the poetic sequel to cohabitation (is only natural)
Summer is Sanosuke's season. He hates the humidity, yes, complains about it constantly, but there is no season that fits him so well as the rush of heat one gets stepping out from under the shadowed eaves, that burst of sun that hits all at once. That brilliance.
Summer is that season of contradictory things: socializing with the living, communing with the dead. Striped orange-and-white lanterns strung like foxfire against the dark walls of the temple grounds over the heads of the whole community come out to play. A blistering sun that floats among the clouds like puffy white sails afloat on seas, the burning freeze of shaved ice and sugar. Sanosuke always gets strawberry, cajoles with the shopkeeper for a double helping between asking if he's seen his rich friend Masuda around, the one that lives down the lane, no, I can't believe he'd deal with those slimy foreigners, and how!
Saitou knows his laugh is fake but his appreciation of the cold treat is genuine. It turns his lips red, red as amaryllis, red as blood. Berry-red, punch-red, kiss-red. There are fifty-something words for red in the Japanese tongue and yet Saitou comes up with more as Sanosuke veers back and forth between stalls, strutting in his light yukata, sandals picking up dust from the cobblestones. He flits from one pool of light to another, asking, talking, waving his hands, greeting acquaintances, whining, pouting, pleading between posturing for free samples, laughing when he gets none, whooping when he does.
Saitou restrains himself five steps back, willing his presence to melt seamlessly into the background, because on this stage Sanosuke is the star.
Saitou has his own churning, cranking gear in the jaws of existence, one that Sanosuke will never share, no matter how hard he trains. But just in this moment, this split second, Saitou lets himself regret he didn't see Sanosuke when he was a child, didn't have a hand in the man he would become. Because the spotlights on them illuminate the idea they could never share the same circles, more than any other fact of life.
Because they are adults and they know the sometimes-slim divide between them nevertheless would require a running-blind leap of faith off the cliffedge of their vague, unnameable relationship.
Still, sweating in the heat of Sanosuke's season, he considers the jump. More than anyone else he knows Sanosuke digs to find ugliness in an otherwise beautiful peace, and prods Saitou to look for beauty in places he swears there is none. Like the line of the boy's collar, curving just so around the back like a loving scarf, or a possessive hand. Like the smear of syrup in his grin, reminiscent of those vampiric ghosts on popular woodblock prints, yet Saitou can only see the eager, earnest child. And like the tiny, subtle tilt of his head backwards when he meets his dojo friends, clearly including Saitou, inviting him to join in with that little delighted look on his face.
Saitou is struck half to private laughter every time when things should be sexual fall empty and flat, and daily, ordinary things instead become charged and suddenly, hopelessly endearing. These little things. He still doesn't know if he should curse the boy is so bright (to look at), or so stupid (to remain oblivious).
But then Sanosuke laughs like the crack of thunder in a summer storm, a warning out of the clear blue sky of nothing, and he gives Saitou pause. Wipes out the frivolous silence. Just one more moment to appreciate what is in front of him. Just one more moment hanging in balance.
The Battousai, too, has fallen silent, letting their noisier companions walk ahead. The look he gives Saitou is both warning and worry. I do not forgive malice aforethought topped with He is waiting, you are waiting, what are you waiting for?
Sanosuke is wrapped in one of Saitou's thingsfrom when he was younger and could pull off that shade of tan with the brighter blue obi. He would smell like Saitou's cigarettes too, when they went home for the night, humming as he folded the material to be washed tomorrow. Something that teetered so close to sexual - yet it is an immense wave of fondness that careens into Saitou's gut.
But Sanosuke sitting with a scowl at the top of the steps to retie his sandal strap - oh, Saitou thinks of surprising him between his open legs, to dash too far into Sanosuke's personal space until all that can be seen is Saitou's hunger. If only the others were not present. If only he knew for sure Sanosuke's look of alarm would melt slowly into pulse-red, sheet-staining pleasure.
