Shin Setsu (新節)

from the cell phone novel Tsugaru Min’yō (津軽民謡) by CHAWAN Emiko (茶碗恵美子)
trans. MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷望裸)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/134588.html)

Author’s Note: Inspired by this video.

The grass scratches against the back of Shinsuke’s neck. He should stop lazing about in the grassy spot next to Kamiya’s house and go home to study, but he doesn’t much want to – it’s warm, and the sun feels good on his skin.

There’s music coming from somewhere. He opens his eyes, leans up. There’s a boy, maybe a little older than himself but not much, sitting on the other side of the street on one of the benches outside Chiyo’s shop, plucking listlessly at a shamisen. It sounds like he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but his head is tilted towards the handles as he twists them. Tuning it, then. Shinsuke lets his head drop, then has a thought and sits up all the way.

“Isn’t that a woman’s kind of instrument?” he shouts over.

The boy gives one of the pegs a twist and says, slow like maybe he doesn’t care, “Don’t see how that changes anything.” He draws his fingers over the neck, takes the bachi from inside his shirt, and plucks a little at the strings with it. His hand doesn’t look right, but maybe – no. His eyes aren’t focused right. Must be blind, that he couldn’t see how it was supposed to be held.

Sounds nice, though. Aimless maybe, but Shinsuke can imagine someone singing to it. Something about missing a friend who’s gone off to war and likely won’t come back. Missing him.

Eventually Shinsuke remembers he’s supposed to be home instead of sitting here resting and listening. He goes, but he remembers bits of the lyrics he thought he heard in the song, Frost biting on skin, and hums them on his way home.

He passes by Chiyo’s shop for a few days after that, but the boy isn’t there. Seven days later, he’s there again, and playing. This time he’s playing a melody that Shinsuke’s never heard before. It sounds like a song, but he’s not singing.

Shinsuke sits off to the side and listens a bit, then says when the boy is taking a break to re-tune, “That sounded pretty good.”

The boy twitches and the note he’s playing turns funny. He twists the tuning handle back to true, sits quietly for a few moments. “Not really,” he says finally. “I’ve got a long way to go before I can really play.”

“Huh,” Shinsuke says, and sits down on the other end of the bench. He watches the boy bend in half to put his face close to the instrument, and wonders if he’s smelling the wood or something before he realizes that no, he’s actually looking at it.

“You aren’t blind?” He closes his mouth after the words slip out, embarrassed by his own rudeness.

The boy turns his head, squinting in Shinsuke’s direction. “No. But I can’t see clearly very far.”

“How far can you see?”

“If you could put up your hand…”

Shinsuke does that, from his seat on the other end of the bench.

“Closer.”

Shinsuke halves the distance between them.

“Closer.”

There’s less than an arm’s length between his hand and the boy’s eyes.

“Closer.”

Less than a hand’s breadth separating them, and the boy reaches to press his calloused fingertips to Shinsuke’s palm. “There,” he says. “Up to there, I can see.”

“…how old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“I’ve never known anyone as young as you with eyes like yours.”

“They’re all lucky, then.” His fingertips are warm as he traces the lines on Shinsuke’s palm.

After a couple of days Shinsuke manages to wrest the boy’s name from him: Yoshida Seikichi. He didn’t have a family name before the reforms, he says, so even though Shinsuke’s two years younger he calls him “Seikichi.” Seikichi calls him “Maeda” and Shinsuke has to yell at him a little to get him to stop. Even then he still uses it in front of other people.

In the end, though, maybe it’s better like that, because his older sister says to him, one evening while she’s doing some sewing and he’s studying, “How long has that shamisen player been in town?”

“Few days.” He tries to fix the hook on his rendering of 雨 and just blurs the fourth droplet.

“What’s he like?”

“Younger than you, older than me, poor enough that even if he weren’t blind Father would never let you marry him. Peasant family.”

“You know a lot about him.” She glances up from her seam.

The balance is off on 春; his hand wasn’t been steady. “He can’t play the whole time I’m there. Have to talk sometime.”

She nods. “Just remember, before you get too close, that he’ll leave a lot, and be gone for a while, and change a lot.”

“I know that,” Shinsuke mutters. “He told me.”

“Good,” Ofune says.

