When they leave Katsushiro’s castle, he suggests taking a detour on the way back.
“I want to show you the Yugawara onsen,” he tells them, as if they should know what that means. “It is a day and a half south west, but - you should see.”
“So, a day’s walk out of our way? We have the provisions,” Kyuzo says.
Kikuchiyo shrugs. He hid it better than Kyuzo, but he did not like being in Katsushiro’s castle. Too many breakable things. Katsushiro’s lady mother was kind enough, but the grandfather - sitting like a toad, assessing them, finding them wanting. If he didn’t want his grandson running off with some ronin in ragged clothes, he should have been less of an asshole, probably.
He realises, while silently cursing Katsushiro’s bastard grandfather, that Kyuzo and Katsushiro are waiting for him to respond. It’s still novel, and a little entertaining, to know that his opinions matter to them. That he could, if he wanted, say no, and have them listen, and change their path because of him. It’s nice, to have this influence - but he can think of better uses for it than just ruin Katsushiro’s plan, whatever it is.
“An onsen? For our tired bones?”
“It’s very beautiful,” Katsushiro says, earnest.
“Like you?” Kikuchiyo reaches up, touches his cheek, and he turns into it, flushing.
“More like you - powerful, a little wild,” Katsushiro replies.
Kikuchiyo grins, catches sight of Kyuzo watching with wide, dark eyes. He couldn’t touch Katsushiro on the cheek when anyone in his castle was around, they had to be careful with how they looked - that’s reason enough to be glad to leave.
“Let’s go then,” he says.
Kyuzo nods. Katsushiro beams.
On the walk, Katsushiro talks a little of his childhood in the area - where he first rode a horse, where he first fell off a horse. The temple where his ancestors are buried. The spot he first shot an arrow successfully.
“Where were you first kissed though?” Kikuchiyo demands.
“Oh! Back at the castle. In the stables.”
“Of course! Some handsome stable boy!”
He shakes his head. “A daughter of a horse trainer. I had written a poem about a horse, and she thought it was about her.”
Kikuchiyo laughs loudly. Kyuzo grins too.
“How ugly was this girl she thought the horse poem was about her?” Kikuchiyo says, still laughing.
“She wasn’t! She was - tall. A very fast runner.” She had cupped his face in her hands and kissed him once, before running away. Katsushiro had stood, shocked and embarrassed, until his brother came looking for him and asked what he was doing.
“Did you kiss any boys before us?” Kikuchiyo asks, swinging an arm around Kyuzo’s shoulders.
He shakes his head. “I wrote some poems for boys. But - mostly people thought they were about animals.”
Kikuchiyo howls with laughter, collapsing into a crouch, pulling Kyuzo down, stopping them both. Kyuzo shrugs him off, straightens, regards him fondly as he rolls in the grass, cackling.
“I was never good at poetry,” Kyuzo says, carrying on the conversation Kikuchiyo has abandoned.
Kikuchiyo clambers to his knees, throws his arms around Katsushiro’s waist, gazes up at him, tears of joy in his eyes. “Write us some poems, Katsushiro, and we’ll see if we can tell which animals they’re about.”
He has written them poems - or at least, thought of them, transcription seems an unnecessary luxury in the village, where there is limited paper. In his poems, they are the bright sun and brilliant moon, the rich earth and rushing water, the ember and the air. They are two wily foxes, two unfurling blooms, two bats, taking wing at dusk. They are the warm light he basks in, as a cat might.
“If you like,” he tells Kikuchiyo, who nods, presses his face to Katsushiro’s belly.
“Are we still walking?” Kyuzo asks, taking a sip from his water skin.
“Must we?” Kikuchiyo says, voice rumbling through Katsushiro. “I want to kiss the poet.”
Kyuzo steps closer, strokes a hand over Kikuchiyo’s head, tugs a little on his ear. “Further off the path, then.” He looks at Katsushiro with a smile like light through spring leaves.
