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If there is a beginning, Kiroranke pinpoints it to the night when Sugimoto wakes up when the night is at its darkest and immediately swears under his breath.

Kiroranke opens an eye, but does not move. 

There is a dent in Sugimoto's trousers.

Such things aren't uncommon, especially among men and soldiers trying to fight both nature and war. Biological urges kick in, and everyone has done their fair share of helping or looking away in those stale dark days.

The difference, however, is that they didn't have a thirteen-year-old girl sleeping next to them.

Sugimoto looks like he is contemplating driving his bayonet straight through his crotch.

Ogata rolls over. Need help, he mouths, lips curled.

Kiroranke watches the play of shadows on Sugimoto's face, the pull and stretch of his scars. "No," Sugimoto hisses and, carefully detracting himself from Asirpa, sneaks off alone into the woods.

Ogata catches Kiroranke's eye across the camp. He holds it, face indecipherable, and then rolls over again to sleep.

Kiroranke closes his eyes.

-

It's a small thing, at first.

Sugimoto's resemblance to Wilk has been obvious, if forcefully overlooked, since the first time Kiroranke has spotted him by the riverbed, standing tall and alone behind Asirpa.

The scars, his fearless drive - a superficial manner to draw similarities, but similarities nonetheless, and Kiroranke is still rattled enough by Wilk's betrayal that he clings on to it.

(Cling onto it out of - what? Sentimentality? Wilk never cared for sentimentality. He shouldn't either.)

But it is his folly to forget that a mimicry is not the original, no matter how much the parallels. Sugimoto doesn't want to change the world. Sugimoto isn't even driven by the same forces - his heart big and tender and reserved for his loved ones, while Wilk has always only had enough space in his heart for a selected few. Yet even they - these family, comrades, everyone - are edged out by his vision, whatever that vision is. Perhaps Kiroranke has never known, drowning in his assumptions until Wilk's betrayal forces a rude awakening.

But here's the thing: Sugimoto is not unattainable, and he's the closest that Kiroranke can ever get to Wilk.

(It stokes a tender thing in Kiroranke's chest that aches with winters past.)

Fool is he, Kiroranke knows.

-

"Is there something wrong?" Sugimoto asks, turning back as the group walks on ahead. "Did you spot something?"

Kiroranke suddenly realises that he's stopped. "No, everything's fine." He hurries forward. He can spot Ienaga at the front, twisting around on her horse to mutter something to Ushiyama. "I was thinking."

"About?"

"The past." He's walking alongside Sugimoto now. "It's been a long time since I last travelled in a group."

Sugimoto nods. "Me too. It's usually just Asirpa and me." 

Kiroranke can't help but feel a niggling of guilt in his chest. "Is she… alright?"

"Asirpa?" Sugimoto stares ahead. "She will be."

"That's good." The crunch of leaves under their feet is too loud. "She's a strong kid. Did you know that she didn't cry at her mother's funeral? Her huci told me that she sobbed herself to sleep that night."

Sugimoto's mouth twists wryly. "Sounds like her."

"She's brave." The same way that her father is . "But she is also only a child. I'm glad she has you."

"Me?"

"To look out for her," Kiroranke clarifies. "I supposed she is independent enough that she doesn't need anymore fathers or caretakers. Ever since she was a small child, she was so sharp that it was almost scary." Sharp and brilliant, like the very way her mother mesmerises Wilk and steals every last inch of his heart. Kiroranke can't even hate her for it - he has been a little in love too, except that she's only got eyes for Wilk. They all do. "But it's still good to know that if you do need someone, there will be a person there to lean on."

There is a beat where he thinks Sugimoto wants to challenge his words, but the moment passes and Sugimoto hums. "What makes you think you can trust me? Maybe I'm just using her to get to the gold."

"You are close to her." And Asirpa is not naïve that she will attach herself so closely to an untrustworthy man.

…Except perhaps that judgement should be called into question because she hasn't doubted Kiroranke at all.

( The human ability for self-delusion is immeasurable , Wilk has told him, especially if it challenges the image that they have assumed .)

"We are partners," Sugimoto points out.

"She trusts you."

Sugimoto glances at him. "She trusts you too."

Kiroranke knows he should feel worse about that. "But you don't?"

"I think," Sugimoto answers, blunt as he ducks under a low branch, "that you are still hiding something."

For a split second where the question hangs awaiting and Kiroranke parses the connotations, Sugimoto glances up. He catches the sun on his cheeks, nabs between his lashes - a soft glow and oh , his face is illuminated by light rays.

It accentuates his scars: pink and scaly. Accentuate his eyes: hard but brown, as though all the blue has melted off and dripped onto his coat.

(It accentuates Wilk's face: impassive, a divine angel of judgement.)

Dazzling.

Kiroranke blinks hard.

"Not deliberately, I assure you." Kiroranke turns his face up to the sky. Clear of clouds. "If there is something bothering you, feel free to ask. Maybe some details slipped my mind."

(He's always thought sunlight to be blinding. Like angelic awe - too radiant, too brilliant, to be conceivable by human eyes.

He never likes it.

He's told Wilk as much. Told Wilk about how much he prefers the fireplace: warm, gentle; the crackle of it a lullaby that sings him to sleep in those early years, when all he has against the fury of the snowstorms is the comforting heat when he curls around the fire.)

It takes him too long to realise that Sugimoto's footsteps are not echoing after him.

He halts.

Sugimoto stares at him, caution in his eyes, hands curling but not clenching at his waist.

Go on, Kiroranke thinks, confront me. Try and kill me. I won't go down easily.

But Sugimoto only says, "I guess that happens," and Kiroranke says, "Yes," and the breeze laughs in his ears alongside his blood that roars its battlecry as it rushes through his veins.

(No waves in Russian's icy ports but when he walked alongside Wilk on those drift ice, all those years ago, he thought that he could hear the ocean in his ears, the sound of a new world.)

