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"Congratulations, Mikawa, on your promotion."

Yuuri felt the last of the hair pieces slide into his perfectly coiffed hairdo. He raised his gaze slowly to the mirror, his head weighted down by far too many ornaments, shimmering as they danced in the candlelight. Someone he didn't recognize stared back at him: beautiful, elegant, and sharp around the edges.

Equivalent to his rank, a female oiran[1] would have had an elaborate procession and a party thrown in her honor. Yoshiwara would awaken, its lowlife denizens crawling out of the woodwork to join in the festivities, dancing with the geisha and drinking the night away. It was different for male courtesans: less grand, less ceremonious. A quiet ascension fit Yuuri's preferences to the tee; he was content to rise in obscurity, rather than be paraded around and judged by ravenous eyes – men who were too keen for a taste of the latest merchandise.

"From henceforth, you shall be named Aoyagi." The tremulous voice brimmed with pride. "Aoyagi of the great teahouse of En[2]."

"Aoyagi," he repeated softly.

Names, names, names. There were times when he had almost forgotten his own.

 


 

Over layers upon layers of fabric, he was wearing pale blue robes of the finest silk, embroidered with a design of spirals and chrysanthemums over layers of fabric, and secured by a silver sash that cascaded gracefully down his front. His skin, delicately powdered, was white as snow, contrasting with red, red lips and molten eyes that singed the soul of any who dared to gaze upon his visage. Slowly, he drifted to the head of the table and sank down onto the cushion, gold hair ornaments swaying as daintily as the leaves of a wisteria tree.

Viktor swallowed, his mouth going bone-dry.

The courtesan was a vision.

Although the elderly teahouse owner bowed upon his arrival, the man's only movement was to wrap his lips around the end of a long, red pipe, long eyelashes sweeping down, low and scrutinizing.

"I am most honored to present to you, Aoyagi of En."

"Sold," Christophe breathed, far too eagerly. "How much is he worth?"

There was a pause, as their translator dutifully posed the question to the owner.

The courtesan's white teeth clacked against the pipe in a razor-sharp smile, keen as a shark on the prowl. It was he who responded, soft and delicate and airy, while his owner nodded in agreement.

"I am very sorry, Sir." The translator lowered his head. "Aoyagi says he will first decide your worth."

Viktor watched as his best friend sat back on his heels. He could tell Christophe was surprised. The stories they had heard of the infamous Yoshiwara told tales of shy young boys who gave themselves openly to older men, ranging from the noble elite right down to God-fearing monks. It was the only reason they were in the teahouse of En, after all, calling upon the most sought after male courtesan – a rarity, even in Edo.

"Ask him what that entails," Christophe said after a moment of thought.

"Chris," Viktor said sharply, but the translator was already conveying the message.

Painted corners of the courtesan's eyes crinkled as he lowered the pipe and chuckled, wisps of smoke floating into the air above him. Again, he whispered a few words to the translator, before setting the pipe back between his teeth and drawing in a long breath, chest rising. Viktor wondered how a man so wrapped and bundled in layers of cloth could be so torturously sensuous.

"He says this very meeting is the basis for his evaluation."

"Fascinating," said Christophe, grinning. "Dare I ask how I'm doing so far?"

As the translator turned once more, Viktor returned his gaze to the courtesan. The man was idly fingering the length of his pipe as he listened to the translator's words. Despite his soft features, there was a sharpness to him, an edge, as though life had him honed into a beautiful, double-edged sword. Viktor felt his insides churn; buried under all those luxurious robes was a young man who probably never knew a world beyond the red lights of Yoshiwara.

And then, suddenly, the courtesan's eyes flickered over to meet his.

He felt it instantly: a bolt that shot straight down his spine and all the way to his toes. Heat rose and twisted in his stomach, and he bit down, hard, on his bottom lip. No, no, no. He was only in attendance to accompany Christophe – no more, no less. Besides, the money he brought on this trip was hardly enough for a courtesan of such value. He would have been in Hakodate by now, assisting in the building of the Russian consul with Yakov, if his ship hadn't run into problems near Edo's port.[3] The old man would have his head for ruining Russo-Japan relations because of some hedonistic romp in the sheets.

But Viktor could not turn away. And neither, it seemed, could the courtesan, who kept his stare on Viktor, steady and even, smoke flowing languidly out the corner of his perfect, bow lips. Something unreadable flitted across the man's expression, too fast to catch, and then the owner spoke up, breaking the silence and pulling the courtesan's gaze to her.

Viktor fought to reel in the surge of disappointment, shrugging nonchalantly when Christophe eyed him with an arched eyebrow.

"The owner says it may be too soon for Aoyagi to pass judgment," the translator told them. "She says—"

"No," the courtesan interjected in English, and a ripple of surprise ran through the room. He removed the pipe, mouth quirking in a smile that was hard and soft all at once.

"I like him," he said softly, gesturing at Viktor, the edge of his sleeve slipping to expose more skin beyond the delicate wrist.

Christophe looked a little too gleeful despite the courtesan's rejection.

 


 

"You're out of your mind, Chris."

"C'mon, once in a lifetime, Viktor. Do it for me."

"I've never - not with a - a courtesan."

"This, from the man who's had more sexual partners than I can count on my fingers. Probably my toes, even."

"That's different. Look, even if I agreed, I don't have the money—"

"And I'm telling you, I'm willing to pay. Delighted to pay, in fact. I mean, look at him. They don't make men like that in Russia, do they?"

Viktor broke off their whispered conference, glancing through a gap between the paper doors. The courtesan's beauty shone in the dimly lit room, divine and ethereal. He was taking another long drag of his pipe while gazing out the window with half-lidded eyes, seemingly unfazed that Viktor had hastily yanked Christophe out of the room for a private discussion.

"No." Viktor let out a shaky breath. "No, they don't."

"It's settled then," Christophe exclaimed, wrapping an arm round Viktor's shoulders and steering him forcefully back into the room. The teahouse owner and translator swiftly shifted to face them, but the courtesan remained where he was, head still turned toward the window.

"Have you made up your mind, Sirs?" The translator flashed a nervous smile. "The owner says Aoyagi doesn't like to be kept waiting…"

Viktor glanced over at the courtesan once more, who appeared entirely disinterested in the conversation. He wondered how much of the owner's words actually reflected the courtesan's.

"We do apologize, but Viktor here was simply too anxious about spending the night with a resplendent beauty like Aoyagi," Christophe drawled. He clapped his hands and rubbed them fervently together. "Now, where is he to go?"

It was only upon hearing the translation that the courtesan turned, ornaments glinting. He exhaled, smoke wafting, before offering a quiet response to the translator.

"Aoyagi says tonight is only the first meeting. He will entertain your friend tomorrow."

At the word 'entertain', the courtesan caught Viktor's eye, and a smirk spread lazily, sultrily, across the delicate features. Viktor inhaled through his nose. Pushing and pulling; this man was playing him with the expertise and brilliance of a master chess player. And it was more of a turn-on than Viktor would care to admit.

"Tomorrow it is." Christophe affirmed, while the owner rose to her feet.

The last Viktor saw of the room was the owner bowing as low as she could go, and the courtesan watching them leave, eyes sizzling with a fire that scorched his insides.

"I am sorry, Sirs," the translator whispered frantically as they left the teahouse. Back hunching, he performed an odd little scurry in an effort to match the long strides of his foreign clients. "In Yoshiwara, a courtesan of Aoyagi's rank is of higher status than a daimyo, a feudal lord. He does not intend to offend."

"Nonsense, no offense taken," Christophe said breezily. "Isn't that right, Viktor?"

Viktor recalled the long eyelashes, the soft red lips, the heated eyes.

"No offense at all."

 


 

Beautiful. The foreigner was beautiful.

Yuuri removed the hair ornaments, piece by piece, until dark hair cascaded over his shoulders like a waterfall. He has had many foreign clients since the opening of Edo's port, but none compared to this man's radiance, with his silvery hair, piercing blue eyes, and lithe frame beneath the western garments.

If he were to be perfectly honest, his blond-haired friend was also attractive, enticing in a way that reminded Yuuri of a wild stallion rearing in the air, its dark mane and rippling muscles spelling out sex in neon letters. He might have had fun with that one, oh yes.

But Yuuri saw warmth in the blue eyes – the kind of warmth a person in his trade could rarely hope to find, no matter how hard he looked.

His name... Viktor, was it?

"Well done, Aoyagi," the owner said. He could see her reflection in the mirror, her wrinkled face alight with approval. "Having a foreigner like that as a regular patron will surely increase your popularity. Make sure you leave him wanting more."

"I always do," said Yuuri.

 


 

When the owner sank to her knees and slid open the paper doors, Viktor felt his breath catch in his throat.

The room was large and decadent, filled with gold screens of delicately painted landscapes, polished chests lacquered with gold leaves, and the painting of a rising dragon across the length of a wall. Right in the center, beside white bedding and a tray of drinks, sat Aoyagi, resting on his heels and looking for all the world like a living, breathing doll. Gone was the white powder, but his eyes were still painted at the corners, his lips still a crimson red. His outer robes had changed into an exuberant yellow, a pattern of waves and goldfishes trailing round and round the bright material. The sash was black tonight, folded neatly and hanging over his lap.

"Come," Aoyagi called in English, rich with his melodic accent. "Drink with me."

Transfixed, Viktor obeyed, sinking down into the spot next to the courtesan. "Is this a custom?" he asked, as the Japanese tipped a red kettle over small sake cups.

Aoyagi set the kettle down and tilted his head, ornaments swaying. His face took on a puzzled expression, eyes widening, and suddenly, he was a picture of innocence – a stark contrast to his lascivious behavior the night before, but no less beautiful. "What is a 'custom'?"

Viktor smiled. "Something you follow, like a practice, or a habit."

"I see." The courtesan returned the smile, his face glowing like the last traces of a setting sun. "Yes, it is a custom."

Heat rose to Viktor's cheeks. What was happening to him? He has had his fair share of partners in his lifetime, both male and female; the ogling and unchecked yearning was incomprehensible for a person of his experience.

"Drink," Aoyagi said then, soft but commanding, lifting a cup.

And Viktor drank, eyes falling to the courtesan's lips, as it parted ever so slightly, brushing against the edge of the sake cup. He watched the bob of the slender throat; the marking of the red, red rouge that turned into a smudge on the cup's surface, faint and pink. Ahh, he was so desperately and fatally lost.

"More?" Aoyagi asked, tapping the kettle.

"How many should we have?" Viktor inhaled deeply. Aoyagi's penetrating gaze was dizzying enough.

"Three." Dark eyelashes lowered, spreading like a fan. "Then as many times as you want."

The double entendre lingered in the air. Trembling, Viktor knocked back another round of sakeIncomprehensible. It could be the exotic, new culture, or maybe the ambience, with flickering candles casting shadows about the lavish room and across Aoyagi's mesmerizing eyes. Or perhaps it was the courtesan's unique androgynous beauty, soft and strong and so, so alluring.

Whatever the reason, when Aoyagi pressed into him after the third drink and ghosted a whisper of shall we? against his ear, he murmured an immediate yes, low and husky.

It was Aoyagi who kissed him first.

The courtesan tasted of tobacco and sake and something overwhelmingly, intangibly sweet. Hands slid up his neck, tangling into his hair, and Viktor exhaled, a rush of air through his nose. Framing Aoyagi's small face with one hand, he tipped his head and deepened kiss, just a little, lowering them gently to the bedding with his other hand. He wanted to be gentle, to treat the man right, so he was in no hurry – pressing and tangling his tongue against Aoyagi's in a warm, languid desire, like the simmering embers of a campfire.

Aoyagi's fingers dropped to his buttons then, before Viktor shrugged off his jacket with the help of those same deft hands, careful not to break their kiss for longer than a second. Next was the tie, and the shirt, and then Viktor shifted down to suck beneath the pale throat, pulling skin between teeth and drawing out a soft sigh. (Intoxicating; Aoyagi was intoxicating.) He dipped his fingers to the sash, fumbling about to find a knot, a fastener – something that was keeping the damn thing on…

Aoyagi laughed above him. "Want help?"

"Yes," Viktor rasped. He surged up to recapture the courtesan's mouth and steal the responding giggle. With each kiss, the ashy, bitter combination of smoke and sake faded, bringing out the indescribable sweetness that was Aoyagi, as heady and titillating as a drug. 

Viktor was hooked.

When he pulled away, Aoyagi had his sash undone, the fabric pooling onto white sheets. With it, heavy layers of cloth loosened, slithering off to reveal smooth skin and muscle, inch by inch by inch. And his eyes rose up to meet Aoyagi's, taking in the wide pupils blown out with desire, the sweep of dark eyelashes, the pink flush on fair cheeks.

"Wow," Viktor whispered, a reverent prayer. "You're gorgeous."

Aoyagi's lips curved, eyelashes dipping in a coy smile.

Right there, Viktor felt a gush of want, sinking and coiling deep in his gut. He kissed Aoyagi again, messily, sloppily, while his hands smoothed up soft thighs to squeeze the curves of a bare –

Viktor broke away, lips pulling apart with a pop.

"You're not wearing underwear," he realized with a start. And then, voice dropping, "So the entire time last night—"

"It is a custom," Aoyagi said, breathless.

"Ah, god," Viktor groaned, dropping his forehead into Aoyagi's shoulder. Aoyagi's intense eyes and flirtatious overtures, the press of skin against heated skin – any of those on their own had him hovering at the precipice of madness. The added revelation of the courtesan watching him with leaded eyelids, all the while naked under those layers, had driven him clear over the edge. So much for taking it slow. "I don't think I can… is it okay if I…?"

"I don't understand," Aoyagi mumbled.

Viktor inhaled. "I want you. To be in you. Now."

"Oh," Aoyagi breathed. "Oh, yes."

Viktor pressed a kiss on Aoyagi's shoulder, tightening his grip on bare thighs. "Then tell me where the oil[4] is."

There's a beat, which prompted Viktor to lift his gaze, just in time to catch Aoyagi's wide-eyed look of surprise. And then the courtesan let out a huff of laughter.

"No oil here," he said.

Viktor frowned. "But—"

Aoyagi's fingers rested on his wrist and guided his hand down. This time, it was Viktor's turn to be taken aback, as he felt the slick wetness in and around Aoyagi's entrance. Obviously, the courtesan had prepared himself before their encounter. His gaze snapped up, trying to read the expression on Aoyagi's face, but the smile was devoid of all emotion.

"Clients don't use oil," the courtesan told him.

Viktor's heart wrenched.

No one deserved that. No one. Especially not Aoyagi. Laid bare and flushed on the sheets, legs spread wide, he looked as exquisitely fragile as Venetian glass - a far cry from the provocative minx the night before.

Viktor dropped a feathery kiss on the courtesan's lips. "Do you want to keep going? Because if you don't, we can always—"

Aoyagi's hazy eyes seared deep into him, "I want you in me."

God, he took it back: the minx was still very much in there.

"Okay, all right." Viktor breathed in deeply, steadying the pounding in his ears, before grazing a thumb across Aoyagi's rim. "Just, tell me if it hurts, okay?" 

"Yes," Aoyagi moaned.

Viktor wasn't sure if the response was referring to his question or his ministrations, but he pressed his forefinger in anyway, slowly, pulling out and pushing back in. Aoyagi let out mewls and whimpers, shivering encouragingly, so he added a second finger, and then a third. With each addition, he rolled them in. Curled and scissored, relishing in Aoyagi's writhing beneath him. He took his time – plunging in at different angles, listening to the breathy gasps that tumbled out the courtesan's lips.

And then he found it: the sweet spot that had Aoyagi arch into him, teeth sinking into his lower lip.

He pressed in again; a quick confirmation. Smirked with satisfaction when Aoyagi's head flew back, eyes screwing shut.

Pulling out, he latched onto the low end of the exposed throat and sucked—"Ah," Aoyagi cried—as his fingers worked open his belt and pants, thumb slipping under the waistband of his underwear to shove both articles beneath his ass.

Even with Aoyagi prepared, Viktor didn't want to rush things.

He rubbed his cock around Aoyagi's entrance first, before he wormed it in, slow and soft. Once he had the head of his cock inside, he pulled out and thrust in again, gently, gauging Aoyagi's expression. A slight wrinkle of the nose, but no hard twist of pain. And already, Aoyagi was jolting his hips up with whimpers of frustration.

"Patience," he whispered, holding Aoyagi steady, pressing a smile into the racing pulse on Aoyagi's throat. It was as though all the power the courtesan held over him the night before had flipped like a metal coin. He continued his slow rocking, sinking deeper, further, to the lilted cries of, more; please, more, until finally, finally, he was buried deep inside, surrounded by Aoyagi's velvet heat.

It felt so, so good.

"Is this okay?" he said, breath stuttering against Aoyagi's neck.

"Please, faster," Aoyagi sobbed, "Harder—"

Ah, fuck. Any more of that, and he was sure to lose his sanity and hurt the courtesan in the process. Viktor leaned up to cover his mouth over Aoyagi's, swallowing the soft pleas. Pulled back out and rolled in again, taking care to keep his thrusts slow and measured, angled just right. It was hard. So damn hard. He wanted to hook his arms beneath Aoyagi's knees and fuck in; take heed of Aoyagi's wishes and roll his hips faster, harder; ruin him, utterly and thoroughly. But Aoyagi was the stained glass of a church window – too precious, too fragile. Against his mouth, Aoyagi mumbled words he couldn't understand, but Viktor focused on the gentle, steady rhythm, the tight burn around his cock.

And gods, the sounds, the sounds Aoyagi was making… The courtesan had started with quiet, dignified noises, restrained moans trickling out from his throat like water in a gentle stream, but with each press into his prostate, he grew louder, so much louder, and Viktor took pride in knowing that he was the one to remove Aoyagi's inhibitions – to make him feel this good.

"Mhh, your voice… you're doing so well with your voice," Viktor panted, mouthing sloppily at Aoyagi's jaw. He skittered one hand around the smooth naval, and pinned a slender wrist into the sheets with the other.

Maybe, if he played the courtesan right, he could even make him scream.

"Ahh," Aoyagi choked, bucking up as Viktor gripped his cock then, stroking in time to his thrusts.

"I want to hear more," Viktor breathed, hot against the courtesan's ear. "I want the whole teahouse to hear you."

"I can't – " Aoyagi broke off, shuddering, as Viktor rolled, again, into his prostate. "It's not – "

"Not the custom?" Viktor kissed Aoyagi wetly, before the courtesan mewled a stuttered y-yes into his mouth; so sweet, so hot. "All these, ah, these customs…" He kept pumping the hot length in his hand; kept rocking forward, maddeningly slow, feeling Aoyagi keen and shake under him. No underwear, no oil, and even a restriction on the sounds he could make. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.

"Once," Viktor whispered raggedly. His vision was spotting now, white, and then dark. He was used to a hard fuck, skin on skin, pounding into his partner until their voices rubbed raw from screaming. The measured slowness was unraveling him in a whole different manner, driving him closer and closer to the edge with an achingly slow burn. Releasing Aoyagi's wrist, he slid the hand down, flitting teasingly across bare skin, to grip the man's hips. "Let me hear you once, when you come."

Aoyagi's eyelids fluttered. The flush on his cheeks had spread to his neck and across his chest, as exquisite as the faded ink of a straw blown painting. He arched against another thrust, raking his nails down Viktor's back, "I, ahh, I, I'm – "

He hadn't said yes.

But he hadn't said no.

"Sing for me," Viktor crooned, stroking up and twisting his thumb just so at the head of Aoyagi's cock.

And, oh, he did, so beautifully, spilling hot and white over Viktor's hand, his voice ringing in Viktor's ears like a nightingale.

One thrust, two, and Viktor followed soon after, sinking his forehead into Aoyagi's neck, fingers trembling as they dug deeper into soft skin.

As the last wave of his orgasm ebbed away, he collapsed bonelessly onto Aoyagi, his cock still softening inside the courtesan. Aoyagi's hands carded through his hair, ruffling the silver strands almost absently like he would a puppy - a lulling sensation that had Viktor close his eyes with a sigh of content. For a long while, they laid motionless, pressed into each other, bodies slick with sweat and exertion.

Eventually, Viktor forced himself to move, muscles groaning. It was tempting to stay like this, but they were sure to regret that decision in the morning. He pulled out of Aoyagi slowly, breath hitching as he watched his cum seep out, staining the sheets—

He shook his head violently. Focus, Nikiforov.

"Do you have linen, or spare cloth, or uh…" At the courtesan's baffled expression, Viktor sighed. "No, I guess not."

Aoyagi offered him a soft smile, softer than any he had seen thus far, before reaching a hand into the robes under him. "Here," he said, tugging out a handkerchief. It was made of cotton, decorated with an embroidery of lilies.

Taking the handkerchief, Viktor wiped them both, soft and gentle. He could feel Aoyagi's gaze on him, questioning, and again he felt his heart clench painfully in his chest. Had no one treated this young man with kindness, or any semblance of respect?

"Thank you," Aoyagi said, after Viktor tossed the handkerchief aside and sank back down to wrap his arms around the smaller man.

"You're welcome," Viktor mumbled, pressing his lips on Aoyagi's temple.

They fell asleep with their limbs tangled together, Aoyagi's head resting on his arm.

 


 

When Viktor's eyes opened again, it was dark; the candle wax long melted, and the warm weight on his arm gone. In his sleep, Aoyagi had rolled onto his back, his neck stretched over a thin headrest. The position looked distinctly uncomfortable, but it kept the courtesan's hairstyle intact, complete with all the dangling ornaments.

Quietly, Viktor yanked up his pants and underwear, before sliding his shirt on, not bothering with the buttons. He strode over to settle on the window ledge, one foot resting on the edge. In the garden outside stood a cherry tree, swaying lightly over a small pond, its pink flowers in full bloom. Sounds of merriment rang out beyond the garden walls: loud, raucous laughter, punctuated by girlish tittering. It felt like a world that existed in a landscape of fantasies and dreams – a "floating world" of extravagance and pleasure, removed from the humdrum of everyday obligation.

But it wasn't all joy and happiness, was it? Not for the residents who were trapped within its confines, forced to submit to its whims and fancies; residents like Aoyagi. What ill fate could have brought a delicate beauty like Aoyagi to Yoshiwara? What kind of life had he led, to have honed the subtle way he moved his eyes, his lips, his hips? Who was he under the image of the fierce enchanter? The glowing smile at the start of the night had hinted of something hidden beneath the veil, a sweet innocence that was no less captivating than the mask of seduction.

Could Aoyagi have been different, if he never knew the life of courtesan?

As if he heard Viktor's thoughts, Aoyagi stirred beneath the heavy blankets. Realizing that Viktor was awake, he rose, the covers slipping off and exposing the curve of his body.

Viktor's eyes roamed the lean form, before they locked on the base of Aoyagi's throat, where small bruises stood clear and visible against fair skin – signs of their passion mere hours ago. He breathed, chest rising in a hard inhale, before averting his gaze. A part of Viktor felt almost ashamed; in a stupor of desire, he had given in and claimed Aoyagi, just as other men had used him to fulfill their own lustful hunger. "It's still early," he chided. "Go back to sleep."

"Mm, no..." Viktor turned back to Aoyagi, who was blinking slowly, his voice still rough from sleep. "I must wake when you wake."

So many customs, but none where they were important.

"I'm sorry," Viktor said, returning to the bedding and sitting by the courtesan. Reaching for his jacket, he draped it across the man's shoulders, pulling the front ends together so it covered the bare chest. "I have much to learn about your customs."

Aoyagi blinked again. He looked down at his concealed front with some wonder, before his eyes flickered back up, narrowing. Beautiful even in his confusion. "Why do you say sorry?"

"Because I—"

Because I want to protect you.

Viktor bit his lower lip. The thought was so spontaneous and inexplicable that he was unprepared for the sudden awareness that yes, yes, something about Aoyagi made him want to protect the courtesan; cup Aoyagi in his hands and shield him from the pain and ugliness of the world. But it was too soon and too strange to say that to a person he hardly knew. So, instead, he took Aoyagi's hand in his, squeezing it gently. "Since we're both up, let's talk."

"Talk?" said Aoyagi, as though the very idea was foreign to his ears.

"Yes."

Silence fell as the courtesan studied him with an intense gaze, lips pursed together in a thin line, while Viktor met the gaze with a steady, unfaltering one of his own. And then, Aoyagi's face softened, and he nodded once, appearing to have found what he was looking for. "Okay," he conceded. "Let's talk."

"All right," Viktor exhaled, relieved to have passed the unspoken test. "How did you learn English?"

"When Edo opened, I have… new clients." Aoyagi's eyebrows furrowed together as he struggled to find the words. "No talk, like this," he gestured between them, "But they talk. I listen."

"I see," Viktor said quietly, rubbing circles into Aoyagi's hand. Of course, the language was learned as another trick of the trade. Any courtesan of Aoyagi's rank and experience would have picked it up as rapidly as they could. He could only imagine which words Aoyagi must have learned first. "Are you from Edo?"

"No, from ah…" Again, the courtesan floundered in his search for the right words. "From down," he concluded, pointing downwards with both index fingers.

"From the south?" Viktor clarified, lips quirking into a lopsided grin. He couldn't help but find the courtesan's efforts sweet and oh-so-cute. Another piece of Aoyagi that Viktor wanted to hold and treasure for as long as he could.

"Yes, south," Aoyagi said, looking pleased that Viktor had caught on.

"You're a long way from home," Viktor said empathetically.

The light in Aoyagi's face dimmed, but he moved on swiftly, far too hastily. "Where are you from?"

"Russia," Viktor replied. Home seemed to be a touchy subject for the courtesan, so he chose not to pursue it. For now. "Saint Petersburg, to be precise."

"Russia," Aoyagi said, sounding his 'u' into a rounder 'o'.

"Yes," said Viktor, chest swirling with warmth. It felt good to hear Aoyagi speak the name of his country. "I shouldn't be here, honestly, but our ship sprung a leak and had to dock in Edo for repairs on our way from—" He stopped at the quizzical expression on the courtesan's face. "Sorry, was that hard to understand?"

Aoyagi nodded, ornaments bobbing with the motion. Then, softly, "Is Russia nice?"

"Very nice," Viktor chuckled. Carefully, he selected words that he thought might be simple enough for Aoyagi to pick up. "Colorful buildings, warm people, and the water in Saint Petersburg, oh, the water. If you go to the docks at just the right time, at just the right moment, you can catch the sunset turning the clouds and water into a pretty shade of orange and red."

"That is… very nice."

Aoyagi's lips parted in a sigh, and for a brief second, Viktor saw a wistful expression beneath the fine-edged veneer – fleeting and transient as a cherry blossom in bloom. There was so much unspoken that Viktor wanted, now more than ever, to take the man with him. Bring him home and far away from this glittering world of luxury and waste.

"Aoyagi," Viktor said, but something about the name caused the mask to slide back, and the courtesan was smiling again, eyelids lowering to half-mast.

"Sleep," said Aoyagi, tugging his hand out from Viktor's. It was an order, sharp and clear as a bell. "We must wake early."

Viktor reluctantly obeyed, knowing that the conversation had reached its end, but sleep didn't come easily for him. He spent much of the early morning gazing up at the ceiling, haunted by the pensive voice, the deep melancholy etched in the lines of Aoyagi's flawless face. 

 


 

"So?" The owner sounded impatient. She hovered behind him, hands wringing over her sash. "Is he coming back, or not?"

"I don't know," Yuuri said, pressing his lips on a thin sheet of paper and removing his rouge. What was left of it, anyway. "He leaves for Hakodate in three days."

The owner's voice rose in pitch, "And you didn't think to persuade him?"

It would've been so easy. I'll miss youI'll be waiting, and of course, smoothed and sweetened with honey: please stay with me. He had staged the same saccharine performance for countless men, each one met with such rousing success that he began to tack on an encore piece to the tune of I'll see you in my dreams tonight.

But Viktor was… different.

Yuuri's eyes flickered to the handkerchief that lay balled up at the edge of his cosmetics counter. No man had ever asked for a lubricant, or asked him to freely express his pleasure, or cleaned him after they were spent. No man had taken him with such tenderness, either, as though he was a priceless treasure – someone worth more than he deserved to be.

"It didn't feel right to deceive him," he murmured.

"Right? Right? My dear, your very existence centers on deception!" The owner hurled her arms up into the air. "I knew we should've gone for the other one. He was a lot more eager; that one would've gladly stayed for you."

"I don't like the eager ones," Yuuri said serenely.

"You are a fool," the old lady huffed. "I will have you know that Lord Matsudaira is still very keen on you, despite your impudence on his last visit."

Yuuri crushed the rouge-stained paper in his hand. "Lord Matsudaira is an arrogant, possessive man-child who cannot stand the thought of not having his way."

"Lord Matsudaira is a daimyo of significant wealth and status!" the owner gasped, hands flying to her mouth.

"What does that matter? I'm a man, so he can't offer me marriage."

"And what of En? Have you considered the reputation it would bring to this teahouse if you had him as a najimi[5]?"

"Not to worry," Yuuri said wryly, "I'm sure the honorable teahouse of En will soon have another perverted old fart gracing its doorstep."

The owner's face turned into several variants of purple and red, before she spun around and stormed out of his private quarters.

His gaze wandered over to the handkerchief.

Colorful buildings, warm people, and sunsets in Saint Petersburg.

Somewhere, somehow, Viktor had managed to put a crack in his perfect mask; stirred up feelings and memories he buried so deep he thought they were lost eons ago. If the Russian hadn't called him by that name…

Yuuri sighed heavily.

Normally, he wouldn't allow a first-time client to kiss him goodbye, but Viktor's request was so sweet and genuine that his tongue had formed around a yes before his mind could stop him. Even the kiss itself thrummed of something beyond desire, something bordering on the forbidden. The last time two foolish courtesans dared to entertain such feelings, dared to dream, one had lost a finger to a jealous client, while another took his own life in a tragic double suicide with his lover[6].

Besides, who could say any of this was real? Perhaps Russian men were better chess players than their Japanese counterparts; perhaps they knew how to use words to win the hearts of lonely prostitutes by making them believe that maybe, just maybe, they could actually be loved by another. 

Despite the owner's wish for Viktor's return—as much as Yuuri's stomach clenched at the thought—it would be best if he never did.

Yuuri ran a finger over his lips.

This was why talking was so dangerous.

 


 

Christophe was being singularly annoying. His best friend stuck to him like a barnacle, prodding at him for details, and teasing him about how every Nikiforov admirer must be crying in their sleep right now. Viktor couldn't kick him out, not when he was the one staying in his friend's luxurious Edo residence, eating the man's food and sharing the man's bed, with its decadently plush mattress and satin sheets. (As the son of a wealthy business tycoon, Christophe had a great deal of disposable income, despite his romantic decision to "live the life of a destitute writer".) So Viktor ignored the Swiss instead, focused on reading the reports he received on the development of the Russian consulate in Hokkaido.

"Was he as good as they say he is?" Christophe plopped onto the edge of the study desk, tugging the peppermint stick out of his mouth with a loud 'pop'. Viktor's jaw clenched; the noise was more aggravating than he expected. "I've been interviewing folks and collecting notes on Yoshiwara for, you know, writing purposes. And people have lots of things to say about him."

"Not now, Chris."

"A British naval officer said he moans soft and breathy, like a woman."

"Chris."

"And that he's really good with his mouth, but only if he likes you."

"I'm really not in the mood for—"

"A French merchant also told me that when he's on top, he rides them until they go positively mad with—"

Viktor whirled on him. "Aoyagi is not an object for your raunchy fantasies," he snapped.

Startled, Christophe paused, the candy hovering near reddened lips. "Sorry, but he is a courtesan," he said, recovering quickly. "I'd imagine raunchy fantasies are a major part of his trade."

"I know, I just – I think he's – " Viktor scrubbed his face with his hands. Lack of sleep and frustration were a lethal combination against his ability to form proper sentences. "I don't like how he's treated in there, like some clipped bird in a cage, like some thing for people to use however they wish. They have him parading around practically naked under all those clothes, but they don't give him oil to ease the pain. They won't even let him express himself during sex. That's no way to treat a human being."

"He's naked under those robes?" Christophe said, mouth falling open.

Viktor shot him a flat stare.

"Right, right, not the point." Christophe popped the sweet back into his mouth, shrugging his shoulders in a sensual roll. "I hate to break it to you, my naïve little friend, but that's the life of a prostitute. At least Aoyagi gets to choose his clients," he pointed out. "Most whores don't even—"

"Don't call him that," Viktor hissed, the temperature of his voice dropping below freezing point.

He could tell in Christophe's expression that his friend knew, right then and there. They had known each other for too long to miss something quite so transparent.

"Jesus, Viktor," Christophe murmured around the peppermint. "Don't do this to yourself."

"Do what," Viktor said brusquely, making a great show of shuffling his documents on the desk.

"You know what I'm talking about," Christophe sighed. Another infuriating 'pop'. "I know you. When you fall, you fall hard. Pain and heartache and tearstained letters of Chris, I can't live anymore kind of hard. But this? This is a whole new level. Like jumping off a cliff and hoping you'll fly."

Viktor closed his eyes, breathing evenly. He knew it was madness. He and Aoyagi lived, quite literally, in two different worlds. He also knew nothing about Aoyagi, besides the flash of sadness in his eyes and the wish for a life beyond the towering red gates. And yet, he wanted to know more. He wanted to learn how Aoyagi spent his mornings; if Aoyagi was a dog or cat person; how Aoyagi liked his tea. He wanted to see Aoyagi's expression as they watched the sun sink beneath the horizon, together, at the docks of Saint Petersburg.

What was love, really, if not filled with some sort of madness?

He opened his eyes and smiled, broad and luminous.

"Who's to say I won't sprout wings?"

Christophe exhaled in utter resignation.

 


 

On the morning of his departure, hours before his ship was ready for sail, Viktor returned to Yoshiwara for one last glimpse – and maybe another farewell kiss. He stood behind a tree, observing the comings and goings of the teahouse staff, contemplating the best way to seek an audience with Aoyagi. Clients, he learned from the translator, were only entertained in the evenings, no exceptions allowed. Maybe he could sneak in, find the courtesan's quarters, and—

The door rattled open again. This time, a Japanese middle-aged man in fine robes stepped out, followed by none other than Aoyagi himself, dressed in a simple violet robe over a gossamer undergarment of pale blue, his eyes demurely cast downward. As the man pulled Aoyagi into a tight embrace, Viktor felt his chest constrict, squeezing his lungs until he couldn't breathe. Of course, Aoyagi would have other... clients. He was a breathtaking, high-ranking courtesan.

Viktor should've left. He should've turned and walked away. Instead, drawn to the scene like spectators to a house on fire, he watched as the man exchanged a few intimate words with Aoyagi, a hand curled possessively on Aoyagi's hip. Watched as Aoyagi gave a response that made the man let out a bellow of laughter; as the man slid that grubby hand round to squeeze Aoyagi's ass.

Viktor clenched his fists hard enough to draw blood. This was sort of the clientele that caused Aoyagi to stare at him in uncertainty and wonderment, when Viktor had asked if he could kiss him. The sort that viewed the courtesan as property, and took and took from him until he no longer recognized an act of kindness or respect. When the client finally left, Viktor might have gone after him, done something impulsive and violent enough to give Yakov an instant cardiac arrest and set back Russia's relations with Japan for generations, if Aoyagi hadn't lingered at the entrance, gazing up at the sky with such sorrow that Viktor's fury evaporated like smoke.

Right now, the courtesan was far more important.

"Aoyagi," Viktor called as he stepped out from behind the tree.

Aoyagi's head whipped round, eyes widening in genuine astonishment. "Viktor...?"

It was the first time Aoyagi said his name. Accentuating the tail end of the first syllable; rolling the last 'r' around his tongue. He must have picked it up on their first meeting.

Viktor could listen to him say his name a thousand times and more.

"I just wanted to say goodbye," Viktor murmured, approaching the courtesan slowly.

Aoyagi cast a glance at the open door, before he quickly pulled it shut. No hesitation, not even a single pause. Of the many rules in Yoshiwara, Viktor wondered, with a spark of delight, just how many Aoyagi was willing to break for him.

"We said goodbye," Aoyagi said in an admonishing tone.

"Yes, but I don't know when I'll be back, and I… I wanted to see you before I left." Viktor laid a hand on Aoyagi's cheek, soft and caressing. "I'll miss you. So, so much."

Something unexpected flashed across the courtesan's face. Shock and grief and dismay – a storm cloud of emotions, rolled into one expression. And then it was gone, replaced by a practiced, coquettish blush, seconds before Viktor felt soft lips brush against his.

"Ask for me again," Aoyagi murmured, resting a hand on Viktor's before turning away, back to the entrance, back to his opulent, caged existence.

—no. This wasn't the farewell Viktor had envisioned.

"Wait." He snatched at a thin wrist, jerking Aoyagi to a halt. The courtesan didn't turn around. Wouldn't turn around. Viktor swallowed. He didn't know what to say, or even if stopping Aoyagi was a good idea, but he knew he couldn't leave now. Not when he'd glimpsed the truth behind the veil. "Was it something I said? You just, you looked so sad, and it's… it's not the first time I've seen you this sad. When we talked about your home in south, and when I talked about the sunsets in Saint Petersburg—"

"Don't," Aoyagi whispered.

"Don't what?" Viktor's grip on Aoyagi's wrist loosened. "I don't understand, tell me what—"

Aoyagi wrenched out of his hold, twisting round to face him, and Viktor felt his breath catch in a different way from when they first met – when smoke curled around a hot and sultry visage, bewitching as a siren call in the open ocean. This Aoyagi didn't harbor a knife's edge in his features, or a predatory gleam in his gaze. The mask had shattered, revealing quivering lips and wide glistening eyes that made the Japanese look so tiny and broken that Viktor wanted to pull him into his arms and never let go.

"Please," Aoyagi pleaded, his voice coming out in hiccups and bumps, "Don't – Don't talk like that, d-don't look at me like that, don't – " He drew in a wavering breath.

"Don't give me hope."

And then, before Viktor could react, he swept through the entrance like a bird startled into flight, slamming the door shut behind him.

Oh, thought Viktor, his heart hammering in his ears, gaze rooted on the closed door.

He took the leap, and there was no turning back.

Chapter Text

Russian diplomat Iosif Antonovich Goshkevich's negotiations with the Hakodate government were failing. Miserably. He, Yakov, and the rest of the consul staff lived in a temple, far outside the city, and his requests for a consulate building went largely unheeded.

By the time Viktor arrived at Hakodate, he wasn't sure what he was to do in his new employment, given that there wasn't a place to serve the Russian community, much less a Russian community to serve. Most of the time was spent attending meetings that revolved around Goshkevich and Yakov rumbling in deep, surly voices of the Japanese going back on their word, of their utter disrespect to foreign guests, of their goddamned suffocating incense each time a follower came to pray at the temple.

The situation couldn't be more perfect.

"You want to what?" Yakov choked on the inhale of his cigar.

They were standing in Yakov's room, filled with nothing but a bed, a desk, and a single wooden chair – a startling contrast to the decadence that was Yoshiwara.

"I only want to ensure that the Edo government has received Goshkevich's request," Viktor said delicately over his superior's violent coughing. Despite his gruff exterior, Yakov was a kind man, and more importantly, a fair one. He treated his subordinates equally – with constant peevishness and a fierce onslaught of criticisms. His attitude went hand-in-hand with the well-pressed uniform, the polished badges, and the slight hobble in his gait. The others complained incessantly, but for Viktor, the old war veteran was like the father he could no longer remember.

"You're not making sense," Yakov growled, swiping tears from his eyes. "If they won't listen to an official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, why would they listen to an upstart nobody like you?"

"Well, yes, but if you and Goshkevich would give me the authority, then I could give Edo officials a nudge in person, which might then expedite a response from the local government in Hakodate. I don't have much of a purpose here, otherwise, and—"

"Oh gods," Yakov cut in abruptly. He shot Viktor an accusing stare. "You've found a lover."

"Mm~?" Viktor pressed a finger to his bottom lip and widened his eyes as large as they could go. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"You know exactly what I mean. You've only been with the consul for, what? A month? And already you wish to return to Edo to run a fool's errand, one that you're clearly using as an excuse. All signs point to a new lover!" Yakov whirled around, slapping a palm to his forehead, while Viktor bit back a laugh. The old man always had such a flair for dramatics. "To think I personally requested for your transfer to Japan. I should've known better than to send you unescorted to a foreign land…"

"Goodness, Yakov." Viktor crossed his arms, mouth curving in a smile. "I'm not a child."

"No, but you act like one," Yakov snapped, waving his cigar about, smoke wafting around him in wild patterns. "Don't think I've forgotten the catastrophe of your last relationship! All that mooning and pining over one man. No different from a child wailing for his mother's milk!" Massaging his temples, he dropped heavily into the chair, the wood groaning from the sudden weight. "All right, out with it. Who is it this time?"

Sweeping eyelashes. Molten eyes. Soft bow lips.

A young man more beautiful than a meadow of flowers in the haze of a spring dawn.

Viktor saw Aoyagi in everything. He tried to focus on work, he really did, but the more he told himself not to think about the courtesan, the more Aoyagi slipped through the cracks of his mind like a whisper of smoke. On the plain, white walls of his room, he saw the fine-edged smile, dark lashes casting shadows across snow-white cheeks; in his documents, the curve of a slender body, bathed in moonlight. Even during meetings, he saw glistening eyes, wet and despairing with unshed tears.

Don't give me hope.

'Hope' – the word stood out against the backdrop of Aoyagi's limited pool of English. There was no use for such a word in Yoshiwara, a utopia of sin and depravity, where men fulfilled their deepest fantasies. 'Desire', perhaps; 'want', or 'passion'. Yet, Aoyagi had picked up 'hope'. Cradled it to his chest and kept it with him, as though the very knowledge of that word in another language would bring him its essence.

Viktor was determined to help him find it.

"No one, I assure you," he said finally, swallowing the gush of adoration on the tip of his tongue. "If it makes you feel better, I won't need accommodations or a local translator. Chris has offered both his home and his connections for the duration of my stay."

"That foolish friend of yours?" Yakov's pencil-thin eyebrows shot upwards. "What would a writer be doing in Edo?"

"He has taken keen interest in, ah, aspects of the local culture," Viktor said, careful to avoid the specific subjects in Christophe's extensive notes. Ever since Yakov came across Christophe's unpublished French manuscript of dirty limericks, a fairly lewd parody of the Book of Nonsense, he had forever branded the Swiss as a "deviant with no soul". The last thing he needed was for Yakov to find out about Christophe's recent fascination in Japan's specialized night activities.

"Culture, hah!" Yakov stuck the cigar back into his mouth, contempt drifting out in puffs of grey. "That fool wouldn't know culture if it danced naked in front of him with its skirts around the ankles."

"I rather think he would if it did," Viktor said before he could stop himself.

Again, Yakov's hand swept up to the side of his head, bulky fingers grinding down into his temple.

Viktor cleared his throat and straightened his back. Right, not the time for jokes. "I promise to return as soon as I have conveyed the message to Edo officials."

Yakov snorted, "If I had a hundred rubles for every promise you've broken…"

Viktor stood still as the veteran spent a moment to glower at him in silent deliberation. He could see the tic in Yakov's cheek as the heavy jaw wrestled with itself, chewing hard at the firm bulk of cigar. It's a look he had seen many times: when he first revealed his crush on a boy ("You sure he's male?" Yakov said roughly, nostrils flaring, "Some girls look like boys when they're young—"); when he asked what happened to the hawk-eyed, thin-lipped woman who used to live with them; when he expressed a wish to join the war front[1], alongside Yakov.

