君のために - For you.
When you said you wanted to live for me, it made me want to live too.
Even if the time comes when we are apart, my heart will always belong to you.
I love you from the bottom of my heart.
So don't forget this. I want you to always be happy.
I love you, Chizuru.
These sweet words that dripped like honey from his lips became in time bitter almonds that poisoned their relationship little by little.
Like a craving beast, tuberculosis was tearing apart his lungs and reminding him of his little time between the living. And it only was the second worst thing, compared to knowing he would become ashes once his time as a rasetsu was over. Souji didn't know what would kill him first, or what kind of death he was more terrified of, but there was something he was certain of; his time was near, very near.
And every time a cough left him breathless, every time he felt a part of his body become numb, he sensed death closer, hunting him viciously, reminding him of how painful it would be, and how suddenly it would come. And there was nothing he could do.
So in time he developed a resentment against the water of life, against demons, against life itself; against Chizuru. Because he felt tricked, his hopes on living vanished and his time shortened and his quality of life worsened. He felt bitter and deceived, because his time was limited, because he had left everything pass him and had survived a war and his comrades only to die like this, unexpectedly, painfully, without glory at all, miserably. He blamed Chizuru because he chose her, because if it wasn't for her he wouldn't have left Kondo, if it wasn't for her he wouldn't have left the shinsengumi, if it wasn't because he involved himself with her he wouldn't have drank the ochimizu, and because for her... for her he had become tame and could only expect death. He blamed her even though he could hear his former self tell him it had been tuberculosis which would have driven him to the same end, and not her, the only thing worth living for he had found. But he had become weak, and pity swallowed him.
He had been chasing death all his life, the thrill of fight and not knowing whether you'd survive the day, the thrill of being the strongest. When he knew it was death the one chasing him, he reassured himself that he felt nothing, a small fright, a small uncertainty, but that he had a goal, a powerful dream. Now he was the weakened shadow of the warrior he used to be, the former first division taichou, a living ghost. Tuberculosis would have killed him either way, but at least, he thought, he would have died fighting. That was his only bitter thought, even though his former self's voice also told him it wouldn't have been that way, that he was already being progressively separated from the shinsengumi to die alone. That Chizuru saved him in more than one way.
He hated it.
He hated his circumstances, his fate, his inability to fight and change it. He hated knowing he would die either way, no matter what he had decided that day. Not matter whom he had chosen.
His life became a whirlwind of self deprecating hate.
What Souji hated the most was his attitude towards Chizuru: he hated that even though she always showed him her smile, her kindness, her warmth, her selflessness, her gentleness, her unconditional love, he could only swallow in hate and agony over his condition, and she was always there to pay for his sins. He hated himself for doing that to her.
He hated knowing he would leave her alone. He hated that after all they had been through he would still be dying so soon, and that she still wanted to cheer him and make the most of their time together. He hated how much she tried to reassure him, how she tried to make him happy, how she always smiled to him. He hated how strong she was, when he was crumbling into pieces.
She would survive him and keep living, and he'd become a memory of her past, without any glory, without any merit, without anything... he would never give her anything.
She would watch him die, his life leaking like water between his fingers. And stay by his side until the end.
He would be leaving her alone.
He hated all of it.
"Would you die for me, Chizuru?"
Blood spilled into the tatami, trickling down his chin and dripping from her arm like rain leaks from the roof, two crimson trails of life escaping their bodies like rivers feeding the sea.
Her voice was determined, not an ounce of doubt in it. And Souji couldn't take it anymore. How she had rushed to his side, how she had tried to soothe him in his violent cough and reassured him it would pass soon while he felt he couldn't breath and his throat burned and blood threatened to drown him until he vomited it.
He hated how she had tried to sound calm though her voice cracked with despair while her hands trembled as she cut her arm and offered him desperately her blood as a last resort, her eyes wet with tears threatening to spill at any moment. He hated how strong she had to be. He hated how she would sacrifice her all for him.
He was tired of hating. But could not stop.
"Too bad you won't have the chance. Such a pity, in the end it will be me who will die for your sake."
A shocked and hurt expression showed on her face, and her distraught eyes searched for his, any hint he regretted what he had said, any hint he didn't feel what he said. Anything. And he did in fact, regret what he had said. Souji was tired of blaming others for his decisions; he had always been strong enough to overcome anything, but not anymore. Loving her had made him weak, had given him something to lose, something to fear. Had made him human, even if he was to die like a monster.
He couldn't bear to look at her, so he just stood there, staring at the pool of blood, so dark it seemed it would swallow his sanity. And he wanted it to, to swallow him whole so he was away from all this. But it didn't; instead Chizuru knelt before it and tried to clean it with a cloth, her hands becoming crimson stained. Souji grabbed her wrist forcefully to stop her, and shocked her away from it, a sign he'd be doing it, but she didn't move though his hand was grasping her slender wrist with a strength close to breaking her bones.
Go away from me please. I need to be alone now.
He needed her to leave him alone for a moment, he needed her away before he hurt her anymore.
But Chizuru had never left him alone, and so today she would not by any means. As he observed her, he saw how finally, her head bent down, tears fell into the puddle of blood.