Shinsuke isn’t surprised when Seikichi disappears into the autumn sunrise. He thinks of him during the winter, when he hears the wind beating the walls and roof and is reminded of the frustrated mourning edge to Seikichi’s playing.

He dreams lightly that winter and greets the new year with his best calligraphy. His father praises him for it, even if Keisuke, his oldest brother, does better.

His oldest sister returns from Sendai with her three-year-old son. They stay for almost a month, filling the house with laughter and warmth. It feels almost like before her marriage, except now Yamato’s the baby of the household instead of Shinsuke. Shinsuke gets his brother Chuubei’s job, making sure the youngest boy in the family doesn’t get hurt, because Chuubei was conscripted into the army a couple of years ago.

At the end of the month Okame and Yamato return to Sendai, taking presents with them for Okame’s husband, Jin.

Some days after they have left, Shinsuke finds a stack of books and pictures left in the tansu where Okame and Yamato put their futons during their stay. The one on top looks like a collection of samurai tales. Must be Okame’s, then, because she’s always liked telling stories about warriors and heroes.

The book beneath that is full of colorful pictures; the one he opened the book on has the flowing lines of woodblock printing. There’s a samurai – Shinsuke can tell by the daisho set left by the wall in the scene – and his friend, and they’ve clearly been drinking together, from the cups left scattered around them where they’re – he gapes, flips through the rest of the book. All the pictures are of the people having sex, and none of the figures enjoying penetration by the ridiculously generous endowments of the assorted samurai and merchants is female.

Shinsuke looks away, then back. Of course he knows that sometimes an older man wants a boy to keep his bed warm, but he’s never seen it so…

His eye falls on the open page, an image depicting a youth, stripped half out of his chrysanthemum-print yukata, enjoying the attentions of a disheveled city-dweller. The youth’s face is impassive, but his clothing folded around his hips draws attention to the urgency of his arousal, and the man is watching the place where they join with no little fascination.

Shinsuke loosens his clothing and reaches to lay his palm over his erection, feeling its heat and weight through the cloth of his fundoshi. Thinking about Oiwa, who’s supposed to be the most beautiful girl in the village, has never made him like this. Even imagining the softness that would lie between her legs has left him cold – but this. This. Looking at the pleasure the youths receive from their lovers, the curves of their backs and the veined eagerness of their erections, he strokes himself through the fabric until he comes, sooner and harder than he ever has before.

He changes his clothes. Naked but for his socks, he looks down at himself and wonders if it’s really like in the pictures, if the boys really enjoy it.

The snow melts, yields to buds and blossoms. Shinsuke grows older, spends an evening drinking with Hisamatsu. He falls on his way home in the dark when his clubbed foot lands wrong on a stone and he cuts a deep gash in his arm that doesn’t heal until Boys’ Day.

Three days before Tanabata, Shinsuke passes by Chiyo’s shop, hears the thrum of shamisen strings and sadness.

His stomach clenches. He stops in the middle of the street and stares at the figure he wasn’t sure would ever see again, and – imagines the pressure of Seikichi’s breath against his skin, their bodies brought close in lust.

He sits on the bench next to Seikichi and waits until the song is over to say anything, but once the song is over, Seikichi murmurs, bowing faintly, “Thank you for listening.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” Shinsuke tries, and the corners of Seikichi’s mouth turn up.

“Would my silent listener be Maeda?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Shinsuke grins. “Want something to eat?”

“The woman who works here was generous enough to -”

“Tonight,” Shinsuke clarifies.

“I’m all right,” Seikichi returns. “I shouldn’t cause trouble.”

Shinsuke doesn’t tell him to shut up, but it’s a close thing. “You won’t be.”

“What?”

But Seikichi doesn’t stop him from treating him to the meal, and afterwards they sit talking until long after the sun sets. Only after that does Shinsuke drag him home – ostensibly because Seikichi doesn’t have enough money for the night.

Ofune, two months into marriage negotiations with a rich landowning family in the next town, only says that it’s too late to spread out a new futon, so if he wants to give his friend a bed, it has to be his.