One did not make the rank of Colonel through rash decisions and hasty responses.

Finally, Yakov removed his cigar, sighing irritably, and Viktor knew he had won his case. "Fine, go. I will convince Goshkevich to write you a letter[2]."

Viktor saluted smartly, his face splitting into a grin. "You won't regret this, Yakov."

"I already have," Yakov muttered under his breath.

 


 

Yuuri awoke with a start. He was dreaming again – of blue eyes and shimmering hair; soft touches and whispered tenderness. It took him a beat to remember that he was entertaining a client, and another to dawn on him that the man was hovering above him with bulging, wild eyes.

"Did you – did you just fall asleep on me?"

Yuuri barely held back a sigh of exasperation. His head throbbed and weariness ached in his joints; there was no patience left in him for the childish tantrums of male pride. "Forgive me," he murmured, his voice rising just enough to hit the pitch for a fawning simper, "You just felt so good in me."

"Ugh, forget it, I've gone all soft now," the client snapped, tugging out and throwing his kimono on with sharp, jerky movements.

Quickly, Yuuri rose, righting his undergarments and tightening his loosened sash. "Wait, let me walk you—"

"Don't bother." A rustle of cotton, and the door slid shut.

This time, Yuuri did sigh. He twisted round to reach for his pipe, balanced evenly on the metal tin beside the bedding, still smoking from its last use. Tobacco was a life saver; a miracle leaf that soothed his nerves and took him far, far away from his wretched existence. As he laid back down, filling his lungs with the magical substance, he listened idly to the bass voice yelling outside his quarters.

"—never been so insulted—"

"If this is your best, I'd hate to see your worst—"

"—you're lucky I had to leave my sword at the gates!"

He exhaled as the voice faded into the distance, watching the faint wisps drift to the painted ceiling.

One.

Two.

And—

"Aoyagi," screeched the teahouse owner, slamming the doors open, her voice managing an impressive reenactment of a cat in heat. After so many years, the old lady remained a solid, predictable rock that kept him grounded in Yoshiwara's floating world of delusions. Grounded and chained, like circus animal in a cage.

"I warned you I was tired," Yuuri breathed, gaze still trained on the airy brushstrokes above him.

"That's no excuse," the owner spat out. "He was the first client you've accepted in a month."

His eyes flickered to her and narrowed. "And have my regular patrons made any complaints?"

The old lady faltered, her puckered mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. Yuuri waited, inhaling deeply.

"No," she choked then, as though she were forcing out a bone lodged inside her throat.

Yuuri clamped his teeth down on the pipe in a thin smile. "Then there isn't an issue, is there?"

The owner looked as if she had a retort, but chose to withdraw, clenching her jaw in defeat. "Regardless, we'll have to do something about your constant lethargy," she grumbled, resting her hands on her hips. "Are you feeling unwell? Or is it the English lessons?"

Oh, the English lessons. Yuuri couldn't tell which was more exhausting: learning a new language, or making sense of the teahouse's hired tutor. Jean-Jacques Leroy was a missionary from France, but proclaimed to all who would listen that he was really a citizen of Canada. In heavily accented Japanese, he spoke grandly of his plans to "educate the locals" and "teach them the ways"[3], as though the people of Japan were somehow lacking in their current state. And in the same breath, he would jolt forth the letter 'J' with his thumb and index finger, shouting that it was the most essential letter in the English alphabet, and it would do Yuuri well to remember it.

Despite the bizarre behaviors, JJ—as he so insisted to be called—was fairly adept at tutoring, and Yuuri was all too glad to immerse himself in the language. English gave him comfort and filled his time; contributed new, colorful expressions to use with clients.

English also distracted him from the cold realization that, having dropped his mask and shattered the illusion, no man would ever return – no matter how kind or loving he may have seemed.

A whole month had passed.

A month of dreams that painted colors on his heart and fled when he awoke.

I dared to hope, Yuuri almost said.

"It's probably the rising temperature," he said instead.

"Some flavored ice shavings might help," the owner muttered, lowering her gaze to the mats. "I will also ensure the maids put more ice in your water." She raised her chin, tossing a glare at Yuuri. "Make sure you rest well tonight. You have an important guest tomorrow."

As the door slid shut, Yuuri blew out a ring of smoke, lips quirking in a soft smile. His favorite najimi was finally paying him a visit. Thank the gods for small favors.

 


 

Viktor strode through Yoshiwara's gates, ignoring the looks of derision and curiosity thrown his way. The district looked different in the afternoon, with its lanterns unlit, and the streets broad and silent, devoid of the hustle and bustle of the late-night crowds. But it was still red, so, so red, and men were ever-present, clamoring about the open, latticed rooms where female courtesans sat on full display. His stomach boiled at the thought of selecting a human being as though she were a slab of meat in a marketplace. Never was he more comforted that advertising for male courtesans was far more discrete.

He stopped at an emerald curtain, depicting the head of a crane and its wings curled downwards to join at the tips – a circular symbol of the teahouse of En. Of Aoyagi. Christophe had spent the entire morning shooting him mute looks of disapproval, before sending him off with a drawl of have sex, not love.

If his friend only knew how far out he had leapt.

Taking a deep breath, Viktor brushed aside the curtain and slid open the entrance doors. Past the shoe lockers, the teahouse owner was barking at two female staff, who received the scolding with their heads hung low.

"Ah, excuse me," he said hesitantly, wondering if he should have asked Christophe for a translator.

One glance, and the owner's demeanor took a full turn. She smiled, lips stretching wide as she waved an arm at the staff. The girls bowed and hastened away, cottoned feet shuffling down the narrow corridor.

"Aoyagi, yes?" the owner asked in English, sharp and clipped.

"Yes." Viktor nodded with relief when the elderly lady bowed low in response. Seemed a translator was unnecessary, after all. "I was hoping to see him tonight—"

"Oh no, no, tonight not good," the owner cut in abruptly. "Aoyagi has big client tonight. Come tomorrow, okay?"

Viktor swallowed, forcing down the surge of desperate possessiveness. Time and again, he would forget Aoyagi's trade. Time and again, it hit him like a freight train crashing into his heart. (How far he had leapt, indeed.) "Oh. Then, yes, tomorrow."

The owner nodded, satisfied. "Thank you very much. We see you tomorrow night."

Viktor turned to leave, heaving a sigh. Really, what was he expecting? For Aoyagi to drop all his clients, just for him? For Aoyagi to race to the entrance, leap into his arms and confess his love? There were rules and customs to be followed, and the courtesan was bound to every single one. He slid the door open and stepped out – just as another drifted in, brushing past his shoulder.

A woman, Viktor's mind registered, before he caught the silky ebony hair woven into an elegant knot, the bright, satin-silk robes, the charming beauty mark beneath the left eye.

"Minako-sama," the owner gasped, her voice overflowing with delight.

And somewhere between the melodic exchange of Japanese, Viktor heard it clear and distinct:

Aoyagi's name.

 


 

"He's here. The silver-haired foreigner you spoke of."

Yuuri jolted. The kettle tilted, sake splashing onto the tray. Across from them, the geisha continued their dance to the nasal resonance of the shamisen; wrists twisting, fans turning.

Next to him, Minako let out a chuckle. "A reaction? How rare."

"I was… surprised," Yuuri said, smoothly tugging out a handkerchief to soak up the mess. They were in the teahouse's largest room, used for the entertainment of the fattest carp they could reel in, with Yuuri as their bait. He gave a sidelong glance, eyebrows knotting together as he met Minako's playful grin. "Don't tease me, Lady Minako."

Minako shifted the corner of her sleeve and reached for the sake cup on her tray. "I never tease," she hummed as she lifted the cup to her lips.

Lady Minako, only daughter of the wealthy Okukawa family. On a whim, she had arrived at En, nervous and frantic to experience the so-called "pleasures of the flesh". In their meeting, her voice quaked as she spoke, hidden under a visage of courage and self-assurance. She was about to spend all of her monthly allowance without her father's permission, she declared, so she wanted only the best.

And as the night wore on and the alcohol ran out, the real Minako emerged, dunking her expensive sleeves into the dishes, and stretching her body across the mats like an old man in his private sleeping quarters. You're way too pretty t' be a guy, she slurred, too harsh and blunt for a noble lady. I ain't havin' my first time with a wakashu joro[4]!

The owner was aghast.

Yuuri promptly accepted Minako as a client.

"I don't see why you're not up there. You know the risk I take, sneaking out to watch you perform." Minako raised her empty cup toward Yuuri, who dutifully tipped the kettle's mouth. "And I know you dance far better than any of those geisha."

"You'll have to wait until tonight," Yuuri replied, eyelashes fluttering. "This afternoon, my place is beside yours."

A beat, before Minako threw back her head with a loud cackle. "Men actually fall for that? No wonder I'm still single."

Her sniggers shook against the edge of her cup, while Yuuri settled back onto the cushion, resting trembling hands on his knees. He was awake now, more awake than ever before, as though he had been doused by a chilled bucket of water. A courtesan's fate was made to be tragic and fleeting, enough to fascinate the mercurial artists of ukiyo-e, who captured the floating world in paintings as delicate as the last blossoms of spring. He was prepared to accept his fate; he accepted it years ago at the age of fifteen.

What was fate's intention now, poisoning his mind with impossibilities?

"Aoyagi," Minako murmured, snapping him out of his reverie. She laid a hand over his, gentle and startlingly sober. "You're in your head again."

Yuuri bowed. "I am so sorry, Lady Minako."

She gave an unfeminine snort. "What are you apologizing for? Not like I'd wilt without your attention or anything." She downed the rest of her sake and slammed the cup decisively onto her tray. "It's about high time a man treated you well, anyway! If he's genuine, maybe I could talk to him about pooling our savings together."

Yuuri huffed out a quiet laugh through his nose. He was grateful to Minako for proposing to buy him out, but with each offer, with each bag of gold coins she snuck out of her father's home, it was never sufficient for his ever-increasing debt. In providing him with servants, high-quality foods, and luxurious robes, En merrily racked up his expenses – kept him on a tight leash.

Still, Minako's honesty and failed attempts were as steady and predictable as the teahouse owner's greed. Unlike a certain Russian he wanted desperately to forget.

"More sake, Lady Minako?" Yuuri asked simply.

Minako's face softened. Pensive and knowing and deeply sympathetic.

"Keep it coming," she replied.

 


 

It was the second time for Viktor to enter the room, but the sight still took his breath away.

Tonight, Aoyagi was dressed in outer robes of deep purple, the fabric covered with an embroidered design of chrysanthemums. The layers of undergarments were green, and then white, while the sash was a brilliant, radiant orange. Seated among the candles, the courtesan shone the brightest, more luminous than the moon hanging over the night sky.

Aoyagi barely raised his head, eyelashes fanning. "You came back."

"How could I not?" Viktor took a seat beside Aoyagi, his gaze never leaving the courtesan's face. Even with Aoyagi's constant intrusion into his visions, his memory had failed to capture the fullness of Aoyagi's perfect bow lips, or the deep brown of Aoyagi's eyes, dark and warm as honey. "I didn't realize you see clients in the afternoon," he blurted after a beat, suddenly at a loss for words. "And clients who aren't male."

Aoyagi chuckled, his eyes curving into a pair of crescent moons painted a delicate pink. "There are many rich and lonely women in Edo."

In a single sentence, the courtesan had conveyed the message: only the wealthy were entertained in the afternoon and, yes, even women had needs to be fulfilled. Viktor was in awe at how Aoyagi wielded his words. Simple, yet sharp as the blade of a striking sword. And he had done so with a language that was not his own.

"Your English has improved," Viktor noted.

Hair ornaments swayed as Aoyagi's head dipped in a slight nod for the compliment. "We have a tutor now. He is crazy, but a good teacher."

"I see."

Candlelight flickered, and shadows fell across the courtesan's face, caressing high cheekbones, brushing against a sharp jawline. Viktor's hands twitched, itching to reach out and trace the same path. Feel the slide of his fingers on silken skin. But no, not yet. He had the vague notion that they were both skirting around a spot of thin ice, waiting for the other to test the give.

So, inhaling, Viktor took the first step:

"About… about what you said before. Is it really so wrong for you to hope?"

Aoyagi's wide eyes met his. "I…" Fine eyebrows drew together, and the courtesan's gaze dropped to the tray of drinks, the mats – anywhere but Viktor. A fine crack ran through the ice. "I wasn't thinking," he concluded softly. Regretfully. Viktor's chest ached. "It was… not right. I, I should not have—"

"Don't. Don't say that." Viktor took Aoyagi's hand and raised it to his lips, drinking in the glow of surprise on Aoyagi's cheeks, soft and warm as the spring breeze whispering through the trees. "I was happy," he breathed. "Happy that you opened up to me."

The flush deepened then, so sweet and alluring that Viktor gave in: he leaned in close, fingers tracing a scorching path down Aoyagi's cheek. "I meant what I said… I missed you in Hakodate." His mouth hovered inches away from Aoyagi's; his thumb ran over plush lips. He was melting now. Burning. "Not a day went by when I wasn't thinking of you."

Something shifted. And the patch of ice gave.

It was Aoyagi—always Aoyagi—who slammed the kiss onto him, hard and hot and insistent, teeth smashing into his, but Viktor responded in an instant, pressing his palm on the back of Aoyagi's neck and crushing them closer together. Breathing unevenly against Aoyagi's tongue as it slipped in to nudge against his.

The kiss was nothing like their first night. This one was rough and primal, gripped with a stronger emotion that Viktor couldn't name. There was no finesse, no softness, not even a pause for breath. Just their mouths tangling together, over and over, stealing each other's souls with their tongues.

"Aoyagi," Viktor moaned against the courtesan's lips. And something about his name spurred Aoyagi on; he bit and licked sloppily against Viktor's throat, his hands drifting down, down, down to Viktor's belt. Viktor was suddenly, desperately, aware of the scratch of fabric against his erection, too damn tight at every stitch.

And so, it seemed, was Aoyagi. Within seconds, the courtesan had worked Viktor's belt open and slid his pants and underwear halfway down his thighs. Leaning down, he nudged Viktor's knees apart and pressed his lips and tongue on Viktor's balls; teased him with a playful kiss to the tip of his dick.

Overwhelmed, Viktor closed his eyes and exhaled shakily, fingers curling into Aoyagi's hair, feeling the ornaments slip as silky strands gave and loosened. He expected a gentle languidness, a slow build. For the courtesan to tease him until he boiled and burned with need.

He was entirely unprepared for Aoyagi to take him, almost all of him, in his mouth.

"Christ," Viktor choked out, his eyes flying open – and, god, was that a mistake. Aoyagi's hair was a beautiful mess: raven locks had fallen out of the perfect coiffure, framing the curves of his face, accentuating the rosy tint on his cheeks. But it wasn't just the hair that had Viktor's gut clench, heat surging in a hot wave. It was those eyes; those deep eyes that gazed up at him through long eyelashes coated with mascara and stardust. And all while Aoyagi's head bobbed, taking him deeper and deeper and, ah yes, so much deeper.

It was too much, too soon. He tried to warn Aoyagi, tried to tell him to wait, ohh fuck, stop, but the courtesan only drew his lips up and slid back down again—all the way down—and Viktor came, shooting down Aoyagi's throat, shuddering wildly.

For a while, Viktor couldn't speak. He wanted to apologize, tell Aoyagi he hadn't meant to come in his mouth, or for Aoyagi to swallow all of his cum, but he hadn't had an orgasm this intense since he was a teenager. So he could only wait for the world to stop spinning, as Aoyagi sat back on his heels. As a small tongue darted out to swipe over red, swollen lips.

Wow, thought Viktor.

"Was that okay?" Aoyagi murmured.

"More than okay," Viktor assented, deciding then that an apology might be more of an insult for the courtesan. He held out an arm, and Aoyagi understood, leaning into his shoulder to fit snugly in the curve of his arm. "We skipped the sake custom?"

"That is only for the first night." Aoyagi nipped at Viktor's earlobe, teeth scraping against skin in a way that had Viktor's dick twitch again in interest.

"Mm, good to know." Grasping Aoyagi's chin, Viktor kissed him – a soft press, slightly open mouthed.He had made the appointment with the intention to engage Aoyagi in conversation, learn more about him, but it was hard to think in the courtesan's presence. So, so hard when Aoyagi was looking at him with such hunger, eyes hooded and darkened with arousal.

It was unfair, really, how much power the courtesan held over him.

"I only meant to give this to you." Viktor tugged out a colored glass bottle from his jacket pocket. "But we can use it tonight."

Aoyagi cocked his head inquisitively. "What is it?"

"Olive oil. So we can do whatever you want."

Aoyagi's face lit up, beaming soft and wondrous as a lantern at dusk. "Olive oil?" the courtesan breathed, and Viktor felt his heart squeeze and trip down his ribs, one by one. "Whatever… I want?"

It was painfully clear that no one had asked him that before. Not one single goddamned client.

Don't give me hope.

Pulling Aoyagi close, Viktor dipped a kiss into the crown of his head. "Anything you want," he said fiercely. The sun, the moon, the stars; anything at all.

And Aoyagi stared up at him with bright, bright eyes – as though Viktor had, indeed, plucked out the sun, the moon, and the stars. As though Viktor had given him the world. Then he leaned in close, warm breath caressing Viktor's ear.

"I want you to fuck me. Hard."

Viktor's breath rushed out, his brain taking several seconds to catch up to his senses. God, this man had more twists and turns than a labyrinth. "Are you sure?" he croaked.

"Yes." Aoyagi kissed Viktor wetly, mouthing, "Fuck me until I forget my own name."

Viktor groaned; he could feel his cock practically jump at thought.

Hauling Aoyagi to the bedding, he pressed the courtesan into the sheets and sank his teeth into the slender throat, relishing in the quiet gasp, the pulse banging against his tongue. He could taste Aoyagi's sweat, drown in Aoyagi's sweet, smoky scent till his throat closed and his lungs burned. If a hard fuck was what Aoyagi wanted, a hard fuck he was happy to give.

"Help me with the sash," he murmured as he shed his own clothes, and Aoyagi laughed. Hands grasped his and guided them to slide under the thick fabric.

"Have to go under," Aoyagi instructed.

Viktor pulled immediately at the knot, felt it unravel alongside his mind when the courtesan chose that exact moment to grind hard into his crotch.

"Ah, god," he gasped. Aoyagi was evil. Evil.

As payback, Viktor gripped Aoyagi by the hips and flipped him over. Ripped the loose robes off and bent down to press fevered kisses down the smooth back, worshipping each curve, each vertebra. Delved his tongue teasingly against Aoyagi's spine, until the courtesan was arching and grinding against the sheets, begging for him in soft whimpers.

So pliant and divine – a god placed on earth to incite madness in all mortals.

Well. It was time this mortal offered up his adoration.

Slicking his hands with oil, Viktor brushed his lips against bare thighs, "On your hands and knees." As Aoyagi complied, quivering, Viktor rose up to squeeze the round ass; prod his fingers at Aoyagi's entrance.

"Please," Aoyagi whispered, and Viktor acquiesced, pushing his fingers in, hissing as they slid in easily, Aoyagi already loose from his early preparations.

It didn't take long for Viktor to find the angle this time. He pressed in a second time, three fingers, watching with satisfaction as Aoyagi's back curved beautifully in a full bow.

As he pulled out, he listened reverently to Aoyagi's mewls and soft pants. Quiet, too quiet. He wanted to hear more. Wanted to hear everything. Customs be damned, he wanted to hear the courtesan sing again, like a choir of angels.

Spreading Aoyagi's ass, Viktor prodded his cock at his entrance, light and teasing. "Tell me again how you want it," he mumbled.

"Hard," Aoyagi whined, arching, but Viktor pressed a firm hand on his lower back.

"How hard?"

"Nnh, please, want you inside," Aoyagi begged, rocking backwards.

Viktor bit back a moan and grasped Aoyagi's hips, rubbing his cock agonizingly against Aoyagi's hole. "How hard?" he asked again, his voice dropping several tones. He was shaking now, sweat beading on his forehead; it took his entire soul not to roll into the enticing heat.

Aoyagi began to ramble, half in Japanese, half in English, delirious with need. Viktor could make out snatches of words: name and cannot walk and s-so hard that I—

"Can't help but scream?" Viktor finished for him, revving deep in his throat.

"Yes," Aoyagi whispered breathlessly.

And then Viktor fucked in, a reward for the right answer, a full, deep thrust. And Aoyagi, oh, Aoyagi let go. His shriek bounced off the gold screens and painted walls; reverberated through Viktor in a buzz of desire that drove him to snap his hips. Rock back in and draw out more of that beautiful voice.

This was familiar ground for Viktor—memories of harsh breathing and desperate quickies in cramped spaces—but it was different with Aoyagi. It wasn't an experiment, an eagerness to try something new. It wasn't a frenetic move to fulfill some silly adolescent drive, fueled further by the thought of getting caught[5]. Nor was it the embrace of a comrade in arms, frantic for the warmth of another human being. It felt… different. It felt good, fuck yes, it felt good. But it felt even better to feel Aoyagi tremble under him, to hear Aoyagi scream, beg, and moan. To know that he was pleasing Aoyagi.

"So good," Viktor murmured encouragingly as he rammed into Aoyagi, skin slapping, nails digging into soft thighs. "So hot and tight; so perfect…"

Aoyagi keened. "Ahhh, hahh – I, nhh, I—" He thrusted back, voice coming out in a sob, "I'm close, I'm gonna—"

Oh. And Viktor hadn't even touched his dick yet.

"Not yet." Aoyagi let out a cry of frustration when Viktor pulled out. "Not yet," Viktor repeated, softer and more to himself this time, breathing out a hard exhale. He spun Aoyagi around and slipped his arms beneath Aoyagi's knees. Drank in the mussed dark hair with its ornaments jutting out at odd angles, the pupils blown out with feral need, the flush that swept down every inch of exposed skin – right down to the thick, red cock bobbing between creamy thighs and dripping with want. Want for him.

Viktor was thoroughly and utterly captivated.

"Wh– Why," Aoyagi panted, eyelashes falling, fluttering. "Why—"

"Because I want to see your face as you come," Viktor breathed. He savored the wonder lighting up in the brown eyes, the honest surprise. Seconds before he slammed back in, fast and rough and sudden.

Before Aoyagi came, arching against him and screaming Vi-Viktor-!

His name.

With that, and the tight, brutal clench around his cock, Viktor was instantly lost, cresting and cresting until he fell back to earth, collapsing onto Aoyagi, gasping into hot skin.

When he finally mustered the energy to pull out, Aoyagi barely moved beneath him, his eyes still closed, raven hair damp and plastered to his forehead and cheeks. Looking so incredibly blissed out.

"Your hair," Viktor said softly, threading his fingers through the tangled tresses. "It's a mess."

"Later," Aoyagi mumbled with a sigh.

After wiping them down with another of Aoyagi's handkerchiefs, Viktor laid down and threw an arm round the courtesan's waist, stealing a kiss from parted lips. "Was that what you wanted?"

Aoyagi tilted his head, and Viktor saw, his heart skipping a beat, a shadow of some tender emotion that lingered drowsily behind the veil. "Mm hm…"

Carefully, Viktor pulled the covers over them both as Aoyagi dozed. At his most unguarded, the courtesan's features sported none of his edge. The sizzling eyes and lasciviously curved lips were gone, leaving nothing but a soft innocence in its wake. Viktor had no doubt that was the real Aoyagi. And he was there, right there – so close that Viktor could reach out and touch him.

"What can I do to see you when you're awake," Viktor murmured.

He watched Aoyagi, listening to the quiet whispers of his breath, until the candles stopped burning and he fell into warm dreams of black hair spilling over white sheets, the smell of ash and smoke, and the hint of naked, unrestrained fondness.

 


 

Rolling onto his side, Yuuri pressed the heel of his palms into his face.

Last night was a disaster. An absolute disaster.

Viktor kept saying all those sweet words, so tender and loving and beautiful, like he meant them, like he actually meant them. So Yuuri panicked. Flung himself at Viktor in a frenzied effort to silence the Russian; silence his own treacherous heart. There was no poise or refinement to his actions – the only saving virtues that distinguished courtesans from the nameless whores on the streets.

Except it felt good, really good. He had never felt so good in his life. A hard fuck usually meant a night of aimless, painful jack rabbit sex, but Viktor, god – Viktor was so good and consistent, nailing into his prostate again and again, ripping him out of his mind, his body. And for that moment, that brief moment, he wasn't Aoyagi, or Mikawa, or some soulless courtesan in Yoshiwara. He was just Yuuri again. Plain, ordinary Katsuki Yuuri, the boy who used to cry when his parents left him home alone, when his sister boxed his ears for breaking her favorite teacup.

And when they parted the next morning, when Viktor pressed the bottle of oil in his palm and a whisper of because you deserve so much better against his forehead, Yuuri gazed up into the blue eyes, deep and vast as the ocean, and slipped into a free fall.

With no place to land but the cold, unrelenting concrete of reality.

Not a day went by when I wasn't thinking of you.

"Nngh." Yuuri dug his palms in harder. He had to unsee the earnest features; unhear the whispers of saccharine lies. Love was a farce in Yoshiwara – an amusement, a game. To believe in it was to call upon Death himself. To hope for it was even worse.

The door slid open with a bang. "Oh Aoyagi, I have the most wonderful ne– what on earth are you doing?"

Yuuri groaned into his hands and curled further into a ball. He was in no mood for the teahouse owner right now. "I have a headache," he muttered.

"Probably from all that dreadful noise you were making last night," the owner sniffed disdainfully. "Although!" The sudden perk in her voice was enough to give Yuuri a real headache. "It seems to have worked on your pretty foreigner."

Yuuri's hands dropped, heart hammering in his ears. "What do you mean?"

"He wants to see you again. Tonight."

why?

Because he was a good fuck? Because he was an easy fuck?

Yuuri shifted his gaze to the colored bottle sitting on his cosmetics counter.

…or could Viktor… be telling the truth?

"What," Yuuri paused to steady his breath, his voice catching only slightly. "What did you tell him?"

"That you are fully booked and to check back again tomorrow, of course." The owner preened, brushing imaginary lint off her sleeves with pride. "We can't appear too eager, after all. In situations like these, it is ever important for you to play hard to get. Men like what they cannot have! Especially with looks like his, he's probably used to getting everything he wants—"

The owner was still talking, blathering on and on, but Yuuri wasn't listening, couldn't even hear the words. Mind racing, he chewed furiously on his thumb. He needed to settle this – figure the Russian out before the whole mess devoured his sanity for good. Yes, yes: that's all there was to it, wasn't it? All he had to do was play the game. It was the only way to survive.

Now what was the saying? 'Know thy enemy, know thyself, yields victory in a hundred battles'[6]?

Yuuri sat up abruptly, cutting the owner off mid-sentence.

"When he returns, ask him to be my najimi."

The old lady stared. Then, with a scowl, "You weren't listening to a word I said, were you?"

"No," said Yuuri, flopping back onto the bedding and tuning out the rest of her lecture. It was perfect. Keeping Viktor close as his najimi should give him ample chances to expose the Russian's motives. Deception, illusions, manipulation – it was all he knew, and it was all he was good at.

Inhaling, his nose sank deep into the sheets: earthy and clean as a pine forest after a thunderstorm. So heady and uniquely Viktor that Yuuri felt a strong wave of yearning crash over him, sweeping him off his feet.

It was a momentary lapse of control, but it was enough.

Instantly, violently, the images flooded in, swirling through his mind in scattered pieces.

" Hey Mikawa! Maybe if you smiled a little more, someone might love that ugly mug of yours!"

Blood on the mats, the screens, the sliding doors. So much blood. Everything was a dark, crimson red, redder than the rouge on their lips.

Yuuri fisted the sheets until his knuckles turned white.

No. No. Lock them down; he had to shove the memories back in and lock them down. He couldn't wish or hope or yearn. Only Yuuri would do that and he couldn't be Yuuri, because Yuuri would cry, and Yuuri would stumble, and Yuuri would crumple to the floor, like he did so many years ago.

But Mikawa and Aoyagi – they were strong. They were survivors.

"Aoyagi?" He could hear the frown in the owner's voice. "If your head aches that badly, I could fetch for the doctor."

"I'm fine." Yuuri wrenched his eyes shut and burrowed deeper into the sheets, drawing in one last clinging breath. "Just have Yoshino air the bedding as soon as he's available. I…" He felt the mask slide on, bleak and unfeeling as the grey skies in winter.

"…I need to get rid of the smell."

 


 

"If you ask me, Aoyagi's got it all very well calculated."

Snorting, Viktor buried his face in a velvet cushion, hating the rough, scratchy feel of its embroidery against his cheeks. "I never asked."

Christophe's chair gave an indignant creak as the man leaned away from his writing desk. "Hey, I've been talking to people. Courtesans, clients, teahouse staff. You'd be amazed how much they want to talk to someone who's willing to listen."

"Aren't you the expert," Viktor laughed, a muffled drawl of amusement.

"You better believe it. We could both run our own teahouse by this point, eh, friend?"

"I have a wife and three daughters, Sir," the translator said despairingly by Christophe's side.

Viktor should have known that it'd be futile. He knew it would. But when Aoyagi disappeared through the entrance of En, clutching the tiny bottle in both hands as though it were a priceless gem, he felt an overwhelming, urgent need to see the courtesan again. So, heart thudding, he went back into the teahouse. Asked if he could take Aoyagi out for dinner that night.

("Oh, Mr. Nikiforov," the owner giggled, smacking him across the shoulder. "You tell funny joke!"

"Actually, I really would like to—"

"Aoyagi is not free tonight. Come tomorrow, okay?")

And then he made the doubly foolish mistake of complaining to Christophe about it.

"He's got you on a hook, Viktor," his best friend chided. "Everything a courtesan says and does, it's designed to leave you wanting, make you believe they love you so you'll keep going back."

Viktor flipped onto his back, hugging the cushion to his chest and knocking off the second cushion with his foot. Make him believe he was loved? If anything, it seemed as though he was the one putting his love on display like some lusty peacock, while Aoyagi was vehemently denying love with all his effort. Concealed it almost desperately behind four walls that had been built and fortified against years and years of serving rotten, cruel scum.

"Aoyagi's different," he pointed out.

"Yeah, Aoyagi's worse," Christophe said with a shrug. The translator nodded empathetically. "Anyone at his rank had to have done his share of despicable things to get there."

"Duly noted," Viktor remarked blithely, squashing down the fierce impulse to defend the courtesan. Christophe could be fairly inflexible in certain matters. "Go back to compiling your notes."

"A lost cause," Christophe told the translator. "A tragic Victorian novel in the making."

Viktor flung the cushion and struck him squarely in the back of his head.

 


 

"Hey Viktor."

"Yeah, Chris?"

"You might want to make some pretense of contacting the Edo officials at some point."

"… tomorrow."

"And Yakov thinks I'm the deviant."

Chapter Text

Yuuri was born to a family of innkeepers in the fishing village of Hasetsu.

Life wasn’t as fancy as the big, white castle that towered above the sleepy little village, but Yuuri was happy. Yutopia Katsuki was right by the sea, and there was never a shortage of food or love: the villagers would bring their best catch in exchange for use of the inn’s hot springs, a warm, steaming meal, and a shared night of conversations and laughter.  

For Yuuri, every day was another day of toddling after his mother with a pail of water for her daily cleaning, and mock wrestling with his sister, Mari, and losing miserably; of building sand castles near the gentle waves and watching the orange sun sink behind the castle above; of greeting their elderly regulars at night and having his cheeks pinched.

It was idyllic; it was perfect.

Only sometimes, just sometimes, he would catch a glimpse of his father staring really, really hard at the papers on his desk, as if the crumpled sheets withheld the answers to all of life’s questions. Yuuri found the behavior odd, but each time he tried to ask his father what he was doing, his father would merely laugh and ruffle his hair.

“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” Mari told him. Her hair was long now, and she wore it up in a simple ponytail, with a bandanna to keep loose hair off her face. Male patrons described the look as ‘woefully unfeminine’ for a teenaged girl. Yuuri never understood how it was ‘woeful’ when it suited her perfectly. “Just boring grown-up stuff.”

“I’m plenty grown-up now,” Yuuri huffed.

“Sure, you are.” Grinning, Mari prodded his soft belly. “Talk to me after you’ve lost your baby fat.”

“It’s not baby fat,” Yuuri pouted, tightly hugging his stomach.

“Mari~!” They turned at the sound of their mother’s voice down the hallway. “Is the salmon ready?”

“Coming,” Mari called. Collecting a tray on the counter, she jerked her head at another. “C’mon, ‘plenty grown-up’, grab that other tray and let’s serve the old farts outside.”

“Mom doesn’t like it when you call them that,” Yuuri protested, stretching as wide as he could to grab the sides of the tray with his chubby hands. He hurried after his sister, careful not to spill the dishes of marinated salmon.

The dining hall was rowdy, reeking of salted fish and filled with tanned, wrinkled men, sniggering and jostling each other over some bawdy joke. Yuuri preferred the nights when the fishermen brought their wives along. Despite the repeated cheek-pinching, there was far less noise with the women’s presence, and he wouldn’t be told to leave because of the ‘grown-up’ conversations he was never allowed to hear.

 Why was it that ‘grown-up’ conversations only took place around men?

“Hey, it’s Mari,” the fishermen cheered as Mari swept about, setting down dishes. “How are ya, Mari-chan!”

“Don’t call me that, and keep your hands to yourself,” Mari snapped as she rose from her knees.

“Feisty,” one of the men cackled, withdrawing his hand when swatted.

“Seriously, Toshiya, should’ve sold her when you had the chance,” another said. "You wouldn't be this much in the red now if you had." 

In the middle of a drunken jig, Yuuri’s father paused to frown at the second speaker. “No,” he gave a hiccup, swaying slightly, “No one’s selling anyone in my family." 

The fishermen exchanged glances and clucked their tongues. “You won’t survive like this, Toshiya.”

“Aye,” said a younger man with sad, drooping eyes. “Had to sell my girl soon as she was of age. Nearly killed my wife.”

“Same here,” added a man, a towel tied around his head like a bandanna.

The fisherman who first spoke slammed his sake cup on the table. “They pay a whole lot more for boys, did you know?” he rasped, swiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I’m not that desperate,” the toweled man sniffed.

Yuuri had been invisible this entire time, diligently walking with Mari until she bent over and took the second tray from his hands. Grown-up conversations were such a mystery: they seemed to speak utter nonsense, going on about being "in the red" and selling people like they were toys and dolls. It made zero sense.

“You can’t sell people,” Yuuri chimed in, quailing when all eyes turned on him. No, he shouldn’t be scared; grown-ups weren’t scared. He took a deep breath and straightened, chin lifting. “P-People, um… people aren’t things.”

“Yuuri,” his mother gasped, scurrying over as quickly as her kimono allowed, apron strings flying. “You shouldn’t be in here.” Warm hands grasped his shoulders and hustled him out of the dining hall before he could squeeze out another word. Laughter rang out behind them.

“But mom,” Yuuri finally yelped, heat shooting up his cheeks. The men were laughing at him, clearly. “I’m old enough! I promise I won’t say dumb things anymore…!”

“Oh, my Yuuri.” Once far enough from the hall, his mother crouched down to his eye level. Her round face, usually flushed with unbridled optimism, was so pale and hard that any further protest died on his tongue. “You are most certainly not old enough. Not until you’ve reached Mari’s age.”

Yuuri swallowed his indignation and nodded slowly. He hated that look on his mother’s face, and if agreeing with her would take it away, then he would allow himself to be kept in the dark until he was fifteen years old.

A whole seven years.   

If he had known of the events that would occur the very next week, he would have rather waited in darkness than be forced into the light.

 


 

“Yuuri! Yuuri, where are you?”

Eyes wide, Yuuri looked up from the moat he had dug in the sand. His mother never sounded this frenzied before. “Mom?” he called hesitantly, before his mother swooped down on him, her cottoned feet trampling across his creation, dark grains of sand clinging to the white socks.  

“Come, quickly,” she panted as she snatched his wrist in a painful grip. “You must hide.”

Yuuri stumbled, righting immediately before his mother’s insistent pull dragged his face through the sand. “But why must I—“

“We’ll explain later, sweetheart,” his mother cut in.

They sprinted back to the inn in terse silence, past the front gates, and past his father and sister standing at the entrance. Mari had her fists clenched by her sides, while his father shook, wringing his hands desperately in front of him. Neither of them acknowledged Yuuri or his mother as they flew by. 

At the end of the hall, his mother opened the closet and pushed Yuuri between the brooms stored inside. “No matter what happens, don’t come out,” she said firmly. After a kiss on his forehead, she left, throwing him in darkness behind the closet door.

Yuuri sank down, tugging his knees to his chest. He could hear his heart in his ears, his thoughts rolling and churning in his mind. The initial thrill of intrigue had morphed into a feeling that was more sinister, more ominous. He wondered what terrible grown-up thing was coming for them. Maybe it was a demon, like in the stories Mari used to scare him with at night. Or maybe it was the all-powerful daimyo, who sat all day in his big, white castle.

There were trace murmurs of conversation now, low and muted.

Yuuri leaned forward and pressed against the grainy wood of the closet, straining hard to listen. The quiet, tenor voice was his father’s, the softer, higher voice his mother’s, and the occasional deadpan tone was distinctly Mari’s. But there was a fourth voice – harsh and deep and grating, as though the sound was clawing its way out of the person's throat. It wasn’t any of the fishermen’s, and it certainly wasn’t any of their wives or children.

That meant the stranger was an outsider.

The discussion at the entrance was growing more and more heated, the voices penetrating through the doors. The outsider talked about debts, warning letters, and "his generous Lordship", while his parents begged and pleaded for another month, please just another month.

Pulling away, Yuuri backed up into the brooms and screwed his eyes shut, curling into a tight ball. There was fear out there, so much fear that it stifled the air - closed Yuuri’s throat and suffocated him in the cramped darkness.

But grown-ups weren’t supposed to be afraid.

He wished he knew what was happening outside; he wished he understood. He wished he could burst out, wrap his arms as far as he could go around his mother’s waist, and stick his nose into the apron stained with oil and tonkatsu sauce. But his mother needed him to stay in the closet. His family needed him to stay calm. Inhaling a long, quivering breath, he drew his knees closer to his face and imagined the soft fabric full of comforting scents. He was safe in here. He was safe. And he would repeat it until he believed it

The voices were louder now: the smatterings of words clearer, turning into full, angry sentences.

“—over and over, for years, Katsuki. Show me the money right now,” the harsh voice snarled, “Or you lose your precious inn and your daughter.”

Yuuri’s blood chilled in his veins.

Mari.

The fishermen had talked about selling people. Was this outsider buying people? Surely his parents couldn’t be taking the old men’s advice.

“But,” his father’s voice quaked, “You said before that Mari’s too old—”

A bark of laughter. “Doesn’t mean she won’t fetch a price.”

Right then and there, something snapped, like a string pulled too taut, too fast.

Before Yuuri could register his own movements, his feet had slammed the door open and carried him to the entrance, a broom brandished in his hand. “L-Leave my sister alone,” he heard himself shout over the gasps of his family. Felt himself lift the heavy broom over his head with a confidence born out of sheer terror.

The outsider turned to him, and Yuuri saw him clearly for the first time. Tall and skinny, he had a gaunt face with sunken cheeks, his greasy hair falling loosely over hunched shoulders. At his waist hung two swords, one longer than the other, a hand resting casually on its hilt. But the sense of danger that had Yuuri’s hair stand on end came not from the swords – no, it was the way the outsider’s lips curled in a crooked smile, the way his dark eyes glinted with wicked delight.

“You have a son,” the man breathed.

Suddenly, Yuuri was engulfed with warmth as his mother yanked him into her embrace. The broom fell from his hand and clattered against the floor.

“He’s too young,” she whispered. He felt her tremble around him, heard her heart pounding against his ear. “He’s only eight—”

“Old enough.”

The outsider flashed yellow teeth, and Yuuri felt his stomach drop.

Mari took a step forward, eyes blazing. “We’re not selling him,” she snapped.

“Ha!” When the man wrenched Yuuri out of his mother’s hold, her despairing cry seared deep in his memory. “What makes you think you have a choice?”

“Please, not Yuuri…” His mother was sobbing now, fat, ugly tears rolling down her cheeks. Her voice broke. “Not my Yuuri—“

Yuuri’s chest shuddered. He reached out, but was instantly jerked back by the collar of his yukata, heels kicking and scuffing against the gravel. No, no – his mother was hurting; he had to help her feel better, he had to make her smile again.

“Let him go!”

Several things happened at once.

Mari charged, broom raised for a hard blow. His father yelled her name, seconds before the man parried Mari’s attack, and struck her across the face. And as she fell, there was a shriek, sharp and scarred and damaged. It took Yuuri a moment to realize that it was the very sound ripping through his own throat.

First his mother, and now Mari. He should’ve listened; he should’ve stayed in the closet. And now everyone was hurt and it was all his fault

He tried to run to Mari, but he was hauled back again, short limbs flailing, and he wanted to scream and scream until the broken glass in his chest managed to glue itself back together into solid, beating heart. But nothing came forth – not even a whimper.

“Consider your debts paid,” the outsider laughed, and the last Yuuri saw of his family was Mari lying limp in his father’s arms, and his mother rocking on the entrance step, her wails trailing after him long after he had been dragged far, far away.

 


 

Yuuri was quiet as the outsider threw him into a dark room, lit only by a single lantern in the corner. His shoulder cracked against the wood, but he barely felt the pain – his mind no longer permitted emotions of any kind. He had followed the man, blank and lifeless, without paying any attention to their route, or how long they had been walking. Slowly, he raised his head, watching as the man was joined by another stranger – one without swords, his hair tied in a high ponytail.

The second stranger eyed him with a glance. “Damn, you got a boy? Hardly anyone wants to give up boys.”

“’Want’ has nothing to do with it,” the first man snorted. “So? He’d fetch a good price in Edo, right?"

“I know just the teahouse,” the second shrugged. He dug into his yukata and tossed coins at first.

The outsider bit into a coin. “Thanks.” He shoved the rest into his clothes. “Fancy a drink before you leave in the morning?

“If it’s your treat,” the other man said with a grin.

The heavy door closed and a lock turned, before muffled footsteps faded into the distance.

Scooting to the wall, Yuuri fell against it, head rolling back with a thud. His tongue tasted of dust and iron; brown and crusty things were caked across his skin and under his fingernails. He half-expected his sister to show up and chide him for looking unpresentable for their guests; his mother to usher him, giggling, to the bath, while his father looked on with a fond smile. His family, his home, his warmth – gone, all gone. His eyes burned, and something—some emotion—weaved between his ribs and crawled up his throat in a soft, keening whine.

He never, ever, wanted to be old enough – not like this.

“I didn’t know they took boys,” said a voice softly.

Yuuri scrambled upright, scrubbing furiously at his eyes. “Who – who’s there?”

There was movement, and then someone shifted into the light.

It was a young girl. Her raven hair was messy and her pink kimono was covered with dirt. Although her face was pinched, as though shying away from some invisible pain, Yuuri recognized a hint of softness in the features that had him sag in relief.  

“I’m from Otsubo Village,” she said. “Where are you from?”

“Hasetsu,” Yuuri mumbled.

“We’re neighbors, then.” She winced. “Or, well, we were.”

