Winter had a sort of solemn isolation to it, a quiet no other season could ever hope to reproduce.
Snow-bearing clouds had covered the moon last night; now about ankle deep and barely marred with any animal tracks, Shintarō was even more sorrowful when he had to sully the sparkling purity with his much larger footprints.
Years ago Shintarō moved away from Kyoto and the constant noise that he had grown up with but never accustomed himself to. Now he is technically part of a small village but lives a good way’s journey from any trading, isolated by the forest and hard to find.
The setup was perfect, so much so that in spring even the sounds of wildlife became deafening in comparison. Snow muffled his surroundings to a quiet murmur until Shintarō felt like he was no longer in his body, merely observing his surroundings.
Indeed he didn’t speak much, either to animals or to people, which had seemed almost wonderfully surreal those first few months. He had studied herbs and remedies as an educated child and now grew a small amount of plants, some of which he used and the excess he sold downhill in the slightly more vivid Otsu.
He also documented what was growing naturally, where it grew and occasionally how to encourage that, but he mostly gathered that just as an added lining and never told the villagers that he was not, in fact, fighting to keep a huge garden tended and vibrant.
This life had indeed been an adjustment, but now Shintarō couldn’t help but feel this was how he was supposed to live.
Sitting beside the irori in the middle of the room, coals warm but not lit so as to gently warm his food, Shintarō was occupying himself with just his thoughts to pass the time, some wood carvings still unfinished nearby along with his tools where he had left them.
Suddenly a strange noise, almost like a knock, caught Shintarō’s attention. The only possibility was for it to be an animal, this far out.
Walking at a faster pace than normal more out of curiosity than any wish to keep someone waiting, Shintarō pulled the door aside and looked out expecting to see either nothing or having to poke his head out further to see the rodents messing with his woodpile again.
Instead, he was graced by a figure almost as white as the snow behind it, a little shorter than himself and assumedly human by the visible hands, although their face was entirely obscured by a wataboshi.
‘A bride…?’ He suddenly wondered, noticing that one layer of their kimono was red. Belatedly he realized this person could just as well be a yuki onna out looking for single young men upon whom to exact revenge for her death, but when they revealed their face both that worry was knocked out of him.
He had expected tied-up hair and an overall put-together appearance to match with their elegant hand and arm movements, but instead the stranger’s face was framed by fluffy bangs and hair long enough to disappear behind their shoulders. If only because it had been protected from the wind and movement it wasn’t tangled or in disarray, but it gave a laid-back country feel.
He was captured by blue eyes that sparkled in such a way that Shintarō did not even have to continue down to tell that the stranger was smiling. So unlike the ladies he was used to, who hid their mouths behind their sleeves, this person’s entire face morphed when they smiled, just with the crinkles beside their eyes.
He stepped back, a little surprised, and the figure laughed again, the sound open and honest. He felt his face flushing further.
“It’s pretty cold, may I come in to talk?” The stranger’s voice was nothing like he expected, something of a whiplash even, but he recovered quickly, something mentally comforting him that the voice was still fitting.
“Of course,” He managed to respond concisely, trying to make the way he stumbled back seem intended He flushed when he realized his own bumbling actions, but seemed to redden anew when the stranger laughed about it.
Shintarō had actually been expecting such a person to be nosy, and most likely very open about it. They raised the wataboshi further up the back of their head so that their vision wasn’t as impaired, but they didn’t, for example, walk in the direction of the partially open door beside the entrance or even swivel their head back and forth to see what the inside and furnishings were like. Not that there was very much, Shintarō had become very comfortable with the barest necessities, but it still struck him as odd.
Somewhat confirming his first speculation, however, his guest seemed to have made themselves almost overly comfortable beside the irori, sweeping a hand to hold a dangling sleeve as they reached abnormally close to the hot iron in order to fight the chill. Shintarō had half a mind to scold them before they burned themselves but they went ahead and did it anyway, yelping and pulling their finger into their mouth while Shintarō scoffed not-so-quietly in the background.
Sitting across from the idiot, not wanting to associate with them too much especially when something struck him as so…wrong, Shintarō purposefully made a point of not paying much attention, attending to the boiling water but feeling how the intruder gazed at him with displeasure mixed with something else.
They seemed like they had something to say about it when something else seemed to physically strike them as more important to ask.
“My name is Takao Kazunari, forgive me for my rudeness in forgetting! What’s yours?” They asked first, excitedly leaning forward with a hand beside their knees, perhaps consciously pressuring Shintarō.
“Midorima Shintarō,” he answered all the same, trying not to be too obvious in how he backed away and into himself. Internally judging the green tea as having seeped for the perfect two minutes, he grudgingly poured the tea for one into twice as many cups. As it was served to him, Kazunari’s face lit up and they leaned forward in order to receive it, a hand underneath the cup and the other around, brushing skin for a moment although all Shintarō noticed was that theirs was warmer.
Seeming to notice the same thing, although they could have already been thinking it, Kazunari opened their mouth to speak again, even though Shintarō would have been just as pleased if they had just gotten to the chase, quietly went to sleep and left first thing in the morning.
“It’s almost as cold in here as it is outside, I can’t believe you--live like this!” Kazunari was definitely about to say something else after “you” but pre-emptively cut themselves off, making a very good act of recovering and continuing to speak with the same easy-going but overly cheerful tone, sending Shintarō a large smile before remembering their tea and taking an overenthusiastic sip that made their face clench right up.
