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2005 Samurai Fiction Entry

Snow

By J. Wu

I remember it was cold and there was snow on the ground that last day - the last day I saw Yamanami-san before he left. We were playing with some of the neighborhood children . . . Well, he was; I had to rest on the Mibu temple steps.

I spent a moment admiring the snow-maiden we all had, before I sat down, made with the thick, heavy fluff that blanketed the ground. Shifting my attention, I saw the children a little ways off, launching sparkling spheres of white at each other and at Yamanami-san; tiny cannonballs of snow. Laughing, I watched as a particularly large clump hit him full in the face.

After a while, he came over to sit next to me. "Those children sure are energetic," he remarked with a slightly tired smile.

"Worn-out already, Yamanami-san?"

"Ha ha . . . Well, I'm not as young as they are."

I smiled back at him. "It's nice to see you in good spirits again, Yamanami-san. Lately, it seems there's been something troubling you."

It seemed like the clouds had suddenly obscured the uplifting sun of his smile; as if he wanted to keep his disquiet to himself.

"It's nothing, Okita-kun. I guess I'm just a little tired," he said, brushing my inquiry aside, just like he did with Kondou-san the other day.

It sure didn't seem like plain exhaustion to me. After all, after our raid on the Ikeda-ya several months ago, our work had been the tiniest bit easier than before, now that the people of Kyoto were willing to accept the Shinsengumi. Even before then…No, I would not have thought that our work could demoralize a cheery man such as he. However, I did not press him on this issue.

"Soujirou, are you going to sit there on your butt all day?" the children demanded. Laughing, I told them I'd be there in a moment, for Yamanami-san was looking at me with a question in his eyes.

"My childhood name," I explained, recalling fond memories. "'Soujirou' must be more fun to play with than 'Okita Souji of the Miburo,' after all."

Laughing, he waved me on. "Right, how could I forget? If you'll excuse me…I believe I should be going now."

We, the children and I, waved as he walked away. Our game in the snow ended soon after that, for the children needed to return home, and I had to go take my medicine and rest up for that night's patrol.

During that patrol, however…It seems things had gotten out of hand back at headquarters. From what I heard afterwards, there was some shouting coming from the direction of the officers' rooms. Then Yamanami-san had stormed off.

"We'll wait to see if he comes back," Hijikata-san said with an unreadable look on his face.

Exchanging worried looks, the rest of us settled down to wait. After a few days, though…Tension practically crackled in the atmosphere.
"This isn't like him," Kondou-san fretted. "Toshi, maybe we should…"

"…"

"Hijikata-san?" I ventured. This was bothering him too, I could tell.

"Toshi, don't tell me you really think he's left for good - "

His voice thick with an unidentified emotion, Hijikata-san wouldn't look at us. "There is no other explanation. Yamazaki saw him take a horse and run at the city outskirts."

"There's no way…"

"I'll find him," I murmured. "I'll bring him home…So that we may know the truth of things."

The hope in Kondou-san's eyes; the faintly distraught relief in Hijikata-san's… It was almost painful to see.

"But what about your illness? Shouldn't you be resting?"

"I'll be fine, Kondou-san." I had to be fine…Even if I collapsed afterwards, this I would see through to the end. I had to know - Did Yamanami-san really leave us? If he did…Why? Could there, against all reason, be a way he could be spared the penalty due a deserter? "I need a horse."

There was a flurry of activity as one was readied. I took this opportunity to take a quick trip back to my room to take an extra dose of medicine - Just in case. It was flavorless, the medicine, with just a hint of bitterness…Rather like the way I felt at the moment. Icy clouds of spun cotton enshrouded my mind so that I felt very little emotion; yet the bitter taste of a potential impending death still lingered.

By the time I returned, everything was set to go. Kondou-san handed me the reins and stepped back, saying, "Be careful, Souji. We can't lose you too."

"I will." As I began to turn the horse, Hijikata-san stepped in.

"Souji…If you can't find him…"

"I will find him," I said quietly, still devoid of feeling.

He shook his head. "If you can't find him, come back. There's no use in taxing yourself."

"You will let him go?"

"I did not say that. I said if you can't find him, then stop searching and come back." This time, in his voice and eyes, I could read what he was feeling. An extraordinarily strong sense of duty to do what would be needed, a dread that he might actually have to do a regretful deed for that duty, and a worry for me. My mind began to thaw.

"Very well."

Before anyone else could say something, I mounted and urged the horse forward. The dust that arose from its lightly pounding hooves floated behind us, light brown wings of my dark brown horse.

It wasn't long until we passed the outer section of the city. By then, we had slowed to a brisk trot, so as to not tire the horse overmuch. What would I do when I found him? I asked myself as the ice gradually melted. 'When,' not 'if,' for I knew I would not stop until I had succeeded.

