Megumi hovers on top of the other man and presses down hard. The man groans, arches his throat and his back. Megumi can’t see in this darkness, flickering candlelight throwing its elongated shadows on wooden boards.
“Hey,” he says, breathless, pounding rhythmically. “Hey,” his voice thick and gravelly. The man’s eyes flutter, lock with his, then close again. His moaning is so loud Megumi thinks they’ll get caught, any minute, farmers surely sleep closeby, they’re not that far from town, and some will appear, find the two of them in this hut, abandoned as it may seem, Megumi straddling the man’s waist, the man’s back an arch, a bridge for moans and shivers to pass.
“Hey,” he repeats. “Don’t die.”
“Don’t die,” he says and presses down on the wounds, shoves organs deep inside, hopes against all knowledge this’ll somehow work.
He cauterizes the wound with the hot steel of his kodachi’s blade, boiled in candleflame, covers the man’s mouth with his hand so no one will hear him.
When he’s done, he wipes the sweat of his body, the grime of the man’s blood, his torn flesh, and lies down, exhausted. He has to get up some moments later to light the hearth or they’ll freeze to death and all his efforts will have been in vain.
Megumi should’ve known.
A dying man on the side of the road is trouble. A dying man propped up against a tree, guts spilling out, laughing, is a curse.
When he wakes with a start, the man’s staring at him, watching him sleep.
His hand shoots out instinctively, reaches for his katana, but the man can barely move. At least he’s still alive. Now Megumi’s out of medicinal herbs and bandages, but he’ll get some when he goes into town. If the man’s lucky, no one really will come for the rest of winter, he’ll heal as much as possible. Megumi will leave as soon as the man is healed enough and in time they’ll forget each other’s faces. If the man survives.
“You,” the man’s voice is hoarse and barely a whisper
Megumi offers him water and bread, and watches him struggle to swallow, wince with the movement of his muscles.
His speech is arrogantly informal and Megumi wonders, once more, who this man, left to die at the side of the road, could be. He certainly has never seen such clothes, torn and tattered as they were, up close. Toji would’ve taken his clothes and anything else on him and left his body to rot, try to sell what he could. And Tsumiki would’ve cried about him, a stranger’s death, for days on end, until she ran out of tears, and forgot the way the body looked.
“Don’t talk,” Megumi says. “You’ll reopen the wounds. Don’t move, either.”
“Ronin?” the man asks anyway.
Ronin had a master once. Toji did though, as far as he knows.
“I said don’t talk.”
Through the cracks between the clapboards, the sun pours in in elongated beams and their twin shadows. Megumi knows he won’t be back to sleep. Might as well get some water, clean the man’s wounds, hope his clothes will work fine as bandages.
As soon as he stands he hears the man move, a rustling sound followed by a sharp, choked moan.
“I told you not to move!” Megumi tries whispering but is too angry. This man’ll waste his efforts, all of it in vain. He could be somewhere warmer by now. He should’ve left him.
The man’s hand reaches towards him, or towards the sky outside, whichever.
Megumi blows air out of his nose and tries to stop his temper from tipping over.
“I’ll be back,” he says. The man seems satisfied with that.
It’s a week, perhaps longer, before the man can sit up minimally when Megumi feeds him what he can’t honestly call soup, when it’s just water boiled on the small irori, with lumps of bread and whatever edible herbs and mushrooms Megumi happened to collect that day.
He introduces himself with the same smile he had on his face when Megumi was trying to save his life.
“I’m Gojo Satoru,” he says. “You are?”
“Don’t you have a given name?”
Megumi groans before he shares it.
“It’s beautiful. Your parents must’ve loved you.”
“Don’t talk so much.”
Megumi stands and feels the man, Gojo, trying to reposition himself. He never asks for help and Megumi never offers it.
“Are you leaving already?”
“I won’t be back tonight. Don’t move.”
“Am I supposed to hold it in the entire night, Megumi?”
Megumi groans and wishes Gojo had already healed more so he could kick his ribs. He brings the basin Gojo uses as bedpan closer to him.
“Not piss at least,” Gojo hums, songlike.
At this rate, Megumi went through the trouble of saving him just to kill him himself.
