~ * First * ~
Arthur had never seen anyone so beautiful or so out of place. The fascinating stranger didn't belong here and he clearly knew it, but was pretending neither to notice nor care. It was quite an assumption to make, but Arthur couldn't help feeling that the golden haired westerner, as proudly as he held himself, felt just as alone as he looked, surrounded by the dark-eyed, black-haired Japanese crowd.
But considering that this was just Arthur's first impression upon a glance through the busy street, he felt a little embarrassed for having such a strong reaction. He was a stranger here himself – newer than this other man, that was for certain. There was absolutely no reason for him to feel the need to reach out to this foreigner, least of all to feel such a connection to someone he'd never even met. Their lives were obviously very, very different, and this man probably didn't need Arthur in his.
Arthur didn't think he was staring, but he must have been looking long enough that the man in his sights had noticed. Because suddenly a pair of striking blue eyes were looking back, locked almost physically onto to the British sailor even from this distance. There was no time, nor any will in Arthur's mind, to bow politely or look away. He simply watched as the man began walking towards him, his train of attendants scurrying after him on wooden sandals that clacked on the cobbled street.
"Excuse me, but would you happen to be Commander Arthur Kirkland?"
Arthur looked up, finding the mysterious westerner to be a little taller than himself.
There was no expression on the man's face. He held himself and appeared like all the Japanese men Arthur had met so far - unreadable, serious, cold, intimidating. But there was a spark in his eyes that had Arthur instantly captivated.
"Am I right in thinking that you are here to meet with your Admiral and a few of your Captains?"
Arthur nodded. "I'm afraid I...must have gotten turned around. I was meant to meet them at the gate but I..." He trailed off, suddenly confused about how he had gotten all the way down the main street. Had the allure of the glowing lanterns and laughter inside the walled-off pleasure district been so much that he forgot about his superiors?
The strange foreigner gave him a smile that halted Arthur's train of thought. "It's all right, Commander Kirkland. I must deliver a message that your Admiral and the others will not be making it tonight. However..." The man looked beyond the canopy of the red umbrella which one of his servants held above him. "The rain is getting heavier. We should get inside. If you would be so kind as to accompany me, I would be honoured to ensure that your time in Yoshiwara is not wasted this evening."
Arthur's eyes widened, and his fingers found themselves slipping around the hilt of his sword for something to grip onto.
"That would be most kind of you."
The man nodded his head in a small bow, and for the first time Arthur noticed the long golden ponytail trailing down his back.
"My name is Alfred Jones."
It was a name as out of place as the man himself. Appropriate in its incongruity. Arthur wanted to laugh, but found himself bowing instead. For all that "Alfred" didn't fit in on the outside, he disguised himself as Japanese very well. Perhaps he was not just a visitor like all the other westerners who were trickling into Japan these days. He looked young, only around 20 or so. Perhaps he had been raised here with the first comers from America, and considered himself Japanese? He was a certainly mystery, one who appeared locked behind closed doors. But Arthur couldn't get that spark in those light blue eyes out of his head. He wanted to see if he could meet the man in those eyes.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Jones-san. Thank you for your generous hospitality," Arthur replied, deciding to just treat Alfred as he treated the other Japanese men met he had been dealing with here.
Alfred said nothing, but only turned, giving Arthur a full view of the silken ponytail that reached well down his legs. His red robes reached nearly the ground, and looked almost aglow with the light of the low red moon, and the scarlet lanterns hanging outside the tea houses and brothels lining the street of Naka-no-cho.
Arthur realised Alfred was waiting for him, and, snapping out of his daze, he stepped forward to stand beside the strange American. Alfred's attendants let them start walking back the way Alfred had come, and filed after them once more, holding the umbrella over both their heads to shield them from the rain that did, indeed, begin to fall.
All down the busy main street of Yoshiwara, the pleasure-seekers and working girls began scurrying into buildings to escape the weather. As loud and as busy as it had been a few minutes ago, the world now became silent, the "shhhhhhh" sound of the rain as it pattered against the paved road quieting everything around it.
"Is this your first time in Yoshiwara?" Alfred asked as their procession headed down towards the back of the district.