He wipes Sanosuke's cheek free of syrup and the boy shamelessly chirrups his thanks. Brown spikes matted, sweat beading at his hairline, clothes rumpled. Standing off-center and askew as he teases Slowpoke old cricket with his eyes. Barging down the stairs to call greetings to someone else, his voice warm and bright, such a change from the dark night that lowers the temperature and humidity to a bearable level.
He doesn't register the others or the man Sanosuke is talking to, a man from Saitou's own department. He doesn't even think of the Battousai walking a little behind him, protector or guard or curious bystander. He only recognizes when Sanosuke tilts his head again, insisting he join this one because they all know each other. Thumb hooked over his obi. Leaning to the right off of his loose left sandal. Face disappearing behind his arm as he wipes off his forehead - emerging with a grin.
Saitou flushes under the collar, resolve wavering like a desert mirage, faced with the heat of Sanosuke's season.
That doesn't mean Sanosuke doesn't embody other ones.
Autumn in particular, yes, autumn. As the red leaves start to turn Saitou is called away for a long stretch - a full month, in fact. A month of waking alone in a borrowed room and a toothless granny who makes his meals when he is available to take them, unfamiliar flavors and utensils.
Just one week and his clothes smell like someone else's, someone who is not Saitou and Sanosuke. He smokes during a break he takes without anyone else noticing because they're all too busy arguing with each other. The first whip of winter catches him by surprise on the balcony of the department's third floor. He discards his jacket with well-hidden dismay at the tiny black pocks that burning ash makes. His new jacket smells of nothing at all.
As the season dips towards its zenith the leaves color and fall. The Peaceful Capitol has not changed through wars, foreigners, fires and other disasters. It certainly has not changed because Saitou left a bloodied and misused samurai and came back in a smart blue uniform. It seems the same people that walked the same paths hundreds, thousands of years ago, are still walking them: couples-in-love, couples-in-affairs, old couples, young couples, families, children, stray animals, chittering birds. Everyone strolls to admire the red maples that cry and shake until their branches are empty and the winter wind has bashed their tears to dry, tannish dust on the side of the footpaths.
Saitou cannot, will not lie. He fears what is to come.
The boy, burnished copper-bright, flickering light through the leaves, casting ever-changing shadows on the murmuring surface of the river. Tossing dying debris to float, spreadeagled, red against green moss and gray stone, twisting and spinning as he floats along without a care. Have a care, Saitou wants to snarl. He wants to know if Sanosuke searches for Saitou's face in the marketplace, at the docks, at the police station. In the teeming crowd that presses fallen leaves between the pages of books. Reminders for a later date.
Do you remember me?
And yet he slides towards slow decay other ways too. The coming of winter, shedding warmth, shedding hours - gathering dark, gathering clothes. Jackets and scarves and gloves. Hoarding skills and experience like firewood, as if turning from boy to man meant a man in full maturation lived in an eternal frost.
He receives no messages while he is at work. Though he waits. Though he hopes. Every morning, the minute lateness of the sun. Every night, pushing the emptiness away as he retires for bed. He hopes again for dreamless sleep. Sometimes, it even comes true.
Sometimes the dreams show him a window and trees. Red and black flickering on white, like a painting constantly in flux. He thinks of messy print, ribbon, bandages. Bloody and broken hands. Sanosuke lying on his side, shivering, his naked back arched inward as if preparing for a blow, or having already received one that was too heavy to bear.
The fire from the fortress roars and Saitou blinks awake, stretching his senses for the presence in the next room over. Only when it pushes against his, arrhythmic and unfamiliar, does his chest echo red leaves spilling, unraveling down the canal, Sanosuke's warmth, Sanosuke's memory, fading as the days grew shorter to leave something tired and neglected and cold.
Then, when the trees are bare and Saitou's breath starts to fog in the morning, comes the day he is to leave. He packs his things, mentally says good riddance to the chilly and cramped police quarters, and steps to the carriage to see someone already inside.
