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Autumn Memories

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Night hurried earlier and earlier in the red and gold days. Its midnight darkness was a blanket only by sight; by touch, it was a chill that found one likewise hurrying to bed to be wrapped and warm. But neither the rules of nature nor the anxious dark, so deep as to be hardly seen through, could touch the burning lights in the room of Katakura Kojuro.

Yahiko noticed, of course, as she noticed many things about him. (It was her natural duty as his page.) So when she awoke in the night to a window of that yet golden light, she stirred and slipped into her geta to cross the garden. She knelt in front of the sliding paper door to his room, and, not even having to say much of anything at this point in their living in the same residence together, gently slid open the door just enough to see through. Kojuro looked back at her, his brows knit, his smile thin. His back curved over letters, brushes, and desk. His hand perched over his brow, which would someday all too soon become wrinkled like the paper scraps that littered the floor. Bleary though she was, Yahiko noticed everything, ticking the boxes in her head. Signs that Lord Kojuro is overworking himself.

In her half-asleep vision, she imagined herself kneading away the knots in his brow. Kojuro would sigh into her hands as he relaxed for the first time all day. But, ah, perhaps that was best saved for dreams. She wrapped her desire in a binding cloth and shoved it deep in her heart.

Yahiko was so tired she could hardly raise her voice, so she merely gave him a clumsy bow.

“Have I disturbed you?” Kojuro asked first.

She shook her head. “I suppose you are still working, my lord?”

“I am afraid so. But don’t you worry about me.” Consciously or not, he had slipped into a tone more casual than the one he used for work. His smile warmed the more it turned towards her.

Amidst the gentle fireworks in her temples, Yahiko felt her desire peek out from its cloth. What would it be to pass the night with him? To sit close enough to touch, drinking something warm and eating something sweet at an absurd hour of the night. That wasn’t something she had done with anyone in years. Not since she had passed an autumn night with her father and brother after late hours of cleaning and preparation for the restaurant’s next big day.

Even if it was not her place to wish for a moment of contact between her and her lord (not that it hadn’t happened before, but!) perhaps she could still give him such a gentle memory? An excuse to relieve him of his labors?

Her eyes already half-closed and her voice soft, Yahiko asked, “Lord Kojuro, if I might suggest an idea for your break?”

“And what idea is worth your sleep at this moment?” he replied, the laughter clear in his voice.

“Mm…” She trailed off. Then, her mind already working ahead, she shut the door and wandered off to his kitchen.

Kojuro was about to suppose she had been sleepwalking and had returned to bed, when she awkwardly slid open the door once again, her arms full of delights. In one hand was a tray of sweets, in the other a bottle of sake, and over each arm was draped a kimono he had lent her to sleep in. Kojuro had to raise a brow at this.

Yahiko shuffled across his tatami floor and cleared a place at the edge of his desk for the sweets. (With a self-conscious smile, Kojuro tried in vain to help her clean.) Then she ever so gently draped a kimono around his shoulders. She was a little more awake now, so when she did, the warmth and breadth of his shoulders lingered in her mind a little longer than she meant it to. As did his amused smile, which was very close to hers. But she continued her work, serving them both wagashi and a cupful of sake, before wrapping herself in the remaining kimono so completely, that only her satisfied face peeked through.

Kojuro’s laugh was quiet but delighted, starting low and rising in pitch. She was proud to be the cause of it. After all, making him laugh was one of her favorite pastimes.
“I suppose I must take a break since you have so kindly brought us a midnight feast,” Kojuro said, holding his sake up to Yahiko in gratitude.

“I suppose you must,” Yahiko echoed quietly, poking a hand out from her kimono to grab her own cup.

It was certainly not the first time they had taken drinks together—Kojuro would never let her forget the first time, considering that she got so mortifyingly drunk that she had woken up in his clothes with no memory of the night before. This was the first time, however, that Yahiko had initiated it. Utterly content, Yahiko settled on her knees a respectful distance away from her lord and felt the sake tingle in the sides of her head.
Kojuro’s grin was wry for some reason, but all he said was, “Will you tell me what sweets you have made?”

“Oh, yes!” said Yahiko.

Conscious of every measure between them, Yahiko allowed herself to slide a little closer to him. She wanted to, and Kojuro was smiling back at her so…Sitting beside him now, she supposed she should feel embarrassed about the childish way she had draped the kimono over herself. But she was so tired and Kojuro’s resonant chuckles were so pleasant. Perhaps she would wait until tomorrow (or never) to be ashamed.