“I was not expecting that to be so bitter! Puuaaa!!” Kazunari seemed to laugh only for their own sake, swinging the cup downwards slightly as they leaned forward both from their laughter and all their wiggling of “disgust”. Shintarō believed they weren’t really as displeased as they pretended to be, but he was glad that they didn’t spit the tea right out. He could have pointed out that he had only made enough for himself and avoided this altogether.
“The ratio of bitterness in relevance to seeping time has been studied to the very specifics, and I can assure you this is the flavor that best brings out the small but intrinsic notes of the tea’s character. Do ladies of other classes never learn so much as how to serve tea properly?” He spoke much more animatedly when explaining the fundamentals of one of his favorite subjects, something he would be the most likely to admit having missed in his forced solitary confinement.
Kazunari looked visibly impressed and happy, although they cut off any comment they planned to make with the force of laughter so strong they nearly hit their forehead on the floor with their rocking.
“BWAHAHAHA! You’re so funny, I had been thinking it but you really are a rich boy! Sorry to say Shin-chan but I’m a man, to get that out of the way. And I haven’t learned much about drinks other than what won’t kill you.” Kazunari put so much emphasis on the nickname, and had such a defiant expression, that Shintarō immediately flustered but didn’t even register that the ravenette wasn’t a woman like he had assumed.
Going down and thinking through the less important parts, he rationalized that there was no physical trait important enough to determine gender with a sweeping glance. His own hair wasn't really that much shorter, even, and Kazunari had likely just grabbed the wataboshi from somewhere, looking for anything to protect the sides of his face from the slicing winds and snow.
Much more pressing was that atrocious nickname, which he would only expect from an over-attached mother, and definitely not someone his age, which had him visibly prickling.
“By any chance will your stay be short?” Shintarō managed to attempt to be cordial, although he literally had to speak through clenched teeth.
“Oh yes, thank you for reminding me! I was in Otsu looking for a long-term place to stay, and not just a ryokan, you know? Someone told me where this place was and that he would rent it out to me! He said nobody lived here, but he might’ve even assumed you had died or left, you know? So I gave that guy a large amount of money since he said I likely wouldn’t be coming back to town because of the bad weather up here, so now you’re the only one I can count on!” Kazunari said it all fairly casually, like this somehow wasn’t a giant mistake entirely on his part, and although he got a little confrontational with the “thought you died” part, Shintarō tried to keep his reaction to a mere grunt.
“You were conned,” Shintarō deadpanned, fully aware that Kazunari should already know that, but fearing that he thought the “landlord” had planned for them to live together. He did not believe that Kazunari had spoken to the man he had originally bought the house from at any rate, and the scammer probably didn’t even care whether or not the house had burned down, let alone whether anyone was living there.
“Shouldn’t I be more worried about what happens now rather than what already has?” Kazunari argued, looking him straight in the eye. Shintarō had to respect him at least on being so bold and not backing down.
“It was incredibly tough and painful to get up here. I have no money for food or shelter, so do you have enough compassion to at least let me stay here until its warm enough for me to sleep outside?” Kazunari proposed instead. Clapping his hands in front of his face, he couldn’t resist a peek at the other’s expression, first a small squint of his eye with his head tilted slightly but then both open as he anxiously tried to gauge the other’s expression.
Popping his head back into hiding when Shintarō made sure to give him an unimpressed look, a more honestly worried expression seemed to deeply plague him, admittedly hitting Shintarō at whatever empathy he even had.
He didn’t want a dead person on his consciousness, but he didn’t want to blissfully ignore any possible problems that could come up. He would let Kazunari stay, at least for the shortest amount of time possible, but would make sure to question him and find every problem before it arose at a bad time.
“Exactly how much money do you have left?” He asked first, mentally going through how much yen he had himself while trying to think of what he would need to buy in Ōtsu come spring. It was sort of a feeling question, to see if Kazunari would argue against compensating him for this favor, but he was still beyond shocked when Kazunari merely reached down, detached his sagemono from his obi and handed it over. He didn’t even check what was inside, let alone take a portion for himself, and just placed it right into Shintarō’s only somewhat expectant hand with a completely straight face.
Going along, at least, Shintarō looked exclusively down as he opened it up and dropped the money into his open palm.
Kazunari’s behavior made a lot more sense when all that appeared was two myo, 200 yen. Not enough for even a simple meal at a restaurant.
Kazunari seemed to be completely unaware, face impassive except for vague curiosity.
Feeling his face pale, either with disbelief or anger, he wasn’t quite sure, Shintarō tried to keep his voice level as he directed the next question at Kazunari without actually looking at him.
“How much food did you bring with you?” Shintarō asked next, having rationalized that the ravenette must have spent massive amounts of money preparing for what he had assumed would be several months of total isolation. And that would explain the amount leftover, likely planning to go back into town and get work in the spring.
“None.” Kazunari admittedly quietly, genuinely startled when Shintarō slammed his hand down on the floor and leaned a huge amount of his weight forward in a sudden flash.
“I apologize for overreacting.” Shintarō recovered, re-folding his eri tighter, left and then right, to regain his polished appearance.
“Did you believe that this “abandoned house” was somehow going to be fully stocked with everything you would need? That you could just waltz in and spend the rest of your life not worrying about anything?” He had meant to be harshly honest, an advisor, but instead the words came out of his mouth like acid. He was absolutely blown over by this man with the intelligence of a child, smiling like there was nothing in his head and no problems would ever appear before him.
He thought back to what Kazunari had said before, about worrying more about what’s right in front of you, and couldn’t help but feel that he was still a mindless idiot if he wasn’t looking any further than that. Shintarō’s neurons lit up and raced, trying so hard to think of what Kazunari’s long-term motivation might be, or better yet what had led him to look at the world in such a delusional light, but it was lost on him.
