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Stolen Soul [盗まれた魂]

Chapter Text

That first week, Ogata slept fitfully.

Second Lieutenant Koito stood vigil beside the Sergeant to ensure his quick recovery, but no one seemed to give a damn about Ogata. After the Sergeant began walking around, Genji pushed the issue of finding a proper doctor for the man.

A heated argument ensued, and it was decided that a Russian surgeon should be fetched from the nearby hospital. A short, stout man whose heavy beard stank of fish, he arrived with a Russian soldier whose face was horribly scarred.

Inkarmat would’ve adored his mangled mouth and the blue eyes above it.

The surgeon spoke Russian to the Sergeant, explaining that Ogata’s enucleation needed cleaning before a conformer could be placed into the socket.

They woke Ogata with foul-smelling salts and alive to the pain for the first time, he shrieked until bringing up what little fluids remained in his stomach. Genji stepped in to hold Ogata’s arms over his head as a wood speculum was pressed into the bloodied socket.

Eyelid open, the doctor scraped at the hallow with a curette, shaving off pulpy bits of flesh. The disfigured soldier sat upon Ogata’s legs and took a strange joy in his suffering, while Genji couldn’t help but be haunted by Kenichi’s ruptured eyes.

When Ogata finally passed out, the doctor pressed an almond-shaped piece of glass into his socket. He removed the speculum and then gently pulled the eyelid down, knitting it shut with a single stitch.

Afterward, he shoved a brown bottle into Genji’s hand and spat at him in Russian. Sergeant Tsukishima explained that the ether was to keep Ogata’s pain in check.

Genji wasn’t sure why the caring of Ogata fell to him, but he took on the task without protest.

All swelling would subside within a week, but the bandage needed changing daily. The area around the eye was to be cleaned three times a day with fresh water and a soft rag, no salt-water from the sea.

Saline caked into a build-up that prevented tears, and tears were essential to healing.

Ogata never fully woke, and his lags of whining drove the others to shelter elsewhere. Genji tolerated his droning until exhaustion compelled him to place an ether-soaked rag onto the man’s face.

A local woman changed out the bedding furs each day, but she wouldn’t touch Ogata.

Sugimoto refused to go near him, and Shiraishi walked away from any mention of his name. Not even Asirpa spared Ogata a glance when forced inside to retrieve her bow.

Unwilling to let the man’s hygiene suffer, Genji removed his clothes every morning, scrubbing each piece before hanging them over a fire outside. Twice a day, he wiped down the sniper’s body and ran a fine comb through his hair to remove the oily build-up.

It had been a peaceful time until his comrades invaded the chad-ryv to discuss leaving Karafuto. Sugimoto convened the meeting and immediately began an argument by declaring his intentions.

“Shiraishi and I are taking Asirpa back to Hokkaido,”

“Word has been sent to First Lieutenant Tsurumi,” Koito countered. “Our rendezvous instructions are clear, that’s how we’ll all proceed,”

“We will proceed,” said Sugimoto. “However Asirpa wants to proceed,”

“He won’t hurt the girl,” Tsukishima assured.

Koito nodded, “That's right, he needs her,”

Shiraishi stared at the floor thoughtfully.

“And when he doesn’t need her?”

“I know what Tsurumi does to people that refuse to join his cause,” Sugimoto added.

“If she wants what’s best for her people,” Koito snapped. “She’ll cooperate,”

“Is that a threat?” Sugimoto snapped.

“We shouldn’t be discussing Asirpa without her being here,” Shiraishi said.

“She’s a child,” Koito smirked. “She doesn't need to be here,”

Sugimoto stepped into him, “What did you just say?” 

“Can you take this outside?” said Genji, coming between them.

Koito huffed, “We wouldn’t want to disturb your precious patient,”

“Why are you still tending to him?” Sugimoto asked.

“He’s a human being that needs help,” said Genji.

“That’s debatable,” Sugimoto mumbled.

Shiraishi scolded, “Sugimoto,”

“How will we proceed with Ogata?” Tsukishima asked.

“Ogata Hyakunosuke is going back to Asahikawa to answer for his crime,” Koito frowned at the slumbering sniper. “He’s going back if I have to carry him on my shoulder the entire way,”

“What crime?” Genji thought of his own desertion.

Koito narrowed his eyes, “Did the bullet move, Tanigaki?”

Genji touched to the back of his head as Tsukishima stood.

“That was uncalled for, Sir,” he said and then exited.

“He’s a deserter and a murderer, Private,” Koito spoke through his teeth. “He’s going to answer for everything he did during the war, and afterward here in Hokkaido,” and with that, he exited the ryv.

“What bullet is he talking about, Tanigaki?” asked Shiraishi.

“I got shot at 203 Hill,” Genji said.

“It’s still in there?” Sugimoto asked.

“A portion went into the back of my head,” he replied.

Shiraishi felt around Genji’s hairline, “Can you feel it?”

“I feel it when it rains,” he pushed his hand away.

“It’s a pain in the ass when a round hits someone else before finding you,” Sugimoto mused. “It’s busted to shit when it breaks the skin and does everything but kill you,”

“It’s a partial,” he explained. “By the time I got to a triage ship, the entry wound healed. They kept me laid up for weeks, making sure its first victim’s blood didn’t infect me,”

“This is where Sugimoto tells you about this leg,” Shiraishi wandered out. “I need to eat breakfast, so I’ll skip the gruesome details,”

“A broken round pierced my thigh bone,” said Sugimoto. “The damn bone healed around it, they wanted to break my leg to remove it,”

Suddenly, Ogata moaned out, his body twisting and turning under the furs. Genji rushed to cradle his jaw, and Sugimoto demanded to know what he was doing.

“I’m trying to wean him off the ether,” he said, rubbing Ogata’s temples until he quieted. “This helps him sleep when the pain wakes him,”

Sugimoto curled his lip, “Let him hurt,”

“Just go, Sugimoto,” he sighed.

Sugimoto knelt beside him, “He tried to kill you, Tanigaki,”

“The first day we met,” he snapped. “I held Asirpa at gunpoint, I threatened her life,”

Tension lined Sugimoto’s lips.

“I would’ve shot her then, but not now,” he added. “People change if given a chance, Sugimoto. No one’s ever given Ogata a chance,”

“We’re leaving in two days,” Sugimoto stood. “With or without Ogata,”

“You can’t leave him here,” said Genji. “He’ll die,”

“I can live with that,” Sugimoto collected his gun and moved toward the door. “Asirpa knows she didn’t kill him, that’s all that matters,”

“You’re wrong, Sugimoto,” Genji said.

“I can live with that too,” he said, walking out of the ryv.

After a few moments alone, Koito’s stinging taunt prompted him to touch the dimpled skin behind his ear.

“Tanigaki-nispa?”

Startled, Genji fell over and found Asirpa standing there.

“You’re not staying here with Ogata, are you?” she asked.

“We’re all going back to Otaru,”

Asirpa shook her head, “Sugimoto just told mister Tsukishima that if he doesn’t leave Ogata behind, we aren’t going to help the Lieutenant,”

“You can’t let him do that, it’s not the right thing-”

“—Isn’t it?” she glanced at Ogata. “I’ve never been so angry with anyone in my life,”

Hands knotted, she stepped to the bed.

“I trusted you!” she declared. “You were my only friend after losing Sugimoto! You ate with me, talked with me, and you listened to me! That’s what you did!”

Genji reached for her, but she moved from his touch.

“You were never my friend! It was always about the gold!” she cried. “I’m tired of people pretending to care when all they want is that gold!”

Ogata remained asleep.

“You aimed your rifle at me, you said people like me shouldn’t exist,” she said, trembling. “People like you shouldn’t exist! The world is too good for people like you!”

Genji opened his arms as she ran at him.

He held her tight to his chest as she screamed; rage should never hold court in a child’s heart. After a few moments, she detached from him and steeled herself again at Ogata’s bedside.

“I must forgive you, but not today,” she turned from the sleeping figure and confronted Genji. “I cut the poison from your leg once, remember?”

Genji nodded and took her hand.

“Leave him behind, Tanigaki-nispa,” she whispered. “He’s poisonous, too much for anyone to cut out,”

After she departed, he considered her words.

“I don’t know what to do,” he fell to his knees, and with his head pressed to the bedding, he clutched the blanket. “I’ve been given so many chances, and yet there was no room in my heart to spare him a chance.”

In a flash, he was on the ice, face to face with a man who at first had no reason to think he was about to be attacked.

“Deep down, I knew it was an accident, but I was so angry, I couldn’t forgive, I just couldn’t,” tears welled up in his eyes. “The moment I saw Kiroranke, I went after him like an animal, just I like did to Kenichi!”

Genjiro cried so fervently that he failed to notice Ogata’s hand close around his index finger.

 

*

 

What goes around, comes around, big brother.

Blood trickled from the darkness under his visor and made a line down to the tip of his nose. The first foul drip fell hot upon Hyakunosuke’s lip, the second stung his eye. One grunt dissolved the specter until there was nothing but white linen.

There was white linen over his face!

He grabbed at the fabric in a panic and poorly aimed, drummed his fingers hard against the damaged eye. Agony seized his sinuses and screaming just made the pain worse.

“It’s all right…” a deep voice brought vapors that turned the world black.

 

**

 

What goes around comes around...

The back of Yuusaku’s uniform was soiled with the foul-smelling mud of Mukden. His brother’s presence flickered in the dark, his attention fixed on something beyond the wood planks that lined the ceiling.

A gentle lulling rocked Hyakunosuke’s gut; everything swayed except him. He craned his neck to see what captured his ghostly brother’s sights and found Tanigaki down on one knee in the lamplight.

Shadows danced upon the crates as strong arms lifted a wooden bucket. Water rained over the Matagi’s head and left a glistening sheen down his broad back; his only regret in allying with Kiroranke was his inability to pursue Tanigaki Genjirou.

How dare you…

“—You’re dead,” he hissed. “Go away!”

How dare you think such things…

“Shush,” the Matagi smelled of soap. “You need to rest,” 

“We’re on a ship,” Hyakunosuke protested, his throat raw.

The vapors entered fast, and with them came more sleep.

 

***

 

Total recall delivered a different kind of pain.

He’d faltered on the pack ice, his brother confronting him with an arrow aimed—no, it was the girl, Asirpa. She’d let loose when Sugimoto cried her name. The bolt had struck hard, and the bitter cold numbed its violence.

Hyakunosuke lay now in the steerage of a ship, nestled tight in a bed of straw between battened crates.

A fire burned nearby—no, it was a thick bellied lamp filled with paraffin. Fast asleep in its warm glow was the Matagi, naked under a whale skin blanket.

The worn muscles in his stomach made sitting up near impossible, but when he finally managed, he felt a tug on his arm. A length of rope fixed his right wrist tight to a ballast chain.

A shadow appeared, bundled up and hooded against the darkness.

“Don’t douse me again, Tanigaki!”

Firm hands pushed him onto his back before a vaporous rag touched his face.

“I’m sorry, Ogata, I can’t have you giving away our position…”

 

****

 

Hyakunosuke tested the binding and found it looser today.

Beside his head, a tin of petroleum jelly, no larger than his thumbnail, rested atop a pile of blood-stained gauze.

Next to where he lay and dressed in the rags of an Ainu, the Matagi busied himself over a white enamel bowl.

An eye trained on the bigger man’s back, he plucked up the tin and pinched open its lid. He managed to scoop a glob free with his thumb and slowly moved his hand across his waist to deposit the muck onto his wrist.

“You’re awake,” Tanigaki brought the bowl to his bedside.

“If you deliver me to Tsurumi,” he croaked. “He’ll kill me.”

Tanigaki avoided his gaze and gathered up the gauze, dropping the tin to the floor.

“Are you listening to me?” he asked when the Matagi ducked and felt around the floor for the tin.

Tanigaki returned with a brown bottle in his hand, “Are you going to scream?”

“I’ve screamed enough,” he said, shaking his head.

Tanigaki, oblivious to Hyakunosuke’s wiggling right arm, dunked a small rag into the washbowl.

“Sugimoto convinced Tsukishima and Koito to leave you in Karafuto,” he said, removing the bandage.

“Sugimoto extended me mercy,” he winced as the rag gently dabbed at his sensitive skin.

“Asirpa tried to change his mind,” Tanigaki explained. “She didn’t want your death on his conscience,”

“Your conscience recovered fast,” wrist slick, he twisted his hand slowly in the bind. “Unless that confession you made was bullshit,”

Tanigaki patted the eye dry, “I’ll never forget my part in Kiroranke’s death,”

“The tears were a nice touch, snotty nose too,”

“I meant every word I said,” he applied a clean patch of gauze and then gently wrapped a fresh bandage around Hyakunosuke’s head. “I’ll never forgive myself,”

“Killing me just adds another notch, you know,”

“You’re going back to Tsurumi because it’s the only way I’ll ever be free,” he said, mouth turned down. “I don’t care about the gold, or the Imperial Army, not anymore,”

“You’re handing me over to get your scrap of Ezo?”

“It’s more than that,” he said quickly. “He’s got Inkarmat and if I don’t offer him something in return for letting me walk away with her-”

“—I guess that settles it then, right, Tanigaki?”

He dunked the rag into the bowl and wrung it out.

“It’s fine,” said Hyakunosuke, his wrist nearly free. “Death was going to find me eventually,”

Tanigaki drew the rag across the back of his own neck.

“Christians have this tradition called confession,” he added. “Will you hear my confession, Tanigaki?”

“I’d make a poor sacrament lead,” said the Matagi. “My sins are as numerous as yours,”

“You know about the Catholic faith?” he asked, carefully wrenching his hand free.

“The Russians have their version,” the Matagi replied. “Then there’s the Portuguese,”

“You’re turning me over to be shot, Tanigaki,” he pleaded. “Won’t you at least hear me out?”

After a sigh, the Matagi sat seiza, “What do you have to confess?”

“I was seven the first time it happened, Tanigaki. The funny thing is, I actually like taking it up the ass. It feels so good when it’s done right,”

Suddenly uncomfortable, the Matagi lowered his gaze.

“There were rules in my grandpa’s house, and one of them was to never touch his carbine. I took that carbine to the marsh one day, the same marsh I went to with my grandma. The ducks waddled up to me, thinking I brought them some crumbs.

“That’s where he found me. He was drunk, and I knew it because when he got drunk, he walked the marsh barefoot in his hippari. He demanded to know what I was doing. That’s how he instigated every conversation with me. What are you doing, boy?

“Sometimes, I still feel his grip around my wrist, dragging me into the reeds. That first time he slapped me around good because I fought him. Afterward, I laid underneath him and just counted his breaths.”

Tanigaki whispered, “I’m sorry, Ogata,”

“He cried too, the same way you did back in Karafuto. He carried me to the lake and washed me. He was so gentle, Tanigaki, he handled me like a broken cup he wanted to keep. I never felt more wanted in my life.

“You see, the Ogata’s weren’t physical people, Tanigaki. There were no hugs in our home, no kisses, no pats on the head. I’d see other kids in town holding their parents’ hands or being carried in their parents’ arms, I envied them so much,”

Hyakunosuke flexed his liberated hand.

“I was so desperate to be touched after that. It turned me into a real seducer. He tore my ass up every time, but it was worth it just to have those arms around me after he shot his load,”

“You didn’t seduce him,” he whispered. “You were a child,”

“One day, I waited for him with my clothes off, Tanigaki. My first mistake. He was so angry. Called me a whore like my mother before beating the shit out of me,” he glanced the Matagi and saw a tear fall from his eye. “He wasn’t ashamed of hurting me, he was ashamed of my power over him,”

“He hurt you,” said Tanigaki. “You didn’t provoke him-”

“—I limped back to the house and tried to sneak inside, but grandma caught me. She took one look at me and asked if grandpa touched me. I lied and said some man got hold of me, but my grandma wasn’t a fool.

“The whole time she scrubbed me down, she went on about him spoiling me like he did my mother. You see, there was a reason my mother left home so young, Tanigaki, a reason she turned out the way she did,”

Tanigaki shook his head, “Ogata-”

“—Grandpa liked them young, and it didn’t matter what was between your legs. My grandma was eleven when she got pregnant. Her family forced her to marry him, but when she bore my mom, she was free of his futon,”

“Your grandfather’s a degenerate,” Tanigaki snapped.

“My skin hurt after she scrubbed me. She put me in a hot tub of water and gave me some knotweed tea to sleep it off. When I woke the next day, I couldn’t find my grandpa. I took his carbine out, but he never came.

“A few weeks later, the owner of the rice fields came looking for him. Grandma claimed that my grandpa ran out on her, and she offered up my mother to convince him of the truth,” Hyakunosuke swallowed hard. “I remember seeing them through the window. He just pounded into her, and she just laid there with this empty look on her face. She looked right at me, Tanigaki, without a hint of passion in her eyes,”

“Ogata,” he said. “You weren’t responsible for her or that situation,”

“I eventually killed my mother, Tanigaki. Her mind and heart were broken, and so I released her from this world. Don’t ask me how I did it.  My mother was a soulless bitch, and I’m tired of being the one that has to tell her story.”

Hyakunosuke sensed him moving closer.

“After burying her, grandma sold everything and moved us to Mito. She toiled in a brothel, scrubbing men’s sins out of kimonos and pillows,” he turned to the Matagi. “That coin enabled my rise in the world, Tanigaki. I went from a good school to the army academy, and she went from washing obi to wrapping one around her neck,”

“It’s not your fault, Ogata,” he whispered.

“The day I enlisted was the day she killed herself. She died for me, and I let the city toss her into an unmarked grave. She never hugged me, but I understood why. She refrained for my sake, Tanigaki. She knew that showing me the physical love I craved would weaken my resolve. She refrained, just like you did with my brother at 203 Hill,”

Tanigaki gave a start.

“Second Lieutenant Hanazawa Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki recoiled as if burned.

“I know all about the two of you, Matagi.”

“Nothing went on between us,” he exclaimed.

“Did he tell you about me?” Hyakunosuke demanded. “His big brother that no one liked, and he couldn’t understand why,”

“You,” he whispered. “You took him to that brothel,”

“What a fool I was, thinking that he was incorruptible,” Hyakunosuke leered. “I simply didn’t use the right bait,”

Tanigaki’s face went red with shame.

“You’re wrong about him, Ogata-”

“—I followed him to where you were sleeping in the trenches,” Hyakunosuke sat up and swung his legs over the hay bed. “Oh, the way he looked at you, I knew that look. I’d seen that look on my grandpa,”

“You saw nothing-”

“—When he started crying,” he laughed. “You took your hat off and shielded his face so no one would see,”

“Men looked up to him-”

“—You lent a sympathetic ear just like the one you’re giving me now,” he focused on the clear path between the crates beyond. “I heard every fucking word that day. How he always wanted a brother, and how I turned out to be so vile,”

Tanigaki appeared lost in the memory.

“Calling me vile I could abide, I’d been called much worse in this life,” Hyakunosuke gnashed his teeth. “But for him to say I was just like our father, that I couldn’t abide,”

Tanigaki stood, hand cradling his stomach.

“When he kissed you, and you didn’t pull away, that was noble, Matagi, but you were a true soldier, loyal to the division,” Hyakunosuke mocked. “He offered you his virginity, and you refused to put our lives at risk by spoiling the flagbearer,”

Tanigaki glared at him, “Ogata-”

“—I wasn’t sure if Tsurumi put you up to it, the way he’d put me up to it, but damn if you didn’t get the job done!” it hurt Hyakunosuke to laugh. “My brother would’ve followed you anywhere, even to a brothel,”

“I was asked to be his friend!” the Matagi shouted.

“But there was more, wasn’t there?” he demanded. “That final push, when you shoved that flag into his hands and told him to follow you out. The look in his eyes, it was so pathetic. He finally found a man willing to take a Russian bullet for him,”

Tanigaki’s hand went to the back of his head.

“Pity you took a Japanese bullet instead,” Hyakunosuke planted his feet firmly on the floor. “I fired the shot that tore through my brother’s brain and lodged itself into that thick Matagi skull of yours,”

“You were there when I opened my eyes,”

“I was ready to dig that fragment out until Tsurumi galloped through on his horse, ordering everyone back to the trenches. You stood up like happened, but then you saw my brother and cried like a baby,” slowly Hyakunosuke stood. “You dragged Yuusaku back to the trench-”

“—Why’d you kill him?” Tanigaki cried. “All he ever did was love you, Ogata! He wanted an ally against his father’s plans for him!”

“Our father didn’t even invite me to his wake,” steadily he took first steps toward the Matagi. “He brought you out of recovery to see my brother off into the next world. Brought you into his home and sat you next to his wife!”

“He was my friend!”

“We all know what happens to your friends, don’t we Tanigaki?” Hyakunosuke teased. “We all had reputations in the Division-?”

“—Shut your mouth, Ogata!”

“Son of a wildcat is a wildcat, too,” Hyakunosuke grinned. “Share a whore with the Matagi, and you’ll end up on his shaft, just like her,”

He jumped up, his hands balled into fists.

“Are you going to let your anger get the better of you again, Tanigaki?” he goaded. “Are you going to let your emotions cloud your judgment to the point that someone loses their life, again?”

“You’re a vile man, Ogata Hyakunosuke!”

“I can hear Kiroranke screaming your name!” he lunged when Tanigaki came at him, tackling the taller man’s shins and toppling him to the ground.

Impaired by his monocular vision, he charged sloppily through the maze of crates, whimpering when sharp corners brought pain. He stumbled on the stairs and pushed through the metal door.

Daylight blinding him, he fell against the starboard grate and peered over its edge. The ship was moored to a bollard on the dock by a thick anchor chain.

He pulled his shirt off and twisted its ends to make a rope before climbing out onto the dense, knotted metal. Both ends tight in his grasp, he rolled off the chain and then dangled in the air.

Far below, strangers toiled about unaware of presence. He kicked his legs in unison, desperate to build enough momentum to start sliding down.

Suddenly, twine fell across his face, it then dragged behind his ears and tightened under his chin.

He thrust a hand between it and his throat, releasing the shirt and falling from the chain. The constricted twine forced his knuckles against his jugular, and he choked as the enraged Matagi reeled him sloppily up the hull.

Hyakunosuke needed to keep breathing long enough to reach the underside of Tanigaki’s boot. At the precipice of the grate, he came alive and stuck both feet to the railing.

He snatched hold of the rope and yanked Tanigaki over the top rail. Screams echoed from below as he pulled himself onto the deck

Down on the cobblestones, a crowd gathered around the fallen Tanigaki, spread eagle with a halo of blood around his head growing larger with each passing moment.

Chapter Text

Hyakunosuke’s neck was stiff from being tilted.

“I don’t know who tended to this wound, but they did a fine job maintaining the damage,” said the old man. “Enucleation’s often come with severe periorbital scarring without the proper aftercare,”

“My nurse was diligent,”

The old man brought up a cotton swab on a stick.

“Can you feel this?”

“Feel what?”

“The nerves are dead,” the old man sighed as he flipped open the small wood box beside the exam chair. “Just as I suspected,” 

Set neatly into each of the boxes square compartments were glassy white half-moon shields, each with a realistic iris and pupil painted on it.

“Your nerve endings are dead, that means a perfect fit isn’t required,” the old man aimed his head at the box. “These are all German glass, their prices set. I don’t negotiate, and I don’t accept installments,”

The arrogant silver-hair was the only ocularist this far north; no doubt, Tsurumi would seek out men like him in his quest to locate Hyakunosuke.