“This is called kinshū from my hometown, my lord. You can see how the strands are meant to look like red and gold leaves on a red bean paste hill...although mine are not as beautiful as a real confectioner’s.” She laughed.

“Of course they are beautiful. You are the one who made them,” Kojuro said, his smile at her soft and direct.

“Oh,” she said. It was like she and the butterflies in her stomach had been caught in that look, the smile he saved for her after work when it was dark. And then she remembered who she had to be to him. “I mean, thank you very much! Please, try it and see if it’s not too sweet for you, my lord.”

Hurrying to settle the butterflies, Yahiko pushed his dish closer to him. He accepted it with a grateful word. But his long fingers which she knew to be warm avoided touching hers. It wasn’t like that before she had come to live in his home.

Yahiko watched with uneasy nerves as he sliced a quarter of the sweet with a pick and carefully slipped it into his mouth.

And...Kojuro’s entire self seemed to melt as he ate.

This (and her drink) made Yahiko melt just as much. When he caught her watching, she pulled her kimono even tighter around herself with an awkward laugh.

“Is it good?” she asked, trying to cover her shyness as much as she covered herself.

“Do the leaves turn red and gold in autumn?” he said with the fullest of smiles, his laughter lines crinkling.

Yahiko had yet another reason to feel unseasonably warm. She was so dumbfounded as to be unable to give him anything more than a lopsided smile and an “oh.” She hid her face in the kimono still wrapped around her. “Good.”

“You must enjoy your own labors as well, of course,” Kojuro said. Yahiko peeked out to see him pick a slice of his own dessert and hold it out to her, his other hand cupped beneath it.

“My lord?”

“Your hands seem to be preoccupied with hiding a precious chef in a kimono. So…” With a chuckle he brought the kinshū closer to her mouth.

She giggled at how silly this was (or perhaps how nerve-wracking). “My lord, I’m just being stupid. I can eat on my own.”

“You can,” Kojuro teased. “But you don’t have to.”

He held the sweet still. Maybe it was because it was late at night or because he had given her a choice or because there was a sweet right in front of her, but she took it in her mouth then and there.

It wasn’t bad at all: the chewy, subtle sweetness. The texture of a stray red bean. Made all the more charming with the low, golden light in the room, the buzz of sake in her head. The brush of leaves in the garden outside. The very present presence of her lord and companion beside her.

“And? What do you think?” she heard Kojuro ask beside her. When she looked at him he laughed a little and looked away, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

“I’ll do better next time,” said Yahiko.

Now Kojuro gave her a proper laugh. “Of course you will. But I, for one, am more than happy enjoying this.” He slipped another piece in his mouth with that damned and darling smile in his eyes again.

Yahiko’s shyness slipped away with her draped kimono as they ate and drank and chattered about autumn in Osshu and Kyoto, and the books they were reading lately. Now more awake, she felt very warm despite the cold. Or maybe she felt more than one kind of warm. There was the warmth of being wrapped in layers, the warmth of sitting close to her lord. But there was also the warmth of feelings that had been steadily growing between them since she had moved here. Sometimes when they ate and drank together, or spent a rare moment relaxing like this...Kojuro would seem particularly close. So much, that although she was not sure how much one of her status could draw near to him, she wanted to see how close they would come, to graciously accept whatever tiny intimacy flowed her way. Such was the magic of the late autumn night.

When they were at work and among others, they were lord and page. They had a bond of intellect, of the lord’s trust and the page’s quick obedience. Kojuro never touched Yahiko in public. But it used to be that when they were alone, or when they went home together, Kojuro would reach over and stroke the top of Yahiko’s head. It was such a warm, pleasurable surprise, perhaps her favorite touch in the world. Having come to Osshu without a friend in the world who knew who she really was, Yahiko treasured every moment of contact she had.

Since the first night they drank together, however, Kojuro’s touch had become less frequent. So Yahiko thought about it more, even longed for it. Sometimes, enough to touch her own head and try and imitate the feeling when she was alone. She feared he had become dissatisfied with her after this long in their acquaintance. But he never stopped smiling at her when they were together. His gentle, laughing eyes with the smile that sometimes leaned to one side with his head, when he may or not have been flirting with her…Yahiko wondered if maybe, possibly, it would be all right if she asked if they could touch again. But dreaming about leaning her head on his shoulder or wrapping her arm around his waist sent an arrow through her heart before she could think any further.

It was then that Kojuro chose to lean in very close to her wrapped-up face.

“You’re red as the leaves. Are you drunk already?” he asked.

