I couldn’t say I knew something was wrong, for no identifiable sense gave me any such information. Even the paranoia that must have generated the idea, based on an underlying and never-stilled concern about certain possible combinations of events, was not clearly apparent when I awoke. At first I recognized only the absence of Sano and the presence of a feeling that something was wrong.
Of course there were a number of possible explanations for his having risen and left the room, the most logical of which was a need to visit the toilet. Or he could be having a conversation with one of the doctors; he might even be assisting in some midnight business for which medical clinics were specifically prepared. He could have stepped outside for some air, or detected something unusual and gone to investigate. Though these last two options angered me just in considering them, since they would directly defy my edict (as would, technically, a visit to the outbuilding, but that at least was a necessary breach of the companionship rule), they were understandable and not unpredictable actions. And yet I felt something was wrong, to an extent that would not allow me to go back to sleep.
For one thing, I wouldn’t have awakened in the first place, in this hurt and weakened state in desperate need of rest, if he hadn’t been gone long enough for my muddled consciousness to sense it through my incoherent dreams. For another… well, I simply worried about him. I wouldn’t be content until I knew where he was, nor possibly until I’d given him another lecture on safety in the current scenario.
I looked around, feeling the immediate pain in my neck that came from turning my head. The examination room, lacking windows, was filled with deep shadow; in fact the only light filtered dimly through the door’s paper from the hallway where a single small lamp was kept lit overnight for the benefit of patients or staff needing to move around the clinic during the hours of darkness. I could see nothing with any clarity, but I could make out what I knew to be a jug of water and its accompanying cups on the counter — I’d made use of them earlier, and thus distinguished their shapes now — which eliminated ‘getting a drink’ as a possible motive for Sanosuke’s disappearance.
My entire body was ridiculously stiff and painful, and the muscular impulses required merely to sit up were agonizing. I rather expected the ever-increasing discomfort would go hand-in-hand with a similarly rising irritation, but found it was not so; that sense of something wrong, that irrational concern about my irresponsible lover, overrode, for the moment, most of the annoyance I might have felt with him. When I located him hanging around outside for no good reason, or whatever the case turned out to be, normal emotions could resume.
Walking was torture, and I had to take a minute or so to practice this activity I’d mastered thirty-five years ago to make sure I could do it effectively before I even considered leaving the room. Glad I was that I’d refused a further dose of laudanum and was alert enough for upright motion at all.
With Sano’s help and a great deal of inconvenience, I’d changed last night out of what I’d yet been wearing of my uniform into a yukata that had proven much easier to sleep in, and this garment should be sufficient for now. But I wanted my sword as a precaution, and couldn’t remember where it had ended up when I’d first come to the clinic early yesterday morning. If I couldn’t find it almost immediately, I would leave without it; I didn’t have the patience for a prolonged search. Upon sliding the room’s door quietly open and allowing a greater amount of light inside, however, I saw it lying neatly on the counter atop my folded clothing not far from the water jug. Since I was certain Sanosuke hadn’t folded the garments — and uncertain Sanosuke knew how to fold garments — I supposed I had Takani to thank for this.
I would prefer to brook the wrath of neither of the two doctors in residence, so I made an effort to move down the corridor as naturally and evince as little discomfort as possible despite the reluctance of my muscles to do anything I told them. But I hoped not to encounter anyone — except Sano — since the doctors, no matter how I moved, would definitely still scold me and cause delay thereby, and any other patient might be startled or even frightened at the sight of my bruises, my weapon, and my air of determination and concern. Fortunately, in this case my wish was granted.
At the side entrance there were a couple of pairs of geta, small and large, provided for anyone resident in the building and capable of using the external facilities rather than a bedpan, and into one of these I gratefully stepped. I didn’t know how many pairs were usually present or if any might be missing, but I felt this was the most logical direction in which to start my search. This impression was strengthened when I found the door unlocked and observed a hook beside it, where a key might have hung, empty.
I saw no one immediately outside, and silently followed the path curving around into the back. The night was neutral, as the previous had been, with only a faint intermittent breeze, and a scattering of small clouds blocked out the stars only in negligible patches. The rear yard, with its outhouse at the far end and a fenced-off garden seating area where patients could take the air, stood peaceful and quiet in the shadows, yet somehow my every step heightened the sensation that something was wrong.