Bring him home was the reply, from a soft voice in the corner of my thawing mind.

But what will happen if I bring him back? If he had just needed some time to himself for a few days, away from the Shinsengumi, perhaps he could be forgiven. But, as a sinking feeling inside me suggested, what if that wasn't the case? If he truly was trying to leave the Shinsengumi…The only thing awaiting him was death by seppuku. He, as well as I and any other member, knew this. So why?

By the edge of the Kamo River, something caught my eye; a blue-grey horse and the back of a very familiar head.

I quickly reined in my horse and dismounted, tying the reins to a handy tree branch.

"Yamanami-san," I said quietly, the icy bonds dissolving fast.
He didn't turn around. "Hello, Okita-kun. I didn't expect that you would be the one to come for me."

"Yamanami-san - "

"No matter. I'm ready for what will come. I sent Akesato back to Shimabara last night in anticipation of this."

"Yamanami-san - "
"There's no other choice for me," he continued. "Let's go back. The others must be very worried."

"Yamanami-san!"

Only then did he turn to face me, that same warm smile on his face as it was the day he left. "What is it, Okita-kun?"

The last remnants of the glacial calm that enveloped me vanished. "Why?" I burst out.

The smile didn't fade, but it gained a sorrowful air. "Why what?"

"Why did you leave?"

He closed his eyes, and in that moment, he looked older and more tired than I had ever seen him. "Because I had to."

I didn't understand. "Had to? No one would ever force you out! Whatever the problem is, I'm sure you will be forgiven!" My fists, of their own accord, curled up and my nails dug into my palm. My teeth clamped down on my lip so hard that, now that I look back on it, I am surprised there was no blood. I'm sure I was shaking at the time; I'm sure that the stinging in my eyes was not just due to the cold wind.

Gently, quietly, he stepped up and put his hands on my shoulders. "I can't be forgiven. Even as I have the power to help make the rules, I myself must follow them."
"You can't die! We all still need you too much…Please, just run! Make up an excuse…Come back to us!"

He shook his head. "I'm sorry Okita-kun. This is the way it has to be."

Unable to hold back any longer, I cried into his kimono. He said nothing as I wailed wordlessly, with an air of calm, sad resignation. He said nothing until I had no more tears to shed, no more will to scream and cry.

"Let's go back now," he said gently.

During the ride back, nothing was spoken. I had exhausted myself and my emotions during that tirade.

Still, nothing was said as we re-entered headquarters. Oh, the rest of the captains and quite a few of the regular members swarmed him as soon as we were within the front gates, but I said nothing.

After the crowd had assured itself of Yamanami-san's return, we made our way to the back, where Yamazaki-san had told us Kondou-san and Hijikata-san were waiting.

Yamanami-san knelt down on the mat before them as I stood behind him, a silent signal that I still believed in him.

Hijikata-san looked at me for a moment because of it, but he made no comment about it.

"Why did you leave, Sannan?" Kondou-san asked, with one of the saddest expressions I have ever seen on his face.

That sad smile flitted across Yamanami-san's face again. "I'm sorry, Kondou-san. I just felt I had to."

"But Sannan, the punishment for leaving…"

"I am prepared to accept it, Kondou-san."

Wordlessly, Hijikata-san came forward with a long, sheathed knife in his hands. He set it down on the ground in front of Yamanami-san and said, "If you are prepared, then do it. Do it as the samurai you should be."

That was a lot compassionately than any of us thought it would be. Yamanami-san regarded Hijikata-san with surprise for a moment, then nodded.

"Sannan, please," Kondou-san pleaded, one last time. "Give us a legitimate excuse, and we can pardon you."

"No," he answered softly. "These are the rules, and I must follow them. Even if I chose not to, the guilt would always haunt me. I'm sorry."

With that, he brushed aside his kimono, and, in one swift movement, unsheathed the knife. "Okita-kun, I hate to ask this of you, but will you please act as a suicide assistant?"

I didn't want to, but I couldn't refuse. I would not leave him to die a long and painful death otherwise. I slowly nodded, feeling pain begin to bloom somewhere deep within.

"Thank you, Okita-kun." He gave me one last smile, then thrust the knife into his belly.

Quickly, before he could suffer any more, I pulled out my sword and swung. Yamanami-san's head rolled off and settled off the edge of the mat; thankfully, face-down.

When I finally looked up, Kondou-san was sitting with one hand over his face, faintly trembling. Hijikata-san picked up the head, more gently than I had ever seen him do anything, and placed it beside the body.

"Rest in peace, Yamanami-kun."