The triage cot beneath his shoulders is too forgiving. His gums and teeth throb in time with his heartbeat, and he cannot open his mouth. The cast on his arm is heavy, but the pain within his bone subsides.
“You’ve finally awoken!” Lieutenant Tsurumi stands clutches his leg with a gloved hand.
Why can’t he feel it? His legs are up and bent at the knees, each wrapped tight in thick ribbons of white.
“You sustained significant damage,” the Lieutenant holds a small mirror to his face.
Two metal plates are screwed into his battered red cheeks. His head is laced with gauze. Fine wires peek out between his lips.
“That contraption may look dreadful, but the surgeon I procured assures me it’s the only way to preserve that handsome face,” the Lieutenant takes position between his upturned feet and peels the glove from his hand, “There were similar braces on these fine legs of yours,”
That hand touches, but why can’t he feel it?
“Can’t sense a thing below the navel, can you? It’s a new procedure from the west. Cocaine is injected into your spine, to numb you from the waist down,”
He cannot speak, a tear leaks from his eye.
“You’ve been here two months, and much has happened in that time. Your last spinal block occurred yesterday so that the doctors could remove the pins in these legs of yours,”
A steady hand drifts down to his groin. He’s glad he cannot feel it, but he cranes his neck to watch that hand fondle his flaccid member.
“I watched every procedure performed upon your body,” the Lieutenant undoes his trouser snap and frees his erection. “How many lives is this for you, hmm? I imagine a wildcat has as many lives a housecat. That means you’ve seven left,”
Unable to protest, he braces himself for the inevitable.
Suddenly, Sergeant Tsukishima enters.
“Leave me I’m occupied,” the Lieutenant snaps.
“We found the remains of Corporal Tamai, and Private’s Okada and Noma,” the Sergeant saves him—but then he always did. “We failed to locate Private First Class Tanigaki,”
The Lieutenant quickly tucks his arousal back into his pants.
“An Ainu man witnessed a soldier in a fur shirt at a trading post with one of the convicts,” the Sergeant adds.
“Which of the convicts?” asks the Lieutenant.
“Tetsuzou Nihei,” he replies.
Lieutenant Tsurumi utters a sigh, “The mountains have recalled our Matagi,”
“Perhaps the gold was too great a lure,” says the Sergeant.
“No matter what his motivation, it appears that Private First Class Tanigaki has deserted us,” the Lieutenant dabs at the fluid oozing down his nose and turns to him on the cot. “A few more months should have you up and about Superior Private Ogata, until then, get better won’t you,”
Tanigaki’s voice sounded angry, “That man lost his mind at Mukden,”
Hyakunosuke followed the sound of Tanigaki’s footfalls in the dark.
“Damned Nikaidou,” he said, grinning. “He caught me trying to leave. I told him I was after you, and he told me he wanted to find Sugimoto and kill him. I agreed to bring him along-”
“—Why?” Tanigaki demanded.
“Why?” he said. “Nikaidou’s a perfect shield-”
“—No!” said Tanigaki. “Why hunt me down?”
“I needed to regain Tsurumi’s trust,” he stopped short of colliding with the Matagi’s back. “I thought serving you up would do that for me, but my plans shifted after I met the Ronin,”
“Plans, or allegiances?” Tanigaki walked onward.
“What’s the difference, Matagi?” he asked.
Tanigaki asked, “Did Tsurumi return and hurt you?”
“Tsukishima kept him busy enough that he didn’t have time to come back and finish me,” he answered.
“None of us mean a thing to him,” Tanigaki said. “I know that now,”
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “The Lieutenant looked mighty disappointed hearing of your travels with Tetsuzou Nihei,”
“I never carried on with Tsurumi,” Tanigaki said. “Nihei either, before you ask,”
“I thought you Matagi were the Spartans of Japan,” he teased.
“What happens on the hunt remains on the hunt?” Tanigaki mocked. “One must abstain from women only when on the hunt. Their pleasures will weaken your resolve,”
“I never had much use for a vagina,” he laughed. “I love breasts though. Big ones like yours, Tanigaki,”
“I don’t have breasts,”
“Firm and round,” he leered. “Covered with hair,”
“Be quiet, Ogata!”
“You got your figure back, too,” he teased. “Inkarmat’s feeding you plenty,”
“Stop trying to humiliate me,” Tanigaki snapped. “I’ve debased myself enough running away like I’m guilty,”
“I’ve been guilty all my life,” he said. “You get used to feeling like shit,”
Hyakunosuke’s gun snagged on a branch; in his years away from the marshes of Ibaraki, he forgot how to navigate a moonless night. Since fleeing the kotan, they’d only managed to cover less than a mile.