He wishes he could throw the fool out of his house, but if the other took it seriously he’d have to suck it up and do whatever it took to get him back inside to save his conscience. He’d rather just deal with him head-on, like this, than risk such an embarrassing situation.
“I came here because my survival instincts are so good. I’m sure I could hunt and scavenge enough to survive.” Kazunari interrupted his train of thought with something that sounded like it was supposed to lead him to the answer, but it was doing no such thing. Mind-numbing overconfidence was what it was.
“I am going to sleep. We will talk more about this in the morning.” Shintarō concluded, rubbing both thumbs against his temple to ease the pain.
“Shin-chan! Sharing a futon our first night together, how bold!” Kazunari opened his mouth wide in a gasp but hid it behind his sleeve like a mockery of a delicate lady. Before that, Shintarō had thought to himself “this is a nightmare” even as he got up to get his guest the extra futon and clothes, but now it seemed karma was back and mocking him. He was sure Kazunari had been able to see him cringe just from a view of his back, if the contained laughter was anything to go by.
Trying to keep his temper and hurrying to close himself off in the other room, the shoji at least somewhat hiding him away. Shintarō was unbelievably glad that he had already thought of this solution and wouldn’t have to sit out there trying to think while ignoring how the ravenette could see him turning pink.
Sitting directly in the front and middle of the old chest he was using for storage, Shintarō used both hands to pull the drawer open, peering down and thankfully not getting too much dust blown into his face. An old couple had lived here before him, and many of their non-valuable belongings had just been left in the house, perhaps right where they had been left last. Pulling out the items he would need to find them both a little moldy, he rationalized that this was the best he could do on such short notice and it was no responsibility of his own.
Lifting it up slightly and beating some dust out, he closed his mouth but still sighed when his nose tickled egregiously. Folding both over his arm, he returned to at least find Kazunari not making a mess of his home, mostly just sitting where he had left him and looking around.
“Here.” Shintarō grabbed his attention but only dropped the bundle in front of his knees before making his way over to his own folded up futon, setting it up with practiced, unthinking movements, allowing his brain to trail off and speculate as it liked.
“Thank you so much.” Kazunari said, smile different from usual, and he avoided using that nickname, now, too, at least aware of what his teasing could lead him. Grunting, Shintarō lifted the kakebuton to slip underneath and rolled to face away from Kazunari, cutting off all further conversation in favor of sleep.
It was noticeable that he hadn’t blown out the tōdai, and rather had left it in such a way that Kazunari could blow it out once he was comfortably settled in.
Smiling to himself, Kazunari lowered his head to hide as it stretched wider, finally getting up and turning his back to Shintarō as he had a feeling the prissy man would complain about someone changing in front of him, even if they were the same anatomically.
Grabbing his obi with one hand, he pulled it away from his body and retrieved a small blade, opening his palm completely and rolling it across to look at the entirety of it. Sighing slightly, he lay it down on the floor and thought back as he began to unravel his obi and undress completely.
“Kazunari!” A voice yelled as he was walking away in an attempt to end the conversation. Still he stopped, but tried to keep his body language closed off, afraid he might give in and change his mind. Swiveling just his head to look behind he saw almost his entire family there to see him off. Purposefully biting his tongue, he didn’t look away but prevented himself from saying anything as well.
Tatsuya was the one to step forward, face stony but he offered something wrapped in cloth. Looking at the item and then his brother’s face once again, Kazunari reluctantly took it when it was almost placed in his hands. Although he hesitated a moment, Kazunari could tell the other wanted him to open the package right then, still freezing however when he recognized the sheath’s shape.
Startled, he attempted to push the knife back into Tatsuya’s hands only to have it be forced right into his own, Tatsuya laying a hand atop both of his, curled and comforting.
“We don’t know what this man is like, Kazu. Keep this blade on you, don’t let him lull you into a false sense of security, and use it at the first sign of danger. Stay safe and come home.” The older male looked unflinchingly at him, and it wasn’t the first time but it made Kazunari squeamish. Still he nodded, mute and keeping himself from giving any “benefit of the doubt” speeches.
Feeling a tug, he looked down to see his sister, the very youngest in their family, looking up at him with slightly teary eyes. Smiling at her he squatted down and pulled her into a hug, brushing her hair away from her forehead in a wide sweep towards her ear both before and after he kissed her on the forehead. Like a witch had stolen his voice he still stayed quiet, but Aki seemed to understand, at least a little.
Holding her hands even as he began to stand up, he squeezed them one last time once he was all the way up before letting go entirely, a couple more people giving him hugs before he walked off further into the forest and away from the life he had always known.
Waking up to the sound of rough coughing, Shintarō at first rolled over, confused as to what his ears thought was happening, until it happened again and he suddenly remembered that he wasn’t alone. Rolling over then, he could see the outline of Kazunari’s body shaking as he coughed again, the entire shadow shaking until he mumbled something that sounded like a name and then was quiet again, merely shifting slightly into a more comfortable position. Appeased, Shintarō went back to sleep.
When he awoke the second time he hadn’t the slightest idea why, but he immediately remembered and turned to Kazunari only to startle when he realized there was nobody there. Immediately he feared he had brought a spirit into his house and it had only been appeased by his technical act of kindness, but just then he heard a slight rustle and shifted his head to see Kazunari had merely moved into a new place to sleep.