"Come on." Sugimoto trudges past him. "We're losing the others."

(The lines of his back, the flutter of his scarf.)

"Yeah," says Kiroranke, and strides forward.

-

In a memory more like a dream, he sees Wilk ahead, marching towards a greater cause that Kiroranke only believes because Wilk does.

Kiroranke watches the line of his back, the assurance of his every step, the brush of his hair carefully slicked back in a facsimile of respectability that neither of them ever belonged to. Couldn't belong: they aren't polite society - aren't wealthy enough, their skin not pale enough; the blood in their veins too backwards and Eastern and wrong. 

("Guess we've just got to suck it up," Kiroranke - no, Yulbars has said, young and foolish as he blows a smoke ring.

Wilk has looked at him then, the dimmed light bulb behind his head a blurred halo, the beams emanating from his head like faded church paintings. "Who says we have to?" he challenged.)

"You look distracted," Wilk comments.

And Wilk is looking at him now, looking at him again, the scars on his face morphed into the holy cross. Yulbars wants to tear it off him. "I'm not."

"It's too late to turn back now," Wilk warns, "but it's not too late to start over."

Yulbars will follow Wilk to the ends of the earth. "No, we're doing this."

Wilk smiles. He never does it often enough, but he's smiling now - soft and beatific. "Yes," he promises, "we are."

-

The thing about first loves, as people like to say, is that you never really forget them.

But Wilk isn't love. To love Wilk is to love the sun and the moon and the chalkiness of firepowder under his nails, the fresh chill of the air on a wintry morning after the world is blanketed with first snow.

(And Kiroranke doesn't fall in love but oh, he does, he does, he does -)

-

So it's a small thing, at first, until it's not.

In a page in a diary, if Kiroranke keeps a diary, like someone who's richer and whose words are much more eloquent (someone like Sofia, his mind whispers), he would tell a story about sunrise, and the wolves chasing it.

Wolves, dogs, snakes - different cultures and different variations, but all hungry ghouls greedy for that brilliance, day in and day out. Obsession on a tapestry, wanting to swallow the sun whole.

"Have you ever loved someone so much that you feel like you are going to consume them?" Kiroranke has asked, and Sugimoto has looked at him with coal burning in his eyes.

Except he hasn't. Hasn't asked, he means. He's not going to be silly like this.

He thinks about Wilk, and about Asirpa, and he asks instead, "What do you think of children?"

Sugimoto gives him a weird look. "They're fine," he answers. "Why?"

Because he loves children and their innocence and their hope and all they stand for. "They are a handful, aren't they?" Kiroranke answers, "you look away for a second, and someone's climbing onto a tree."

Sugimoto snorts at that. "Speaking from personal experience?"

"Yeah."

"Well, my younger siblings never liked climbing trees," Sugimoto reveals, "but they adore climbing onto the roof. Gave me a heart attack each time, because see, I am the eldest. I'm supposed to look after them. But they never fell."

Kiroranke has never known if he has siblings or not, but he's raised with so many other children that he might as well have too many siblings. Wilk used to be jealous of him for that. Being an only child is lonely, he's said, I don't want my children to ever be lonely.

"But then one day my little brother slipped," Sugimoto continues. "He got lucky with just a bruised rib and a twisted ankle, but I was punished instead for not looking out for them."

"Collective punishment isn't effective," Kiroranke blurts before he can think better of it. Fortunately, Sugimoto doesn't notice Kiroranke's admission for what it is; he shrugs.

"It did guilt-trip my younger siblings enough to stop their mischiefs for a while." Sugimoto rolls his shoulder, a quick morning stretch. Kiroranke's eyes follow the movement . "And when they do that in the army, it did make us more conscious of our actions, I guess. No one wants to be that guy."

"You're lucky that's how your platoon reacted. My platoon hazed our guy pretty badly."

"So what did you do to help him?"

Kiroranke blinks. "What makes you think I did anything?"

"I don't know." Sugimoto ponders this, his fingers a steady tip-tap against the bag strapped to his belt. "I just thought you're the type to."

("I thought you would be the type," Wilk has told him, "that will fight to live instead of letting yourself be martyred.")

"I told him to volunteer for kitchen duty," Kiroranke confesses, "since no one's going to mess with the person who prepares your food. But just in case, I also smuggled him some laxatives."

And Sugimoto laughs, hearty and genuine, mouth agape like a wolf ready to swallow the sun, and this the moment when Kiroranke knows.

(A page in his diary. At this moment, I… )

-

"You are watching him very closely," Ogata comments.

Kiroranke wonders if he can get away with playing dumb. Sugimoto, whom? 

But lying to Ogata feels pointless. "Aren't you too?"

"Not in the same way as you do," Ogata sneers, before grabbing his rifle and leaving Kiroranke alone.

The flames lick the air, hungry dogs; he makes conversation. Polite small talk, trading stories; Hijikata mentions how the summers are cooler in his youth, Shiraishi discusses the quality of meals in the different prisons that he's been in. When Asirpa dozes off, Kiroranke scoots over as Sugimoto props her up against a soft bag.

Her chest rise and fall. Steady little heartbeats. "Watching her makes me homesick," Kiroranke admits. Is it out of turn if he pats her head as she sleeps, the way he does to his own children? "I wonder how my family is."

"If we're lucky, you'll see them by the end of the year." Sugimoto's eyes are so fond - Wilk has never been capable of looking like that - as he watches over Asirpa.

Guardian angel.

( Stop that. )

"It's still a long way to go to the next town," Kiroranke informs gently. "But I supposed winter is still many months away."

"Fortunately. I'm not missing the cold anytime soon." Sugimoto stretches his arms behind his head, a languid pull of his body as he rolls his shoulders. He drops his voice. "What do you think Hijikata is after?"

Revenge. Justice. Answers. To finally be laid to rest. "To overthrow the government, perhaps." 

"And then?"

"What?"

"What's he going to do after that?" Sugimoto clarifies. "Is he going to reinstate the shogunate? 