“We’re making lousy time over this terrain,” he cursed after nearly tripping on a rock. “It’s wearing me down,”
“We can stop and wait for twilight,” Tanigaki panted. “Less than an hour,”
He felt around for a tree to rest his back on.
“Have you been with a woman, Ogata?” the sound of Tanigaki’s voice revealed him sitting on the ground.
“I never turn my nose up at anything without tasting it first,”
“I’ve only been in brothels,”
“Those bitches must love you, Matagi,”
“It’s their job to love any man that walks through the door,”
“I bet when you show up, they all pile on don’t they?”
“Many girls come to see me, yes,” said Tanigaki. “It’s what they’re supposed to do,”
He couldn’t help but laugh, “It’s one bitch per paying customer,”
“Wait,” Tanigaki sounded surprised. “I’m never asked to pay,”
“With your body and cock, I doubt you’d ever be asked,” he slid down the rough grain of the tree and planted himself upon one of its knurled roots. “Did they take you in a room with a bunch of weird panels on the wall?”
“I end up in rooms like that all the time,” Tanigaki said. “That’s where things get done, Ogata,”
“That’s the showroom, Tanigaki,” he laughed again. “They let you rut for free because they’re charging horny bastards too nasty to let inside, a pittance to watch you pleasure their girls through those panels,”
“How do you know this?”
“I’m usually one of the unwashed scumbags on the other side of the panel,” he confessed. “Like I said, I don’t have much use for a vagina, but I’d watch a man like you ride anything,”
Birds chirped in the distance.
“Ogata?” Tanigaki asked. “When did you first-?”
“—I’ve been playing with myself since I could walk,”
“No,” Tanigaki pushed out a laugh. “When did you first know you had no use for a vagina?”
Hyakunosuke considered the ramifications of opening himself up; his lust for the Matagi was profound, had been since laying eyes on him in the trenches at 203 Hill.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” Tanigaki said softly. “I meant no insult,”
“You can’t insult me,” he sighed. “Right now, I was thinking of cashing in on what you owe me for saving you by sucking your cock, but my jaw’s still too tender,”
“I don’t owe you anything!” Tanigaki blurted.
“Are you sure about that?” he leered. “You never did beg me like I wanted,”
“You threatened a defenseless old woman,” Tanigaki countered.
“I never aimed my gun at that old lady,” said Hyakunosuke.
“You brought Nikaidou into the village just to kill Sugimoto,” Tanigaki’s voice exposed that he was now lying down. “And then you tried to kill me,”
“You shot me that day, Matagi, so we’re even,”
“No, my shooting you was for trying to kill me,” Tanigaki said. “You saving me from that kotan tonight, that’s your amends for putting Huci and Osoma in danger,”
“You’re smarter than everyone thinks you are,”
“I continue what you call, my dumb mountain boy routine because my size intimidates other men,” Tanigaki declared. “If those men think they’re smarter than me, they’re less threatened,”
The imminent light brought a reclining Tanigaki into view. He lay on the forest floor with his shirt lusciously askew, and his wrists crossed above his head as they’d been in that shack when bound by Hyakunosuke’s belt.
“How old were you, Tanigaki,” he asked. “When you knew?”
“That pussy was just as pleasurable as a cock in your ass?”
“You’re a vulgar man, Ogata,”
“Now you’ve gone and intimidated me,”
Tanigaki’s chest jumped when he laughed.
“There were these monks that came down from Mount Tsukuba,” he moved from the tree and laid down beside the Matagi. "My grandmother took me into town to see them do their martial arts. One of them was a big bastard, bigger than you. I swear he had muscles on his muscles,”
“Did you ever consider that life?”
“I could never be a monk,” he said. “I’m too self-absorbed,”
“Who told you that?”
“That strong monk told me that when I was thirteen,” he smiled at the memory. “After I let him nut on my face,”
Tanigaki asked, “Did he lure you?”
“I had no desire to be apprenticed,” he shook his head. “I applied at their volunteer stand to get near him. When we were alone, I made it clear I needed a man’s supervision,”
“You lured him?” Tanigaki mused.
“What about you?” he asked. “You ever catch the eye of an aniki after your voice changed?”
“I wasn’t a pretty boy like my brother, and I considered myself lucky,” Tanigaki’s baritone felt like the morphine he’d received in Otaru. “When I was twelve, I got paired with a big brother, that’s what we call hunters who are the age I am now,”
Hyakunosuke moved closer to him.
“Do you Matagi hunt in groups?”
“Not always, most times we hunted in pairs. We’d go up the mountain before the first snow and stay there for a week or two,” Tanigaki explained. “At my age, if you returned to camp without a kill, you were at the mercy of your big brother,”
Hyakunosuke inhaled the scent of burnt wood upon his clothes.
