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Bunkatsu-sen [分割線]

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Hyakunosuke coupled with the Matagi many times on the walk to Lake Toro. It wasn’t easy, but patience was something he’d mastered as a man.

All of them got to know each other more each day, and this made for many late nights. When certain everyone was sleeping, he crept into the forest alone, and the Matagi always followed.

Tanigaki’s voice in the dark soothed his bitter spirit. He came to crave their post-coital talks when their torrid trysts left him wanting.

The subject of the Ainu woman came up often. Inkarmat feels like home; this was Tanigaki’s sentiment when Hyakunosuke first inquired of his feelings for her. It was a strange omission considering what the Matagi had shared about his mother.

Tanigaki had been barely five when his mother gave birth to a baby girl. Prone to deep depressions, her mental departure after bearing the child had lasted so long that young Tanigaki was tasked to care for the newborn when his father and brother went on the hunt.

One day she’d risen from her futon and tended to the baby as if nothing occurred; that’s how it was in the Matagi’s home. His mother would lose many babies after that, and with each failed pregnancy she lost a bit more of her happiness.

Though her manic episodes had been sporadic, each left an indelible mark on Tanigaki. After his sister’s corpse had been found, he knew that his leaving would send the woman into a pit of despair.

He’d confessed to allowing anger to blind him, but a child shouldn’t have to be responsible for his mother every damn day. Confident he’d never return he made sure his words cut through her like a blade.

In his own way, Tanigaki killed his mother, just as sure as Hyakunosuke murdered his own.

Perhaps Inkarmat felt like the home Tanigaki deserved; a young boy’s ideal that was free of a mother too consumed by her own pain. Hyakunosuke knew this fantasy all too well, and yet he volunteered little of his memories; he wouldn’t allow them to intrude on his time with the Matagi.

Lingering behind Inkarmat on the way to the hot spring, he began to appreciate Tanigaki’s esteem; she lacked pretension and refrained from physical contact. She didn’t coddle or rely on him in any way; this seemed to be what Tanigaki savored most.

Like any good operative recruited by the Lieutenant, the Ainu woman worked her mission without drawing attention to herself; she was too smart for the Imperial Army, another trait he respected.

“That kitakitsune around your neck,” he called out to her. “Where’d you get it?”

“I think you know the answer, Ogata-nispa,” her mouth spread in that signature smile. “You tell me where it’s from,”

“Its feet aren’t black like the Ezo fox you wore in winter,” he obliged. “I’d say it’s a swamp fox from outside Ibaraki,”

Inkarmat grinned, “I was there for the joining of the towns,”

The rice fields around his grandparent’s home were incorporated with dozens of other small towns some time ago. It was their only defense against being swallowed up by the Meiji backed administration in Mito, a city whose population swelled after the comptrollers began annexing the surrounding villages.  

“A furrier in Mito gifted this to me after I predicted his wife would bare twins,” she bragged. “Her grandmother was a twin, and this was her third pregnancy,”

Tanigaki walked by her side, “You’ve been that far south in Honshu?”

“I’ve been many places,” she said. “How about you, Tanigaki-nispa? Where have you been?”

Tanigaki shrugged, “Home, Manchuria, Ezo,”

“War is no way to see the world,” said Inkarmat.

“Not all of us can travel in the style of a confidence gamer,” Hyakunosuke quipped.

Tanigaki stared back at him, brow bent.

Inkarmat pouted, “He sees my abilities as a scam,”

“No one doubts your ability to read people, but it’s not divine,” the Matagi saw right through her and this satisfied Hyakunosuke to no end. “Me losing my sister was something Lieutenant Tsurumi told you about me,”

“I won’t lie to you, Tanigaki-nispa, it’s true,” she confessed. “As true as otter stew,”

Tanigaki’s smile stoked something inside of Hyakunosuke, an unyielding thirst like the one felt that day they’d sheltered from the locust swarm.

Cooped up in that fishing shack, Sugimoto took the opportunity to engage the Matagi in a concocted sumo match; crafty son of a bitch.

Inkarmat proved just as crafty later in the day.

