The avoidance was maddening, but Genjirou preferred it to the venom.
Trust didn’t exist in solitary animals.
Ogata’s unpredictable disposition reminded him of a cat from his childhood. Always guarded, the sinewy feline set up housekeeping in Genjirou’s room and soon slept only in his bed. On the rare occasion she relaxed enough to present her belly, she allowed him just a few strokes before clamping down and biting.
Since first meeting Ogata, he sensed the man wasn’t right in the head. Core rumors proved true while others were refreshingly baseless. He found comfort in Ogata’s emotional failings; they made it easier to accept his own.
Sensitive to his melancholy, Inkarmat loaned a sympathetic ear. Pure souls didn’t exist and seeking them out was a fool’s errand; a keen observation from a woman he’d come to love more with each new day.
Genjirou housed no false perception of Ogata Hyakunosuke’s purity; the sniper was an overripe pear with a deceptive skin still firm to the touch.
He recounted his actions before they arrived in Kitami, desperate to figure out what brought on this latest dose of contempt.
The hostility started right after the ambush at the hot spring. Kiroranke helped him back to the ryokan after a bullet passed through him cleanly. Blood leaking down his leg, they rejoined the others, and that’s when he caught a flash of concern on Ogata’s face.
One blink and it was gone.
Ogata’s sights had shifted from Kiroranke and with an angry spark that outlasted his previous concern for Genjirou, his eyes went cold. There was no sign of the fire aimed at Sugimoto in the washroom—only disdain.
That dog was more useful than you were, Private First Class Tanigaki, he said. Go back to Akita.
Ogata’s rancor had persisted on the trek to Kitami; not even Inkarmat knew what to make of the man’s sudden mood.
Genjirou maintained a slower pace while the wound in his backside healed. Inkarmat remained by his side and Cikapasi walked ahead with Shiraishi and the others. Snide observances came every time Genjirou opened his mouth. Having reached his fill, he’d demanded Ogata join the others if the sound of his voice proved too grating.
The night before arriving in Kitami, they’d made camp near a stream.
When Ogata complained that the wounded Matagi slowed them down, Sugimoto had urged Ogata to catch up with Hijikata, reminding the sniper that his alliance began with the ronin in the first place.
It had shocked Genjirou when Ogata abandoned them that night.
They arrived in Kitami and found Hijikata’s group waiting at an expensive inn. Convening in the dining room, Genjirou was pleasantly surprised to find Ogata’s uniform as clean as his hair. Unfortunately, the sniper continued to avoid him.
At the meal, Inkarmat managed to entice a few polite words, but he pointedly ignored Genjirou. Hijikata was another matter; sitting beside him, he discreetly peppered him with questions about Ogata. He wouldn’t speak ill of the man, sharing only what he knew of the sniper’s rumored pedigree.
Ogata finished his tea and exchanged a few words with the young man Kantarou before excusing himself. Several moments passed before Genjirou did the same. The streets outside were pleasantly quiet until Ogata stepped from the alley with a burning cigarette in his mouth.
“I take it your wound is healed, Matagi,” he flicked the spent stick onto the road. “Next time try taking one in the head,”
Too stunned to react, he turned to find Ogata gone.
Unable to sleep, he joined Ushiyama in an American card game with Asirpa and Cikapasi; he found solace in those young enough to have never known heartbreak. After many comical rounds, he bid them goodnight and ventured upstairs.
The scent of clove and tobacco lingered in the hall.
Ogata stood before a cracked window clad only in his trousers and socks, a burning stick dangling from his lips.
Genjirou needed to wordlessly pass, but he wouldn’t.
“We need to talk,”
“Leave me alone, Tanigaki,” said Ogata.
“What’s gotten you so foul with me?”
“That wound in your ass,” Ogata continued to stare out the window. “It’s clearly made you deaf,”
“At the onsen, you said my relationship with Inkarmat wasn’t an issue,”
Ogata forced a laugh and exhaled smoke.
“Is it Sugimoto?” he asked. “Nothing’s going on between us,”
“You, arrogant bitch,” Ogata said. “I’m not that emotionally invested, Tanigaki. You were just something for my cock to do until this mission gained momentum,”
Face hot with anger, he fixed his palm to the back of Ogata’s head and bounced it off the window glass. The sniper tumbled back and hit the wall. Eyes pooled with water as he slowly slid to the floor.