They end up sharing, as odd as that is. Shinsuke spares a thought to be glad that they are not alone in the room, otherwise –

He spends some time imagining Seikichi waking him in the middle of the night to use him as the boys in Okame’s book were being used. Murmuring reminders in his ear about staying silent because relatives wake easily.

Over the summer Seikichi comes and goes, like a cat with a voice or a breeze that sounds like a farmer’s lament. Shinsuke sees him and remains a blur in Seikichi’s eyes, and wonders if he would want Shinsuke lying beneath him with his clothes mussed open enough to allow Seikichi to take his pleasure in Shinsuke’s body.

The autumn comes. Seikichi leaves, walking away past the fields with his shamisen on his back and his cane shifting in his hands. Shinsuke doesn’t say goodbye.

He reads the journals his father receives from Osaka and Tokyo which go from hand to hand through the whole town. Their articles declare that if Japan does not develop into a great nation, then she will end like China, dominated and powerless, so the only course open to her is to modernize.

Shinsuke doesn’t know about that, but he remembers the war, if only a little, and he doesn’t want to live through another one. So he begins to read more, sending letters the length of the country to learn about what makes a state. An army? A navy? A king? Surely not those, because Japan has them. A system of strong nobility, like England, or a constitution, like France or America?

He sometimes travels to nearby towns to listen to their debates, occasionally takes part himself though it’s rare because of his youth. Nor does he speak all that well – he often fumbles words, forgets arguments and trains of logic. He’s far cleverer on paper. Loving to read must have taught him something about convincing others, or maybe it’s having had four older siblings who were difficult to convince. He enjoys it, anyway.

Seasons pass, each with their own joys. Shinsuke takes pleasure in the leaves on the trees and the steam from a cooking pot, but both are eclipsed by the thrum of his blood at Seikichi’s unpredictable arrivals.

One spring, sitting on the benches in front of Chiyo’s dumpling house, gingko leaves fluttering above their heads, Shinsuke listens to the swell of passion and despair from Seikichi’s instrument. It sounds like he feels when he wakes in the middle of the night and worries about the wife his parents say they will find for him, how once he marries he will have to take pains to prevent her from finding out that he only wants Seikichi to hold in passion.

He does want children, but not by a woman to whom he’ll spend his whole life chained. He wants –

He folds his hands into the sleeves of his kimono.

“You remember that joke,” he asks, when the strings’ shaking has faded away, “about the samurai from Satsuma, the prostitute, and the farmer?”

“Yes,” Seikichi murmurs.

“Do you think all the samurai in Satsuma are –”

“No.” Seikichi’s hand slides over the neck of his samisen. “They’re not alone, though.”

Shinsuke looks up at the gingko leaves and wonders if Seikichi likes that region’s pastime, too.

That evening as they sit together over roasted beans and sake at Sakai’s, Shinsuke watches the line of Seikichi’s shoulder, thinks about pulling open the neck of his kimono and tracing the sharpness of his collarbone with his fingertips.

He hopes his parents never find a girl with a family desperate enough to marry her off to a crippled third son too dumb to be biddable and too smart to not notice when someone tries. But in the fearsome sobriety of the next morning, he knows that such girls do exist and that eventually his parents will find one. After that arrangement is made, the other demands on him will keep Seikichi locked from his home. No matter if his wife keeps her bed with the children; she will know, and once she does, all the family will. They’ll bar Seikichi from the house and claim to be protecting him from a common prostitute, one who’s two years older than him, no less.

The sense of time running out makes the passing moments shine with his hunger to remember them. Days pass and he neglects his studies, the pamphlet he is meant to be writing, the correspondence that has become embarrassingly late. Keisuke pulls him aside after breakfast one morning and suggests that perhaps a shamisen player who travels for a living should spend more time traveling and less humoring Shinsuke’s whims. Shinsuke agrees and ignores the suggestion.

But later that day Seikichi plays a tune he calls The Last Radish and murmurs, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Shinsuke manages. “Do you-”

Seikichi smiles faintly. “I can’t go on troubling your family. They are already more generous than I can-”

“Sleep with me tonight, before you go.”

Seikichi makes an incoherent noise halfway between choking and shouting.