 A sniffle escaped before Yuuri could catch it.

The girl’s hands flew to her lips. “Please don’t cry, it’s okay!” Then, hastily, “I mean, not that it’s okay we’ve been sold, but um, it’s okay because we’re… we’re together…?” She halted for a second, before she nodded, seemingly satisfied with her own rationale. “Yeah, that’s right, because we’re together now, and – and you look a lot smaller than me, so I promise to take really good care of you, like any big sister would!”

She shouted the last bit with zest, pumping her fist in the air.

Yuuri stared, wide-eyed. That was, a lot of words. And kindness. And a whole lot of love. And it was far more than he could bear.

Every suppressed feeling in his chest bubbled to the surface, the tears scorching a hot path down his cheeks. His eyes wrenched close, his shoulders shook, and his hiccups and sobs, unfettered and helpless, filled the gloomy room. He’d cried before, so many times before. But it hurt this time. It hurt so much. As though he had just been impaled, the blade twisting into his gut and tearing a path across the few remaining pieces of his heart.

Someone swept him into their arms, but he could only shudder, and cry harder. There was no smell of oil, no tonkatsu sauce. No brush of lips across his forehead. No soft whisper of it’s okay, sweetheart, mommy’s here.

Gone, all gone, with nothing left but the unrestrained wails of hopelessness and the tears that refused to stop.

All because he couldn’t stay in that stupid closet.

 


 

The girl’s name was Yuuko. She was ten years old.

And she kept her word.

As they traveled with the man with a ponytail, up mountainous paths and through farming villages, Yuuko never left Yuuri’s side, taking great care to keep up a steady stream of chatter the entire time. She pointed out flowers that bloomed by the side of the road, shared about her favorite desserts, and gave names to every animal-shaped cloud in the sky. At inns, she offered Yuuri the bedding, and insisted on covering Yuuri with the threadbare sheets that passed for blankets. At meals, she gave a portion of her food to Yuuri, claiming that he was a boy, and therefore needed more, and she couldn’t finish her food anyway.

A part of Yuuri wanted to be left alone – to stew in his own guilt and anguish. But another part of him was relieved to have such sweet, devoted attention on him throughout the long journey. Something about Yuuko reminded him of his life in Hasetsu, and on some days, that was just the antidote he needed to get on his feet and trudge on forward.  

It took a while for him to respond to Yuuko’s one-sided chats, and a little while more for him to crack a tiny smile. But he did eventually, just a glimpse, and it delighted Yuuko to no end.

(“You look super cute when you smile,” Yuuko squealed enthusiastically.

Yuuri blushed.

“I’ll have to remember what I said! Was it a joke? Or maybe I was talking about the—“

As she babbled on, Yuuri’s heart weighed a little lighter.)

And then, Yuuko started to share everything she knew of their situation.

Unlike Yuuri, her parents had prepared her of her fate since the age of five. She was told that, pending on the annual harvest, she might have to be given away in order for the family to pay the daimyo and survive. That it was her duty as a poor farmer’s daughter.

And the crop yield happened to be particularly abysmal this year.

Yuuri felt sick. Yuuko was so nonchalant about the matter, as if her family’s act of selling her was a normal thing to do.  "Isn't there anything else they could've done?" he muttered.

"It's either me or the farm. Everyone in Otsubo does it. Everyone has to do it." Yuuko stuffed a huge bite of rice in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "This girl I was friends with, she got sold when she was six. And the girl next door was gone the year before. And the girl on the other side of the village—"

"Okay, I get it," Yuuri cut in, chest tightening in horror. He thought the Hasetsu fishermen were crazy, but it seemed his family were the exception rather than norm. "Everyone does it." 

"I don't mean to upset you or anything." She swallowed the mouthful of rice and offered Yuuri a tender look of sympathy. "That's just the way things are for us."

"Yeah." Yuuri sighed into his food. "I guess I have a lot more growing up to do." 

"You're plenty grown-up to me," said Yuuko, so earnest and sincere that Yuuri's cheeks grew warm, and he ducked his head to avoid her gaze. "Anyway," she continued, seemingly unaware of his reaction, "My mom wasn’t too clear on what happens after we’re sold, but she did mention Edo and being made to work at a teahouse. She also talked about getting pretty clothes and accessories. So maybe we’d be like, servers or something?”

Turning, she beamed at their silent travel companion, who sat at the far corner of the table. “Is that what we’re doing, Mister? Serving people?”

The man paused his meal to spare a smirk that sent shivers down Yuuri’s spine. “Sure, kid. You’ll be serving tons of people.”

“See?” said Yuuko brightly. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Okay,” said Yuuri, gulping his disagreement down. No sense in spreading his fears, not when Yuuko might be right.

“Less talk, more eating,” the man sighed on the far end. “We’re an hour from Edo, and I want to get this delivery over with.”

The city of Edo, Yuuri soon discovered, was nothing like Hasetsu. There were buildings at every corner, and people swarmed the streets like giant schools of colorful tuna. Yuuko was in awe, gasping as they passed a store full of shiny accessories, and grabbing Yuuri’s arm every time a woman in a pretty kimono walked by. Yuuri, on the other hand, felt the keen prickle of anxiety – the city had too much noise, too many people, too little space. What Hasetsu lacked in clothes and shiny trinkets, it more than made up for in fresh air and wide, open lands. He kept his gaze rigidly fixed on some far point in the distance, glad to have Yuuko prattling by his side, her voice like a soothing balm on his worries. 

“—oh my god, Yuuri, look at that pattern, I’ve never seen a more elegant pattern on a kimono! What kind of flower was that, chrysanthemums? I think they were chrysanthemums. Or maybe lilies. I wouldn't mind lilies. Do you think we’ll get a chance to wear those, like, get a… a…

When Yuuko broke off mid-sentence, Yuuri shot her a started glance. “Yuuko?”

“Whoa,” was her only reply, her eyes raised skyward, mouth fallen open.

Yuuri followed her line of sight. A red gate loomed over their heads, similar to the torii of the shrines outside the villages, but larger, wider, and far more vibrant.

The man cocked a grin over his shoulder, slipping an arm out of the sleeve and slinging it carelessly into the front of his yukata.

“Welcome,” he crooned, “To Yoshiwara.”

 


 

Beyond the gate were rows and rows of teahouses, each of the many entrances obscured by a colored curtain with a unique symbol emblazoned across the front. Unlit lanterns were strung everywhere: they dangled across and above the streets; lined the sides of every roof from the red gate to the very end of the main street.

While Yuuri felt more relaxed in the quiet district, Yuuko’s jaw was perpetually unhinged as her head twisted and turned, determined to take in every detail of her surroundings.

“Look,” she nudged Yuuri with an elbow, “What do you think those men are looking at?”

Yuuri gazed at the crowd gathering around some barred room beside a teahouse. They seemed excited, hopping about gleefully and peering through the red bars like children at a candy store. The contents of the room were hard to see, so Yuuri could only venture a guess. “Some rare animals, maybe?”

“Ooh, like a penguin?” Yuuko giggled.

“Or a wolf.”

“Penguins are rarer than wolves.”

“Wolves are cooler,” Yuuri countered, lips twitching.

“Penguins are cuter,” Yuuko huffed.

“All right, that’s enough yammering. Honestly, it’s been enough yammering to make a person deaf.” The man released another deep sigh as he snagged Yuuri by the back of his clothes and yanked him to a teahouse with an emerald curtain. The circular symbol was a crane, with its head and wings curled down to join at the tips. En, the character for fate, was written in elegant, black lettering on a lantern by the doors. “Home sweet home, kid.”

“Wait,” said Yuuko, frowning. “What about me?”

You go to a teahouse for girls,” the man said with a shrug.

Instantly, Yuuri felt a hot sting pierce the back of his eyes. Again. He was going to lose his center of stability yet again. He had just begun to cling to the thin strand of hope that he would overcome this ordeal with Yuuko by his side, and even that wasn’t granted to him. The gods must have hated him in his past life. 

As if she could read his thoughts, Yuuko grabbed his hands in hers for a tight squeeze. “I’ll find you again,” she said fiercely. “I promise.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” the man snorted. Then, without a chance for a proper goodbye, he shoved Yuuri roughly through the curtain and entrance doors. Yuuri glanced back desperately to see Yuuko flash him a soft smile of encouragement, seconds before the doors slid shut behind him.

The inside of the teahouse was so similar to Yutopia Katsuki that a stone formed in Yuuri’s throat at the mere sight of it. Female servants bustled up and down the hallway, the rustling of their clothes reminding Yuuri of his mother and sister’s busy movements in the inn – in their home. He inhaled deeply, shakily, and willed himself not to cry.

An elderly woman strode up to the entrance, her eyes slanting, nose turned high. In a finely pressed kimono, she walked with the grace and contempt of an old aristocrat. “What is this?” she asked, gesturing at Yuuri.

“You said you needed an attendant,” the man pointed out. “And I brought you one.”

The woman’s nose wrinkled delicately. “I said an attendant, not a horse from the stables.”

“Lady, we came all the way from the south. Stands to reason he’d stink a bit.” The man folded his arms across his chest. “Why don’t you clean him up before you dismiss him? I’ve seen enough boys to know this one will be a looker.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the woman sniffed. Her hawk-like eyes darted to Yuuri. “How old are you, boy?”

Yuuri flinched instinctively. Something cruel lurked beneath the refined veneer. “E-Eight…”

She hummed through her nose. “He’s of a good age, I’ll give you that.” Then, with a sharp bark, she summoned a servant, who scurried over with her head bowed low. “Wash him,” she ordered, pushing Yuuri to the servant. “Then take him to my quarters.” She fixed her scowl on the man, just as he opened his mouth to speak. “You’ll get your pay after I’ve inspected his worth.”

Before Yuuri could catch the man’s retort, the servant had ushered him down the corridor. The teahouse was, indeed, structured like his family’s inn, bearing little resemblance to the interior Yuuko had described. There were no cushioned benches to enjoy one’s tea, or servers to take customers’ orders, or even any customer at all – only rooms from which female servants hastened in and out, carrying trays and assorted cleaning supplies.

And yet, there was no warmth, not even a drop of joy, unlike Yutopia Katsuki and its regulars.

Just what kind of a place was this?

But there was no time to think. Within minutes, the servant had stripped him down, shoved him into the empty bath, and scrubbed off the dirt and grime with scalding water until his skin burned a scarlet red. She moved silently and almost mechanically, throwing a kimono over his naked body after drying him down, and securing the sash with deft fingers. As she tugged him down a different hallway, Yuuri had just enough time to register how strange the kimono’s fabric felt on his skin, soft and slippery and wispy, before he was hauled into a large room. Chests and gold folding screens decorated the sides, while detailed paintings of waves and pine trees covered the walls.

The elderly woman was waiting for him. Stalking over, she grasped Yuuri’s chin between her thumb and forefinger, lifting it up and down and turning it about. Heart in his ears, Yuuri stayed limp and still, allowing her to do as she wished.

“Well,” she said after a beat, releasing his chin with a look of triumphant satisfaction. “You do have potential.” Her gaze dropped to Yuuri’s belly, her expression turning slightly sour. “Although you’ll have to lose some of that… weight.”

Without waiting for a response, she shot Yuuri a smile then, cold as a viper about to strike.

“For the time being, we shall see how you fare with Minori.”

 


 

Minori[1] turned out to be a man - and the greatest beauty Yuuri had ever seen. He was dressed heavily in layers and layers of colored undergarments and patterned robes; his ebony hair elegantly coiffed and held together by hair accessories that Yuuko would have envied for days. And his face, oh, his face alone was a piece of perfection carved by the gods themselves, with skin that was lighter than ivory, hooded eyes, and a slight nose just above delicate, ruby red lips.

The great beauty barely gave a glance when Yuuri and the elderly woman entered, his eyes trained on a scroll on his lap, the end of a long, smoking pipe held in one hand. A faint scent of jasmine wafted through the room.

“I’ve found you a new attendant[2], Minori,” the woman announced.

“And I told you I didn’t need one,” Minori replied without hesitation, his voice low and quiet. He lifted the pipe to his lips and drew in a breath, chest rising ever so slightly. “None have suited my taste.”

The woman pushed Yuuri forward. “This one might. He doesn’t speak much, and I know you favor that in an attendant.”

Minori raised his head, lips quirking at the corners. “I favor that in everyone.” His eyes roved down Yuuri’s figure as he exhaled a thin cloud of grey, the pause long and drawn out and deeply pensive. And then, finally, he tilted the end of his pipe toward Yuuri. “His name?”

Yuuri lowered his gaze to the floor as the woman turned to him, rubbing her chin. No one had asked for his name since his arrival. No one seemed to be asking him for it now.

“Mikawa[3],” the woman concluded. “Written ‘bi’ for beauty and ‘kawa’ for river.” She dropped a hand onto Yuuri’s shoulder, hard and heavy. “Do you hear that, boy? From now on, your name is Mikawa, and you will serve Minori in any way he desires. Serve him well, and he will pay for your expenses and teach you his craft until you can stand on your own two feet.”

Yuuri didn’t want a new name, nor did he want to be in Minori’s debt, but both the woman’s tone and firm grip brooked no arguments.

So, he nodded.

“Good. And don't even think about running away.” Long fingers tightened, digging into his shoulder, before letting go. “He’s all yours, Minori. I will collect him for his training tomorrow afternoon.”

Minori made a non-committal noise, and returned his attention to the scroll on his lap.

As the woman left, Yuuri sank down to his knees in a corner of the room, unsure of what else he was to do. It was clear from the conversation that Minori did not like to be disturbed. It wasn’t clear, however, how he was to serve Minori, the expenses he was about to accrue, or the training he was to undertake. He didn’t even know what people did in this so-called “teahouse”.

Trembling, Yuuri felt as though he was back in the closet again, scared and alone in the darkness.

“I can hear you rattling from over here,” Minori grumbled.

Yuuri stiffened. “Sorry, I just, I don’t know what to do and I—“

Minori held up a hand, and Yuuri fell silent, biting down hard on his bottom lip. 

“My rules are simple.” Minori rested the pipe between white teeth and inhaled, his movements slow and sensuous. “One, you will speak only when spoken to. Two, you will do as you are told. Three, you will address me as Big Brother[4] in my presence and before others. Understood?”

Yuuri bobbed his head in three quick nods. “Yes, Big Brother.”

Content with the reply, Minori turned back to his scroll.

For hours, they sat in their separate spots in complete silence, with Minori reading and Yuuri trying his hardest not to fidget. For hours, they didn’t move – until dusk fell, the lanterns beyond the open window glowed a crimson red, and the teahouse suddenly and unexpectedly came alive.

Out in the hallway, Yuuri could hear the hushed whispers of voices, the shuffle of feet rushing past in a mad hurry. Nighttime appeared to be when the teahouse was in its element, the staff galvanized into sudden and urgent action.

It was also when Minori spoke again.

“Go to the room next door,” he instructed, tapping the length of his pipe against his wrist, pieces of dark ash falling out from the mouth of the pipe and into a black container. “The servants should have given you a tray for dinner. You will eat and rest there while I entertain clients in my quarters. Sleep if you’re not called, but make sure you awaken at the crack of dawn.”

He paused then, chin lifted as he waited for an answer.

In truth, Yuuri had questions. So many questions. What did Minori do with clients? Why did he entertain them in his sleeping quarters? Why did they only come at night? But he had a feeling Minori wouldn’t appreciate so much inquiry – or even any inquiry at all.

“Yes, Big Brother,” was thus his response.

And then, legs numb from sitting on them for so long, he stumbled in his haste to get to the door, kimono flapping open and exposing his naked ankles.

Minori chose not to comment.

Yuuri’s first meal at the teahouse was luxurious, but meager. On his tray sat dishes of raw fish, grilled items, and a variety of seasoned vegetables – food that Yuuri had never seen before in his life, and all served on plates with beautiful spiral patterns. Yuuri might have been in awe, if there was more than a mere half bowl of rice, and if his stomach wasn’t too full of churning anxiety for a proper appetite.

As he picked at his food, his mind wandered to Yuuko. He wondered if her teahouse was as bizarre and mysterious as his; if she also had to serve a grown-up as an attendant. He wondered, with a painful twinge, if she was happy without him.

Then, abruptly, he slapped his cheek with a hiss. He couldn’t think that way; he mustn’t. Yuuko kept her promise before, and she was sure to keep the one she made at the entrance. She would find him and they would be together again. And with her bubbly and positive nature, she would stop him from retreating into the dark recesses of his mind, where thoughts of his family laid dormant: of the good times, and the ruin he had caused for his recklessness.

Yes, he thought, chewing furiously on the tips of his chopsticks.

They would be together again.

They had to be.

 


 

Yuuri settled into his routine sooner than he expected. Kept busy throughout the day, he had little time alone with his thoughts, and he was too exhausted for reflection when he was. Unless Minori was napping, his mornings were spent airing Minori’s bedding, organizing Minori’s cosmetics counter, and assisting the servants with cleaning Minori’s room. Afternoons were reserved for individual lessons that ranged from dancing and playing the koto, to reading classic literature and calligraphy writing. Evenings were his only quiet time, in which he waited in the room beside Minori’s quarters, ears open for Minori’s call.

Despite Minori's apparent position as Yuuri's mentor and benefactor, he seemed entirely disinterested in Yuuri. They didn't share much time together, and when they did, on the rare occasion that Minori wasn't with a client, they spent it in complete silence, with Minori perusing another scroll, and Yuuri watching and wondering if it was possible to will away the pins and needles in his legs. 

Yuuri's appetite also did not improve, but it seemed to give the elderly woman cheer to see his chin sharpen, and his stomach flatten. He quickly learned that, as the owner of the teahouse, her happiness ensured better food and better treatment – a fact that the other boys were too eager to remind Yuuri every time they saw him.

Not all the boys were sold or forcibly taken from their homes. Many of the older boys were apprentices to great Kabuki actors, and they used En as their Edo residence until their big break at the local Kabuki theatres. It was through those same boys that Yuuri understood the rigid hierarchy of the teahouse, and just how coveted his role was, given Minori’s status as the highest ranked. And it was through those boys that Yuuri discovered how much his safety hinged on the owner’s approval.

“Count your lucky stars you’re on the old hag’s good side,” one boy sneered as he shoved Yuuri into the wall.

“Bet Minori only likes you ‘cause you look just as pretty,” said another boy, throwing in an extra shove.

Yuuri said nothing. He knew the teenagers wouldn’t dare to harm him. Not in any way that would physically bruise his fair skin.

“Or maybe you’re a Korean half-breed like him,” the first boy added with a grin.

“A Korean half-breed bastard,” the second sniggered.

“What are you guys doing?”

The boys whirled round to glare at the giant, hulking form at the start of the hallway. “None of your damn business, Takasaki[5]!”

“Don’t bully a kid,” Takasaki said as he strode closer and crossed his arms, biceps bulging dangerously. He looked as though he could snap the older boys like two skinny twigs.

You’re still a kid,” one of the boys snapped, but his friend’s expression turned wary.

“No one’s bullying anyone,” he said. “So no one has to tell anyone anything.”

“What,” said Takasaki, thick eyebrows creasing together in confusion.

But the two boys were already skulking down the hallway, with the more cautious one leading the other away.

Inhaling a wobbly breath, Yuuri straightened the collar of his kimono and brushed dust off his sleeves.

“Thank you,” he murmured with a slight nod of the head, before sweeping past Takasaki, keeping his gait as steady as he could. He didn’t know Takasaki beyond the fact that the boy was a year older than him, so he didn’t want to find out why Takasaki had chosen to save him. The older apprentices had long taught him a valuable lesson: trust no one in the teahouse.

Takasaki’s stare prickled the hairs on the back of his neck, but Yuuri ignored the sensation, and focused on getting to his dance lesson on time.

That evening, Yuuri’s meal consisted of the finest dessert and nigiri sushi with the most expensive delicacies. His dance teacher must have informed the teahouse owner of his progress. He was just sinking his teeth into a tender cut of tuna belly, when he heard it – light tapping noises against the window pane.

Carefully, he set his chopsticks down and moved to the window. For a moment, he faltered, recalling the many demon stories Mari had told him. Then, muttering a Buddhist chant, he finally mustered his courage and threw the windows open.

With one glimpse, his fears melted along with his heart, his entire being tingling with warmth from head to toe.

Standing beneath the cherry blossoms in the courtyard was none other than Yuuko.  

Yuuko who shone brighter than the noon sun; who gave him hope and joy; who looked so cute in a kimono that was embroidered with the pattern of goldfishes.

Yuuko who kept her promises.

Shyly, Yuuri gave her a wave, which Yuuko returned with her usual enthusiasm, after tossing aside the pebbles in her hand. Come down, she mouthed, gesturing to the side.

Yuuri hesitated, turning to gaze at the wall that was the boundary between his room and Minori’s quarters. In his one year at En, Minori had yet to summon him in the middle of the night. Surely, he wouldn’t start tonight.

Okay, Yuuri gestured to Yuuko, forming a circle with his arms. Then, swiftly, he ran back to his tray to gather some food into his handkerchief—Yuuko may be hungry, after all—and dashed in the direction of the courtyard as fast as his little legs could carry him, praying frantically that no one, especially Minori and the owner, would step out of their rooms for the night.

 


 

“Oh wow, tuna belly and eel!”

Yuuri’s chest warmed at the sparkle in Yuuko’s eyes when he unwrapped the food he brought for her. They had managed to find a little corner in the back of the teahouse, quiet and hidden from prying eyes.

“My Big Sister is one of the lower ranks,” Yuuko explained as she popped a sushi piece into her mouth. “That’s why we don’t get the best food. It’s still pretty good, though.”

“So your teahouse has a hierarchy, too?” Yuuri asked curiously.

“Yep. Oiran is the highest rank, but my Big Sister is a tsukemawashi, two ranks down. Oh!” Yuuko clapped her hands together, beaming. “Do you have a new name? Mine’s Tomoe, and I kind of like it. I’ve always thought ‘Yuuko’ was kinda plain.”

“Mine’s Mikawa. And um,” Yuuri rubbed his heated neck, gaze flicking to the ground, “I think ‘Yuuko’ is a pretty name.”

“Aw, you’re sweet,” Yuuko giggled, bumping her hip against Yuuri’s.

They spoke about their experiences in the teahouse: trading stories on the other kids, their lessons, and comparing their grown-up mentors. Jealousy seemed to be a common theme; the lower-ranked girls in Yuuko’s teahouse were no less mean than the lower-ranked boys in En. Although Yuuko hadn’t faced the sharp end of their words, she had observed the way they treated the attendants of the oiran, and the many remarks they made behind the oiran’s back. Her own Big Sister was tainted by resentment, angered that a younger woman with less years of service had been promoted before her.

“She doesn’t call the oiran by her proper title, just the, you know,” Yuuko lowered her voice, “The bad ‘b’ word.”

Yuuri frowned. “The boys use a bad word for my Big Brother too.”

“To be fair, I’ve never talked to the oiran, so maybe she does deserve to be called that.” Yuuko picked another piece of sushi. “Does your Big Brother deserve his bad word?”

“He’s kind of cold. We haven’t really spoken since the first day.” Yuuri shook his head. “But I don’t think anyone should be called a bad word. That’s um…” He swallowed a lump. “That’s what my mom used to say.”

Yuuko’s features softened. “Your mom sounds nice.”

“She is,” Yuuri murmured.

There’s a beat, the atmosphere growing thick and heavy, before Yuuko cleared her throat loudly. “So,” she said, her bubbly voice cutting through the tension. “What do you think our Big Sister and Brother are doing with their clients?”

Together, they speculated on the identities of the mysterious clients. Yuuri thought they might be drunks who needed a place to sleep and a nurse to bring them back to health, just as his mother did with his father. Yuuko disagreed; why, then, would their mentors have to look so pretty for them? She believed that their mentors had to be entertaining the clients, maybe with a song and dance. The question, however, remained: who were these clients?

After much debate, they came to the conclusion that the clients had to be supernatural beings that came to the teahouses to dine and be entertained. Clients only came at night, and the red entry gates resembled the torii gates of shrines, so of course, Yuuko stated with great confidence, Yoshiwara had to be a crossing into another world.

The discussion was silly and nonsensical, and Yuuri couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled this much. Just like that, any hint of misery he had felt at the memory of his mother fully evaporated in the face of Yuuko’s gregarious personality. Her presence sent his heart soaring through the clear evening sky, light and free as a swallow, and he wished he could drift forever, away from the teahouse, and away from his life.

But fate had other plans for him, and it was, ironically, his very savior who reminded him of his imprisonment in reality.

“You should go back in case your Big Brother needs you,” said Yuuko softly. “My Big Sister specifically told me not to bother her at night, so it’s not a problem for me.”

Yuuri couldn't restrain the whine curling out of his voice. “But he’s never called for me before.”

“I’ll be back.” Yuuko laid a hand over his, warm and gentle.

His cheeks stained pink, the corners of his lips lifting. If Yuuko said she’d be back, then she would be back.

So, ignoring the childish howl in his mind, Yuuri slipped the handkerchief back into his kimono and shuffled back into the teahouse – away from Yuuko and back into his pretty cage. Unlike the bustle of the late evening, silence now filled the hallways, punctured only by the soft sounds of conversation and movement in the rooms. Shadows flitted across the paper doors like spirits in the dark, and Yuuri wondered, smiling, what Yuuko would have to say about them.

He was almost back at his room. Three steps, a mere three steps.

The door to Minori’s quarters slid open, and two voices broke through the darkness in unison.

“Mikawa, get up and bring me a kettle of water—“

“Mikawa, that girl—“

Yuuri froze, heart caught in his throat, as Minori and Takasaki stared at each other from opposite ends of the hallway.

The pause was long – far too long. Yuuri could hardly breathe; he was caught red handed, both for sneaking out of his room, and for meeting with someone who wasn't a part of En. (How long had Takasaki been following him anyway?)

It was Minori who spoke first.

“My, my,” he breathed, his voice smooth as velvet, “I cannot wait to hear your reasons for this unusual affair.”  

Chapter Text

Minori's hair was down, devoid of gold ornaments and cascading past lean shoulders. His gossamer undergarment, usually hidden beneath heavy robes, now bared every curve, every inch of his silken skin. Even then, he looked resplendent in the darkness – so bright, in fact, that Yuuri wanted nothing more than to shrink from the light. But he couldn't, and no matter how hard he prayed, Minori was still there, watching and waiting for an answer.

Yuuri wrung his hands, searching frantically for an excuse. Anything that would get him out of this mess. But his mind, ever the traitor, was a complete blank. "I, um…"

"It was me," Takasaki said firmly.

Yuuri's jaw fell, just as Minori quirked an eyebrow. "You?"

"Yeah, I, uh, I challenged Mikawa to a fight. 'cause uh, the other boys thought he'd be too much of a wimp to take me up." Takasaki's Adam's apple bobbed as Minori's eyes slanted. "Yeah, that's it. I was taunting him, you know, like, 'Mikawa that girl, he'd never have the guts'. And that's when he came out of his room. Right, Mikawa?"

It took Yuuri several seconds to process Takasaki's words; a few more to respond. "Yeah," he heard his voice say, quivering only so slightly. "Yeah, that's right. That's exactly what happened."

"A fight," said Minori, flat and unconvinced.

"Yep," said Takasaki, jutting his chin out in defiance.

Yuuri trembled in the silence that followed. He didn't know what punishments waited in store for breaking En's rules, but he was keenly aware of how careful the older boys were to avoid them. If Mari was any indication, teenagers were nigh invulnerable; the punishments had to be horrible for them to be so afraid. He could only hope to be given some leniency for his age.

Then again, he was brought to En for being old enough in the first place.

Minori cut through Yuuri's fears with a quiet hum. "Very well. Given that a fight has yet to occur, I see no reason to continue this inquiry. But I would advise against any further challenges." Narrowed eyes flickered to Yuuri. "Especially you, Mikawa. I cannot have you disgracing my name."

"Y-Yes, Big Brother." Yuuri bowed low, his heart thrumming against his ribs. Judging by the number of stories and poetry he consumed every day, his mentor had to be smart enough to see through such a blatant lie. What reason could he have to let them off the hook so easily?

When Yuuri straightened, Minori was already slipping back into his quarters.

"Fetch that kettle of water," he called over his shoulder. "My client is thirsty."

 


 

For the first time since he left home, Yuuri felt twinges of annoyance stir at his insides. Takasaki had chosen to follow him to the kitchens, ambling after him with loud footsteps that thudded against the wood floors. Yuuri wondered how he could have missed the giant's presence. He set a kettle into the sink and turned on the faucet, before whirling round on the older boy, fists clenched at his sides.

"What do you want from me?" he demanded over the hollow sounds of water filling metal.

"Nothing," Takasaki yelped, holding up both hands. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble, I swear! I just…" He trailed off and averted his gaze, rubbing his neck. "I just wanted to talk."

Yuuri drew in a slow breath. Now that he had gotten a good look at Takasaki, there was something about the other boy. Something about the way he shifted his big feet, the way his expensive kimono squeezed far too tightly around his bulky frame, the way his tongue seemed to stumble around the dialect of the great capital. The boy was awkward – far too much for a noble place like En.

"You came from a village," Yuuri said quietly.

Takasaki brightened. "Yeah. Yeah! That's why I wanted to talk. You aren't like the other boys, all proud and all mouth, so I thought, maybe you're a village kid, too. I figured it'd be easier for us to chat at night, so I went to your room. And I was just in the hallway, when you burst right out and ran off in the other direction."

As Yuuri paused, the sounds behind him doubled in volume – water had begun to overflow. Twisting, he turned off the faucet and emptied the excess water, before sealing the kettle with its lid.

"So I followed, you know, just to, uh, just to make sure you weren't doing anything stupid. Runaways get the harshest beatings," Takasaki continued, clumsily filling in the silence. "I just wasn't expecting to see you with a girl. Feels like ages since I've seen one our age."

The words escaped from Yuuri's throat before he could catch them. "She's my friend."

"Yeah? Well I was hoping we could be that, too." Takasaki gave a lopsided grin. "Us village boys have to stick together, right? I can even tell you the best hiding spots to meet your friend."

With both hands, Yuuri hauled the kettle out of the sink by the thin handle. "I'm…" He licked his lips, realizing only now how parched they were. Takasaki seemed genuine, and throughout their conversation, the instinct for fight-or-flight hadn't surfaced. Plus, it would be nice to have a friend in the teahouse. Really, really nice. "I'm Yuuri. My, um, my real name, I mean. Katsuki Yuuri."

"Cool," said Takasaki, and his grin broadened.

"I'm Takeshi. Nishigori Takeshi."

 


 

Takeshi wasn't Yuuko. He was rude, blunt, and every inch the village boy he claimed to be. At times, he made comments about Yuuri's looks, musing aloud how a real boy could possibly turn prettier as he aged; at other times, he guffawed, loud and uninhibited, at the appearance of horrifically embarrassing cracks in Yuuri's prepubescent voice.

But he was also kind. True to his word, he listed a number of meeting spots for when Yuuko returned. He ate lunch with Yuuri, protected him from the other boys, and taught him shortcuts to the various rooms around the teahouse. In exchange, Yuuri corrected Takeshi's dialect and tutored him on classic literature, forcing him to recite lines in the bath and analyze their hidden meanings.

Color returned to Yuuri's life, and he rose with eagerness at dawn, ready to begin another day with his new friend.

So when Yuuko slipped back into the teahouse several nights later—as Yuuri knew she would—he thought he ought to bring Takeshi along, because Yuuko would benefit from having another friend, too.

The introduction was brief.

"Are you one of the mean boys who bully Yuuri?" Yuuko puffed out her cheeks, rearing up to full height. She wore an orange kimono with patterns of spiral fishcakes and she barely reached Takeshi's eye level, but her aura warned of a menacing consequence if Takeshi failed to answer correctly.

"Uh," Takeshi glanced at Yuuri, his craggy face clearly beseeching him for help, "No?"

"He's a friend," Yuuri supplied. As a show of Takeshi's harmlessness, he gave the older boy an extra pat on the shoulder. "He said he'd help us find a better hiding spot."

"Oh," said Yuuko, a smile lighting up her round face. "Then it's very nice to meet you, Takeshi!"

Takeshi's cheeks turned a brilliant shade of red.

And so their duo became a trio, and they met once a month in the little alcove in Yuuri's very own room, concealed by a hanging ink painting of a crane soaring over Mt. Fuji. ("It's safer for me to sneak in than for you boys to sneak out," Yuuko reasoned with great authority.) Each month, they divided Yuuri's luxurious dinners among themselves in the cramped space, exchanged tips for their various lessons, and chuckled over the silly spats among their fellow residents.

A hot, steaming meal and a shared night of conversations and laughter – just like Hasetsu; just like home.

Tonight, their stories focused on the drama in their different teahouses. Takeshi told them of a scuffle that occurred in the baths between two older boys, ending with tears, bruises, and the owner laying her fury on them with a switch. Yuuko shared about a jealous lower rank, who shrieked profanities at her Big Sister in front of the staff, before setting upon the unfortunate woman and leaving ugly, red lines with her painted nails.

"My Big Sister screamed so many bad words, the owner had to cover my ears," Yuuko said as Takeshi doubled over, shaking. "It's not funny! I don't think it's nice to get scratched like that. The owner at Kaguya[1] got super mad."

"I think we're not supposed to get hurt." Yuuri laid a finger on his chin, feeling the rough bit of hardness on his skin. "I nicked myself shaving the other day and our owner got really upset."

"That's only 'cause you're pretty," Takeshi snorted. "I could get punched in the face and she wouldn't even notice."

Suddenly, Yuuko grinned from ear to ear and shifted closer to Takeshi, her thigh brushing against his. The giant tensed visibly, eyebrows pulling together. "W-What?" he said, shooting his fiercest glare. Yuuri wondered if he knew that the flush creeping up his neck served only to dampen the effect.

"Let's test it," said Yuuko. And then she lunged at Takeshi, sleeves flying.

"Wait," Yuuri said over the yelp and giggles, squishing back against the wall in alarm. "Wait, you're making too much noise—"

"Mikawa." Minori's airy voice wafted through the paper doors, and instantly, the pair froze. Yuuri stopped breathing entirely. "I need more candles."

Willing his heart to calm, Yuuri released an exhale. "Right away, Big Brother," he called.

Footsteps, and then the telltale slide of a door.

"We almost got caught," Takeshi hissed after a beat. Yuuko stuck out her tongue at him.

"I have to go." Yuuri punctuated his words with a prod at his friends' shoulders. "Stay. Quiet."

"Yes, Sir," they chirped in unison.

Yuuri kept his face stern as he lifted the painting and clambered out of the alcove. The whispers started as soon as he left, and he allowed his expression to soften. He was glad that his friends got along. Takeshi was a fun new element to Yuuko's visits, and with Yuuko around, he became more civilized, watching his rough mannerisms and even toning down his digs on Yuuri's appearance. Yuuko, of course, continued to radiate light and life, teasing Takeshi's thick country accent and giving Yuuri extra food portions – the beautiful glow about her never once dimming.

Lost in thought, Yuuri soon found himself back at Minori's quarters. After handing over the candles to Minori, he hurried back into his room, careful to pull the door shut, before making a beeline for the painting.

"I'm back," he whispered, pushing back the thick parchment. "What'd I mi—"

Yuuri halted mid-sentence.

Takeshi was alone in the alcove. Alone, with his eyes damp and rosy-edged, chest rising and falling in rapid heaves.

Evidently, Yuuri had missed a lot.

"Where's Yuuko?" he asked.

"Gone." The single word came out in a voice so uncharacteristically tiny and broken that Yuuri's chest constricted, and all questions of what, how, why dashed to the ground, unspoken.

Yuuri sank to his knees, fidgeting with the silk material of his kimono, as Takeshi sniffed noisily and swiped at his eyes. He wasn't sure of how to help. Back home, he was always the one getting soothed, not the one doing the soothing. Even here, it was Yuuko who did the comforting. But Yuuko was gone, and quite possibly the reason for Takeshi's sadness.

Yuuri bit his lower lip. Think, think, think. What did his mom used to do for him when he was upset? "Do you, um…" He hesitated, then plunged ahead in a rush, "Do you want a hug?"

Takeshi looked up, breathing out heavily. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, that'd be nice."

Yuuri drew Takeshi into his arms, tugging him close, until the broad chin bumped into his shoulder. Takeshi grabbed him immediately, fingers digging into his back and clinging so hard that it hurt. But Yuuri kept silent, stroking small circles onto Takeshi's back as the older boy cried into him.

"I did something dumb, Yuuri," Takeshi sobbed. "I should never have done it. But – but she looked so happy, and so sweet, and sh– she was just, just – sitting so close that I just – I couldn't – "

Yuuri wanted to ask: what heinous crime could you have committed to make the kindest, most gentle person in the world this mad? He wanted to know what happened, get to the bottom of this horrible mess, so everything could go back to the way it was. So everyone could be happy again.

Instead, he murmured, "It'll be okay. Yuuko's nice, she'll calm down."

"You really think so?" Takeshi pulled away to meet Yuuri's eyes with his red, puffy ones. "'cause I'd hate to lose her over this."

Yuuri gazed back, steady and even.

"Yeah," he said. "I really think so."

It was the first lie he ever told – and it wasn't the last.

 


 

Yuuko returned a year later, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, the courtyard strewn with pink petals. She was still bright-eyed and glowing with life, but she carried herself differently. Her head was raised just a smidge higher; her back, impeccably straight. And when she walked, she drifted, like the wings of a butterfly carried by a light spring breeze.

As she picked at Yuuri's dinner behind the painting, she spoke of her new duties in Kaguya. She had been promoted to the rank of shinzo, which meant that she now accompanied her Big Sister to big events and afternoon sessions with clients. With her promotion came a new name: Oseyo[2].

Yuuko revealed that she didn't like her new name; it didn't sound elegant and it had no real meaning behind it. She didn't like her new duties, either, and she was disappointed to find that the clients weren't supernatural beings at all. They were men, regular men, and some of them were "really, really old". They would also ignore her, she lamented, like she was just a vase of flowers sitting in the corner, pretty but forgotten.

She did, however, enjoy the new clothes and accessories that came with her promotion.

"See this?" Yuuko lifted her arms, exposing the long sleeves that flowed down to her ankles when she stood. Designs of flowers in various shades of pink and red trailed across the fabric, loud and vibrant and ostentatious. "It's called a 'furisode'. Isn't it pretty? You'll probably get something like this, too, when you're of age."

'Of age'. The phrase seemed to imply change that was forced upon the person who turned, like Yuuri being taken to En, and Yuuko gaining a new name and new duties she didn't like.

Yuuri was starting to hate that phrase.

"It's very pretty on you," he told Yuuko anyway.

As always, they spoke about their teahouses and traded stories; laughed and giggled about the antics of the grown-ups around them. But something was missing: the third element, the ticking time bomb that spent the last year moping about the dark corners of En so much that the elderly owner yelled at him for scaring clients. Yuuko had specifically stated that she came to see Yuuri, and only Yuuri, so he honored her unspoken plea and met with her alone.

That didn't mean they couldn't talk about him.

"He really misses you, you know," Yuuri said during a lull in their conversation.

Yuuko stiffened. "I don't know who you're talking about."

Yuuri held back a sigh. Even the nicest people like Yuuko had a stubborn streak. "What happened between you two that night? I was gone for what, two minutes?"

"Do I have to talk about it?" said Yuuko, raising her chin.

"Yeah, because Takeshi won't. He hasn't smiled since you left. Not even once." Yuuri crossed his arms into his kimono sleeves, frowning. "I think it's about time I understand why."

Yuuko swallowed. Then, something in her demeanor crumbled: her lips trembled, thin eyebrows dipping down at the corners. "Is he really that sad?"

"Really, super sad," Yuuri said with a firm nod.

At first, Yuuko didn't respond. Shoulders hunched, she ducked her head and fisted the material at her knees, clenching and unclenching, as if she was fighting some desperate inner turmoil. Just when Yuuri was almost on the verge of losing his resolve for an answer, she finally spoke. Half-yelled it, more like.

"He kissed me, okay?" she blurted out, so sudden and vehement that it nearly bowled Yuuri over. "He kissed me, and I didn't know what to do, so I panicked, and I ran. And now I don't know how to face him because I have no idea how I feel about him, and… and now I feel really bad for making him this sad."

Ah, kisses and feelings and love. This was bordering on grown-up territory and Yuuri didn't know what to tell her. He has had moments when he felt his stomach flutter around Yuuko, but he was pretty sure it had more to do with the kindness of her words than any of the romantic love depicted in classic literature. But Yuuko was looking at him expectantly, as though hoping for miracle guidance of some sort, so he went with a piece of advice that his father once gave him when he was in a cold war with Mari.

"Go talk to him," Yuuri suggested. "You won't solve anything by not talking."

Yuuko dropped her head back to gaze at the ceiling. "But what would I say to him?"

"Tell him what you told me." Yuuri shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, maybe he'd be happier knowing that you're not totally rejecting him."

Slowly, and to Yuuri's relief, Yuuko bobbed her head. "That… that makes sense. It's not like I don't like him. I just don't know if I like-like him."

"Great," Yuuri said, unsure of what else to say. He was tapped out of sagely words. "Want me to go get him?"

"No, I'll go. I'm way better at this stealth thing than you boys are." Yuuko laid a hand on his knee, her eyes soft. "And your Big Brother might want you."

"Okay," said Yuuri. He knew she was right: after a year and half, she had yet to be caught for sneaking out of her teahouse, and Minori, well – Minori had proven to be unpredictable. Carefully, he described the layout of the teahouse and pointed to the hallway Takeshi's room was located.

"Got it," Yuuko said, brushing aside the painting, but not before she leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. "Thank you."

Yuuri flushed.

Just like that, things went back to normal. Yuuko returned every month, and Takeshi rejoined them, with far greater spirits than Yuuri ever remembered seeing him. The topic of love was never brought up again, but Yuuri didn't miss the pink dusting of their cheeks, or the shy glances exchanged when they thought he wasn't looking. There was always a pang of unease in Yuuri's chest—of the trio becoming a duo, of being neglected and left out—but a larger part of him was excited for his friends. If anything, their blossoming love was a beacon of hope:

Happiness was within reach in Yoshiwara – one just had to find it.

 


 

"How old are you this year?"

Startled, Yuuri hastened to gather his thoughts. It was the first time Minori had spoken to him during his readings. "I will turn thirteen in November."

"Hn." Minori gestured his pipe at Yuuri, smoke curling in random patterns around him. "I hear you're performing remarkably well in your lessons."

Yuuri dipped his head slightly. "I do the best I can."

"How modest." Ruby lips lifted in a crooked smile, before wrapping languidly around the tail end of the pipe. Yuuri sat stock-still as Minori's piercing gaze lingered on him, hooded eyes searching for something under the terse silence.

"Deep silence," Minori said abruptly in a quiet exhale, grey wisps rising into the air. "The shrill of cicadas; seeps into rocks." He paused then, tilting his head, ornaments swaying. His motions were gentle as a sweep of falling petals, but his eyes glinted like a blade drawn from its scabbard.

Yuuri took the cue. "A haiku," he said, "By Master Matsuo Basho[3]."

"Excellent." Minori's teeth clacked against the pipe. "And your thoughts?"

Yuuri inhaled. The scent of jasmine sweetened his senses as he recalled the words he wrote for his literature teacher, letting them roll off his tongue. "I believe the Master is conveying the essence of pure silence. A silence so deep that even the intense noise of summer cicadas is lost, unheard and buried in rock."