Hyakunosuke came upon her searching for Tanigaki. Curious, he’d pointed his head toward the shack and when she’d crooked her finger for him to follow, he damn well did.

Caught off-guard by her sexual aggression, the Matagi covered the Murata and went at her with gusto; securing the lapped woman’s hands behind her back, driving into her fast and hard, and sucking on those large breasts.

The otter stew had crippled him in the shack, but outside in the fresh air and spying Tanigaki through a gap in the shutter, his hands had come alive.

“Where the shit is this onsen?” griped the brat walking ahead of them.

“Language,” Tanigaki scolded.

“That’s it!” Sugimoto shouted before walking backward and speaking over Shiraishi’s head. “We met in the trenches at Liaodong!”

Tanigaki flashed those gorgeous teeth.

“We did,” he said, nodding.

“I was cussing about something,” Sugimoto waited until they caught up. “And you turned around and said, Language!”

Tanigaki laughed, “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me,”

“You gave me that thing to eat,” Sugimoto put a hand on the Matagi’s back. “It was so delicious,”

Asirpa’s attention was caught, “What was it, Sugimoto?”

“I hadn’t eaten for days, but it was worth the wait,” Sugimoto’s damned hand was now on the Matagi’s shoulder.

That son of a bitch always found a reason to put his hands on Tanigaki. He didn’t touch Shiraishi, Kiroranke, or Hyakunosuke when speaking to them.  

“What did you eat?” Asirpa demanded.

“Since the day we met,” Sugimoto tapped Tanigaki’s thigh as they walked. “I thought I knew you from somewhere,”

“That explains your sidelong glances,” Inkarmat teased.

Hyakunosuke pursed his lips; sidelong? That son of a bitch didn’t even try to hide his gawking.

“I’ve been staring at him, sure,” said Sugimoto, arrogant. “He’s the best-looking man here,”

Hyakunosuke curled his trigger finger and pressed his thumb to it tightly.

“You can’t blame Sugimoto,” Shiraishi teased. “Tanigaki’s pants are too tight, his chest is always hanging out, and he smells nicer than a karayuki,”

Sugimoto grinned, “Were you part of the 27th’s joshigun?”

“No,” Tanigaki said, flatly.

“I told you,” said Cikapasi. “He’s everyone’s gigolo,”

“What do you know about it?” Tanigaki demanded.

Asirpa stepped to him, “Tell me Tanigaki-nispa, did you and Huci-”

“—No,” Tanigaki assured her. “Never,”

“He’s Inkarmat’s gigolo now,” said Cikapasi. “I saw them,”

“Whoa!” Sugimoto and Shiraishi chimed in unison.

“What!” Tanigaki cried.

“Were you watching?” Inkarmat tousled Cikapasi’s hair.

“I wasn’t the only one!” the brat pointed at Hyakunosuke. “He watched too,”

“How come no one invited me to watch?” Sugimoto asked.

Shiraishi griped, “I could’ve used a show after all that sumo!”

“Watch what?” Asirpa asked.

The brat came up alongside her and began whispering.

“Cikapasi!” Tanigaki scolded. “Stop talking about it!”

“Was it a good show, Ogata?” Shiraishi asked.

“I can’t believe you spied on them,” Sugimoto frowned.

Tanigaki turned with a gleam in his eyes.

“You watched us?” he asked.

“Unlike ball-sack there,” said Hyakunosuke. “I was invited to watch,”

“That’s not my name!” Cikapasi cried.

It was amusing to see the Matagi blush.

“I got a visual,” Kiroranke shouted from a few yards ahead.

 “Finally!” Asirpa ran after him with Cikapasi on her heels.

“Thanks to Tanigaki,” said Shiraishi, “We all got visuals,”

Tanigaki pushed the shorter man aside and walked ahead of them.

“Lucky bastard, Ogata,” Sugimoto mumbled.

“Sugimoto-nispa,” Inkarmat teased. “That’s not my name,”

Beyond the trees was an old wood-paneled ryokan, its roof behind a cloud of steam. A neglected footpath dotted with clumps of grass led brought them close enough to find shuttered windows hidden by overgrown shrubs.