When Megumi’s crossing the door, Gojo speaks.
“Be careful, Megumi. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
The gambling parlor in town, Megumi surmised on one of his first excursions, doesn’t have any guards or muscle to intimidate the drunkards out of cheating and stealing. He sees this going any one of two ways, he gets hired as muscle and guard, or he robs the place. Either way, it should be enough to keep himself and Gojo fed if they ration properly and to get more bandages and maybe some fabric to make up for the torn clothes. Maybe something warm to keep Gojo from shivering at night, teeth clacking until Megumi has to curl up around his body to share his own warmth.
He spends the night in a corner of the rundown home where men gamble, kodachi and katana on his hips, his arm slung on the inside of his kimono, feeling the hilt of his sword against his wrist and keeping his eye on the rowdiest and quietest of the men.
When he finishes struggling a thief—perhaps a ronin himself—to the ground, preventing him from stabbing the man who earlier told Megumi he could pay in food and fabric, the man claps his back.
“I’ll introduce you to someone,” he says. “Come back in two nights.”
Gojo’s still asleep when Megumi gets there. He stokes the fire in the hearth and puts water to boil. There’s a cool cellar in one of the corners of the small home and he stores the food there, for later, slices the loaf of bread for Gojo to eat as soon as he wakes.
He should wash himself, Megumi thinks, letting his hair down before gathering it up again, more neatly this time.
Gojo moves when he does so Megumi brings the clay plate with bread and a cup of water with different herbs, for the flavor.
Gojo smiles at him and takes the bread but he insists on having Megumi bring the cup to his lips.
“No. I’m gonna go empty this shit.”
“It’s just piss, Megumi. No shit. But you will have to help me outside soon.”
By the way Gojo lets himself be carried, doesn’t hold onto useless pride or some sort of misplaced idea of what he should and shouldn’t be able to do in his condition, he surely must’ve seen war.
Gojo’s still awake when Megumi returns that night, after meeting up with the man who ran the gambling ring and his partner, the one running the brothel.
“It was a brothel,” Megumi explains, because he can tell Gojo wants to ask, even if he doesn’t. “They need me to keep guard, some drifters have tried attacking the women before.”
He sits by the fire and tries to warm up his toes before he lies down or else they’ll be freezing all night.
“Are you old enough to be working as a brothel guard?”
“I’m fifteen,” Megumi says, scowling. “How old did you think I was?”
“About that old.”
“Old people are always looking down on those younger. Don’t forget who saved your life.”
“I’m not that old. I’m twenty eight.”
Megumi feels his eyes open wider, they sting with the smoke from the hearth, the cold air, and the heaviness in the room.
“I wasn’t expecting you to be that old,” he says.
“If I weren’t convalescing I’d kick your ass, Megumi,” Gojo laughs loudly. “I still have a long way to go. At least double.”
“Double’s pushing it.”
But maybe it isn’t, what would Megumi know? People like Gojo surely live longer lives than people like him. Or Toji. Or Tsumiki. Then again, if not for him, Gojo’s life would be over at twenty eight.
Winter’s really settled in, Megumi realizes that night. Its claws spread across the land, blades of grass frozen at the tips, and the woodboards creaking whenever he stokes the fire. That night, he also realizes Gojo can move enough to be the one to wrap his long limbs around Megumi’s body to share space and warmth.
As soon as Megumi walks in the door, Gojo tries moving towards him. He ends up biting his lip and holding the bandages that hold his wounds with his hand, almost doubling over, pretending it’s from smiling so much.
“Are you okay?” Gojo asks, hissing, steamlike bubbles of laughter covering up his pain. What an idiot.
“You’re of no help to me if you get more hurt. Don’t move.”
“What happened?” Gojo asks, returning to his usual position, fidgeting still.
Megumi understands. When he was a child and he broke a leg, he also couldn’t wait to move, no matter what Toji said, and it made recovery even harder. Toji ended up dumping Tsumiki and him with the farmer’s daughter he’d met some springs before and didn’t return until the next winter.
“Nothing. A brawl.”
