The triage cot beneath his shoulders is too forgiving.
The cast on his arm is heavy but the pain is long gone. His gums and teeth throb in time with his heartbeat, but he cannot move his mouth. His legs are up and bent at the knees, each wrapped tight in thick ribbons of white.
“You’ve finally awoken!” Lieutenant Tsurumi touches him with a gloved hand; why can’t he feel it? “You sustained significant damage,”
A small mirror reveals the two metal plates screwed into his battered cheeks. His head is wrapped in gauze and 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 maw,” 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 he feels nothing.
“Can’t sense a thing below the navel, can you? It’s a new procedure from the west. Cocaine is injected into your spine, numbs you from the waist down,”
He cannot scream, but a tear leaks from his eye.
“You’ve been here two months, Superior Private Ogata. Much has happened in that time. Your last spinal block occurred yesterday so that the doctors could remove the pins from these legs of yours,”
That steady hand drifts down to his groin and he’s glad he cannot feel it.
“I watched every procedure performed upon your body,” the Lieutenant undoes his trouser snap and frees his own erection. “How many lives is this for you, hmm? I imagine a wildcat has as many as a housecat. Seven left,”
Unable to protest, he braces for the inevitable and is resigned to his fate until the arrival of Sergeant Tsukishima.
“We found the remains of Corporal Tamai, and Private’s Okada and Noma,” the Sergeant saves him—as he always does. “We failed to locate Private First Class Tanigaki,”
The Lieutenant 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,” adds the Sergeant. “Tetsuzou Nihei,”
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 confronts 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 sounded angry, “That man lost his mind at Mukden,”
“Damned Nikaidou,” Hyaku followed his heavy footfalls through the dark woods. “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,”
Tanigaki walked onward, “Plans, or allegiances?”
“What’s the difference?” he said.
“Did Tsurumi return and hurt you?” asked Tanigaki.
“Tsukishima kept him busy enough,” he replied. “He didn’t have time to come back and finish me,”
“None of us mean a thing to him,” said Tanigaki. “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 spat. “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 sounded as if he was smiling. “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 pre-Tondehei figure back, too,” he teased. “Inkarmat’s feeding you plenty,”
“Stop trying to humiliate me,” said Tanigaki. “I’ve debased myself enough running away as if guilty,”
“I’ve been guilty all my life,” he said. “You get used to feeling like shit,”
Hyaku’s gun snagged on a branch; in his years away from the Ibaraki marshlands, he’d forgotten how to navigate a moonless night. He cursed after nearly tripping on a rock.
“We’re making lousy time over this terrain,” they’d covered less than a mile since leaving the kotan. “It’s wearing me down,”
“We can stop and wait for twilight,” Tanigaki said, winded. “Less than an hour,”
Hyaku felt around for a tree to rest his back on.
Tanigaki’s voice revealed his position on the ground.
“Have you been with a woman, Ogata?”
“I never turn my nose up at anything without tasting it first,”
“I’ve only been to 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?”
“Girls come to see me, yes,” said Tanigaki. “It’s what they’re supposed to do,”
Hyaku laughed, “It’s one bitch per paying customer,”
“Wait,” Tanigaki said. “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,” said Tanigaki. “That’s where things are 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 the panels?” Tanigaki asked. “How do you know this?”
“I’m usually one of the unwashed scumbags peeping the panels,” he confessed. “Like I said, I don’t have much use for a vagina, but I’d watch a man like you do anything,”
Birds chirped in the distance.
“Ogata?” Tanigaki whispered. “When did you first-?”
“—I’ve been playing with myself since I could walk,”
“No,” Tanigaki huffed. “When did you first know you had no use for a vagina?”
Hyaku considered the ramifications of being honest; his lust for the Matagi was profound, had been since laying eyes on him in the trenches at 203 Hill, but he wasn’t ready to admit his feelings.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” said Tanigaki 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!”
“Are you sure about that?” he leered. “You never did beg me like I wanted,”
“You threatened a defenseless old woman,”
“I never aimed my gun at that old lady,” he said.
“You brought Nikaidou into the village to kill Sugimoto,” Tanigaki’s voice revealed him lying down. “And then you tried to kill me,”
“You shot me, Matagi, so we’re even,”
“No, my shooting you was for trying to kill me,” Tanigaki countered. “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, Tanigaki,”
“I play what you call, my dumb mountain boy routine, because my size intimidates most men,” he declared. “If men think they’re smarter than me, they’re less threatened,”
The looming light brought a reclining Tanigaki into view. He lay on the forest floor with his shirt lusciously parted, and his wrists crossed above his head as they’d been in that shack when bound by Hyaku’s belt.
“How old were you, Tanigaki, when you knew?”
“That pussy was 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,” Hyaku laid down beside him. "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,”
“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 think you lured him?”
“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 soothed 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,”
Hyaku moved closer to him, “Did you group hunt?”
