'm not a child," he rasped.
"Well, you are, too. A bit," Takamatsu's voice got softer. "Now you're listening to me, that's good. There's nothing bad about crying, quite the contrary. Maybe I should let you cry on my shoulder, but... I just can't look at someone's tears. That's my weakness," he admitted. "See? My hands are shaking," he extended both hands; his fingers were trembling indeed. Kanna looked him in the eye, blinking. "I know it's hard for you," the doctor repeated, putting one hand on his shoulder again. "But I want to tell you what I think about it. From what you've said, it appears that when you committed those crimes, you were not yourself..."
"But I committed them regardless..."
"Kanna-san, are you really listening to me?" the man seemed like losing his temper; suddenly, he could barely keep his usual front of calmness, befitting a doctor. "Would you please just this once look beyond your remorse and look at the matter from the detached viewpoint?"
"How can I have a detached viewpoint when those are my matters and my remorse?" Kanna objected shyly. "Nothing's going to change what I've done..."
"Kanna-san, I'm going to hi- Khem." Takamatsu averted his gaze, and when he looked at him again, there was a spark in his eyes. "Now I see how you could survive in this world. If anything, you're obstinate," he summed up, and the corner of his lips twitched.
Kanna lowered his eyes... but he realized something was different and looked up again. Takamatsu was giving him a look that made everything else become smaller... although just a moment ago it'd seemed to fill the whole picture. Self-contempt, regret, sorrow, despair - they were still there, but there was more. There was much more in life.
"Kanna-san, let me ask you this question. Would you do it... would you kill those people under different circumstances?"
"Did you want to kill them? Did you plan it? Were you resolved to do it?"
"Did you have a reason to kill them?"
"Here is your answer," Takamatsu announced, his voice relieved. "What you intend to do with it is your concern; I'm not going to affect your decisions. I suppose it's not something one can leave behind just like that. Only a person devoid of sensitivity would be able to do it, while you are even too sensitive for your own good, Kanna-san. In any case, what I want to say is that you should think a bit and ask yourself if you could atone your guilt in a better way than turning yourself in to the police or, even worse, shooting yourself in your head. Which, let me remind you, I put quite an effort to restore. I would consider it an ingratitude on your part if you wasted it," he added crisply, yet there was some tension in his voice.
"I know," Kanna replied automatically.
"Because, you know, Kanna-san," the doctor went on, "I'm of the opinion that every person deserves to live. Death awaits us all, we don't need to hurry. Regardless of what happens to us, what pain we experience, what crimes we commit, we still have a right to live. We have to embrace our dark matters, painful places in us, do not run away from them and move on, acknowledging them and keeping them with us. We cannot change our past, but we can still believe in future. Do you understand what I say, Kanna-san?"
Kanna kept silent. Some part of his mind did grasp Takamatsu's thought, yet he still felt inhibited from approving it. If he trusted, if he believed... wouldn't it be evil in and of itself? Running away from the truth? But Takamatsu said it was not about running away but about accepting. And that living was a better choice than dying.
"That girl I told you about..." the doctor spoke, as if reading his mind. "The one who was with Akizuki... She told that, when she'd been not herself, she'd tried to kill Akizuki, whom she loved all that time. In tears, she confessed she'd stabbed him in the back. She'd had no power over herself, she said she could see her hands move up and strike the blow, and she couldn't help it. He survived only because he wasn't quite normal. In fact, he was the most bizarre of all... Still, they came here together and left together. And I suppose they will stay together. That is, once Akizuki figures out her and his own feelings, for it seems it's escaped him so far. I think he's even younger than you..." He mused over, and then shook his head, coming back to reality. "In any case, I want to say that people are able to forgive themselves a lot and live on, and there's nothing wrong about it. Why should it be? And when we speak of you, let me remind you once more of what you did yesterday. As far as I am concerned, your atonement had a good start. At this rate, you're going to be soon done with it."
Kanna gave him a grateful look. He was still in a muddle, but the load in his chest had grown a bit lighter. He nodded hesitantly.
Takamatsu smiled and then, out of the blue, tousled his hair. "I'm glad, Kanna-san," he said straight with a smile.
"Sakyōnosuke," Kanna whispered, trying to withstand his happy gaze. "Please, call me by my first name."
"Sakyōnosuke," Takamatsu repeated. "Now you took me by surprise... It's a long name, so I hoped it wouldn't happen... And here you are! Couldn't your mother name you, say, Sasuke or Shinsuke?" Kanna gave him an anxious look. The doctor laughed. "I'm joking. Then... call me Ryōun."
He started. "I couldn't..."
"Then, forger the deal," Takamatsu replied with a twinkle. "Ah, my patients wait for me!" he called out as if he'd just remembered.
Kanna got up, a bit too fast, and felt dizzy. Takamatsu supported him and then, all of the sudden, pulled him closer to himself. "I told you I enjoy your being here, though you're probably fed up with it already," he said in a soft voice. "Let me enjoy it longer," he added in a pleading voice and then let go of him.
Kanna felt his lips tremble. No, he wasn't fed up with it and would never be... Never... He stared at the man, trying to see clearly.
"I will have no tears here, Sakyōnosuke," Takamatsu wagged his finger at him. "Damn, I lost," he called but wasn't angered, quite the contrary.
Kanna sniffed. And then, for he couldn't do otherwise, he smiled, although just a moment ago he'd thought smile to have disappeared from his life for ever.
"That's better," the doctor praised him. "Very good. And now we head back: you have your lunch, and I have my patients. I told them to come in the afternoon today," he added with a sigh but didn't seem annoyed.
He seemed happier than ever.
She had amazingly bright eyes.
When he waked up the next morning in his bed, warmed by sun, and in pleasant languor between waking and sleeping, he tried to catch the fragments of his dreams, but they quickly escaped, leaving only that one impression. A woman with bright eyes, a one he knew and didn't. The very memory of her face made his heart beat faster, though he couldn't resist the feeling there was something distressing about her, too. He frowned and closed his eyes, trying to remember, but it seemed to him he could see those eyes in a few different faces...
A strangled moan left his lips. He covered his face with one hand and wished it could still be a dream - but it wasn't, of course. Now he remembered. Yuyama Kakunojō. How could he ever forgot her, and for two weeks, on top of it? That thought was followed by another: were there many facts about his life he had no recollection of yet? But, ah, it wasn't important. Not now.
Yuyama Kakunojō. Woman he loved, or so it seemed to him. Woman who reminded him of his mother. Who was his mother. A goddess.
He hit the mattress with his fist. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by anger. It was her fault. It was all her fault. She rejected him and then accepted again. She kept abandoning him, yet he still desired her. She had never been his, always looked away and eluded him, even when being near. It's because of her that he had committed those crimes. For her. It was her whom he'd killed, it was her whom he'd...
He took a deep breath and sat up, pulling his knees to his chest. Calm down. Calm down... He tried to control himself, he couldn't fell into... hysterics again, it wouldn't do. His heart was racing, but he felt he was in reign of himself. There was nothing to jitter about. He would... think of it later. And talk about it. He would talk about it with the doctor. With Takamatsu.
The opportunity arose soon. "How did you sleep?" the doctor asked upon visiting him after breakfast.
"Well," he replied truthfully. "I... remembered more... of those events."
"Good or bad things?" Takamatsu asked brightly.
"Hard to say," he answered after a while.
"I'll listen to it," the doctor offered, "but not now. Besides, it's not a proper place for it. Good morning, Suzuki-san!" he called to the patient lying on the next bed, who observed them curiously. "How is your head?"
"Hurts like hell," the man muttered and then pulled the cover over his ears.
"I'll have some free time around noon," Takamatsu declared. "Come to the terrace, we're going to sit outside."
"Thank you, Sensei," he responded grateful.
"In fact, you may move more," the doctor added, as if he had just realized it. "I think it would be better if you don't stay in bed all the time. I'll tell the nurses that you're going to have your meals in the hall from now on. But you'll have to bear with the dressing. It would be best to keep it for a month yet. The cut muscles heal slowly."
"It's not a problem, Sensei," he assured.
"I think we'll be able to talk about your discharge soon," Takamatsu supplied with a smile and then left, called by a nurse.
Suddenly, Kanna felt very bad. He lifted his left arm and was astonished to see it tremble. He lay down again and closed his eyes, trying to overcome dizziness as well as a feeling he was falling down the precipice. What was happening to him? Could it be a setback? He clenched his left fist, feeling the nails digging in. He felt like screaming in order to get rid of that fright that clenched his heart and that he didn't understand. Just in time he remembered where he was; he had to take into consideration the fact there were other people here, sick, in bad condition, needing rest. He took some deep breaths, and the feeling he was going to burst out crying receded.
Nevertheless, he spent the next three hours with the unpleasant sense that some disaster was drawing near. Not even warmth of the sun could soothe it. He sat down on the bench in front of the hospital and soon became the centre of attention of children playing in the yard. After a moment of hesitation, they decided to become acquainted with him and especially his fair hair. He let them, too preoccupied with his strange mood to notice anything else. Children, however, didn't leave him alone, and suddenly he realized he was deep in conversation. In fact, he was answering their question: who he was, what ailed him and how he found himself in Hakodate. Then, unexpectedly, the only girl in the group gave him a wreath made of blue flowers and whispered it was to thank him for having saved the doctor. Upon seeing he couldn't move his hand, Mei-chan placed the present on his head and then ran away, embarrassed. The boys deliberated together as to what they should give to the hero of the hospital, but they couldn't reach an agreement, and then the bell struck noon and he headed for the meeting place.
The doctor appeared late, for which he apologized. "To tell the truth, Bakufu wanted me to treat injured soldiers here, but I just couldn't say no to the civilians. It wouldn't be right," he said, grasping the mug with tea. "So it's only me myself that I may blame for having so much work. Nice wreath, it looks good on you. Though it doesn't fit well with that expression of yours. You look as if you're going to burst into tears again. What's happened?!"
Kanna lowered his head, the fingers of his left hand started to fidget with the fabric of his yukata. "I don't know," he whispered through his clenched throat. "I've been feeling bad since morning..."