The group filed in after Inkarmat and Asirpa, but he chose to walk perimeter before going inside.

Kiroranke called to him from the entrance, “You’re not taking the waters?”

“I’ll be in when I’m done,” he yelled back.

That Ainu needed to tone down his familiarly; the deal between them was struck just days ago and though still digesting the details, acclimating to Kiroranke’s blunt manner would take some time.

Fresh footpaths lined the trees along the ryokan’s yard. The blind bandits moved through here, but they wouldn’t show at dusk. No. They’d make their move at nightfall when everyone was occupied in the hot spring.

Laughter peeled out from the haze in the trees; Inkarmat and Asirpa. Since the locust swarm, those two were tighter than mated barn owls. If Inkarmat kept up with her reporting to Tsurumi, then the Shinigami knew about Asirpa’s connection to the gold.

Damn, Kiroranke was right; isolating the kid from Sugimoto and the others was their best chance of getting to the gold first.

Hyakunosuke trekked back to the ryokan.

On a bench inside the door he pulled off his boots and lamented the ill state of his socks; the long nail on his right big toe had ripped a hole in the fabric.

A small tiered rack meant to house slippers for the guests lay buried under everyone’s discarded shoes and boots.

No attendant appeared to be on duty until an old man entered the hall.

“Excuse me,” he asked. “Are there any slippers left, a yukata?”

The old man turned, revealing his blindness.

“None of those things,” he answered politely with a nod. “None of those things in many years,”

In the datsuijo he found Kiroranke and Shiraishi’s clothes hanging from pegs on the wall. A low table centered the room and piled between two zaisu lay all their guns, daggers, and blades; the fools left really their weapons unattended.

Back in the hall he listened.

Next door Inkarmat spoke to someone, an old woman, about getting their clothes laundered for a fee. A hefty fee.

At the end of the passage, Kiroranke and Shiraishi scrubbed down in a washroom. The brat was with them, but he wasn’t washing.

In the room beside him, Sugimoto prepared for a rubdown from the blind anma who now fielded Asirpa’s questions about the ryokan.

Where was Tanigaki?

Back in the changing room he sat upon one of the zaisu and peeled off his hardened socks. He pinched the tatami mat with his toes for several moments before stripping down to his fundoshi.

His uniform smelt of campfire smoke, and on his shirt lingered the scent of his last clove cigarette.

Out in the hall, Inkarmat sauntered up to him as if she owned the place.

“You’re not taking that gun into the washroom?”

“My gun goes where I do,” he eyed the door behind her.

“He’s not in there,” she pointed behind him. “He’s in there,”

“The onnayu?” he asked as she boldly examined his body.

“It’s the only room equipped for his needs,” she said.

“Needs?” he asked, smiling.

“Tanigaki-nispa highly maintains,” she said, then crinkled her nose. “You might learn to do the same,”

Hyakunosuke chuckled before pushing his way past the curtain.

The women’s washroom was tiny compared to the one being used by the others. A water-filled trough sat within the floor, and a long bench ran adjacent with two rinse buckets on top and two-foot stools beneath.

A faded teak shelf lined the opposite wall and upon it lay a certain Matagi whose thick figure was shrouded in a wet white sheet.

He set his gun down quietly and after pulling off his fundoshi, moved close enough to savor every curve and bulge outlined in the white. Tiny hashes formed on the fabric over his chest, amidst two hardened nipples just begging to be touched.

“What’s all this?”

Wet material collapsed sharply around his mouth and nose and ballooned out when he exhaled.

“I’m soaking,” roused, he sat up and pulled the wet sheet from his face.

“Explain it to me, Matagi,” at the bench, Hyakunosuke snatched up an empty bucket.

Skin glistening, Tanigaki set about peeling the wet cloth from his upper body.

Arms free, the man lifted them over his head and stretched until his elbows cracked. Rolling his neck, he emitted another sigh before drawing the cloth from his legs.