A lantern’s bright spot showed the grain of the outhouse door even at this distance, but it was to darkness rather than light that my eyes were drawn. For between the clinic’s main building I’d just left and the outbuilding I’d thought to approach to check for Sanosuke, there stood a shed that must be passed to reach one from the other. An unassuming structure in the same style as the rest on the property, there was no reason for it to catch my attention… except that there was also no reason for its doors to be gaping open, a portal into deep blackness like a yawning mouth in its face, at this time of night and with no one around.
Though it seemed superstitious and nothing I would have liked to admit aloud, I felt as if my concerns and the impression of wrongness I was gripped with were all suddenly concentrated on this one spot, on the invisibility beyond those wide-flung doors. I felt as if I’d left my relatively comfortable futon in the examination room, abandoned my own injunction of keeping inside or to crowds as much as possible, forced myself through pain and difficulty to walk out of the building, specifically to come here and enter this shed and find what I would find there.
I checked the sword at my side. The tie of a yukata wasn’t the most convenient restraint for slinging a weapon, but it would do; I could draw at any time as long as my opposite hand was also free to steady the sheath. Then, without attempting to pierce the gloom within the shed with my naked eyes, I walked straight past it to the outhouse and reached up with perfectly steady hands to unhook its small lantern. Finally, without hesitation, I turned back and moved in the direction of the unknown.
My geta clattered somewhat on the step up into the little building, and the noise echoed like gunshots in the silent night. As a matter of course I thrust the lamp forward and took a careful look around at the entry, ensuring no ambush awaited me. All I could see, sharp yet indistinct in the minimal light, was the perfectly mundane accumulated storage of years, exactly what one would expect to find in such a place. And the disarray of much of it indicated, I thought, a recent struggle here, though not a particularly wide-ranging or long-lasting one — certainly not one as dire as what I’d gone through at Tomizawa Nori’s house. I moved forward across the cluttered floor toward the back of the building, the tapping of my shoes continually galling in this vacuum of sound, then halted when the light fell on… fell on exactly what I’d…
White cloth greyed with the dust into which it had fallen… tanned skin faded to pallor…
I wasn’t aware of how still I stood until motion beside me seemed blurringly fast: a rake, previously holding only precariously to its wall peg after whatever struggle had stirred the shed’s contents, now gave up the fight and fell with a clatter to the floor. And it didn’t actually fall any quicker than gravity dictated; it was just that my perception had slowed as it took in every horrific detail of the scene: the stiffness, the paleness, the awkward angle of attitude and limb…
The light shifted, and I found my previously raised arm, trembling slightly, sinking with its minimal burden toward a limp position at my side as if the lantern were simply too heavy to continue holding up.
Eventually, after how long I did not know, I tore myself from where I stood. With every forward step I took, I seemed to grow colder, less connected with my surroundings. By the time I fell to my knees beside him and set the lantern down, I was completely numb. I felt nothing, I heard nothing, I saw nothing but him. His face was placid; at least he didn’t seem to have died in pain. The wound on his neck was the same as all the other victims, but he lacked the appearance of emaciation most of those had exhibited. He didn’t seem to have taken any other hurt, besides hitting the floor in an uncomfortable position and achieving rigor mortis there.
Vaguely surprised by these detached reflections, I abandoned them for the moment as I reached out and brushed aside a haphazard lock of brown hair, touched his face.
Had I thought I had gone cold? It was nothing, nothing in comparison to this. He was stone; he was ice. As cold, predictably, as death.
Had I thought I had gone numb? It struck me like a sudden attack from a heavy weapon, perhaps like the one he had once carried but infinitely more enormous and impossible to parry or dodge. I shuddered, abruptly unable to breathe. Under that attack my chest was being slowly crushed, and a stabbing pain arose there and spread rapidly through me. The only clear thought in my darkened mind was that I was too late; I’d lost him. I’d failed and lost him forever. The entire world was shrinking, contracting like my faltering heart, narrowing until its full extent was my hand on his face and the overwhelming, inescapable fact that he was gone.