Kiroranke can't quite suppress his snicker. "It sounds silly when you put it like that."

"Well." Sugimoto tilts his head, his cap lopsided as he grins at Kiroranke. "I couldn't care less what anyone wants to do with all that gold. But sometimes I wonder if it's possible for anyone to try and change the world."

There it is: this cynicism. This is where he differs from Wilk. "You won't know if you don't try."

Sugimoto shakes his head. "I just want to do right by the people I care about," he replies, "and if that happens to change the world, then so be it."

Kiroranke flattens his palm comfortingly between Sugimoto's shoulder blades. "Then I wish you all the strength to protect the ones you love."

The sincerity in his voice surprised himself; Kiroranke hasn't even realised he meant what he said until the words are out of his mouth. It unnerves him and sets him adrift, a wave of sympathy that he does not need. 

(It makes him think of Wilk, slitting the throat of their companion because he is now a weakness, and Wilk has never let himself be weak.)

Sugimoto doesn't notice. He's watching the fire, the glare painting his face in shades of orange, darkening angles and blurring his scars.

His eyes glow like amber.

( His eyes like God's judgement in the dark -)

It is an idle thought. Just - a thought. The kind of thought that flits through the mind and then lingers, an itch at the bottom of your skull, scratching and wriggling, until all you see is filtered through the lens of the, of the -

(Of the impulse.)

Kiroranke drags his hand down to the small of Sugimoto's back.

( And there. )

There is that hardening of muscles, the ripple of movement as Sugimoto freezes. ( A mistake?) Kiroranke is about to move away when Sugimoto turns his head and stares up at him, face shuttered but his pupils just that little dilated, that tinge of surprise.

( He can - )

Kiroranke dips his hand under the belt and smooths it over the curve of Sugimoto's ass -

Sugimoto seizes his wrist.

The seconds slow into hours and drips into agonising eternity. He hears the crackle of the fire, the low hum of conversations, the beat of his own heart in his ears, and waits.

Slowly, tentatively, Sugimoto lets go. Kiroranke retracts his hand and makes sure to rest it on his knees where Sugimoto can see them. 

"You should rest early," Kiroranke advises placidly, keeping a careful distance between them as he gets up. His knees ache; he's not as young as he used to be. "We may need to go hunting tomorrow."

"Alright." Sugimoto's eyes track him as he returns to the other end of the campsite. It makes his skin prickle, even after he's lied down and turned away, feeling very much like an animal being watched by a ferocious predator. 

-

Wilk has never watched him like that. Wilk has looked at him, but he has never seen Kiroranke at all.

Will you notice me now, Kiroranke thinks, foggy thoughts before he slips into sleep, will you see me now, because I am right here. Look at me. Hey, look at me. I've always been here, right by your back.

-

( Tell me - )

Is it invasive to fantasize? About the lines of his shoulders down the bulk of his arms to taper off the tips of his fingers, tracing him by his veins, your body's own train track.

He's watched the sunlight scatter in Wilk's eyes, light fracturing against the delicate cuts of a sapphire. Thought about being the one to kiss Wilk on the lids, stand by his back as Kiroranke brushes wax through his hair. Thinks about kneeling at his feet, nose on his boots, mouth open in worship: a prayer for a god, respect for an angel's deliverance of the holy judgement.

He's watched starlight shines above Sugimoto in the dark, cap on the lap as Sugimoto stares into the night sky. Thought about cutting a new scar across his face, one that bleeds liquid gold, and licking it up lest it goes to waste. Thinks about tracing up all those scars, up and down and topsy-turvy, until Sugimoto is a snarling, shivering mess under him, and Kiroranke can imagine it is also Wilk he is pinning down - two men so alike, so frustrating, and yet never the same.

Kiroranke slips a hand under his trousers and cups himself warily.

In the dark, everyone is asleep, and even if his sleeping arrangement isn't fortunate, he can still make do if he remains quiet.

He strokes himself, careful drags before curling his fingers around the base. Wonders if being silent is truly the right choice when he can wake someone else who might help him along, a favour like those traded between lonely soldiers. Reaches for his tip and thumbs it, circular motions that got his muscles tensing - just slightly, but nevertheless.

Sugimoto is lying on the opposite side of the campfire, fast asleep. His left side is facing up - the side with the cross. Kiroranke wants to tongue his scars; wants to see if it's true that those raised, puckered skin heals tougher than before. 

Will Sugimoto squirm? He doesn't look the kind. The damp exhale on his skin, the glide of teeth and nails at pressure points - Kiroranke will make those scars bleed again. He will tear him open by his seams and make the wounds raw and open until it scabs over again, the pain so sharp that Sugimoto will never forget him, he can't, just like how Wilk will never rub the touch of him from his skin, carved in death and Kiroranke -

A flick of his wrist, and he comes noiselessly onto his palm. Kiroranke gets up, wipes his palm on a dirty cloth that he'll have to wash in the morning, and goes back to sleep.

-

A child's cry, a sigh, and Asirpa's (Wilk's) deep blue eyes, unseeing in their first hours.

-

That night -

(That night, when Wilk grabs his hand and pulls him along as they sprint down the streets, laughing even as Yulbars clutches his gun so tightly that he fears his palm are bleeding.)

That night, before he leaves his kotan one last time, he holds his wife by the hand and pulls her to that little clearing by the lake, the beautiful spot carved out in time and space for only the two of them.

(He's fallen in love with Wilk then.)

He's proposed to her there.

"My love," he tells her, "I will have to leave."

She looks at him, sadness and fury flitting through her eyes before they tuck themselves away, like little kids under blankets. "I see."

"I'm sorry."

"You're not." She puts her hand in his and squeezes. It is strong and warm - strong and warm the way she always is. "I know ever since I've decided to marry you that you would let me down."

"I'm sorry." He clears his throat. "For doing this to you, and to our children."