“It’s a bathing sheet,” he said. “Soaked in rice water,”

Hyakunosuke’s mother used to soak silk strips in rice-water, loyal to her geisha beauty regimen long after she lost her use for it. Filling his bucket with cold water from the trough, he’d recalled asking why she bothered to continue, but by that time she’d stopped speaking to him.

“It’s good for your skin,” Tanigaki added.

“I know what it does,” he said. “My mother was a geisha,”

“A geisha?” Tanigaki started. “What was her craft? Did she write songs or sing?”

“You know about my mother,” he stared blankly at him.

“I heard she was an oiran,” said Tanigaki. “Not a geisha,”

“The difference between a whore and geisha these days is as thin as that sheet, Matagi,” he recalled the man’s weakness for performance art and his fondness for prostitutes; no doubt he respected the differences between them. “She left home at fourteen and became an odoriko,”

Hyakunosuke poured water onto his groin and thighs.

“My build’s too stocky to dance gracefully,” said Tanigaki. “I’d love to learn.”

He doused his head and shoulders with what water remained in his bucket. At the bench, he caught a whiff of something savory. On the floor was a half-shell filled with liquid, its edges charred.

“What’s that smell?”

“My oil is settling,” Tanigaki set his feet on the floor.

“Are you cooking in here, Matagi?”

“It’s for my face,” he laughed, walking to the bench.

Stocky yes but never awkward; there was nothing more beautiful than Tanigaki Genjirou walking around naked.

“Figures you’d be the first one in here,” he said.

“I wanted to get Cikapasi scrubbed before tending to myself,” said Tanigaki. “He’s never been to an onsen, and I wanted him clean before taking the waters,”

“My grandma always dragged me to the sento,”

“We had those nasty things all over Tohoku,” Tanigaki wrapped his hand in a rag and dipped it into his oil filled shell. “I just washed at home every night and every couple of days, soaked at a nearby rotenburo,” he coated the thin beard along his jawline and rubbed the oil into his cheeks and forehead.

“We used to take bets on who took longer in the baths,” Ogata watched him rub the rag down his nose and the along his neck. “You or Tsukishima,”

“The Sergeant and I spent most of our time in there talking about how filthy the rest of you were,” Tanigaki said, walking to the trough.

On his hands and knees, he dunked his head into the water. Coming back up, he expelled a breath. That simple act of rinsing his face and hair was most erotic thing Hyakunosuke ever saw, but his pride was plucked with the insult to his hygiene.

“I clean where it counts, Matagi,”

“Cleaning your dansei-ki aren’t the only things you should be doing,” he dabbed his face with a dry rag.

“My cock and balls are all I got time for these days,”

Tanigaki’s flaccid cock bounced as he walked to the bench with a full rinse bucket.

“Where are your clothes, Matagi?”

“Inkarmat took them to the laundress,” he straddled the bench and pulled items from his little bag. “I wash my clothes every three days no matter where we are. You should try it,”

“Are you saying I stink?”

“Ogata,” Tanigaki’s accent softened the t to a d. “Your nose is closer to you than mine is, how can you not smell it?”

Hyakunosuke lifted an arm and winced at his ripe odor.

“I do stink,” he said, enjoying the Matagi’s grin. “Is that Kao?”

“It is!” Tanigaki lifted a paper draped square. “Inkarmat bought it from a merchant in Iwamizawa. It’s wrapped so nice I almost don’t want to use it,”

Hyakunosuke joined him on the bench, taking in the pleasant aroma as Tanigaki removed its brown paper casing.

“Do you rub it on your body?”

“No, it’s for your face,” he said. “I wash with the oil first, then I put a bar of the Kao in this silk pouch here to wash the rest of the oil off,”

“This isn’t what you’ve smelled like lately-”

“—you’re talking about this?” he held up a tin filled with white powder.

Hyakunosuke sniffed and nodded, “What is that?”

“It’s soap from a French colony called Burkina,” his eyes glowed. “It’s made from the nuts of a shae tree. I found it in at an apothecary shop in Iwamizawa and Inkarmat bought it for me,”

“You are her gigolo, aren’t you Tanigaki?”