Minori chuckled. "A model student, indeed."

"Thank you, Big Brother," Yuuri replied dutifully.

Minori took a moment, bowing his head and pressing his lips together in contemplation. Then he began to speak, quiet and deliberate and without waste, delivering his message with such artful eloquence that Yuuri hung onto his every word.

"You will find, Mikawa, that many in En mistake words as the way to a client's heart. Words have their use. But keep your words spare and few, and they take on more meaning, more power."

"Use your body to speak instead: your eyes, your lips, your hands, your hips. Be an enigma, a mystery, a force to be broken. If there's one thing men desire, it's the exultation of a victorious battle that was fought hard and long. Give too easily, and they will lose interest. Hold back too far, and they will find you contemptuous. So you will hold back with your silence, a silence as deep and pure as Master Basho portrayed, but give with your movements and unspoken flirtation."

Again, Minori paused, setting the pipe back between his teeth. "Do you understand?"

No, thought Yuuri. He understood the words but not the meaning behind them.

Out loud, he said, "Yes, Big Brother."

Minori gave a sharp bark of laughter. "No, you don't, but you know when to please. A useful skill, nonetheless." His expression remained amused as he leaned back, breathing out another cloud of grey. "I will inform the old woman that you are ready."

"Ready for wh—" Yuuri choked on the rest of his sentence when Minori arched a fine eyebrow, mirth dissipating from the exquisite features like the smoke of his red pipe. He had broken one of the rules; the words had slipped out before he could stop them. "I, I'm sorry—"

"Clients, Mikawa," Minori interjected. He was smiling again, fine and razor-sharp. "Starting tomorrow afternoon, you will join me in my sessions with clients."

Yuuri sucked in a breath. That's right, Yuuko began seeing clients with her Big Sister when she turned thirteen two years ago.

He was of age[4].

 


 

It was odd for Yuuri to be in his room at this hour of the day, dressed in nothing but his undergarments.

It was odder, still, to have the female servants flit around him like bees, buzzing in complete silence.

One dabbed paint on his eyes and rouge on his lips; another tugged and pulled at his hair, shaping it into an elegant bun atop his head. There was even a third: she set about laying furisode of assorted designs across the mats, taking great care to line the long sleeves at a perfect right angle.

They were soon joined by the elderly teahouse owner, who swept into the room to a chorus of good morning and made a quick inspection of Yuuri's appearance, jerking his chin this way and that.

"Good, good," she said approvingly, before releasing him to examine the furisode. "Minori has chosen a design of fall leaves. Make sure you give Mikawa something autumn themed as well. Perhaps that one on the side over there."

As the third servant started slipping Yuuri into the furisode—a rich, navy blue, covered with an embroidery of flowers that resembled red spiders—the owner turned her full attention on him. "My dear Mikawa," she said, her voice so honeyed and saccharine that Yuuri barely repressed a shiver. It sounded nothing like her usual impatient growl, as if the very act of speaking was beneath her. "How are you feeling about your debut?"

"I feel that I am ready," Yuuri lied.

"Indeed," the owner tittered, pleased with his response. "To receive the blessing of Minori is no mean feat. You have done extremely well, Mikawa." She rested a wrinkled hand on Yuuri's cheek. "I have every faith that you will be a great asset to En, just like your Big Brother."

"Thank you," Yuuri murmured.

"Such a good boy," the owner purred, as deft fingers secured the sash tightly against his back. "Come, I will take you to Minori myself."

Obediently, Yuuri trailed after her. He wondered how Minori could possibly tolerate a full face of make-up every single day. Already the colored paint rested heavy on his eyelids, making him acutely aware of every blink and crinkle of his eyes, while the rouge left a strange taste, thick and pasty, when he made the mistake of drawing his bottom lip between his teeth. No doubt Takeshi would have lots to say if he could see Yuuri right now.

"Here we are." The owner stopped before a door that was etched with the painting of a cherry tree, its pink buds scattered, dark branches sprouting across the white paper. Sliding the door open, she swept him through without ceremony. "Go on. Minori's waiting for you."

The room was similar to Minori's quarters, but larger and more spacious. Lined near the door were three dinner trays topped with extravagant dishes, one tray set at a perpendicular angle from the rest. Minori sat regally behind the tray closest to the open window, clad in robes of cream, golden-red maple leaves dancing across the thick garment. A sash pillowed on his lap, full and black – a contrast to his snow-white face, framed by silvery ornaments that hung like the leaves of a willow tree.

After staring at Minori for so many evenings, Yuuri had forgotten how bewitching a visage the man presented.

"Higanbana[5]," Minori noted, his eyes settling on Yuuri's furisode. "An interesting choice."

"The owner wanted something autumn themed to match your kimono," said Yuuri, clasping his hands in front of him.

"I see." Minori's lips curled ever so slightly, before he gestured to the tray on the side. "Your place is there. And remember," he added, as Yuuri sank onto the cushion, smoothing out the long trail of sleeves behind him, "My rules apply in the presence of clients."

"Yes, Big Brother."

The client arrived soon after – announced by the owner, who slipped out the door unnoticed. Yuuko was fairly accurate in her descriptions of clients: old, stout, and dressed in clothes that screamed of wealth and status. This one practically fell to his knees to embrace Minori upon his entry, as though Minori were the spring to his raging thirst.

"Oh my Minori, how I've missed you," he sighed gustily, nuzzling his cheek into Minori's shoulder. "Did you miss me?"

Minori's eyelashes fanned over dark eyes. "Always."

"You're just saying that to make me happy," the client pouted.

Minori let out a soft huff of laughter, but said nothing more.

As Yuuri watched Minori's interactions with the client, the meaning behind Minori's unexpected spiel gradually took form.

His Big Brother's words were spare and few, conveying his thoughts and feelings with a subtle dip of eyelashes, the slight curve of his lips. Now and then he laid fleeting touches on the client: fingers fluttering across an arm, a knee, and sometimes resting, briefly, on the client's thigh. And, indeed, the client seemed to grow more intoxicated with each motion, curling round Minori and uttering heated praises, paying no heed to the geisha that crossed into the empty space and began their dance to the resonate sounds of the shamisen.

Unspoken flirtation.

Heat rose to Yuuri's cheeks. There was no doubt Minori was a master at his craft, but what did that bode for him? Was he, too, expected to flirt, to touch, to take another man's kisses, like he was the concubine of an emperor?

"Who's this?" the client said without warning, his gaze shifting to Yuuri.

Yuuri straightened at once, eyes widening. This was new; Yuuko always said they would ignore her.

"That is my attendant," said Minori. "Mikawa, give your greetings to Lord Hirata."

Sliding back, Yuuri bowed, lowering his head to the ground. "It brings me great pleasure, Lord Hirata."

"Of course, of course." The client broke away from Minori to hold up his sake cup, which Minori wordlessly filled with a tip of the kettle. "Tell me, Mikawa," he grinned over the edge of his cup, "What are your thoughts on autumn?"

"Autumn?" Yuuri shot a glance at Minori, only to be met with an impassive gaze. Clearly, no help was coming forth. "I, um… I think autumn is… a sad season."

"A sad season? One doesn't hear that often," the client hummed in surprise. "Say more."

Yuuri took a deep breath, as he always had when his teachers asked for further elaboration. "I think autumn is beautiful, with its foliage of red, brown, and gold. Yet, it is also the sign of a world that is dying, when the trees lose their leaves and the earth loses its warmth."

The strums of the shamisen filtered into a pregnant pause.

Then the client laughed, sloshing sake all over his dinner tray. "What poetic insight!" Yuuri released the tension in his shoulders as the client's chortles continued, loud and hearty. "You have a gem, Minori, a real gem!"

"Mm, yes." Minori's cocked his head toward the window, lips twitching at the corners, sunlight reflected in his glimmering eyes. "I am fully aware."

And so the parade of clients went on, and Yuuri soon grew accustomed to the paint on his face. It wasn't always a rich man, Yuuri discovered. Sometimes it was a rich lady; other times, an artist, who would then spend the entire afternoon dipping and sliding his brush in delicate motions, capturing Minori's image onto a white canvas. Once, just once—much to the elderly owner's chagrin—it was a man dressed in a humble yukata with off-color patches, claiming in a tremulous voice that he had given his life's savings to meet the finest beauty in Yoshiwara and he was ever so grateful for the opportunity.

Most didn't acknowledge Yuuri's presence, while some, like the friendly Lord Hirata, engaged Yuuri in conversation about the seasons, poetry, or classic literature. Regardless, with each and every client, Minori enchanted them so much that they would stay for the night, scampering like eager puppies to Minori's quarters.

Yuuri was fourteen when he met Lord Sugimoto.

The man had arrived early for his afternoon session with Minori, so the teahouse owner, flustered and frantic, shoved Yuuri through the cherry tree door with hissed instructions to keep him entertained.

Sugimoto's eyes flickered to Yuuri and narrowed, his words coming out crisp and precise. "You're not Minori."

Heart pounding in his ears, Yuuri fought the instinct to bolt for the door. Sugimoto's somber outfit reeked of power, the white circles on his chest and sleeves indicative of an official of the Tokugawa shogunate[6]. One mistake, and Yuuri was in deep, deep trouble. "Minori is unavailable." He sank his forehead to the wood floor. "I am his attendant, Mikawa, and it will be my privilege to serve you until Minori arrives."

Sugimoto exhaled through his nose, tucking his arms into his sleeves. "I have no interest in fledglings."

Yuuri's teeth drove into his bottom lip until the thick taste of rouge rolled against his tongue. He had to do something. 'The client didn't want me around' was surely not an acceptable excuse in a place like En. Rising to a sitting position, he spoke, strong and unwavering.

"I am a trained fledging."

Sugimoto's eyebrows shot upwards, seconds before his face twisted into a dark grin. "Are you now," he breathed. "Show me your training then, boy."

Yuuri felt his nerve dissolve in his boiling stomach; he had expected a little more resistance. "I can dance. I can dance," he repeated with emphasis, as though a second affirmation would give him a boost of confidence. (It didn't.) "But the accompaniment…"

"A true professional should be able to do without," Sugimoto said sharply.

Right. There was no turning back. He had sown the seeds and it was time to reap the harvest of his own self-destruction.

Taking a deep breath, Yuuri spun around and took the starting pose for the 'Evening Song of Autumn'[7]. Short and melancholic, the song conveyed the sorrow of a woman awaiting her lover's visit through the lonely autumn nights. Nasal vocals surfaced in Yuuri's mind and he stood, pivoting round to take his first, shaky step. As he moved, slow and deliberate, he allowed his muscles to take over, soaking in the imagined music and trusting in the memory of a dance he had performed a hundred – no, a thousand times.

Each movement told a story, an emotion. A wide sweep of his arms suggested the opening of a window; a lift of his sleeve to red lips and a slight tilt of his head meant a coy gesture of contemplation. A gathering of his long sleeves and two steps forward: the pacing of a woman impatient for her lover's return. The minute gesture of bringing his hands together, only to open them and dab one to his face: the same woman painting her face with the anticipation of her lover's arrival.

Motions must be elegant, intricate, and precise[8]. His teacher once spent an entire lesson correcting one particular flick of his wrist, because his hand had to be curved just so, and all his fingers had to point in that one exact angle. And point he did, mindful of his teacher's instructions, as he raised his gaze to the ceiling, as though he were praying to the full moon that hung among the stars.

Finally, the woman, sad and exhausted, went to sleep, and Yuuri, with another sweep of his arms, ended the dance with a bow, touching his forehead to the floor once more.

With his mind now as silent as the cherry tree room, he became painfully aware of Sugimoto's stare prickling the back of his neck. Had he made a mistake? Had he brought shame and embarrassment to his Big Brother and the teahouse? The official was probably finding ways to communicate his dissatisfaction to the teahouse owner—

"Has anyone claimed you for your first night?" Sugimoto asked quietly.

—what?

Yuuri lifted his head, eyebrows knotting in bewilderment. "Um, I—"

The door rattled open with a sharp crack, a faint scent of jasmine wafting into the room.

"He is too young for a bid, Lord Sugimoto."

Yuuri snapped up, back rigid as a plank. Minori stood at the door, towering imperiously in a black kimono with embroidered flower patterns and a gold-yellow sash covered in white chrysanthemum prints.

"Ah, Minori." Sugimoto's features softened instantaneously. "You are a vision."

Minori dipped his head as he floated to the official's side. "I see Mikawa has filled your time," he said, settling gracefully on the cushion.

"Indeed, he has." Sugimoto turned back to Yuuri, who had remained in his spot, too scared to move. "I admit to being skeptical at first, but he is more than deserving to be your attendant." He smiled in a way that had Yuuri's heart drum uncomfortably in his chest. "And most certainly deserving of a reliable man for his first night."

"We are honored, my lord," Minori said smoothly. "But it will be another two years before Mikawa is ready."

"Well," Sugimoto chuckled, "I waited years for your approval. What is another two?"

After Yuuri scurried over to his seat, the rest of the afternoon went by without a hitch. Sugimoto remarked on Yuuri's dancing skills when the geisha began their performance, but he otherwise kept his attention solely on Minori.

Yuuri barely listened to the conversation, the exorbitant dishes of eel and matsutake mushrooms sticking in his throat. Something about the way Sugimoto looked at him had unnerved him. On top of that, Minori, despite all appearances, was angry. Yuuri could see it in the flat, bone-hard press of his lips, the edged gleam in his eyes even at half-mast. He had heard Yuuko speak of the jealousy among the grown-ups; of the women who stole clients from one another, heedless of rank and status. Minori must be displeased with him for piquing Sugimoto's interest and Yuuri found himself hating the very thought.

So when Minori took Yuuri with him to change and wait for Sugimoto in his quarters, Yuuri opened his mouth to apologize – but Minori spoke first.

"Did he touch you?" he demanded, whirling round, eyes simmering deep into Yuuri's.

Yuuri gaped. "I, I don't—"

"Did he touch you?"

When Yuuri shook his head vigorously, Minori breathed out a long sigh, shoulders collapsing as though a crippling weight had lifted from them. "If a client makes a move on you, you will report them straight to me. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Big Brother," Yuuri murmured.

"Good. The staff should arrive with your dinner soon." Minori paused, before dropping a light hand on Yuuri's head, carefully avoiding his flowered hair ornament. "You did well, Mikawa."

Warmth flooded through Yuuri's being. Minori was worried about him. Him. No other grown-up in En had shown a drop of kindness, concerned only about his appearance and the result of his lessons. Filled with gratitude, he bowed, keeping his head low until Minori closed the door behind him. There was more to his seemingly apathetic Big Brother than the man would care to reveal.

 


 

"I've had a couple of clients ask the same question," Yuuko said, wrinkling her nose. "My Big Sister didn't explain anything, though. Just told me to leave it to her."

"I don't like the sound of this 'first night' business," Takeshi grumbled. "The owner's been prattling on to me about my first night too, going on and on about how she thought a woman would suit me better. Dunno why, but I felt vaguely insulted."

"Would you rather entertain a man like Yuuri and me?" Yuuko teased, wiping sauce off the side of Takeshi's mouth with the pad of her thumb.

Takeshi scowled, even as he laid a gentle hand on Yuuko's knee. "Hell no. I'd rather die than laugh at some old man's stupid jokes."

Yuuri watched his friends with enough fondness to make his heart burst. Over the last year, their casual touches had grown more frequent: a soft caress of shoulders as they squeezed into the alcove, a brush of hair off the other's face. He knew they were being careful of their newfound relationship out of consideration for his feelings, and he couldn't adore them more.

"It sounds like your Big Brother cares for you," Yuuko pointed out, cutting into Yuuri's reverie. "My Big Sister's more worried about her own reputation."

"I never thought Minori had the capacity to care for anyone," Takeshi snorted.

"He does," Yuuri said firmly. "He's just… just…."

"Stuck up?" Takeshi supplied. "Haughty? Proud?"

"Misunderstood," Yuuri finished with a frown, while Yuuko smacked Takeshi across the back of his head.

They closed their meeting with a discussion about the unprecedented arrival of foreign ships in Edo's port[9] – a shift in topic tactfully conducted by none other than Yuuko. All three were curious about the adults' reactions to the news: it was a particularly heated topic that mentors, teahouse owners, and clients tended to bring up these days, lamenting about the audacity and foolhardiness of 'foreign dogs'.

"I think it'd be nice to learn more about the outside world," Yuuko said in a hushed voice as Yuuri led them out of his room.

"Why learn more if we're comfortable with what we already know," Takeshi huffed.

"You're like the frog in the well[10]," Yuuko giggled. "Blissfully ignorant."

"Are you calling me dumb?"

"—ah."

They stopped in the hallway, startled by the sudden sound. It fluttered in the air, soft and hitched, like the utterance of a person in pain.

"Ah, hahh…"

"Yuuri," Yuuko murmured, nudging him in the arm. The door to Minori's quarters was slightly ajar, candlelight filtering through the tiny gap.

As one, they crept toward the light and pressed their faces against the wooden frame.

There was skin. So much skin, flushed and bare and exposed. And the sounds; the sounds that led them there—whispers and rasps—they filled the room to the brim, raking up walls and down gold screens. There, right there. Sugimoto's hips rose from the bedding, and the line of Minori's back curved as he arched, rising, lips parted in the vestige of a sigh.

Yuuri's throat went hard, clenching over a gasp that threatened to escape. A hot wave surged through him, thick and winding, when Minori rose again, head falling back with a strained cry. Beside him, Yuuko made a noise that sounded like a whimper. Some part of Yuuri told him to leave. Avert his eyes and close the door. But he wouldn't move. Couldn't move. He was drawn to the intimate scene like a moth to the flame, his mouth going dry, fingernails digging into his palm deep enough to rip through skin.

It was Takeshi who slammed the door shut.

It was Takeshi who grabbed him and Yuuko by the arms, and heaved them both into Yuuri's room.

And it was Takeshi who voiced the thought that crawled into Yuuri's mind, like black vines up the side of an old, dilapidated house.

"I hate this fucking teahouse."

 


 

Yuuko stared at the walls, the ceiling, the hanging painting, the floor. Anywhere but them. Generally everything but them.

Yuuri understood: she was in shock. They were all in shock. Nothing had prepared them for this truth – not the daily rituals and certainly not the lessons. Still, he really wished Yuuko would talk. He needed her to babble right now. Chatter on like all was right with the world and she was confident of her faith in that belief. But she didn't. She was pale and drawn and she was silent. So silent that Yuuri's thoughts echoed, pulling him deeper into a pit of anxiety and gut-clenching fear.

"Okay, look." Takeshi's rumbling voice hurtled against the silence. "Maybe – maybe it's just how Minori entertains. Maybe that's his choice. The other adults… they probably do other stuff with their clients, like… like play go or something."

"But," Yuuri started at the croak, realizing belatedly that it was the sound of his voice, "But it makes sense. Like how my Big Brother's always in his undergarments when he summons me. Or why Yuuko's Big Sister doesn't want to be bothered at night. Or… or the whole thing about the 'first night'…"

At that, Yuuko flinched. "We – we wouldn't have to do that, would we?" she mumbled wetly, her eyes wide and glistening in the darkness.

"No you don't." Takeshi whipped to Yuuri. "Right, Yuuri? You don't have to do anything like that. Tell her you don't have to do anything like that."

Yuuri felt sick. There was a kind of desperate hope in Takeshi's expression that tore into his ribs and curdled his heart. "I…" He swallowed, a stone forming in his throat. "I…"

"Yuuri, come on," Takeshi pleaded. "You have to say it. You have to. It'd mean nothing coming from me."

Yuuri shook. He couldn't say it; he couldn't. Not when they were empty wordsserving no purpose other than to blind and deceive themselves into hoping for a future that didn't exist.

Yuuko began to sob then, lost and unrestrained. Her shoulders crumbled and her eyes screwed shut, tears swelling down reddened cheeks. Takeshi reached her in two strides, snaking both arms around her in an instant and tugging her close. She clung to him, trembling, hands fisting into the material of his kimono as she buried her quiet wails into his chest.

"I'm sorry," Yuuri choked out. Yuuko was crying, and all because he couldn't tell a pretty lie. "I'm sorry; I'm sorry—"

"It's not you," Takeshi snapped hoarsely. "It's the stupid teahouses and their stupid, perverted old bastards. It's Yoshiwara. This whole place is evil, and – and I think…" He tightened his embrace around Yuuko. "I think it's time we leave."

"But you said…" Yuuri rubbed at his raw eyes. "You said that runaways get the harshest beatings…"

"Yeah," said Takeshi. "The ones who get caught."

A beat, then Yuuko looked up. "I've snuck out of my teahouse this many times already," she muttered, face hardening as she drew in a wobbly breath. "Count me in."

Patting her back with great tenderness, Takeshi jerked his chin at Yuuri. "So? You're not gonna let some old geezer have his way with you, are you?"

Yuuri stared at Takeshi, then Yuuko, and then Takeshi again. Escape had crossed his mind when he was alone and awake at night – a dangerous, fleeting thought that he suppressed as soon as it surfaced. But Yuuko was in trouble now. Yuuko needed their help. And the only way they could do that was to get her far away from Yoshiwara, to a place where she could be at her brightest, shining her innocence upon those who actually deserved it.

He had to stop being so afraid. For Yuuko.

"All right," said Yuuri, clenching his jaw so tight that his teeth ached. "Let's get out of Yoshiwara."

 


 

They were running.

Yuuri tripped once, his wooden geta falling with a dull clunk, but he kept going. Tossed his other geta aside and ignored the jab of pebbles into the soles of his feet. While they were asleep on the side of a road, men with swords[11] had sprung upon them, creeping up with the first rays of the morning sun. The teahouse owners must have discovered their absence.

How did everything go so wrong, so fast?

The men were hollering now. Roars. Shouts. Yuuri couldn't make out their words over his pants, the pounding of his heart and feet. The meager diet and sedentary lifestyle had reduced him to a weak, wheezing mess, and by the pained look on Yuuko's face, she wasn't faring any better. Even Takeshi was slowing down, his chest heaving with exertion.

Yuuko screamed; someone had tackled Takeshi to the dirt.

"Stop," Yuuri gasped, as a man lifted Yuuko by the waist, and she kicked and howled enough bad words to make her Big Sister blush. "Let her go—"

"Yuuri," Yuuko cried, reaching out for him.

He ran forward, stretching for her, seconds before rough hands grabbed his sash, and another snagged his collar.

It was over in a span of minutes.

"Don't you dare hurt my friends," Takeshi snarled, spitting out mud and blood.

The man sitting on him cuffed him heavily across the head. "I'd worry more about yourself, you big lump. How'd a hulk like you get sold to a teahouse anyway?"

"It's time to go home, y'little brats," another man declared above Takeshi's swearing.

 


 

Silence.

Minori had stood by the window in silence for the past half-hour, gazing at the barren tree in the courtyard outside. Half his face was shrouded in shadow, the other half lit red by the glow of lanterns in the street. Sounds of merriment carried on beyond the walls, unaware of the tension within the teahouse.

Yuuri's head hung low, too tired to be afraid, and too afraid to fall asleep. Dirt caked down to the roots of his hair and fingernails, and guilt stabbed at him for trekking grime across Minori's mats with his filthy, blackened socks.

The elderly owner was furious, unleashing a lecture that rang in Yuuri's ears like a long, drawn-out screech, the words too garbled and strung together in her rage. Even then, she managed to impress upon them the foulness of their crime, the hideousness of their disrespect, and their utter and appalling lack of appreciation for the teahouse and its many years of care. Takeshi was then dragged away to be 'dealt with in a proper manner', while Yuuri was sent straight to Minori for his punishment.

"Why did you do it?" Minori asked at last.

Yuuri winced. Memories of Minori's naked body curling and rising with a sigh, like a dragon into the clouds. "Because… because…"

"Because?" Minori prompted.

"Be—" Ah – there, right there – "Because I saw you having sex with Lord Sugimoto," Yuuri yelped suddenly, before he clapped his hands over his mouth, stunned by his own admission.

For a moment, Minori said nothing. Then, he astonished Yuuri by bursting into ripping cracks of laughter, a smile twitching across his porcelain features. "Is that all?" he said, still chuckling.

Yuuri bristled at the amusement in Minori's words. "I-It's not all," he muttered. "It's a big deal to us."

"Oh? That's a big deal to you?" Minori straightened his shoulders. "I ran away seven times before I was your age. Seven. Because I wouldn't believe that my own mother could sell me to this wretched place. Because my own name, Seung-gil, a powerful name meant to take me on a path to victory – even that was taken away from me. Because I was determined not to let some old hag in strange clothes dictate the remains of my life. Each time, I was caught, beaten, and made to scrub mold out of the baths for days. Forced into accepting my fate. So by the time I found out about my real duties to En, it just didn't seem like such a big deal anymore." He laughed again, two short barks of mirth. "And you? You're only running now because the sex is your breaking point? There are worse things, Mikawa. Far worse."

Yuuri exhaled shakily. With the rumors about Minori as a 'Korean half-breed bastard', it shouldn't surprise him that Minori had a tragic past. Or that the older man had seen and done things that Yuuri couldn't even begin to imagine. "Even so, my friends and I… we're not ready."

"Takasaki and the girl you were found with," Minori surmised.

"Yes."

"I know you are not ready." Minori arched an eyebrow. "You have another two years, and we would have had ample time to discuss the issue."

"Yes, but," Yuuri returned his gaze to the floor, "My friends don't have that luxury."

Minori considered Yuuri for a great deal of time, before he stepped closer to Yuuri, the red glow lighting up his eyes like the spark of flint before a fire. "A word of advice," he said softly. "Forget everythingForget your past, your future, and most of all, forget your friends. Having a bond of any kind will only ruin you, or worse, give you hope."

"If you believe that then… then why did you let Take–" Yuuri bit his cheek, correcting quickly, "Takasaki and I go when you caught us together that one time?"

"The teahouse has a way of giving us a hard lesson, regardless of my interference." Minori's lips curled at the corners. "As I believe you have learned today." Returning his gaze to the open window, he flicked his wrist dismissively in the air. "Get yourself cleaned. We have a client later in the afternoon."

Yuuri rose to his feet and hobbled to the door. There, he hesitated, chewing at cracked lips, before turning back. "Um, Big Brother…"

Minori's only movement was to slant his eyes warningly. "I may have forgiven a lapse or two, but my rules still apply."

Yuuri cringed. "I'm sorry, but… but may I just ask what will happen to Takasaki?"

Minori tilted his head. "Takasaki will have the pleasure of feeling the owner's switch. As for what happens after, that will depend on the old woman's mood and her belief in his potential."

"Potential?" Yuuri asked, blanching.

"Judging by your expression," said Minori, "You already know the answer."

 


 

Yuuko stopped visiting.

Takeshi avoided Yuuri's gaze in the hallways and disappeared during their scheduled times for lunch and baths.

So Yuuri threw himself into his new routine: chores and preparations in the morning, clients or lessons in the afternoon, and a night of reading, reading, and more reading. Yuuri devoured every scroll he came across, finding solace in Himegimi's fairytale escape from her abusive step-mother in The Tale of Sumiyoshi, or vicariously living through the vivid tales of Nakatada's adventures in Tale of the Hollow Tree. He never allowed rest, not even for a moment, for he knew that the only way to stop the free-fall of pain and loneliness was to occupy his mind until the gears were too weary to turn.

A part of him wondered if, perhaps, this was why Minori spent his hours engrossed in the written word.

Yuuri was almost fifteen when Takeshi suddenly pulled him aside into the kitchens in the middle of the night.

"So uh…" Takeshi scuffed his foot against the floor. "How've you been?"

"All right," said Yuuri, gaze trained on his socks. He had never noticed how white they looked in the dark.

"Yuuri, it's…" Takeshi stumbled on his words, a string of bumps and stutters, like he always did when he was nervous, or afraid, or cracking apart. "It's not like – like I didn't want to talk to you, it's, just – t-the old hag said she'd punish you too if I… if I tried, so…"

"It's okay," Yuuri murmured, blinking rapidly to rid of the burning sensation in his eyes. Of the immense relief that surged up his throat. "I get it."

"I, I hope so 'cause I um… I just really wanted to see you again. Talk to you again. And let you know that, I, you know, really liked having you as my friend. 'cause uh…" Takeshi rubbed at his neck. "'cause I have my 'first night' coming up in a couple of days."

Yuuri's head snapped up. "Really?"

"Yeah," Takeshi murmured. "Yeah, really. The old hag found… a man. Even though I told her I don't, you know. I don't do that with guys. I can't do that with guys." He slouched forward, running a hand over his face. "And then there's Yuuko but, well. Not like the old hag would care about that, right?"

Yuuri swallowed, his throat dry and hard. "I'm sorry."

"Hey, no, don't be. I mean, I've had a decent life. Sucks that my family sold me to this shitty place, but I fell in love with the best girl ever. And she loved me back. And uh… and I met you." Takeshi crooked an embarrassed grin. "I'd say that's pretty darn good."

His words struck Yuuri's heart like a gong, loud and reverberating and driving tremors down his spine.

"Takeshi," he whispered, tears spilling, before he was pulled against a strong chest, thick arms winding round, tight and warm.

"I missed you, too," Takeshi said fiercely.

They stayed that way for as long as they could, until Yuuri remembered that Minori was waiting on more candles, and Takeshi remembered that he had an early morning tomorrow.

"Got to scrub that mold in the baths before the others wake up," he explained.

"Okay," Yuuri hiccupped, wiping his eyes with the back of his head. Beatings and bath mold seemed to be the standard punishment for most runaways. "Will I… will I get to talk to you again? Like tonight? It's – It's the closest thing to love I have in this place…"

Something flickered across Takeshi's face, too quick to catch. "Yeah," he said. "Let's do that."

Sniffing, Yuuri gave him another swift hug, before padding quietly to the door.

"Hey Mikawa!"

Yuuri turned, eyes wide, unused to the sound of that name from Takeshi's lips.

The rugged features lit up in a teasing laugh. "Maybe if you smiled a little more, someone might love that ugly mug of yours."

 


 

Murmurs. Whispers. Tongues clucking. Crowds of people lingering around the open door to the cherry tree room.

A rank, metallic smell in the hallway.

"Slit his own throat."

"Too much pressure."

"Couldn't handle being taken by a man."

In that instant, Yuuri knew – something had happened, something that would twist his gut and shred all that was left of his heart and sanity. Without thinking, without pausing, he hitched up his kimono and ran, pushing past the female servants, the boys, the older men; wishing, praying, hoping –

As soon as he reached the front of the crowd, Yuuri's knees gave at the sight before him, his entire body slumping to the ground like a puppet cut from its strings.

Takeshi.

Takeshi.

Lying in the corner of the room, looking for all the world like he was sleeping.

Yuuri's vision pulsed and blurred. There was red; red everywhere. Red on the walls, the mats, on the screens, paintings, and lamps. Red on Takeshi's face and neck and pale blue kimono – dark splatters of sickening purple.

Takeshi was alive last night. Warm and open and alive.

And… and I met you.

I'd say that' s pretty darn good.

A noise clawed out of Yuuri's throat like a wounded animal—a piteous, keening whine—and he wanted nothing more than for time to turn back; to the colored days of secret meetings behind a painting – of Takeshi with his thick accent and awkward charms, of Yuuko with her beautiful, bright irises so full of hope and light.

Oh god, Yuuko.

Horror curled round Yuuri's lungs in a shuddering grip that had him hyperventilate to the point of choking.

What was he going to tell Yuuko?

Behind him came a bloodcurdling shriek, and Yuuri just barely registered the owner's next words, muffled and numbed by the sounds of his own gasps, his own heartbeat.

"Oh! Oh! He just had to do it in our largest room, didn't he? Ooh, the expenses it will cost me to change these mats – and he didn't even have a mentor I could charge it to! Disgraceful, just dis—"

"Enough."

The voice cracked like a whip, stunning the owner into silence.

Then, an overwhelming fragrance of jasmine enveloped Yuuri as silk fabric pressed against his cheek, cold and soft and comforting.

"Come," said the same voice, commanding but gentle.

Instinctively, Yuuri obeyed.

 


 

Yuuri wasn't sure how long he had slept. He couldn't even remember how he got to Minori's quarters, or why he was lying on the man's bedding. But he could remember the fevered dreams: of the throbbing in his ears and the smell of blood; of a boy propped up against the wall in a wide, wide smile, red lines between his teeth and dark liquid gushing out his neck, like running water from an open tap.

He shoved the balls of his palms against his eyes until he saw spots. No, no, no. This wasn't happening. This wasn't real. None of it was real. He was going to wake up to his mother's voice, and his sister's insults, and his father's light chuckles in the corner of the room. And Yuuko, yes, Yuuko would be there too, giggling at his laziness and his messy bedhead. And, and Takeshi –

Hey Mikawa! Maybe if you smiled a little more, someone might love that ugly mug of yours.

Takeshi

"Mikawa."

Yuuri's eyes flew open as he jolted up, straight into Minori's calm, penetrating gaze.

"It is close to midnight," Minori said quietly. "You must be hungry."

Mutely, Yuuri shook his head. He didn't think he could stomach any food right now. He wasn't even sure if he was breathing properly.

"Very well." Minori brushed a lock of hair off Yuuri's face in a gesture so unlike him that Yuuri felt his stomach clench. "There is a plate of senbei on the cosmetics counter when you feel up to it."

He was rising to his feet when Yuuri, without thinking, grasped his wrist in a bruising grip.

"Why," Yuuri rasped. "Why would he do that?"

Minori said nothing.

"He promised we'd meet again. He promised. And – And he has a girl…" Yuuri's voice cracked, and he swallowed, hating the sticky, sour feeling in his throat. "He has a girl he loves so, so much—"

"That is why."

Yuuri reeled as though Minori's words had struck a blow across his cheek. "W-What do you—"

"Love has no place in Yoshiwara. When you love, the floating world will go out of its way to destroy it – ruin it until nothing remains but shattered hopes and dreams." Long, slender fingers gripped Yuuri's chin, tilting it upwards to meet smoldering eyes that turned his insides molten. "This charade of a life… it's all a game, Mikawa. A simple, foolish game with simple, foolish rules. Don't think, don't trust, don't fall in love. Play the game well, and you will survive."

As Minori released him, Yuuri dropped his head to his chest, pulling in a deep, shuddering breath. A game. A game. Like rock-paper-scissors and onigokko and hide-and-seek. He was never really good at games; he always let the other children win, because they cried when they didn't win, and he hated being the source of their distress. But that loser was Yuuri. Katsuki Yuuri, who cried into his mother's apron strings, who built sandcastles on the beach with young, naïve innocence, who believed in love and hope and the bonds of friendship.

Mikawa was different. Mikawa impressed his teachers and ingratiated himself to the teahouse owner. Captured the kindness and attention of the cold, impassive Minori. Drew the interest of an official from the Tokugawa shogunate.

Mikawa didn't know love. Mikawa didn't know sadness, or guilt, or the strong, burgeoning wish to die.

Mikawa would survive.

Minori's voice fluttered around the edge of Yuuri's awareness.

"—rest. Lord Sugimoto is visiting tomorrow afternoon, but I will inform the old woman that you are weary from your—"

"I will join you," Yuuri cut in.

Minori raised an eyebrow questioningly.

When Yuuri lifted his chin, he felt the unshed tears drain from him until there was nothing but grey wintry skies, bleak and endless and glacial. Until the mask slid on fully and Yuuri was gone, replaced – never to return.

He met Minori's piercing gaze with Mikawa's eyes, hard as steel. "I will join you."

A pause.

Then Minori smiled, slow and languid, like a beast on the prowl.

"As you wish."

 


 

On Yuuri's sixteenth birthday, Lord Sugimoto won the bid with Minori's approval, much to the owner's swooning elation.

On Yuuri's sixteenth birthday, Mikawa became a full-fledged courtesan.

Chapter Text

Edo Castle was massive, its many buildings spread across acres and acres of land. The ivory walls radiated power – so much power that people kept a wide berth from the outer perimeter, fearful of the repercussions they might face for daring to gaze upon the deep moats and towering gates.

The translator was jittery as he trailed after Viktor, flinching at every noise that sounded from the plum trees lining the gravel path. "This is not the usual way," he said for the eighth time since they departed from Christophe's home.

Viktor held back a sigh, consciously readjusting the heavily starched collar that tightened like a vise around his neck. Despite the translator's reservations, he had chosen to dress in full military wear, complete with his three-starred epaulette, badges, and polished boots. Having served in his Imperial Majesty's army, Viktor was all too aware of the hierarchy that existed among fellow officials, and he was intent on garnering respect when he presented himself to Edo's military government.

"I have a letter from higher authority," he assured the translator, who could only shake his head in response.

They soon arrived at Otemon, a main gate located east of the castle. Two men stood before the opening, their faces dark and craggy, hands resting on a pair of swords[1] tied to their waists. The translator looked about ready to bolt when one of the men barked his words in harsh, staccato bursts.

"U-um, he ah, he asks our business here," the translator stuttered.

"I am here in place of Russian Ambassador Goshkevich," Viktor announced, unfazed, holding up a sealed envelope. "We hope to meet with an official regarding our request for a consulate building in Hakodate."

The two guards exchanged glances after hearing the translation. Viktor felt their eyes rove his figure, up and down, before the man who first spoke gave his verdict, lips curling.

"He says, no appointment, no meeting," the translator mumbled.

"I'd like to schedule an appointment then."

A guard huffed a snort, while the other replied with a low growl.

"He says…" The translator hesitated, cringing. "He says dogs are not welcome."

Viktor bristled. The collar was starting to scratch against his neck, metal pins of his badges pressing cold against his skin. He was acutely aware of his foreign status in Japan, made obvious by the gawking, furtive glances, and mothers hustling their children to a safe distance. Viktor tolerated the gestures with great patience. Edo, in particular, had good reason to be wary; how frightening it must have been to be menaced by foreign war ships roaring smoke as black as night[2].

But he was not about to take an insult that was entirely unwarranted.

"Listen," he said sharply, taking a step forward, "It has been months since—"

Instantly, the guards shifted. Sandals crunched on gravel as they lowered their stance, hands grasping their sword handles.

"No, no, please! Chigaimasu, osou tsumori ga[3]—" The translator swallowed his words when a guard snarled a warning. He turned to wave vigorously at Viktor then, thick-rimmed glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. "Please, Sir, no sudden movements!"

"What," said Viktor, bewildered.

"They think you want to attack them!"

"But I just—"

The guards spat out more words. Without pause, the translator grabbed Viktor by the elbow and yanked him down the path, away from the gate.

"Hang on," Viktor protested, glancing back. Something about the guards' derisive smirks made his stomach roll and churn. "I wasn't done—"

"I am sorry, Sir, but it is not good to anger samurai," the translator muttered as he tugged at Viktor, uncharacteristically insistent. "They have bad temper. Bad, bad temper."

"Surely they wouldn't harm a civilian like yourself?"

The translator shot him a piercing look that spoke volumes.

Viktor's jaw clenched, his fingers curling into his palm. He would engage those guards on his own if he could, but he wasn't about to jeopardize an innocent man's life – a man who had no military experience, who was only doing his job, who had a wife and three daughters waiting for him at home.

There had to be another way in. A less confrontational, less dangerous way that didn't involve forced entry and knocking two bullish heads together.

Gently, he pried his arm out of the translator's grip. "I'm going to take a walk; clear my head," he said, dropping a hand on the man's shoulder. "Thank you for your help today."

The translator's head lowered in a reverent bow. "Where will you go, Sir?"

"Wherever my feet take me," Viktor replied with a wink.

 


 

His feet, it turned out, took him exactly where his heart was.

Viktor gazed up the gates of Yoshiwara, its arch obscuring the sky like a giant red behemoth. Aoyagi. Like a compass pointing north, he sought for the courtesan's magnetic, calming presence. And more than that, he missed Aoyagi, deeply, thoroughly. Christophe deemed his lovelorn heart an "untreatable ailment", but he missed falling into those rich brown eyes, buoyed and kept alive only by Aoyagi's carefully hidden innocence. He missed the soft movements, the tender whispers, the sweet laughter that sparkled like gold. He missed the way Aoyagi drove him mad simply by existing, brighter and warmer than the first rays of sun after a long winter.

Stares burned through the thick Russian uniform, but Viktor dismissed the sensation, crossing through the gates with broad strides. En was located deep within the district, and all he wanted, all he hoped, was to see Aoyagi again.

"—Aoyagi!"

The last thing he expected was for the gods to grant his wishes right away.

Instinctively, Viktor ducked behind a stone fox as the object of his dreams dashed toward a young woman dressed in bright-colored robes. She was beautiful, with her hair up and perfectly coiffed, but her face was pale and drawn and lined with resignation, no different from a soldier on the frontlines.

Aoyagi, however, was resplendent. There was no make-up, no hair ornaments, no giant sash; nothing but simple, thin robes, his ebony hair tied in a high ponytail, and his natural fair smile. And smile he did as he accepted the woman's embrace, pulling her in tight and close.

Viktor's chest tightened. That was how the courtesan looked behind the veil: tender, loving, and full of affection. Directed entirely at the young woman that moved as though she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Their conversation was brief, ending with Aoyagi pressing a small envelope into the woman's hands and a final, parting hug. But it was intimate, filled with murmurs and shared giggles – an intensely private interaction that Viktor would have turned away from had it not ceased almost as soon as it began. And as the woman slipped into a teahouse, the drawing of a moon embroidered across purple curtains, Aoyagi's lingering gaze had Viktor's heart drop like a stone.

Aoyagi had a lover.

Of course the courtesan would have a lover; it would be far more surprising for him not to have one.

Viktor breathed in, long and deep. He should leave. He should collect the pieces of his soul that had shattered across the hard ground and leave.

But some part of him didn't want to go; some part of him remained hopeful.

Some part of him carried him past the fox statue and called for the courtesan. (An "untreatable ailment", indeed.)

Aoyagi whirled round in an instant, his eyes blazing, hot and molten. Emotions raced across his face, scrambling to find a hold, before the delicate features settled into something flat and hard.

"Did you follow me?" he demanded.

"No, I assure you," Viktor hurried to explain, "I was just going to En to arrange a meeting with you and I happened to pass by."

Aoyagi studied Viktor for a long time, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. And then, to Viktor's relief, he exhaled, shoulders sagging.

"All right," Aoyagi conceded softly.

"So," Viktor cleared his throat against the terse silence. "May I walk you back to En, since we're both heading the same way?"

Aoyagi lifted his head up. Again, he appeared to wrestle with some inner demons, revealed only by the subtle furrow of his eyebrows, the persistent twitch in his cheek. It was like watching storm clouds gather - waiting and wondering when rain would fall. And, again, the clouds parted and Aoyagi relented, bobbing his head in a single nod.

"Thank you," Viktor murmured.

Aoyagi said nothing, though his eyelashes fanned, coy and demure. The mask had returned, Viktor realized with a twinge of sadness.

"You look different," Aoyagi remarked as they walked in step, the rhythmic click-click of Aoyagi's wooden geta filling the quiet air.

"Oh, this?" Viktor chuckled, brushing a hand across his olive green uniform. "I thought dressing in military wear might gain me an audience with the Edo government, but it doesn't seem to have worked." When the courtesan flashed a puzzled look, Viktor appended, "I was hoping to meet someone in the Edo government."

"Ah." Aoyagi's lips curved at the corners. "Edo government does not like foreign armies."

"That really wasn't my intent. I only wanted to show that I was of a certain caliber and—" Viktor paused when Aoyagi's words sank in and recognition dawned. "It didn't work because I was in my uniform."