The snow he picked up on the way to put over his eye has already melted. He can’t see well, with how swollen the eyelid must be, but it no longer stings.
“There were more than I thought, is all.”
“I don’t know. Seven.”
Gojo whistles and then hums, songlike. He’s like a bird, tweeting words he doesn’t say in silly melodies.
“Sit, Megumi,” Gojo says. “I stood too fast, but I can surely do this much.”
Megumi sighs. There’s no point arguing, when Gojo’s stubborn as they come, relentless and impatient. He sits on the floor by the hearth, letting his side be warmed.
Gojo comes to sit opposite him, their faces close together. His eyelashes seem longer every time Megumi looks at them, snow on pine needles. Gojo’s breath tickles his chin when he examines the bruising and Megumi lowers his head involuntarily so Gojo lifts it back up with his fingers to Megumi’s chin. Then he tears a corner of the fabric of his clothes and dips it in the small pot that hangs above the irori at their side, wetting it darker. He swabs Megumi’s eyelid slowly, with delicate motions Megumi’s only seen on rabbits when they jump on snow and leave no traces. He barely feels the touches, he’s so focused on the way Gojo’s breath feels on his skin. He wants to wipe the feeling away so he grits his teeth.
“Do we have any more comfrey?”
Megumi shakes his head.
“We should have turmeric—”
“Don’t waste it.”
“—to keep it from swelling even more.”
Megumi tries rolling his eyes but the wounded one aches so he gives up. When he stands, Gojo puts all his weight on his hands. He surely must be a warrior, the way he knows how to distribute his weight so there won’t be any undue strain on his wound. He walks slowly, his hand trailing the knots on the wood, maybe catching a splinter, and returns with the same cadence and a big bright smile from the cellar where they keep the herbs and the food and the salt.
He lets Gojo sit back down facing him. The hearth’s warmed up the entirety of the place and Megumi’s eye is prickling red, like his nape, like his spine. He nods so Gojo will hurry applying turmeric on his wound. Once he’s done, he lets Gojo press the cloth over his eye for a minute, his eyes open and focused which Megumi watches, watches the slope of his nose, the dip above his lips, before he tires. Gojo tires too.
“That should do it,” he says and turns to place the stained cloth to one side.
Megumi blows air out of his nose.
“Are you tired, Megumi?”
The sun will rise soon and Megumi likes to get to sleep before it does. Gojo moves to their makeshift bed first, lies down and pats the space next to him, grinning and humming his silly melody. When he lies down next to him, Gojo’s arm cradles Megumi’s head and his body wraps Megumi up.
Heat is also good for bruising, Megumi thinks, buries his face deeper into Gojo’s warmth, and doesn’t even get angry enough to stop him when Gojo absentmindedly plays with his ponytail, uses the motion of his fingers curling on Megumi’s hair to fall asleep.
Gojo takes his surest, most confident steps on his own outside the hut with the first buds of spring.
Megumi thinks it’s like a chick, slowly but steadily leaving its nest, and he’d share the thought if he were up to dealing with the stupid remarks Gojo will surely have to make about the comparison. He knows him well enough by now.
The water on the shores of the pool fed by the river is still frozen. Megumi watches Gojo push his long slender fingers inside, watches it crack like glass under the pressure. It’s only in some parts, where the ice is clinging to rock, desperate to remain, not let itself be taken away by the river, away into the ocean, away where it won’t be what it is anymore.
“Take off your clothes,” Megumi says.
“Ah, Megumi, really?”
“What are you shy about? I’ve been helping you relieve yourself all this time.”
“I’m not shy, Megumi.”
Megumi sighs and shrugs off his own kimono, juban, kamishimo, and he lets down his hair after dumping all of them into the water and emptying half the wood ash on top. He crouches with the water up to his knees and rubs the clothing together, the water staining in the colors of grime, blood, spilled food, turmeric, and dirt.
“Is that what the ash was for?” Gojo asks. He comes in the water too, having slipped off his clothes.
“Have you never washed clothes before?”
Gojo shakes his head.
“You really are some kind of rich merchant, huh?”
He laughs, “Is that so?” and gasps when the water reaches his hips.
“Pour the rest on your clothes,” Megumi says, handing him the container with the ash.