"Since morning? To me, you looked pretty well in the morning," Takamatsu said thoughtful.
"Since you left, Sensei," he specified and then added, as if he'd just remembered, "You were to call me by my first name..."
"I have a problem with it," the doctor replied bluntly. "You've probably noticed that I talk a lot and quickly. Your name is... long. On the other hand, it may be a good exercise... But do not feel offended if I call you Sasuke by accident."
Kanna raised his gaze on him. Sometimes he didn't understand him at all.
"Oh, but I'm joking again! You can't be a doctor if you're a misery," the doctor said. "Sa-kyō-no-suke," he spelled. "It would sound nice with '-kun' in it, but that would be overdoing it. Then, you've been feeling bad since I left? Did I say something wrong?" he wondered. "If I remember correctly, we spoke of your shoulder and how quickly you're recovering. And that I'll be able to discharge you soon... Ah."
Kanna frowned and felt that pang in his chest again. Suddenly, Takamatsu grew serious. For a moment, he observed him, then raised his head and stared at the sky, and finally he sighed and looked at him again. He leaned over and put his elbow on the table.
"What is it that you wanted to talk with me about, Sakyōnosuke? You said you'd remembered more...?"
Kanna clutched his yukata again. Indeed. In the meantime, lost in foul mood, he'd managed to forget about it. Funny. What should he say? How should he start? There were thousands thoughts in his head, and he was disturbed by that 'ah', on top of it.
Suddenly, he banged one fist on the table. "I hate it," he said quietly yet fiercely. "That I never get it," he explained. "Why can't I be normal?" he asked with anger.
Takamatsu blinked. "Normal? What makes you think you're not normal?"
"I... I always feel strange, not like others. I..."
"Forgive me that I interrupt you, but how can you know how others feel?"
Kanna glanced at him. "I don't know, I just... guess. That they feel okay. Normal. They act so."
"And how do you act?"
"I... don't know. I don't understand it. Like now. I don't know why I feel bad. It doesn't make sense."
"Nothing doesn't make sense, Sakyōnosuke. Am I correct that you're frustrated because you don't understand your behaviour and feelings and you think others do?"
"Yes." So it was possible to put it into words, after all. It was only logical that the doctor didn't find it unfeasible. "Sometimes I feel so many feelings and impressions... emotions... and I can't grasp them. Sometimes I feel them almost... physically..."
"And you feel at a loss?" Takamatsu inquired. "And you think you should... control them?"
"Yes! I'd like to know what happens inside me, yet... I get anxious, nervous I can't relax. Sometimes I feel like screaming. Surely, others don't have such problems. Only I'm so... weird."
"Sakyōnosuke, maybe it's going to disappoint you, but there's nothing weird about it," the doctor responded. "Every person experience emotions they sometimes cannot handle and understand. Not mention behaviour that one cannot figure out. Such is human nature."
"It is?" It sounded almost unbelievable.
"But... Then, why others... don't do stupid things? Only I keep doing them..."
Takamatsu shook his head. "Everyone do stupid things. We are only human. Making mistakes is out nature. Errare humanum est. Are you, by any chance, not too strict on yourself?"
"I..." How could he answer that?
"Do you always try to be the best and admonish yourself for the smallest mistakes, and can't be happy if you don't perform hundred percent?" the doctor prompted him.
"I'm never good enough," he whispered.
Takamatsu nodded. "And you probably cannot appreciate your virtues. We've already spoken about it."
"Virtues?" 'What virtues?' he wanted to ask.
"You're good-looking and intelligent," the doctor started to list. "Though, these are things you can't do anything about," he admitted. "But listen now: you're gentle, honest and sensitive. You care about others. You're a good man. And you're an excellent shooter, or so it seems to me."
"It's... not true," he replied dully.
"That... That all. I... No-one ever told me such things."
"I'm telling you. Now. For I really think them."
Kanna lowered his eyes.
"But you can't believe me, is that so?" came the polite question.
"It's not... I just..."
"You just believe more in what others told you?"
"That I was a bother..." He crumpled the fabric of yukata in his fingers. "That they didn't want to deal with me... That they were disappointed. I've been always told that. Surely, they must have been right!" he raised his voice, as if trying to prove something. "I'm... a failure."
"What if they were wrong?"
"Why?" he uttered through his squeezed throat.
"Because they didn't know you? Because they couldn't see further than the ends of their noses and realize what kind of person you really are? Because they had their own businesses and couldn't show you affection?" the doctor suggested. "Like I said, humans are just humans... Maybe you were unlucky and met wrong people? Everyone have their right to think and say what they please..." he said. "But it doesn't necessarily mean they are always right. And that you're a failure. Do you understand what I mean?"
Kanna shook his head. He didn't understand a word of this.
Takamatsu sighed. "If you pour water to the glass, someone will say it's half full and someone else that it's half empty. Both are correct. Or your eyes: when inside, they are grey, but outside they are blue. The same thing can be seen in different ways. That others were mean to you doesn't mean you deserved it," he explained.
"But... my mother..." he started and paused.
"You said she had been... in Yoshiwara," the doctor prompted him gently.
"Yes. At some point, she even was tayū. But... after she had me... she lost her position... But she was still beautiful, so she could... keep working."
"Did she visit you often?"
"Very rarely. She couldn't... I think."
"I'm sure it was hard on her," Takamatsu said cautiously.
"In that case, she should have never had me," he called defiantly.
"Yet she wanted you to live," the doctor pointed out. "Even though she couldn't bring you up... Even though she made you suffer... She thought that living is still better."
"She was selfish. She didn't think about me."
"From certain point of view, she didn't. But... do you really believe it?"
He didn't answer. His heart was racing.
"Did you tell her it?" Takamatsu inquired gently. "Would you tell her it? Sakyōnosuke? Do you really hate her?"
He shook his head. "No," he whispered. "I wanted her... to stay with me... But just she used to bring me some sweets and leave again... I wanted her to stay with me, to never leave me. Maybe if I had been... better, she would have stayed with me," he said in a strangled voice.
"And I think she had the contract that forced her to stay in Yoshiwara."
"In that case why... When that man had bought her contract... why she didn't stay with me then?!" he almost screamed, raising his gaze at the doctor.
Takamatsu, at the other side of the table, was observing him closely. It seemed no detail could escape his eyes and that he could see what was invisible, too. Kanna hoped... wished the man could look inside him. And maybe see something... that no-one else could...
"Every man may be weak at some times, and strong at some other times," the man spoke after a moment. "Just like that glass of water, or your eyes. I don't know your mother, but I think she was strong when bearing you and then giving birth to you. Despite being tayū, she had enough courage to fight for your life. Maybe it was even her position that convinced others to let her do it. But when she found herself outside Yoshiwara and suddenly had to deal with the new world, with completely new situations... maybe then she was weak, could no longer protect herself... nor you. In need of care and protection, she submitted to that man, who had power over her. The world is ruled by the men, and women are always in worse position and helpless on their own. Besides, suddenly she landed in a foreign country, far from the place she knew... I imagine she was very lost. Maybe it seemed to her she couldn't do anything. I'm not saying all this to justify your mother; no, she is guilty of having sent you, her own son, away, to strangers, and nothing will change it. But I don't believe, not in the slightest, that her actions resulted from her dislike to you. I don't believe that she left you because she didn't love you. Because she considered you 'not good enough' and wished you were 'better'. Certainly not. Her actions didn't result from her ill will, although it may seem obvious that bringing children up is a natural order of things and a parental duty, and who doesn't fulfil it is a monster. I'm sure she didn't imagine you to suffer."
"She left me because she had no choice and not because she didn't want me?" he whispered.
"Yes. I think that's the case," the doctor's voice was relieved and satisfied. "I'm glad you said it. Though, maybe you'll need the whole life to actually believe it."
He kept silent. The whole life... It sounded awfully long.
"Try to think about it this way," Takamatsu went on. "Despite it, or maybe exactly due to it, you grew up to be a good man. Someone else in your place might have completely degenerated."
"I'm not a good man."
"I think you are," the doctor insisted. "But I suspect you to sometimes behave in a way that may offend people. I suppose you hide your own insecurity that way and fear to be hurt. You said you can't handle your emotions. Can it be, too, that you don't show them?"
"Yes. Sometimes I... cut myself from them," he replied clumsily. Finding words wasn't easy, but Takamatsu was helping him. He seemed to understand him, almost read his mind. "I pretend there are none. I pretend I'm calm until I start to believe it."
"And others do, too. When I met you... When we spoke for the first time, I thought, 'He's a man who doesn't give a damn, self-confident, looking down on others and sometimes smirking.' You see? I can even imagine you smirking."
"I told you I'm not a good man..." he whispered, lowering his eyes again.
"I think you haven't heard a word of what I've just said," Takamatsu frowned. "I said that a person may act in a way that seems objectionable, but in reality it doesn't reflect one's real self."
"But that is... deceiving others..."
"Still, sometimes it's necessary, even required," Takamatsu stated in a decisive manner. "Just think about it: if you acted like you really feel, like a paper doll that will fall over when you blow on it, would you have any chances in this world? One must look for strength… for means to survive. There's nothing wrong about pretending to be tougher than one is. One would say it's natural. You shouldn't reproach yourself for it. Personally, I think you're doing pretty good in life."
"Yet... the older I get," Kanna dared to speak, encouraged by the support the doctor was giving him, "the more often I wonder... how long I'm going to last. I don't want to complain... I'm sure others have much worse... but... sometimes I feel I've had enough. That I don't want any more. That... such life... is pointless..."
"Like... when I fail. When I fail... disappoint others... When they turn away from me and... abandon me..."
Takamatsu nodded. "That's what I thought."
"Sensei... Ryōun-san... It's funny how much pain it may cause." He tried to smile, bitterly, but couldn't. "Much more than any wound can do. It's the pain that paralyzes... flings... enervates... It devours everything until there's nothing left but it. It starts here," he grasped yukata on his chest, "and then it spreads over the whole body and beyond it... Can a person die of pain?" he asked, looking the man in the eye.