"Our children will miss you. Then they'll hate you, for a while." She smiles when Kiroranke lifts up their clasped hands to kiss her knuckles. "And when they hear that you left them for your cause, they will hate you even more for choosing someone else's children over your own children."

("Asirpa will be their future," Wilk whispers, stroking her hairline as she dozes on his lap. "It is going to be hard, but I have to be fair. She is my daughter, but everyone has once been somebody's child too.")

"Sure, they are someone else's children. But to me, they are all my children," Kiroranke argues. "It is for all their future that I -"

"I know, dear." 

"Then -"

"They will understand," she promises, "even if they will still hate you for leaving at all."

The cicadas are too loud in the night. Kiroranke is many things, but he is a horrible father, and an even worse husband. "My love," he finally says, "will you be alright?"

"I will be," his wife tells him, too strong to cry, too radiant like the warmth of the summer sun.

-

He doesn't talk to Sugimoto for a long time.

-

After Kiroranke has rejoined the group, after Inkarmat's accusation, after all of that - Sugimoto has lingered at the back of the group until Kiroranke falls back.

Their formation triggers a strange sort of déjà vu. Ogata eyes them, sharp and silent, before moving to the front to walk beside Asirpa. Shiraishi laughs about something; Ogata barks something cutting to him.

"Did you come to find us because Hijikata told you to, or because you want to?" Sugimoto immediately questions.

Both. Neither. Kiroranke shrugs. "Who knows." 

"You don't know why you joined us?"

"I simply decide that it's about time." Remembering his earlier explanation, he adds, "Plus, it's easier to try and find you than to find Hijikata's group. Who knows what that old man is planning."

On the street across them, a kid drops his glass marble. It bounces on the road, rolling narrowly infront of a cart, and comes to a stop by a woman's foot. She picks it up. Glances in confusion around her before pocketing it. 

"Do you really see yourself as part of the Hokkaido Ainu?" Sugimoto presses. His hands are relaxed by his side, but Kiroranke has seen him fight.

(Distantly, Kiroranke recalls an old comrade; he's fought in Crimea, and he's the one who told Kiroranke that a soldier who will survive is one that is never idle. 

Need to be alert , he's said. Need to dodge the next bullet, listen for the whistle of the shell. )

"Of course. I don't see why this should be at odds with who I was before," Kiroranke insists. "The Russian Far East and the Hokkaido Ainu are all minority groups who are here first, but ended up with our culture oppressed and erased. We are on the same side."

"Ah," Sugimoto remarks, "so you are the type who wants to change the world too."

"No," Kiroranke corrects, "I just want to protect the futures of the people I love, but I have to change the world to do that."

There is a flicker behind Sugimoto's eyes that reveal the night he's thinking of. "We will stop by a kotan," Kiroranke begins with deliberate slowness, "later. Abashiri takes a few more days of walking."

Sugimoto wets his lips. "Aren't you married?"

"Is that a problem for you?" Many soldiers have sweethearts back home, but that didn't stop them from visiting brothels or helping each other get off. Different times, different rules. 

Sugimoto looks away. "Frankly, you shouldn't be trying to convince me of your cause." He is changing the topic, then. "This is a fight for the Ainu people, not me. I said that I would stand by Asirpa no matter what she does, but I am also a Japanese man, and I am in no place to be telling the Ainu people what they should or shouldn't do."

This is a pleasant surprise. "You have thought about this."

"I travelled with Asirpa for months," Sugimoto replies flatly, "chasing after Ainu gold meant to be used to fight Japanese soldiers. I can't not think about it."

Kiroranke chuckles. He's never thought he'll associate the phrase hidden depths with Sugimoto. "But I am Ainu too. Is it wrong for me to demand that as minorities, we should band together to fight to preserve their culture?"

"No," Sugimoto answers, "but it will be wrong of me . This situation is complex enough; they don't need an outsider. It should be their decision what they choose to do."

"And if Asirpa chooses to fight?"

Sugimoto's face is shadowed by his cap. "Then I'll stand by her."

"As simple as that," Kiroranke marvels. Wilk would have liked Sugimoto, although he would have also convinced him to fight for more active involvement, the same way that Sofia has done: partly out of her own sense of justice, partly out of her love for Wilk and his fiery convictions. "I suppose that's where I have to disagree with you."

"How so?"

It has been distant yet not long enough for Kiroranke to forget the ache in his stomach and the anger coursing through his veins. Many things have pushed him towards the People's Will, so many things that still simmers under his skin: the foolish idolatry of the Russian masses, the blind faith of the Karafuto Ainu that migrated, the resigned acceptance of the Hokkaido Ainu that has assimilated into the Japanese settlement.

(He thinks of Wilk.)

"I think sometimes people need a little push to do what is necessary." He reaches over to flick at Sugimoto's cap; dodges a swipe from Sugimoto. "Culture is like soldiers: you fight to preserve them, or you trust naïvely that the enemy will be merciful and end up snuffed out."

"Fight or die?" Sugimoto surmises, adjusting his cap.

"Fight or die," Kiroranke echoes. "That's why I'm helping Asirpa regain the Ainu gold."

"Well, I don't trust you any better," Sugimoto allows, "but I don't think you are lying either."

"That's good enough for me."

Sugimoto kicks a pebble out of his way. "Don't make me regret you, Kiroranke," he warns, before quickening his steps.

(For a split second when the sun dazzles, his memories bleed into reality and Kiroranke sees Wilk's back to him, Wilk walking towards the horizon, Wilk so far ahead that Kiroranke can't reach him; always looking forward, onwards, except don't go where I can't f -)

Kiroranke grabs Sugimoto by the elbow before he can think better of it.

Sugimoto shakes him off, stance hunched and he is about to throw a punch. "What are you -"

"Nothing," Kiroranke lies. The vision clears, and he remembers himself. "Take care of Asirpa, won't you?"

It seems to work; his shoulders slacken. "I try my best," he assures. Sugimoto paces to the front, falling into step beside Asirpa as she chatters to him while Shiraishi gesticulates with his occasional interjections.

