"I'm going to ask him to leave," says the madam. "Honestly. Why did you have to go and meet someone like that?"
Yaichi pretends not to hear, but he's relieved--so deeply relieved that his stomach turns and he aches. He draws his legs up onto the engawa and curls in on himself, determined to stay there, hidden in Katsura-ya's secluded courtyard for the rest of the night. By morning, maybe the machikata will be at the entrance. Maybe Ginta will have told everyone what he's done, and the Five Leaves will scatter across the wind as easily as their namesake. Maybe by morning he will have nothing left but a noose, but there with the wood cool against his cheek, he thinks all that really matters is that Masa will be gone. If he doesn't have to see Masa's warm gray eyes looking down on him in disappointment, he can find a way to survive.
He has survived far worse. He keeps telling himself that.
The madam touches his shoulder, gently prodding. He thinks she says something about staying the night in her room, which he's also thankful for, because then he doesn't have to worry about the girls, either. As tempting as is to stay right where he is, he allows the madam to urge him upright. Before they can move anywhere, though, they're interrupted by a shrill scream from inside.
The madam goes white. Her eyes tell a hundred stories and Yaichi can see himself reflected in many of them. Without a word or second glance she rushes into the brothel.
Yaichi stands frozen. The scream is followed by a man angrily shouting, and then another scream, and soon it sounds as if every man and woman in the place is in uproar. He doesn't want to go. If it's a fight the madam can handle things and if it's the machikata they'll find him soon enough. But then he hears Masa's voice among the rest, and though he can't make out the words, his feet propel him onward. He follows the commotion to Yue's room in the east hall.
Everyone is out of their rooms. The girls are in hysterics and their customers at a loss. All eyes are on Yue's room, where the madam is in the doorway, shouting at the turmoil inside. They make way for Yaichi, until he's at the madam's side and can finally see what's going on.
Yue's customer has his arm around her throat, and he's pointing a dagger at her belly. His face is red with fury as he screams at the madam, calling her every vulgarity he can think of, and then Masa, telling him to stay back. Masa is only a few paces away, hands on his sword. There's sweat on his upper lip but his gaze is focused, as intense as Yaichi has ever seen it. In that moment he actually looks like a samurai and Yaichi feels a pang behind his ribs.
"You can have your money back," says the madam. "But we can't negotiate like this. Let the girl go!"
"You tell him to back off!" the man shouts back. "Get him the hell away from me or I'll kill her, I swear it!"
Yaichi folds his arms. "Why me?" he asks innocently. "I just got here."
"Him!" The man turns his dagger toward Masa. "Tell this slack-faced son of a--"
Masa draws. His sword flashes in a smooth arc, too fast even for the lamp light to catch it, and the man is bleeding before he registers pain. The dagger falls to the tatami amidst three severed fingers.
Yue breaks away and flings herself into Yaichi's arms. He holds her, letting her hide her eyes against his chest as the man wails. Swearing and bleeding, the man throws open the panel behind him and flees through the courtyard. Masa starts to follow, but the madam calls him back.
"That's enough," she says. "I know who he is; he won't be back."
Masa gives his sword a flick, the kind of thoughtless gesture any young samurai teaches himself before knowing what it's for. His eyes are wide and a little wild, full of shock and awe for what he's just done. His lips part, and even with everyone bustling and crying around them, Yaichi can imagine the sound of his hesitant breath. Then Masa looks down and realizes that clearing his sword has flecked more blood across the floor, and he pulls a face that destroys every illusion of grandeur his actions may have raised.
"Did you really have to cut off his fingers?" asks the madam crossly, trying not to look at them. "It's a little barbaric."
"I'm sorry," says Masa, flustered, as he sheathes his sword. "I just...I wanted to disarm him, before he hurt anyone, and...I tried to..."
The madam sighs and shakes her head. Everyone is trying to peer into the room so she turns to start shooing them away. "Just...clean it up," she says. "Turn the tatami over and we can worry about replacing it in the morning." She chews on her next words before letting them free. "Well done." With an almost apologetic look to Yaichi, she devotes herself entirely to herding the remaining customers toward the exit. Katsura-ya is closed for the rest of the night.
Masa ducks his head. He looks as if he doesn't know if he was being chastised or praised, let alone how to respond. Once, Yaichi would have found his insecurity to be charming, but now it only makes him feel like the one dancing from foot to foot, not knowing what to do. Yaichi covers Yue's ears. "She usually keeps a handkerchief in the far closet," he says. "Use that. You can burn them in the furnace out back."