Aoyagi nodded. "They are scared of the unknown." His eyes flicked to Viktor's gold-yellow epaulettes and roamed down, following the string of shoulder cords dangling across his chest, the line of badges beneath his shoulder. "And your uniform is very much unknown in Edo."

"That makes sense," Viktor agreed after some thought. "Do you think they might allow me to meet with an official if I dressed normally?"

"Government also does not like to be surprised," Aoyagi pointed out carefully.

"They shouldn't be surprised," Viktor sighed, "Given that a request was sent three months ago."

"Three months?" Aoyagi said, his voice lilting in surprise. He pressed his lips together. "No answer is government way of saying no."

Viktor turned, blinking. "You seem familiar with political affairs."

"Some clients are friends of government," Aoyagi explained. "They talk; I listen."

"I see," said Viktor quietly. Clients. Right. How easy it was to forget that Aoyagi saw others.

Viktor raised his eyes to the lanterns, noting how they swayed with the cool morning breeze. Perhaps his whole venture was for naught. It was possible the Japanese government never had any real intention of accepting a Russian consulate on their land and the entire trade agreement had been a farce. Although, if Viktor were honest, his whole trip to Edo was a bit of a farce as well; after all, he was here for other reasons.

One other specific reason.

Viktor gave Aoyagi a sidelong glance. Without paint, without rouge, the courtesan's natural beauty glowed, like the flickering light of a fire that caught all eyes, men and women alike. And he was perceptive, oh, extremely perceptive, if the wield of his words and gathered knowledge of Japan's government was any indication. Not to mention the warmth and love that shone on his face before the woman from the moon-marked teahouse.

Viktor closed his eyes, breathing out through his nose.

God knows he had fallen. Fallen far and deep and hard.

So what if Aoyagi had a lover? If reuniting Aoyagi to that pretty woman was what Aoyagi wanted, then reunite them he would. Viktor was determined to help Aoyagi find hope and freedom, and knowing that Aoyagi's heart was taken was not about to change his mind in the least.

"Aoyagi," he murmured.

The courtesan tilted his head questioningly.

You are my one and only star, Viktor wanted to say. The moon to my sun. My entire universe.

"I want you to be happy," he said instead, taking Aoyagi's hand and raising it to his lips.

Even if it's not with me.

"Viktor…" Aoyagi's voice was soft and halting, pink blossoming across his cheeks.

Viktor felt his heart flutter at the sound of his name – a hard 'k' and rolling 'r' in a rich tenor that was so uniquely Aoyagi.

"Mr. Nikiforov," called an imperious voice.

Aoyagi wrenched his hand back as though burned, and irritation flooded through Viktor at the elderly teahouse owner for her untimely interruption.

She was approaching them now with a smile that reminded Viktor of a panther sighting its prey. "I see you have run into our Aoyagi," she said, her words sweetened with honey and sugar.

"Yes, a wonderful coincidence," Viktor replied lightly. "I was just hoping to see him tonight, too."

"Ah yes." The owner slid narrowed eyes at Aoyagi, who met her gaze evenly, his eyes at half-mast.

"About that, we have much to discuss."

 


 

"I'm beginning to wonder if I should put a stop to these morning strolls of yours."

Yuuri bit the inside of his cheek. His strolls breathed color into his dreary life – reminded him that the ground was a dirty grey, the trees were a dark emerald, and the sky was an elaborate fusion of orange and pink, dyed by the morning sun creeping over the far horizon. But more than that—more than he cared to inform the owner—his strolls brought him Yuuko, whose light gave him a reason to wake up every morning.

"It was a coincidence," he said through gritted teeth.

"Today may have been a coincidence." The elderly owner sniffed, as though something rotten had drifted beneath her nose. "The next time will not be."

Yuuri's skin tingled as he recalled the warmth of Viktor's lips, the sincerity in eyes as deep and blue as the ocean in Hasetsu.

The devastating charm of that lithe frame in a well-pressed military uniform.

Anger swelled within Yuuri like a dull, throbbing ache. Anger at Viktor for showing up unannounced and being ever so endearing. Anger at himself for that sudden spark of happiness at the mere sight of the Russian.

Viktor was a client. Viktor was nothing but a client.

And Yuuri should know better by now.

"Viktor wouldn't stoop to such desperation," he muttered, before brushing past the owner, ponytail swinging behind him. "Especially now that he is a najimi."

The owner's saccharine voice trailed after him like a shadow. "I only care for your welfare, my dear Aoyagi."

And lost profits, thought Yuuri.

"Tell Yoshino I will see him after my bath," he said aloud.

 


 

The bath was mercifully quiet.

Yuuri washed himself as best as he could, rubbing away sweat and grime and years of shame. No amount of scalding water would clean off the last one; he had tried, countless times. Scrubbed until he burned and his skin turned scarlet red.

Once finished, he stepped gingerly into a tub, submerging into the steaming water with a sigh. Compared to the rest of the rooms in En, the bath was simple and practical. The walls, tubs, and floors were made of wood, just wood, without gold lacquer, or detailed sketches of nature, or elaborate paintings and folding screens. It was the one room that provided escape, away from the wicked opulence of the world outside.

"—hear the old hag? When she talked about Aoyagi bringing in a new najimi?"

"Of course, I did! Praising him like he was the next Emperor of Japan. Ha! As if his Imperial Majesty would spread his legs to foreign dogs."

… at least, when he was alone in the bath.

Yuuri had chosen a tub in the furthest corner, hidden out of sight, so the young courtesans were unlikely to spot him. Closing his eyes, he sank deeper until the water rose to his collarbones, loose strands of hair trailing darkly around his neck. This may be a golden opportunity – it had been ages since he was privy to the thoughts of the lower ranks.

For a while, the bath echoed with the sounds of splashing water and the hollow clunk of buckets hitting the wooden floor. Then, after twin sighs of content that signaled their entry into separate tubs, the courtesans resumed their conversation.

"If I were Aoyagi, I'd watch myself. Foreign dogs are all silver-tongued devils. Did you hear about the wakashu from Okitsu[4] who fell in love with his foreign client? Apparently, the man kept making promises, like how he'd wait for the boy until his contract ended, how he'd buy the boy out and take him back to his country."

"And the silly boy believed the man?"

"He did! And we can all guess how that story ended."

"The client stopped coming?"

"Sure, but it got worse. The wakashu was so distraught, he hung himself."

The pair made sympathetic clucking noises.

"Didn't we lose one of our own to a foreigner?"

"No, no, that one wasn't because of a foreigner. A merchant bought him out, but he died of some disease in his private quarters before he could leave."

A girlish gasp. "Isn't that Aoyagi's quarters now?"

"Yeah, well. With any luck, Aoyagi's foreign dog would break his heart, and then I'd get to rule over this stupid teahouse."

All right, thought Yuuri grimly, as laughter rang out through the bath. He had heard enough.

The young courtesans startled when they saw Yuuri rise from his tub, jolting into each other almost comically. "A-A-Aoyagi! You're taking an early bath today!"

"I like to change up my routine once in a while," Yuuri said, lips curling in a plastic smile.

"Yes, change is always nice," one courtesan giggled nervously.

"Is it?" Yuuri arched an eyebrow, as he wrapped a towel round his waist, slow and deliberate. "Neither of you seem to approve the opening of Edo's ports, judging by how you address our foreign guests."

The courtesans exchanged fearful glances.

"W-We're just-! Just…. not used to it…" The courtesan trailed off lamely when Yuuri turned a steely gaze on him.

"Then I suggest you get used to it. Fast. Because Edo is changing, and the city will soon be swarming with foreigners. An attitude like yours will get you no clients."

As the courtesans hung their heads, thoroughly chastised, Yuuri sauntered to the door with the arrogance befitting his rank. Slipped into the role as naturally as breathing air. "Oh," he said, sounding the word like an afterthought, as he slid the door open soundlessly, "And I don't think I'm the one who has to watch myself." He crooked a smile over his shoulder – sharpened and honed into a fine blade.

"Foreign dogs enjoy a big mouth."

Yuuri closed the door to mixed looks of horror, rage, and disgust. So much for a relaxing bath. Really, the worst part about that little dramatic episode was that the big-mouthed courtesan had a point: he had no reason to trust Viktor or his sweet words. At least Viktor's new status as his najimi should give him ample chances to expose the Russian's motives.

Now if only his heart would listen to his head.

 


 

"Let me get this straight," said Christophe. His tone was oddly reminiscent of Yakov's, even without the deep growl made scratchy by too much tobacco smoke. "Aoyagi made you his najimi after two nights. And he has a lover. A female lover."

"From a different teahouse," Viktor added. He held up a single red rose. "What do you think? Too cliché?"

"Appallingly cliché," Christophe replied automatically, before slapping a palm to his cheek. "No, bad Giacometti, bad. No aiding the madman in his doomed romance."

They were browsing the selections of a little flower store, watched over by the storeowner in the corner, her fingers tightly laced, eyes darting about frenetically.

Out of pity, they left the poor, frightened woman alone.

"I want to help Aoyagi, Chris," Viktor said with a shrug. "Helping him means I need to hear from his mouth what he wants and needs, and that trust is something I have to earn. If being a najimi is the best option, so be it." He gestured at another pot of roses. "What about pink ones?"

"You need help," Christophe snorted, eliciting a puff of laughter from Viktor. "First, roses are banal and suggest a most uncreative mind. Second, you can't afford to pay those fees and meet with him as often as you do now."

"Perhaps he'd miss me if I weren't there so often." Viktor beamed and tapped at a different flower pot. "Sunflowers, then?"

"Good lord, no."

There's a lull in the conversation as the Swiss wandered further into the store, inspecting the various flowers, scratching idly at the scruff on his chin. Viktor hid a grin; even the florist's nervous gaze was drawn like a magnet to the high-waist pants that hugged swaying hips and a firm, muscular behind. He had never been attracted to his best friend, but he could certainly understand the attraction.

"I'd suggest these." Christophe slid long fingers under his chosen flower, gingerly teasing the petals apart. The florist blushed. "Not that I approve, mind you. I absolutely do not approve."

"Duly noted," Viktor said solemnly.

 


 

Viktor never tired of Aoyagi's outer robes. Once again, they were different: half a solid black, with a smattering of white lilies embroidered across the long sleeves; half a mish-mash of multi-colored stars, stripes, and spirals. The sash was a brilliant, radiant gold, breathing extravagance into the colorful outfit.

Aoyagi's crimson lips curved softly as Viktor took his place on the cushion. "I am honored that you have returned as my najimi."

"I'm honored that you asked," Viktor replied honestly.

Aoyagi chuckled, his eyes a sliver of honey and pink. He turned, and Viktor's eyes fell to the nape of his neck, naked and tantalizingly exposed. "Shall we drink to celebrate the occasion?" Aoyagi asked, resting a hand on the red kettle, the edge of his sleeve slipping past a delicate wrist. "Or…" His voice sweetened, "Perhaps you'd like to use your oil for tonight?"

Viktor swallowed. His eyes darted to the familiar bottle sitting on the cosmetics counter, seconds before he shook his head vigorously. He wanted to earn Aoyagi's trust, and sex was not the way to do it. "I brought you these," he said, revealing the bouquet behind his back. "As a celebratory gift."

Aoyagi's chest rose in a deep inhale. "That is…" He leaned forward to accept the flowers, brighter and redder than his rouged lips. "That is very thoughtful."

Viktor basked in the warm glow of Aoyagi's smile, mentally offering Christophe a word of thanks. "I hope you like them."

"I do," Aoyagi murmured, eyelashes dipping. "Will you give me a moment?"

"Of course," said Viktor, before Aoyagi rose to his feet with a rustle of fabric.

"Yoshino," Aoyagi called, sliding the door open. A pitter-patter of feet, and a boy that looked no older than eighteen appeared before Aoyagi, the sleeves of his robes hanging mere inches from the floor. The boy's robes were luxuriously decorated with intricate patterns, but most striking was the tuft of red sitting atop a nest of dirty blond hair – vibrant colors that nudged a flash of brightness in the dark hallway.

Curious, Viktor watched as Aoyagi handed the bouquet to the boy with a whisper of instructions. "Sugu modorimasu, niisan[5]," the boy chirped, before flitting away with the flowers hugged carefully to his chest.

"My attendant," Aoyagi explained when he caught a glimpse of Viktor's expression. "I asked him to find a vase for me."

"I didn't know you had an attendant," said Viktor.

Aoyagi laughed, and Viktor saw stars twinkling above an open road, scattered like glitter, like dust. "There is much you don't know about me."

"Then why don't we just talk like on our first meeting? Get to know each other better?" Viktor suggested. "The owner said being a najimi means to be intimate and I'd like that. Very much."

In that instant, Aoyagi didn't respond, didn't even move. Just stared, frozen, as though Viktor had grown three heads. And then he drew in a wavering breath, lower lip trembling. "You just… want to talk?"

There was disbelief in Aoyagi's voice. Disbelief and so much fear that Viktor felt a crawling ache in his stomach. An emotion like that didn't belong in one so divine. "Yes. Yes. Look, I, um," Viktor fumbled past his jacket and reached into his shirt pocket, "I had this with me the other night, but we got, well… distracted." He handed a photograph to the courtesan, who held it in his hands as though it were a priceless gem.

"What is it?" Aoyagi asked in wonder, tracing a finger across the thin sheet.

Carefully, Viktor shifted closer to Aoyagi. He had to keep his hands on his knees; one touch, and he was done for. "The docks of Saint Petersburg. Remember how I talked about the—"

"Sunsets, yes," Aoyagi breathed. "It is very pretty." He looked up at Viktor, silver hair ornaments dangling over eyes that shone bright and soft as twilight. "Who are the people?"

"Oh, those…" Viktor peered at the black-and-white picture, a lump of fondness catching in his throat. Posing in front of a vast plane of water was a handsome couple: the man looked stern, standing straight and tall, while the woman leaned against him, her slender arms wrapped tightly around his. "Those are my parents."

"Oh." Aoyagi's finger brushed across the woman's kind face. "You look like your mother."

"That's what everyone tells me," Viktor chuckled.

"Are they in Russia?"

"In a way, yes." Viktor kept on smiling, as he always had. "They died when I was twelve."

Aoyagi's head snapped up. Viktor caught the flash of deep sorrow, tender and fleeting, before a hand slid up his cheek, silk fabric caressing his skin. "I am sorry," Aoyagi murmured, as Viktor leaned into his warmth.

He could still remember his first meeting with Yakov. The war veteran had approached him at the end of the funeral ceremony, the smell of ash and tobacco burning eyes that stung with unshed tears. No words were exchanged; none of the you poor child and they were so young and you have to stay strong. No sympathy, no mourning, not a single word of reassurance. Nothing but a rough hand on his head and absolute silence – pure, deep, and full of love.

It was exactly what Viktor needed.

"Don't be. My life has been quite happy." Turning slightly, Viktor pressed a light kiss against the heel of Aoyagi's palm, his heart swelling with affection. "Happier, now that I've met you."

Aoyagi sucked in another quiet breath, lips parting. Then, cheeks glowing, his gaze flicked down, eyelashes spreading shyly in a dark fan. "Do you, ah…" Setting the photograph down, he withdrew and sank back onto his heels, clasping his hands together. Hesitant. "Do you like dance?"

"Mm, I enjoy a slow waltz." Viktor smiled at the courtesan's quizzical expression. "It's a type of dance."

"I see."

And then, as sudden as his kiss from the other night, Aoyagi stood, his long brocade flowing down to the mats like a glimmering waterfall. Viktor gazed up at him, eyebrows lifting. Twists and turns; twists and turns. Each night, he saw a different side of the courtesan, and each night, he fell just a little bit harder.

"Watch," Aoyagi whispered.

And Viktor did, his eyes never leaving Aoyagi as the courtesan began to dance. The movements were graceful and deliberate; the gestures, small and subtle. A flick of the wrist flipped the corner of a sleeve; a slight tilt of the head nudged ornaments into a gentle sway. It was different from the waltz, with its spins and turns and fixed steps. No, this dance was slower, more controlled, and with Aoyagi's elegance, far more beguiling. His every move seemed to convey a story: of spring, of yearning, of lovers reaching out for each other, destined to forever be apart.

"Beautiful" had never suited the courtesan more.

As if he could hear Viktor's thoughts, Aoyagi lifted the edge of a sleeve to his lips in a coquettish motion and took a tiny step forward. Swept around once, twice, sash swinging. Then, drawing a circle with his hands, he spread his arms wide, before sinking to his knees and bending over in a deep bow.

It took a moment for Viktor realize the performance had ended, and another to find his tongue.

"That was…" He licked his lips, realizing only now how dry his mouth was. "Magnificent. Profound."

Aoyagi rose up and smiled. "What is 'profound'?"

"Deep," Viktor said, aware that he was staring like a starved person waiting to be fed. As though it was the desert, and Aoyagi was the only oasis for miles. "I've never seen anything quite so… deep."

"Thank you," Aoyagi murmured. "You, um…" He hesitated again, cheeks dusting pink. "You wanted to know more about me, so I showed you my dance. Because I like dance."

Right then, Viktor wanted to reach out and pull Aoyagi into his arms. Hold him tight and kiss him until they set each other's souls ablaze, melted into each other and became one. But that wasn't what he came for. Not tonight. Not for many nights until Aoyagi no longer feared or hesitated with opening his heart – until he finally, permanently, stopped wearing his mask.

So instead, Viktor softly asked, "Would you like to try the waltz?"

 


 

Yuuri was lost.

Camellias. Viktor had brought him red camellias.

In the first place, it was rare for clients to bring him flowers. Hair accessories, certainly; custom-made bedding, of course[6]. Flowers were reserved for lovers and wives, not for the guilty pleasure concealed and hidden away in Yoshiwara's decadent floating world. And then there were the flowers themselves. Red camellias. Tsubaki. A representation of love and intense devotion, of flowers that fell all at once, different from the gradual withering of the cherry blossoms.

This was wrong. This was so, so wrong.

They talked, and Yuuri danced, and this wasn't how the game was played.

Minori would have disapproved, strongly and vehemently.

"Are you all right?" Viktor whispered as he leaned in, hot breath grazing Yuuri's cheek.

"Yes," Yuuri lied, shivering with something he couldn't recognize.

They stood at arm's length, his hand resting on Viktor's shoulder blade, Viktor's hand on a spot below his shoulder. Their other hands were joined, palm-to-palm, raised away from their bodies.

They were barely touching, yet it was the most intimate position Yuuri had ever been in.

"Let's keep to the basics for now," Viktor assured gently. "You'll have to take the woman's role, if that's okay with you?"

"Yes," Yuuri said again, noting the way Viktor's locks fell like silvery drapes over fair skin.

"Step back with your right foot," said Viktor, and Yuuri complied, just as the Russian stepped along with him. "Good. Now to the side with your left. Then join your right foot to your left. This time, forward with your left foot, to the side with your right, and join your left to your right. Excellent! And now, repeat that with a one-two-three, one-two-three..."

They moved then, glided really, with Viktor leading him by their joined hands, spinning slow and steady across the room. It was different from his dances - dances in which he performed solo, alone, taught to mesmerize and bottle souls with his purposeful movements. This dance was about connection, about partnership, about... intimacy.

Right there, Viktor stopped with the skip of Yuuri's heart, and offered a brilliant smile, an honest, warm hue sparking in ocean-blue eyes. "And now you can say that you've danced the waltz."

Yuuri's head spun, filling with cotton. This wasn't how the game was played.

"I…" Yuuri tightened his grip on Viktor's arm, feeling hard muscle beneath the rough material. English wasn't coming to him; the words tangled in his mind, messy and in complete disarray. Viktor's nose and cheeks were dotted with a smattering of freckles - constellations caught in the candlelight. How had he not noticed that before?  "I, um…"

"Big brother! I found a vase!"

Thank the gods for his loud attendant.

Breaking away, he hastened to retrieve the vase of flowers from Yoshino, Viktor's gaze searing into the back of his neck. The vase was well chosen; its cream color and blue designs an appealing match with the red of the camellias. Yoshino lit up when complimented, gold and dazzling as the many lacquered leaves in En.

"It is late," Yuuri murmured after his attendant departed, sliding a smoldering glance over his shoulder as he placed the vase on a chest of drawers. It was his subtle nudge of encouragement for his more bashful clients - those who lacked experience, who had never been with a man, who were too awed by his presence. The night is no longer young, his eyes beckoned to Viktor. Act now, or lose your chance.

(Act now, or I lose all control.)

"You're absolutely right," Viktor agreed without hesitation. "Shall we sleep?"

Yuuri could only stare as Viktor shed his jacket and slipped under the covers, tugging them up to his nose. Fully clothed.

"Please keep that photograph I showed you earlier," said Viktor, his voice muffled by fabric. He was smiling, cheekbones lifting the covers. "So you can have a sunset with you, always."

Oh.

Yuuri turned his gaze to the camellias, hair ornaments swaying.

Falling, all at once.

 


 

Yuuri awoke to Viktor's arm wrapped around his waist. Silver strands tickled his cheek, while long limbs flopped against his, soft and relaxed.

In the stillness of the room, with Viktor's touch burning through his gossamer robes, every thought, every emotion Yuuri had suppressed came crashing through his walls like a massive tidal wave.

Why.

Why would a man as lovely as Viktor waste his precious nights and money on a worthless courtesan? And to spend an entire night without sex? Without a blowjob or a handjob or a job of any kind?

It made no sense to Yuuri, no sense at all.

His mind could conjure one possible rationale for Viktor's actions, but he refused to entertain it. Because, really, the very thought was absurd, ridiculous, and every word that described the sheer impossibility of it being true.

But red camellias, screamed his heart. A slow waltz. A photograph – personal and intimate and uniquely Viktor's.

Foreign dogs are all silver-tongued devils.

Yuuri whimpered and curled his knees into his chest. He missed Minori. He missed Takeshi. He missed Yuuko. All three would have had advice; words of wisdom or jovial teasing or compassionate encouragement – something that would help Yuuri make the right decision. A decision that would give him strength and keep him alive. Keep him from doing something rash.

Behind him, Viktor shifted, and Yuuri felt his heart seize. "Aoyagi?" His voice was low and rough with sleep. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Yuuri mumbled.

Viktor hummed, the quiet vibrations shooting down Yuuri's spine. "Didn't sound like nothing."

"Ah…" Yuuri screwed his eyes shut. Why, why was he so kind? Any other client would have grumbled their impatience. Any other client would have gone back to sleep. "Nightmare."

In response, Viktor pulled Yuuri close, his back pressing up against Yuuri's, a hand splayed across Yuuri's stomach. "I'm here," he whispered. "I'm right here."

Yuuri shuddered, a stone lodging deep in his throat. Viktor was warm and comforting – just like his mother and her sauce-stained apron. Just like home. (Wrong. So, so wrong.) "Will you..." A throb of fear, before he blurted, nearly choking on the words, "Will you be here tomorrow?"

When Viktor said nothing, something inside Yuuri cracked, dribbling between his ribs, wedging a foreign ache into his bones.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He could hear Minori's sigh, see Minori's cold features drop in disappointment. He had failed the game. Failed. Lost. Like Takeshi, like Yuuko, he had dared to dream, to hope

"I desperately want to say yes," Viktor murmured, breaking into Yuuri's downward spiral. "But it's difficult with the najimi fees and my savings running low."

"Fine," Yuuri gasped out, burrowing his face into sheets that smelled like Viktor, like pine and rain-soaked grass. He had to air out the bedding again. He had to cleanse his mind, his heart. "That is fine—"

"It's not fine," Viktor cut in fiercely. Soft lips pressed against Yuuri's neck. "If I could meet you every day, every night, every minute of every hour..."

Bitter resignation tumbled out before Yuuri could catch it. "You don't mean that."

A pause, then, "What if we met outside Yoshiwara?" The hand on his stomach traced gentle, languid circles. "I could take you to dinner. Catch a kabuki show."

"That is not allowed," Yuuri whispered after a beat. Take me away was at the tip of his tongue, and it took every inch, every drop, every fiber of his being to keep it there.

"Then how can I assure you that my words are genuine? That I'll be back?"

Yuuri breathed out slowly. "Write to me," he heard his voice say, strained and wet. "Write to me every day."

"Okay," said Viktor. Another brush of his lips. "Okay, moyo solnyshko[7]."

It took Yuuri a while to fall back to sleep, but sleep he did, with Viktor curled around him, mouthing sweet foreign words into his skin, under his ear. Words that settled deep inside his beating, thrumming heart. Buoyed Yuuri to the surface and pushed Aoyagi back into the recesses of his being.

 


 

Viktor wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

After booting Christophe out of his study room, Viktor poured his soul onto paper, etching out his love and affection with the tip of Christophe's favorite fountain pen.

That night, something magical had occurred.

That night, Aoyagi's mask had fallen.

It returned as soon as sunlight touched the open windows, sultry and inviting again. But for a brief moment, for a wonderful heartbeat, Aoyagi had shown glimpses of his true self. That look of uncertainty after their first box step. The way his voice shook as he trembled in Viktor's arms, scared and beautiful and vulnerable.

And that night, he had asked Viktor to be with him. Not the woman from the teahouse with an embroidery of the moon. Viktor.

The feeling that burst forth and spilled through Viktor's chest was indescribable, almost like a flare of fireworks – a multitude of shimmering lights in the night sky.

In that moment, Viktor would have done anything for Aoyagi.

Someone knocked on the door, three sharp raps, before the doorknob jiggled in place.

"Might I remind you," Christophe's voice was tinged with amusement, "That I am the owner of this house and you are my guest."

"Almost done," Viktor replied absently.

"You said that a half hour ago."

"I am done when I am done. This letter must be perfect."

Viktor could hear Christophe roll his eyes to the ceiling. "If you're having trouble, my friend, I am a writer."

"Of erotic fiction," Viktor said dryly.

"Wouldn't that be perfect for a courtesan?"

When Viktor gave no response, there was a sigh. "I could spare you some money to see Aoyagi. Not to indulge in this irrational fantasy of yours, but simply to keep you sane."

For a man who claimed to be a great romantic that wrote about passionate love, of love that never withered, Christophe was a cynic, through and through. Perhaps his cynicism was a result of his French descent, or perhaps his friend had his glass heart shattered one too many times. Whatever the case, Viktor couldn't help but wonder if Aoyagi was not the only person in his life who needed a reminder that love was the greatest, most splendid thing.

Love gave Viktor twelve years of laughter and memories; love offered him a home in the form of Yakov. Love brought him an alluring man filled to the brim with hopes and desires, waiting for someone to unlock the chains around his glittering, gilded heart.

"I have asked Yakov to deliver my wages in my report. And besides," Viktor paused for dramatic effect, "'The madness of love is the greatest of heaven's blessings'."

"You're quoting Plato?" Christophe scoffed through the door. "He also called love a serious mental illness."

"Same thing," said Viktor. He frowned at the sheets of paper spread across the desk. Five pages. Was five enough to convey his sentiment, his longing for Aoyagi's presence? More importantly, would Aoyagi understand his wording? Maybe he ought to simplify his vocabulary.

"When the clock strikes twelve, I'm taking an axe to the door," Christophe declared.

"Almost done," Viktor repeated.

 


 

My dearest Aoyagi,

Words cannot communicate how much I miss you. I look back constantly to our nights together, and in every word and gesture, every silence, you have been perfection in my eyes – flawless and ever so divine. There is an innocence to you; innocence that fills me, overflowing, with profound affection and indescribable pleasure. You are an angel, and all my soul follows you, hoping, wishing, that I can create a little bit of heaven, just for you.

"Wow." Jean-Jacques, or JJ as he preferred, peered over the letter, fanning himself with his free hand. "This goes on, doesn't it?"

"Yes, he wrote many pages." Yuuri chewed on the end of his pipe. "But what does he say?"

The tutor shuffled to the last page, eyes skimming down the sheets. "I think it can all be summed up by, 'I love you, I miss you, and I cannot wait to see you again soon'."

Heat rose to Yuuri's cheeks, and he tried valiantly to brush it off. "Did he really say, 'I love you'?"

"Not in those words, but the content is practically soaked in that sentiment." JJ flashed a grin of white teeth as he returned the pages. "I had planned for us to learn more political vocabulary, but we could focus on translating that letter and writing a reply if you want."

Yuuri dropped his gaze, his stomach twisting into knots. After that night, he knew what he wanted, but the feeling was so unfamiliar, so foreign, that it terrified him. He hadn't wanted anything since he became Mikawa. He hadn't dared. Yoshiwara was cruel and unforgiving when it came to the fulfillment of personal desires.

Yoshiwara was cruel and unforgiving when it came to happiness of any kind.

In truth, Yuuri didn't expect a letter to arrive so soon – barely two days had passed since he last met Viktor. It was as though the Russian was determined to break the mold, to chip away at doubts and fears and insecurities until Yuuri allowed himself to be swept into Viktor's warmth, drawn in like the pull of the tide.

"Nothing wrong with love, you know," JJ proclaimed suddenly.

Yuuri raised his head, eyes wide.

"I know love isn't allowed around here, but we all need love. Love for your family, your friends, your lovers." JJ winked, tapping a fist against his chest. "Love for yourself." He dropped his hand to the mats and leaned back, stretching his legs out. "Not to mention the love from others. I wouldn't be JJ without that. Probably just some empty shell with the same name."

"Or a different name," Yuuri muttered under his breath.

"What was that?" asked JJ, lips still curved in a goofy smile.

Yuuri clamped his lips around the mouth of his pipe and breathed, filling his being with a calming drag of smoke. Of everyone in his life, JJ was the last person he expected to dish out useful advice. To think the same person who spent several lessons teaching the proper usage of the word 'fuck' actually possessed some wisdom inside him. (Somewhere deep inside him.) But JJ was right: Yuuri wouldn't be Yuuri without love from his family, from Yuuko, from Takeshi. Even Minori had given him love in a distinctly Minori-like fashion.

Aoyagi, on the other hand – like Mikawa, Aoyagi didn't know love. He would have scorned the very idea of it; would have burned the letter; would have read the contents only to use them to his advantage.

But Yuuri was not, and never truly was, Aoyagi.

Not with Viktor, who strangely, inexplicably, wanted to know more about Yuuri.

Exhaling, Yuuri lifted his chin. "I want to write a reply."

 


 

Dear Viktor,

Thank you for your letter. I was very happy to receive it. My English is not good, but I want to write back. I want you to know that I miss you, too. I want you to know that I have kept your photograph in my chest of drawers, under my belongings. I want you to know that the camellias are still in full bloom. I also want to learn more about your parents and Russia and maybe more steps for the waltz so we can dance together. I cannot wait to see you again, but until then, I eagerly wait for your letters.

Yours truly,

Aoyagi

 


 

"There's a reason the Japanese compare love to cherry blossoms," Christophe drawled.

"Oh hush," sighed Viktor, clutching the letter to his heart as he skipped straight into the study room, closing the door behind him.

"At least use a different pen," Christophe lamented loudly.

Outside, bliss-pink petals scattered in the gentle spring breeze.

Chapter Text

Yuuri lowered his head, fists clenched against his knees. His ears were still ringing from the teahouse owner's angry screeching, louder and sharper than a stray cat in heat.

By the window, Minori laughed, three little drawls of amusement. Bare branches of the cherry tree outside dipped in the wintry breeze. "I hear you tried to run away again," he prompted in the silence.

"I went for a walk," Yuuri said, raising his chin. "I planned to return as soon as I was done."

"Mm, I'm sure you did." Minori turned, the shine of his gossamer robes winking in the candlelight. Even with the sickly paleness to his skin, the fatigue in the refined features, the older courtesan still carried an ethereal glow that rendered him unreachable to mere mortals. Soon, he would be, freed from the chains of En by a generous client. "You know my teachings. If you were in my place, what would I say to you now?"

Yuuri's teeth worked on his lower lip. "Bid your time. Wait, be patient, until you have attained a position that will allow you to bend the rules."

"Like a concubine holding power over the Emperor," Minori agreed, lips curving upwards. "You will have control, Mikawa. Of the owner, the teahouse, perhaps even the affairs of the mighty Tokugawa Shogunate."

Yuuri sighed, "I only wish to add a morning walk to my routine."

"To visit your friend?"

Yuuri inhaled sharply as Minori let out of a soft huff. "I may not keep stock of my writing supplies, but I will notice a dwindling envelope pile."

Yuuri's gaze dropped to the floor, ashamed. He should have known; his Big Brother hadn't risen to his rank by being oblivious. "I'm sorry. I'll pay you back—"

"Nonsense," Minori cut in. "The envelopes are shared materials. Do as you wish with them."

He paused then, eyes falling shut.

Instantly, Yuuri shot to Minori's side, grabbing Minori's elbow as the older courtesan swayed into his shoulder.

"I'm fine," Minori hissed, though he made no move to push Yuuri away, as he usually did. Yuuri's heart wrenched; it meant his Big Brother was growing weaker. Yuuri could never forget the flare of panic in his gut when Minori asked, with the noon sun streaming through the open window, if the world had gone dark. The dizziness started after that, along with a deep, aching pain that throbbed and bore into his Big Brother, night after night. The owner had called for the finest doctors she could find, but none of their remedies appeared to be working.

Yuuri couldn't bear to lose another.

"Is it the headaches again?" he whispered.

"It's always the headaches," Minori said quietly. He shot an exasperated glance at Yuuri. "I will be fine, Mikawa."

"Promise?" Yuuri blurted without thinking.

For a moment, Minori didn't respond, seemingly lost for words. Then, gently, he laid a hand on Yuuri's cheek, the roughened skin leaving a scorching caress.

"Never trust a promise made in Yoshiwara," he murmured, his features so uncharacteristically soft that it seared, forever, into Yuuri's memory.

 


 

My dearest Aoyagi,

I cannot describe how excited I am to receive the post these days, nor the delight that floods my being when I spot your letter in the pile. My days have not been the same without you. Christophe is an amusing companion, but nothing compares to your ethereal light, nothing like the soft, golden brown of your eyes.

Worse, the frustration of my failed attempts to meet with an Edo official continues, and it despairs me that I cannot lean on you for a touch of comfort. Samurai are incredibly stubborn, I am learning. At the translator's suggestion, I have tried every possible entrance to the Imperial castle, tried changing my dressing, my approach, my mannerisms, but every attempt has ended in the same disappointing manner. I am called names and unceremoniously dismissed. It seems an appointment or a letter from a government official is necessary to gain entry, but how is one to attain either, when I am barred from meeting anyone from the government?

But I digress.

I would very much like to hear more about your lessons with your attendant. He seems like a bright, eager young lad and I am positive that he will shine like a beacon under your guidance.

[…]

[…]

[…]

Every day, I pray for my wages to arrive sooner so that we may see each other again. My very soul aches for you, my solnyshko.

Ever yours,

Viktor

 


 

Sounds of the koto filled the room: sharp, clear, and vibrant.

"You seem… lighter. Like a weight has lifted from your shoulders."

Fingers flowed across the strings, ivory plectrums flitting like hummingbirds in flight. Sakura[1]  - simple and classic. The first song he ever mastered on the koto; the first time he felt a hint of happiness since arriving at En.

Head bowed, Yuuri's lips curved in a smile. "I feel lighter."

"An honest response," Minako chuckled. She glanced at the red camellias, a spot of radiance in the darkened corner. "What magic has this silver-haired foreigner cast on you?"

Magic, indeed.

Yuuri plucked at the strings, his mind drifting to Viktor's letters. Viktor wrote nearly every day – pages upon pages; words upon words. The Russian's use of words was beautifully expressive, molding and maneuvering the English language in ways that contrasted with the soft subtlety of Japanese writing. He hadn't met Viktor in what felt like years, but reading the man's letters—tangible evidence of an unbroken promise, an impossibility—pulled him closer to the brink of some unknown precipice that made his heart race and his blood churn.

What was that emotion? Joy? Excitement?

Yuuri couldn't tell.

But he did know that he was feeling again. Feeling something other than fear and trepidation. And that was all thanks to Viktor, who, right now, needed his help. His network of higher authority.

"Do you know of anyone in the Shogunate, Lady Minako?"

Minako paused, the edge of her sake cup resting against her lips. "My father has a number of connections." She downed the drink, before returning the cup to the tray. "Why do you ask?"

"Curiosity," Yuuri replied, his fingers pressing, drifting. Lyrics echoed in the depths of his mind.

Sakura, sakura
Across the spring sky
As far as you can see

"Might any of those connections have relations with the office of foreign affairs?"

"Ah," said Minako, her face curling into a knowing smirk. Leaning back, she made a great show of smoothing out imaginary wrinkles on her silk kimono, patterns of clouds circling the fabric. "Well, as it so happens, my father knows just the man."

"I see," said Yuuri. His sleeve slipped past the knobs of his wrist as he reached for a far string, ornaments swaying. The last notes of his performance resonated against the walls, edging up the heavy wood.

Minako gave him a warm applause. "Could I request for Kuroda Bushi[2] next?"

"Sake and samurai, your two favorite things," Yuuri teased fondly, while Minako tossed her head back with a brash cackle. He took a moment to recall the melody, the movements, before he began. Music swelled with every flash of his plectrums, rich and alive. The first verse told the story of a samurai of the Kuroda clan drinking in celebration of a victorious battle; the second, of a servant in search of a banished concubine who played songs of her lost love in the mountains. It was a song made for Lady Minako.

"I assume you'd like me to speak to this man for your special foreigner? Or my father, rather," Minako amended with an unfeminine snort. "Far beneath a Shogunate official to talk to a woman."

"Will your father mind?"

"Not a problem; he's gotten used to my bizarre requests since I turned 12. So long as it has nothing to do with money." She tipped the kettle haphazardly over her cup, sake sloshing across the tray. "He'll probably want a favor in return, you know. The official, I mean, not my father."

Yuuri's head bobbed in acknowledgement, painted eyes crinkling at the corners. "I imagined as much. Who is this man, if I may ask?"

"Lord Matsudaira of the Aizu clan[3]."

Hands jolted; a discordant minor chord.

Minako arched a fine eyebrow. She had had enough private sessions with him to know that mistakes were rare.

"You know him."

Oh, he knew Lord Matsudaira all too well. The selfish daimyo who expected nothing short of absolute subservience from those beneath his rank; the man-child who refused to accept Yuuri's rejections with dignity, choosing instead to complain loud and long to the teahouse owner, much like a child stamping his little feet for candy. With the owner's repeated nagging, the name 'Matsudaira' was imprinted into the very walls of his private quarters.

Yuuri drew in a deep breath as his fingers flew instinctively to the right strings, honed to perfection. Power and control, just as Minori said. "I know what you can offer in return."

Minako picked up her sake cup. "And that would be?"

Viktor, Viktor, Viktor. This was for Viktor.

He could see that all around him
The mountainsides were covered with blooming flowers
But no peaks were untouched by snow clouds

Eyes hooded, Yuuri lifted his head.

"Me."

 


 

Dear Viktor,

I am sorry to hear about your troubles with the samurai guards. I hope you do not blame them too much. They are doing their duty and they are scared. They do not know you. If they did, they would know that you are a good man.

Yoshino is a good attendant. He is a quick learner and very optimistic. He hopes to be a famous Kabuki actor someday, so my lessons with him focus on dance and stage movement. Now, I am preparing Yoshino for his first client on his 18th birthday. If you know of someone who is kind, gentle, and wants to meet with Yoshino for one night, please let me know. I am not satisfied with his options so far.

I hope to see you again soon.

I miss you.

Yours,

Aoyagi

P.S. What is 'solnyshko'?

 


 

"I'm all for a good time, but I draw the line at breaking in an 18-year-old courtesan," Christophe said with great resolution.

"I think Aoyagi would prefer someone he can trust for Yoshino over some unknown stranger," Viktor persisted. "I'd rather not have the poor boy go through it at all, but when in Rome..."

"Why can't you do it?"

Viktor shook his head. "My heart belongs to Aoyagi."

"Not your body, though," Christophe quipped.

"This is an uncomfortable conversation for me, Sirs," the translator groaned.

Viktor flashed a look of apology. Late spring rains blustered, its wind howling and rattling the windows. He had interrupted Christophe's writing to discuss his embassy assignment, but the conversation appeared to have derailed to the subject of Aoyagi, as it often did. It was hard not to think of the courtesan, not when his love's written word was simple yet filled with such endearing affection.

I like reading your letters. You make me happy.

I miss you.

Those words were far more than Aoyagi would ever express in person, and they lifted Viktor's spirits. Buoyed him like a paper lantern into the sky, minutes after being crushed by his latest failure at Edo Castle.

Smiling, he returned Aoyagi's letter to its envelope and tucked it carefully into the inside of his jacket. It shall join the precious collection in his nightstand later. "Right. I've realized, after all those attempts, that the only way into that castle really is with a name or a letter. Someone of significance to secure an appointment with an Edo official. Do either of you know of anyone with affiliations to the government?"

"I have colleagues who work for Edo officials, but ah," the translator wrung his hands, "It is not right for us to make requests."

"Oh," Viktor leaned forward, eyes brightening, "But if you could just convince them to meet with me—"

"It is not right, Sir," the translator repeated, as Viktor's face fell.

"Respect the hierarchy, Viktor," Christophe chuckled, tapping his pen idly against the study desk. "Besides, you're already sitting on a goldmine of connections."

"I am?" said Viktor, crossing his arms.

"You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" Christophe winked at the translator, who dipped his head in return. Pulling out a sheet of notes, he scanned it with one glimpse. "According to the lower ranks, high-ranked courtesans have customers that range from the wealthiest merchants to the innermost circle of the Shogunate." He peered over the sheet. "Your Aoyagi would have a network of elites larger than the Emperor himself."

Viktor's jaw clenched, his hands curling into fists. In Aoyagi's absence, the mere idea of the courtesan seeing others– being held in the arms of another, being touched–now boiled his insides. The more he tried to bury the thought, the more it burrowed into his mind, his heart – a seed of jealousy that sprouted and grew. Bigger, angrier, uglier. And then there was the matter of Aoyagi's lover.

"Not an option," Viktor said sharply.

Christophe let out a quiet hum. "And here I thought your angry cousin was the one with green eyes."

Viktor ignored the jibe. "Surely you have other sources after all your fieldwork," he said, a bit more strongly and curtly than he intended. "Or another idea, at least."

"I have another suggestion if you care for one," Christophe said as he shuffled his papers in an exaggerated pretense of going through his notes.

Viktor's eyes narrowed. "Does it involve Aoyagi?"

"Maybe, don't know yet." Christophe glanced up, lips curving. "But it does involve someone who frequents Aoyagi's teahouse."

Outside, lightning struck, white and vicious.

 


 

My dearest Aoyagi,

I would recommend my friend, Christophe, for Yoshino, but I'm afraid he's not at all keen with the idea. Neither am I, if I am to be honest. Would it be possible for Yoshino to delay his initiation until he has found someone worthy of his attention?

And, oh, it pleases me to no end that you think of me as a good man. I assure you that I do not blame the samurai. As you rightly said, they are merely doing their duty. It seems, fortunately, that there is a light at the end of this dreary tunnel: Christophe knows of a man who may be able to help with my dilemma. Your letters and affection have kept me hopeful throughout this fiasco, my Aoyagi; I would have left this country, a frustrated and bitter man, if it weren't for you.

[...]

[...]

[…]

Truly, I cannot imagine tolerating our distance for much longer. I shall write to my superior to inquire after my wages tonight.

Ever yours,

Viktor

P.S. 'Solnyshko' means 'little sun', which is what you are to me, my solnyshko.