Death, in the abstract as well as in the specific reality of lethal wounds sometimes delivered by my own hand, had always been an inextricable part of my reality. Any samurai, any soldier, even a police officer in this new and tamer era lived with and embraced the possibility of dying at any time, and walked surrounded by death wherever he went and whatever he did. It was grim, unfortunate, but unavoidable — and when it came with honor, at times acceptable or even desirable.
Yet there had been instances when this inevitability for which I’d been prepared was more difficult to tolerate: Okita, my friend, lost not in the glory of battle but in a miserable sickbed as his once-brilliant body betrayed him; Yaso, my wife for a mere two months, cut down ignobly by some random killer on the streets of Gonohe; Ookubo, one of the few statesmen I had respected and admired, assassinated for daring to do his job. In these cases death was not so much a quiet, constant companion as a cruel and relentless oppressor.
But it had never felt like this before.
There had always been some degree of grief, of bitterness against the hand of the tyrant, of questioning what I could have done to prevent this, of bleak anticipation of what the future held in the absence of the deceased… but never such an overwhelming weight of unendurable pain. No experience in my life, no failure, no loss, nothing had ever hurt like this. His passions stilled, his determination defeated, his laugh silenced, his love extinguished, his prospects destroyed… I had failed him.
Then he opened his eyes.
I believe for a few moments my heart actually stopped. The hallucination, however, continued. He looked up at me with a gaze that was far too bright for that dim enclosure, and the new arrangement of his features was familiar. It was one that might previously have irritated me: a complacent, ignorant expression suggesting he hadn’t been paying attention, didn’t know what was going on, but was too lazy to be worried.
“Was a dream…” he murmured a little hoarsely.
And at the sound, I started to believe that maybe this was really happening. After having thought him dead, my reaction to finding him alive was every bit as earth-shattering. I still could not move or speak.
“Saitou…” Sano murmured, and sluggishly raised a hand to take mine.
His fingers and palm were frozen cold. Surely a living human body could not be that cold! I couldn’t reply.
Watching my face in the uncertain light, his took on a look of slowly growing horror and fear. “Saitou,” he whispered again, “what the hell is wrong with me?” It seemed a struggle for him to move, but also that his strength was gradually returning. The straightening of his awkwardly placed limbs seemed eminently unnatural, and he sat up woodenly, clutching at my hands, his glowing eyes wide and desperate. “I can’t breathe,” he said frantically. “S-Saitou…”
Finally I found my voice, but all I managed to say was, “Sanosuke.” At the sound he started and shuddered, clinging to my chest. I ignored the pain this caused; it was nothing compared to what I’d felt a minute ago, what in a way I still felt. I never would have thought to see him so frightened, but it made sense; his entire frame was infused with that impossible chill, and… he was right: he wasn’t breathing, except in quick bursts just before he spoke, as if the only air entering his lungs was doing so exclusively to push sound back out again. How this could be I couldn’t begin to fathom, but I had to set aside my own wonder and confusion in the interest of supporting my understandably agitated lover. “Calm down,” I whispered. “You’re all right.” Though this didn’t seem anywhere close to true.
“I’m not,” he protested, but I thought his desperation was calming somewhat. “I’m dying… I’m dead… I’m… I don’t know… ”
I put my arms around him despite the pain and the unnerving cold. “You’re not dying. You’re not dead.”
Sano still clung. “Then why the fuck am I not breathing?”
I thought his profanity was a good sign. Having no answer to his question, however, I prevaricated, “Have you tried breathing?” I was surprised I was breathing, in fact, surprised at my own ability to formulate coherent words. My chest still seemed incapacitated by the aphysical blow it had received at my original assessment of the scenario; my entire body still throbbed with shock.
“Why should I have to try to–” He interrupted himself by drawing in a shuddering gasp of air and letting it free. After a few more of these he muttered, “I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I,” I assured him, “but you are alive.” I said as much for myself as for him.
Perhaps a little uncertainly he nodded, released the front of my yukata at last, and looked around.
This caused my world to widen abruptly back out, and I recalled surroundings and a situation that had completely slipped my mind until this moment. I decided to decide later whether or not this preoccupation was a legitimate source of chagrin. “Can you stand?” I asked.