“Ogata,” he gasped. “I’m sorry-”
“—it’s fine,” Ogata gasped. “I tend to have this effect on people,”
“I had no right to do that, I’m sorry,” taking a knee, he retrieved the dropped cigarette and placed it between Ogata’s lips. “I’ll leave you alone,”
“You can at least get me back to my room, Tanigaki,”
Genjirou helped him to his feet, hands clutching the man’s biceps and steering him down the hall. At the threshold of Ogata’s door, fingers grasped the back of his trousers and lugged him into the dark.
The door closed and the chain lock rattled.
“Ogata!” he whispered, frantic. “What if the others are sleeping?”
“This is my room,” Ogata’s dark figure moved like a marionette on strings as he kicked free of his pants. “No one wants to share a room with me,”
Caged by habit, he began undoing the buttons on his shirt, but when Ogata invaded his space with grabbing hands and hungry lips, he withdrew. This wasn’t the woods on a moonless night; too many painful words had left their mark since their last rendezvous.
“Stop,” he pushed at him. “We need to talk,”
“You’re playing with me, aren’t you Tanigaki?” Ogata’s shadowy arm brought a hand to his brow. “You want me, but you push me away,”
“Your hatefulness pushes me away,” he reached for him in the dark. “I want you to talk to me, tell me what I’ve done to make you so angry?”
“I’m not angry, Matagi,” Ogata’s hand captured his and brought it to his growing arousal. “I thought damming the river would make it easy, but that just drowned me,”
Teeth nipped at the fine hairs on Genjirou’s jaw. Fingers grasped his backside, bringing their hips together. Ogata’s smooth muscular chest felt good pressed against him, and his neck and ears tasted of Kao-soap.
“That’s not an answer,” he sighed, pushing him away.
“I want you,” Ogata fell to his knees and with deft fingers, freed Genjirou’s manhood. “I want this,”
Wetness sheathed his sex.
“Please,” he gently pushed at Ogata’s shoulders. “We need to talk,”
“I know what you need, Tanigaki,” eager hands curled around the back of his knees. “I’ll let you fire up the lamp, I’ll let you watch me die,”
Genjirou’s resistance faded. There were no warm nights in Ezo but dragging the sniper into the only patch of moonlight on the floor, his skin felt balmy to the touch. A talented tongue prodded its way under Genjirou’s foreskin, a pleasurable invasion that made him forget every bullet and foul word Ogata ever fired.
“Look at me, Matagi,” he begged, tongue lapping around the head. “Watch me die for you,”
Ogata’s fingers dug deep into his thigh while fisted his own arousal.
His glistening body rocked with enough fervor that Genjirou steadied him with gentle hands to the neck. Teeth glided delicately down his shaft, and warm breath between them cooled the slickness left behind.
When the head of his sex became raw to the touch, he brought his thumbs together beneath Ogata’s chin and gave it a push; there were limits to pleasure, and the man on his knees understood that.
In his own world Ogata began bucking his hips and jerking himself faster. True to his promise, he brought his face up. Mouth slack, frantic grunts gave way to winded whining. Glossy eyes rolled back. His bottom lip trembled as warm wetness spat across Genjirou’s toes.
The sight of Ogata dying brought about Genjirou’s end. Slit pressed to the suture scar on his cheek, Genjirou shuddered and droned softly as his spill left its mark upon the man’s face.
He fell to his knees as Ogata rose to his feet.
The man licked at the corner of his mouth before stepping to the washbowl and splashed water onto his face. On the floor beside him with a rag, he mopped the mess from the floorboards, and then wiped clean Genjirou’s foot.
It was as if Ogata was never there.
“Come over here, Tanigaki,” he whispered from the bed.
Spent manhood shoved back into his trousers, he lay upon the space made for him.
“I don’t like these high beds,”
“There’s more frame bed’s here in Ezo than back home,” said Ogata.
“This isn’t your room, is it?”
“It’s Hijikata’s,” Ogata said, smiling.
Silence reigned with the sniper pressed to Genjirou’s back. They lay there for several moments, unable to align their breathing.
“You can’t go to Abashiri,”
Genjirou lifted his head, “What?”
“You don’t need to go to Abashiri,”
“I must go-”
“—Take the boy and Inkarmat back to the kotan,”
“Why would I do that after coming all this way?”