"I think they can," the doctor answered calmly and nodded.
"I fear I'll die of it one day," he confessed. "And, on the other hand... It wouldn't be so bad. If everything ended with it..." He let his hand fall onto his lap.
"Apart from dying, though..." Takamatsu spoke. "Correct me if I'm wrong. You fear to be rejected and try to avoid it. In two ways: on the one hand, you strive to be the best, hoping that others will let you stay with them if you fulfil their expectations. On the other hand, you try not to involve, keep others at a distance and don't let them come closer. But no man was created to be alone, people will always seek for others' company... closeness. No matter how you try, there's no getting away from relations with others. But, since you've been let down for so many times - because people are defective beings and cannot understand each other all the time - you are being rejected over and over again. And each time is worse than the previous one."
He blinked. The doctor could contain his whole problem in just a few sentences? "It seems simple..."
"Nothing is simple in life, and you're a perfect example for it," Takamatsu replied impassively.
"Then, what should I do about it?" he asked with disbelief for which he expected to be scolded.
"To seek a person who will not let you down?" the doctor suggested. "Who will not reject you? You've been unfortunate so far, but you can't really believe you will not find someone like that, can you? Maybe you've already found?"
He blinked. For a moment, they sat in silence.
"I remembered why I killed her..." he confessed quietly once he'd managed to put the chaos in his head in order, a bit. "I though... I was sure she'd left me... rejected me... again. I saw my mother in her... and Kakunojō... With that one shot... I killed all three of them. I thought I was important to her... like I had been just the previous night... I thought she would stay with me, but she turned away... ran away... Now I know she wasn't running away from me but... all that... she didn't understand. She must have been afraid, she was left alone and no-one helped her... I didn't help her either. But that time I couldn't see that. I saw only her back moving away, and some voice whispered to me, 'She abandoned you, as well. Don't forgive her.' I couldn't resist it... I succumbed to it... I killed her. And Kakunojō. And my mother... And nothing changed." His fingers trembled. "I would have shot myself there, right on spot, but..." He frowned. "Kakunojō. Kakunojō stopped me..."
"She was there?" the doctor asked.
"She was... She was a goddess," he replied slowly as another images appeared in his mind. "She called out to fight. She called out to glory. She forgave me. She forgave me that I killed my mother... and she became my mother," he whispered. "I would do anything for her. Although she didn't even see me... she had her eyes fixed on some distant point... She was looking at the future, at the new world... Poor girl."
"So she wasn't a goddess? She wasn't your mother, then?" Takamatsu inquired.
He shook his head. "No. She... fell victim to the same evil... the same madness I did."
A sigh came from the man's direction, as if the doctor let out the breath he'd been holding. "Sakyōnosuke... Do you realize what you've just said?"
He looked at him. It seemed to him Takamatsu was smiling.
"First, you let Kakunojō be just Kakunojō, not your mother nor a goddess," he explained. "And, though she was important to you, you let her go with Akizuki, right?"
After a moment of hesitation, he nodded.
"Second, you've finally admitted... believed that you acted in state of madness. Like Kakunojō almost killed Akizuki despite loving him, you killed that girl despite her being your comrade. Can you forgive yourself that?"
He didn't know. What he knew was that... with some miniscule part of his heart he started to believe... he might not be guilty of the whole wrong in the world.
"Sakyōnosuke. Do you know what I think more?" the doctor continued. "That 'killing the mother', in a figurative way, could be necessary. Maybe doing so you expressed all those negative emotions: how you hated her; how you could not forgive her; how you still desired her acceptance and love. Maybe now that you 'killed your mother', that image of her that always tormented you, you will be able to advance? You will stop seeing her in every woman... in every person. Maybe it's going to be easier from now on?" his voice rang with hope. "Even though those events were so tragic, so shocking, and led to death of an innocent girl. Maybe that's what will make you remember about it? So that her death doesn't go to waste...? Do you suppose you could think that way?"
"I... don't know. But... I'll never forget about it." He was sure of it. "I will never forget about it. I owe her that much..."
"Would you... would you like to tell me about her?" Takamatsu asked after a moment of silence.
"I barely even knew her..." he replied with sadness. "We spent a few months together. It's both short and long time to get to know someone, isn't it?" He smiled bitterly. "I mentioned that Parkes gave us the mission to kill Enomoto and made me a captain. It was last fall. We spent a lot of time practicing, trying to get in sync. They were really good, professionals, an elite team... They deserved a better commander. I didn't even know their real names, we used code names. She was Queen... She was excellent bowgun user. She hung together with her brother, Rook. They were twins, they both had red hair and green eyes. She said they'd been always together, always felt each other's presence. When Rook had died, before the others did... she said there was only pain in his place. And in spite of that... she accepted me. She didn't reject me..." Only now he realized the tears rolling down his cheeks. He let them flow.
"She needed you. You stayed with her, it mattered to her," the doctor stated in a soft voice.
"I think that..." he whispered. "Now I think that maybe she wished to stay. Maybe she wouldn't have left me..."
"Ryōun-san...?" He raised his gaze and frowned. "What happened to Goryōkaku? Enomoto surrendered?"
"Yes," Takamatsu nodded. "The fort was handed over to the government forces. They left their garrison there, but I suspect the Magistrate to resume operating soon, if they haven't already done it."
He kept staring ahead. "Their bodies... are they still there, in that dungeon?" he asked quietly. "Has anyone found them?" Suddenly, he grew anxious.
"I don't know. Do you want me to notify the authorities?" the doctor proposed.
"Please!" he called. "They don't deserve to be left there, in the darkness... I was their commander, albeit so bad. That's the least I can do for them. Please!" he looked at the man pleadingly.
"I'll find out and inform you," came the reassuring answer.
He breathed a sigh of relief. He realized he was tired. He felt dizzy. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you for everything, Ryōun-san. I... don't deserve that you bother yourself with me. Still, you..."
"I want to bother myself with you, Sakyōnosuke," Takamatsu replied straight. "If you wish to talk to me, I'll hear you out. If you had a problem, I'll help you if I only can."
He lifted his head and tried to focus his gaze on the man.
"Do you think you'll be able to trust me?" the doctor asked hesitantly.
He knitted his brows, looking at that gentle and concerned face, and those sharp eyes flickering with some anxiety. Funny. Takamatsu Ryōun anxious?
"I've been trusting you... from the very start," he said in a soft voice and smiled shyly. It was... natural.
"Then, I'm going to do everything in order to not fail your trust," the doctor replied in a serious tone. "But I'm just a man, and I may make mistakes sometimes. Only you know what's inside your head, I can't read it..."
"I almost disagree..." Kanna muttered.
"Still," the doctor insisted, "if I say something that offends you or hurt you and I don't realize it, let me now. Will you, Sakyōnosuke? Can we make such a deal?" he inquired.
He nodded, although he couldn't quite imagine anything like that happening. For now, he was of the opinion that the man was far more knowledgeable about his thoughts and feelings than he was himself.
Takamatsu breathed with relief and smiled. "Phew... I'm terribly hungry," he called and tapped his tights. "I'm going straight to the kitchen, I'm sure the lunch is ready. I suppose you're hungry as well?"
To tell the truth, he was, although it was only now that he realized it.
"In that case, let's go," Ryōun got up. "Ah, you'd better leave the wrath behind. The nurses will not give you a rest."
"Why?" he asked, astonished.
"Because you're looking absolutely lovely with it."
Absolutely lovely? Kanna decided he would rather sit for longer. He could hear the laugh of the doctor from afar.
The next day, he went for a walk in the vicinity. His condition allowed it, there was no contraindication, and the doctor actually advised him gradual regaining of his fitness and shape. He decided to see the ward the hospital was situated in. There was not much to look at - just a quiet neighbourhood with mostly Japanese houses, though there were a few European-style stone buildings. Since the fighting had taken place outside the town and concentrated around Goryōkaku, Hakodate had hardly suffered any damages. Actually, looking at the area, it was pretty hard to believe it was here where the civil war that had lasted nearly a year and a half, had ended. In the hospital, many of its participants - soldiers - were still recuperating, but outside the normal city life was going on. The housewives put the washing out in the yards, children played, and the elders basked in the sun. The air was filled with the scent of flowers blooming everywhere. Branchy trees provided a pleasant shade. The day was lovely.
He walked slowly, carefully taking his steps. It felt strange to wear yukata again - he hadn't put it on since his childhood - and without his gun. Derringer stayed where he'd put it: under the pillow. Since then... since that day he hadn't even touched it. There's been no need. Maybe... there would never be? Once, it'd seemed to him he couldn't live without gun. He had worked so long until he could be really proud of his skills and the Remmingtons had become the extensions of his arms. Now that he thought about it, he could even accept his failure with Enomoto, if he believed that Enomoto really had been possessed, which wasn't an easy thing to believe.
But he had seen it! And became more and more convinced that it'd been all reality, not an illusion, not a figment of imagination or exhausted mind. Now, it must have been true, since the very memory could still give him the creeps! He had been brought up in Japan, where the spiritual realm had always been present, yet he never could actually believe all those ghost stories, demons and gods - enough that people surrounding him had resembled demons themselves... He'd grown up, trying to have both feet on the ground and believing in his own abilities, in common sense, and intellect. That was what made it so hard to accept that the last events had had something to do with supernatural forces... But when the others had supported what he had experienced himself, he was more willing to believe it. Maybe this time putting blame on someone else... something else wasn't running away... Maybe he could do it, even if it wasn't something that came to him naturally? He'd always wanted to answer for himself and his actions. Maybe this time he also had done all what he could, only that... hadn't been enough? The situation had been too difficult so that he could come away unscathed from it? And he had one more prove for that gun wouldn't protect him from everything and help for everything. Now it seemed to him he had been putting too much faith in it. And, to tell the truth, he didn't feel like shooting any time soon.
Although the thought he had saved Ryōun filled him with some warmth he couldn't quite figure out.