“Uh...must be,” she said. She wasn’t too sure.

“My, my.”

It was at this point that Yahiko dearly wished he would touch her head again.

But all he said was, “Wait here a moment.”

Then he slipped out of the room. Yahiko, her mind kneaded entirely into mush, snacked on the rest of her sweet, hoping he would come back soon.

He did, and he brought water with him. He held a cup of it for Yahiko to take, but she wasn’t sure if she would be allowed to brush his fingers in taking it.

“Drink,” said Kojuro.

So she took it without touching him. Still, drinking cool water someone else had brought for her...She would add this to the nostalgic memories of her nighttime gatherings.

“You’re makin’ me remember nice things,” she slurred. She wasn’t sure she meant to say that, but she felt genuine about it.

Kojuro laughed again, ah, how nice. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Mm...eating sweets at night with someone I...someone else. The nights gettin’ colder. Umm...the sweets and…”

Kojuro smiled after her unwitting repetition. He said nothing, but waited as usual for Yahiko to finish spilling her thoughts.

“Lord Kojuro,” Yahiko said as if she had come up with a brilliant plan. “More and more I’m thinking that autumn really is the best time to be with someone.”

“Be with someone? In what way?” His question was teasing, but his gaze, calm.

“I mean, it’s melan—melan—it’s kinda sad, you know, when it gets dark and cold. But having someone with you in those times makes it bittersweet. It gives you a good associ-a-shun. Like for example—” She looked around, spying the remaining kinshū, then the sliding door, behind which she could hear the waving of the trees with the last of their leaves.

“From now on,” she started again, “I’m gonna notice stuff, like, autumn wagashi and the red-gold leaves rustlin’, right, Lord Kojuro?”

“Right,” he nodded for her to continue, unable to stifle the growing amusement and delight in his smile. This only encouraged her.

“So I’m gonna see those, and then I will think, ‘Oh, that reminds me of when me and Lord Kojuro were eating kinshū in the fall, wow, that was really nice.’ Like that, see?”

“I believe I do. I must give you credit. It seems like a very enjoyable game.”

“A game, hm? Well, for me, it’s everyday life. I see a kiseru and I think of you, you know?”

“You do?” he asked playfully as if he wasn’t surprised in the least (though he was a little by her honesty).

“I do,” she said. “And when I see a calligraphy brush or a really beautiful piece of paper or tons of books, I think of you too.”

“Then you must think of me all the time, for we are surrounded by such things.”

“Well, it is my job as your page to think of you.”

“You seem to be quite good at it,” he teased.

“Thank you!” she said, turning a full face of oblivious honesty towards him. But then a particularly cheeky smile grew on her face. “You know what else reminds me of you, Lord Kojuro?”

Whatever it was, it was so amusing and worrisome that she had to hide her mouth behind her hand.

“Tell me,” he said, fearing the answer.

“A messy room.”

“You wound me.” She, his own page, had pierced him through the heart. She had already seen him (and his room) at his worst. And yet she tolerated him enough to give him a tiny smile as she looked down at her now cross-legged lap.

“I have something else too. Something that makes me think of you when we’re not working.”

“What’s that?” he asked gently, trying not to betray so much of his curiosity. He did however lean towards her a little more. Even though she was smiling she wouldn’t look at him at all. Which left him free to gaze upon her mild expression all the more attentively.

“Mm...when I’m standing outside in the quiet while a lively feast is going on indoors,” she began, “I think, ‘I wish you would join me out here again too.’ That was one of the first times we talked outside of work. It was...really nice. Or it was until you scared me saying you knew I was a girl all along!”

“Ah, I didn’t mean any harm. I’m sorry.”

“Well, it all worked out pretty quick, so that’s okay.” He was treated to another brilliant Yahiko grin.

Oh, Yahiko. What reminded Kojuro of her? He fiddled with the pipe tucked in his obi.

“When the sun is shining…” Kojuro began, in a thoughtful tone he normally reserved for reading poetry. It made Yahiko look up at him, and notice their proximity. “When the sun is shining, I recall your smiling. When the sky is grey, us shut in all day. A foggy day, through the garden you make your way. With the pour of rain, you at my side, my umbrella in your hand and showers over our shoulders. I bring you closer so that you, at least, are dry. Then back to the manor are we, to eat oshiruko.”

“Haha, that sounds like a daydream, not an association.”

“What, won’t you be in my daydream?”

“W-well, if you wanted, I’d follow you anywhere.”

“Even though I might ask for us to go out on a rainy day?”