They press Katsushiro to a tree, take turns to kiss him. Kyuzo slides his hands inside his kimono, feels Katsushiro’s breath catch. He lets Kikuchiyo nudge him aside, watches him press a leg between Katsushiro’s, swallows the gentle noises he makes.
It’s so sweet to have this brave boy collapse between them. So sweet, to work with Kikuchiyo on bringing joy. So sweet, to make this pleasure between them.
Kyuzo can remember a time when he went days without talking, months without touching another person. Now he can barely last an hour without one or both of them slipping inside his defenses, getting as close to him as his heartbeat.
He settles his face into Katsushiro’s collarbone, strokes his chest, watches Kikuchiyo bring him off. He catches Kikuchiyo by the wrist, lifts his hand to lick, with neat gestures, the spend from his skin.
Kikuchiyo shudders, mouth agape. “You bastard,” he says, to no one in particular.
Katsushiro curls down, pulls Kikuchiyo’s clothes open, draws Kikuchiyo’s cock into his mouth.
Kikuchiyo sighs, puts a forearm against the tree, looks down at Katsushiro. “You are a poem, little bird. You are a poem.”
Kyuzo feels warmth rise through him, as Kikuchiyo wraps an arm around his shoulders and Katsushiro slides a hand up the inside of his thigh. He is hungry for them, as he has never hungered for anything. He has them, as he has never had anything.
He is hard, and Katsushiro turns away from Kikuchiyo to lick him, holding them both now. He laps at Kyuzo’s cock as Kikuchiyo rocks his hips forward into Katsushiro’s fist. Kyuzo can’t keep his eyes open, it is too overwhelming.
Kikuchiyo wants to lie down, and pulls Katsushiro into his arms, holding him against his chest.
“Kyuzo?” he asks, as he can hear Kyuzo moving around beside them.
“I’m going to refill the waterskins,” he says.
“And then come lie down.”
“We should continue on,” he says, frustratingly dry.
“Ah, fine!” He pulls Katsushiro closer, who laughs.
They listen to Kyuzo’s footsteps fade away. Insects buzz. Katsushiro rubs his face against Kikuchiyo’s kimono, and Kikuchiyo feels as though he is where he is meant to be.
Then, Katsushiro asks, “What about your first kiss?”
Kikuchiyo takes a deep breath in and out. “I don’t remember.”
“What? You don’t remember when it was? Was it a boy or a girl?”
He shakes his head, not that Katsushiro can see.
“Were you in love so many times?”
“No. Never, before you two.”
Katsushiro lifts himself off Kikuchiyo, frowns at him. Kikuchiyo can see him trying to figure it out - the dear idiot.
Kyuzo’s quiet, quick footfalls approach. Kikuchiyo sits up, leaving Katsushiro on the ground, gets to his feet.
“Let’s get on, then,” he tells them, and doesn’t look back to see if they’re following.
Kikuchiyo does not speak to Katsushiro for the rest of the day. He doesn’t ignore him, if he asks a question, but he answers plainly, and he initiates no conversations with Katsushiro. Kikuchiyo does not touch him.
It makes him feel as though he has swallowed a slow acting poison.
He stumbles over the empty spaces where Kikuchiyo would normally be.
Kyuzo - kind and wonderful Kyuzo - is not a conversationalist. He gives no sign of having noticed the silence until they get to a town at dusk.
“Go make inquiries,” he instructs Kikuchiyo, who nods and lopes off.
Kyuzo raises an eyebrow at Katsushiro, who sighs.
“I don’t know. He - we were lying together, and talking. I asked him about his first kiss. He said he didn’t remember, and then - I don’t know!”
“His first kiss,” Kyuzo says, staring in the direction Kikuchiyo left.
“Has he ever - talked to you about it?”
Kyuzo shakes his head.
Katsushiro goes back to that last, joyous moment, lying amongst the trees, breathing with one he loves.
“He did say… that he had never been in love, until…”
“Until?” Kyuzo prompts.
Kyuzo nods, rubs a hand over his face.
Kikuchiyo is returning, his mouth set in a forced smile that makes Katsushiro ill to see.