“I’ll return with the funds,” he said, pulling the rabbit-fur eye patch down from his forehead. “But I’d prefer something that didn’t look like an eye,”

The old man nodded, “You want milky glass or coal black?”

“Black suits me,” Hyakunosuke replied.

Back on the streets, a tempest ushered in a cloud burst.

Keen to protect their fancy hats, many men in western sack suits snatched up what remained of the morning shinbun. After the rain faded, they tossed aside their makeshift visors, littering the street with runaway newsprint.

Loose pages rushed through the narrow alleys before being sucked to the rooftops. One stubborn sheet attached itself to Hyakunosuke’s leg, and upon it was a photo of the Kourakukan, an unfinished theater located in the center of town.

The early arrival of its kabuki actors was big news in a grubby mining town like Kosaka. Beneath it, however, ran a follow-up story that caught his attention.

 

Nameless Man Remains Unclaimed
Kosaka Shinbun – 1909 AUG 23

 

After tumbling from the deck of a kitamaebune on March 14, the Man with No Name woke on the morning of August 5, mere months after undergoing brain surgery at Kosaka Mine Hospital.

 

Tanigaki Genjirou was still alive!

 

The Japanese man wore the clothes of an Ainu but carried no identification. Local doctors tending to his injuries discovered a fragmented bullet in his skull and notified the Imperial Army offices in Akita.
On May 9, esteemed neurosurgeon Rickman Godlee, visiting nearby Akita as a guest of Lord Kobuta, operated on the unknown man before a packed house of surgeons hailing from all over Japan. The esteemed Godly removed the foreig-

 

-The only thing tying Hyakunosuke to his brother’s execution was that casing. Would a western doctor, or any of those fancy Tokyo surgeons, even know an Arisaka round from a Russian seven-five?

 

Representatives of the 8th Division visited the man but were unable to match his face to any of their identification records. Upon waking with no memory of his name or how he came to be in Kosaka, administrators allowed families with sons listed as missing to visit.
To date, no one has claimed the Man with No Name.

 

The 8th Division in Akita wouldn’t have any record of him; Tsurumi migrated his loyalists’ files to Hokkaido under the guise of discharging them as former tondenhei.

 

Kosaka Mine Hospital began vetting all visitors due to the peak physical condition of the Man with No Name making him a target for false claims. Photos are being withheld at this time to screen out...

 

That mining company likely made haste sending scouts to collect the Matagi, the local Yakuza too. A functional idiot with a healthy back and no memory of where he came from was the perfect mark.

Tanigaki didn’t know his name, or anything about his life before they dug out that casing. Damn. Leaving Kosaka was still a top priority, but this situation with the Matagi was just too perfect to ignore.

Paper in hand, Hyakunosuke jogged back to the machiya, where his upstairs room sat under the watchful eye of a salty shopkeeper’s widow.

Stranded in Kosaka almost five months, petty theft enabled him to eat, but he despised wearing the same miner’s rags every day under a dull haori.

The only alternative was his uniform, and he hated the thought of wearing it.

Jacket and trousers still clung to the pegs where he’d left them in May. Both pieces smelled strongly of smoke, fitting since he planned to burn them someday.

It took fifteen minutes to cross town in his old army boots.

Like most things in Kosaka, the hospital was a work-in-progress. Craftsmen mulled about looking more haggard than the patients in the waiting area.

Inside, a young attendant staffed the reception desk.

“Can I help you, sir?” his button-down vest was white like his trousers.

Hyakunosuke removed his cap.

 “I’m here about the Man with No Name,”

 The attendant’s eyes fell to his shoulder patch, “Sergeant Tsukishima, we weren’t expecting you until October,”

 “There’s no war on Hokkaido, Sir,” he passed a hand over his hair, careful not to drag his eye-patch. “We can afford to be overly punctual.”

 “Forgive my ignorance, I’m unfamiliar with the rank and file,” the attendant came around the desk, his pressed black shirt the same color as his fine leather shoes. “You are Sergeant Tsukishima, yes?”

 “No, sir,” he said. “I’m Superior Private Ogata,”

 Caught off guard, the attendant gave a short bow.

 “I’ll retrieve Doctor Yamada,”

 Once alone, Hyakunosuke ascended the stairs and found no sign of the Matagi behind any of the curtained doorways.

 Back on the first floor, the intake area contained only a coughing miner who sat apart from a couple of women with congested children.

 Through the panel-doors came a distinct chuckle, and he followed it to a grassy court where a phalanx of bleached sheets whipped in the breeze.

 The maze of linen led to a stretch of sand. Soap bubbles floated on the air as children in hospice robes romped around swatting at them, their heads shorn, and some still bearing surgical scars.

 In the center of them with his legs folded sat the Matagi. A little girl fidgeted on his lap as he blew suds from a straw. She giggled as the boys clapped the ones in reach, popping them.

 Far from slumped over and babbling, the Matagi sported a head of dark cropped hair and a clean-shaven jaw. The girl stood suddenly and bent over to whisper in his ear.

 “Hiro,” said the Matagi to one of the boys. “Let Yuki have a turn bursting the clouds,”

 Defiant, the boy shook his head.

 “Hiro,” he said gently. “What’s the third rule?”

 The boy sighed, “We take turns,”

“Come here,” he said, arms open wide.

 The frowning boy fled and when the Matagi stood to follow his eyes set upon Hyakunosuke.

 “I know you!”

 Hyakunosuke retreated as the Matagi approached.

 Suddenly, the attendant was behind him, and over the grass came an elderly man, his white lab coat kicking up in the breeze.

“Doctor Yamada!” Tanigaki exclaimed. “I know this man, his name’s Ogata. Hyakunosuke Ogata!”

 “Forgive my not coming sooner, Superior Private,” the doctor bowed.

“It’s fine, sir,” heart racing, Hyakunosuke felt the cold sweat trickling behind his ear.

“Ogata!” childlike eyes regarded him with joy. “I know you,”

 “This man is from the 27th Regiment,” said the attendant.

 Hyakunosuke cleared his throat, “May we speak privately, Doctor?”

“Wait, Ogata, right?” Tanigaki grabbed his shoulder. “Do you know who I am?”

 Hyakunosuke gently removed the Matagi’s hand before flashing his best smile, “Of course, I know you, you’re my brother, Yuusaku,”

 Tanigaki brought his hands together as if at a shrine.

 “My name is Yuusaku,” he turned to the nurses that had gathered and whisked the largest off her feet, “I have a name! It’s Yuusaku!”

 They fawned over the towering Matagi as Hyakunosuke followed Yamada up the stairs.

 The office was bright, its lone window lacking a curtain. Beneath the desk dust formed where a broom never crossed.

 “I searched Hokkaido for him, Doctor. I didn’t expect to find him here,” free of his uniform jacket, he turned out the collar. “My paperwork is on file at the Division’s barracks,”

 “It’s fine, Superior Private Ogata,” Yamada said after glancing the name. “We only started demanding identification after unsavory types began to appear with claims that your brother worked for them, or owed them money,”

 Jacket back on, he leaned against the door.

 “Yuusaku was our flag bearer at 203 Hill,”

 “I knew he was something special,” Yamada smiled wide. “A flagbearer makes perfect sense given his nature,”

 “His nature?” asked Hyakunosuke.

 “He’s like a docile bear,” Yamada grinned.

 “Yuusaku was discharged after he was shot, but he left the triage ship and failed to return home,” Hyakunosuke watched as Yamada pulled out a familiar large metal box. “He wrote home to his mother that he wanted to travel Hokkaido to get his bearings,”

 Yamada raised its flip-top lid, “His mother?”

 “We’ve got the same father, Doctor Yamada,” Hyakunosuke explained. “Our mothers are different,”

 “That’s common these days,” Yamada said. “What’s the family name?”

 He hesitated, “It’s Hanazawa,”

 “In this day and age, a man having another family is nothing to be ashamed of Superior Private Ogata,” Yamada’s fingers sped over scalloped file tips. “Here he is, Hanazawa Yuusaku, Second Lieutenant,” the doctor stared up at him, confused. “He’s listed here as deceased and processed to his family-”

 “—Yuusaku’s mother turned that soldier’s body over to his family,” he feigned embarrassment. “They sent her the wrong boy, then she got his letter. She knew he was alive, but, please understand, Sir, he’s not a deserter-”

 “—Mister Ogata,” Yamada softened. “I treated my share of men damaged by Manchuria. Your brother was young, likely felt dejected and lost, but he was obviously on his way home.”

 Hyakunosuke forced a smile, “When the letters stopped coming in Spring, his mother reached out to me. I went to Hokkaido, and I was about to give up if I didn’t find him working the mines here,”

 “Is your father with you?” Yamada asked.

 Hyakunosuke lowered his gaze to hide his grin.

“Our father committed seppuku after Manchuria,”

 “May I ask why?” Yamada said.

 “Lieutenant General Hanazawa felt that his victory at Port Arthur cost too many lives,” he explained. “He didn’t have the will to continue after believing Yuusaku was one of those lives,”

 “Yuusaku isn’t aware of this, is he?” Yamada shook his head. “Forgive me, it’s none of my business,”

 “Can you tell me what exactly happened to him?” Hyakunosuke sat in a chair beside the desk. “How did he end up here?”

 “He fell from a ship that sailed out of Hakodate,” Yamada said. “He was brought here with a cracked skull and caught the interest of a brilliant neurosurgeon from the west.”

 “His mother was told about a fragment in his head?”

 “Removed and discarded,” Yamada boasted. “The swelling subsided quickly, and the cranium healed,” his smile faded; “Unfortunately, Yuusaku woke with no memory of how he came to fall from that ship,”

 “No memory at all?”

 Yamada sighed, “He didn’t even know his name,”

 “I don’t understand, Doctor, he can walk and talk,”

 “There’s no such thing as complete retrograde amnesia, Superior Private Ogata,” Yamada sat and removed his glasses. “His procedural memory is intact, and his episodic and declarative memory may return in time,”

 “He’ll remember exactly who he is?”

 “I can’t say that for certain,” Yamada cautioned. “Your brother went through a traumatic brain injury on top of excision to the hippocampus. Full autobiographical memory, as we call it, may never return,”

 “I’ll explain that to his mother,” he said, displaying disappointment, though inside he was laughing like a child.

 “Make sure she knows to be patient with him,” Yamada added. “Bombarding him with stories from the past won’t bring back what’s no longer there. The best she can hope for is spontaneous recovery, but that would be what the westerners call, a miracle,”

He stood, “Thank you for everything that you’ve done,”

“Your brother’s a survivor,” Yamada did the same and bowed.

 “He’s certainly that,” he said, tipping to the man.

“Men like Hanazawa Yuusaku,” Yamada added. “They deserve a chance to be happy,”

 Hyakunosuke imagined cutting the man’s throat.

 

*

Tanigaki’s room was outside the children’s wing and found by following the high-pitched giggles of the nurses.

All were crowded in his room, some old enough to be his mother. The younger ones were in tears at the prospect of losing their docile bear.

“Big brother,” said the Matagi. “Are you taking me home?”

“That’s presumptuous, Yuusaku,” he snapped, but then every woman in the room regarded him coldly. “I thought we’d travel a bit before returning to Tokyo,”

“I’m from Tokyo?” the Matagi asked, eyes wide.

One of the women shook her head, “I would’ve sworn he was from Tohoku!”

“You just want to take him home with you,” said another, sparking laughter.

Hyakunosuke tapped the steerage trunk with his boot.

“It’s my life in a box,” the Matagi’s stupid grin faded when his comment failed to amuse. “The local police found it on the ship and assumed it was mine. The crew picked it clean, it was empty when I got it,”

Folded jinbei were stacked high beneath three hangers that held a kosode and two yukatas.

“It’s not empty now, is it, Yuusaku?”

“I’m not used to having a name,” the Matagi blurted.

“You’ll have to get used to it, won’t you?”

Tanigaki politely addressed the women, “You’ve all been so good to me, I’ll never forget any of you,” when one started sobbing, he hugged her tight; the others wrapped their arms around them.

“I must be alone with my brother now,” he ushered them out and kissed some of the older ones. Upon returning, he hurriedly dabbed his eyes with his sleeve.

“It’s okay to cry, Yuusaku,”

“May I, um,” the Matagi paused a moment. “I want to hug you, brother, but I have this feeling you don’t like to be touched,”

“I don’t,” he said and opened his arms. “But it’s always been different with you, Yuusaku,”

Stiff limbs slipped beneath his arms and lifted him from the ground.

“I know you,” the Matagi’s breath tickled his ear. “You love monkfish, men, and shooting things,”

He pushed free, and Tanigaki backed away, unsure.

“I’m sorry, brother,”

He eyed the trunk, “Where’d all these clothes come from?”

“Families came to see me when after the paper said I was in the army,” Tanigaki touched the back of his head. “They came to see if I was their son. I felt terrible when they saw me, and I wasn’t theirs,”

Hyakunosuke pulled open the trunk’s third drawer and fondled the rolled-up Tabi socks that sat atop dozens of clean fundoshi.

“The mothers cried, then I’d cry,” he added. “They always came back to say goodbye before leaving Kosaka, and they always brought little gifts from town,”

“I’ve nothing to give you, Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki reached for his hand, “You gave me a name, brother,” but recoiled upon seeing Hyakunosuke’s disapproval.

“You’ve been around these women too long,” he scolded. “Men have boundaries, Yuusaku,”

“I know that,” Tanigaki’s eyes turned cold, a brief reminder of the man he once knew. “My emotions are getting the better of me right now,”

“Wear something light,” he said. “It’s warm today.”

“Is it still raining?” Tanigaki pulled an umbrella out from under his bed. “Doctor Yamada’s wife bought me this when I first started walking,”

“Keep it folded,” he replied. “The wind will rip it to shreds,”

**

Did the Matagi appreciate the effect he had on women?

Five minutes into their return to the machiya and his landlady had already volunteered her name; Hyakunosuke lived there over four months, and not once did she ever share it with him.

The former Iko Minagawa latched onto the Matagi after he obligated them to share tea, and while he rambled on to her about finding his big brother, Hyakunosuke imagined grabbing the boney bitch by her throat and choking her to the death.

After making their escape, the widow caught them on the stairs with a small cask of sake in her grasp.

“Y’saku-kun!” she shoved the bottle at him. “You take this as a welcome,”

“We’re not staying, Misses Minagawa,” he pouted. “My brother spent the last of his cash on my medication, he says we got to move because he can’t pay the rent this week-”

“—You can pay next week,” she narrowed her eyes at Hyakunosuke but bared her blue stained teeth in a smile to the Matagi.

“Thanks, Misses Minagawa!” he got his arms around her and spun her about the step as she howled like a child. “If there’s anything you need from me, anything at all, I’m at your disposal,”

Some muscle was needed to clean that unused shop space on the first floor. Once, she’d gruffly asked him if he was interested in reducing his rent—naturally, he declined.

Inside Hyakunosuke’s little room, Tanigaki pulled the samue from his broad shoulders and hung it neatly on the peg. It was evident from his physique that while in the hospital, he’d kept up with the daily physicals learned on active duty.

“Can I open a window?” the pants he wore clung tight to his thick thighs and formed a second skin around the globes of his ass.

Hyakunosuke shrugged, “It doesn’t stay up,”

“It just needs a little help,” the Matagi’s eyes wandered the room until they found the dagger beside the rolled-up futon. Lifting the window, he stabbed the knife into the pane and let the top frame down slowly upon the hilt. “See, this works just fine,” 

A rush of cold night air entered and flipped the cover flap on Hyakunosuke’s journal. Detailed inside its leather-bound pages was his quest for the gold, along with his thoughts on all those encountered along the way—including the Matagi.

Quickly he collected it from the floor and stowed it behind the curtain of the closet.

“This is freezing,” Tanigaki cradled the sake bottle in his large hands. “She must’ve kept it on ice,”

“Be careful, Yuusaku,” Hyakunosuke took it from him, the chill tickling his fingers. “You’re not a drinker,”

“I’ve no idea what it tastes like,” the Matagi griped.

Hyakunosuke removed the hollow cap and poured some into it. Ice-cold sake was an indulgence he hadn’t experienced in a long time, and after knocking back a few, he found Tanigaki staring at him.

“I want a turn, brother,” he said, bushy brows furrowed.

“I don’t know, Yuusaku, sake isn’t good for your head,”

He snatched it from him and took a swig from the bottle.

“I like it,” he grimaced, before knocking back another.

“That’s something new,” Hyakunosuke took the bottle. “You were never a drinker, Yuusaku,”

“Doctor Yamada said I’d experience things differently,” he walked to the gable-trunk and undid its buckles. “I don’t remember sake, but I dream of beer all the time,”

“You acquired a taste for beer in Hokkaido,” Hyakunosuke sipped more of the sake. “You wrote to your mother about it, recounting your travels,”

My mother?” he stepped from his pants and folded them neatly over his arm. “You mean our mother,”

Hyakunosuke turned away, unwilling to gawk at him in his fundoshi. “Our father didn’t stay with my mother,” he mumbled, “He married yours,”

“Sounds like a cad,” said the Matagi, pulling on his yukata.

“He was good to you and your mother,”

“Why do I get angry at the word father,” he asked, his lips turned down. “I didn’t get on very well with him, did I?”

“He wasn’t a kind man to others,”

“Do you have a picture of him?” he took the bottle offered. “I can’t remember his face,”

“Can we discuss him another time?” Hyakunosuke didn’t want his first pleasant night in months ruined by talk of his father.  

“I don’t think we’re supposed to drink it like this, brother,” he knocked back a few more gulps with a grimace.

Hyakunosuke smiled and snatched the bottle from him.

“Sake is meant to be savored in delicate quantities,”

“Tsurumi!” laughed the Matagi.

“You remember our commanding officer?”

“I remember he liked to hear himself talk,” he sat on the window seat, his thick legs together as he locked his ankles. “I remember his face making me sick, but I cannot remember his face,”

Hyakunosuke knocked back a gulp of sake when the night air parted the Matagi’s yukata.

How many times in the barracks wash house had he clandestinely stared at the man’s shapely chest? The hairs upon it were darker than ever, and all he desired was to scratch his way into them.

“You can see the mountains from here,” said the Matagi softly, before coming to life and waving at someone outside. “Hello!”

“You’re a new face,” that local drawl came from the knife merchant, a corpulent fool with long oily hair and a double chin that trembled when he spoke. “What’s your name, handsome?”

“It’s a secret,” the Matagi laughed. “You should get that steel inside before it rains,”

Hyakunosuke pushed the drape aside, causing the merchant to quickly amble into the nearest alley.

“What did you do to him, big brother?”

“Bought a knife from him when I first got here,” he replied, handing over the bottle. “The hilt came off while I was practicing stabs on a bag of barley. I wanted a refund. He refused. I insisted,”

“You threatened him?”

“I might’ve snarled a bit,” he bragged, taking off his jacket.

Tanigaki chuckled, “Does that harpy downstairs have a common tub in this place?”

“I thought you liked the widow?”

“She’s our landlord,” he said. “I got to like her to her face,”

“She’ll put you to work, Yuusaku,” he turned with a smile and found Tanigaki with his head against the window frame, eyes closed to the night.

“Thank you for saving me, brother,” said the Matagi. “If I had to spend another month in that hospital with those kids and those women, I was going to open a vein,”

Tanigaki was as striking now as he was his first day in Asahikawa. Not one to smile, the tall and thickly built Akita native always exhibiting a quiet detachment that stirred something within Hyakunosuke.

“Pass the bottle,” he added, raising an open hand.

Hyakunosuke gave it to him and then pulled off his shirt. Tanigaki gave his body the once over before glancing down at his own chest.

“I’m naturally sparse, we’re not all like you, Matagi,”

He pulled the bottle from his lips, “What’s a matagi?”

“There’s no soaking tub here, but there’s a shared well,”

“There must be a free sentō nearby,” he sighed. “For the miners?”

Hyakunosuke never considered taking advantage of the mining company facilities just two blocks east.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said, his attention out the window. “I wish it were daytime, we could see the sky turn an angry blue. I like that, it brings out the green in the trees,”

Hyakunosuke took the bottle, “What trees?”

“There’s a tree at the hospital,” he said, tipsy.

Hyakunosuke turned away and pulled the tincture of morphine from his pocket that Yamada sold him to help with Tanigaki’s migraines. After tapping a healthy dose into the lid, he filled it to the brim with sake.

“Let’s drink to your return, Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki took the cap, brought it to his lips, and emptied it.

“Ugh! It’s getting warm, or turning,”

“Probably has too much of our swill in it,” he unrolled the futon and watched the Matagi’s head dip. “You should lay down, Yuusaku,”

“Yeah, I sh-” wavering on his feet, he folded onto the floor.

“I told you, you weren’t a drinker, Yuusaku,” Hyakunosuke dragged him by the leg from the window, and then rolled him onto the futon.

“Something’s wrong, broth-”  he tried to sit up, but Hyakunosuke used his foot to push him down.

“Get some sleep, Matagi,” Hyakunosuke said with a smile, then yanked the knife from the frame and let the window slam shut.

Out of his trousers, he peeled off his fundoshi and gaped at the Matagi’s riven yukata. He sat on the drugged man’s thick thighs and admired the bristly chest between his knees.

After several moments of watching it rise and fall, the cloying aroma of decay surrounded him.

How dare you…

He tipped his head back and turned to his rotting brother.

“Tanigaki took care of me, Yuusaku,” he leered, slapping his erection against the mound in the Matagi’s fundoshi.

You’re a vile man…

“Just like our father,” he yanked aside the fabric, exposing that thick manhood, soft under the spell of morphine.

What goes around comes around, brother.

“Are you watching, Yuusaku?” he joined the pliable flesh to his own and stroked them as one. “I’ve been dreaming of this thing for so long,”

Ghostly boots flanked the Matagi’s head as Hyakunosuke rocked his hips. The warm flesh in his hands felt so good.

He tore the patch from his eye, “Watch me, Yuusaku,”

You’re a vile man, brother.

“Watch me!” he hissed through his teeth as pressure built in his groin.

The boots vanished, along with the stink of death.

Made bold by anger and sake, Hyakunosuke released his erection and pressed his chest against Tanigaki’s; that coarseness felt good against his smooth skin.

“I’ve been so alone,” he whined, milling his hard-on into the sleeping man’s corded belly. “You feel so good, Matagi,”

Hyakunosuke tasted the man’s pulse between his lips, and without warning, the stress he’d endured these many months erupted between them. Afterward, he became engulfed in a calm he hadn’t felt in years.

After several moments he forced himself up to wipe Tanigaki down and then washed his own spent flesh in the drinking water bucket.

Back on the futon, he turned his back to the Matagi, but couldn’t relax. When a strong arm draped over him, he twisted beneath it and confronted the sleeping fool.

“Let go of me,”

“Brother,” said the Matagi, curling his arm tight.

Hyakunosuke pressed his face into the hair and closed his eye.

Chapter Text

He woke to the sound of labored breathing.

Beyond his open door, Tanigaki’s upper body rose and fell. Fingers laced behind his head, the thick bastard was doing sit-ups in the nude with his bare feet tucked under the hallway banister.

Off the futon, Hyakunosuke grabbed the water bucket and with pants hanging from his hips, stepped over him.

“There’s a line today, big brother,” he panted, sweaty.