“I. You’re. I want something to hold on to while you’re gone.” His hands are shaking. Why didn’t he write the whole thing as a speech beforehand so it would be eloquent and convincing instead of the ugly desperation that tripped out of his mouth? Why didn’t he –

Seikichi’s head tilts. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Then you know that it wouldn’t be appropriate. Let your parents find you a wife and ignore me.”

“I don’t want to.”

Seikichi loosens the strings he was just tuning. “You would soon enough. We are friends of the mind only. Not of the body.”

He puts the shamisen away without responding to Shinsuke’s desperate words, stands, walks away. When Shinsuke tries to limp after him he turns back and says, so gently it hurts, “I will accept your generosity and your friendship, but your bed is too much. Excuse me.” He bows as low as if Shinsuke were still a samurai, turns his back, and walks away.

Shinsuke doesn’t have the heart to follow; he feels as though Seikichi has cut open his belly and all the insides have fallen to the dirt.

Shinsuke devotes himself to speechwriting and following political developments in Tokyo despite the delay inherent in remaining in a rural town.

In late summer of Meiji 9 he makes a trip south using money earned in debate association prizes and listens to debates in Sendai, taking notes for the association members unable to come. He tries not to listen to the discussion of the rebellion in Satsuma led by Saigō Takamori, but it’s hard to avoid, with all the talk of Korea that happens in between debates. He’s lucky that his foot keeps him out of the army, otherwise he might be like Chuubei, fighting in the south.

Outside of the public hall is a street of little shops and restaurants. He is about to enter a soba restaurant when he hears the strike and thrum of a shamisen’s strings; he feels as though his heart stops while he turns to see – only a young woman sitting in front of a senbei shop. For a moment he feels sick with the empty longing in his belly, but it passes quickly and he turns his back on the lady musician in favor of dinner.

His parents find him a bride.

Her family is not without money and they are aware of his standing as third son and of his clubbed foot. They want him to marry their daughter anyway.

When he first hears that, Shinsuke asks, only two-thirds seriously, if the girl is simple or just that useless and ugly.

His father beats him a little for that insolence, then beats him again when Shinsuke says he won’t marry her. It doesn’t change his answer.

Keisuke and Ofune have to beg their father not to disown him or send him to a temple. Instead it is decided that he will leave the house and take the old tenant farmhouse on the other side of town. The land is his family’s, so it will not look quite so much like abandonment – just putting a third son aside so that he has some means of his own without burdening the main family line too much.

Shinsuke isn’t happy to leave, but if he’d stayed he would have been disowned. And this way, when Seikichi returns, Shinsuke won’t have to worry like before.

Or, well, he’ll worry differently.

Seikichi doesn’t seem surprised when the season passes and he returns to find Shinsuke in a different house. He sits with grace before the meager fire of Shinsuke’s hearth and does not frown at how poor he has become.

They sit together in the cool of the evening and speak of what they have done in the other’s absence, and Shinsuke’s belly feels full with more than just dinner.

Seikichi makes no mention of their last conversation, so Shinsuke does not, either. Good sense, maybe, but also because Shinsuke now knows what rejection sounds like. That’s what Seikichi gave him, as much as it hurts to admit it.

Seikichi’s visit passes awkwardly, both because of the newness of their surroundings and the echo of Shinsuke’s words thrumming between them.

Seikichi leaves, with more grace on Shinsuke’s part than he quite believed he possessed. The winter passes quiet and snowy, unusually warm. Shinsuke survives on letters exchanged with constitution-drafters in faraway towns too small to find even on the best maps. Their obsession with the prospective role of all future Emperors does not stop him from pausing halfway though writing words, brush hovering in the air as he daydreams of Seikichi kneeling on the floor of his little home, playing a concert for one while Shinsuke fumbles to cook dinner or compose a letter.

He leaves a lot of inkblots on his drafts that way.

After that first awkward visit, things even out between them. Seikichi returns in the spring, escorted into town by the gusting winds of the rain, and promptly comes down with a fever. He spends the following week in Shinsuke’s bed, uninterested in food or moving and giving himself headaches trying to sleep.

Altogether he is there almost a month, longer than Shinsuke’s ever known him to spend in one place before. It’s needlessly, embarrassingly flattering.

When he recovers, Seikichi helps around the house as best he can, leaving Shinsuke free to write, or, more often, work in the field that was given with the house. He stays for another month, paying off a debt Shinsuke would never think to claim, then leaves for the winter once the leaves turn.