“Damn you, Tanigaki,” Ogata sat up. “Things are going to get bloody. You know what that’s like, you’ve been in the shit before,”
“If their plan works-”
“—There’s no plan where people don’t get shot,” Ogata said. “You want to put the boy and the woman you care about in the shit?”
Genjirou considered his words.
“How many times have you knotted up inside of her?” Ogata asked. “She’s probably caught by now, and you want to put her in a situation like that?”
Genjirou shook his head, “She’s not pregnant,”
“You don’t know that, Genji,” Ogata said. “What about the boy? You’re the closest thing that boy has left to a father, and you’re going to risk your life?”
Genjirou never considered the boy’s attachment to him.
“There’s enough of us here now for whatever plan Sugimoto and the others formulate,” Ogata’s hand petted his back. “You need to take the kid and Inkarmat back to the kotan where it’s safe,”
Sadly, there was nothing in Ogata’s eyes Genjirou hadn’t seen before.
“I’ve come all this way, for Asirpa,”
“Sugimoto will die before he lets anything happen to her,”
“I can’t run out on them like this-”
“—Listen to me, I’ll get our share of the gold,”
“I don’t care about the gold,”
“We won’t have a life without it,” Ogata snapped. “I’ll get our share and come back for you,”
“Come back for me?”
“If that’s what you want, yes. You, me, Inkarmat, and the kid,” Ogata smoothed back a fallen lock of hair on his brow. “We’ll have enough gold to build a kotan of our own,”
“We can’t live with you,”
“Damn you, Tanigaki,” Ogata climbed from the bed, frustrated. “You used to be so good at doing what you were told,”
“You’re asking me to turn my back on these people-”
“—I don’t want you going to Abashiri!” Ogata said through his teeth.
“Tell me why?”
“Damn you, Tanigaki!”
“What’s gotten into you?”
Ogata got down on his knees and grabbed Genjirou’s hands.
“I got a feeling, things might go bad,”
He shook his head, “That’s not enough for me,”
Ogata detached and with a sigh and snatched up his cigarette case.
“You’re saying I’m not enough,” he asked, lighting a stick.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” he hesitated. “You’re just not good for-”
“—If you feel anything for me, Genji, you’ll do as I ask,” his words came on wisps of smoke.
“I’ve always been drawn to you,” he confessed. “But your nature makes you so unpredictable,”
“I feel so strongly for you, Hyakuno, but I don’t trust you,” Genjirou confessed. “Even if I push aside every misgiving I have and say yes to being with you, there’s no way I would involve Inkarmat or Cikapasi. Not with you,”
Ogata forced a smile, “I’m that damaged?”
“The vitriol you spew when you’re angry, I don’t want that anywhere near my so—Cikapasi,” he eyed the floor then, unsure of what he was feeling.
“Then take him back to Akita,” Ogata dropped his lit smoke into the water bowl. “Take him on a Matagi hunt and fuck him,”
“I wouldn’t do that to a child!” he growled. “Now you’re just spouting venom, Ogata Hyakunosuke,”
“I’m sorry, I know you wouldn’t do that,” sadness marked Ogata’s face. “If you feel anything for me, you won’t go to Abashiri,”
This was unfamiliar territory and Genjirou didn’t like it at all. He rose from the bed and grabbed his shirt from the floor.
“I’ll talk to Inkarmat,”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“I don’t make decisions for Inkarmat,”
“She makes plenty of decisions for you, Matagi,”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s working for Tsurumi,” Ogata snapped. “I don’t think she cares about the gold anymore. All she wants is you. The only way to get you out of a desertion charge is to make a deal with the Lieutenant,”
“She wouldn’t do that,”
“She’s crafty, Tanigaki, and she loves you,” said Ogata. “Believe me, I know exactly how she’s thinking right now,”
“Do you love me?”
“I can’t believe you need to hear me say it,” Ogata scowled.
“Everyone needs to hear someone say it at least once in their life,” he grabbed the doorknob. “Perhaps you didn’t hear it enough in yours,”
“If you go to Abashiri,” Ogata declared. “We’re through, Genji,”
“Where’s this coming from?” he pleaded. “Talk to me, please,”
“If you go to Abashiri,” Ogata’s voice was stone. “You and I are finished,”
Genjirou punched the door.
“For once just do as I say!” Ogata hissed.
“I can’t do this anymore, I just can’t,” he opened the door and stepped in the hall.
Door shut he heard the washbowl break as it struck the door, followed by the sound of Ogata cursing his name.