Sitting up against the wall, Kazunari had his head almost entirely tucked into his chest, back nowhere near straight and arm curled near his head, protective. Like this, he reminded Shintarō of the rōnin he had seen as a child, never laying down to sleep and unconsciously trying to clutch onto a sword that had long been taken from them.
Realizing that Kazunari was no longer coughing, and had likely chosen that exact place and position for a reason, Shintarō lowered his body again and adjusted the kakebuton better over his body before finally nestling into a sleep that lasted until dawn touched the earth.
Getting up the next morning and putting his futon to the side, Shintarō quickly came to the realization that if the continuation of last night’s conversation was just more of the same, he was definitely going to need to get some food in him first. He didn’t like to, but he held it off until then, almost only making enough food for one even with Kazunari sitting across from him.
Evidently Kazunari was not a morning person, and it was easy to fall back into thinking he was alone as he ate, small noises like clinking easy enough to fade into the background. Shintarō could rest at ease if this was what the rest of their winter together would be like.
“So, Shintarō, I hate to bring it up like this, but am I going to have to sleep on that every night?”
Oh, if only silence could stretch across an eternity.
“Has the word “ungrateful” really never come up in a conversation you have had before?” Shintarō panned without breaking stride, nonchalantly taking a small bite of food. From Kazunari’s level tone of voice just then it was obvious he was trying to at least appear mature and reasonable, but he chortled nearly immediately.
Being a mature adult he had no interest in making a comedy duo with Kazunari, but it seemed like his first response to everything was laughing. Could you even be consciously controlling such a thing?
“Very well, fetch some water and bring it to the furō. Don’t dally, and I won’t leave you to do all the work yourself.” Obviously one of them would have to concede, and since Kazunari was still snickering he took it upon himself.
“Roger!” Didn’t seem to convey the least bit of responsibility, but Kazunari just looked him right in the eye before tilting his head slightly to the side and shredding some fish off the bone, placing it in his rice bowl and obviously grabbing a huge glob of that and shoving it into his mouth all at once. Somewhat disgusted, Shintarō turned his head, grateful at least that Kazunari didn’t seem interested in talking with his mouth full (the one thing he absolutely couldn’t stand) and seemed quite content to focus entirely on eating.
A loud ‘CRACK’ was a sudden break from the silence, and startled as well as worried about his belongings Shintarō looked up like a startled deer, directly at eye level with Kazunari and his stupid grin. Holding up the bowl that he had been drinking miso soup from to prove that it wasn’t damaged, the ravenette seemed to be itching to show how the trick worked, but Shintarō was already done with him.
Huffing, he really wished to use a door to end this conversation. Having finished eating, he reached for the kettle above his head instead. Pouring hot water into both of his bowls, he then picked up the pickle he had put aside when he had plated the meal, running it along the entire interior with careful measure before crunching it in one careful bite, admittedly happy in his own successful creation before he washed it down with a single gulp of all the water.
He was acutely aware of how Kazunari watched him during all of this, and he couldn’t help how the peace drained right out of him, glaring over his bowl as he lowered it just enough for the top of his spectacles to likely be visible. Still Kazunari stared straight-on in wonder as if it was customary, Shintarō unable to help but wonder what kind of backwater prefecture he had come from, before holding his hand out so Kazunari could just give him the dishes and let them be done already.
Kazunari leaned forward all right but kept the bowl tightly in his hand for some reason, Shintarō only trying to pry it out once before giving in to his infuriating stubbornness and tipping the kettle over his bowl gently instead. Watching evenly with an unreadable expression, Kazunari waited until Shintarō had leaned up to hang the kettle back on the hook above the irori before backing up to where he had been sitting before.
Leaning in so far to see what he was doing that it was obvious he was over-focusing, Kazunari copied the movements with a nearly childlike clumsiness, constantly dropping the pickle mid-swipe but always seeming intent on finishing the job. He was so over-zealous that at first the most Shintarō could think was that he was making a mockery of him and using faked ignorance as a cover, but as he watched him more he started to think that he was just overly passionate and not the least bit sure of what clean was, constantly going over the same spots and then squinting at them as if expecting some change that only Shintarō could see.
He wasn’t the type to laugh at such a thing, but he wasn’t usually so impatient, either. Still, once even Kazunari seemed to be satisfied he continued over stressing, which Shintarō took as his cue to butt in.
Still feeling no need to rush, Shintarō smoothly held his sleeve out of the way and arranged his dishes by size, then picking up the tray entirely and moving just a few paces forward and then to the left, so that he was staring at Kazunari’s profile. The ravenette only looked up at him subtly, as if he wouldn’t realize, but his eyes lit up in realization when Shintarō grabbed the largest dish and moved it onto his tray, then reaching for the second.
Now up to speed, Kazunari ran one last sweeping ring around before gulping down his water and immediately taking the pickle in one over acted chomp. How happy he looked from the taste seemed unnatural, but how quickly it came out of him made Shintarō think that it couldn’t be anything but his genuine feelings.
He reached for Kazunari’s dish but the hand bypassed him, gently finishing the stack before looking all the way up and grinning brightly. What did he want, a reward?
They sat there for so long, doing nothing besides staring at each other, that Shintarō’s last resort was to cough awkwardly in order to break the moment. “To get water you’re going to need to visit the stream.” He hinted, scoffing internally once he began to think that Kazunari was going to smile there like a simpleton until he was told what to do next.
“I mean…yes, but could you tell me where it is?” Kazunari drawled slowly, head bobbing side to side as he spoke. Shintarō had already stood up to put their dishes aside and he was thankfully already behind the crane-adorned folding shoji by the time Kazunari was finished, hiding his expression if the other was actually even looking at him. Biting his lip to cover any unfavorable noises, Shintarō hid the displeasure from his voice as well.