His heart leaps, zigzags up in the air like a misfired firework, and for a moment he tastes something cold and sweet - but it is only Chou, unfolding with a wry smile as if he's read Saitou's mind.
And then another foot steps down, and another, and Sanosuke has ballooned sideways in a winter coat and scarf wrapped twice around his neck, dressed in one of Saitou's own hakamas over unfamiliar black boots. He arches catlike, complaining about the long ride with Chou chiming in at counterpoint. "Even more cramped going back home," Sanosuke grumbles, but he can't hide what Saitou doesn't even try to: relief, and wary joy. It stops just short of reaching out for a physical reminder, a real, human touch; Saitou thinks of hot lightning/ helpless attraction/ tall buildings. Sanosuke's hand twitches at his side, a mirror of the itch in Saitou's own. The urge is somehow enough.
The morning dawned unfavorably overcast and smokey gray, but Saitou's spirits are high. "We have time for breakfast since I meant to arrive back early," he offers dryly when Sanosuke opens his mouth to blurt something without thinking and is interrupted by the loud gargle of his own stomach.
Both boys' faces light up. "Hell yeah!" Sanosuke pumps his fist. New ice cracks under his feet, yet he doesn't give it a second glance. "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
Saitou spares a thought of sympathy for the toothless granny, who probably isn't prepared for two young appetites on top of his. But then he vows not to think for a while. That part he uses to brood could be spent coming up with new names for Sanosuke's gray, watching their shadows bounding into the previously ubiquitous forest. Sanosuke's face rises like a moon against the gloom. Saitou is remembering the crunch of Sanosuke's step on the path back to the living quarters in real time. He is tasting the ghostly warmth of Sanosuke's breath.
"Saitou," the boy's tongue flicks through the syllables, and for all the timbres of familiarity he has been addressed by over the years this is the one Saitou hopes will never change. Honest emotion like a slice of persimmon orange through the dark leaves. "Are you coming or what?"
"In a bit." He turns back to view carriage and driver, horses puffing and snorting, prancing in place. The bleak weather that promised rain or sleet; the almost-invisible spidercracks in the ice where three sets of boots have crunched by, uncaring. The river and gutter, choked with dead leaves. They are no longer red maple or yellow gingko; they are only a brown, cloggy mess. He imagines stepping on them, feeling them squash flat under his heel. Remnant of times past.
He is the one that needed the reminder. Of fire. Now that he has the image in his mind, he swears he won't forget.
Winter is Saitou's season.
He finds great solace in the shortened days. He is far more comfortable in the dark, the deep shadows that turn even the purest snow to blurred powder blue. Sometimes he sits on the back porch, smoking cigarette after cigarette until the tray is full, until the cold sets in so deep his bone marrow is numb, his skin is prickly hot, and his lips can barely move.
He rises then, slowly, Old Wolf beset upon by a Young Bird that clucks and chivvies him to a seat next to the brazier. They hold hands for the first time, Sanosuke chiding under his breath, rubbing Saitou's frozen fingers until they can bend again. Back and forth, push and pull - the tide of Sanosuke's eyes creeps and retreats, lingering on colorless shores. It would be an easy thing to curl his own digits around Sanosuke's wrist on the pretense of inspecting a once-broken appendage. It would be a mercy to set this armistice aside.
He keeps going out, watching the stars spit fitfully, sparking like water on hot iron, so sharp and clear as the chill settles in like Saitou remembers time and time again. Just, this time he hides something he didn't have before. Some old coal, crumbling, blackened, kicked around the pit, worn out but not quite dead. It seethes red-hot in harmony to the harsh melody of the wind as Sanosuke curses again, tugging on his boots with quick, frantic jerks, carefully fitting the covers for the shoji doors right before the storm starts to moan.
Sometimes Sanosuke doesn't seem to feel the change in the weather. He still makes the three steps from the bath to the kitchen door naked, white steam rising off of his shoulders as if fire was kindled under his skin, a drying cloth in one hand. Sometimes if Saitou is lucky (or unlucky), it will even be covering Sanosuke's body.