Ogata glances back at him again.

(This is another one that Wilk will like.)

Stop plotting, dear boy, Kiroranke thinks, almost fond in his exasperation as he shakes his head surreptitiously. Ogata blinks and turns away, distracted by whatever Asirpa is saying.

-

It comes as something of a surprise when later that night, after they've stopped at the kotan, Sugimoto follows him out to the woods and lets Kiroranke fuck him.

-

Perhaps that is too much of a generalisation.

During dinner, Ogata has leaned over and muttered, "Hypocrite," and Kiroranke has been annoyed enough that he slips away without his usual subtlety, in hopes that Ogata will follow and explain what exactly he's up to this time.

Except it's not Ogata who follows him.

"You've been out of sorts throughout dinner," Sugimoto points out. "Distracted." His guard is up again, posture braced for an ambush, and Kiroranke mourns his earlier efforts to dispel if not Sugimoto's suspicions, then at least his vigilance. 

Kiroranke decides to just roll with it. "I'm just tired." He pats his hips and yes, there's his tobacco box. "Care to join me for a walk?"

"Didn't you hear? There are bandits about."

"We won't stray far." He beckons Sugimoto over. "Come on. You have your bayonet and I have my knives and a lantern. We'll be fine."

"I can't fight if I can't see," Sugimoto insists, but he follows anyway, trailing behind Kiroranke with too-careful steps. 

Kiroranke lights his pipe. The smoke slithers into the air and uncurls its tendrils, its scent mingling with the familiar rot of the woods. "I won't let you trip, you know."

"I am not in the mood to test your reflexes." Sugimoto climbs over a particularly big log. "Is there something you want to tell me in private?"

"Not particularly." He leans his shoulder against a tree. "A beautiful night, isn't it?"

They are at a clearing now. The moonlight is a faint glow above them, stark against the darkness like a grin. It is at this hour of the night that forest strolls take on a new atmosphere, as though a different domain, a liminal space that bridges another world, one that is transient and ephemeral and traversed only by ghosts and dreams.

If they are here a month earlier, there may even be fireflies.

Kiroranke lowers the lamp and pipe onto the log beside Sugimoto. "It's been a long time since I strolled about in the dark." He used to wander around the city alleys and crannies with Wilk, sometimes just a quiet stroll, other times giddy after a night out drinking, and more often, dizzy off the high of revolutionary activities. "It's always made me feel at peace."

"It'll be more peaceful if we don't need to watch out for bandits or poisonous snakes."

Kiroranke laughs. "Sugimoto," he says, feeling lighter than he's been in years, "let loose a little. We're not at war now."

"I know that," Sugimoto snaps. He is terse as he staggers towards Kiroranke, foot narrowly missing the circle of mushrooms. He can't look Kiroranke in the eye. "You know I'm lived in Tokyo for some time, right? Nights aren't quiet there. They are the furthest from peaceful."

"Ah yes, I have heard stories." Kiroranke cups Sugimoto's elbow to steady his tread, and then to tug him closer. "Did you visit their pleasure district? It is notorious throughout Japan."

"I don't have the money for that." His scars are so prominent even in the dim light; Kiroranke traces it across first, then down, before cupping his jaw. "They don't want my money anyway. It's better to find a rich man who can buy out their contracts."

Kiroranke presses a kiss on where Sugimoto's scars cross, and smoothly removes Sugimoto's cap. "You can just say that you're too hung up on your sweetheart to visit the pleasure district."

"How do you -"

"It isn't hard to guess." He doesn't bother explaining further, pushing his right thumb down on Sugimoto's Adam's apple instead. "You're taking this better than I expected."

Sugimoto's breath stutters as he chokes back involuntary noises. "You haven't done anything yet."

His thumb trails down over the scarf to the soft dip between the collarbones while his other hand curls under Sugimoto's thigh, rutching the material, rough and worn thin after weeks of travelling. "Haven't I?" Kiroranke digs his thumb in, leaning in for open-mouthed kisses while Sugimoto gasps. "Have you done this before?"

"Some things."

Kiroranke huffs in amusement as he slides his left palm up towards Sugimoto's dick. "That means no." Sugimoto’s eyes are wide open. "But a guy like you never having done this? It's hard to believe."

Scrambling, as they fiddle to loosen each other's trousers. "I turned down the offers."

"And yet you didn't turn me down. I'm flattered." Kiroranke reaches for Sugimoto's lower back and pushes the cloth down - his skin is cut-up even on his ass. "How did you get these injuries?"

"Sometimes, I have no fucking idea." Sugimoto finally shoves down Kiroranke's trousers. He swallows. "Oh wow."

Kiroranke allows a smile to break on his face. "It's not the first time you've seen it."

"My ego is bruised anyway," Sugimoto grumbles, inching back instinctively and startling when his back hits the tree. Kiroranke crowds in. “Are you going to -” His eyes dip low again.

Unfortunately for them both, Sugimoto is too prideful for Kiroranke to tease, and Kiroranke really does not want Sugimoto to end up limping out of some misplaced sense of masculine ego. “Maybe not today.” Let it never be said that Kiroranke isn’t a reasonable man. “Take off your tops and turn around, elbows on the tree.”

“I am not a prisoner about to be frisked,” Sugimoto warns, but complies anyway, shuffling awkwardly around before remembering to remove his bayonet, and then his scarf.

When he strips his tops off his shoulders, still fastened at the hip by his belt, it reveals an even more impressive set of scars on his back, jagged and crisscrossing in a gnarly map. Kiroranke mouths at his nape, both hands pressing above the dip of Sugimoto’s ass as they slowly trace up the roads branching across Sugimoto’s body, and then back down again.

Kiroranke spits into his palm and rubs it onto his dick before pressing his front against Sugimoto, the rub of his dick between Sugimoto's flesh. “Squeeze your thighs together,” Kiroranke comments, reaching around to cup Sugimoto’s dick. “Tighter.”