“If you catch cold, I’ll scold you first, then take care of you.”

“And what if you catch cold and I take care of you?”

“Then either way we’ll be happy, right?”

“And if we both get sick?”

“We can ask Lord Masamune for a day off and eat sweets.”

“Mm, an excellent plan I daresay. If Lord Masamune didn’t have my complete loyalty, I’d be tempted to do that with you anyway.”

“Good thing we’re doing it now.”

“Yes, a good thing indeed.”

Carried away by their exchange, their voices had become quieter as they drew nearer. Their shoulders nearly touching, their faces at a distance closer than friendship, Yahiko felt softly that this was where she wanted to be.

Finally, please touch me again, my lord.

Kojuro’s gaze was more than warm, but...it soon dropped to the documents pushed aside on his desk.

“I suppose I must return to my work before I retire for the night,” he mumbled.

Yahiko stared at his profile. His knitted brow and squinting eyes seemed determinedly blind to the relief and companionship she had hoped to give him, never to notice the days and nights of pining in her heart.

Yahiko couldn’t bear it any longer.

“Lord Kojuro,” she said, in a tone that warned of scolding. “May I touch you?”

He froze. His frown of confusion stared at hers of exhausted, tipsy frustration. Her hands were extended by his shoulders, hovering, not touching him.

He broke the silence with an incredulous laugh. “Poor thing, you must really be drunk. Get some sleep, won’t you?” Out of habit he reached up to pat her head, realized what he was doing, and froze in midair likewise.

“Right there!” Yahiko said. She reached up to grab his hand, but dropped hers to the floor at the last moment. “You used to pat my head all the time, but you haven’t at all lately. And I was wondering if you didn’t want to, or if you’d got tired of me since I came to live with you, and I wanted to ask you, but that’s not something a page should ask of her lord, but we get along, don’t we? And I like you and I miss you and I want to spend the autumn with you, Lord Kojuro!”

The bow she made right then was so clumsy that her tired head bonked the floor.

“Ow,” she said.

“Yahiko!” Kojuro half-gasped. “Get up.”

She pushed herself up, and suddenly two warm hands took hold of her head. A thumb brushed over the red spot on her forehead. But all Yahiko could feel was the bliss of being held at last.

An exasperated scoff escaped Kojuro’s mouth. “Do you know what you were saying? Did you truly mean it?”

“Stronger than anything,” said Yahiko, with half-lidded eyes and a dreamy smile. She wriggled closer into his hands, pressing them against her. “I would mean it in broad daylight too.” Realizing she was about to kiss his palm, she asked, “I-is that acceptable to you?”

“Your feelings? That is what I have been meaning to ask you about,” said Kojuro. His thumbs brushed her cheeks. “Since you began living here, I…have imagined us as more than lord and page. But I feared I was moving faster than you could follow, and as your superior, I must look after you and not encroach upon your freedom...”

Yahiko’s arms slid around him and pulled him close. Kojuro’s head rested against hers. He held her tight and she held him tighter.

“Then...do we want the same things?” Yahiko asked, her words soft for Kojuro’s ear alone.

“I think we may,” he said. His nose grazed her hair.

“Lord Kojuro,” said Yahiko, all too carefully wrapping her arms around his waist. “What I want is...for you to go to bed!”

She proved to be an excellent student of his self-defense lessons at that moment. In seconds he was pinned to the tatami floor by the wrists. She quickly pulled over the sleeping kimono she had brought and curled up on top of him.

She enjoyed the quick rise and fall of his stomach beneath her head. Her own stomach pressed against his legs.

“You...,” said Kojuro, catching his breath, “have no idea...how unfair you are.”

“Hm?” she said, innocently looking up at her human pillow. And running her touch-hungry hands up and down his sides. Ah, so this was Kojuro, at last.

He flinched at the contact. “Ahn, let me at least—aha—be where I want to be before you play.”

With a wry smile, he lifted himself up with the tender deliberation of his age.

“My lord?” Yahiko said, swiftly removing herself from his stomach to help him up. “Should I have been more carefu—?!”

She felt his hands snake around the back of her head and torso as his weight pressed her to the floor. In an instant, they were reversed.

“You are soft,” he said, pleasantly amused, “in that I expected your guard to be higher. And…”

He teased the collar of her kimono open and brushed the backs of his fingers down from the edge of her bindings past her stomach. “In that you are wonderful to the touch.”

Something inside her rushed straight down with his fingers, following even past them. She pulled his collar, tugging it apart like hers, and whimpered.