The machiya shared an unkempt inner yard, and centering its muddle was a water-pump with a worn copper handle.

He dropped the bucket in line behind a pregnant woman and then walked to one of the high beams along the back of their building. Not to be outdone by the Matagi, he latched on and began pulling himself up repeatedly; the line moved during his work-out, but no one dared step around his bucket. 

When Hyakunosuke’s turn came up, he filled the bucket half-way and turned it over his head. Rinsed of sweat, he filled it up again, much to the dismay of the tired ladies waiting in line; their revenge came as he was forced to dodge their unsupervised children on the way back to the stairs.

“Goddam kids need to be in school,” he groused, setting the bucket down.

Tanigaki added nothing to the sentiment, not even a thank you for the wash water. These last few days found him asking fewer questions and smiling less; did the fool suspect his situation, or was the occasional dose of morphine slipped into his daily broth, altering his personality?

“If you have something to say,” Hyakunosuke sat on the floor and took a towel to his hair. “Please say it,”

Tanigaki spoke after a beat.

“Why haven’t we left Kosaka?”

 “Leaving cost money, Yuusaku,”

“Am I a financial burden?”

“I wouldn’t have taken you from the hospital if you were,”

Another moment passed before Tanigaki spoke again.

“We never go anywhere, we never do anything,”

“Yuusaku, we need to lay low,”

“You keep saying that, but you won’t tell me why-”

“—Can you please,” he snapped. “Just trust me,”

“You’re not telling me everything!”

Towel around his neck, he stared up at the Matagi.

“What do you want to know, Yuusaku?”

“How did you really end up with those scars on your face? And don’t tell me 203 Hill,” he said. “I remember you after the war, in Asahikawa. Sometimes you have the scars, and in other memories, you don’t.”

“What exactly do you remember?”

“I remember the smell of Takesu in winter when everyone burned their indoor stoves. I loved that smell,” Tanigaki rolled up the futon. “I remember working the land, digging up rocks and pulling weeds. Just now, when you mentioned the kids, I saw some kids playing in the cavalry stables,”

Hyakunosuke tread carefully.

“You were part of the tondenhei,”

Tanigaki sucked his tongue in frustration.

“First, I was discharged, then, I was a colonist?”

“You joined the colonization effort before Port Arthur,”

“What was I doing in Asahikawa after I got shot?” he demanded. “Why didn’t I just go home to my mother?”

“You lost rank because of your injury,” Hyakunosuke watched him closely. “You couldn’t be trusted to lead others, so you were reassigned-”

“—Give me a minute,” the Matagi pinched the bridge of his hose. “I remember returning to Asahikawa with Tsurumi. There were doctors and nurses. Where were you?”

“You returned to Hokkaido on a triage ship,”

“I don’t remember a ship, but Tsurumi was injured. His head was horrible without that plate on it,” he sat on the futon roll. “Where were you?”

“I returned to Hakodate for transfer back to Tokyo,”

“Why, Tokyo?”

“I was born in Tokyo, and raised in Ibaraki,”

“I want the truth,” said Tanigaki. “I’m giving you a chance to tell me the truth,”

“What truth is there that I haven’t given you?”

Tanigaki stood, “Am I even your brother?”

“You’re my brother, Yuusaku,”

“I saw his face, Hyakuno!” he declared. “Doctor Yamada called me upstairs before we left the hospital. He showed me a picture of the Lieutenant General and his wife!”

Hyakunosuke ran a nervous hand over his hair.

“She’s a big-boned woman, I can see her giving birth to me,” he said, face ashen. “But Hanazawa, he’s nothing like me!”

Hyakunosuke closed his eyes and thought of his grandma; no one weaved a lie quite the way she could.

Endless days of learning his letters, writing them out for her in the irori sand because they couldn’t afford paper and ink. Words of praise when he did well, and words of comfort when he didn’t.

“He raised you-”

“—You have his eyes and his face,” Tanigaki dropped to his knees. “I’ve got nothing of that man in me!”

None of the boys in the town would play with Hyakunosuke; they weren’t allowed. Grandma told him that only the lazy at heart took stock in rumors; those boys weren’t worth knowing if they didn’t take the time to see him for the good boy he was. 

“There were rumors, Yuusaku, but they didn’t matter-”

“—What rumors?”

“He raised you, he loved you,”

“What was said about me?”

“Damn you, none of this matters-”

“—It matters to me, Hyakuno!”

In the same breath, his grandma would rebuke his mother; you should’ve just left him here and returned to Tokyo. Mother would lower her eyes and remind his grandma that she had nowhere to go, but grandma was quick to retort—if a woman can spread her legs, she’s never homeless.

“Right after your birth, Hanazawa dismissed his groundskeeper,” he searched his memory for everything Tanigaki ever said in his presence. “The man was a Tozawa native, a Matagi employed by your mother’s family,”

“Matagi!” Tanigaki hardened. “I remember hearing that word whispered behind my back. Not in a flattering way, brother, it was derisive. When you said it to me that first time, I wanted to punch you,”

When that fancy new school for boys had opened its doors to a select few, grandma dressed him up and took him to be tested.

All the young headmaster knew of Hyakunosuke’s pedigree was that he was an Ogata, a once-proud family that lost everything after the civil wars. That day he’d proven his skill in basic math and excelled in written words; the headmaster was nothing but delighted until a man whispered in his ear.

His grandma had seen the bastard too; another fool from town that knew more than he should’ve, and in those few moments, she’d crafted a defense.

“You ended up embracing the fact that you weren’t his son,”

Tanigaki hesitated, “I wasn’t just some colonizer, was I?”

“No, Yuusaku,” he replied. “You were an agent for Tsurumi,”

“What was I doing for him?” Tanigaki knelt beside him. “What were you doing for him?”

That afternoon in Ibaraki, the headmaster walked Hyakunosuke back to his grandma, unsure of how to proceed.

Before he could speak, his grandma had begun railing her daughter’s marriage with a young soldier. How the young man died falling off a scaffold while building barracks in Tokyo, leaving her daughter pregnant and widowed.

The honorable Lord Hanazawa cared for the young officer and felt responsible for his widow. If it weren’t for the gracious Hanazawa and his wife taking her in until Hyakunosuke was born, things would’ve been drastic. He often visited after returning her and her son back to Ibaraki; the townsfolk never asked after him—instead, they’d made up sordid stories.

Through teary eyes, his grandma had ended her tale by grabbing Hyakunosuke’s little hand and thanking the headmaster for his time. Naturally, the headmaster believed his grandma and welcomed Hyakunosuke into his school.

“I was ordered by Ministry Intelligence to report on Tsurumi’s activities in Asahikawa,” he explained. “His superiors didn’t trust him. They feared he was up to something,”

“You told Yamada that I felt lost,” Tanigaki whispered.

“Tsurumi’s a charmer, Yuusaku,” he said. “He roped you and about eighty others into some scheme to wrest Hokkaido from the Imperial Government,”

“A new nation,” Tanigaki reflected. “Bigger wars were coming, nations would need weapons and opium, but there was more, he wanted to get back the land where our comrades were buried. ”

“I couldn’t believe you bought into that insanity,” he said. “But then he was manipulating you even before the war-”

“—To what end?” Tanigaki demanded.

“Tsurumi wanted Japan to reclaim all of Manchuria, but our father advised the higher-ups to be content with Port Arthur,” he wanted to kiss him, but couldn’t. “You were an easy mark. You were angry with-”

“—I knew I wasn’t his son,” Tanigaki snapped. “You knew it, too, didn’t you?”

“Yuusaku, please,”

“How did you find out about me?”

“Things were complicated between us,”

“Complicated? As in, sexual?”

Hyakunosuke was at a loss for words.

“We were sexually involved?” Tanigaki stepped back.

“Yuusaku-”

“I couldn’t understand," Tanigaki moved to the window. "Why you’d do those things to me if you’re my brother,”

“What are you talking about?”

“The morphine you slip me at night isn’t enough!” Tanigaki turned on him. “I’ve been lucid nearly every time since the first,”

Hyakunosuke glanced the room for his dagger.

“I met you before the war,” Tanigaki flashed a cruel smile. “I saw his eyes on your face,”

“You said meeting me made things, clear-”

“—When I look you,” he growled. “I feel this mix of anxiety and resentment,”

“You introduced yourself as my brother. I tried to keep a distance, but you were persistent,” Hyakunosuke stood. “One day, after we became friends, you came to me claiming that you knew Hanazawa wasn’t your father,”

“How did I find out?”

Hyakunosuke closed his eye, “I don’t know if your mother confessed or-”

“—at the hospital, my hands knew every part of your body,” he said. “I complicated things between us, didn’t I, Hyakuno?”

“Yuusaku, it just happened one night-”

“What happened between us after that?”

“What do you mean, what happened?”

“—Why did you try to kill me?”

“Kill you?” he moved closer to the door.

“You took a shot at me,” Tanigaki folded his arms over his chest. “I was in an Ainu house with a child and an old woman. I knew it was you that shot me, the bullet grazed my head, but I knew it was you!”

“You were in the field, you stopped reporting back to Tsurumi,” he said quickly. “ He ordered me to find you and kill you, but you ordered me to take the shot,”

“That makes no sense,” Tanigaki winced. “Wait, there was someone with you,” 

“What’s wrong, Yuusaku?”

“This is too much,” Tanigaki crouched over the bucket and splashed water onto his face. “I need to stop now,”

“Yuusaku!” the widow shouted from below.

“I’m coming down, Misses Minagawa!” Tanigaki grabbed Hyakunosuke’s journal and threw it at him. “You’re going to write it all down,”

“Write what down, Yuusaku?”

“I want to know how I woke up in the snow with a broken leg,” he pointed at him. “I want to know why you shot at me, and why I shot at you,”

“Yuusaku-”

“—I want to know how we ended up in that situation,” he turned in the hall. “And why we’re both still here,”

Hyakunosuke jumped up the moment the door slammed.

Fleeing was the safest option, but this situation with the Matagi wasn’t entirely out of his control; journal in hand, he tore a piece of paper out and began crafting a simple version of events before writing them down.

Tsurumi doubted Yuusaku’s loyalty, and when he didn’t return after a mission in the field, Hyakunosuke was ordered to find him and kill him.

Private Nikaidou accompanied him to ensure their brotherly bond didn’t interfere with the task. Before leaving the Kotan with Nikadou, he shoved a note into Yuusaku’s pocket, warning him.

In the woods, while trying to track him, Yuusaku found him alone and came up with a scheme wherein if they shot one another, Nikadou could recount their deaths to Tsurumi.

It all would’ve worked if another scout named Mishima hadn’t shown up with Tsurumi. Damn, did the Matagi remember instigating the bear attack?

Of course, it was his idea!

Upon reviewing his absurd tale, Hyakunosuke decided to cut his losses.

He put on his hippari and monpe and then searched the room for his dagger. It wasn’t in his boots or with his uniform, and it wasn’t in Tanigaki’s fancy trunk. He retraced his steps, eager to recall where the hell he put the damned thing until a hollow knocking interrupted his search.

The rapping came from the water bucket, where the liquid’s surface rippled. Hyakunosuke shoved the pail aside and revealed a knotted hole in the floorboard.

“Brother?” came the Matagi’s husky whisper.

Finger in the hole, he dislodged the plank.

“Brother?” said the Matagi urgent. “Take your boot laces out and tie them together,”

This wasn’t a ghost urging him to hang himself again. Clear and sharp, his baritone was very much alive, and it felt like a summer day in Ibaraki.

Hyakunosuke collected the laces from his boots and tied the ends together.

“Lower it down, brother, but don’t let go,” into the hole up to his shoulder, he did as the Matagi ordered and then felt a tug on the string. “Okay, take it up, hurry,” reeling it up, he found a thin stack of yen-notes tied to the end.

“Yuusaku,” the widow’s voice was undeniable. “Did you find anything?”

“I did, Misses Minagawa!” Tanigaki employed his boyish tone. “Some banknotes!”

“How many?” the widow’s voice dripped with excitement.

“I went through all these boxes like you said,” he replied. “I only found these two,”

Hyakunosuke grinned at the Matagi’s cleverness.

“No more boxes?” the widow was disappointed.

“I can keep looking,” he said. “Want to help me?”

“Let me put on my cleaning smock,” she said.

Hyakunosuke replaced the floorboard and slipped into his sandals. Hapi on his back, he charged down the stairs, tucking the bills safely into his waistband.

“Hey!” the widow barked.

Slowly he turned, “Yes, Misses Minagawa?”

“Follow me,” she led him out the back door and into the inner yard, then pointed at the forward canopy beam.

It was riddled with short narrow cut marks, the deepest concentrated in the center.

“My house isn’t your training grounds,” she scolded. “You want to toss that blade of yours, you go so somewhere else!”

“I didn’t do this, Misses Minagawa,”

“You expect me to believe that Y’sak-kun did this,” she said. “Don’t you blame your brother for your ugliness!”

He forced a smile, “No more target practice, I promise,”

 

*

 

It was late that night when Tanigaki burst through their door.

“Where the hell have you been?”

Hyakunosuke silently looked up from his bowl of rice.

“I see you bought yourself some fine clothes!” Tanigaki slammed the door. “Where’s the rest of it?”

He tossed what coins were left onto the table.

“Eighty-sen?” Tanigaki exclaimed.

Hyakunosuke pulled the eye patch off his head.

Relaxed, the Matagi joined him on the floor with fingers up and eager to touch, “Is it glass, brother?”

After procuring his new eye, he purchased himself a sack suit at the tailor’s across town. He’d often passed the window, admiring the vests, trousers, and button-down cotton from the West.

He offered a rice bowl, “You should eat something,”

“Misses Minagawa fed me,” Tanigaki pushed the bowl aside and focused on the black orb in his eye socket. “You should’ve gotten white,”

“If I did that,” Hyakunosuke set down his bowl and picked up the bottle of shōchū. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford this suit,”

“You should’ve told me where you were going,” Tanigaki grabbed the bottle and took a swig before handing it back with a scowl. “This is awful,”

“Barley stock,” he grinned. “Aged a few years,”

Frustration marked Tanigaki’s handsome face as he stripped out of his monpe.

Balled-up in the corner of the room was a page from the journal.

“Did you read it?” he asked.

Tanigaki removed his hapi and pulled on a yukata.

“How did I end up on a ship to Kosaka?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “We were separated at Abashiri,”

“Abashiri?” Tanigaki put up his hand. “No more, not today. My head hurt so bad from trying to recall the things you wrote down.”

“Is it still hurting?”

Tanigaki fell into position under the window, “Thanks to you, there’s no morphine left,”

“I’m sorry, Yuusaku,”

“No, I’m sorry,” he closed his eyes. “It must’ve been difficult for you, having me this close and not being able to tell me we weren’t really brothers,”

Hyakunosuke crawled over to him.

“You’re my brother, Yuusaku,”

“Not by blood,” perfect dark brown eyes set upon him. “I like it that way,”

Hyakunosuke drank the last of the shōchū before undressing. Stripped down to his fundoshi, he collected the empty bowl from the floor and set it by the door.

“You look good in yōfuku,” said Tanigaki.

“Next cash we come into, we’ll get you some,”

“I don’t like yōfuku,” Tanigaki stretched out his legs and raised an arm. “Sit with me,”

He reached for the other yukata, “Yuusaku, we should talk-”

“—Don’t cover up,” said Tanigaki. “Come as you are,”

“What happened between us back then, it was wrong,” he said. “Just like what I did, putting you to sleep,”

“We’re not brothers by blood,” Tanigaki took hold of his wrist and pulled him.

Hyakunosuke straddled his thigh and began rubbing into the Matagi’s temples with his thumbs.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Tanigaki said, his hands grasping the globes of Hyakunosuke’s ass. “I like calling you brother,”

“We are brothers, Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki purred contently, “Complicated brothers,”

“Complicated,” he whispered.

When the Matagi stood, Hyakunosuke clung to his neck and hooked his legs around the small of his back. Lips met, and mouths parted as Tanigaki untied the futon and lazily kicked it flat with his foot.

“You smell good,” he whispered.

Tanigaki gently lowered him, “I let the widow bathe me,”

“Yuusaku!” he sat up on his elbows.

Tanigaki grinned, “I didn’t interfere with her,”

“Interfere?” he asked, laughing.

“That’s what Doctor Yamada calls it,” Tanigaki kissed him before he could speak again, his body eagerly bearing the larger man’s weight. A gentle hand took hold of his chin, “I was the one that complicated things, wasn’t I?”

“You were persistent,” he pushed himself at Tanigaki’s erection. “Always stopping me to talk, expecting me to call you by name, and not rank,”

Strong hands found his hips.

“Your body is perfect, brother,”

“Don’t call me that, Yuusaku, not during this,”

Tanigaki’s eyes clouded with lust.

“We’re brothers, aren’t we?”

He pressed his forehead to his, “Not during this,”

Tanigaki dragged a thumb across Hyakunosuke’s lip before pushing it into the corner of his mouth, “You remember where I liked to be kissed?”

There was nothing more divine than reaching for a man’s cock and finding it rock hard.

Captive to the moment, he rubbed his face over the Matagi’s arousal lapping at its length. Fingers grasped his leg and pulled him around so that Tanigaki’s lips could taste his sex.

When his ranking superior in Asahikawa, he often fantasized about devouring the Matagi. All those imaginary nights and so many days just longing in silence.

Tanigaki belonged with him now and willingly accepted his touch. Hands stroked, and fingers pinched as their tongues bathed each other’s cocks.

An eager finger pressed upon his flesh, bringing pleasure with each tiny wiggle until making its intentions clear with a prod.

“No,” he protested, his mouth full.

Tanigaki stopped sucking, “Why not?”

“You’re too big,” he said, kissing the tip.

Tanigaki pleaded, “I won’t you hurt you,”

“No, Yuusaku,” he gently bit down his foreskin, toward course hair that tickled his nose.

Tell him why, brother...

Hyakunosuke glared up at the apparition; no longer bloodied and in uniform, it stood barefoot in an open hippari.

“What’s wrong?” Tanigaki’s voice felt good on his erection.

“Don’t stop,” he whispered, eye closed tight.

Whore. A lying whore...

Emboldened by the ghostly insult, he sucked at the Matagi with fervor and relished the sensual groans against his flesh.

It wasn’t long before they finished one another, and since neither was willing to swallow, their futon suffered the insult. After cleaning each other off over the water bucket, Hyakunosuke flipped the futon over, and on his back, he waited for the Matagi to return from taking a piss.

The fullness in his eye-socket gave him comfort as he dozed, hearing the door open and close, and then the lock-latch set. Feet padded across the floor before a mass of warm hairy skin fused to his back.

 

**

 

Tanigaki stood behind him in line.

“I think we’ll have to pay for a bucket and soap,” he said.

“Buckets are free,” Hyakunosuke assured. “They’ll be soap on the floor,”

The line of miners moved into the changing room.

“Brother,” Tanigaki’s breath warmed his ear. “Coin satchels, under their geta,”

He confirmed the observation while casually disrobing.

“I’ll chat them up,” whispered Tanigaki, boldly stripping off his fundoshi.

The Matagi bounded into the wash area, every set of eyes gawking with a mix of admiration and envy as he focused on the smallest man and engaged him in conversation.

Hyakunosuke scrubbed his skin with suds from the teak floor while Tanigaki helped himself to the man’s bar of soap, enthralling him with a tale about his big brother being cheated by the local knife merchant.

Unnoticed, Hyakunosuke lingered into the dressing room, deftly lifting a few coins from each bag before cinching them tight and putting them back where he found them.

When Tanigaki emerged from the baths, the pair walked to the nearest yatai and ordered noodles with fried pork. Upon empty benches outside the train station, they gorged on what was their first real food in days.

Afterward, behind the curtain at the public toilet, he found Tanigaki over a bucket, running army-issued floss through his teeth.

“Yuusaku?” he demanded. “Where’d you get that?”

“It’s you!” hat in hand and clad in a dark three-piece sack suit, the clean-shaven young man with freshly trimmed hair called to someone in the distance. “I told you it was the Matagi!”

The voice called back, “Does he have the bullet holes?”

“Mister Matagi, may I see your backside?” the man smiled.

“Excuse me?” Hyakunosuke snapped.

Tanigaki stepped between them, “Is there something I can help you with?”

“You’re the man on the postcards,” his airy tone matched his elegant mannerisms. “The handsome and strong Matagi Bear from Akita,” 

Tanigaki remained polite, “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,”

“No,” he raised a ringer and wagged it like the arm of a metronome.

From his suit jacket, he pulled out a book-sized billfold; dozens of yen notes peeked out its mouth as he gingerly pressed out three black and white photos. All of which featured the Matagi posing in his fundoshi.

Before Hyakunosuke knew what was happening, Tanigaki followed the perfumed man outside and lifting the hem of his yukata, displayed the shot delivered by Toni Anji at Kushiro.

The other two men, both waifish and much older, whispered to each other like eager schoolgirls.

“That damned photographer,” Hyakunosuke hissed.

“Photographer?” wind whipped at the Matagi’s yukata, giving the men more of a show.

“I bought your whole set,” said one of the men.

“Why would you do that?” Tanigaki asked.

The man whispered, “I like real men,”

Tanigaki’s boyishness faded into a sultry smirk.

“There’s more to me than just these pictures,”

“I didn’t think you were real,” said the young man, smiling.

“I can show you how real,” said Tanigaki. “If your coin is good,”

Hyakunosuke started, “Yuusaku!”

“We just arrived in town,” the young man hooked his arm into the Matagi’s. “We’re performers,”

Tanigaki beamed, “At the new kabuki theater?”

“We have rooms at the inn next door,” said the third man.

“Yuusaku!”

All stared at Hyakunosuke as interrupted.

Tanigaki whispered to them before stepping away.

“What are you doing, Yuusaku?”

“I’ve found a way to get some cash that doesn’t involve taking it from men that work hard to earn it,” he said, walking him toward the platform.

“You have no idea who that man is,”

“He’s got photos of me in my underwear,” he laughed. “Were you there when I posed for these?”

“This is dangerous, let’s go home,”

“No, brother, we need the cash,”

“Get him drunk and roll him then,”

“It would be easier to just rut the man for some coin,”

“He’s hardly a man, Yuusaku,”

“He’s a man, brother,” Tanigaki frowned. “He’s just a different kind of man,”

Hyakunosuke sighed, “I can’t believe I’m considering letting you trick with a kagema,”

“There’s nothing to consider,” he declared. “I’m not a child, brother,”

“Yuusaku!”

“If you’re not coming with us,” he said. “Then just wait for me back home,”

Anger welled within Hyakunosuke as the Matagi walked into the porcelain company of the kabuki actors, employing the same little-boy routine he used on the widow.

“Mister Ogata,” the young man appeared with five 10-yen banknotes in hand. “Y’saku-kun said I was to give you this, for his time,”

Hyakunosuke took the money, watching as Tanigaki walked off with his newfound admirers.

 

***

 

He felt good waking up in Tanigaki’s cloying embrace, until recalling how raw he was with the son of a bitch for not returning until sunrise.

Quickly he broke free and stood up, watching as the slumbering Matagi merely turned over and took up the space he abandoned.

“Quit,” Tanigaki mumbled as a foot round his arm. “Go get me some fresh water,”

Hyakunosuke put on his new suit, ventured out into Kosaka.