 


 

Lord Matsudaira was tall and thin. With his sunken cheeks, cramped shoulders, and pale, sallow skin, the feudal lord looked as though he had been stretched out by a torture device throughout his entire childhood.

Yuuri knew that the teahouse staff was cowering under Matsudaira's shadow as he traipsed through the hallways and up the stairs, followed closely by the simpering owner. Yuuri knew that as she spoke, outlining the schedule for the day, she rubbed her hands together, over and over, like a frozen person trying to keep warm. And Yuuri knew that Matsudaira, eager to claim his prize, would disapprove of their afternoon activities, loudly and vehemently.

"He sounds pissed," Yoshino—no, Minami—remarked.

"'Angry'," Yuuri corrected with a soft smile. "He sounds 'angry'."

"Oh, right, sorry," Minami giggled.

Minami Kenjiro – a boy from a humble fishing village in Kyushu, lured to the city by the siren call of fame and fortune in Edo's Kabuki theaters. They met when Minami, lost on his first day at En, stumbled upon one of Yuuri's private performances with Minako. He begged and pleaded and implored Yuuri to take him in as a disciple thereafter, culminating in one awkward night when he flung himself into Yuuri's arms and offered his "body and soul" in exchange for Yuuri's teachings. Embarrassed and vaguely horrified, Yuuri finally caved and accepted Minami as an attendant.

As the months passed, Yuuri grew fond of Minami and his innocence, his genuine passion in everything he did. Thoroughly charmed, Yuuri allowed an exchange of their real names; called each other such in the privacy of Yuuri's quarters. He taught Minami dance, of course, but he also included lessons on classical literature, poetry, and calligraphy writing. Lessons that would give Minami poise and a sophisticated edge. There was also the constant correction of Minami's way of speaking because sometimes, much to the owner's disapproval, the young boy would lapse into crude speech.

And sometimes, just sometimes, Yuuri wondered if he kept Minami by his side because he saw the ghost of an old friend in that lilting Southern dialect.

The voices were louder now, footsteps driving heavily into the wood floors. Minami winced when the cherry door flew open with a loud bang.

"You're telling me I cannot have him until tonight?" Matsudaira hissed, while the owner bent double, bowing and apologizing repeatedly.

"Is there a problem, Lord Matsudaira?" Yuuri asked serenely, gazing up through a dark fan of eyelashes.

"Oh, Aoyagi," Matsudaira breathed, as if noticing Yuuri for the first time. He fell to his knees, and it took all of Yuuri's strength not to recoil when those fingers, long and spindly, stroked his cheek. "Your beauty rivals even the goddess Amaterasu herself."

"How flattering," Yuuri murmured as he set his red pipe between his teeth, inhaling deep. He needed all the numbing magic tobacco leaves could provide him today. "But it seems you are displeased with an afternoon of entertainment?"

The daimyo's narrowed eyes darted to the owner, who cringed. "It is not the kind of entertainment I was expecting."

Yuuri breathed out a wisp of smoke. It was instinct now, pure instinct: the way he tilted his head just enough for the sunlight to catch the rich brown of his eyes; the way his eyelashes swept down and shadowed against his cheeks; the way his lips curled languidly around the length of the pipe, hinting of what was to come. "We will have the entire night, my Lord."

"The entire night, you say?" Matsudaira's face twisted, and Yuuri's skin crawled. The darkness in those features could feed nightmares. "How you've changed your tune. I don't know what Okukawa pulled to do that, but I must write him a thank you note for his troubles."

"Ah, if I may interrupt, Lord Matsudaira," the owner called in a tremulous voice, "Shall I invite the geisha up, then?"

"Fine, fine," Matsudaira sighed irritably. As the owner hastened out of the room, he nodded toward Minami. "Will this boy be with us for the entire night as well?" A hideous leer. "It could be a learning experience for him—"

"No," Yuuri interjected, noting the color in Minami's cheeks, the sagging of his shoulders in a clear display of relief. He would have to remind his attendant to steel his expressions in their next lesson. "Yoshino will only attend this afternoon."

"I see." Again, the fingers caressed his cheek, leaving trails that burned like welts on his skin. "Then it will just be the two of us. Alone."

Across the room, the geisha shuffled in, as the shamisen player gave a few experimental strums. The air turned heavy, stifled, and Yuuri dragged in a lungful of smoke, delighting in the thick sensation that took him away from the feel of Matsudaira's touch.

Viktor, Viktor, Viktor. This was for Viktor.

"I cannot be more thrilled," Yuuri crooned.

And so it went.

What brilliant deductions, Lord Matsudaira. How intelligent your brothers must be, Lord Matsudaira. Do share more of your wondrous ideas for the country, Lord Matsudaira.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Every word, every lie; sandpaper against his tongue.

When night fell, Matsudaira wasted no time. The second Yuuri closed the doors of his private quarters, he felt a hot mouth latch onto his neck, something bone-hard pressing into the back of his thigh. Hands tore at his sash and sank under the many layers of fabric: grasping, groping, fondling. It was as though he had returned to the beginning again, back when he had nothing. Back when he was nothing.

There's no preparation, not even a warning. Face buried in the mattress, Yuuri felt the air being shoved out of his body as Matsudaira thrust in hard. So tight, so good, Matsudaira groaned. Then he moved, and it was a brutal pace, quick and harsh and unforgiving. Yuuri whimpered—a tiny, high sound—his fingers digging into the sheets. He had prepared himself as he always did, but it hurt. It still hurt. Everything inside him heaved, rolling and lurching, breath by breath. He hadn't been taken this roughly, this callously, since he became Aoyagi. Since he had a choice.

Back then, Mikawa often went someplace far away. Hasetsu. Home. Or maybe some imaginary beach that resembled his home; it was getting harder and harder to recall what home looked like.

But this time, Yuuri thought of the color blue. Blue like the wide, open sky; as the ocean that sparkled beneath the setting sun. Blue as Viktor's eyes, kind and tender and compassionate.

Viktor, Viktor, Viktor.

Viktor who gave him red camellias, the waltz, and lengthy, five-paged letters.

Viktor who gave him a sunset and asked for nothing in return.

Yuuri breathed heavily into the sheets when Matsudaira came, gripping his hips with vicious strength. Warmth exploded inside him: filling him up, running down his thighs.

And when Matsudaira flipped him over and pulled his legs apart, Yuuri offered a long, breathless moan, knowing fully well that it would spur the daimyo on.

This was for Viktor.

 


 

Dear Viktor,

Thank you for asking your friend. I remember he is a good-looking man, if a little too keen. It is surprising that he is not keen about Yoshino. All the same, I am grateful to you for caring. I wish it could be delayed, but Yoshino must have a client by his 18th birthday. It will be all right. I will find someone suitable and all will be well.

I wish you all the best with your dilemma. I have a feeling that the tide will turn for you soon. If all Russians are like you, it will be good for Russia and Japan to have better relations. I think Japan is confused about who she is these days, and maybe Russia can help with that.

I am still missing you. Very much. Please let me know about your wages.

Yours,

Aoyagi

P.S. I do not think I am like the sun, but thank you.

 


 

They waited at a bench outside the teahouse. The cloth over the bench was bright red, its tassels dangling inches from the ground. A server, perky and chipper, brought tea on a tray and offered a menu of desserts. Viktor stared at the steam curling out from his cup. An actual teahouse. How odd it was to sit at an actual teahouse that served tea.

"How long do you intend to sulk about that letter?"

Scowling, Viktor turned to Christophe. "'Good-looking man', he called you. Good-looking."

Christophe rolled his shoulders in a shrug. "He also implied I was some sort of sex addict. That's fairly insulting."

Viktor snorted.

"Your jealousy is getting out of hand," Christophe pointed out lightly.

"Some amount of jealousy is healthy," Viktor retorted.

"Perhaps," said Christophe, taking a sip of his tea. "Except your jealousy is over a courtesan, who likely has been in his trade for at least a decade. Doesn't he also have a lover from another teahouse?"

Viktor opened his mouth, before closing it again. Christophe was right, of course. (He often was, more than Viktor would care to admit.) It was foolish to feel this way about a courtesan and he had fought so hard to curb the stupidity. But without Aoyagi holding the universe together, he was fighting a desperate, losing battle.

"I just..." He lifted a free hand; scrubbed it over his face. "Love him so much. But I need him by my side to affirm that love. I need to see him, hear him, touch him. And the thought of someone else doing that, the thought of him loving another…" He paused, hand falling limply to his lap. "God, a decade of clients? How many would he have seen? How many does he see now? Does he really love that woman from the teahouse with a symbol of the moon?"

"Viktor." Christophe's features softened. "That crazy leap you've made? You're never going to stick the landing with that sort of thinking."

"I know," Viktor sighed. "I know. But I can't—"

Without warning, someone shoved into the space between them and strong arms clamped round their shoulders, squeezing once in a vise-like grip. "Hello, hello, sorry I'm late," chimed a jovial voice, "Lost track of time; why don't we move this to a table inside, eh?"

Viktor could only blink as the intruder, whoever it was, breezed through the entrance of the teahouse like a whirlwind. There was a loud greeting inside, followed by feminine giggles.

"That would be our contact," Christophe chuckled, rising from the bench. "Shall we?"

The contact's name was Jean-Jacques Leroy (or JJ, as he so insisted), a French-Canadian missionary who came to Edo with the express purpose of "educating the masses". His dressing was black and drab, the only color emanating from a gold cross that hung around his neck. His personality, on the other hand, was almost as ostentatious as Aoyagi's extravagant outer robes.

"A pity the Japanese aren't quite ready for us," JJ declared, tossing a dessert piece[4] into his mouth. "So I've taken to tutoring English in the teahouses. They're more accepting of foreigners in teahouses, mostly because we're an untapped source of revenue for them. Not this sort of teahouse, mind, the other kind in Yoshiwara. That's pretty much how I met Chris; he came sniffing around for information for his new book." He tossed a grin at Viktor. "But you would know all about Yoshiwara teahouses, wouldn't you?"

Viktor smiled through gritted teeth. Something about JJ made him want to smash things. "And why would I know about those, exactly?"

JJ popped in another dessert piece. "Because you're Viktor Nikiforov! The man who writes cloyingly, tooth-achingly sweet love letters to the infamous Aoyagi of En."

"Oh boy," Christophe muttered, seconds before Viktor shot to his feet and dragged JJ across the table by the collar.

"How do you know about my letters?" Viktor whispered over JJ's choking noises and frantic gestures at his throat. "Did Aoyagi tell you about them? Who are you to him?"

"He'll need to swallow to answer your questions," Christophe said, waving away a concerned server.

Reluctantly, Viktor released the man but remained standing, his heart pounding too hard and fast, anger burning at everything in his insides. No, not anger.

Envy. Pure, unadulterated envy.

Grasping his throat, JJ managed a feeble chortle. "I'm not a client. I mean, well," he waved at his missionary garb, up and down, "But I do tutor Aoyagi English, and ever since you started your little penpal exchange, he's been bringing your letters to our lessons for language assistance."

It took Viktor a moment to hear the words past the dull throb in his ears and another to process them. Feelings drained out of him then, sudden and swift, and he dropped back onto his seat, exhaling slowly and heavily through his nose. Naturally Aoyagi would need help with his letters; English was not his first language. Why, then, was his first assumption that JJ was Aoyagi's lover and confidant?

These territorial feelings, his possessiveness – it really was starting to get out of hand.

"I gotta ask," JJ said, tugging his collar back into place. "Since you love him that much, have you considered buying him out?"

"Buy him out?" Viktor shot JJ a frosty glare, taking satisfaction in the other man's flinch. "Aoyagi isn't a slave."

"No, but that's how the system works." JJ cocked his head to one side, recovering enough for the grin on his face to grow wider, more obnoxious. "Did you not know that?"

Viktor bristled. "You—"

"I believe what Jean-Jacques is trying to say is," Christophe cut in, nudging his elbow warningly into JJ's ribs, "A courtesan can only leave the teahouse once his or her contract has expired and after all debts have been repaid. More often than not by clients."

"So…" Viktor's back straightened. "So as long as his contract has expired, I can take Aoyagi away by repaying his debt?"

"Aoyagi's contract has expired from what I've heard," JJ supplied. "But at his rank, it's going to be one hell of a debt, and you can't even afford to see him in person."

"Anyway," Christophe cleared his throat when Viktor's features darkened considerably, "Let's return to our main objective, shall we? Viktor here needs some names to secure a meeting with an official in foreign affairs."

"Right, right," said JJ. He gulped down mouthfuls of tea, before continuing, "There's quite a lot of nobles and government officials who frequent the teahouses, but only a small number are open to foreigners. Your best bet is to approach those when they're in Yoshiwara. With caution, by the way, because they're usually accompanied by armed guards. One really big name I'd suggest is—"

An envelope slid across the table between them.

Mid-sentence, JJ's jaw fell. Around them, customers averted their gaze, suddenly finding great interest in their tea and desserts while the servers skittered by, heads bowing as they passed.

"Letter of appointment," drawled the Japanese man who gave them the envelope. Skinny and tall, he stood with the pride of a man of great status, the sleeves of his black top sporting small, white circles. A pair of samurai flanked his sides, hands resting on their swords. "For Viktor Nikiforov," the man added in his musical accent, stressing some syllabi and softening others.

"Oh," said Viktor, eyes wide. "That's me, but—"

Before any questions could be asked, before Viktor could thank him, the man swept out of the teahouse with his guards, and the tension lifted.

It was Christophe who broke the silence.

"I take it that's the one really big name you were about to suggest?" he asked candidly.

"Lord Matsudaira," JJ agreed when his jaw unhinged. He grabbed another piece of sweetened dessert, nodding at the envelope. "I'd say you're pretty much set with that letter in your hands."

Eyebrows furrowing, Viktor's eyes flickered to the envelope. "That's fantastic, but… how? How did he even know who I was? Or my need for a letter?"

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, I always say," JJ said sagely.

"How exceedingly helpful," Viktor said, his voice dripping honey.

"Play nice," Christophe mumbled while JJ drank more tea, entirely unfazed. "There's really only one way you could have gotten that letter."

Viktor frowned. "What's that?" 

For a beat, Christophe gave Viktor a piercing look, before shaking his head. "You know what, never mind. Just a silly, fleeting thought." He beamed. "Didn't Aoyagi say he had a feeling this would work out for you?"

"Yes, he did," Viktor murmured softly, the thought filling him with warmth. Sweet, encouraging Aoyagi – his personal lucky charm.

"Good, focus on that and your good fortune," Christophe told him. "If your wages don't arrive by the end of this week, by the way, my offer for another session with Aoyagi still stands. Might help with, you know." His lips quirked. "Your affliction."

Viktor chuckled. "Thanks, Chris."

"And then maybe you can really concentrate on saving up for Aoyagi," JJ piped up.

The annoyance had a point, thought Viktor, stowing the letter inside his jacket. If repaying Aoyagi's debt truly was the courtesan's ticket to freedom, and if freedom was what his sunshine was so afraid to hope for, then...

Then. 

As much as the thought curled Viktor's insides, it was time to ask Aoyagi how much he was worth.

 


 

My dearest Aoyagi,

The strangest, most inexplicable thing has happened, but I shall keep this letter brief because I have such wonderful news.

I have received word from my superior that he has delivered my wages. We will meet again soon, my solnyshko, and I shall share my experiences then.

Ever yours,

Viktor

 


 

The last thing Yuuri expected was for Viktor to show up out of the blue and sweep him into a tight hug in the middle of an open street. It was inappropriate. Indecent, even. He could feel the stares penetrate his being, the silent judgement for their public display and his poor choice in a partner.

Yet, his heart thudded in his chest for entirely different reasons. Reasons that might have to do with Viktor's smile and his comforting scent of rain and pine grass. Viktor's laugh. Viktor's warm, blue eyes, eyes that kept him sane and stirred up unfamiliar emotions.

"How I've missed you, my darling, my solnyshko, my lucky charm," Viktor mumbled lovingly into his hair, and Yuuri shivered despite the warmth of Viktor's embrace. The Russian seemed to have grown exponentially more affectionate since they last met.

"Why am I a lucky charm?" he asked quietly.

Viktor pulled back, and Yuuri was struck by the stardust in his eyelashes, the soft upturn of his mouth, the silver in his hair that caught in the morning light. (Had Viktor always looked this divine?) "Because I have strangely, inexplicably, received a letter of appointment from an important figure, and I firmly believe it is your presence that convinced the gods to lean in my favor." He rested a hand on the curve of Yuuri's cheek. "My very own lucky charm."

No.

No, it wasn't just his presence.

No, it wasn't the gods he had convinced.

He did it for Viktor. Let Matsudaira have him so he could give something back, so he could see the joy light up Viktor's face, soft and warm at the edges.

And it did; it worked. Beautifully.

But now, gazing into Viktor's eyes, into the shifting warmth full of fondness and trust, Yuuri's heart shattered with one single realization:

I don't deserve him.

He was filthy and tainted and he didn't deserve such wholesome, unassuming beauty.

Blue eyes widened, before another hand rose to frame Yuuri's face. "Aoyagi… you're crying."

"Ah..." Yuuri felt it now - the searing heat of tears that poured and streamed down his cheeks. He tried to say he was fine, but something prickled in the back of his throat, preventing words from coming forth. Tears, tears, and more tears. Breathing out loudly through a stifled nose, he swiped furiously at his eyes. God, he had forgotten. How could he have forgotten? To feel again was to open the lid of the forbidden tamatebako[5]; to feel again was to release all human emotions he had suppressed for years. For survival.

Joy and excitement and shame and pain.

So much pain.

He didn't want this. He didn't want any of this.

"It's nothing," he finally gasped, a mess of sobs and hiccups, "It's nothing..."

"Oh, my darling," Viktor whispered, tilting Yuuri's head down to press soft lips against his forehead. "Please, tell me what's wrong."

Everything, Yuuri wanted to say. Everything.

Gone, all gone. Everyone he loved, everyone who loved him. His family, Takeshi, Minori. Soon or later, they all left, torn away or consumed by the darkness of Yoshiwara. Even Viktor... Viktor with the light falling across his face, haloing his shimmering hair. Viktor with his gaze that made him feel as though he owned the world. Viktor with his smile and warm eyes that destroyed him inside and out.

Yuuri wrenched his eyes shut. Words. Viktor was waiting for him to say words.

"The... the camellias are dying."

A pause. Then Viktor laughed, a soft huff of breath that trickled into the web of cracks in Yuuri's heart. "Is that all?" He kissed Yuuri on the tip of his nose. "Flowers die all the time, that's what flowers do. I'll buy you a new batch on our next meeting. Which is actually why I'm here, to secure a night with you." He leaned in, smiling conspiratorially. "I have something important to ask you in private."

Yuuri sniffled. The delight in Viktor's face was making it hard to keep wading in his pool of self-loathing. "What is it about?"

"You'll find out," Viktor said, brushing away the last of Yuuri's tears with the pad of his thumb. "I must leave you now, or I'll never get around to making that appointment to see you." A second kiss on his forehead, lighter and gentler than the first. "And I promise: a whole new bouquet of camellias for my solnyshko."

Solnyshko; little sun. A symbol that represented the sun goddess Amaterasu: beautiful, strong, and honorable.

Yuuri was nothing like the sun.

Something hot and dark seeped down his ribs as Viktor turned back to give him a wave in the distance. Lies upon lies upon lies.

I don't deserve him.

"Aoyagi," called a familiar voice behind him, soft and wavering. "Yuuri." Hesitation. "Who was that?"

Yuuri sucked in a sharp inhale. He scrubbed roughly at his eyes before he turned, schooling his expression into a smile. "It's nothing for you to worry about, Kiyora[6]. Nothing at all."

As he reached into his yukata for the small envelope, he found himself wishing that Minori was still at En. He wanted desperately to consult his Big Brother for his wisdom, his guidance.

Because if power and control was all he needed, then why did he feel as helpless as that single, excruciating moment in the dark closet of Yutopia Katsuki?

Chapter Text

Smoke wafted into his face, and he waved it away with flicks of his wrist.

"Sorry," Yuuko said, holding the pipe in one hand, shoving the envelope into her yukata sleeve[1] with the other. There were bruises on her neck and collarbones – marks of possession. "Normally I don't, you know, but my client last night—"

"I know," Yuuri said quietly.

"Right," said Yuuko. She stuck the pipe in her mouth and inhaled, long and deep, her expression loosening. Growing more serene. "Right."

Yuuko had changed.

Ever since she learned about Takeshi's fate, she became different person. As though she had cried and cried, and everything that made her Yuuko had flowed away with her tears. As though someone had swapped her out for a doppelganger with an entirely different personality. Honestly, Yuuri wished someone had; any fate was better than their miserable existence in Yoshiwara. Alive but barely living.

She was still sweet, of course. Sweet and kind. That much remained, too ingrained within her soul to be scratched out by the dark claws of the teahouse. But the positive and bubbly attitude, the pure zest for life – all of that had disappeared. Evaporated along with her dreams, her heart, her innocence.

Yuuko, standing outside her teahouse with her tousled hair, hastily worn yukata, and a bright red pipe in one hand, was but a shell of her former self.

Yuuri fought desperately to save what was left of it.

He paid her a visit sometimes, on the rare nights he had no clients. He's not quite sure why; his heart curdled every time he did, watching her through the red bars of her opulent cage, watching her stare holes into the ground, determined to ignore the whistles and catcalls and lewd proposals[2]. Her outright rejection was seen by the men as a challenge: a wall to climb, topple, and conquer. While Yuuri had his fair share of rough clients, Yuuko attracted the kind who felt they had something to prove, who thought they owned the world and the world owed them.

Worse, she never rose to a high rank because of her refusal to entertain. Unlike Yuuri, she never gained the power of choice.

"Tell me about the silver-haired fox," Yuuko said suddenly.

Yuuri blinked, startled. "Who?"

"The foreigner who called out to you just after we parted that one time." Yuuko drew in another breath of smoke, lips curling at the corners. "He was very handsome, from what I can recall."

Yuuri's bottom lip sank between his teeth. "He's…"—compassionate, and generous, and loving; the very man who will bring me to ruin— "Just a client."

"Really." There's a hint of the old Yuuko in the way her eyebrows quirked, the way she glowed like the last vestiges of a sunset. "Just a client, huh?"

"Just a client," Yuuri said firmly, eyes dropping to the pink petals on the hard, dirt road, scattered dry and wilted across the ground.

"What's 'just a client''s name?"

"Viktor." Yuuri shuffled his feet, crumpling petals beneath his geta. "He's from Saint Petersburg. Russia, he said. They have pretty sunsets."

"Hasetsu has pretty sunsets," said Yuuko.

"Yes," said Yuuri. "Yes." He inhaled, then blurted, "He gave me red camellias."

A pause, long and pensive and drawn out.

"Oh Yuuri," Yuuko murmured then. Her voice was filled with such emotion that Yuuri's gaze lifted, only to meet warm eyes that had turned soft and luminous. Just as they always did on the anniversary of Takeshi's passing. "You—"

"Kiyora! Kiyora, where are you?"

Yuuko let slip a particularly unfeminine word, before she pulled Yuuri into a hug and whipped around the corner, back to the entrance of her teahouse.

The smell of tobacco and body wash lingered in the air.

After a moment, Yuuri left. Listened to the clack, clack, clack of his geta against the dirt as he walked. Maybe if he focused, really focused, his mind would stop wondering just what exactly his most cherished person had to say about Viktor. A person who had lost her love and her life.

She wouldn't disapprove. Yuuko never disapproved.

But she would be sad.

And frankly, Yuuri would much prefer disapproval.

Around him, petals swirled in the breeze, flying, falling.

 


 

Viktor sneezed.

"Someone's talking about you," Christophe remarked idly, head bowed over his manuscripts.

"Oh?" Viktor said, bemused. He turned back to the mirror and straightened his cuffs for the third time. "Something good, I hope."

"Merely a superstition[3] in these parts." In the mirror, Christophe's reflection lifted his gaze, lips quirking at the corner. "Perhaps Aoyagi's commenting on your vanity."

"It has been a while," Viktor protested. He swiped a hand through his hair. Navy blue tie, grey buttoned-down vest, dark pants, and a full-length coat. The vest served to outline his slim figure, his waist, while the coat called attention to his long, long legs. (It was Yakov's most hated outfit – "Hardly practical," the old man groused – and therefore Viktor's absolute favorite.) "I only wish to look my best for him."

Christophe exhaled, a sharp rush of air.

"I can hear your thoughts from here," Viktor said.

"Then there's no need for me to say them out loud," Christophe said.

"What will it take to convince you that I love him?"

Christophe snorted. "I have no doubt that you love him, my friend. Why do you think I nag you so?"

Viktor's eyes softened; Christophe was a good friend. And a horrid worrywart. "You haven't seen him, Chris. What he's like behind the veil of the enchanter, the siren. He's bright and beautiful and… and human. Full of love and sorrow, so much sorrow, buried under layers and layers of glimmering decadence. He's worth everything. He deserves everything."

"Poetic," Christophe said. "You do know what they say about poets?"

"They're as nosy as writers?" Viktor swept past the writing desk, gathering a handful of gold coins and swatting Christophe along the way.

"Tortured souls that live in a world of their own creation," Christophe called as Viktor left, laughing.

 


 

Light breeze from the open window. A soft, lingering fragrance of perfume and incense. Shadows strewn against painted walls, flickering in the light of the candle.

Viktor missed this. So, so much.

He finally had Aoyagi in his arms again, the warm expanse of Aoyagi's body pressed against his, the enticing herbal scent of Aoyagi's hair tickling his nose. He inhaled, deep and longing, burning Aoyagi's essence into his senses, his memory.

On the chest of drawers stood the fresh batch of camellias, replaced by Aoyagi's little assistant, Yoshino, as soon as Aoyagi received them. The old batch looked fairly alive, but Aoyagi was insistent that they had lost their color. He had whispered hasty instructions to Yoshino, who looked strangely bemused about the whole affair.

"You said you had something to ask me," Aoyagi said, resting a hand on Viktor's thigh. Warm and so distracting.

Viktor sighed. "A little longer," he murmured, tightening his grip round the lean shoulders, pressing Aoyagi closer. The robes were red tonight, red as Aoyagi's lips, red as the camellias, clouds and cranes drifting, spinning, and curling round the fabric in a dizzying white pattern. "Let's stay like this a little longer."

Aoyagi's laugh rolled out, a gentle musical. "We have all night."

"One night is never enough," Viktor told him.

Aoyagi squeezed Viktor's thigh in acknowledgement, the silence rising between them, soft and comfortable. Warm around the edges. It reminded Viktor of his childhood – of the times he played quietly by his mother's side while she did her embroidery, the times he read his storybooks while his father browsed the papers.

It reminded Viktor of home.

Even though home had taken on a vastly different vibe for him now, courtesy of a certain grumpy war veteran.

"I have to thank my superior," Viktor mused aloud. "He made our reunion possible, sending my wages to me."

"He must be a nice man," Aoyagi said, lashes dipping.

"He is. Grouchy, but loving in his own way." Viktor smiled into silky, ebony strands. "I can't wait to introduce you to him."

Aoyagi hummed. "I would like that."

"Would you?" Viktor murmured, heart soaring. Uncanny how a statement so simple could bring him so much joy. "I'm sure they will take to you as quickly as I have. My superior, my cousin, my parents…"

"Your parents?" Aoyagi said softly.

"Oh, yes. I visit them every year at our family plot."

After a moment, Aoyagi shifted. Reached up to rest a hand on the curve of Viktor's cheek; press their lips together in a quick, chaste kiss. Viktor gazed into brown eyes, warm as honey, the hand on his cheek tender and comforting.

Ah, if Christophe could see Aoyagi now. The softness, the affection, the vulnerability in those depths – the person beneath the edged mask. This kiss spoke of something different too, far different from their past kisses. It wasn't a slow, simmering burn like the embers of a fireplace, nor was it filled with the desperation of an unfulfilled hunger. It was just. Sweet. Doting, almost.

Aoyagi was changing.

No, it wasn't accurate to say he was changing. He was revealing more of his true self, his otherwise flawless, imperceptible gaze now full of something that looked like happiness. A look that Viktor had coaxed out. A look that Viktor had put on his face.

Without thinking, without pause, Viktor leaned down to touch the edge of that happiness, slide his mouth over Aoyagi's. Feel the catch of Aoyagi's breath on his upper lip, the way Aoyagi's fingers curl into his vest.

Just one kiss, thought Viktor, brushing his tongue against Aoyagi's, inviting him in. He vowed not to have sex with Aoyagi again until he had earned his trust, but one kiss never harmed anyone.

"Viktor," Aoyagi sighed, and something warm settled into Viktor's bones.

He loved how Aoyagi felt against him, how Aoyagi fit just so in his arms. How Aoyagi sank into their kiss, like the many boats docking into Saint Petersburg at dusk, finding their way to safety. To home.

His hands drifted down, gripping, tugging Aoyagi closer—

Aoyagi hissed, a quiet noise that clutched like an icy hand round Viktor's heart.

A noise of pain.

Instantly, he pulled away. "Did I hurt you? Where did I—"

"I am fine," Aoyagi said hastily. He framed Viktor's face with his hands, drawing him down for another kiss.

"Wait," said Viktor, catching Aoyagi's wrists. Thin and ever so delicate. "Wait, you're hurt." And then he saw a flicker of expression on Aoyagi's pristine features, mere seconds before the iron mask slid back into place. "Aoyagi…"

"It is nothing," Aoyagi said. "I just…" Lashes ghosted against pink cheeks, dark and hesitant. "I fell."

"You fell," Viktor repeated, incredulous.

"Yes. Yes." Aoyagi breathed and looked away, ornaments dangling, shadows crawling across his face. "I was careless and fell down the stairs."

"And this…" Viktor pressed his fingers lightly against Aoyagi's hips, withdrawing as soon as the same noise escaped through Aoyagi's teeth. "This is the only spot you injured?"

A pause. Then a nod.

Even in the flickering light, it was plain as day that Aoyagi was lying.

But why?

"May I?" Viktor asked, resting a hand on the pillowed sash, black as charcoal.

Aoyagi considered the request, his eyes turning bright and liquid in the candlelight. Then, regally, chin lifted high, he gave another nod.

Viktor unraveled the sash. One after another, the robes slid off, smooth and satin-slick, pooling round the slender waist. Aoyagi didn't move. Allowed Viktor to undress him like a doll, and Viktor knew, with a twinge in his chest, that this was how others saw him. Nothing but a beautiful life-sized marionette, a living, breathing toy for their twisted pleasures.

When he peeled off the last gauzy layer, he saw it then.

Bruises on the jut of Aoyagi's hip, stark against fair skin and spaced evenly apart. Like the fingerprints of large, human hands. Hands that touched and tainted and marred the most beautiful being, undeserving of such cruelty.

Deep in Viktor, red-hot anger twisted, swirled. Scorched his insides and pounded in his ears, blocking out all sound and sanity.

One single thought blazed through Viktor's mind, dark and feverish:

I'll kill him.

When Viktor spoke, he could barely hear his own voice. "Who did this to you."

"Please," Aoyagi murmured. The falter in his breath heightened Viktor's fury. Scared; his strong, brave Aoyagi was scared. "It's not, it's not what you think—"

"I know those marks," Viktor cut in. "I've seen them. Felt them. I bore the same markings when I was in the throes of lust with a stranger on the frontlines, desperate for the touch of another human being. We wanted, needed to feel alive, so it was frantic. It was violent." He bit out his last words, sharp as a viper's sting. "Who did this to you."

Aoyagi flinched, the barest of movements. "Please," he said again, head bowing, hands clutching his robes to his chest, as though he was suddenly embarrassed to be exposed. Ashamed. "Don't make me say it." Gone was the unwavering composure, replaced by frightened uncertainty. A wounded bird trembling in the corner of its cage. "Please."

Right there, Viktor's anger left him, deflating and crumbling like a crushed lantern on the street. What was he thinking, taking his rage out on Aoyagi? Scaring his love into giving him an answer like some schoolyard bully. That didn't make him any different from the nameless bastard who had laid rough hands on Aoyagi.

"Aoyagi," Viktor said, reaching for him. The courtesan came, willingly, pushing his face into Viktor's neck, hands smoothing up Viktor's back. His body shuddering with shaky breaths.

Viktor's chest ached.

"I'm sorry, solnyshko," he whispered. He tugged the silk fabric over Aoyagi's bare shoulders. Circled his arms round Aoyagi and pressed a kiss on his neck. "I shouldn't push you into saying something you don't want to. I'm sorry."

Aoyagi's only response was to grip at Viktor, fingers digging into the material of his vest.

It had to be a client. Some vicious brute of a client who had no interest in Aoyagi's true worth. No interest in Aoyagi, period, beyond the allure of his beauty, his body. Even with the power of choice in Aoyagi's favor, there were always wolves in sheep's clothing.

Viktor's jaw clenched, teeth grinding down hard.

He had to get Aoyagi out. Steal him away and bring him home. Now, more than ever.

"How much would it take to return you your freedom?"

In his arms, Aoyagi stiffened.

 


 

A nightmare. This had to be a nightmare.

It took the same form every time: anger then empty promises then the slow but absolute abandonment. They all ended in despair. Always. With Yuuri bolting off his mattress, sheets soaked with tears and sweat.

But he wasn't waking up this time.

Viktor's unbridled fury had frightened him. Fueled his guilt and shame. It was nothing like the owner's anger, all noise and fireworks, a big production that showcased her temper to the world. Viktor's anger was quiet, cold. A slow-burning fire so hot and seething that the red-orange flames turned a frosty blue.

If Viktor knew who gave him those bruises, if Viktor ever found out the truth, would he still pay for Yuuri's freedom? Would he still call him his 'little sun', his darling, his lucky charm? Would he still look at Yuuri as though he mattered, as though he was more than the price another man was willing to pay?

No, no, Viktor would not.

And Yuuri would fall, spiral into the gaping maw that was Yoshiwara. Just like Takeshi. Like the many others who fell before him.

In his nightmares, Yuuri always relented. Gave his soul to Viktor, only to have it dashed, splintering and scattering across the hard ground.

This time, Yuuri settled for honesty.

"You cannot afford my freedom[4]," he told Viktor quietly.

"I have savings in Russia," Viktor said. His expression was grave, but his eyes were warm and blue. Blue as the oceans of Hasetsu. "I can have it sent over. All of it."

Oh, it couldn't be true. Viktor had to be lying.

Lower ranked samurai earned a mere pittance, playing bodyguard to the merchants and noblemen who had usurped their place on the upper echelons of society. Surely the wages of a former soldier didn't amount to much either, even in Russia.

Only a fool would waste his hard-earned money on a worthless courtesan.

Yuuri knew Viktor had to be lying.

Then why – why was Yuuri's heart hammering in his chest? Responding to the thrill of hope and relief, like some part of him wanted desperately to believe.

"Don't," he blurted before he could stop his treacherous mouth. "Don't make promises you cannot keep, don't—"

"Give you hope?" Viktor finished softly.

Yuuri's breath caught, his pulse fluttering.

"Aoyagi," Viktor murmured. He traced his knuckles along the line of Yuuri's jaw, pausing to grasp his chin between a thumb and forefinger. "Have I given you any reason to doubt my intentions? My promises?" Leaned in, pressing kisses to his forehead, nose, the curve of both cheeks. "My affection for you?"

Yuuri swallowed. Against all odds, Viktor kept coming back. When Yuuri spoke of sunsets, Viktor brought him a sunset. When Yuuri asked him to write, Viktor wrote, pages and pages of gushing, romantic text. When Yuuri lied about the red camellias, Viktor delivered, returning with a bigger, fresher bouquet.

"No," Yuuri whispered.

"Then tell me," Viktor said. Pulled back, silver and smiling, freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose like distant constellations. "Tell me how much you need. Give me a chance to prove myself to you."

Yuuri's eyes dropped to the mats. It was hard to think, looking into that earnest expression. "It is… not that simple…"

"Because you're waiting for your lover's freedom?"

Yuuri blinked, emotions ceasing mid-spiral in confusion. "Lover…?"

Viktor cleared his throat. "The woman from the teahouse with an engraving of the moon."

Oh.

"Her name is Kiyora." Yuuri shook his head, ornaments clinking against each other with the motion. "She is important to me, but she is not my lover."

"I see. She's not your lover." There was a lightness to Viktor's voice then, almost as though some kind of burden had been lifted. "Regardless, does your hesitation involve her?"

The ornaments swung once more. "I want her to be free, but this is not about her. I… I only think that..." —I'm a liar and a coward and you will soon learn that I've never deserved you— "...you don't know me. You don't know the things I have done. And I – I think that if you did—"

"Oh, solnyshko." Viktor squeezed his shoulder, drew him in close. "I know you have a beautiful soul that's trapped and afraid and wishing to be let out. I know you yearn for anything that reminds you of home, like sunsets, family, and warmth. I know you're a wonderful dancer that touches the humanity of even the Gods themselves." Lips caressed his forehead, so soft and full of love that Yuuri's heart fell to his knees.

"I know enough to want nothing more than to dance the waltz with you on the docks of Saints Petersburg."

Yuuri was just beginning to adapt to the fantasy of Viktor's love; that much was possible in the teahouse, a place of illusion and deceit. But the promise of love beyond En – that was real. Far too real. As real as his nightmares, filled with bleak, desolate emptiness.

The higher the flight, the harder the fall.

Yuuri's fingers sank into the fibers of Viktor's clothes. The material was thick and unfamiliar, but he liked how it felt on the pads of his fingertips. How it fit the span of Viktor's chest just so. How it was soft and warm and comforting, just like Viktor.

I've never deserved you.

Something inside him snapped, and he was eight again, alone and wishing for his mother's sauce-stained apron. Sensations flooded through him, sensations he had long forgotten. Sensations that drove the shudder in his chest, the heave of his shoulders. The tears, hot and unrestrained, pouring down his cheeks in fat, pink gobs, a messy cocktail of salt and eye powder.

Minori would have disapproved. Chuckled even, bemused by how far Yuuri had fallen, how ugly he must look. How he had thrown cold, unfeeling Mikawa to the wayside and turned so, so weak.

"Oh. Oh, my darling." Viktor's arms tightened around his shoulders, pressing him further into the thick fabric. Yuuri clung to Viktor, shaking, hiccuping through his sobs. "Aoyagi, what's wrong?"

Aoyagi.

Aoyagi.

Of course. Viktor had never known him beneath the illusion that was Aoyagi. None of this was real. None of it.

"How can you say you know me," Yuuri gasped, "When you don't even know my name?"

 


 

Viktor did not sleep that night.

He held Aoyagi until the courtesan cried himself to sleep in his arms. Tucked Aoyagi under the covers, then stared at the ceiling, counting the number of painted clouds across the tiles.

This wasn't how he had envisioned the night.

Tears of joy, perhaps. Excitement and adoration and maybe lots of cuddling.

Aoyagi was right; Viktor didn't know him. Secrets, the man had so many secrets. Viktor thought he had seen past the veil, but he hadn't realized just how deeply Aoyagi's core was hidden. That he had barely scratched the surface of the many, many layers that was Aoyagi.

Ah, but Aoyagi wasn't his real name.

The courtesan was quiet when they parted at dawn. His gaze stayed low, hands clasped together so tight his knuckles turned white. At the entrance, he all but fled, slipping through the front doors before Viktor could say a word.

And then came the rain. A perfect ending to a disastrous night – as though the Gods could sense his turmoil.

"You look like hell," Christophe observed helpfully from the kitchen.

Viktor squinted blood-shot eyes past a curtain of silver, plastered wet and disheveled to his forehead. He was hyperaware of dripping on Christophe's expensive handwoven carpet, of his best suit sticking to chilled skin. Of his heart falling, falling, falling through the floor.

"He has a name," he said. "A whole other name I don't know of."

Christophe paused in the middle of buttering his imported bread[5]. Then, "You haven't learned much about Yoshiwara, have you?"

"All I care about is Aoyagi." Viktor shuffled into the living room and dropped onto the couch, his clothes making a sad squelch against the leather. "Or whatever his name is."

If Christophe had any qualms about Viktor drenching his furniture, he chose to bite his tongue. "I take it your offer to buy him out didn't go well?"

Viktor kneaded his temples, exhaling sharply. "He refused. Said I didn't know him, that I didn't know his name—"

"Whoa, wait, hold on," Christophe interjected. He lifted the butter knife and jabbed the blade toward Viktor. "Aoyagi wouldn't let you do it?"

"Yes," Viktor said. "I just don't know what more I can do to convince him of my intentions."

Christophe let out a contemplative hum. "I wonder... if you might be looking at this all wrong. Whether we have been looking at this wrong," he added under his breath.

Viktor's eyebrows shot into his bangs. "How so?"

"Consider this." Christophe sauntered in, a plate of breakfast in one hand, tightening the sash to his purple robes with the other. He sank gingerly onto the couch and crossed his legs, robe falling open at a lewd angle. "You've spent your entire childhood, your entire life, in a prison masquerading as a place of luxury and opulence. After years of giving your body and soul to the teahouse, a client comes in, shows you love, and offers to get you out. Permanently. Even if you had reason not to trust him, would you ever say no to a chance of freedom?"

"No," Viktor said. "No, I'd leap at the chance."

"Right." Christophe took a bite of bread. "Then why would Aoyagi deny himself this chance?"

Viktor shrugged miserably, raking a hand through his wet strands. "He's worried I won't follow through. That I'm just… saying words. Giving him false hope."

"All right, sure." Christophe shook the bread slice at Viktor. "But I'd bet my writings he's had plenty of clients tell him things they didn't mean. What makes you so different?"

"I mean them. My words. I mean every one of them." Viktor slid down the couch, shoulders crumpling together. "But I don't know if Aoyagi knows that."

"Okay. Here's my next question: why would Aoyagi care how much you know about him? Most courtesans forge an entirely new identity; they do it to forget their old life, to survive. Why couldn't he accept your offer based on his new identity?"

"I don't know, Chris. I don't—"

"Think, Viktor. For once, really think about Aoyagi and his reactions to you."

Viktor frowned. "I haven't thought of anything else since I met him."

A huff of a laugh. "Yakov would love to hear that. I mean to think with your head, friend, not your lovesick heart. Really process what he has been saying to you."

"Fine," Viktor sighed as Christophe watched him expectantly, perfect white teeth sinking into the bread slice, crumbs scattering. Closing his eyes, he reached for the events of last night. Aoyagi's face, Aoyagi's words. Gathering, piece by piece.

You don't know me.

You don't know the things I have done.

"Any thoughts?" Christophe's voice floated in. "Why does Aoyagi care how much you know about him?"

Don't make promises you cannot keep.

"Well, because…" The inkling of some idea began to take shape, blurry and vague. Viktor straightened with a squelch. "Because…"

I think if you did—

The idea sharpened. Flushed out the memory of a naked figure clutching at his robes. Trembling, shaking. Eyes shining bright and golden-brown in the candlelight.

Please. Don't make me say it. Please.

Somewhere deep in his chest, Viktor felt something loosen, thawing like the earth in spring.

"… because he wants me to know the real him. Except he's frightened. He's frightened that he's done something shameful – oh, Chris!" Viktor threw his arms in the air. "You're brilliant! Why didn't I see it before? It's not about trust. It's not about my intentions. He thinks he's not good enough because some brute left his mark on him. He thinks my feelings will change if I knew – oh, I have to go. I have to – thank you, Chris!" He grabbed Christophe's face and planted a kiss on his forehead, dripping rain water on Christophe's bare thighs. "Thank you!"