The sun that morning hurt his eyes as he hitched mountain down into town to visit Matsumoto sensei's clinic. He had woken up early because his body needed every time more and more time to move fluently, and mountain walking was a severe strain he could not always tolerate. What had been a stroll before now became an odyssey, and every step he took mountain down he could only suffer thinking how he'd have to take it back up. But he needed to go. Alone.
Chizuru woke up to find Souji already gone, his futon and his yukata folded in a haste; he had left in a hurry it seemed, though she knew how much it took him to move with that weakened body of his. Clutching at his yukata she silently cried, blaming herself for his agony, blaming herself because whatever she could do was not enough, if there was anything she could do at all. She felt so utterly useless watching life escape him... not even her blood would work anymore, if it had it ever worked at all. Souji was a rasetsu but drank the water of the mountains, so he hadn't had any more bloodlust attacks, but the strength had abandoned him and it only worsened his already deathly sickness.
She knew why he had turned it all out on her. She knew of what he feared, because she feared it too; his unavoidable death, by means either of his sickness or by her father's concoction. And she blamed herself for allowing him to drink it, for her brother's hate spiral, for her destiny coated in blood. It reached her, and reached him as a collateral victim. He should have never involved himself with her, he would have lived as he had wanted, and even if tuberculosis would have killed him... in time... at least he would have lived to the fullest and to his last wishes. Yes, she knew, he would have blamed a lot of people, and he would have despaired. But nobody provoked his illness, and not the same could be said about being a rasetsu, having thirst for blood and spending your vital energy until you consumed into a pile of ashes. Coolly thought like that it was easy to say, but she was already convulsing with nausea as she desperately recalled what was to be their future.
And she had decided long ago she'd not give up, no matter how many times he did. She would fight for all the times he fought and gave her hopes, for all the times he had shown her to live to the fullest. She would save him, no matter what the price. And now she knew the price.
Cicadas cried so loudly they seemed to be inside the small clinic Matsumoto sensei had settled in the town of Kamakura. The humid air and intense heat made sweat bead on his forehead and he wiped it with a cloth. He opened the door to the street to try and alleviate the heat with some wind and sighed as he saw his next patient and his sardonic smile as he approached him as if this was no more than a courtesy visit.
"Well you seem to be doing quite well..."
Matsumoto sensei finished examining Souji's body condition, his heartbeat and the noises his lungs made when he breathed, the color of his skin and of the sclera of his eyes, and his reflexes. Souji smiled a bitter smile at his choice of words, or rather his choice of not saying.
"You mean for my condition, don't you?"
Matsumoto sensei heaved a big sigh.
"Considering you came here alone and you haven't collapsed yet, neither have you stricken a bloody cough while we were here, I can say it's a moderately good diagnosis. You are doing well."
But Souji knew better than this. Today he wanted definite answers; this just wouldn't cut it.
"Honestly speaking please, I don't want hopes or anything. Tell me how I'm really doing."
Matsumoto frowned at the neutral and even uninterested way of speaking Souji tried to show.
"I presume you are inquiring me about the tuberculosis, aren't you?"
"Well, yes; even though if you have any way to measure how much time left I have before I become ashes well, that would also be great."
Matsumoto sensei sighed again. The sass this man had.
"It's progressing... slowly. But unstoppable. From previous visits and what I can see... it's following the stages all sick men prescribed to rest suffer from."
There was a heavy silence and Souji knew he had cornered Matsumoto sensei. He wanted answers in form of time: he needed to know how much he had left in a measurable way. But maybe he was not that prepared for this.
"... Three, maybe four. Months."
A cold sweat broke in the nape of his neck and ran down his spine. But he remained as composed as ever and gave a side ways smile to the doctor.
"Ah. Is that so."
Matsumoto sensei looked at him intently, his eyes narrowing to slits.
"You can't be really telling me you are accepting this with such composure. You do know what this means, don't you? The decay it's going to be progressive, there will be a day you can't get up anymore, and a day you'll know you... it will be very painful. And it won't warn you or anything."
Souji kept staring at Matsumoto sensei, taking in on everything he was saying, too scared to even try to make a joke or take it lightly, but too used to show a facade.
"You need to tell her."
But this broke him somehow. Chizuru.
"Tell her? How would that make it any better?"
Matsumoto sensei snapped, apparently he had had enough of Souji's attitude.
"She deserves to know! At the very last you'll be close to an invalid, she will be the only thing that would make your quality of life bearable the last days. You owe her."
"No offense sensei, but she deserves better than knowing this. You don't have to worry though, I don't intend to burden her in any way."
There was a silence and Matsumoto sensei knew better than to press the matter, but he could not leave it like this.
"Do you... intend to leave?"
"Oh, in time we all leave."
"I'm not referring to that."
Souji only smiled and Matsumoto knew he'd not be getting any more answers from him. He had seen many patients choose this way, instead of waiting for the illness to kill them. Nevertheless...this may be the time.
Souji's voice sounded more serious now, a hint of panic in it that caught Matsumoto's attention.