“No,” he said flatly.

“That smells good enough to eat,”

“You sound like Sugimoto,” he frowned.

“I’m going to let that insult slide,” straddling the bench with his back to Tanigaki, he scooted into the man’s space. “Wash me up with that soap,”

“Ogata!” he groused. “This powder is expensive,”

“Come on, Tanigaki,” he said. “You washed that ball-sack boy with it-”

“—his name is Cikapasi,” he scolded with a smile. “And you’re a grown man that knows how to clean himself,”

“Fine, I’ll do what I always do,” Hyakunosuke stepped to the trough and grabbed a cake of dry decaying soap. “I’ll rub my underarms with this shit and just pour a bucket of cold water on my head,”

“You have to scrub more than that!” he cried.

“Cold water rinse is all anyone needs,”

“Sit down,” he slapped the bench between his legs. “Let me scrub that hair,”

“My hair doesn’t stink, Matagi,” Hyakunosuke returned with a bucket. “I cream it daily,”

“That army-issue pomade is bad for your hair,” he griped. “I can’t believe how many of you use it,”

“Makes great lube,” leaning back, he draped his arms on the Matagi’s hairy thighs.

“Vulgar,” Tanigaki hissed. “Tell me that’s not what you used on me the other night,”

“I used the last of my seaweed oil,” he gripped the Matagi’s knees.

“Then that’s the last time you’re getting in me,” strong hands worked the soap in his hair into a lather that dripped down his neck. “Why did the barber shave the back but not the front?”

“I didn’t have enough money for a full cut,” he relished those fingers in his hair. “Not all of us can be gigolo’s, Tanigaki,”

“No,” Tanigaki said flatly. “She bought me these things before, what happened,”

Fingers began scratching softly behind his ears.

“That’s nice, Matagi,”

“This isn’t sexual, Ogata,”

“It could be-”

“—No,” soothing hands abandoned him. “Dip your head,”

Hyakunosuke leaned forward and dunked his head in the bucket. He worked the soap from his hair, presenting his ass to the man behind him. When the Matagi didn’t take the bait, he brought his head out of the water and shook it.

“Ogata!” Tanigaki cried, arms up.

“You don’t mind when that mutt shakes off on you,”

“Ryuu moves away,” Tanigaki pointed. “And that dog is gentleman!”

He flopped back down and leaned into him.

“Stop it,” Tanigaki made to push him away, but then yanked his shoulders. “Your ears are filthy!”

“I haven’t swabbed in a while,”

“Tilt your head,” a strong arm reached down and brought up a short stick and strip of gauze.

Head set against the Matagi’s firm pectoral, he closed his eyes and felt folded wet gauze touch the curve of his ear. Stick pressed in, it glided over the crevices around the canal.

His grandma had cleaned his ears like this every day when he was a boy. He’d anticipated her daily swabs as it was the only time anyone in the house ever touched him.

“Look at this nastiness!” Tanigaki held it up; white coated with thick brown wax and flecks of grit. “It’s like the inside of your gun,”

He grunted as Tanigaki cleaned the other ear. Tossing the spent swabs aside, the Matagi cradled Hyakunosuke’s head upon his thighs. He felt the Matagi’s soft penis against the scar on his cheek; his pubic hair smelled of rice bran and rose.

“Hold still,” he whispered, pushing a new swab at him.

“You can’t put it in my ear!”

“Hold still!” he barked.

Pleasurable wetness invaded, ending when his head was turned to clean the other ear.

“I always did the inside of Fumi’s ears,” Tanigaki said softly. “I hate earwax,”

Finished, he unceremoniously lifted Hyakunosuke off his lap. Unsettled by the sudden lack of skin, he forced himself back between the Matagi’s thighs.

“Ogata!

“Do my back,”

“Ugh, no!”

“Do as your told Private First Class Tanigaki!”

“I’m not in the military anymore,” Tanigaki said, coolly. “Neither are you,”

Hyakunosuke looked into his eyes, “Please, Tanigaki, please clean my back,”

“I want to hear you beg,” the Matagi’s eyes thinned.