"Anytime," Christophe chuckled as Viktor bolted straight back into the pouring rain.

Straight back to where he left the other half of his soul.

 


 

"You're distracted today," Yuuko noted.

Yuuri glanced over. He liked the spring rains. The cool breeze against his skin, the fresh, earthy scents, the quiet pitter-patter on their umbrellas. It grounded him, took him away from his thoughts. Of tender kisses, chuckles that made his heart buoyant, smatterings of stars across ivory skin, sweet words that lifted and crushed his spirits all at once.

"Sorry," Yuuri said, stretching out a smile and pulling an envelope from his sleeve. "I've gained a few more clients, so…"

Yuuko breathed. "Yuuri. You have your own debt."

"I'm fine." Yuuri pressed the envelope into her hand. "You need this more than I do."

"But you're close." Yuuko grasped his hand tightly. "Closer than I ever would be."

Rain splashed up against his geta, caught the edges of his yukata. He wiggled his toes, letting the scratch of wet wood ground him further. Chase away stormy visions of the night before. "Not as close as you think."

Yuuko stepped closer and tilted her umbrella over his, a secret between them. "What happened?"

"I…" Yuuri swallowed around the stone in his throat. It was times like these that the old Yuuko shone through the dull new coat of lost innocence and bitterness. (Oh, how he missed her.) "I think I might have had a chance at – happiness? At a future? But I, I got scared, so scared, that it would crumble the minute I touched it, even just the fringes of it, a-and I just… I ruined it, Yuuko. I ruined everything."

There was a pause, before Yuuko exhaled slowly, quietly. "Wow. I haven't seen you this emotional in a while. Not since…" She stopped, unable to finish. Over a decade, and Yuuko still couldn't speak about Takeshi's incident. Couldn't even mention his name. "Is this about the silver fox?" she said instead.

"Viktor," Yuuri said.

"Right, Viktor." She leaned in, voice dropping to a whisper. "You love him, don't you?"

"I don't know," he murmured. "Honestly, I'm afraid to."

"Oh." Yuuko pulled back, eyes softening. "That's a yes."

"Yuuko—"

"Don't 'Yuuko' me." Her voice took on a stern tone, and she gave him her best glare, narrowing her eyes and wrinkling her small button nose. "And don't start with your silly 'Yoshiwara has no space for love' nonsense."

Yuuri opened his mouth, only to close it when Yuuko reared to her full height.

"No, listen. It's about time you allowed love into your heart again. Don't get me wrong; I think Yoshiwara is a cesspool that collects the scum of our country. On my worst days, I want to just light a match and set the whole damn shithole ablaze, with me inside it. But on my best, I remember. My love for… for him. For you." Yuuko's chest rose in a deep inhale, face smoothening out, eyes closing.

"It's this love that's keeping me alive."

Yuuri drew in a wavering breath. Of all people, he hadn't expected Yuuko to still believe in love. Yuuko, who lost the love of her life, who faced the filthiest, ugliest side of humanity night after night after night. Who sometimes held the same faraway look in her eyes as Takeshi did in the kitchens those many years ago. "I… never thought about it that way."

"We both found our own methods of survival," Yuuko said. "But maybe it's time you stopped thinking with this—" she tapped a manicured nail on his temple, then slid down to prod at his chest, "—and started thinking with this."

Yuuri started, "But if I—"

"Uh-uh," Yuuko said firmly. "No more thinking." She tilted her umbrella back, turned her gaze to the gloomy sky. Revealed a jawline that would have made ukiyo-e artists gasp and reach for their brushes. She could have made oiran if she tried. "I have to leave, but I'm not going until you'll at least consider what I've said."

"All right," Yuuri relented. He didn't want her to get into trouble. "I will consider it."

"Good." She gave him a peck on the cheek, soft and light. "Thank you again for the money."

Yuuri watched her leave, umbrella bobbing ever so slightly above her coiffed hair.

Perhaps Yuuko hadn't changed all that much, after all.

Yuuri turned and began walking, listening to the sound of rain against his umbrella top.

Using love to thrive. It went against everything Minori had taught him, and it was Minori's lessons that had gotten him this far. But Yuuko might be right. No wishes, no dreams; shut down all emotions and all sense of hope. Those same words of wisdom were tormenting him now. Driving him mad over—

"Aoyagi!"

Yuuri spun round, seconds before a warm mouth crashed over his, arms flying round his shoulders, pulling him flush against a firm chest. The scent of pine enveloped him, and his hands fisted instinctively into the thick fabric. Foreign but familiar. Safe.

Only one man could make him feel that way.

"Solnyshko," Viktor breathed, and Yuuri shivered. He realized then that his umbrella had fallen. He realized then that he didn't care.

"Viktor," he said. "What are you...?"

"I don't care what you've done or who you've done," Viktor murmured.

Yuuri stared, chest constricting. "Oh no, no, you don't—"

"Shhh, let me finish," Viktor said, pulling away to look down at him. Luminescent, rain catching in long, silver eyelashes. "The first night I met you, I knew there was something about you. The quiet sadness beneath your veneer, the gentleness behind the razor edge. And then we met again. And again. And with each meeting, I learned more about you, bit by bit. With each meeting, I became more and more convinced: you deserve more than this life. You deserve so much more."

"Viktor," Yuuri said, his voice hushed, unsure of what else to say.

"You're right that I don't know you," Viktor continued softly. "But that doesn't matter to me. Because we'll have time for that when you're free. Because you're worth so much more than the price I am willing to pay. Because nothing you've done, nothing, will ever change the way I feel about you."

Yuuri's heart tripped, and he was falling then, falling—had been falling—into Viktor's open arms and Viktor's open heart—

"I want to dance with you," he said, trembling, words rolling out of him like the rain on his cheeks. He wasn't thinking anymore. Wasn't questioning. Too struck by how beautiful, how perfect Viktor was. "I want to see the sunset with you, I want to meet your parents, I want you to meet my family, I want to show you my home in the South. I want – I want—"

Mid-sentence, Viktor's hands were on his cheeks, pulling him in, and they were kissing again. Yuuri slid his hands into Viktor's hair, Viktor's words folded tenderly, lovingly into their kisses: anything for you; my world, my sun, my everything.

This was real, thought Yuuri, light as air, with Viktor's hands smoothing up and down his back. Viktor's hot mouth on his jaw, neck, and straight back to his lips. This was no illusion. Viktor was a gift, a miracle. Viktor was his.

To hell with Yoshiwara. To hell with En, the owner, the people walking by with looks of judgment on their faces. He believed in Viktor, in Viktor's love, in his love for Viktor, and he would gladly burn with the rest of the world when fate finally dealt him a losing hand.

"Yuuri," he said.

Viktor stopped his kisses just long enough to blink at him.

"My real name," Yuuri said, eyelids dipping, feeling oddly shy. "Yuuri Katsuki."

Viktor's face twitched once, twice. And then it shone, full of light and exhilaration and unadulterated joy.

"Yuuri," Viktor said, the first syllable drawn out to linger sweetly between them. He held out a palm, open and inviting, and Yuuri's heart felt too big in his chest.

"Will you do me the honor of a dance?"

 


 

The scene was talked about for days: a young man with his arms around a foreigner, laughing and swaying in the rain, a pair of mad, wayward fools.

Chapter Text

"Have you had no more letters?"

Yuuri looked up from his writing exercise. Ink fell from his brush, blotting out letters and spreading across the scroll.

Across the table, JJ smiled expectantly.

Yuuri had forgotten how much his English tutor was involved in his letter exchanges with Viktor. JJ was privy to every word of endearment, every sweet phrase of devotion, and Yuuri would have felt beyond mortified if it were anyone else. As it was, JJ's solid presence was strangely… comforting. Uplifting. With each translation, JJ kept his heart afloat throughout his wretched separation from Viktor. Kept his hopes alive.

Not that he would ever admit as much to the man. There was something in the way JJ bragged about his accomplishments in tutoring, the way he gloated about his importance in educating the unfortunate and downtrodden, the way he acted as though the teahouses would be lost without him. No, JJ had no need for another gold leaf in his craftwork[1].

"Not now," Yuuri said, grazing his brush against the ink stone. "But soon."

"I see," JJ said, resting his elbows on the table, cheeks propped against his fists. "That means you'll be apart again, soon."

Yuuri's brush paused. "… yes."

"And what's the reason this time?"

In lieu of a response, Yuuri lifted his brush and slid a few strokes across the paper – round letters in smooth curls. Penmanship in English was somewhat difficult with a brush, but foreign writing instruments were far too odd.

"Let me guess," JJ said, smashing into the silence like a bludgeon, refusing to acknowledge Yuuri's subtle cue. "He's found out how much you cost and decided to save up."

Yuuri breathed; JJ was occasionally brighter than Yuuri gave him credit for. "Yes," he said after a moment, resting his brush on the ink stone.

After dancing on clouds, soaked with joy and rain, Yuuri fell back to reality with Viktor, the many zeros in his debt looming over their heads. They agreed—Yuuri with some reluctance, and Viktor, with a great much more—that it was best for Viktor to hold back on any further expenses while he looked up his savings. Expenses like the najimi fees and their appointed meetings. But oh, the kiss they shared after; Yuuri would take the memory to his grave. Of Viktor's mouth on his, Viktor's lashes on his cheeks, Viktor's hands on the curve of his hips. Sweet and warm and loving.

Even the owner's lecture upon his return failed to dampen his spirits.

"What about Chris?" JJ said, humming. "He's rich enough, surely."

Yuuri cocked his head to one side. Without clients or a need to entertain, the ornaments he had chosen were simple, light. "Who is Chris?" he asked.

"Christophe. Viktor's friend."

"Oh, Christophe," Yuuri said. "Viktor does not think he should use his friend's money."

"Your man has too many scruples if you ask me," JJ said, chuckling.

Yuuri's eyes darted to the cross on JJ's chest, glinting gold in the light. "I would think scruples are a part of your religion."

JJ shrugged. "There's nothing in the commandments about borrowing money from thy neighbor." He tapped his fingers on the table, a snappy rhythm on the polished wood. "You know… you're always welcome to use my private room in the teahouse. In fact, you can use it this afternoon if you want."

Yuuri blinked at him. "You have a room in the teahouse?"

"Next to the kitchens near the backdoor." JJ gave a good-natured grin. "You don't pay much attention to my comings and goings, do you?"

Yuuri's gaze fell to his scroll. He had no reason to be embarrassed, really; all courtesans saw no one but themselves, absorbed in their own lives, their own horrors and nightmares. The whereabouts of a foreign priest was the last thing anyone would notice.

And yet, he did owe JJ a great deal. Without JJ, he would never have believed in Viktor's affection, or his sincerity. Without JJ, he wouldn't have believed.

"Thank you, Mr. JJ," Yuuri murmured. Gravely, earnestly. Eyelids dipping with his voice in a practiced gesture of coyness.

Some part of him was gratified that even the great, unshakeable JJ turned a pale shade of pink at the sight.

 


 

Past the great gates and within the main palace, the inside of Edo Castle was every bit as opulent as the rooms of En. Around the floor mats that spanned as far as the eye could see, every inch of the audience chamber was covered with glimmering gold, from the walls and ceilings, down to the sliding doors and folding screens. The doors were further decorated with pine trees; the ceilings, with intricate geometric patterns.

It was a symbol of power, all of it. Meant to dazzle, frighten, and inspire awe.

Viktor swallowed his amazement, smoothed down the imaginary wrinkles in his suit. He must remain dignified. Respectful, but unconquerable. His instinct was to put on his military uniform that morning, his epaulettes and stripes and badges, but he recalled Aoyagi's words and— no. No, not Aoyagi.

Yuuri.

Strange, how a single word could flood his being with such happiness.

He wanted to shout to the heavens when Yuuri finally lowered the walls and allowed him in. Bathe in the glow of warmth he felt despite the spring rain, as though he carried an ember of his little sun inside him. There was a flicker when they agreed not to meet for a while, but Yuuri's sweet kiss before they parted— his lips soft, dark lashes shadowing his cheeks—rekindled the warmth instantly. The feeling lasted through the walk home, his recounting of the morning's events with Chris, and well into the night. It dissipated the next morning, only to return again at the mere thought of the man behind that singular, beautiful name.

Yuuri, Yuuri, Yuuri.

He would never tire of it. Ever.

"Nikiforov-san?"

Right. Show time.

Viktor rose to his feet as an official approached him, accompanied by another man. Clean-shaven and dressed in black robes, the official sported deep lines that sank into his forehead, betrayed the stress of his station. Viktor sympathized; the opening of a country must be no easy task.

The second man bowed, low and deep. "Mr. Nikiforov, this is Naoyuki Nagai[2], Commissioner for Foreign Affairs. I am Watanabe, your translator for the day."

"A pleasure, Mr. Nagai. Mr. Watanabe." Viktor dipped his head. "Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today."

The official spoke again, a quiet, reedy voice.

"Mr. Nagai says it is difficult for him to ignore a letter written by the hand of Mr. Matsudaira himself," the translator said. He paused while the official added a few more words. "He wonders how you managed to pull such a feat."

"Do you know," Viktor said, "I wonder that myself."

After the translation, the official shot Viktor a piercing look. He appeared to be thinking, eyes narrowed, the gears rolling and turning. Then, through the translator, "Was he offered a Russian concubine?"

Viktor's eyebrows shot into his bangs. "I'm sorry?"

The translator listened carefully to his client. "Mr. Nagai apologizes for being direct, but Mr. Matsudaira is notorious for his love of pretty things."

"Ah," Viktor said, unsure of how else to respond. "Well, if someone had offered a concubine to Mr. Matsudaira, it was not me. All I received was a letter from the man… without elaboration, without explanation."

The official looked unconvinced. But he shook his head, gestured toward the cushions by their feet.

"Please sit," the translator said, "So we may begin our discussion."

A half-hour.

Weeks and months of effort, of writing and imploring and reaching out, for a half-hearted, open-ended conclusion in a mere half-hour.

There was hesitation over the construction of a Russian consulate, but with Viktor insisting upon the stipulations in the Treaty of Shimoda[3], they settled on an agreement: a modest building outside the city of Hakodate, accessible by foot. Not ideal, as Yakov would say, yet better than an isolated temple that burned their nostrils with incense every few hours.

The official gave a set of instructions, before he jerked his head down in one sharp motion, and shuffled out of the room.

"Mr. Nagai requests that you have the blueprints sent over for approval before you begin construction," the translator said.

"Will he look at them, I wonder," Viktor said without thinking.

The corners of the translator's mouth twitched. "If he so chooses, Mr. Nikiforov."

Viktor left the castle feeling uncertain. His venture wasn't a failure by any means, but he was reluctant to call it a success. The blueprints posed as an added roadblock to the building of their consulate, a crafty tactic to further stall their efforts in erecting a base for Russians in the country. A home.

The ports of Japan may be open, but the people's hearts were not.

Oh, how Viktor longed to see Yuuri. To feel the warmth of his love, something to cradle his hand and heart against. A reminder that he was wanted. Needed, even. Yakov might have called it a weakness, but Viktor considered it a strength – to have someone that would help him feel whole. (Viktor was fairly certain Yakov understood more than he let on; the old veteran had that special someone at some point, after all, a lady with sharp slits for eyes, like a hawk.)

Still, it would be foolish to visit Yuuri now. Not when he needed the money to remove Yuuri's chains, to have Yuuri in his arms for the rest of their lives.

Honestly, Viktor wasn't clear about his accounts. On Yakov's advice, he brought a good amount of savings with him to Hakodate, but he knew he had a great deal more back in Russia. He didn't know how much more, however, or whether it was even enough. The debt was a ridiculous number, an accumulation of food, clothes, lessons, and accessories; the symbol of a courtesan's shackles.

"Mr. Nikiforov!"

Eyes wide, Viktor halted just steps away from the front of Christophe's home. Standing at the entrance was Yuuri's young assistant, dressed in a robe of vibrant colors, sleeves flapping as his arms waved vigorously above his head.

This was a first.

"Yoshino, was it?" Viktor asked, approaching the boy.

"Yes," Yoshino said, a smile spreading across his cherub face. He dug into his sleeve and pulled out an envelope. "From Big Brother. He said mailman too slow."

Viktor's heart sang. Eagerly, he tore open the envelope, his worries forgotten.

Meet me at the back gates of En at noon.
-Aoyagi

Noon.

Viktor raised his head. Squinted into the light, the sun sitting high and blinding in the sky. Trust his solnyshko to be impeccable with his timing, to know exactly when Viktor needed him.

"I will show the way," Yoshino chirped.

 


 

Unlike his Big Brother, Yoshino was a talker.

He chattered on, unhindered by language, about his ambitions of being a stage actor, his lessons, even fragments of his past. He was from the south like his Big Brother, he said, so he felt a natural kinship to the older courtesan, all admiration aside. He came to En to pay for his acting lessons, only to realize too late that the exits were sealed the moment he walked through the doors.

"But it is okay," Yoshino continued brightly, seemingly unaware of Viktor's darkening expression. "Big Brother is good to me. And I learn much from him."

Viktor nodded slowly. He wondered if Yuuri was ever this optimistic, this obtuse. "I hear that you…" He hesitated, then, "… that your eighteenth birthday is coming."

"Oh, yes." Yoshino looked up, beaming. "Do you think I will, ah... um, meet? Meet someone like Big Brother meet you?"

Viktor stared into the large eyes, shining with innocence and warmth and hope.

"Yes," he lied softly. "Absolutely."

The toothy grin, full of unadulterated delight, squeezed at Viktor's chest so hard that his breath faltered.

Christophe. If nothing else, he had to convince Christophe, so Yoshino wouldn't lose himself. Wouldn't follow the path Yuuri had taken at his age.

Their conversation didn't cease—Yoshino talking, Viktor nodding and smiling—until they reached the back gates of En.

As Yoshino unlatched the gates, Viktor's eyes were already drawn to Yuuri's lithe frame in the little courtyard, as sure as a compass pointing north. Gazing up at the cherry tree, Yuuri was radiant in violet robes and a golden-yellow sash as he stood in a swirl of pink blossoms. Viktor wished he had a camera then; to preserve Yuuri's unassuming beauty and keep it with him: under his jacket, close to his heart.

"Big Brother," Yoshino called, and Yuuri turned, his smile sending a tremble through Viktor's knees. How easy it was to swoon in Yuuri's presence.

"Well done, Yoshino," Yuuri said, while his assistant glowed at the praise. He looked up at Viktor through his eyelashes, and Viktor was caught by the deep affection in his eyes. "I am so happy to see you again."

Viktor stepped closer, pressed a palm against the curve of Yuuri's cheek. "As am I, my darling. So happy I could burst."

It was Yuuri's turn to blush, and he did, ever so prettily, pink suffusing his cheeks. "Come," he said, reaching out, fingers on Viktor's wrist. "We must hurry before someone sees you."

Wordlessly, Viktor allowed himself to be pulled past the cherry tree, boots stomping across the scattered petals. Yuuri took him through what looked like the kitchens, past the stoves, sinks, and cabinets filled with decorated dishes. Teahouse staff bustled about in preparation for lunch, too busy to notice a pair of men slip into a side door.

A side door so small that Viktor had to bend over double to avoid bumping his head against the top. Opened to a cramped space, full of broken furniture and dusty books, and led—much to Viktor's disappointment—to a room with Jean-Jacques Leroy inside.

Yuuri sank to his knees behind a small table. "Mr. JJ, this is Viktor. Viktor, this is—"

"I know who he is," Viktor said, taking a seat next to Yuuri. "What I'd like to know is why he's here."

"Good to see you too, Viktor," JJ said with a grin.

Yuuri glanced at them, back and forth. "You are friends?"

"Oh no," Viktor said, resting a hand over Yuuri's, lacing their fingers together. "I wouldn't go that far."

JJ leaned back, legs stretching out beneath the table. "Given that this is my room and our official excuse is that I've offered Aoyagi extra English lessons, I can't go walking around Yoshiwara and have our lie exposed, can I?"

There was something incredibly satisfying about hearing another man call Yuuri by his alias – the name for his cold, iron mask. It meant that only Viktor was privy to the real Yuuri, a secret shared between them and only them.

Not that he felt any less displeased with JJ's presence.

"You could leave Yoshiwara and keep the lie intact," Viktor muttered.

"Ah, but who will keep you two in line?" JJ said, winking.

"I assure you, there is no thought more disenchanting than having sexual relations in your room."

Yuuri squeezed Viktor's hand as JJ brayed out loud guffaws. "How was your meeting at Edo Castle?"

"I'm not sure, really," Viktor replied, keeping check on his tone. Yuuri didn't deserve his disgruntlement, not when he only, endearingly, wanted to see Viktor. "I had my say and we've agreed on a location for the consulate, but construction cannot begin until the commissioner has approved the blueprints."

"Edo government follows many protocols," Yuuri murmured.

"Perhaps too many," Viktor sighed.

Yuuri squeezed his hand again. "You will have a home soon."

Viktor smiled, taking in the softness of Yuuri's eyes, the way Yuuri's fingers curled warm and tight around his. Soothing, Yuuri was so soothing. Like a healing balm on his wounds. He couldn't remember a time without Yuuri now; how he survived this far without his guiding sun.

But I do have a home, he wanted to say. Right here, with you.

Loud thumps startled Viktor out of his reverie.

JJ was smiling, elbows resting on the table. "Is this that meeting Matsudaira gave you a letter for?"

Well, maybe not here, precisely.

"It's none of your business, JJ," Viktor said through clenched teeth.

"I'm still curious how you got that letter," JJ said, unperturbed. "Aren't you?"

Viktor inhaled, counting to ten. "I suppose the commissioner did suggest that my benefactor must have offered a concubine to Matsudaira. Because of his penchant for 'pretty things'."

Beside him, Yuuri shifted, robes rustling against the wood floor.

JJ leaned forward. "I've heard that Matsudaira frequents Yoshiwara quite a bit."

"Does he?" Viktor said, an eyebrow arching.

"Many officials visit for the geisha," Yuuri said quietly.

JJ sniggered. "I highly doubt anyone visits Yoshiwara that often just for a dance performance."

"I have clients who visit me for dance performances."

"Maybe a few do," JJ conceded. "But they're the exception to the rule. Especially given the stories I've heard about Matsudaira and his sexual needs. Even the En staff said he's so insatiable that—"

"These are rumors, Mr. JJ," Yuuri cut in, his voice gone low and terse. "That is all."

The silence was palpable, filled only by the voices from the kitchen outside. By the sound of Viktor's heart pounding in his ears.

Viktor's eyes flickered to Yuuri's, but the courtesan couldn't seem to meet them. Could only focus on his robes, the white flowers trailing across the fabric. 

No, thought Viktor, feeling his neck chill, his throat go dry. No, no, no.

"You, uh…" JJ's laugh never sounded less confident. "You must have great respect for Lord Matsudaira to defend his honor like that."

For a moment, Yuuri didn't respond. Then, he lifted his chin, and Viktor could almost hear the clanks of an armor being fastened, impenetrable and hard as diamond.

"Yes," said Yuuri. "I do."

They spoke no more of Matsudaira for the rest of their time together.

When Viktor left, sneaking past the kitchen staff with Yuuri, he had questions, so many questions. Yuuri's voice echoed in the depths of his mind, round and round: You don't know the things I've done.

It was true; he didn't.

But would it matter if he did?

If Yuuri had, indeed, slept with Matsudaira to earn him a meeting?

At the back gates, Viktor let himself reach out. Tugged Yuuri close and kissed the sweet curve of Yuuri's mouth with feathery brushes, light and gentle, his hands falling to Yuuri's waist, Yuuri's curling against his neck. It doesn't matter, said the first kiss. It shouldn't matter, said the second.

"Viktor," Yuuri chided. "Someone will see."

"Let them," Viktor whispered.

When Yuuri's lips parted, he pressed in, the tip of his tongue brushing against Yuuri's, drawing out a soft gasp that stoked the simmering fire inside him.

Because I won't let it happen again.

 


 

Yuuri wasn't panicking.

Yuuri was not panicking.

A courtesan was poised, elegant, dignified. Panic was not in one's vocabulary, regardless of the circumstances. But then, this was what feelings did to him. Made him weak, rendered him useless. Made him utterly, horribly, incapable of lying.

Viktor didn't appear to notice his hesitation—his horror—when Matsudaira was mentioned. But then there were the stolen kisses at the gate. Soft at first, with each kiss growing heavier, more desperate, as though Viktor wanted to claim him. Prove to the world that he belonged to Viktor and only Viktor.

It was mad, doing that in plain sight behind the teahouse.

And it was a madness that could only have come from knowing just what, or who, Yuuri had done.

Yuuri was most certainly panicking.

"—and Mr. Nikiforov said I would absolutely meet someone like him!"

Yuuri blinked, the bright voice grounding him back to reality. Smoke wafted in the air, the pipe resting on his fingers, his other hand curled into a fist against an untouched scroll of poetry. Across from him sat Minami, his head bowed over a blank scroll, brush moving, fingertips smudged black from ink.

"Did he really," Yuuri said, bringing the pipe to his lips, savoring the calm that settled into his bones with a single inhale.

"Uh huh!" Minami looked up, eyes shining. "I can't wait to be in love the way you and Viktor are."

Yuuri's chest trembled; the L-word was a taboo in the teahouse, the sign of a courtesan marked for death and despair. The last time a courtesan said he was in love, he lost a finger to his possessive lover, and eventually, his life. Yuuri wanted to be with Viktor, wanted to cherish Viktor for as long as he lived, but he wasn't in 'love'.

Besides, there was no guarantee that Viktor 'loved' him. Not after yesterday.

Yuuri ought to correct his naïve assistant, set him on the safe path. But Minami's eyes reminded him of warmth, of uncomplicated times.

"'Uh huh' is not a proper response," he said instead.

"Oh, sorry," Minami giggled. "I meant, 'yes, Big Brother'."

Yuuri pressed his lips together in a show of disapproval, but they both knew he didn't mind. Not really, anyway. "Focus on your calligraphy, Minami."

"Yes, Big Brother." No sooner had the brush touched the scroll than Minami's mouth opened again. "What's it like, being in love?"

Pipe clamped between his lips, Yuuri drew in a long breath. "Nakittsura ni hachi[4] ."

Minami looked up, blanching. "But… but that means…"

"You will write that proverb in addition to your practice strokes."

Minami swallowed, an audible gulp. It was a mutual understanding between them: the more cryptic Yuuri's words became, the more displeased he was with Minami's behavior. "Yes, Big Brother."

Yuuri exhaled as Minami wilted before him. Perhaps this was the also way he had melted the heart of the unfeeling, impermeable Minori when he was younger – by looking ever so pitiful, like a puppy with its ears flat against its head. "We can discuss some other topic while you are writing," he said, rolling up his scroll with delicate motions.

The boy perked up so quickly that Yuuri had to wonder if he had just been skillfully maneuvered. "I was thinking," Minami said, "That I'd like to have that lord we dined with last week for my first."

"Lord Kikuchi?" Yuuri wrinkled his nose, recalling the cramped shoulders, the bony elbows, the shifty eyes. "Might I ask why?"

"Because he offered to cast me in a show."

Yuuri let out a huff of amusement. "Lord Kikuchi is a traveling merchant with no connections to the local theaters." He tapped his pipe against the edge of the tobacco box, watched the dark ashes fall. "He owns a silver tongue and not much else."

Minami deflated. "Oh."

"I would suggest choosing someone I myself have accepted," Yuuri said gently, returning the pipe to his mouth.

Minami jerked his brush forward, ink splashing across his scroll and desk. "Then! Then, um! The samurai! The one who said he liked my energy!"

"Not Lord Eguchi either," Yuuri said, lips quirking at a corner, coils of smoke drifting lazily past his cheek. "He is a good man, but I'd rather not have your first time last for more than three hours."

"Why? How long is it supposed to last?" Minami's face lit up then, and Yuuri saw the kanabo[5]  of youthful curiosity loom over his head before the swing. "How long does Mr. Nikiforov go for?"

"Minami…"

Without warning, the doors slid open with a crack, the owner standing in the doorway.

Yuuri held back a sigh as she approached, recognizing the simpering expression on her face. The old hag was about to ask for a favor.

Sure enough, she began the conversation by asking how Yuuri was doing, if he would like more texts to read, how Minami was doing oh-so-well thanks to him. Yuuri played along with the farce; she knew he knew, and that was always how it went, their intricate game of cat and mouse.

"Now then, Aoyagi… you do remember that you have an appointment with Lady Okukawa tonight?"

"Of course," Yuuri said, teeth flashing white against his red pipe. At least Aoyagi was not fully lost inside him.

"I know she is a favorite of yours, but…" The owner took a deep breath. "…we must cancel with her. Lord Matsudaira wishes to see you tonight."

Yuuri made a noise of contemplation. He took his time, running the pads of his fingers along the length of his pipe, gazing up at the owner through his eyelashes. Watched her sweat and fidget under his scrutiny, his silence. Oh, she wanted him to say yes; that was plain as day. When he thought she had had enough, his teeth clacked against the pipe in a smile as keen as a sword's edge.

"I refuse."

Minami's quiet gasp echoed through the private quarters.

The owner reared to her full height, her temper flaring despite her intentions. "What do you mean you refuse?"

"I am not willing to accept. I decline. I—"

The owner's voice rose an octave. "I know what 'refuse' means!"

Yuuri chuckled, three little huffs of amusement. "Lady Okukawa is a najimi. What reason is there for Lord Matsudaira to take her place?"

"You know the stakes involved," the owner hissed. "To refuse Lord Matsudaira is to bring his wrath upon En."

"Ah." Yuuri tipped his chin, blew a cloud of smoke into the air. "How tragic for the noble teahouse of En."

The owner bristled. "Aoyagi, you—"

"—make me want you ever so much more with that attitude," said an imperious voice.

Minami and the owner scrambled to bow to the figure of Matsudaira at the open door, his arms tucked into his black sleeves, face unreadable.

Yuuri remained seated. He wasn't sure if it was the tobacco, or that he was beyond caring, but something kept him calm, far unlike the fears he had over Viktor.

"My darling Aoyagi," Matsudaira said in a voice that scrapped like nails on metal. "I wonder if I might speak with you alone? It will only take a moment," he added, when Yuuri's eyes narrowed, seconds away from rejecting his request.

"Only for a moment," Yuuri conceded after a beat.

Instantly, the owner swept out of the room, Minami trailing after her, shoulders hunched. He shot a sidelong glance at Yuuri, lines of worry on his features, before he ducked out, the door sliding shut behind him.

"What did you wish to speak about, my lord?" Yuuri said, setting the pipe between his lips.

Matsudaira smiled thinly. "Tell me if this name means anything to you."

Yuuri's heart sank to the floor at the next three words.

"Viktor Mikhailovich Nikiforov."

He must have revealed the slow unraveling of his composure, a thread caught on a vicious hook, because Matsudaira went on. Mouth curling, infuriatingly serene.

"I thought it odd that Okukawa would pull strings for some lowly embassy staff in Hakodate, so far north from our capital city. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Okukawa wasn't the real puppet master, but you all along.

"You, who have made this foreigner a najimi within weeks of meeting him. Who was willing to, for lack of a better word, lower yourself to my advances for the sole purpose of supporting that man's career. Now what was it he was seeking? Something about building a Russian consulate, I believe?"

Yuuri screwed his eyes close. Words formed in the back of his throat, only to fizzle out. Sear the sides of his mouth and burn inside of him.

"One word," Matsudaira said quietly. "One word from me, and the Office of Foreign Affairs will have a sudden change of mind. One word, and the local police may find themselves in search of a foreign criminal who stole confidential documents from the castle. Why, with looks like his—"

"Enough," Yuuri heard himself say, his voice steady, unwavering. Nowhere near as feeble as he felt. He had hoped for Matsudaira to lose interest after he had his fill. He dared to hope, like the fool that he was. "What do you want from me?"

"I would think that obvious." A rough hand stroked his cheek, ran along the line of his jaw. "You, my beautiful one. You, your time, your absolute devotion."

Yuuri wanted to throw things. Scream and yell and fling every blunt object he could lay his hands on. Instead, he looked up at Matsudaira through the mask of Aoyagi, glacial and full of steel.

"Then I am yours, Lord Matsudaira."

 


 

"I'm going back to Russia."

Viktor waited.

Sprawled boneless across the couch, Christophe pulled his hand off his head to blink blearily at him, eyes clouded with confusion. "Say that again," he slurred, as though his tongue was too heavy to form the words.

"I'm going back to Russia," Viktor said, perching on the armrest. "To bring back more money."

It took a moment for Christophe to process Viktor's words, and another moment longer for him to lift his long legs and swing into an upright position. Wincing, the heel of his hands shoved against his eyes. "I couldn't think of a worse time for you to make such a ludicrous announcement."

"Quite the party last night, I take it," Viktor said, bemused.

"Oh, the geisha are very good at making a man feel invincible," Christophe laughed, then promptly grimaced. "Anyway. The money issue." His hands dropped to his lap, still in his rumpled trousers from the night before. "I don't see why you won't just take my offer and save yourself all that unnecessary torment. You barely survived your separation from Aoyagi—"

"Yuuri," Viktor corrected.

"Yuuri," Christophe amended, lips quirking in a lopsided smile. "You barely survived your separation from Yuuri in the same country."

Sighing, Viktor slid down the armrest until he was hip to hip with Christophe. "Yes, and I will be wretched for every minute, every second that I'm in Russia, but I don't feel it is right for me to use your money for my own happiness. Your father's money."

Christophe made a strange noise halfway between a scoff and a snigger. "Do you honestly think my father pays attention to my expenses? I mean…" He spread his arms, gesturing about the lavish living room, the open buttons of his white undershirt exposing a smooth chest. "… look at this place."

Viktor laughed. "My dear Christophe, you have already been far too generous with your home, your food, even your translator. I will borrow from you only when I have no other options left."

Christophe nodded, scratching the back of his head. "This sudden decision," he said after a pause. "This wouldn't have anything to do with your latest discovery, would it?"

Viktor felt his expression harden. When he voiced his speculations about Matsudaira to Christophe, his friend's silence spoke volumes. He still recalled the sensations then: of his insides boiling and churning, his mind teetering on the brink of something too dangerous to name. He was jealous, oh yes, but more than that, he was angry at himself. How could he have been so blind? His goal, his sole purpose, was to protect Yuuri from the rot of Yoshiwara, not steer him toward it. And certainly not for Viktor to benefit from it.

In truth, he had been considering a trip to Russia ever since he found out about Yuuri's debt. He might have left sooner, if he hadn't felt sick at the mere thought of being an ocean apart from his light, his sun, his entire universe. The 'latest discovery', as Christophe put it, cemented his determination to do what he must for the future.

For Yuuri.

"I have informed Yakov," Viktor said, aware that he was avoiding Christophe's question, "He's not pleased, but I will travel back to Hakodate and depart for Russia in a week's time."

"Fine," said Christophe, shaking his head in a way that bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain disapproving war veteran. "Whatever you feel is right." He rubbed his knuckles against his right eye, before squinting at Viktor as though he were looking through a thick fog. "Is there anything else, or can I go back to wallowing in my hangover?"

"Three things, actually. I wanted to talk about Yoshino—"

"No," Christophe said. "What's the other two?"

"But the poor boy deserves a pleasurable first time."

"I will not perpetuate the ghastly tradition of taking an innocent's virginity as a rite of passage," Christophe recited mechanically. "I accept and respect it as a part of Yoshiwara's culture, but I will not participate in it."

Viktor arched an eyebrow. "That was oddly coherent given your current state."

"I've been propositioned more times than you'd think."

"Of course you have," Viktor chuckled. "I just feel bad for Yoshino."

Christophe shrugged. "I'm sure Ao—Yuuri will find him a suitable client."

"Yes, I'm sure he will," Viktor murmured. He wasn't sure why he was so worried; his solnyshko would surely find a way to secure Yoshino a good client. Even if it meant tossing his own happiness aside, crushed and forgotten like the pink cherry petals strewn across the dirt.

Ah, said a tiny voice in his mind. Then there is every reason to worry.

Viktor let out a shaky breath. "About my other requests…"

 


 

Anger was the last thing Viktor expected.

Distress over their impending separation, perhaps. Trepidation. Maybe happiness at being reunited with Viktor in the privacy of his own quarters, without JJ, without fear of being caught.

Anything but the heated tremor of fury that jolted across Yuuri's pristine features.

"You are leaving for Russia," the courtesan repeated slowly, his voice so cold and unfeeling that Viktor's stomach dropped.

"Only for a few weeks," Viktor said, chilled by the stillness in Yuuri's eyes, the way his mouth thinned and his jaw clamped. He reached out, "Solnyshko—"

Yuuri turned swiftly, abruptly, so unlike his flowing swan-like motions that Viktor halted mid-sentence, the words trapped in his throat. "Sake," Yuuri bit out, traversing across the room to the tray, lowering down to the mats. Dazzlingly bright in his pale blue robes, covered with patterns of clouds and mountainous peaks. "Let us drink to our last night together."

"Darling, please," Viktor said, dropping to his knees beside Yuuri, stunned by the turn of events. "I've said nothing about this being our last night."

Yuuri's head snapped up. "Nothing? Nothing? You buy me flowers, give me a sunset, take my heart, and now you use your friend's money—money you refuse to borrow for my debt—so you can tell me you are leaving. After completing your assignment." His eyes flashed, sharp as a knife. "I think you have said more than enough."

Viktor felt his ribs clench, his body broiling with sudden hatred for himself, his own stupid insensitivity. Trust was a struggle for Yuuri. Yet Viktor had forgotten something so fundamental about his beloved, something Yuuri had only just began to accept again. In Yuuri's perception, Viktor's behaviors damn him as a playboy using Yuuri as a means to an end. How else would Yuuri have reacted to the news of his departure?

"It's only temporary so I can bring back more money. For you," Viktor insisted when Yuuri bowed and shook his head mutely, ornaments swinging. "For us."

"It is fine." Yuuri lifted the red kettle, an imperceptible tremor running through his hands. "I am fine."

"No, it's not. You're not." Viktor shifted closer, touched his fingers to Yuuri's knee. Hated the responding flinch. "Look at me. Please."

Ornaments glinted as Yuuri shook his head again. Busied himself with tipping the kettle over the sake cups.

Viktor swallowed. He's not good at dealing with upset partners, never has been. But he did know one word that would make this man, this stubborn half of his soul, listen.

"Yuuri."

Instantly, the courtesan froze.

"Yuuri…" Viktor breathed, floundered, then reached for his heart. "…I love you."

There was no movement, no response. Only the quiet noise of Yuuri's breath catching in the silence. On the tray, sake overflowed, dribbling, splashing.

"Do you hear me, solnyshko? I—"

The kettle crashed against the tray, loud and jarring.

"Stop," Yuuri said, shaking. "Stop—"

"No," Viktor said, defiant, snatching at Yuuri's wrist and tugging him close. "I'll say it and I will never stop saying it. Whether you believe me or not, Yuuri Katsuki, I love you. I've loved you since the day we met."

In the silence that descended, brown eyes rose to his, and Viktor was struck by the swell of tears, the shifting terror in the otherwise warm depths. Viktor's grip on the thin wrist slackened, his insides curdling.

Somehow, he had a real gift for making Yuuri cry.

"I know you're scared," Viktor said softly. "I know you think I'm going to leave and never return. That I'm lying when I say I love you. But I will return. I will buy your freedom. And I do love you. So, so much." He pressed the pad of his thumb to the damp streaks on Yuuri's cheeks. Brushed over them, tenderly, gratified that Yuuri was no longer recoiling from his touch. "What can I do to convince you of that?"

Yuuri exhaled a shaky breath, his shoulders crumbling. "Not words," he murmured, hands curling into Viktor's vest. "No more words."

"What then?"

Fingers dug into the coarse material. "I don't know."

"Will you at least wait for me?"

"It is the wait that scares me."

Viktor nodded. "I've asked Christophe to check in with you at JJ's room when you're available. Will that help?"

"I don't know," Yuuri said. His lips trembled and his eyelashes dipped, glistening in the candlelight. "I don't know what will help."

Viktor slid his fingers down to Yuuri's chin, tilted it up for a kiss. Quelling the tremors. "Then is there anything I can do now? Anything that will make you feel better?"

Yuuri closed his eyes, breathing deep, bottom lip sinking between his teeth. He looked as though he was bracing himself to say something difficult, something that would rip Viktor's heart to shreds, but instead—

"You can kiss me."

Viktor could have teased Yuuri, told him, I just did, but Viktor was so relieved he gladly obliged. "Anything else?" he whispered against Yuuri's mouth.

"Kiss me again."

Viktor chuckled, "Solynyshko—"

"Please," Yuuri murmured. "I want you to kiss me. Everywhere."

Oh.

Something like electricity shot through Viktor, and his breath hitched. He made a promise to himself to keep things chaste, to show to Yuuri that he was more than he was worth. But Yuuri was looking at him so sweetly, so wistfully, and if this was what Yuuri wanted, then who was he to resist?

So he started beneath Yuuri's ear, an open-mouthed kiss on soft skin. As Yuuri sighed, he slipped a hand up the sash and tugged the knot loose; slid the thick fabric open with the other, layers pooling around them. He continued his downward path, chasing the rising flush with his mouth, down the column of Yuuri's neck, the gentle line of collarbones, the subtle curve of pecs. Laved his tongue over Yuuri's nipples, dusky and perfect.

Yuuri keened. The sound went through Viktor, straight to his core, hot and bright. God, it had been so long; too long. He nipped at Yuuri's skin, the hint of teeth enough to make Yuuri gasp but not enough to leave a mark. Not yet.

"Feel better?" Viktor crooned, looking up, mouth hovering near Yuuri's naval.

Yuuri was watching him, his cheeks pink, eyes dark as molasses. He carded his fingers through Viktor's hair, playing with the strands. "Maybe if you take your clothes off, too."

Viktor's lips curved, and he pulled away just long enough to yank his vest and shirt off.

Just long enough to catch the purple splotches on Yuuri's hips.

Ugly and dark and fresh.

There was a throb of rage, all desire and want forgotten in an instant.

"Are you still seeing this monster?" Viktor growled.

Yuuri gazed at him through lowered eyelids, seemingly calm if not for the bob of his throat. "I do not have a choice."

"My understanding is that you have a choice with your rank."

"Not with this one."

"Then why did you accept him in the first place?" Viktor retorted.

Yuuri's eyes went impossibly wide. "I thought you—" His voice caught, and his throat bobbed again. Then, "I cannot say."

"You can't, or you won't?" Viktor sighed.

"Why does that matter?"

Viktor's stomach soured at Yuuri's dismissive tone, at having to fight, tooth and nail, for Yuuri's acceptance; beat against a wall over and over, until his skin ripped and his knuckles bled. Fueled with resentment, the words spilled out before he could stop them, harsh and cold. "It matters because trusting me is a choice, one that you seem to be actively resisting."

Yuuri sucked in a breath. "That is unfair."

"It's true. You know it's true." Viktor crossed his arms. He saw the twitch in Yuuri's jaw, the shadows gathering across Yuuri's face, but he plunged on, a dam released. "You chose me over Christophe, you chose to let me walk you in public, kiss you in public, you chose to give me your real name. These are all choices. You say you don't want hope or love, but that's a choice. People move forward based on their choices, life moves forward based on choices. Now if you'd just make the choice of trusting me when I say I will return from Russia—"

"I did not choose to be taken away from my family at eight years old," Yuuri hissed with such vehemence that Viktor suddenly felt very, very small. "I did not choose to be trained in the seduction of men, to be used and abused by anyone who could afford me. I did not choose to see my friend in a pool of his own blood, his neck torn open by his own hand. To learn that he was thrown into a hole in the ground like some nameless dog[6]."

