at season's change (four scenes with a cat)

When he returns from the conversation on the bridge, the cat is waiting for him again.

He smiles at it as he slides the door shut behind him. It mews once: hopeful, or perhaps demanding. The familiarity of this welcome is comforting, in the face of everything that has been happening. A conversation on a bridge, a conversation in a tavern the night before - Masanosuke can still remember the cold kiss of the blade against his throat, Yaichi's warm breath tickling his ear. He sits down on the step, suddenly exhausted.

"I don't know what to do," he tells the cat. "Yaichi-dono is... well..."

The cat - little more than a kitten, really - stares back at him with wide, pale eyes. It mews again.

"You're easier to understand," Masa says. He reaches out to scratch it behind the ears; it blinks, flicks one ear back, ducks under his hand and pads a few steps away.

He can hear Yaichi's voice in his head: Boring.

The rejection stings, just a little, but it's fair enough. He's not been very useful, after all, and the last time he had food for the cat was more than a week ago.

He lies back. The ceiling provides no answers. Food, usefulness; there's a clear trade to be made, he knows. Yet there are things one swears by, in one way or another. And perhaps more simply: Masa's scared. He thinks of Yaichi's lazy amusement, his knife-edge smile, the easy way he wears his skin. Yaichi's pale indifferent gaze.

The koban lie heavy in the far corner of a drawer.

The cat, unconcerned, begins to clean its fur.

Autumn winds bring change. Masa's quarters in Katsura-ya feel too large for one person, the empty space too cold in the ever-earlier nights. As unsettling as Yaichi can be, being in his room at least satisfies one's sense of proportion. The other man doesn't seem to mind Masa's occasional, uncertain visits.

Returning to Naga-ya brings a different sort of disorientation. Strange as it is to see Otake in his rented room, it feels stranger to see the cat curled up peacefully in her lap. Masa has only known the cat as a stray: friendly, perhaps, but never affectionate. It looks warm, he thinks. Content, maybe.

He watches as Otake gently lifts the cat off her lap. It blinks awake, mews in puzzlement as its feet find purchase on the tatami.

"Hello," Masa offers.

The cat stares at him, then curls up next to the brazier instead. Otake is already by the door. Masa scrambles to his feet, unsteady -

Time passes differently after Masa returns from the Elder's place. He wakes in Katsura-ya's quarters, day after day, until it no longer seems odd. The smell of Yaichi's pipe smoke becomes familiar.

It surprises him when he finally returns to Naga-ya and sees the cat again. It's a grown cat, now: its limbs have lost their kittenish, gangly look, and its weight on his shoulders is certainly greater than he recalls. Living with Otake has been good for it.

He finds himself thinking about it some days later, after Sachi has returned to their hometown. Animals grow up fast, he supposes. Secretly, he's pleased the cat still recognised him; sometimes he wishes that there would be a plaintive mew to greet him when he returns to his dark room in Katsura-ya. The cat was company of the easiest kind, its motives transparent and easy to sympathise with: Masa knows hunger well enough. The women in the brothel are nice, but he never knows what to say to them. Yaichi keeps odd hours, and a day can pass without a meeting.

Masa wonders if the cat has stopped coming and going like it used to do. In the rough chill of approaching winter, the room's warmth must be comforting. As must a steady source of food - especially since he could never provide that. Perhaps the cat is now happy to spend its days indoors, curled complacently on the tatami, or by the brazier, or in Otake's lap.

It's easier than it seems, getting used to things.

Ganjitsu ya / omoeba sabishi / aki no kure - Basho

New Year's Day; / now that I think of it, how lonely / the autumn evening is. - Basho

A crisp late afternoon, weeks after the new year. The last snowfall melted days ago but one's breath still mists in the air, if only momentarily. Masa watches as the cat awakes from its nap, uncurling slowly in the patch of weak sunlight falling through the window. It yawns; glances at Masa; pads over to him. Masa reaches out to stroke it, enjoys the warm softness of fur against cold fingers.

At the movement of Masa's shoulder, Yaichi shifts slightly. His back is firm against Masa's own, his hair soft against the back of Masa's neck. He still smells of the tobacco he has been smoking. Out of the corner of his eye, Masa can see one of Yaichi's thin, pale hands, resting half-curled on the tatami. When did he place his pipe down?

"My apologies. Did I wake you?" Masa asks. His shoulders ache; he can't remember how long they've been sitting here, back to back, letting the day die outside.

Perhaps Otake will return soon. The thought is inexplicably upsetting.

"Hn." Yaichi leans heavier against Masa. "I don't fall asleep as easily as you do, so-called bodyguard."

Masa can imagine the look on his face, the curl of a not-quite-smile. For one light-headed moment he wants to turn around and see it for himself. But that would unbalance the both of them, and Yaichi would just be annoyed, and it's not so bad sitting like this, really, even if one of Yaichi's shoulder blades is beginning to dig into his back.

He strokes the cat and doesn't know what to say. Yaichi makes a soft sound of amusement; his weight shifts again, and then he's resting his head against the back of Masa's shoulder. His hair tickles the side of Masa's neck.


Masa's hand stills on the cat's back. For a while, Yaichi is silent. Then: "You're too bony, Masa. I thought a samurai's shoulders would be more muscular."

"I apologise-"

Yaichi laughs, not unkindly. "You apologise too much."

The cat, puzzled by Masa's pause, walks over to Yaichi instead with an inquiring mew. Yaichi lifts the cat onto his lap; Masa hears the rustle of fabric, feels limbs shift next to him.

Through their layers of clothing Masa can just about feel Yaichi's warmth, soft as the light touch of sunlight on bare skin. There's a scar burning underneath that all, he knows: a red leaf from another lifetime, forever out of season. But winter is leaving and Yaichi is here, amused and self-assured and still Yaichi, despite everything.

The cat begins, sleepily, to purr. Outside, the buds of leaves are starting to appear on trees: a young, pale green.

Sooner or later, spring always arrives.