“We’ll have to share sleeping space, but we’re in time for a meal! Come on!”
He sets Kyuzo between himself and Katsushiro for the duration of dinner - some watery bean curd soup - and does not talk. He does not want to.
He wants to go find something to drink, but Kyuzo would get angry at him, and he cannot have Kyuzo angry at him now.
If Kyuzo were angry at him, he would have no reason to stay with them.
He does not want to think of his life without them.
After the meal is over, he lays on his back beside a stranger, one hand on his sword.
Katsushiro lies beside him. He is so foolish. Kikuchiyo loves him. Kikuchiyo cannot bear to look at him.
Katsushiro rests his hand, as though by accident, against Kikuchiyo’s, curls his little finger under Kikuchiyo’s palm, a chaste, covetous gesture.
If he knew, he would not touch you.
Kikuchiyo rolls onto his side, so he is facing a stranger’s back. He draws his hands close to his chest and affects deep breathing, like one who is very near to sleep. He does not listen for Katsushiro’s sad, shocked noise.
Kyuzo rouses Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo soon after dawn, and tells Katsushiro to lead the way to Yugawara.
“It’s not far,” he says, subdued.
Kikuchiyo does not look at him.
When Kyuzo was unable to speak, it was their concern that shook him out of it.
He is less capable than Kikuchiyo or Katsushiro at communicating his feelings, he does not have a loud voice or expressive face.
What he does have is the element of surprise. When they are far enough out of the town for privacy, he uses his sheathed sword to trip Kikuchiyo.
Kikuchiyo falls, cursing. “Have you gone mad?”
Katsushiro rushes back to them, stands there, astonished.
“Have you? Whatever upset you yesterday, you must tell us.”
“Or what?” he snarls, staggering to his feet.
“Or we will not know,” Kyuzo says.
“If I hurt you, I didn’t mean to,” Katsushiro pleads. “Only tell me and it will never happen again!”
Kikuchiyo sags, drops into a crouch on the path. “It - it doesn’t matter!” He scrubs a fist under his nose. “It doesn’t matter.”
Kyuzo crouches by him. “Tell us. We will decide together if it matters.”
“Please,” Katsushiro says, “please tell us.”
Kikuchiyo did not have a name, or an age, when someone first traded him food for sex. He was old enough to think he was a man, young enough that people still called him boy.
He did not know he was trading food for sex. He thought he was being given food by a very kind and perhaps stupid man, who later put Kikuchiyo’s hand on his cock.
That man did not kiss him. The woman who he first fucked for a safe place to sleep and a bowl of porridge did not kiss him. The person who fucked him first did not kiss him, but did give him sake - and he doesn’t remember much after that.
There were so many bodies doing so many things over the next few years - for food, shelter, sake - that he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember if his first kiss was before or after the first time he sucked a cock, before or after he learnt how to make getting fucked feel good.
“By the time people stopped calling me boy,” he says to clean Katsushiro, to upright Kyuzo, smearing his hands over his face, “by the time I was big enough to only have sex with people I wanted to have sex with - I had already done everything with someone. I just don’t know who. I had no lovers. I had - patrons.”
Katsushiro is crying. Kyuzo’s hands are fists on his knees. Neither of them touch him.
“Those people,” Kyuzo says, “I would kill them all.”
“Why?” Kikuchiyo laughs. “For engaging in trade? That’s what people do! No one gives something for nothing! You offered your blade - I had no blade!”
“You - you should not have to!” Katsushiro chokes on his tears. He’s always concerned with what should happen.
“I did,” Kikuchiyo says, shrugging.
Kyuzo, very slowly, reaches forward, across the space between them, and takes his hand.
“So you did.” He hangs onto Kikuchiyo, pressing the bones of his hand one by one.
“You do not - have to,” Kikuchiyo tells him, looking at the place where their fingers meet, “you do not have to touch me.”
“Do you want me to stop?” he asks, and Kikuchiyo shakes his head.
Kyuzo ducks over Kikuchiyo’s hand, presses dry lips to it.