Not even the bitter chill of mid-September bothered him today. Flush with cash, he bought a pistol and a box of ammunition. Later he dined at a beautiful fish house and enjoyed their home-brewed ale before revisiting the tailor to procure a new shirt and warmer socks.

By late afternoon he returned, but Tanigaki was gone.

Outside, the day turned to dusk, and all that remained of the kagema’s cash was a five yen note. He opened a freshly bought bottle of sake and filled up the tokkuri that came with it.

Savored sips from a saucer turned into swigs from the tokkuri as dusk turned to night.

Out of sake, he stripped off his pressed trousers and tossed them angrily across the room, hitting the fancy trunk. That son of a bitch wouldn’t have left without his belongings.

Suddenly, voices gained volume beyond the door. One was clearly Tanigaki, the other was a stranger that he addressed as Corporal.

Hyakunosuke slipped behind the curtain of their tiny closet.

The door opened, casting a line of light upon the unfurled futon; his discarded tie lay at its edge, coiled like a snake.

“I appreciate everything you did for me,” Tanigaki’s voice was laced with that boyish lilt he saved for strangers. “I’m going to get you in trouble,”

“It’s no trouble at all, Mister Minagawa,” sock covered feet came with a thick Kansai accent. “I copied down the information you were looking for since I couldn’t bring the files here-”

The shorter man was interrupted by Tanigaki’s kiss.

“I don’t have any money,” he spoke into the man’s lips. “Can I pay you with my time?”

“I’d like that,” the foolish Corporal stammered, though much older, in the Matagi’s arms, he seemed downright virginal.

“Are all men in the division as handsome as you?” Tanigaki asked, stripping down and then helping the man out of his uniform.

“How kind of you to say,” said the Corporal.

Hyakunosuke rolled his eyes hard enough to move the glass embedded in his socket.

It became quiet before the heavy breathing started.  Past the curtain, the naked Corporal kissed every bend and bulge, venerating Tanigaki’s body as if it were holy.

The Corporal’s head bobbed between Tanigaki’s hips, compelling Hyakunosuke to push at his growing erection.

From the shadows, his eye returned to find the older man on his back, knees to his chest while Tanigaki loudly dined on his flesh. He coated the man’s little hard-on with saliva before licking his scrotum and working a thumb into his hole. His insides were accustomed to men like Tanigaki; a loud lover, he wailed in ecstasy as the Matagi tilled into him.

When Tanigaki caught him peeking through the curtain, Hyakunosuke brought a finger to his lips, warning him silent. A flash of panic gave way to a smoldering stare, and that’s when every push became solely for Hyakunosuke’s benefit. Tanigaki even opened his mouth, wordlessly begging to suck, and oh, how Hyakunosuke longed to push himself between those lips.

The Corporal whimpered while finishing by his own hand, oblivious that the Matagi tilling into him was fixed on another.

Tanigaki began pushing into him fiercely, mouthing the word brother until his climax forced him to unload in the Corporal’s guts.

Unable to cry out, a rush of pleasure seized Hyakunosuke. Back against the wall, he trembled in silence, legs twitching as his member erupted in his hands. Ass on the floor and his eye shut, he concentrated hard to temper his breathing.

Suddenly, the curtain was whipped aside.

“If you wanted him,” Tanigaki stood there in an open yukata. “You should’ve joined us,”

Hyakunosuke pushed past him, “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” Tanigaki examined the newly bought pistol. “You spent all the money I made today, so, I needed to get us more,”

“A divisional Corporal?” he scolded. “Are you stupid?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tanigaki wore that same bitter and dangerous look he had when telling Tsurumi of the man responsible for his sister’s death. “Say it again,”

Hyakunosuke stepped to him, “Are you stup-”

The Matagi’s open hand caught his cheek, stinging the skin and sending him to the floor.

“I’m sorry, brother,” Tanigaki tried to help him up.

“Don’t,” he pushed him away.

Tanigaki moved to his trunk, “I’m leaving,”

“Yuusaku,” he snapped. “I’m fine,”

“No,” said Tanigaki, eyes wet. “I had no right to hit you, I just hate that word. I’m not stupid, I hate being called stupid,”

“I won’t do it again,” he said.

“No,” Tanigaki opened the trunk. “That’s not how brother—lovers, are supposed to behave,”

“Please don’t go,” he whispered.

Tanigaki hesitated, “Please don’t call me that, ever again,”

“What possessed you to approach an officer?”

“I needed information,” Tanigaki moved away from the trunk. “You only tell me what you want me to know, not what I need to know,”

“What haven’t I told you, Yuusaku?”

“I’m not a deserter, you are,” he said, flipping the futon. “I’m listed as deceased,”

“Tsurumi employed many dead soldiers,”

“Out of the two of us, though,” said Tanigaki. “Only you know his secrets,”

“Yuusaku, he’ll kill us both,” he said. “We should get out of Kosaka,”

“Let’s talk about stupid then,” Tanigaki snapped. “The money you spent today could’ve gotten us out of Kosaka tomorrow,”

“I was angry, Yuusaku.”

“Your temper tantrums are expensive,”

“Don’t paint me out to be some jealous bitch!”

“Stop acting like one, Hyakuno,”

“Yuusaku,” he pushed out a sigh. “Don’t bring another man back here,”

“Are you jealous?”

Hyakunosuke cried, “How can you ask me that?”

“You said our relationship was complicated,” Tanigaki fell onto the futon, smiling. “I assumed that meant it wasn’t monogamous,”

“How did you come to that conclusion?”

“I like sex more than you,” he said, hands behind his head.

“You’ve changed, Yuusaku,”

“Have I now,” he mocked.

“You were a virgin when we met,”

His smile faded, “The virtuous flag bearer,”

Hyakunosuke laid down with his back to him.

“You’re not obligated to screw anyone,”

“I know,” Tanigaki laughed. “It’s just something people are willing to pay for,”

“I don’t want you screwing for money,”

“You want out of Kosaku?” he jumped to his feet. “That costs money,”

Hyakunosuke watched as he paced the floor.

“Train tickets cost money, brother, ammo costs money, food costs money,” he pointed at him. “You’re a sniper, you need a rifle, that costs money,”

“I can’t shoot with one eye,”

“Nonsense,” he said. “You just need a scope and retraining-”

“—and that cost money,”

Laughter erupted from the Matagi as he climbed back onto the futon and took Hyakunosuke into his arms.

“Get off me, Yuusaku, you stink of that old Corporal,”

“Don’t be like that, brother, please,” he whispered against the nape of his neck.

“You said I don’t tell you enough,”

“You don’t,” he added flatly.

“What do you want to know, Yuusaku?”

Tanigaki tightened his embrace, “Tell me about Hokkaido,”

“What do you want to know about Hokkaido?”

Lips touched his ear, “I want to know about Genjirou Tanigaki,”

Hyakunosuke scrambled from the futon and did an inventory of the room.

“Looking for your notebook?” Tanigaki asked.

Suddenly, the widow’s voice rang out from below.

“You can’t just enter my home!”

Hyakunosuke snatched up his pistol as Tanigaki, dagger in hand, crept to the door and cracked it. He raised four fingers and then formed his hand into a fist; all four men were armed.

“Grab only what you can carry,” he mouthed, pulling on his pants and stepping into some sandals. “There’s a rope out the back hall window.”

Hyakunosuke dressed quickly, and snatching up his journal, shoved it into his waistband.

“Where did the rope come from?”

“I tied it there a few weeks ago,” he whispered.

“You were going to leave me?”

Tanigaki started, “I changed my mind,”

“Just take point, Matagi,”

Tanigaki grinned before slipping out the door.

One long stride put him across to the far wall while below, the widow continued to question why her home was being searched.

Given the clear to follow, Hyakunosuke ambled ahead toward the back-hall, and just a the Matagi said, a thick rope snaked down the shingles and disappeared over the side.

Tanigaki was right behind him until someone shouted halt. Lightning-fast he hurled the dagger, sticking the armed man between the eyes.

“Move, go!” he pushed at Hyakunosuke.

“Tanigaki-nispa!” cried Asirpa.

Clad in a peasant’s clothes, the girl was taller now, bottom lip blue, and her long hair tied back tight.

“Yuusaku, let’s move!”

Tanigaki slipped over the window pane.

“Genji!” Asirpa shouted, halting him.

“We need to move, Yuusaku!” Hyakunosuke pleaded, both hands on the rope.

Inside came Asirpa’s cry: “Wait, Sugimoto, no!”

Tanigaki snatched the pistol from Hyakunosuke’s belt and with frightening accuracy, shot out each of the low hanging bulbs in the hall.

Hyakunosuke got halfway down and let go, landing as the Matagi fell in beside him and took his hand.

“Stop!” cried the voice of Tsukishima Hajime.

Pulled through the inner courtyard, Hyakunosuke got out in front and ran for the nearest alley. Tanigaki remained on his heels as gunfire popped.

Suddenly punched in the back of his thigh, Hyakunosuke fell, curling fetal from the searing pain. Spasms rocked his leg as the Matagi hoisted him onto his shoulder.

Carried through narrow streets, there was only one place a crowd would gather this time of night; the fish processing pier.

“Why did that girl call me Genji?” Tanigaki huffed.

He gasped, “We need to keep moving-”

“—Stop!” Tanigaki ran faster. “The moment I saw her, I knew her name was Asirpa!”

Voices echoed amidst the smell of sea salt.

Agony strangled his consciousness as excruciating pain came with each footfall. Free of the Matagi, he fell in the dark and landed upon something slippery.

A putrid smell engulfed him and forced the sake from his belly. He heaved until Tanigaki's arm snaked around his waist and hauled him out of the moonlight.

“I knew this wouldn’t last,” he croaked, desperate to get his face away from the bed of fish innards. “Nothing ever does for me,”

Gutted fish remains rained down from above.

“I lied to you, I should’ve told you the truth from the start,”

Tanigaki held him tight, “What are you talking about?”

“Tsurumi had us hunting a cache of gold,” pain faded as his limbs went cold. “I infiltrated Hijikata’s group, they were looking for it too,”

“What was my mission?” Tanigaki demanded.

His grandma’s fingers wrapped around his thin arm.

Your mother got sick on some foul fish, you here?

Through his tears, he told her that wasn’t the truth.

Truth is whatever you say it is!

You speak it enough, and it becomes your truth.

“You went undercover with a convict,” the cold found his chest. “A hunter. You gained his trust, you disappeared,”

“Nihei,” whispered the Matagi. “Nihei Tetsuzou,”

“You got hurt,” vomit climbed up his gullet. “Taken back to that kotan,”

“I dreamed of hunting with Nihei,” said Tanigaki. “I wanted to kill a white wolf. I remember thinking, my Matagi blood called to me,”

You speak it enough, and it becomes your truth...

“You studied everything you could about Tohoku. That was your cover, Yuusaku,” he got on his hands and knees. “You were a soldier from Akita that fell in love with Hokkaido. You pretended to desert the army, you knew Nihei hunted with the Matagi, knew you could gain his trust,”

“My name was Genji!” Tanigaki exclaimed.

“Genjirou Tanigaki,” his truth spoken, he fell into darkness.

Chapter Text

Pain whispered like an old friend.

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

Daylight assaulted his eye as the wind lashed at his empty socket. The floor rumbled beneath him and shook his teeth.

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

We’re on a train, brother, the specter of Yuusaku hovered above him. Do you remember the train that collected us in Asahikawa?

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

I wanted to sit with you on the ride to the coast, the foul aroma of matchlock and spilled blood invaded. I wanted to sail to Mukden with you, but I couldn’t find you, big brother.

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

I met Tanigaki Genjirou on that train, Yuusaku’s head weighed heavy upon his chest. I sailed with him to Mukden.

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

Hyakunosuke searched the darkness with a lone eye as bile bloomed in his throat.

Do you seek your stolen soul, brother?

Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

 

*

 

Blue sky with billowing clouds.

A steady hand cradled his head to gently lift it.

“You need to drink, brother,” wetness filled his mouth as cold water soothed his parched gullet. “You need to stay hydrated,”

“That’s enough,” said a gruff voice. “You’re going to drown him,”

The sky above moved slowly and the air stunk of manure.

Tanigaki’s voice became distant, “Where are we going?”

“Into the woods,” said the gruff voice. “Can’t camp on the road,”

The pain faded when his consciousness slept.

 

**

 

Chill numbed his cheeks, and his breath appeared as a white mist. Warmth overcame one side of his body, while cold detained the other.

Amidst the glow of a blazing campfire, Tanigaki was down on his forearms. Ass high in the air, his body jerked with each thrust from the shadow behind him.

You’ve spoiled him, big brother.

Pain tore through his head.

Is this what you planned for me?

The ache became too much to bear.

Was it your plan to spoil me as you have Genji?

Agony hauled his consciousness into the black.

 

***

 

Gray skies and the scent of rain.

A warm rag grazed his chest before a tender thumb traced the scar on his cheek. Relief shone in the Matagi’s eyes, regarding him with a loving smile.

“You must keep drinking,”

The frigid water felt good going down.

Straw pricked his naked legs. Soft rain tickled his skin. Ducks flew in a line overhead.

Did he touch you, big brother? Yuusaku’s voice came with the stench of his grandpa. Did he touch you, or did you touch him?

“We can leave him at the hospital,” said a gruff voice. “There’s plenty of care stations between here and Tokyo,”

“I’m not abandoning my brother,”

“Just think about it,” the gruff voice faded. “They’ll take better care of him,”

That beast of man knows another predator when he sees one. Yuusaku’s fetid teeth appeared. What comes around, goes around, Big Brother.

 

****

 

Darkness without a moon.

The muddy ground was unfriendly, the brisk wind unkind. Wood crackled nearby, giving faint light to the swaying trees.

Thirst drove his arm out from under the blanket.

Fingers trawled the damp soil for the bucket of water, only to come upon the hardened toe of a boot. A broad hairy face stared down with the eyes of an exposed animal.

“I wish you’d died on the road,” fingers pinched his nose shut before a hand covered his mouth. “I got plans for that handsome brother of yours, and you’re in my way,”

Hyakunosuke struggled against the bearded man whose bald head shone in the firelight. His arms were useless, and kicking brought excruciating pain to his lower back and leg.

Yuusaku’s torn face materialized above the man’s shoulder.

What goes around, comes around, big brother.

Numbness replaced the burning in his cheeks. Vomit packed into his throat with nowhere to escape until a thick arm snaked around the bastard’s head.

Free of his grasp, the air blessed his lungs.

“I knew if I left him alone,” Tanigaki stabbed into the man’s fat belly with fierce, angry, jabs. “You’d make your move!”

Decayed fingers covered his eye as he emptied his stomach.
 

*****

 

How dare you…

How dare I what?

How dare you continue to breathe.

Staying alive is the only skill I have.

I’m sorry that no one loved you enough.

Leave me alone, you, condescending—I’m sorry no one loved you enough to show you that life is more than just killing or being killed—You’re weak, and that’s why I killed you—You killed me because you coveted my happiness.

Hyakunosuke woke to faded wood rafters above him, with ratty pale binds wrapped tight around their hoist joints.

“You’re finally awake!” Tanigaki knelt beside him.

“Where are we?” he asked, voice cracking.

“You’re not as warm today,” Tanigaki pressed the back of his hand against Hyakunosuke’s cheek and then moved it to his forehead. “And you’re talking. I missed your voice,”

“Where are we?” his futon lay on a dirt-covered doma beside the shuttered entry.

Tanigaki brought a splintered masu to his lips.

“Drink, slowly, big brother,”

Ratty mushiro mats covered the raised floor and surrounded a centered irori filled with decades-old ash. Suspended on the chain above its hearth was his grandma’s worn kettle.

“Why did you bring me here?”

Dry twigs and straw burned in the komado’s undercarriage, and on the copper grill of the daidokoro sat a steaming covered pot.

“It’s remote,” he tossed a rape of bright green mizuna on the cutting counter and retrieved a knife from his grandma’s tansu. “This is the last place anyone would look for you,”

Hyakunosuke glared at the tansu; its veneer once shined smooth enough to display a reflection, but its polish was long faded and scarred from neglect.

“How did you find this place?”

“At barracks, you would make me go the postal annex with letters addressed to an Ogata Himeku,” he chopped the mizuna. “It was clever of you to put a portion of your pay in tax collection envelopes,”

Hyakunosuke’s lower back cramped when he sat up.

“The people living in your grandmother’s old rooms in Mito put all those tax bills in an unopened box. They happily gave me that box, so I took them to the post office in Mito to see if there were any others,” he salted some cut leaves before jamming a few into his mouth. “Postal clerk said he forwarded all the mail with her name on it, back to this address,”

“We can’t stay here, the landowner-’

“—is dead,” he opened the right panel of the entry door and tossed the cut scraps to the gathering rabbits. “I asked around the village before coming here. The owner was killed in the Hibiya riot a few years back,”

Hyakunosuke bent his stiff legs, desperate to get the blood circulating.

“The owner lost a shit load of money after the Treaty,” he said of Japan’s post-war agreements. “This land’s been empty since you and your grandmother left,”

Hyakunosuke’s stomach growled.

“Tuna, from town,” Tanigaki opened the pot and pinched off a bit of flesh. “I brined it first, to top the mizuna,”

He parted his lips to take the Matagi’s fingers into his mouth as tender, tasty meat melted on his tongue.

“How much money was here?”

“A third of each payslip,” he brought over a cup of water. “Two years, every quarter, you do the math,”

“Is that your way of telling me to wake up?”

“Your wound got infected, that’s the only reason I gave you morphine,” he clutched his apron, apologetic. “I got you off it as soon as I could,”

“How did you get us to Mito?”

“The train stopped at Sendai,” he returned to the kitchen. “I found a horse and cart after that,”

“How’d you get a horse and cart?”

“You know how I got it,” his rugged profile presented itself. “You opened your eyes a few times along the way,”

“I’m sorry, Yuusaku,”

“Genji,” he brought two speared sticks of tuna from the pot and set them atop a plate filled with lemon and miso covered mizuna.

“What?”

“I’m using my Hokkaido cover,” he set the plate beside him. “No one knows the name Tanigaki here,”

“We can’t stay here-”

“—Tough,” he took his own plate in hand. “We’re stuck here until you’re better than well,”

Hyakunosuke struggled to his knees.

“Easy,” the Matagi scolded, catching him.

“I don’t want to be here,”

“I put you by the door,” he backed away. “Because it was easier to clean your messes from there,”

Hyakunosuke reeked of urine, and whatever else occurred while sleeping.

“I need to wash,” he groused. “But I’m not getting in that furo,”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Give me the soap, I’ll wash in the pond,”

“It’s loaded with ducks,” Tanigaki said, mouth full of tuna.

“It’s always got ducks,” he stood as if he were learning to walk. “I’ll manage just fine,”

Tanigaki called after him, “If you fall in, just yell,”

Hyakunosuke appreciated his unwillingness to coddle.

The wash bucket sat beside his grandma’s furo; its Hinoki planks were long faded and cracked, yet the Matagi managed to somehow fill it with steaming water.

Across from it, on the wall where his grandma once tacked up their wet towels, were pages torn from his journal. Paper littered the floor and upon them were penciled scribbles of detailed maps.

“Yuusaku, what’s all this?”

“I had plenty of free time since we got here,” Tanigaki entered and pulled off his ratty juban. “You should’ve told me sooner about the gold, brother,”

“What do you remember?”

“Bits and pieces,” he peeled the haramaki from around his waist, exposing the bands of his fundoshi. “But I can’t trust my memories anymore,”

“What do you mean you can’t trust them?”

“Before we left Kosaka, I took you to the hospital,” he grabbed the bucket from his grasp and filled it with water from the tub. “Doctor Yamada stitched you up. It was a clean shot, through and through, just like mine,” he presented his scarred backside with a smile.

Did Tanigaki finally remember being shot at Kushiro?

“I talked to him about some things,” he set the bucket down and stripped out of his fundoshi. “I couldn’t reconcile some of my memories with-”

“—with what I was telling you?”

“What you told me helped, brother,” he took a knee before dipping a bowl into the bucket. “If I didn’t know about being this Tanigaki person in Hokkaido, things would’ve been extremely confusing for me,”

Water cascaded down his arms and beaded up in his chest hair, “Even people who’ve never had brain injuries,” he scrubbed with a cake of white soap. “They get distorted memories over time,”

“Did you draw this?” Hyakunosuke touched a sketch that appeared to be a portion of Shiraishi Yoshitaki’s tattooed shoulder.

“It’s a map to a kotan,” he said, rubbing the white bar over his hair and behind his ears. “I was there when we burned it,”

“Where’d you get that soap?”

“There’s a sundry shop in Saginuma,” he rinsed the soap from his skin. “Let me wash you, don’t bathe in the swamp,”

“That burned kotan,” Hyakunosuke allowed himself to be undressed. “There was nothing about it in Tsurumi’s intelligence rep-”

“—he doesn’t know about, yet,” Tanigaki returned to the furo to refill the bucket. “I went over your early notes, reading what you gathered from your service, and your time with Hijikata, and your travels with that man, Kiroranke,” a noticeable edge entered the Matagi’s voice.

“Do you remember Kiroranke?”

“He saved me from drowning,” Tanigaki spilled the hot water onto Hyakunosuke’s back. “He also brought a chunk of ice down on my face,”

“He knew we were brothers, Yuusaku,”

“He tried to kill me,” Tanigaki smoothed the bar of soap between Hyakunosuke’s shoulders. “Or I wanted to kill him, I was angry, I know that much,”

“He never revealed you to the others,”

“You were his lover, weren’t you?” Tanigaki lifted Hyakunosuke’s arm and scrubbed.

“Are you seriously asking me this?”

“I was suspicious of him, and you, together,” Tanigaki scrubbed under the other arm. “I reconciled your notes on him with some things I remember from that night at Abashiri.”

“What do you remember?”

“Your notes told me why we were there,” Tanigaki handed him the soap before walking to the tub. “There are things I see so clearly, and feelings I know are real,”

“I never had sex with Kiroranke,”

“I remember saving that Sugimoto man, but back then, I thought Kiroranke was shooting at me,” he swung a leg over the edge and slowly lowered himself into the water. “It was you, though. I felt this anger at you, for shooting me,”

“It was all your idea, Yuusaku,”

“Every time I remember you shooting me, you always come back with that,” Tanigaki hardened. “Explain to me why we were doing all this elaborate bullshit,”

“Kiroranke had a line on the gold,” he replied, as Tanigaki closed his eyes and slipped into the water up to his shoulders. “The Ainu woman didn’t trust him, and you bought into her nonsense,”

Tanigaki’s eyes opened, “Huci wouldn’t lie to me,”

“Her name was Inkarmat,” he rolled the cake of soap in his hands until working up enough lather to clean his matted pubic hair.

“Inkarmat,” the Matagi smiled lewdly. “I remembered her back in Kosaka,”

He frowned, “No one trusted anyone,”

“You aimed a gun at her,” Tanigaki faced him.

“The shot I took at you at Abashiri wasn’t fatal for a reason, Yuusaku,” he reminded.

“I was so angry when you left with him,” Tanigaki closed his eyes again. “I remember how much it hurt,”

“You chose to stay,” he said. “You said it had to look like you were on their side,”

“You shot Sugimoto in the head,” Tanigaki whispered. “Then the disfigured man, you shot him too-”

“—you said to take them both out,” he snapped. “Let Kiroranke snag the girl,”

Tanigaki slowly shifted his gaze.