Still, what else could he do? He had no skills apart from shooting. Ryōun would say that he was young and had time to learn many things. But what kind of things? Chopping woods? He lacked sturdiness. Cultivating rice? He would probably stomp all sprouts. Maybe he could become a fisherman? No, the sad truth was that all he could think of was a job of bodyguard.
Only in the next moment he realized that, more or less seriously, he was considering his future, and that thought made him stop dead in his tracks. Trying to calm down his racing heart, he wondered what had changed. What had happened to that sadness and that despair filling him just a few days ago, obscuring everything and making him consider death the only option? It was gone. It had left. It had been smothered when his life had become meaningful again. He hadn't even noticed. He wanted to live. Now he really wanted to live, and it seemed as natural as breathing itself.
He turned around and looked at the hospital building behind. He knew whom he owed for it.
He resumed walking, shaken yet... happy. He felt like laughing - though he feared he might as well start crying. And Ryōun didn't like tears, ah... Then, he lived and wanted to live. Even though so many bad things had happened, even though he had done many bad things himself... Could he forgive himself it? Not forget - but forgive? Embrace what hurt him and move on?
But it wasn't an easy thing. In fact, it could be the most difficult thing in his life. What would Ryōun say in such situation? Maybe that the most important was to make the first step and then it would just roll itself. And that he had the whole life to achieve his goal. Something like this. Ha.
His gaze fixed on the ground, he walked slowly, returning to the previous topic. So, the job of the bodyguard seemed the only alternative... But if he were to be honest with himself - and why he shouldn't? It was already high time for this - he could name what it was that he really wanted. It wasn't so important where he was and what he was doing - what mattered was to be where Ryōun was. The man who had accepted and understood him. Who had helped him. Who had saved him. They had knew each other for such a short period of time, yet he couldn't imagine them to part. He wanted to be by his side. Yes, he could stay in the hospital. He could do the cleaning, wash the floors, help with patients - like Daigorō. He could do everything, anything, it didn't matter. With him... he didn't need to be afraid or to hesitate. He felt... good.
He was so light. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been filled with such hope, anticipation and... peace. Not apathy and resignation, but such a living and emotional calmness. Such... reconciliation and... optimism? Maybe when he'd seen Kakunojō for the first time and then attended every play, savouring her sight on the stage... But Kakunojō belonged to the past, to another life. Now he could think of her without pangs of regret, almost like of a stranger whom he'd met by accident. She was a stranger. And... she wasn't his. She was gone along with Akizuki. It was unlikely that he met her again... and the thought didn't evoke any feelings, even though not so long ago he would be able to do anything to win her smile or just one look... But maybe it was that fever, that insanity seizing not only him... Had he really loved her? Now he could believe it was only an illusion. That everything that had happened in last months had been just a dream. Maybe he would even... soon... forget about it?
He came to a stop again. No, he couldn't forget. He owed it to people whom he'd failed, whom he'd hurt... whom he'd brought to dead. He was never allowed to forget it, no matter how painful and humiliating. They were gone, had passed away, could do nothing - while he lived on and was obliged to remember, to carry along what they had experienced. Together. Knight. Bishop. Rook. And Queen.
He hoped that in the future he would meet people whom he wouldn't disappoint this time.
"I have some news for you," Ryōun announced the next day in the afternoon. "The bodies of your companions... They were found and buried. No-one could tell anything about their personalities or involvement in the battle of Goryōkaku. The authorities didn't want to bury gaijin together with Japanese in the Military Cemetery, and in the end they were entombed in the Foreign Cemetery. I thought you might want to go there...? I have a moment to spare, so I could accompany you."
Kanna gave him a grateful look. "I... don't know how to thank you, Ryōun-san. I didn't expect... so quickly..."
The doctor waved his hand. "You should get things done quickly, otherwise they will overwhelm you. That's my policy," he said. "In that case, wait a moment, I'll go organize us some transportation."
The sun was still high in the sky when they were heading for the south part of the town. At the doctor's behest, one of the neighbours agreed to take them to the designed place. They went through the city centre - Kanna saw it for the first time - and then reached the shore, going almost to the end of the cape Hakodate was located in. Before, he paid little attention to the surroundings, lost in thought, but now he just had to look closer. The beauty of the area was breathtaking. To the left was Mount Hakodate, a hill towering over the town, and to the right was spreading the bay. Its surface was sparkling as sapphires, reflecting the blue sky above. The silence was being disturbed only by the gulls, and their squawk fit perfectly well with the atmosphere of the place. There were no people here; the only person they saw was a hunched man among the tombstones. Towards him they walked.
"Nakanishi-san, if my memory serves me right?" the doctor started.
The man raised his head and then straightened up, dusting himself off. He was about forty, short and slender. Apparently, he was in charge of this place. "If it isn't Takamatsu-sensei," he called upon recognizing the doctor. "What brings you here, Sensei? Hardly anyone visits here..." he added, giving Kanna a curious look.
"It's Kanna-san, a patient of mine, who has some say in the matter of those three foreigners you have buried here not so long ago," the doctor cut to the chase.
"Any information would be welcomed," Nakanishi replied with a sigh. "No-one knew who they were, so they rest here without names. There," he pointed at three fresh graves closer to the sea. "Their bodies were found in Goryōkaku, right?" he asked as they walked. "Did they participate in the battle?"
"It's hard to say," Ryōun answered before Kanna managed to open his mouth. "They are Englishmen who came to Ezo by order of Consul-General Parkes. It is likely they had to carry some mission in Goryōkaku and were killed in action."
"So it seems," Nakanishi agreed, nodding with sadness. "They must have died in battle, you could tell... Here," he showed the first grave, "lies that big man. Here," he pointed at the middle one, "the older gentleman, and here the woman."
"Bishop, Knight, and Queen," Kanna spoke quietly.
"Military code names," Ryōun explained as Kanna went silent. "They were killed in the war, and they should be honoured as soldiers. Nakanishi-san, can you order the tablets?"
"Send me the bill."
Kanna stirred. "Ryōun-san, don't..."
"It's all right, Sakyōnosuke. We will square up later," the doctor assured him. "Nakanishi-san, you should write down their names."
"Good idea," the man concurred and headed for the small building nearby.
Kanna squatted and stared at the three mounds in silence. Now that he was here, he was filled with remorse again. He'd known they were dead - he'd been there when they'd died - but only now he actually realized it. They were dead, all three of them, as well as Rook, who had died earlier. They were lying here, and here they would stay... In this beautiful place by the shore. With fighting as their element, it was likely they hadn't even imagined such peace could exist in the world. Queen rested southernmost, closest to her brother, whom they had abandoned. They had been together for the whole life, and only death had parted them... He hoped, wanted to believe, that wherever they were, they had found each other on the other side. He didn't know what it meant to have siblings - children he had been growing up with had never treated him like family - but he imagined it to be something wonderful. He could remember how those two had related to each other, understanding one another without words, acting as one, trusting each other. After Rook had died, Queen hadn't been able to function. How had she put it? As if some part of her had been dead as well...
The gulls cried over their head, and suddenly he felt a cutting longing himself. For those three... four, with whom he'd been for such a short time... For being able to experience something similar, such a fellowship, mutual acceptance, maybe even trust... Or maybe for being able to end it, lay down and fall asleep... never suffer again, leave everything behind. It was so tempting... The very thought was invigorating. He stared at the blue ocean. How would it be: to vanish into its waves, being floated, cradled, leave the world to others... those who were strong enough to live...
He got up, wiping his face. No, it wasn't true. He wanted to live. Only yesterday he'd wanted to walk ahead, wake up, try and try again, plan his future. Why such thought kept occurring to him? Why, if he had made his decision, his mind still considered that final option? Maybe... maybe it was due to the place... That sadness, those gulls, waves breaking on the shore patiently and incessantly. They would be doing this to the end of all times. Maybe that was why he'd started thinking of his own end...?
"I don't want to die," he whispered, more to himself than anyone else.
"You don't have to," came the silent reply. "You don't have to die now. Death awaits each of us, but not now. Enjoy your life."
He nodded. Nakanishi returned, holding a book and a pen. Kanna wrote down the only names of those three he knew. Despite sorrow, he felt he was relieved, too. His comrades had been inearthed under the vast skies; they didn't need to stay in the darkness of Goryōkaku, in that ghastly dungeon that he still wasn't able to reminisce calmly. None of them would have ever look at that place again. It was good.
They bid the worker farewell and returned to the cart in order to go back to the hospital.
"Thank you, Ryōun-san," he spoke in a soft voice as the cart was chugging along the road towards the town. "I'm glad they... are here. I was scared..." He didn't finish.
"It's good it eased your mind," the doctor nodded. "As their commander, you feel responsible for them..."
"They died because of me," he said outright. "Such is the truth I'm not going to deny..."
"Yet it wasn't you who killed them," the doctor replied.
"They followed me. If I hadn't led them to that mission, maybe they would have been alive now," he explained, staring at his knees.
"If they hadn't wanted to follow you, they wouldn't have done it," the doctor retorted. "You cannot devoid them of their free will. Thinking the way you do, you don't show them respect. From what you told me, they were tough, battle-hardened soldiers. There must be a reason why they accepted you as their leader and decided to listen to you. They were loyal to you not because you gave an order, but because they believed in you."
"And what they got from that faith? Now they are dead..." he asked bitterly.
"True, life is the most valuable thing," Ryōun agreed. "But... In Japan, the samurai children were being brought up so that they always knew that death was near and real life is on the battlefield. I suppose that, in that matter, European soldiers aren't that different from Japanese. I didn't know your companions, but I think they might be happy to die in battle," he added cautiously. "Do not nullify who they were and what they fought for only because you feel guilty about not having died with them. I think they would be happy to know that their commander survived."
He remained silent. He wished he could look at it the doctor did. Though... Did he really? Maybe it was all about wanting, that inner confidence that one's own choices and decisions were right? He feared to want it. He feared that once he believed he was not guilty... What kind of person that would make him? But it was also true that he respected those people. Maybe Ryōun was right that it had been also their decision? That they had made it out of free will. After all, that moment he had been no longer their captain; Parkes had disbanded their team, called off the task, but they had decided to revolt against that order and act on their own. When he'd proposed to try again, they'd just followed him, although they might have as well turned back and leave. Could it be that they had really seen something in him that was worth... risking their lives?