"Yes," Arthur replied. "I...was hesitant about coming here. It's not exactly...Well, where I'm from, this sort of place would be considered an inappropriate haunt for a man of my position."
Something about that sentence made Alfred hold a hand up to his face to hide what must have been a sudden smile. Arthur wondered what was so funny, but then he noticed Alfred's brow scrunched in pain. What on earth had he said to make Alfred react this way? He was about to apologise when Alfred coughed and lowered his hand again.
"I know that the Europeans and Americans are confused by Yoshiwara. In your countries, physical pleasure is seen as something low and crude. But there is nothing so terrible about natural instincts, is there? Yoshiwara is a place where we can enjoy pleasure - through our bodies, through art, through fashion, through food, through theatre and song. Pleasure is just another beautiful part of life we are blessed to enjoy. Maybe for a price," he added, smiling mischievously at Arthur beside him, who blushed and looked at the ground. "But it is not considered wrong here. I know that a lot of Europeans and Americans come here because it is wrong to them, and that makes it exciting. But...you don't seem that way."
Arthur raised his head and Alfred giving him a strange look, weighing him up rather than outright judging.
"As you seem to know, I came here because my superiors invited me. I had no intention of...doing something I have been raised to believe is inappropriate. However, I do not judge anyone here for participating in the...entertainments of Yoshiwara. Because they have been raised to believe it is acceptable. And who am I to judge which of our two cultures has got it right?"
Alfred smiled at him, taking a deep breath as if drinking in the man beside him.
"So your spirit is as pure as your white uniform. I had guessed as much," said Alfred, slyly.
"I can only try to do what I think is right. That includes letting others do what they think is right."
Alfred looked away from him then, turning his face so that Arthur could see it no more. Arthur took the moment to look around at the puzzle of wooden buildings around him, short and tall, slim and wide all fitting together side by side, tea houses rubbing elbows with kabuki theatres, and brothels next to cafes as if it were all a natural arrangement. And in Yoshiwara, it seemed that it was. Arthur may have been uncomfortable knowing what was going on behind those glowing yellow windows, what those shadows moving and forth were probably doing. But the fact that it was perfectly normal and relaxed to those around him made it feel less scary, less invasive and depraved.
"We are here," said Alfred softly.
They stood in front of a teahouse, round the back corner of the main high street and facing the high walls that enclosed Yoshiwara and cut it off from the rest of the city of Edo. It was a little bigger than most of the other tea houses, but Arthur had expected something far grander for an establishment that could be home to someone like Alfred.
Alfred seemed to sense his thoughts as he watched Arthur's face, for he smiled and said "This is just one of the places where I work. I would like to show you the main building, but I do not know how much time we have. I have a guess but...we shall see."
Arthur was quickly distracted from deciphering that strange comment as he followed Alfred through the sliding front door and into the tea house. They removed their shoes in the large barren foyer, placing them amidst dozens of other pairs that proved it must be a popular shop, despite being tucked away at the back of Yoshiwara. Then, leaving the attendants, Alfred opened the paper doors to the main building and led Arthur inside.
From the calm just ouside, Arthur never would have guessed that the teahouse would be so noisy. He thought these places were supposed to be fancy and elegant, but apparently that was not the case in here, at least. The room was filled with people, sitting and sprawled on the tatami mats around several long, low wooden tables. The air was alive with boisterous chatter, shouts for girls' attention and rowdy laughter. And Arthur didn't understand a word, which made it seem ten times louder somehow.
He managed not to jump when Alfred brushed a hand down his arm reassuringly, and led him to a free space at the head of a nearby table. They sat down together, Arthur making a mess of it compared to Alfred, who knelt with all the grace of an artist fully trained.
"Not what you were expecting?" Alfred asked, nodding in recognition at the surrounding customers as he reached for a clay teapot with an oddly shaped spout.
"Not from you," Arthur said, hoping it wasn't too bold a statement.
Alfred looked at him out of the corner of his and smiled. A girl appeared at Alfred's side, offering him two clean cups. He set them down before himself and Arthur, pouring for the two of them, and then for a few others nearby.
"It's not my haunt, as you say, but I thought it would be the best place for us tonight. We're much freer to talk here."