"O-Okay." Masa nods and fetches the handkerchief. Once the fingers are hidden, Yaichi steps aside. The madam has managed to get the customers moving out, but the girls are still in the hall, and with Yaichi out of the way they surge forward. Their chatter waffles between excitement at Masa's heroics and disgust at the blood, which only serves to worsen the state of Masa's ever-tenuous nerves. He stutters and blushes and tries to deflect their flurry of compliments, but there's nowhere for him to retreat to. Yaichi leaves him to them. He leads Yue across the hall, picking up a couple of the still-shaken girls along the way, into Chiyo's room. Luckily, she was serving her customer saké before the incident, and he's able to pour them each a cup. Some for himself, too.
He can hear Masa fumbling with the girls. They all want to pour him a drink, too, but he awkwardly reminds them that he has cleaning to take care of, so they volunteer to help him with that instead. Yaichi glances through the open doorway just in time to watch them pass, and Masa catches his eye. He looks like he's begging for help. Yaichi flashes him a grin, almost involuntarily, and stays where he is.
A few drinks later, the girls have regained their composure. "Sensei was so gallant," says Taki, her arm around Yue's shoulders. "The way he stood up to that terrible cretin. I never would have thought he had it in him!"
"Nor I!" Chiyo nods in agreement and turns to Yaichi. "You said when he came here that he was a skilled swordsman. I thought you were just doing the poor thing a favor, but he's really proved it. Now Ane-san will have to stop muttering about how she's going to fire him!"
"Yes," says Yaichi, pouring himself another cup. "I suppose she will."
It's deep in the night when Yaichi, thoroughly drunk, makes it back to his room. As soon as he steps inside he feels a chill, and his hand is in his robe searching for his dagger before he can put a conscious thought together. But then his intruder clears his throat awkwardly, and Yaichi remembers himself. He fakes like he has an itch in his side and looks to Masa, kneeling in a corner of the room.
Somehow, thankfully, Yaichi's face arranges itself into a calm smile despite the sick feeling in his stomach.
Yaichi closes the panel behind him and sits down in the center of the room. "I'm surprised you were able to get away from the girls at all," he says. "Though you should have picked a better hiding spot. One of them is bound to sneak in here before morning."
"I just...I'm sorry." Masa ducks his head, looking too much like himself instead of the cretin-slayer he was some hours ago. He waits until Yaichi is settled before moving closer. "I snuck away to speak to the madam, and when I came back, Rin was...was in my room, I just..." His face is red like a summer sunset. "I didn't..."
"Didn't think you could fend her off?" When Masa gets too close, Yaichi moves away, hunting out a bottle of saké he's hidden for emergencies. This qualifies. "She's a persistent one, that Rin. Why not accept her congratulations, just this once?"
Masa quickly shakes his head. "No, I couldn't. I don't..." His cheeks burn darker still, and when he shifts back and forth on his knees Yaichi finally notices that his posture is a little off. His wide eyes are half-lidded and heavy with drink. "I'm just glad I was able to do the job the madam is paying me for. I don't need...extra thanks."
Yaichi returns to his side with the bottle. "You've been drinking," he says.
Masa sinks into his shoulders. "They insisted..."
"Drink with me."
Masa blinks at him, and then at the bottle Yaichi pushes in front of him. "But..." He pushes it back toward Yaichi. "I've already...I couldn't."
"I insist." Yaichi pushes it back. "You've earned it."
Masa squirms like he's going to refuse, but then he meets Yaichi's eyes, and whatever he sees changes his mind. His shoulders relax and he looks...happy. Happy, and somehow hopeful. "Okay," he says. "But we don't have--"
"Just drink from the bottle," says Yaichi impatiently, opening it for him. "To your success."
"It's not..." Masa smiles in embarrassment. "It's not as if I did anything remarkable. The madam even scolded me..."
"She scolded you because she hates admitting she's wrong about someone," says Yaichi. He waves for Masa to get on with it already. "And it was remarkable, considering the last fight you were in you ran away from."
Masa makes a face, but he finally drinks. The drink is strong, probably too strong for a lightweight like Masa, but for the first time he doesn't wince when it hits his tongue. The girls must have insisted a great deal. "That was...a very different situation," says Masa. He looks shyly away. "To be honest, I'm very glad it happened inside the room, and not out in the hall. If I'd known that everyone was watching..."
"I was watching," says Yaichi, though even he isn't quite sure what he means by it. "Same as the first night we met."