“I doubt I wanted you to rut him,”

“I never fucked with Kiroranke,”

“Then why did I want to kill him?”

“I don’t know, you wouldn’t tell me!

Tanigaki stared at the water.

“Why can’t I shake the feeling that you’re lying to me?”

“Maybe because you were rolling around with Inkarmat,” he snapped. “You knew she was working for Tsurumi,”

“You aimed a gun at her after she rutted me in that fisherman’s shack,” Tanigaki then turned to him. “This Kiroranke had a line on the gold, and I was following it—we were following it. Our assigned marks joined up in Kushiro?”

He stepped to the tub and dunked his bucket without answering.

“Soak with me,” Tanigaki reached for him.

“I’m not getting in that furo,” he snapped, dousing himself with hot water.

“Why not?” Tanigaki demanded.

Naked and wet, he walked to the Matagi’s notes and noticed something swaddled leaning against the wall.

“What’s this, Yuusaku?”

Unwrapped, it was a rifle with a pale wood stock and a long muzzle. Heavy-bodied, it handled five-rounds and came with a lock designed to stop gunpowder from building in the catch.

Tanigaki climbed from the tub, “It’s a Type 38,”

“Six parts,” said Hyakunosuke, admiring it. “Makes the bolt easier to remove,”

“The dust cover’s nice,” said Tanigaki. “You won’t have to clean the damned thing every time you use it,”

Instinct brought the mount to his missing eye before reality made him bitter, “Where’d you get this?”

“Koishikawa munitions, they’re still churning out arms,” Tanigaki dried himself and then began drying Hyakunosuke.

“How did you get this?”

“You know how I got it,” Tanigaki said, grinning. “There’s always some idiot on the watch that needs his cock sucked,”

“You shouldn’t have wasted your time,” he said. “I can’t shoot shit with one eye,”

“You can, and you will,” said Tanigaki.

Hyakunosuke set the gun on the bench.

“The word impossible exists for a reason,”

 “You’ll need to retrain your aim, that’s all,” Tanigaki picked it up, walked to the open front door, and aimed it outside.

“Yes, Yuusaku,” he whisked past him and stepped out onto the deck. “It’s as easy as remembering your life after your brain’s been bruised,”

“Where are you going?” Tanigaki demanded.

“I’m going to take a piss,” he said. “You want to hold it for me?”

“I might have to,” Tanigaki teased. “Since aiming is impossible with one eye,”

 

*******

 

He aimed at a lily pad but didn’t pull the trigger.

October’s end brought rain and an ache to his eye-socket before every storm. Patches of orange, brown, and red loomed beyond the bobtails; it would be another month before those colors fell to the ground.

Back at the farmhouse, he slipped out of his sandals and pushed aside the entry panel to find the raised floor dotted with pots and pails.

“What are you doing, Yuusaku?”

“Roof’s filled with holes,” Tanigaki put the last pail in place. “It’s rained almost every night this week,”

“We won’t run out of clean water,”

“That swamp water’s nasty,” said Tanigaki. “I’m surprised there aren’t more bugs,”

“There’s too many toads,”

Tanigaki sat crossed legged near the irori, “They came back strong after the Samurai all died?”

Laughing wasn’t something often heard in this house.

“My mother used toad oil for everything,” Tanigaki said, smiling. “Cuts, scrapes, pimples, even if my nose was plugged up with snot, she smeared it on my upper lip,”

Hyakunosuke couldn’t contain his laughter, but then suddenly, Tanigaki’s smile faded.

“I can’t remember her face,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Yuusaku,”

“None of this is your fault, brother,” he snapped.

Hyakunosuke scratched his scalp.

“Your hair is filthy,” he got up and filled another bucket. “You need to let me cut it,”

“I don’t want my hair cut,”

He sat beside the bucket, spread his legs, and pointed at the space between, “Sit down, brother,”

“I’m not a child, Yuusaku,”

“Will you sit down and stop thinking so hard,” he said. “Just this once, do something without a second thought,”

The least Hyakunosuke could do was oblige.

“What is this?” he picked up the small brown bottle near Tanigaki’s thigh and read its stuck-on label; French was a language he’d never understand.

“It’s from the sundries shop,”

Tanigaki pulled the cork from its tiny top and filled his cupped hand with the white syrup inside.

“It’s a taisei hair soap,” he said, patting it upon Hyakunosuke’s head. “It made my hair squeaky clean,”

“Hair isn’t supposed to make noise,”

“You make noise,” Tanigaki worked gentle fingers through his locks. “You make plenty of noise when I touch you,”

Hyakunosuke leaned back onto his chest.

“Now, don’t get this in your eye,” Tanigaki warned. “It burns,”

Eyelid shut tight, he sat up and touched his chin to his chest. Hot water fell slowly over his crown as Tanigaki’s hand bunched and pushed. Towel tossed over his head, Hyakunosuke vigorously rubbed until his hair no longer dripped.

Tanigaki sat with eyes fixed on his soapy fingers.

“Did I have a sister?” he asked.

“No, Yuusaku, you didn’t,”

“I remember washing a girl’s hair,” Tanigaki spread his fingers and blew at the foamy bubbles webbed between them. “Rice water mixed with egg whites. I loved her so much, she was younger, and I taught her to wash her hair.”

“A girl you met before we shipped out?”

“I washed her hair the day of her wedding,” Tanigaki closed his eyes. “When I try too hard to picture her face, she becomes this little Ainu girl I used to call shit-head,”

“That’s an interesting name,”

“I’ve got a headache,” he heaved a sigh and fell back onto the floor. “I haven’t had one of those in weeks. I got used to not having them anymore,”

Hyakunosuke moved over his supine body.

“Your breath smells,” he said, turning away from his kiss.

Hyakunosuke rolled off and at the tub, filled his mouth with water. Sloshing it about, he spat it out.

“Don’t clean your teeth in the furo!” the Matagi scolded. “I’m going to have to drain it now, and that bottom plank is a bitch to seal back up,”

The dental string was likely back at Kosaka, along with every damned thing he owned, including his glass eye.

“That floss,” he said. “It came from the divisional station where you went looking for information,”

Tanigaki sighed, “I made a mistake,”

“That’s how they found us, Yuusaku,”

“I know, brother,” Tanigaki fell to his knees before him. “It won’t happen again,”

He savored that bristly jaw on his sternum, and pleasure took hold when warm, wet lips found his nipple. He feathered the Matagi’s ears with his fingers before digging them into his broad, muscular shoulders.

Tanigaki stared up at him before detaching noisily from Hyakunosuke’s tit.

“I’ve got something else for you,” he said, disappearing into the washroom.

“I hope it’s not a pistol,” said Hyakunosuke. “That also needs two eyes,”

“Pistol’s for me,” he returned with something in his hand. “Yamada took it out, I’ve been keeping it safe,”

Hyakunosuke closed his hand around the black glass prosthetic, “Why’d you buy a pistol, Yuusaku?”

“We’re going to need it when winter ends,” he came up behind him and kissed the skin behind his ear. “We’re leaving here after the last snow of the season,”

“Where will we go?”

“Are you still sleeping?” he teased. “Hokkaido, that’s where the gold is,”

“We’re not getting anywhere near that gold,” Hyakunosuke faced him. “Not with Tsurumi and Hijikata vying for it, along with Sugimoto and that girl,”

“Listen to me,” he sat beside the irori. “Hijikata and Tsurumi share the same goal, to control Hokkaido. Without Hokkaido, neither man can counter the Imperial Army.”

Cold tightened Hyakunosuke’s exposed skin.

“Tsurumi may have started out with a plan to move against the Imperial Army for whatever reason he had tucked away in that head of his, but since leaving a bit of his brain in Manchuria, he’s just out to wreak havoc, nothing more.

“Hijikata wants to recreate Hokkaido in the image of the era that raised him. Only in his new world, the Samurai won’t reject or even emulate the west. To make his world a reality, he must defeat the Imperial Army,”

“Hijikata’s new world,” Hyakunosuke was stirred by the Matagi’s confidence. “Financed by Tsurumi’s weapons and poppies,”

“Exactly,” he raised a finger. “Right now, they need each other, and right now working together is the only way to find the gold, but it won’t last,”

“Tsurumi won’t sit idly by why Hijikata becomes enemy number one with the Emperor,” Hyakunosuke mused.

“Something happened to him before Port Arthur. He wanted to cause grief before 203 Hill, now he’s less careful about who knows it,” he said. “Hijikata just wants to instill his own brand of order. Two very different goals once the gold is in hand,”

“While they’re killing each other,” said Hyakunosuke. “The gold sits untouched,”

Tanigaki smiled wide, “They’ll store it somewhere remote and with people that have no use for it. That girl whose father tried to take it to Karafuto, that’s where they’ll leave it, and that’s when we’ll make our move,”

“You want to steal it after they’ve found it?”

“We don’t need all of it,” said Tanigaki. “Just enough to-”

“—To what?”

Tanigaki turned away.

“I thought about going after the gold before getting you out of the hospital,” Hyakunosuke walked around to face him. “I changed my plans because-”

“—Haven’t you ever just wanted to be someone other than the person you were raised to be?” he pleaded. “One thing I know about my old life was that I hated myself. I got a chance to be someone new, to be happy. You deserve that chance too, brother,”

Hyakunosuke threw himself into the Matagi’s arms.

“I need you with me,” large hands found Hyakunosuke’s cheeks. “I won’t do this without you, I love you, do you understand? It scares me how much I love you,”

Rain poured as they coupled upon the floor.

Water filled the pails until pings and prattles muted and threatened to overflow. A chill set in that prompted Tanigaki to carry him back into the warm washroom.

Ravenous for the Matagi’s body, he lost himself in the grind of skin on skin; his head cleared when firm hands spread the globes of his ass.

“No,” he whispered.

“Why not?”

“You’re too big,” he said, standing.

“I want to be one with you, brother,”

“Don’t call me that, during this,” he frowned.

On his knees, Tanigaki took hold of Hyakunosuke’s cock.

“Be one with me, please,” he hocked a wad of spit upon the head and kissed it.

“Is this what you want?”

Tanigaki lay back, “It’s what you need,”

Dampened strands tickled his tongue as he grazed the Matagi’s chiseled landscape. Legs parted and lifted without being touched, presenting him with the promise of ecstasy.

Hyakunosuke eagerly fed with the same care given to that Corporal in Kosaka. Soon, he found flesh that was pliant and giving; one finger wasn’t enough, neither was two.

 

*********

 

Dark clouds loomed on the horizon.

Hoof-stomps echoed beyond the reeds, signaling Tanigaki’s return from nearby Saginuma. Foxtails danced to the Matagi’s return, but not Hyakunosuke.

Late autumn in Ibaraki brought frequent downpours, trapping him with a determined man who refused to grasp that he could never again be a sniper.

After burning the futon where he’d convalesced, Tanigaki purchased a larger one, and for many glorious nights, they’d shared it without sleeping.

Then, like the trees shedding their leaves, the passion waned because the rifle remained untouched.

No matter how many times Tanigaki placed it by his boots, he refused to take the damn thing with him on walks around the marsh. His aversion to the rifle had created a rift within their intimate cocoon; now, they slept with their heads at opposite ends of the futon.

Childhood memories chased him like his grandma’s voice on the summer wind. Unlike his visions of Yuusaku, her phantom never fully materialized. There was no reason for her to be so generous. She gave her life to ensure him a future; her death all he was owed.

The aroma of Tanigaki’s cooking greeted him at the door. Boots off, he removed his winter juban before cleaning his face in one of the fuller pails.

“Did you shoot anything today?” asked Tanigaki.

“How many times must I say it?” he droned. “I can’t shoot with one eye,”

“You hungry?” Tanigaki hoisted the heavy cookpot off the copper grate and attached its wire handle to the hook above the irori. “It’s good that you’re getting out more,”

Hyakunosuke quickly removed the lid to find a bundle of enoki mushrooms amidst thick chunks of cabbage, tofu, and carrots. Broth bubbled within a nest of wavy shirataki, and at the center of it all were bite-size cuts of monkfish.

“What the hell is this?”

Bowl in hand and sticks between his fingers, Tanigaki helped himself.

“Anglerfish nabe,”

“You know I hate this,”

“We’ll be eating this every day, brother,” Tanigaki set a steaming bowl on the floor beside him. “Until you get out there and shoot something,”

Hyakunosuke rose to his feet, and with a kick, set the bowl and its steaming contents skidding across the floor.

Enraged, the Matagi jumped up.

“Damn you, Fumi—,” Tanigaki paused before stepping around him. “Do you have any idea what I’ve done to keep you safe!” face red with anger, he set about collecting bits of food from the mats. “Do you have any idea what I went through to get you here? To get you well?”

He whispered, “I’m sorry, Yuusaku.”

“You’re going to take that gun, and you’re going to shoot something!” Tanigaki glared up at him with teeth set and tears streaming down his face. “Do you hear me, brother?”

Defiant, he turned away.

Tanigaki inhaled sharply, a hand to his head.

“Yuusaku?” he said, kneeling beside him.

“Just get out of my face, Ogata,” Tanigaki brought a hand to his lips in shame. “I need to—” he then charged out onto the deck and vomited into the mud.

Chapter Text

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,”

“Tanigaki, Sir?”

“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.

“Lieutenant Tsurumi?”

“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,”

Chapter Text

Tanigaki had anticipated being flushed out.

Before the last snow, he’d taken down the journal pages and maps and packed them into an escape bag. Hyakunosuke was grateful the Matagi had packed one for him, filled with rice, a water bladder, and a ration tin.

They fled Ibaraki on foot, along the northern rail line.

Nomads with a destination, the hike reminded him of their time in Hokkaido. Chilly mornings were spent in Tanigaki’s arms sleeping until late afternoon. At sunset, they woke and dined on fresh kills before traveling under cover of night.

On days when sleep wouldn’t come, love was made until it did, with Tanigaki offering his ass with a promise that doing so wasn’t an act designed to stroke Hyakunosuke’s ego.

Twelve nights brought them to Tsugaru, and the Matagi was unwilling to spend what little cash they carried on a passenger boat.

They stowed away on a kitamaebune bound for Otaru, hiding within a packed cargo hold. The shared space was barely big enough for them to exist without touching.

Anxiety plagued Hyakunosuke; it was a cargo hold like this that Tanigaki employed when returning him to Tsurumi. When Tanigaki noticed his unease, he claimed an intense disliked for the open sea. His fabricated fears were medicated with affection until attempts at intimacy were dulled by their unkempt hygiene.

Rough conditions, a lack of fresh air, and the constant dark of the hold soon rekindled headaches. Each took a turn soothing the other with calculated fingers to the brow, just as they had in Ibaraki.

The very act of laying hands on the Matagi in a non-sexual way comforted Hyakunosuke; incapable of love, he found himself in unfamiliar territory.

Acclimating to the Matagi’s casual violence proved easy. While in the trenches, his red-faced anger came with blustering and the occasional tear. Now, Tanigaki’s brutality came with little warning and often without a hint of emotion.

A normal man might’ve chafed at the Matagi’s newfound brand of sane aggression, but Hyakunosuke felt oddly comforted by it.

They jumped ship in the harbor where the waters of early-Spring chilled them to the bone. Onshore, Tanigaki built a fire, and they huddled beside it until warm enough to visit a crowded midtown market.

Stuck wearing peasant rags, Hyakunosuke coveted the western suits of the men around him. Suddenly, Tanigaki began shadowing a man. Lost in the crowd, he spotted the Matagi’s hair amidst a sea of hats and watched him enter a public toilet. 

At the curtained doorway, Hyakunosuke heard a fist strike flesh; inside, a man lay unconscious at Tanigaki’s feet.

“What are you doing, Yuusaku?”

“Strip him down,” Tanigaki eyed the curtain. “It took me a while to find a man with your build, brother, so please, let’s not get caught,”

He eagerly helped strip the man of his three-piece suit.

The leather dress shoes were a perfect fit; the poor bastard even owned a monocle. Desperate to change, Hyakunosuke pulled at the strings of his soiled monpe.

“Don’t dress here,” Tanigaki snapped. “We need to bathe,”

He agreed, “I saw steam rising two blocks east,”

“This man is loaded with cash,” smiling, Tanigaki presented a fistful of banknotes. “I need clothes too, then we’ll visit the baths,”

“Why not visit a tailor,” he asked. “Get yourself some modern clothes,”

Tanigaki frowned, “I don’t like wearing yōfuku,”

“You don’t mind me wearing them,” he said.

Tanigaki leaned in and kissed him.

“I like the way it looks on you,”

Far from their crime, Hyakunosuke insisted on one of the many seamstresses with a tacked list of prices in her window; women working piecemeal never asked questions, unlike their male counterparts. 

After procuring a pair of black hakama and a large kimono jacket, they visited the busy sentō and scrubbed each other down. Tanigaki shaved him clean with a newly purchased straight razor before using its blade to neaten the beard lining his jaw.

Outside the baths, they encountered a street barber, and Hyakunosuke gave in to the Matagi’s pleas to get his hair trimmed. When the barber asked about his missing eye, Tanigaki relayed a witty tale about a hunting gun that backfired.

Now that they blended with every other man on the street, Tanigaki decided to tap into the remainder of their stolen funds.

“Taking the Teshio is a bad idea,”

Tanigaki stood before the posted train schedule, “If the line has reached Shibetsu, that’s as close as we can get to the burned-out kotan near Onnenai,”

“We should hike and horseback it,”

“Shit,” Tanigaki said. “The Teshio Line runs through Shibetsu all the way to someplace called Kaminayoro,”

“Kaminayoro?” he reviewed the board with him. “They’re extending it to Onnenai, they must’ve have found that kotan by now, Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki nodded, “We need to be sure,”

“Dammit, Yuusaku,” he snapped. “The only place to board the Teshio is at Asahikawa station,”

Tanigaki faced him, “We don’t have a choice,”

“We can find another mode of transport,”

“We don’t have the kind of time,” Tanigaki countered.

“Asahikawa is the eye of the storm, Yuusaku,”

“I know it’s risky,” said Tanigaki. “Even this place is risky,”

Enlisted soldiers were standard fixtures after the Emperor took control of the rails. A uniformed man worked the ticket counter while others walked the platform, checking bags and helping women climb into train cars.

“No shit,” Hyakunosuke eyeballed the platform. “The route between Otaru and Asahikawa is one of the busiest in Hokkaido,”

“We need to be there when they find the gold, brother,” Tanigaki whispered. “Tsurumi won’t take it back to Asahikawa,”

He nodded, “How will we know where they transport it unless we’re scouting from the trees,”

“Exactly,” Tanigaki said. “All we need do is lay low, watch their every move, and then make a grab when the time is right,”

“How do you plan to board without coming face to face with a uniform?” he asked.

Tanigaki pointed his head at the barefoot boy just a few feet away. No more than twelve with a shorn head to combat lice, he prowled the ticket depot for a pocket to pick.

“Where’s your mom?” the Matagi asked, startling the boy.

After a beat, the boy looked him up and down.

“I don’t know, bent over a toilet, somewhere,”

“Don’t be so disrespectful,” Tanigaki thumped the boy’s head. “She feeds you working those tricks, doesn’t she?”

The boy frowned, “You want me to get her for you?”

Tanigaki knelt to his level and held up a five yen note. The boy’s eyes expanded when Tanigaki held up a ten-yen note in his other hand.

“You take this and get me two first-class tickets as far as this train goes,” he pushed the five at him before waving the ten-note past his eyes. “You do that, you get this,”

“I’ll get my mom!” the boy darted away.

Hyakunosuke shook his head.

“He’s not coming back, Yuusaku,”

“He’ll be back,” said Tanigaki. “His mom will get the tickets,”

“If he even has a mother,” he countered.

“He’s the son of a whore,” said Tanigaki. “Even after she’s dead, he’ll always have a mother,”

The boy rushed back with a young woman trailing him. Hair unkempt like her kimono, the paint on her lips was worn though her white face paint was pristine.

“Hello there,” she smiled, her teeth dark blue.

Tanigaki smiled back, “Where’re my tickets?”

“Five more,” she held up a spread hand. “Convenience fee,”

Tanigaki handed her the ten and pulled out five single notes. Hyakunosuke snatched the tickets from her while Tanigaki got an arm around her and kissed her cheek.

They pushed through a crowd gathering to enter the third-class cars and walked around the single-file line of workmen and their families waiting to board second-class. There was no line at the train’s only first-class carriage.

“What day is it?” asked Hyakunosuke.

“It’s Sunday,” Tanigaki grinned.

Clever bastard. First-class compartments were typically packed with Europeans during the week, or Japanese wealthy enough to consider themselves their equals. Sunday was a holy day to most round eyes, a time for organized home activities with invited Japanese peers.

The passenger contained wood floors that shined and cushioned seats deep enough to compensate for women wearing bustles. Two couples sat near the front, one of them employed a young nanny to mind their baby. Hyakunosuke settled into a window seat and found the cushions to be harder than they appeared.

Anything was better than the forest floor.

After the elderly attendant punched their tickets, Tanigaki fell into the aisle seat, pushing Hyakunosuke closer to the window. He then thrust a hand into his bag and brought out something wrapped in cloth.

“Your grandfather kept many books,” he said. “This one’s pages were worn, so I salvaged it for you,”

Hyakunosuke gazed at the book on his lap.

“I didn’t know your grandfather knew Russian,” Tanigaki added. “Why would an educated man like him be rice farming? Was he shunned as a pervert after marrying-?”

“—those weren’t his books,” Hyakunosuke fanned through the pages with his thumb. “They belonged to my grandma. Her mother was a half-Russian, from Sakhalin,”

“What’s this one about?” the Matagi asked.

“It’s called Yevgeniy Onegin. It’s written to be an epic poem, about what my grandma called a líshniy chelovék,” he replied. “Onegin’s from a wealthy background, but he’s bored with life, so he goes from one shallow experience to the next,”

“He lives it up to do to avoid being like everyone else,” said Tanigaki. “Like all those men Byron wrote about,”

“Yes, Yuusaku,” he smiled. “Just like a Byron character,”

“What’s his vice?” asked Tanigaki. “They all have at least one,”

“Onegin plays at being many different people,” he gazed out the window. “He hates who really is, or what he thinks he is, so he’s constantly performing,”

“No one sees the real him,” Tanigaki mused. “There are advantages to that,”

“He rejects love completely until he experiences it for the first time,” he studied Tanigaki’s profile. “It’s too late for him, though. He never gets the one he wants because he failed to act when the opportunity first presented itself,”

“There’s a part of my brain that knows what this says,” Tanigaki touched the Cyrillic text. “I keep staring at it just hoping it will suddenly make sense,”

“My grandma taught me to read it,” he said, smiling. “She never taught my mother,”

“Your grandmother was a round-eye, wasn’t she?” Tanigaki asked. “That’s why your grandfather got hold of her so young?”

“She passed for normal,” he explained, head shaking. “But her mom didn’t,”

“The minka in Ibaraki,” Tanigaki said. “It was a tenant’s house,”

“My grandpa’s family was on the wrong side of the revolution, harboring foreigners when surrounded by isolationists,” he said. “When the fighting ended, his rice fields belonged to a man loyal to the new cause,”

“A serf in the noble house he grew up in, no wonder he drank,” said Tanigaki.

“She made bad choices as a child, that’s what my grandma always said when apologizing for my mother,” he slipped the book into his bag. “Then she would brag about my grandpa coming from a samurai family,”

“Her way of apologizing for him, too,” Tanigaki mused.