Then, experimentally, Kiroranke bucks his hips.

Sugimoto tenses. 

Kiroranke can smell the smoke of his pipe, the sweetness amidst the bitter ash. “We won’t get anywhere if you can’t relax. Don’t tell me you can’t even handle this?”

“That’s not -” Kiroranke stuffs two fingers into Sugimoto’s mouth with ruthless swiftness, fingers catching on the teeth, pressing down on the tongue as he seizes Sugimoto’s lower jaw and forces it backwards.

Will he tear Sugimoto’s face apart by the mouth, split him into two like ripping apart the jaws of a snake? Kiroranke pushes until Sugimoto’s head is pressed against Kiroranke’s shoulder, his spine curling like a hook as he chokes, his throat barred - a sacrifice to the old gods of the woods that’s about to be slit.

“Is it easier if I just shut up and do what I want?” He’s laying the table: putting all his cards out, an old game of poker. Sugimoto’s breath quickens. “Ever thought how easy it’ll be for me to snap your neck?”

He nudges his fingers in deeper. The saliva drips down the gap between Kiroranke’s knuckles and at the corners of Sugimoto’s mouth; Sugimoto better be able to suppress his gag reflex. Kiroranke rolls his hips again, more gently this time as he presses them forward. “Your nails are scratching the bark off. That’s rude to the trees.”

Sugimoto makes a noise at the back of his throat that cuts off when Kiroranke drags his head even further back. “Did I say you could speak?”

Sugimoto inhales heavily through his nose, glare sharp and vicious. Kiroranke gives Sugimoto’s dick a mocking squeeze; it’s only half-hard, disappointingly. He brings the hand up and covers Sugimoto’s eyes. The flutter of lashes tickles his palm. 

He strokes the protruding juts of Sugimoto's facial scars with a thumb. "If you feel like you're panicking, tell me to stop," Kiroranke utters, and slips his fingers out of Sugimoto's mouth. He trails them between the collarbones and down to Sugimoto's abs, nails scraping the scars. The muscles jump when Kiroranke sucks at the curve where the shoulders meet the neck.

He sucks harder. He wants to leave a mark.

When he wraps his hand around Sugimoto's dick, it draws out a strangled groan as Sugimoto buries his face in Kiroranke's nape. Kiroranke rubs at the scars once more and bucks up; the hot breath of Sugimoto's quiet pants dampens his skin, and Kiroranke lets his teeth graze along skin before sucking another mark by the jugular, and then on Sugimoto's shoulder.

(Wilk's face staring at him, blood-soaked bandages peeled from his skin when they have to change it, expression inscrutable as Yulbars traces the cross seared onto his face. 

Yulbars curving over him, shoulders heavy with sin and guilt, and the damp breath of desire is the knell of the bell at noon when they killed a king.)

Kiroranke bites down. 

Sugimoto yells as his knees buckle. Instinctively, Kiroranke sticks his knee between Sugimoto's legs to prop him up.

He's drawn blood. "Sorry." Kiroranke presses a kiss at the wound. Sugimoto has softened in his hands, but is not yet flaccid. "Let me try something else. No biting, I promise."

Sugimoto glares at him, chest heaving, but apparently Kiroranke's getting a second chance. After a long beat, Sugimoto straightens up and turns to face him. “Tell me what you are going to do.”

“I am going to lay you on the grass, and then I’m going to lick you open,” Kiroranke reports bluntly, pleased when Sugimoto visibly shudders. “If you hadn’t done this before, then we’ll have to build you up to it for the next time.”

“Who says there’ll be a next time?”

“Won’t there?” Kiroranke rests his hand on Sugimoto’s hipbone and draws him closer. “If not me, then someone else. Show them a good time. Sex isn’t just sticking your dick in a hole.”

“I know that!”

“Do you?” Kiroranke gestures at the clearing. “Or are you going to lie there and watch me?”

“You told me -”

“I said hands off,” Kiroranke reminds, “not stand there like a ragdoll.” He takes a step back. “Although I would still like to suck you off. When you come, whose name will you call?”

Sugimoto’s fists are clenched. Wrath, simmering under skin. Gorgeous. “And you? Who were you thinking about?”

“No one you would know,” Kiroranke lies. He tugs Sugimoto forward by the elbows. “Tell me: how would you do this, if I am someone else.”

“Fuck,” Sugimoto mutters, wetting his lips, and shoves Kiroranke down.

They roll on the ground for a while, struggling as Kiroranke does his best to pin Sugimoto down. He manages to seize both of Sugimoto's wrists and holds them down by his ears, and can't quite hold back a laugh when Sugimoto gnashes his teeth at him. 

"You're like a mongrel," Kiroranke tells him, and sucks on his jaw. "A big, angry one." He kisses up to Sugimoto's ears and nips at his tips, smiling when Sugimoto tries to buck him off. "I have the advantage of weight, puppy."

"You," Sugimoto bites out, "are a big buffoon -"

"Hush," Kiroranke interrupts, and lets go of Sugimoto's wrists. "You lost, now do as I say." He pushes himself up so that he's sitting on his knees, and grabbing Sugimoto by his thighs, pulls him onto Kiroranke's lap. Sugimoto yelps, arms scrambling for purchase before seizing up when Kiroranke hunches his back and licks a strip up Sugimoto's dick.

"Wai -"

Kiroranke hesitates.

Sugimoto pushes himself up onto his elbows. "I have leaves and sand stuck all over my back." He pauses. "I can feel it between my cheeks."

Kiroranke snorts. "And you think the army years would have desensitised you to a little mud."

"Mud doesn't get in my ass - hey, don't use my scarf to wipe!"

"I'll wash it for you tomorrow," Kiroranke assures. He tosses it aside in a heap. "Feeling better yet, city boy?"