“Did you wash my clothes, then? The ones I was wearing?”
“I did. They’re too good to waste. You can have them back.”
“Were you planning on keeping them?”
“They’re high quality. They can be mended. They’re too good to waste.”
“If I’d died, would you have kept them?”
“I just said. They’re too good to waste.”
Gojo laughs again and pushes down on his clothes, with the ash on top, so they’ll wet.
Megumi watches the way the water forms bubbles beneath the clothes and they balloon before sinking completely, their colors darker. The water becomes hazy and when he looks up he sees Gojo’s looking at him.
Gojo’s smile sometimes looks like a scar. Sometimes it looks the way smiles are supposed to look, the way they’re meant to look, on happy, well-fed people who’ve never wanted for anything. Who’ve never suffered through anything.
But he did find Gojo bleeding, dying on the side of a mountain road, for beasts to feast on, not even someone on his bedside, holding his hand like he held hers, watching life bleed out of him slowly, until there’s nothing left but a smaller, frailer frame.
Megumi gathers his clothes and sets them to dry on low hanging branches and flat surfaced rocks. Gojo imitates him, at least he learns fast and doesn’t need instructions, unlike many of the merchants Megumi has worked for, the ones Toji used to work for too.
“Here,” he says and slings a pumice rock Gojo’s way.
Gojo catches it. “What’s this?”
“Use it to clean your body.”
Megumi can feel Gojo watching him as he makes his way back into the pool of water so he turns to him. He catches Gojo’s fingers rubbing the rock, its soft, foamy surface, hard foam, sea made flesh made rock.
“In the water,” he says.
Megumi washes his body, rubs the pumice rock over his skin, then floats in the water and lets himself close his eyes. In the trees, birds chirp and sing their melodies, newly hatched eggs cracking, branches and leaves swaying in the gentle breeze, and the hollow sound of the water in his ears, the echo of Gojo’s movements close to him. He opens his eyes to find Gojo’s face upside down, above his. He notices after a moment that Gojo’s running his hands through his long hair, disentangling the knots, making sure his hair is cleaned as well.
“It’s soft,” he says.
Megumi doesn’t say anything, he watches Gojo watch him, alternating between looking at locks of his hair he holds between his fingers, and Megumi’s eyes, always the same scarred smile. Megumi arches his neck slightly, part of his forehead dipping underwater, so he can look at the scars on Gojo’s chest, the way they’ve healed along with the burns. The color is different there, like clouds, like smoke, like foam.
Megumi closes his eyes and burns that image onto the back of his eyelids, its edges red and in flames, and then he stands, touching the soft, mossy bottom of the natural pool of water and walks to sit on a rock to dry under the sun and in the breezelike their clothes.
Gojo sits right next to him, their sides touching, warm and wet, and starts humming his silly melodies.
Oddly enough, and contrary to what Megumi thought, his regained independence of motion and action made him more prone to sticking close to Megumi. Now that he can be the one to choose to sling his arm around Megumi’s shoulders at any moment, he does, no matter how much Megumi complains. Or rather, probably because of how much Megumi complains. Toji was the same. Easy skinship with just about anyone they met. Easier to con men when they think you’re comrades, when you’ve shared in skinwarmth and a cheap meal. Easier to ask for favors if you cultivate the skinship that signals familial intimacy. Even if Megumi tries to struggle away from the proximity, Gojo doesn’t give up.
“Let’s go into town, Megumi. I wanna see the sights,” he says, breathing in the crisp air.
“There’s no sights to see. And you shouldn’t strain yourself.”
“I’ve been literally cooped up all winter, I’m ready to emerge, a beautiful butterfly, into the world.”
“You don’t need to be a butterfly to go into this town. A wounded man is more than enough.”
“So we’re going?”
“Not today. I can’t walk you back, I have work.”
“Oh! I wanna see you at work! I can help, I’m flawless with a katana.”
“Should someone I picked up half dead on the side of the road be saying that?”
“Haha! Probably not, Megumi! But that was on purpose. One day I’ll tell you. For now, let’s go see this town of ours.”