"Yes, but, you're different."
"Yes, you're..." Masa purses his lips, but he isn't able to explain himself, and he finally shrugs slightly, helplessly. "You're different," he repeats, but it sounds more like a compliment that time.
Yaichi feels as if he's cowering in the face of it, but his face never changes. He sometimes wonders if it might one day peel off. "Maybe I am. Though you should find a way to fight no matter who is watching. It's not like I'll always be there."
He takes a drink for himself and tries to pretend that Masa isn't watching him so closely, but he can feel the eyes on him, their weight so heavy his shoulders ache. "No, indeed," says Masa carefully. "In fact, it seems lately that I see less of you than ever before."
He should have told Masa to leave and hide somewhere else. He should have spent the night with Taki, like she wanted. He should have stayed in the courtyard and wallowed in self-pity. He should never have invited Masa to Katsura-ya in the first place. Hindsight has always been his enemy.
"If you say so," Yaichi replies.
"I'm glad you were here tonight," Masa carries on, and maybe he's changing the subject, but to Yaichi it all sounds the same. "I don't know what I would have done, if you hadn't drawn his attention like you did." He bows his head. "Thank you, for that."
"Don't thank me. It's not like I knew it would work out that way." Yaichi takes another, lighter sip before pushing the bottle back to Masa. "I thought you'd have to end up killing him."
He didn't mean to say it, really. Masa stops, his hand still against the bottle, and he must be able to see in Yaichi's face that he's opened a door he didn't mean to. And then he walks right through it. "My priority was to make sure Yue was safe," Masa says, cradling the bottle in his lap without trying to drink. "There was no need to kill him."
The words rustle about in Yaichi's skull like sharp-beaked ravens. "That might just be the first time a samurai has ever said that," he mutters.
"Even samurai prefer not to take life when another solution is just as effective."
Yaichi doesn't move, so he must be imagining the weight of the dagger shifting in his belt. The sick slick on his palms is nothing but a phantom sensation. He laughs. The saké is threatening to claw up his throat, and still he laughs, and thinks maybe he's going mad. "Only you could say that with a straight face, Masa."
Masa watches him closely. He must know by now. The truth is crouching in the space between them and Masa must be able to see it, with all that naïve clarity of his. He looks about to speak, but Yaichi can't bear to hear his questions or accusations. "I've seen samurai cut men down in the street for the pettiest of insults," Yaichi carries on. "You're a rarity among your breed, you know. I bet this is the first time you've even drawn blood. I doubt many others could say the same."
A samurai can kill for anything, Yaichi thinks, watching Masa tense beneath his words. For reasons far less deserving than me.
"This...isn't the first time," Masa says, and for a moment the guilt in his face gives Yaichi a speck of hope. Maybe Masa is not as innocent as he seems, and may yet have some sympathy for murder committed in preemptive self-defense. But then he explains. "I injured my partner in a practice match, once. My wooden sword snapped, and it cut him on his forearm."
Yaichi doesn't know whether to laugh at or despise him. "Oh, Masa," he says, stealing the alcohol back for a drink. "You should be thankful that you weren't born a hundred years ago, marching out onto some battlefield to fulfill your master's dreams of conquest. Back when your worth as a retainer was determined by the number of heads you collected."
Masa turns a little green at the prospect. "I am thankful," he admits. "In those days, our clan was known for its warriors." He rubs his cheek self-consciously. "I would be even more of a failure to our name then than I am now..."
"Akitsu, hm?" Yaichi hums thoughtfully. "The dragonfly house. A heavy name to live up to, isn't it? Your ancestors must have gotten permission from the Emperor himself to have a name like that."
He's done it again--he's opened a door. Masa gazes at him in surprise because he's said too much, and cold panic bites at his lungs. "Akitsu is the ancient word for dragonfly," says Masa, because sometimes he's much crueler than he intends. "All land beneath the sun once bore that name. You're right; my family was close in the Emperor's favor, many lifetimes ago. I didn't think...most people knew that."
Masa must know what it means. He must be drawing a portrait in his mind of the upbringing Yaichi had, the samurai houses he scampered through as a child, the history and politics he was taught on his way to becoming heir to a name. It's more than Yaichi ever wished to reveal and he hates himself. And he hates Masa.
Masa knows he was a samurai. Masa knows his connection to Yagi. Masa knows he has killed. Masa knows too much. Masa's tongue is reckless in a way his sword is not, far more capable of drawing blood. He knows too much. He's dangerous.