In an instant, Kojuro stripped off his upper layers and pulled hers apart.

“Please leave this on?” said Yahiko, touching her bindings.

Kojuro nodded, settling his hands at her waist.

For a moment Yahiko just looked at the man straddling her. Felt the weight he gently pressed at her hips. The years had not softened a body tightened by countless hours of martial training. For such a body normally covered under modest robes, the curve of his leg alone peeking through his disheveled kimono felt like a blessing. But his entire upper half? She couldn’t believe he was there above her, not as a teacher who had defeated her in sparring, but as someone who made her heart and her body throb.

She traced his exposed leg as she hazily admired him. “Wow.”

She felt the muscles of his legs clench around her. When his hands slipped down the length of her arms until they tangled with hers, she sank into the floor with a sigh.

“Miss,” said Kojuro, an endearing tease in his voice as he leaned over her. “How sober are you?”

“Pretty. Pretty sober, I mean,” she said. “And you’re so pretty.”

“I see. Perhaps it’s the time of night making you lose your head.”

“I’m okay. I won’t forget anything. But I’m not finished touching you, so, please,” she said, rushing to wrap her arms around his bare back. Oh, she had never felt it before. And here was his spine…

“Ahh, just a moment,” Kojuro said, stealing her hands back into his. “What if we stay together ‘til morning? We’ll save the greatest part of the fun for when we wake.”

Yahiko lazily kissed his hands as she thought. “Tha’ sounds nice. Oh, but…” She tugged him closer to her. “Can we still touch each other after today? You can touch me as much as you want, and if you go too fast for me to follow, I’ll tell you, okay?”

The warm, low sound of her name fell from Kojuro’s lips to hers. No one had ever made that name sound so perfect to her.

“I promise we will,” he said.

Kojuro was bent right above her head, their noses barely touching. He was so close that she couldn’t look. She shut her eyes. Her senses were full just feeling his bare abdomen press hers, rising and falling with the flow of air between them. She felt something run across her lips, so she kissed it. It was his thumb.

She heard him chuckle, so she opened her eyes to find the man she admired still hovering above her. When she saw his chest expand and heard him breathe, she remembered to do the same. He smiled. His thumb touched her lips again.

“Your permission.”

Kojuro made being intimate look so easy. It pulled her heart to him even more. The comforting yet thrilling pressure of his body against places no one had ever touched, the rising heat, and her pounding heart—it was all so wonderful.

Kojuro tilted his face, his nose nudging hers. He said her name again. “Permission, Miss.”

“Granted. Ye—”

Her words were stolen into his mouth, and he descended upon her again and again.

Oh. She had never understood kissing until now. And kissing was one thing, but kissing someone she—she—

She couldn’t think about anything but the feeling, the sound of his mouth opening and closing against hers. She knew she was making strange noises. They seemed to make him kiss her even more.

Her lord’s hands on her back, making her arch against him. Gripping his shoulders, pressing him closer. Gasping when he felt down her legs. Welcoming his tongue and surprising him with her own. His lips trailing her neck, her collarbone, the top of her bindings. They kissed until Yahiko fell back, dizzy and melted.

“You certainly kept up,” said Kojuro, breathing shallowly himself. The backs of his fingers caressed her cheek. “Precious girl.”

Oh. She had never been called that before.

She pulled down his neck to touch their lips in a lingering kiss once more.

They fell back right there on the tatami. Kojuro smoothed her hair back in place.

“Will you be all right, sleeping in your bindings?” he asked.

“Oh, that’s right,” she said, sitting up. She hesitated. “I know I asked you to keep them on earlier. Because I don’t like people to be aware of my chest. Not just in the way that I’m in disguise either. But…” She gave him a shy smile. “I trust you, Lord Kojuro. And I’m sure I’ll be ready for you to touch me there someday. But for now, would you, um, mind helping me take these off?”

His presence behind her was warm and heartening as he gingerly helped her peel away the bindings. He held her sleeves for her to slip back into. And then he kissed her neck to finish.

“Come to bed with me?” Kojuro asked.

She beamed. “Yes, please.”

The light extinguished, clothes roughly put back together, they rejoined each other in their arms, this time properly in Kojuro’s bed. Yahiko mumbled her last thought before falling asleep, “Autumn’ll always be the season I first became tied to my lord.”

“You have made a gift of this season to me,” Kojuro said, though he wasn’t sure she heard him.

Admiring the purest and most precious sleeping face of all girls, he began to compose:

Autumn wagashi
My girl sleeps innocently
No fire caused this warmth