“Exactly,” he laughed, his hand on the Matagi’s.

Tanigaki laced his fingers into Hyakunosuke’s.

“Did she at least have light eyes?”

“Her father’s eyes were brown,” he shook his head. “Just like our father’s,”

“Your father, not mine,”

“There’s no shame in having a bit of Satsuma in you,”

“You’re the only bit Satsuma that’s getting inside of me,”

“Thank you,” Hyakunosuke whispered. “For bringing one of her books,”

Tanigaki kissed the back of his hand.

“Get some sleep,”

“What about you?” he asked.

Tanigaki smirked, “I’ll sleep when we’re alone,”

The train car rocked gently, lulling Hyakunosuke to sleep.

In dreams, his grandma’s voice lingered.

Beregi sebya, mal’chik, i nikogda ne vlyublyaysya.

Guard yourself, boy, never fall in love.

No matter what his memories conjured, her cruelest advice was welcomed over the rancid and bleeding pall of his brother. 

Hyakunosuke woke to find the train sitting in a station, their passenger car empty, and a slumbering Tanigaki on his shoulder.

“Are you moving on from Asahikawa?” the elderly attendant whispered as not to disturb the Matagi.

“Where’s the Teshio Line boarding?”

“On Sundays,” said the attendant. “This train continues on the Teshio, to Kaminayoro,”

“May I pay for our passage here, Sir?”

“Of course,” the attendant said. “Two yen, and twenty-four sen, please,”

Hyakunosuke handed him three single bills.

“Keep the remainder, Sir, thank you.”

Tanigaki mumbled, “Be still, brother,”

“My brother would sleep through a coal mine collapse,” the attendant chuckled, handing the punched tickets back. “Enjoy the rest of your journey,”

Hyakunosuke tipped his head to the attendant but lowered it when a well-dressed couple boarded with a Warrant Officer in tow. Every second the train sat in Asahikawa station brought him undue stress.

After many agonizing moments, the officer bid the couple a farewell and exited the car. Tension brought a headache and reminded him his throat was dry.

Cheek pressed to the Matagi’s hair, he drifted back to sleep.

 

*

 

Yuusaku sat in the V between Tanigaki’s legs and sobbed. Hat in hand, Tanigaki brought it up to shield the Second Lieutenant’s crying face, masking their kiss.

Gun in hand, he aimed and pulled the trigger.

No noise came from his rifle, but smoke curled from the hole in the hat.

Face sprayed with blood, a naked Tanigaki fell back onto the mud, overcome by hysterical laughter.

Hat fallen, Yuusaku’s mutilated face confronted him and spoke in his grandma’s voice: Ty urodlivyy mal’chik-

—Hyakunosuke opened his eyes to the strong odor of anise. “Chew with your mouth closed, Yuusaku,”

“We stopped at Shibetsu, I got some Buffalo Rope,” a long black string dangled from Tanigaki’s lips. “It’s black licorice from America,”

“My mouth tastes like shit,” he grabbed a piece and began chewing on the rubbery confection. “How long was I out?”

“The entire time I was gone,” said Tanigaki.

Hyakunosuke stared at him, “You left the train?”

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Tanigaki stared back. “You haven’t slept right in weeks,”

The train now moved through the waning night, and they were no longer alone. A smartly-dressed European in white sat three seats away, mahogany cane matching the color of his vest and hat.

Every few moments, he turned and fixed his gaze on Tanigaki; it was a look Hyakunosuke knew well. When Tanigaki started kissing him, Hyakunosuke eagerly played his part, leaning back and letting the large Matagi mount his lap.

Hands and hungry mouths met as he rolled the jacket down Tanigaki’s broad shoulders, freeing his arms and revealing that shapely backside.

Blue eyes watched them without a hint of shame.

“Just roll him,” Hyakunosuke whispered, finding disagreement in Tanigaki’s gaze. “You’re not whoring yourself out, Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki softened, “It would be easier-”

“—I don’t give a shit,” he growled quietly. “No more whoring,”

Tanigaki purred through half-lidded eyes.

“Are you jealous?”

“No,” said Hyakunosuke. “I’m in love,”

Tanigaki kissed him deeply before rising from his lap.

“You know what to do, big brother,” smiling, he strolled to the water closet, touching the man’s shoulder casually as he passed.

Hyakunosuke slid into the seat behind the man.

“Are you a speaker of Japanese?”

The man hesitated, “Yes, I am.”

“He’s a fine cut of meat, isn’t he?” beads of sweat dotted the back of the man’s neck. “He likes you, he’s waiting for you,”

The man trained an eager eye before rising from his seat.

“Now, now,” Hyakunosuke brought up two fingers and rubbed them to his thumb. “Meat like that has a price in Japan,”

“Of course,” the man sputtered, pulling out his billfold.

After pushing out a few five yen notes and setting them on the seat, he produced an additional ten yen note and tossed it at Hyakunosuke.

“I don’t wish to have company,”

Hyakunosuke forced a smile.

“I’ll make sure no one interrupts,”

Hyakunosuke snatched the money from the floor and anticipated landing a kick to the man’s balls once Tanigaki rendered him unconscious.

The man reached the water closet door, but instead of opening it, he quickly exited the train car.

“Ogata Hyakunosuke!” he jumped up to find Warrant Officer Kikuda standing at the opposite end of the carriage, gun trained.

A gunshot rang out from inside the water closet.

“I couldn’t believe what Tsurumi told me,” said Kikuda. “But here you are, and there’s Tanigaki,”

“Quit talking and pull the trigger,” he goaded.

“That’s a pretty piece of glass you got in that eye,” Kikuda drew back the hammer. “I’m going to add it to my collection of things found while tying up loose ends,”

Tanigaki’s voice shouted ‘DROP,’ and Hyakunosuke fell to his knees. Kikuda dove behind a seat as Tanigaki unloaded a volley of bullets from the pistols he now carried.

“You Matagi son of a bitch!” Kikuda growled. “I never should’ve taught you dual shot!”

Tanigaki put himself in front of Hyakunosuke, “Brother, move!”

Kikuda shouted, “Do it now!”

The train lurched, hurling Hyakunosuke over the dead body of Superior Private Usami; blood trickled from the hole in his forehead, and the moles dotting his cheeks contained crude stick figures beneath them. Outside, the train screeched to a halt as Tanigaki walked backward, firing both weapons.

Hyakunosuke jumped onto the grass and took off as uniforms came from both sides. Guns spent, Tanigaki tossed them.

“Yuusaku, the trees!” he shouted, running for his life.

“Don’t look back, brother, just go!” Tanigaki huffed, sprinting after him.

“Tanigaki Matagi!” a familiar voice shouted.

Hyakunosuke turned to find Tanigaki tackled to the ground, an Ainu on top of him.

“Yuusaku!” a bullet struck the tree beside him, sending shards of bark upon the back of his neck.

Kikuda marched toward him, gun up and firing, giving Hyakunosuke no choice but to flee.

 

**

 

Tanigaki had been taken to the Kaikōsha in Asahikawa.

They kept him imprisoned in the only room without windows, a file storage office on the top floor. For twenty days and nineteen nights, Hyakunosuke watched from a position just one block south. 

The men standing guard purposely kept irregular hours, disabling his ability to pinpoint an accurate time to approach. 

Tsurumi wouldn’t stop until he deprogrammed Tanigaki, and his first attempts came in the form of soldiers from the 27th; former comrades from the Matagi’s tondenhei days.

The week after, he brought in the Ainu woman, Inkarmat. She arrived with an infant on her back and came out later on the arm of Private Ariko; the Matagi had been replaced.

Yesterday, Hijikata showed up with his followers in tow; Tanigaki had been right predicting an alliance. The convict doctor, Ienaga, was among them, along with that Ainu from Akam, Kirawus.

Hyakunosuke followed when the Ainu, and another of Hijikata’s lackeys, Kantarou, left Takesu to visit downtown.

“They’ve had him locked in that room for near a month,” Kantarou said as they walked.

“I was there when they brought in his lady and that baby,” said Kirawus. “He keeps saying we’re all part of some cover life he lived while working for the army,”

Kantarou shook his head, “Sad son of a bitch,”

“They’ve kept him awake for days,” said Kirawus. “No man deserves that,” 

“Ushiyama didn’t like it either,” Kantarou said.

“I feel sorry for the bear cub,” Kirawus added. “I hope they get through to him,”

Hyakunosuke slipped back into the crowd when they entered a brothel.

A horse-drawn trolley slowed to a stop at the curb, and inside he spotted a red shoulder panel. A young Private hopped off and stepped onto the sidewalk.

Hyakunosuke came up alongside, coughing violently.

“Are you all right, sir?” when the Private took his arm, he fell onto him, hacking with his head down.

After steering them into an alleyway, he surveyed the narrow passage for witnesses.

“Let me get you some help,” said the Private.

Hyakunosuke drove a fist into his sternum and then bounced his head off the brick wall. He hastily stripped off the unconscious Private’s pants and jacket and with the cap on his head, emerged from the alley.

He fell in behind a rowdy group of Superior Private’s as they crossed the street toward the front gate. After the group passed with no interference from the First-Year standing watch, Hyakunosuke lingered by the horses with his eye on the building’s pillared front door canopy.

Just inside the foyer stood First Lieutenant Tsurumi.

The elder officer kept a permanent room on the top floor of the Kaikōsha, with a large window that overlooked the Superior Private’s barracks.

Hyakunosuke recalled many nights responding to that slick bastard’s signal, a lone candle in the window with one curtain panel drawn.

One of those nights, Tanigaki had been invited, but he failed to appear after Tamai commandeered him for guard duty. It was a missed prospect that burned in his gut; things would’ve been different if the Matagi showed up that night.

Hyakunosuke would’ve solicited the Ani native right there on his knees without Tsurumi realizing it was happening. Their sexual relationship would’ve evolved, and together, they’d have searched for the gold.

A vehicle pulled up to the door with Sergeant Tsukishima driving and Sugimoto in the front seat. Asirpa climbed out the back, and the three exchanged words before she opened the back door.

Out stepped the old woman from the Kotan, not much taller than the little girl holding her hand. They strode onto the portico, their eyes taking in the strange world around them.

After many moments Tsukishima returned and shared a cigarette with Sugimoto. Not long after that, Asirpa charged out onto the steps.

“He remembered Huci!” she shouted. “He knew Osoma and started remembering things about you, me, Cikapasi, and everyone!”

Laughing, Sugimoto held her tight.

“He started crying!” she exclaimed. “Tanigaki-nispa was crying, just like he used to!”

Gutted by the scene, Hyakunosuke retreated.

The gate loomed ahead, and the path to it was clouded a comforting breath on his ear, that wet tongue on his lips, and a smile that faded the world to black.

Happiness vanished in the blink of an eye, the only eye he had left. Ty dolzhen byl pozabotit’sya o tom, chtoby ne vlyubit’sya, mal’chik.

“That’s him, he’s the one!” the beaten Private stood there with a soldier under each arm. “That’s my uniform!”

“Ogata!” Sugimoto screamed.

A bullet struck the concrete at his feet.

Tsukishima shouted, “Seize him!”

He shoved the beaten Private, toppling the men carrying him, and fled through the gates. Shouts followed as dozens of determined men armed with batons rushed out after him.

Down the street, glass rained down from a merchant’s window shattered by another of Sugimoto’s bullets. He raced into an alley with footfalls closing in from every direction. Cries echoed from the rooftops as basement windows came to life from switched on lights.

“I got him!” Ariko’s thick body leaned out a window with a rifle aimed.

Adrenaline kept him one step ahead, and out of the alley, he slipped into a clutch of pedestrians; no soldier would fire into a crowd of civilians.

A bullet struck the streetlamp above, bringing the pedestrians to their knees.

“I’m sending him your way!” cried Kirawus.

Hyakunosuke took off in the opposite direction, but that damned Ainu came close to striking him again. Desperate, he jumped a high fence to a backyard and sheltered within its hanging sheets.

A train whistle sounded off in the distance, a ten-minute departure warning. Hyakunosuke snatched some damp clothes from the line and quickly redressed. Calm, he walked toward the station only to find uniformed men rounding the corner to confront a group of last-minute boarders.

A portly man clad in a tailored western suit was given clearance to exit the station, and when he crossed the street, Hyakunosuke fell in behind him.

Suitcase in one hand and a string-tied box in the other, the man walked four blocks to a quiet street of townhomes. At the paneled door of a machiya, he kicked off his shoes, and that’s when Hyakunosuke jumped him from behind.

In the foyer, he forced the man onto his belly and clutching his chin, grabbed his crown, and with a tug, ended his life.

Winded from his work, he slid the panel door closed and pulled the western shades down over the windows. Teeth chattering, he ventured into the kitchen and helped himself to some water from the kitchen sink.

The airy voice of a woman called from above; the dead man’s name was Daichi. Hyakunosuke took a knife from the cutting block and crept up the stairs.

The moment she entered the hall, he wrapped an arm around her neck and jabbed it into her lower back. He couldn’t stop himself, driving the blade long after her screams died with her.

Unable to continue, he let her body slide onto the floor. Pungent blood soaked his thigh and made the knife too slick to hold.

Babushka, pozhaluysta, pomogi mne!”  he dropped to his knees. “I never asked you for anything, please!”

Behind him, the door creaked, parting only an inch.

Inside a naked bulb hung low from a thick cord, and twisting it brought light to dozens of headless dress-forms each clad in a colorful kimono.

The woman was a geisha, her vanity cluttered with application sponges and brushes caked with liquid liner. Beyond an open castor of pasty white powder were three neatly combed wigs on headstands.

Hyakunosuke sat down and studied his face in her mirror.

Chapter Text

The fortune-teller’s daughter arrived at Asahikawa at age two, a testament to how long her father was missing.

No one expected her mother to carry full term after being stuck in the gut at Abashiri. The kotan midwives called her Daikuso, a fitting first name for a half-sisam of twelve pounds.

A late talker, her voice awakened in the presence of her newly found father. She babbled incessantly, repeating words and mimicking hand gestures; her very existence led Tokushirou to pine for memories unattained.

Guilt was a comrade long thought dead, but it nagged at him now despite their conversations never being pleasant. Yes, it had been foolish to marry a local woman, impregnate her, and put her in harm’s way; the same level of foolishness repeated when he put Private Tanigaki in harm’s way.

Those first days after his recall, the young Akita native wouldn’t hold his child. He remained distant from the Ainu woman, Inkarmat, but he went through the motions, convincing everyone who cared that his road to recovery was assured.

Doubts lingered within Tokushirou, so he arranged a visit to the widow Hanazawa. Misgivings were realized when the Matagi emerged for their trip wearing a Second Lieutenant’s uniform.

Tsukishima remained stone; no man maintained a front quite like Hajime. He saluted young Tanigaki before opening the carriage door for his ride to Sapporo.

Hanazawa’s home changed drastically since his death. European windows brightened the interior, and opulent rugs replaced tatami as quickly as a tapered shirtwaist replaced his widow’s kimono.

Tanigaki had entered the foyer with eyes hungry for anything familiar, but when the domestic servant asked his name, confusion marked his brow.

Superior Private Ogata invested a great deal of time weaving a web of lies so intricate that Tokushirou couldn’t help but be impressed.

The widow Hanazawa had come bustling down the stairs, delighted to see the young man who’d risked his life to save her son’s corpse from the battlefield.

She’d greeted him with open arms and called him by the name his real mother gave him: Genji.

Dazed, the Matagi had stepped into her embrace. Composed, he’d joined her in the sitting room for tea and with hat in hand, confronted the funerary image of the real Yuusaku Hanazawa.

A tear had run down his cheek, sadness the widow mistook as grief for her son. Together they’d knelt before Yuusaku’s shrine, holding hands and weeping; one for a lost child, the other for a lost soul.

Back at the Kaikōsha, the Matagi returned that uniform to the dispensary and now donned Ainu clothes given to him by Kirawus. He’d even accompanied Sugimoto, the child, and the convict, Shiraishi, in returning Huci and her granddaughter back to Otaru.

“There’s been no sign of Ogata leaving by train, horse-traffic, or migrant walk,” Tsukishima entered the parlor, closing the door behind him. “It’s been three weeks, Sir,”

“He remains in Asahikawa,” said Tokushirou. “A door to door search will flush out our Mister Ogata,”

Outside his window, the Matagi carried his sleeping daughter back inside. There was clearly no intimacy with the fortune teller, but that hadn’t stopped him from bonding with his child.

“Use every available man on this base, but,” he added. “Keep our trusted guards in Kushiro,”

“You think Hijikata will make a move on the gold?” Tsukishima asked.

“There’s more gold there than we anticipated,” he undid his jacket button and sat on the couch. “I don’t expect a man like that to rely on my guidance much longer,”

Tsukishima pulled at the collar of his shirt. Western attire suited most men, but Hajime wasn’t most men.

“Tanigaki went to the baths with you last night?”

“Yes, he did, Sir,”

“Has he spoken of our missing Mister Ogata?”

“Certain subjects are off-limits, Sir,”

Before the conversation could continue, Tanigaki pushed through the door with a tea tray in his hand.

“Forgive me, I didn’t know you were in a meeting,”

“No, please, come in,” Tokushirou took the tray from him and placed it on the table between the couches. “We’re finished, aren’t we, Sergeant?”

“Won’t you stay, Hajime?” Tanigaki asked. “Its pekoe, from that British colony on the continent,”

Tsukishima smiled warmly, “I’ve things to do, perhaps another time,”

Tokushirou grinned at the Matagi once they were alone, “Our Tsukishima doesn’t express happiness very often,”

“I wanted to thank him,” he sat and poured their tea. “I bathe nightly, and he’s been so accommodating, going with me when I’m sure he just wants to turn in for the day,”

Tokushirou took the cup and saucer handed to him, “Finding out his preference in European tea was shrewd,”

“I asked the kitchen mistress,” he grinned. “You’ve all been so kind to me,”

Tokushirou sipped his tea before returning it to the table, “I feel as if I’m responsible for you to a degree,”

“A large degree,” he said, cup in hand. “You’re mostly responsible for my current situation,”

Tokushirou found innocent eyes.

One. Two. Three.

“If you hadn’t told the Sergeant to enlist me in bringing Ogata back,” the Matagi sipped his tea. “I wouldn’t have been on that ship,”

Tokushirou sat back.

Four. Five. Six.

“I haven’t told anyone about the telegram,” he set down his cup and stood. “I’m not angry at you, Mister, uh-”

Tokushirou uncrossed his legs.

Seven. Eight. Nine.

“Forgive me, Sir,” he said quickly. “I don’t consider myself a soldier anymore. May I address you as a gentleman and not a superior officer?”

Tokushirou pushed out a laugh.

“Of course, Mister Tanigaki,”

“Thank you, Mister Tsurumi,” he bowed slightly before his eyes set upon something. “You have a gramophone?”

“It belongs to the Kaikōsha,” Tokushirou watched him finger the machine’s scalloped horn. “The records are in the bin beneath,”

Tanigaki retrieved the box of discs and flipped through them. Creasing his brow, he said, “Every army man is a Wagnerite,”

“You know western music?” Tokushirou asked.

Tanigaki regarded him with a smile and a nod.

“Wagner isn’t my favorite of the German Romantics,” he put the box back in place. “I don’t like hearing orchestral pieces on these, they switch out the cellos for tubas and use Stroh violins,”

“Yes, they do, Mister Tanigaki, yes, they do,” Tokushirou said. “Tell me, where does a mountain boy discover classical music?”

“Behind every hick-Matagi is a refined woman,” he returned to the couch, smiling. “My mother owned a violin. She bought it from one of the first Austrian merchants to visit Akita.”

“Fascinating,” said Tokushirou.

“She played it when I was little,” he paused then, his lip quivering. “I can hear her playing, sometimes I hear her voice,” his eyes pooled with water. “But I can’t remember her face,”

Tokushirou moved onto the cushion beside him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. Suddenly, the Matagi tipped over and pressed his face to Tokushirou’s neck.

After a few moments of sobbing, he collected himself and wiped his eyes with the back of his shirtsleeves.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “All I do is cry anymore,”

“You’ve been through quite an ordeal,” said Tokushirou. “It’s to be expected,”

“I just lied to you, Mister Tsurumi,” he said. “I don’t dislike Wagner completely. The Ring of the Nibelung, I heard a recording when I lived in Kosaka, it’s a singing song play,”

Relief washed over Tokushirou, “An operatic?”

“Is that what they’re are called?” he asked.

Tokushirou began to relax, “There are four operas in the Der Ring des Nibelungen,”

“I don’t speak German, but an actor friend explained the words to me as it played. My favorite is the Valkyrie,” without being asked, he refreshed their tea. “The stories in the Ring remind me of the myths back home. Goddesses of the mountain, their love, and their tragedies,”

“This actor friend was a kabuki man from Kosaka?”

“When you were searching for me,” Tanigaki regarded him with mischievous eyes. “Did you meet them?”

“They were rather fond of you, mister Tanigaki,”

“I’m fond of everyone,” he brought the cup to his lips. “But you knew that about me,”

“You and I are alike in that respect,”

“Yuusaku wasn’t,” he returned his cup to the saucer.

One. Two. Three. Four.

“After visiting with Misses Hanazawa,” he added. “I remembered his voice, voices are always the first thing that comes,”

“I didn’t consider how difficult that visit would be,”

“I needed it,” he said quickly. “If you hadn’t shown me the truth, I’d still be clinging to the lies,”

Tokushirou put a hand upon Tanigaki’s knee.

“What do you remember about Yuusaku?”

“He took me to a shop in town,” he said. “The man sold phonographs and Yuusaku, he liked Debussy-”

“—Nocturnes, if I recall,”

“There’s a listening booth in the back where we stood inside and listened,” he hesitated. “He told you about it, that’s why you came to me, wasn’t it?”

Tokushirou withdrew his hand.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

“I’m not angry. You manipulate people, Mister Tsurumi, it’s what you do,” he said, agreeable. “You promised not to use me against him, you just wanted me to convince him to join you after the war against his father-”

“—I recall our conversation Mister Tanigaki,”

“Tell me,” he took hold of Tokushirou’s hand and brought it back on his leg. “Which of the kagema in Kosaka was your favorite?”

Tokushirou chuckled, “There were many,”

“I enjoyed Namio the most,”

“The young man with no wisdom teeth,”

“It made for an interesting fit,”

“Oh, Mister Tanigaki,” Tokushirou laughed. “You and I are more alike than I realized,”

“I enjoy people that like to have fun,”

“I’m not the handsome man I once was,” said Tokushirou. “Yet the one named Yasuyuki was rather generous with his affections,”

“Yuki’s brother didn’t like me,” he pouted. “I intimidated him,”

“That’s to be expected as you share the same build,”

“I always invited him to stay when the clothes began falling off,” he said flippantly. “It’s more fun when everyone wants everyone,”

“Indeed, it is, Mister Tanigaki,”

“It bothers me that you think you’re no longer handsome,” he handed Tokushirou a fresh cup. “You’re as handsome as ever, Mister Tsurumi, just in a different way,”

“That’s polite of you to say,”

“I need to stop this charade,” he declared.

Tokushirou’s froze as the Matagi stood.

One. Two. Three. Four.