He wiped tears with his sleeve. "I... accepted that mission because I wanted to deserve a praise..." he whispered after a while, when his throat unclenched again. "England gave me a chance. That moment I was English and craved for favour of Her Majesty Queen. It didn't matter what I had to do; what mattered was to fulfil the task and please those who could recognize me, look at me favourably..."
"You were looking for your place, that's only natural..."
"That's egoism," he said with self-criticism. "Parkes called me an opportunist... and now I think he was right. I always tried to adjust to the situation, seek advantages for myself... Take what I was given, instead of putting my foot down and advancing no matter what..."
"You are too harsh on yourself," the doctor replied with confidence. "As a person who always lacked safety and recognition... It's natural you take every opportunity... every chance to obtain what you need. I really think you should be more lenient on yourself."
"Why always... Why do you always try to justify me? Ryōun-san...?" he couldn't refrain from asking this question.
"It's not justifying," the man answered. "I think no person should fall into despair or welter in doubts. And besides... I'm of the opinion you lack the impartial view on yourself."
"In that case..." He tried to put those things in order. Ryōun said things that were hard to believe, yet even he could see their wisdom. "Should impartial view always be so... positive? And does it mean that partial one is always negative? There's nothing between? Can you not have... neutral view?"
"Oh, you surely can! For my part, however, I always prefer to see positives," Ryōun answered, laughing.
Kanna looked at him askance.
"Moreover," the man continued, "remember about the balance of nature. If you focus on negatives, I choose positives. We are well matched," he decided, taking his eyes off the sky and looking at him closely.
He turned his head, unsure what to say, and they spent the rest of their journey in silence that for some reason wasn't awkward.
'We are well matched.' He couldn't do anything about the warm feeling that welled up in his chest on those words. Could he... Did he have courage... should he make any conclusions based on them...? Could he dream and make plans... Was he allowed to?
It seemed that man and his goodness were able to neutralize all that was evil in him.
The next day, he was visited by a Magistrate official. Apparently, the matter of three dead bodies found in Goryōkaku lay heavy on the local authorities, who wanted to solve it somehow. On the one hand, he was impressed by such diligence, but on the other he worried about what was going to happen to him, now that his involvement had been disclosed...
"We learned about your involvement in that unpleasant matter of three dead bodies found in Goryōkaku," the official announced once he had introduced himself as Noda Saburō. "I would like you to tell me more about it, Mister...?"
"Kanna. Kanna Sakyōnosuke," he hurried to answer.
"Kanna-san," Noda repeated. "I heard you're an Englishman...?"
"After my father. I was born and raised up in Japan. My mother is Japanese."
"Ah yes, that explains it..." the man replied in a typical tone of a clerk. "How old are you, Kanna-san?"
"I am turning nineteen this year."
"Then you were born in 1850," Noda-san apparently wished to show off his ability of speed counting. "Do you have any credentials?" he asked, giving him a penetrating look, which made Kanna feel uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, he had to find a way out of this situation. He ordered himself calm and tried to focus on the question. Credentials... documents... certificate... He frowned. "I have a writing by Consul-General Parkes," he replied. "I will go for it," he got up.
"Do so, please."
The letter, something akin to a diplomatic passport, was located in the pocket of his coat. He had forgot about it completely. He hadn't supposed he would need it again, and now it appeared it could be of use to him. The paper was slightly creased, but apart from that it hadn't suffered any damages. On his way back to the room the official was waiting him in, he almost bumped into the doctor.
"I've heard a Magistrate official paid us a visit, but I didn't suspect he came to see you," the man said, frowning. "Although I should have known better..." he added with a sigh. "I'd better go with you," he decided.
Kanna hadn't expected he would be so relieved. He should treat the talk with the clerk neutrally, but in fact he was quite concerned. Yet, if Ryōun were there with him, everything would be all right...
"What a surprise," the doctor greeted Noda, who bowed to him. "We didn't expect the guest from the Magistrate," he added with a slight hint of a reproach.
"Takamatsu-sensei, please forgive us that we didn't notify you," the official responded after he'd sat down again. "As you can imagine, we have spate of work and too few people."
"Yes, I know that feeling," Ryōun replied in an almost sympathetic voice. "What brings you here?"
"I have a business with Mr Kanna," the man explained politely; obviously, he hoped for the favour of the director. "It is about those three bodies from Goryōkaku..."
"Ah, have you solved that mystery?" the doctor asked in an innocent and kind voice.
This time, Noda gave him a slightly distrustful look. "That is why I am here today. I am sure Kanna-san is able to give us important information," he said with dignity. "It was you, Sensei, who wrote about having learned of those bodies from one of your patient."
"And what made you think it was Mr Kanna?" the doctor threw casually and almost with surprise.
"The courier told us you treat a foreigner here," the response was brief but uttered with satisfaction.
Ryōun's expression communicated that Kenta-kun, the boy who did errands for the hospital, would get a talking to for being a blabbermouth. On the other hand, the Magistrate could be pretty inquisitive. The doctor repressed a sigh. "As you can see, Kanna-san is still recovering. Besides, he sustained a head injury and can hardly remember the events of last weeks," he announced.
"However, he did know about the bodies in Goryōkaku," the official didn't let it faze him and turned to the main object of his interest. "Kanna-san..."
"Well, I think he may answer a few questions," the doctor broke in, as if he hadn't heard Noda at all.
Noda gave him a resentful look but didn't intend to lock horns with the hospital director and decided to ignore him instead. "Kanna-san. You have brought the document I asked for. May I have look at it?" he asked in a domineering, although still polite, voice.
Kanna passed him the letter written in two languages and signed by Parkes.
"By authority granted me by Her Majesty Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and in agreement with the Empire of Great Japan, I hereby give Kanna Sakyōnosuke power of attorney through Diplomatic mission in Japan. I request and require to afford him full assistance in performing his duties. Signed by Harry Smith Parkes, Her Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary and Consul-General in Japan."
The official looked at him, and it seemed to Kanna he could see some respect in his gaze that hadn't been there before. The content of the letter sounded impressive indeed, yet he feared whether here, in the far North, it was of any significance.
A whistle came from the doctor's side. "Kanna-san, I had no idea I've been treating such a grandee in my humble hospital." Kanna threw a frightened glance at him only to realize Ryōun was acting. "Noda-san, I believe the Magistrate in Hakodate is going to afford Mr Kanna full assistance...?" he suggested. "Diplomatic agreements," he added in tone as if it explained everything.
The official lost his countenance noticeably. "O-of course. Japan is an ally of the British Empire," he said and then, unexpectedly yet taking his chance, he went on to the offensive, "Shall I understand you were carrying out a diplomatic task in Hakodate, Kanna-san? As were those people? Did you know them?" he inquired.
"Noda-san," the doctor interfered again. "Forgive me, but Kanna-san is a convalescent. Rushing with questions wouldn't do. Is Kanna-san accused of something? Because it's quite hard to call the tone of your voice polite..."
"But!" the man turned to the doctor again, exasperation mixing with alarm on his face. "Kanna-san, of course we neither accuse you of nor charge you with anything. We only want to know the truth."
"Naturally, you are aware that Mr Kanna may be bound to respect the diplomatic confidentiality, and as such he may not be able to answer all your questions...?"
"Yes, I understand it," Noda-san seemed disconcerted. "Nevertheless, I hope you will be able to explain who those people were and what they were doing in Hakodate during the battle," he added with hope.
However, it was spoiled since he was answered by the doctor again. "For all I heard from Mr Kanna, it was a squad acting by direct orders of Consul Parkes. Since Kanna-san used to work for Minister Parkes, as we have just ascertained, it was by his affairs that he got to know those people. Noda-san, this is off the record, but I'm going to share my personal opinion with you," he said in a mysterious voice. Noda, who, since the beginning of their conversation, had managed to write only Kanna's name, almost pricked up his ears. "We all know that the British Empire place a high value on good relations with Japan, right?" Noda nodded; he seemed to be all ears. "How do you think, was that..." the doctor paused, as if he was looking for a right word, and when he resumed talking, his voice was clearly disdainful, "rebellion raised by Admiral Enomoto to England's liking? I have certain surmises..." He paused again and looked at the official pointedly. "Do you understand, Noda-san?"
The man went slightly pale. "Are you trying to say that those people... infiltrated Goryōkaku in order to," he lowered his voice, "eliminate Admiral Enomoto?"
"I have no idea. These are just hypotheses," the doctor shrugged, leaning back. "But think about it: they couldn't be his allies since it is their dead bodies that were found in the fort. If I'm correct, the Government Army couldn't identify them, which means they had never met. If those people had been fighting for the Republic, they would have certainly clashed with the government forces. If this is the case, they should be treated as heroes, don't you think, Noda-san?"
"Is it true, Kanna-san?"
Kanna, who, for a longer while, had been staring mutely at Takamatsu Ryōun and wondering whether it was really the same doctor he thought he knew, stirred upon hearing the question. "I... It may be so," he replied quietly.
"Then, what was your part in that story?" the official, though visibly shaken, decided to seize an opportunity.
"Noda-san, can you not see that Kanna-san is tired?" the doctor interrupted him again. "We have already agreed that he isn't accused of anything, so maybe you could drop that questioning?"
"Takamatsu-sensei, I resent such implications," the clerk was very offended. "I only do my job."
"Please, rest assured that I respect your job very much, but I have to care for my patients in the first place," the doctor pointed out. "But there's nothing for you to be concerned about. I assure you that Kanna-san is a good man who cares deeply about Japan's welfare. You may not have heard about it yet," he added in a voice as if it was something he didn't wish to speak about but the situation prompted him, "but the other day he saved my life, risking his own. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't talk to you today, Noda-san," he said with deliberation. "This is why I require that you to quickly dissolve any doubts you would have about him."
"Is it true? Someone attempted on your life, Sensei?" the official seemed bothered.