"Don't patronise me." Sugimoto’s abdomen jumps when Kiroranke rubs at the head of his dick. "You -" More flailing as Kiroranke pulls him closer and lifts one of Sugimoto's knees to hang over Kiroranke's shoulder. " Oh ."

“Yes, oh. ” Kiroranke bends over to mouth one of Sugimoto’s balls, and then further back . He hears Sugimoto’s breath hitches and when he looks up, Sugimoto’s mouth is agape like wonder, the glow of the moon eclipsed by his head, immortal and divine. And there you are.

It is hard to conceive that no one has ever done this for Sugimoto before. Look at the way his muscles shift, the way sweat drips down the lines of his jugular and between his chest, the hot dampness of skin burning like a geyser as he arches under Kiroranke's palms.

(Kiroranke can do so much to him. Kiroranke will give him all that he owes Wilk, and it can be gentle, it can be beautiful. He can kiss every inch of Sugimoto and taste the salt crystallising on his lips, the human body a wonder but his a marvel.)

He dips his tongue and Sugimoto seizes.

"Too much?" Kiroranke rubs small circles against Sugimoto's hips. Sugimoto's fingers are digging deep trenches in the soil. Kiroranke thinks of gently prying the fingers loose, and then decides against it. "I'll slow down, then."

He holds Sugimoto's knees, feeling their trembles by his ears as he presses deeper. Vibrating like strings on a violin , Kiroranke thinks, keening and obscene , and smiles at that.

When Sugimoto finishes, he throws his head back and chokes on his own shout. Kiroranke waits for the familiar gurgle of a man choking on his own blood after biting off his own tongue until he remembers where he is.

Kiroranke reaches for the scarf again.

"Don't you dare -" Kiroranke ignores him. "Goddamn it."

"I did tell you I would wash it." Kiroranke rubs at the spot between Sugimoto's eyebrows. "Enjoyed yourself?" Sugimoto tries to get up, only to flop backwards with a groan. "I'll take that as a yes."

Sugimoto lifts a hand. "Come closer," he beckons. "You're too far."

Kiroranke snorts. "I've always pegged you as the affectionate afterglow type."

"Am not affectionate," Sugimoto grumbles. "Closer."

"What for?" Kiroranke leans over.

"You haven't -" Sugimoto wraps his arms around Kiroranke's back to pull him down. "Oof. You're too heavy. You have been eating too much of Asirpa's cooking."

"Nah. These are all muscle mass." And huh , Sugimoto is scissoring a knee between Kiroranke's legs. "That's -"

"What do you want to do?" Sugimoto offers.

This feels like a gift he does not deserve. Kiroranke sits up. He is straddling Sugimoto's ribs. His blood is coursing in his ears, loud as the gush of a waterfall when he reaches out and tilts Sugimoto's chin up.

I want to peel off your skin.

"Many things.” He grabs Sugimoto’s cheeks. “Open up.”

Sugimoto abides.

If Kiroranke presses his face against Sugimoto, will he see his own reflection? What will he look like - he’s always wondered. His wife has told him coolly that he looked like any other man eager to get off, while past lovers have told him that he looks desperate, as though searching for something that isn’t there. What does Sugimoto see, when he looks at Kiroranke? Can he see the hunger, the longing for a man with his scars, with the same fury in his soul and the blood dripping down their fingers like the trickle of the stream along their forearms?

Sugimoto squeezes his eyes shut, wetness pearling at the edges when Kiroranke snaps his hips a tad too hard. “Sorry,” he says, and doesn’t mean it when he smears the tears across Sugimoto’s scars. “Sorry,” he repeats, digging his nails in. He curls his other hand under Sugimoto’s head and forces him up, and -

(He wants to rip Wilk apart from the inside out, skin him like the gift of a wild hunt, lay him out on an altar with his arms stretch out to the side and kisses his feet in reverence -)

The pain registers a beat late; Sugimoto is clawing at Kiroranke’s hips, wheezing with difficulty through his nose as he struggles. Kiroranke holds still. “If you can relax your throat, it’ll be easier.”

Sugimoto smacks him again.

“Do you want to stop?” That earns him a determined glare. Prideful, just as Kiroranke predicted. “Tell me when you are alright for me to continue.”

Sugimoto shuts his eyes again. Kiroranke counts the beats - one, two, seven - and the night chills where sweat evaporates, guards against the shadows that snake towards them, and, and - and Sugimoto nods.

“Thank you,” says Kiroranke.

Wet and hot and Kiroranke can feel himself twitch, his muscles tensing from impatience, sweat stinging his eyes. The thrill speeds up his spine and down his arms, burning, burning like a star, and Sugimoto is reaching out towards him, touching the side of Kiroranke’s nose with such wide-eyed curiosity that it makes Kiroranke’s chest ache with something he can’t name. Oh, dear boy, darling boy.

Maybe, just maybe, if Kiroranke tears Sugimoto’s mouth open wide enough, he can crawl into him, be swallowed whole like a prey and the snapping jaws of a wolf.

(Except Kiroranke isn’t a wolf. He’s a tiger, he’s Yulbars, territorial and solitary, a frightful beast that only knows how to take and take and never understanding Wilk’s need for family, for belonging, because all Kiroranke needs is to follow Wilk and that’s enough -)

Sugimoto staring up at him, a cross branded onto his skin.

( Wilk. )

Kiroranke, he...

-

In a memory that floats like a dream, his horse dies at his feet and the only thing he can do is to rub her on her neck and coaxes her until she finally stops moving.

It hurts, the horse's death. Much more than all the previous human deaths he's witnessed. Horses never deserve to die of human folly.

"Hey," Sofia mutters, crouching beside him after, when he is washing up. "Are you alright?"

Yulbars can't stop scrubbing at his hands. It feels as though he still has her blood on his hands as she bleeds out. "Yes."

"Then stop before you rub your skin off," she snaps, tugging the basin away from him. “Go and find something useful to do.”

So Yulbars wander around the room and when all options are exhausted, perches on a crate, watching Wilk check their weapons.