“You were the one who wandered here; do you mean to tell me you never heard or saw the large stream cutting across?” Shintarō said perhaps a bit too sharply, still somewhat surprised when Kazunari became the wrong kind of quiet. He took his time going to get the wooden bucket before coming back, a little surprised by Kazunari’s expression.
“I can't stand all this. I’m trying to be friendly, why do you have to fight me on every little thing? Kazunari looked ready to spit on the ground as he spoke, eyes almost dark. Shintarō wanted to say that the only one being unbearable in this house was him, but instead all that came out was some incredibly stiff directions. Kazunari didn’t wait for him to come closer to nearly wrench the buckets out of his hands before storming out the door.
Shintarō wanted to know what he had done to suddenly be responsible for someone else’s emotional health, of all things.
Sitting down once Kazunari was probably a ways away, Shintarō willed himself to just think of whatever topics he liked just to pass the time, grunting to himself and shifting his hands between his sleeves when he couldn’t seem to keep on just one topic, rather his brain kept wandering to a question he didn’t even want to give the benefit of a moment.
Standing up, starting to get sick and tired of it, he went over to the entrance and stood just outside, finding it no longer snowing but the air crisp and calming, perfect to clear the head.
‘Kazunari’s footsteps are deep, like he was stomping away like a child even once I could no longer see him.’ He thought when his gaze just happened to pass where the other had obviously gone, although he was only trying to sweep over the horizon in front of him just to relax.
Sighing when he realized he had messed up and thought about the situation, he looked around for something to fully distract himself, the woodpile near the separate bath catching his eye and a slight 'Oh' popping to mind. He didn’t need to make the wood any smaller, not that he was angry enough about this to need to get the energy out. Kazunari likely wouldn’t be washing the futon in freezing cold water, and he could just leave everything to him, (he SHOULD, he corrected), but now that he needed a distraction…he might as well do what he was going to?
The wood was protected and still dry when he ran a hand over the top of the pile, then squatting beside the half-circle dip in the outer wall, he shifted his kimono so the slit opened slightly atop his legs. It was easy to just go from one task to another, even when he thought he was going to do the bare minimum for the other, until suddenly his mind, truly clear from the steady focus, was jolted by the sound of water in the bath. A healthy fire was already there, and he had a reed in his hand that he didn’t remember fetching.
Of course that meant he hadn’t seen or even heard the other approach, and he was hoping the other was purposefully avoiding him, only to have that hope dashed when Kazunari immediately left the bath and looped around to the side of the house to face him. Shintarō had actually expected a continuation of the argument, Kazunari boiling in his juices and more things to complain about while he was away.
Rather, Kazunari definitely did…but he just gave him a look that wasn’t contempt but Shintarō couldn’t quite name, either. His lips curved weirdly, and that was all Kazunari offered before disappearing back into the forest, Shintarō could only hope for good. To think at first he had been afraid of Kazunari being a spirit.
Awkwardly standing there beside the stack of firewood for a moment, Shintarō had to think about what he even wanted to do next. By this time of year he didn’t really have much in way of chores, and although he had his usual writing materials and books back in the house…he couldn’t help but think, really, that he had started a job. Ducking into the house for just a moment, he came back out with the futon, sitting along the furo this time and dunking the cloth under to at least do some pre-cleaning with what water he had.
This time he was aware of the figure in the doorway as it appeared out of the corner of his eye. Kazunari’s initial expression was the same as before, but it quickly slid into an smile so big it emphasized his cheekbones, leaving Shintarō completely confused. Quickly looking down at his hands he worked absent-mindedly, now focusing entirely on his train of thought in what could have caused such a sudden mood change, and what exactly it was he was happy about to begin with.
‘Was he amused by some animals before? Did he think of a way to take his anger out on me later? Did he just get over it that quickly?’
‘…He thinks I’m doing this as an attempt to apologize.’ He realized with a sudden start, realizing then that Kazunari’s “cleaning” was nothing more than mirroring him. He didn’t even understand how the other could be so stiff and clumsy with it. From his manner of speaking and the way he held himself there was no way Kazunari could be some naïve rich boy with no idea how to take care of himself…right?
He had been in that position, so he felt like he’d have a good eye for it, but now he couldn’t help but wonder if Kazunari was just a really good actor. Scoffing under his breath as he watched the other continue to struggle horrifically, he pushed both trains of thought aside and focused on giving Kazunari strict instructions, hounding him on the small details and making sure not to miss a thing.
Trying to cover with “I would never do something just for your sake.” sounded weak and could almost be taken for a lie, so he kept quiet about the entire thing, never coming up with a better answer and instead putting his feelings into his directions, never giving anything even resembling praise. Kazunari would still sometimes turn and give him that obnoxious look, and he thought to himself, ‘I’m never going to let him make this assumption again.’
At the very least the work got done much faster with both of them, and they brought it in to hang over the hearth to dry. Mutually agreeing that they weren’t hungry yet, Shintarō disappeared behind the shoji divider again to enjoy some peace and quiet, Kazunari just staring at the fire and seeming to get caught up in his thoughts. Shintarō had spoken way too much today, so he was glad for the small miracle.
Peaceful days like this followed. They talked, mostly during or right after meals, but after a certain amount Shintarō would always retire to another part of the house and Kazunari almost seemed to disappear. Just once, Shintarō popped his head back in to find Kazunari had stepped out of the house entirely. That strange atmosphere seemed to become a constant, but Shintarō didn’t check enough to know if it was caused by Kazunari’s absence or just his brooding.