This time, though, as he walks out the door, he touches the door frame with the hand not holding his cane and says, like he knows that Shinsuke is watching, “Your generosity is too much and I want very badly to accept it. But it is – it would be selfish of me to accept.”

Shinsuke is suddenly, urgently breathless, belly cold with shock. “If you want them, you should take the things that are offered to you.”

Seikichi doesn’t answer.

Autumn, winter, spring. The buds on the trees are halfway to leaves when Seikichi comes to his door again. His clothes are almost of good enough quality to be called fine, due to, he says, a rich woman with a fondness for the shamisen and a husband willing to pay for her interests.

Shinsuke says nothing of his inner jealousy that screams that the lady cared more for the musician than the music.

Seikichi wanders through the summer, in and out of Shinsuke’s home, and once or twice attends debate society meetings. Mostly he is gone, but an extra yukata and all his winter clothing remain stored in Shinsuke’s closet as a promise of his return.

They have never touched in desire, despite Seikichi’s answer to his confession. Seikichi’s never made any gesture in that direction, and Shinsuke, not knowing if that answer signaled an intention to act, hasn’t made any advances of his own. He doesn’t want to push so hard that Seikichi leaves forever.

That doesn’t mean he can stop thinking, or wanting. He’s happy to have Seikichi’s company, but this unresolved ambiguity is difficult. He wishes Seikichi would make a gesture of some sort.

That autumn, Seikichi returns before the harvest.

He arrives near lunchtime while Shinsuke is talking with Ofune in the genkan.

She sees him before Shinsuke does, and Shinsuke only has the warning of her face darkening before she calls over to Seikichi, “It has been some time, hasn’t it, Yoshida?”

“Quite,” he breathes. His cane sweeps into Shinsuke’s ankle as he comes closer to the doorway, and he bows faintly, absently. Shinsuke thinks about touching him in reassurance but doesn’t. “My belated felicitations upon your marriage, if you can forgive me for not being more prompt.”

“You are forgiven,” she says, but her face and body wear none of the pleasure of her voice.

Seikichi nods, and turns to where Shinsuke is standing beside him. “I hope I have not come at an inconvenient time.”

“No,” Shinsuke says, but Ofune’s expression tightens in a way that makes him worry about what she will report to their family, what she will say when Seikichi has left.

“I think it’s getting late, and my husband is expecting me,” Ofune murmurs. “Excuse me.” She brushes past them on her way towards the road, not meeting Shinsuke’s eyes.

Shinsuke puts it out of his mind – there’s nothing he can do about it now – and enters the house. “Come in,” he tells Seikichi and slips off his geta.

“Your sister is not as fond of me as she once was,” Seikichi remarks, not without gentleness.

Shinsuke thinks of telling the true reason but decides the lie is better. “Her husband has been…”

“Ah.” Seikichi turns his face away. “The troubles of newlyweds. I don’t think I’ll ever know that difficulty, but somehow I feel sorry for her.”

“Don’t.” Shinsuke lets him find his own way into the house and sets to cutting the vegetables he neglected in favor of talking to Ofune.

“Why not?”

“It’s a small problem, that’s all.”

“Ah. I see.” Seikichi folds himself down onto the floor next to the closet and begins to put away the garments that he brought with him.

Shinsuke goes to buy squash from Nakatani since his aren’t ripe yet. When he returns Ofune is sitting on the ledge of the floor, her feet hanging over the edge, her shoes still on.

As Shinsuke makes his way to the door, she stands, brushes her hands off on her kimono, and begins to make her farewells. By the time Shinsuke is within earshot, she is walking away.

“What did you talk about?” he asks.

“Marriage,” Ofune replies shortly. “Excuse me.”

Shinsuke wants to chase after her demanding to know what about marriage, but she’s out the gate before he can think to follow, and his ankle means he has no chance of catching up to her. He goes inside instead.

Seikichi is folding the clean laundry and setting it in piles for putting away. He nods when Shinsuke slips his feet out of his geta, the wood clattering against the floor, and steps into the house proper.

“Marriage?” Shinsuke asks, verging on sarcastic.