At some point, he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knows, Sofia is sitting across him, stitching up a hole in someone’s trousers.

“Ow,” she mutters, blood welling up on her first finger. “Damn it.”

“For someone who was an aristocratic woman,” Yulbars points out, “you are incredibly clumsy.”

“Not everyone can have nimble fingers,” Sofia retorts. She sucks on her finger. “Stop looking so smug - you sew it up for me then.”

“If you want.” He tugs it over. Years of poverty and revolutionary work has taught him the importance of learning to mend clothes, and years of fiddling with bombs have taught him even more about careful stitches, small and precise, loops and pulls.

“Your fingers are so long,” Sofia suddenly says. “Like a pianist.”

Yulbars pauses. He flattens his hand on his knee. “Is that so.”

“Yeah. They are long and slender. If they aren’t so callused, I would have thought you have noble blood in you.” Sofia holds up her own hand and brings it beside his. "My music tutor used to hate my hands," she tells him, eyes soft with sentimentality, "he calls them stubby . Can you believe it? An aristocratic lady's hands, stubby . If he can see them now. What would he say?"

Yulbars has never paid much thought to how a person's hands should look like. He cares more about how deft they are, how strong; the flick of a finger over a gun, or the swing of the arm as a bomb is thrown - those things matter more.

"I think they're beautiful," Yulbars comments without much thought. He holds up her right wrist. "See the calluses there? This is the hand of someone who can throw a punch." He rubs his thumb over her knuckles. Sturdy, like Wilk's. "I like the shape of them. A strong bone structure. Whoever marries you will be very lucky."

Unbidden, Sofia makes a strangled noise at the back of her throat.

When he looks up, her cheeks are flushed so red that she looks seconds away from exploding. Oh. "You can't just do things like that!" She snatches her hand back. "Do you even hear yourself - is that how you always are with women?"

"I - I'm like this with everyone."

Sofia groans. At that precise moment, their light bulb explodes overhead; Sofia yelps as Yulbars pushes her aside. "That's enough! I'm talking to Wilk and see what he's up to this time," she complains, turning on her heels to march away.

Yulbars watches her leave, her long braid swinging behind her, and feels a strange sort of ache in his chest.

-

“Tell me,” Kiroranke manages, basking in the bone-deep ache of post-coital satisfaction. “What do you know about me?”

“Why?”

“Why not?” Kiroranke turns his head. The wet grass sticks to his cheek. “Tell me.”

Sugimoto studies him, scars glinting in the moonlight, silver off a blade. “You claim to be Ainu,” he begins, “but you're also a Russian partisan. You wanted the gold to fund your revolutionary activities.”

“To defend minorities’ culture and livelihood from imperialist encroachment, yes,” Kiroranke hums. “What else?”

“You are good friends with Asirpa’s father. Inkarmat hates you. Asirpa doesn’t.”

“Pretty much.”

With an obvious tightness, Sugimoto continues, “You have a wife and children.”

“Don’t feel guilty about that,” Kiroranke instructs, “there’s no point to guilt. What matters is what you’ll do to make up for it.” He stares back at the sky. There are barely any stars in the sky: it is getting cloudy. “Now go on. What else?”

Sugimoto rolls over to face him. “You are impressively good with fishing,” he says, “your explosives are breathtaking, and you are a brilliant horse rider.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Kiroranke laughs quietly to himself. “If that’s what people remember of me, then that’s not bad of a legacy.”

-

When Yulbars picks up his first pistol, it is with Wilk at his side, staring with burning coal in his eyes, the first seed planted.

But when Kiroranke lights his bombs, all of that has been Kiroranke only.

( Don’t tell me you think our fight can finish with our generation, Wilk has said, looking at him.)

I started fighting , Kiroranke doesn’t say, and Sugimoto doesn’t ask, because of Wilk, but I continued fighting because this is what I believe.

“Hey,” Kiroranke whispers, and Sugimoto looks at him, at only him, and Kiroranke almost forgets to breathe. “Please speak well of me. Ok?”

-

God, Wilk, I lo -

-

When he sees Sofia on the ice, the only thing he can think of is Wilk.

(At the parade, his palms are sweaty with nerves and the sun is bright and blinding above him. Yulbars reaches up: to grab sunlight, to cover the glare of the rays, the sun is a shy maiden peering through his fingers.

Yulbars inhales sharply and looks away towards the palace gates. It only sends his blood pulsing. He turns towards Wilk instead. Wilk is always calm during moments of stress, a fortress of calm that anchors Yulbars every time he is lost.

Wilk is why he is here now. Wilk is everything that leads him to this very moment.

( I just -)

He's never thought about it, but Wilk's profile is outlined with sharp strokes - deep blue eyes, a strong nose, a hard jaw, and he thinks, lord, I love you so .

He is certain that he hasn't said any of it out, but Wilk points at the workers crowding the city gates to catch a glimpse of the emperor, and tells him, "This is not love - this is idolatry, and it is this that we must destroy."

But Wilk, he has thought, helpless and lovesick, you are the sun, and my purpose revolves around you. How can I not worship? )

The winter sun is a pale fire on the horizon. It is burning, bright and beautiful like the radiance of angels, and Sofia watches him with the same expression she wore all those years ago when she chose to let them walk away.

(And it all comes back to this.)

He wants to tell her how, at Abashiri, Kiroranke sees Wilk and his deep blue eyes, kneeling in his prison garbs, more gaunt than he has ever been. His skin is gone; his scars finally ripped off his face. 

(He remembers Wilk looking him in the eye, and for the first time without any pretence, tells him, “If I have to be the bad guy for my people to have a future, then so be it.”) 

Kiroranke can barely recognise him, do you know that, Sofia? It was like a dream .

(And so be it.)

He will tell her how, as Sugimoto leans in to hear Wilk’s message, Kiroranke raises an arm and lets Ogata shoot Wilk.

(The light goes out as the wolf swallows the sun.)