Tokushirou focused on a patch of discolored stone.
“Sergeant,” flattened hands up, he brought the tips of his thumbs together to frame the scene. “Genjirou Tanigaki slept here,”
“That fall should’ve killed him,” said Tsukishima.
“Tell me,” he panned up to the bow of the ship. “Did our good Doctor Yamada guard himself with you today?”
Tsukishima nodded, “He wasn’t as willing to talk to us this time, Sir,”
“Expected. We did lie to him, didn’t we, Sergeant?” Tokushirou lowered his hands. “Lies appear to be the foundation of this current dose of chaos,”
“Sir?” asked Tsukishima.
“Mister Ogata got away from our Matagi,” he ran a gloved finger over the stained stone. “But then collected him from the hospital, why?”
“To kill him,” said Tsukishima.
“Given his predilection for severing loose ends,” pressure built between his eyes. “I’m almost inclined to agree, Sergeant,”
A wedding party spilled out onto the pier. Shrouded in white, the young women looked ready for burial. Quiet and demure, the man at her side proudly bowed to those celebrating their happiness.
Happiness had ruled his wedding day, just as it had when the child for whom the affair was enacted had been born.
“Yamada claims that Tanigaki has no memory of himself,” said Tsukishima. “What use could he be to Ogata in finding the gold?”
“Mister Ogata seeks what we all seek, Sergeant,” he watched the bride kiss her loved ones goodbye.
“What’s that, Sir?” said Tsukishima.
“Happiness,” he turned to his subordinate. “Our Mister Ogata passes for a sane man but beneath that human camouflage rests a detached child. He feels entitled to contentment but has no appreciation for why he doesn’t deserve it,”
“What's that got to do with Tanigaki?”
“Dear Sergeant,” he laughed. “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be in love?”
Tsukishima’s gaze dropped to the stones.
“There were rumors about Ogata,” he said. “But I don’t recall Private First Class Tanigaki ever being in his sights,”
“No, dear Sergeant, that was my doing,” Tokushirou closed his eyes. "I placed our Matagi in Ogata infested waters,”
“I recall you asking him to befriend the Second Lieutenant,”
“When my need to control Hanazawa senior was superlative,” he added. “My desperation led me to compromise young Hanazawa by using Ogata,”
“Ogata hated the Second Lieutenant,”
“Yes, and when young Hanazawa finally saw his half-brother as tainted beyond repair,” said Tokushirou. “I simply refreshed the bait,”
“I can hear the judgment in your tone, Sergeant,” pain bloomed above his eyes. “I’ve admonished myself enough since the unfortunate events at 203 Hill,”
“I was right about Ogata killing him,”
“That sliver of casing taken from Tanigaki’s skull,” he said. “It’s an Arisaka round?”
“I matched it personally, Sir,”
“After you struck Mister Ogata with your skillful aim,” he aligned his toes to the dock’s edge and studied the water below. “Mister Tanigaki likely brought him to our good Doctor Yamada,”
“Some of the nurses confirmed this, yes,” said Tsukishima. “I just can’t fathom why Tanigaki would help him unless his memory loss is that severe,”
“Tanigaki doesn’t want to recollect walking out on his family,” warmth slithered down his nose. “His guilt is a stain just like his blood on these stones,”
“He’s willfully helping Ogata?”
“Willing and able,” the chilly sea air calmed him. “Imagine, Sergeant, coming across a lump of clay that’s prime and ready to be molded,”
“I never considered Ogata an artist, Sir,”
Eighty meters across the pond were the red sashes the Matagi had tied around the thickest trees.
Hyakunosuke fired two shots and missing them both, called it a day.
A thin sheet of ice covered the creek, and water rushed beneath it like jostled sake in an upturned bottle. White weighed heavy on the foxtails as the wind whistled through their splintered stalks.
“Your ass must be frozen sitting in that snow,”
Tanigaki’s tone was cold like his ass. He pulled the rifle from Hyakunosuke’s arms and checked its load.
“Only two rounds missing,”
“They’re in the water,” he said. “That’s the best I can do,”
Tanigaki shoved the butt of the gun back into his lap.
“Yuusaku,” he snapped. “I’m not in the mood, today,”
“Get up, and take point,” said Tanigaki, but Hyakunosuke didn’t move. “I can stand here all night,”
Desperate for any sort of interaction with the Matagi, he jumped up and followed him to the nearest tree. They barely spoke anymore, much less touched, and the Matagi’s free time allowed him to fix the farmhouse roof.