Really, he didn’t seem like the type who could—or would want to—to stay quiet, but he proved quite resilient up until the weather got a little better, upon which he seemed to let go of all the stir-crazy symptoms he had been holding back.
“A walk, Shin-chan! Anything! We could hunt, we could…” Kazunari continued listing activities that didn’t depend on being cooped up in the house, but he had already grabbed Shintarō’s attention. A little bit of exercise and sportsmanship, finally some different food…the only possible downside would be wasting energy without any results to show for it, but he didn’t think he’d be in too bad a spot using some of his own thrumming energy. It was a win-win situation.
“Please wait a moment,” he excused himself, Kazunari on such a roll that he continued talking about how “I would be happy just animal watching! Even sitting still outside is better than being in here!” before he finally caught on, following Shintarō out of the room with his eyes. He definitely wasn’t following quite yet, but when Shintarō came back out, dangling sleeves now gathered to his sides and not in his way, a bow and arrow that was like an extension of his body at his hip, Kazunari’s face lit up again. This wasn’t the same smile, more cheeky, like he had achieved in convincing Shintarō of something -who knows what- although he happily skipped towards the front door without another word, his own sleeves already tied up.
Shintarō was just about to ask if he was supposed to catch all the food himself, obviously not learning a thing, when Kazunari seemed to read his mind and pulled out two small blades from his obi. Still Shintarō raised a single brow.
“Are you sure you don’t want any more supplies?” He asked, slightly taken aback. Kazunari just snickered and slid them back into their sheaths for the moment.
“Not to worry, Shin-chan, I’m well acquainted with this kind of stuff! I totally know what I’m doing!”
‘That wording is exactly what makes me doubt it…’ He had to sigh inwardly, but all he did really was just continue to walk forward, Kazunari at his heels.
He had actually forgotten that Kazunari had tried to use his “scavenger skills” as a bargaining chip in staying here, but now Kazunari was just going overboard with trying to show off and make sure Shintarō was aware of what he could find. It was nearly nauseating with how forceful it was, but once he paid more attention to the smaller details he realized that even in solid camouflage the man had a good eye for mushrooms and even nuts, with equally large knowledge on what was edible, and even what could be used for medicine. He didn’t know every one which meant there was a good chance the other was just entirely making some things up, but Shintarō did suddenly feel comfort in realizing feeding the extra mouth might not be as hard as he thought. Even if it just ended up being one less mouth altogether as a result of his own stupidity. If only he could be so lucky.
Suddenly hearing the bushes rustle nearby, probably a leporine by the amount, both men simultaneously froze and went into action.
Crouching down fluidly, Shintarō kept as still and well-hidden as possible, the movements of his drawing arm subtle and slight as he drew back in small increments.
Kazunari squatted down even before he did, but, always oppositional, he started to circle around the clearing in the same movement that he lowered his weight. Staring in shock at his utter stupidity, Shintarō would have hissed to ask him “what he thought he was doing” if it didn’t put their position in more jeopardy. Instead he bore holes into Kazunari’s back, hoping to either signal to him when he finally turned around or just watch as he failed.
The hare stepped fully into the clearing, eating some sprouts and taking Shintarō’s attention for a moment. Kazunari moved smoothly, and Shintarō suddenly noticed that he didn’t hear a thing when he walked, even though the snow had melted to reveal patches of dead leaves. The hare didn’t notice that or even that he was moving closer, almost like he blended in perfectly with his surroundings.
With such a short range weapon Kazunari was going to have to come into the hare’s view at some point, but by sneaking around and not rushing until he was right at the edge of his coverage, Kazunari was able to overtake the hare before it even had a good chance to run away, killing it with a single stab from high above.
‘Tch’ing when he realized he had just stood there and done nothing, Shintarō stood up all at once, face impassive even when Kazunari whipped around and smiled, obviously very pleased with himself. Not saying a thing either, he approached the body and tied its hind legs together for easy transport before continuing further into the forest on his own.
Following behind with quick, jumpy steps, Kazunari quickly found several daikon, which even the greens could be used in the soup Shintarō was thinking of making. Grunting as he watched Kazunari squat and struggle to pull one out, he went ahead and found several more radishes and various greens himself, the men distracted from what quickly grew into a competition by the approach of another hare.
They both followed the same movements as before, but this time Shintarō wasn’t going to be caught slack-jawed, drawing back the bow string with slightly jerky motions in his rush. Before the prey became aware, even despite those mistakes, it was already dead, with little time spent carefully positioning or even double–checking on his part. He allowed himself a proud “smile”, pushing his glasses up slightly from when they had fallen in his lack of attention.
Surely this time Kazunari was the one left still and staring, but even though in his mind the other was the only one getting aggressive and competitive, Shintarō was startled with the sight of the other looking directly at him, not with contempt for taking his kill, but an oddly bright boyish smile, like he was thoroughly impressed, although it thinned into a grin that seemed to say “Don’t think this is the end”.
Well aware that constant back and forth like this would just never end, Shintarō made his way back to the minka well aware that he didn’t need to say anything, Kazunari was always right behind him. Hanging the second hare for later he got the boning knife and other supplies readied for that night’s supper.
Although more of a hindrance in most household chores at the moment for some reason, Kazunari sat on the next closest side of the irori, talking at ends about the things they had both seen today, as if they were in danger of being forgotten or not properly enjoyed if not talked about. Shintarō couldn’t think of a single productive point in it, so he only talked when giving instructions or pointing out what was being done wrong, Kazunari’s voice thrumming into a consistent background noise.