“Hers,” Seikichi replies. He doesn’t sound bothered at all.

Shinsuke doesn’t push. He doesn’t really want to know.

The autumn rains come early that year, bringing no warning to tell Seikichi to leave.

He says he doesn’t mind, holding his hand out from under the eaves. “A chance to pass the bad weather warm and in good company.”

“Come back inside and stop letting the heat out. The rain’s too loud for you not to know it’s pouring out.”

Seikichi hums a line of Jonkara bushi and folds his hands into his sleeves. “I’m going for a walk,” he declares finally, gathers his coat and umbrella, and heads out.

When he returns, there’s a trail of raindrops down his back where the umbrella didn’t cover. Seeing it, Shinsuke wants to slide his fingers down that line, catch water on his fingertips, cool on his skin, and drink it away.

He won’t. He doesn’t. Instead he lays his hand on Seikichi’s shoulder, fingers tilted over the fabric edge of his coat, and says, as though he cannot feel Seikichi’s heat through the cloth, “Your coat is wet. Take it off and go sit by the fire.”

Seikichi nods, lets out a breath, reaches up to slip the coat from his shoulders into Shinsuke’s hands. It’s heavy, still warm from Seikichi’s body, and Shinsuke is slow to put it aside.

When he turns back around, Seikichi is looking in his direction – certainly he cannot see far enough to make out Shinsuke’s face – and smiling oddly.

“I didn’t know,” he says gently, “that my coat was so interesting.”

“I’m just slow,” Shinsuke answers, as though he is not stating the obvious, as though there is no other, baser implication to Seikichi’s words. As though they have never been here before, then stepped away so far that Shinsuke spends every night cold in a bed that he refuses to fill.

Seikichi folds his hands in his lap. “Maybe you’re slow. I think that you’re lying.”

Shinsuke doesn’t nod, because Seikichi wouldn’t be able to make it out. Instead he takes the few steps to where Seikichi is seated and folds himself down in front of him, almost close enough for Seikichi to see him clearly, so close that he imagines, despite himself, reaching to close the distance between them.

“I was being slow,” he admits, “but only slow enough to put it away properly.” He wishes he had something clever to add, but he’s no good at poetry and worse at sexual innuendo, and when Seikichi looks at him like that, he forgets even politics.

“I’m grateful, then,” Seikichi says. His hands settle over his thighs, wrinkling the cloth, sober deep blue made black by the shadows of the deepening sky.

For what, Shinsuke doesn’t say. He’s supposed to know, and Seikichi has the memory of his profession.

“I…” he says, lost.

“Give me your hand,” Seikichi says, and holds out his own. So Shinsuke does, without thought, without awareness. Seikichi takes it, holds it. Shuffles closer until he’s near enough that they can watch each other.

“I haven’t forgotten what you said,” he murmurs. “Thought about it some-”

“Years-”

“A lot. It didn’t feel right to accept. When you were supposed to marry someday and throw me away. But you’ve proven over and over that you don’t want to marry and won’t throw me away. So I’ll take what you offered, now.”

Shinsuke clenches his fingers around Seikichi’s hand, the warm roughness of their calluses catching against each other, tight and desperate. “Yes,” he says. “Always. Your space, your warmth, your sound. I need -”

“‘s it all right if I stay the night?” Seikichi asks, so mild that Shinsuke wants to fall into the depths of his voice.

“Yes. Please.” Shinsuke feels a pinch of shame at his eagerness. He ignores it; if he could make a confession at seventeen, then at twenty, having used his fingers to open himself while breathless with thoughts of Seikichi’s body, he has neither excuse nor reason for discomfort.

He turns his hand in Seikichi’s grasp, pulls him gentle-slow that handspan closer in the cooling air. Seikichi follows willingly, lets go of his hand, slips one arm over his shoulder and presses the other palm flat to Shinsuke’s chest, pads of his fingers dipping beneath the edges of the throat of his kimono.

“You smell wonderful,” he murmurs, fingers tracing the edge of the cloth to Shinsuke’s neck, leaning forward to press his lips to the cords of muscle there. Shinsuke breathes and reaches to hold Seikichi’s sides, the worn softness of cotton clothing over heated skin.

“I’ve never smelled you before.”