“Here, brother,” he stabbed a dagger into the tree.
Hyakunosuke set the barrel on the flat of the blade.
“Mark the third tree from the left,” he said.
Knock-point lined up with the red sash, Hyakunosuke fired, kicking up ice along the opposite bank.
“Told you, Yuusaku,”
“Mark the tree again,”
“We’re wasting ammo,”
“Mark the tree, again,”
Barrel back on the blade, he watched as the Matagi’s fingers wrapped around it.
Tanigaki’s breath warmed his ear, “Are you lined up?”
He adjusted until the knock was even with the red sash.
“I am now,”
Tanigaki tugged on the narrow barrel, moving the knock almost a half-inch to the right.
“Take the shot,” he ordered.
Hyakunosuke depressed the trigger the moment Tanigaki’s fingers retreated. The bottom edge of the sash quivered when struck by the bullet.
“See that,” he sounded bored. “Retrain your aim,”
Elated, Hyakunosuke noticed his lunch on the ground, wrapped in a worn furoshiki.
“If that’s monkfish,” he said. “You can take it with you,”
“It’s zōni!” said Tanigaki, walking into the reeds.
Hyakunosuke fired eight more rounds, striking the red sash until there wasn’t enough left to bind it to the tree.
Satisfied, sat upon the snow with the furoshiki between his legs. Inside was a covered bowl still warm to the touch, the aroma of miso rising from the steamy broth.
No one made mochi the way Tanigaki Genjirou did; fried, baked, broiled, or boiled, his delivery was always outstanding. Sticks in hand, he snatched a grilled mochi from the liquid and bit into it, pulling with his sticks until the thin of soft stretched dough broke and fell back into the broth.
A clutch of grebes clustered by the shoreline.
In winter, their small bodies turned gray, but their ebony heads remained unchanged. The downy feather on their bellies was soft to the touch—the Matagi could use them to line those thick headbands of his.
Hand on his gun, he set them in his sights. Suddenly, cracked ice made the grebes scatter, and Tanigaki burst out from the reeds, panting.
“I just remembered what you told me about this place,” he said, tears in his eyes. “I brought you back, where he hurt you!”
Hyakunosuke set his bowl aside and stood.
“We’ll leave this place, brother,” he sobbed. “First thing in the morning-”
“—No,” Hyakunosuke took hold of him. “Bringing us here was the smart move, Tsurumi would never think to look for me here,”
Tanigaki choked, “I’m so sorry!”
“Remember what you told me about thinking,” he embraced him. “You’re thinking too hard, Yuusaku,”
A peel of thunder shook the ground.
“Winter in Ani,” he whispered. “It never rained,”
“What?” Hyakunosuke asked as a drop hit the Matagi’s brow.
“You said I lived there for a time, to prepare myself for being Genjirou,” he brought a hand on his head. “I remember it never rained in winter. It was always so humid, so sticky in summer, but I was a boy-”
“—father kept a house in Akita, remember?” Hyakunosuke sputtered. “It’s where your mother was born, Yuusaku,”
“The groundskeeper,” he whispered. “My real father,”
Another rumble of thunder brought a flash of light, and then a downpour. Tanigaki snatched up the gun and hoisted Hyakunosuke over his broad shoulder. Dashing through heavy rain, they reached the house and hurriedly stripped out of their wet clothes.
Inside, the Matagi paced the room with his fists pressed to his temples, “Why can’t I stop?”
He took Tanigaki’s face into his hands, “Look at me!”
Tanigaki focused until his breathing relaxed.
“Yuusaku,” he whispered. “The coals are still hot under the furo,”
“You won’t get in with me,” the Matagi’s bottom lip shivered. “Your grandma she scrubbed you in it, after he-”
“—it’s in my past,” he whispered, kissing him.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Tanigaki grabbed his wrists. “I’d kill for you,”
“I know, Yuusaku, I know,” he whispered. “It’s cold, let’s get in the tub,”
“I want to get drunk,” said Tanigaki. “I need a drink so bad,”
“That sounds good,” he grinned as dense arms swathed him.