His voice dipped, the temperature of the room dropping below freezing point.

"I did not choose to be damaged."

There's a heartbeat, Viktor struggling to heave up the right words to eradicate the ones he left lingering, ugly and bitter, in the air between them. To salvage his own goddamned stupidity. How could he talk about choice to a courtesan who had been trapped in this glittering, decadent cage for his entire life? How could he blame Yuuri for not trusting him, when he had had more than an inkling of Yuuri's haunted past?

"Yuuri," he tried, imploring. "I was angry, I wasn't thinking; I didn't mean it like that. Everything I said—"

The corners of Yuuri's mouth trembled. "I do not answer to that name in this room."

Viktor's heart plunged. "Yuuri—"

"I am tired," Yuuri said, sliding his arms through the sleeves of a gauzy white robe, securing it close with a thin sash. His voice so low and disquieting that it may as well have been a fist colliding with Viktor's stomach. "If we are not fucking—" Viktor winced at the uncharacteristic crudeness "—then we should sleep."

Viktor wanted desperately to say, no, no, my darling, my love; we should talk about this, figure it out instead of wasting our night away. But his throat felt too swollen, his stomach too queasy.

Yuuri sank under the covers on one side of the bedding, with Viktor watching, still half-naked, hands curled into fists, gritting his teeth together and hating himself.

 


 

When Yuuri opened his eyes, the bedding was empty. No tell-tale dip in the sheets, no warmth, nothing to suggest that it had been slept in. Eyes burning, he rolled to his side on the headrest, swallowing a whine that crept up his throat. Again, he had tried to distract himself with Viktor's talented mouth, suppress all feeling with hedonistic pleasure, but he could deny it no longer: he had fallen for the silver tongue of a foreigner and turned into a cautionary tale for courtesans to gossip about for years to come. The top-ranking courtesan who threw his life away and dared to dream.

Yuuri fisted the sheets in a tight grip.

How dare Viktor turn the tables and lecture him on choice? How dare he? When he, too, had the choice of remaining in Edo and using his friend's money, instead of sailing across an ocean, entirely inconsiderate of Yuuri's deepest fears?

Principles and scruples, indeed. It was a front, all of it. He must have known about Yuuri's connections to the Shogunate from the very beginning. Moved his chess pieces on the board with the expertise of a general strategizing on his war map.

A well-played game that Yuuri lost, completely and utterly.

Voices drifted through the paper doors, soft and hushed, growing louder with approaching footsteps. In the hallway, the light of a lantern bobbed like a buoy in the open sea.

"—scared, because many many died. There is the wakashu from Okitsu. He, ah, how to say… killed! He killed himself. Because the gaijin[7] … um… outside man? Lied and left. There are many many like that. Many bad outside men, many dead wakashu."

"I see. And what is a wakashu?"

"Me! I am a wakashu."

Gentle laughter. "Ah."

Frowning, Yuuri rose slowly, the covers falling from his shoulders. He recognized the voices—the bright perkiness in stark contrast with the silvery richness—but they had no reason to be together. Or was Viktor seeking someone younger now? Some part of him cheered, he's here, he's still here, but Yuuri squashed it down with a clench of his teeth.

"I think I understand better now, thank you, Yoshino."

"Does this mean you will stay? You can protect Big Brother Aoyagi if you stay."

"Protect him...?"

"There is a bad man… Big Brother is hurt every time."

A pause, then, quietly, "Do you know this man?"

Oh no.

Yuuri lunged to his feet, heart racing, palms slapping against the sheets.

"Yes! It is—"

He whipped the doors open, taking in Minami's wide eyes, Viktor's startled expression.

"I…" Hand on the doorframe, Yuuri glanced from Viktor to Minami, and back to Viktor again. "…I thought you left," he finished lamely, unable to come up with anything better to say.

Viktor's features softened, the lantern catching in his hair where it fell across his forehead, a shimmering curtain of silver. "How can I leave after a fight like that?"

"Oh," Yuuri said, feeling a strange need to fill the silence, the emptiness. "I thought…"

"You think too much," Viktor said, teasing, and Yuuri was reminded of Yuuko, of the press of her fingertip on his forehead, his heart.

"Um," Minami squeaked, light splashing against the walls as the lantern shook with his hands. "Do you, um, need me for anything, Big Brother?"

"No," Yuuri said, his voice coming out sharper than he intended. "You may go."

With a hasty bow, Minami scurried into the next room, plunging the hallway into darkness when he slid the doors shut behind him.

"Don't be angry with Yoshino," Viktor said softly. "I was the one who woke him up for a chat."

"I am not angry," Yuuri muttered.

Silence, and then, "Can we talk, then?"

Nodding, Yuuri sidestepped and allowed Viktor entry. He wasn't sure why, really, when there was nothing left to discuss. Viktor wanted to leave; Yuuri wanted him to stay. Viktor wanted his trust, all of his trust, and Yuuri had so little left to give.

"I'm sorry."

Yuuri blinked at him. An apology was the last thing he expected.

"I'm sorry," Viktor murmured. "I'm so sorry. For making things hard for you. For being so insensitive, for failing to protect you. For saying all those terrible things. You have every reason not to trust me. Every right. I know this, I've always known this, but in my anger, I just... I say stupid things. Stupid, entitled, selfish things that should never have been said." He exhaled, dragged a hand through his hair. "I'm so sorry for everything I've said and done."

Yuuri opened his mouth. Then closed it, averting his gaze. Words, words, words. Viktor was always so good with words. But he needed action now – something to add weight to those words, ground them in reality.

"Talk to me. Please." Yuuri shivered at the desperation in Viktor's ragged whisper. Allowed Viktor to reach for his waist, ever so delicately, as though he were afraid Yuuri would crumble at his very touch. "I need to know we're okay. I need to know what you want."

"You cannot give me what I want," Yuuri mumbled.

Viktor nodded. "You want me to stay."

Yuuri drew in a deep breath and exhaled it in a rush. "Yes."

"Then I will stay."

Yuuri's eyes shot up to Viktor's, dazed by the steadiness, the unchanging warmth. "But… the money…"

"I will write to my cousin in Russia, have him send it over. I wanted to go on my own because it will take some convincing for my cousin to do his part, but…"

Viktor's smile glowed in the darkness.

"This way, I can stay. And we can meet in JJ's room every day that you're free, or at your friend's teahouse during your morning walks."

Oh, Viktor was… Viktor was so…

At a loss for words, Yuuri could only stare, his heart rabbiting in his chest. Realizing only now that Viktor had thrown his shirt on haphazardly, that the top half was left unbuttoned, one side caught on the end of a shoulder blade, baring pale skin, the hard line of collarbones. How easily he could press his mouth to it, to remind himself of the taste of Viktor's skin.

It wasn't fair what this man did to him.

It wasn't fair how he had been dealt a losing hand the day he met Viktor Nikiforov.

"Yuuri?"

Before, he wanted sex to forget it all; wanted every bad feeling, every bad thought fucked out of his system. Now, he wanted Viktor. Just, Viktor. Rash, idealistic, thoughtless Viktor - flawed, oh yes, but Yuuri's to hold and treasure. 

Wordlessly, Yuuri pressed a kiss to the corner of Viktor's mouth.

Viktor chuckled. Pulled Yuuri to him, against him, the hands on his waist searing hot through the white robes. "Is there something else you wanted?"

Yuuri slipped under Viktor's shirt, smoothed his palms onto Viktor's chest, his abs. Thrilled in the way the muscles shifted and trembled beneath him.

"Before our fight," he started, "Before our fight, we—"

"We left something unfinished?" Viktor said, his voice gone rough and thick.

"Yes," Yuuri said without hesitation.

"Well." Viktor let out a breathless laugh. "We can't have that, can we?"

It wasn't the slow burn of simmering embers like their first time, or the frenzied passion that scorched their very souls in their second. It was warm and soft and good, oh, so good, with Viktor's mouth on every inch of his skin, Viktor's weight across his hips, Viktor's knees against his thighs. There was a flash of frustration when Viktor refused to enter him—there are other ways, solnyshko; ones that won't hurt you—but then Viktor slid their cocks together, palm wrapped hot and tight between them, and Yuuri arched, any and all pleas dying in the back of his throat.

"Good?" Viktor purred into the curve of Yuuri's neck.

Yuuri barely managed a nod, before Viktor moved his hand, pushed up and twisted and rolled them together until Yuuri was shaking on the sheets. He felt the ornaments slide out of his hair, loose strands tumble out of the perfect coif, but he couldn't care less. Not when Viktor was rocking against him, skin against skin, hand stroking his cock in an agonizingly slow rhythm, the sound of their breathing filling the air.

Ah, how he wanted this to last. To hold this in the palm of his hand and call it his till the end of time.

"Viktor," Yuuri gasped, "Viktor, I—"

"Yuuri," Viktor breathed, and oh, that was Yuuri's undoing, the sound of his name on Viktor's tongue. He came with a moan, eyes slipping shut. Viktor followed soon after, shaking apart against him.

For a while, they held each other close as their breathing slowed, sweat and come cooling against their skin.

"God, I love you," Viktor sighed.

Yuuri's heart skipped a beat.

The L-word was a taboo in the teahouse, the sign of a courtesan marked for death and despair. There was too much unresolved; too many things that could go wrong. He still had Matsudaira to deal with, the man's shadow looming over his head like a storm cloud. He still had to tell Viktor that Matsudaira and the man giving him bruises were one and the same.

But when Viktor lifted his head to look at him, eyes soft and so very blue, the curve of his mouth holding the world, Yuuri caved and resigned himself to fate.

"I love you, too."

Viktor's smile was incandescent.

 


 

"Yuri will never send the money over," Christophe snorted from his desk.

"Reassuring as always," Viktor said, smiling. He was too happy for anything to get him down. Yuuri had confessed his love. And it wasn't done in a spur of passion, nor was it done to pacify him. His solnyshko had said those three heavenly words entirely on his own accord.

Viktor could die right here and now, as far as he was concerned.

"Don't you have to go back to Hakodate? For, you know, a little thing called 'a paid job'?"

Viktor laughed in the face of Christophe's teasing smirk. "Yakov knows me. He will understand."

"I won't be surprised if he shows up knocking on my door someday."

"You're one to talk about a job," Viktor pointed out.

Christophe peered at Viktor over his blue-framed glasses. "In case you haven't noticed, I have been working diligently on my newest manuscript." He tapped at the papers in front of him. "A steamy romance novel that will heat up the blood of every woman. Or man," he appended.

"Oh? What is it about?"

"Well," Christophe started, seconds before the front door slammed open with a loud bang.

"What on earth," said Viktor, rising to his feet. Only to have something—someone—crash into him, grabbing at his shirt, shoving him back into the couch. "Wha—"

"Mr. Nikiforov." Yoshino looked up at him with wide, dampened eyes, swollen and tinged a rosy pink. "Help, please. Help–!"

"Who is this," Christophe said, but Viktor held up a palm, cutting him off.

"What is it, Yoshino?"

"It's…" Yoshino swallowed gulps of air, his words coming out in hiccups and stutters. "It is Big Brother Aoyagi; he said – he said do not call you, but he – and the bad man – the bad—"

Viktor was out the door before Yoshino could finish his sentence.

As he sprinted down the streets, he wondered if Yoshiwara was cursed, if they were cursed. Every time they touched the edge of joy, something would snatch it away, toss it farther and out of reach.

"The bad man", Yoshino said. It had to be him, the bastard who eclipsed the surface of his sun.

Viktor ran harder, heart thundering, a chill under his skin.

Yuuri. Please be safe.

Chapter Text

Viktor didn’t remember much of what happened next. He remembered his chest heaving, burning, as he ran and ran and kept on running. He remembered shoving past the owner, her shrieks ringing in his ears. Remembered tripping up the stairs, two steps at a time, boots trekking filth across the wood floors. Yuuri was all he could think about: Yuuri’s smile, Yuuri’s “I love you too”, Yuuri held safe and warm in his arms just moments ago.

Whatever this man was doing to Yuuri, Viktor would serve it right back, double – no, triple fold. Bruises, scars, a sense of overwhelming, persistent, crushing fear – oh, he was going to ruin this bastard and savor every homicidal, rage-filled minute of it.

Yuuri,” he gasped, hands wrenching the double doors apart, slamming them open.

Yuuri blinked at him, eyes wide.

His body was poised, one arm in the air, another with a fan against his chest. Across from him sat a lady in a garb as vivid and decadent as his blood-red robes, his black sash, his golden ornaments. She looked oddly familiar, but Viktor was too busy wrestling with his emotions to place her in his memories.

“Oh! Oh!” The owner rushed in, wheezing, hands clutching at her chest. She choked out something in Japanese, a string of breathless words, and the lady let out a sharp cackle. Offered a response that had the owner blanching, while Yuuri folded his fan shut with a snap of his wrist, sliding it into his robes.

“Yuuri,” Viktor started again, just as Yuuri slipped an arm through his and walked him out of the room, towards the stairs. “Yoshino said you were in trouble. He said—”

 “I am fine,” Yuuri said, his voice terse.

“But—”

When Yuuri shot him a piercing look, Viktor swallowed the rest of his words. They traversed the hallways in silence, past rows of rooms and curious glances from the staff. Viktor's heart thudded in his chest, adrenaline coursing through his veins. “Confused” didn’t even begin to describe how he felt. He understood Yuuri’s frustration; he had, after all, budged into a private meeting with another client. But why was Yuuri with another client and not the alleged “bad man”? What reason would Yoshino have to lie? And where was Yuuri taking him?

It’s when they strode through the kitchen that Viktor realized the answer to his last question.

“Oh no, not that dolt,” Viktor groaned.

Yuuri rapped the door with his knuckles. “I do not know the word ‘dolt’, but you will stay with Mr. JJ until my client sleeps tonight.”

Oh, Viktor thought, relief washing over him like a tidal wave. At least Yuuri wanted him to stay. 

He took Yuuri’s hand, brought it to his heart. “And then, solnyshko, you’ll tell me what happened? Because from what Yoshino said, you can’t be fine.”

Yuuri’s eyes met his. Softened, ever so slightly. “I…”

“Back again so soon?” JJ said, poking his head through the door, mouth pulled back in a smirk.

Instinctively, a little too quickly, Yuuri snatched his hand back. “I must go back to my client,” he murmured before Viktor could say a few choice words to the damn priest. “And Viktor…” A sidelong glance at the kitchen staff, and then he pressed his lips to Viktor’s cheek. “… I will see you later.”

It would have been so easy to reach out. Tug Yuuri close and kiss him, assure himself that Yuuri was well. But the knowledge that he had caused Yuuri enough trouble forced him to keep his hands to himself. He watched, instead, as Yuuri drifted through the kitchen, past bows and greetings from staff, the one bright spot of crimson in the drab surroundings. Watched carefully, intensely, for limping, hobbling, stumbling - any sign that might point to pain. 

“Sooo… are you coming in or not?”

Viktor exhaled a rush of air; it’s a wonder how grating JJ’s voice could be on his nerves. “I’m coming in.”

 


 

When Yuuri returned, Minako was stretched across the mats like a cat, sake cup in one hand, a knowing grin on her face.

“Two interruptions in one day,” she drawled, lifting a knee, robes falling open in a crude gesture that would make the owner gasp. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I apologize, Lady Minako,” Yuuri said quietly as he sank down next to her, reaching for the tray.

“I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d like to meet your silver-haired lover.” Minako’s grin widened. “I assume he’s still on the premises somewhere?”

Yuuri cleared his throat, lifted the kettle lid and made a show of checking for more sake.

Minako sniggered.

Some part of Yuuri was angry. With Minami, with Viktor, with that possessive, entitled Matsudaira. They had an agreement: Yuuri was to shift all appointments as soon as Matsudaira showed up at the inn. Any and all, save for one client - Lady Minako, the very client whose father, indirectly or not, made this a possibility for Matsudaira. The only client besides Viktor that Yuuri cared about.

Yuuri should have known that Matsudaira would go back on his word, that he was the living epitome of everything that Yoshiwara stood for.

When the owner appeared with Matsudaira by her side, Yuuri had taken him to Minami’s room next door. Reminded Matsudaira, with clenched teeth and a great deal of restraint, that his appointment with Minako was not to be interrupted. Matsudaira wasn’t pleased, if his scowl and bruising grip on Yuuri’s wrist were any indication. (“Not only am I to compete with a foreigner for your affections, but also a woman?”) It was then that Minami returned from his lessons, and with one glance—of Matsudaira looming over Yuuri, of Yuuri’s features twisted in pain—Minami had darted off, despite Yuuri’s shout of no, Yoshino, don’t—!

Hearing the commotion, Minako stepped out to exclaim, loudly, that she would like to get her money’s worth, thank you very much, and oh, her father sent his regards. Perhaps he cared about his reputation, perhaps he sensed that he was fighting a losing battle. Whichever the case, Matsudaira left then, sweeping away with a final, menacing glare.

The release of tension was so sudden that Yuuri almost collapsed to the floor.

Minako had kindly requested for a dance, no doubt as an attempt to take his mind off the incident. And it worked, with Yuuri channeling his focus into the deliberate, subtle motions - until Viktor burst through the doors with such vehemence that the wooden frame rattled in its grooves.

Yes, some part of Yuuri was angry.

But a larger part of him was relieved and happy that Viktor would come for him, just like that.

“Yuuri,” Minako said suddenly, snapping Yuuri out of his reverie. “That’s what he called you, wasn’t it?”

“That is…” Pink colored Yuuri’s cheeks. “That, um…”

“Your name,” Minako said, eyes soft. “You gave him your real name.”

Yuuri breathed slowly, in and out. He had to own up to it; there was no way out of Viktor’s slip. “...yes.”

“Well.” Minako’s lips curved. “Normally I’d give you hell for not trusting me with your real name, but… I’m glad. Glad to know you’ve found someone you can lean on. Because I’m ah…” She floundered, nose wrinkling. A move so uncertain and so uncharacteristic of Minako that Yuuri felt his chest constrict with dread. She must be ill. Or dying. There was no other reason for her to be glad that—

 “…I’m getting married.”

Ah.

As Yuuri’s face fell, Minako exhaled through her nostrils, downed the rest of her sake. “Yeah, you and me both. The man is dull. Dull, dull, dull. Duller than a fish and eyes as cold as one. But he’s the son of a merchant, and my father felt... well, he felt it was time.”

Yuuri nodded. Really, it was a wonder that Minako’s father hadn’t acted sooner; she was over thirty this year, which made her, in her own words, “old and stale as week-old cake in the eyes of men". It was a ridiculous standard to uphold, these silly rules about age, and Yuuri always thought whoever captured Minako’s heart would be the luckiest man alive.

Now, selfishly, he didn’t think the man deserved Minako. Not when the man hadn’t won her fair and square, not when she belonged to Yuuri for so many years. But as it always was with Yoshiwara, everyone left – one way or another.

“Congratulations,” Yuuri said softly, tipping the kettle over Minako’s emptied cup.

“I’m going to miss you,” Minako sighed. “It’s fine for married men to visit Yoshiwara, but for a woman…”

“I know.”

“It’s stupid, is what it is.”

“I know.”

“I mean, my husband could choose to sleep with you for a night, and I’m supposed to turn a blind eye.”

“Disgusting,” Yuuri agreed.

Minako smiled, eyes bright with unshed tears. She jerked her head toward the cup on the tray. “Drink with me, c’mon. To our last night.”

Dutifully, Yuuri poured himself a cup and raised it in the air. “To our last night.”

They drank, and talked, and drank some more. Tongue loosened by alcohol, Yuuri revealed a little more about Viktor, about his lingering concerns and internal dilemmas. He was gratified to hear Minako scoff at Viktor’s scruples—tell him to man up and use his friend’s money already—and so very grateful when Minako expressed genuine concern about Matsudaira. There wasn’t anything she could do—there wasn’t anything anyone could do—but it helped to get the lie, the shame, off his chest.

In turn, Minako told Yuuri about all the activities she was going to miss as a free and single woman: buying whatever she wanted, meeting whomever she wanted, eating and drinking whatever she wanted. She would have to act like a proper woman befitting of her station now, walk and sit and talk as if she had no time or care for anyone beneath her class. Yuuri nodded, listened, and hummed at appropriate moments, keeping their cups filled, their chests warm with sake.

It was the end of an era. Of a friendship, if Yuuri dared to be honest. Minako was one of his first clients, his first najimi, his first real hint that there was goodness beyond En. Yuuri's gaze flicked to the vase of camellias, red and vivid and in full bloom, petals curling at the edges. The sight of them brought him comfort, reminded him that he was loved and not alone.

“You know…” Minako waved a finger, swaying. “You know what’sh the worst part?”

Yuuri blinked owlishly, trying hard to focus on the words coming out of Minako’s mouth. “What?”

“I’ll need a maid.” Minako rolled her eyes. “Because, ‘pparently, all married ladiesh need a maid. Like I – Like I'd turn into an... an invalid the minute shome man shlaps his dumb name over mine.”

Yuuri has had occasions when he was struck by an idea so hard that he almost reeled from the impact. Some ideas he didn’t dare execute just because of the sheer absurdity of it, like that one dark moment when he considered sprinkling rat poison in the owner’s tea. Some, he did, subtly and efficiently, like the time he hid his most expensive kanzashi[1] in the room of Minami’s bullies before informing the owner that it had “gone missing”.

This idea, oh, this one shone even in the midst of his alcoholic haze, bright as the strike of a match in the dark.

“Must the maid also be a lady?”

Minako’s brows rose. “Why, d’y’have shomeone in mind?”

Yuuri hummed.

 


 

“You really should stop to think before you act. Really learn about Aoyagi, the teahouse, and you know, learn about his culture. I mean, is Aoyagi held captive here against his will? Yeah, sure. But Yoshiwara has rules, lots of them, and breaking them isn’t exactly going to help— are you listening?”

Viktor returned a book to the stack in the corner, lips pressed together in a tight smile. “No, JJ, I am not.”

JJ snorted. “Can't fault you for being honest.”

Shaking his head, Viktor plucked another book from the stack and idly flipped through the pages. Hours. He had to hear JJ yammer on and on and on for hours, about the teahouse and rules and cultural etiquette. At least, it felt like hours in a cramped space filled with broken furniture, unused pots, and JJ’s piles of junk. Nowhere to hide and nothing to do, pottering about in his cotton socks in this converted storehouse, his boots left near the door.

If Yuuri meant to mete out a harsh punishment, this was it. Harsh, cruel, and unusual.

“What did you have planned anyway? A lecture? A fight?”

Viktor’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

JJ flopped down on the mat and crossed his legs. “I thought you came to put a stop to the abuse.”

“Abuse? What abuse?”

"You mean you came without full possession of the facts?" JJ laughed through his nose, a sound that prickled Viktor's skin, sparked a fire inside him.

The book fell out of Viktor’s hands, and he lunged at JJ, fisting the priest’s collar and yanking him up to eye level. “Listen, you—”

“This!” JJ yelped, hands flying to Viktor’s, eyes wild. “This is what I’m talking about!”

“What, how I’m impulsive? How I haven’t bothered to learn about the teahouse?”

Viktor released JJ, stepping back as JJ fell back to the mats. Anger swirled inside him, a towering inferno, consuming everything in its path. He was sick of JJ acting all high and mighty, as though he were some know-it-all sitting on a pedestal, looking down at the plebes. JJ knew nothing of him or his relationship with Yuuri. JJ didn’t even know Yuuri’s name.

“What about you?” Viktor said, his voice a deep snarl. “You, who preach about educating the masses and saving children from ruin… well, the children here are in ruin. Children like Yoshino, who have to give up their innocence, who are forced to learn about the dark side of the world, the darkest, ugliest side, years before they’re ready.” He jabbed a finger at JJ, teeth bared. “What have you done for them? Taught them a language for their trade? So they can widen their range of clientele and bring in profit for the teahouse? Tell me, Jean-Jacques Leroy, is this the kind of education you had envisioned? Can you truly say you've made a difference in their lives?”

JJ looked up at Viktor, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

For the first time since Viktor entered his room, there was silence, long and tense and mortified.

“Mr. Nikiforov!” JJ flinched as the door flung open and Yoshino fell into Viktor’s arms. “You did it, you chased him away!”

“Yes. Yes, I did,” Viktor lied smoothly, patting Yoshino’s head as he would with a puppy. At the corner of his eyes, he could see JJ studying Yoshino as though he were seeing the boy for the first time.

“Big Brother says he will see you in my room,” Yoshino said, beaming. “And I will stay with Mr. JJ—”

Without waiting for Yoshino to finish, Viktor swiped his boots, ducked out of the room, and made a beeline, through the kitchen and up the stairs, to the room beside Yuuri’s quarters. The hallways were mercifully quiet, absent of the penetrating stares that would have otherwise burned holes in his skin.

Yoshino's room was spacious and lined with gold screens. Not much different from Yuuri's, save for the muted painting of a peacock across the length of a wall - far less grand and majestic than a dragon rising into the clouds.

Heels tucked demurely under him, Yuuri sat in the middle of the room, his gaze fixed on a hanging ink painting of a crane soaring over a snow-peaked mountain. The candles flickered, casting shadows across his painted eyes, highlighting the soft curves of his cheeks. He didn’t acknowledge Viktor’s arrival, didn’t move as Viktor leaned his boots against the wall and took a seat across from him.

Every fiber in Viktor’s being urged him to break the silence, to pepper Yuuri with questions about this abusive man Viktor was supposed to have chased away. But he chose to wait, recognizing the faraway look on Yuuri’s face, the wistful sorrow in his gaze. It was the same look he saw on Yuuri the first night they met. The night he fell for Yuuri, hard and fast.

“I used to meet my friends in there,” Yuuri said.

Viktor’s heart skipped; Yuuri was opening up – willingly.

“Behind the painting?” he said, shifting closer. Noting, absently, that Yuuri’s cheeks were pinker than usual, that his eyes were covered in a strange glaze. Noted, too, the sharp tang of alcohol wafting in the air. Viktor couldn’t help but admire Yuuri’s sense of professionalism—the straight back and polite mannerisms—even when inebriated.

Yuuri nodded. “There is a small, ah, tokonoma[2] , we say.”

“Like a small space?” Viktor surmised.

“Yes, a small space.” Yuuri drew in a wobbly breath. “I was happy.”

Viktor laid a hand on Yuuri’s knee. If his experience with Yuuri was any indication, that happiness must not have lasted for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Yuuri gave him a weak smile. “Thank you.” Shaking his head, ornaments swaying, he inhaled again, features shifting to a carefully neutral expression. “I did not tell Yoshino that you arrived later than he hoped.”

“I noticed,” Viktor said. “What was I late for, exactly?”

There was a beat, Yuuri sweeping his bottom lip between his teeth, gaze falling to his lap. Looking for all the world like a little boy, lost and separated from his family. 

“I don’t know if I should tell you,” he said then, so sweetly, strangely, honest that Viktor wondered if alcohol may have been the answer to their problems all this time. “Okorasetakunai kara[3].” His face twisted, the raw ache in his voice curling Viktor’s gut despite the foreign words. “Vikutoru ni kirawareru no ga kowai kara[4].”

Viktor reached out, slid a palm on Yuuri’s cheek. It was smooth and warm and growing warmer still as he leaned in, close enough for their noses to touch, for their foreheads to press together, for Viktor to see the flecks of amber in deep brown eyes, flickering in the light of the candles around them. He didn’t understand the words, but the message, the emotion behind them, was plain as day. Yuuri was afraid; Yuuri was always afraid. Of lies, of betrayal, of abandonment – of losing everything he’s ever had the fortune of owning in Yoshiwara.

There were layers to Yuuri, so many layers. When one secret was revealed, another would take its place. But Viktor was prepared to spend the rest of his life peeling back each and every layer, one by one.  

“Remember what I said?” he murmured. “Nothing you've done will ever change the way I feel about you. Or anything that was done to you. Especially anything that was done to you.”

Yuuri swallowed.

For a while, they stayed like that, eye to eye, nose to nose, the pad of Viktor’s thumb lightly stroking Yuuri’s cheek. Viktor could almost hear the cogs spinning in Yuuri’s mind, working as hard as they could through the fog of alcohol. Then, hesitating, Yuuri turned into his touch, pressed a kiss to his palm.

“Matsudaira said he would ruin your work unless I see him anytime he wants.”

Viktor’s heart lodged in his throat.

Once. That’s what he had thought, that one night was all Yuuri spent with Matsudaira. But no, no, judging by the fresh bruises—if they were indeed Matsudaira’s handiwork—it wasn’t just one night. At least, not by Yuuri’s choice.

“And he…” Viktor closed his eyes, reminded himself to breathe. “…he’s angry because you refused him tonight?”

Under his hand, Yuuri quivered. “Yes. Because I would not give up Lady Minako’s appointment.”

Viktor’s fury with JJ was a tiny spark compared to this.

And as much as he loathed to admit it, JJ was right; he had no plan coming in. There was no telling what he would have done had he seen the culprit that was guilty of Yuuri’s injuries, had he seen who the man was. He had been ready to take a swing at the bastard, hurt him the way he had hurt Yuuri. Perhaps it was a blessing that he had arrived too late. Though, a blessing for him or Matsudaira, he could not decide.

“You are angry,” Yuuri spoke into the silence.

It wasn’t a question.

Viktor shook his head, willing his jaw to unclench, the fist on his knee to uncurl. “Not with you,” he said, dropping his other hand with a sigh. “Never with you.”

“Why?” Yuuri asked. Viktor’s eyes flicked up, taking in the way Yuuri’s shoulders quaked, the way his hands gripped at his robes. “If… If I did not have sex with him, I would not be in this… this…” His head dipped, struggling for the words.

“Situation,” Viktor prompted gently.

“Situation,” Yuuri finished, flush deepening. 

Viktor's eyes wrenched shut as he let out an explosive exhale. This was it, then; this had to be the crux of all the secrets, the tears, the shame. Yuuri blamed himself for his decision, and expected, naturally but mistakenly, that Viktor would do the same. (He really owed that woman in the beautiful, vibrant robes for getting Yuuri in this state.)

“How can I be angry with you when you did that for me?” Swallowing, Viktor ran a hand through his hair. “If anything, I’m angry with myself for forcing you into it.”

Yuuri stared at him, beautiful even in his bewilderment. “What do you mean?”

“Not important, my solnyshko.”

Viktor turned his gaze to the ink painting, the hidden space where Yuuri used to find happiness. If he thought about it, there was one simple solution: take Yuuri out of Yoshiwara. The owner would have to relinquish her hold on him, Matsudaira would have to find some other poor soul to hound, and Yuuri would finally, finally, regain his freedom and dignity. The happiness that he so deserved, that Viktor had had to yet to give him because of his own selfish concerns.  

Really, what was he doing? Spouting on about love and eternity and protecting Yuuri from harm, and he wouldn’t even do the simplest, easiest thing to help his love.

Viktor kneaded his temples.

Yes, there was only one way he could be Yuuri’s tokonoma.

“I’m paying off your debt this week.”

In the pause that followed, Yuuri’s eyes went impossibly wide. Viktor waited as the emotions cycled through, eventually settling on something that looked like confusion.

“But…” Yuuri closed his mouth, frowned, then opened it again. “Matsudaira…”

"Is not a concern," Viktor said. "We'll leave Edo together, and my superior can handle him instead."

Yuuri's eyes grew wider. "And the money...?"

“Chris,” Viktor said simply. He lifted Yuuri's hand to his lips, kisses the knob of each knuckle. “An option I should have taken from the beginning.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “But you said—”

“I know. And I was wrong.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said again. Then, leaning in, voice dropping, “This must be a, a… – how you say, um, fantasy? Dream? From too much sake

Viktor huffed out a laugh. Cute, Yuuri was too cute. “No, this is not a hallucination.”

And then, watching the revelation dawn slowly, the way Yuuri’s face and eyes and every part of him light up like the sun rising over the docks of St Petersburg, Viktor wondered: why, indeed, had he not done this sooner?

Especially when Yuuri curled a hand in his collar and pulled him in for a kiss. A deep, wet kiss, the taste of ash and sake and everything sweet. Yuuri’s tongue brushed in, inviting, and Viktor's breath caught, heat pulsing through him. It was so hot, so perfect, that Viktor almost forgot that they weren’t in Yuuri’s quarters, that Yoshino—poor, sweet Yoshino—had been trapped in JJ’s room for the past hour.

“Wait.” Viktor shuddered when Yuuri nipped at his bottom lip, breath skimming over his skin. “Wait, Yuuri, you’re drunk and – and Yoshino is still at JJ’s.”

Yuuri pulled away, pouting, and Viktor fought against the impulse to capture that mouth with his. Push Yuuri to the mats and map out a trail down that slender neck. “You are talking about other men while we kiss?”

“Just this once,” Viktor chuckled. He gave in, kissed Yuuri one last time. “We can kiss and do whatever you want after I’ve gotten you out of this hell.”

Yuuri’s smile held the world.

 


 

When Yuuri opened his eyes, it was to a dull throb in his head, spots and splotches of white light in his vision. He dropped the back of his hand to his forehead, a groan crawling up his throat. He had always been cautious about overdrinking; not all clients appreciated a drunk in the sheets, sloppy and too wasted to give them a good time.

Rolling over, he bit back a yelp when he nearly crashed into Minako, who was sprawled across the bedding, mouth wide open, her snores thundering through the room.

The sight of Minako triggered last night's events, image after image slamming into Yuuri’s aching brain. Matsudaira’s interruption. Yoshino’s flight to Viktor. Viktor’s interruption. Minako’s promise. And then, then – Viktor saying he would pay off his debts, that he would use his friend’s money, that he was wrong for not doing so in the first place.

Yuuri shot up, hands flying to his mouth, heart pounding against his ribs.

Viktor said he would pay off his debts.

Beside him, Minako stirred. Rolled to her side, snuffled into the sheets, and resumed her snores.

Ignoring the pain ricocheting through his skull, Yuuri rose to his feet and began to pace, clenching and unclenching his fists. Was this real, or was this a memory conjured by a mind too far addled by alcohol? Why would Viktor change his mind, just like that, when he had been so adamant about using his own savings? And—Yuuri glanced down, fingers drifting to the haphazard knot on his waist—whoever helped him to bed last night had no idea how to tie an obi belt.

Minako must have passed out by then, JJ wouldn’t have bothered, and Minami – well, surely Minami had mastered a skill as simple as a plain musubi by now, or Yuuri would have failed spectacularly as a mentor.  

It had to be Viktor.

Softly, Yuuri’s mouth curved at the thought of Viktor struggling to work the belt around him, hands fumbling and shaking, careful not to wake Yuuri in the process.

“Mmmm, Aoyagi?”

Yuuri paused. “Yes, Lady Minako?”

Minako’s voice came out sleep-rough and low. “Be a dear and stop the world from spinning, will you? I’d like to get off." 

Yuuri laughed. And promptly winced.

After sipping cups of water fetched by Minami, whose entire body vibrated with an odd sort of energy, Yuuri escorted Minako out of the teahouse. They said their final farewells at the entrance, exchanged hugs, tight and lingering, before Minako ambled away, shielding her eyes from the sun and swearing lightly under her breath.

Yuuri stayed for a while. Watched her back grow smaller and smaller in the distance, chest tightening.

He was going to miss Minako, he truly was. Never had she asked for anything more from him than alcohol, a listening ear, and a private performance. And she was warm and human – his only ray of light in the void that was Yoshiwara. But if his memories were real, then they would all have a new future ahead of them. Full of hope and love and Viktor.

If his memories were real.

“Yoshino,” Yuuri called, thumb and forefinger pressing into his forehead as he stumbled up the stairs. “Have my bedding cleaned and changed before I’m back for my—”

A human ball of energy flew into Yuuri, knocking the air out of his lungs and squeezing him in an octopus-like grip.

“I’m so happy for you, Big Brother,” Minami wept, face shoved into Yuuri’s chest, “So, so happy.”

It took a moment for Yuuri to comprehend Minami's behavior, and another to fully understand the implications behind it. 

Real.

It was all real.

From Viktor helping him to bed, to the promise of paying off his debt.

Something burst open in Yuuri’s chest, spilling warmth and joy down his ribs...

...just as Minami let out a high-pitched whine that sent ripples of pain through his head. Right. Now was not the right time to celebrate. 

“Yoshino,” Yuuri murmured over Minami's whimpers. Teahouse staff shot them amused glances as they fleeted past, an array of cleaning tools in their arms. “Yoshino, this is best, ah… discussed, in private.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” Minami said, pulling away, swiping at his rosy-edged eyes with one sleeve. “It’s just… I’m so happy you’re leaving with Mr. Nikiforov but I’m also… also…” His nose wrinkled, cheeks turning redder, blotchier, tears swelling down his cheeks. “Really, really sad…!”  

As Minami launched into a wail that echoed off the walls, Yuuri didn’t know what to tell his attendant. He still recalled the heavy sense of dread that blanketed his entire being when Minori first revealed news of his departure. Minori, who cared for him, shielded him from the owner’s wrath. Who gave him a reason for living. He was thrilled for his mentor, of course, but the anxiety that came with it—the fear—trumped all other reactions he had about the news.

And as far as Yuuri knew, Minami did not have a Yuuko in his life.

Wordlessly, he tugged Minami up the stairs and into his private quarters. Once there, he swept Minami into his arms, yanked Minami in until the boy's nose bumped into his shoulder. Fingers dug instantly into silk material, clinging tightly, desperately, and Minami cried, loud and unrestrained and pitiful.

They all left: Takeshi, Minori, Minako, and now him. Someway, somehow, someone was always left behind.

Someway, somehow, Yoshiwara always won.

“I’m sorry,” Minami whimpered, his voice broken by hiccups and sobs. “I know, you – you said not to show any emotion, but—”

Yuuri hushed him, rubbing circles into his back. “I said not to do that in front of clients.”

“Oh. So... so it's okay between us?”

"Mmhm."

Minami cracked a tiny smile. Rubbing his eyes again, he exhaled a shuddering, heavy breath. “Will I get a new Big Brother?”

“You won’t need one after your first client.” Yuuri pulled Minami’s hands away from his face, smoothed the wrinkles out of his damp sleeves. “Which I promise to choose for you before I leave.”

Minami sniffled, pliant under Yuuri's gentle hands. “Can I, um, have Mr. JJ as my first?”

Yuuri’s head throbbed. “I’m sorry, who?”

“Mr. JJ.”

“Mr. JJ is a priest.”

“But he, he’s really nice, and he said he wanted to help me…”

“I will find you a suitable first,” Yuuri said firmly.

Minami nodded, bottom lip trembling. “Promise you’ll visit?”

Yuuri closed his eyes. He had never considered the possibility of him ever leaving Yoshiwara, much less the thought of him returning. Given a choice, he would run far, far away from En, from Yoshiwara, from the source of his guilt and shame. But now, he had something to return to, something he came to treasure despite his initial reservations. 

Now, he had Minami.

“I promise,” Yuuri said, and delight blossomed across Minami’s features.

They held each other, swaying, Minami clutching at him as though Yuuri was seconds from fading away. Absently, Yuuri wondered if Minori would have allowed for such intimacy, wondered if he should have expressed himself just as freely as Minami. Hide your emotions, bury your true self was the core of Minori's lessons, his theory of survival for the teahouse. Perhaps, despite all evidence to the contrary, Minami—open and honest and carefree—might just outlive them all. 

"A word, Aoyagi," the owner snapped, breezing in like a hurricane, bursting their bubble of tranquility in one fell swoop. Her eyes narrowed at Minami, who flushed, averting his gaze. “In private.”

As Minami obediently scurried out of the room, Yuuri dropped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. It seemed the universe was hellbent on aggravating his hangover and delaying his visit with Yuuko. “I am really not in the mood—”

“I have just received a delivery,” the owner said, her voice clipped. “From Lord Matsudaira.”

Yuuri’s gaze lifted to catch a small box in the owner’s hand, black and lacquered with gold leaves across the lid. One glimpse was enough to tell that the box cost a month's worth of Yuuri’s expenses, the contents, likely double the amount. How predictable; a gift sent as an apology for rash actions the night before.

“I have more than enough kanzashi to last me a lifetime,” Yuuri said, flicking his wrist.

“It’s not an accessory,” the owner said.

“Well then, what is it?”

Mutely, fingers curling, the owner lifted the lid.

Horror clawed up Yuuri’s throat and sank his heart like a stone.

Empty.

The box was empty.

Yuuri had seen the fate of courtesans who were offered an empty box[5]. Had watched them agonize over it, heard the howls of pain when they went through with it. And then there were those who willingly, foolishly, gave a piece of themselves in an act of sheer desperation and loneliness, even without being asked.

“I won’t do it,” he heard himself say, loud and harsh in his ears.

“Aoyagi,” the owner started, but Yuuri backed away, shaking his head.

“I won’t do it,” he said again. 

Words streamed out of the owner’s mouth then: something about the dilemma she was facing, about not wanting her best earner damaged, about her reluctance to enrage an important member of the Shogunate. But these words were meaningless to Yuuri, empty as the box cupped in her hands. They were about the owner and the teahouse. They were always about the owner and the teahouse, and Yuuri had had enough. Without pause, without thought, he shoved past her to sweep down the flight of stairs and out the teahouse, her shouts chasing after him, hangover now beating his skull in with a club.

From there, he ran, geta clacking noisily against the dirt, the edge of his yukata flapping around his ankles. To Yuuko and away from En, away from the harmless little jewelry box that reeked of jealousy and possessiveness and lost fingers.

Please Viktor, Yuuri prayed. You’re my only hope.

 


 

Golden light poured through the window, bright and warm. Viktor tossed off the sheets and rolled out of bed, eager to start the day. To finally have Yuuri by his side, outside of the candle-lit room, outside of the teahouse and its terribly suffocating customs. He couldn’t wait to share food with Yuuri at a restaurant, take a stroll across the Edo Bridge[6] to the city’s main shopping district, even watch a show together in the theaters. (Viktor wouldn’t understand a word, but Yuuri’s presence was all that mattered.)

What a relief it was not to have that whole money issue hanging over his head. He could kick himself for not choosing this option sooner. Yuuri should have kicked him for not choosing this option sooner. Lord knew Christophe was wealthy enough, judging by his imported food and furniture, and he did offer to help. Viktor couldn't even recall what on earth he was so worried about. Throwing on a bathrobe, soft and plush against his skin, he skipped into the living room with steps as buoyant as his heart. Grinned when he spotted his very best friend seated on an armchair across the couch.  

“Chris,” Viktor called in a sing-song voice, hands clasping together. “I have a very, very big favor to ask of you…” At the strangely apologetic look on Christophe’s face, he trailed off, eyebrows furrowing. “What—”

“I think you have more than exhausted your favors with Christophe, Vitya." 

Viktor froze as a stocky figure rose from the couch. Even from behind, there was no mistaking the grey hair, the patched coat, the unfettered anger radiating from tight shoulders.

“Yakov!?”

The war veteran turned to face him, a corner of his mouth curled up in a scowl. "You did not come back even after completing your assignment, so I decided to come to you instead." His grizzled features contorted further. "And what is this I hear about you wasting your savings on a prostitute?" 

Damn itYuri, thought Viktor.

This could take a while.