He took another deep breath as if desperate for air, and repeated his nod. That he believed himself capable of rising contributed to my ongoing sense of how close he might have come to never rising again.
As we both got rather unsteadily to our feet, I noticed but did not quite understand his change of expression; I hadn’t realized how intently I had my eyes, hungry for his every life-affirming movement, locked on him. He looked down at his hands, flexing them, and muttered, “Feels weird.”
“Weird?” I echoed.
“Yeah… I feel… stronger. Being dead should be a lot worse than this.”
“You’re not dead,” I almost snapped. I couldn’t deal with that idea right now, given how deeply it and its subsequent contradiction had shaken me.
“Yeah, maybe not…” He said it abstractedly, though, and not as if he really believed it, as he began a sort of self-assessment by feeling at various parts of his body. His movements had loosened up from the stiffness they’d originally carried, and he appeared to be unhurt, but his frown only deepened as he examined himself. His probing fingers kept returning to his neck as if he expected to find something there — and not the spot beside his trachea where he might have felt his only visible wound, but the back just beneath the shaggy ends of his hair. Finally, still flexing his hands as he had before and still appearing distressed and confused, he leaned against me and slowly dropped his face to my shoulder.
“What happened?” I asked as I wrapped him in my arms again, continuing to disregard the discomfort such close contact occasioned.
Against my collarbone his head shook slightly. “I don’t… I don’t actually remember. I feel like… a bunch of stuff happened, but…”
“It’s all right,” I assured him, responding to the trace of panic in his uncertain tone. “It may come back to you. We should go back into the clinic.”
“Right…” He lifted his gaze and looked around uncomfortably, then added at a mutter, “I must have been attacked.”
Grimly I nodded. Normally this would have been the perfect opening for a sarcastic remark, since it was very obvious he’d been attacked, but I wasn’t capable of it — or even remotely inclined toward it — at the moment. “Let’s try not to let it happen again.”
As we made our way out of the cluttered shed, after extinguishing the lantern I wasn’t going to bother returning to its place, I attempted to keep an eye out for any signs of the attacker in the immediate vicinity. I hadn’t sensed him when I left the clinic, and I sensed nothing now, but I would be damned if I failed Sano again. It proved difficult, though, with him clutching at me as we walked; it wasn’t that the pain was distracting — it was, but I’d dealt with worse — but that every particle of my being wanted to concentrate solely on him and the fact that he was alive. I wanted my arms to remain around him without release; I wanted to hold him so tightly he became a part of me, keep him so indivisibly close that nothing like this could ever happen again. Stunned and sore, I reeled from the back-to-back shocks I’d taken; Sano was supporting me every bit as much as I was him.
The horror of what might have been and the sense of deliverance from that possibility seemed to wash over me in waves, and a particularly strong instance of these contrasting emotions struck the very moment we’d made it back to our examination room — originally intended for my use with him only on the periphery, but now destined to be a medical haven for us both. I slid the door closed, plunging us into blackness, as soon as we’d stepped inside, ignoring the awareness that I mustn’t stay, that I needed to seek out a doctor. I couldn’t leave his side for even one instant just at the moment.
Succumbing briefly to that deep relief that shook me so intensely, I held him tight against me. My battered frame screamed in protest, despite his unnatural coldness almost resembling the ice that had been used on my bruises and strains more than it did a living human body, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was here and relatively safe, that he wasn’t dead. I found myself trembling slightly, which was embarrassing, and breathing more unevenly than he was though no actual wound had been delivered to my chest.
“Hey…” he whispered, the uncertainty in his voice similar to that of his movements as his arms slipped upward in an invisible mirror of mine. “It’s… all right…” Evidently he hadn’t expected to be offering me comfort like this — possibly at any time in our lives, but especially tonight when he had been the one attacked.
“I know,” I replied in just as harsh a whisper… though I didn’t necessarily know. His arms were agonizing around my back, as if he were grasping me much more tightly than he needed to, but I didn’t mind. Anything to continue reassuring me he wasn’t dead.
How long we spent in that embrace, that consoling close connection that nevertheless postponed the night’s crucial next step, each of us struggling for different reasons to breathe properly, crushed together in the darkness and clearly unwilling to let go, I also didn’t know.