Seikichi laughs faintly, not so much sound as the pressure of his breath against Shinsuke’s throat, and looks up. This close, they can see each other, and Seikichi watches him with half a smile and warmth in his eyes. “I can promise tonight. After’s up to you.”

Shinsuke clenches his hands in Seikichi’s clothes, strength sinking through the layers to his skin and the ribs below. “Stay,” he says. “It’ll be winter soon, and you won’t be able to travel in the snow. Spend the winter here with me.”

“You have enough food and money?”

Shinsuke nods because he can’t bring himself to lie to Seikichi like this. He’ll make do somehow.

“You’re lying.” But Seikichi’s voice holds no anger and no judgment, and he doesn’t break their gaze. “I’ll bring something for my keep other than my shamisen, my memory, and my prick, then.”

Shinsuke closes his eyes a moment, imagining all the winter spent tangled together in a haze of sweat and desire. His hands slip under the layers of Seikichi’s clothing, to his chest, rest there.

“My house is poor,” he whispers, “but everything in it is open to you.”

Seikichi laughs faintly, leans gently into him, shoves his hand between Shinsuke’s legs, then further back. “Even this?”

Shinsuke lets his head drop, swallows past the rising heat of his body, the sparking of his skin at the pressure of Seikichi’s arm against his growing hardness. “Especially that.”

Seikichi smiles, digs his fingers into the chopped-short fall of hair at the back of Shinsuke’s neck. “Your generosity…”

Shinsuke cuts off whatever he was going to say by using his grasp on Seikichi’s clothing to pull the folds apart, baring skin darkened by summer sun, and below that the pale span of his chest. Seikichi leans away to give him space and reaches behind himself with the hand not firmly buried between Shinsuke’s thighs and unwraps his obi.

It takes a little struggle to strip away most of Seikichi’s clothing, until he’s wearing nothing but his fundoshi and his socks. His fingers have worked their way under the twists of Shinsuke’s fundoshi, fingertips pressed flat against Shinsuke’s opening in promise.

Without quite meaning to, Shinsuke shifts against him, jerks forward when Seikichi’s finger slips dry-sudden into him, and knocks them both to the floor.

“Ow,” Seikichi mumbles into his shoulder. “My wrist.”

“My ass,” Shinsuke retorts.

Seikichi tilts his head slightly. “I’d remind you that it’ll hurt a lot more by the time I’m done with you tonight, but if that hurt…”

“No, that’s not it; I was just surprised.” Which is embarrassing enough.

Seikichi’s eyebrows furrow. “‘ll this be the first time?”

Shinsuke grunts on his way to naked, shedding layers onto the wood floor.

Seikichi breathes out slowly, reaches up to trace the span of Shinsuke’s cheek with his fingertips. “I don’t mind being the first one there, but… it would have been convenient if you had.” Yet his voice thrums in the air the way it does when he sings about the Genji and the Heike, low-pitched and full of pleasure, and the pressure of him against Shinsuke’s hip is newly urgent.

“Don’t care. I said that everything here was yours. All you have to do is take it and then you won’t have to worry anymore.”

Seikichi’s mouth twists, almost a smile. “I’d believe that if it made sense.”

Shinsuke laughs, his hands going to his waist, unwrapping the twists of cloth there as Seikichi lays his hand on Shinsuke’s wrist, following the shape of his movements.

When the cloth is unwrapped enough to drape loose over them, Seikichi shifts his hand forward between Shinsuke’s legs, until it’s folded around him. Shinsuke looks at this place where they join, his reddening thickness bounded by the lines of Seikichi’s fingers. Seikichi’s calluses are rough and almost familiar, almost like Shinsuke’s own, but in the wrong places and smooth before his fingertips. The angle is all wrong, too, and that’s how Shinsuke knows it’s not some deeply pleasant dream that’s going to end before the sex does and he’ll have to dress shivering in the cold while trying to ignore the insistence of his body that he return to bed and finish, if not the dream, then at least the fantasy.

Seikichi’s hand slides over him, heat building in the space between their bodies, all of it filled with emotion and expectation instead of the damp October chill. Soon enough Shinsuke is gasping and tense above him, close to –

“If you could… on the floor,” Seikichi mutters apologetically, and shoves Shinsuke off from above him onto his back on the wood planking.