“Kikuchiyo… I am sorry. Sorry to have… reminded you. If you don’t - want me to, I won’t, but can I hold you?”
“Why?” Kikuchiyo says, voice breaking, looking at Kyuzo’s shining hair.
“You are - our beloved,” Katsushiro says. “We - want to - to make you happy. Always.”
Kikuchiyo closes his eyes, puts a hand out, blindly, towards Katsushiro.
Katsushiro collides with him, pressing him back to the grass, head on his chest like it was yesterday. He curls his fingers around the side of Kikuchiyo’s neck, sighs against him. Kyuzo comes too, rests his lips against Kikuchiyo’s ear, hand on his collarbone.
“Beloved,” breathes Kyuzo, and Kikuchiyo’s heart contracts.
“Beloved, beloved, beloved,” repeats Katsushiro.
Kikuchiyo shakes between them, fear seeping out of his body as tears are squeezed from his eyes. He will not have to imagine life without them. He will not have to return to the uncertainty of the past. He is known. He is held.
They spend a while on the ground as Kikuchiyo gathers himself. They do not have sex, but bracket him with their bodies and periodically tell him of his good qualities.
“You are so clever,” Katsushiro says.
“Very smart. Very powerful,” Kyuzo agrees.
“Beautiful,” says Katsushiro, “and kind.”
Kikuchiyo laughs a little, and sighs.
Kyuzo knows that they are losing daylight, but will not rush Kikuchiyo, who has never rushed him.
He waits for Kikuchiyo to ask for water, then sits up and squints at the sky.
“Should we head back to the village?” he suggests, smoothing his hair back.
“What about the onsen?” Kikuchiyo asks, sounding like his old self.
“You want to?” Kyuzo says.
“Of course!” says Kikuchiyo.
“Of course,” echoes Katsushiro, who kisses him on the cheek before sitting up.
Kikuchiyo touches the spot he kissed with tender fingers before getting to his feet.
“You will not make me fall again?”
“If I don’t need to,” Kyuzo nods.
“If I had been injured, neither of you would be able to carry me,” Kikuchiyo says, dusting himself off.
“We would have,” Katsushiro says, quietly. “We would carry you wherever you want to go.”
Kikuchiyo looks between them, red rushing up his neck to burnish his face. “Come on, poet. I want to get in this onsen before night time.”
By the time they get to Yugawara, it is not long before sunset.
The town is a little larger than it was when Katsushiro was last here - ten years ago, perhaps. The place is warm, green, passably prosperous. He considers buying Kikuchiyo a new kimono tomorrow, but can’t tell how it would be received. Sometimes he likes gifts, sometimes he is offended by them.
Kikuchiyo scratches his nose. “We should have been here hours ago.”
“You will not apologise,” Kyuzo tells him, “for talking.”
“It is most beautiful at dusk,” Katsushiro says.
Kikuchiyo nods. He has been quiet, since telling them about his past, but not in the way he was yesterday. He has smiled, let their shoulders bump together, shyly brushed the back of his hand against Katsushiro’s, nudged Kyuzo with his elbow.
It is baffling to Katsushiro that Kikuchiyo was ashamed. He is brave and talented and wild, has lived a life that would have destroyed someone like Katsushiro. He is gentle, when there is so little that made him so.
“Not as beautiful as you,” he tells Kikuchiyo, who punches him in the arm.
“Come on then.”
Katsushiro guides them to a boarding house - plenty of people visit here for the springs, and it is quick to reserve space.
He leads them up the path, passing people coming from the onsen, carrying damp towels, their gait relaxed.
Listening to their distinctive gaits, Kyuzo’s light and Kikuchiyo’s variable, Katsushiro feels a buzz building in him. He would like to kiss Kikuchiyo, but isn’t sure if he’s allowed yet. It also seems odd to kiss Kyuzo, while he’s not allowed to kiss Kikuchiyo - rude, somehow.
Mostly, right now, he wants to protect Kikuchiyo from pain. Kikuchiyo spends so much time pretending he cannot be hurt, pretending that the hurt never occurred - so when he is in pain, it’s shocking.