“I take it your first time was lousy?”
“I thought I’d be immune to it all because I wasn’t wispy and long-haired,” Tanigaki said. “The first time I showed up at camp without a kill, the big brother mentoring me shoved me to the ground and stabbed himself into my mouth,”
Hyakunosuke tried to imagine the Matagi so young.
“I take it you weren’t willing?”
“I opened my mouth for it, but that wasn’t enough for him. He rammed it into my throat, held my nose, and made me vomit,” Tanigaki’s tone hardened. “The next day I did everything I could to kill something and not return empty-handed,”
Hyakunosuke caught a whiff of something honied on his breath.
“Nasty tonsil fuck is a great motivator,”
“When we returned home after that season, none of my friends smiled anymore. One of them got used like a woman, and that made me dread next season,” Tanigaki rolled onto his side, sugary breath touching Hyakunosuke’s face. “You never went up the mountain to visit the temple?”
“I left right after he molested me. Once I got what I wanted, I didn’t really want to stay,” he rolled toward Tanigaki’s voice. “That hour with him made me curious about older men, though. I learned how to lure them after that. Expose them, and then take my shot,”
“Was he your first, for everything?” asked Tanigaki.
“Why does your breath smell sweet?”
“That Ainu man, Kirawus, or Yanshuu,” Tanigaki replied. “He gave me this gum made from tree sap. I ended up swallowing it,”
“I bet that’s not all he wants you to swallow,”
“Don’t be vulgar,” Tanigaki snapped. “Not every man thinks like you,”
“There are two kinds of men in the world, Matagi,” he said. “Men that want to kill you and men that want to fuck you,”
“That’s such a dismal view, Ogata,” Tanigaki said.
“Dismal?” he laughed. “That’s a word I haven’t heard since writing school. To answer your question, the old monk never used me like a woman. I gave my ass up to a boy my age about a year before I entered the academy.”
“I hunted three more seasons, all with different big brothers. I never returned to camp without a kill,” Tanigaki rolled onto his back again. “I was sixteen the first time I was with a girl. My cousin let me touch her, and she touched me. I liked it,”
“What about that ass, Tanigaki?” he leered. “You’ve definitely been fucked in that ass before,”
Tanigaki sighed, “Why are you vulgar?”
“You like it,” he grinned. “If you didn’t you wouldn’t have encouraged me that afternoon when I caught you letting Shiraishi escape,”
“You were going to do what you wanted,” Tanigaki said.
“And how do you know that Matagi?” he asked.
“Because there are two kinds of men in this world," said Tanigaki. "You're both of them,”
Hyakunosuke laughed heartily.
“When I was fourteen,” Tanigaki spoke softly. “Daigo, this elder hunter, claimed me at the pre-season bonfire,”
He propped up on his elbow, “Claimed?”
“It’s an honor,” Tanigaki clarified. “To be claimed is to be chosen by an elder to join him on a hunt,”
“You had me excited there, Matagi,” he said. “I thought he whipped it out and pissed on you at the clan fireball,”
“Vulgar man,” Tanigaki laughed.
He wanted to touch him, “So, this hunter was the shit?”
“Daigo was a legend. I was so proud when he chose me, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Tanigaki said. “On the mountain, he was a bastard. Insulting me. His words cut right through me and shook my confidence. He knew he was the best at what he did and didn’t bother hiding it,”
“That’s called confidence, Matagi,” he said, tapping a boot to his.
“Snow came early that year, and he found us a cave with enough room for a fire if we kept our kills at the entrance. I hadn’t made a kill by sunset, and I dreaded returning because I knew what was coming.”
Tanigaki came to life with the growing light and Hyakunosuke stole every inch of him to tuck away in his memory.
“He’d lugged a bear back to the cave. Seeing me empty-handed, he berated me the whole time we butchered it,” eyes closed, his cheek was pressed to his bent arm like a pillow. “When it was time to wash in the ravine nearby, he stripped down and ordered me to do the same. I refused. It was too cold. He punched me in the gut so hard I couldn’t do anything,”
Tanigaki’s breath formed a cloud between them.
“He took off my clothes and threw me into that freezing water. He scrubbed me from head to toe with goat’s milk soap. I didn’t fight him because the soap smelled good, and he wasn’t hurting me,”
Hyakunosuke’s mouth watered at the idea of bath.
“What’s that soap Inkarmat uses?”
Tanigaki opened his eyes, “Lavender and birch,”
“Those purple weeds she’s always picking,” he moved onto his back, unsettled by the Matagi’s deep brown eyes. “What happened after the cold rinse?”