"A poor man who wasn't glad about the rules of this hospital and considered me a traitor," the doctor replied in a tone indicating he preferred not to mention it and stared at his hands.
"It is regrettable."
"As I said, Kanna-san saved me, neutralizing the assailant. I hope we will be spared of such incidents in the future. I understand that you have a lot of work, but you should exercise the utmost care to ensure safety of the citizens," the doctor said in a casual voice.
Noda turned red. "Of course. You are right, Sensei. We will see to that matter," he called eagerly. "We will interrogate that man and..."
"I think he was unsound of mind, so do not punish him too severely," Ryōun added. "In the end, no harm was done. Thanks to Mr Kanna here. It's him who shot that poor man, preventing a massacre of the hospital," he emphasised, as if he was telling some sensational story.
However, Noda seemed interested in something else. It could be Kanna's imagination, but the man almost started up and then asked, "Shot? Are you a shooter, Kanna-san?"
"A very good one," the doctor supplied. "I'm looking forward to his full recovery in order to see his full skills. You too must understand, Noda-san, that Consul-General Parkes wouldn't hire an average person. Maybe you'll come to see it as well?"
"The demonstration of Mr Kanna's abilities?" the official asked.
"Of course! Maybe even there would be some job for him in the Magistrate?" the doctor suggested. "Kanna-san gives a careful consideration to his staying in Japan. After all, this is a country of his mother, while England is far away..."
"I... Cannot say..." Noda seemed perplexed and apparently lost for words. "I will remember it," he finished in an official way and got up. "It is time that I leave," he declared, gathering his papers and realizing he hadn't written a thing from their conversation. He pressed his lips tight but could be angry only at himself. "Goodbye, Takamatsu-sensei, Kanna-san." He bowed to them - they bowed to him - and left.
"I should have offered him some tea," Ryōun said once the clerk had disappeared behind the corner. "He's a good man, only very formal."
"The balance of nature," Kanna replied dully, surprised he could talk. He still felt stunned. "Sensei... Ryōun-san... What was the meaning of this?" he stuttered.
"What do you mean, Sakyōnosuke?" the doctor asked with innocence.
Complete prevaricating. Dancing on the edge of lie. Playing with the government official by means of flattery, arrogance and 'hypotheses'. It was totally new Takamatsu Ryōun, almost dangerous manipulator whom no-one wished as his opponent. Although... Kanna had already learned that behind that benevolent face and warm smile hid a razor-sharp mind and iron will. Now that he looked at it as an observer, he could see it in a new light.
"Ryōun-san... I don't want to lead you in troubles," he said what weighed on him most.
"What kind of troubles could you possibly lead me to?" the doctor asked, laughing.
"Why... Why ever did you say all that? If they wished, they could launch an investigation and... charge me..."
Ryōun stopped smiling and gave him an intent look. "That's why I said all that," he answered outright. "Sakyōnosuke, I'm afraid that your straightforwardness mixed with not entirely deserved remorse could prompt you to some foolishness. I don't want to see it," he said in a decisive manner. "I want to see that you live and enjoy your life, not that you're accused of something you can't be really blamed for. Think of it: could it benefit anyone if you turn yourself in? No-one. Think how much good you may still do to people: so much that those crimes committed in the time of madness can be redeemed. Being honourable is a fine thing, but nowadays there are even more important things. For hundreds of years Japanese used to cut open their bellies, wasting their lives, but now it is no longer seen as a valour. A genuine valour is to live and work for one's redemption, not choose an easy way of death or punishment."
"Still... to lie for my sake..." He was still shocked.
"I didn't lie, I simply didn't tell the whole truth. I want to show you in good light. I want the Magistrate to have a high opinion of you. Sakyōnosuke, they don't even know you! Do you think that, crudely speaking, they would really care that you've killed two people? It seems to me they want to forget everything as soon as possible, especially that no-one solved what really happened in Goryōkaku. Everyone thinks some evil forces were involved, but something like this wouldn't look good in the official reports. Besides... We have already agreed that you shouldn't blame yourself for what happened. I want to help you. If doing so I have to lie, I'll do it."
"But... You're a doctor... You shouldn't..."
"Sakyōnosuke, do not worry about it. As far as I'm doing a right thing, my conscience is clear. If a lie can help, while the truth can do harm, then there is really no choice at all. My task, as a doctor, is to save people. That's what guides me."
For a moment, they stared at each other in silence. Kanna didn't know what to say, but Ryōun didn't seem to awaiting his answer now. He most likely hoped that Kanna would consider it and make a decision himself.
"Changing the subject... Are your really going to stay in Japan?" the doctor asked when silence bored him.
"It was you who made it up!"
"Ah, true," Ryōun didn't appear particularly remorseful, quite the contrary. "Well, I consider it a pretty good idea. Of course, it's up to you whether you decide to continue working for Parkes... But, if I remember correctly, you said you no longer work for him...?
Kanna set his jaws and then relaxed them again. "He told me to do... what I liked..." he replied, and there was almost no bitterness to his words. "To tell the truth, I should have returned that letter to him, but it didn't occur to me, and he didn't require it either... Parkes was very lavish with those letters. He liked to demonstrate his power that way..." He mused.
"I think there will always be a job for you," the doctor guessed. "Let's hope that the Magistrate will be interested in your offer..."
"That you made," Kanna pointed, but the man apparently didn't feel guilty.
"Wouldn't you like to become a policeman, Sakyōnosuke?" he asked. "With that strong sense of justice and, let's say it again, great shooting skills, you would qualify perfectly. Even though we have peace at last, I'm afraid it will take some years until the order prevails again. Japan must be strong to see it out. Think of it."
He nodded, but at the moment he was going to think of something else.
After the meal, he asked for a sheet of paper and writing tools. He decided to put his plan into action before he could change his mind. Writing with left hand, especially after not having done it in a long time, wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but he managed to form a legible note nonetheless.
'I was injured in a battle. Knight, Bishop and Queen are dead. They have been buried in the Hakodate Foreign Cemetery. If possible, please notify their families. Since you have dismissed me from service, Sir, I return the letter of attorney to you. You will not hear from me again. God Save the Queen. Kanna Sakyōnosuke.'
His hand shaking, he folded the letter and wrote on the back, 'Her Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary and Consul-General in Japan, Harry Smith Parkes, Tokyo.' It was a good start. Of course, he could vanish without a word; however, he wanted to inform Parkes of the death of those three. Not that Parkes would care - it was likely he had already forgotten the whole issue by now - but had they had relatives in England, it was important to let them know. Himself, Parkes would probably consider a fool who discarded such an important document although he could use it as he pleased... But Parkes had had a poor opinion on him since the very beginning, so that would make no difference. Kanna wanted to have some respect for himself and act in accordance to his conscience in just that matter.
In spite of all, he couldn't hate Parkes. The man was arrogant and ruthless, but he cared for the welfare of his country and glory of Her Majesty in the first place. It was thanks to him that Kanna was in Japan now... That thought made him wonder. Should he really be glad for it? If he had stayed in England, he wouldn't have experienced all those misfortunes he had in last months. He wouldn't have been agonizing over his infatuation for Kakunojō, he wouldn't have suffered all that disappointment, especially of himself, he wouldn't have fallen into madness and became... possessed, which drove him to crime. On the other hand... he wouldn't have met Takamatsu Ryōun, who seemed to heal not only wounds of his body but first and foremost wounds of his soul, to gather together into whole all pieces he could never assemble himself, to help him become a complete person again. What awaited him in London? Dampness, cold and eternal solitude, without a single close person, without a single friend, walking down the streets and passing people with shut faces, in hope he would meet her round the next corner, mother who had abandoned him... No, he should be grateful to Parkes, after all.
Kenta-kun promised to take the letter to the British Consulate at once. Whether it reached the recipient rested with the clerks. As the boy disappeared behind the hospital gate, Kanna felt both relieved and anxious. He had closed some chapter in his life, turning away from what had bounded him until now... But it was also true that the future was unknown. He had renounced England and her care - which had never been generous but had provided a roof over his head as well as daily bread nonetheless - to once more give himself to Japan and hope he would be accepted. He had enough of being suspended between two countries - between two supposed homeland - without finding his place in either. Japan had once rejected him... but he decided to give her another chance. Maybe now that he was an adult man, he could serve her better than as a child.
The summer solstice was approaching. A month and a half had passed since he had regained consciousness. He felt perfectly well, except for the immobilized arm. However, he suspected the dressing to be removed any time soon. He walked every day, every time taking even longer routes. Slowly, he familiarized himself with the vicinity of the hospital and the city centre: the main street, the market square, the shops. People smiled to him as he covered the same distances, and he started to recognize several faces. From time to time, someone would thank him again for having saved Takamatsu-sensei. Every now and then, he would meet local Englishmen, with whom he would exchange greeting, as well as Americans. Children were never bored with his fair hair. They often accompanied him, proud to be able to show Hakodate to that foreigner they had taken liking to.
"Have you been in the haunted place already?" he was asked by Takeo, a plucky six-year-old whom Takamatsu-sensei had treated for chickenpox recently.
"The haunted place?"
"It's outside the town, to the south. My dad says nothing happens there, but no-one wants to go there nevertheless," the boy explained.
"Some hex was being done there," Takeo-kun answered in a voice of a knowledgeable person, yet there was some excitement to his words.
"On the summer solstice, the priest is going to consecrate it, and then people will be able to disassemble it. The wood is going to be burn on Obon," Yūta-kun added, and the rest of the children nodded eagerly.
Disassemble? Consecrate? It sounded more and more intriguing. "Where can I find it?" he asked. "Or maybe someone wants to come with me?"
The girls shook their heads, while the boys evaded. In the end, first wriggled out by domestic duties, second by stomach ache, and third suddenly remembered he was to visit his aunt who lived in the opposite part of the town. Kanna stifled a laugh and asked for directions. He had nothing else to do, so he could as well visit 'the haunted place'. Takeo-kun showed him the spot south-east of the city that from this perspective looked as a perfectly normal wooden hill.