Chilled skin warmed with each kiss and caress. Throaty murmurs became lost in the drumming rain. They feasted upon each other’s sex as they had in Kosaka, stopping when one of them came too close. Here, in the middle of nowhere without a care in the world, they took it slow and cried out as loudly as they wished.
After a time, Tanigaki rolled onto his back and raised his legs.
“The egg whites,” he whispered.
Hyakunosuke stole a kiss before rising to his feet. A ceramic jar sat upon the tansu with what he needed inside; while there, he spotted a length of rope in the sink, its end knotted into a loop.
“Come back to me,” he called.
Hyakunosuke found him tugging at his arousal.
“Yuusaku,” his fingers dipped into the jar before generously smearing the Matagi’s flesh. “There’s a noose in the sink,”
Eyes closed, Tanigaki smiled.
“I was going to kill you in your sleep,”
“Why would you do that?” he asked, twisting his thumb inside.
“Back in Asahikawa, during drills, you said if you couldn’t shoot a gun,” open eyes found him when the tip of his manhood touched Tanigaki’s flesh. “You’d rather die,”
Palms together and fingers threaded, one push of the hips buried Hyakunosuke deep, turning the Matagi’s groan into a sultry laugh.
“Harder,” he whined, head tipped back. “I need to feel it,”
Hyakunosuke leaned into their adjoined hands and began rocking.
“It feels so good,” he lifted his head and watched his own erection bounce. “Don’t stop, please brother,”
“Stop calling me that when we do this,” he growled. “Genjirou!”
Laughter peeled from Tanigaki, giving way to labored moans as his heels pressed into Hyakunosuke’s buttocks.
“Harder, please,” he stammered through his thrusts. “It’s the only thing that’s real!”
Those words were the only truth Hyakunosuke understood. Beneath him was a thick body and a wild heart, and he would consume every ounce of it until there was nothing left.
Gratification found the Matagi first, and the sight and sound of it brought Hyakunosuke there too.
Afterward, they took their time washing one another before soaking together in the furo. When the hot water proved too much for Tanigaki, he climbed out, dried off, and then slipped out the front door.
“Yuusaku?” when the Matagi returned, carrying a snow-chilled bottle of vodka, he asked, “Where did that come from?”
“Does it matter?” Tanigaki pared the metal seal free with a dagger and took the first sip.
“Pass it over, Yuusaku,” he said, hand out.
Tanigaki grinned, “Who used to get angry when the kisaru wasn’t passed,”
“That was Tamai,” he sniffed the bottle’s spitlip before taking a swig. “Hashish was in short supply in the trenches. If he offered you a smoke, you followed his rules,”
“I hated smoking hash,” said Tanigaki. “Upset my stomach,”
He took another swig, “Where did you get this nasty shit?”
“Liquor store owner in Saginuma keeps a box under the counter. I saw the words on the bottle, asked him how much,” Tanigaki grinned. “I’ve had this before,”
Hyakunosuke nodded, “Tsurumi opened a case of this shit during the blizzard in oh-five,”
“It was after his injury, on the way to the coast,” Tanigaki pointed his finger. “We drank it with him, those twins were there, those ugly bastards, what were their names?”
“Nikaidou,” he climbed out slowly and draped a towel over his shoulders.
“I hated those bastards,” Tanigaki said. “Did that bear I lured in during our ruse at the kotan kill one of them?”
Rather than answer, Hyakunosuke stumbled and fell upon the bench beside him.
“Left foot, right foot, big brother,” he laughed.
“I’ve been walking longer than you, Genjirou,”
“I might get used to that name, it feels right,” he mused, touching Hyakunosuke’s ear.
“What’re you doing, Yuusaku?”
“Sinna Kisar,” he whispered before laughing hysterically. “I’ve no idea what it means, but I got do this when I say it,”
“It means strange ear or something,”
“Shithead used to say it all the time, and grab my ears,” his smile faded. “I wonder how she’s doing?”
“Better than us I suspect,”
“Oh!” Tanigaki jumped up and took a long drink from the bottle. “I did something for you, and I forgot to tell you, you distracted me with your cock,”
“I distracted you?”
Tanigaki handed him the bottle and fled the washroom, returning moments later with a wooden crate.
“What’s that, Yuusaku?”