A few times Kazunari would get so excited that the sudden volume increase would break Shintarō out of his meditation, but when he listened just for a break in the conversation to ask him to stop, he realized that despite the conditions Kazunari had seen more out there than he had. And when talking about something they had both seen, Kazunari could still talk about it in such lifelike, appreciative tones that Shintarō could only wonder why it was he saw it in such a way.
Every time Kazunari would smoothly transition into something he wasn’t quite as excited about Shintarō would once again be lulled into a muted, hazy world until the other went overboard again. He was easily able to concentrate on cooking even without actively thinking about it, and so they went on to eating, Kazunari loving the sound of his own voice so much that he went on to new topics, loosely connected to the old. A lot of them were stories from “a friend of a friend” with fantastical themes that made Shintarō think they were folk tales specifically framed that way, even if he was amazed at how he had never heard of any of them before.
Before long he really couldn’t take any more and, cutting his own eating time just a little short, he gave Kazunari a harsh-talking to before disappearing into the world behind the folding shoji screen that was still mercifully only his.
He was so invested in his reading that he didn’t pay much attention to the light going out on the other side, only stopping when his eyes began to hurt. Rounding around the screen he found Kazunari already asleep, allowing him to quickly and easily slide into a quiet sleep himself.
The weather suddenly turning nicer was a sign that it was about to get worse, and sure enough within days they were completely buried in their minka, but insulated by the high layers of snow. Every year so far Shintarō would spend this time doing as he will, no crops or other chores hanging over him. He would switch between hobbies, of course, but some of his favorite included imported books that he had patiently waited for the time for and his own writings, mostly simple but merely an exercise to keep his mind sharp and nothing more. The desk that he had essentially inherited with the house was a wonderful little thing, sitting just above his folded legs so he didn’t have to crouch down much and with two drawers on either side for all related belongings.
It was a small relief, but Kazunari didn’t seem as antsy as he had been before the short melt, and hopefully that would last. He did, however, not have very many things to do, and eventually wandered behind the screen in order to watch Shintarō, at first from afar but then the short side of his desk, especially transfixed by his hand as it wrote in short bursts. Pausing, then going towards his face to ponder his next word, Kazunari’s eyes following his every move boyishly.
When he read, Kazunari sat with his back to the wall so they would have been across from each other if not for the furniture, seemingly not dozing off but evidently very calmed by the rhythmic sound of sliding paper between dry, calloused fingers.
Three years and he still wasn’t used to even having callouses, sometimes running his own fingers against each other when a particularly rough patch of paper reminded him.
“Shin-chan, can you teach me to do that?” Kazunari finally brought up one day what he must have been simmering the entire time, reaching over the shorter side of the desk to Shintarō’s paper, finger awkwardly pointing to a spot between two characters, right about in the middle of the page. Telling him aloud to watch the wet ink, Shintarō swatted his hand away but still asked a follow up question.
“The guidelines to poetry? Or just how to write?” He was genuinely unsure, saw no obvious clues, and to make things much worse Kazunari immediately paled and looked even more lost, obviously about to be of no help. Still, trembling, he managed to rest his finger beside just one character this time, and Shintarō was willing to accept that as an answer. Better to assume the worst, he supposed.
He had done it enough times to know he could entirely amuse himself for the cold months alone, but his patience for the same things did tend to stretch thin after a while, and having Kazunari here would probably make that worse. It wouldn’t do him any good in refreshing his memory, as he had always been an avid reader, and a good one at that. But he was sure that it would take up large chunks of his time, which would be a double-edged sword.
“Well how much do you know?” He asked fairly slowly, testing the waters and taking a new sheet of paper, writing the very simplest thing, “a” in hiragana, just to humor him.
“What is that?” Kazunari didn’t seem to be joking, and Shintarō could feel himself paling now, dragging his head up and then angling it slightly until he was staring the other right in the eyes. Kazunari never averted them, and Shintarō ended up being the one dropping his head, resisting the urge to hit his desk and instead just drooping.
Once his head cleared and he was able to think a bit more, he was struck twice:
First, this was an extremely odd and unforeseeable scenario. The reformation had made schooling available to everyone, so even if he was a farmer’s son he should have learned at least this much in the off season. Kazunari himself seemed so with the times that it was hard to imagine him having parents old fashioned enough to fight against him going to school, but he knew from personal experience that children aren’t carbon copies of their parents.
Also: by god! No wonder Kazunari had come to the house with such an idiotic reason. The crook could have shown him the most obviously fraudulent contract in the world and the naïve fool wouldn’t have even been able to read it!
Thinking of Kazunari going back to Otsu as illiterate as ever and making the same mistakes was enough to finalize the matter in Shintarō’s eyes.
“Very well,” Shintarō finally said, with a lilt of his arm having been twisted to agree.
“Give me the time and space to plan your lessons and we will begin as soon as we are able.” He continued, lifting his head so that his eyes had to look down at Kazunari, who seemed out of his comfort zone already but at least agreed.
Sighing to himself, Shintarō genuinely pushed his own leisure materials inside the drawer in order to get started while the ideas and motivations were clearest in his head.
Perhaps by luck he wasn’t going into this blindly, his little sister had a tutor but she never took to devouring knowledge like he had and neither of them much liked their tutor, so he had took it upon himself to really oversee her education. He had never done it from the ground up on his own, but it was comforting knowing where to start and what things helped without trying to just remember and emulate the tutor alone.
Lost on how much to even start off with, Shintarō went and wrote every single hiragana, his strokes just a touch more slow and careful to be even more legible. Calling Kazunari over they started immediately, with him pointing to the character while saying it out loud, grouping them and then having Kazunari go down and recite the entire thing.