A walk in the shade of trees was nice. He felt strong enough so that a slight climbing up didn't bother him at all. The deeper into the forest he got, the fewer people he passed. At some point, he could no longer hear the sounds of the city; it was replaced by the chirping of birds. It was so peaceful here... The sun was shining through the branches. The bees and butterflies were bustling about in the air. Nature was showing its best side.
Finally, the trees became more scarce, and he emerged onto a clearing. The sight that appeared before him - neither frightening nor accursed - made his heart beat faster and speed up with every second. He knew that place, he had been here before - and he would, without fail, remember why. His body remembered, even though his mind still didn't know. Panelled ground and a platform. The poles that had once held the banners - now destroyed, darkened. The fire baskets illuminating the surroundings after dusk - knocked down. Broken chairs and benches, torn off decorations... A deserted place no-one visited indeed. He came closer and stepped onto the floor; the woodblocks squeaked under his feet, and the sound rang clearly in the strange silence reigning in here.
His heart was still racing violently, causing pain. He thought he could see the torchlight, hear the excitement of the present, nervous shuffling of feet, fast breaths. People gathered here to watch... the play, no, to participate in it, enchanted, their eyes fixed on... the holy maid who called out to fight and promised the victory... Yuyama Kakunojō, who lost her identity and became a puppet controlled by... a demon. He could see her there, proudly erected, gripping the crowd, her flying, her eyes glistening with unnatural fire, she could see no-one, looking ahead, into the future, tears rolling down her cheeks... Fight...! Victory...! Freedom...!
He doubled over. The sensation was so strong it almost knocked him out. He had been here. He had been looking at her: his mother and goddess who had forgiven him everything and had wanted nothing from him. There had been no place for him other than by her side; there had been no other world for him. For her, he could do anything and always come back to her, even though she had never seen him. She had been looking through him, into some another dimension, some vision that had been never to came true. But he hadn't really needed her gaze; it had been enough for him to just be here and see her. Here, he had been calm, for her presence had been intoxicating and let him forget everything. When he had been looking at her, everything else had ceased existing and become insignificant. No pain, no hunger, no thirst. His body steadily going numb, his blood flooding slower and slower, and his breath becoming weaker until it'd stopped...
He inhaled deeply and raised his head. For a moment, he kept staring at the blue sky, trying to regain his balance. When dizziness passed and the sinking feeling in his chest subsided, he looked at the stage again.
No, there was nothing frightening here - only that sadness, like when you waked up from a dream... Yet, he was glad he had waked up. Dreams could be beautiful or horrifying – that particular one was both - but they were just dreams. Suddenly he thought... suddenly he knew with perfect certainty and conviction that, from now on, he would be able to enjoy his every step and every breath. That dream in which he was unable to feel anything apart from that dead calm... could have seized him - but he had been given a second chance. He should use it the best he could; that became clear as the sun.
It was here that they had found him. From here they had taken him to the hospital, where he had been taken care of and healed. Many people had put effort into that he could survive and live. He couldn't waste it, he wasn't allowed... and, in fact, he didn't want. He wanted to achieve something, mould the fate with his own hands, and not only stare at it and always choose what was the easiest and most favourable.
He was standing for a while, trying to keep that feeling inside him - so pure, so clear - know it, remember it, so that he could recall it later, in the moment of doubt, in the time of failure that would make him want to give up. 'Remember,' he told himself, 'remember about this place and what you've discovered here. Remember about this clearing and this stage. About that bright sky and those humming trees. Remember that you nearly died here, and here you decided to live on as well.'
He circled the stage, running his hand over the planed panels. It was going to be disassembled, which seemed the best thing indeed. It was a witness to far too many fond hopes and pipe dreams that would have never come true - a spectacle that had wished to become reality even though it should have remained only a show.
He stepped on something hard and got down to look closer. For a moment, he was holding the item in his hand, and his mind was completely blank, for the shock was too great. The object was so familiar that it felt illusory to find it here: a round watch that had ceased measuring time. Covered with dirt, with its glass broken, it seemed to have belonged to someone else. To a different life. He stared at the picture of his mother, that beautiful woman with bright eyes whom he had never got to known and whom he desired the most in the world. Whose view he had used to console himself with in sad times... So distant, so alien, a mysterious smile on her face, even now as she stared from behind the smears of mud and blood, his own blood. She was like a doll from a puppet theatre, fit only to be looked at and admired.
The numbness receded, and suddenly he felt furious. He squeezed the watch in his hand and made his way back to the city, almost running down the path between the trees, to soon came to halt on shore, by the bay. Its sapphire surface was twinkling in the light of the afternoon, and the gulls were shouting in a familiar way. Breathing heavily, he swung his arm back to throw that relict of past into the waves, to get rid of that last memento, the last image of the woman who had enslaved him and made him suffer... He didn't need her. He didn't need such mother. He could finally be free, leave from her shadow, look at the world with his own eyes... One move, just one move, and he will be able to forget about her. He would surely be able to do it... Surely he would...
He let his arm slowly fall down, then looked south... and headed for the Foreign Cemetery. The sun was slowly descending towards the west, but the day was always long this time of year. His pace was quick, his body and mind didn't want to stop, not even for a moment, and the sandy road was running away from his feet. There was no-one else here, only the gulls under the azure sky. Three graves stood calm and silent, each with a cross and a plate. The grass was swaying under the breeze. It was wild and a beautiful here.
He put the watch on her grave. If everything had been different, maybe one day he would have brought her home and introduced her to his mother. Things being as they were, he could only bring his mother to her. It was better like this She was a sacrifice on the altar of his mother. Although it was all too late, he wanted to honour her the only way he could: to devote his mother to her. It was a just thing to do.
He turned back and left for the hospital. He was no longer in a hurry. He was relieved, as if he had brought something to an end. As if he could turn to new challenges aware he had left that one thing behind. He took his eyes from the road and stared at the city before him.
It felt good to be returning to it.
On Midsummer Day Ryōun took off his dressing and examined his arm. Disaccustomed of moving, it felt odd when the doctor moved it up and down and demanded many other motions. The fingers were doing well because Kanna had been using them - and the hand - all along, but his shoulder had yet to remember its function. The most important thing was that the pain had ceased completely and, apart from specific stiffness and weakness, nothing restricted his movements. The cut muscles would continue to heal, but there was no longer any danger of redamage.
"You are healthy," Ryōun stated after the examination, sitting down on his stool again. "Now you have to exercise that arm in order to regain its former functionality."
Kanna put the upper part of yukata back on. Even sliding this right arm into the sleeve was a strange sensation. "Thank you," he said, looking at the doctor.
"Thank yourself," Ryōun replied. "It's your will to live that saved you."
"In that case, I should thank you even more. If it was not for you..." He paused. "It is was not for you, I don't think I'd like to live on," he added truthfully. "Thank you."
Ryōun raised one hand as if he wanted to object but then changed his mind and let it fall on his lap. He observed him for a moment, and then slightly nodded. "You're welcome. I'm glad I could help," he said, and for some reason it didn't sound like a complimentary close.
Kanna looked at his right arm and then clenched his right fist several times. Suddenly, he didn't know what to say. It was early afternoon; the bell had just struck the noon. The warm air was coming inside through the window, along with the laughter of children playing in the yard. The hospital and its vicinity were filled with calmness, but Kanna felt he couldn't give in to it. The feeling something was wrong... some uncertainty... didn't let him breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the fact his treatment was completed, and successfully.
"You're going to the Magistrate today, aren't you?" the voice of the doctor broke his reflection. "At two o'clock, right?"
He nodded. He had forgotten about it already. Since the visit of Mr Noda, he'd had no message from the local authorities - until the present week when he had received a summons. Ryōun had claimed, with a mysterious grin, that it was nothing to be worried about, adding that, if they had wanted to arrest him, they wouldn't have invited him but come for him themselves instead. It was pretty reasonable, yet Kanna couldn't help but admire the doctor's sense of humour, quite morbid in that particular case. Maybe it was that meeting that discomforted him?
"Tell me how it went and... In fact, tonight we could celebrate your recovery, how does it sound?" Ryōun suggested.
"I may bring sake," Kanna offered, remembering about the bottle of beverage he had once received.
"That would be great," the doctor got up. "In that case, at seven in my place. I'll be done with the evening round by then."
Kanna nodded. The hospital staff occupied one of the smaller buildings, the one next by gate. He would find it. Now, he should rather focus on finding his way to Goryōkaku...
If it was up to him, he wouldn't visit there at all. He didn't want to see that place again; too many tragedies had happened there. However, if he wanted to stay in Hakodate - and he did - he could no longer avoid it. It was time to get used to the area; to tame it. After all, the fort had been there long before the last events, and it would be there for many years from now. Enomoto and the demons... it was just a short episode of its history. Although he couldn't quite believe that one day he would be able to approach it without feeling shivers, he wasn't going to let the fear take the best of him.
He didn't intend to visit the dungeons.
The area seemed completely different now. Any trace of the war was gone; there were no troops not cannons. Furrows and trenchs had been filled with the green grass and the wild flowers swaying in the wind. The water in the regulated moat was sparking in the sunlight. It was a calm place now. Since the war was over, maybe the fort as such would not be needed again...? Maybe one day it would function as a historic, or even touristic, place, just like medieval castles in Europe did?
His visit in the Magistrate went smoothly. He was received by Mr Noda and Mr Takahashi, apparently the official of higher rank. Noda-san inquired about his health and praised his recovery, apologizing for his brusqueness the other day in the hospital. No, he absolutely hadn't intended to be impolite or offensive. He hoped that Kanna-san could forgive him and they would remain on good terms. The Magistrate had taken the liberty of checking his personal records in Tokyo, verifying his date and place of birth. Everything was in perfect order, and Kanna-san had full right to stay in Japan. Speaking of which, did his proposal of providing services for Japanese justice administration still stand? Deplorable as it was, the Magistrate in Hakodate had a lot of work and few employees, and so every help was welcomed. Maybe Kanna-san would be interested?