But other times it is all the more apparent something has changed. Sanosuke sleeps curled around the brazier, Saitou's warmest comforter coiled securely around his shoulders, toes tucked firmly in Saitou's rattiest woolen socks. Sanosuke at dinner dishes is quiet, watching the flakes twinkle and fall, the splash of the bowls and chopsticks muted and sullen. He doesn't sing or whistle. Winter, and silence, wrap the house in hibernated slumber as Sanosuke retires early after dressing the lone garden peony in a woven straw coat and hat, mumbling about the cold. While he is asleep Saitou checks his forehead, his cheeks - but he is not ill. Just out of his element. There is an airless pause before Sanosuke bumps his cheek into Saitou's hand.
There is only one thing that remains unseasonably warm.
Not Sanosuke at practice, not even Sanosuke after practice. An unseen attacker forcing him back as he wards off blows - twisting low, breaking his fall, swirling back, kicking up snow as he passes - wiping the sweat off without a care - no, it is his contentment, flushed from three sets of katas, as he ties his sleeves back and starts to eat breakfast. He makes a contented sound at the stewed satoimo, head in the white puff of steam from the cold, wide awake, alive, and Saitou thinks of morning and the bare touch of the winter sun on his face seeping through the bamboo blinds, frail and pale but still reaching out a sliver of warmth.
He is starting to realize Sanosuke is every season, because every season has its dichotomies and contrasts.
And Sanosuke is not fitting the changes of weather so much as he is slotting perfectly into the cycle of Saitou's life.
Change, Saitou thinks as the shutters rattle and little drifts and eddies of snow billow down to dew the floor. In another room, Sanosuke doesn't sing, but his knees thump from time to time as he scrubs the floor. Saitou stretches out absently now to feel the pulse of bright energy battering back at him. He has no Heart's Eye, no magical powers to know - but he senses Sanosuke knows the words to use if someone asked how he felt in that moment. At home, Saitou dares to think of Sanosuke shrugging the truth with deliberate casualness. I'm good. Happy.
There are truths Saitou could say in return. But words have never appealed to him; synthesized arrangements of communication, made by some other person, some other organization. Fraught with personal nuances. He prefers to act instead.
What he does, is reach back.
They compromise in between the extremes.
Spring is first to drip wet and miserable from the branches, showing the whole world the scientific properties of ice to steam to water to ice. Winter is slow to thaw, ice dribbling mulishly to swell lakes and rivers, pit-pattering onto soaked ground and shining cobblestones, until Saitou is used to seeing the black reflection of himself when he looks down.
The shadow of two.
The boy is not looking down. He isn't looking at Saitou either. He's looking out into the distance where the clouds have broken and narrow, thin cream shafts of sun are hitting the roof tiles, making the silver coating wink. He complains about the soggy quality of his clothes, Saitou's clothes, work, life, and the skies that disinterestedly toss a few late hailstorms their way when Sanosuke says he would rather everything was still frozen than half-frozen.
He's awakening a little more, day by day, cracking open the core. Trickling spring melt and rebirth. Recently Saitou admitted he "wasn't hopeless", sending Sanosuke into a fit of laughter about how Saitou shouldn't say so, I'm gonna bust a rib, did that hurt you to say that?
But because he has better things to do than to bare his own sharp edges, Saitou lets it pass. They both do, so by the time the winds die down and the snow turns to rain, their knees and ankles are tucked, necks bent, elbows carefully negotiated. They are still making love on the far side of the room with a brazier planted between them and the window. In the non-space between their bodies Sanosuke learns more things about defense and attack, snickering helplessly when Saitou noses a ticklish spot over his ribs; Saitou relearns, with a sense of weary resignation, that Sanosuke is a blunt instrument strolling into a china shop, tearing down all of Saitou's careful preconceptions, all the ice and empty branches, all the dying hopes and withering warmth. The big things, the little things - they are all warped and remolded as Sanosuke forms them out to be, hanging each like a sun in the sky, skipping a little as the weather gets warmer and buds, little dots of odd pastel brightness, start to shine among the foliage.