“I’m begging you, Tanigaki Genjirou,” he employed his most beguiling voice. “I’m begging you to wash my back,”

Tanigaki sighed, “I cleaned one child already today,”

He squared his shoulders, “Use that nut soap,”

“The merchant called it shae, and it’s a butter,” Tanigaki said. “And considering how you use the word nut-”

“—Make sure you get under my arms,” he said.

“Wash your own armpits,” Tanigaki tossed a half-shell full of thick foam between his legs.

Hands glided down the length of his back.

“That’s scratchy,” he wiggled his shoulders.

“I mixed it with sand from Lake Toho,”

He craned his neck, “Why?”

“You need to get the dead skin off, Ogata,”

He laughed, “That’s what clothes are for-”

“—You’ve got clogged pores,”

“Black or white?”

“I don’t see any white,”

“Get them out, Tanigaki,”

“I’m not bursting your blackheads, Ogata!”

“I can’t do it,” he laughed. “Come on Tangaki, I’ll do yours-”

“—I don’t have clogged pores on my body!” Tanigaki declared. “Try spending most of your teens dealing with ingrown hair. You learn to exfoliate,”

“Please, Genji, come on,” he begged.

After a few moments, the Matagi’s thumbs began pressing into his skin.

“This is nasty,” he griped. “My mother and brother always did this for my father,”

“Never you?”

“I never touched my father, he was so oily,” he said, concentrating. “Makes me sick that I have his skin,”

“I never noticed you being oily,”

“I take care of myself,” he spat.

“Your standards are on the feminine side, Matagi,”

“Calling someone womanly isn’t an insult, Ogata,” he scolded. “If I had an ounce of the strength Huci, Inkarmat, and even Asirpa have, I’d consider myself blessed,”

“You’re good at this, Matagi, it doesn’t even hurt,”

“Quit yapping and hand me that rinse bucket,”

Cold water cascaded down his back. Skin slick, he scooted closer to Tanigaki and petted the man’s thighs. A towel found his head and gently rubbed his hair.

Tanigaki’s breath warmed the nape of his neck.

“About Inkarmat-”

“—I’ve no problem with her,” he said. “You’re not my wife Matagi, and if you want to make her yours, I don’t have a problem with that either,”

“I want to believe you,” Tanigaki’s chin rested on his shoulder. “I believe you, Hyakuno,”

He faced the handsome Matagi and stared long his deep brown eyes.

“TANIGAKI!” Sugimoto entered, startling them.

Amused eyes found Hyakunosuke’s, confessing that this poorly timed interruption was calculated.

“Hey, Sugimoto,” Tanigaki’s voice rose an octave. “How was your time with the anma?”

“It was great,” Sugimoto pulled off his jacket.

“Why’d you put your clothes back on?” Tanigaki asked.

“I,” Sugimoto walked to the bench, “Never took them off?”

“I had to strip down,” he said.

Hyakunosuke huffed a laugh; that blind man was no fool.

“Did he massage the insides of your thighs?” he demanded.

“No,” Sugimoto said. “He didn’t touch me anywhere like that,”

Hyakunosuke asked, “He rubbed your ass cheeks too, didn’t he Tanigaki?”

“He said it was part of the massage!” he cried.

Sugimoto laughed, even Hyakunosuke smiled.

“Yeah,” Sugimoto said. “I would’ve done the same if I were him,”

“That old pervert,” he frowned. “If he weren’t blind, I’d beat his ass,”

Naked, Sugimoto strutted around as if on display; an ugly son of a bitch with one foot in the grave and enough scars to qualify him as a prefecture map.

“Speaking of asses,” Sugimoto said. “Why are you washing Ogata?”

“Put your clothes on,” Hyakunosuke said. “You’re making us sick,”

“What’s that smell?” Sugimoto straddled the bench behind Tanigaki.

“It’s a soap that Inkarmat bought me,” Tanigaki said.

“Let me use some,” Sugimoto brazenly scooted closer, “I’ll wash your back,”

“Thanks, Sugimoto,” Tanigaki prepared a new half-shell by adding water to the powder and making a lather.