'Kanna-san' left unsaid that 'offer of providing services' was not his but Takamatsu-sensei's; after all, Ryōun had meant well, like always. He cautiously asked what exactly would be his duties, but the answer could be called 'elusive', at best. In other words, after the conversation he was not any wiser that before it. He revealed that is arm had been mobilized just today and it would take many weeks until he was able to use it to the full extent. Mr Noda seemed pretty upset at the news, but he managed to parenthetically mention that, was the contract concluded, the Magistrate would of course cover costs of Mr Kanna's accommodation, uniform and arms. As the prospect of two brand new Remmingtons flashed before his eyes, he capitulated shamefully fast... and agreed for another meeting in two weeks. With that, Mr Noda and Mr Takahashi seemed very content and once more expressed their hopes for a fruitful collaboration.
Japanese police forces must have been in a desperate need for shooters if they wanted to hire him solely on the recommendation of the hospital director - which, in turn, proved that the position the chief physician was holding in the local society was far higher one would expect. Not that it was anything strange. Every day Kanna learned more about Takamatsu Ryōun and could imagine that someone like him would never be ignored; quite the contrary, his opinion one could and should respect... He smiled.
Nevertheless, he was returning to the hospital with mixed feeling. Did he really want to join the police forces? To keep order and, how Ryōun would say, to build the country anew? Well, it didn't sound that bad, and some voice in his head was telling him it was an opportunity he should seize. The job, although risky, would secure his living. A government official enjoyed privileges of respect and certain immunity. As for the danger, he had been used to it; he simply had to do his job the best possible to reduce the risk. He had survived a confrontation with such a sword master as Akizuki Yōjirō - how had they been calling him? Eternal Assassin? - so he could deal with less skilled opponents as well.
At the same time, however, he was pretty doubtful. Did someone like him deserve such a position? Well, he was sure that he wanted to live, at least. He had decided to listen to the voice of reason - that was speaking like Ryōun - and try to atone for his sins by helping others, even if that still seemed like running away. But he knew he would never stop feeling remorseful. Would he be able to catch criminals, knowing he was no better than them? Would he be able to look his superiors - people who considered law the greatest value - in the eye? He could surely live his life and help others in a different way; he didn't need to hold any important office. Besides...
Besides he really... wanted to stay here. Looking at the hospital building and the yard in front of it, he felt here was his... home. A place one could return to. He'd spent just a month and a half here, yet in that short period of time he'd experienced more goodness than in all previous life. People who weren't related to him - nurses, porters, patients and, of course, Ryōun - had become his family. Those people accepted him as he was, even though they had seen him when his life had hit bottom. They hadn't obliged him to change, hadn't required wonders, and hadn't asked him to be perfect. He could discard the mask he'd been wearing for so long - many years - until it had become his face: a picture of a tough man whom nothing could move.
Now he could laugh and cry, and no-one mocked him or ridiculed his pain that he had been hiding inside and hadn't admitted himself. Only a year ago... only half a year ago he had used to regard the world with in an unsentimental way and smirk, acted upon the cold analysis and sober assessment, feel no fear and rely only on himself. He had been self-sufficient and desperately tried to live as an adult. Now... he could feel - and, although those feelings were sometimes so strong they almost knocked him out and he needed time to get hold of himself again when his whole body reacted... he felt much more alive than before. Sometimes he wept, but then he could also laugh - and both were something wonderful.
Sometimes he could feel as a child who was only learning about the world and experience what he hadn't experienced in his childhood. He was able to learn how to rely on others and enjoy their being there. For the first time in his life, he was capable of trusting. Maybe it was still not too late to turn from Kanna - that down-to-earth and emotionless man who concentrated only on hitting the target - into Sakyōnosuke, who could see a person on the other side?
He had changed, and he needed people around him. Not because he wanted them to apply some meaning to his life and limit his uncertainty and anxiety, but to reach out and know someone would take his hand. Feel warmth and happiness that there was someone there, for him.
He never again wanted to be alone.
Ryōun's flat was Western-style but pretty modest. It was obvious that the doctor didn't spend a lot of time here; for the most part, he was in the main building with his patients. Two small rooms, one serving as a bedroom, the other as a living-room. Few decorations, some books on the shelves, mostly European. The armchairs were pretty comfortable. The last light of setting sun was coming in along with singing of the cicadas.
"Give it some though," Ryōun encouraged after Kanna had filled him in on the conversation in the Magistrate. "Personally, I find it a good offer. And a way to live your life. Why shouldn't you try? I'm sure you would do greatly."
Kanna remained silent. The doctor poured sake and raised his cup to him. "To your health," he said and took a sip. "Hereby, I pronounce your treatment completed."
He smiled... but Kanna couldn't smile back. He lowered his head and stared at his cup. Suddenly, his throat clenched, and he knew he wouldn't be able to swallow any sake. That anxiety... that fear that had been accompanying him all day long... it was back now, filling him with cold and crushing his chest. He didn't want... He didn't want to listen... He didn't want to hear what was about to come...
He couldn't raise his gaze and look him in the eye.
"Shouldn't you be more happy? You've been down for some time now. Or could it be that you still don't feel all right?" the doctor inquired.
And for a moment Kanna felt like lying to him, saying something, anything, pretending, so that he could stay here, enjoy being taken care of and given that warmth. He knew he was a coward. He should leave and face his life, go forward, not stay on the spot. But... He wasn't strong enough to live alone again. He wasn't strong enough to be brave. Now that he could see his future - and darkness of being alone - he was not able to enter it again. It was here that he felt safe, only here he was able to live - not there, all alone, on his own, doing job he didn't care a bit about. That was pointless, meaningless. His home was here...!
"Let me stay," he whispered in a strangled voice, clutching his cup so hard he could crush it. "I... may help you... tend to the patients...! I can even wipe the floors and wash the sheets...!" he said fervently. "You will be satisfied with me. I'll be guarding the hospital so that nothing bad will ever happen...! To no-one! You will not regret it! I want to help...! I want... to be here...!"
His head snapped up, and he looked at the man. Ryōun was no longer smiling. He was regarding him, his brows knitted. And then he looked away, through the window. He had never seemed so distant before, as if he was... leaving... fading away. Disappearing.
Before he realized it, Kanna was kneeling before him and clutching his hands. "Let me stay," he whispered in despair. "I don't want to be anywhere else... but here. I'll do anything... only do not tell me to go away. I..."
"I don't need you."
The rejection was almost physical, and he took his hands off. It was as the precipice opened below him, and he fell down... down... never reaching the bottom... unable to feel anything but that pain in his chest, hundredfold stronger than a stab of katana... The blood rushed away from his face as he was staring mutely at that dear face of a man who was the most important to him and without whom the world ceased existing... He would do anything for him... Only to never hear those words.
I don't need you.
It couldn't be real. Not now. Not with him. Not after all that happened...
He had promised to always hear him out. He had promised to always help him. He had said he wanted to care. That he enjoyed his presence.
Was it to end just like it had always ended? Did he want to get rid of him? Was he disappointed with him? Or could it simply be that Kanna Sakyōnosuke... had never meant anything to him, right from the start?
I don't need you. Those words were still ringing in his ears, hitting him more and more every time, but... had they really been said? Suddenly Kanna felt like asking him to repeat them: loud and clearly. He couldn't believe it, he opened his mouth...
But Ryōun wasn't looking at him. He averted his eyes and pressed his lips, and then he rose and approached the window. He supported himself on the sill and stared at the dusk falling on Hakodate. although Hakodate had vanished, as had the dusk... There were just two of them here, and that precipice that boded death.
Mechanically, he got up and came close to him, even though he really wanted to run away from the pain. He had always run away when the truth hadn't satisfied him, swallowing down his tears and telling himself it hadn't been important... until the next time. Should he do like that now as well? Or should he... just this once...
Not abandon hope?
Ryōun was still standing by the window, a head taller than him, and his broad shoulders seemed hunched against the darkening skies. Although it required much more courage he had, he lifted his trembling hand and grabbed the man's sleeve, trying to calm down his racing heart. He could see his profile, eyelids that quivered in a blink, lips pressed thin but then letting a sigh.
Was it really the man who had just rejected him and almost erased him from his life with those four words? He stared at him as if nothing else existed in the world. Well, it didn't. Not in his world. His fingers clutched at the white fabric... but he remained silent. It seemed to him that the world would cease existing altogether if he spoke a word. But he couldn't stop the moan escaping his throat. Suddenly, he realized he would start screaming - only to break that silence that made him mad - if he hadn't gone mad by now...
Ryōun sighed once more. "I don't need you," he repeated, his voice softer and gentler, in a different way than before, and then finally looked at him. There was no anger nor rejection in his eyes, only calmness and sense of defeat. "I don't need you here," he said. "I don't need you here, Sakyōnosuke," he added as if he tasted those words, trying to accept them, and then nodded. "You may go. You must go, you have to live your own life. I don't need you here, but... I need you as a friend."
He turned to him and embraced him, pressing close and burying his face on his shoulder. After a while, he stepped back but didn't release him.
"Do you want to be my friend?" he asked, looking at him as seriously as never before.
And then the surface was broken, that image and that mask he had been wearing. Suddenly, he was just a man - not a doctor, not a saint, just a normal man who could experience fear and anxiety. A man who, just like the others, was allowed his wishes and feared they would not be fulfilled. He was clever and talented, and he had a lot within his reach - but that one... only Sakyōnosuke could give him. Friendship.
He must have been the greatest moron of all if he thought he would not get it.
Sakyōnosuke nodded. Such a simple gesture... could it really mean so much? Ryōun, however, appeared as if the whole burden disappeared from his shoulders. He tried to smile but seemed to overwhelmed. "I'm sorry," he said and blinked. "I should have put it differently... explained... done... I'm sorry."
Sakyōnosuke shook his head. He still couldn't utter a word. Only now he was regaining his ability of thinking - much faster as he calmed down. That time, he was able to believe that calm was going to stay with him longer, maybe for ever... He faced the window and took some salty air deep in his lungs.
The man sighed once more and then took the place next to him. Together, they were looking at the city below, flashing with evening lights - warm, friendly, and open.
Hakodate. The place where he'd died...
And was born again.