Well, it went a bit worse than planned, so in the end they was just done one at a time. Kazunari gave himself the job of making it all easier, as he was struggling mightily, and his favorite method was to relate each to something he knew. “No” looked like a boar’s nose, he said, and “ku” a beak, all of which the other could read sideways for all he understood it.
Shintarō foresaw him making the wrong association, or still forgetting and mixing them up anyway, and told him of their disagreement right to his face.
“You’d be better off using your brain and working hard.” He said dismissively, but Kazunari was stubborn and continued on, the two from then on sharing a tense stare when one had a feeling the other was thinking disapprovingly of something. Results did follow, however, and positive ones at that, so Shintarō, without saying a thing, could only think that perhaps the merit lay in the intelligence he had used just to come up with a way out.
The only further practice Shintarō could think of was practical, so he used his own books and looked for passages that only used hiragana, which he then traced under with his finger, the book at first half turned toward Kazunari and then handed to him.
“‘Nu’ looks like a sleeping cat, ‘me’ looks like an eye…” Kazunari read aloud slowly long after he should have needed the handicap, Shintarō looking over his own reading material with a raised eyebrow. Still he didn’t say a thing, just shrugged it off and set himself to tune it out, since he was getting better at it all the time. The character after those two was “ru”, and that was all Shintarō was aware of before he became drawn into what he was reading.
Familiarity aside writing those same characters was an entirely different matter, even though Shintarō made sure to only work on one thing at a time and brought it up after Kazunari was a solid and fairly fast reader. Still, Shintarō could model proper stroke order until the very day he died and still Kazunari’s attempt would never look anything like it. He had gone in with no idea how to start, since this was new to him, and suddenly Kazunari didn’t have any ingenuity to add, either, so they found themselves stuck.
Snow had fallen and thawed several times already since the lessons had begun, but their slump was timed perfectly with the first real melt of the year, allowing them to busy themselves outside and do other things for the time being. When the snow returned it was as heavy as ever but they had freed their minds a bit, and sure enough Kazunari had another bright idea, even if this one wasn’t as immediately promising.
With a clean, dry brush Kazunari went over the strokes as if they were only just appearing, burning every curve and movement not only into his mind but also his body, although Shintarō wondered how his freehand could still look so bad after even that.
In his current life there wasn’t much paper, although any amount would seem paltry compared to how much he and his sister had access to. Neither of them were wasteful children, mind you, but it was a new battle in rationing paper both for his own use and Kazunari’s.
“Your writing is much too big to be practical. Write smaller and stop taking up so much space.” Was his criticism, holding the paper in the air so he could thwack it with the back of his hand to drive the point home more.
“Shin-chan with your vision you nearly have to put your nose to the sheet, of course it looks bigger to you!” Kazunari laughed after a moment or less of thought and a book met his head for it.
In the end repetition was all that would do, and Shintarō looked on, with the smirk of a proud teacher who had been proven right, as he watched Kazunari improve until it was messy, stylized, but enough.
For once he won’t just equate it to Kazunari being a buffoon, because this really was a new experience, and not entirely in a good way. Him, the way he learned, it was all a world away from his sister, and it made his heart ache for her as time passed on around him.
A random assortment of memories swept him away several times and he found himself totally leaving the present behind, wrapping himself in a particular moment he could still remember clearly enough to picture. Sometimes he was amazed at how real her voice sounded in these, completely replacing his inner voice. He swore he could still hear her laugh around.
His dreams were much less forward about it, but he could recognize his childhood home in the backdrop of the usual pointless events in a heartbeat.
Many times his eyes itched but only once did he actually tear up. He hadn’t been homesick once since he had come here, and that’s not how he would classify this, but he missed her, and only her in all of it. His sweet, witty little sister who loved to ask questions and was exceedingly good at making connections both in her work and outside of it.
The tears were quickly wiped away so Kazunari seemed to never even realize he was distracted or know the cause of it.
The same weather that drove them inside to finish their writing lessons escalated into a blizzard the likes of which Shintarō had never seen before. Kazunari seemed to think their time was best spent sleeping since nothing else seemed to get done in the melancholy that took over the entire house.
Shintarō is just as stubborn as his housemate and he actively set out to do the opposite, always busying himself although he had to come to terms with that fact that he was just sitting in various places around the house, not as warm as he could be, and strangely not being as productive as he usually would be.
One day Shintarō was sitting by the irori, idly pushing the sand and ash around, when a blanket was laid across him and over the hanten he was already wearing for warmth. His eyes instinctively turning to the direction he felt it coming from, he was even more surprised when Kazunari, squatting beside him, billowed the blanket even further behind him as he pushed his weight forward and settled right against his side, closing the blanket tightly around his body.
“W-what is the meaning of this?” Is the absolute only thing he could manage to sputter out, flushing instantly. Kazunari for one turned his neck and looked him right in the eye, no shame in his at all.
“Shin-chan, are you really going to argue against the best way for the both of us to keep warm? With how much I sleep you won’t even be worrying about all the bad habits you always complain to me about.” Kazunari relayed it fast and to the point, like he was pouty, almost indignant, that they couldn’t just get on with it and share something.
Shintarō could say nothing back to that except to himself, that it probably was the most comfortable he’d been all week in one way, although in the other he wanted to leave that very second.
And so the still strong winds blew the earthbound snow as if it was falling and swirling furiously once again, making a horrible sound as it did but going unnoticed by the only house around for miles in every direction.