“I remembered what you told me about what he did to you,” he struggled to find the right words as Hyakunosuke rose from the bench. “What your grandmother did after,”
“They’re dead, Yuusaku-”
“—You never got closure,” he set the crate down. “I thought about how he went missing,”
“Can we talk about something else,”
Tanigaki put his hand over Hyakunosuke’s mouth.
“Look at the komado yard, brother,”
The sandy square around the oven-pit was freshly combed.
“Your grandmother, she cut him up,” the Matagi giggled like a child behind his ear. “She cut him up and buried the pieces,”
Mother stopped cooking and eating after his grandpa disappeared—that’s when he’d been tasked with making her anglerfish nabe.
How many weeks had his grandma cooked over that body without a hint of remorse?
Tanigaki removed the lid from the box, creating an open coffin with worn splintered bits stacked neatly under the crown of a collapsed skull.
“Why did you dig them up, Yuusaku?”
“You deserve closure,” Tanigaki moved in from behind, draping an arm across his hips and wrapping the other around his neck. “Don’t you want to piss on his bones, brother?”
He melted in the Matagi’s arms.
“You don’t need to suffer the likes of him anymore,” a prickly beard grazed his neck. “You’ve got me, to have and to hold, without any of the pain,”
He tilted his head back onto Tanigaki’s shoulder while a possessive, yet gentle hand aimed his penis at the box.
Unable to quell his laughter, he brought his hand down over Tanigaki’s and sent a streak of urine across the box. More rained upon the skull, washing it free of grit.
“Now we can stay,” he reached back and palmed the back of Tanigaki’s head. “We can stay here forever, Genjirou,”
“That’s not my name,” whispered the Matagi.
“You stop calling me brother when we fuck,” he said. “And I’ll stop calling you Genjirou,”
Arms tightened around him, “You’re a vile man,”
Hyakunosuke broke free of his embrace.
“A vile man that needs to breathe,” he snapped. “Get this out of here,”
“We can burn it outside,”
“Keep the snakes warm,” he mumbled, tying his fundoshi.
“I don’t want you dressed,”
“It’s cold, and I’m tired,” he didn’t sense the Matagi behind him until the fundoshi was torn off with a forceful tug. “Yuusaku!”
“What’s wrong with you now, brother?”
“Please,” he said. “Take that man outside,”
Tanigaki’s eyes shifted to the box.
“Don’t be dressed when I come back,”
Hyakunosuke retrieved his fundoshi and found the hip-rig torn. Pulling on a yukata, he unrolled the futon and snatched the quilt from where Tanigaki kept it hanging.
“After all that I’ve done for you,” Tanigaki reappeared. “You disobey me,”
“Shut that door, its cold,” he snapped. “I’m not like you, I can’t walk around in winter outside with no shirt on,”
Out of his monpe, Tanigaki crawled atop the quilt.
“Get under the blanket, Yuusaku,”
“I don’t want to yet,”
“Well move so I can get under it,”
“I don’t want you under it yet, either,”
“I’m tired,” he sighed. “That vodka hit me in the ass,”
A barking dog came from somewhere outside.
Tanigaki rolled over the floor and doused the fire in the irori. Pistol in hand, he took a position by the washroom window while Hyakunosuke grabbed the rifle.
“You think its drifters passing through,” asked the Matagi as Hyakunosuke stepped to the front door.
“Not this down the road,”
“There’s only one road through this swamp-”
“—and this is the last house on it,”
“Tomorrow morning, I’ll walk the flats,”
“I’ll go with you,”
“No, brother,” he said. “You’ll stay inside,”
“I’m not a child,”
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ve been a child since we got here,”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I’m Hanazawa Yuusaku,” Tanigaki narrowed his eyes. “I should be home with my mother, but instead I’m here taking care of you,”
“Taking care of me?” he railed. “You were laid up like an infant when I found you!”
“Don’t think I owe you shit anymore for Kosaka,” he declared. “You’d still be bound up in a useless knot if I didn’t offer my ass to make you feel like a man,”
Hyakunosuke tossed the rifle onto the futon.
“You played me?”
“This bickering isn’t pointless,” he hissed. “Just get your shit together and keep it together!”
Hyakunosuke eyed the rifle, “Those tears when remembering what I confessed about my grandpa?”