Arthur nodded, and watched to see how Alfred drank, ever so gracefully, before trying it himself. The tea tasted like earth, but was strangely refreshing and calming. He felt himself relax and breathed deeply, looking around at the other tea house patrons.
There were several girls at each table, a little like geishas but without the fantastic, doll-like make-up. They were clearly the employees, as they poured tea, laughed, and flirted with the customers. The men themselves, were like the others Arthur had seen on the main street of Yoshiwara - some old, some young, from the working-class right up to the wealthier residents of Edo. One or two were rugged and weathered enough to maybe even be samurai. A mixed bunch, that was for certain.
"In Yoshiwara, there is no distinction between class or status," Alfred leaned in and said to him, noticing Arthur's eyes wander over the crowd. "If you can pay for something here, it is yours - whether you are a farmer, a merchant or a shogun."
Arthur nodded, a little surprised. You'd never find a place in England that offered a status quo like that.
"Is the tea to your liking?"
Arthur looked back at Alfred, finding his face still very close from where he had leant in to be heard above the crowd. Arthur shivered a little, and leaned away, a blush heating his face and making him even more embarrassed. "Yes. It's very good. Is this your job then? You work at tea houses?"
Alfred smirked."It's one of my jobs."
Arthur blinked. "O-oh really?"
Alfred nodded, and finally leant back, giving Arthur some space. "Do you know the word kagema?" Alfred's English was perfect, a slight American accent being all he had to show his nationality. But his Japanese was absolutely natural, too. He must have lived here a long time. And none of the other patrons of the tea house had even looked surprised when he entered – he must be a common sight around here.
Arthur shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know any Japanese."
"All the better," Alfred smiled mischievously. He straightened his face and said "It means that I also work as a kabuki actor."
"Truly?" asked Arthur, very impressed, though he should have expected Alfred to have more surprises in store. "That must be fascinating work, the theatre."
"It is indeed. I would very much like to see you in the audience next time."
Arthur blushed again, eyes darting around at the crowd before remembering his manners and settling back on Alfred.
"Thank you. I would love to see you perform."
Alfred clapped his hands. "Then it's settled. I will have a ticket and a seat ready just for you, Commander Kirkland."
"Please, if you'd like...call me Arthur."
Alfred's smile then was very strange. Like earlier when he had smiled but looked so sad at Arthur's words. Now his eyes lit up, and he almost gasped, but his face remained stoic.
"And you must call me Alfred."
Arthur nodded, and took another sip of tea to hide his face.
"It's a shame," said Alfred, running a finger round the rim of his own cup. "I spent a long time looking you for this evening. I don't think we have much time left together."
Arthur glanced over and then away, fiddling with his trouser leg. "I can stay a while, if you really have time to throw away on a newcomer like myself."
"But it is already nearly 3 o' clock."
It was very odd, because Arthur was sure he had arrived at Yoshiwara around midnight to meet his Admiral. Had he really spent 3 hours wandering around before meeting Alfred?
Arthur's thoughts were banished as he suddenly noticed...but it couldn't be. One of the customers down the other end of the table had...a pair of fox ears on his head? Surely they were fake but...they twitched, flattened against his head. And there, another man with whom he was arguing – a bushy, dark brown tail was wagging about behind him.
And suddenly one of the tea girls was creating fire from her hand and snapping it at them to break up the fight. A howl of laughter from some onlookers made Arthur focus on them and he realised their long, pointed faces were not human, these people were not human...
Arthur began to panic, wondering what was in this tea or if it were all a dream. And yet, he didn't want it to be a dream. He didn't want Alfred to be fake.
A hand gripped his shoulder, pulling him round, and Arthur found himself calming at the sight of Alfred's strong blue gaze boring into him.
"Arthur. It's all right. There is nothing to fear here. You're safe."
And although Arthur was still nervous and confused – why wasn't anyone else around him noticing this madness, or caring about it? – he nodded. For some strange reason, he trusted this mysterious Japanese-American whom he had only just met.
He breathed deeply a few times, never looking away from Alfred's eyes.