The smell of the shae butter no longer enticed Hyakunosuke; his first moment alone with the Matagi in days was being sullied by Sugimoto, the Immortal.

“Your skin is soft for a hairy man,” said Sugimoto, his hands rolling white suds over Tanigaki’s shoulders and down his arms.

Hyakunosuke spoke up, “You mean, for a clumsy Matagi oaf?”

Tanigaki leaned into Hyakunosuke to glare back at Sugimoto.

“What you did and said back at that kotan-”

“—I was playing to their prejudices. I don’t think you’re a clumsy oaf,” Sugimoto began cleaning himself. “You’re graceful, like a bear in the forest,”

Hyakunosuke moved to the trough to dry himself. Turning, he caught Tanigaki staring at him, trying to make sense of his anger. His brown eyes wavered when Sugimoto dumped water onto his neck and shoulders.

“Thanks, Sugimoto,” Tanigaki murmured. “Do you need me to wash your back?”

“You’re an adult, right Sugimoto?” Hyakunosuke demanded.

“I’m not a child,” Sugimoto’s eyes met his. “But I could use some help with my back,”

“No problem,” Hyakunosuke dropped a full bucket between them. “Turn around,”

“I should mind Cikapasi,” Tanigaki rose from the bench, his hand found Hyakunosuke’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Inkarmat lets him run wild, and I don’t want him alone with Shiraishi, he’s already teaching him new swear words,”

Hyakunosuke stared Sugimoto down as Tanigaki exited.

It would take only a few seconds to snatch up his rifle and put a bullet between Sugimoto’s eyes. Logic took hold before anything rash occurred; aiming a gun at someone like Sugimoto when he was looking right at you, was like signing your own death warrant.

Sugimoto tossed at a rag at him, “Get scrubbing, Ogata.”

He stood with the bench between his legs scrubbed the son of bitch’s back.

“You still seeking that gold for the woman you love?”

“You don’t interest me, Ogata,”

“And you don’t interest Tanigaki,”

Sugimoto raised the bucket and rinsed himself while Hyakunosuke’s still scrubbed.

“I knew there was a reason you saved him from that kotan,”

“You don’t know shit about me, Sugimoto,”

“I don’t trust you,” he said. “That’s some shit I know,”

“That hurts my feelings,” Hyakunosuke tossed the rag at his feet. “I thought we were on the same side,”

“You’re on your side, Ogata,” he stood. “No one else’s,”

“I can’t deny that,” gun in hand, he walked to the curtain.

Sugimoto followed, “Tanigaki’s a good man,”

“He’s no different than any other man from the 7th,”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong, Ogata,” Sugimoto blocked his path and pulled his hat back onto his head. “No matter how much you want him to be like you, that’s never going to happen. He’s not the man he used to be. He’s the first to admit being ashamed of the things he’s done, and that’s a hell of a lot more than I can say for you,”

Hyakunosuke bumped his shoulder as he passed.

“My soul isn’t your concern, Sugimoto,”

“Thanks for the scrub,” he smirked. “You’re a real team player,”

“I wasn’t too put out,” Hyakunosuke halted. “I got plenty of energy left, and I’m going need it for when ball-sac and the fortune teller go to sleep, and the Matagi follows me into the woods,”

“Ogata,” his voice crept closer, “Why do you make him close his eyes?”

Hyakunosuke’s grip tightened on the rifle.

“Yeah, I watch him with you,” he walked ahead and spoke without shame. “And I’ll watch him Inkarmat,”

“That’s not saying much for the woman you love, is it Sugimoto?”

“Men like Tanigaki and me enjoy pleasure from anyone,” his eyes gave Hyakunosuke the once over. “Tanigaki’s far more charitable than I am,”

Side by side they stepped over the narrow rocks toward the sound of Shiraishi’s voice.

“If you care anything at all for Genjirou Tanigaki,” Sugimoto said. “You’ll put some distance between you,”

“You should take your own advice,” said Hyakunosuke. “What kind of man puts a little girl in danger?”

**