“You needed to feel like you were in control again,” he said. “I need you to be the man you were,”
“The man I was wouldn’t be here right now,”
Tanigaki set the pistol down, “You’re not going anywhere,”
“I survived worse shit without you, Matagi,”
Tanigaki got a hand around Hyakunosuke’s neck, slamming his back onto the futon, the air escaped his lungs as the Matagi moved over him.
“During arguments with me, brother,” fingers dug into his jugular. “Don’t refer to me by some cover name I used while working for Tsurumi,”
Hyakunosuke landed a fist to Tanigaki’s ribs.
“I think there’s a mosquito in here,” laughter came from his mouth, but anger clouded his eyes.
Hyakunosuke’s manipulative skills rivaled Tsurumi’s, but too much time was invested weaving lies instead of pruning Tanigaki’s evolving psyche.
It was the Matagi’s well-hidden anger that provoked the real Yuusaku in Manchuria. His pathetic brother was drawn to damaged men, desperate to save them from themselves.
Hyakunosuke held no such desires until encountering Tanigaki in the trenches, but the allure faded when the Matagi’s unbridled rage was replaced in Hokkaido by some inane need to redeem himself.
Frantic, he felt around for something to use as a weapon, but losing his dying breath made it hard to focus. Suddenly, Tanigaki released him and rolled away, taking the rifle with him.
On his hands and knees, Hyakunosuke struggled for air.
“—I’m sorry, brother,” Tanigaki’s voice invaded. “I’ll leave in the morning-”
“—No,” he hugged himself and turned away. “Just don’t hurt me like that again,”
“—I’m sorry,” Tanigaki grabbed his shoulder. “I lost my temper, and it won’t happen again,”
“Let go of me, Yuusaku,”
“I’m so sorry, please,” Tanigaki turned Hyakunosuke onto his back and pressed his face into his neck. “I’ll do better, brother, I promise you, please,”
Tanigaki’s body was a pleasurable weight atop his own. It had never been his intention to remake him into Yuusaku; he just wanted Tanigaki to become the man he was meant to be.
“Let go of me,” his eye ached.
“Don’t push me away, please,” the Matagi’s tears felt real.
“Don’t ever grab me like that again,” hands grasped Tanigaki’s hair. “Do you understand me, Yuusaku?”
“I just want to hold you,” breath warmed his chest. “I’m begging you, please, just let me hold you right now,”
That night, Hyakunosuke slept soundly in Tanigaki’s embrace.
The creamy sweet perfume of blue-eye blooms mingled with the scent of mossy green pond scum; these were signs of Springtime in Ibaraki.
A thriving rice plantation once surrounded this marsh, navigable by a lone serpentine road that now carried only those desperate for banishment.
Hyakunosuke Ogata’s talent for emotional detachment made for an excellent sniper, but his honed unfriendliness came tempered with calculated promiscuity, the clear mark of someone sexualized too young in life. He wouldn’t have returned to Ibaraki of his own volition.
No, retreating here was Tanigaki’s doing.
Under the falling petals of a plum tree, Tokushirou marveled at the strapping Matagi.
Sharpened stick in hand, he stood shirtless in thigh-high water with only a matanpushi around his forehead. Perhaps a bit of Tanigaki Genjirou remained inside that damaged brain.
Tokushirou retrieved a fallen branch from the ground and snapped it in two.
A thinly bearded jawline presented itself before brown eyes regarded him with familiarity.
“Second Lieutenant Hanazawa Yuusaku,” he declared. “It’s as if I’m staring at a ghost.”
Intention flashed in the Matagi’s eyes, prompting Tokushirou to drop to the ground. The bullet struck his frontal-bone cap, splitting in two.
Pistol out, he took aim only to find Tanigaki replaced by a faint ripple in the water.
“Sir!” Tsukishima clamored from the reeds. “We found the farmhouse,”
“Tell the others to take care,” on his feet, he placed a rag to his exposed head. “It seems that Mister Ogata has reacquired his deadly aim,”
Tsukishima reached into his saddlebag and unwrapping the gauze, revealed another porcelain cap. He handed it over and turned his back to allow Tokushirou his privacy.
“Your attentiveness, Sergeant,” he said, pulling it over his scar tissue. “There are times I’m not worthy,”
“This isn’t one of those times, Sir,”
“Anything of interest left behind?” he asked.
“A local man with his throat cut and his boat missing,”
“Inform our allies in Hokkaido,” he said. “Mister Ogata and the Matagi will be coming their way,”