“Most times we hunted in pairs. We’d go up the mountain before the first snow and stay there for a week or two,” he explained. “At my age, if you returned to camp without a kill, you were at the mercy of your big brother,”
Hyaku inhaled the scent of burnt wood upon the Matagi’s clothes, “I take it your first time was lousy?”
“I thought I’d be immune to it because I wasn’t wispy and long-haired,” he said. “The first time I showed up at camp without a kill, the big brother mentoring me shoved me to the ground and forced himself into my mouth,”
Hyaku 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,” his tone hardened. “The next day I did everything I could to kill something and not return empty-handed,”
Hyaku caught a whiff of something honied, “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 completely, and that made me dread next season,” Tanigaki rolled onto his side, his sugary breath touching Hyaku’s face. “You never went up the mountain to visit the temple?”
“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,” he 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,” he snapped. “Not every man thinks like you,”
“There are two kinds of men in the world, Matagi,” said Hyaku. “Men that want to kill you and men that want to fuck you,”
“That’s such a dismal view, Ogata,” he said.
“Dismal?” laughed Hyaku. “That’s a word I haven’t heard since writing-school. To answer your next 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,”
“Why are you vulgar?”
“You like it,” he said. “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,”
“And how do you know that Matagi?” he asked.
“Because there are two kinds of men in this world,” said Tanigaki. "and you're both of them,”
Hyaku laughed heartily.
“When I was fourteen,” said Tanigaki, softly. “Daigo, this elder hunter, claimed me at the pre-season bonfire,”
Hyaku propped up on his elbow, “Claimed?”
“It’s an honor,” he clarified. “To be claimed is to be chosen by an elder to join him on a hunt,”
“You had me excited, Matagi,” said Hyaku. “I thought he whipped it out and pissed on you at the clan fireball,”
“Vulgar man,” he laughed.
Hyaku 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,” he said. “On the mountain, he was a bastard. Insulting me. His words cut right through me. He knew he was the best at what he did and didn’t bother hiding it,”
“That’s called confidence, Matagi,” Hyaku tapped 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 Hyaku stole every inch of him to tuck away in his memory.
“He’d lugged a bear back to the cave, and seeing me empty-handed, he berated me the whole time we butchered it,” Tanigaki’s eyes were closed with a cheek 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,”
Tanigaki’s breath formed a cloud between them.
“He punched me in the gut so hard I couldn’t do anything. Stripped me, 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,”
Hyaku’s mouth watered at the idea of a bath.
“What’s that soap Inkarmat uses?”
“Lavender and birch,” he said, eyes opened.
“Those purple weeds she’s always picking,” Hyaku moved onto his back, unnerved 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,” his fingers pinched at Hyaku’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,”
Hyaku set his hand down upon Tanigaki’s.
“I’m sure that’s what he counted on,”
“His wife made this cream from rice bran and milk,” he whispered. “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,” Hyaku mused. “He sounds like a real seducer,”
“He was gentle and patient with me,” he smiled. “He said that I’d matured into a handsome man and should be rewarded for it,”
“A real seducer,”
“I remember being on my back, staring up at him in the firelight,” he rolled over and draped a 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,”
Hyaku fondly recalled their encounter in the shack.
“Your ass did fuck me more than I fucked it, Matagi,”
Tanigaki huffed, “Stop being so vulgar,”
“Did you hunt with Daigo after that?”
Tanigaki turned into him and took hold of his hand. Stubble scratched his wrist as the Matagi’s lips grazed his palm. “That night, when he finished inside of me, the look on his face was so wonderful. I didn’t see the blood on his teeth,” the words tickled Hyaku’s hand. “His fingers dug into my thighs hard enough to bruise me, but I didn’t realize…”
Hyaku forced himself to keep breathing.
“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.
“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?”
“Inkarmat, feels like home,” Tanigaki stood and stared up into the trees. “There’s enough light now to keep moving,”
Begrudgingly, Hyaku rose up and fell in behind Tanigaki. They cleared the forest by sun-up and soon came upon a stretch of marshland.
Hyaku slung his rifle over his back, “We’ll cut through here,”
“It’s pure wetlands,” 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 terrain like this,” he said.
Tanigaki struggled, “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, but he’s well-behaved,”
“Until he loses his temper. I’ll tell him you said that though,” he smirked. “Give him something to jerk off too after that brat of his goes to sleep,”
“What are you saying, 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,”
Hyaku laughed, “When he yanked your shirt open-”
“—You should’ve shot him,” the Matagi’s broad grin was captivating.
“I thought about it,” he said. “But I was hoping he’d go for your pants next,”
A crack echoed in the distance.
Hyaku unshouldered his rifle, “That was a gunshot,”
“The villagers caught up fast,” Tanigaki added.
“No,” said Hyaku. “That’s Sugimoto’s rifle,”