They reach a plateau where the air is warm and metallic. Amid the rocks, there is the onsen, steaming grey. Beyond it, the sun slides down the cloudless sky toward the horizon.
There is no one else here.
Katsushiro reaches out and threads his fingers through Kikuchiyo’s. He looks, startled, away from the view.
“Will you bathe with us?”
Kikuchiyo looks at Kyuzo, who smiles, and starts toward the onsen.
“I didn’t walk up the hill for fun,” Kikuchiyo says, but it’s not his usual, boisterous voice.
He follows Katsushiro to the edge of the water. Kyuzo is already down to his small clothes, folding his hakama, setting his sword so the hilt will be within reach from the water. Kikuchiyo, normally so close to nudity at all times, often so delighted in undressing either or both of them, is slow to shrug out of his kimono.
Kyuzo catches his wrist. “You don’t have to,” he says, gently. Katsushiro can see his thumb moving on the soft skin of his inner arm, focuses on that small motion in the dwindling light - these two men with their hard lives, touching each other kindly.
Kikuchiyo looks at him, face unreadable. “I want to.”
Kyuzo nods. “Then take your clothes off.”
Katsushiro freezes halfway through stepping out of his hakama, and stumbles, having to take an awkward step to avoid falling in.
Kikuchiyo laughs. Katsushiro has never been more relieved to be laughed at.
“It’s a surprise when he’s bossy, isn’t it?”
He strips off the rest of his clothes quickly, and stands for a moment in the cool twilight, grinning at them.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks, and steps into the water.
Kyuzo watches Kikuchiyo settle into the onsen with his curious grace. He turns to Katsushiro, who gazes at Kikuchiyo with his sparkling eyes.
The water is hot and slippery, somehow. It’s different to other onsens he’s been in, but not unpleasant. Katsushiro follows, his hand finding the small of Kyuzo’s back under the murky surface of the water, fingers tracing complex figures, as though he is writing a poem on Kyuzo’s skin.
He tips his head back against Katsushiro’s shoulder, still watching Kikuchiyo.
“You were right. It is a beautiful view. Though not as beautiful as this one.”
Kikuchiyo snorts, splashes toward them. Kyuzo takes his wrist again, draws him closer. He kisses Kikuchiyo on the cheek, then twists a little so he’s out of the way, and watches as Kikuchiyo kisses Katshushiro, a kiss that begins tentatively, and becomes desperate rather quickly.
He enjoys the hungry noises Katsushiro makes. He enjoys the play of Kikuchiyo’s muscles as he drags Katsushiro’s body against his. His big, hot arm slips around Kyuzo’s ribs, and he enjoys being pulled in. He enjoys being kissed by Kikuchiyo, who drops a hand to the crease of his thigh, hauls him up a little, for ease of access. They press together, making a strange, three headed sea creature, leaning against the warm rocks, surrounded by the hot water.
“I love you,” Katsushiro says, kissing Kikuchiyo’s jaw. “I love both of you, I love you.”
Kyuzo nods, pressing his hand to Kikuchiyo’s cock, which twitches.
“Yes,” Kikuchiyo whispers, “please, yes. I love you.”
“Katsushiro,” Kyuzo says, and he immediately reaches down, so their hands are joined on Kikuchiyo.
They kiss him, and each other, and Kikuchiyo pants, moans, digs his fingers into Kyuzo’s hip.
When he comes, Kyuzo can feel it moving through him. Kikuchiyo sags against the rock wall, allowing Kyuzo to turn his face up, for a change, holding him by the chin, cupping the back of his head. Katsushiro leans in, and they share his mouth, kiss him gasping.
Kikuchiyo floats in the onsen, feeling boneless.
Katsushiro had laid his head back against his bundled clothes, Kyuzo had slid a hand down his chest, soothing him.
He hears Katsushiro say, “Can I ask about your first kiss?” and he hears Kyuzo sigh.
Kikuchiyo grins up at the night sky.