Daylight hours creak slowly longer again, and Saitou's heart gives up its icy grip on frost. It cries new, new, love, new with all the enthusiasm of a baby bird that knows nothing but the natural, frantic push to live. It seeks new fodder and down, daring neck and certain death to hobble to the edge of the nest and dive headfirst. The garden shakes off its threadbare coat, unfurling patterns of light green and tremulous growth - Saitou thinks of his own heart, the smoldering coal that seared at him to Move, now, while you can, don't lose him like you've lost the others, the black bare branches that wavered and danced as if rubbing their limbs above the flame, seeking, enclosing the heat for its own oasis.
Such destruction, he wants to sneer, but Sanosuke makes it come out fond and satisfied instead. The broken and smashed porcelain is reshaped into Sanosuke's elbows and knees, the flex of his spine, the hush-hiss as he shudders at last and comes. His dilated pupils as he whimpers for breath and creeps fingers over clumsily until they find some part of Saitou and hold on, just holding there.
Something frail and blindingly white as the winter sun blooms in Saitou then - bone-white, ash-white, storm-white billowing against Saitou's charred and lonely insides - some thing that brushes the hair out of Sanosuke's face, bends to lay one cheek against Sanosuke's temple. He hears his favorite winter silence under the blood-beat of smoldering skin. Sweat prickles Sanosuke's hairline again. Saitou has memorized the taste of it on his lips.
It is no surprise, then, when the rains part briefly to let the blossoms rain down, pink and white, snowlike and dotting the ground, boxed in by flowers on all sides by booths of azalea and morning glory while the sakura hangs above, to find the boy wavering between skipping over a river of moss broken by perfectly round stepstones or a narrow wall that separates the pedestrian and carriage paths. In the end he follows Saitou on the stepstones, his white jacket flaring behind him, the ends of his bandanna lashing his cheek. Saitou gives no warning, only turns and strikes out, and Sanosuke dances back, falling into ready stance with a searing grin.
Old Wolf and Young Bird. Sanosuke dodges again, redirecting Saitou's blows away. He is about to toss aside his jacket when Saitou straightens. The lesson is over before any more eyes gather on them.
(Saitou guards jealously what really matters.)
The rest of their walk meanders next to the canal where the blossoms have started to choke the gutter wall, spinning dizzily around and around. Some are upturned Western maidens with their skirts and feet in the air; others missing sections of fabric, seeking watery graves in shame. Sanosuke bats at the branches above and comes away with two flowers; he sets one behind his ear, the other behind Saitou's. Face long and unamused, Saitou bears the indignity only a moment before flicking it down, down, down into the burbling water.
But Sanosuke is smiling that secret smile Saitou fears will slip away (autumn wind and the impending cold snap). The one that wavers, rises like steam in snow (wan, dreary mornings where Sanosuke is the only color). The one that spikes him quick in the gut with how fond it makes him feel, bruise-tender and proud and helpless to hold back, helpless to stand close and smell tobacco smoke on Sanosuke's clothes.
The words Stay with me rise and catch on the gorge of his throat, unwilling to go past his lips. But Saitou always preferred actions anyway.
They are home in time for dinner, Sanosuke making noises about adding eggplant to the miso soup, when Saitou reaches out to take Sanosuke's coat. He doesn't look backwards as he settles it next to his own on a hook, pulling the sleeves and rumples straight until the cloth hangs smooth, the kanji starkly visible. Flower petals sprinkle the floor, detritus to be swept away tomorrow - the breeze from a rainstorm, poised to hit in the evening, sifts curious fingers through Sanosuke's fringe, out of his wide eyes.
"You have cooking to do," Saitou prods.
"I'm home," Sanosuke remembers belatedly.
It isn't until he hears Sanosuke thump slowly to the kitchen does he let himself smile. He waits another minute to properly school his face, and then goes to follow the sun.