Alfred squeezed his arm again. "It has been so good to see you, Arthur. Please come back soon." He looked so earnest, so determined and desperate for some reason that Arthur couldn't help but promise to himself that he would be back. Even though there was clearly some witchcraft going on here, some devil in Yoshiwara, Arthur knew he would be back for Alfred.
Because there was the man in those eyes. Not the elegant disguise, the front of someone taught and raised to behave a certain way to fit in. There was Alfred looking at him, and Alfred wanted him to come back.
And Arthur knew that he would.
This story was inspired by the Music Box AU, made popular by the MMD and many many fanarts on pixiv. In the video, Arthur and Alfred are both wearing Japanese clothes - first, simple working outfits, and then fancy robes with kitsune/fox masks as they dance on a stage surrounded by lotus blossom with a big red moon behind them.
However, I saw a fanart which had the kagema!Alfred from the MMD, and a Royal Navy!Arthur. And I needed it to be a fic. But I knew nobody would write it, so I had to do it.
I took GREAT liberties with the historical accuracy here, since this was just being written for some quick fun during Sweethearts Week, and I didn't have time to look at the interior design for 19th century tea houses, etc. However, I did do a lot of research for this AU, and I throw it about wherever possible.
Foreigners in Japan = This chapter is set in 1862. Japan has recently started opening up its ports to foreigners after two centuries of isolationism. However, even though foreigners are appearing more, it would be surprising for Arthur, a regular traveller with the Royal Navy, to see someone like Alfred who has been raised in Japan. The country only opened up in 1854, and since Alfred looks around 20, he must have been raised in the Japanese culture from a young age.
Edo = the name for Tokyo at this time (so this story is set in 19th century Tokyo)
Yoshiwara = the red-light district. It was in the north of Edo, and walled-off from the rest of the city. From my research, I got the impression that, although Yoshiwara was seedy, it wouldn't have been considered as completely morally bankrupt as such an area would be in Victorian England. I mean, Arthur is going to be horrified by the concept, naturally - but it's not only pervy Japanese guys looking to get off who would visit Yoshiwara. It was a hub for theatre, art and fashion, so the entertainment and culture there was important, despite the fact that it's a red-light district.
Commander = Arthur is a high ranking member of the Royal Navy. A very good job at this point in history. He's rather young for such a high position, so he's clearly an intelligent, hard-working and extraordinary man.
Arthur's sword = swords, daggers, etc. were not allowed in Yoshiwara. The popular idea behind that rule was that men who were fighting over a woman couldn't hurt each other. But really, it was probably to stop any woman getting her hands on a weapon and giving her the opportunity to end her own life. Many of the girls working in Yoshiwara were not there by choice (hence one of the reasons for the walls around the district, to keep them inside) and would have killed themselves if they had a sword lying around. HOWEVER. The foreigners coming in to Japan at this time were pretty cheeky, as they lived by the rules of THEIR country, despite being in Japan. So whatever goes for England goes in Japan, and so on. So whilst a Japanese man would not bring his sword into Yoshiwara, Arthur's like "Well, I'm English so wha'ever, I do what I woah-wunt!"
Kagema = a male prostitute. Strangely enough, it seems male prostitution was not illegal or thought of as particularly immoral at this point in time in Japan. However, kagema have other jobs besides prostitution, like working at tea houses or taking female roles in kabuki theatre.
Kitsune = the strange fox-men that scare Arthur at the tea house. You probably know them already, as they're famous creatures from Japanese folklore. They can shapeshift between their human and fox forms. They can also take on the appearance of any other human they see. But when they get scared or emotional their tails pop out (hence why the two guys arguing let themselves go by accident). Kitsune have mulitple tails - one for every century they're alive. Arthur notices that the kitsune in the tea hosue only has one tail so he's young, hence why the room is rowdy and the patrons are arguing - they're all basically just babies/teens.
Ukiyo = the title of the fic. Ukiyo literally means the "Floating World", and is used to describe the culture of Yoshiwara - referencing urban life, pleasure, entertainment and art. It also alludes to the water-trade (mizu-soubai), which is a euphemism for the particular sorts of entertainment found in Yoshiwara. It also sounds almost identical to the phrase "uki yo" ("Sorrowful World"): a buddhist concept about this earthly plane where life is fleeting and desperate.