“I’ve been using you to raise my mood,” he confessed. “Forgive me for that, but I’m trying to work up the courage to speak with Inkarmat today,”

“You may speak to me about anything,” Tokushirou set down his cup. “You’re not my ward, there’s no need to be guarded for my sake,”

Tanigaki glanced the window.

“I’ve burdened you enough,”

“It’s as you stated,” said Tokushirou. “I played a part in your current situation, and thus I make myself available to you as a friend, Genjirou,”

“I’m not staying with her, Mister Tsurumi,” he blurted. “There’s a part of me that knows her, but I don’t feel for her, not the way she deserves,”

“Forgive my invasion of privacy,” Tokushirou said. “But have you and-”

“—I’ve not touched her, nor do I intend too,” Tanigaki’s eyes met his. “I took Daiku today, do you know why?”

Tokushirou shook his head.

“Inkarmat should spend time with Rikimatsu,” the Matagi spoke without a hint of anger. “He’s been there for her, and I think it’s best to encourage it,”

Tsukishima had ordered the Ainu soldier to seduce a then-pregnant Inkarmat, another foolish mistake on his part, thrusting a lonely young man into the arms of a vulnerable woman.

“I was preparing our tea in the kitchen when I found her crying on the porch,” Tanigaki looked into his eyes. “His superior gave him new orders today, assigning him somewhere else,”

“And she feels obligated to remain here, for you?”

“Inkarmat says she can’t take my daughter from me,” he said. “I need her to understand, I’m not what’s best for that child,”

“Genjirou Tanigaki,”

“Rikimatsu’s been a good father to her,” he said, pacing the floor. “And he’s been there for Inkarmat. I won’t stand in the way of what’s best for her or her mother,”

Tokushirou walked to him.

“I don’t envy your enterprise,”

Tanigaki nodded, “If I’m not down for dinner later-”

“—I’ll inform the staff,” said Tokushirou, hand on his shoulder.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Mister Tsurumi,” he said. “I want you to know that,”

The door opened, and Tsukishima entered.

“Have a good day,” Tanigaki bowed before exiting.

“Sergeant,” said Tokushirou. “Where have we assigned Private Ariko?”

Tsukishima closed the door behind him, “I recalled two men from Kushiro, replaced them with Ariko. Is this a problem, Sir?”

“Not at all,” said Tokushirou. “Inform our Ariko that he should take the fortune teller and her child with him,”

“Sir?” Tsukishima said. “I think keeping Tanigaki here is the best-”

“—Tanigaki will remain,” Tokushirou poured the Sargeant some tea and handed it to him. “The woman and the child will depart, under Ariko’s supervision,”

Tsukishima gave a curt nod, “Understood, Sir,”

 

*

 

Chaos was about to engulf the Imperial Army.

Hijikata took possession of his share of the gold and began enlisting a cadre of fighters. These trained battalions would be planted throughout Hokkaido’s coastal towns, and within the year, attack the garrison’s at Muroran, Akkeshi, and Nemuro.

Assurances were made that the 7th Division would remain neutral during the ronin’s rebellion; former tondenhei would return to farming poppies, while the local unskilled would staff the first of many planned munition’s factories.

Tokushirou descended the stairs of the Kaikōsha.

Gone was the daily chatter, cigarette smoke, and the tapping of boots. Every officer that frequented these halls was now in the field, carrying out plans within plans.

The Matagi was on the portico, bathing his toddling child. She latched onto his muscular arm and stood in the center of a steel trough while her dotting father rinsed the soap from her shoulders with a large ladle.

Tokushirou joined them with a dry yukata.

“Good afternoon,”

“Say hello to Mister Tsurumi,” said the Matagi, taking the yukata offered to him.

The bushy-browed child wiggled her fingers in Tokushirou’s direction.

“We had an accident during our nap,” he bundled the child tightly and lifted her from the trough. “We took our sheets to the Misses Ukio, and she’s going to make them all clean,”

The little girl nodded, “Keen,”

Tokushirou dabbed the girl’s nose dry with his kerchief, “I wasn’t aware mother and child were paying us a visit,”

“It’s just us today,” said the Matagi. “Inkarmat’s joining a new kotan and asked me to mind her until she’s settled,”

“I wasn’t aware you visited Inkarmat,” Tokushirou said. “Remind me, where did our good Sergeant send Private Ariko?”

“I’ve no idea,” the Matagi took them into the kitchen. “She’s setting up house, but she won’t say where. I assumed Ariko’s on a secret mission,”

Tokushirou sighed with relief.

“May I ask you something, Genjirou?”

“You can ask me anything,”

“Do you intend to return home to Akita?”

“Meeting my brother,” the Matagi hesitated. “It hasn’t put me off returning home,”

The reunion of brothers-Tanigaki hadn’t gone well.

Elder brother remained justifiably resentful having to bury both parents in his younger sibling’s absence. He married into a family of no means with only their father’s home to call his own.

Tanigaki had said little in his defense.

Unlike his meeting with widow Hanazawa, there’d been no tears shed. He’d excused himself from the dining room and returned with monies given to him earlier in the week by Tokushirou to procure new clothes.

The elder brother had eagerly taken the cash.

“I’m glad to hear this,” said Tokushirou. “I was concerned when you left the premises afterward,”

Tanigaki had abandoned Tokushirou’s company following his brother’s departure. Instead of walking to the base, he’d ventured to the administrative annex.

Unable to secure an extra man to shadow the Matagi, Tokushirou was forced to follow up with the clerk himself.

“I visited the pension office, pulled my brother-in-law’s Kenkichi’s severance file,” the child staggered over the kitchen planks, little hands set upon the cabinet face for balance. “His pension is earmarked for my mother, they don’t know she’s dead,”

“You told me he’d been part of the Second Division,”

“He left her the deed to his land,” Tanigaki was a clever man. “I’m going to claim it, return to Ani, and rebuild their home,”

“That’s a sound enterprise,” Tokushirou hesitated. “Did you also retrieve the files of Ogata Hyakunosuke?”

“No, ma’am,” Tanigaki quickly stepped up when the child began climbing the pan racks. “You’re too strong for your own good, misses,”

Caught in her father’s arms, she displayed a sour expression.

“Let’s find something to do that doesn’t involve rooms with sharp and heavy things in them,” Tanigaki turned and smiled. “Do you want to join us, Mister Tsurumi?”

“I’d enjoy that, thank you,” he fell in behind them. “Please, call me Tokushirou,”

 

**

 

After his father’s seppuku, he was a common man.

There were two kinds of common men, mother always said, those who build roads and those who walk them.

Treading the roads of others extracted a heavy toll, and the irony wasn’t lost on Tokushirou that those walking his stretch of road paid dearly for their journey.

The train ticket on his desk brought solace; Tanigaki would be exiting his path.

“Tokushirou?” naked, but for a sky-blue yukata and a pair of white socks, Tanigaki carried his sleeping child to the couch, leaving a fragrant trail in his wake.

“I’ve something for you, Genjirou,” he retrieved a bottle of liquor from the ice pail.

“For me?” the Matagi gently laid her on the couch.

“Given your fondness for black licorice,” he set two shot glasses upon the table and uncorked the bottle. “I procured some Sambuca Manzi,”

“I’ve never heard of it,” he said, eyes bright.

“It’s an Italian spirit,” Tokushirou filled the tiny cups. “Best served cold,”

Tanigaki sniffed it before tipping some back.

“Oh,” he inhaled deeply. “That’s delicious,”

Tokushirou did the same, savoring the sweet burn in his chest, “It clears the sinuses,”

“Pour me another,” he whispered, his glass back on the table.

The scent of anise filled the space between them as he spoke of his long-term plans back once back in Ani.

“I have a question, Toku-kun,” he refilled their glasses. “Where is everyone? The officers have been gone for two weeks,”

He forced a smile, “They’re searching for Mister Ogata,”

“Oh,” Tanigaki deflated. “What about the lesser men?”

“The rest are on a personal mission,” he turned his glass over when Tanigaki tried to refill it. “Along with Private Ariko,”

“I’m prying,” he filled his own glass and then emptied it. “I got scared, I thought Russia might’ve invaded,”

“If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, one leg over the other. “And you’re allowed to pry. Ask me anything you wish, Genjirou,”

“Do you think it’s selfish of me to go home to Ani?” the Matagi moved onto the couch beside him and pointed his head the sleeping tot. “To not be with Inkarmat and Daiku?”

A dark brown nipple amidst a shallow layer of hair appeared in the opening the yukata, “Young man, there’s nothing selfish about doing what’s best for oneself,”

Pensive, Tanigaki leaned to and kissed his cheek. “Forgive me,” his cheeks ashen. “You’ve done so much for me, and I don’t know how to thank you,”

“As the imminent leader of Hokkaido,” he put a hand on the Matagi’s naked knee. “It would be irresponsible of me to take advantage,”

“I’m going to back Akita,” Tanigaki flashed an ornery grin. “I don’t qualify as one of your subjects, Lord Tsurumi,”

“That’s a reality I considered,” his hand moved over the rough hairs of his muscular thigh and grazed his genitals. “You’re certainly the most endowed of my potential conquests,”

“I’ll put Daiku to bed,” Tanigaki leaned in for another kiss. “Then I’ll show you my appreciation,”

Tokushirou reached for the back of his neck, eager to pull the willing man onto him until something pricked his leg.

“Damn!” he snapped, standing.

“What’s wrong?” Tanigaki reached for him.

“Something bit me,” he ran an exploratory hand along the back of his leg.

“Oh no, you too!” Tanigaki snatched up a loose upholstery tack up from the couch cushion. “Yesterday, one of these got me in the room across the hall,”

“European furniture,” he groused.

“I’m sorry,” Tanigaki laughed. “I know it’s not funny, but-”

“—Oh, but it is, Genjirou,” he smiled. “Perhaps fate is telling me that this avenue isn’t one we should take,”

Suddenly, his knees folded and fell onto the couch. The tingling of pins and needles in his legs gave way to a stifling heaviness.

Tanigaki knelt before him.

“Feeling it now, aren’t you, Sir?” Remain calm.

Tanigaki hurried to the door and locked it.

“The doctors here pay no attention to who comes and goes,” he said coldly, closing the shutters on the room windows. “There was a catalog of medicines in one office, I can’t believe how inexpensive it is to order a few tablets of curare,”

Remain calm.

Count them all. Count each one you see.

 One. Two. Three.

“Crushing to powder and cooking to fluid was tricky,” Tanigaki reached under the gramophone stand and retrieved some neatly folded clothes. “But I knew how to do it from watching the nurses in Kosaka. Now you know why I was always making tea. I needed to melt enough for one dose,”

Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.

“Pricks are easy to disguise if you know how,” Tanigaki held up a hand, and between his fingers was the upholstery pin and a tiny syringe. “The paralysis is gradual. Arms and legs first, then your ability to speak,”

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.

“The spine is like a ladder,” Tanigaki pulled off the yukata and began dressing. “But nothing on it climbs straight up or down,”

The child didn’t rouse when her father sat on the couch beside her.

“First real memory I had of you, in Ibaraki,” brown shirt buttoned, he put his arms through the holes of a green tapered vest. “Was your nasty face saying that it needed me. I needed to be needed, Sir, you have no idea how much I needed to be needed. It makes what I’m doing now, so very hard,”

Twenty. Twenty-One. Twenty-two.

“You inspire fear in your enemies, but you’re so full of love,” Tanigaki sat beside him and pulled on a pair of dark brown trousers. “Love and hate are born of the same passion that drives us all, I guess,” he rose to his feet and stepped into a pair of shoes.

Thirty-Three. Thirty-Four. Thirty-Fi….

“Oh, you’re leaking again,” Tanigaki grabbed a napkin from the table and dabbed gently at his cheek. “Your conscience, your anger, your joy, all those juices gush out when you count higher than thirty, don’t they?”

Thirty-Nine. Forty...

“All that passion has to go somewhere, but you won’t let it be love. Love compromises you,” pity filled Tanigaki’s eyes. “I was like you, a dog with a bone. I wouldn’t rest until someone paid for hurting me.”

Tanigaki straddled his lap.

“It’s good you kept Tsukishima around,” he whispered against his lips. “A man that wouldn’t act against a paternal figure,”

Fifty-Five. Fifty-Six...

“You must’ve been extraordinary before this,” Tanigaki removed the porcelain plate from his head. “It’s pulsing so hard, but you’re not angry, are you?”

Tanigaki brought his palms to Tokushirou’s ears and held his head.

“I learned so much about the brain in Kosaka,” his baritone soothed as his thumb pressed the soft spot upon Tokushirou’s brow. “Manual stimulation can kill a man, or bring about a pleasurable death,”

Rage and desire merged as he lost track of the bullets.

“Ohhh!” Tanigaki cooed as orgasmic flashes brought tears to Tokushirou’s eyes. “That’s so nice, isn’t it, Sir?”

Suddenly, each breath became more laborious than the last—put your lips on me, Matagi, please—can not breathe...

“The curare’s reached your diaphragm,” Tanigaki detached from him, disappointed. “It’s time to say goodbye, Sir,”

The door burst open and in rushed Private Ariko.

“Not another step,” Tanigaki remained calm, Tokushirou’s sidearm in his grasp and aimed the sleeping child. “Did you bring what I asked?”

“Your lackey just took off with the horse and cart,” Ariko growled.

“That was his job,” said Tanigaki. “Yours was to bring me the amount I asked for. Did you do it, Rikimatsu?”

Inkarmat fell in behind Ariko, “Please, Genji!”

“Quiet down,” Tanigaki said. “You’ll wake her,”

“I brought what you asked for, filled both trunks,” Ariko said. “Why are you doing this, Genji?”

“I’m not your Genjiro,” said Tanigaki. “Inkarmat, get over here and pick her up. We’re going to walk outside,” he pointed the gun at Ariko. “I know Kikuda’s lurking the rooftops like a falcon. If he takes one shot at me, I shoot them both,”

Inkarmat stared down at Tokushirou.

“I'll drop them on the roadside when...” Tanigaki’s voice began to fade.

Tokushirou lay in the grass, staring up at the sun.

His baby girl made her way through the high blades, head wobbling, and arms determined. She came upon him and pulled herself onto his neck, her toothless mouth drooling as it clamped down on his chin.

Chapter Text

His head wrapped tight in silk, he warmed the bintsuke between his palms until it was pliable enough to spread.

On the floor before the mirror, he smoothed a thick layer over the identical scars on his cheeks and with a powder brush in hand, dabbed its bristly head into a jar of white dust.

He touched its coated tips gently to the shallow water in the bowl before speedily working the foundation onto his face. Lips, brows, and scars disappeared in the white glow, leaving only a border of bare skin around his hairline. A few shiny patches were quelled by a sponge until his skin resembled polished stone

Sedate black streaks climbed in opposite directions above his eyes, tinged with a hint of the same red that marked the center of his bottom lip.

There was no reason for that red patch upon his lip to be so small; to hell with moderation, Ogata Hyakunosuke wasn’t an innocent virgin. He coated the narrow brush with red and painted his lower lip fully with the allure of a glossed oiran.

A true courtesan, the dead woman’s collection of shimadas were too ornate for a simple geisha. He chose a highly domed and very western coiffure. Unused and still in the box, it came with a simple chignon in the back.

He unwound the silk from his head, his locks combed through with beech oil to keep them flat. After applying a sticky balm along his hairline, he secured the wig tight behind his ears before choosing a kanzashi in the shape of two mochibana branches. Its gilded stalks were bordered in a shimmering black that matched his glass eye.

The dead woman’s closet was a small room onto itself.

One side contained an array of stylish western frocks. Each piece clung to a velvet-lined hanger and was packed tight enough to flatten any bustle.

It was a different world on the other side, where eighteen kimonos were draped with care over standing caged-wire torsos. Regardless of the endless supply of yōfuku, the dead woman remained a daughter of Japan at heart.

White nagajuban in place, he chose a dark blue homongi to wear over it. Made of chirimen, faint smoky lines ran vertically from collar to hem.

Beneath the waist were painted gulls in flight over white embroidered waves. An obi the color of wet sand fit snug over his ribs, its design lackluster to curb lingering glances.

Geta in hand, he rushed to the small western-style suitcase waiting by the front door.

Two doors down, uniformed grunts were already clearing another house. Dozens of onlookers watched as they stormed inside and herded the inhabitants onto the street.

Hyakunosuke trotted past them, a master of the thick-soled geta. No one spared him notice as soldiers tossed cabinets and cupboards out windows.

When a crowd of restless locals began shouting at the men inside, two soldiers standing guard at the station entrance left their posts for the street.

The men quickly crossed as taunts became punctuated with thrown stones. Clear to proceed, he climbed the platform, and with the dead woman’s travel voucher in hand, entered a first-class passenger car.

An affluent couple came in behind him, their twin boys dressed in yōfuku attire while the old woman holding their infant wore a modest yukata.

There were many empty seats to choose from, but Hyakunosuke didn’t get the chance to sit.

“You boarded without me,”

Fear seized him, “Genjir-”

“—Don’t call me that,” fingers clenched tight around his bicep. “That’s not my name,”

“Let me explain,”

“You’re on the wrong train, sister,” Tanigaki smiled at the family as they passed; he then whispered, “You’re going walk off this train with me, arm in arm,”

“This train is the only way out of Asahikawa,”

“Not for you,” Tanigaki stepped out onto the pavement and then offered a hand. “Come on, sister, let’s not hold up the train,”

Hyakunosuke lowered his painted gaze and allowed the Matagi to lower him down.

“Those men at the south entrance have never laid eyes on me,” Tanigaki held his arm tight and walked him along. “We’ll be passing through their checkpoint,”

The grip of a pistol peeked out from his kimono jacket.

“You even think about snatching it,” Tanigaki wrapped a firm hand around the nape of his neck. “I’ll take one those pretty geta off your foot, and beat you to death with it,”

“You’re angry with me, you have that right,”

“Shut your mouth,” he grinned at the guard. “Excuse me, what’s going on here?”

“You in from Otaru?” the young soldier asked.

Tanigaki nodded, “I was told Asahikawa is a safe town,”

“We’re trying to keep it safe, Sir,” an army detachment photograph of Hyakunosuke in his hand, the young man focused on the faces passing behind them. “Move along, please,”

“Thank you,” said Tanigaki, taking them outside the gate.

There was no way out of this—but at least Tanigaki wasn’t Tsurumi.

“Please let me explain,” he pleaded.

“Two blocks south, I have a room at that western hotel,” Tanigaki yanked him along as they crossed the street. “Up in that room is your rifle,”

“I suppose you want me to eat it,” he spat.

“If I wanted you dead,” Tanigaki laughed. “I’d have outed you to that guard back there,”

Hyakunosuke said, “I came back for you-”

“—Keep your head down and your mouth shut, like a good woman,” he said. “Don’t bring attention to yourself when we enter the lobby, you stay a step behind me and don’t look any man in the eye,”

The moment Tanigaki pushed his way into the strange revolving doors, Hyakunosuke kicked free of the geta and sprinted down the pedestrian walk.

Something cuffed the back of his neck, sending him headlong into an alley. An open hand stung his cheek as footsteps picked up on the pavement; witnesses unwilling to get involved.

“You have the audacity to flee my charity!”

Against the bricks and with the taste of blood on his tongue, he glared up at the Matagi.

“If you’re going to kill me, do it!”

Another slap made his ears ring.

Tanigaki’s hand clamped around his throat, picking him up off the pavement and pinning him to the wall.

“You scream, I break your neck,” he remained eerily calm. “Don’t make me break your neck, Hyakuno, please,” 

He dropped to his feet when the Matagi released him.

“Walk with me and no screaming,” he forced him to walk ahead as they ventured farther into the alley.

Around the corner, Kirawus, one of the Ainu men hunting him, stood at the hotel’s service exit.

“Who’s this?” he asked.

“Did you get it all upstairs?” Tanigaki asked.

Kirawus smiled, “It took us a while, but yeah,”

“The other two?” Tanigaki said

“Shot in the back with an army rifle,” said Kirawus. “Just like you ordered,”

“Good,” Tanigaki put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “The last thing we need are loose ends with eyes and mouths,”

“What’s with the whore?” Kirawus whispered. “I don’t need her, and neither do you bear cub,”

“She’s in the wrong place at the right time,” Tanigaki kissed him before punching a knife into his belly. “Just like you,”

Handfull of Tanigaki’s shirt, Kirawus tore it open as he fell sputtering to the ground.

Hyakunosuke ran for the alley.

A rag of pungent ether found his mouth as Tanigaki bore down on him like an iron blanket. 

 

We’ll be together soon brother—

 

Wax weighed heavy upon his lips, and sweat coated his back. Moving brought discomfort; something wedged inside of him.

“The sleeper awakens,” came that familiar baritone.

It was hard to breathe in this steam.

Thousands of tiny black tiles formed the floor; there was one door but no windows. Thick twine tethered his ankle to the claw-foot of a porcelain tub.

“The owners call this washroom a Goring,” Tanigaki stood, his body glistening beneath the low hanging bulb. “There’s a hotel called Goring in Britain, they have these bathing rooms attached to all their suites,”

Towel upon his broad shoulder, he stepped over the tub’s high lip and brought his foot down upon the hem of Hyakunosuke’s kimono.

“You look like those kagema I used to trick in Kosaka,” he wiped at the beads of water trapped in his chest hair. “They’d get painted up before begging me to rut,”

Hyakunosuke reached back, determined to dislodge what was inside of him.

“Recognize that rope?” he said, moving in close enough to make Hyakunosuke cower. “It’s just like the one I lassoed around your neck before you got the better of me and dragged me overboard,”

His cold tenor belied his smile.

“I was going to give you up for what you did to Yuusaku. My recollection of him is unclear,” Tanigaki leaned back and retrieved a straight razor from atop the porcelain sink. “The time you put into deluding me,”

Unfolded from its handle, Hyakunosuke saw himself as a white blotch upon its steel.

“I don’t know if I should be impressed or angry,” the dull side glided along his brow until Tanigaki brought it down to the looped twine and cut it through. “What you did to me was beyond the scope of decency. I think the word Tsurumi used was depraved,”

The tossed razor skidded over the tiles.

“He would know depravity better than anyone," Tanigaki dragged a finger along his scarred cheek. “He plucked you right out of Primary School, told you where you to find your father, knowing the man wanted nothing to do with you,”

Hyakunosuke’s youthful naïveté turned his stomach.

“Depraved isn’t something I’d call you,” said Tanigaki. “Complicated. That’s a word you’re fond of, right brother?”

Shame became anger.

“Is that glare for me?” Tanigaki flashed that grin Hyakunosuke so foolishly loved. “I’m a creature of habit, I don’t think I’ll ever stop calling you brother,”

He flinched when the Matagi’s hand came close.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” said Tanigaki softly. “You’re a damaged piece of shit without an ounce of decency to your name, Ogata Hyakunosuke, but I love you,”

“Genjir-”

“—I’m not Genjirou,” a firm hand grasped his chin. “And I’m no son of Hanazawa,”

“Please-”

“—I’m a product of your lies and half-truths,” soft lips grazed his jawbone before a determined gaze trapped him. “That’s over, brother, no more lies,”

Tanigaki’s tongue flicked across his cheek.

“I know I’ve said these words many times before today, and you’ve ignored them in the past. Things are different now, do you understand?”

Hyakunosuke wrenched from his grip and with frantic fingers, clutched the knobbed handle between his buttocks. The black dilator free of him, he pitched it across the room.