Once he manages to lose the stragglers who kept begging him to stay, At least until next winter, they kept saying, Megumi feels the weight of his decision.
When Toji stayed them in towns or estates for winter, Megumi was always ready to leave, knowing the time would come any second, as soon as the buds started showing underneath the snow.
Tsumiki mourned the loss of yet another home, another possibility, another girl she had met in passing and had latched onto with her warm smile and half-lidded eyes, whom she said goodbye to without tears and a smile and a promise to return.
There’s nothing to mourn here, though, nothing to feel heavy about. Nothing to press on his chest, no one to promise any return to.
“You’re back,” Gojo mumbles from the bed, voice some sort of heavy, sticky thing, saplike, from a tree. Honey. “Sleep?”
Yeah, Megumi thinks and doesn’t say. Let’s sleep.
He curls up in the space left by the curve of Gojo’s body, Gojo’s scarred, foamfilled chest to his back, his skinwarmth all over Megumi, and he falls asleep repeating there’s nothing here to mourn, nothing to feel this heavy about.
“A ha,” Gojo says. He taps his lips with the tip of his long index finger, purses them. “You’re leaving me behind.”
“Ugh,” Megumi groans. “No one’s being left behind,” he looks up from the floor where he’s wrapping half of their supplies, which he divided almost equally. What’s the harm in giving the wounded man a little extra. “Surely you have somewhere to return to. And if you don’t, you’ll find it.”
“Where will you go, Megumi?”
“What’s in the south?”
“Nothing in particular.”
“Ronin are fascinating. I’ll come with you.”
“Aw, why not?”
“I can’t keep babysitting you.”
“Babysitting me!” Gojo yelps, high pitched, practically a squeal to rival the ones of pigs. “I thought I was a decrepit old man!”
“Decrepit old men have to be babysat the same as children. I already spent all winter nursing you back to health. I want no more of that.”
Megumi’s done packing. There’s nothing left to do but leave. He’s never stayed this long anywhere, not after Tsumiki, not after Toji. There’s nothing left to do but leave and still he lingers like smoke after a fire.
“Nursing me?” Gojo’s voice is pathetic and comical. “You make it sound like you didn’t leave me alone half the time and slept the other half.”
Megumi clicks his tongue. “Ungrateful bastard. Stay alive. Don’t waste my efforts.”
“Pack my clothes, Megumi.”
“No. Pack them yourself.”
“I mean, you should keep the clothes you found me in.”
“I already did.”
Gojo laughs. He laughs so loudly Megumi can feel the bones of the hut rattling. He walks towards the door.
Megumi stops, without turning back, and waits for him to speak. When he doesn’t, he turns towards Gojo.
“I’m—I was—my little cousin’s sessho. He’s no longer a child, and someone else wanted to be his kampaku. I need to return, it’s my role. That’s not true. I owe it to him..”
Somehow, hearing Gojo’s a sessho is less surprising than not hearing he wishes to stay with Megumi. That when he said he wanted to go with him, he didn’t mean it. Somehow, he knew Gojo was of divine lineage, Amaterasu’s blood in his veins, perhaps.
“Come with me.”
“Come with you?”
Gojo nods and that’s when Megumi sees that he’s trembling, jittering, about to explode. “Please,” he says, his silly melody breaking, cracking. “You’ll be a samurai, by my side. Please.”
A samurai in the imperial court, perhaps the court of some powerful shogun, alternating his residency only twice per year instead of every time a branch cracks on a nearby tree with overripe fruit. A samurai with clean clothes and a full belly and the greatest forged steel, the characters for his name, and hers, and maybe even his, engraved in the blade, sparkling, sharp. A samurai sharing the bed of the kampaku every night, curled up into the space left by the kampaku’s curved body, their skin kissing underneath real sheets and rested on real floors. A samurai with a master to follow and honor and devote himself, a master who’ll run his long, slender fingers through his hair and the tips of them over his skin. A samurai who’ll kiss the mouth of his master, who’ll trace the bumps on his master’s spine with his lips, with his tongue, open the body of his master underneath his formal clothing and sear his want on his skin with hands and tongue and legs and body.
“I can’t,” Megumi says. “I’m going south.”