Shinsuke lies there, gasping and hard and desperate for Seikichi to return, and reaches over to brush his hands along Shinsuke’s ribs as he wrestles out of his fundoshi. The last fold untwists beneath Seikichi’s hands and he casts it aside. His nakedness is different from the unconscious bareness of a hot spring, eye-catching and the focus of all Shinsuke’s attention.

Seikichi is not like the samurai of the woodblock prints, nor even the farmers when they appear – he is large but not ridiculously so, and deep red with arousal. Shinsuke can’t imagine why an artist would exaggerate so much, when the reality gives him hunger enough.

Seikichi elbows Shinsuke’s hand away from the jut of his hip – admittedly it has a lower destination – and hisses, “Oil, if you could.”

Shinsuke sits up – he has a brief flash of thought, at the pressure beneath him, wondering what Seikichi will feel like – and clambers across the floor to kneel in front of the chest in the corner.

While he’s searching – he had no idea the chest was such a mess – Seikichi finishes undressing and follows the sound of his movements, pressing close to his back, wrapping his arms around Shinsuke’s waist. He’s making it harder for Shinsuke to find the jar, but Shinsuke doesn’t say anything; the heat of skin together and the sensation of Seikichi’s arousal against his inner thigh is so immediate it stops all the words on his tongue.

It doesn’t take him much longer to find the bottle. By that point Seikichi is kneeling behind him, flush to his back, kissing his shoulders and neck. Murmuring obscenities that Shinsuke can’t quite make out but what he can hear is making him even harder than he already is, so desperate he’s halfway to giving up and accepting the consequences.

Seikichi doesn’t give him the chance, sliding his hand down Shinsuke’s arm, over the back of his hand. Folds over him and takes the bottle from his grasp, reaching around Shinsuke to open it. Dips his fingers in and smiles against Shinsuke’s shoulder.

“What did you use the missing part for?”

Shinsuke can’t bring himself to say Try to fuck myself thinking of you on top of me, so he doesn’t say anything. The air smells like sesame, rich and thick, and he swallows.

Somehow Seikichi knows what he’s thinking, or guesses from something in his body, because he breathes heavily once against Shinsuke’s neck and says, “I. Wasn’t expecting that.”

“Should’ve been. I meant it when I said I wanted to be had by you.” He doesn’t react much when Seikichi’s hands fall between their bodies, but he can’t stop the flex of his muscles as Seikichi opens him, slowly enough to be only uncomfortable instead of painful.

Seikichi coaxes him away from the chest, onto his hands and knees on the floor, fits their bodies together. Apologizes and curses as he pushes in and Shinsuke hisses, tightening and rocking forward, trying to pull away.

“I thought you wanted this.”

“I do. But there’s a difference between my fingers and your-”

Seikichi shuts him up by letting go of his hip and instead reaching for him. Gentle, nice, no good at distracting him from how Seikichi is leaning forward, little thrusts edging him slowly deeper inside. It’s uncomfortable, though not painful, and doesn’t feel anything like fingers, which he’s more used to – not small or agile, just heat, his body stretching to accommodate Seikichi inside him.

Shinsuke tries to concentrate on Seikichi’s hand instead.

Eventually Seikichi moans against his back, something incoherent that might be Shinsuke’s name but could just as easily be anything else, thrusts into him twice or thrice more, and comes.

Shinsuke waits through Seikichi’s pause to get his breath back, then folds his hand over Seikichi’s where his own pleasure has been left aside. Strokes, closes his eyes as Seikichi belatedly joins him, and lets himself be undone.

Afterwards, he collapses onto his belly on the floor, Seikichi rolling off him but still close enough to lie with their shoulders and hands touching.

Seikichi strokes the back of his hand. “You all right?”

“I need a bath and I’m lying on the floor with come inside as well as on me. Other than that I’m…” A breath to think. “All right with more later.” He can talk about the specifics, like wanting to be able to watch Seikichi’s face, next time.

The apple trees in the orchards grow leaves and then flowers, and as the season warms Seikichi goes traveling again. Shinsuke watches him as he walks away down the road before bending back down to the soil, thinking that the weather can’t get cold soon enough.

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