“That was for your benefit,” Tanigaki sat cross-legged before him. “You owe me for everything you’ve done, and I plan to collect on that debt,”

“Tanigaki, let me expla-”

“—I don’t want to hear it,” he yanked open Hyakunosuke’s kimono and forced it down.

Arms trapped, he was pulled onto the Matagi’s thick thighs and resisted it all until pleasured hands brought a deserved defeat.

“That first night in Kosaka after you put me to sleep, brother,” words tickled his neck. “I loved how good your skin felt against mine,”

Mouths indulged until the need to breathe intervened, and Tanigaki’s face was smeared with streaks of red.

“Genji-”

“—That’s not my name!” Tanigaki tossed him to the floor. “You say my name, brother,”

“No!” he fought back when flipped onto his belly.

Tanigaki curled an arm around his neck and brought the other across his hips, forcing his backside up. Palms pressed to the floor, Hyakunosuke bucked to free himself, but the Matagi was too strong.

“Say my name,” Tanigaki growled against his cheek before pleading like a child. “Say the name you gave me, brother,”

“Damn you,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry,”

 Fingers laced into his hair and yanked up his head.

“What have you done, boy?” Tanigaki pushed into him.

He cried out through the agonizing pierce, “I did it for you!”

The invasion gave way to a sweltering fullness, and he welcomed every inch of it. Ankles locked, he clenched tight around the Matagi and arched his back.

Hyakunosuke’s eyes rolled up, and his lips spread.

“Love me!”

Wetlands mud cooled his knees while his panting grandfather drove into him; that first time sullied by the old man’s guilty tears—a pitiful apology for the pain.

No feeble drunkard plied into him now, no, this was a potent lover who set every nerve in his body on fire.

There were many lovers after the theft of his innocence, but none belonged to Hyakunosuke Ogata, the way Tanigaki Genjirou did.

“Please,” the Matagi grunted. “Say my name!”

“Yu—saku!” he whined. “Yuusaku!”

The fullness abandoned him, replaced by warm wetness on the small of his back. He turned over beneath the Matagi, opening his legs and allowing the man a place to die.

“Love it, Hyakuno,” Tanigaki mumbled in his neck.

Tears pooled in his eyes as calm settled over his body.

“I love you too, Yuusaku,”

Blood filtered through the steam, turning it red.

“Go away,” he whispered. “I deserve to be happy,”

Water sloshed in the tub and kicked over the rim. One blink brought a bloated, monstrous face to his. Water gushed from the specter’s swollen lips when he smiled.

We’ll be together soon, brother.

*

It hurt waking in the bed alone.

“Good morning, brother,”

Tanigaki stood at the mirror in a tailored green changshan that stretched tight over his upper body and fit snug around his backside.

A single suitcase sat by the door with a narrow-rimmed fedora on the handle.

“Where are you going, Tanigaki?”

His reflection turned cold, “Stop using my surname,”

“What am I supposed to call you?”

“The name you gave me works fine,” from his pocket, he pulled a diamond-shaped leather tag with two keys attached. “Your share of the gold is in the room across the hall,”

“What are your plans…Yuusaku?”

“I’m boarding a steamer bound for Alaska,” he grinned. “It’ll take about a month sailing through the Sandwich Islands before making final port,”

“What’s in Alaska?”

“The price of gold in the States averages almost twenty-dollars an ounce,” he said.

“You’re letting me walk away?” Hyakunosuke fingered the strap. “After everything I did to you?”

“That old convict in Hokkaido, Nihei,” he pulled the fedora onto his head. “He used to say life’s too long to carry a grudge. If someone crosses you, kill them. If you don’t kill them, forget they exist,”

“You’re choosing to forget me?”

“I’ll never forget you,” he sat beside him. “I won’t force you to come with me, you’re not my prisoner, brother,”

“I’m not your brother, either,”

“No, you’re the love of my life,” he said without hesitation. “But I won’t have a liar in my bed. I meant what I said, no more lies. Are you willing to change? You need to think about that, Hyakuno.”

“I’ve had plenty of time to think,”

“I want you to take a little more time,”

“We’ve been apart long enough-”

“—and it’s been hard on me,” he rose from the bed. “I’m boarding the SS Siberia out of Yokohama. We set sail at nine on Wednesday,”

“Five days from now,”

“We can’t be seen leaving Hokkaido together,” he moved toward his bag. “Use these days to consider what you want to do. I hope to see you in Yokohama,”

Hyakunosuke’s heart thrummed behind his eyes.

“And if you don’t, Yuusaku?”

“Then you should know, no matter what’s happened between us, I’ll always love you,” bag in hand, he closed the door behind him.

Hyakunosuke found comfort in last night’s memory.

They’d woke on the bathroom floor, and after Tanigaki gently washed away the last vestiges of Hyakunosuke’s face paint, they coupled wordlessly on the bed.

To sleep on the Matagi was a pleasure. That bristly chest against his back and a hip bone in his ass, these things took him back to Ibaraki when they’d been the only two men alive in the world.

Keys in hand and shrouded in a sheet, he walked to the door and cracked it open. No stragglers wandered between rooms, but an infant’s distant cry signaled he wasn’t alone.

At the opposite door, he jammed the key into its hole and entered a dark room.

Parting the drapes revealed four dingy walls covered with faded paper. A rolled-up futon riddled with holes sat upon the bare floor, and the neat square of unworn wood under his feet whispered there was once a rug.

Opened on the floor was a knapsack containing everything the Ainu man Kirawus ever owned; beside it was a large metal plated trunk.

Hyakunosuke fell to his knees and pressed his thumb against the keyhole of the trunk. After admiring the imprint left upon his skin, he hesitated before mating it to the lock; what if that Ainu’s body lay tucked inside?

Unlocked, he lifted its barrel-top.

Four rows of gilded bars stared back at him, stacked twelve high to the rim; each ingot was stamped with the seal of a fictional Republic of Ezo Bank.

That clever Matagi bastard stayed with Tsurumi until the gold was to cast to bullion!

 In his hand, he calculated its worth in weight; five-hundred grams at twenty American dollars a troy ounce would net him three-hundred dollars a bar.

If Tanigaki’s share were the same, his net would be over fourteen-thousand. A return to Japan with United States currency would buy him enough yen to live out the rest of his life in luxury.

Bar cradled to his chest, Hyakunosuke fell back laughing.

First, he would buy back his family’s rice-plantation and reside in the mansion denied to him by his great-grandfather’s shitty choices.

Grandma’s body would be exhumed in Mito and laid to rest in her favorite part of the marsh—after he burned down that retched farmhouse.

Hyakunosuke locked the trunk and crept back to his room. Single bar in hand, he retrieved a pen and two pages of stationery from the flip-top desk.

Naked upon the floor, he jotted down his plans.

Bribery ensured his way back into the ranks where he would double his worth by detailing Tsurumi’s treachery and warning them of Hijikata’s plans.

Command of the garrisons in Hokkaido would be his after defeating of the ronin.

If Tsurumi were right about an impending world war, he’d finance a munitions factory and staff it with local Ainu; their loyalty would come cheap if he allowed them to own land and hunt it.

Next on his list was the last Hanazawa in Hokkaido.

An established man, buying up his dead father’s holdings, would be easy. Left with nothing, his widow, for the sake of social and financial salvation, would quickly accept any marriage proposal.

Once betrothed, he’d force her to eat anglerfish nabe daily and wear the robes of a geisha when entertaining guests.

If that weren’t enough to make her kill herself, he’d bring men into their home that resembled her precious son, and make sure she caught them sucking his cock.

He folded his plans neatly and wrapped then around his gold bar like an obi. Clothes were needed, but venturing back across the hall proved futile; the Ainu owned nothing but the clothes on his back.

Gold bar tucked under the mattress, he pulled the rope-bell for service. It took several moments for an elderly matron to appear.

“You called, Sir,” she asked at his door.

“There was a prostitute here,” he pulled the sheet tight around his hips. “I believe she’s left with my clothes,”

“Mister Hanazawa delivered your clothes to our laundress last night,” she kept her head bowed. “He explained that the woman woke up and was so drunk she vomited all over-”

“—yes, I was here,” he interrupted. “I apologize for my rudeness, but I didn’t want to share that part of the story with you,”

“I will see to your clothes, Mister Sugimoto,” the matron shriveled under his scowl before exiting.

Last night’s straight razor rested upon the sink, alongside the dilator now wrapped in a hand towel. A discarded soap bar provided enough slickness for a clean shave, but his growing head of hair needed a proper barber.

Back in the room, an elderly man waited with a sack suit draped over his arm.

A gray atrocity made worse by white pinstripes, the double-breasted suit with three buttons on the vest fit loose around his chest. There was even room in the trousers at the waist, but at least the Matagi remembered his preference for leather suspenders.

There was enough cash in his discarded kimono to procure a jinrikisha to the train station. It had only been twenty-four hours, but the military presence now was nonexistent; perhaps the slippery Tsurumi was dead.

In Otaru, the young banker handling his transaction revealed him to be the fifth ex-military man that week to sell a single gold bar; now, he was sure the demented bastard was dead.

Hyakunosuke ordered the first fifteen hundred yen in big bills. The remaining thousand he took in small bills and some coin.

Stamped upon his money was a red Mi-hon overprint, but the letters curled above the back-sided seal read Nippon Ginko in English; not even their currency escaped westernization.

He purchased a first-class ticket on the new train line connecting Otaru to Hakodate, then employed a local service to retrieve the trunk in Asahikawa. It proved costly to have it crated and delivered to a guarded billet at the port.

The coastal city of Hakodate teemed with Western influence. Clothiers and cafés catering to European and American tastes lined the wide roads where citizens mingled as if round-eyes were native to Japan.

Downtown he booked the grandest room on the highest floor of the largest hotel.

That afternoon he was fitted for a set of western suits and then dined on quality seafood and seared red meat. After dark, he sampled wines from Italy and France and discovered a preference for crisp Bohemian ales.

Tanigaki spoke true of the enclosed moving lift—it was a strange contraption, but he wasn’t in the mood to climb the stairs. Beside him in the elevator stood the concierge, a short oily man with better taste in clothes than the youthful attendant operating the up and down handle.

“Mister Ogata,” he asked. “Will you need entertainment this evening?”

“What sort of entertainment is there in Hakodate?”

“We have women from all over the world,”

“Women aren’t to my liking,”

He nodded, “Another one so soon,”

“Excuse me?”

“Forgive my utterance,” he bowed. “Yesterday a man stayed the night with us with no interest in a woman’s company either,”

“Mister Tanigaki?”

Eyes widened behind his thick glasses.

“Yes, Yuusaku-san wasn’t with us long,” he grinned. “He awaited delivery of goods, just like you,”

“Just like me,”

“When I saw him with a manfriend before retiring,” he nodded. “I understood why he wanted no women for the night,”

“I won’t be requiring a manfriend,” he snapped, stepping out without bidding the bespectacled fool a good night. “Please send me up a box of Bal Tiga’s and an iced bottle of Budvar,”

“Right away, Mister Ogata,” the elevator door closed.

A single tatami lined his room’s balcony and clad only in a yukata, he observed the bustling nightlife beneath his feet.

Did it matter if Tanigaki screwed some nameless man here? For all that promiscuous bastard knew, the lover he called brother wasn’t going to abandon their country with him.

Japan.

What the hell had this country ever done for him?

A newly purchased journal lay opened on the drafting desk. Inside were rewritten plans with pertinent details and plenty of cruel introspection.

After a good scrub with a top-dollar bar of soap, he steeped in a hot bath while smoking the best cigarette of his life. The ice-cold pilsner he drank afterward tasted fine, but all he could think about was the shōchū he shared with Tanigaki in Kosaka.

Memories of their intimacy brought a sound sleep, but waking alone made him restless. Drapes closed to the morning sun, he tossed his new journal into the marble fireplace.

Tanigaki’s words had cemented his fate.

Haven’t you ever just wanted to be someone other than the person you were raised to be? I got a chance to be happy...you deserve that chance too.

Those words kept a stranglehold on his heart.

All that time, he’d felt nothing stronger than lust for the brain-damaged Matagi, but that night in Ibaraki changed everything.

Tanigaki desired his happiness, but happiness didn’t seek cursed men—theirs was bought or stolen.

This was a sound truth that comforted Hyakunosuke for three days holed up in a single cabin with no window aboard a dual sail clipper ship.

Before boarding, he ordered his crate of iron castings delivered to Yokohama, and it took several pricey telegrams to learn that the Grand Hotel was the only establishment willing to store heavy freight for its guests.

Yokohama wore the promise of a world outside Japan. Street vendors here hawked English newspapers as foreign languages polluted the air.

The Siberia carried eighty-seven passengers with cabins and over two-hundred less fortunate sharing steerage with eight-thousand tons of cargo.

At the wharf, Hyakunosuke reviewed the prerequisite paperwork for his stowage. Extra service fees were levied for arriving late, but while haggling with the cargo clerk, his eyes roamed the manifest until they found the name Tanigaki.

Outside on the pier, the odor of sea salt and horseshit turned his stomach.

Kerchief pressed to his nose, he moved through the line of men and women coaling the steamer. Cogs with skin coated black, they were a human assembly line, passing buckets to the person beside them until the last man emptied the carbon into an open shudder atop the ship’s hull.

The last passenger to arrive, Hyakunosuke explained to the Chinese intake steward that he was late joining his wife; the man’s apprehension faded after some cash was slapped into his hand.

Crowded on the surface deck, Chinese women scrubbed clothes as their children played games in the sun. The laboring crew also appeared to be Shanghai natives, content to take orders from round-eyes in naval service uniforms.

One of them demanded Hyakunosuke present his ticket when trying to enter the cabin deck. He regarded the bearded American with disdain even after the man politely handed it back and wished him a safe passage.

All outside noise died when he entered the deck of cabin’s carpeted corridor. There were dozens of closed doors, and the silence born from its careful architecture felt strange.

“Hyakuno, you came!” Tanigaki stood before a door marked C4, his hair freshly clipped, and his jawline trimmed.

“Did you think I wouldn’t?” he said.

“How did you get here?” the snug white changshan brought out the color of his recently tanned skin.

“I turned in a bar to the Bank of Japan,” Hyakunosuke stepped to him for a kiss. “Just like you-”

“—not out here,” he whispered. “We don’t want the crew thinking we’re a couple of pots,”

“Our yen is all they think about,” he smirked.

“How’d you get your goods on board?” he asked, eyes aglow.

“Tool and die equipment,” said Hyakunosuke. “A crate of honing stones and files,”

Tanigaki laughed heartily as he opened the door.

Inside found him caught in a bear hug and lifted off his feet. He barely managed to kick off his shoes before being dumped onto the bed and mauled with affection.

“Wait,” he protested. “You need to close the door,”

Tanigaki jumped up as commanded, returning to paw at Hyakunosuke’s belt with resolute hands.

“This can wait, can’t it?”

“No,” he whispered. “I’m starving for you,”

Ravenous, the Matagi fed with gentle fervor, licking and lapping at Hyakunosuke’s sex until it became impossible to hold out. After finishing in the Matagi’s mouth, he savored the man’s weight upon his stomach.

“No more lies, Hyakuno,” he murmured.

“I need a smoke,”

“Open a window, please,” he said, rising from the bed.

Hyakunosuke slid open the panel of thick glass.

“I think we’re moving,”

“You made it just in time,” Tanigaki spoke over the sound of falling water. “These cabins have washrooms, but the toilet’s next to the shower. I don’t like that,”

Hyakunosuke finally kicked the pants from his ankles.

“They give you bars of soap,” Tanigaki held one up to sniff, but he waved it away while emptying his bladder in the toilet.

The cotton curtain clung the shower’s curved metal ribs, and through it moved the Matagi’s shadow. Hyakunosuke pulled aside the soaked cloth and joined him in the small space.

Fused to that soapy chest, Hyakunosuke crooked an arm around about his taller lover’s neck and the other around his waist. Safe and secure, he wanted the hot water to last forever.

Just as in Ibaraki, Tanigaki washed his body from head to toe before pushing him away. Out of its warmth, he quickly toweled off and took an inventory of the Matagi’s new life.

The old trunk had been replaced by a standing steamer wardrobe. Packed with suits and kimono jackets, western-style underwear and socks filled the drawers, along with a collection of books about the United States.

One book owned a gaudy blue cover with cheaply drawn filigree around some English he couldn’t read. A yen-bill marked a page in the back with an illustration of a house.

“That’s my bungalow,” said Tanigaki, emerging from the washroom.

Hyakunosuke smiled, “You’re what?”

“I’m buying land in the Rocky Mountains,” he took catalog from him and kissed his cheek. “I’m building this house on it,”

“You’re not going back to Japan?”

“There’s nothing left for me in Japan, brother,”

“We can double our cash if we retur-”

“—You can double your cash in Vancouver,” the western undershorts fit loose around his buttocks. “Bank of Japan operates a branch there where you can buy and sell yen,”

“Where’s this Vancouver?”

 “It’s between Alaska and the Rocky Mountains,” the sleeveless undershirt stretched tight across his chest. “I’ll be exchanging a little at a time, but once all my take is converted, I’m traveling to a mountain state and purchasing land,”

“No agent will sell a house to you,”

“Sears and Roebuck will,”

“You’re Japanese-”

“—it doesn’t matter to them,” he fell onto the bed and tossed the book into Hyakunosuke’s lap. “These are catalog houses. There’s no man behind a counter refusing to take my money because I don’t look like him.”

Hyakunosuke flipped through the pages.

“You can be dark-skinned, even Chinese,” the scent of his clean skin invaded. “It doesn’t matter so long as you can pay for it by wire and accept delivery of materials.”

“They mail you a house?”

“They mail you the lumber, trim, stone, nails, even the plumbing,” animated, he opened the marked page and ran his finger over the itemized list. “See, these are the plans to build, and this is all the materials,”

“What are these extras you circled?”

“Heating plants. There are two kinds, one for soft coal, the other for hard,” Tanigaki sat against the headboard. “I’m getting the more expensive steam heating plant because I’m ordering the full plumbing kit. I need a proper soaker tub,”

“You’re going to build this, Home 191?”

“I’ll pay some laborers to build it,”

“They have men that’ll just build it for cash?”

Tanigaki smiled, “North America is filled with men that’ll do anything for cash,”

Hyakunosuke mounted his thighs.

“Like you, Yuusaku,” he said, kissing him.

A knock at the door interrupted their new moment.

Tanigaki kissed his hand, “I’ll get it,”

“Get rid of whoever it is,” he whispered.

Tanigaki’s voice at the door thanked someone before returning to the bed with a silver ice bucket containing two brown bottles, “The serviceman said these come with the room,”

“What is it?” he asked.

Tanigaki pulled a bottle up, but the label slid off and in the melted ice. “Coca Cola! We drank this in Kosaka, remember?”

He nodded, “At the chemists’ who sold European fountain drinks,”

“I didn’t know it came in its own bottle,” Tanigaki said, jerking the metal tops free under the bucket lip.

“Yuusaku,” he said. “When did you learn to read English?”

“What?” Tanigaki pushed a bottle into his hand.

“This label, that catalog?” he asked. “I don’t even know English,”

“To the Rocky Mountains!” Tanigaki declared. “And the rest of our lives together,”

Hyakunosuke knocked his bottle to Tanigaki’s and took a swig of the bubbling sweet concoction.

After a few sips, he preferred it through a straw over a glass of ice. Bottle back in the bucket, he leaned in for another kiss.

Tanigaki inched back, “I want to clean my teeth,”

“Your breath is fine,”

“Cola makes my teeth feel chalky,” he rose from the bed.

“Do they have cold water in the stateroom?”

“Stateroom?” he called from the washroom.

“Where people go to socialize?”

“There’s a man with a block of ice at the end of the hall,” he appeared in the doorway with white paste on his lips. “He breaks off some for you if you bring him the bucket,”

“That’s ridiculously western, Yuusaku,”

“I know, I love it!” he said, returning to the washroom.

Hyakunosuke stood and felt the room spin. His bearings askew, one step sent him tumbling to the floor, along with the ice bucket.

Sleep took hold as Tanigaki’s bare feet moved closer.

 


 

 

Close your eyes, brother, we’ll be together soon.

 


 

 

The steamer trunk teetered at the edge of the aft deck.

Filled with heavy items bought from the desperate travelers in steerage, it was lugged to this spot and cross-bound with a chain.

Behind him, the eye of Ogata Hyakunosuke slowly opened.

“Did you really think you steal my soul and never answer for it?” he seethed, clutching his collar.

The look of panic in that solitary orb brought joy.

“Listen to me, Genji-”

“—You destroyed that name!”

“Listen to me!”

“I’m through with your lies!” he let go of him and marched to the trunk. “What goes around comes around, brother!”

Ogata struggled against his full-body binding

“Don’t do this to me, please!”

One push from his boot sent the trunk over the edge.

“Tanigaki, I love y-!”

Words faded as Ogata sped past and flew out to sea.

Silence reigned for several moments.

There was something familiar about the ocean churning behind a ship; the sail to Manchuria flashed in his mind like lightning in a cloud. Even on that trip, his anger was palpable.

“Tanigaki?”

“There’s no need to use my family name,” he softened at the sound of his voice. “We’re not in the army anymore,”

“You should’ve let me do this-”

“—Your days of doing another man’s dirty work are over,” he turned to the shorter man and with a smile added, “That was my promise to you, and I keep my promises,”

You did the right thing, brother.

Dread crept in, “You’re not real,”

A comforting hand found his shoulder, “Is she here?”

“I can’t seem to make her go away,” he whispered.

“It’s your brain talking to you,” the scent of cologne brought calm. “It’s all right to answer, I don’t mind,”

“I don’t want you catering to my insanity the way you did the Lieutenant’s,” he looked into his eyes. “I’m so sorry about all of this, I didn’t think Ogata would show,”

“I suspected he would, it’s why I never unpacked,” the former Sergeant gave a sigh. “I’m going to move my things back into the room,”

“Please, Hajime,” he eyed the area before kissing his forehead, “Did you visit the dining room yet?”

“I’ll go again if you don’t want to go alone,”

“I’ve never had real western food,”

“They’ll be plenty of it in Alaska prefecture,”

He laughed, “They don’t have prefectures in America,”

“That’s right, they’re called states,” concerned eyes regarded him. “Don’t stay out here too long, Yuusaku,”

“I won’t,” he called after him.

The moment Tsukishima was inside, he turned to find her spinning about the deck, flapping her arms like a bird.

You did the right thing, brother, beneath a winter-white kimono, pox scars dotted the little girl’s charred skin. I told you at the hospital when he came to get us that he was bad.

“It’s very late,” he scolded. “You should be in bed,”

I want to see the ocean, brother-

“—You can’t be out this late,” he took hold of her crisp blackened hand and gently guided her along. “You can sleep with me tonight,”

Is Hajime sleeping with us, too?

“We’re not keeping Hajime,”

She went limp and sunk to the ground.

I like him, brother-

“—I like him too,” her blackened flesh chipped off as he put her on his shoulders. “That’s why we’re going to separate in Vancouver,”

He’s different than the others.

“I know, but I don’t want to hurt him,”

You never hurt me when I make you mad.

She wasn’t yet old enough to understand.

“Maybe when I’m better, we’ll find someone like Hajime,”

Hajime is like Hajime.

“Please stop making this hard for me,”

Her specter faded, I love you, brother.

“I love you too, Fumi,”