Yaichi sets the saké aside. "I pick up a lot of things," he says, his smile jagged like a scar. "In fact, I know another story about a dragonfly."
He crawls closer, and Masa gets tight again; maybe all his knowledge is finally coalescing into a recognizable threat. He's right to fear, and Yaichi wants to prove it. "They say in the time of Ieyasu, his most formidable general was the famed Honda Tadakatsu," Yaichi says. "He stood seven feet tall, and fought in a hundred battles without once being wounded."
Yaichi grabs Masa by the shoulder and shoves, forcing his back to the floor. Masa gives only a quiet gasp of surprise and a squirm as protest, but despite his display earlier he is not one to fight even to defend himself. He all but folds beneath the pressure and does not struggle when Yaichi looms over him.
"He carried a spear," Yaichi continues, his voice lowering. "One of the greatest spears in the world, which he sharpened to no broader than an eyelash. And they called it the Dragonfly Cutter. Do you know why?"
Masa stares up at him, his eyes glossy and impossibly wide like droplets of spilled ink. He doesn't look about to answer. "They say," Yaichi says, "that as he stood ready for battle, a dragonfly landed on the tip of the spear." He taps one finger to the center of Masa's forehead. "But the blade was so sharp..." He drags his fingertip down the slope of Masa's nose. "...it split the dragonfly..." Off the tip, over his parted lips. "...entirely in half."
Masa holds his breath as he's slowly cut in two; Yaichi's finger skates over the rise of his chin, down his neck. His Adam's apple bobs beneath the scrape of Yaichi's fingernail. The hollow of his throat is soft and vulnerable, and his chest taut and hollow like leather stretched over the head of a drum. His heart flutters and thumps inside. Yaichi narrows his eyes as he traces an imaginary wound down Masa's sternum, down his belly, to where the collar of his robe crosses.
Masa grips Yaichi's sleeve. His fingers wind in the cloth but he can't seem to bring himself to take Yaichi's wrist, to stop him completely, so Yaichi ignores it. Instead, Yaichi turns his hand. One fingertip becomes five, and he slips them gently beneath Masa's robe to caress the curve of his ribs. He's still so skinny. Yaichi can almost finger every one of his bones.
"You should be very thankful," Yaichi whispers, pressing his thumb hard into the space between two ribs as if he might be able to reach his heart, "that time doesn't move backwards, Masa."
Masa gulps, and when he takes in a breath, it's shaky. He shivers close to Yaichi's body and for a moment Yaichi is overwhelmed with the knowledge of how many terrible things he could do this man, the number of ways he could spoil or destroy him. It's so tempting, and so frightening. Then Masa speaks, shifting the poles.
"Sometimes, I am," he says. "But sometimes...I wish it did." He wriggles, clutching and re-clutching at Yaichi's sleeve. "Not a hundred years, but..." He stares up into Yaichi's eyes, his own so full of hope and regret and a thousand other fractured emotions Yaichi has only seen glimpses of in him before. "There are many things I would do again, if I could. And sometimes I think you feel that way, too, Yaichi-dono."
Yaichi shudders. He lowers his eyes to Masa's pale skin, and the thought that his bloodied hands have drawn their stain over it nauseates him. But it's not the saké he fears will spill from his lips; the truth is suddenly in his mouth and on his tongue. He comes so close to saying it, drunk with the impossible hope that Masa will see through to his desperation and understand. Will forgive him. But, as always, he swallows it back.
By the morning, maybe Ginta will have told everyone after all, and all he'll have left is a noose and scattered leaves. But it's not morning yet.
Yaichi sinks, stretching out alongside Masa with his face turned to Masa's shoulder, his hand still tucked in Masa's robe. He's so tired, and so afraid, and so drunk, it's suddenly easy to fall into Masa like a leaf on the water. "You little fool," he mutters into Masa's neck. "Someday, I really will kill you."
Masa chuckles weakly as if it's a joke. "Only if you sharpen yourself to the breadth of an eyelash," he teases.
Yaichi closes his eyes, too exhausted to think of a comeback. He settles in with finality and prays Masa won't be too shy to let him stay; he just might drift away without him as an anchor. Thankfully, Masa only shifts slightly before surrendering. Gradually, he even begins to relax beneath the press of Yaichi's weight. Their breath deepens almost in unison, and it's not long before Masa is asleep with Yaichi close behind.
By morning, Yaichi will ask the madam to throw Masa out, for both their sakes.