“He carried me back to the cave over his shoulder and built this raging fire. It was so warm that I didn’t mind being naked. The insults stopped once our clothes were off,” Tanigaki’s fingers pinched at Hyakunosuke’s cloak. “He smiled, fed me, held a cup to my lips to drink. I shouldn’t have been drinking rice wine so young, but being with him made me feel like a man,”
His hand fell onto Tanigaki’s, “I’m sure that’s what he counted on,”
“His wife made this cream from rice bran and milk,” Tanigaki smiled. “He rubbed it on my body and asked me to do the same to him. He let me touch him in places I only touched myself,”
“No wonder you gave up your ass,” he mused. “He sounds like a real seducer,”
“He was gentle and patient with me,” Tanigaki whispered. “He said that I’d matured into a handsome man and should be rewarded for it,”
“A real seducer,” he repeated with a smile.
“I ended up on my back, staring up at him in the firelight,” Tanigaki tipped onto his back and draped his forearm across his eyes. “He told me what to do every step of the way. When he finally put in me, he told me what I needed to do, to make it less painful,”
He fondly recalled their encounter in the shack.
“Your ass did fuck me more than I fucked it, Matagi,”
Tanigaki sighed, “Stop being so vulgar,”
“Did you hunt with Daigo after that?” he asked.
Tanigaki turned into him and took hold of his hand. Stubble scratched his wrist and the Matagi lips grazed his palm.
“That night, when he finished inside of me, the look on his face was so splendid that I didn’t see the blood on his teeth,” Tanigaki’s words tickled his hand. “His fingers dug into my thighs hard enough to bruise me, but I didn’t realize…”
Hyakunosuke forced himself to breathe.
“When he fell on me, I hugged him so tight because I wanted that moment to last forever. I laid there for some time, unaware that Daigo had died on top of me,” Tanigaki released him and turned away. “I sent a signal fire, and the others came. I told my father I found him in the cave, dead,”
“Damn, Tanigaki,” he said. “That story is making my dick cry,”
Tanigaki’s voice became stone, “I didn’t share it to arouse you,”
“Did you tell Tsurumi that story?”
“You and Inkarmat are the only ones I’ve told,”
“What’d Inkarmat say?”
“Her reaction was as inappropriate as yours,”
“You like her, don’t you?” he asked as Tanigaki stood.
“Inkarmat, feels like home,” Tanigaki stared up into the trees. “There’s enough light now to keep moving,”
Begrudgingly, he rose up and fell in behind Tanigaki. They cleared the forest by sun-up and soon came upon a stretch of marshland.
Hyakunosuke slung his rifle over his back, “Let’s move, Tanigaki,”
“It’s pure wetlands here,” said Tanigaki.
“Just follow me,” he jumped from one dry patch to the next, crushing shunted reeds beneath his boots. “I know where to walk,”
Tanigaki bobbed behind him, “Are you sure?”
“I grew up in a wetland like this,” he said.
Tanigaki became winded, “We should’ve just put our faith in Sugimoto and the others, and waited-”
“—the villagers would’ve started watching us more closely as the deadline approached,” he argued.
Tanigaki glanced back at the trees, “Fleeing like this makes me look guilty!”
“Well, if you really want your nose chopped off that badly,” he said. “I’d be happy to help,”
“Just like you were happy to humiliate me yesterday?” Tanigaki huffed. “Demanding I beg for my life,”
“You’re splendid when you beg, Matagi,” he teased. “That first time you begged, after finding us with the old lady, I was tempted to shoot Nikaidou and then breed you right in front of that little girl,”
“Just my luck,” Tanigaki said. “My savior is a vulgar man,”
“We can’t all be Sugimoto,” he said.
“Sugimoto has his faults,” Tanigaki said. “But he’s a good man,”
“I’ll tell him you said that,” he smirked. “Give him something to jerk off too after that brat of his goes to sleep,”
“What are talking about, Ogata?”
“The dumb mountain boy routine doesn’t work on me, remember?” he turned to find Tanigaki bent over to catch his breath. “If I’ve caught Sugimoto copping looks, then you have too,”
“I’ve noticed his eyes on me,”
Hyakunosuke laughed, “When he yanked your shirt open-”
“—You should’ve shot him,”
Hyakunosuke stood captivated by the Matagi’s broad grin, “I thought about it, but I was hoping he’d go for your pants next,”
A crack echoed in the distance.
Hyakunosuke unshouldered his rifle, “That was a gunshot,”
“The villagers caught up fast,” Tanigaki added.
“No,” said Hyakunosuke. “That was Sugimoto’s rifle,”