"Don't you dare telling her."
Caught. Of course he'd preserve the confidentiality pacient-doctor but this... was a bit... extreme. Though a look at Souji was enough to keep his mouth shut and the silent warning a reminiscence, or maybe more, of what he could do, his past very fresh. He turned his back to Souji and took a small folded paper from his drawer.
"Take this with you and drink the usual doses twice a day. If you throw up drink it again."
Souji examined the contents of the envelope. Then stared at Matsumoto sensei rising an eyebrow.
"Here it's not enough for a month, sensei."
"I expect you to come here more often."
And that was all. Of course Souji knew Matsumoto sensei wanted his check ups to be more frequent due to his illness, but this was playing dirty.
"What if I can't move?"
He was half joking. Just half.
"Time enough to make me go there."
Check mate. If in a month he didn't come back Matsumoto would go there and Chizuru would know. A win-win situation, or a lose-lose for Souji. One way or another she'd know. His chances at doing something were lessened with this trick. Or that was what Matsumoto sensei hoped for. He walked Souji to the door, and there they stared at the cloudless sky and merciless sun this summer was granting them with, the cicadas loudly swallowing any other noises.
"Well then. Best regards to Chizuru chan."
"I will give her your best wishes."
"And take care."
"Oh, I'll try; maybe going back all he way up this mountain will kill me first though."
Souji laughed and turned his back to Matsumoto sensei's worried stare, knowing he had tried his best to fake that what really worried him the most was not the prospect of going back all the way up the mountain again, but going back home.
The mountain of Kamakura had a very famous sanctuary in its forest, full of Shinto shrines that became a river of people in famous dates as tanabata and new year.
Today though, Chizuru was visiting none of those shrines; she was visiting a small wooden shrine, its roof painted deep red and its well surrounded by hydrangeas, that would have called immediately the attention of the passerby, but that remained hidden to most of the people by a curse; a shrine that was said to grant the darkest wishes of those willing to pay the price for them. Chizuru had the wish, and also had the price to pay for it. She just needed the God to grant it. She walked the path covered in roots from maple trees that drove to the entrance, took off her sandals and walked inside. The shrine was only illuminated by natural light and the inside was cool compared with the humid heat outside, which gave Chizuru momentary chills. She lighted an incense stick and watched as it consumed before kneeling on the old tatami.
A deep voice echoed as she bent her head at the figure of the God and clapped her hands in prayer.
"You are here again."
"Have you carefully rethought your prayer with peace of mind?"
"And what is your answer?"
"It's the same; I will do it, no matter the price. I accept it. Please, grant my wish."
The silence was only broken by the cries of the cicadas. Their sound reverberated in the shrine and made it as a constant mantra that emptied your head from thoughts and left you in a close to meditation state.
"The price for one of your wishes is too high. It will require something from the other part to equal the balance. Are you fine with that?"
Chizuru stayed silent weighting her next words.
"Yes, I want you to grant it. Do as you consider fair."
The God scrutinized her.
"Then formulate your wishes."
She breathed calmly. She had had time enough to think about this since she knew Souji's health was quickly deteriorating. Since she knew of the existence of this shrine. Since she could put her wish into words.
She knew what she'd ask for if miracles were possible.
Chizuru closed her eyes and silently thanked her ancestors for the knowledge they left to her, for the resources she found when she desperately looked at what she was and where she belonged to.
The legends of her Oni clan spoke of a forbidden temple where dark gods fulfilled dark prayers to those desperate enough to pay the equivalent price for them.
The Nameless Shrine was hidden but not to those who wanted to find it. The requirements were clear; if you saw it, it was because you had a wish so dark you could not pray for it at any other place.
Chizuru had no difficulties finding it. And had no doubts about her wish.
When she opened her eyes again, they were clear with peace of mind and acceptance.
"My life span for his."
"Your life as an Oni amounts more than his human life; something else must be done to equal the balance: His memories will be erased. He will not remember you or your life together. That will equal the balance and pay the price. Do you accept it?"
Chizuru breathed deeply.
"Yes, I accept this."
"Granted. You will have to die for him to receive your life span. Second prayer."
"My afterlife for his."
There was a silence, so deep and deafening, Chizuru would have sworn the cicadas had stopped crying.
And then the God spoke.
Souji felt the strain to his body just as he reached the small hut they lived in; his legs almost gave out and he had to rest against a tree even though he was just a few steps away from the porch. He cursed inwardly his loss of strength and the panic he felt whenever he thought he was straining his body too much: he didn't want to disappear yet. It would be really pathetic if he died from being a rasetsu before tuberculosis killed him. Now that he knew how long he had with one of his deadly sicknesses, he didn't want surprises. At long last he reached the door and then felt dizzy all of a sudden. Panic grew in him as he suspected the worst. His vision went hazy and he felt his head airy.
"Not yet, please. Not yet!"
Strength abandoned his body and he grabbed at the door.
Chizuru. He needed to see her one last time if he was going to die. He couldn't die without seing her, without telling her how much he loved her, without saying goodbye.
"God... at least... let me... see h...er."
And he fainted.